Our world can be painful, confusing, and full of problems. Jesus taught us this. It’s a promise, really. It’s not the kind of promise that we underline in our Bibles and commit to memory, of course. But we should. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), he said.
The Greek word for trouble (thlipsis) in this verse means “suffering” or “tribulation.” It carries the idea of being afflicted or harassed. Jesus promises us that we will experience this kind of trouble in our lives. True, he came to bring us abundant life (John 10:10), but he did not promise that life would be easy or without pain.
We may suffer because of what others do to us. Too often we create our own pain because of the foolish or wrong decisions we make. Maybe the worst suffering we endure is when those we love are hurting and nothing we do relieves their pain or makes their lives better. However it comes, in this life you will have trouble. That’s a promise.
Still, Jesus said you can experience a life that is abundant and full. But how?
I believe the quality of our lives depends on where we look for strength and wisdom and comfort.
When your way is hard and the night is dark, where do you go for strength? When you’re confused and in pain, what do you look to for help? When everything is going well, and you feel that you’re winning, but a little voice inside says there must be something more, where do you turn? When you become mature enough to admit that most of your problems come not from the people around you but from the pride and the anger and the greed that live within you, where do you seek the power to change? When nothing makes sense, what do you trust to guide you?
Some People Trust in Their Circumstances
When their lives are good, they’re good. But when life is hard, they shatter. As long as their finances are in order, their health is robust, their families are happy, and their jobs are going well—as long as there are no problems they can’t handle—they’re great. But when tough times come, when life is unfair, when their struggles aren’t quickly solved, they become depressed and lethargic, or angry and bitter. They’ll often pray, “God, why do I have to go through this? It’s not fair. Life shouldn’t be so hard.”
Live that way, looking to your circumstances for your emotional health and your spiritual stability, and you will be little more than an emotional bubble rising and falling on the waves of fate. If that’s you, I hope you will memorize a saying that has helped me over the years: “What happens in me is more important than what happens to me.” You cannot control what the world does to you, but you can always control how you respond. That makes all the difference.
Some People Trust Their Feelings
This is a terrible way to live. It’s one of the first lessons we try to teach our children: control your feelings; don’t be controlled by them. As one of my mentors, Bill Hinson, often said, “We don’t live at the mercy of our moods.” He’s right. If we want to succeed in life and be faithful to Christ, we must rise above our emotions. We must do what’s right and hard in spite of our feelings. But many people are controlled by their emotions. They do only what they feel like doing. And when they feel tired and hopeless and confused, they don’t do much of anything.
Everyone who has lived valiantly and who has followed Christ faithfully has had to persevere when it felt pointless to do so. Everyone who has ever acted in faith had to overcome his or her fear. Every person who has made the world a better place has had to continue loving and working when they were discouraged and saw no way to change the world around them.
Your emotions will tell you to feel sorry for yourself, admit defeat, and give up. Live controlled by your emotions and you will never experience the abundant life that requires faith and courage and perseverance.
Our feelings are such poor indicators of our reality that we can’t trust them to tell us how we’re doing in life. There are people who feel that all is well when the truth is just the opposite. They are so spiritually dull that they don’t realize how far they are from God or that they are failing at what matters most. Some of these people are in the church. In Matthew 7, Jesus spoke what may be the most frightening words in the entire Bible. Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (vv. 21–23)
It’s possible to feel close to God when, in reality, we are very far away.
The opposite is also true. You can feel terrible about yourself and your life when, in reality, you’re doing just fine. Many people feel worthless, unloved, and condemned, not because that’s how God sees them, but because they grew up in a dysfunctional home where they were constantly criticized and attacked. They came to feel that nothing they ever did was enough. They could never be certain of their parents’ love. Without knowing it, they have remade God into the image of their never-satisfied, always-critical father or mother, and their emotions never allow them to feel God’s smile upon them.
One of the great joys of being human is our ability to feel intensely. But when our feelings are unhealthy (and all of us have some emotional dysfunction), they can be a curse because they lie to us about our true condition.
Our emotions can blind us to the truth and even derail us. The story of the prophet Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal is revealing. Elijah had finally exposed the false prophets that had led Israel astray, and the people had destroyed them. Elijah had fought and suffered for this moment for decades. It was the highlight of his life. Yet, in the very next chapter, Elijah was so terribly depressed that he prayed, “I have had enough, Lord . . . Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4).
Elijah went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in just a matter of days. Yet, nothing of consequence had changed. God was still God. The false prophets were defeated. Israel had not turned back to Baal. Elijah was still victorious. But something had changed, and to the point that Elijah wanted to give up and die. What was different? Only his emotions.
Our feelings are a bad indicator of how we’re doing in life. And it’s utterly foolish to trust them or build your life around them. Do that and you will be up and down, encouraged and discouraged, unstable and unpredictable, living at the mercy of your moods. We need something that is more certain and steadfast than our emotions to build our lives upon.
Some People Trust in Their Own Wisdom and Abilities
God has given you a good mind, and he expects you to use it. If it hasn’t already, one day life will humble you. You will find yourself in a situation you cannot control or even comprehend. The only question is whether you will recognize the depth of your need, humble yourself, admit your inadequacy, and ask for help.
A short prayer titled “Breton Fisherman’s Prayer” expresses well where we find ourselves so often. “Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.” You will discover that your wisdom is so small when you have a child addicted to drugs. All your bright ideas will prove insufficient and leave you feeling helpless. When your wife is diagnosed with cancer; when you have everything you hoped for but you’re still depressed; when your child is embittered toward you; when your marriage is falling apart; when you have failed God and you’re covered in shame—you will then learn how wide is the sea, how small is your boat, and how desperately you need God to be good to you.
In the moments that matter most, you will discover that you need a wisdom greater than your own.
Behind every truly great mess you’ll find someone whose pride told him that he knew exactly what to do and whose ego prevented him from getting on his knees and asking for help. The question is: Will you be that person—so self-assured and so proud that you will attempt to solve the great problems of life by turning to nothing greater than the wisdom within your own head? Are you so afraid of appearing weak that you will refuse to turn to a strength outside of your own frail body?
Proverbs 14:12 seems to suggest that we are in the most danger when we don’t know what we don’t know. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” So often, what appears right to us is, at best, incapable of creating a truly successful life. At worst, it is a road to disaster.
You are a strong, magnificent creature made in the image of God. But you are also fallen and flawed and so often fooled into giving your strength to purposes and solutions that do not bring life or create wholeness. The right response to the human condition is not pride and independence, but humility and openness to the help that comes from God and others.
If we cannot trust our circumstances, our emotions, or our own wisdom and strength, what can we trust? There’s one thing that never changes. There’s one thing that brings life. There’s one thing that is sufficient in every situation and that can be trusted when nothing makes sense. And that one thing is the promises of God.
Need help transitioning away from your circumstances, feelings, and wisdom as indicators of your happiness? This is an excerpt from Unfailing: Standing Strong on God’s Promises in the Uncertainties of Life by Rob Renfroe.
Through this book, you can:
- Learn seven ways God will sustain you when life is hard
- Be encouraged to stand strong in the face of adversity
- Be challenged to understand your spiritual posture as one of victory
What will you build your life upon? In a world that Jesus promises will be full of trouble, where will you turn for the strength to overcome? The unfailing promises of a faithful God provide the strength we need to overcome the world and its trouble. Build your life upon these promises and though the rains come and the storms rage, you will never fall. Get Unfailing from our store here.