HIDDEN BLESSINGS

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

great blue heronAs Christians, we know everything that touches us has first passed through our sovereign (and loving) God’s hands. While it is our faith in Him that enables us to accept difficult (even tragic) events, acceptance is easier said than done. Along with faith, Pollyanna, the fictional heroine in Eleanor Porter’s book by the same name, found that the correct mind set helped.

When Pollyanna was disappointed to find crutches instead of the doll she wanted in the package sent by the Ladies Aid Society, her missionary father taught her the “glad game.” Telling her to look at the good side of things, he pointed out they could be glad because she didn’t need the crutches! Pollyanna continued to play the glad game until she was sorely tested by paralysis. Admitting the game wasn’t as much fun to play when it got so challenging, she eventually found some good in her plight—she still had her legs! Indeed, the “glad game” is much harder when the issues are greater; nevertheless, it is a game worth playing.

At the age of 96, my lively and alert father-in-law died, but not of natural causes; he died within an hour of being in a car accident. As my mother-in-law rehabbed in a nursing home from the same accident, I was shocked when she said, “I’m so glad he went that way!” Fortunately, she explained, “He would have hated being in a place like this.” While I would have preferred God taking Grandpa while he napped in his easy chair, she had a point. Like a cat with nine lives, he had several amazing recoveries from earlier strokes and other health problems and still had a good quality of life. In reality, however, he was just a fall or another stroke away from becoming an infirm resident in a nursing home. This energetic and active man of faith was ready for his heavenly home and would have hated waiting for his departure as an invalid. Rather than being angry at the driver who caused the accident, I joined my mother-in-law in the glad game and chose to look at that accident as one of God’s blessings in disguise.

Sometimes, it takes time and the gift of hindsight before we recognize hidden blessings. I was fifteen and the only child still at home when my mother died within a few months of her cancer diagnosis. My emotionally detached and workaholic father was left with a teenager he barely knew while I was left with a man who was more a presence than a parent to me. He knew next to nothing about parenting and I resented his coldness and dogmatic ways. In an odd way, as much as we both mourned my mother, we were blessed by her absence because her death threw us together in a way that demanded change. Out of necessity, he gradually became a loving father and a far better man while the angry troubled teen I was became a loving responsible daughter and a far more compassionate woman. My father died less than five years later but several more years passed before I became aware of my older siblings’ continued resentment, anger, and bitterness toward him. It was only then that I realized how my mother’s death was a blessing in disguise because it gave my father and me an opportunity to build a relationship and to change for the better.

God often conceals blessings in our challenges, disappointments, and heartbreak; it is our task to seek them out. Playing our own version of the “glad game” by looking for God’s loving hand in our lives is the way we can have joy, not in spite of our troubles and sorrow, but because of them.

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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DIVINE PROVIDENCE

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

The story is told of a Russian rabbi standing on a hillside with his student. As they looked down at the valley below, the men watched in horror as a band of Cossacks charged into their village. They heard the townspeople’s terrified screams as they were slaughtered and saw the smoke rise as their village was set afire by the marauders. With tears in his eyes, the rabbi looked up to heaven and cried, “If only I were God!” His troubled student asked what the rabbi would do differently if he were God. “Nothing,” replied the old man, “but then I would understand why!”

We always will have the age-old question of “Why,” and we always (at least in this world) will have deafening silence from God as our answer. Like the rabbi, I can’t understand why God allows things like the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Black Plague, the Crusades, the World Trade Center attack, Uvalde and Sandy Hook, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, 3 million children dying from hunger every year, human trafficking, and the many other evils that plague our fallen world.  Although I often write about hidden blessings and God’s higher purpose in our tragedies and troubles, my words bring little comfort when we see our friends and loved ones in distress, the misshapen bodies of malnourished children, or the faces of those who’ve lost loved ones to flood, fire, or violence. I look at my prayer list and can find neither rhyme nor reason for the sorrow and pain that is written on those pages and on so many people’s lives. While, with time, I’ve managed to find purpose and blessings in most of my challenges, I’m hard put to see any purpose or blessings in theirs.

I know better than to ask God why and, even if He gave me an explanation, I don’t think I’d find His answer satisfactory or comforting. I’d probably argue that someone’s repentance didn’t require such severe correction—that the same result could be achieved a less painful way and the same lesson learned with less heartbreak. I’d contend that someone’s faith didn’t need such severe testing, their character didn’t require such perfecting, nor did they need to be prodded so sharply to move in the right direction. Moreover, even if I understood the why of God’s plan, I wouldn’t understand the way He works it. We will never find a satisfactory explanation for the adversity, distress, and sorrow of our fallen world.

The presence of evil and suffering can challenge our faith. How can a loving God allow it? Good people suffer and our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. Yet, as Christians, we believe in Divine Providence—that our loving, all-seeing and all-knowing God is never out of control, even though Satan is trying his best to do his worst. We can’t see God’s purpose and we surely don’t understand it, but we must believe it and trust in Him.

When Jesus’ followers stood at the foot of the cross and watched Him suffer, I suspect they couldn’t see God’s purpose in His anguish and thought all hope was gone. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God because his plan seems so often seems so terribly wrong.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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MAKING A DEAL

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? [Numbers 23:19 (NLT)]

halloween pennant dragonfly
While my college mantra was, “Study like you don’t pray and pray like you don’t study,” I tended to wait until the end of the semester to do either one. While cramming for finals, my prayers always included a promise that, if God would help me pass my exams, I’d never again cut class or wait until the last minute to do the required reading.

It certainly is tempting to make promises to God in return for answered prayers. In the 1940s, when Danny Thomas was down and out, the young entertainer did just that. Turning to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, he prayed, “Show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.”  When his career took an almost immediate upswing, he envisioned a children’s hospital and started raising money to build and maintain it. In November of 1958, Thomas dug up the first spadeful of dirt at the groundbreaking for St. Jude Hospital! I’m not maligning Danny Thomas, condoning praying to saints, or disparaging the wonderful research hospital that resulted from Thomas’ promise. Nevertheless, in spite of the good that resulted, I don’t think prayers promising something to God if He fulfills our prayers are ones we should make.

When we pray “I’ll do this, if you’ll do that,” it seems like we’re asking God for something we don’t think we’ll get unless we “sweeten the pot” with a promise. It’s as if we don’t truly trust His intentions. The promise to do something for God seems like we’re asking Him to see it our way instead of us desiring His way. Yet, if we’re praying within God’s will, He promises we will receive.

Sometimes, sin is what causes us to make a promise to God. At finals’ time in college, forgetting that both repentance and facing consequences are an essential part of confession and forgiveness, I glibly promised a change in my behavior if I didn’t have to meet the consequences for my foolishness. Others, thinking their sins are just too great for absolution, make a promise to serve God in some way to merit His forgiveness, which seems a lot like bribing a judge for an innocent verdict. Such deal making is refusing God’s grace. Since Jesus already paid for our sins on the cross, paying God for forgiveness and absolution is an offense to Him!

Sometimes we make promises to God out of gratitude. Preferring to rely on ourselves rather than Him, we’re uncomfortable with feeling beholden or indebted to God. Rather than offering Him praise and thanksgiving, we make a pledge to do something as a way of thanking God for blessings received. Then, after fulfilling our promise, we’re the ones who feel praiseworthy for our good works! Trying to pay God for blessings received is another insult to Him; our good works should come from our love for Him rather than as a payment to Him.

Although God always keeps His promises, we humans aren’t so reliable and, more often than not, we break our promises to God. Granted, Danny Thomas kept his promise but perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. When the next semester rolled around in college, because I’d failed to keep the previous semester’s promise, I again made the same conditional prayer while cramming for exams. Although I always ended up with decent grades, it had nothing to do with my promises. Those grades, like Danny Thomas’ success and every other good thing that comes our way, have nothing to do with our promises—they are received only by God’s grace!

Praying with conditional promises of any kind turns our prayers into a transaction. Moreover, because we think it was our promise that caused the prayer’s fulfillment, it robs God of his deserved glory and praise. May we always remember that following Christ isn’t about making promises to God, it is about depending on the promises of God!

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

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NO GUILT

For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. [Matthew 5:45 (NLT)]

peony
50 years ago, mothers spent several days in the hospital before going home with their newborns. While sharing my hospital room with a young woman who’d given birth to her first child, I overheard the pediatrician explain that her baby had Down’s syndrome, was being examined by a pediatric cardiologist, and likely needed immediate surgery. Although my heart broke for that mother, I also felt a sense of relief his news wasn’t for me. Statistically, as the older woman with three children, I was the mother more likely to hear that diagnosis. Knowing I was no more deserving of a healthy child than was she, I felt a tinge of guilt for the healthy infant nursing at my breast.

Have you ever felt guilty for receiving blessings when others weren’t so blessed, for reaping a harvest of blessings that you didn’t sow, for catching “lucky breaks” that come from God’s hand, or for having the equivalent of manna from heaven when others go hungry? We’re no more deserving than anyone else and yet our fertility treatment worked, we beat the odds with the chemo, we survived the crash, a loved one got sober, or our prodigal child returned. While others are not so blessed, we have healthy babies, loving parents, successful children, a financially secure retirement, a booming business, or simply were in the right place at exactly the right time. Yes, we may have prepared well and worked hard, but so have others who never enjoyed those blessings! When hearing the horrific stories told by Ian’s survivors and witnessing the destruction this hurricane left in its wake, I felt guilty admitting that the worst we suffered was lack of cell service, 24-hours without TV, and a few hours of yard and lanai clean-up.

With so many others suffering or in need, I’m probably not alone in feeling some sort of guilt or shame for God’s blessings like better circumstances, answered prayers, and what seems like “dumb luck.” Job asked “Why me?” about his suffering and I can’t help but wonder “Why me, Lord?” about the incredible blessings He’s bestowed on me. But, just as Job never discovered God’s reasoning, neither will I! As the one who controls the universe, God knows exactly what He’s doing even though we don’t. Rather than understand Him, God asks us to trust in His infinite wisdom and love.

God is not sadistic, cruel, neglectful, incompetent, or capricious. He doesn’t scatter blessings and trials impulsively, haphazardly, or accidentally. Knowing the past, present, and future of the entire cosmos, His perspective is far wider than ours ever will be. Although He orchestrates events that frequently seem questionable, needless, tragic, or unjust, we must accept that God is God and we, most definitely are not. We will never know the reasons behind our blessings or tragedies.

As Christ followers, what we do know is that we are recipients of the most undeserved and greatest gift of all—Jesus! As sinful and undeserving as we are, I suspect none of us feel guilty about receiving God’s only son and the salvation and eternal life that He purchased for us! Why then should we feel any guilt for His other blessings (all of which are equally undeserved)?

Let us remember that guilt is a gift from the enemy. If he can’t make us envious of the blessings received by others, he’ll try to make us ashamed of the blessings God gives to us. Rather than questioning God’s reasoning, let us recognize His amazing grace and appreciate his lavish generosity. It’s an insult to the Giver of All Gifts to discount, disregard, squander, or fail to appreciate, enjoy, and use all that we’ve been given. While we should be humble when accepting God’s blessings, we must never be ashamed or embarrassed about them.

If God has bestowed a blessing upon us, it’s because others are in need and we are the means by which He fills those needs. The only reason for guilt or shame is when we’re not good and faithful servants who steward and share His gifts wisely and generously while giving God the glory!

All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits, committed to our trust on this condition, that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors. [John Calvin]

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:8-10 (NLT)]

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NO EXPERIENCE WASTED

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

God has a plan for each and every one of us and no experience is ever wasted. All that happened in the past has prepared us for what happens today and what will happen tomorrow. For example, consider Moses; the first two-thirds of his life were merely preparation for what he accomplished during the last third. For forty years, he acquired a unique skill set while living as a member of Pharaoh’s household. Being the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, he received an education befitting a prince and came to understand the protocol and ways of the royal court. Moreover, since he also was cared for by his birth mother, he knew Hebrew and understood the plight of his people. With his Egyptian/Hebrew background, Moses could communicate with both Israelites and their Egyptian oppressors. Quite likely, he was the only person with access to both Israel’s elders and Pharaoh’s court and that royal education certainly served him well when he penned most of the first five books of the Bible.

Moses’ second forty years were spent as a shepherd in Midian. A stranger in a strange land, the pampered prince had four decades to learn how to live as a nomad and shepherd. He also had forty years to learn about controlling his temper (the reason he landed in Midian in the first place). The skills he developed while herding dumb animals in the wilderness prepared him for forty years of guiding over two million “stiff-necked” people and their livestock through the desert.

At eighty, Moses might have been thinking about taking it easy—maybe selling the sheep and relaxing in his hammock under a palm tree. God, however, wasn’t going to let those eighty years of experience go to waste. It was during the last third of his life that Moses fulfilled his God-given purpose by shepherding the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Our life experiences do more than develop character and spiritual maturity; they provide us with distinctive insights, strengths, and capabilities. Every one of our past successes, failures, sorrows, joys, gains, and losses prepared us to do God’s work today and every one of today’s experiences will become tomorrow’s assets. We know how the story of Moses finished but how will our stories end? Like Moses, will we use our assets to further God’s Kingdom or will we squander them while relaxing in the hammock under a palm tree or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair?

No experience is wasted. Everything in life is happening to grow you up, to fill you up, to help you to become more of who you were created to be. [Oprah Winfrey]

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. [1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)]

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HAVING FAITH

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. [Hebrews 11:17-19 (NLT)]
lanceleaf arrowhead - duck potato

Since Sunday school days, we’ve read the story of Isaac and Abraham and we know it has a happy ending. Abraham, however, hadn’t read the end of the chapter when he set out for Mt. Moriah. During the fifty-mile journey, the father had three days during which he must have agonized over God’s command to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Did Abraham ask God, “Why?” Why would God finally provide the promised child and then take the blessing away? Did he ask God, “How?” How, with his son dead, was he going to have those countless descendants God promised? Did he ask God, “What next?” What would he tell Sarah if he returned home without their dear boy? True faith isn’t blind—it knows exactly what can happen but steps forward anyway and Abraham had seventy-two hours to agonize over the possible consequences of his actions. In his distress, he may even have been tempted to turn back home again.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew what happens to flesh in a fiery furnace, Daniel knew what hungry lions do to fresh meat, and, after the deaths of Stephen and James, the rest of the apostles knew what happened to Christians when they dared to share the gospel message. None knew whether they’d die or miraculously escape their fates and yet all boldly acted in faith. If we’ve peeked ahead and know the story ends well, we’re simply being obedient and cooperative. It’s faith when we know full well what could happen but not what actually will. Faith trusts God’s promises. It knows that stepping out in obedience to Him means the story will end, not as we would write it, but as God wants it written.

Scripture tells us Abraham thought God might bring Isaac back to life again but God made no such promise and this was centuries before another resurrection would occur. Abraham may not have known the outcome but the father knew his God so he faithfully obeyed. Him. With confidence, he told his servants that both father and son would return after worshipping on the hill and, when Isaac asked why they had no lamb for their offering, Abraham assured him that God would provide. Still, Abraham had no way of knowing if his words would prove true. As Abraham and Isaac built an altar and piled wood on it, there must have been tears in the father’s eyes. How anxious he must have been as he tied up his son and laid him on the altar and what anguish he must have felt as he picked up his knife and brought it to Isaac’s neck. Nevertheless, Abraham continued in faith and demonstrated that he loved God more than his own flesh and blood.

Faith takes steps knowing that a loving God has given the command and trusting that whatever the result, it is God’s plan. I’ve never been asked to exercise the kind of faith shown by Abraham and the rest of the Bible’s heroes and I pray I never have to do so. I wonder how my faith would stand up at the door of a fiery furnace, the mouth of a lion’s den, in front of a soldier’s sword, facing an angry mob of unbelievers, or if told to sacrifice one of my children. Would I trust God with the outcome or would my faith crumble? Father, forgive me, but I just don’t know.

Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. [Romans 15:13 (NLT)]

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