Don’t Be Surprised
“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.