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A woman attending a class I was
teaching once asked a favor of me. The community where she lived had
an unfortunate ordinance, she explained, which could result in her
losing the lease on her home. Cary had joined with other residents to
lobby for the policy’s repeal. She asked if I would be willing to
write a letter to the town council urging this change. I told her I’d
be glad to help, and promised to get the letter off quickly.
The following week I caught the flu, and then with the pressure of other responsibilities never got around to fulfilling my promise. About six weeks later Cary brought up the matter again. Embarrassed, I confessed I had never followed through and began to offer my lame excuse, fearing she’d be disappointed with me. To my surprise she cut me off, saying, “Don’t worry, the Lord withheld your hand.” She went on to say that she realized the timing hadn’t been right for the letter. She was glad I’d neglected to send it.
Not only was Cary’s response gracious--and a great relief to me--but it showed a remarkably broad-minded spirit. By saying “the Lord withheld your hand,” she made clear whose hand she believed was controlling this situation. And she was confident God had used my foul-up not to her hurt but to her benefit.
I doubt a day goes by in your life or mine when someone doesn’t disappoint us. A friend fails to call when she said she would. A neighbor forgets to return your rake. A colleague at work overlooks a lunch date with you. A promised delivery never arrives.
Or someone fails to live up to your expectations. Your child brings home a poor report card. A friend whose spiritual life you esteem drops out of Bible study. Your spouse doesn’t affirm you as often as you’d like.
Or you experience rejection. A university turns down your application. A cherished job opportunity doesn’t pan out. A relationship fizzles.
And there are times when we suffer actual injustice at the hands of others. Your boss blames you for a problem that wasn’t your fault. A repairman charges you for work not done. Someone sideswipes your car and drives on.
When others let us down, it’s normal not only to feel hurt but also to think that our destiny has somehow been thwarted. We fear we’ve been cheated out of benefits that rightfully should be ours. It’s the rare moment of faith when we consider that God may see things differently.
The Long View
More typically, we feel that God has pulled the rug out from under us. We’re especially inclined to feel this way if we’ve prayed for a response from a certain person that hasn’t occurred. We feel cheated not only by that individual but by God. We figure that if God were really on our side, he wouldn’t have let this person disappoint us. After all, he ultimately has control over all human affairs, and he has promised to answer the prayers of his faithful.
But Scripture constantly emphasizes that God takes the long view in looking after our welfare. This means that at times he will allow us to be disappointed in the short run for the sake of long-run benefits.
The Bible never promises that God will shield us from all possibility of others disappointing us--even if we’re walking fully in his will. Nor does it suggest that God should be expected to override someone else’s free will and cause a quick change in the way that person treats us, simply because we’ve prayed. Genuine behavior change takes time. And God follows his own timetable in changing a person’s heart. The brothers of Joseph, in the Genesis story, are a case in point. So is the Egyptian Pharaoh whom Moses petitioned on behalf of the Israelites.
Consider, too, that while Jesus consistently granted requests for personal healing during his earthly ministry, he generally refused petitions to make a sudden change in one person’s conduct toward another. He denied a man’s request to persuade his brother to share his inheritance, for instance (Lk 12:13-14), and denied Martha’s plea to exhort Mary to help her (Lk 10:38-42).
God will not necessarily bring an immediate change in someone’s behavior toward us in response to our prayer. We should, by all means, continue to raise such requests boldly to God, and trust that he will answer them as he sees best. Yet we can take comfort in knowing that if people don’t treat us as we’ve prayed they would, it doesn’t mean God has turned his back on us. It’s more likely that our expectations have been unrealistic.
We can take even greater comfort in the clear and unequivocal teaching of Scripture, that God uses all of the actions of others toward us--whether for good or ill--to further his best intentions for us.
A Surprising Response
It’s here that the example of Joseph is so instructive. No one in Scripture had better reason for being resentful toward family members than he did. His brothers hated him so greatly that they sold him to slave traders, who carried him to Egypt and sold him there. Through a unique series of events, including several years in prison, Joseph became second-in-command to Pharaoh and director of a masterful famine relief effort. A severe food shortage ravaged the Mideast, and Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt seeking grain. Some twenty years after selling him into bondage they stood before him humbly seeking his help, having no inkling he was their flesh and blood.
At this point Joseph had one of the most exceptional opportunities for revenge one could imagine. Yet he found it within himself not only to forgive his brothers radically from the heart--well before they asked him to--but also to encourage them to move their families en masse to Egypt. There he provided lavishly for them for the remainder of their lives.
Joseph’s astonishing capacity to forgive his iron-hearted kin sprang from an unusually deep trust that God was controlling his life--using even calamities to bring about his good purpose. At the moment when revenge could have been the sweetest, he swept away all basis by declaring to his brothers, “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 . . . to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45:5-8 NIV).
Some years later when their father Jacob died, his brothers feared that Joseph might cave in to repressed revenge. But with additional years of hindsight he insisted even more emphatically, “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. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children” (Gen 50:19-21).
What makes Joseph’s attitude so enviable is that its redemptive impact was so pervasive. The benefit to Joseph alone was substantial. We don’t sense that he was being eaten up with bitterness during his years in exile. Resentment would have consumed much of his creative energy. Yet he displayed social and practical skills that won the respect of the jail keeper, the king’s servants and ultimately Pharaoh himself. This suggests that he managed to stay optimistic during much of this time.
Then there was the extensive benefit to the people of Egypt and the surrounding world--the saving of thousands of lives. Finally, there were extraordinary benefits to his own family: Joseph and his brothers were reconciled; his brothers matured remarkably; numerous members of his extended family were saved from starvation.
The Promise and the Challenge
The message, then, is one of indescribable encouragement for us who follow Christ. Here in the beginning of Scripture we’re shown that God uses even the most adverse actions of others to our benefit and to bring about his best purposes for us. It is foundational to faith in Christ to embrace this belief in the wholehearted way that Joseph did.
When others disappoint us, we can trust there are hidden benefits. In time, with the marvelous advantage of hindsight, these will become evident. Such confidence in God’s providence will lead both to deeper personal joy and to greater effectiveness in our work for Christ. And the impact of our attitude will be felt by many.
Yet we come back to the fact that this sort of outlook is difficult to achieve. It is not a natural way of thinking but a challenging perspective of faith. How, then, do we do it?
The most helpful step we can take is to confront our frustrations during our daily devotional time. Spending time in quiet, prayerful reflection about our struggles and disappointments with other people can make all the difference. If someone has disappointed us, we should strive to think of ways God may use that letdown to our benefit. We should remind ourselves that God has the best in mind for us, and that he may see what we view as a setback quite differently. It’s important, too, to pray for patience and the fullest measure of wisdom God is willing to give us.
It also helps to try to understand the motives of those who disappoint us. It may be that their behavior had nothing to do with disliking us but resulted from personal weakness or extenuating circumstances. Even if they really did want to hurt us, this doesn’t mean they will always feel this way toward us. God may change their hearts, as he did with Joseph’s brothers. Our ability to forgive them and believe the best for them can help that to happen.
This isn’t to say that we should never express disappointment or anger to someone else. There are times when confronting someone is necessary both for our emotional health and for their growth as well. Love must be tough at times. God never expects us to be a doormat to anyone. We need to learn to be appropriately assertive, to own our feelings, to stand firm for what God has called us to do even when others are not supportive. This is all very important.
First Things First
Yet our greatest need--far and away--is to appreciate God’s creative sovereignty in our life and his infinite concern for us. When that perspective is right, our negative feelings toward others often dissolve. Genuine forgiveness becomes possible. And when confronting someone is necessary, we are able to do it in a more relaxed, confident spirit.
The bottom line is that God is not our adversary but our friend. We can’t remind ourselves of this fact too often. If the example of Joseph isn’t convincing enough, he has given us his clear promise in Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And to make the point even more emphatically, Paul reiterates it in different words three verses later: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).
The friendship of Christ is the overriding factor
that touches every relationship and encounter of life. In this matter
he has not withheld his hand.
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This article is adapted from chapter 14 of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).
Blaine Smith's Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail!
Copyright 2008 M.
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