Perseverance in Disguise

I still remember the way the chair squealed slightly as she twisted toward me. I remember the thinly veiled urgency in her voice as she looked at me with pleading eyes and asked me, “Where is he?”

I remember the rasp of desperation in her tone, and I remember feeling a moment of doubt. My simple and shallow theology didn’t know what to do with a God who seemingly wasn’t showing up.

For six months, my friend and co-worker had been struggling with apathy toward God. She had cried out to God to persevere her, to interrupt, and to rescue her from the indifference in her heart. And for six months, I had told her the same thing each day when we came to work together. Keep reading your Bible, keep praying, he’ll show up.

But that day the words got stuck in my throat, caught on doubt and confusion. Could I really promise her that one day soon he would make her feel all better? And if so, when? Is our God really someone we can coerce into making an appearance?

She explained it with a sharp edge in her voice, that could have been mistaken for anger if not for the moisture in her eyes: “He promises to persevere me, but he isn’t. I keep praying and nothing is changing. Nothing is happening. So what? Which is it: His promises are lies, or he’s not real? Or I’m not his?”

The Great Gospel Reversal

The thing about the gospel is, while it delivers us from the painful burden of works-righteousness, it doesn’t immediately remove the influence of the worldview that has held us captive for so long. We come to God desperate to learn and grow but with a mind still conformed to patterns that must be identified and sabotaged with gospel realities.

This world is filled with religions and relationships that will train you to walk in the right way so that you don’t get left or abandoned. Do it right, and I’ll show up for you. Obey me, and I’ll bless you with my presence.

This thinking is the unspoken rule of relationship: Fulfill your end of the bargain, and I’ll fulfill mine. But in the middle of all that comes the whisper of the great gospel reversal. Not a dismissal of standards, but a new way — a fulfillment of the old rule so that a new law can be given.

He keeps all the requirements — all the obligations on our behalf — so that the blessing can now come to us without our righteousness being the condition.

And this new way has really always been the only way. It is the answer to the faith-filled prayers of the kings of old:

The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us, that he may incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his rules, which he commanded our fathers. (1 Kings 8:57–58)

It is not, “God, be with us because we’ve obeyed you.” Not, “God, be with us because we’ve sought you.” Not, “God, be with us because we haven’t failed you, betrayed you, or ignored you.”

Instead, it says, “God, be with us so that we may obey you. God, be with us so that we may seek and love you. God, be with us so that we may honor you.”

God does not owe us his presence as a reward for our diligent pursuit of him. So often, I still approach God as if I live in a works-relationship, earning his blessing with my obedience. If I do my part, he better do his.

But here is this glorious truth: Our seeking is the evidence that he is near. If I do “my part,” it’s only because he’s already done his, and is working in me to empower me to do mine.

The Strange Fruit of God with Us

So, which is it: His promises are lies, or he’s not real? Or I’m not his?

That day in the office, the answer to my friend’s question was clear. He is persevering you. Why else would you be praying? The fact that you are still praying is evidence that he is answering your prayers. Your prayers prove that he is working in you. He is showing up.

Now, more than ever, that conversation in our office resonates with me.

I thought about it recently when I was driving home from a long day, and suddenly all the pain and confusion bubbled up in my throat and burst out, and I shouted out to God, “Help me! Why won’t you help me?” And before the sound of those cries had even evaporated from the air, I could hear the truth ringing in their desperation: He is helping me. If he had abandoned me, then I would not be crying out to him for help.

And I thought about it yesterday, sensing the coldness of my heart and wondering, Is this pain what it feels like to fall away? With hopelessness crouching beside me, I wrote on the page of my journal — with what was left of my frail faith — the words, “Fight for me.” And even as the letters emerged from my pen, I could see the evidence in each mark, the gentle and steady whisper to my soul, I am. I am fighting for you. And I’m winning. Why else would you be sitting here at my feet right now?

Sometimes perseverance doesn’t look like shining and polished conformity to the commands of God. Sometimes it doesn’t look like effervescent joy every time you hear his name. Sometimes it looks like Jacob, wrestling in the dark with a God we cannot see, holding fast to him, refusing to let go, no matter how hard it gets.