Life isn’t always easy for the Christian. Of course, we have astounding blessings to be thankful for: we are changed from God’s enemies to His children (Colossians 1:21), we are cleansed of sin and guilt (1 Corinthians 6:11) and made into completely new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we are given a relationship with our Creator God and a promise of an eternal home in Heaven one day. Amen!
But while the changes happen where it really counts, they seem to escape us where it’s most readily seen and felt: in the circumstances of our lives. Often, our circumstances seem to get worse when we choose to follow God, not better. Then our desire to submit comes head to head with society’s self-centered advice to fight for our rights and pursue happiness, to let no one define us or tell us what to do, to live life “my way” and take what we want because we deserve it.
It seems the lost world is happier than we are. No obligations on their time or money, no scruples holding them back from fun and delight. If they want to buy something, they don’t have to give God a cut first. If they want a romantic relationship, they can pursue one however they want. Wasted time? Doesn’t seem to be much of a thing; when the 9-5 is done (or sometimes even if it’s not), their time is their own to use on whatever makes them happy.
Isn’t that how we all want to feel? And the desire isn’t new; in Psalm 73:3-9, 11-12, the psalmist admits,
For I was envious of the boastful,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For there are no pangs in their death,
But their strength is firm.
They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes bulge with abundance;
They have more than heart could wish.
They scoff and speak wickedly concerning oppression;
They speak loftily.
They set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue walks through the earth….
And they say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the ungodly,
Who are always at ease;
They increase in riches.
Then there are the Christians. God’s commands for us require such a different lifestyle. Do I have an average (or less than average) paycheck because I’m “serving in a ministry position” or won’t take hours away from church and family for extra overtime? I not only accept the lower pay, I then give some of it to God before I even think about doing fun things. Am I single? There’s not much I’m allowed to do to alleviate feelings of loneliness at night. Am I in a rough marriage? I’m supposed to seek reconciliation first. There are expectations for ministry involvement, church attendance, and the checkbox for devotions (brownie points for actually memorizing a verse from that day’s reading). When I do have time for some fun, there’s a lot that I just can’t participate in. So I find something mildly amusing, go to bed, and start it all over again the next day.
Where is the “joy of…salvation,” the “joy of the Lord,” and the “fullness of joy” that God promised to me? Why do the unsaved seem to have taken what God promised in a special way to His special people? We may often feel that we can’t voice such feelings because we know that we really are blessed, but what are we supposed to do? As the psalmist put it in verses 13-17,
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me—
Life stinks. Those who hate God get whatever they want, while I’m gasping at the intensity of deep longings that seemingly can’t be satisfied. I’m not allowed to pursue the life I want the way I want, and deep inside I know that God’s way is best, but it just…hurts.
And I see no way out of the trap in which my wheels are spinning,
Until I am confronted again with the Person of my Jehovah God. Then He puts things into perspective. Verse 17 succinctly summarizes,
…I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.
Those who refuse God are indeed happy for now, but they have no lasting joy. Stolen success today yields ruin in the future. A few drinks now bring a hangover tomorrow. Casual love tonight leaves the hole that much bigger in the morning. Money goes away, parties end, Monday always comes, and Friday night begins another desperate search in all the same places for new meaning in a drifting life. Psalm 73:18-20 poetically captures the futility and emptiness of those who live this way:
Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
As a dream when one awakes,
So, Lord, when You awake,
You shall despise their image.
What then for us, the chosen children of Creator God? We do have a purpose and a reason for life. We have a relationship that can’t be broken with a gentle Father and a true Friend. Even in our weakest moments, in our painful shortsightedness and dismissive attitudes toward our Savior, He is always faithful. Verses 21-24 poignantly proclaim,
Thus my heart was grieved,
And I was vexed in my mind.
I was so foolish and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel,
And afterward receive me to glory.
The difference between Christians and the world is not in our circumstances: it’s not that we suddenly get “lucky breaks” because we belong to God or that we suddenly have “more than heart could wish.”
It’s that we are free to come into, the live in, the presence of our God.
We have God.
And “the joy of Your salvation”? Restored to us by a right relationship with God (Psalm 51:7-12).
“The joy of the Lord”? Given to us in knowing our God’s heart and submitting to Him (Nehemiah 8:1, 8-12).
“Fullness of joy”? Found in His presence (Psalm 16:11).
In light of that truth, Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20-24 that as Christians we stop trying to change our circumstances but rather change our attitude and perspective toward our circumstances. God keeps us in certain situations, or brings us out of and into various seasons of life, for purposes comprehended only by Him. But the blessings, the joy, the fellowship of it all is found in our constant relationship with our God.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches…Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (emphasis mine)
And that, my friends, is what makes all the difference.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish;
You have destroyed all those who desert You for harlotry.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works.