Stress Testing Your Faith

September 15, 2020 at 1:00 PM

This past July my wife found herself dealing with a mysterious illness that perplexed even our family doctor. When her symptoms suddenly took a turn for the worse, the severity of the situation hit me hard. She put on a brave face but even that was shortly overtaken by an aggressive paralysis. She could not close her left eye, her mouth was drooping, her lips and tongue were numb, and she was losing her ability to talk, with stuttering that rendered her unintelligible. 

She chuckled through failing lips, but behind her eyes I recognized a panic I hadn’t seen since the day our firstborn was unintentionally birthed in our bedroom. I had failed to recognize the urgency of that moment. I was not going to make that same mistake again.

Heading to the hospital in the midst of a global pandemic was a minefield of potential fears. We walked hand-in-hand through the emergency ward doors, but I left alone, turned away by the COVID-19 hospital guidelines. I returned home to kids without any explanations of what’s wrong with mommy, when she would come home, or if.

After a week of testing, treatment and observation, her condition stabilized and there was nothing left to do but await the results. Anxious days followed. 

When the official diagnosis finally arrived, our hearts sank. It was Lyme disease. The very thing we were praying it would not be. The disease with a track record of uncertainty and potentially chronic, lifelong symptoms. 

Because the tick bite had gone unnoticed, we were dealing with late stage Lyme, where recovery is less assured, and often incomplete.

Why would God allow this?

You might guess from the title that Lyme disease was simply a “stress test” God used to test our faith and make us stronger. Indeed it was a stress test. But it was a test we failed and it didn’t make us stronger. But, looking back we are thankful for both. If you’re confused about that, let me explain.

The Stress Test

In engineering, stress testing describes the process of pushing structures, systems, or software beyond their limits, often to a breaking point, in order to observe:

  • performance as load increases toward capacity
  • points of failure when capacity is exceeded
  • load balancing and failover systems
  • recovery from failure

This is testing under abnormal, extreme conditions, with the understanding that these conditions are likely if not guaranteed. As such, what’s being tested needs to scale elegantly to accommodate these scenarios all the while failing gracefully and nondestructively when the limits are exceeded.

Stress testing in software, is a test that anticipates that the code isn’t being used by only one user, but potentially millions of users, and concurrently. Scenarios where the Application Programming Interface (API) is barraged with an unending stream of queries accounting for hundreds of thousands of hits per second, asynchronous, and globally distributed. As an example, Twitter alone registers 500 million tweets per day, and that’s only a fraction of the number of requests their API must support.

How are your stress levels?

2020 has had its fair share of stress tests. We’ve all been affected by COVID-19 and its impacts have been felt in almost every sphere of life, economically, physically, socially, and spiritually. 

We as the church have seen our forms of worship and fellowship turned upside down. We’re meeting online but everything feels unnatural. Zoom fatigue means small groups are getting smaller. Ministries have been shelved. “Pot lucks” are out of luck. Support structures are failing. These abnormal and extreme conditions are emotionally draining and the resulting stress is starting to show. It’s spilling over into our Facebook posts, our tweets, even our private messaging. There’s a vocal uprising, because for many enough is enough.

Why would God allow this?

More than you can handle

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “God will never give you more than you can handle”. Gently put, you are not going to find this principle in Scripture. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” he is literally talking about temptation to sin, and the provisions that are ours as believers to find escape and flee every temptation. But God does not promise escape from hardships, trials or stress tests.

On the contrary, page after page, Bible “hero” after Bible “hero”, we see men and women who are pushed past their limits, way past what they can handle. Paul describes one particular stress test in precisely this way.

For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. - 2 Corinthians 1:8

Indelibly imprinted in God's Word we find catastrophic crashes and overwhelming failures, captured for all time, and for our consideration.

Consider Peter

Peter himself tells us to not be surprised when stress tests come our way.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. - 1 Peter 4:12

This is incredible coming from Peter. He sure can attest to a life of stress tests. It’s just that, he really doesn’t have the best track record, a bit of a reputation for failure.

Testing to capacity

Peter’s first stress test is hardly a blip on the radar. This may be why it caught him off guard. You may have even missed it. After a failed night of fishing, Jesus decides Peter’s boat is now a pulpit and begins preaching to the assembled crowd on the shoreline. But Peter’s too busy to listen, he’s got empty nets to clean, and fishing frustrations to smoulder.

As Jesus wraps up, He fixes His attention on Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

Pretty straightforward, but Peter’s nearing capacity. We can see the signs of stress in his three part response. 

“Master, we toiled all night and took NOTHING!” - Luke 5:5a

1.) The passive aggressive annoyed part. Peter was an expert fisherman, especially in the discipline of getting skunked. Not to mention the nets had just been cleaned. This was not a convenient time to catch nothing.

“But at YOUR word…” - Luke 5:5b

2.) The responsibility assignment part. Peter is not looking forward to the criticism of fishing in fishless waters, the embarrassment of another fruitless endeavour. Peter makes sure everyone knows that what happens next is on Jesus. Peter’s got his “I told you so” locked and loaded. This is Jesus’ idea.

“...I will let down the nets.” - Luke 5:5c

3.) The resigned but reluctant part. Peter recognizes he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. He’s not about to grandstand Jesus.

Peter’s performance is degrading, but he still has the wherewithal to maintain appearances. But from Peter’s perspective, throwing clean nets into fishless water, makes no sense.

Similarly, our capacity for the extra effort required to deal with life’s unexpected, inconvenient, and annoying absurdities is low. We simply do not perform well with even the slightest load.

COVID-19 has done a number on many of us as we struggle to recalibrate our expectations, our comfort, our livelihood, and our habits. For those of us who feel that lockdowns, masks and social distancing don’t make sense, capacity is in short supply. We are annoyed, maybe even angry. We are resigned. This is not how we would do things. Life sure was easier when we knew what to expect on Sunday. But COVID-19 has made everything more complicated, requiring much more effort.

My wife and I found our capacity quickly exhausted over a tick bite. Life’s rhythms were completely thrown off. Four kids are exhausting. Adding Lyme disease to the equation collapses all semblance of composure and competency. 

How did this happen? True, we live near a natural corridor but the constant flow of deer migrating through Toronto with their parasitic hitchhikers keeps us vigilant. We are exceptionally cautious, regularly inspecting for those vermin. As far as we knew, there was no tick bite. We did everything right. To be dealing with Lyme disease made no sense, and it certainly didn’t make us better parents, spouses, Christians, or humans for that matter.

Did we get annoyed with God? Yup. This was bad timing. Did we reluctantly resign ourselves to the potential for a lifetime of chronic illness? Yup. This is going to mess up everything. Did we feel the frustration of being asked to do something we didn’t want to do, something that didn’t make sense? Yup. Why would God allow this?

And so with our capacity nearing that critical threshold, we make our disapproval known to God, “This is nonsense. This is on you. This is YOUR idea!”

But in fact the nonsense lies in our hearts. For Peter to think that Jesus doesn’t know where the fish are, that Jesus doesn’t know what He’s doing, is nonsense. For believers to be convinced that if businesses, economies, churches don’t reopen, all of the progress we’ve made for society, for God, for ourselves will be lost, is nonsense. For us to think that a debilitating disease can get in the way of all of God’s plans for our lives, is nonsense. To believe that if God wants to do something with us, He sure better keep us healthy or we’re of no good use to Him, is nonsense.

God doesn’t need our fishing tips. He doesn’t need our health, our financial independence, our bullish stock markets, our church programs, or us at all for that matter. No, our inconveniences are not His inconveniences. 

True, the results are “on Him” but not in the spiteful and frustrated way that so callously falls from our lips. This is not a blame game, because the ultimate outcome is not failure. Do you believe that? Peter was ultimately crucified upside down believing that.

Testing beyond capacity

Flash forward to the lightning that’s now tracing across the sky. Peter is once again in a boat, but this time, Jesus isn’t asking him to do anything. Jesus is, as a matter of fact, asleep.

They wouldn’t have entered the boat if the storm now bearing down on them was remotely in the forecast. Like most stress tests, this one was unexpected. And Jesus didn’t stop them from sailing into it. Actually this boat ride was Jesus’ idea.

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” - Mark 4:35

And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. - Matthew 8:23

The storm soon catches up to them and their little boat is tossed around without regard for life. Incredibly, Jesus remains asleep, impervious to its fear mongering, and life threatening qualities. The disciples on the other hand have exceeded their limits as this stress test crashes down on them.

“Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” - Matthew 8:25

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” - Mark 4:38b

Consider the panic of the disciples. There are two groups represented in the synoptics. We don’t know which one Peter was in, but neither are worthy of commendation. 

1.) The “don't you know” group. Those who believed Jesus was simply unaware of the situation. A frantic “we are perishing” quickly brings Jesus up to speed, as if He didn’t already know exactly what was going on.

2.) The “don’t your care” group. Those who attribute Jesus’ lack of action to a lack of concern. It is this second group that is especially annoyed with Jesus’ decision to have a nap. Jesus isn’t panicking with them. He’s not trimming the sails, tossing things overboard, or doing anything for that matter.

And that pretty much describes our response to life’s stress tests when we are pushed past capacity. We get frustrated with God, who we know could rescue us at any moment, but is clearly not doing anything. Does He not know what’s going on? We question the heart of God, and His love for us. We insist that these stress tests must end, immediately.

To us, God isn’t concerned like we think He should be. So we take it upon ourselves to get everyone around us as concerned as we are. Facebook and Twitter are exceptionally good places to organize around our panic. Driven by fear, we get sucked into conspiracy theories and unfounded “explanations” for why these storms are upon us. This satisfies our insatiable desire for answers, temporarily offsetting our inability to accept stress tests without explanation. We jump into action, rallying those who will join us, to offset an “inactive” God.

Our insistence that God do something: calm the storm, heal my wife, end the lockdown, or restart the economy, is not born out of concern for what God is doing, but a panicked attempt to simply escape the storm as quickly as possible.

Can we agree that if we believe in the sovereignty of God, that He is in control of both the storm AND its devastating effects?

Jesus sets the record straight on both counts.

Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. - Matthew 8:26b

But the stress test was not over. There was a great calm on the waters but it did not extend into their hearts. They now had another great fear to contend with.

And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” - Mark 4:41

When the disciples cried “save us”, they did not know what they were asking. They did not expect Jesus to peel back the curtain on that moment in creation when He spoke the universe into existence and every single atom obeyed His command. The disciples recognized that they were in the presence of the Holy, and its implications were terrifying. Fearing storms was now obsolete.

And that’s the point. It’s easy to read this account and think, “I just need to wake God from His slumber, and He will calm my storms”. But can we agree that’s not at all what’s going on here? Quite the opposite in fact. This explains why Jesus did not even commend them for crying to Him for help. He called it lack of faith, an outright failure of this stress test. 

“Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” - Matthew 8:26a

No, Jesus wasn’t waiting to be awoken. He was waiting for His disciples to wake up. To wake up to what it truly means to have Jesus by their side. To be convinced without a shadow of a doubt that with Jesus in their boat there is no storm worthy of fear. The storm did not need to be calmed. 

The disciples could have woke up to a boatload of faith, throwing their hands into the air as they dropped over the edge of each wave with the adrenaline rush of a theme park rollercoaster. But no, Peter and the disciples failed the stress test. So Jesus had to startle them out of slumber.

My wife and I failed our stress test. We sat at a picnic table outside the hospital in tears. There were already enough storms in our life. We didn’t need more. To our shame, our hearts held out hope that God would wake up, and calm our storm. But this was in fact our wakeup call. Our realization that the storm is obsolete.

Maybe there’s a storm that has overwhelmed you…is overwhelming you. Maybe this stress test is your wakeup call?

The Load Balancing Act

Ultimately, load distribution is the solution to all software related capacity issues. Throwing more computational power, is unavoidably necessary. Sure, optimizations along the way can stretch capacity, but that simply delays the inevitable, when another node is required to be brought online in order to distribute the burden.

The purpose of God’s stress tests in our lives is not to teach us how to handle more stress and increase our capacity. No, it’s to teach us to offload our burdens as there is no load that He can not bear. Peter finally understood that stress tests are not about growing stronger, but trusting greater, unburdening sooner.

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. - 1 Peter 5:7 

You see it was Jesus who secured an eternal peace and forever calmed our greatest storm. The storm of God’s justice bearing down on our sins, each and every one, visible and exposed, with a guilty verdict echoing for all eternity. He bore the totality of that load. In some finite moments on a cross He paid our infinite penalty. For all those who put their trust in Him, our conviction of faith does not demand that Jesus “rescue us” from any other storm. The storm is obsolete. We are already safe. Throw your arms in the air.

My wife an I were brought to this conclusion. Our hope can not be in her recovery. Our hope can not be in our health, our wealth, or any of life’s fluctuating metrics of success. Our hope can not be in escaping the storm, or avoiding future storms. Our hope is in the finished work of Jesus, and that is enough. His grace is sufficient.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” - 2 Corinthians 12:9

Stress tests don’t change what is being tested. They merely expose performance under load and exploit the weakness until failure. So, let God expose your weakness, and wake up to the calm waters of sins forgiven. 

Being acutely aware of your own weakness, but profoundly confident in His strength, is how Paul describes it.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-11

God doesn’t need your strength, and you certainly haven’t benefited from it. And while the purpose of stress tests isn’t to make you stronger, it is to make you complete, lacking in nothing.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

This is not a plan to make us steadfast in our own abilities. Being perfect and complete and lacking in nothing, clearly does not mean we have strengthened to the point that we no longer need Him. How else do you explain the joy of the early church when their rights were violated.

... you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. - Hebrews 10:34b

No we’ve found a better treasure. We've found that Jesus completely satisfies ALL our needs, in Him there is nothing else we need, and we have no desire to look for it in any other places. Stress tests aren’t designed to make us independent from God and more reliant on self. No, they make us more aware of our dependence, more content in our weakness.

In fact a stress test that makes you less dependent on God is simply believing the lie that we can increase our capacity, put on a brave face, and delay the inevitable for just a little bit longer. Because stress tests are designed to produce failure, if we haven’t reached our capacity, we haven’t reached our dependency. No, stress tests must not make us stronger. That is simply a load balancing act, and it is a fraud.

Showcasing Failure

Lastly, the showcase of a stress test is the failure. If the stress test was successful, the failure is discreet and identifiable. On the whole, we’re not okay with failure. It’s embarrassing, it doesn’t attract friends, it’s all the things we don’t put on our resume, or post on our Facebook timeline.

But consider how Peter describes an opportunity to rejoice, in spite of these stress tests of faith. True the failures leave you heavy hearted, but those failures, those times when you threw yourself on the sufficiency of Christ, those will be the moments where your story intertwines with His story, instances where praise, honour and glory are His not because of your failure, but because of His overcoming power in spite of your failure.

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:6-7

The more we humbly admit our weakness and our failures, the more the all-encompassing effectiveness of Jesus’ work on the cross is on display for all to see. We showcase His sufficiency by willingly showcasing our weaknesses. Each time we fail a stress test, we are given a gospel opportunity to humbly proclaim both our testimony of failure but Jesus’ faithful testimony of triumph.

These are the moments that, in spite of a stress test of annoyance, Jesus summons more fish than a net can catch and a career fisherman abandons those fish and the wealth they represent. Or, in spite of a stress test of fear, Jesus rebukes a storm and twelve men immediately redefine what is to be feared in this life, and ultimately die for this conviction. Or, in spite of a stress test of failing health, Jesus brings a terminally ill woman to the hospital bed next to yours and He liberates your stammering tongue to speak life. Or, in spite of COVID, your streets have more work-from-home neighbours out for a walk than you’ve seen in ten years combined, and Jesus inspires you to connect, build friendships, and share the hope that is within you. 

These are His ideas. It’s on Him. He never fails the stress tests of life. He proves His infinite capacity. The storms are obsolete. Throw your hands in the air.