Podcast Episode #38: “It Was a Very Good Year”

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On Instagram this morning, I read a post from the Desiring God organization in which the author said, “Take steps to remove or keep yourself from whatever is keeping you from the Bible.” I immediately double-tapped the screen to register my approval of this post: But I saw the irony immediately and commented, “But then I wouldn’t be reading this post right now!” Because the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is reach for my phone and browse social media—as a way of easing into the morning before getting out of bed. I’m pretty sure most of us do this. 

Before long, a half hour slips by, and I’m still clicking and tapping away on my smartphone—a half hour that might otherwise be devoted to—you know—reading or meditating on or memorizing God’s Word.

By all means, take distractions away, Lord, but not the distractions of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook! I like them too much!

Anyway, while I was on social media I also read about how difficult the year 2019 was for some people—and how eager they are to turn the page, to reset the calendar, on a new year. 

What do you make of that kind of tweet? Don’t get me wrong. I understand what it’s like to have a difficult year… And objectively speaking, 2019 was hardly a stroll through the park! But on what basis would I complain? I mean, seriously… Inasmuch as 2019 was difficult, it was, like, 99 and 44/100 percent my own fault. These difficulties were self-inflicted. Because it wasn’t the circumstances that made 2019 a challenge for me, it was my response to those circumstances. 

And that will surely be true for 2020 as well.

Also, inasmuch as God did not spare me from suffering the consequences of my self-inflicted problems in 2019, how can I not be grateful. Because I learned from these experiences!

Listen, we all know the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And the way I’ve interpreted this verse for the vast majority of my life is like this: In spite of what we’re going through, no matter how bad things are right now, we always have reasons to rejoice—we can console ourselves with the conviction that “this world is not our home,” like so many gospel songs of a certain vintage say; we’ll “fly away to a land on God’s celestial shore.” At least we’ll have a better life on the other side of eternity. 

In the meantime, we can just grin and bear it. Heaven is the consolation prize for life not working out so well right now.

That sounds awful, doesn’t it? 

No, it’s not in spite of these bad things that we can rejoice. The Bible goes much further than that. Take, for instance, Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20. Now, this verse is in the middle of a long sentence with participial phrases. It reads literally, “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But there’s an implied imperative, and some translations break it up into smaller sentences. The Good News Translation, for instance, puts it like this: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father.”

Always give thanks… for what? For everything.

So if you’re a Christian, from Paul’s point of view, there’s no rejoicing “in spite of.” That’s far too mild. There’s only rejoicing because of.

And Paul is hardly a Pollyanna about suffering and evil. Listen to what he says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, in which he describes his suffering and imprisonment in Ephesus:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

So to be clear: If any experience would put Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:20 to the test, surely it was this terrible experience in Ephesus. Could Paul actually “give thanks” for being “afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life, and feeling as if he’d been given a death sentence”?

And his answer would surely be yes. Why? Because, he says, God had a purpose for letting him endure it: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises from the dead.”

So when Paul reached the end of that particular calendar year, would he say, “Thank God this year is over”? Or would he say, “Thank you, God, for what you put me through this past year because look at how you used it for my good”?

In some Psalm 119:71-72, the psalmist writes:

It was good for me to be afflicted

so that I could learn your statutes.

Instruction from your lips is better for me

than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve ever learned anything important in life except through affliction. What about you? And it’s interesting that the psalmist says that God’s Word is better than “thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Because when I’m afflicted, it’s usually because I’m seeking my treasure in something or someone other than Jesus Christ. And then, when the Lord graciously refuses to give me this treasure I seek, I’m disappointed and filled with resentment. And I suffer. Because I didn’t get whatever “gold and silver” I was seeking outside of Christ.

If you’re a Christian, God’s purpose in all of our affliction ultimately is to give us more of Christ. Do we want more of Christ? Is he enough for us? Or are we going to keep on looking for treasure elsewhere?

So thank you, God, for afflicting me in 2019. These afflictions were blessings in disguise—as the old Laura Story song says. And thank you for all of those blessings over the past year that were not in disguise. There were many, many more of those anyway. 

Two-thousand-nineteen was a very good year.

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