What if the Worst Happens?

lonely tree

 

I found myself growing fearful. Not a heart-stopping all-encompassing fear, but the kind of constant gnawing that creeps into your bones when you hear bad news or see something going awry. When you extrapolate the discouraging trends of the present into the future and assume things will never change. When you think about where you’re headed, and feel your stomach tighten.

Questions lingered in the back of my mind. What if I continue on this path? What if nothing ever gets better? What if the worst happens?

What if. I’ve spent a lifetime considering the “what if’s.” Those questions have a way of destroying my peace, leaving me feeling hopeless. When negative possibilities loom before me, I can’t seem to rein my thoughts in. Just asking “what if” unsettles me.

People in the Bible were unsettled by “what if” questions too. When he was told to lead the Israelites, Moses asked God, “What if they don’t believe me?” Abraham’s servant asked about Isaac’s future wife, “What if the young woman refuses to come with me?” Joseph’s brothers asked, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us?”  All of them wondered what was going to happen if things didn’t turn out the way they planned. Just like we do.

We all face a staggering array of “what ifs?” Some are minor inconveniences while others have life-altering repercussions. What if I lose my job? What if I never have children? What if I get cancer? What if my spouse dies? What if my husband never loves me? What if my child never believes in Jesus?

The uncomfortable truth is, any of those things could happen. No one is free from tragedy or pain. There are no guarantees of an easy life. For any of us. Ever.

I was considering this sobering reality on my silent retreat a few weeks ago. Over the course of several days, I had brought numerous longings and requests before the Lord. I wanted these fulfilled. When would God do it? As I penned my thoughts, I felt that familiar fear gripping me.

The question echoed in my mind: What if my deepest longings are never met and my nightmares come true? I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

As I sat in the empty chapel poring over my Bible, I sensed God asking the same question I have wrestled with for decades. “Am I enough? Even if those frightening things happen, am I sufficient?” Each time that question had come up in the past, I’d pushed it out of my mind. But in the stillness of the chapel, kneeling in front of the cross, I knew I needed to face this. I sensed God whispering again, “Vaneetha, am I enough?”

“If none of your dreams come true, am I enough? If your health spirals downward and you end up in an institution, am I enough? If your children rebel and never walk closely with me, am I enough? If you never remarry and never feel loved by a man again, am I enough? If your ministry doesn’t flourish and you never see fruit from it, am I enough? If your suffering continues and you don’t see purpose in it, am I enough?

I wish I could have automatically responded, “Yes Lord, you are enough.” But I struggled. Profoundly. The weight of those questions felt crushing. I didn’t want to give up my dreams, surrender those things that were dear to me, relinquish what I felt entitled to.

I reflected on the past few days – much of it centered on the things I wanted. My unwritten contract with God (that He never signed) where I promise to do my part if He fulfills my longings. I reluctantly admitted that part of my desire to be faithful was rooted in my expectation of a payback. Didn’t God owe me something? But what if I didn’t get it? What if my dreams were all left undone?

I knew I needed to relinquish my desires, but I was incapable of doing it myself. I begged God for help. To release my expectations. To let go of my dreams and embrace His. To not predicate my obedience on His gifts.

I sobbed as I opened my hands, filled with my dreams, and placed them on the altar. I didn’t want to love God for what He could do for me. I wanted to love God for who He was. To worship Him because He was God and not because I expected something in return.

God’s presence overwhelmed me as I knelt in the semi-darkness. I was reminded that we have something far better than a reassurance that our dreaded “what if’s” won’t happen. We have the assurance that even if they do happen, God will be there in the midst of them. He will carry us. He will comfort us. He will tenderly care for us. God doesn’t promise us a trouble-free life. But He does promise that He will be there in the midst of our sorrows.

Kutless’ song Even If speaks to this important truth which is echoed throughout the Bible. The chorus says,

Even if the healing doesn’t come
And life falls apart
And dreams are still undone
You are God You are good
Forever faithful One
Even if the healing
Even if the healing doesn’t come

In the book of Daniel, Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not guaranteed deliverance. And just before Nebuchadnezzar delivered them to the fire, they offered some of the most courageous words ever spoken. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it…But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods…”

Even if. Even if the worst happens, God’s grace is sufficient. Those three young men faced the fire without fear because they knew that no matter the outcome, it would be the best for them, the best for their nation, and the best for God’s glory.

They did not ask “what if” the worst happened. They were satisfied knowing that “even if” the worst happened, God would take care of them.

At the end of Habakkuk, we see another beautiful picture of “even if.” Habakkuk wants deliverance for his people and pleads with God to save them. But he closes the book saying:

“Even if the fig tree does not bloom and the vines have no grapes,
even if the olive tree fails to produce
and the fields yield no food,
even if the sheep pen is empty
and the stalls have no cattle—

Even then,
I will be happy with the Lord.
I will truly find joy in God, who saves me.
The Lord Almighty is my strength.
He makes my feet like those of a deer.
He makes me walk on the mountains.”(GW)

Even if. Those two simple words can take the fear out of life. Replacing “what if” with “even if” is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God. We see that even if the very worst happens, God will carry us. He will still be good. And He will never leave us.

Christa Wells’s song, Even Though, illustrates this beautiful principle as well. She says “Even though we lose it all, we’ll not be lost, we’ll not be shaken. Behold, this love of God has ransomed us, He’s ransomed us. Even though.”

God’s love has ransomed us. We have nothing to fear. Even if everything falls apart, we will never walk alone.

 

 

But I Can’t Feed 4000 People…

fish vaneetha

I was overwhelmed.

Too many things to do. Too many articles to write. Too many needs to meet. And not enough time or resources for any of it.

I had woken up early to get started.  Reluctantly, I had skipped my quiet time and jumped right into my work. I was quite productive, working at a rapid pace. But at the day’s end, when I looked at my to-do list, there was still so much left to do.

I panicked all over again, unsure how I was going to get it all finished. I went to bed with a heavy heart. The tasks ahead of me were overwhelming.

The next morning I was tempted to do the same thing, and skip my quiet time. But the Lord tenderly drew me back to my little devotional corner. I needed to spend time with Him. I figured I had a few minutes to spare, so I opened my Bible to my bookmarked place in Matthew 16.

The passage I read stopped me in my tracks.

Jesus had just fed the 4000 and gotten into the boat with the disciples. When they had crossed over to the other side, the disciples realized that they’d forgotten to bring bread for themselves and started blaming each other. Jesus reminded them that they had just witnessed a miracle, fed 4000 people, and even gathered up excess. All with no bread of their own.

The truth of those words and the miracle that Jesus had just performed landed heavy on me. The disciples had a huge task in front of them – feeding 4000 hungry people, when they had no resources of their own. They brought nothing themselves except for their willingness to obey Jesus. That’s all they needed. God did the rest.

In the end, the disciples didn’t feed 4000 people—Jesus did.

God reminded me that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything monumental by myself. Skipping prayer and jumping straight into work, especially kingdom work, is foolishness. These are God’s tasks, not mine. To accomplish His work I need to stay rooted in His presence.

When I minister in my own strength, I may see short-term results, but there is no lasting fruit. I have no power to effect real change. But when God is the source, miraculous things happen.

The disciples fed 4000 with bread that Jesus gave to them. But back in the boat, they were worried about feeding themselves because they didn’t have anything. What an amazing lesson for me. When I rely on my own strength, I look around and wonder how I will make it. But when I look to God, I see that I can do all things through Christ. And He has unlimited resources.

Like the disciples, I didn’t need to come up with the food. I just had to distribute what God was giving me.

I closed the Bible and prayed. For the first time in days, I felt an enormous sense of relief. Ultimately, my ministry and my family could not be served by my meager resources. They would be served out of God’s life-giving abundance. God would do all the work- my job was to listen to His voice.

So much had been accomplished that morning. My attitude towards my tasks was completely different. I didn’t feel as responsible for the outcome – I just needed to be faithful with my input.

That freedom carried over to the following days and weeks as I sensed the Lord’s direction in what I did. I was able to write and focus on my tasks immediately. It was as if God Himself was doing it for me. I began to pray more diligently about my work before starting it, a simple yet life-changing step.

Of course, God doesn’t only bless our work if we pray or have a quiet time. And God does not love me more when I read the Bible, or condemn me when I don’t. My time with God is not a favor I do for Him, hoping to get something in exchange. It is something that I need, not something God needs from me. It is His gift to me. If I skip it, I am the one missing out on this gift. In my time with Him, God instructs me. Fills me with hope. Empowers me. Gives me direction. Shows me that when I look to Him, He can use me to feed 4000.

I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther, who said, Tomorrow I plan to work, work, from early until late. In fact I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar

 

Where is God in the Dark?

 sunset_cityscape

 

I don’t like trials. No one does. Or at least no one that I know.

Though I am grateful for what I have learned through hardship, I always approach new trials with dread. I wonder if I will survive them with my faith intact. I wonder how long and how difficult they will be. I wonder if the pain will be worth it in the end.

This blog is often about suffering, because God has used struggles so profoundly in my life. But personally I don’t want to be the expert on adversity and I’d be thrilled if my major trials were all behind me. But recently, some friends shared an experience which once again made me grateful for the blessings of suffering.

Greg and Mary Kaye had been in ministry for years and were seeking to discern the Lord’s calling. At the prompting of their church, they decided to attend a conference to help them both assess where the Lord was leading them.

At the conference, they were each given a large piece of paper and were asked to chart on a chronological timeline what they considered to be their life’s high and low points. Connecting these points then yielded a graph with peaks, such as moments of accomplishment and times of great delight, and valleys that dealt with loss, rejection and loneliness. After they finished their graphs, each spent extensive time with a counselor exploring what they learned about themselves. They examined what themes ran through their peaks and valleys. They reflected on what God had taught them in their lowest points.

Then the counselor did something surprising. He turned their graphs upside down. “Take a long and hard look at this picture,” he said. “This is God’s perspective on your high points and low points. It’s the opposite of your perspective. God sees our lowest moments as our spiritual highs, because that is when He is doing the deepest work in us. And it is out of those valleys that God gives us our platform for ministry. These low points are essential for us as we discern our calling and our walk with Christ. From them come our most significant growth and our greatest dependence on God.”

From our lowest emotional points come our most significant growth. Our greatest dependence on God. Our platform for ministry. It is in these low points that God does His deepest work in us.

Of course. How simple and yet how profound.

These truths matched what I’ve read and experienced firsthand for years, yet there was something curiously powerful about experiencing it graphically. About turning the page upside down. About acknowledging that God’s perspective is wholly unlike mine. The graph enabled me to see how the Lord’s hand has been on my life and ministry. That He is using all things for good. That He will use the struggle that I’m going through right now to build my faith.

This exercise was eye-opening for me since I still shrink from suffering. I’d like to eliminate all the valleys on my graph. Left to myself, I wouldn’t have any low points, only high points. That way there would be no more tears, no more crying, no more pain. Just happiness. In my ideal world, I’d have a flat line graph for my life story, with upward peaks for rewarding experiences.

But in turning that one-sided graph around, I would see a boring, unexamined and unfruitful spiritual life. An untested life marked by superficiality. A life with happiness but little joy because joy is carved from sorrow.

Suffering and trial are gifts. They refine my character, draw me to God, deepen my faith. They have shaped my theology and given me deep capacity for joy.

Many years ago, I was talking to a friend who had not experienced many trials in her life. She was financially prospering, had a solid marriage, good health and obedient loving children. By her own admission, her life lacked for nothing. She talked about the struggles that she had in her faith, however. God seemed distant and vague. She wanted to be passionate about Him but never was. She said she envied those who had been through major trials because she saw the way their suffering had transformed them. They had something inexpressible that she wanted, but seemed to elude her. She was sure that there was something in her experience with God that was missing.

We talked about this several times, and I wanted her to see that feeling close to God is not the only thing that matters. Sometimes we need to have faith in the dark, without having strong emotions of being drawn to Him. Faith is much more about consistently walking with the Lord and trusting Him than it is about feeling His presence, or spiritual “experiences.”

But at the same time I understood what she was saying. Faith seems easier for those who have suffered. It is as though suffering is a strange sort of gift from God, a gift that we reluctantly receive and constantly want to give back. But it has extraordinary power to change us. It changes our outlook, our faith, our walk with God.

When we have walked through trials, we are never the same again. Academic learning can be forgotten or discarded, but the lessons we learn from suffering are woven into our very fabric. They become part of us.

In the midst of trials, I rarely feel that spiritual growth is happening. Often I’m depressed and I’m just trying to hang on. Life is gray and I don’t see God’s work at all. But in retrospect, it is in the hanging on, the trusting in the dark, the waiting patiently for God, that real growth occurs.

I want a life of depth and meaning, a life that reflects Jesus above all else, a life that is marked by faithfulness and joy in Him. But those qualities are hard won, and for many of us, to get there we must take the hands of Suffering and Sorrow, as Much Afraid did in the allegory Hinds Feet in High Places.

The valleys of my life have unquestionably been lonely and painful, but they have yielded fruit that the mountains never could. In those dark valleys I have learned to trust God, and in the end, that has made all the difference.

 

For the summer, I plan to post bi-weekly instead of weekly. So I’ll be back here with a new post in two weeks!

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar

 

Really? Grace…for them?

glove rose

After my post a few weeks ago, “The Best Way to Discourage a Suffering Friend,” a close friend stopped by and asked, “Was that post about me? Was I the discouraging friend? I know that I have said and done all of those things before. Now I feel awful.”

I laughed, and assured her that she was not the discouraging friend. But her comment made me realize that my post could have been misinterpreted. It was not meant as a rant, as a way to discourage people from speaking, or as a tool to hammer our friends who have hurt us. It was meant to build bridges, not tear them down.

We will fail our friends. And they will fail us. Either by what we say and do, or what we do not say and do.

All too often, I am so afraid of doing the wrong thing that I end up doing nothing. I want to say something profound and life changing, but instead I give trite and hurtful advice. I would like to be thoughtful and available to others, but I end up preoccupied with my own problems.  

Unfortunately, I’m always at the center of my universe. I want grace when I have hurt others, especially inadvertently, but I’m hesitant to extend that same grace when I’ve been hurt.

Oftentimes people don’t know what to say when my world caves in. So they say nothing at all, or even avoid me. Intellectually I know it has more to do with their own issues than with me, but I feel alone and unwanted when no one follows up. Even good friends go back to their everyday lives eventually and I am left to sort out my “new normal” by myself.

Other people do engage me, but with insensitive remarks. They are not trying to hurt me; most of the time, they really do care. But in their humanness, they fail me. My friends want me to feel better when I am sad. Sometimes they offer advice, platitudes, and comparisons. Sometimes it’s helpful but often I feel misunderstood.

There’s no question that either avoiding me or overanalyzing my suffering is painful. But through every trial I’ve endured, both of those reactions occur in varying degrees. So how should I respond when my friends wound me?

I’m pretty sure that my initial thoughts on the matter are wrong: blame, harsh words, demands for an apology. My second thoughts aren’t much better: avoidance, subtle rebuffs, dropping the relationship. 

As I was considering the ideal response to insensitive comforters, I reread Job. The conclusion took on new meaning as I saw that God did not tell Job he could write off his friends, abandon their relationship, or blame them for his misery. Clearly his friends had misspoken about Job’s situation and about God. They had made Job’s misery worse. They had misunderstood him.

But rather than abandon them, God told Job to pray for his friends. Job needed to ask God to forgive them before God would bless Job. This was an important part of Job’s healing- Job couldn’t stay angry with the friends who had let him down. He needed to pray for them, to forgive them, to want the best for them.

Is this what God is asking me to do for the comforters who have let me down, who have not been there when I needed them, who have sermonized when they should have been silent, who have judged me unfairly? Am I really supposed to pray for them?

It seems like a lot to ask of me, the sufferer. But as I reread Scripture, God’s answer is “yes.”

I am also being asked to forgive them. As Job forgave his friends. As Christ forgives me.

As Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Our well-meaning friends often don’t know what they’ve done, yet somehow I feel they should have known better. I may be right, but harboring a grudge magnifies my suffering, leaving me feeling isolated, defensive and misunderstood.

It takes a conscious effort to pull out of that pattern because forgiveness isn’t easy. It is always costly. But the joy and peace that flows into my life as a result is miraculous. It cleans out old wounds. It breaks down walls. It restores my soul.

Forgiving my comforters isn’t the only thing God asks of me. I also have to acknowledge my own shortcomings. When I’m struggling, my expectations of others can be unreasonable. I have often not told my friends what I wanted them to do- somehow I just expected them to know. Usually they didn’t.

It was helpful to tell my friends what I needed. Not assume they knew when I wanted to talk. When I wanted them to sit in silence with me. And when I needed help. Sadly, I don’t voice my needs often, because it makes me feel vulnerable. But when I have taken that risk, I have felt understood and known.

I have sinned against the people who were trying to help me, by expecting too much, walking away in anger, believing the worst motives. I need to extend grace to those who hurt me. Especially when I’ve taken offense only to discover later that I had totally misread the situation. But at the time I was so overwhelmed by my own pain that I couldn’t see a different perspective.

Suffering unravels me. When my friends aren’t supportive, it intensifies my already heavy burden. It is tempting to move on, and find people who can meet my needs.

But Jesus calls me to love and forgive these friends who have failed me, rather than condemn them and walk away, in search of the perfect church, the perfect friends, or the perfect community.

Sometimes I need to tell my friends how to help me. Sometimes I need to see my own sin in the situation. And above all, every time, I need to extend grace, remembering how desperately I am in need of it.

“For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar