I pray that the right people see this.
I’m thinking tonight of the main characters in stories that would tear your heart out. Ordinary Christians, drained by disappointment and hardship. They no longer feel any love or peace from God. He seems all but absent. Just when hope seems to be rising, life kicks them again. They’ve been faithful for years, slogging through Scripture and the spiritual disciplines, staying a “good Christian”. They could recite the Biblical reasons behind suffering until the cows come home, but it’s no longer lifting their hearts so much as a whit. And then the cows kick them.
Seeing a brother or sister struggle in this way is one of the things that truly knocks down the door of my apathy and sets me ablaze. I get angry at Satan. I get – well, I would say “fearful” if I didn’t know fear was a sin, so I don’t do that – but certainly deeply concerned for the person. They stick on my heart. I don’t want them to be separated from God. I want so badly for them to know, to rediscover the love of God.
But…it isn’t easy.
My own experience says that, and surprisingly, Scripture says that. It grants that cultivating a relationship with the Unseen is counter-intuitive and hard. Especially once you step back and see all the obstacles arrayed against it, the spiritual opposition, the inertia from our unsaved days, the shiny lies about where we should be looking for our joy.
Start with this: do not accept the way things are. There is no Scriptural basis for the idea that God’s love and joy should be limited, blocked, or withheld from us. Indeed, other than salvation, an ironclad peace and joy in any circumstance is the greatest treasure of the kingdom, the very thing Christ died to give us! The Bible does not speak of this stuff in terms a scarce trickle, but of plenty, abundance, overflowing. He meant you to have it “to the full” (John 10:10).
So, you ask…why is it not flowing?
Ultimately, it must be God doing the answering. I do not know your particular situation, which could be varied as the stars are many, and I don’t have a lot of power in myself anyway. But I can offer my own story, and some Scriptural thoughts God has taught me.
1. You can’t do it alone.
Paul praying for the Ephesians:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)
Wow. It takes power to know God’s love.
That’ll induce a double take. And then sober you down, because it makes you wonder…how many Christians are actively praying for this power? How many are even interested? We want the easy way to peace – happy circumstances. Goodness knows it’s easier to be joyful in happy circumstances. So our prayers sound more like wish lists to Santa, if they happen at all.
But it might be an encouraging thought to realize that attaining God’s love is not all on you. It requires power from God. Have you prayed for that power? Do you regularly pray for a fresh dose of the Holy Spirit? Jesus spoke of being the Bread of Life and the Living Water; bread and water are substances that require regular intake. So does the Holy Spirit.
I hope this will be a new avenue of hope for you. Pray Ephesians 3. It has been a major staple in my prayer life for years, and it has revolutionized my life.
2. It is opposed.
It pains me to reply to a person’s heartrending struggle with “do more work!” I hope you do not think me heartless. But more work is needed, work in the form of spiritual warfare.
Surely you didn’t expect Satan to just roll over and let you inherit the kingdom’s greatest treasures unopposed? The Christian life is vigilant, vigorous, determined. It needs gumption. It’s not for no reason that Paul compares the Christian to a soldier (2 Timothy 2), uses battle as a metaphor (2 Corinthians 10), and talks about spiritual armor (Ephesians 6). He isn’t being poetic. These themes pervade the Bible. Isn’t the suffering around you evidence enough of the war behind the curtain?
Jesus modeled the defeat of demons, then commissioned his disciples with his authority to do the same. And that’s just the outside stuff. Our very souls, at the moment of salvation, are encrusted with years of hell’s buildup. Pride, self-hatred, gluttony, hatred, ambition…of course joy is stopped up. This stuff doesn’t just fall off with one whack.
Go back for a moment to our struggle to value God’s love over earthly blessings. I have been guilty of it as well. That lack of interest pervades the American church, and that is ominous. Have you ever noticed that so much poor teaching revolves around chasing health and wealth, personal dreams, political victory, or inspiration (did I just irritate anybody?) and not the love of God? Am I the only one who sees a pattern here? Don’t look now, but that might be Satan over there, whistling innocently and pretending he has nothing to do with this. He learned long ago that if you can’t beat ’em (see: Roman coliseums, Spanish Inquisition), join ’em. We are responsible before God for swallowing and spreading weak teaching, but the enemy is the sower. The war on God’s love is real.
Lest this all sound bleak, Christ does not just talk about the drudge of war; he speaks of strength and victory. He has been warring against my demons for years. I could tell you the exact time and place he broke through the lie of “God is irritated with your prayers”, with Scripture and a friend’s help. Or the time and place he revealed that he and I both had more control of my emotions than they did. Like a World War II history, key battles stand out and shift the balance of power. He will do the same in your life, if you persevere.
3. It’s a process.
I didn’t earn a taekwondo black belt all at once. It took four years of mind-numbing kicking drills, technique workships, sparring practices, formal tests. Eventually they culminated in…a piece of black cloth around my waist.
But the reward offered by “practicing God’s presence” is far greater. That’s my testimony, certainly not complete but on the way: a gradual calming of the soul’s waters, a permeating of peace, hope, and joy. Like learning over time to coordinate ten separate muscle movements into a roundhouse kick or a snowboard carve or the braking of a car, we learn to find our way more and more easily into God’s love until it is finally an instinct.
Part of you doesn’t care about that. It just wants things fixed.
That’s part of the process – learning to crucify that section and shift its values to the things of God.
I wish I could tell you God’s joy will come quickly and easily, like turning a faucet. It will at times. But it’s usually a process. If I were to travel back in time a decade and tell my past self that it would be four years before my faucet even really started turning, he’d probably ask in frustration, “Why can’t he just make my heart better right away?” Most of it, I think, was that I wasn’t looking for that back then. I just wanted things fixed (“Surely you’re powerful enough, God!!!”), and my prideful refusal to consider any other path to joy kept me at the trailhead instead of striking out into the mountains.
Once we accept the process, though, God meets us for sure. Brick by brick our peace is built. With each daily inconvenience, struggle, or heartbreak comes a new chance to take a deep breath and turn to God, recite Scripture to ourselves out loud, be reminded of the truth. It changes things. We’re stronger for the next trial. This is the dojang of God, where the truth meets the mat.
Ask him to initiate you. Ask him to reveal his love for you. It sounds basic, but a lot of us have never stopped to actually pray this intentionally. Do it. Now. It’s worth it.
Oh, how I pray that you will find (or re-find) what the New Testament saints so fervently spoke of, and of which I am still just getting a taste. Even a taste sustains.
I’m not trying to pretend I’m more spiritual than you, and I’m not suggesting that my journey is complete. But I will not be ashamed of bragging on what God has done, because everyone needs to know that Scripture is telling the truth, that this is available. The lie that you can’t really be joyful until your circumstances change is another huge barrier to joy, once that can be demolished.
Once God started demonstrating his ability to overcome my fear and diminishment with his love, the stars were once again stars. Chains broke and fell. My soul started leaping in celebration, even as I kept discovering new rungs on the upward ladder. I still am climbing. I always will be.
God is inviting you to the same.