While at Hodel's in Bakersfield, CA recently, I got into a conversation with Tracie and Jonathan Eymann (from the same Jubilee described in the Jubilee Project.) Tracie was talking about the way we can see God working behind the scenes to use every bad situation for eventual good, like a slow-motion chain reaction that leads to results and brings glory to God.
We talked about the movie "Signs" (remember that old M. Night Shyamalan movie with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix?) how that's actually a decent cinematic example of how seemingly random conditions and circumstances, when guided by God, work in concert to produce a chain reaction of results at the right time to accomplish a goal.
Tracie talked about how God did that with their housing and other circumstances both bad and good (minus the weird M. Night Shyamalan plot twists and aliens), and her testimony was encouraging.
I was reminded of the house we once rented in north Goleta across the freeway from Jubilee.
When we first decided to move back to Goleta to be closer to our church and reduce commute time, my first thought was to find an inexpensive apartment--well, "inexpensive" for Goleta. And then an actual house was offered for a huge discount (because it had been sitting for a long time and they were desperate to get it rented), at almost the exact same price of a family-sized apartment.
So we took it because it fit our budget, a very unexpected blessing from God.
And being in that larger space gave me a chance to have a real office for the nine months we were there when I desperately needed a quiet home office space to spit out 200+ pages of material over a few months, and it had become difficult to do that in other spaces.
We had the house (and office) just long enough for me to finish that project. The timing couldn't have been better.
But then disaster struck in mid-2016. Some unexpected misfortunes struck our self-employed businesses.
We wanted to stay in the area to continue ministering at Jubilee, and we were willing to live in just about any downsized living situation to make it work. At the time we had been researching about the tiny house "small living" lifestyle, which was intriguing and seemed like a possible solution. Then, miraculously (to make a long story short), a tiny house fell into our lap at just the right time.
Through all of these changes, the Lord was faithful to answer and confirm each step of the way, each big change, and He did it through all sorts of ways, sometimes "signs and wonders," other times through reading the Word, other times through words of wisdom or knowledge from a wide variety of people in the Body of Christ.
Disaster struck again--a much bigger one. My father died unexpectedly. This set off a series of events (to make a long story short) that led to us moving yet again, this time to another part of the state. We needed to make the move immediately (for a variety of personal reasons I won't get into here).
What's been amazing to see in hindsight: if all of those previous housing changes had not happened when they happened, making that move would have been impossible. It was one of the few times in my life since 2003 that I was not bound to a rental lease or mortgage, and that change happened exactly when that flexibility was needed the most to make a sudden move to deal with a crisis.
Open Doors and Romans 8 Transformation: What Does It All Mean?
Of course, when God is involved it's never really about just one situation or one person or one set of earthly circumstances. This situation described above, for example, has opened up a door of ministry to other situations that have been on my intercessory prayer list for years. And I've already seen a few miracles and spiritual breakthroughs that wouldn't have happened if all the tumultuous things described above had not taken place.
Just hearing Tracie's story of all the crazy cause-and-effect symphonies in her life, how God made one thing lead to another, which led to this thing over here, which opened this door over there, was deeply encouraging.
Because God really is the Author and Finisher of our faith, and His promise in Romans 8 ("He will use all things for good...") rings true: He will use all things in our lives, good or bad, to bring glory to His name and transform us into miniature versions of Christ. That's how the second half of Romans 8 defines the "good" that God will bring out of all things: the "good" is being made more like Christ.
The promise is not that He uses all things to make our lives more comfortable or increase our standard of living. We have to read that verse in Romans 8 in context with the whole chapter, then interpret the chapter within the context of the whole book.
His primary goal for us is not earthly temporal prosperity or having a high standard of living that demands endless work to keep going. If greed or a subtle desire for the "good life" has secretly been at (or near) the heart of our motivation, we should not be surprised if God eventually exposes that self-centeredness and uses our misfortunes to help us move past those secret motivations.
(And sometimes the "help" He provides is not pleasant.)
The promise in Romans 8 is first and foremost about inner transformation of the heart, not being granted comfortable, enriched earthly lives. (To see proof of this, we need only look at the lives of people in church history, from the Apostle Paul who wrote Romans to people like Back to Jerusalem's Simon Zhao of China.)
Frankly, the big changes described above were torturous on every level, and in many areas the pain hasn't lessened. This is common. For millions of Christians throughout history and millions alive today, their biggest afflictions were (are) not always swept away or resolved during their lifetime.
But in the midst of the excruciating pain, a simple question returns again and again to my heart: is God here, at our sides, present in all of it? Is He still Emmanuel, God With Us?
As we made the transition, I could see God's hand in it everywhere, whether I liked it or not. And the Body of Christ (which can be found almost everywhere we go on this earth, thanks to the Great Commission) played a big role when people from my old church where my dad used to pastor--people I haven't seen for years or even decades--came out of the woodwork and made us meals, bought us dinner, sent us care packages/gifts or greeting cards in the mail, visited us to cheer us up, and even offered to help with certain aspects of the crisis. They went out of their way beyond the easy text message or email and inconvenienced themselves greatly in some instances. It was moving and eye-opening to see what the church can be like.
Cause-and-Effect Symphonies and True Joy
The point of everything above is summed up by what Tracie was saying at Hodel's: God is good at orchestrating events to achieve His desired outcome. It might be a blow to the ego or our sense of self-government or self-assertion (or our sense of satisfaction in our moral goodness and spiritual sturdiness), but these outcomes have less to do with us (or our "good deeds") than we might expect.
The good outcomes (which have heart transformation as their primary goal) flow from His grace and mercy (i.e. we don't merit them); and He, the Finisher of our faith, is undaunted by our mistakes or the disasters that fill our lives, and He is able to conquer and repurpose those dark, sad things.
It's no wonder then that true joy is found in longing for God and pursuing Him. As C. S. Lewis defined it, the true nature of joy isn't a state of ecstatic happiness or unbroken cheerfulness and effervescence; it is the intense longing for and simultaneous togetherness that the soul experiences in God--that "stab of joy" that strikes from unexpected directions as we walk with Him through life.
And sometimes that kind of joy only finds its maturity in the places we least expect.