Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When God Doesn’t Change My Circumstances

You’ve probably heard the old saying that troubles come in threes. That if a couple of bad things have happened to you, you might as well hunker down and get ready because another one is coming. There’s no such biblical evidence for this, of course…just some people’s observation. Difficulties do sometimes come in bunches. But what about those people that we know of who seem to face troubles—not in threes or fives—but in eighteens and forty-twos?

What about those who seemingly live in a constant state or condition of tough circumstances? As a specific example, what about those over the centuries who were subjected to slavery? Slaves are the very group Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 6.1-2.

I used to wonder: What in the world do we do with those tough verses? Some scholars and pastors simply redefine these sections to say they address employer-employee relationships. I think something deeper is at stake.

In the middle of ongoing, persistent difficulties, our common and natural response is to desire to change the situation. We pray about it, but God hasn’t—by our standards—fixed it yet. Paul’s brief comments to slaves in this section of the letter are exceptionally challenging. We all probably would want the same the questions answered: What happens when God doesn’t change my circumstances? I think there are two main reasons given here.

When God doesn’t change my circumstances, it allows me to demonstrate the gospel more clearly. (v. 1)

Having grown up in East Tennessee, I remember periodically driving through the foothills of the mountains and seeing some farmers still using the old process of yoking a beast of burden to till the ground for their crops. The reason for the yoke is obvious: it places the work on the animal and reminds it who its master is.

Paul apparently decides to use this figurative language to remind his readers that he knows their plight. He simply encourages them to bear up under the yoke with grace, even when their authority figures don’t deserve it. He uses their negative circumstance to point them to a positive outcome. When they continue serving their masters and regard them with honor in spite of and in the midst of their difficult circumstance, they demonstrate the gospel clearly. This is a hard truth, but an important one. The entire letter of 1 Peter says the same basic principle. When we bear up under pressure well, we live under grace and represent the God who saves us.

Listen to how Paul emphasizes this elsewhere:

Slaves are to be submissive to their masters in everything, and to be well pleasing, not talking back or stealing, but demonstrating utter faithfulness, so that they may adorn the teaching of God our Savior in everything. (Titus 2.9-10, HCSB)

So when anyone facing ongoing difficult circumstances keeps on patiently trusting and serving God by honoring those over them, they show the gospel’s power by not only preventing others from having fodder to revile God’s name, but also by putting on display His glorious saving grace.

That’s a hard principle. Who thinks like that? It’s not natural to think about preserving the progress of the gospel through our difficulties. No, it’s not natural; it’s supernatural. Which brings us to the second idea.

When God doesn’t change my circumstances, it tends to transform my thinking more constantly. (v. 2)

When we are in the middle of a trying time, especially when we feel it’s at the hands of Christians, it seems the most important thing is to pray, and hope it ends soon. That’s the normal reaction. But again Paul takes a different approach here in verse two. He says that slaves who have Christian masters should not disrespect them because the masters claim to be brothers, but instead the slaves should serve them all the more, since the ones benefitted are beloved Christians. Again, that’s hard.

There’s a general principle that Paul is getting at. We often have a problem with our attitude, with our thinking, and it needs to be transformed. It’s not wrong to desire a change in our circumstances, but we are missing an opportunity to let our thinking be transformed in the process.

A while back I wrote about how my thinking changed during a season of constant pain with a pinched nerve. The continual pain was a continual reminder. It forced me to think differently. And that is what Paul through the Holy Spirit is teaching here. If I were a slave, I would want to get out of it, and I would certainly expect a Christian master to either set me free or at least treat me well. But Paul says in this instance: Think differently and keep serving well.

Who thinks like that? God does. Look at this verse regarding transformed thinking:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12.2, HCSB)

Take a look at these verses regarding not focusing on changing your circumstances, and how slavery comes up again:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7.17-24, ESV)

In this long explanation in 1 Corinthians 7 regarding marriage and singleness, Paul speaks to the idea that some were focused on (or perhaps obsessed with) changing their marital status. He uses the illustrations of circumcision and slavery (admittedly both are points which had more impact in their day) to essentially say three times: Don’t be focused on changing your status; rather, live well representing God in whatever status you find yourself (see vv. 17, 20, 24). That’s radically different thinking.

Certainly this by no means implies that those who are being abused should endure it just to help them think differently. The slave trade and trafficking that exist to this day are horrific tragedies and we must pray and act to put an end to them. There have been many forms of slavery over the millennia, and a look at Paul’s short letter to Philemon regarding a slave named Onesimus is helpful in understanding slavery in their day. And even for their form of slavery he specifically says to gain your freedom if you can (1 Corinthians 7.21). But his basic point is clear: Let the pressures and hardships constantly transform your thinking, like iron in a fire.

For those who follow a health and wealth gospel, this will sound hollow. But God is doing a deep work in us when He lets us go through hard seasons, or even a hard life. He is for us, not against us.

So when God has caused or allowed our circumstances to be hard ones, our response must be one where we remember that we are able to demonstrate the gospel more clearly, and transform our thinking more constantly.

We tend to say, “This junk in my life isn't fair. It's not right!” No, it's redemptive.

We tend to say, “I can't respond to this mess with love and grace—that’s not normal!” No, it's not normal, it's Christian.

[This is part of a larger series on 1 Timothy called The Community of Truth.]