He Gives and Takes Away
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