December 13, 2023

Does God Owe Us Something Better?

Is Something Better Coming?

Something Better?

I was lamenting on the phone with a friend yesterday about the loss of both of our jobs this year.

The frustration was real, especially for him as he’s subsequently missed out on a couple of roles that would have suited him well. And here we are coming up to Christmas and he still has no job after four or five months. I’ve got a lot more social capital than he, so things seem to be slotting together well for me. Not so for him

So we chatted for a while, processing the last few months. And we kinda made this comment as we chatted, talking through the pressure and uncertainty that losing your job puts you through.

“Well if God has taken that away then he has something better for us, that’s what we have to believe.”

And on the surface, or for an instant, we affirmed that for each other. But then something kicked in – for both of us. And I like to think it was the gospel that kicked in! For we realised, pretty much at the same time as we said it, that that is not strictly true. Or at least it may not be strictly true.

The truth could be far more complex than that. Both of us liked our jobs and believed we were good at them, and they satisfied a certain number of criteria in our lives. But that does not mean that God has some better job for us in the future than those jobs were for us in the past. It doesn’t mean that’s there a more rewarding role with more financial and experiential rewards than what we just left behind.

That simply isn’t the case. It could be that for both of us we’ve peaked – at least in terms of work. I hope not, but it could be. Those roles could be the best ones we have ever had and will ever have going forward. That’s just the case. To say that God has something better for us – workwise at least – is not something we can say with any deep assertion.

And that’s why our conversation then took a different turn. A different, deeper and richer turn. I said to my friend in response to our initial assertion:

“Actually that’s not quite right. What we need to take from this is this: not that God HAS something better for us, but that God IS that something better.”

And as I said it, I think we both got it. I think we kinda knew it, but hadn’t articulated it.

You see, that’s the central point of what it means to be a Christian. And that’s the central point of the Christmas season. Not that God gives us stuff. Not that God gives us the job we want. Not that God gives us a better job than the one we had before. But that God gives us God! God is the something better. And if we just allow him to show us that, even in the tough times, it will make all of the difference.

Let’s define it even more sharply. God is not something better, he is SOMEONE better. God doesn’t desire to simply give us created stuff, he desires to share himself – the Creator – with us.

Perhaps the loss of our jobs is an opportunity for God to show us that he is that something better that we are craving. And to lose sight of that in a time such as this is to lose a great opportunity to grow into what God wants us to be. In fact the loss of anything is such an opportunity, hard though that may be to hear.

And that’s a whole different ball game. I came away from our conversation in a better frame of mind. Our chat steered us away from the roles we had lost, and the imagined roles we wish we could have, or possibly might have if everything lands perfectly,.

The conversation was steered onto what it might be that God is doing in our lives as we go through this season, ahd how he is showing us, in what seems a painful way, how he himself is the better thing that we seek.

Our Idolatrous Hearts

And here’s the guts of that: God is shaping and refining us away from a constant, almost magnetic, pull towards the good gifts that he gives us and towards the constant, majestic pull of God towards himself. For anything less will ultimately end up as idolatry.

That’s the heart of idolatry after all, as Romans 1 tells us – craving and worshipping the things that the Giver gives us rather than the Giver himself.

The loss of our jobs opens our eyes again to the fact that God is that something, that someone better. Or at least we have the chance to believe that’s true, or refuse to believe that’s true and become bitter. If our default is to see God’s role as merely to give us something better than we have lost, then we have miss the point of God!

Here’s the test. What if, in losing our jobs, God has pushed us back onto relying on him more? What if, instead of getting what we think we want we have our wants exposed and changed? What if, instead of the temptation to seek our identity in a work role, God removes that from us in order to deepen our identity in him? Is God allowed to do that?

And what if this situation opened our eyes to the fact that we may have been cruising a little bit, relying on the things of this age – good and proper though they are – and not leaning more steadfastly on him? Is God allowed to do that?

What if, ironically, our ministry roles were taken away from us to ensure that we found our worth in the God we declare, not the job that declares his worth? Is God even allowed to do that?

Is God allowed to do any of that stuff I listed above? To me? To you?

Because if’ he’s not – or at least if we won’t countenance the possibility – then it’s going to painfully expose a lack of something vital in our walk with God.

For as the tide drains away – taking our job, or our health, or our happy relationships away with it, and the brutal rocks and seabed of reality are exposed, the question has to be asked:

Do we truly believe that God is the better thing that we have been asking for in our prayers?

Prosperity-Gospel-Lite

And here’s another thing: despite my good Reformed theological framework, such a reflexive insistence (although I’m too pious to say that out aloud), that God is going to give me something better, is a kind of prosperity gospel.

Oh, I know, I know, not in the usual sense of what prosperity gospel looks like. I’ve seen the crazy stuff on TV. And I’m clearly not that gauche. But there’s something “prosperity-gospel-lite” about my desires.

YetsI might have seen all of the shiny teeth and calls for money on a stage, but somehow I haven’t seen that crazy stuff in my own heart!

You see, there’s a deep sense in us because of indwelling sin, that the God of the heavens, the Creator of the universe, the Saviour of the world, is actually our personal genie. And if we pull the handle, or rub the side of the bottle, the genie is there to do our bidding.

We can sign off on every creed and all of the right confessions, but if we are angry when God does not come through for us because we have done the right thing by him, then we are operating in a prosperity-gospel-lite zone.

Sure we may not be full blown “show me the money!”, but the seed has been planted. Our insistence that God ensure our personal happiness if we worship him can be as spiritually gauche as some white-suited pastor on a stage in America, or some white suited pastor sitting on a throne in sub-Saharan Africa.

The stage we have to reach is “The LORD giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” And even as we say those words, we realise that the LORD in question here is the covenant God of the Bible, who keeps his promises to save his people, no matter how hard things are right now.

Spiritual Depression

Another thing that happens when God doesn’t give me what I think is better, or I fail to see that God is actually that better thing, is that I get depressed spiritually. I go into a theological funk. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I have. It’s the spiritual depression that Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of in his book of the same name.

So much of my spiritual depression over the years has come from the inarticulate, but deeply embedded, frustration that God is not coming through for me. And I’ve realised that such depression kicks in because I am a typical older brother. Often my response to hard times is:

All these years I have served you and you have not given me a [FILL IN THE BLANK] that I might celebrate with my friends!

That’s older brother, right there. And our older brother syndrome is exposed when we don’t get what we think we are owed, including a better job than the one I lost. We get sullen and angry, but are pious enough to know not to colour outside the spiritual lines. We can sing all the songs, say all the verses, attend all the meetings, and all the while be a spiritual Eeyore.

And not to put to layer it on too thickly, but God wants a response from us that’s more Tigger than Eeyore! These are the times in our lives in which the Father is saying to us, gently and quietly, but ever so pointedly:

My child, everything I have is yours and you have been with me all of the time. What is it that you lack?

This is not to say that we should “fake it ’til we make it.” and express a faux joy.

But it is to say that our begrudging “Well I lack nothing, I suppose” can, over time, work itself out into a response of praise that enables us to see that God himself has been that better thing all aong. And that whatever the complexity of the situation, we’ve been at home with him all of that time. That’s why we sing (though we don’t sing it much any longer):

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say…

Folks, this is not easy. It doesn’t feel easy for me at the moment. As my friend and I discussed yesterday, these are the points in life in which, as God burns off the dross and equips us for whatever lies ahead, it feels terrible and I don’t want to respond with “Blessed be your name”.

Yet here’s the beauty of it, the one thing that leads to praise in the long term, and it’s this: If God does burn off the yucky stuff, then he is preparing our lives for what he thinks is better, even if we cannot see it yet. Behind a frowning providence, he does indeed hide a smiling face.

One day we will look back and see that the crucible was designed for our good. And one day could be in this age or it could be in the age to come.

I remember another truly difficult time in our lives about fifteen years ago, and later, when the dust had settled and we were still in the process of recovering from it, my wife Jill said:

If I’d seen the last two years coming I wouldn’t have wanted them, but looking back I can see that we couldn’t have done without them.

What had happened? God had removed things in our lives that we thought were “better”, that we thought we needed to survive, and showed us that they weren’t and that we didn’t!

And the happy by-product through many tears and much grief was a remarkable work of grace. He showed us that he himself is that better thing that we had been craving. Was it hard? Yes! Was it work it? Definitely.

And here we are at the end of 2023, learning those things again. Why? Because we are slow learners (at least I am!). In his grace, God wants to conform us to the image of his Son and that will not happen if every light is green, every car park space is available, and every job we want remains ours and remains fulfilling to us.

Pastoral Care

One final thing: I have found in the many years of ministry I have been involved in that this is the key to effective pastoral care. I have sat so often with people steeped in anger, steeped in grief, or steeped in bitterness, and my operating system is that God himself IS the better thing they are seeking.

Now there are times and places to articulate these things, and there are times and places to just sit in the silence with people who are going through difficult times.

But I have made it my aim to always offer people God in the midst of loss. Not false hopes. Not “manifesting” better times. But offering them the one who is better than any of the better situations they think they could envisage.

I’ve been encouraged to see in pastoral situations that when people grasp hold of this reality – given time and over time – that even though their circumstances may not change for the better (or even if they do), they themselves change for the better. They can sing that song above as they did before, only with more gusto!

With Christmas approaching, let’s consider these words from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:

 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

And it’s only when we realise that this Son is the one from whom all things come, in whom all things are held up, and for whom all things are being finalised, that we realise just how better these “all things really are.

At Christmas we remember that what God has in store for us is God! That’s definitely better than anything else – good or ill – that’s in store for you this coming year.

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stephenmcalpine

Written by

stephenmcalpine
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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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