A Castle of Cards?
by Matt Shrader
Are you ever discouraged because of your circumstances and have turned really pessimistic? I am not talking about having a “glass half-empty” but more of a “glass bone dry” kind of attitude. What do we do at that point? How do we wade through those difficult times? How do we get out of such pessimism? Why is it that we ever got to that point?
It is not always easy to see the good in the bad, the positive in the negative. As a Christian, I know that I should have poise because providence tells me that all things are working as expected under the perfect direction of God. Millard Erickson defines providence like this: “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.”1
This gives me encouragement that God is working in my life. This gives me confidence and comfort in prayer, knowing that God wants and enables me to align my purposes with His. And, this can take away fear in times of difficulty because I know God is aware, interested, and involved. A doctrine such as providence is truly inexhaustible. As many situations as we can possibly produce, we can likewise apply the doctrine of providence to each and any.
We can look at the past and see several instances where God has been faithful. The Psalm-writers do this. Asaph in Psalm 78 relates to the next generation the stories of providence that were told to him. These are stories of God’s providential protection and covenant faithfulness to Israel from captivity in Egypt to King David.
We could also look through more recent history at difficult times and realize that ours is not the only trial that has ever happened. Although the difficulties of the Second World War were great, C. S. Lewis argues that the war generation ought not to end in pessimism, but in reflection upon God and His work: “The classic expositions of the doctrine that the world’s miseries are compatible with its creation and guidance by a wholly good Being come from Boethius waiting in prison to be beaten to death and from St. Augustine meditating on the sack of Rome. The present state of the world is normal; it was the last century that was the abnormality.”2 No matter the situation, we still assert that God’s providence is always at work.
Perhaps you could think of personal examples where the Lord put you through a trying time. Can you relate to Psalm 40 when David trusted in the providence of God? “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth—Praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord.”
Providence has been at work and we ought to praise God for what He has done. When we look back and recognize that God does not disappear in difficulties, we become overwhelmed with the faithfulness of God in every trial and we trust God to be faithful in the present and future. Reflecting on the provision of God for Abraham when he was going to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22, William Cowper wrote:
Blest proofs of pow’r and grace divine,
that meet us in his word!
May every deep felt care of mine
be trusted with the Lord.
Wait for his seasonable aid,
and though it tarry wait:
The promise may be long delayed,
but cannot come too late.3
When we look ahead and try to gaze through the lens of providence and see the ultimate goal to which we set our eyes, we gain excitement considering what Christ is accomplishing. Providence is leading us toward what Christ wants us to be. We have that blessed hope of salvation. And when we travail those tough times God has ordained for us, we need to remember that God does this for us because we are His beloved children and that we have a hope which rests in God alone. The book of Revelation is filled with the cry of the martyrs for vindication and rest. They wait in anticipation for the rest that is realized in the new heavens and new earth. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
But, what do we need to learn from our trials as we are going through them? Why do we need them? What do they tell us about ourselves now? The author of Hebrews tells us that God chastens us just like a father does, “but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). There are benefits to our trials. In what is left of this short essay I would like to take a look at a specific way that God works in times of difficulty. I want to know something more than just how a Christian may get out of a pessimistic disposition. What may we learn from our difficulty about ourselves? I would submit that we need our trials. We need those times when we are emptied of all of ourselves. They help us to see beyond what we have become to what we need to be. It could be that the glass was the problem and it needs to be bone dry so that it can be broken and made anew so that it may become something better than it was?
A New Perspective:
We have looked briefly back and forward to see how providence can reaffirm our understanding that God has worked and will work. We have been reminded of His faithfulness in times past and His direction in the present and His ultimate plan for the future. These reflections give us cause to look up and consider the greatness of God.
Consider Job’s reaction to his nearly unparalleled trials. In the book of Job we are presented with the story of a man’s immense trials under the providence of God (chs. 1-2), his and his friends’ debating of the trials (chs. 3-37), God’s answer to Job (chs. 38-41), and then Job’s confession and vindication (ch. 42).
In the Lord’s speeches, Job had asked for the Lord to answer him (13:22; 31:35) and God spoke to Job “from the whirlwind” (38:1). Job initially responds in 40:3-5 with silence. This silence is good (Eccl. 3:7). However, the Lord still has more to say to Job and more for Job to learn. “It is good that Job says nothing here, But that’s not enough. There are still some things that Job needs to say.”4
The Lord then lays out the two creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan, in chapters 40-41 to show again the distinction between God and man. Finally, in 42:1-6 we see the confession of Job. In chapter 42 and verse 2, Job praises God for his superiority and his sovereignty. In verse 3, Job declares his incapacity to know God, God’s incomprehensibility, and then his own ignorance. Finally, in verses 4-6 Job repents because his understanding has been clarified and then Job shows his contrition.
There are at least two lessons that Job needed to learn through his trials. The first is a proper perspective of God. Job began by praising God for his greatness. Job declared that he had been speaking of “what I did not understand” and “things too wonderful for me.” Job confesses that after he had been confronted by the greatness of God (“now my eyes see you”) that he had a better understanding and needed to repent. Job needed to understand that distinction between God and man. Understanding better the infinity and omnipotence of God led Job to understand who it is that claims to be the sustainer of the world. It is interesting that there is so much discussion and debate in the book leading up to the Lord’s speeches and then so little of a response to the Lord after His speeches. In Job’s confession, only verse 2 declares anything about God: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purposes of Yours can be withheld from You.” In the end, this simple understanding of God changed everything for Job.
The second lesson we learn from Job is the other side of the coin from the first: he had to change his perspective of himself. When we try to understand all of how God provides, we realize that we are like Job and are speaking of things too wonderful for us which we do not understand. Our finiteness limits us. We see dimly, but God is eternal. “You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). Job teaches us to gain the proper perspective. When we do, we end in the same place as he did: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6).
When we look up and see God, we fall down before His greatness and at the same time we find peace under His wings. After seeing God, Job affirms God’s providence. The new perspective that we need is to see God for who He is. When we consider ourselves in such ineffable light we recognize our limitedness.
Considering Our Castles:
Realigning our perspective should cause us to take a deeper look inside. When we do, we see that at our core there is merely a façade. We actually need trials sometimes to show us this. Trials have great benefit, not just because they give us some evidence that God is concerned about us and considers us to be His children, but we need trials because we need to see the inadequacy of our own selves. We need to recognize the problem areas in our lives. At the heart of Job’s problem was the fact that he had the wrong conception of many things. His understanding of God and of himself were weak. His faith in God and in himself were unbalanced. He had to see his own self-righteousness destroyed. Job needed to destroy the false conceptions of his understanding, faith, self-righteousness, and whatever else was lacking.
One of C. S. Lewis’s shorter works, A Grief Observed, relayed his own struggle with the loss of his wife and how he faced the immense trial that came his way. Lewis shares that as he reflected on his wife, he desired to not lose a true conception of her and to also remember their love for one another. He believes that his love for her is as mighty and as impregnable as a castle. Thus, he must take care to keep the memory of her strong, no matter how the trial he is going through is testing that love. But, the more he reminisced, the more he found problems with his conceptions. So then, Lewis probed into what it means that trials come our way “to try us.” Lewis made a crucial distinction.
“But of course one must take ‘sent to try us’ the right way. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”5
Lewis understood that the love he was trying to protect was a love of her memory and not a love of her. Similarly, our conceptions of God can be distorted when we are more concerned with the conceptions than the reality behind the conceptions. Lewis did not want to be satisfied with his mental or emotional conceptions of such important realities. “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbor, but my neighbor.”6
Lewis recognized that grief and trials are a part of reality. Our trials are sent to knock down the card-castles that we have built. We call them love, faithfulness, purity, understanding, prayer life, etc. God shows us that they are actually quite weak and in need of fortification. We consider them, like Lewis to be high and majestic castles of granite, impregnable and sure. In truth, they are merely a castle of cards which a wisp of wind leaves disheveled.
But, this is the greatness of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that despite our deficiencies, God loves us! Despite what God knows about our inner conceptions, he loves us! When we become a child of God and follow after him, we still struggle with the sin in our own lives. God helps and chastens his own so that they may be presented holy and undefiled.
It may be hard to recognize, but sin can come in the form of an incorrect conception of what our faith or love is or what they ought to be. We need these incorrect conceptions to be destroyed. We need the card-castles to be knocked over so that they can be rebuilt. Trials do this for us. In times of intense trial, we are often laid bare in search of relief. We want merely to find rest from the stress and hardship. When trials become more and more difficult we find more and more that we need help from someplace or someone. We cannot simply rely on ourselves.
Where do we look? We look to friends and family and hopefully we fall to our knees before God, asking for help. Difficult times show the inadequacies of our own selves. They reveal what the difference is between our conceptions and the reality. They reveal the difference between what we think our faith is and what it is in reality.
Do we take the time in trials to consider that? No doubt, in the midst of trials we are not given to being introspective. But we ought to be. Trials will expose what is really there. It is perhaps the best opportunity to see what is truly in our hearts because our hearts have been probed by the depth of the trial. We ought to ask God amidst those times to open our eyes to see what wicked ways are in us. Trials will reveal what my prayer life really was. They will show how much faith I actually had. They will show how I truly did love God. These are the inner problems that trials can reveal that I need to change.
To repeat from the beginning of this essay, Millard Erickson defines providence like this: “By providence we mean the continuing action of God by which he preserves in existence the creation he has brought into being, and guides it to his intended purposes for it.”7 There is a lot to unpack when Erickson says that God “guides it to his intended purposes for it.” Trials are a part of God’s providential plan.
God uses trials to show that he cares for us. That is not so hard to see. God uses trials to help us and that is not so hard to see. But God also uses trials to break us down as we see. It can feel like God wants to use trials to destroy us totally. In fact, God wants to use trials to destroy what is defective in us so as to rebuild and improve us. Do we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear such a rebuke from God?
Trials are sent to test us and they are for our benefit, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. As a blacksmith uses fire and heat to forge his utensils, so God uses trials to forge his utensils. How do we respond to the fires of trial? Do we even recognize what they can do for us and how they can expose the weaknesses in us? More importantly, does there dwell within our hearts a castle of cards?
1.Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 413.
2.C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 22.
3.William Cowper, JEHOVAH-JIREH, The LORD will provide. Gen. 22:14,” Olney Hymns.
4.Layton Talbert, Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2007), 210.
5.C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 678.
6.Ibid, 684. Lewis refers to his wife Helen, as “H.” Lewis originally wrote the book pseudonymously and so concealed her name.
7.Erickson, Christian Theology, 413.