It was a convergence of questions. One person asked me if I would teach about trusting God — that, they said, was what they really needed to learn. Another person texted me with a litany of woes, asking me why things always get harder just when they were trying to make them better. One person just lost their job; another person just suffered a major injury. Oh, and there’s this little thing called national and international news – a diluvian onslaught of turmoil if ever there was one.
It boils down to this question: “How do I trust God in times of turmoil?”
The answer: Be Joyful.
Excuse me, Russell, did you say “Be Joyful? Isn’t that kind of callous?”
Hang in there with me.
In times of turmoil, we yearn for peace. We yearn for that sense of security and rootedness and wellbeing that fortifies us against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Scripture teaches us that we can experience that peace, calling it “the peace of God which transcends all understanding.” Supernatural peace. Peace beyond reasonable expectation- peace that doesn’t make rational sense. That ultimately is what it is to trust God – to rest in His peace.
Here’s what Paul says about this peace when he writes to the Christians in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Paul shows us that there are certain spiritual disciplines that help us cultivate that peace, and heading the list is rejoicing. In fact, rejoicing is so important that Paul repeats it. Don’t mistake joy for how it’s popularized in movies – as though it were little more than giddy and manic happiness. Joy is something much deeper and more profound.
Have you ever had the experience of losing yourself in a pursuit that completely captured your attention? That is joy. Your mind and energies are fixed on the task at hand and you forget yourself for a little while as you become immersed in the doing.
When I was an actor, I would have moments of that experience onstage; all the preparation and rehearsal and work suddenly culminated in an experience of immersion in the moment. We the performers and the audience members had a moment where we lost ourselves in the performance. Athletes experience this as well, when all the training and nutrition and preparation culminates in a moment of exhilaration as their gifts are put to the test.
But it’s not just in performances and athletic contests in which joy happens. It can happen on a daily basis. People are fond of talking about a state of “flow.” This is an idea that was developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (See the full 1996 interview in Wired Magazine)
So don’t confuse rejoicing with feeling happy. Happiness is a passive emotion that comes on us. Rejoicing is the determination to actively pursue and celebrate the good.
Joy and Lament
Sometimes, however, the pain of the situation is too acute for us to find anything to rejoice in. That’s where the next verse comes into play: “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
First – realize that God is near to you. God is not distant and far away, but is close and present. You are not abandoned or forgotten.
Then “do not be anxious about anything.” Notice that it doesn’t say “do not be hurt” or “do not be angry” or “do not be scared” – it says do not be anxious. Anxiety is a chronic fear of the situation. It’s fear of being afraid, fear of being hurt, fear of being scared. It’s the fear of “what if this feeling doesn’t go away?”
The way to defeat anxiety is to honestly face your current feelings and to present them to God. This is where the Psalms teach us about prayer. David doesn’t say “God, I know I really shouldn’t feel this way, but I just don’t sense your presence.” No. He cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalms teach us that we can cry out to God, we can be messy before God, we can shout and whine and whimper and groan to God. This is what it is to lament.
Don’t confuse anxiety and lament. Anxiety is fear turned on itself, trapped and alone. Lament is pain expressed to God who is with us. Anxiety is about isolation; lament is about relationship.
Lamentation is not antithetical to joy. Lamentation directs our focus off ourselves to the God who is with us in our suffering. And in so directing our focus, it leads us back to the experience of joy. We lament so that we may again rejoice.
Practice it – take time to look for reasons to rejoice. When you are heartbroken, present your lament to God. Let the Psalms be your teacher. Read them, study them, pray them as your own words. And take note of what happens within. Ask yourself if these spiritual disciplines help you be more peaceful.
Let us know in the comments below – How have you experienced the peace that passes all understanding?
About the cover image: I took this crop from Heironymus Bosch’s work “Ecce Homo” (circa 1510) which I saw in the Indianapolis Art Museum in 2014. I tilted the crop so I could get both the angry crowds and the serenity of Christ. As we reflect on trusting God in times of turmoil, it is helpful to remember that Jesus endured great turmoil (and Bosch presents turmoil so well). Jesus also prayed the psalms of lament on the cross, quoting David’s cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” However we also remember the book of Hebrews, which tells us that for the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross, scorning its shame. Thus, I thought it a great artwork to illustrate the subject of today’s post.