Our weakness and times of dejection need to be brought before the Lord with utmost and humble candour and we must cast ourselves upon him in patient waiting for the reinvigoration of our spirits that only he can bring. The basic facts about our creatureliness are weakness and dependence, and in our habitual hubris we need constant reminders of these things. We are never so safe as when we have renounced all supports but the grace of God. This may not be our feeling concerning our situation, and it is hard to be buoyant in the absence of accompanying signs of God’s favour towards us, but faith is meant to run counter to the evidence presented to sight and sense. Luther is not the only one to notice that so often the experience of the believer seems to contradict the promises of God’s word. Sometimes we are left without a shred of comfort until we are driven to stand on the bare word of God alone and rebuild our confidence from there. But nobody contends that this process is easy, instant, and pleasant. The book of Job is the document that speaks to us in the condition of hopelessness and bewilderment. There are times when we cannot make rational sense of things and we must be content to drift with God until he provides deliverance. We may go down and down until he halts our fall and lifts us up. We are being evacuated of all creaturely reliance and resources. The experience is hellish. Charles Spurgeon commented, “There are dungeons underneath the Castle of Despair as dreary as the abodes of the lost, and some of us have been in them”.
These are periods of inward trial that no other human being can adequately address, and circumstances in which they should not dare, for one moment, to advise. Silent friendship and support, and sympathetic prayerfulness are the wisest course. Nothing is more fatuous and wounding than trite words in times of trouble. The seemingly strong and wise have no idea as to human frailty under the pressure of severe adversity. Job’s comforters had no notion as to their callousness and presumptuousness until the final outcome to his ordeal and their eventual rebuke.
When grief, fear, and anxiety are overwhelming we are tempted to think that some of the optimistic statements of Scripture are superficially cheery and that they do not take full account of the gravity of our difficulties, the depth of our anguish, and our inability to drag ourselves up from a prone position. Guilt and criticism are added to our burden. When the psalmist avers that God is a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1) our spirits rise to dispute the point and ask why there is such a strong sense of abandonment. Fortunately, we know that the Psalter expresses the same sentiments and poses similar questions, and we can deduce that the assurances given in the inspired hymnal are neither cheap nor glib. These words of comfort are not fair-weather phrases but solid convictions forged in the crucible of hard times and painful testing. The promises of God are meant for the times when we are defeated and flesh has given up. When we feel secure we do not even turn to them. We sense that we are able to cope. When things begin to fall apart we suspect that the basis of our confidence is not as firm as we supposed: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ . . . . But when you hid your face I was dismayed” (Psalm 30:6-7).
Our dismay in affliction arises from a wrong assessment of the divine presence and as to why He commits himself to us. We assume that guarantees of his faithfulness and care will be experienced emotionally or be apparent in external evidences that we have the power to interpret accurately. When discomfort comes upon us or circumstances disrupt our inner tranquillity we begin to grope for God and conclude that he has deserted us. But the presence of God with his people is not grounded upon anything so flimsy as the fluctuation of our feelings or our comprehension of life’s events. His presence is in the pledge of his word that we are required to believe on the basis of his reliability, a word that he will not renege upon because of his prior decision to undertake for us come what may. It is a resolve of grace unaffected by our variableness or “the changes and chances of this mortal life”. Fierce inward trials leave us with no alternative but to cling to the Lord alone with no other warrant apart from the trustworthiness of his character and the vows he has graciously made with no other obligation apart from that due to his honour and the love he has freely lavished upon those he has taken to his heart. We cannot believe that his intentions are irreversible and that they endure in spite of our personal frames of mind or fortunes within this world. To adopt an unconditional attitude of trust in God is impossible for human nature and exceedingly difficult even for those who are regenerate. We are easily upset and must be modest before God and men at all times. We must fear our own propensities and fallibility at all times and especially in seasons of spiritual prosperity. We often ground our own sense of well-being and security on false foundations. True faith is very small and delicate in each one of us. When God chooses to refine and strengthen our faith it is not usually through processes that are gratifying, though who can deny that confirmations of his love are also enjoyable and exhilarating.
Ultimately our confidence is to be placed in God himself, not his gifts, tokens, and signs, but his word, which is the expression of his nature. I dare say none of us can rise to the mighty trust that was engendered in Job through his sore trials, and may God spare us from them. May God protect us from more than we can bear, and sustain us through the sufferings that we do bear. But may he also increase within us an unshakeable certainty that it is indisputably true, whatever sight and sense may testify, that he is ever present with his people in their trouble, and that in due time he will deliver and relieve them. When afflictions and sorrows visit may he grant us the presence of mind and calmness of heart to know and believe that, as various versions render it, he is present, ever present. He is near, very near. May we be convinced that his might preserves us, and through his grace at work within us may crushed hope be reconstructed.
“God is our hope and strength : a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1 (Coverdale).