Ever feel like things are turning out completely opposite of the way you imagined? Ever been disappointed or disillusioned, depressed or discouraged over how life has or is turning out?
I’ve been thinking about some stories in the Bible recently and my own life (and others) at certain times in certain things where this has been true. Let me share a few of those stories and also some personal things.
First of all, I think of Joseph having these awesome dreams given by God, but then his own brothers becoming so jealous and angry with him that they threw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery. Joseph later winds up in prison and is totally forgotten for two more years (13 years total of living a life completely opposite and seemingly totally contrary to the dreams God gave him).
And then there is Job. In one day he received more devastating news than most of us receive in a lifetime. All his livestock (and he had more than anyone around) was stolen or killed and all his servants were killed except the one who escaped and told Job what happened. But far worse than all this, his seven sons and three daughters all were killed that same day too. Not long after this, Job lost his health and suffered a lot of pain.
Or what about a young Israeli girl who was taken captive in a raid and forced to become a servant of that army’s commander (Naaman’s wife: 2 Kings 5). Imagine being uprooted from your land and home and taken away from your parents at a young age.
Or what about David? Destined by God to be the next king, He comes under the jealous wrath of King Saul (though he was extremely loyal) and is forced to flee and constantly be on the run as Saul pursues him to try to kill him. He had to hide in mountains and caves and take refuge in other cities that were often at war with Israel!
And then there is Daniel. Seemingly unfortunate for him, he was a young man at the time when Israel was taken captive by the Babylonians. He could have had a great life and successful career in Israel, but instead he would be forced into the service of a pagan king, the king responsible (humanly speaking) for destroying his city and temple and taking his people captive.
Or how about Naomi in the book of Ruth? Not only was Naomi left a widow, but both of her sons died too. In fact when she returned to her homeland she told the people to stop calling her Naomi (which means “pleasant”) and to call her “Mara” (which means “bitter”).
What about John, the one who came water-baptizing the people in preparation of the coming Messiah? Jesus said of John that there was never anyone born of women greater than him. Yet he ended up in prison and then was beheaded for speaking the truth and calling sin, sin.
And what about the apostle Paul? Here is a snap-shot of the life of Paul in his own words out of 2 Corinthians 11:24-29: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”
Perhaps that’s part of our problem. The desire to live the “American dream” runs so deep within us that as we think about these cases above, we feel sorry for these people and more than that sorry for ourselves. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
I bet we all could write on our woes and sorrows and trials and grief that we have endured. My first real friend in Christ was killed at just 18 years of age in a motorcycle accident, six months after rededicating his life to Christ and making serious changes in his life. Within my first year of marriage my wife had a miscarriage and not long after that we were meeting with a pastor who was counseling us as we were literally on the verge of divorce. And as I write this, even though I know I am in God’s will right now, (and our marriage is stronger than ever as God has ministered much healing and given us three beautiful kids), life and even (or especially) ministry has not at all turned out as I imagined or thought or hoped it would. There are and have been many times I battle with feeling sorry for myself. I am just being real right now. (And it is part of why I am writing this!). So if this happens to minister to anyone else as I preach to myself, praise God!
But here is what has to be remembered. All of what I have shared so far is only one half of all these stories. If what I shared so far was the complete story, we’d have reason to be utterly depressed and feel sorry for ourselves! We’d have reason to view ourselves as victims and become bitter while drowning in disappointment and disillusionment. I admit I battle with these things from time to time and sometimes worse than at other times. And that is why I have to remember there is another part to all these stories. Let me now give those other parts!
Joseph. After all his seemingly pointless suffering, all of a sudden Joseph in an instant went from the prison to the palace, second in charge of all of Egypt! This position put him in a position where he was later able to save his entire family (yes, the same family that hurt him so deeply and sold him into slavery!) and thus preserve the line that the Messiah (Jesus) would eventually come through! God gave him a wife, who bore him two sons, Manasseh (which means “to forget” as Joseph testified that “God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.” [Genesis 41:51]) and Ephraim (which means “twice fruitful” for Joseph testified that “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” [Genesis 41:52]). And twice Joseph assured his brothers that he forgave them recognizing God’s sovereignty in all this. He put it this way: “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Genesis 45:5-7). Later he said this: “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’” (Genesis 50:19-20).
And Job? Well, God restored to him twice as much as before he lost everything and was blessed more in the latter part of his life than the first. He also had seven more sons and three daughters! And how many people through the ages have turned to Job for comfort in times of sorrow and seeming pointless tragedy?
And that young Israeli girl who was taken captive? Well, she didn’t play the victim and become bitter. When she found out about the condition of her master’s husband (the great army commander Naaman who had leprosy), she didn’t gloat in his suffering, but sincerely wished for his healing and spoke about a prophet in Israel who could heal him! Naaman went and was healed and came back testifying that there was a God in Israel and that He was the true God! God used this young girl to bring about the salvation of a pagan army commander! I wonder if we would have (or do have) that same heart as this girl?
David. If it weren’t for all those years of being hunted by Saul as if this were the “Hunger Games” (that is a current popular movie/books among teens especially), we wouldn’t have many of the Psalms that have brought so much comfort to the hearts of those facing battles and struggles! A lot of the Psalms of David were written during his time of being on the run! And these things prepared him to be king and were the years that loyalty to David was forged as many other “outcasts” joined with him.
And Daniel? Well, who hasn’t heard of Daniel and the lion’s den and how God shut the mouths of the lions? There are besides this story other classic stories in Daniel that were not Daniel taken captive, never would have happened. King Nebuchadnezzer and all of Babylon came to acknowledge through Daniel and his friends’ witness, the reality that their God was the one true and living God!
Naomi (or Mara) in the book of Ruth? Well, she had a wonderfully faithful daughter-in-law named Ruth (who wasn’t even Jewish, but a Moabite) but who firmly decided and declared to Naomi in Ruth 1:16-17 “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” Because of Ruth’s faith and loyalty, God honored her by causing her to find favor in the eyes of a man named Boaz who was a relative of Naomi. He and Ruth ended up marrying and having a child. But it wasn’t just any child. Ruth 4:16-17 says this: “Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son.” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Jesus, the Messiah, of course came from this line! This was the greatest blessing that could be bestowed upon someone, to be included in the lineage (family line) of the Messiah!
And then there is John. John along with Jesus’ disciples, though they all were persecuted and endured much suffering for their following and proclaiming Jesus (and almost of all them were martyred), God has used them to turn the world upside down by taking the good news of the Gospel into all the world! So many lives have been (and are still being) changed and touched and transformed through their witness and words!
The same goes for the apostle Paul. Most of the New Testament was written by him! And Paul though beaten, abused, stoned, thrown in prison and so much more for his faith; he didn’t view himself as a victim and didn’t want others feeling sorry for him. Listen to what he wrote in Philippians 1:12-14 “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”
Victor or victim?
That brings me to my life. I admit sometimes I throw myself pity parties. But that’s only when I take my eyes off the Sovereignty of God and miss the hand of God in every circumstance and situation. That’s when I forget that it was through the death of my first real friend in Christ that God perhaps did the greatest work in the quickest time in my life and others’ lives. I saw more people saved and recommit to Christ during that season than any other season since. (And I had no clue what I was doing or saying!) And sometimes I forget that had not every door in PA shut and everything seem to fall apart and fail, we wouldn’t be in Jersey and have seen many lives touched and transformed by the power of God and Word of God. I forget sometimes about all the emails or letters or testimonies that are sent describing how God has used certain sermons or writings or one-on-one times in counseling/prayer. Sometimes I focus on all that isn’t or all that could have been instead of all God is doing and has done. I forget sometimes that coming here was the best thing that could have happened for our marriage and for healing in my own life in some things. I forget how often both my wife and I comment on how grateful we are that God brought us here during this time. I was confused and disappointed and disillusioned in all of what happened in PA, but God’s hand was so clearly evident on the other hand in all of it. He was dealing with some things in me that needed dealt with and also preparing us for coming here to NJ and ministry here.
I was just talking last night with someone in our congregation who has gone through an awful lot in the last few years along with his wife, from being out of work, to his wife going deaf in one ear, to finding out she would have to have a mastectomy. Yet, in all these things the hand of God has been so evident, from a job starting the day they needed something, to her cancer being the catalyst to reconciliation between two family members (where all other attempts had failed), to just finding out that due to her breast cancer, she can now apply to have a surgery done for free to help her hearing! Before the cancer she did not qualify for assistance and it was too expensive for them to afford. But now every penny of it will be covered!
My wife was also just telling me about a local youth pastor and his wife (who she was good friends with) who have been through a very tough and abusive season of life that drug on for 5 years. None of it was really making sense and nothing seemed to open up and fall into place for them. But they endured. Just recently, their house sold, a good job opened for both of them near both their families in another state, and through the benefits of this teaching job, this youth pastor will be able to take seminary classes for the pastorate as he has always wanted to but didn’t have the resources to be able to! All of these things just suddenly came together and fell into place, the hand of God being so obvious, whereas before they wondered what God was doing.
And isn’t that the paradox in these things? And actually isn’t this a more accurate description of the true Christian life? On the one hand in the natural you wonder where God is, but then on the other hand you do see (or end up seeing) the hand of God. But it isn’t easy when you’re really living it and serving the Lord. Paul described it like this in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
The other day I was listening to a sermon of Pastor Jim Cymbala of the Brooklyn Tabernacle which is a church and pastor that has been very special and an incredible blessing to me and countless others. He was talking about how a well-known minister came to his church and made a comment that I think many of us pastors have thought or said, too. This pastor was commenting on how he’s always wanted a church like the Brooklyn Tabernacle as God has just worked in amazing ways in people’s lives there and the presence of God is so overwhelming and you have people of every color and race worshipping Jesus together. From the outside it looks like the dream church. But Pastor Cymbala was saying how he has only known one thing since getting into the ministry: problems. Problems with people, problems in leadership, problems with money, problems with opposition and warfare, problems, problems, problems. And he was saying that is what life is: one problem after another. But he was saying this is how we grow. We grow the most or experience the opportunity for quickest growth when problems surround us on every side. Problems are actually opportunities for God to display His power! Is that not what all the stories above demonstrate?
So I feel encouraged already in just writing this! My focus is back where it needs to be. I feel joy rising up and hope being restored again. And even though the sorrow is going to be there and problems are always going to be there, we need to endure and persevere, not seeing ourselves as victims but victors through Christ and in Christ and as servants of Christ, who are to remain faithful to God no matter what we are going through.
In 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 Paul said this: “Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Victim or Victor?
Romans 8:37 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
The story isn’t over yet! Keep trusting the Lord. He is faithful. Our perspective is limited, while God see’s the whole story from beginning to end. We however are still in the process of journeying through it. But take heart, this is not the last page!
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.