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The Flight of Your Life

What God teaches through faith's ups and downs

Life with jesus hasn't turned out quite the way I thought it would.

As a child, "testimony time" was my favorite feature of Sunday evening church. Each week the white-haired ladies and gentlemen around me would grab the pew ahead, pull themselves to a slightly stooped stand, and proclaim, "I accepted Jesus forty years ago, and it's been glory ever since." I figured "glory" must be great, and couldn't wait to follow in their steps. I expected to soar through life with unswerving faith.

Instead of soaring, however, my faith journey has more closely resembled the flight of my first homemade kite: first rising, then dipping and crashing, so I'd have to start over again. Why couldn't I be more "spiritual" like those saints I'd known as a child?

I decided to study the Old Testament heroes listed in Hebrews 11 as members of the New Testament "hall of faith." At first, their stories puzzled me. How could God possibly put Jacob in that list? He'd stolen his brother's birthright through treachery. What about Samson? He spent his life chasing women such as Delilah. David had committed adultery and murder. None were people I'd choose as an example of faithful living. So why did God?

But as I read more carefully, I saw how those listed in Hebrews 11 shared a common story: God worked through their lives to shape them into individuals who trusted him despite seemingly impossible situations. Each experienced the same ups and downs of faith I knew so well, yet God used those events to build strong faith in him.

Why does God often seem to take us back to square one in our journey with him? What can we learn only when we have nothing left but God himself and his promises? Here are some answers.

Faith and feelings aren't the same. Throughout high school I promised God I'd follow him fervently, no matter what. God's presence seemed palpable as our school Bible club grew from 15 to 115 members. We prayed. God answered. It was great.

Soon after beginning college, however, I found myself seated alone in a dorm prayer room, wondering what had happened to God. The same Bible that had been savory meat for my soul now tasted like cold French fries. Prayers seemed to bounce off the walls with mocking echoes: "God isn't LISTENING … listening … listening." How could this be?

That's when I glanced up to see a plaque on the wall quoting a verse from Job 23: "I do not see him … but he knows the way that I take." I opened my Bible to read the whole chapter, and it described my situation perfectly. No matter where Job looked, he couldn't find God—yet God always knew where to find him. Based on that, Job determined to continue trusting God through the darkness.

That fact—that God knows where I am when I have no idea where he is—has been one of the most stabilizing truths in my life. I can pray, "God, I haven't a clue where you are in this mess, but I thank you that you know where I am. Please hold on to me when I can't seem to hold on to you."

God isn't a system to be learned. Following my first year in college, I went into a nursing program and worked with people in life-and-death situations. Seeing many of them face life's starkest moments without Jesus restored my faith—I knew I'd never doubt again.

Wrong. A few years later my husband, Dave, began his pediatric residency. We moved with our eight-month-old daughter to a new city where I didn't know one person. Dave took calls at the hospital every second or third night, and I became a stay-at-home mom. Depression set in. This time God didn't merely disappear; it felt as though he'd died.

I did what I'd done before. I asked God to keep his eyes on me when I didn't know how to find him. I read my Bible. I prayed. I even followed the advice of a book that promised if I'd praise God no matter what, all my problems would go away. I still felt awful.

Finally I confessed my struggle to a friend. "I'm sure if I'd only pray more or read my Bible more, I'd be okay, but I can't seem to do it like I should."

My friend gave me a strange look. "Did you hear what you just said, Ruth? If you do this or that exactly right, then God must perform according to your dictates. Why don't you ask God to be God in your life, and stop trying to control him?"

With that simple question, I realized while I'd always believed my salvation came by God's grace through faith in Jesus rather than through anything I could do, that's not how I lived. Instead, I'd started believing that if I just met certain standards of performance such as Bible reading and prayer (both good things in themselves), then God would essentially become my fairy godparent and do my bidding. My friend was right. I'd turned God's means for knowing him better into a method to keep control of my life.

Childish or immature perceptions of God need replacing. As a child I somehow picked up the skewed idea that really good soldiers in God's army barely notice the wounds they suffer while serving him, if they feel them at all.

Years later, Dave and I moved to Liberia, Africa, as missionaries. During our first year there, Uncle El, a fellow missionary, and his daughter, Rhoda, were in a terrible motorcycle accident. While Dave and I stayed with them all night at the hospital, robbers completely ransacked our home. Here we were, serving Jesus, and life had never been so catastrophic.

I knew I should pray—but how? For what? I had no faith that Uncle El would survive and Rhoda already had multiple fractures. Finally, as I tried to pray, an amazing thing happened. Somehow, in a way I can't explain, I saw Jesus weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. What an incredible paradox. There, in the midst of Christ's greatest act of faith, he suffered his greatest moment of pain. Faith didn't prevent his pain, but pain also didn't prevent his faith. By his Spirit, Jesus said to me, "Ruth, I know what it's like not to want the Father's will. Sometimes the Father's will is very hard. So I'm not going to push you through this; I'm going to carry you."

I've learned as I've matured that true faith not only acknowledges pain, but agrees to God's plan despite it. After Uncle El's death, Aunt Lois told me, "No reason is worth the price of my husband's life except one. Somehow God has allowed this to happen for his glory, though I may never understand why before heaven. With that, my heart can rest."

God's character is trustworthy. After my encounter with Jesus in the Garden, life continued to tumble from one crisis to another. We were robbed nine more times. Five close friends or relatives, including my father, died in the next two years. Just a few short years later, I had to face the biggest question of my life so far: "Have I given my life to God for a joke?"

My husband and I were living back in the States, but our two adopted Liberian sons, William and James, had returned to Liberia just before a civil war began there in 1990. For months, we had no idea if our sons were alive or dead. No matter how hard I prayed, the news got worse: "Cholera Sweeps the City." "Six Hundred Killed in Church Massacre." Even if I'd known where William and James were, I had no way to send help or rescue them. I felt numb inside. Each day I waited for a breakthrough from God. Each day—silence.

After many weeks, God finally impressed one thought in my heart: Ruth, you've come to trust what you know about me, but you don't trust me.

That puzzled me. So I prayed, "God, I have no idea what that means, but if it's true, would you teach me about yourself from scratch, as if I've never known you at all?"

A few months later, still numb, I opened my Bible once more to Hebrews 11. In verse 6 I read, "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."

Do you really?! My mind began to rage at God as I compared that verse to the circumstances around me. I've sought you and sought you this year, but you remain silent, and everything I've prayed about has only gotten worse. You haven't rewarded me with one thing!

Hadn't we given up family, country, and professional opportunities to follow God? Now look. Because of the war in Liberia, our mission buildings had been destroyed and our two sons were likely dead and gone. Instead of a plentiful harvest, we had a sun-scorched land. Had I, in fact, spent my life for nothing?

As I stared at the passage again, the Shepherd's voice popped up once more in my mind. Do you believe I'm faithful and true and good, not for what you see me do, but for who I am?

The greatest wrestling match of my life followed. If I said "Yes, God is faithful, true, and good," it meant I believed he was keeping his promises in this awful situation—even if I didn't understand why or how. It meant I had to trust him; I had to leave all my unanswered questions with him. That seemed like an impossible choice.

But if I decided "No, God isn't faithful," then I was saying God was a liar and none of his promises were true—including that Jesus is my Savior. In that case, my life was a joke and there was no point in continuing the deception. That seemed like a hopeless choice.

Thankfully, I finally bowed before God, trusting his character, whether William and James lived or died. In God's mercy, both of them survived the war, but many others didn't. However, like the stories in Hebrews 11, where some people were rescued from the lion's den while others were martyred by being sawn in two, God is equally faithful, true, and good in all cases.

I once heard George Verwer, head of Operation Mobilization, say, "Christians have to relearn their faith from scratch at every stage of life." How true. And how wonderful that as God teaches us more about who he is within the circumstances of our life, our relationship to him becomes deeper and stronger. We can trust, no matter what we feel. Maybe that's the "glory" part after all.

Ruth Van Reken is a speaker and author of several books and Bible studies. She lives in Indiana.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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