There is a popular narrative in Christianity and it goes like this: God has a great purpose for your life (read: success), and if you just believe in Him, things will go great and God will exceed even your wildest dreams. Just obey God and you will be so happy you did because you will have an amazing future.
If you wait for sex until marriage, you will have a mind-blowing sex life. Also, your marriage will be an epic love story. Your idea Christian spouse will make all your dreams come true.
If you preach the Bible at your church faithfully, tons of people will come and fill the pews (or stadium seats). Large numbers of people will follow Christ for the first time, and many will plug into your ministry and grow deeper and deeper in faith.
If you parent according to the Bible, all of your kids will grow up to follow God, marry Christian spouses, and make more Christian babies. Your beautiful family will be the envy of everyone.
If you seek God’s guidance as you pursue a career, you will find a perfect fit that will fulfill you beyond your wildest dreams.
Like all misbeliefs, there is an element of truth to these ideas. God’s way is best. Ultimate fulfillment is found with Him. But the truth of the matter is that Christians come to this fulfillment by following their Master in the way of the cross. The Christian journey is a journey of surrender to God, whether that surrender leads to earthly happiness or not. Fulfillment often comes in the middle of suffering, not in the middle of success. Some of the times in life when a sense of God’s presence has been strongest to me have been times of profound suffering. Christians do not seek pointless suffering, but when it comes, we recognize it as an opportunity to be faithful to God.
In the book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego provide a beautiful example of faithfulness to God regardless of the outcome. When they are commanded to bow down and worship an idol in order to escape a fiery furnace, they refuse, saying:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
–Daniel 3:17-18, NIV
Imagine! These humble Biblical heroes refuse to demand something from God. They believe He is all-powerful, but they trust He will decide what is best. This humble trust in God regardless of outcome is so refreshing in the midst of a Christian culture that so often expects “positive outcomes” from faithful choices.
Recent events have given us two more Christian heroes in this train. Two humble missionaries who were serving God perfectly anonymously until dramatic events made them household names. I speak, of course, of Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Both served quietly and selflessly through Christian missions organizations in Liberia. When Ebola hit, they did not run away, but stayed and worked to the point of exhaustion, putting their own lives at risk in order to care for the real people who were suffering so desperately. Then both of these humble servants contracted the disease themselves. Brantly relates that at that time, only one patient under the local doctors’ care had recovered–and he did not have the hemorrhagic symptoms that Brantly later developed. In a quiet, measured voice, Brantly told NBC’s Matt Lauer:
As I sat there facing my own possible death from Ebola, I said, “God, I know You can save me. I know You can. But even if you don’t, I want to be faithful to you. I won’t deny you.”
Similarly, Nancy Writebol told ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser of her trust in God regardless of the outcome:
I wondered at times whether I would live or die…[God’s] presence really was with me — and I knew that, I could sense it. … I am so thankful for His mercy and His grace.
These missionaries do not believe they or their faith is anything special in comparison with those who died in Liberia. They are simply grateful and eager to continue to serve the One in whom they have placed their trust. Both missionaries have also continued to shine a light on the suffering of those afflicted with Ebola in Africa and to ask for prayer and advocacy for that community. Dr. Brantly told Matt Lauer that he remembers the names and faces of every person who died of Ebola under his care. The possibility that both missionaries might return to Liberia remains an open question.
How very different this is from the Christian narrative that says, “Follow God and all your wildest dreams will come true.” Dr. Brantly and Nancy Writebol dared to dream another dream. It was a dream of God’s presence through good and bad. A dream of the joy of following Him even when it meant profound suffering. It was a dream in which they were even willing to risk their lives to serve Him. They did, in fact, recover. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did walk out of the fiery furnace, not even smelling like smoke. God is a God who can bring real, actual earthly deliverance. But that is not the point when it comes to our journey as Christians. Hebrews 11 makes this clear. This chapter lauds the great faithful deeds and successes of Bible heroes. But then it introduces a different group of “successful” believers. Those who endure and hold on to faith even when walking through the darkest of valleys:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
–Hebrews 11:35b-40, NIV
If you wait for sex until marriage, you might still have sexual difficulties. You might struggle to connect with your spouse. You might suffer from pain or infertility. At the very least, you will have times when your sexual relationship is not exciting or fulfilling.
If you wait for sex for marriage, your marriage might still be a big struggle. You might experience tremendous conflict and misunderstanding. Your differences might make your marriage extremely difficult and often unfulfilling.
If you preach the Bible at your church faithfully, people might get offended and stop coming. You might get fired. You might trudge through day after day of faithful service wondering if what you are doing is making a difference to anyone.
If you parent according to the Bible, your kids still might get into trouble with drugs or sex. They still might turn away from God. You might end up wearing holes in the knees of your jeans on countless sleepless nights for their sake.
If you seek God’s guidance as you pursue a career, you might struggle to find any shining, sparkling “difference” you are making and simply put one faithful foot in front of another. God might be the only One who notices.
None of us gets to decide which outcome we will receive in the walk of faith. One thing is certain: we will experience times of the cross in this life. In those times and in times of joy, we are simply asked to trust in the Faithful One. We are asked to humbly serve Him through good and bad. And just as Brantly and Writebol describe, His peace which passes all understanding will hold us up. For we are not alone as we walk the path of the cross. He carries us.