December 7, 2020

Living Above Circumstances

Over the past year life has been surprising and full of difficulties. Some people have told me that the last few months have been the hardest of their lives.

Though the world has never been perfect, it now seems to be falling apart with natural disasters, political and social unrest, physical ailments, death traced to the pandemic, and economic crises. People are afraid, hurt, angry, uncertain, and exhausted. They want to yell, “Enough already! I’m not sure how much more of this I can endure.”

Some may be riddled with guilt thinking, I’m a Christian, but I don’t feel happy. Or, I’ve failed as a Christian because I’m having a hard time trusting God.

The book of Habakkuk has a message telling us that we can live above our circumstances by looking beyond ourselves.

“Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to tread on the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19).1

Survival Mode

What was happening? There is a dialogue and a pronouncement from God that the Babylonians would bring destruction. It was certain and unconditional. Habakkuk eventually comes to terms with this reality and responds with acceptance. The people of God would experience hardships.

In the text, Habakkuk describes a situation of complete devastation in which every part of life would be impacted. Their crops—figs, grapes, grain—were all at risk. If the fields didn’t produce, people would starve. Sheep, goats, and cattle—the loss of one of these things might be survivable, but losing all of them meant severe hardship, devastation, even starvation.

The reality of God’s people experiencing hardships reveals something we have to recognize and admit before we go any further: good and bad circumstances of life will fall upon all of us. None of us will be untouched by the pains and strife of this marred and sinful world. Even believers are not immune to life’s challenges.

It begs the question, “What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to respond?

Viktor Frankl, Austrian Holocaust survivor, wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning based on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl was also a psychiatrist and neurologist. He spent three years in various Nazi camps. When he arrived at the first camp, he and 1,500 people were put into a shed that was made for 200. They were given four ounces of bread every four days. Frankl was separated from his wife, mother, father, and brother. He later learned that they had all been killed.2

What carried him through? He wrote: “[It is] possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp.”3 Frankl said that prisoners discovered some meaning in their lives by helping others through the day; this gave them the will and strength to endure. Some prisoners encouraged each other to sing, joke, take mental photos of sunsets, and, most important, replay treasured memories.4

What helped him navigate these circumstances? Two quotes:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man [and woman] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”5

And: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”6

Coping Mechanisms

In the midst of Israel’s situation, Habakkuk rejoices in the Lord. We can live above our circumstances. First, we can rejoice because of who God is. No matter what we face, we believe that life has meaning.

I think of Paul. While in prison, Paul and Silas were able to sing and praise God (Acts 16:25, 26). I don’t imagine them sitting in the filth, uncertain about tomorrow, in physical pain from being beaten, and thinking, This is great! We need to do this more often! They prayed and sang through the pain. It elevated them above the muck and filth and put their minds on something, Someone, else.

We may not feel gratitude about all our circumstances, but we are grateful to the God who is with us. We will rejoice in Him and our relationship with Him. We are grateful because He helps us rise above our circumstances.

As a result of what Paul and Silas did, others believed. People might be drawn to faith because we have not abandoned our faith amid our difficult moments of loss, pain, sickness, and death. As a result of our faith, we find meaning in life, recognizing that we can develop, learn, grow, sing, and pray with hope during the darkest trials. Our faith reminds us that we’re never alone; Someone is above every circumstance.

The apostle wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

Feelings are valid; they are not our enemy. They are a normal human response. But we may never rejoice if we wait for fleeting feelings.

Strength for the Conflict

To overcome we have to find strength outside ourselves.

As we grow older, we often think of strength as solely physical. Someone who is physically strong must be able to overcome anything. We don’t often think of strength as vulnerability, empathy, or resilience. We sometimes consider strength as being independent, self-sufficient, someone who doesn’t cry easily. For some, strength means being able to handle life without needing anyone.

But Habakkuk reminds us that God is the God of our salvation and our strength. That’s where our focus must lie. Our strength is not in degrees, possessions, or intellectual abilities; it’s in Him.

I think of Peter walking on water. Sometimes God chooses to speak to the winds and waves in our lives and calm a particular storm. But in this incident, he told Peter to come to Him in the midst of the storm that raged all around them. The presence of the Lord did not mean that the storm did not exist. But Peter focused on Jesus. The Bible urges us: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (1 Chron. 16:11).

Sometimes it’s hard to trust God to rescue us and give us the strength to endure. We might feel uncertain about how honest we can be with Him while we’re in the midst of our struggles. Habakkuk had an honest and transparent conversation with God. It was an open, vulnerable exchange. It prompts us not to approach God with fear and trepidation but with boldness.

One of my favorite quotes is from author Nancy Spiegelberg: “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to You with my empty cup, uncertain in asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known You better, I’d have come running with a bucket.”

The Eye of Faith

Some years ago I visited Turkey, Israel, and Jordan. One of the highlights was standing on Mount Nebo overlooking the Jordan Valley. I sensed what it must have felt like to stand on the mountain, looking at the land that was promised to the Israelites.

Then I thought of Moses. I wondered what he would have thought after all those years of frustration and trial. Would he have thought that his difficulties in
the desert were worth it? Would he have a sense of gratitude for at least being able to see the land?

He overcame apparently unconquerable challenges. He walked closely with the source of his strength. Though he did not make it into the earthly Promised Land, he had the hope of the one yet to come. His victory over challenges paved the way for others to reach the earthly Promised Land. His life, even with all the problems, had meaning, it had a purpose.

I can only imagine the circumstances in your life. Perhaps a relationship is falling apart. Maybe your business is barely staying open, or COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on your finances. Perhaps you feel physically or emotionally unwell. It might seem as if you’re on the verge of sinking under the weight of all your circumstances.

We can live above the circumstances by looking beyond ourselves. “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (1 Chron. 16:11).

Alareece Collie is executive pastor of the University Church on the campus of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington.

1 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

2 Holcomb B. Noble, “Dr. Viktor E. Frankl of Vienna, Psychiatrist of the Search for Meaning, Dies at 92,” Sept. 4, 1997, sec. Section B,

3 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), p. 42.

4 Noble, “Dr. Viktor E. Frankl of Vienna, Psychiatrist of the Search for Meaning, Dies at 92.”

5 Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 62.

Carolyn Gregoire, “This Man Faced Unimaginable Suffering, and Then Wrote the Definitive Book About Happiness,” Dec. 6, 2017,