The Labor of Faith

What do we do when something happens that we don’t understand? How do we react when we expect God to do one thing, and the complete opposite happens? What do we do when we feel down? And how do we in religious circles react when things aren’t good?

Do we talk about the hard times? Do we get angry while we’re going through them?

If you’re anything like me and most believers I know, our first reaction is to chalk these low moments up to God’s sovereignty and completely ignore the pain and the tension of the disappointment we feel.

In other words, we don’t let ourselves get angry. We don’t let ourselves question God. We don’t let ourselves sit in the disappointment of a prayer that seems unanswered, of what feels like an endless season of waiting, of when we ask God for something specific and he does not acquiesce to our request.

But when things are good?

Oh, we’re singing all the praises. We’re sharing our miraculous testimonies with everyone who will listen. We’re giving God all the glory and honor for what he’s done.

Let me be clear: we should be sharing God’s compassion and power and divine work in our lives. Testimonies are important. But we can’t ignore the hard things or the power of a painful testimony. When we do, we’re giving ourselves a false view of who God is and engaging in a limited relationship with him.

Bottom line: What we need to understand is that our relationship with God may really be more complicated than we realize or are willing to admit.

Sometimes God disappoints us. Sometimes we feel like God’s let us down. Sometimes God allows a trial in life so devastating that our whole view of him is shaken and we can’t believe a good God would let such a thing happen.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been there. Many times. And I’m willing to bet you’ve been there, too.

Both of my grandfathers were pastors, so from the time I was a small child I grew up in a family of strong faith. In this environment I saw great loss: death, illness, destruction. But I also saw the faith of my family rise. Their faith was so strong and so resilient that it inspired me and strengthened me, and it continues to do so as part of the legacy I received from my parents and grandparents. But, though I have received this great legacy of faith from my family, over time I began to realize I was missing something.

In short, I was benefiting from the fruit of their faith, but I didn’t appreciate or really recognize the full scope of it.

Religious circles often have a pressure to, a tendency for, and truthfully a culture of making sure that God stays in a nice, neat box with a bow. That each of his decisions and moves are understandable. That He always makes sense.

From my limited understanding of my family’s faith, God always made sense. He always obeyed. Even when things felt bad, they really weren’t because God was always good and always made everything better. If you were ever upset with God or confused by him? You didn’t tell him about it. You just put that feeling away and remembered all the good.

I think we people of faith think this way because we have a need to have our experiences make sense. We want to be able to trace God’s moves and decisions and see exactly what he’s doing in our lives.

But that isn’t the reality of faith or life.

Sometimes God allows a death, an illness or the loss of a job to disrupt our lives. When that happens, we want to quickly resolve the pain and devastation because we can’t handle the reality that God did something we were not okay with. Something we didn’t want. Something that hurt.

My grandfathers pastored for over 40 years before, during and after the Civil Rights Movement. They were Black men raising Black families during a time in America where they saw great tragedy, felt great sorrow and endured great trials that didn’t make sense to them. Many Black families can relate. In his book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, theologian and scholar Reggie L. Williams talks about how faith in God played a major part in the lives and wellness of Black Americans. These people had grandparents and parents who had been slaves. They were living through Jim Crow. They were enduring violence, assault and racism. They knew suffering. Still, they kept a strong faith. How?

When I reflect on all my grandfather’s saw and went through, I wonder at the strength of faith. How even in the midst of the darkest adversity, they remained faithful.

It’s a powerful testament, worthy of the likes of Job, who saw more than his fair share of adversity. But the whole time I was admiring their faith and enjoying this legacy I’ve received as my inheritance, I was missing something. My family has a strong faith foundation—that’s true. But I wasn’t seeing the whole picture.

Ultimately, I was missing the labor of their faith. I was unaware of the rejection they felt, the doubt, the struggle to believe, and the deep suffering that shaped and strengthened their belief. In doing so, I had created a God who was inundated with his goodness and faithfulness, but one with whom I didn’t know how to sit in suffering and rejection.

My grandfathers knew how to do this with great joy. They knew how to doubt and question and struggle, and because of this their faith was strong.

We as a society have lost this ability to see both God’s faithfulness and his rejections. To us, the two cannot coexist. We don’t know how to sit in pain and anger and invite God in. We want to move past the discomfort and hurt feelings and wait for his blessings to rain down again. But a faith where you expect God to cosign on all your life plans on your timeline and at your demand is a shallow faith.

We tend to treat our relationship with God like this: So long as we do everything right, God will make everything in our lives go right. When that doesn’t happen, we’re suddenly at a loss and God has become disobedient to our desires and what we think should (and should not) happen.

This faith is weak because it misses the reality of life and the fullness of who God is, what he can do and what he wants to do in your life. The minute hardship comes, this kind of faith falls apart and you miss God altogether.

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence, it would be this: strong faith comes from deep rejection, painful losses, doubt, discomfort and suffering.

There are no shortcuts to developing strong faith. This means that walking with Jesus doesn’t erase the painful moments of life. In fact, walking with Jesus means that rejection and suffering are sure to come. But it is these exact seasons that strengthen your faith. It is in these moments that you see God most clearly.

Excerpted from Disobedient God: Trusting a God Who Goes Off-Script by Albert Tate. Used with permission from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Albert Tate
Albert Tate

Albert Tate is the co-founder and lead pastor of Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California; a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church; and the author of How We Love Matters and Disobedient God (both Hachette).