Being in the midst of a significant trial lately, I found an article on being tested by God that was interesting and helpful. Me being me, I lost track of it, and decided to find it by typing “when it feels like God is testing you” into Google. In the middle of typing, before I finished the phrase, I glanced up at the screen and found myself startled by the suggest search results:
Read down that list. Realize that, at least according to Google’s algorithms, this are cries of the heart from people searching for answers in the middle of distress. And when you realize that, you will feel one of two ways: bewilderment, because you’ve never not felt God there, or, like me, a grim understanding because you’ve experienced something similar.
That these responses should be so popular, or this experience so common, shouldn’t be surprising. Half of the Psalms are the Psalmist begging God to notice him, to spare him, to pay attention, to care. Elijah ran off to a cave and begged God to let him die. Even our most beloved Christian writers and thinkers struggle with it. It’s difficult for me to forget some of C.S. Lewis’ bitter, cut-to-the-heart quotes from A Grief Observed:
“What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
There is a point in the life of every believer where everything is going wrong, is on fire, or is absolutely confusing and shattering and – worst of all – you cannot sense God in any of it. You can read Scripture, yes, and the words will feel mostly like words. You can pray, yes, and it will still all just feel like words. You will know how you ought to be thinking and feeling, and you will be waiting on those good godly sensibilities to come rolling in, but at the moment they are lost,and you have nothing but things you say over and over in hopes they will feel more true than they do right now.
I assume this is how Sarah and Abraham felt prior to the birth of their son together. God’s promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations arrives in Genesis 17; by then, Abraham has already had a son with Hagar. The promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son together – after all of this! – is so ridiculous at their age that they laugh it off. The moment the promise comes true is grand indeed, but I wonder about the pain and confusion that came before: the pain so clearly evident in Sarah’s responses to both Abraham and Hagar when they have a child together. How could Sarah possibly have foreseen God’s timing or His plan? How empty and hurtful must some of those years have been, when it must have seemed as though God’s plans never meant to include her at all?
I find myself in a similar situation lately. There are a few matters on which I felt certain of God’s guidance, direction, and His promises: areas in which clearly God-ordained signs pointed in particular directions. And yet now it seems as though none of those promises will come to fruition and are being abandoned. All the road markers seem to read “?????” and it is difficult to have any sense that God cares or is present at all, even if I know that He is. Even worse is the sense of taking your desperation to God – those angry, frustrated, pained pleas for reassurance at the very least – and hearing a deafening silence in return.
It is here where I often stumble. Because I am aware that, if this is a test of faith, I am failing it. Aren’t I supposed to respond well and readily? Even when I know God isn’t there, oughtn’t I be able to resolutely march forward knowing that He really is? When circumstances overwhelm me and I am not getting answers nor consolation from Him, shouldn’t I be able to say, “Ah, I’m being tested!” and move forward in confidence? I often don’t. But it is also here where C.S. Lewis, again, provides me a painful sort of comfort:
“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.”
If God is indeed testing me, He isn’t testing me to learn something He doesn’t already know. He’s testing me to show me something I don’t know, which is this: my faith is shaky, small, and easily-rattled. Put me in good circumstances and I’m fine. Put me in bad circumstances with a strong sense of God’s peace, His love, and the impression that His hand is on me, and I will get by. Put me in bad circumstances where I have no clear sense of what He’s doing or what He’s thinking and, because of that, struggle to imagine He notices me at all? Well, that’s my failing ground.
And the truth is, there is no easy answer. Or, rather, the answer is easy, but also monumentally hard, and it’s this, anchored in the desperation of the father of a demon-possessed child in Mark 9:23-25:
You wake up. You do not feel particularly loved by God or noticed by God. But you pray, God, I know you love me, I know specifically how you loved me on the cross, and I know you have always loved and will always love me. I believe. Help my unbelief.
You go throughout your day. You feel as though God has entirely forgotten every promise He made you or the wonderful hints at amazing things that He showed you. You wonder if you made those things up in your own mind. You wonder if you misinterpreted God entirely. You certainly don’t feel as though they matter to Him very much. You pray, God, I know you have plans for me. I know what you have affirmed and done in my life. I know you have not and literally cannot forget me. I know nothing will stand in the way of what you want to do. I believe. Help my unbelief.
You go to bed at night. You hurt and are tired and sad and frustrated and scared. You do not feel peaceful or reassured or beloved. You pray, God, I know I am being tested, for reasons I don’t understand. I know You are there. I know You have not abandoned me. I know there is a purpose in this. I know beneath it all, even if not in time or in ways I understand, you are working. I believe. Help my unbelief.
You do that over and over and over. You keep going. Whatever you feel, or whatever happens around you, you keep going. And as you keep going, you’ll realize that whether you feel it working or not, the Holy Spirit is what is keeping you going during this maddening time of silence and no answers, and you will realize this is the testing ground where faith is made. So you keep going. You believe, and you ask God to help your unbelief.
That’s where faith begins.