A dozen posts bubble around in my heart for every one I have time to write. This is one of those stories I must tell. When my girls look back and read the story of God’s work in our family, there are some messages I want them to find here. This is one:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Yet, in love, He often hides things from ours.
In 2007, when Joy was referred out for adoption from South Korea, her file included positive MRI findings for PVL, a form of brain damage common in very premature babies. The MRI findings, along with her gestational age at birth (29 weeks) and weight (980 grams or one pound; she is a twin) placed her at high risk for cerebral palsy. We were waiting for a child with significant needs so did not find that prospect daunting.
At the same time, our expectations for Joy’s development were set by our international adoption clinic here in the U.S. Neurologists here looked at her Korean MRI and did not find PVL. They told us kids with a similar birth history and a clear MRI did not necessarily develop cerebral palsy. If they did, they could usually walk with forearm crutches. Whether or not she developed CP, she was at high risk for developmental delays, learning disabilities and executive dysfunction deficits like ADHD.
How do parents make decisions like this? Like which adoption referral to accept?
I’m not sure how to conceptualize this: Does it make it more simple, or more complicated when you believe as we do, that God sovereignly arranges families?
Eight years after we accepted Joy’s referral, only two things stand out in my mind. First, we were waiting for a toddler boy (hard to place) and were surprised to be referred a baby girl. That departure from our plan seemed significant. Second, we were living in a four-level-split house that could not be made fully accessible. With the mortgage paid off –one of the fruits being we could afford to adopt another child –we thought we would be living there a long time. So it seemed wise not consider the referral of a child who would use a wheelchair.
Now that I think about it, we ruled out one other condition: blindness. I had no logical reason for that. Blindness simply scared me. And as we checked “yes” to almost every condition on our agency’s medical checklist, our couple of “no”s did not deeply disturb me.
Joy came home from Korea at 13 months old, beginning to show signs of cerebral palsy. At her first visit at our children’s specialty hospital, I brought copies of her MRI reports: the one-sentence report from Korea indicating PVL, and the longer one from the international adoption clinic stating there was none.
I asked her doctor, “Do you want to see the actual MRI? Korea sent it to us on over-sized acetate sheets the size of x-ray film.”
“Bring it in next time you come,” she told me. “We’ll scan it into her electronic record. Then we’ll have it for reference in the future.”
Next visit, I surrendered the film. Several hours later they gave it back to me, with a new note on the film jacket indicating it was in their electronic records. At that time, I couldn’t bear to throw anything away that dated to Joy’s life before we met her in Korea. So I saved her MRI.
Three years ago, we were moving. Joy had developed a quadriplegic pattern of cerebral palsy that involved her whole body. We had just taken delivery of her first wheelchair and needed a house with a more accessible floor plan.
Packing, Joy’s MRI came to hand. Take it or toss it? In the four years since it had been scanned, no doctor had asked about her MRI. The archivist in me noticed the acetate sheets were stiffening and in a decade would be brittle. Judging the digital version at the hospital was the better copy, I threw away Joy’s original MRI rather than move it to our new house.
Then, eighteen months ago, when she was six, Joy had a work-up to rule out absence seizures. It included her first visit with a neurologist here in America. Her neurologist wanted to see her infant MRI. I did, too. I had only ever seen Joy’s brain as a series of thumbnail images on the acetate sheets when I held them up to a window once. I had no idea what I was looking at.
Joy’s neurologist turned an over-sized monitor in my direction and went fishing in her medical record for the scanned copy of Joy’s MRI from Korea. She found nothing. She made a phone call to imaging services. They had nothing on file that was not linked to Joy’s record. She hung up.
“No big deal to not have it,” she said. “The 24 EEG will tell us a lot more.”
It ruled out absence seizures.
Another year passed. Joy’s absence-seizure like behavior didn’t go away. We lost her attention for moments at a time. She’d stare off into space toward the ceiling or into the distance, not distressed, but not present. We could call her back, but it was like she was returning from some place far away. Much of the time she seemed unable to maintain her focus on activities at school. She was easily distracted by sounds, by light, by movement. In groups she often chose to sing to herself (loudly) rather than participate in what the teacher and other students were doing.
Joy just couldn’t keep her eyes on a task. Not even for her own safety. While she had the ability to propel her wheelchair, she only did it in very familiar environments, sometimes. Other times she would wheel right into a wall or a door jam because she didn’t look where she was going. And even though she knew the mechanics of backing up and turning, she never looked around to problem-solve getting un-stuck. She’d just sit there and wait for somebody to help her.
In 2011, when we got her first wheelchair, despite having quadriplegia, she showed all the physical indicators of capacity for being independently mobile in a manual chair, which her therapists projected was a precursor to a power chair. Instead, three years later, Joy is a child people push everywhere all the time.
Ten months ago, I initiated a neuro-developmental workup for Joy because too many things about her development have not been adding up. Specifically, I wanted to figure out why she struggles so much with attention and communication, the two elements that increasingly seem to isolate her from the rest of the world.
As part of the work-up, I requested a new MRI. The result: Joy has PVL just like Korea reported. The brain damage is prominent on her MRI and is very old, dating back to her days as a premature baby in Korea. Joy’s PVL would have been impossible for our international adoption clinic to miss.
If they read the right child’s MRI.
You can see exactly where this historian-mommy’s heart wants to take this inquiry, can’t you.
That’s one reason God has drawn a veil.
God knows me. He knows I am prone to push logic and intuition as far as they will go and only then rest –when inquiry will take me no further. When I have figured out a mystery, made sense of an enigma, explained the inexplicable –then and only then does my mind stand down. Great trait in my chosen profession. But it produces quite a limp in my life of faith.
What kinder thing could God do than have me, with my own hands, throw away the original MRI, while he took care of the glitch that disappeared the scanned copy at the hospital?
Why? It seems obvious that this is not a path of inquiry it is good for my heart to travel. It doesn’t lead to peace and rest, to my growth in faith and trust in God’s goodness and provision. In love, he’s keeping me from going there.
Nothing could be more clear than God’s choice to make us and Joy a family. And nothing could be more clear than the fact that he waited until now, when she’s on the verge of turning eight, to, with equally deliberate action, lift a veil that until now he has kept drawn:
Joy is functionally blind.
No one has guessed it in the presence of her typical eyes and, we all thought, an unremarkable MRI. Joy has Cortical Visual Impairment. CVI is a neurological form of visual impairment caused by the same PVL that causes her quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
How, for almost eight years, has everyone missed the fact that she is functionally blind?
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Yet, in love, He often hides things from ours.
God kept it hidden. And he has revealed it now for a reason. For decades we as a society have let kids and adults live with the untreated effects of CVI, believing it to be part of the package labeled “how some people with quadriplegia are.” Today, clinicians are identifying CVI as a distinct diagnostic element even in kids like Joy who are multiply impaired because Cortical Visual Impairment can, in many cases, be significantly resolved.
Lord willing, that’s the next chapter in Joy’s life: “In Which I Learn To See.”
The smallest presents under the Christmas tree this year came packed with great power. At least mine did.
Mercy, who is now 10, tucked a single piece of paper inside of an envelope for each member of our family. On it, she wrote scripture references arranged in an acrostic: highlighted letters in Bible book titles spelling out each person’s name.
“I wanted to give you something encouraging,” she explained.
The day after Christmas I looked up my page of verses, stunned by the message that unfolded under my pencil. Mercy woke up and came downstairs just as I finished and I gave her a hug.
“Umm, you read your Bible verses?” she mumbled into my chest. I nodded, choked up.
“They were encouraging?” she asked. I nodded again.
“Umm, Mom? Can you stop hugging me? I can’t breathe.”
“Honey, these verses are more than encouraging,” I said, reluctantly letting go. “You have no way of knowing what God has been teaching me lately. But the Holy Spirit lives in you, too. I think when you had your Bible open, he gave you these verses for me. Did you know there’s another spiritual gift besides, “encouragement” that also starts with an “e”? It is called, “exhortation.” It is a very strong way of encouraging somebody to do something. Your verses are an exhortation to me. God used them like a bright yellow highlighter underlining what he wants me to make important in 2015.”
Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken. Children have I reared up but they have rebelled against me. (Isaiah 1:2)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16a)
Beginning from the baptism of John until the day he [Jesus] was taken up from us –one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. (Acts 1:22)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
[They sang] “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:11b)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7b)
I have been living as if I’m ashamed of the Gospel.
Sin isn’t pretty is it. In fact the Bible speaks of sin as blinding. That’s why I haven’t seen it.
Quizzed on the question, I would tell you that I’m not ashamed of the Gospel. Not intellectually. My words would pass. I would never affirm with my lips, “I am ashamed of the Gospel.”
But when I do a functional theology check –not what I think, or what I say, but what I do, I find that in some ways I have been living as if I am ashamed of the Gospel.
How can this be?
The truth is the Truth is true. The Gospel is so bright, so illuminating, I have kept it under a bushel rather than let light have its natural way. I have shaded it, made soft becoming candlelight of bright, high intensity light that God intends to illumine, not flatter, the human condition. God fully intends us to be undone in the light of His perfection, to be humbled by clear-sighted vision of our inadequacies.
God intends His light to have the opposite effect, too: to illumine and to draw us to the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
That has been gut-wrenching: understanding that in playing it safe, doing what I thought was expected of me (which is actually about my own sinful need to please people), I have deprived my house of the full radiance of the Gospel shining from the lamp stand my life (Matthew 5:15).
David Powlison, who also has the gift of exhortation, puts it this was in his essay, “God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional.”
“The opposite of conditional and judgmental might seem to be unconditional and affirming. The opposite of unreasonable expectations might seem to be no expectations at all. The opposite of being bossy might seem to be non-directive. Or so people wish.
Yes. Conditional love is obviously hate, not love. But unconditional love –used with the meaning the term now carries [in our culture] –is a more subtle deceit. It keeps company with teachings that say to people, “Peace, peace,” when from God’s holy point of view, there is no peace (see Jer. 23:14, 16).
If you receive blanket acceptance you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself –or thrilling you about Christ. It lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at, changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself.
We can do better. God does not accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.
This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love. God has blessed me because his Son fulfilled the conditions I could never achieve. Contrary to what I deserve, he loves me. And now I can begin to change, not to earn love, but because I’ve already received it.
….[Y]ou need something better than unconditional love. You need the crown of thorns. You need the touch of life bestowed on the dead son of the widow of Nain. You need the promise to the repentant thief. You need to know, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” You need forgiveness. You need a Shepherd, a Father, a Savior. You need to become like the One who loves you. You need the better love of Jesus. And by God’s grace, that is what he offers you.”
David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lense of Scripture. The Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, P & R Publishing, 2003. p. 169-170.
I offer this post with thanks to God for the glories of His redeeming love evidenced in the life the Qualls family, who lost their beloved daughter “Dimples” to heaven December 27, 2014. One Thankful Mom has been a fixture in my sidebar since I opened this blog and many of you know the Gospel story God has played out in their family story over the years.
I want to let you hear from Thomas Case, a 17th century English Puritan pastor, who wrote the words below while in prison in 1652. Like the Qualls, Case learned these truths about God’s sovereignty by living them. I share them with love to the Qualls in tribute to the God who made Dimples, who ordained her days, and whose face she is now beholding, no longer in a mirror dimly, but now face to face.
The purest acts of faith are put forth in the dark.
Faith is at its greatest strength when it cannot see, for it has nothing to stay itself but upon God. Man must first see the insufficiency of what he sees before he can believe in the all sufficiency of that which is invisible. It is harder to live by faith in abundance than in want. The soul is a step nearer to living on God when it has nothing to live upon but God. Faith’s triumph lies in the midst of despair. Where sense ends, faith begins. When God pulls away the bulrushes of creature supports, the soul must either sink or swim.
….God teaches us the necessity of a life of faith through these earthly disappointments. O bitter disappointments with no faith to support it!
Faith is never disappointed. God is always better than our expectations. He only lives an unchangeable life that by faith can live in an unchangeable God.
Often we trust totally in the earthly, knowing no other life but sense and reason. We seek to patch up a life between faith and sense which is not a life of faith at all. We do not live at all by faith if we do not live all by faith! Though we use means, we must trust God and trust him solely.
To bring us to this, God allows us to become tired of secondary causes [the means to achieving an end] and turn to Christ. We never resolve exclusively for God until with the prodigal we are whipped home stark naked to our father’s house. There is no help in the best of men. Alas, he is but a little breathing clay. Trust in God is the only way that is able to make a man happy. Can anything be too hard for a creating God? Men may prove unfaithful, but God will never prove unfaithful. The soul that comes to see the excellence of a life of faith, will be kept in perfect peace because his mind is stayed on God.
….God can raise the dead and conquer the greatest difficulty. He that can put life into a dead man can put life into dead hopes and raise up our expectations out of the very grave of despair. God that can put life into dead bones can put life into dead faith! Even those who have been given the largest proportion of faith and courage are suffered to languish under fears and to despair under insurmountable difficulties so they can recover holy confidence in God.
We are proud creatures, full of self-confidence, and so God by strange and unexpected providences hedges up our way with thorns, brings us to despair even of life, bereaves us of counsel, brings us under the very sentence of death that we might not trust ourselves, but in God who raises the dead. He overturns us by despair. He shows us what babes and fools we are in ourselves, that in our future hazards and fears we might know nothing but God!
Thomas Case 1598-1682. A Treatise on Afflictions (1652), excerpt from Part I, Lesson 11. Banner of Truth edition When Christians Suffer (2009), Richard Rushing, ed., p. 32-35 & 39-40.
“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.” (I Peter 4:12) “….knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (I Peter 5:9-10)
I have lost too much life to being surprised.
You know “surprised.” Alarmed. The state of being overtaken by circumstances you never imagined. You didn’t volunteer for. You don’t feel equipped to handle. You imagine will be (or actually find) overwhelming.
The rest of your life. That majority (or so we imagine) staked out as Ordinary. Every-day. Life-as We Know It. Expected. Typical.
We are surprised by those things our heart finds alarming, circumstances our heart red-flags as intruding upon the boundaries of Normal.
I can’t beat myself up for being surprised. I am human. I have a finite mind. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. And I certainly don’t have the mind of God to understand why: what is good for me and what is working to bring about His purposes in the world. So not being God, on this earth, I am going to be surprised often.
2014 was a surprising year. Just after my last post (eight months ago) my father-in-law, an agnostic, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a harrowing privilege to spend the summer immersed in a foreign culture: helping give in-home hospice care among people who were willing to talk about anything except eternity.
In August, Joy was hospitalized, overnight we thought for rehydration following a virus. It turned into a two-week stay on a PIC line for a rare auto-immune complication, Stevens Johnson Syndrome (SJS).
While Joy and I were in the hospital, my FIL passed away, as did a dear friend, a long-time professional mentor.
The surprises continued. Rehabilitating Joy from the SJS, over the past few months a game-changing new diagnosis has emerged. And those are just the hard providences I have liberty to talk about here.
2014 has been one difficult surprise on top of another. So much so that in just getting done what needed to be done I have not had time to blog.
But it has also been, personally speaking, between me and Jesus, one of the sweetest years of my life. This is the year my heart has learned what Paul was talking about when, in shackles, he wrote to the Philippian church, “I have learned in whatever circumstances I am to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)
I have wrestled with that verse –with my lack of contentment in all circumstances –for as long as I can remember. Why? Because for so long I have been surprised by many of the circumstances I found myself in.
What is the connection between being surprised/alarmed and my lack of contentment? This is how it worked in my heart.
As a child I found difficult circumstances, like the family I was growing up in, very confusing. If God put children in families, I reasoned, why did he choose my family for me and not one of those glowing families down the pew at church?
I was surprised that God said he loved me on paper (the Bible) and I tried my hardest to believe him (in faith). But I never got over my surprise that the evidence of his love seemed so thin in my real life. God seemed to be working out his promises to bless people outside my family so I willingly granted that his Word was true. I concluded the problem was not God; the problem was me and my family.
Without understanding it, I internalized a dangerous idea: that if I accepted as God’s will the circumstances he placed me in, if I learned to settle my heart and thrive there, if my life revealed contentment in circumstances others called “suffering” –then I was settling for less than God intended for his children.
Think about it from a child’s point of view: If I and my family were the problem and I accepted the way things were as okay –if I was content with my circumstances –then there would be no problem. There is no need for a Physician if you’re not sick. There is no need to seek wisdom if you don’t know you’re a fool. Those who aren’t lost don’t need salvation.
I seemed to be the only one in my family who thought we had a problem and I arrived at my diagnosis by holding us up against the standard of the Word of God.
I grew up rightly discontent. By God’s standards we were sick, lost, miserable, fools. [God in his mercy had opened the hearts of some of us to understand the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but it had yet to have a transformative effect on our family.]
It is only a baby step from that truth –we are sick, miserable fools who need Jesus –to the fallacy that has fueled the chronic surprise of my adult decades: that if I quiet my heart and accept the circumstance God has placed me in, He will not change them. That only by being a Persistent Widow and wearing God out with my door-knocking –staying discontent about what he has promised his children but has not given me yet –will He be motivated to bestow blessing.
This is how that logic works using Paul’s circumstances when he write the the Philippians as an example:
If Paul is content under indefinite house arrest, if it doesn’t cramp his life or his ministry to be manacled to a jailer 24 hours a day, then why should God set Paul free? Doesn’t God have more pressing concerns than making Paul happier if Paul is already happy? No. Paul is better off making his case for freedom to God because Paul is a man of great faith. Paul believes God can free him and freedom will mean more fruitful ministry for Paul for God.
That is heresy. That is simply human logic cloaked in Christian language. I am only giving voice to the heart-level beliefs about God I have maintained for most of my life. Not head-level. My brain produces the words that come out of my mouth and my brain has been stuffed with good theology for decades. But the Bible says it is my heart that produces the “words” of my life, the fruit or actions that grow out of my most deeply held beliefs.
One of my freshly-surrendered false-beliefs is that I need to hold God to account. That if I am too quick to accept with a cheerful, “Thank you, Daddy!” the plate of spinach he has handed me yet again when I was hoping to try the chicken nuggets and fries I’ve seen him hand out to other children, God will not know I long to taste chicken.
In my surprise I furrow my brow and hesitate a moment before accepting the spinach. In my alarm, I call God’s attention to my nutritional record least he miss (again) my (chronic) fear that I will soon waste way from malnutrition if he persists in feeding me on this diet. And on and on I go.
Here’s the thing I’ve been trying to write to this entire post. (After eight months away, I’m rusty!)
The Bible says spinach is normal, healthy fare if we follow Jesus. It is typical. To be expected.
He is God and he knows things about me I don’t know (like maybe I am deathly-allergic to chicken). God promises to lovingly feed me all the spinach I need every day of my life.
That’s the kicker. I’ve wasted long stretches of four decades of the life God has given me in the fog of anxiety of surprise because I didn’t understand that various degrees of “suffering” are ordinary Christianity. It only made my own experiences more acute to imagine that they were somehow unique, that I was unusually burdened, that the cross God had chosen for me to bear was atypically heavy.
That I was the only one being fed all-spinach while everyone else got nuggets and fries. That the absence of chicken on my plate reflected something wrong that needed fixing.
I formed that opinion in isolation. Growing up, no one invited me in. The adults closest to me who knew Jesus were too consumed with coping with the chaos of generational dysfunction to offer me something they were still figuring out for themselves.
None of the families that as a child I admired from afar at church invited me in so I never got to see how they really operated; I only imagined they functioned as well at home as they did in church on Sunday. I do not hold that against them. Maybe they didn’t see the need because we passed so well?
And I maintained that opinion as an adult the same way: in isolation despite being in theologically superb churches. People don’t challenge the integrity of the story families choose to present in church on Sunday. And if that is all the better we know each other, then we may not know each other at all.
There was no one there when I was my daughters’ ages to say to me what I want them to know now:
These difficult things are all carefully chosen parts of God’s plan for your life. You are not yet at a place in the story where you can see where the plot line is going and say, “Oh, that’s why the author made it happen that way back toward the beginning!”
Like I understand now that my childhood was the training ground for the kind of wife and mother God has called me to be. The childhood I longed for would not have prepared me for this.
God knows exactly what he is doing even when it makes no sense to us.
Which brings me back to blogging. One of the enormous blessings of 2014 has been 2014 itself. I never before so clearly understood 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, which reads in part:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Inside this hard-shelled ugly old oyster of difficult circumstances labeled 2014, God has given me a pearl of great price, a miracle-change in my own heart that I didn’t have the good sense to seek while I was door-knocking for other miracles: contentment inside difficult circumstances. Circumstances God has the power to change. But God does not need my discontentment to impel him to act. God does everything he does in love, even when in his wisdom he withholds things I desire.
Blogging is one way I will give witness to “the comfort with which I have been comforted by God.” I have taken great comfort in 2014 in God’s provision of Christian women friends who have been honest about their own struggles, disabusing me of any notion that mine are unique. That in itself has been a great mercy. Correcting my misimpression that nuggets and fries are typical fare has gone far toward increasing my satisfaction with God’s provision for me.
But the real miracle is that a year or two ago I would have cited a long list of circumstances that needed changing to reverse the “fiery trials” we were experiencing in order to restore my lost contentment. Instead, God has shown I Peter 1:10 to be true in a way I never expected.
“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”
Restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you inside the fiery trials.
That’s the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at work in real life. That is a hope worth sharing.
As I write this post, I’m two-thirds of the way through a three-weekend Biblical counseling conference. God obviously timed this conference for this season of my life. Even though the opportunity, and my desire, have both been there for two years, twice I have been prevented from attending. Had I attended then, I would have been listening with different ears, with that more objective part of my brain that majored in psychology imagining I might practice someday.
But now I understand that biblical counseling is not a profession to which some are called, like the pastorate, or being a missionary. Being prepared and equipped to apply a biblical perspective to life is something every Christ-follower is called to help other people do every day and it is something that despite rich grounding in theology I am not very adept at doing.
I have become good at thinking it and talking it and writing it. But I am not yet very good at actually doing it, applying it in my own life.
Take this little matter of theology: God loves his children. He blesses their obedience. He gives them good gifts. All true. But this is how poorly I applied it: I spent a good part of last week feeling baffled and beat up that God took away a gift I expected Him to give me.
There was nothing unrighteous in this gift or my desire for it or my plan to use it.
“In fact,” I mused out loud to someone, “I’d even prayed about it and felt I’d been given clear direction on how I was to tithe and then to give away more from this gift before I did anything else with it. That seemed pretty clear indication to me it would be coming.”
But it didn’t come.
I felt particularly guilty to see how hard my soul was taking it. God has been so good to me, giving me extra grace, helping me weather circumstances more trying than the matter of last week’s disappointment and I was not very gracious to myself. Instead of offering myself a good cry and a nice hot cup of Gospel tea, I beat myself up about what I imagined I had done wrong that I failed to achieve what I set out to accomplish.
Mercifully, on the drive home from BSF this week, God dropped the anvil of truth on my head:
My feelings were all out of sorts because I had set my expectations wrongly. I was as upset as if God had taken away a gift that He had previously given me because I had presumed He would give it to me.
Instead He simply chose not to give me a gift I desired.
He chose to give me something other than what I had determined would be good for me.
God did not take anything away. He just didn’t give me what I expected.
Even though I’ve known Jesus for 91.4 % of my life (just did the math) that’s a new concept to me. Experientially, I do not live there. That’s why the truth landed with the weight of an anvil, squashing the arrogance that invisibly inflated my expectations.
Which I think is exactly what God intended.
In Bible Study Fellowship, I am in a pilot class so we’re not studying Matthew with the rest of the world, but are looking into three short books of the Bible. We just finished the book of Ruth, a story I have loved since I was a little girl.
I grew up hearing Bible stories like Ruth’s from a set of Bible story books my mom read to my sister and me. I heard theses stories told the same way in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and they formed the mental framework I brought to the Bible when I began reading it for myself.
I loved these Bible stories because as a perceptive, introverted child, I picked up on more of the pain in the world around me than was easy for a child to carry and these stories offered me understanding and hope.
As a child, I gathered that pain and suffering in the world resulted from people’s indifference to God, their disobedience, their lack of fear of spending eternity in hell. The solution was repentance and obedience. Bible stories showed that people who repented and lived obedient lives were blessed by God. Like the Little Boy Who Shared His Lunch. And Esther who got to be Queen.
Like Ruth. She was selfless and unquestioning and obedient. As a result, she got to marry Boaz, one of the nicest men in the Bible and got be the great-grandma of King David who was the great-great-great-Grandfather of Jesus! Or at least that’s how I internalized Ruth’s story as a child.
My reactions to disappointments like last week’s show me that childish, moralistic, if-then thinking still simmers beneath my better theology, even now, decades later.
Try it out on the story of Ruth like I did last week. How does the story change if we don’t give Ruth the reward we have taught generations of children that she earned by her exemplary behavior?
Ruth was a Moabite woman who lived around 1,000 B.C. in what is modern-day Israel. Her historical story is recorded in four chapters in the Bible in the Old Testament book of Ruth. It’s a great story.
What’s Ruth’s main problem in this story? She needed what her culture called a kinsman redeemer. Ruth was a young widow with no children and was the sole support for her widowed mother-in-law. In her culture and at that time, Ruth’s only recourse for relief from the abject poverty and hopelessness of her social situation was to find a kinsman redeemer, a relative of her dead husband who was willing to purchase her husband’s family land and to help Ruth bear a child to perpetuate the family line.
God knew what Ruth needed and had a plan to meet that need. That’s what makes this story a favorite of girls and women world-over: it is a love story! God chose to meet Ruth’s need with an admirable kinsman redeemer-hero named Boaz, not the no-name other guy in the story, a potential kinsman redeemer whose sudden appearance, in the end, merely provides a plot twist.
Everything in the human (female) heart swells and affirms that noble, long-suffering, upright men and women like Ruth and Boaz belong together. They are equal yoke-fellows who will raise noble children for the Kingdom. Ruth and Boaz, despite their humanly humble roots, are chosen by God, appointed to be the spiritual stock from which nobility, like King David and Jesus Christ himself will come. We (women at least) love this story because it ends just right. It is so satisfying, just like we’d expect of a story written by God Himself.
But last week, studying the story, I realized that if you set aside a historical point (God’s plan for Jesus lineage included women like Tamar and Rahab that God grafted into Jesus’s family tree via Boaz) God could have met Ruth’s need for a kinsman redeemer via the no-name other guy.
And throughout the first three chapters of Ruth, where we read of Ruth’s faith-filled, self-less behavior, Ruth was not acting that way because she had read Proverbs 31 and believed that exemplary behavior would win her a husband like Boaz. In fact, God was not yet done writing Ruth’s story, so Boaz was not yet a possibility. Instead, we find Ruth was being Ruth –acting with God-given integrity –during the long, hard, dry, suffering seasons of the story when the outcome was far from certain.
Nor did Ruth’s long suffering with integrity obligate God to give her an earthly happy ending because God didn’t need Boaz either.
God’s power is not limited by people’s character.
So what if Mr. No-name was selfish or cowardly or racially bigoted or whatever other flaws of character and experience blinded him to his familial obligation to Ruth and to the beauty of her character? His blindness was no obstacle to God. Had God chosen Mr. No-name to be Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, God could have used him to solve the essential problem at the core of Ruth’s story. And if God had chosen to graft that child into Jesus’s family tree instead, that child would simply be another Tamar or Rahab in Jesus’s family –another, Wow, isn’t it amazing who God chooses to use and what He appoints to accomplish His will?! story in the history of God’s work on earth.
The father is of no account. He doesn’t need a name. Even if his name is Boaz. The mother is of no account. She doesn’t need a name either, even if Ruth is one of the more famous women in the Bible. The only thing that is of any account in this story is God working in time, in human lives, to bring about his eternal plan: Jesus.
And that’s the truth that landed like an anvil. I was so disappointed by the turn of events last week because the gift I was waiting for was a Boaz-like ending to a difficult story.
How many of my disappointments with others, with life, with God, are at their root, matters of my expectations being wrongly set by me in the first place?
Isn’t it easy to let our heart wander down that path? I know that as a little girl growing up in difficult circumstances, I imagined Prince Charming riding in on a white horse at the end of my story. Or how about the circumstances that lead many families to adopt and the harrowing circumstances of adoption itself? It is easy to expect that we’ve served our time, so to speak, with suffering and challenges just getting to the day the child comes home and believe fulfillment and purpose (as in, “Now I can see it was worth the wait!”) should settle in next.
We are so disappointed when we do not get what we expect to get, which is what we want to get, which is what we have determined will be good for us.
But this is how it goes with God. He is patient and understanding.
He whispers sweet encouragement to my soul like, “That was a much better, honey. You are making progress. This time you refused for only four days the gift I gave you in not giving you the gift you wanted. I remember when would stay blind in your panic and anger for months. See: my grace is made perfect in your weakness! But you spend most of the time believing you are strong. So do not be surprised that I keep reminding you that you are not.”
That’s what I really need: Not Boaz, but the Jesus-ending to my every story line.
Illustration: The ORIGINAL Illustrated Catalog of ACME Products http://home.roadrunner.com/~tuco/looney/acme/acme.html
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds. Crossway, 2006) was the first book I purchased at the Faith Biblical Counseling Conference a few weeks ago. You can also download a free PDF copy from Desiring God Ministries.
I’m glad to own a copy because I will definitely be keeping it and rereading it. Some of the essays, like Mark R. Talbott’s on seeing God’s hand in the hurts others do to us, is so meaty that I could not digest it all in one sitting. Another, Carl F. Ellis Jr’s discussion of ethnic-based suffering is so insightful for my history work that I will be refering back to it.
But maybe most precious are the voices of real Christians talking about real suffering (some of whom I have met): people who have been-there-done-that with God and find him faithful. As Dustin Shramek observes in his wonderful essay, “Waiting for the Morning During the Long Night of Weeping,” about his and his wife Kellie’s experience losing their first-born son, Owen, while following God’s call in a place where babies rarely survive premature birth:
We struggled with anger toward God, wondering why he didn’t comfort us. We prayed; indeed people literally all over the world had prayed for the life of our son, but God chose a different path for us. So why wouldn’t he comfort us in this path?
Many people said things to us like, “Look to Jesus! Trust in his promises. He does care for you. You need to get in the Word and pray and fight for your joy. You need to talk with others about this and have them pray for you.” We know that this is true and right; yet, when were were overwhelmed with grief, it felt hollow and unhelpful. We needed to know that they too had been changed by our pain; that, in some sense, it was also their pain.
We don’t love others in the midst of this kind of pain by pretending that it isn’t all that bad or by trying to quick fix it with some pat theological answers. We love them first by weeping with them. It is when we enter into their pain and our ourselves changed by it that we can speak the truth in love. When their pain becomes our pain (as Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” [1 Cor. 12:26]), we are able to give the encouragement of the Scriptures. (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, 177)
That is one of the blessings of this book. I believe that God uses suffering in our lives to help us more readily enter into the suffering of others. And there is no question that the Bible calls Christians to suffer, to suffer well, and to suffer with each other. But culturally, Shramek observes, we are grief-avoiders, schooled to move away from pain as quickly as possible. This leads to our un-Biblical discomfort in the presence of other people’s suffering. We encourage people to get over it, because when they do, we can get back into our own comfort zone –a place where faith is not threatened by the persistence of pain.
Which brings me back to the blessings of this book: the stories are both disquieting and hope-filled. Open it and suffering will intrude into your comfort zone and begin having the transforming, sanctifying effects God plans it to produce.
Not there yet? Longing to know more of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “Take up your cross daily and follow me”? Or maybe you are there and need some encouragement. Listen to Joni Earickson Tada‘s exposition of that verse in her essay, “Hope…the Best of Things.”
James 4:6 says…”God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
And who are the humble? They are people who are humiliated by their weakness. Catheterized people whose leg bags spring leaks on someone else’s brand new carpet. Immobilized people who must be fed, cleaned, dressed, and taken care of like infants. Once-active people crippled by chronic aches and pains. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, so then submit yourselves to God. resist the devil, who loves nothing more than to discourage you and corrode your joy. Resist him and he will flee from you. Draw near to God in your affliction and he will draw near to you (James 4:6-8). Take up your cross daily and follow the Lord Jesus (Luke 9:23).
I must qualify that last statement. Please know that when I take up my cross every day I am not talking about my wheelchair. My wheelchair is not my cross to bear. Neither is your cane or walker your cross. Neither is your dead-end job or your irksome in-laws. Your cross to bear is not your migraine headaches, not your sinus infections, not your stiff joints. That is not your cross to bear. My cross is not my wheelchair; it is my attitude. Your cross is your attitude about you dead-end job and your in-laws. It is your attitude about your aches and pains. Any complaints, and grumblings, any disputings or murmurings, any anxieties, any worries, any resentments or anything that hints of a raging torrent of bitterness –these are the things God calls me to die to daily. For when I do, I not only become like him in his death (that is, taking up my cross and dying to the sin that he died for on the cross), but the power of the resurrection puts to death any doubts, fears, grumblings, and disputings. And I get to become like him in his life. I get to experience the intimate fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, the sweetness and preciousness of the Savior. I become holy as he is holy. O God, “you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:28).
And to be in God’s presence is to be holy. Not to be sinless, but to sin less. To let suffering sandblast you to the core, revealing the stuff of which you are made. And it’s never pretty –the sin we housebreak and domesticate and try to make our own –is it? No. Suffering sandblasts that stuff, leaving us bare and falling head over heels, down for the count and decimated.
It is when your soul has been blasted bare, when you feel raw and undone, that you can be better bonded to the Savior. And then you not only meet suffering on God’s terms, but you meet joy on God’s terms. (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, 196-97)
Image: Faith Church, Lafayette Indiana Blog review of Chapter 4, “Why God Appoints Suffering for His Servants” by John Piper in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.
I came home from the first weekend of Biblical counseling training with a stack of good books I have been slowly reading and doling out piecemeal to friends. My measure of a good book is how long it takes me to read it. Usually, the better the book, the longer it takes because it makes me stop and think and digest and pray.
Two books by Leslie Vernick I picked up have taken me nearly three weeks to read and I want to make time to give them a full review of their own. But there are so many other commendable, helpful books to call out that I will settle for giving you a little taste of some of my favorites in the author’s own words.
I’ll start with the book in my hand tonight, Tim Chester’s You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions (Crossway, 2010). The book, as you’ll see from the table of contents, is step-by-step instruction in the Biblical pattern of changing behavior by systematically allowing the Gospel to transform the heart. If you have the desire to change, the willingness to submit to the Word, Chester will lead you through a process like a Biblical counselor does.
This quote from Chapter One will bless you no matter where you’re at today.
It had gone on for three years. Three years of patiently teaching and doing good, with only misunderstanding and hostility in return. He was tempted to say, “I quit –I don’t need this.” But instead he said, “Not my will but yours be done.” A few hours later he hung on the cross, nails cutting into his limbs, lungs struggling for air, crowds spitting venom. He was tempted to say, “I quit. I’m coming down.” But instead he said, “Father, forgive them.” He kept going until he could cry, “It is finished.”
Jesus is the perfect person, the true image of God, the glory of the Father. And God’s agenda for change is for us to become like Jesus….
Be a good Jesus! Our job is to study the glory of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus. We’re to study his character, learn his role, and understand his motivation, so that in every situation we can improvise the part. We’ll face situations Jesus never faced. But if we understand his character well enough, we’ll be able to improvise. We’ll be a good Jesus.
Tim Chester You Can Change (2010) pp. 14-15