Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Psalm 139:7, 8
Evangelicals teach a doctrine of God being omnipresent. We believe it, and act upon it, trusting that a God who is completely sovereign is a God who always knows what is going on. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. But anyone who has been a Christian very long knows that there are periods of drought in the Christian’s life, where God simply is not to be found. Our critics laugh in glee at those places, declaring that proves that God does not really exist, but the enduring Christian knows better. Time proves out the substance of faith and builds maturity to our faith. I want to show first that God uses those periods of drought to build our faith, and second that he uses those periods to use us in new places.
The Old Testament is so replete with examples of God teaching us through his supposed absence that I hardly know where to start. We find Joseph languishing in Pharaoh’s prison, sold into slavery by his scheming brothers, and without hope of his God-given dreams coming true. We see David, proclaimed and anointed the next king of Israel, running for his life, even to the point of fearing so much for his life he pretended madness. We see Jeremiah stuck in the mud at the bottom of a well, after being assured God would protect him. Yet, in all these cases and more, in the end of their doubts, they came to believe that God would do the impossible—as indeed he did.
It seems to me that we, as new converts to the faith, must go through a period of time where our faith is to be built up. I find it very common to find a building experience taking place in Christian’s lives, and for lack of a better term, I have called it the crucifixion-resurrection syndrome. In the Old Testament we find this syndrome again and again. Men are taken to places beyond rational expectation of help, and then they are spectacularly delivered. In my lifetime, I have seen this theme played out again and again in the lives of new believers. Men and women are taken to a place beyond themselves, and God takes their plight and makes a new stronger faith out of it so that they can thrive in the place that God has put them. It is almost as if there is a college of faith to go to when we become believers. Maybe the host in heaven looks at us in our new faith, and God decides that we need Faith101 to begin building our lives.
It is all the more painful to endure this faith walk because God seems to do something very remarkable in our new lives. I remember it well in my own early faith experience, and I frequently have detected it in the new walk of believers. We are told doctrinally that God does many things when we decide to believe. To mention just a few, our names are written in the Book of Life, we are baptized into the Holy Spirit, and we are given the lifelong gift of the Holy Spirit. Such a dramatic change takes over our lives, and I can remember my perspective on nearly everything changing. But early in my new life, there came a multitude of signs and wonders that confirmed to me the miraculous nature of what had actually happened. I see similar wonders and signs frequently taking place in the lives of new believers. Although there is an actual and literal sealing that takes place in our conversion, I think of this time of blessing as sort of a spiritual sealing into the body, where the believer is given plenty of assurance of being loved by God and part of his church. At this point, God is building the basic faith of the believer. But altogether too soon, it seems, he moves on further train us, and part of that training is to build our trust.
We can liken this early stage of belief to Joseph, who early in his life had some dreams that did indeed come from God. At this point of time, God appears to be giving Joseph confirmation is his faith, declaring that one day he will rule over both his father and his brothers. But Joseph had a problem, a problem that many of us may share when we are newly growing. Joseph had pride, and in his pride, told his wonderful dreams to both his father and his brothers. Scripture actually says that Jacob took note of the dreams, as if he did not quite know what to do with them, but as for his brothers, we well know what the dreams did. In their fury, in their anger, in their need for revenge, they took their own flesh and blood and sold him into slavery. In acting out their condemnation of their brother, they ended up doing exactly what God intended all along, though Joseph was not to see the fruit for many years.
So it is with us, we often cannot guess what God is doing in our lives, and we see only the pain, but if we persist in following him we will end in a place of utter holiness, a place where he foresaw that we needed to be, and apart from the trauma would have no way of attaining. We have completed our Faith101 course, becoming certified in the place God would put us. We, figuratively, if you will, have been crucified and resurrected, following a similar model to the one that Jesus foreshadowed. So we see clearly that God builds maturity to our faith. Paul uses the analogy of the old man being put to death, that we might put on the new man, and it is the same sort of idea.
But the new places frequently come at the end. Joseph, ministering for his owner, and running his estate was all along learning skills that would help him run all of Egypt. Even his being chased by his owner’s wife was to sharpen his character, to mold him into a person devoutly following what he thought was right. God repeated the administrative experience in the end, giving Joseph the duty of running the whole of the prison, and it was only after all of those experiences that Joseph finally came to realize his God-given dream. He did indeed come to rule over both his father, and his brothers, and in God’s plan so much more, becoming the second ruler over all of Egypt.
So if you are in pain, and it seems that God is not hearing you, perhaps you need to change your perspective. God may be hearing you loudly and clearly, and may even now be putting you through his school of hard knocks. Undoubtedly Joseph prayed when he found himself at the bottom of the pit. Undoubtedly Joseph prayed when he found himself in slavery, and then later in prison. In the end, did not God hear those prayers, even though perhaps Joseph felt abandoned? We are not told of his doubts, only of his persistence, but the doubts that he had to go through were part of his maturing.
With the example of Job, it is much harder to see why Job endured so much tragedy. Job had his doubts, and unlike Joseph, they were vividly expressed. “In the most complete picture of doubt in the Scriptures, the book of Job, it is the questioning, doubting, yet stubbornly believing Job who is ultimately rewarded. As for Job’s friends, with their hard, sure answer and certain theology, at the end of the story God has Job pray that He would forgive their error.”1 And it is to doubts now that I must turn and finish this short piece.
We are not told of those who failed in their faith. We are told of a God who teaches all the fullness of faith, but never of failures. Perhaps Jesus gives us the failures when he talks of the seeds cast into stony ground and burned up quickly by the hot sun. But I would urge you, as indeed the New Testament does, to continue on in that which you have begun. If you find yourself in a place where your visions do not make sense, logically either your visions must come true in an unexpected fashion, which would indicate God’s leading, or you must work on examining your vision. Isn’t it interesting that all the people who schemed against both Job and Joseph failed in the end? In the case of Job we are never to exactly understand why Job had to go through what he did; we only see in the end that God is faithful, and the poor counsel of his friends came to naught. With Joseph we see that all those who schemed against him came to naught, his brothers, his jailer, the false accusations from the wife—all came to exactly nothing when the purposes of God were fully revealed.
There is a Psalm which I take great comfort in—Psalm 2. It says that the kings of the earth will scheme and plan against the intentions of God, but will in the end come to exactly nothing. Persistence in seeking God through your doubts will have only one good outcome—the building of your faith just as God intends.
1. King, L. A. (1991). The way you believe: Thoughts on the nature of faith. Newberg, Or.: Barclay Press.