She caught me by surprise during a leisurely stroll after picking prunes, Italian Plums, from a tree on my parent’s farmstead. I’m talking about Blondie. Her name is Laura. The not just any girl, tetherball phenom, saddlehorn-clinging, creek-leaping, stay-in-the-saddle survivor who I knew I must marry. I simply hadn’t got around to asking her yet. We stopped beside an olden, abandoned farmhouse which showed its unkempt wear. Yet, covering the entryway stood overgrown, mature lilac bushes, full-blossomed, emitting a spicy, light-honey fragrance. We held hands and I snuck a lingering kiss. Gazing into my eyes, she stealthily asked, “Where do think our relationship is headed?”
In the blissful moment I blurted out words I’m not sure I’d pondered very deeply yet. “I suppose we’ll get married someday.” She closed her eyelids for a moment. When they lifted, I saw she’d been transported to a dreamy, oft-pictured walk-down-the-aisle place in her imagination. Her electric-blue eyes told me, “Okay then, it’s done.”
Several months later, I arrived to witness that walk-down-the-aisle beauty myself. Some joy-tears shed, a few vows, another kiss, and we strode out of the church in startled laughter to the unscripted spontaneous tune, Happy Trails.
Laura is always a few steps ahead of me in Christian maturity. I tag along and learn. Like any married couple we weather storms together. Like all individuals, we must go through personal deep waters. Waters that have a strong sense of God’s dealings. Laura pioneers the way for the both of us, blazing trails that aren’t so happy, scouting out the landscape and the enemies. I see her get bloodied in the process. I don’t seem to be much help. I try to get alongside, but I get angry at the circumstances and the people that hurt her. At best, I simply hug her and remind her, in the face of trials, “By God’s grace – we do.”
Laura’s got her own Dark Forest. She found it with help from circumstances involving bosses, children, hurtful church experiences and, not surprisingly, me. She’d supported me through my euphoric days of pursuing advanced degrees with the hope I’d provide career and financial security. Instead, I’d bounce from job to job in the world of science and research wherever grant monies were available. At one point that meant a move from Washington to Montana with our youngest son, leaving 30 years of friendships, a daughter getting married, and a son entering the Air Force in the wake. I was elated with change and career hopes while tugging her along into drastic change and the unknown. She was absorbing blow after blow concluding God was out to thwart her happiness. How could she call Him good?
God, we have a problem…
In the darkness, she hit a crisis of faith. It looked and sounded like this:
“I was angry with God. I was confused and deeply discouraged. I shook my fist at God. Not just any fist, but a tetherball champion’s fist. Is life only about suffering? Is it only about changing me? Where is the joy and the love and the blessing? I thought You were good! I thought Your burden was supposed to be light! I’m a parent. My heart’s desire is to love my children and try to protect them and make their life as pain free as possible. So why does it seem like You do the opposite? God, we have a problem. I’m not happy!”
A Sovereign Epiphany
“Ron and I went through a period of church withdrawal and church shopping. In our exploration we stumbled upon a theological nuance that touched us both deeply. I say ‘we’ but it mostly involved my husband staying home on Sunday’s sending me out to survey new landscapes. I heard a pastor teach from Romans on an unfamiliar concept, God’s Sovereignty. The idea that God’s in control brought a great release to me. It’s not all up to me to make life work. What?! Our perception at the time distilled into a belief that ‘we behave ourselves and perform at a high level of obedience through our choices’ and God will bless us, and of course see to it that we were happy.”
“But I still had to confront the thought – if God is in control – and life wasn’t much fun – what do I do about that? I’d crossed a threshold where I was being asked to believe that God was good, that He had my best interest at heart. I didn’t understand it all but the thought began to change me. I started to find healing in my relationship with God. I started to taste His peace even when circumstances were hard. A scripture came alive in me, became so true for me.”
I had fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalms 27:13).
“This is where I needed to learn about God’s idea of goodness versus mine. I began to see how much of my life was focused on me and what would make me happy – according to me! But God, in His goodness showed me He has a bigger plan. A statement from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question #1 took shape in me:”
- What is the chief end of man?
- Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.
“I love this statement, but it’s taken me awhile to understand.”
“I found myself described in a booklet by Paul Tripp, Suffering, Eternity Makes a Difference, when he said:
“Many people measure God’s goodness by their level of personal happiness and their physical, external, and immediate circumstances. It is hard for them to imagine that God could be good and not give them their piece of the good life. God’s main goal – the chief good He offers us – is to deliver us from our bondage to our own evil desires and to make us participants in His divine nature.”
“His focus is eternal and spiritual. He is changing my heart – how I live and bear fruit.”
“I then came across a poem that so beautifully expresses what God is after.”
I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace:
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.
“My prayers changed. I noticed a subtle shift from constantly pressing Him with my requests to prayers of love and adoration. A shift from ‘my will be done’ to ‘Thy will be done,’”
“I began to see that God is sooo good. He knows that I will never be happy or satisfied with the things I was running after. Things that could never truly satisfy my soul. So, He was willing to “thwart” me at every turn until I finally gave up and turned my gaze upon the One who could truly satisfy the longings of my heart. It doesn’t mean my life has been free from hard circumstances, but I’m learning that the more I surrender my life to Him, the more I see how very good God is. This surrender displaces fear, looking to others to love me and value me, and my demand of good circumstances as proof of God’s love. My struggles are not over, but His complete love and value are becoming more than enough.”
As I watched my wife navigate her way through her Dark Forest to discover a Rock she calls Sovereign and Good via a process called surrender, our hands kind of bumped up together and she grabbed mine and started tugging me to church again. Much like I had led her into change, struggle and uncertainty, she now blazed new trails for me to follow close behind leading to safety, companionship, and worship with a community of believers. We discovered our need to relearn the gospel every week. We are, together, learning to take a Deep Breath of Remember.
We have this little, usually spontaneous, routine when we go to the movie theater. It’s our movie liturgy. We share a bucket of popcorn and stare at the screen and then it happens – our hands kind of accidently bump up together as we grab for the next handful. We gently release the kernels and simply linger there for a moment, holding buttery hands. I’m smiling. I don’t even need to look, I know she’s smiling. It’s romantic. It’s magical. It’s special. And, it’s divine as we silently rehearse the little vow, “By God’s grace, we do!”
 The Thorn, Martha Snell Nicholson. From A Steadfast Heart, Elyse Fitzpatrick.