The Greatest Gift Is God Himself

Is Suffering a Sign of Divine Disapproval?

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“Don’t take this wrong, but we prayed before our children were born, and all of them were born healthy.”

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to take that. We had just told a new acquaintance that our infant son, Paul, had died several years earlier, after we had already grieved three difficult miscarriages. I felt judged. According to this person speaking to me, Paul’s death and my miscarriages were easily preventable. It was simple. We hadn’t prayed enough. We had neglected to do our part. In short, we were to blame.

This attitude wasn’t new to me. I had felt this mixture of judgment and pressure from the day I learned of Paul’s heart problem four months into the pregnancy. Concerned friends had rallied around, assuring me of healing for my unborn son. “Pray, believing you will receive,” they urged from James 5, “and he will be healed.”

So I prayed. I fasted. I recited set prayers. I read books on healing. I asked friends to pray. I begged God. I did everything I knew to do.

I assumed my prayers would be effective. I knew God was able to do even more than I had asked. And I had been faithful. I taught Bible study. I tithed. Surely God would do what I wanted.

But months later, sitting beside Paul’s empty crib, I had more questions than answers. What had I done wrong? Why didn’t my faithful life result in blessing? Was I to blame? Or was God?

My Slanted Arrangement

Nothing made sense. And in the ensuing months, I poured myself into theology. I wanted to understand this God who I claimed to worship but couldn’t figure out. While God graciously comforted me with his presence, I still had unanswered questions.

“The best gift he can give you is not health or prosperity or happiness in this world, but more of himself.”

As I examined my expectations, I realized that I had unconsciously assumed that life was linear. I was living as though God’s blessings were dependent on my faithfulness and trouble was a result of my failings. So if I fulfilled my end of the relationship, God would certainly fulfill his. If not, what was the point of obeying God?

Tim Keller, in his book Prodigal God, talks about this subtle but dangerous expectation. He writes, “If, like the elder brother, you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want.”

I am ashamed to admit how much that statement described me. My morality was little more than a way to use God to get the things in life I wanted. Prayer was essentially a good luck charm, a way of controlling my environment so I could live a happy, pain-free life. God was to be my cosmic errand boy, ready to grant my every request. This was a slanted business arrangement about me, not a covenant with Almighty God.

As I searched the Bible for answers, God revealed a simple but transforming truth: This life is not about me; it’s about him. And my supreme delight is not to rest in anything in this world. My delight is to be in God. The best gift he can give me is not health or prosperity or happiness, but more of himself — a blessing that can never be taken away; a blessing that grows richer with time, and lasts throughout eternity.

His Surpassing Value

This blessing is often found in suffering. When my treasures disintegrate before me, when I live with pain and unfulfilled longings, when my dreams are shattered beyond repair, I begin to long for something more lasting. It is there that I find Jesus and realize that he is more valuable, more precious, more fulfilling than anything he can give me. He alone is the ultimate treasure. Knowing him is worth suffering for, living for, and dying for.

“God is not after comfortable mediocrity.”

In light of the magnificence of Christ, I see the foolishness of assuming I can earn God’s favor by my good deeds. All of my self-wrought righteousness is as filthy rags, and all I have been given is pure grace. Part of that grace is not giving me everything I ask for. I don’t know what’s best for me. I want easy answers, fill-in-the-blanks, pain-free predictability. I want a paint-by-numbers life.

But God is not after comfortable mediocrity. His artistry is unrivaled. He is creating masterpieces. God brushes unexpected color across the canvas of my life, says “no” when I beg for “yes,” offers his presence when I want his presents — because he has a much bigger plan for me . . . a plan that glorifies him and brings me everlasting delight.

God doesn’t grant my every request even when I pray faithfully. But he does promise to satisfy me with his unfailing love as he walks through every trial with me. And in light of his surpassing value, that is a far greater gift.