The writing sabbatical is officially over. It will likely go down as one of the worst sabbaticals of all time! I laugh as I write this, but it is true. If I were to do one thing differently, it would be to find a place far from home to stay. I didn’t realize how involved I was in ministry on the home front. So while I did not fly anywhere for ministry events, they were showing up at my front door! It was quite interesting at times. I have no regrets, but it definitely was not as productive and restful as I had hoped. In fact, it was far from it. However, while the sabbatical was not at all what I expected it to be, in many ways it was better.
If I learned one lesson as a result of this time, it is this: God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best.
Jesus sat and taught the people who were gathered around him. Using the image of a father and child, he explained how God relates to us. Consider what he said:
“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11, ESV).
In this passage, Jesus taught us that God is not a mean God. He doesn’t play tricks on us. Just as you would never play a mean trick on your child, God would never play a mean trick on you. This passage is not teaching that he will give us anything we ask for, but it does show that when I come to him and ask him for something, I can expect that whatever he gives me is a result of the love he has for me. If his answer is “no,” it is because he loves me. If his answer is “not now,” it is because he loves me. If he gives me something different, it is because he loves me and has something better in mind for me.
This is crucial to understand when we face disappointment. Some of you right now are facing circumstances that are not working out the way you thought they would. You’ve cried out to God for relief. You’ve waited in anticipation for him to intercede, but the trial only grew worse. In those moments of desperation, we need to understand that God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best, and sometimes his best comes through difficulty and pain.
Last fall I welcomed the time off the road. I was looking forward to spending more time writing and hoped to complete the manuscript for the new book, but my plans are not always the same as God’s plans. In this case, God certainly had other plans, better plans, actually. God did give me rest from the pressure of being on the road, but the book remains unfinished. So much of what I had hoped to accomplish fell along the wayside. My schedule was jammed full of home-church related meetings and personal ministry activities. I can either feel sorry for myself or relish all that God did in my life during those days. So I choose to focus on the blessings that have come from this time.
I simply wanted a break from the pressures of travel and ministry and to finish the book project, but God wanted to give me something better. Unfortunately, for me that meant times of trial and difficulty, physical issues, ministry problems, etc. But through these difficulties, I watched him clarify my sense of mission and vision for the coming days. I learned important lessons about weaknesses in my personality that can inhibit me from fulfilling the call of God on my life. I saw him profoundly change me at a heart level, renewing my mind, and renewing my passion for ministry. Over and over I witnessed his providing, prodding, going deeper in relationship with himself. So does it matter to me that I didn’t get what I wanted? Not in the least! I’ll gladly keep what he gave me instead. It was so much better!
Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, wrote these words:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29a, ESV).
I can see how God has used this time for good in my life, even though many of the days were very difficult, but I want you to notice the clause at the beginning of the sentence Paul wrote. He says that this idea of all things working together for good is for those who love God. This promise is not for the man or woman who is simply religious and attends church. Instead, this promise is for the one who is in a love relationship with God. For those who refuse to focus on loving God, there is no promise here. This is another example of why I continue to preach the fundamentals of loving God and loving others. It matters. For me, during the days of sabbatical, I chose to focus on my relationship with God. When nothing made sense, I just crawled up in his lap and let him hold me for awhile. In the end, I found profound changes in my life as he molded me more into the image of Jesus Christ. All I wanted was rest, but because he loves me, God gave me what was best. At the end of the six months, I believe I look a little bit more like the person of Jesus Christ.
Last month in the devotional I wrote about the idea that God always gives his very best. But what we don’t always understand is that sometimes his best involves great trial, pain, or difficulty. That is because God often uses trials to mold us more into the image of Christ. It is because he loves us that he does not leave us where we are. God’s best for my life always involves conforming me to the person of Jesus Christ. In God’s view, all things working together for good means conformity, not comfort. This is difficult to grasp, but vital that we understand.
In another letter, Paul wrote this:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7-14, ESV)
I read those words this morning as I was preparing to write this article. It struck me that his sole focus was to become more like Christ. It was an ongoing process of losing so that in the end he could gain Christ. How profound! We always try to avoid losing, but in doing so we often miss what we could gain.
Let us all then, like Paul, choose to forget what is behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Remember, he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best.
This article was originally published in the June 2014 Newsletter.