Once, the young Jacob ran, fleet-footed, wherever he wanted. Later, he walked with a limp.
Once, David led Israel’s armies without rival. Later, he fled through the wilderness, surrounded by enemies.
Once, Paul traveled and preached with a thornless side. Later, he prayed, pricked and bent, for a mercy that would not come.
Many of us likewise may remember a once when life and ministry felt smoother. Back then, we were more productive, less hindered. Our body didn’t trouble us so much. We faced fewer criticisms. A relationship had not yet ruptured. But we move slower these days, our backs more bent. Limping. Surrounded. Thorned.
How tempting to imagine how fruitful we might be without such burdens. Wouldn’t we be better parents, leaders, workers, Christians if we could run faster? Wouldn’t we do more good for God’s kingdom?
Maybe Jacob, David, and Paul wondered too. Limps and hurled spears and thorns have a way of hindering efficiency and ruining plans. In time, however, the wisdom of God became plain. Jacob’s limp leaned him toward his Lord (Genesis 32:31), David’s enemies made God his stronghold (Psalm 27:1), and Paul’s thorn brought a word far sweeter than strength: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Their stories bear witness to the surprising paths of God’s mercy. As Charles Spurgeon once preached, “It is a good thing to be without a trouble; but it is a better thing to have a trouble, and know how to get grace enough to bear it.”
Note well the first part of Spurgeon’s counsel: it really is good to be without a trouble.
Untroubled days are echoes of our Edenic past and whispers of our better future. They are a wilderness oasis, a lodging house for weary pilgrims. On untroubled days, Jesus says to us, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). They come like green pastures and still waters, like unlooked-for Sabbaths, like a visit to the land of milk and honey. They are gifts wrapped and sent by the Father of lights (James 1:17).
And yet, for people like us, too many untroubled days can bring trouble. Jacob proved self-reliant and spiritually aloof in his most comfortable moments. It was on an untroubled rooftop, far from the fields of war, that David saw Bathsheba and didn’t look away (2 Samuel 11:1–2). And if Paul’s heavenly visions had come without humbling, conceit may have killed him (2 Corinthians 12:7).
I suspect we can relate. Untroubled days are a gift; they are also a hazard. Without great care, the most peaceful days make Bible reading feel less urgent, prayer less desperate, sin less dangerous, Satan less active, Jesus less precious, and spiritual reality less, well, real. On untroubled days, we more easily neglect our post and drift, unguarded, onto the rooftop.
Sometimes, then, the greatest dangers to the soul are not burdens, but uninterrupted blessings; not pains, but endless pleasures; not troubles, but long tranquility; not suffering, but unthreatened safety. How difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24) — how difficult, too, for the untroubled.
When Cares Are Many
Trouble, of course, does not guarantee spiritual depth. If the devil holds prosperity in his right hand, he holds calamity in his left. Hence the second part of Spurgeon’s counsel: “It is a better thing to have a trouble, and know how to get grace enough to bear it.” Without grace, burdens break us; with grace, they bend us toward God.
“Without grace, burdens break us; with grace, they bend us toward God.”
Where then do we get the grace that not only makes troubled days endurable, but in some sense better? God has many rivers and streams of grace, but in one way or another, they all flow through his word. Here in the living words of the living God, he holds grace for every trouble, relief for every burden, balm for every broken heart. Hence, it was a word of blessing that both lamed and healed Jacob (Genesis 32:29), a word of welcome that steadied and supported David (Psalm 27:8), a word of promise that made the weak Paul boast (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
As with so many burdened saints, these three men discovered the secret that God gives his best treasures to those who have most troubles. So much of his word was born from trouble, written by persecuted prophets, weeping psalmists, and imprisoned apostles. The Bible is a book of tears — and a book too of the God who wipes them away. So often, then, trouble opens the door to our Father’s deepest comforts.
Certainly for me, God’s word rarely shines so brightly than when other lights go dark. Another’s cruelty made me feel God’s kindness in Psalm 16, the darkness of doubt illuminated Isaiah 50, sleeplessness brought near the God of Psalm 139, and loss gave me glory in Philippians 4.
“When the cares of my heart are many,” the psalmist writes, “your consolations cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:19). What could be better than the consolations of God himself — his hand upon the shoulder, his voice speaking courage, his arm bearing us up? And yet, such precious consolations come only through many cares. Many sighs, many groans, many troubled thoughts — these are the cups into which God pours the comforts of his word.
And in time, they become the cups out of which we give comfort to others.
God, then, is willing to give burdens to his people — even burdens that slow our pace, trouble our peace, and seem to hinder our fruitfulness. We might conclude that God cares less about fruitfulness than we do; in fact, however, he cares far more. His idea of fruitfulness just goes deeper than ours.
Too often, I fear, my own idea of fruitfulness is merely a baptized version of productivity. I can act as if effectiveness in the kingdom of God looks and feels like effectiveness in the kingdom of man: predictable plans, smooth execution, unhindered success. And such effectiveness, of course, has little room for limps, arrows, and thorns. But in fact, productivity forms only one part of true fruitfulness — and not the most important part.
Without trouble, for example, Jacob never would have built an altar “to the God who answers me in the day of my distress” (Genesis 35:3). And David never would have learned to sing, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear” (Psalm 27:3). And Paul would not have boasted “all the more gladly of my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Humble praise, radical faith, sorrowful joy in Jesus — these are fruits that grow only on trees of trouble.
“Humble praise, radical faith, sorrowful joy in Jesus — these are fruits that grow only on trees of trouble.”
And often, these are the fruits that feed us and others best (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). Some of the best parents walk with a limp. Some of the best leaders preach and serve from a besieged soul. Some of the best workers labor with a thorn. And some of the best Christians carry trouble with them wherever they go. What we so desperately need, and what others so desperately need from us, is not a life free from trouble, but a love for Jesus that lives and thrives in the midst of it.
God cares deeply about our fruitfulness — so much so that he may, for a time, limp us, or surround us, or send us a thorn.
Blessed Are the Burdened
I would like to think I could make it safely to heaven on a smooth path, running straight and wide beneath bright skies. I would like to imagine I would remain faithful to God without the training rod of trouble. Sometimes, I would like to rephrase Paul’s words in Acts 14:22 to say, “Through many untroubled days we must enter the kingdom of God.”
But in a world like ours, and with hearts like ours, some of God’s best gifts come wrapped in the black box of trouble. In his good hands, troubles are the limps that lean us toward Jesus, the enemies that chase us toward God, the thorns that give strength from above. They burden us, sometimes almost unbearably. But they also bend us toward the one whose steadfast love is better than life (Psalm 63:3).
So, as good as it is to enjoy untroubled days, it is better to have a trouble, and to walk with God in the midst of it.