The Reality of Suffering and Daily Struggles
David wrote, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me" (Psalm 23:4).
That's the expression and expectation of a healthy faith. Not only that God's presence will go with us, but that there are some dark, deadly shadowed places on this old planet of ours. The valley of the shadow of death exists in this world. I have seen it. So have you. It exists because we live in a fallen world. A healthy faith gets us through that dark valley. Unhealthy faith makes us pretend the valley doesn't even exist!
The same David also penned these words:
For troubles without number surround me;
My sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
And my heart fails within me. (Psalm 40:12)
That, too, is an expression of a healthy faith. David told God (who already knew) the precise condition of his heart. And it wasn't pretty. Earlier in that same psalm, he described this incident from his own life story: "I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard me cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God" (verses 1-3).
Slimy pits exist in our world just as dark valleys exist. And just as surely as believers must pass through dark valleys, so they occasionally fall into "the mud and mire," needing rescue, cleansing, and comfort.
It's true. It's real. It's the way things are-and David never shrinks from telling it all. Healthy faith helps us embrace who we are, what we are, and where we are. David declares a failing, fallible humanity and a loving, powerful God, who chooses to involve himself in the lives of individual men and women. A healthy faith acknowledges that we are neither infallible nor omniscient nor omnipotent nor omnipresent. (I have met some capable people in my life, but to this day I've never met anyone who could be in two places at the same time!) It's only by dependence on a loving God (who is all those things) that we can get through the shadowed valleys and out of the slimy pits.
Reality says we are the creatures, not the Creator.
We are vulnerable, not invulnerable.
We are flesh and blood, not steel and stone.
We are men and women, not cherubim and seraphim.
We are his sons and daughters; we are not him.
We have to embrace the fact that we are a people who must live by grace through faith every day of our lives. I'm impressed that the writer to the Hebrews urged his flock to "encourage one another daily...so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Hebrews 3:13). In other words, we need grace, encouragement, wisdom, and mutual accountability every day of our lives to keep from being hardened or deceived by sin.
That's the way it is. That's the black and white of it. That is reality. And we must either deny our vulnerability or deal with it.
Reality Can Hurt
Discomfort is reality. Pain is reality. Conflict is reality. Spiritual warfare is reality. Healthy faith helps us embrace all of these biblical realities, constantly availing ourselves of the reality of Christ's help and presence. Unhealthy, toxic faith denies the dark side, thus creating an even greater conflict.
A healthy faith accepts who we are and where we are rather than trying to conjure some artificial image for people who are not comfortable accepting us as we are. If we're based in reality, then the reality is that we've all failed, we're all sinners, and we're all stumbling along the way. We thrash about in slimy pits now and then; we feel fear as we walk narrow trails in dark valleys.
In other words, we are 100 percent, certifiably fallible-that is, human. David reminded his readers that God never forgets that fact (even though we may). He wrote: "As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14).
Some branches of evangelical Christianity teach that believers can achieve a level of "sanctification" where they no longer sin. That is not only unbiblical, it is just plain unrealistic. Reality means seeing, understanding, and accepting the truth about who I am. And how could the old apostle have said it any plainer?
If we say that we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves, and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.... If we claim we have not sinned, we are lying and call God a liar, for he says we have sinned (1 John 1:8-10, TLB).
Do you see what John was saying about living in reality? If we choose the path of deception and deny the obvious truth, in so doing we call God a liar! If, on the other hand, we walk in reality, that is, "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (verse 7). That's where I want to be. Walking in the light. Admitting who I am. Enjoying the companionship of Christian friends and the Lord Jesus himself, experiencing daily cleansing from sin.
The Way It Really Is
Growing Christians strive to see the world and their lives, as they really are, not through some stained-glass filter, not through the grid of some externally imposed myth or make-believe worldview. They do not feel compelled to "explain away" hardships or events that mystify them, but are willing to live with some ambiguity, trusting God to rule the world in righteousness-even if that means difficulty for them. As with Job, we must sometimes come to that place of humility before God where we say, "Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth" (Job 40:4).
Healthy faith refuses to sweep suffering, daily struggles with the sinful nature, and inevitable relationship difficulties under a rug, pretending they don't exist. Instead, it brings those issues into the light of Scripture, the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit, and under the mutual counsel and care of trusted brothers and sisters in Christ. Unhealthy faith, on the other hand, denies reality. For those who subscribe to such false belief systems, faith is not based on a belief in the supernatural power of God, but on a desire to see magical solutions that stop pain. They hope in a servant God determined to make life easy.
Healthy faith acknowledges the supernatural power of God and does not need miraculous intervention to prove that God is real. The healthy believer does not look for God to magically change the circumstances, but looks to him in the midst of trials.
Because faith grows strong, there is no need to deny reality. Believing God is faithful to help them through their trials and tribulations, healthy believers have no need to run from reality. They see the problems before them, do what they can to resolve them, and trust God to do the rest.
The above piece is an adaptation from More Jesus, Less Religion, by Steve Arterburn and Jack Felton. Colorado Springs, Waterbrook Press, 2000.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder of New Life Ministries, the largest provider of Christian counseling and treatment in North America. As host of the daily New Life Live! radio program, he is heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. Steve is the lead speaker at The New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Balancing Your Life, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness. Steve is also the creator of Women of Faith® Conferences and the author/coauthor of over fifty books, including Healing is a Choice, Lose it For Life, Internet Protect Your Kids, Every Man's Battle, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, Reframe Your Life, and Midlife Manual for Men.