The point is, there are stories in the Bible, in history, and in our own lives that do not appear to have happy endings of cheerfulness. These too are not without hope and are designed by God’s sovereign and merciful wisdom for the hope of those who fear they are utterly alone in their misery… The examples of God’s patience in history will not serve their saving and sustaining purposes if we do not tell the stories—like the story of William Cowper. (The Hidden Smile of God, John Piper p 117)
There are times when people share their amazing stories of God’s spectacular display of power in their lives to deliver them from quickly and decisively from their difficulties and struggles- miraculous healings, prayers answered for the desire of their hearts. I hear those stories and praise God, encouraged that he is working and hears his people. But then there are the stories that leave me in tears, awestruck with no words, and wanting to worship. When I hear these I literally feel the weight of glory on my heart and am strengthened in my faith. They are stories of believers who have suffered much and say, “God was and is faithful” and they are stories of those still struggling today and in the midst of the pain desire to say the same.
I do not enjoy seeing others suffer, and I don’t think that knowing that God uses all things in the end for our good makes the experience of suffering less painful. But in the last year or so, I found that when sisters have talked about their struggles in faith and life, some cases in the midst of great inward trials, that even in my feeling their sadness with them, praying for their circumstances to change, something about their perspective would leave me refreshed, encouraged, and worshipful. They didn’t necessarily articulate this, but in what they did say it was evident that in their very real struggles they still desired to seek God and still believed that he was good. Though they prayed for change, their hope was not in what God could do but in God himself. All this even though they didn’t understand why, even though it was hard, even though sometimes they felt like they were barely hanging on. When I heard from them I could see God so clearly at work. Only God can do that in a person. Only God can give, sustain, and refine a faith that is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:7)- that continues to believe God is good when the world would say to curse him.
I believe that the stories (testimonies) we tell and listen to as Christians shape the way we think about suffering and what we believe real faith looks like in trials. If most of the ones we hear are about sudden, miraculous deliverance from trouble and temptation in answers to prayer, that shapes our expectations and hopes a certain way along with the idea of what great faith is. If we only hear stories about how it “ended up okay in the end” but don’t see others acknowledging that it is hard to go through, that will also teach us to respond one way. Or if we only hear of those with mighty faith that never wavered, we can just automatically count ourselves out. I have seen the effects of an incomplete view of the Christian approach toward trials, temptations, and suffering on the lives of those around me shaped by such stories. There are those that walk away because they felt God didn’t pull through when they really believed that he would answer. There are some who live in shame believing that if they loved God enough and had enough faith then they wouldn’t face such great temptations, or inward trials, or have desires for things that God may not grant them. And there there are some, like me, hearing only stories of great perseverance and faith, often feel inspired but also discouraged just because my faith is not so great.
That is why personally, the stories that are the most strengthening for my own faith and lead me to worship most often are those that are about don’t look on the outside like they are victorious or end in decisive successes. They are also those that show temptation and trials for as hard as they really are and even to be expected for the Christian and in this life. They show those that aren’t strong in themselves to bear the hurt and pain. They show weakness and suffering accurately and still in them, that God works in a person to keep them calling out to him. In these stories of weak people (they are the ones I can relate to), God ends up being displayed as the only sufficient sustainer of faith. And they are precious to me because I struggle so much to trust God and they remind me that in the final equation, what matters is not freedom from inward temptation and struggles in this life, but the faithfulness of my God to help my weak faith in the sure promise that he is good and that when he returns, he will make all things right.
All this to say, if you’ve never read about the life of William Cowper, I highly recommend John Piper’s short biography of his life here: Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint or here: The Hidden Smile of God (book with short bio of Cowper, Bunyan, and Brainerd.) This blogpost has been in my head for a long time because of how much I wanted to recommend his bio and I wanted to articulate why it was so powerful for me to read it. William Cowper wrote one of my favorite hymns and many others- and he struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts (followed through with attempts), and despair throughout his whole life until the very end. The trials and suffering are so real and dark, but in it all there are glimpses of an even deeper hope.