Just a couple months ago, I entered winter break in absolute victory. God had powerfully redeemed my Fall semester, which had begun in anxiety, loneliness, and uncertainty. Throughout the Fall He provided better-than-expected results in classes, a life-giving dating relationship, an exciting leadership position, and deeper friendships. By the time Christmas rolled around, He had brought me onto a mountain-peak, a season of plenty.
Reveling in my “season of abundance,” I came into the Spring expecting it to be one of the best semesters of my time at Harvard. I would be free to enjoy one last semester of dating at school before moving into long-distance. My leadership position would begin in March, and I would be able to start classes with even more confidence in God’s provision. Everything was going to be great.
But within two weeks of getting back to campus, everything was so different from these expectations. After a couple of long discussions and a mutual decision to stop dating, I found myself struggling again with gnawing, anxious loneliness, despite having wonderful friends. My classes were more hectic than before, with little time to get work done during the week. In addition, a heavy meeting load for my leadership position made my schedule feel overwhelming.
In the wake of relational loss and stressful demands, it was very easy to think that I had moved into a distinctly new season– one no longer characterized by victory and abundance but by difficulty. It was easy to look at my circumstances and to think that I was no longer on a mountain-peak but that school was a valley once again.
But here’s the kicker– over winter break, I had prayed for trial. I had thought a lot about my pride, and how God chooses to use the weak and humble (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, 4:7). I had thought about my desire to be used by God– in leadership, on the missions field, in relationships– and realized that I would need to grow in humility and dependence on Him. I thought about how humility is often learned through experience. So one morning, armed with my Bible and a cup of tea, I wrote down a prayer in my journal– a prayer for hardship:
“…Allow me to go through difficulty so that I can learn dependency, so that pride can be ripped out of my heart and replaced by humility. Show me my utter weakness so that I have no choice but to rely on your strength. I know that in writing this, I have no clue what I’m asking for. I know that it will be painful beyond what I can imagine. But I also know that God is better than I can imagine…”
A few weeks later, when I found myself in a very different place than I had expected, the pain made it easy to feel like everything was unfair and should be different. It was easy to mourn my self-inaugurated season of loss and to wonder why God would allow things to turn around after providing abundantly, even though I had asked him for trial. Part of me hadn’t completely expected Him to answer so directly and I was hesitant to over-spiritualize my breakup and stress. While I felt very near to God in the greatest moments of struggle, I spent most of my days in a state of self-proclaimed gloom and felt less joyful.
Those weeks of bitterness surely would have persisted if not for a conversation which caused me to rethink my mindset. Why did I see my circumstances as a distinct new season of difficulty? What were my reasons for believing my season of abundance had come to a close?
I quickly realized that I had let external, earthly signs of abundance– a dating relationship, a leadership position, good grades– to be the factors determining my current season. When I lost those things or when they were put in jeopardy, this value system caused me to believe that my circumstances were no longer victorious, which detracted from my capacity for joy.
The Holy Spirit has shown me that God’s value system is different from ours, and we must conform to it. Victory and abundance are, in a life of faith, not dictated by earthly circumstances but by God’s action in and through one’s life. For a Christian, the factors that distinguish between seasons of joy or seasons of loss may not map onto worldly ideals of external abundance. If anything, they might completely contrast those ideals.
If this is the case, then I am absolutely in a season of abundance. From any earthly vantage point, I may have lost some good things this semester. But from an eternal standpoint, how amazing that God answered my prayer for difficulty! How beautiful that in loss I can better sense the sweet presence of Jesus and empathize with others. How wonderful that I serve a God who cares enough about my character to let me go through hard things, and in such a merciful way. For while the breakup was hard, it was a wise decision made out of care for one another and for God’s plans. While school and leadership are stressful, they have also been saturated with wonderful people and meaningful work. God has answered my prayer for experiences that would be humbling and cause greater dependence on Him. It has not been fun or easy, but it certainly has not been suffering or “painful beyond what I can imagine,” as I wrote that morning in January.
In Psalm 119, the psalmist speaks of how affliction can be a great thing, a faithful provision from God. His belief is rooted in his values– in his understanding that godliness is better than earthly abundance:
“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. May those who fear you rejoice when they see me for I have put my hope in your word. I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant” -Psalm 119:71-76
As the psalmist writes, affliction can be God’s faithful mercy. Indeed, He has given and taken away throughout this year. He’s let me taste loss, but all because the fruit of greater humility, produced amidst difficulty, is far more valuable than any relationship or circumstance. I’m pretty bad at it, but I’m learning to discern life’s seasons through God’s value system instead of my own. This doesn’t negate the pain of a breakup, the stress of a busy schedule, or the weightiness of leadership. It doesn’t necessarily change emotions but it does change the context in which those emotions are fixed– from pessimism to optimism. It opens up the door to greater joy, to thankfulness, and to delight in the Lord.
One of my favorite songs is “Kind God,” by Marvin Sapp. In the second verse, he sings:
“How kind of God to bring me pain
For there are things in me that pain can change
I’m not fond of tears or how much they cost
But if the hurt is worth the price for what I lost
How kind of God
Love on the cross
How kind of God”
Thank you, Lord, for bringing me into a season of greater abundance than before– into the abundance of your faithful sanctification of my prideful heart. Thank you for challenging me and for answering my prayers for humility. Thank you for loving me so much that you would let me go through hardship. Thank you, Jesus.