The rafting guide escorted our group to the river’s edge and directed us all to put on life jackets and grab paddles. As we climbed into the boat, he assigned us seats to balance the boat’s weight, providing stability when we encountered rapids. After highlighting the thrills the watery voyage ahead would hold for us, he detailed a series of directions we could expect to hear—and would need to follow—to effectively steer the boat through the whitewater. He assured us that even though there might be tense moments on the way, our journey would be both exciting and safe.
Sometimes life feels like a white-water rafting trip, one that contains more rapids than we might like. God’s promise to Israel, through the prophet Isaiah, can guide our feelings when we fear the worst is happening: “When you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:2). The Israelites faced an overwhelming fear of rejection by God as they went into exile as a consequence of their sin. Yet instead, He affirms them and promises to be with them because He loves them (vv. 2, 4).
God won’t abandon us in the rough waters. We can trust Him to guide us through the rapids—our deepest fears and most painful troubles—because He also loves us and promises to be with us.
We gathered monthly to hold one another accountable to our individual goals. My friend Mary wanted to reupholster the seats of her dining room chairs before the year’s end. At our November meeting she wittily reported her progress from October: “It took ten months and two hours to recover my chairs.” After months of not being able to obtain the materials required, or find the quiet hours away from her demanding job and her toddler’s needs, the project took merely two hours of committed work to finish.
The Lord called Nehemiah to a far greater project: to bring restoration to Jerusalem after its walls had lain in ruin for 150 years (Nehemiah 2:3–5, 12). As he led the people in the labor, they experienced mockery, attacks, distraction, and temptation to sin (4:3, 8; 6:10–12). Yet God equipped them to stand firm—resolute in their efforts—completing a daunting task in just fifty-two days.
Overcoming such challenges requires much more than a personal desire or goal; Nehemiah was driven by an understanding that God appointed him to the task. His sense of purpose invigorated the people to follow his leadership despite incredible opposition. When God charges us with a task—whether to repair a relationship or share what He’s done in our lives—He gives us whatever skills and strength are necessary to continue in our effort to do what He’s asked, no matter what challenges come our way.
When a person without a long history of paying his or her bills on time wants to obtain a loan to purchase a home or car, lenders are often reluctant to take the financial risk. Without a track record, that person’s promise to repay what he borrows is insufficient for the bank. The would-be borrower usually resorts to finding someone who does have a history of making good on their debts, asking them to put their name on the loan too. The co-signer’s promise assures the lender the loan will be repaid.
When someone makes a promise to us—whether for financial, marital, or other reasons—we expect them to keep it. We want to know that God will keep His promises too. When He promised Abraham that He would bless him and give him “many descendants” (Hebrews 6:14; see Genesis 22:17), Abraham took God at His word. As the Creator of all that exists, there is no one greater than He; only God could guarantee His own promise.
Abraham had to wait for the birth of his son (and never saw how innumerable his offspring would grow to be) (v. 15), but God proved faithful to His promise. When He promises to be with us always (Hebrews 13:5), to hold us securely (John 10:29), and to comfort us (2 Corinthians 1:3–4), we, too, can trust Him to be true to His word.
I work with a team to put on an annual community event. We spend eleven months plotting many details to ensure the event’s success. We choose the date and venue. We set ticket prices. We select everything from food vendors to sound technicians. As the event approaches, we answer public questions and provide directions. Afterward we collect feedback. Some good. Some that is hard to hearand more details are available to the public, our team hears excitement from attendees and also fields complaints. The negative feedback complaints can be is discouraging and sometimes tempts us to give up.
Nehemiah had critics too as he led a team to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. They actually mocked Nehemiah and those working alongside him saying, “Even a fox climbing up on it would break down [your] wall of stones” (Nehemiah 4:3). His response to the critics helps me handle my own: Instead of feeling dejected or trying to refute their comments, he turned to God for help. Instead of responding directly, he asked God to hear the way His people were being treated and to defend them (v. 4). After entrusting those concerns to God, he and his co-laborers continued to work steadily on the wall “with all their heart” (v. 6).
We can learn from Nehemiah not to be distracted by criticism of our work. When we’re criticized or mocked, instead of responding to our critics out of hurt or anger, we can prayerfully ask God to defend us from discouragement so we can continue with a whole heart.
As a child, when I felt lonely, rejected, or sorry for myself, my mother would sometimes attempt to cheer me up by singing a popular ditty: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I think I’ll go eat worms.” After a smile came from my downcast face, she’d help me see the many special relationships and reasons for gratitude I truly did have.
When I read that David felt no one cared for him, that ditty rings in my ears. Yet David’s pain wasn’t at all exaggerated. Where I had feelings of loneliness typical for my age, David actually had good reason to feel abandoned. He wrote these words in the dark depths of a cave where he hid from Saul, who pursued him with murderous plans (1 Samuel 22:1; 24:3–10). David had been anointed as Israel’s future king (1 Samuel 16:13), had spent years in Saul’s service, but now he lived “on the move,” always fearing for his life. In the midst of the loneliness David felt, he cried out to God as his “refuge” and “portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:5).
Like David, we can cry out to God when we feel alone, giving voice to our feelings in the safety of His love. God never minimizes our loneliness. He wants to be our companion in the dark caves of our lives. Even when we think no one cares for our life, God cares!
My hometown has experienced its heaviest winter in thirty years. My muscles ache from hours of shoveling the unrelenting snow. When I step inside after what feels like a fruitless effort, weary as I kick off my boots, I’m greeted by the warmth of a fire and my children gathered around it. As I gaze out the window from the shelter of my home, my perspective of the weather shifts completely. Instead of seeing more work to do, I savor the beauty of frosted tree branches and the way the snow blankets the colorless landscape of winter.
I see a similar, but much more poignant, shift in Asaph when I read his words in Psalm 73. In the beginning, he laments the way the world seems to work, how wrongs seem to be rewarded. He doubts the value of being different than the crowd and living for the good of others (v. 13). But when he enters the sanctuary of God, his outlook changes (vv. 16–17): he remembers that God will deal with the world and its troubles perfectly and, more importantly, that it is good to be with God (v. 28).
When we’re chilled by the seemingly ceaseless problems in our world, we can enter God’s sanctuary in prayer and be warmed-through by the life-altering, perspective-changing truth that His judgment is better than ours. Though our circumstances may not change, our perspective can.
When I was thirteen, my school required students to take four exploratory courses, including home economics, art, choir, and woodworking. On my first day in choir, the instructor called each student to the piano individually to hear their voices and place them in the room according to their vocal range. During my turn at the piano, I sang the notes she played multiple times, but wasn’t directed to a section in the room. Instead, after repeated tries, she sent me to the counseling office to find a different class to take. From that moment on, I felt I shouldn’t sing at all, that my voice shouldn’t be heard in song.
I carried that thought with me for more than a decade until I read Psalm 98 as a young adult. The writer opens with an invitation to “sing to the Lord” (Psalm 98:1). The reason offered has nothing to do with the quality of our voices; He delights in all His children’s songs of thanksgiving and praise. Instead, we are invited to sing because God “has done marvelous things” (v. 1).
The psalmist points out two wonderful reasons to joyfully praise God in song and in attitude: His saving work in our lives and His on-going faithfulness toward us. In God’s choir, we each have a place to sing of the “marvelous things” He has done (v. 1).
With a tendency toward pessimism, I quickly jump to negative conclusions about how situations in my life will play out. If I’m thwarted in my efforts on a work project, I’m easily convinced none of my other projects will be successful either and—even though utterly unrelated—I will probably never be able to touch my toes comfortably. And, woe is me, I’m an awful mother who can’t do anything right. Defeat in one area unnecessarily affects my feelings in many.
It’s easy for me to imagine how the prophet Habakkuk might have reacted to what God showed him. He had great cause for despair after having seen the coming troubles for God’s people; long and arduous years lay ahead. Things really did look dismal: no fruit, no meat, and no creature comforts. His words lure me into a pessimistic bed of hopelessness until he jars me awake again with a small three-letter word: yet. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (Hab. 3:18). Despite all the hardships he anticipated, Habakkuk found cause for rejoicing simply because of who God is.
While we might be prone to exaggerate our problems, Habakkuk truly faced some extreme hardships. If he could summon praise for God in those moments, perhaps we can too. When we’re bogged down in the depths of despair, we can look to God who lifts us up.