Not too long ago, I went through one of my most trying tests of faith yet, and as I reflect over the year that is now rapidly coming to a close I find myself humbled and grateful for the pain that was, is, and is to come. It's not that I enjoyed suffering or look forward to it's future arrival, but I have discovered that the pain I recently endured subsided, and through it, because of it, I'm closer to God than I ever was before. In a nutshell this most recently trying test of faith arrived in the form of misplaced hopes and desires that gave birth to a tragic misconception of reality. I allowed myself to become immersed in a heart vision that was never God's vision, at least not for today. I put my hope into my own idea of what was and should be. I was wrong - and when I found out, it hurt like what we imagine the pain of hell to feel. Have you ever become so convinced and so certain that God was doing something in your life only to find out that you missed the mark? Well, I missed the mark in a situation recently and it caused me agonizing pain, heavy doubts, and troubled thought patterns. Life turned very dark for a number of days, but He led me through it and now again, I dare to hope...
This has been a trying year for me in a number of ways, but as for how it relates to my walk with God - the best yet. I've been exposed to levels of spiritual and emotional suffering I didn't know existed and at the same time, peace that I've never known possible. I'm finding that the deeper I push into God's call of ministry on my life, the more I learn about spiritual warfare and the challenges of choosing every moment to live for Him, but more importantly than that, I'm experiencing the unadulterated joy of living out His purposes and plans. Throughout the year I've faced temptation, heartache, and complete loss, but in the wake of it all, victory, joy, and fulfillment to such a degree that every challenge has been made beautiful. I understand what it means to give thanks to God for the trials I face (James 1:2-4), because without them, I would never have come to know Him at all. I'm grateful for my weaknesses because they allow me to possess His strength; I'm humbled by my propensity to wander and overwhelmed with His unwavering eagerness to receive me back. The nature of my trials over the years has changed, but what hasn't changed is the ever continuous presence of them in my life. I often overcome a battle only to find myself starting a new one and so the cycle continues. Can life ever just be free from trials and tribulations?
The answer is no, but not because God wouldn't love to lead us into complete freedom from them. The answer is no because as a result of living in a sinful and fallen world, we attain those freedoms and then forgot Who brought us into them. The Israelites, God's chosen people, are a perfect example of what we do on a daily basis. If you study even just a glimpse of their history, you'll see the never ending cycle of sin and rebellion, followed by repentance and God's forgiveness. Sound familiar? I remember a time earlier in this year when I continued to fall into sin, repentance, and redemption just like the Israelites. When I began studying their history, I experienced exasperation over their continual departure from God's presence. "What chumps!" I often exclaimed when I would read about their tendencies to turn from God after He had given them so much. Turns out I'm quite capable of doing the very foolish things for which I quickly judged them. Not coincidentally, my own pattern of falling into sin in a particular situation came quickly after my repeated judgments on the Israelites as I studied them. Was God perhaps giving me a taste of what He meant in Proverbs 16:18? "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." Don't be so quick to judge the sinful patterns and tendencies of others, because as quickly as you do, God will show you your own - and it's often a painful revelation.
The problem is this - we start to lose hope after we make so many mistakes. We begin to feel beat down by our own poor choices, and in my own case just recently, by my own misconceptions. Whether we are unconsciously mislead or consciously sinning, we start to feel the decay of hope on the inside of our spirit. In just the last couple of months, I actually asked God why I should bother hoping. I began struggling with the concept so deeply that I became momentarily lost in the illusion that hope was the precedent to despair, that to hope meant to suffer - that they were unequivocally equal concepts somehow. I began asking God to help me not to hope. His answer? Keep hoping. I became angry, despondent, and borderline rebellious because I was suffering so much that I didn't want to even dare hope in anything good. What if I hoped and met only with disappointment? It was shortly after this that I realized that hope will almost always lead to disappointment - unless it's placed in God with trust.
It's true, I was overflowing with pain and disappointment, but God eventually showed me that it's because my hope was never truly, truly in Him; it was in myself, particularly my timing. There's an aspect to hope that we often overlook: trust. We can't hope in God without also trusting in Him to make our hopes come to pass. If we say we hope in Him, but we don't trust in Him, then our hope will never be fulfilled, and in truth, it's not hope at all if it lacks the element of trust. Let's say you struggle with alcoholism and you want so badly to stop. Each morning, hangover in tact, you say to yourself - "Today is the day I'm going to stop drinking." With mind, body, and spirit, you put all of your hope into this plan, but here's what you have to consider - are you hoping in your own willpower, strength, and determination to make the plan successful? If so, then you can be sure that before the day is over you'll have made yourself a drink. Or, maybe your willpower and strength has helped you to stop for a few days, weeks, or even months. That's fantastic, but if after a period of time, short or long, you fall back into the habit you long to bring to a close, then it's a clear indication that your hope was never put in God's strength; it was put in yours because God's strength doesn't fail. "Well, Heather, I put my hope in God and He helped me stop drinking for years, but eventually the devil tempted me back into the bottle, so does this mean my hope was never in Him in the first place?" No, your hope may very well have been in Him and it was His power and strength that enabled you to stop for as long as you did, but if the devil was able to draw you back in, then it means you became too confident in your own abilities and stopped hoping and trusting in God's. We do that, you know? We allow God to help us through addictions, bad behavior patterns, and pain, and then we feel as though we're strong enough to keep going without Him so we stop talking to Him, stop praying to Him, stop thanking Him, and stop acknowledging Him all together - and then we fall. Once we fall we accuse Him of abandoning us, when in reality it was we who abandoned Him. He didn't come down from Heaven and die on a cross so that we could use Him only when we hurt or suffer; He did it to have a loving and reciprocal relationship with us - everyday. However, He knows that we are inclined to stray, so He allows us to fall, not to squelch our hope in Him or prove Himself untrustworthy, but to remind us of how much we need Him. Hoping in Him should be a choice we make everyday, not just on the days when we're struggling, but even on the ones when we're not.
Do you see the pattern though? We get so good at being good, so free at being free, that we begin thinking we're just naturally packaged that way, independent of God. That's not true, and James 1:17 reminds us: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights." He doesn't say that some good and perfect things are from God, he says they are all from God. So, remember that when you hit day 432 on your clean and sober calendar, it is still God who got you there. The minute you forget Him and trust in your own abilities to stay there is when He'll allow you to be reminded, possibly through a fall, that it's Him who got you there. So when you fall or make a mistake, don't perceive the pain as a reason not to hope; let it draw you closer to God in continued hope. Our pitfalls, our mistakes, our misconceptions are all reasons to hope in Him more, so don't stop hoping in God to work things out for good (Romans 8:28), but instead trust in Him to honor your hopes. If what you hope for is aligned with His will, then He will bring all of your hopes to pass, but your hope can't be empty; it has to be filled with trust. It's not too risky to put trusting hope in God, it's too risky not to. Dare to hope in Him today. He will never fail you, and if you receive an outcome that hurts, keep hoping in trust of His heart for you.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. --Romans 15:13
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