Extract from an article by Eddie Larkman, The Briefing, December 2007.
If we live, we will suffer. But how we suffer, as Eddie Larkman points out, depends entirely on us.
I’d like to share with you something of how God has been teaching me through my personal circumstances. Your circumstances will be different, and they may include many things you would like to change, but we all have to follow Christ where we are…
[He describes his wife and their plans together, and her illness and death]
… We all face joys and sorrows of one kind or another. There will be things in your life that are not as you would wish. Some of your difficulties may be long-term, and some, perhaps, are breaking your heart. Maybe you are single and wish you were married. Perhaps, God forbid, you are married, and wish you were not. You may be struggling to cope with your children, your parents or your health. There may be something in your life that, for you, is an almost unbearable sorrow.
And where is God in all of this? In the midst of whatever circumstances we face, what does it mean to follow Jesus? That is the most important question. During Sue’s final illness and during the time after her death, I often felt trapped – unable to lead the life I wanted, unable to serve as a pastor in quite the way that I had hoped – hemmed in at every turn by my domestic situation. However, I came to see that, in fact, there was nothing in my circumstances preventing me from attempting to keep the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love my neighbour. The trouble was, I wanted to serve God in all sorts of ways other than the ones he had prescribed for me. I would look longingly at opportunities I was ‘missing’, and think, “Lord, if only I could do that for you.” But we love God most and serve God best by doing the thing he asks of us rather than constantly wishing we could do something else instead…
When we find ourselves in circumstances we don’t like, we need to ask what God may be wanting to give us through those circumstances. Sometimes we are so busy resenting our circumstances, we are incapable of paying attention to God’s lessons through them. Yet presumably God is seeking to give himself to us all the time, and our circumstances are one of the vehicles of his self-giving. But, sinner that I am, I don’t always want to know this, or I don’t always want to receive what God is trying to give. Self-pity and sulking seem more attractive options, however destructive they prove to be in the long term.
Sometimes we spend so long looking at the thing we can’t do, we fail to do the thing that we could – the task that lies at hand. On a shelf in my study sits a piece of calligraphy – a quotation from Helen Keller which Sue copied out for me some years ago: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” Self-pity makes us blind. Many times since Sue’s death I have prayed this prayer: “Forgive me, Lord. You gave me the perfect gift of right now, and I threw it away hoping for a better gift later.”
The great lesson that I am constantly having to learn is that my circumstances, far from being the enemy of my soul, are its friend, its teacher. They set the agenda, mark the course, underline the lessons I most need to learn, and persist in dragging me back to those lessons when I want to wander off into something more appealing but less beneficial. This is not a cruelty to me, but God’s kindness. He has eternity in mind, whereas we are so short-sighted. He knows what it takes to make each of us like Jesus – to make us rich in our character and fruitful in his service.
In January 1996, two months before Sue died, I wrote some reflections on my circumstances in a devotional journal. I noted that:
The lessons God wants me to learn include:
1 That God’s agenda, not mine, is the one that matters.
2 That it is always possible to do the will of God.
3 To live contentedly, without envy or resentment.
5 To serve (and live) joyfully in every situation.
6 Trust must replace anxiety. God knows what he is doing and will supply every need.
Looking back now, I am struck by the fact that my circumstances were the perfect setting to learn those lessons. May God forgive me for not having learned them more successfully, but it was not the circumstances that were at fault. God knows what he is doing.
And so I want to say to you that there are no perfect circumstances in which to learn to follow Christ except those you are in today. That is why he has you there. I do not want to speak lightly of the difficulties some of you may be facing; I acknowledge that you may be living with desperately painful circumstances. Believe me, I know what tears; I have shed buckets-full. But Jesus will meet you in your circumstances and make you the person a loving heavenly Father wants you to be – for his glory and for your good.
… I close with a line from John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote,
“The cross, if rightly borne, shall be no burden, but support to thee.”*
Whatever form that cross takes in your life, if you bear it rightly, it will turn out to be not a heavy lump of wood that crushes you, but a stick you lean on as you journey to heaven. Bear the cross with faith and humility, in utter dependence on God. Far from breaking you, it will be the making of you. You will become like Jesus.
* John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘The Cross’, The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Ward, Lock & Co, London, 1911, p.340. Whittier attributes the thought to Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.