Do our circumstances matter? Does the presence or absence of possessions, health, career, family and friends make an ultimate difference?
Our answer to that question is determined by our view of ultimate reality. If this life is all there is, then of course, those things matter, in fact, those things are all that matter.
But if our view of ultimate reality includes God and an afterlife then no, our temporary circumstances cannot change that ultimate reality. That’s not to say that our circumstances don’t affect us. Events such as getting married, being diagnosed with a disease, having a child, and losing a job, certainly affect us. But none of our earthly troubles or blessings change ultimate reality.
What is ultimate reality? For the follower of Christ, ultimate reality is God, the reign of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ sacrificial death, and eternal life. Those things aren’t contingent on anything that touches our earthly lives.
If God is the center of our lives, we can agree with the prophet Habakkuk who wrote,
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation (3:17-18 ESV).
That type of attitude enables us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18) and “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). But why would we want to rejoice in the Lord when we’re going through a hard time? Because while our circumstances change, God’s character and his love for us doesn’t change.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39 ESV)
Again, it’s not that our circumstances don’t matter, it’s just that they don’t ultimately matter. Believers aren’t defined by their circumstances; they’re defined by God and his love for them. And that love doesn’t flow like a stream apart from our circumstances, but it flows into our circumstances. Paul put it this way:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13 ESV).
Paul was not a Stoic. He rejoiced and grieved over earthly situations, but in those situations he experienced an eternal and loving helping hand and that’s where he placed his focus. Keeping our eyes on ultimate reality doesn’t simply mean looking ahead to our eternal home, it means recognizing the divine Helper who breaks into our present-day circumstances, whether those circumstances happen to be good or bad.
[This post is part of a series on Paul.]