When the Keys Don’t Fit the Lock
Discovering the power (and limitations) of a principle-shaped faith
by Michelle Van Loon
The sermon series titles seemed to promise I’d receive the keys to unlock the challenges I was facing in my life: “Seven Steps to a Thriving Marriage,” “How to Build a Godly Family,” “Success at Work, Nehemiah Style” and “Your Finances God’s Way.”
I dutifully tried each one of the keys those messages offered me and discovered some of those Sunday sermons offered practical principles I could apply Monday morning, such as the encouragement that God could use me in my workplace just as He’d used Nehemiah in his. However, real life seemed to test the limits of the pithy principles I heard at church. Having children showed me almost daily through every single stage of their development that life was rarely as tidy and predictable as some of those “how to” sermons seemed to imply. I heard in many of these messages an unstated promise that if I adhered to these Christian principles faithfully, I could be guaranteed a positive outcome and a happy ending.
This sort of conclusion is not a recent development. When Jesus and His disciples came across a man who’d been born blind, the first thing we hear the disciples asking Him is, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) They simply had no ready frame of reference for Jesus’ response: there was no sin involved, no moral failure, nor sloppiness in application of God’s principles to their lives. Instead, just before He healed the man, Jesus told His friends, “…this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). God had been at work in this man’s darkness and difficulty every step of the way, just as He was at work in the miracle of restoring his sight.
The problem of assuming crisis or loss is the result of moral failure is spotlighted throughout the book of Job. When a series of Job-like events hit our household two years ago, I took a remedial trip through Job’s story so I could remember that though Job lived an unimpeachable life (Job 1:1, 9, 22), woe without a ready explanation came at him like a series of violent earthquakes and aftershocks.
The three friends who came to comfort Job sat with him in silence for a week, but once they opened their mouths to speak, each one overflowed with questions about what he might have done to “deserve” the loss of livelihood, children and health. Job has no answers for their flawed theology and accusatory behavior. Instead, he continues to proclaim his innocence from the rubble of his life. In the time period covered within this book, Job and his comforters never learn the backstory behind Job’s losses: God has permitted Satan to test this faithful man. But when God speaks at last, He does not explain why all those losses happened to Job. Instead, He offers the group a tutorial on the truth that He alone is God. Job 42 highlights how Job surrenders to God afresh and intercedes for his friends.
In our much milder modern case, within a three-month span, my husband was laid off from his job, I faced a breast cancer scare for me, followed by a fall that left me with broken bones in two different parts of my body. After surgery, I experienced a life-threatening blood clot. I have a serious immune system deficiency that requires weekly plasma infusions, and we were living in an expensive rental house that had black mold issues. How could we relocate when I was recuperating, and without any source of household income? In the midst of all of this, a beloved prodigal family member who’d been a source of great sorrow and much prayer over the years called us asking for money. Though we wouldn’t have chosen to assist with this situation even if we had the funds, the heartbreaking phone calls further amplified our disorienting status.
While I wished more than once that I had a set of handy keys that would unlock some simple solutions to these complex problems, I recognized there are no “Five Ways to Thrive When Your Life is a Mess Right Now” quick fixes. Principles from God’s Word provided guidance and structure in the midst of our seeming chaos, but what sustained us was the care and nearness of God—even when pain and confusion of our circumstances sometimes left us feeling distant from Him. Scripture affirmed that even our darkness was not dark to God (Psalm 139:12), and He was near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). We experienced the truth of both day by day, moment by moment.
Though we may crave pithy principles to help us unlock the abundant life Jesus promised us, there is a temptation toward disappointment when those principles alone aren’t adequate to meet the complexities of a loss or trial. They have training value, but we express our faith as we respond with a whole-hearted ‘yes,’ taking one pilgrim step after another when Jesus calls us to follow Him—even when it means we follow Him into what looks like darkness.
Maybe especially then.
Since coming to faith in Christ at the tail end of the Jesus Movement, Michelle Van Loon‘s Jewish heritage, spiritual hunger, and storyteller’s sensibilities have shaped her faith journey and informed her writing. She is the author of five books, including If Only: Letting Go of Regret, Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith and her newest book Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of Our Pilgrim Identity. Michelle is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s women’s blog, In Touch magazine, and is the co-founder of www.ThePerennialGen.com, a website for midlife women and men. She’s married to Bill and is mother of three and grandmother of two. Learn about her writing and speaking ministry by visiting her website, www.michellevanloon.com.
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