Scripture tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). But have you ever received a good gift from the Father that arrived in a package that appeared to be anything but good?
Jesus came into the world to make the Father known to all whom “he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, 18). He came to help us “see what kind of love the Father has given to us” (1 John 3:1), that “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). He wanted us to know that the Father abounds “in steadfast love and faithfulness” toward us (Exodus 34:6).
This is why, when Jesus promised us, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), he made sure we understood the Father’s heart toward us:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
It’s an astounding promise of astonishing goodness and faithfulness: “For everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:8). Why? Because our Father wants our “joy [to] be full” (John 16:24).
However, Jesus, of all people, also knew that some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers — some of his best gifts, in fact — arrive in painful packages we don’t expect. When we receive them, we can be tempted to think the Father gave us a serpent when we asked for a fish, not realizing till later the priceless goodness of the gift we received.
“Some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers arrive in painful packages we don’t expect.”
Why would the Father do this? As just one in the great cloud of God’s children across the ages, I can bear personal witness that he does it so that our joy may be full. And I’ll offer that witness here, with the help of one of history’s most beloved pastors and hymn writers. Because both he and I know how important it is to trust the Father’s heart when we’re dismayed by what we receive from his hand.
Near Despair an Answered Prayer?
John Newton was the godly eighteenth-century English pastor most famous for penning the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which describes the best gift Newton ever received from the Father: the forgiveness of his sins and eternal life through Christ.
But at times he also received, as I have, gracious gifts from God that amazed him in a different sense. He expressed this amazement in a lesser-known hymn, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow,” which begins,
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray;
And he, I trust, has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I remember vividly the first time I experienced the reality Newton describes here, just after I turned 21. Following an extended season of asking God for the gifts Newton described in his first verse, I received an answer that had the same effect as that second verse. It devastated and disoriented me. I found myself reeling.
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I hoped that, in some favored hour,
At once he’d answer my request,
And by his love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Because my prayers reflected a sincere “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace. And I envisioned this occurring as God led me through “green pastures” and along “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
“I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace.”
As it turned out, the holiness and righteousness I (and Newton) hungered for — greater freedom from sin and greater capacities for faith and love and joy — were not available in a download. Such sanctification is available only if we’re willing to enter a “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And apparently the best training environment for us was a “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
Lipstick on a Pig?
The season of disorientation and confusion usually lasts a while before we grasp what’s going on. And while it lasts, we feel dismayed. What’s happening? Did we do something wrong? Is God angry with us? Newton voices the confusion we feel:
Lord, why is this? I trembling cried;
Wilt thou pursue this worm to death?
At this point, we can also be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Having sincerely asked him for a good gift, a gift Scripture says aligns with our Father’s desire for us, and having received in return a severe trial or affliction, we can wonder if our attempt to interpret God’s answer as a good gift is like trying to put lipstick on a pig. Perhaps God simply gave us a serpent instead of a fish after all.
I mean, what kind of loving father intentionally gives his child pain when he asks for joy?
The Father often lets us wrestle with that question for some time, allowing the pain to do its sanctifying work. But when the time is right, he will reveal his answer, which Newton concisely captures:
This is the way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I now employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.
See What Kind of Love
Like John Newton, I had asked the Father for what I wished and found him faithful to give me what I asked for, though I didn’t expect it to come in the package I received.
But Jesus, the Son, the Firstborn, came into the world to help us, through his teaching and example, to “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). And one manifestation of the Father’s love is to sometimes answer his child’s request for joy with a painful experience if it will result in his child ultimately experiencing more profound good and greater joy than if he withheld the pain. Because our Father wants our joy to be full.
And there’s a great cloud of God’s children bearing witness to the goodness of the Father’s painful gifts, each from his own experience. They would recite for us the famous proverb:
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
They would quote the famous epistle:
[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
And they would “Amen” the famous psalmist, whose painful discipline produced this prayer: “In faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).
For when our training in righteousness has done its sanctifying work, one of the peaceful fruits is that we learn to joyfully trust the Father’s hand because we’ve learned to trust the Father’s heart.