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The Limitations of Formulas

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that followers of Christ have about as many unexpected health, work, and family problems as everyone else.

Even though the Bible is full of wisdom that promotes spiritual, emotional, and physical health, it does not give us formulas for making life predictable.

One of my younger brothers was a runner who participated each year in our city’s annual 25K River Bank Run. He was dearly loved by friends and family for his sense of humor and deep commitment to Christ. Yet he died at a fairly young age during one of his daily workouts. The opposite can also happen. People who show little regard for their physical and spiritual health, and who don’t follow conventional wisdom for what it takes to live a long and productive life, can be physically active and mentally sharp well into their later years.

One response, then, could be, “So what’s the point? What’s the use of a faith in God that leaves us with as many physical or spiritual struggles as those who trust only in themselves?”

A Songwriter’s Lament

The author of the 73rd Psalm asked that question. Looking back, he wrote, “I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong. They don’t have troubles like other people; they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.” Then he added, “Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain” (Psalm 73:3-5, 13-14 NLT).

A Wise Man’s Cynicism

Solomon made a similar observation. During a time of personal disillusionment, he observed that even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether or not God will show them favor in this life. “The same destiny,” he wrote, “ultimately awaits everyone, whether [they are] . . . religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2 NLT).

A Good Man’s Bad Times

Then there’s Job. He too shows how misleading spiritual formulas can be. According to one of the oldest stories in the Bible, Job was a model citizen. God Himself admitted that no one on earth lived a better life. Yet no one ended up with more problems.

When Job suddenly lost his family, wealth, and health to a series of tragic and unforeseen events, some of his best friends thought enough of him to sit with him in his pain. They, however, weren’t buying the idea that he had done nothing to deserve his devastating losses.

In the opinion of Job’s friends, he had to be hiding something that would explain his suffering. So one of them, a man named Eliphaz, said, “Stop and think! Do the innocent die? When have the upright been destroyed? My experience shows that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same” (Job 4:7-8 NLT).

The Law of the Harvest

Job’s friends were not all wrong. They knew that just as farmers harvest in the fall what they planted in the spring, so human choices also bear their own kind of fruit. Many years later, even the apostle Paul would write, “Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest [the consequences of] decay and death” (Galatians 6:7-9 NLT).

The Problem with Formulas

Where Job’s friends went wrong was in the way they tried to apply the law of the harvest to his immediate circumstances. Their formulaic conclusion that Job was suffering for a sin proportional to his problems overlooked the temporary storms of life—and the seasons of God that extend into eternity.

When we read the whole of Job’s story, it’s clear that one of the cruelest things we can do to those who are hurting is to judge them with formula-based thinking that doesn’t factor in the mischief of a spiritual enemy, or the mysterious ways of a loving Father.

In the end, both Job and his friends had to learn that, in any given moment, the conditions of our lives may not be reliable indicators of the harvest that is to come.

As bad as Job’s problems were, he remains to this day in good company. Joseph, Daniel, and Paul knew what it meant to suffer for the wrongs of others.

Yet none of them suffered to the extent of the long-awaited Messiah. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on Him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses He carried; it was our sorrows that weighed Him down. And we thought His troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for His own sins!” (Isaiah 53:3-4 NLT).

So if human formulas would not have explained the suffering of Jesus, maybe we should not be surprised when conditions in the lives of His followers don’t seem to add up either.

For now, we don’t reap the full harvest of our faith because, in the wisdom of God and for our ultimate good, He has allowed a spiritual enemy to disrupt the order of His original creation.

But, as Isaiah foresaw, the opposite is also true. Those who trust Christ don’t get the full results of the wrongs that we have done. Instead, we have already begun to harvest the good accomplished through what our Savior endured for us. Even in our darkest moments, we have hope because He allowed Himself to be executed and buried in our behalf—so that all who trust Him could be raised to the joy and goodness of a life that will never end (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Father in heaven, please help us not to think or say more than we know about the problems we see in ourselves or others. Please help us to use our faith not as a formula to explain everything we see, but as a way of trusting You when what we see doesn’t make sense. —Mart De Haan

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