When I was growing up, it was stylish to declare a life verse, as one might declare a major at school. We slipped this verse into casual conversations, résumés, or testimonies like a personal brand. The Bible contains 31,102 verses, so mathematically, the odds are high that most people would have a unique life verse. What are the chances you would overlap with someone else in your Bible study with so many to choose from?
But of course, some verses make better slogans than others. No one is likely to choose a snippet of genealogy, or a war-and-famine-and-pestilence tag line. Frankly, most of the narratives don’t break down into pithy quotes well at all. So, most life verses end up something like: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me or Trust in the Lord with all your heart . . . and he will make straight your paths. Or the ever popular For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.[i]
It’s understandable that we want to reduce faith into the wind beneath our wings, the Lord a lucky talisman in our pocket. But I worry about discipleship in a faith community drenched in these promises without the rest of the text. A focus on such verses (out of context) risks making our faith into just that—a good-luck charm to carry around.
Then what happens when things fall apart? In truth, during some seasons, we stumble through pain and confusion, as everything we thought we knew about life appears false, and despair seems closer than hope. Too many of us walk away from God and faith when we discover that life includes pain and suffering, that the arc of our life stories both ebbs and flows, that sometimes we must open our hands and let go. We haven’t practiced the wisdom that comes from surrender, the strength that comes from following the cycles of life and death all the way around. We have learned how to stand on the promises, but not to surrender to a God we can trust even in the darkness of loss. It seems too many of us believed we were promised a life of ease, with God parting the waters before us and no storms on the horizon.
I’m not a pessimist, but I find some of the most comforting verses in the Bible to be those like Job 5:7: “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.”
Have you ever huddled around a bonfire on a cool evening, roasting marshmallows or enjoying friends? The folks who wrote (and listened to) the book of Job probably huddled before a fire every day, if not every meal. There was no central heating anywhere on the planet. Every day, they watched and knew: a fire gives off sparks, and the sparks fly upward. This is reality, plain and simple. There’s nothing to discuss, no controversy, no reason to complain. These are the facts of life.
Another thing they observed just as clearly and simply: We are born to trouble.
The people we need and love the most die—often suddenly and tragically, anytime from conception to old age. Those we rely on let us down. Our bodies are prone to disease, sometimes debilitating ones that shorten or alter our lives. Injustice is thick and systemic, evil acts are perpetrated everywhere. Suffering—not just a bad cold or a disappointment, but the real thing—is part of life.
And yet, somehow many of us believe that utmost success and ease is due us, as our life verses seemed to promise. So, when the reality of life hits, it feels as though God has done something wrong. We’re clutching these hopeful Bible verses and browsing page after page of our friends’ bright and cheerful social-media posts, but we’ve never considered the context of any of them. God’s faithfulness to Israel takes place over thousands of years of slavery, exile, and oppression. That requires a long, long surrender before the promise. God’s redemption of creation is still pending completion, though the wait has been unfathomably prolonged.
Our friends’ smiling Facebook photos freeze one beautiful, cheery moment out of a thousand, rarely including the tantrums, fighting, and trips to the toilet taking place that same day. We’ve tricked ourselves into expecting that life is or should be a fairy tale, that we can and we will live happily ever after. But no. Real life comes to us unabridged, a complete package of beauty and joy, transcendence and ecstasy—and grief and trouble, pain and confusion.
As the sparks fly upward.
He cultivates in us the skills of hope, of perseverance, of rejoicing—but also of surrender. Not one true story in history has ever depicted or suggested life free of grief and struggle, and neither does the Bible. If anything, the Bible highlights the troubles of life too vividly for most of us to stomach. That’s why we skip over the brutal scenes and move quickly to the hopeful declarations of redemption.
Jesus promises that in this world we will have trouble.[ii] Not promises like a gift but promises like certainty. This is life. We can count on it. You can take it to the bank.
The idea that we could or should live happily ever after stems from our stories of privilege, not from God’s promises. Hope isn’t the American dream. Hope knows that we are born to trouble and that God is here. That he is both transcendent and immanent, Creator and Redeemer. That he has overcome. Hope invites us to look at endings square in the face and surrender, letting go of what was good and alive to receive what will come—whatever will come—from God’s hand.
Science demonstrates what faith traditions have always taught: Pushing negative feelings away or fighting against them only empowers them, increasing our suffering and limiting our power to overcome. Paradoxically, by accepting these seasons of struggle and loss and the impact they have on our minds and bodies, we gain mastery and freedom. In accepting the reality of death and pain, we gain life and peace.
And these fantasies of perfect lives, fulfilling vocations, beautiful marriages and children we’ve clutched so tightly? God invites us to stand courageously facing the future, acknowledging the truth—then open our hands and hearts and dreams to him . . . and release.
Friend, God is still here. Every step of the way, whether you go willingly or kicking and screaming, he is with you—and he has gone before you. Will you reach out your hands and find that he is still right here?
You’ve been reading with Catherine McNeil from All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in this Messy, Abundant World. Get a copy or read a free excerpt of chapter one here. Head over to allshallbewellbook.com to get to know Catherine and her writing on faith, motherhood, and many other beautifully messy topics.
[i] I can do all things: Philippians 4:13, nkjv; Trust in the Lord: Proverbs 3:5-6, esv; For I know: Jeremiah 29:11.
[ii] John 16:33.