Early last year, I began following the Lord down an exciting and scary path. There was something specific I saw Him leading me to pursue, something big and crazy that only He could bring about. Although it thrust me into waters deeper than I felt equipped to navigate, after much prayer and seeking of wise counsel, I plunged forward.
For several months, the path was remarkably straight and smooth. I prayed that if this particular path was not going to lead to His best for me, He would stop me and show me another direction to go. But step after step propelled me forward, and everything was falling into place. I prayed all year I would want Him more than I wanted this dream, even as I prayed He would indeed bring this dream to fruition.
As pieces continued fitting smoothly into the puzzle, I grew more excited. It seemed like this extremely unlikely dream was really going to come true! Until the day later in the year when He clearly said, “This far, no further. This journey has come to a stop.”
It was sudden and abrupt, and the message was delivered by someone who showed absolutely no compassion whatsoever for the fact she had just crushed my dream. I was devastated. I was angry. I was sad. But most of all, I was confused.
Suffering Is an Illuminator
I was suffering, and suffering illuminates those hidden places in our hearts that don’t fully believe in the goodness and wisdom of God. Those places that think we could have orchestrated things better for ourselves.
Just like the luminol used by forensic investigators to find hidden traces of blood at a crime scene, suffering shines its light on our heart until the hidden traces of unbelief show up. The blood traces at the crime scene emit a strange glow under the spotlight of the luminol, eerie because that blood is obviously out of place—and something very wrong has happened there. Similarly, when suffering illuminates hidden places of unbelief in our hearts, it’s jarring. That unbelief is obviously out of place in the heart of a child of God, and it means something is very wrong.
Many of us are drawn like magnets to stories of saints who have suffered well. Their stories intrigue us, inspire us, and, at the same time, bewilder us. How can they endure such great magnitudes of suffering and still have peace, still trust God, still shine?
This is baffling because many of us do not suffer well. When afflictions come our way, we far too often fall immediately into anguish, distrust, murmuring, and discontent. As Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs said in his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, “We are usually apt to think that any condition is better than that condition in which God has placed us.”
When afflictions come, we start thinking of all the ways God could and should have done better by us. This is the unbelief shining its ugly light in the corners of our hearts.
Do you really believe God is good? Do you really believe He is sovereignly working all things in your life for your good, to conform you to the image of His Son? Then you must rest in Him during times of affliction, in quiet trust that He is good and does all things well. A murmuring, discontented heart—no matter how great the affliction—is evidence of unbelief.
Discontent Is Unbelief
Remember the Israelites in the desert: After the Lord’s judgment for the rebellion of Korah, the people complained.
But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD” (Num. 16:41).
Now, grumbling doesn't seem like it would be a huge issue, as sins go. However, just a few verses later, we see the LORD saying, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” (v. 45).
The plague had begun, and before Moses could make proper atonement for this grievous sin of grumbling among the people, 14,700 of them were killed.
Grumbling is indeed a very big deal. In fact, in Numbers 17:10, God uses the word “rebels” to describe those who complained: “Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.” To complain against God is to rebel against God.
This is sobering indeed. A heart of discontent is a heart that refuses to submit to God. A murmuring, complaining heart is a heart that doesn’t believe the promises of God. We’re quick to claim the promises of God when all is well and even to encourage others to claim them when they are suffering. But are we as quick to do so when suffering comes to us?
Whether your affliction is small or very great, life-changing or merely a bump in the road, will you meet it with a quiet, steadfast heart that clings to belief in the God who promises to never forsake you?
As the hidden places of my heart were exposed after my crushing disappointment, I had to cry out to God to help my unbelief. I had prayed through the whole journey that I would hold my dream with an open hand, ready to let it go if it wasn't God’s plan for me. But when that moment came, I realized I had been clinging too tightly to the dream after all.
Since then, I’ve been fighting the discontent and unbelief in my own heart, fighting to line my will up under the will of God where it belongs and to trust Him to do best for me, even if that means not getting what what I truly believed He was calling me to do and wanted so badly.
And He is being faithful and kind to prove again to me that He is better. He is better than any earthly treasure I could desire. He is better, even if He never gives me this dream or even if He takes away every other earthly comfort I possess. Because I know how wicked my heart can be, I’m sure that there are still ugly areas of unbelief hiding in the secret places, but I also know that God promises to complete the work He has begun in me. I’m confident He will continue to sanctify me and expose what is hidden. Suffering will be one of the tools He will use to do that.
Join God Where He Is Working
Let me share one more quote from The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:
It should be the care of a Christian to observe what are God’s ways toward him: What is God about to do with me at this time? Is God about to raise me, to comfort me? Let me accept God’s goodness, and bless his name; let me join with the work of God, when he offers mercy to me, to take the mercy he offers. But again, is God about to humble me? Is God about to break my heart, and to bring my heart down to him? Let me join with God in this work of his: this is how a Christian should walk with God. It is said that Enoch and Noah walked with God—walked with God, what is that? It is, to observe what work God is now about, and to join with God in that work of his; so that, according as God turns this way or that way, the heart should turn with God, and have workings suitable to the workings of God towards him.
In other words, if God is bringing great comfort and blessing in your life, then join with Him in that work and rejoice. But if He is bringing great affliction, join with Him also, submitting your heart and will to His and walking with Him as He works the work of affliction in you.
Believe Him in your suffering, and as that suffering exposes unbelief in your heart, cry out to Him to help your unbelief. He is faithful, He is good, and He does all things well (Mark 7:37).