Last week I mentioned that we can have patience with people, and patience with circumstances. The Bible talks about both, and last week we looked at the idea of patience with people. This week, we’ll consider circumstances. Obviously 2020 and 2021 have seen a lot of challenging circumstances for most of us, and some guidance on dealing with circumstances beyond our control is helpful.
When we consider patience with circumstances, there are several examples in Scripture to talk about. James 5:11 tells us that Job had patient endurance. When you read the book of Job, it doesn’t seem like patience; he seems angry, discouraged, and at times frustrated with God. Patience in this context does not mean bearing difficult circumstances in silence; it means not quitting, not giving up. His patience can be summarized in his rebuke to his wife, who suggested he should “curse God and die.” Job refused to allow his circumstances to define the sort of man he was.
We see the same thing with King David throughout the Psalms; when he was downhearted, when he was in troubling and challenging circumstances, he didn’t remain quiet -- he called out to God for deliverance, and sometimes he called out in what we would describe as a complaining tone. Yet in all of it, his circumstances didn’t cause him to violate the character God was building in his life.
Here’s another important lesson to be learned from the story of Job. Job and his friends spend most of the book arguing about why “bad things happen to good people,” but at the end of the book, God basically asks Job, “Who are you to question me and think you can understand me?” And Job has to say in chapter 40 verses 4-5:
Job acknowledges his own inability to comprehend God’s ways. I think it’s important to note that in the entire book of Job, we see no indication that Job ever finds out the reason for his circumstances.
We would do well to take a lesson from Job in this. Because we live in a society that thinks every question can be answered and should be answered, when difficult circumstances come our way, we feel like we need to understand why they are happening. “God allowed this to happen to me because He wants to teach me a lesson, and I just need to figure out what that lesson is,” or “God sent this circumstance because of some hidden sin in my life…I wish I knew what it is.”
There are a couple dangers we need to be aware of when we start thinking in these ways. First, we make the assumption that we are capable of comprehending what an infinite God (whose ways are far above ours) is doing. It is unwise for me to assume that when some difficult circumstance comes my way that God has exactly one reason for allowing it. It would also be egocentric for me to assume that God’s reasons must be specifically centered around me.
The second danger is that we start to think that God cannot work in our lives unless we know what He is doing. This is simply not true. When I am guiding my children, I do not necessarily say to them, “Now I am going to teach you a lesson in mercy,” or “I am going to teach you a lesson in generosity.” Instead, I simply guide them through the circumstance they are dealing with. When it’s all said and done, they probably won’t even think to themselves, “Daddy just taught me a lesson about mercy or generosity.” While it’s happening, they might not even realize they are internalizing a lesson in Christian character.
If I can do that with my children, do you not think God can do that with you? Can God, through your circumstances, mold your character without you even realizing what He’s doing? Most certainly He can! And you know it often works that way, because you’ve had circumstances in your life that caused you to change and grow, and it was only much later that you saw how those circumstances changed you. Like Job, we must learn the lesson that we can patiently endure without having to know reasons. A childlike trust in God is sufficient.
So what do we do with the circumstances God has given us? How do we endure them patiently? I’d like to take a look at the Israelites who were sent into captivity in Babylon because of their generations-long reign of lawlessness and idolatry.
Let’s consider these words from Jeremiah 29, starting at verse 1:
Let’s break this down a bit. The people of Israel had been dragged into exile and captivity in Babylon. Many false prophets had arisen, and were telling the people, “Don’t worry – God is going to rescue you from this captivity any day now; you’re going to be back in Israel before you know it.”
But the prophet Jeremiah, the true prophet of God, had a quite different message. His message was, “No, you’re not going back to Israel any time soon. In fact, most of you will die in captivity. But in seventy years, God will take your children and your grandchildren back to their homeland, because He still has good plans for the nation.”
Jeremiah’s message probably was not eagerly received by people who wanted to believe their circumstances were going to be short-lived. What was Jeremiah’s advice for the people? How were they to patiently endure seventy years of exile?
His advice is found in Jeremiah 29:4-7. In summary, God (through Jeremiah) tells the people, “Settle in. Build houses, plant gardens, do your jobs, raise children, let them marry and begin lives of their own, and in everything, treat the society you are in as your own, and do what is best for that society.”
You see, if the Israelites had listened to the prophets who promised a speedy end to their captivity, they would have done none of those things. They would have done nothing more than simply wait. But God created us to be active, no matter what our circumstances. One of my favorite verses in Ephesians is Ephesians 2:10, which tells us we were created to do good works which God has prepared for us from before the world began.
In other words, God’s plan has never been for us to simply do nothing while we wait for our circumstances to change. Patient endurance means looking at the circumstances we are in, and instead of just waiting for them to end, continually ask ourselves, “What can I do with these circumstances?”
In addition to this, it is important for us to understand that God has not made a guarantee that our circumstances will ever change in this life. Indeed, because we are mortal, we all have the stark reality of eventually coming face to face with a circumstance from which we do not find release in this world.
Popular Christianity tends to misread verses like Jeremiah 29:11, which says that God has good plans for us to give us future and hope, and verses like Romans 8:28 which tells us all things work together for good. We read Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal promise to us individually, but it was a promise to future generations, rather than the present generation, which would mostly die in captivity. Similarly, we read Romans 8:28 as a guarantee that whatever circumstance we face will come to our good in this life, while ignoring that both before and after that verse, the passage is talking about our future glorification.
We must recognize that sometimes our difficult circumstances may work for the future, the hope, and the good of another. This is, after all, not just the example of Jeremiah 29, it’s also the example of Christ, who suffered the agony of the cross in this life for the sake of our good.
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.” (1 Peter 2:24) This is what Paul means when he talks about joining in the fellowship of His suffering. We who follow in His footsteps can rejoice through suffering, knowing that we are joining in fellowship with Him. If my suffering will result in the eternal good of another soul in this life, I will rejoice even while I weep over my suffering.
Does that mean we suffer in silence and don’t hope for an end to our circumstances? Not exactly. In 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Paul is talking about freedmen and bondservants, and he tells the bondservants that if they can gain their freedom, they should do so, but that they should “not be concerned about it.”
In other words, while reaching the end of difficult circumstances is desirable, living well within those circumstances is even better.
How do we patiently endure the circumstances we are in? We welcome the end of those circumstances if and when it comes, but in the meantime, we live life as fully as we can, with grace and godliness, within those circumstances. Do your work. Care for your family. Seek the welfare of the land where you live.
Remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Keep confidence that even the small things you do will be made great by the power of God, and therefore, never quit.
Galatians 6:9, which we’ll look at another day, has this to add:
One last thought: it’s tempting to say “I don’t have enough patience for this trial I’m going through.” And maybe you’re right. But here is what James says in James 1:2-4:
You may not have patience enough for this trial, but the trial you face is building patient endurance in you. And that patient endurance will make you complete.
Lord God, we acknowledge that we struggle daily in this world of pain and suffering. There are circumstances that all of us face together, but each of us also face our own private struggles and pains, and they are hard to bear with patience. Help us to live life fully and abundantly within those circumstances and build in us the patience that comes from facing trials with hope. And Lord, as you use our circumstances for our good, or for the good of those around us, help us live in the hope of your good work, and in the hope of the joy that lies before us. Amen