“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
– James 1:2-8
Floundering is pretty much our default position when we run into problems in the world outside the Kingdom. We can all identify with that—we’ve all been in a situation where we had absolutely no idea what to do, or how to extricate ourselves. Usually we find ourselves with a sudden hankering to take one or two steps back to where we were before the problem arose. Those were simpler times. Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn back the clock, be that happier, more content person again?
That rising panic and desperate wish to be somewhere else are key parts of the fight or flight reflex. If we’re fortunate, we’re rarely, if ever, placed in a situation where the fight or flight reflex requires literal fight or flight—but our back brain is trained to stimulate that response in answer to circumstances that are on the same level for people in our culture and time in history. Just because there are no giant animals trying to eat us and just because we don’t have rival tribes threatening to steal our spot by the river doesn’t mean we don’t have problems.
So we panic, and we fume and fuss, wish we were elsewhere and elsewhen—and then, whether it’s an hour or a year later, we finally sit down and deal with matters. We focus on the problem, and we sit within that problem, stewing over how to alter the circumstances so that we come out on top, or as close to on top as humanly possible. Every fiber of our being is devoted to sorting things out so that the problem goes away. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work at all…most of the time, it’s somewhere in-between. Whatever the outcome, at the very least we’re left dropped down a peg or two from where we started, whether it’s financially, emotionally, physically, or some horrible combination thereof. And we’re always absolutely, completely and thoroughly exhausted.
That’s because it’s hard work, sorting our lives out. And the worst thing is that it’s going to happen all over again, and next time it might be even worse. Next time the problem might be tougher, the time it takes to fix it might be longer…and it might not ever be properly fixed. Then it’s going to happen all over again. And again. Difficult circumstances don’t just go away. They replace themselves on a regular basis, because it doesn’t matter how rich you are, how happy you are, how alienated and isolated you are from life and all its trials…something’s going to come and bite you on the behind. That’s what happens, what the world does to us. It’s far from a perfect place, and with so many people intent on keeping it as imperfect as possible; it’s not a situation that’s going to change.
Every time—especially with the worst of times—it’s tempting to stop floundering and just slip under, let the situation drown us. But it’s not our circumstances that define us, or even how we deal with each individual problem. That’s practicalities, the logistics of living our lives. What defines us as people, as the men and women that we want to be, is how we deal with adversity. And what defines us, as Christians in a relationship with a loving Father, is how we how we approach adversity in faith.
In any circumstance, the best possible route for us to follow is that which leads us towards a deeper and upgraded relationship with God in the Spirit. Everything that God does is relational—that means everything. What that means for us, is that everything that is allowed into our lives possesses a relational basis in Christ.
Upon the Day Of Pentecost, people were faced with a situation that had no precedent for them: the coming of the Holy Spirit in its fullness upon the apostles. The people observing this phenomenon were baffled, and more than a little scared, but the questions they asked were perfectly tuned to get the most out of their experience: “what does this mean?” and “what shall we do?”
When we reach moments of adversity, our first response must be to step back into God and ask, “what does this mean?” The issue we’re presented with is just that—an issue, and there will be plenty more of them before we’re done on this Earth. The significance of that issue, within the context of how it affects our fellowship in the Kingdom, is something that will remain long after the issue itself has been settled in the world.
It’s crucial to inquire of the Lord how our relationship with Him must develop as a consequence of the trial that afflicts us at that moment. Faith works by love, and it works best and easiest in the context of relationships. Again, we’re always tempted to panic, flail about, and then root ourselves in the problem, and the world’s received wisdom tells us that it’s the panicking and the flailing that’s the disproportionate reaction, that we need to move beyond fear and deal with the practical issue as soon as possible. That doesn’t address the first cause of our distress, which is the incapacity to deal with fear and adversity. Put simply, we need to deal with our inability to deal with our problems.
Focusing on the trial we’re facing doesn’t change the nature of the trial itself, and very often it will bring in negativity and unhelpful emotions that aren’t in any way connected to the relationship in the Spirit that we should be pursuing. The fact is, as Christians, we don’t live in the world. We live in the Kingdom, and dealing with problems that arise in the world without involving the Kingdom means that we are stepping back into a person and a history that we are no longer a part of. We’re dead to that person, and frankly, we should leave graverobbing to Indiana Jones.
If we’ve asked that first question, we should already be excited—because the answer is that God has plans for us and for our fellowship with Him. Excitement is precisely the opposite of the feeling that adversity normally engenders in people. This is excellent! It means we’re on the right track. As we think about how God will use this situation to bring about something wonderful in our relationship with Him, our first reaction is to rejoice and give thanks. We’re already thinking brilliantly.
The second question, “what should we do?” is the only possible question we can ask next—because it’s literally asking, “what’s next, Lord?” At this point, the Spirit has us looking straight through adversity with a happy heart and walking forward with a spring in our step. It’s so far away from the floundering we’re used to in the world that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you weren’t drowning at all. And, of course, you’re not. Not anymore.
Both of these questions are open questions. Closed questions require a single answer, usually a yes or a no, or something similar. Open questions allow for the answer to go into some detail. They express a desire to know more, rather than to simply confirm information we already hold or a bias we already possess. By opening ourselves to the Spirit in this way, we allow God to empower us as to the outcome of our circumstances. Focusing upon the outcome at the beginning of a situation fixes out hearts on that outcome. It becomes real to us, more real that whatever problem has arisen in our lives. When God’s outcome for us is more real than the adversity we face, we’ve already defeated it.
If we’ve allowed circumstances to bring negativity into our lives, to drag us down and to drag us out of fellowship with the Lord, the first and foremost course of action for us is simply to repent that negativity and withdrawal. God made it that simple so that anyone could do it! Repentance restores grace to our lives, and grace brings with it the empowering presence of God, the confidence that we need to raise our heads again.
Remember, remember, remember: every trial, every problem that we face isn’t to do with the trial and it isn’t to do with the problem. It’s to do with the relationship that we have and the relationship that we want with God. So go ahead. Ask the right questions, and you’ll hear the right answers.