The Bible says that we are to have faith in God’s power to redeem and transform others, but what do we make of this in the face of a world that seems unforgiving and painful?
In 2003, a sensational docudrama called Touching the Void came out about two men’s attempt to climb the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in Peru.
Simon Yates and Joe Simpson completed an ascent that no one had managed thus far in climbing history. They made it to the top of Siula Grande, but there was sadly no time to celebrate. A storm was rolling in along the mountain range. The pair began repelling down the mountainside until Simpson fell down an ice cliff and broke his leg badly.
Yates helped him continue down the West Face as the weather deteriorating into a full-force storm. At one point, Simpson slipped over the edge of a cliff. Yates frantically stopped his fall on the ropes, but in the howling gale, he couldn’t hear if Simpson was still responding. For an hour and a half, he grimly hung on to the ropes with his partner’s dead weight on the other end, not knowing if the other man was alive or not. Gradually, he realized that the weight was starting to pull him down the slope in the loose snow. If he continued to hold on, he would eventually be dragged over the cliff with Simpson.
Yates found a small pocketknife in his backpack and began sawing through the ropes. It was a terrible choice, but his only option was this or to get dragged over the cliff with his partner.
Simpson was alive and fell into a crevasse. He survived and actually crawled back to camp where Yates was recovering. Together they made it down the mountain and survived to tell their tale. Their story is not one where someone is nefarious and the other is good. The environment through which they were climbing was harsh and unforgiving, and Yates was forced to make a choice that would haunt anyone’s days and nights. Why is the world like this? Why do we suffer and live in a world where pain comes from areas that can’t be easily correlated to sin or broken human civilizations?
The Faith of Easy Answers
The book of Hebrew’s famous ‘Hall of Faith’ chapter includes a strange double-edged passage that would appear to be a paradox.
“What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness…. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:32-38, ESV).
This section of scripture starts off sounding very triumphant. Who wouldn’t like to close the mouths of lions and conquer kingdoms? The second half, however, takes a steep drop into some confusing territory. Why are people of great faith getting tortured, stoned and sawed in half? If these are the best of the best in God’s kingdom, why didn’t he intervene?
Analyzing this passage, Carter Conlon said, “Jesus didn't say, ‘You come to me and believe in me, and I'm going to spare you all the trials in this world.’ He didn't say that. He said, ‘In this world you shall have tribulation.’…
“People who have a faith that they will use just to spare them from the effects of trials in the world have an incomplete understanding…. Their faith is based on the focus of self and not from the perspective of God and his eternal plan.” Carter noted, “Now self-focused faith has in itself seeds of doubt and unbelief. “Self-focused faith sees everything in life from self upward. Self-focused faith is always asking questions like ‘Why is this happening to me God?... How will God deliver me out of this? When will God deliver me out of this? And why? For what conceivable reason would God not deliver me out of this?’”
Faith is an instrument that myopic man takes to try to lift himself out of unpleasant circumstances. It’s the mentality that says, “I have faith that what I want or what feels right to me in this situation is God’s will, and so he will do what I ask for.” The biggest problem with this mindset is that it often leaves no room for God to work through the deeply unpleasant sections of our lives.
Faith Nailed to the Cross
The opposite point of view isn’t simply embracing some kind of nihilistic ‘faith’ that God is up in heaven ignoring our cries as he puts us through the meat-grinder. He isn’t rolling his eyes as we sob over a heart-wrenching loss and muttering, “This is for your own good. You’ll thank me later.” The solution definitely isn’t to stop praying about our troubles or for other people who are struggling.
Carter Conlon explained, “True Christ-centered faith sees life in its totality from the perspective of God downward. It's a completely different perspective. Christ-centered faith says, ‘Lord, I know you have a plan. I know it, even though I can't see it with my natural senses. I'd rather not have to feel the pain. With my natural mind, I can't understand it, but I know that you have a plan for my life.’”
He pointed out that believers with Christ-centered faith understand the core of Paul’s words to the early church, “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who are the called according to his purpose is all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
“So true faith can walk into any circumstance can have any kind of a dealing that it doesn't understand of God or otherwise come into its life and say, ‘God, I know that you have allowed this to come into my life for a reason.’”
This is the faith that Christ modeled near the very end of his ministry on earth. “Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane… He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’ Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Matthew 26:36-39).
Jesus never claimed to be ‘mostly fine,’ not to his disciples or the Father. He outright stated that he was ‘overwhelmed with sorrow’ to the point of feeling like he could die just from that alone. In fact, Luke, the physician who wrote the third gospel, recorded, “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). This isn’t a fancy literary device for saying Jesus was stressed out. He was probably experiencing hematohidrosis, which according to medical research is “a condition in which capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood, occurring under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress.”
Christ didn’t minimize the crushing emotional duress he was under, and he asked for God to spare him from it. At the same time, he submitted himself to God’s will, even if it meant going through something worse in the future, which he did on the cross.
Determining Our Type of Faith
How nice would it be if there were a straightforward test to determine whether our faith is self-centered or Christ-centered? Sadly, no pregnancy test for faith exists that could grant us an obvious positive or negative. The answer is often messy and complicated, changing from experience to experience.
What we can most definitely do, though, is ask God to give us a more Christ-centered faith. As we move toward this in prayer, we can also study what scriptures has to say on the matter. Shortly before Jesus ascended, he told Peter, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:18-19).
“Seems to be almost as strange thought today,” Carter Conlon asked, “in our era of modern-day Christianity that we would even think of glorifying God through a death that has been appointed to us by God…. We are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses. Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. The writer saying we have all of these witnesses that have gone before. They are witnesses to the faithfulness of God.”
Carter concluded, “No matter what we have to go through on this side of eternity, God is not going to fail us. He's going to keep us and not a hair of what he has promised to do in us and through us and for us is going to perish.”
Our hardships may have eternal purposes that we can’t see yet and that glorify God. While we are still invited to lay every care in the Father’s lap, he may still invite us into the furnace, into the mouths of lions, knowing that it serves a greater, more glorious purpose. If we have the right kind of faith, we will emerge victorious.