I’ve been thinking a lot about the condition of my faith in times of suffering. Pandemics that demand we shelter at home can make one do that. While I may still nod affirmatively that I trust God is in control and I’m committed to following him, I can also be tempted to move aggressively outward or dangerously inward during challenging times. Both of these responses to trials—getting angry or withdrawing from God—are symptomatic of an underlying disbelief in God’s nature.
The famous account of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness after their freedom from captivity in Egypt is testimony of this. They wandered in the wilderness, eating nothing but manna and quail—all miraculously supplied by Jehovah God—for forty long years. They may have known protection from God in the forms of provision of food and navigation guidance from a mysterious cloud and a pillar of fire. But they also knew want. Lack. Inconvenience. Fear. A desire to return to “normal.”
Their response was to grumble. At God. At one another. At the condition of their lives.
Of course, they knew God’s power. They had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea. Of course, at some level, they knew God was for them. They saw how he cared about protecting them. But their response to suffering was to grumble. They didn’t get their way, and they blamed it on God.
I can’t really say that I blame them. Who wouldn’t tire of manna and quail over a forty-year span of time? Who wouldn’t tire of the heat and dust of the desert during the same forty years? But what does it tell us about ourselves when our response to adversity is grumbling?
The writer of the Book of Hebrews has an uncomfortable word for it. Unbelief. That’s right. Unbelief. In chapter 3, verse 19 he doesn’t call it “a grumbly spirit.” He doesn’t wave it away as though they were just weary from the years of hardship.
He calls it unbelief.
How do I respond to suffering? To inconvenience to my lifestyle? How am I moving through these pandemic days of isolation and deprivation? Am I grumbling? According to the writer of Hebrews, that’s likely a sign of my unbelief that God is still working all things out for my good.
How might we build our faith in times of suffering, confident of God’s unchanging character and renewed in our commitment to trust him in all things?
Keep your eyes on Jesus
Begin by keeping our eyes on Jesus. If we want to build our faith in times of suffering, we must begin by focusing on Jesus. He understands our suffering and temptation to disbelief. Like Peter walking on water, when we take our eyes off Jesus and focus on the mighty waves around us, we’ll sink to the depths. Keeping our eyes focused on Jesus and on his incomparable love for us allows us to remember that he too was tempted to disavow his heavenly father when he encountered great suffering. Yet in his temptations and in his sufferings, he responded with a resolute, “not my will, but yours be done.”
Find your tribe
We all need friends to encourage us and whom we can encourage. One day we won’t need to encourage one another because we’ll see God face to face. But for now, we really do need each other. More than ever, we shouldn’t neglect meeting together. So even while quarantining, don’t give up seeing one another, whether virtually or at a safe social distance. We need time not just with God, but also with his body, like iron sharpening iron.
Check your grumble meter
And finally, evaluate our hearts. Acknowledge that grumbling is an indication of our disbelief in God’s goodness and care for us. Have we let our grumbling get out of control? Take that dissatisfaction to God and ask him to assume top priority in your list of wants and desires. Sit with him in the empty places of want and longing and allow him to fill the space with his presence. Remember, nothing can ever separate you from his love for you, and suffering is not an indication of his having withdrawn himself from you.
When we’re tempted to unbelief, keep looking at Jesus, who not only authored your faith, but works on your behalf to perfect it, even in hard times.