LOOK ING FOR THE GOOD IN LIFE
HAS LIFE EVER HANDED you a double whammy? In 2007 life clobbered me with a classic one-two punch, hitting me with a blow to my church ministry for starters and then following with a jab to my personal finances. It all started when the school the church operates saw it’s budget reduced by $350,000. When you have teachers’ salaries to pay, that’s not a loss you can shrug off. The second blow came when a bank loan my wife and I were relying on for a business venture fell through. Based on the bank’s commitment letter, we had signed a land lease and hired contractors. Then the bank dropped out right before closing, and suddenly we had a several thousand dollar monthly lease, contractors wanting payment, and no loan to cover any of it.
I didn’t know where our church was going to get the money to keep the school going. And I didn’t know where I was going to get the money to keep our business going.
I began having sleepless nights. Often I would lie awake, with either the church needs or our family finances, or both, running through my mind. In the middle of the night I would get up and grab my journal and write prayers to God, feebly pleading for help. Then I would wait for God to give me wisdom. I’d sit for three or four hours, waiting for God to do something, to answer me, to give me something—anything—but nothing would come. I wouldn’t feel any better; I would feel worse. Soon I was thinking, Why do I even bother praying? I feel worse now!
Or, Why isn’t God giving me an answer to any of this?
This went on night after night.
I suspect you’ve had times in your life like that. Maybe you’re going through that time right now—not in the details, of course, but sometimes it’s not the details that matter; it’s what you’re feeling.
Feeling that you’re headed down the wrong road
Feeling that you’ve blown it
Feeling that no one believes in you
Feeling that you’ve walked away from God and can’t ever get back
Feeling that things are out of your control
Feeling that you’re trapped and have nowhere to go
Feeling that in a world of billions of people, there couldn’t possibly be anything special about you
It doesn’t matter if you feel all of these things or just one. You desperately want a way to turn life around.
I felt that desperation in 2007. My sleepless nights had me questioning everything, from the real to the absurd. I was trapped in what Max Lucado calls the “Whaddiffs and Howells.”1 What if I had waited to sign that lease? How will we keep the school open? What if what I’m hoping for doesn’t happen? How will we pay for our children’s education? My mind was in turmoil, and my body and soul joined in.
One morning, after another sleepless night, I spent some time—as I do every morning—with God. At first I just shared my hurt with him as I always did, telling him how overwhelmed I was and how hopeless things seemed to me—as if he didn’t already know that. All of a sudden, in the midst of my pitiful complaints, the Holy Spirit took over. Instead of sharing my hurts with God, I began to share my heart with him. I went from telling God how overwhelmed I was to saying how much I loved him and needed him.
That’s when God spoke directly to my heart. And this is what he said: “Don’t worry. I work all things together for the good for those who love me and are called according to my purpose.”
That promise is also found in Romans 8:28. Now, I realize there’s probably a strict theological meaning to that verse, but sometimes we can destroy a verse of Scripture by getting so theological with it that we miss what God is saying to us directly in our moment of need. So when God said that to me, I simply heard, “Don’t worry, my son. I will turn it around.”
And then, because pastors can be just as hardheaded as the next guy, God took everything I’d been thinking… and answered. Into all my feelings of doubt and despair, God inserted his promises:
I will turn your life around when you’re on the wrong road.
I will turn your life around when you’ve blown it.
I will turn your life around when no one believes in you.
I will turn your life around when you’ve walked away from me.
I will turn your life around when things are out of your control.
I will turn your life around when you’re trapped and have nowhere to go.
I will turn your life around because you’re special to me.
Those words may not sound like much to you now, but they meant everything to me when I needed help. I immediately stopped what I was doing and ran to my nightstand drawer, pulled out a notepad and the stubbiest little pencil you ever saw, and began to write down God’s promises. At first I was writing just for myself; but then I realized that God wasn’t speaking only to me. He sends that same message to all of us. Every moment of our lives, God offers these promises to us. He reminds us of these promises again and again through our own lives and the lives of others. We just have to stop and notice.
That’s the first step—realizing that God can be doing good things for us in the midst of all that is happening to us, even when we can’t see any good. We must look for and focus on those good things. If we don’t—if we persist in focusing only on the negative things that are troubling us—we’ll be trapped in the very rut from which we want to escape.
Let’s look at that verse that God spoke to my heart: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Notice that God didn’t say he causes bad things; neither did he say that everything that happens is good. But he did say that, for those who love him, he will bring good
out of all the bad things that happen. That verse tells us—promises us—that even in the midst of bad, God is causing good to take place. Even though we think our lives are falling apart, we need to look for the good. It may feel to us like we’re in a whirlwind, but if we trust in God, if we look with the eyes of faith, we’ll see in the end that God was at work. Even though God isn’t pulling the strings on the bad events, his divine hand of providence is on everything; he is causing those stressful, painful, horrible circumstances to turn around for our good. When we look for the good, we find so many incredible things that we never would have seen if we hadn’t looked for them in the midst of our troubles.
Looking for good isn’t usually our first inclination when we experience trouble. It’s not always easy, but we can get better at it with a little awareness and practice. One way we can learn to look for the good God is doing in our lives is by observing the good God has accomplished in others through their difficulties. Numerous stories tell of good emerging from the midst of troubling or even disastrous circumstances. For example, in 1883 a devastating tornado tore through Rochester, Minnesota, killing and injuring many in the small city. A local surgeon named William Worrall Mayo and his two sons—also skilled physicians—labored day and night to care for the tornado victims. They asked for no reward, responding only out of concern for others. Moved by their efforts, Mother Alfred Moes of the local Sisters of Saint Francis approached Dr. Mayo and his sons about establishing a hospital. When the three physicians agreed, Mother Alfred and her fellow nuns raised the money for a state-of-the-art facility, which opened in 1889. From the midst of tragedy came events that led to the founding of the Mayo Clinic, one of the most celebrated medical treatment and research centers in the world.2
God doesn’t cause tragedy, but he excels at turning it around for good—and God’s good is bigger than anything we can imagine. If he can bring healing for millions out of the devastation of a tornado, he can certainly bring about good from our smaller struggles.
We don’t have to look far to discover how God can take personal tragedies and turn them around. For example, I can’t think of a more painful and faith-challenging trial than the loss of physical senses. We relate to the world through sight and sound in order to live our everyday lives. What would your life be like if you lost one of the senses you rely on most? Now try to imagine what a brilliant and dedicated musician would suffer should he lose his hearing. Surely the ability to hear would be essential to a musician’s success. At the age of thirty-one, Ludwig van Beethoven began to go deaf.3 He had developed a reputation as a skilled composer and performer, yet he had accomplished so little of what he felt capable. As his condition worsened, depression overwhelmed him. “O how harshly was I pushed back by the double sad experience of my bad hearing,” he wrote of his loss. “A little more and I would have ended my life.”4
Any one of us might understand these feelings—we, too, might be tempted to give up after such a blow to our life plans. But Beethoven refused to give in. Though he could no longer hear the notes, he continued to write music. He composed many of his greatest works, including his masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony—and its majestic “Ode to Joy”—after becoming completely deaf. God brought good to Beethoven even in his tragedy, filling his imagination with sounds and rhythms even more glorious than those he had once actually been able to hear.
God made good triumph over misfortune for another musician, Fanny Crosby, composer of many of America’s most beloved hymns. As an infant, Fanny was deprived of one of the senses that most of us deem essential to daily living: sight. Fanny’s potentially tragic story began when she developed an eye infection only weeks after her birth. In the absence of her regular physician, her parents foolishly consulted a man claiming to be a doctor who insisted on treating the condition with hot poultices.
Fanny’s mother, Mercy, was horrified by the child’s screams, which increased in volume and became more and more anguished as the “doctor” persisted in his treatment. She protested that her baby was so tiny and in such obvious pain that perhaps they ought to wait for their regular doctor to return. But the charlatan prevailed, insisting that putting off treatment could lead to terrible consequences, and Fanny’s distressed mother reluctantly accepted the treatment.
Fanny’s screams eventually diminished to a pitiful whimper, but they lingered in Mercy’s memory. The infection in Fanny’s eyes went away on its own, but her corneas had been burned by the bogus treatment, and white scars began to form over her eyes. In the weeks that followed, John and Mercy Crosby realized that Fanny was not responding to visual stimuli. Their worst fears were confirmed when they learned that little Fanny was now totally blind.
When the tragedy became known, the practitioner fled in fear for his life. Fanny never recovered her sight, and to add to the family’s misery, her father died of illness that same year.5
Despite everything, young Fanny, with the help of her mother and grandmother, maintained a positive attitude, never allowing her blindness to diminish her faith in God and his ability to do great things through her. Fanny prevailed over her disability and used her phonographic memory to her advantage, learning several books of the Bible by heart. In adulthood she became one of the nation’s most celebrated popular poets and hymn writers, penning more than nine thousand hymns and poems, perhaps the best known of which is “Blessed Assurance”—Fanny’s personal testimony to the world.
But in view of her lifelong blindness, the message of her hymn “My Savior First of All” and a subsequent comment she made are especially touching and inspiring. When my lifework is ended, and I cross the swelling tide, When the bright and glorious morning I shall see; I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side, And His smile will be the first to welcome me. I shall know Him, I shall know Him, And redeemed by His side I shall stand, I shall know Him, I shall know Him, By the print of the nails in His hand. Oh, the soul-thrilling rapture when I view His blessed face, And the luster of His kindly beaming eye; How my full heart will praise Him for the mercy, love and grace, That prepare for me a mansion in the sky.
A pastor once sympathetically said to Fanny, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.” Fanny quickly replied, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind?” Stunned by her response, the minister asked her why she would wish such a thing. Fanny replied, “Be-cause, when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!”6
Fanny often spoke of being blind as a blessing. She credited her blindness for opening a door into education, gaining her admission to the New York Institute for the Blind—an opportunity her poor family otherwise could not have afforded. She said blindness left her free to concentrate, led her to develop her remarkable memory, and helped her create an emotional connection with audiences that made her widely acclaimed as a speaker. Indeed, every good thing Fanny experienced in life she would directly link to her “tragic” loss of sight—so much so that she once said she didn’t blame the doctor at all—in fact, she said, “He unwittingly did me the greatest favor in the world.”7
Fanny’s songs and poetry ultimately brought her before Congress and at least eight presidents. God took all the things that happened in Fanny’s life and wove them together into something wondrously good.
One more story.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who was captured during the Vietnam War and frequently tortured during his seven-year imprisonment. Although he was not given the rights due him as a prisoner under the Geneva Conventions—no set release date or even any assurance that he would survive to see his family again—he shouldered the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive with their spirits and honor unbroken. At one point, then Commander Stockdale learned that as the highest-ranking prisoner, he would be paraded in front of a group of foreign journalists and used as a propaganda tool. Knowing that his captors were not treating his men well, as they claimed, but were torturing and mistreating them, Stockdale beat himself with a stool and cut his scalp with a razor, deliberately dis figuring himself so his captors could not show him off as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” When told that some of his men had died under torture, Stockdale slashed his own wrists, declaring that he would die rather than assist his captors. Afraid of the backlash if the highest-ranking officer died under their care, and convinced Stockdale would die before he’d cooperate with them, the Vietnamese abandoned their attempts at coercion through torture. Stockdale’s refusal to give in—and that same attitude he inspired in his fellow prisoners—eventually led to better treatment for the POWs as the war drew to a close.8
Stockdale survived the cruelty of the “Hanoi Hilton” and returned home to eventually rise to the rank of Vice Admiral. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said, reflecting on his experiences. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”9 He never lost faith in a positive outcome—faith in the end of the story!
That surely must remind you of the scripture we’ve been considering. Let’s take it from a different translation this time: “We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Romans 8:28 NLT). And what does that mean? It means that we must never lose faith in the end of the story. Remember that it’s God who is writing your story. No matter how many bad things may come up in the course of your life, if you do your part by keeping faith and focusing on the good, God will work everything together for good and surprise and amaze you with a happy ending.
So come along with me in the pages that follow to see how God can turn your life around…
… when you’re on the wrong road.
… when you’ve blown it.
… when no one believes in you.
… when you’ve walked away from him.
… when things seem out of your control.
… when you feel trapped and seemingly have nowhere to go.
God wants to help you… because you’re special to him!
© 2010 Frank Santora