ANXIETY AND RELATIONSHIP
In the previous post, we looked at the difference between anxiety as a criminal and anxiety as a long-term guest. We ended by noting that God has a special purpose for our weakness and suffering. In this post, let’s look at a biblical example of how weakness and suffering can be long-term guests that God uses to teach us so that we can trust Him in our relationship.
THE EXAMPLE OF PAUL
Our case study is the Apostle Paul. Paul is undoubtedly one of the heroes of Scripture. God used him to spread the nascent Christian faith throughout the Mediterranean world, and the Holy Spirit spoke through him to develop much of the New Testament. By any standard, Paul was a man of God. But Paul is not a hero of our faith because of his strength; he’s a hero because of his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9–11) and his Spirit-given ability to be content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11–13).
Paul submitted his experiences of weakness and suffering to the sovereign purposes of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, he interpreted the events of his life in the context of the Great Story, and he found that God has much to teach us through these unwanted, long-term guests.
PROCESS AND RELATIONSHIP
First, let’s note how God worked in Paul’s life through process and relationship, since this is part and parcel of the Christian life. Then we can explore how Paul viewed his hardships as opportunities for Christ-conformity. Both of these things will help us understand what it means to live with anxiety as a long-term guest.
When we think about it from the perspective of God’s providence, the road to Paul’s conversion and ministry is a strange one. If Paul would one day be such an influential preacher and missionary, why would God have him go through years of rebellion, torturing the church and throwing God’s people into prison (Acts 8:1–3)? Why not just convert Paul early in his life and use him to do even more good for the sake of Christ?
Answering these questions would involve too much speculation. We don’t know the secrets of God’s providence. However, we can at least say that God intended to work this way. God governs all things according to His divine purposes.
So, anything that comes to pass is fully in His willful control. God has ordained not only what comes to be but how it comes to be. He intended that Paul would embrace the truth of the gospel after tormenting followers of Christ, after persecuting Christ himself (Acts 9:5). Why?
GOD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
I believe we can do more than simply admit that God’s ways are mysterious. God has a history of working through process and relationship to redeem His people. We don’t find many examples of instantaneous redemption in Scripture (though that would align better with 21st century problem-solving). Instead, we find God patiently enduring the shortcomings of His servants as they grow slowly in their relationship with Him. Abraham is a prime example.
At times in his life, Abraham had childlike faith in God’s Word (Genesis 12:4). At other times, he used deceit to protect his own skin, rather than trusting in God’s promised protection (Genesis 12:11–13; 20:2).
God could have snapped His providential fingers and brought a doubting man to full faith in an instant. But He didn’t. He willed to work through process and relationship, allowing Abraham time to grow and learn from his missteps. Over the course of his life, Abraham would mature in his relationship with God, just as all Christians do today.
GOD IS CONCERNED WITH RELATIONSHIPS
God, you see, is ultimately concerned with relationships. In fact, God in Himself is relationship: the Father loving and glorifying the Son, the Son loving and glorifying the Father, the Spirit loving and glorifying the Father and the Son.
As my friend and teacher reminds us, “The New Testament indicates that the persons of the Trinity speak to one another and enjoy profound personal relations with one another. These relationships within God show us the ultimate foundation for thinking about human personal relationships” (Poythress, Redeeming Sociology).
RELATIONSHIP OF GOD WITH US
We value our personal relationships because we are made in the image of a God who has eternal relationship in Himself. So, it makes perfect sense for the Trinity to cultivate relationships with His creatures. And relationships in a sinful world require time and patience. They also require unimaginable sacrifice, for God would even give Himself to have an eternal relationship with us.
So much of Scripture is captured in a little prepositional phrase that signals divine-human relationship: with us. All throughout the Bible, there is an ongoing theme of God reaffirming His desire to be with His people. In Exodus, God gives Moses and the Israelites precise instructions for building the tabernacle. He says, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8; emphasis added).
GOD WILL DWELL WITH HIS PEOPLE
When the tabernacle was superseded by the temple, God spoke to Solomon, uttering a familiar promise. “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel” (1 Kings. 6:12–13).
What a rapturous promise: that the God of all things would dwell with His people! But how much more jaw-dropping is the Incarnation, when the Son of God wrapped Himself in flesh and took on a human nature? Then, truly, we encountered Immanuel, the “with us” God.
GOD WANTS RELATIONSHIP WITH US
Christ is the new temple, the person in whom we gather to meet with God. And one day we will be with God in uninterrupted fellowship. John tells us, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’” (Revelations 21:3); emphasis added).
In short, God wants to have a relationship with His creatures. He wants to be with us. He does not need to have a relationship with us, since God has forever had the most fulfilling of relationships in Himself. But His love of relationship has overflowed and brought about the creation of His image bearers: little relational beings that reflect their relational God.
FOR GOD, RELATIONSHIP IS PRIMARY, NOT PROBLEM-SOLVING
Now, that doesn’t mean God isn’t in the business of solving problems. In fact, He’s the greatest problem-solver and does more than we can even imagine to address the ills of the world. But if relationship is primary for God, if love is primary (1 John 4:8), then we must change the way we think about God interacting with a broken world.
So, back to the question I posed a few paragraphs ago: Why did God not simply have Paul believe in Christ from his youth? Perhaps it was because the tough events and decisions in Paul’s life would be critical components of his deepening relationship with God.
GRATITUDE FOR GOD’S GRACE
Paul would look back on his church persecution with horror and guilt, but also with overwhelming gratitude for God’s grace. Why would God choose him, of all people, to be an ambassador for Christ? The wonder and gratitude that Paul would have felt would then lead him into deeper, loving communion with God.
God ordained to work through process and relationship in Paul’s life, just as He does in ours, because love is primary for Him. In contrast with a world bent on quick problem-solving and maintaining comfort, Scripture suggests that God’s greatest concern is not to shape a world that conforms to a human understanding of perfection: a world that is sinless, painless, and pure.
GOD IS RIGHTEOUS AND PERFECT
Yes, God is righteous; He is peace; and He is perfection. And if maintaining our understanding of these things were God’s greatest concern, He could have prevented the fall of Adam. But in God’s deep and mysterious providence, He didn’t. This only makes sense if God is ultimately concerned with relationships.
In the next post, we’ll look at anxiety as a means of Christ-conformity in the context of our relationship with God.
The above passage was originally published in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety. Published with permission.
This post is part of a three part series.
Part 1 – Anxiety as a Long Term Guest • Learning from Anxiety
Part 2 – Anxiety and Relationships • Learning through Anxiety
Part 3 – Weakness and Suffering: Opportunities for Christ-Conformity
Pierce Taylor Hibbs
MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary
Pierce is a Christian wordsmith who strives to draw others closer to Christ through words. He’s also a long-time anxiety sufferer. The passage above was originally published in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety, used with permission. Readers may also be interested in Still, Silent, and Strong: Meditations for the Anxious Heart, and Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering. For more information about the author, along with free downloads, visit piercetaylorhibbs.com.
Verses to Comfort and Encourage
The most significant thing we can do when we’re lonely, anxious, afraid, or overwhelmed is to turn to the One who knows us and loves us completely – the God of all comfort.