I think the first time I felt disappointed with God was when I was about 5 years old. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sibling and given I already had three brothers, I was desperately praying that this one would be a girl, a sister for me. And he wasn’t.
I am sure I am not alone in having experienced this sort of disappointment:
“God, You have the power to do what I want, what I believe I really need – and yet You don’t. What is the story? Why not?”
If God loves us, why doesn’t He always answer our prayers the way we would like?
My most recent ponderings on this topic started from a totally different scenario though, so join me on the journey!
A little while back, I quite suddenly became very conscious of the rows of trees lining the path (as in the photos) at the old golf course where I walk our dog. As they caught my attention the words, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” dropped into my mind. I had such a sense of not just those witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, but my own physical ancestors lining the way, as though I was in a marathon, and they were watching, cheering me on, encouraging me to keep going.
Weeks later I had a dream about running in the wilderness. I was trying to escape and evade “baddies”. With me was a companion, who was alongside me all the way as I ran as fast as I could. Even as I realised we had got away, I also realised my companion was on a horse. As I woke up, it was with the thought that it would have been much easier to get away if I had just got on the back of his horse (not to mention the question of why I hadn’t noticed it earlier!). Another aspect of the dream was that my companion was not at all worried, flustered or breathless from running. He was just with me.
The meaning of this dream was quite obvious to me. My constant companion is Jesus. With Him, I don’t have to work hard to stay safe. The question of why I didn’t notice the horse, or get on it bothered me though. I asked God the question of what I should do differently to not be living out of my own strength. Immediately the words, “fix[ing] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” popped into my mind.
Looking this verse up, surprise, surprise, it was the second half of the instructions regarding the cloud of witnesses:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Heb 12:1-2)
In my dream, I was focussed on escape, not on Jesus!
Years ago, I was taught “whenever you see a wherefore or therefore, ask what its there for”, so I thought I’d better re-read Hebrews 11. Toward the end of the familiar passage is the list of gruesome, almost “Monty Python-esque” torture people had undergone for the sake of a promise: “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated… yet none of them received what had been promised” (Heb 11:36, 37, 39).
When we come back to chapter 12, then, this cloud of witnesses are those who have struggled, who have suffered, many for a promise they never saw fulfilled. And we are told that it is on the back of the faith of these witnesses that we are to continue running with perseverance, that we are to throw off everything that holds us back.
Somehow, even though we read so much evidence to the contrary in the Bible - even the early apostles and disciples who walked with Jesus and were eyewitnesses to His death and resurrection, suffered difficulties and pain, to the point of being stoned, beheaded, imprisoned, shipwrecked and hungry – we still have some vague (or otherwise) belief that our lives should be trouble free and filled with every good thing. Why do we think that because we live some 2000 years later that we should have lives that are so much easier with no suffering and problems?
Coming back to where I started, along the journey I have begun to realise that our idea of what is good, what is helpful and what are blessings might just be very different to what God’s idea of these are for us. While we so often look for His help and blessings to be along the lines of no troubles and many goods to make our lives more enjoyable and easy, perhaps God’s purpose for our lives here on earth is divergent to that picture. If I were to ask most, they would agree that our purpose in God is to become more like Jesus – that is our goal. Funnily enough (or perhaps not!), Jesus’ focus was far from on His own comfort and freedom from trouble.
A great quote from Smith Wigglesworth I saw recently has stuck with me. He said:
“I don’t ever ask Smith Wigglesworth how he feels!” I jump out of bed! I dance before the Lord for at least 10 to 12 minutes – high speed dancing. I jump up and down and run around my room telling God how great He is, how wonderful He is, how glad I am to be associated with Him and to be His child.”
This has confronted me greatly. So often, my focus is on how I feel about everything, from physically to emotionally and even spiritually. Returning again to my starting point, it has been easy to wonder what God was thinking giving me four brothers. However, as I have grown, I have come to realise that every part of my life has influenced and changed me. I have a choice about whether I embrace those things I would have liked to be different or continue to fight God about them. I can work with Him through them to become more like Him, or get angry, disillusioned and create distance between us. While I may not always see the benefits of the path He has me on, I do have the choice to trust Him that there are benefits!
Coming back to Hebrews 12, I am reminded that through all of our circumstances, our focus is to be on Jesus alone. Sometimes, though, in the middle of these circumstances, we can find it difficult to find the faith to even look in His general direction. As we read in verse 2, however, we can see we actually don’t even have to find that faith! It is Jesus who gives us faith – He is the author: the One who initiates, creates, gives the spark to our faith; and He is the One who perfects our faith: brings it to completion and fullness. All we have to do is respond and take the next single step He lays before us. And meanwhile, we are cheered on from the sidelines by those who have gone before!