Warning: These are difficult, contentious and complex topics because we all have suffered, and suffering is painful, and we can easily react to having “easy” answers pushed on us (anyone break out in a rash when someone quotes Romans 8:28?). So please hang in there and try to stay with me.
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
At Easter (if we are followers of Jesus), our thoughts rightfully turn to the sufferings of Jesus. He endured the worst possible test – full shame, full abandonment by friends and even seemingly by His Father, betrayal by a close friend, full hostility, abuse and misunderstanding of his motives and identity, plus brutal torture and death. It doesn’t get any more intense than this.
Yet He models total faithfulness. He stays sweet, He even forgives His enemies in the midst of it! That’s why He is called the “pioneer and perfecter of faith”. After all the amazing examples of faithfulness in Hebrews chapter 11, Jesus is the champion.
So what is this faith that we are called to imitate?
In the New Testament, faith, belief, trust, confidence, fidelity, and faithfulness are all different ways of translating the same Greek word.
I like using faithfulness as it emphasises the relational aspect of faith. Essentially it implies staying attached to the object of faithfulness in spite of every storm and everything that tries to shake it lose, like an oyster on a rock. As the storms batter the oyster gets stronger and holds on tighter.
This is what Jesus modelled for us. Faithfulness means to be founded on the bedrock of the love and truth of the Creator of all things. It’s not so much about what we believe, but who we are attached to; not so much who we are, but whose we are, and whose story are we living in.
Isn’t faith just religious wishful thinking?
Faith is certainly not just a religious concept. Humans naturally gravitate toward and attach to that which we believe is faithful, trustworthy and true. We ask other people what is the most reliable type of car to buy, or what is the best wash powder. It goes deeper too.
Psychology tells us that we are supposed to learn “basic trust” when we are very young; to learn that we are loved, enjoyed, heard, understood and that we belong. This forms the basis of faith and trust and relational attachment. But in this broken world it so often goes wrong, often badly so.
When the early settings aren’t right this plays out through our lives. In our struggle to trust others, we also struggle with self-acceptance, struggle with intimacy and we tend to attach to things that don’t ultimately satisfy. There may be some pleasure in these things, but there is little joy. Because joy, the brain scientists (and the Bible) tell us, comes from relationships.
Attachment trauma and lack of basic trust doesn’t just come from harm or abuse that we may have suffered, but if can also come what we failed to receive from parents or caregivers who struggle with attachment and basic trust issues themselves.
How does attachment trauma affect our relationship with God?
One of the many downsides of poor attachment is that when we do come to faith in God is that we struggle to have healthy attachment to our Divine Parent. This can translate into unhealthy driven behaviour, legalism, control issues, not feeling loved or forgiven, feelings of distance and disapproval from God, inability to sense God’s presence, an over-emphasis on spiritual experiences, or fluctuating between these (and more).
However, this is not where we must or should stay. God is 100% committed to our healing and maturity. Did you know that God endured and suffered all our attachment trauma in Christ? He made a way through his suffering to show us how. We’re not alone.
Jesus endures the absolute ultimate shaking and shaming leading up to and on the cross yet He ends in a place of glory and security at the throne of God – the place of ultimate security and attachment. We are called to take a similar journey. He makes that path as pioneer and perfecter of our faithfulness. That is what the book of Hebrews (if not the whole Bible) is about. Jesus shows us how suffering can be redemptive.
So faith is not just “what I need to believe to get to heaven”. Neither is it “what I need to live a blessed, healthy and prosperous life where I don’t have to suffer”. Faith / faithfulness is what we need to develop to live a life that increasingly clings to God, that grows into maturity and resilience so we may represent Christ as an ambassador of his Kingdom in this world.
Faith / faithfulness in and towards our Creator and Father is what we need to survive the s#@t-storms of life and come out shining, and come out more connected to God and people.
So faith can build resilience?
The ability to find joy in adversity is a big part of resilience. Nehemiah says to the people “…the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Counter-intuitively, suffering and glory are often paired together in the Bible. The outcome of Jesus’ suffering was glory and joy. Even in the suffering He was able to find joy because He understood it had a purpose: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross”.
So rather then being an antidote to all suffering faith is what we need to renew our attachments and return to joy in the midst of the adversity. When suffering is required we need to learn to suffer well. Without an understanding of suffering, we will not be able to make any sense of this life.
Brain science tells us that if we cannot reconcile our suffering with some sort of narrative of purpose we fall into cognitive dissonance and the trauma and suffering will not be resolved. Instead we can fall into depression, mental illness or even physical illness.
Biblically, we can see how this relates to the idea of bitter roots taking hold spoken of later in Hebrews 12. We saw how Esau turns the unjust treatment meted out on him by his brother into a bitter root that poisons his life and relationships for years because he cannot find a way to process the injustice done to him.
In contrast, a couple of generations later Joseph goes though tremendous suffering at the hands of his cruel and jealous brothers, but there is no evidence of bitterness, but a trust that somehow God will bring goodness and His purposes from his situation.
God is able to bring joy and blessing to Joseph in what could have been incredibly bitter years. Much later when he is reconciled with his brothers, and has the power to take revenge on them, he is remarkably sweet. He says “…you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”(Genesis 50:20)
Joseph suffers well. He sees God’s sovereign hand over his life. He has reconciled his faith with his experience and stays unscarred by the trauma, as he stays open to God’s larger purposes.
What happens to our faith when we don’t get what we expect?
Our inner mental maps are like a Virtual Reality world that may or may not map onto the real world. We discover this playing a VR game when we accidentally walk into a real coffee table or hit real person!
If our experience of suffering, say through a loss of relationship, job, career, dream, child, or our health doesn’t fit our belief system that says “I should not be suffering” we will eventually face a “crisis of faith”. When our experience doesn’t fit with how we make sense of the world we go into high stress, anxiety and fear.
Sometimes to cope we just change up the narrative to something that sets us off on a worse tangent. For instance: Something bad happened… if God is who I think He is He shouldn’t have allowed this… so God must not be good… or He is weak or doesn’t care… or God must not love me… or I must be too terrible… or maybe there is no God…and so on.
Please don’t do this. When you hit a speed-bump in life its better to go to people you trust who have worked though this in their own lives for help to adjust your idea of God and the world to a more accurate model. The writer of Hebrews begs readers not to cast away their confidence in God when things are hard, but instead to encourage one another. The storm will pass.
Isn’t it just religious people that have crises of faith?
Everyone experiences this when their idea of “how the world is” conflicts with their expectations. Dallas Willard has a great saying something like: “Reality is what we run into when we are wrong”. It’s one way we learn.
This is also why some people “can’t find God”. They have no place for Him in their mental maps. Even when they fall over Him they have some way explaining it away (invisible coffee table?)! But sometimes when people find that their mental maps are letting them down they begin to open up to new possibilities. This is especially the case if they know people who are Christians going through similar trouble but finding hidden reserves of faith.
When our theology or mental map removes the possibility or likelihood of suffering it is not mapping into a biblical world-view or to reality (which should be the same thing). What great biblical character or great hero from history did not suffer? Some certainly, like Jonah, caused the trouble themselves through resisting the call of God. Others, like Joseph, suffered because of the call of God.
The saints through the ages have suffered, but they remained faithful in their suffering. That is what made them over-comers. To overcome does always mean to escape suffering, but to remain faithful in that suffering.
What is a biblical mental map for suffering?
Ironically when we remove the possibility of suffering from our mental map, we are likely to suffer more when we bump into it because we had not prepared for the possibility.
Think of Jesus words to the Church in Smyrna “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:10)
Think of the three Hebrew young men thrown into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. they say “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:7-8).
The point is that they were full of faith that God would rescue them, but their faith was not in a certain outcome but in the God that they knew. And they would be faithful to God even if for some reason he chose to let them suffer. Sometimes God provides a way of escape, sometimes not.
Faith is certainly not passive or fatalistic. We are told to seek God, abide in His words, ask for wisdom, to expect miracles and healings. But when we equate faith with certainty in a particular outcome we can be setting ourselves up for trouble. The outcome can become the focus not God. Or our faith becomes the focus instead of God. It becomes too easy to compromise in some way to get the desired result. Or if we do get a result we can become proud thinking it was because of our faith.
In a place of pride or lost focus it is too easy to follow other voices that say “…all this is I will give you if you fall down and worship me”. God gives grace to the humble. Willard describes humility as “don’t push, don’t presume, and don’t pretend.” This good advice! Stay humble and receive grace from His presence, which may not be in the form we think. Often it’s not so much delivering us from the particular situation that God is so interested in as talking to us about the unhealthy attitudes emerging from our hearts because of the pressure. It is true saying that He is more interested in our character than our comfort.
I’ve come to believe that actual faith is clinging on to God when it all goes pear shaped, when we are uncertain, disorientated, overloaded and we don’t have a clue what is going one, when the storm is raging and all you can say like Peter is “save me Lord!” And somehow He does! But often not how we expect.
Jesus we love your ways but we don’t always understand them. We see in your scriptures that suffering has a mysterious purpose. Help us understand that better Lord. And mostly help us to be faithful to You. Help us process our disappointments and losses. Help us to align our mental maps with reality. Help us to grow and heal in those areas of attachments wounds. Help us develop a real relationship with You where You really are our source, where You really are our place of primary sustenance. And help our eyes to continually return to You Jesus. Amen.
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