The day was cloudless. The desert sun shimmered as it reflected on slanted rocks and bounced off hard-packed sand. The cacti ranged from giant saguaros, huge arms curving toward heaven, to squat, round, spiny humps clinging to earth.
Jack and I had been silent for many miles, each absorbed in thought as we drove home from Phoenix that April day. But as we entered a small town, I glanced at a sign and laughed, shattering the companionable silence.
The sign read:
AZTEC, NEW MEXICO
5,667 friendly people and 6 old soreheads.
Somebody in Aztec has a delightful sense of humor.
My next thought was, “I wonder if the six old soreheads recognize who they are. Or maybe each of the 5,667 friendly people from time to time thinks he or she is one of those soreheads.”
In Lord of My Rocking Boat I wrote about many of the things that cause us to lose our cool – pressures, pain, people. Lately I’ve been realizing that a primary factor in understanding and accepting those pressures, trials, and suffering, is our view of the purpose of life.
I have heard it said that “God did not give us a happy spirit to make us happy, but a Holy Spirit to make us holy.” Whenever I get squeezed into believing that the purpose of life is to bring delight to me, I’m in trouble. God wants to delight me, to be sure. He desires to shower my life with His riches, His treasures, His good things. And that is exactly what He does. But if I consider those “good things” to be plenty of money, gobs of love, unconditional acceptance from other people, and untold happiness throughout my life, then I must have a reading disability.
For Paul says very clearly, “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:9-10).
We as believers are to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. But how? Through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Why? So we may live a life worthy of the Lord!
“Filled” means to be complete, satisfied, saturated, occupied to capacity.
“Knowledge” means understanding, enlightenment, discernment, comprehension, acquaintance.
We are called to be saturated with enlightenment concerning the will of God – occupied to capacity with understanding concerning His desire for our lives.
Our whole age is obsessed with negative thinking. The world lacks true understanding. Its philosophy is one without lasting purpose or hope. Actor and director Alan Alda, speaking to his daughter’s graduation class, expressed this sense of relative futility:
The door is inching a little closer toward the latch and I still haven’t said it. Let me dig a little deeper. Life is absurd and meaningless – unless you bring meaning to it, unless you make something of it. It is up to us to create our own existence.
I almost cried when I finished this article. I thought, “With all his talent and intellect, is that the only hope he can give to his daughter and her graduation class?” What a contrast to Paul’s ringing words of hope – “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
Think of it! God gives us spiritual wisdom and understanding, enabling us to have knowledge of His will. And this knowledge, when we are filled with it, makes our lives worthy of the Lord!
Some factors of His will are that we be holy, joyful, always praying, doing good, obeying God, and being filled with His Spirit. But the one factor we don’t like to think about, as we bask in the light of His riches and treasures, is that His will for each of us includes suffering.
Did you say, “How’s that again?” Many books these days proclaim health, wealth, and happiness as the legacy of every Christian. I am convinced that this philosophy is man’s dream, not God’s plan. Some people have not done their scriptural homework.
The prime purpose of this life is to know God and to be conformed to the image of His Son. When we grasp the deep, vital truth that God achieves His purposes largely through trials and temptations, then we can “welcome them as friends” (Jas. 1:2-5, Ph.).
The story is told of a heavyset woman who went to an exercise and diet clinic. The first thing the supervisor did was draw a silhouette on a mirror in the shape she wished to become. As she stood before the mirror, she bulged out over the silhouette. The instructor told her, “Our goal is for you to fit this shape.”
For many weeks the woman dieted and exercised. Each week she would stand in front of the mirror, but her volume, while decreasing, still overflowed. And so she exercised harder and dieted more rigidly. Finally one day, to everyone’s delight, as she stood in front of the mirror she was conformed to the image of the silhouette.
It takes time and work to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. The discipline of sorrow and suffering, the exercise of pain and trials conform us to His image.
A sculptor once fashioned a magnificent lion out of solid stone. When asked how he had accomplished such a wonderful masterpiece, he replied, “It was easy. All I did was to chip away everything that didn’t look like a lion.” All God does is chip away everything in our lives that doesn’t look like Christ.
Peter states, “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pet. 4:19).
Sometimes suffering brings unanswered questions.
Two weeks before, in what the world would look upon as a tragic, meaningless accident, a woman’s teenage son had skidded on ice, crashed into a wall, and been thrown out of the car directly in the path of another vehicle. The truck dragged him for a half mile before releasing his body in a snow-covered field. Tragic? Yes. Meaningless? No.
After just two weeks, several of the boy’s teenage friends had received his Savior. Immeasurable grace had lifted the hearts of parents and family, bringing forth praise and thanksgiving in their hearts and on their lips. Grace to overcome many of the “whys.”
Of course there was weeping. Mourning. Pain. Grief. But they know that the pain was on their side, the joy on their son’s.
Still, her concerned face turned toward us and her voice trembled.
“He was so young,” she said. “My one great concern is, Will he have any trophies for the Master? Or did he go to heaven empty-handed?”
A deep and probing question. Without answer, really. And yet…
I had just been reading the life story of Amy Carmichael. Time after time she spoke of small children dying. Did they go “empty-handed”?
Jim Elliot once said, “God is not in the business of peopling heaven just with old people.” He died at 29, martyred in Ecuador at the full flush of his ministry. Did he go with fewer “trophies” than if he’d lived to his three-score years and ten? Would that be fair of a just and loving Father?
Two possibilities come to mind:
(1) We each have an allotted time – an assignment of a precise length. It is not the length of life but what I do with the length I have that is the pertinent factor.
(2) God is all-knowing. He knows what Jim Elliot would have done with another 40-plus years of life had it been allotted to him. In His greatness, would God not give Jim the “trophies” he would have won for the Master so that Jim could have the privilege of laying them at his Savior’s feet?
There is no Scripture that in black and white answers this question. There are certain secret things that alone belong to God (Deut. 29:29). But we can know that our God, who names all the stars in the heavens, does all things well.
We should take on the perspective of David, who said, “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake” (Psa. 17:15).
Death for us means awakening in heaven and seeing our Lord – face to face. What comfort it is to know that death is not an end but a beginning – to know that we are not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying, but that we are in the land of the dying going to the land of the living.
When the great chemist Sir Michael Faraday was on his deathbed, some journalists questioned him as to his speculations concerning the soul and death. “Speculations!” said the dying man in astonishment. “I know nothing about speculations. I am resting on certainties.”
Have you ever reflected on the difference between an ordinary trial and a “trial of your faith”? (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Such a trial takes place when you cannot see the promises of God operating at the moment. Of course, the promises of God are always operating, but sometimes it seems like God is not arriving, or else arriving late. During these times our very souls suffer.
I remember years ago when almost everything in our lives was falling apart. We were broke, friends close to us were critical of us (that is an understatement), and we felt that our ministry was a total failure. We were in the ministry because of certain promises from God, but as far as I could see they were not coming to pass. It was a “trial of my faith.”
Each morning I cried to God, “Lord, I can’t get through this day without You. Help!” And so God’s presence filled my heart so that I could survive the day – barely. During that time, I never doubted God’s existence or His presence in my life. But I did wonder if He had put us on the shelf, or if we had done something to make Him give up on us. We were seeing no answers to prayer nor were we seeing His promises to us fulfilled.
During that time, a Christian leader who did not know anything about what we were enduring began to talk about trials. He said, “When I finish going through a trial, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I never once doubted God.’”
I was sick inside. I wanted to shout at him, “Yes, I’d like to be able to say that, too! But I am doubting! Every day I am just barely making it! I am terrified when I think that perhaps God has given up on us.”
God taught me some precious lessons through that time – lessons we couldn’t have learned any other way. He brought me (a ministry-oriented, people-pleasing person) to the place where I prayed – and meant it, too – “Lord, if You never want me to succeed or have a ministry again in this life, it’s all right. I know that the first thing you want is me, and for me to be conformed to Your image. If my never having any ministry again is the best way for You to accomplish these purposes, l am willing.”
And then one day we turned the corner from that awful period. God began to fulfill His promises so fast that we couldn’t keep up writing them down. It was as if He were saying, “Carole, I love you. I am a faithful God. Your questions and fears will never make Me deny My character. I will be faithful to you even when you question, I will love you when you lack love for Me. I will be true to you when you doubt.”
I fell in love with my Father more deeply than ever before. God loves me when I don’t even deserve it. He loves me when I am confused and doubting. He loves me.
Adapted from Filled to Overflowing by Carole Mayhall, 1984, pp. 97-107.