How We Orient Ourselves
We orient ourselves by means of stories. Our personal stories locate us in time and space. The more comprehensive ones start in the relatively distant past: “I was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1950, and lived there until I was seven. We then moved to Seattle, where my father was an engineer at Boeing. When I was seventeen I suffered a paralyzing accident.” They stretch through the present: “I decided last evening that when I got up this morning, I would spend all day working on this chapter, which I’m now doing.” And they extend into the future: “I hope to have this book finished this month.” Each part can be made more specific: “I started late this morning, around seven o’clock. Since then, my writing has been interrupted twice. But I’m still encouraged by the progress I seem to be making.”
Such stories are the stuff of everyday human life. They are so common that we often don’t realize when we are living one. Suppose, for instance, it’s early morning. You feel a twinge of thirst. You think about how you want to satisfy it. You decide you’d like a glass of orange juice. So you get up, walk to the kitchen, get a glass out of the cupboard, put it on the counter, walk over to the refrigerator, open its door, spot the orange juice carton, reach for it, pull it out of the fridge, walk back to the counter, shake the carton, open it, pour some juice in your glass, close the carton, put it back in the fridge, close the door, turn back to the counter, pick up your glass, and (finally!) take your first sip. Congratulations! You’ve just finished a very short story.
We also tend to embrace some big, general story that tells us what human life means. Christians embrace the Christian story, situating their personal stories within it and thus orienting themselves according to its overall storyline. Scripture opens with two chapters recounting creation and closes with two more foretelling a consummation that will complete everything. So creation and consummation are the Christian storyline’s bookends, its beginning and end. They portray paradises of divinely ordered blessedness yielding unalloyed pleasures to those inhabiting them.
In When the Stars Disappear, Mark Talbot encourages readers to digest the lessons of some of the Bible’s great saints who, when faced with similar trials, learned to continue believing and hoping as they realized that God in his steadfast love continued caring for them.
In between, we find rebellion and redemption. Our first parents forfeited creation’s initial blessedness when they rebelled against God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit, thereby plunging the whole world into sin, suffering, and death. Much later, our Lord became incarnate so he could redeem us from sin. We now hope for his return, which will usher us into the consummation of his everlasting presence and deliver us from all suffering.1
Stories Give Context
Orienting ourselves by stories involves using their storylines to put our lives in proper perspective. This gives us meaning and purpose. Deciding to go to the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice gives you a purpose that means you must now engage in a series of acts to fulfill that purpose. This includes getting up, walking to the kitchen, getting out a glass, opening the fridge, spotting the orange juice carton, pouring out some juice, and lifting the glass to your lips. Each act derives its meaning from its part in helping you fulfill your purpose. You keep it all in perspective by being aware of where you are in the series that began with deciding to go to the kitchen to have a glass of orange juice and will end when you’re drinking it. In other words, you only know where you are and what you are doing in terms of a storyline that stretches from a beginning to an end.
Deciding to go to the kitchen involves having specific beliefs and hopes—such as believing you will get there and hoping to find orange juice in the refrigerator. But suppose that before you get up, you remember there isn’t any orange juice. Then you won’t go to the kitchen hoping to get some. Or suppose that on your way you encounter water dripping from the hallway ceiling. Stopping to investigate will interrupt your story. It may even change it into a different story that doesn’t end with your drinking orange juice in the kitchen.
With longer, less familiar stories, our awareness of our place in the storyline and what we should expect often needs to be made more explicit. Longer storylines increase the chances that something will prevent us from reaching their ends. This is especially true with our lives’ more important stories. Suppose a high schooler decides to embrace the storyline that is meant to end in her becoming a primary-care physician. A lot can disrupt that story. She may simply change her mind, deciding she would rather be a research biologist. Or she may take a trip that exposes her to a new culture and makes her want to live an entirely different kind of life. She could (like me) suffer a paralyzing accident that would alter her plans.
Her embracing that storyline may also include her having unrealistic expectations that invite disillusionment or disorientation. For instance, she needs to consider the costs involved in her getting from its beginning to its end. This includes her needing to understand the educational commitments she must make. Suppose she never considers the stiffer competition she will face in college, requiring her to study much harder. The shock of discovering this and then facing the unexpected prospect of so much hard work and so little play may disillusion her, prompting her to reconsider her high school decision. Her progress to her goal could also be interrupted by her unexpectedly running out of funds, by her getting married and having a baby, or by something causing her to become severely depressed.
Because the Christian story starts with creation and stretches forward into the consummation of everlasting life, no storyline can be longer or more significant. Embracing the Christian storyline involves taking its perspective as giving our entire lives their overall meaning and purpose.
The Full Christian Story
As with other important stories, misleading expectations or unexpected events involving the Christian storyline can trigger disillusionment or disorientation. For instance, my own disorientations have involved my belief that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love him (see Rom. 8:28) and yet being unable to believe that some unexpected and very disturbing events in my life could work together for good. I couldn’t find a perspective on them that made good sense to me. So I couldn’t understand how my experience could be part of what I understood to be the story I was in.
In situations like these, the psalmists’ frank complaints and desperate pleas can help us embrace the full Christian story. As R. W. L. Moberly has said, the “predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but . . . are central in the life of faith. . . . They show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement . . . is intrinsic to the very nature of faith.”2
It is also intrinsic to the nature of biblical faith to believe that the Lord is always unremittingly pursuing his saints with his chesed—that is, his steadfast love, kindness, and faithfulness. David emphasized this in Psalm 23. In declaring that the Lord was his shepherd and that he therefore had all that he needed (see Ps. 23:1 NLT), he was in effect already declaring what he concluded in its last verse—that “only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life” (PS. 23:6a JPS) and that, consequently, when all was said and done, he would “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6b).3Yet, as David’s laments show, we must learn to adjust our expectations about what the Lord’s pursuit of us with his chesed entails, since Scripture shows that God’s chesed is not always manifested in obvious and easily understandable ways.
Chesed, Daniel Block writes, “is one of those Hebrew words whose meaning cannot be captured in one English word.” It “wraps up in itself an entire cluster of concepts, all the positive attributes of God—[his] love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty, [and] Covenant faithfulness.”4It is the sort of love of God and neighbor that moves one person to act unselfishly for another’s benefit.
This steadfast, kind, loyal, and merciful loving concern for others is basic to God’s character, being emblematic of all he is. God himself reiterated it as the central feature of his name in reassuring Moses that in spite of the Israelites’ flagrant sin in worshiping the golden calf, he would still go with them to the promised land:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed [his] name. . . . The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [chesed] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love [chesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” —Exodus 34:5–7
God’s chesed, as the basic feature of his name or character, is emphasized throughout the Old Testament (see, e.g., Num. 14:17–19; Neh. 9:16–21; Jonah 4:2). It is mentioned a total of 245 times, with 127 instances in the Psalms, where, as we have already seen, the psalmists summed up their trust in God in terms of knowing his name. When it appears in psalms of thanksgiving and praise, it reminds us of God’s settled character, of his constant and indeed everlasting goodness (see Pss. 118; 136; 145).5When it appears in the laments, it shows us that recalling their Lord’s steadfast love and kindness when they were suffering was key to the psalmists’ maintaining their faith.
This steadfast, kind, loyal, and merciful loving concern for others is basic to God’s character, being emblematic of all he is.
For instance, in Psalm 86 David invoked God’s chesed three times (see Ps. 86:5, 13, 15). As Kidner notes, Psalm 86 is “a lonely prayer”—David was alone with his enemies, with no friends or allies in sight. This lament has a very simple structure: there are opening and closing pleas (see Ps. 86:1–7, 14 –17), interrupted “by a deliberate act of praise—deliberate,” Kidner emphasizes, “because the final verses reveal no abatement of the pressure, and no sign, as yet, of an answer.”6David’s appeal to God’s chesed was integral to his pleas for God to save him. The last appeal occurred in the middle of his most desperate and specific plea. In verse 14 he stated that a band of proud, ruthless, and godless men were seeking to kill him. But then in verse 15 he quoted Exodus 34:6, pleading, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This appeal to God’s character then grounded David’s final plea:
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant,
and save the son of your maidservant.
Show me a sign of your favor,
that those who hate me may see and be put to shame
because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.—Psalm 86:16–17
What God had revealed about himself in Exodus 34, combined with David’s recollection in this psalm of God’s rescues in the past, led him to expect and believe—in spite of all appearances to the contrary—that God had not abandoned him and would ultimately deliver him again.
As D. A. Baer and R. P. Gordon observe, the biblical authors understand that “life is fragile.” They are acutely aware that our lives are beset by many kinds of threats, including “the calamities of nature, the hostility of enemies, and the weakness of self.” And, consequently, they “plead for God to save them by his [chesed],” recognizing that “God’s [chesed] is their only hedge against disaster.” The Psalms in particular, Baer and Gordon stress, “are full of this motif.” And yet rarely
is the eventual salvation that God’s [chesed] provides seen to eradicate the anxiety of the endangered while they await deliverance. . . .This dynamic, whereby one must discover God’s [chesed] all over again at each new crisis, seems central to God’s ways with humankind as the biblical authors present it. While one recounts God’s [chesed] to one’s fellows in the hope that they will learn to trust in it when distress comes upon them, the pain and pathos of waiting
are never fully displaced.7
What is happening to us may perplex us, especially if we are Christians. Yet we should see our suffering as part of ordinary Christian experience (see 1 Pet. 1:3–7; 4:12–19). Yet God’s chesed does indeed guarantee that he is being loving to us and that his kindness will become clear to us in the end.
- C. S. Lewis wrote: “Christianity. . . makes world-history in its entirety a single, transcendentally significant, story with a well-defined plot pivoted on Creation,Fall, Redemption, and Judgment” (C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature[Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970], 194). Judgment takes place at the beginning of consummation and determines whether someone will experience what the Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston called “Consummate Happiness or Misery.” The subtitle to Boston’s Human Nature in Its Fourfold State(published in 1720) specified the four stages or states as, first, Primitive Integrity, then Entire Depravity, then Begun Recovery, and finally Consummate Happiness or Misery.
- R. W. L. Moberly, “Psalms: Theology of,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 4:879; emphasis added. Earlier in the same piece he observes that “the Old Testament offers some striking portrayals of the possibly problematic nature of life under God” that establish that “coping with disappointment and speaking to God about it is . . . an integral part of the life of faith” (877–78). This means, he ultimately concludes, that “instead of the problems of the life of faith being put on one side, as though worship should really be just a matter of praise and thanksgiving, these problems are made central to the very act of prayer and worship” (879).
- Here’s the picture: David’s enemies, whom he mentioned in v. 5, were often pursuing him and trying to hunt him down—and yet their pursuit was not everlasting, although God’s chesed is. When all is said and done, only God’s chesed will have endured throughout our lives and into the eschaton. God’s chesed is, literally, unyielding and relentless. As Kidner puts the point of v. 6: “With God [the] qualities [of goodness and steadfast love] are not merely solid and dependable, but vigorous—for to follow”—as the Hebrew word for pursue has traditionally been translated—“does not mean here to bring up the rear but to pursue, as surely as [God’s] judgments pursue the wicked (83:15).” Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72(Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 112.
- Daniel I. Block, Judges and Ruth, New American Commentary, vol. 6 (Nashville: B&H, 1999), 605.
- D. A. Baer and R. P. Gordon write: “In the Psalms, both God and human worshipers describe God’s [chesed] as everlasting. . . . In addition, one finds the related affirmation that God’s [chesed] will be sung about forever, which is an oblique way of suggesting that his love itself will not end. This diversity of expression coalesces in a refrain that rumbles exuberantly through a wide range of texts: ‘The Lord is good, his [chesed] endures forever.’ . . . One subtext to the plot of God’s eternal [chesed] is his self-binding oath or promise to provide such beneficence into the future. Several texts (e.g., Deut 7:12; Mic 7:20) invoke this promise as encouragement, even as others (cf. Ps 25:7; 89:49 ; 119:41, 76) find it urgent to remind God of his obligation.” D. A. Baer and R. P. Gordon, “chesed,” in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem VanGemeren (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 2:210.
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150 (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), 311.
- Baer and Gordon, “chesed,” 208–9.
This article is adapted from When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture by Mark R. Talbot.
In our suffering God is at work to give us something much better than what we want.
No matter how hard your story is right here, right now, it is guaranteed for you as God’s child that it will end better that you can imagine.
While we may not understand what God is doing, we can always trust who he is. We must never interpret God’s character by our circumstances.
How can Christians can face profound life-changing suffering with their faith intact and find encouragement from God's word in the midst of a season of intense pain?