‘As a sinner I used to be angry, frustrated, aimless in life and thoroughly unhappy. Then I met Jesus, and now my problems are over and my life is full of joy, peace and purpose.’

Ha! That’s the sort of thing one hears in Christian testimonies. In evangelistic meetings it is calculated to draw to God the angry, frustrated, aimless and unhappy sinners who are wondering why they are in this meeting when they could have been relaxing down at the pub.

As a Christian friend whispered cynically to me on one such occasion, ‘People tell as many lies in testimonies as they do in funeral eulogies.’

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a committed Christian, utterly convinced that knowing God is what life is all about and dedicated to seeing as many as possible experiencing it. But we really ought to be more honest about what the transition from sinner to saint can mean. Jesus, after all, called us to take up our cross and follow him[1]—and you only took up a cross in New Testament times in order to die on it. So this isn’t a call to comfort, that’s for sure!

But yes, knowing God truly is wonderful. It’s the best thing ever. It’s the only thing. But, to be frank, sometimes it’s not easy. Christians are not guaranteed a life of ease. Indeed, when we take sides with Jesus we provoke the attention of enemy forces in a new way, and I sympathise with the honest soul who admitted, ‘I’ve had a lot harder time since I became a Christian than I ever did before.’

That’s offset, of course, by the fact that the believer under attack has God’s own resources to draw on. John reminds us: ‘The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’[2] So most of us, in the pressures we face, sooner or later confess with Paul,  ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’[3] Or, as J.B. Phillips puts it, ‘We may be knocked down but we are never knocked out!’

But it gets close at times. A few hard knocks quickly dispel the naïve idea that God is the great Sugar Daddy in the sky, existing chiefly to make me feel good, and that if there’s anything I want, all I have to do is ask and he’ll reply, with a benign smile, ‘Course you can, my dear. Here it is!’ There are times when he seems a million miles away, when (as they say) the heavens are like brass and your prayers seem to bounce back unanswered from the ceiling. At such times walking with God can be a struggle.

Actually, seeing the godly life in terms of a struggle has a long pedigree. A key ancestor of God’s people was the patriarch Jacob, who at a critical point in his mixed-up life, had an encounter with God that Scripture describes in just those terms. He ‘wrestled’ with God all night, ending up with permanent limp and also with a new name: ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God…’[4]

That’s what ‘Israel’ means: ‘one who struggles with God’. And Jacob’s descendants, as the nation of the same name, struggled with him constantly. They had a tough time with his moral and legal requirements. They had a hard time over the land of Canaan: getting it, settling in it, keeping it. Throughout, God was steering them towards his goal for them, which was to be a light to the Gentiles, but they had a hard time coping with it. Especially when festering in exile in Babylon they struggled with the problem of how to square their situation with God’s promises that the land and the temple would be theirs forever, and that they would always have a descendant of David on the throne. Jerusalem was now hundreds of miles away. The temple was a pile of charred ruins. The Davidic dynasty had fizzled out. Where was God in all this?

Godly individuals had a struggle, too. Spare a thought for poor old Job, who struggled with his crushing sorrows, trying to get a handle on what God was doing in it all. The psalmists struggled with the fact that often, when they needed God most, he was nowhere to be seen. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes struggled with what he perceived as God’s unreliability.  It was tough.

I’m having a bit of a struggle with God myself just now. I have passed the 70-mark and am enjoying retirement—except for one thing. My wife and I decided a long time ago that, once retired, we would move 400 miles south to the part of the country where she grew up, and where one of our sons and his family now live. We want to be part of our grandchildren’s growing-up years and to enjoy their company.

‘So what’s stopping you?’ I hear you ask. A dead housing market, that’s what. At the time of writing our very nice bungalow has been on the market for over five years. Yes, five. We’ve had viewers who would love to have bought it, but they had their own to sell first and they are as stuck as us. We’ve brought the price down several times, in line with market trends. We’ve changed agents. We’re on every property website that exists. We’ve looked at—and rejected for solid reasons—alternatives like renting. We’re stuck!

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Christians don’t have to be governed by market conditions when there’s another Governor higher up, with a lot more clout? Our omnipotent God is well capable of bucking the market-trend, isn’t he? Indeed he is. That he can do it we have never doubted. What’s frustrating us is that he isn’t doing it, and we can’t help wondering why.

Have we prayed about it? Well, what do you think? Of course we have. We pray daily, hourly. Default mode, when there’s nothing else demanding our attention, is to say, ‘Come on, Lord! Please release this place for us and enable us to get moved.’ And we are still stuck. We’ve commanded the mountain to move. We’ve enlisted  the prayer support of friends without number. We’ve done everything. And we’re still here.

Some have suggested that, in these difficulties, God is ‘maybe trying to tell you something—namely, that he doesn’t want you down south but here, where you are.’ No, he isn’t saying that. We are wary of circumstantial guidance, believing that God’s way is for his children to act out of conviction, not pressure. In fact we’re more convinced than ever that our planned relocation is right.

Does God love us? Yes, he does. Have we, maybe, unwittingly committed some serious sin that is causing a blockage to the outworking of his will for us? No, we haven’t. Is God good and kind. Yes. Is he our loving heavenly Father, with his children’s welfare at heart? Most certainly. Then why isn’t it working out? Dunno. And that’s the struggle.

The good thing about wrestling Jacob, about boil-covered Job, about exiled Israel, is that in spite of their utter and complete puzzlement with their respective situations, they did not doubt that God knew what he was doing. Had they lived in the post-Paul era they would doubtless have quoted him: ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’[5]

And that’s the position that we, too, choose to adopt. But I can assure you it’s not easy. Most of the time, when one of us is ‘down’ the other is ‘up’ to support and encourage. But sometimes we are both ‘down’ at the same time, and that’s a bad place to be.

We keep ourselves busy and stay involved in the life of our church. We practise hospitality. We have various ongoing projects. We take an interest in other people and their needs. And we’d like to continue doing all those things—only somewhere else.

Dear old Job never got to see what was going on at a spiritual level to cause his sorrows; he just had to hold on in ignorance. And that’s where we find ourselves. The good thing for Job is that God restored his fortunes in the end. Exiled Israel eventually saw God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus. So we continue to combine trust in God with hope of an early change in our circumstances—preferably before we lose the fitness to walk stretches of the South West Coastal Path and before our grandchildren disappear to university.

So come on, Lord. Do your stuff, please!

Copyright © David Matthew 2012

Postscript—the end of the saga…

We eventually got a buyer for our house six years to the week after putting it on the market. The legalities proved a real pain, with several major setbacks (including losing our original slot with the removal company), and both the exchange of contracts and completion went right to the wire. The actual move was a three-day affair because of the distance and very tiring. All the pressure—we found—had left us jaded both emotionally and physically, and it took us a couple of months to get to a place of composure. But we got there! ‘God works in a mysterious way…’

1. Matthew 16:24

2. 1 John 4:4

5. Romans 8:28

Struggling With God

The Christian life isn’t always easy

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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3. 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

4. Genesis 32:28

Anointed with oil
Struggling With God

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