Have you ever noticed that suffering makes us keenly aware of the blessings of others? It’s the woman recovering from a miscarriage who’s the first to notice all the pregnant bellies in the grocery store. The laid-off employee who feels like every Facebook friend is celebrating a fulfilling career. The spread-thin single mom, who watches husbands hauling baby carriers into church.
There was a season in my life when it felt like God said, “No,” to every request I asked of Him. I stored up those “No’s” in my heart like an old woman in a house full of cats, daily nursing my grievances with God. Finally, out of nowhere, I received an unexpected blessing. It was a very small thing, so when it fell through a few months later, my husband couldn’t understand why I took it so hard. As we cooked in the kitchen (well, technically he was cooking and I was sobbing on a stool), I finally managed to choke, “It just felt like it was a sign that God still loved me.”
In the weeks to come, God impressed three truths upon me that deeply comforted me and radically changed my perspective. The first was this:
I do not need a single blessing from God to know that He loves me. I only need to look to the cross to know that He loves me. When we look solely at the circumstances of our lives, it often feels like God plays favorites. Like He loves sweet Susie Jane with her happy family and easy life more than he loves you and me. I used to comfort myself by thinking that one day the boot may drop on Susie Jane’s perfect life, too. But it may not. People really do face varying degrees of suffering while on earth. And even if the boot did squash Susie Jane for a season, is it really biblical to delight in her suffering? To hope for it, even? Of course not.
I still remember the day God whispered those bolded words above into my heart. All at once I saw the cross again. And just like that, I had proof…MIGHTY proof that God had not forgotten me. Just like that, I didn’t need to test Him anymore, because the test had been given on a hill long ago, and He had passed with flying colors. Months later, my insecurity was triggered all over again when a sweet friend received the very blessing I ached for. As I cried to God in bed, I could almost hear Him pleading with such earnest passion, “Look to the cross! I promise I love you–look to the cross!” You know what? In a thousand years I wouldn’t trade that intimate and powerful moment for a fleeting, earthly blessing. Which brings me to lesson #2:
In God’s economy, spiritual blessing always outweighs earthly blessing. In the allegorical book, Hinds Feet on High Places, Much-Afraid embarks on a journey to the High Places. As she is about to set off, the Shepherd promises her, “I have most carefully chosen for you two of the very best and strongest guides.” Much-Afraid is horrified to learn that the guides are named Suffering and Sorrow. But later in her journey, when the Shepherd asks her how she feels about them, this is what she says:
“I never could have believed it possible, Shepherd, but in a way I have come to love them…They do truly want to get me up to the High Places, not just because it is the commandment which You have given them, but also because they want a horrid coward like myself to get there and be changed. You know, Shepherd, it makes a great difference in my feelings towards them not to look upon them any longer with dread, but as friends who want to help me.”
This is exactly what passages like James 1:2-4 want us to see! God designs suffering to make us more like Christ. Much as I despise encountering Sorrow and Suffering on my own journey, they are the most excellent tutors I have ever known. And nothing is more encouraging than looking back over my life and realizing that because of them, I am no longer the cowardly girl I once was…or the arrogant teenager…or the idolatrous young adult. That is the truest blessing. Becoming like Jesus is more valuable than birthing children, or winning awards, or finding a spouse, or any other earthly blessing we could ever beg for.
I am not called to evaluate the lives and circumstances of others. I am only called to follow God myself. The final stop on my journey to accepting personal suffering in light of other people’s prosperity was John 21. Right after Jesus prophesies about Peter’s future death, Peter glances at John and says exactly what I would’ve said: “Lord, what about this man?” To which Jesus beautifully replies, “If it is my will that he remain (alive) until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
Wow. And ouch. If it is My will, that she receive the blessing you wanted, what is that to you? If it is My will to write the story of your life completely differently than you wanted Me to, what is that to you? If it is My will to say “yes” to him and “no” to you, what is that to you? You follow me.
Dear believer, you and I are called to one thing only. Jesus Himself. To love Him enough to follow Him…no matter what. As Much-Afraid finally came to see in the Valley of Loss: “Right down in the depths of her own heart she really had but one passionate desire, not for the things which the Shepherd had promised, but for Himself. All she wanted was to be allowed to follow Him forever.”
Sometimes only valleys and deserts can teach us that.
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