We can pray for troubles we see on the horizon and try to prepare ourselves, but how do we seek God’s presence when life just isn’t headed in a good direction?
Reflecting on World War II, senior devil Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s brilliant Screwtape Letters recommends a particular course of action to his nephew in order to upset his patient’s state of mind even more than the actual news is bound to do. (Please bear in mind that all references to ‘The Enemy’ are to God since these are, after all, a pair of devils writing to one another.)
“Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense.
“It is about this that is to say ‘Thy will be done’, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.
“It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.
“For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is easier and is usually helped by this direct action.”
In typical fashion, C.S. Lewis hits upon one of the most challenging aspects of life here.
The Life of Babylonian Captives
Jeremiah 29:11 is a fairly popular verse for anyone anxious about the future. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Sounds nice, right?
The context for this verse, however, is slightly less…soothing. Jeremiah is writing to the Israelites who were captives. The king of Babylon had laid siege to Jerusalem, killed all of the king of Judah’s sons, then stabbed out his eyes, “bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” (1 Kings 25:1-7) along with a lot of other Israelites to be slaves.
The Babylonian army had burned down all of Jerusalem’s important governmental or religious buildings and torn down the city’s walls. These people’s homes were ruined; their city was ravaged; God’s house was a pile of rubble and ash.
Not only that but Jeremiah warns the people that God isn’t going to bring them back in their lifetimes. Even their children might not live to see Israel’s restoration.
Pastor Carter Conlon, a World Challenge board member, reflected on this passage, “What is Jeremiah's advice to the people? What does he tell a people who are about to be displaced? What does he say when calamity comes? What would you think the voice of God would speak to the people?
“’Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel to all that are carried away captive, whom I've caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon.’ Point number one, nothing comes our way that God hasn't allowed for a specific reason. You are not in the hands of the devil. You never were; you never will be. You're in the hands of God. Now he’s talking to God's people in Babylon. It's an amazing thing. He says, ‘Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, eat the fruit of them. Take wives, beget sons and daughters. Get wives for your sons, give your daughters to husbands that they may bear sons.’
"Bottom line folks, bloom where you're planted. The Word of the Lord is ‘Where I've allowed you to go, bloom there. Dig down deep there.’
“One day I'll be building, planting. I'll be walking down the aisle with one of my children, giving them away in marriage. Suddenly, the trumpet of God is going to sound. Praise be to God.”
Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t a promise to take away trouble in our lives. Instead, it states a simple truth: God will always use our present pain for his glory and our good.
Seeking the Kingdom of God
In a discussion of the kingdom of God, Jesus addressed the heart of this issue.
“Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21, ESV).
Rather than constantly scanning the horizon for the place and moment where God would relieve all their problems, Jesus told them that God was right there, with them, in the middle of the present moment.
Now, this isn’t to say that we believers don’t have great promises to hope in for the future. As John Piper said, “Is the kingdom of God a future reality to be hoped for or a present reality to experience now? That's today's question. The answer is that it is partly present and partly future.
“Many of its blessings are here to be enjoyed now; but many of them are not yet here. Some of its power is available now but not all of it. Some of the curse and misery of this old age can be overcome now by the presence of the kingdom. But some of it cannot be. The decisive battle against sin and Satan and sickness and death has been fought and won by the King in his death and resurrection, but the war is not over.
“Sin must be fought, Satan must be resisted, sickness must be prayed over and groaned under (Romans 8:23), and death must be endured until the second coming of the King and the consummation of the kingdom.”
God has promised us a glorious future with him, and it is well worth looking forward to that, make no mistake.
That said, we are called to be attentive to God’s work in these minutes that are always slipping by us. What is his Spirit nudging us toward right now? How should we submit to Christ in this casual conversation with a spouse or this tricky situation at work? Let’s not miss what God’s doing right in front of us.
A Vision of Today, Not Tomorrow
The forces of evil moving against us are all too happy to distract us with visions of the future or anxieties about what may be or even prayers that God will take away a potential difficulty or prevent a problematic event from happening.
If they can keep our eyes darting back and forth between potential futures and regretful pasts, then they’ve effectively kept us from doing anything productive in the present, especially if that something is experiencing God’s will and purpose and goodness in our current circumstances.
The poet Martha Waldron Blacker aptly wrote about our business this side of heaven.
“A song of the Present,—the unwritten Now,
Whether age, youth, or manhood is stamped on the brow;
Of the days that are lent us by Heaven's behest,
To prepare for the future and heavenly rest.”
Dealing with the messy, prickly present can often be painful and hard, but this is where the kingdom of heaven can be found before death or Christ’s second coming.