“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”
This verse and its parallel in Psalm 1:1-3 have been on my mind a lot this month. Good seasons and bad seasons of life seem to come and go - but one thing is certain, we all experience these different seasons, often in their most extreme forms. While my wife and I are in a season of great joy and expectation as we wait for the birth of our son, it seems like many families I’ve talked to are walking through very difficult seasons with extreme trials and circumstances. For some of us, it’s easy to follow God in seasons of blessing during the “highs” of life - the spiritual “spring and summer”; and still for others, we find it easier to follow God during the trying “lows” of life- the “fall and winter” seasons - as He’s the only place we know to go. For some, the difficulty in following God comes during seasons of blessing, not trial, as it’s so easy to get distracted by the good things around us and not the good God that surrounds us. Still for many of us, myself included, we struggle to stay focused on God in both! Seasons of blessing and success lead to distraction on life’s mountaintop and seasons of trials and failure can lead to discouragement and derailment in the valleys of life. Despite the changing seasons, we are called to live faithfully and bear fruit in every season, high or low; mountain or valley.
In our church, I know there are many of us walking through these different seasons - the good and the bad. I’ve written this post to share some of the patterns I’ve seen in my own life as I try to follow God through the change of these seasons. The following sections will begin first as practical warnings for those of us in the good times, during which we are so easily distracted. The next section will offer words of encouragement to others of us who are weathering the seasons of great difficulty - times of failure and circumstantial lows. I hope you will take the time to look at the scriptural references as you ponder these words, and look for the same warning signs and take hold of the encouragements to help you in your walk with Jesus and to further us as a church community.
If you could choose between the two, wouldn’t you choose the highs over the lows? Me too. However, there are inherent dangers that come from being human and receiving blessing and success from God. While it is good and right to enjoy seasons of blessing and good gifts from the Lord, it is essential that we maintain a focus on God.
In these seasons of great blessing, success, and/or personal victory, it is so easy to think more and more highly of ourselves and in the process think less and less of God. Our egos tend to swell and we start to pat ourselves on the back for our accomplishments - as though they truly come from us. Rather than acknowledging the mighty hand of God placing such provision on our life, we are often deceived into thinking it is our hand, our work that provides and allows such flourishing. “Pride is the master sin of the devil, and the devil is the father of lies” (Edwin Hubbell Chapin). Indeed, we are believing a satanic lie if we believe ourselves to be more accomplished even in the work of our own lives than God. Our circumstances are controlled by a sovereign God and our gifts, personalities, talents, and more are given to us by God in order to glorify Him - not ourselves. What’s the fix for our pride? Cultivating a humble heart and spirit before the Almighty God and allowing Him to direct our attention toward others, that we might bless them. Rick Warren defines humility not as “thinking less of yourself” but as “thinking of yourself less”. True humility is a proper response to the blessing of God in these seasons. The first step? “To realise one is proud” (C.S Lewis). Unchecked pride can lead to all manner of spiritual decay and drifting and will always prove God’s word: “pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
Just as it is easy to put the focus on ourselves, in doing so, we take the focus off of God. I remember when opening Christmas or birthday gifts as a child, I was taught by my parents to look at the person who got me the gift and thank them. This is taught in many families as the children learn not to be too distracted by the gift that they fail to honor the giver. It is a shame that we so often fail to live this principle out spiritually. In these seasons of life, we get so excited and distracted in enjoying the gift of God, we fail to honor Him as the provider of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Ingratitude toward God often goes hand in hand with our ingratitude toward other people. The parable of the unforgiving servant comes to mind. Upon being forgiven of a great debt, the servant’s ungrateful heart sought the payment of a very small debt from a fellow servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Truly no matter what season we are in, there is always something to be thankful for as Christians. God has given us his own son as a free gift. If there is one thing we should be defined by as Christians, it should be our gratitude for the free gift of eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Spiritual apathy is a numbness and indifference that can seize the heart even in the midst of the best seasons of life circumstantially. When we seek satisfaction in anything other than God, even in the wonderful gifts He gives, we come up short. This can lead to disappointment and spiritual drifting. This could manifest as an unwillingness to serve and sacrifice, refusal to participate in worship, a neglect for fellowship with others, and a departure from spiritual disciplines. It often comes out as a lack of fulfillment even in the best of times or as a defense mechanism in the most trying circumstances as one attempts to distance themselves from the pain. Apathy can really show up in any season if we are not careful, and often seeks to be our deadly transition from the highs of life to the lows. It can also manifest itself as an improper response to personal sin and failure. Instead of responding in confession and repentance to God, we respond with dismissal and concealment, allowing the decay and rot of sin to set roots in our heart. King David experienced this. After his heinous sin with Bathsheba, he did not respond in repentance but went on to coldly plot the murder of Uriah. Writing about the confession of sin in Psalm 32, David said “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer,” (Psalm 32:3-4). Circumstantially, things might look great on the outside. To outside onlookers, they may not be able to tell that anything is wrong in your life. This is the danger of spiritual apathy. It leads to the concealment of what is really going on in our lives. Beyond any outward success or positive state of affairs there can be serious spiritual decay if we drift from our personal relationship with God. It is only in confessing our sin and failure and acknowledgement of our daily need for God in all circumstances, all situations, all seasons, that we can find comfort, love, peace, and true joy. If we are not growing in our personal relationship with Jesus and teaching, leading, and serving out of an overflow of what He pours in to us, we are headed for burn out and a deadly crash. When we as branches drift from the vine, we are certain to wither and die.
Maybe you’ve been in a low spot for so long that just the thought of enjoying a mountaintop of life is enough. Sickness, brokenness, sin, stress, failure, weakness, anxiety, depression, death and more seem to be ever present forces in our lives and our church. Yet for us as Christians, we know that the same God who created the natural seasons also controls the spiritual seasons. These things are not forces of pure evil beyond God’s control to work through. It’s truly amazing how many people resist or fail to acknowledge God until a time of great pain or need. C.S. Lewis was spot on in saying that “we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I am amazed again and again at how evident godliness and the fruit of the spirit become in those who are faithful to Him in life’s trying circumstances. It seems that only when we are squeezed do we find out what is inside of us that is going to come out. Sometimes our pain is caused by our own failure and trying circumstances brought about by our sin, and other times it is circumstances that God alone allows to be brought about. Our pursuit of Christ and faithfulness to Him is not meant to be tossed to and fro by these circumstances of life. Consider the following truths and scriptures to hold on to during these trying times of life.
Our hope in God does not only stem from His promise of eternal life, but is rooted in His very nature and being. God’s sovereignty over every circumstance in the world and in our lives is a fundamental biblical truth upheld throughout the entire witness of scripture. The Father is over all, through all, and in all (Ephesians 4:6).
God’s grace and mercy toward us in the face of personal sin and failure give us hope to rise up and walk again in the light of his loving kindness toward us. We know that even when our faith fails - God’s faithfulness is sure (2 Timothy 2:13; Psalm 145:13). We know that in the pit of our failure, in the most trying of circumstances, in the dark night of the soul, our God is near to each one of us. His mercy is freshly prepared for us every single morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).
Furthermore, as Christians, we are blessed to know that we have a great future awaiting us. To this future, Paul quotes “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ -- the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). As we set our eyes on the glory of that future that God has prepared for us, we can seek a more eternal perspective concerning the temporary difficulties and temptations that we face. We don’t have to go through life and difficult circumstances the same way as those who do not believe. We know how the story ends. We know that sin and death do not have the final word. We have eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Now in this hope we were saved, but hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? Now if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.”
Guided by the knowledge of God’s nature and the hope we have in Him through faith, we are empowered to wait patiently and trust in His timing - not ours. Trying times present ample opportunity and temptation to stress and worry. However, these things are not compatible with trust in God.
It’s always easier to tell someone else not to worry than it is to tell yourself. But if we truly trust in a sovereign God present in every circumstance, we have nothing to worry about (Matthew 6:25-34). It is in this knowledge we can be free from worrying and trust in God’s timing. Patience is the process of demonstrating your faithfulness and commitment to God’s timing. When faced with a difficult circumstance or decision, I always think about the stories of the Bible. I can never think of someone who was penalized or failed because they were too patient or trusted God too much. It is always the opposite! Our impatience drives our failures which compound our worry and lack of trust in God.
Some people have told me not to pray for patience but I say do! Do pray for patience! Though you should expect to wait a while before you get it - be patient; and be ready for some difficult situations and sometimes (usually in hindsight) humorous opportunities to put that patience into practice. God’s timing is always perfect. Do you believe that? Press in to your relationship with Him during trying times through trusting and allow him to grant you His patience and His peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
“Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.”
Endurance may be defined as pressing through the present difficulty before you. As a Christian, we don’t just have to “try” harder in our own strength, but we lean in to the power of the Holy Spirit in our weakness and display His power at work within us (Romans 8:26, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Often, it is through the endurance of great suffering that God produces Christ-likeness in us. Just as God allowed Christ to suffer, He allows us to partake in that same suffering that produces godliness within us “and after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Endurance is the grueling work of following through on your patience as you wait upon the Lord’s timing and allow Him to do with your life as He wills - undemanding of explanation and unassuming of His timing. This is easier said than done. But we know as we seek this, not only does God empower us, He provides an example and companion in the suffering in Christ (Hebrews 4:15). Even more so, he provides to us a loving community in Christ to help us in our time of need.
One of our biggest weaknesses in church today is our failure to ask or express the need for help. Our culture teaches us to value self-sufficiency and not to burden other people, and while there is a healthy aspect of this, when taken to the extreme it becomes toxic to us and our community. Not only do we harm ourselves when keeping our burdens hidden and to ourselves, we harm our church community. By not allowing other believers the chance to fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) and obey His commands for His church community, we also rob them of the opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts. Think back to a time where you really got to help someone else by doing something you love to do. Was that a burden to you? Did you resent the person asking for help? Of course not! It’s in mutual submission and service to one another that we grow together in Christ. By keeping problems and burdens in the dark we deny our brothers and sisters in Christ of the blessing that comes in giving. We also keep ourselves from being able to minister to others effectively because we ourselves are not being ministered to! And while there are certainly a few that abuse the offerings of help within the community, most are in the category of refusing to allow others the opportunity to serve them (or at least refusing to ask).
When I feel the need for help and inevitably the shame or embarrassment that comes with that, I try to remember Peter and his refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Jesus set him straight and reminded him that without accepting the gift Jesus offered, His service to Peter, he had no part with Him (John 13:8). If Jesus directed the disciples to serve one another, while lowering Himself to do it, we ought to serve one another. But how can we serve each other if we all have the attitude of Peter? “You will never wash my feet.” In this, I remember that it's okay to present your feet for washing.
There are many among our church that give and give and give but do not allow others the same opportunity to give to them. Did you ever consider that you may be keeping someone from experiencing the same blessing you receive when you serve? Let others serve you as you continue to serve them - in this we glorify God and are built together as one body.
G > ^ V
The characters in the picture above have become a popular Christian symbol in recent years as they represent “God is greater than my Highs and Lows.” The truth of that statement goes beyond just a slogan or logo to wear on a t-shirt, but a reminder to put over our lives as we remind ourselves we are not defined by our successes, and we are not defined by our failures. We are defined by our God who is greater than both of these things, greater than the peak of highest mountain and greater than the valley of the shadow of death. Our God who ordained and established every season will keep you in your spiritual summer and in your spiritual winter - for God is greater than our Highs and Lows.
What season stands out to you? Are you in a high or a low? Do any of these warnings or encouragements stick out to you in particular? What scripture spoke to you the most? Think about these questions and ponder the scripture presented. I pray that my family and I, and we as a church family, would be Christians who live by the standard set for us as we seek to bear fruit in every season in the pursuit of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God the Father!