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In the Strength that is Yours: Navigating Life’s Disappointments and Devastations when Miracles Don’t Happen

February 23, 2012

In the Strength that is Yours:

Navigating Life’s Disappointments and Devastations when Miracles Don’t Happen

“’If God is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracle-wonders our parents and grandparents told us about, telling us, ‘Didn’t God deliver us from Egypt?’ The fact is, God has nothing to do with us—he has turned us over to Midian.’ But God faced him directly: ‘Go in this strength that is yours. Save Israel from Midian. Haven’t I just sent you?’”

 – Judges 6:13-14 (MSG)

“At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”

       – Flannery O’Connor

Painful Grace and the Battle against Despair

Almost from the moment I first cracked the pages of A Good Man is Hard to Find as a high school sophomore, I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor. Her dark, wry sense of humor and her unapologetically grotesque Southern Gothic writing style appealed to my natural cynicism and youthful disdain for easy answers. It wasn’t until I got to college and had the privilege of studying under an excellent O’Connor scholar that my appreciation for her moved to a different level altogether.

O’Connor, you see, was forced to come face to face with the difficult questions of faith at an early age. Her father Edward, whom she adored, was diagnosed with Lupus in her early teens. He deteriorated quickly and died a painful death when she was barely fifteen years old. Her devastation drove her deeper into her inner world of books and faith, and she turned to writing as an outlet for her emotional pain and frustration with easy-believism rampant in the world around her.

By her early twenties it was apparent that O’Connor had inherited her father’s illness, and by age twenty-six she had been officially diagnosed and given less than five years to live. Despite periods of near incapacitation followed by periods of remission achieved by the use of medications that left her anxious and bloated, she refused to allow herself to become bitter or lose sight of the work God was doing in her life. “Grace changes us,” she explained, “and change is painful.”

Before her death in 1964 at only thirty-nine years of age, Flannery O’Connor had published two classic novels – Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away–  as well as two collections of short stories – A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge. She became well-known for bucking the trend of offering miraculous resolutions to characters’ conflicts and reassuring evangelistic diatribes in religious fiction of the day, preferring instead to allow them to be transformed by the painful consequences of their own foibles and miscues. A firm believer that offering religious faith as an easy and convenient panacea for all that ailed mankind was an insult to both God and man, she summarized her philosophy in a letter to her best friend Betty Hester that later became the epitaph on her tombstone: “Let me tell you this: faith comes and goes. It rises and falls like the tides of an invisible ocean. If it is presumptuous to think that faith will stay with you forever, it is just as presumptuous to think that unbelief will.”

Balancing Faith and Reality

If my personal experience is any indicator, faith seems to ebb and flow in conjunction with the tides of the grief process. After my wife left, I found myself in a frantic state of denial. I was convinced that God was just itching for an opportunity to swoop in and save my marriage and my family, if only I had enough faith. With a fervor matched only by my mounting anxiety, I threw all of my energy into studying the Bible, reading books about faith and miracles, and praying like never before. I fasted for twenty-one days, begging God to give me back my life, pleading for a miraculous change of heart all around, and desperately looking under every rock for signs of him at work.

Things only got worse. The divorce went through, my financial world collapsed around me, my children bought into the lies their mother and grandparents were feeding them, and my ex-wife’s boyfriend moved into what had been my house, bed, and favorite TV-watching chair. Thanks a lot, God.

My experience was not the kind you read about in Reader’s Digest or Guideposts. There were no warm fuzzies to spread around – it was a scratch-and-claw, day-by-day (sometimes moment-by-moment) struggle to survive. There were days I didn’t want to live anymore; days when I stayed in bed; days when I shook my fist and screamed at the heavens. But bit by bit, my world adjusted and I found pieces fitting together – not perfectly or serendipitously, but, as I am learning to tell myself, better than I deserve.

What I am learning is that God doesn’t come through in miraculous ways very often. If he did, they wouldn’t really be miracles – they’d just be everyday occurrences. Faith is not a magical elixir that we swallow so that the world becomes all that we hope and dream, rather, it is the strength to hold on (sometimes by our fingernails) to the belief that God has something better in store while the winds rage and howl and the earth shakes in our little corner of the world, and life goes on for everyone else as usual.

The story of Gideon illustrates three major stumbling blocks that challenge our faith during difficult times, as well as one not-so-revolutionary solution that God provides to help us keep forging ahead when there is no miracle forthcoming.

Backstabbers and Fair Weather Friends

The story picks up with Israel in trouble once again, this time at the hands of the Midianite people. Midian was a son of Abraham, who eventually spawned a tribe of shepherds, slave traders, and ne’er do wells who proved themselves untrustworthy as allies and as enemies. They were generally friendly to their Israelite relatives so long as they didn’t stray into their prime grazing lands, but after joining forces with the king of Moab, they become pagan idol worshippers and were not above trying to lure Israel into their web of deceit if it benefitted them financially.

Because of their sinful and wayward ways, Judges 6 tells us that God “gave them into the hands” of Midian, and things were apparently bad enough that Gideon and his people fled their homes and were living high in the mountains where they could avoid the raiding hordes, who would take their crops and livestock and drive them away without provocation.

The Hebrew “Midian” means “brawling, strife, or contention”. We all have people in our lives that bring out the worst in us. Like the Midianites, they are our friends when it benefits them, but have little compunction over slipping the knife in our backs when the winds shift. I recall a Saturday morning shortly after I was released from the hospital when my father-in-law made a great show of approaching me at my younger son’s basketball game, giving me a treacly, magnanimous hug, and telling me that he was praying for me. Not long after that I found out that he had been simultaneously spreading lies about me and assassinating my character to a wide range of mutual friends in order to justify my ex-wife’s adultery and dishonesty and make me appear to be a villain.

Brawling and strife are stumbling blocks because they misdirect our energies and attention away from the real task at hand. We are distracted from seeking God and acting rightly and focus instead on lashing back and exacting revenge. We are either tempted to return lies for lies and become caught up in an escalating battle of tit for tat or to retreat to the caves of hopelessness and despair and give up on life altogether.

Paul cautioned the church at Ephesus to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31) because they cut off the power of God’s Spirit in our lives. The term “get rid” (airo) literally means “lift up,” or “carry away”.  It implies that, although we are tempted to blame such behaviors on those with whom we are in conflict, the responsibility for them lies with us. We must take out the garbage and leave it at the curb.

Bitter and Cynical Quitters

The second group of people who were making life miserable for Gideon were the Amalekites (“valley dwellers”).  These descendants of Jacob’s rough and tough brother Esau were known for being unusually tall and imposing – the Arabic word for their tribe means “giant” – and were apparently not above being ruthless, cruel, and tyrannical. They were condemned by God for attacking the Israelites when they were fleeing Egypt, preying on the feeble and elderly who lagged behind, and plundering their goods. Haman, who called for the extermination of the Hebrew people in the Book of Esther, was also an Amalekite.

These types of people tend to come out of the woodwork when they sense that we are down or struggling. In my experience, they were old “friends and acquaintances” who suddenly became concerned about my well-being after years of little to no contact. They pumped me for information about what was going on under the guise of offering support, but were really just seeking grist for the gossip mill or to play both sides of the conflicts between my ex-wife and myself.

Valley Dwellers come into our lives to drag us down to their level. They have been hurt or disappointed by God and want you to be bitter, too. They tell you that your faith is useless and that if God really loved you this would never have happened, but rather than really caring about you, they are looking for entertainment or perhaps an ally in their own conflicts. Nothing good will come out of continued association with them.

The tricky thing about Valley Dwellers is that they are often churchgoers who profess to be followers of Christ. Many of those I encountered were members of my church at the time, and expressed genuine care for me on one hand while eviscerating me to others the next moment.

The Amalekites in your life must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. God gave a straightforward prescription in Deuteronomy 25, commanding “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget” and later to King Saul in I Samuel 15 “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are literally to kill or destroy these people in our lives, but it does mean that we need to disassociate ourselves from them and to stay watchful for their return. In my case, I learned to politely let my Amalekite associates know that, while I appreciated their concern, I only had room in my life for friends who were on my side, and that if they ever decided that they wanted to stop condoning the bad things being done to me, they were welcome to be a part of my life again. Then I deleted their e-mail addresses and phone numbers and moved on.

Beautiful and Worldly Apostates

The third group that was causing trouble for Gideon and Israel was the Amorites, whose name means “popular or noteworthy”. Judges 6:10 tells us that Israel didn’t waste much time after escaping Egypt before they started worshipping the Amorite gods. The Amorite people had a history of living as nomads, but at some point began to infiltrate existing kingdoms, ingratiating themselves to the people therein, and eventually overtaking them like some sort of parasite. They were tall, fierce, and impressive, depicted in Egyptian art as having blonde hair and blue eyes, leading people to assume that they would be a positive addition to the culture, but Jewish apocryphal literature indicates that they were masters of witchcraft and “an evil and sinful people whose wickedness surpasses that of any other” (Book of Jubilees).  They were fond of adorning their idols with beautiful jewels that shone and gleamed in the light, drawing people to the promise of riches and prosperity.

The Amorites of the world tend to stand alluringly on the fringes, parading their outward trappings of success and achievement for us to see. They entice us with the promise of sexual fulfillment, enduring love and friendship, and the undying admiration of the in crowd. But those promises come with a price, namely that we abandon what we know to be morally right in favor of feeding the appetites of our sin nature. They are beautiful on the outside, but empty and devoid of substance on the inside.

As demonstrated in Joshua 11:9-11, the answer to dealing with the Amorites in our lives is to make a clean sweep: “Joshua did to them as the LORD had directed: He hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots. At that time Joshua turned back and captured Hazor and put its king to the sword. (Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms.) Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed, and he burned Hazor itself.” Notice that Joshua didn’t stop with just ignoring or moving away from them, but “turned back” and finished the job.  The word “destroyed” (charam) means “to eliminate completely; to ban”. Because of the power of the pull that the Beautiful People have on our fleshly hearts and minds, we can’t just ignore or make a partial break from them. It has to be a decisive break.  As Paul was to later exhort the Christians in Corinth, “Come out from them and be separate” (II Corinthians 6:17).

Keep on Chopping Wood

So we rejoin Gideon, skulking around in a hole in the ground trying to thresh some wheat without being detected and having it ripped away. When God’s messenger approaches him, offering reassurance and hope, Gideon responds like most of us when we are going through bad times: “If God is so great,” he seems to ask, “then where is he now? How about a little abracadabra here?”

But God isn’t interested in immediate solutions – he is interested in building faith and developing character – so the reply is somewhat disappointing on the surface. “Go,” the angel instructs him, “in the strength that is yours.” The word used for “go” here literally means to “walk’; the fantastic counsel given by the emissary from God himself basically amounts to “Take the next step. You have everything you need. No miracle is necessary.”

Is it any accident that the main character in this drama is named Gideon, which means “to chop” or “to hew”? It reminds me of a martial arts instructor I knew who would coach us from the sideline to “keep on chopping wood,” during a match. His message was basically to keep doing the simple things he had taught us and to have faith that we would eventually overcome our opponent. In the same way, God is telling Gideon (and, by extension, us) that most of life’s difficulties require a pretty simple response set: Keep on chopping wood. Do the next right thing. Worry more about what God thinks of you than what anyone else says. It is neither glamorous nor miraculous, but it is a thematic thread woven throughout God’s Word.

Truth, Believe it or Not

Flannery O’Connor died without a miraculous healing, but that is not to say that she didn’t experience a miracle. Despite suffering for fifteen years from a deadly and debilitating illness, O’Connor managed to become a prolific and influential writer and speaker who deeply impacted the social and religious thinking of her world to such a degree that she was posthumously given the National Book Award in 1972. God’s faithfulness remained, even if not in the form she would have preferred. Or as O’Connor once put it, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

Cultivate your faith in the good times; hold on to it fiercely in the bad times. It remains the only reliable truth in this life, even when you can’t muster the strength to believe it.

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