What do you do when life falls apart? “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley,” poet Robert Burns wrote, “An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!” Our best-laid plans often do go awry and leave us nothing but grief and pain instead of promised joy. Only the very young don’t know what I’m talking about. Only the very young have not learned that lesson.
The earliest church was learning that lesson when Luke wrote his gospel. Jerusalem and its temple – the center of their faith, the linchpin of their culture, the foundation of their national identity – had been destroyed. The war with Rome had left raw wounds that it seemed would never heal. Friends and families were set against one another, and personal loyalty had given way to betrayal. They were the worst of times with no hint of the best of times.
The earliest Christians were learning that even the best hopes for life can fall apart suddenly and completely, and they were learning some things that would help them get through those times. They were things that might help us get through it when our hopes are dashed, when our life falls apart, when our best-laid plans go awry. So if your life is in shambles, if you’re facing challenges you don’t know how to overcome, if you’re dealing with losses from which you fear you might never recover, here are some things to remember from our ancestors in faith.
First, we can trust the eternal wisdom of creation. We may speculate about why life falls apart, why bad things happen, but we will not know the reasons. Most of the Book of Job is a speculation about why so much bad happened to Job. In the end, when he finally got to question God about it, God confronted him with the reality that God’s motives were impossibly far beyond Job’s poor capacity to understand. We’re temporal creatures with no comprehension of eternal things, like an infant before birth has no concept of existence beyond the womb. When we try to answer the question “why,” we’re like Job, uttering things we don’t understand, things far too wonderful for us (Job 42:3). Trust the wisdom of creation.
Second, we can trust that God will lead us through whatever storms may come in life. When the psalmist was recalling Israel’s passage through the sea from slavery to freedom, he described an experience of overwhelming chaos. He wrote, “When the waters saw you, O God, . . . they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook” (Ps. 77:16-18).
It’s a description of their world falling apart, and it was. But much later, when the psalmist was writing, he could look back and see that “Your way [O God] was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (v. 19). We can trust that God is leading us through whatever storm may assault us, through whatever difficulty may threaten to undo us. And though we may see no evidence of God’s presence, we can trust that God is leading us, is with us through the way, and will not leave us to face our troubles alone.
Third, we can trust, with St. Paul, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose” (Rom. 8:28), “that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good” (The Message). And we can be 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” (vv. 38-39).
No experience in life, no matter how devastating or catastrophic it may seem, is ever wasted. In everything that happens, God, though unseen, is working to transform you into a unique and graceful blessing of God for all creation. What happens doesn’t matter; what matters is what you do with what happens, and the new thing that blossoms in you as a result of what happens.
When life falls apart, when your best-laid plans go awry and leave you nothing but grief and pain instead of promised joy, go ahead and grieve what is lost. It’s part of the process. Then let it go. Remember God’s promise: “All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten. Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating” (Isa. 65:17-18 The Message).
Questions for reflection
- “[T]he days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). Recall an experience in the more distant past when your life seemed to fall apart, when your plans failed, when you suffered devastating loss. What were your first feelings, your first thoughts? Describe them in as much detail as you can recall.
- Describe your relationship with God during that experience.
- How did you get through that experience? What personal, inner resources did you use to get through it? What outer resources did you draw on? How did those inner and outer resources help you? What roles did they play?
- What was the result or outcome of that experience? Looking back on that experience now, where would you say God was? Has your relationship with God changed as a result? How?