Many of us grew up during the Reagan administration. It was a time of big hair and big dreams. Later, we went to college or graduate school during the Clinton administration. Sure, there were the usual political wranglings and sporadic outbursts of social unrest. But there was also a lot of money being made. We were cynical, but the truth is that we had high hopes for ourselves.
I was no exception. Even in spite of my disability, I thought that the sky was the limit for me, and my classmates tended to agree. I really believed that, with my talent and my drive to be the best, there was nothing that I couldn’t do. And, in those areas where I did feel less confident (dating, for example), I had a big, bad backup plan that I could always count on. His name was God.
Then cruel reality set in, and it revealed our self-serving delusions of grandeur for what they were. Two economic “bubbles” burst and cost the economy untold billions of dollars. Global terrorism made a big splash in America, and mass shootings piled up faster than our minds could make sense of them. Two long and sometimes unpopular wars led to the election of America’s first black president. This should have been a joyous experience. But instead of bringing Americans together around this momentous achievement for civil rights, the Obama administration only deepened the divisions that already existed. As a result, political discourse coarsened beyond anything we could have reasonably imagined during the 1980s, and now it seems like everyone—regardless of their race, sex, religion, or ideology—feels that America no longer works for them.
My own life mirrors the reality check that we experienced as a generation. I won’t bore you with a catalogue of my woes; frankly, others have it a lot worse. What I will say is that life taught me some tough lessons. I readily admit that I have lost the confidence that I once had in myself and in my future.
Losing that confidence has been a hard pill to swallow, especially since my optimistic view of the future was wrapped up in my understanding of who I am and who God is. Who am I if I never really accomplish anything? What is the point of living if, in a hundred years, no one knows or cares that I ever existed? What do God’s promises mean if they do not portend His blessing “in the land of the living” (a phrase from Psalm 27:13 that I have often used when I pray)?
Wrestling with these issues has helped me realize some things about God and about myself. Perhaps you will resonate with some of the things that I have been learning.
Only God has the right to tell us who He is, who we are, and what He promises us.
Since adolescence, I have always been conscientious about my theology and my practice of Christian faith. But even conscientious followers of Jesus can be led astray by the received wisdom of their culture. When we look at Scripture, and particularly when we look at the New Testament, we see a God who is quite different than we as Americans might imagine Him to be, and we see that God’s plans for His people are quite different than we might want them to be. That’s okay. God is good, and God’s plans are good. They may involve productive efforts on behalf of God’s Kingdom, but they do not depend upon them. God does not devalue our lives if we do not become “somebody.”
God is more interested in helping us conquer sin and death than He is in helping us climb the corporate ladder.
We know from Romans 8:37 that God has given us overwhelming victory because of the love that He has for us. But I wonder how often we ask ourselves what God is giving us victory over? In the larger context, Paul seems to be talking about victory over sin and death. Because God loves us, He will make sure that we defeat the forces of evil once and for all. After all, we are in Christ, and Christ has already done the hard work of defeating sin and death for us. It is also important to be clear about what God’s promise of victory does not mean. It does not mean that God will take away all of those things, including death, which would seek to separate us from God’s love. God is not promising us a comfortable life—or even a successful one, if we measure success in terms of the amount of money we have in the bank or the amount of influence we have at our job.
Hardships are part of the bargain when we agree to follow Jesus.
Now, it is important not to overstate the matter. Jesus does promise provision (primarily through the relationships that believers have with one another). But he also promises that, if we follow him faithfully, we will have hardships (Mark 10:29-31 and parallels; cf. John 16:33). Again, it is important to be honest to the Scriptures; Jesus primarily has the hardships that come from persecution in view when he talks about what we will endure as his disciples. But the principle that he articulates applies to many different kinds of hardships. They come with the territory when you choose to follow Jesus.
Hardship is precisely the context in which our victory is achieved.
Far from seeing hardships as evidence that God does not love us, Paul wants to assure us that, in fact, hardships are the context in which our victory over sin and death will be achieved (cf. Romans 8:28-39). It is not hard to see why we get confused when bad things start to pile up in our lives. Recently, I explained it to a friend this way. Imagine that, every time I see you, I tell you that I love everyone and that I love you, in particular. Now imagine that, for a period of time, I also poke you in the eye with my pen every time I see you. Are you going to believe me when I say that I love you? No. You will probably question whether I love anyone, assuming (with good reason) that I poke them in the eye, too, whenever I see them. But that logic just doesn’t work with God. God is not the source of our torment; to the contrary, God joins us in our pain precisely because He will not allow the negative consequences of living in a fallen world to separate us from His love. Because God has so graciously given of himself—by making us, by sending Jesus to die for us, and by sending the Holy Spirit to be with us—we can know that there is extreme victory over the forces of evil for those of us who believe in Christ.
The goal of the Christian life is the Kingdom.
The underlying principle that allows Paul to make the argument that he does in Romans 8 is that there is something more important than the financial, romantic, and status-related success that usually constitutes the goal of all human endeavors. Jesus tells us that it is the Kingdom of God (cf., among many other texts, Matthew 6:19-34). Citizens of God’s Kingdom do not simply obey God’s laws. They do that, but they also share God’s heart and imitate God’s example. This means that they measure success differently, but it also means that they come to the question of success with a certain degree of humility. They understand that there are some things in God’s economy that just do not add up when viewed from the standpoint of a temporally and spatially finite human being. As such, they trust God to shape their lives in ways that will facilitate victory, even if they do not always understand why God does what He does.
I readily admit that I do not fully understand what this all means for me and my future, and I cannot claim that I have perfectly embodied these insights in how I think and act. Nevertheless, they give me comfort as I face an uncertain future, and they give me direction as I move forward into whatever God has for me. I pray that they will do the same for you.