What If the Holidays Bring Hard Times?
The past few years have been very hard for me. A prolonged resurgence of my clinical depression, exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic, and various personal crises have left me discouraged and disheartened. It has also been hard to express these realities in a public way, mainly because Christians in general rarely acknowledge mental-health difficulties, and theologians even less so. Especially during the holiday season, it is expected that everyone will be happy and joyful, and this makes me even more tempted to hide my true struggles.1 However, I have realized that it is only as I talk about my hard times and process them that I am able to find hope and meaning.
Part of the reason that hard times are so challenging for Christians is because of God’s promises. God says that He will heal our diseases (Deut. 7:15) and increase our wealth (8:17, 18). God pledges to keep us from harm and defeat our enemies (Psalm 91). God promises to answer our prayers and do anything we ask in His name (John 14:13, 14). And indeed, throughout the Bible, we see God doing these very things. Especially when it seems all is lost and His people will be destroyed, God comes through at the very last moment and brings a great deliverance (Exodus 14; Esther 7–9). This highlights the veracity of the promises, and as a result, Christians today believe that they should always be experiencing the same results.
Yet, at so many times, God’s people die young of terrible diseases or live in abject poverty. Many other believers are abused or raped by their family members, or die in wars and natural disasters. Still others pray for years with full faith in Jesus’ name, and their prayers go unanswered. There are also such times throughout the Bible when it seemed that God’s promises were void and that He was capricious.
Because these hard times are so difficult to understand in the context of God’s promises, Christians tend to try to find meaning in the hard times by using cliches:
“God must want to teach you a lesson.”
“You just need more faith!”
“It is God’s will for you to suffer.”
“You need to be grateful for everything, including your pain.”
“You must have hidden sin in your life for God to let this happen.”
“God gave you this pain for your good, to keep you from being eternally lost.”
“Your pain is for God’s glory!”
Though some of these statements may be partially true at certain times, the biblical picture is much more complex. God’s ideal for His people is never hard times, but prosperity and blessings, so that they can attract more and more other people to follow Him (Isa. 2:2–5). Because of multiple factors, however, God cannot always enact His ideal. Instead, the Bible gives the following categories of reasons that hard times happen to God’s people:
Other people’s free will and/or sinful choices. Those who hurt other people have often been hurt themselves. In addition, evil people also seek to hurt others. Sometimes this hurt is intentional, as in the case of Joseph’s brothers, selling him into slavery because of their jealousy (Genesis 37). Or there is the pain of adultery leading to divorce, as when Hosea’s wife left him for other men (Hosea 2 and 3). At other times, evil people start wars, and many are hurt circumstantially because they are caught in the crossfire (Judges 20 and 21). Or the purposeful greed of one individual leads to painful effects on others (1 Kings 21). Sometimes, people simply make mistakes and accidentally hurt someone else, as in the case of Mephibosheth’s nurse dropping and permanently injuring him (2 Sam. 4:4).
The great controversy between God and Satan. The Bible makes clear that we are often casualties in a cosmic war. Satan is the one who brings or incites the pain and suffering on God’s people. As in the story of Job, Satan delights in making believers miserable and encouraging them to question God in the midst of their pain (Job 1 and 2).
Natural disasters. Because we live in a world deeply affected by sin, various disasters happen in nature itself. Drought and famine can be caused by human actions, but also occur through natural cycles (Joel 1). Plagues and pandemics periodically arise no matter how much we seek to prevent them.
Results of our own sin. Although much pain we feel is outside of our control, at times we sin and directly experience the consequences of our actions. David murders Uriah and rapes Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11 and 12), and his whole kingdom falls apart as a result, with his sons raping and murdering in similar fashion (2 Samuel 13), and his most trusted advisor, the grandfather of Bathsheba (23:34), betraying him (2 Samuel 15 and 16). In the Bible, consequences of sin can even appear in a collective sense. For instance, Achan initiated the sin of hiding plunder, but his whole family was affected and complicit, and so all of them received the punishment (Joshua 7). At other times, the prophets note that the sin of the whole nation applies to each individual, including themselves, as they are part of the bigger whole and so receive the punishment collectively (Dan. 9:7–19).
Lack of asking for good things. In several cases in Scripture, people asked boldly for the opposite of what God said would happen, and He granted their requests. For instance, after Hezekiah found he was going to die, he desired a longer life, and God responded by allowing him to live many more years (2 Kings 20). In other cases, people did not seek God to ask for help, and as a result, help was not possible. For example, Asa had a disease, and didn’t seek God’s healing, but only that of the doctors, and died as a result (2 Chron. 16:12).
So, how do we know which of the reasons above apply in our personal hard times? Unfortunately, it is rarely crystal clear. Often the reasons are complex and multi-faceted. At other times, we may have no idea at all. Either way, it is important not to assume that we will be able to discern the exact reason, and critical to realize that it is OK not to know. When we try to justify our pain, we often end up simplifying it, and making ourselves feel worse. Or we end up bitter and angry at God because He didn’t stop our pain.
So, what can we do instead?
Most importantly, we need to realize where we have been misguided about God and His character. He has indeed given us promises, but not all are unconditional. We have not been promised that we will always have wealth (Deut. 15:11), health (Ps. 147:3; Matt. 9:12; 2 Cor. 4:16–18), or lack of trials (John 16:33; Rom. 5:3, 4; 2 Cor. 12:7–10). Sometimes, this may mean that God answers “no” to a request for these conditional promises.
However, God has also given us many unconditional promises, including some of my favorites:
Wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV).2
Peace. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11).
The Holy Spirit. “‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” (Luke 11:13).
Eternal life. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Focusing on the unconditional promises of God does not necessarily diminish the challenges of the hard times one is experiencing, but it helps to provide perspective. As my friend Jeremy Treat stated so powerfully, “The Bible is not the story of God finding good people and rewarding them. It’s the story of God pursuing wicked people and saving them.”3 In other words, God wants to be with us in heaven for eternity more than He wants us to have fleeting happiness here on earth. God is ultimately salvation-focused, not prosperity-focused.
During the holiday season, my prayer is ever to focus on God’s gift of Himself and eternal life, even as I continue to wrestle with depression. I hope and pray that each of you can also bask in the joys of God’s salvation, no matter what hard times may surround you.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17, 18).
NOTES AND REFERENCES