Bible study often exposes us.
As I sat in a Bible study recently, the leader asked our group how we heard Jesus’s voice and how we follow, like he says in John 10:27:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
One woman sitting next to me measured the voice of God in the many blessings of her life — a new house purchased without difficulty, an old house sold without stress. She was now enjoying life in her dream home in the warm, dry climate of her dreams. And all thanks to a painless move.
She gave evidence for how smoothly her life was moving along, like dominoes falling perfectly in order. As I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but feel troubled. I knew that not a few women around us were following Christ through troubled marriages, battles with cancer, or the grief of lost babies. Some faced the drone of unceasing financial hardships — the exact opposite of how some of us define God’s blessing on our lives.
And yet we who are struggling can listen for Jesus’s voice with desperation and longing. We can desire to follow him as much — perhaps more — than the materially blessed.
A smile and an open Bible can press down so hard on raw hurt when we measure God’s blessing with material prosperity. The effect is something I’ve heard expressed by many and have seen dramatized in “Christian” movies. You can know you’re blessed by God when everything goes well for you.
Just trust God while you do A + B and, as long as you have enough faith, you should get C every time: the life you’ve always wanted. It’s a simple formula for the “blessed” life, with Jesus on top!
But owning a nice house with a spacious kitchen, or driving a shiny car with no dents, or basking in financial abundance and easygoing circumstances are not reliable evidences of God’s blessing in this age. The formula might look attractive in a movie, but it contradicts both the Bible and the real-life experience of many struggling saints who are faithful in the challenges, insecurities, and pains of everyday life.
As I thought about what that nice lady had said about how blessed she was, Jesus spoke to me though his word:
“He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
What the lady next to me said is true in a sense — she is blessed by God.
But so is the greedy miser who sits in his penthouse with wealth he earned through a harsh abuse of power. Both the good lady next to me and the oppressive evil tyrant are blessed with comforts and provisions, sun and rain, houses and air conditioning every single day. God is sovereign, and he radiates goodness and pours out unearned blessings of all kinds every day. He blesses all with his common kindness.
The formula God’s blessing = life comfort is a deadly one. And it’s not an isolated issue either. Unfortunately, the equation seems to be ingrained into so much American Christianity, and it’s part and parcel of the prosperity gospel that false teachers in our nation export to the world.
And when I’m not careful, the plank that is the prosperity gospel protrudes from my own eye.
Bruised and Blessed
God’s common kindness reaches us all, but it takes saving grace to turn to Jesus when marriage is hard, when a woman — my friend — loses three babies, or when a young missionary is told he has end-stage cancer.
The Bible doesn’t offer a formula, but points us to a Savior—a battered, crushed, beaten, bruised, bloodied Savior. And the special blessing of God’s presence is with those who are walking in suffering, the same road Jesus himself walked. He is present in the path of pain and trial and heartache.
God was present in Joseph’s pain:
Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Genesis 39:20–21)
God was present in David’s darkness:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:4–5)
God is present with us in today’s suffering:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:12–14)
So with God’s help, I remove my self-centered, American-dream plank and its sinful impulse to want a god who makes me the center and not him. My plank must come out first.
And with God’s help, I toss aside the lie that we find God’s blessing in easy circumstances, or in health, or in financial prosperity.
And with God’s help, I’ll keep the path, holding firmly to the hand of my Good Shepherd.