Whenever we struggle in a sinful habit that we cannot break or when we get caught in some unpleasantness that has no end in sight, the idea of finding a purpose in it seems like nothing more than pious platitude. We feel lucky if we can simply maintain the status quo. We can't imagine how such miserable circumstances could ever be transformed into something positive.
Yet, the reason many of us have trouble accepting the idea that God can transform pain into purpose stems from faulty thinking about God. We see him as a cosmic stage manager waiting in the wings to redesign the set whenever our circumstances seem unfair or unpleasant. When we give the cue, we expect him to leap into action and change our surroundings in some mysterious way-apart from anything we do regardless of whether or not we change. Then, when God does not change the setting on cue, we sigh in disgust and go about changing it for him.
But God is not an inept stage manager; he's the playwright, and he does not change the setting for the comfort and convenience of the characters. Throughout history God has been unfolding an intricate plot of redemption that transcends both the setting and the characters. Within this plan, God desires for his children to trust his direction and provision.
God's plan involves certain principles that are nonnegotiable. They are not hidden, complicated, or difficult and they are not magical, mystical, or even miraculous. They are simple truths that are common to all humans and essential for the health and well-being of society.
The Example of Ruth
Ruth is a woman who internalized many of these truths, and when life took a turn for the worst, she acted upon them. In the wake of tragedy, Ruth exercised qualities that transformed her circumstances.
Kindness. In times of adversity, the natural response is to make ourselves the center of the universe. We focus all our attention and energy on trying to solve our problem and to relieve ourselves of the pain it's causing. But Ruth did not succumb to this temptation. Despite her own grief, she deferred to the needs of her mother-in-law.
Whenever we make tragedy our focal point, self-pity becomes our theme. We then become rude, impatient, and sarcastic, subconsciously thinking that if we make someone else feel bad, we'll feel better. But we don't; we feel worse instead. Ruth didn't fall into this trap. She made someone else's needs her focal point and remained kind and respectful.
Industriousness. Even though Ruth was still in mourning over the death of her husband, she did not use her adversity as an excuse for laziness. She was willing to work even though she was unfamiliar-and probably uncomfortable-with the people and their customs. The regular workers noticed her dedication to the task and mentioned it to the landowner, Boaz, saying to him, "She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes' rest over there in the shelter" (Ruth 2:7). Work is often the last thing we feel like doing in times of crisis, but it's often the best thing for us.
Humility. When Boaz showed Ruth Kindness, she bowed before him and exclaimed, "Why are you being so kind to me? I am only a foreigner" (2:10). Ruth did not expect special treatment from Boaz to make up for the difficult circumstances of her life, and she expressed surprise that he considered her actions exceptional.
Gratitude. After Boaz complimented Ruth for the care she was giving her mother-in-law, Ruth responded graciously saying, "You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not as worthy as your workers" (2:13). Although Ruth probably was accustomed to a higher standard of living in Moab, she was grateful to be treated as well as a lowly servant girl in this foreign land.
This is not an exhaustive list of the qualities capable of transforming circumstances, but it's enough to show the category they all fall into. The qualities we need to transform our circumstances are those that elevate other people above ourselves and our problems.
The Redeeming Power of Love. Faith in God's transforming power is intertwined with hope in his redeeming love. None of us can redeem our own lives. God-our Redeemer-is ready, willing and able to do the necessary work of redemption. The only thing he requires is our willing cooperation.
A Redeemed Heart-A New Attitude
The life of the apostle Paul shows us what a new attitude looks like. He went from a prison to royal courts, from being a crowd pleaser to a martyr. He said, "I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need" (Philippians 4:12-13).
Contentment and gratitude do not come naturally, especially when we are in emotional or physical pain. They intrude on self-pity and melancholy. But there are choices we can make. And they are the choices God wants us to make because they reflect a humble spirit of worship and praise, which will lift us above and beyond our problems.
A Redeemed Mind-A New Reality
Pride often seduces us into rigid adherence to our own ideal of perfection, which we rationalize or spiritualize as personal piety. However, when we pass through suffering and allow God to redeem us, we begin to see life as it really is. Even though we are made in God's image, each of us is a flawed human being. Through redemption, however, we are no longer slaves to degrading sinfulness or prideful self-righteousness. Instead, we become God's agents of grace in the world. We willingly get our hands dirty because we know that it is in the mud and mire that we find those who need us most.
A Redeemed Perspective-A New View of Adversity
Some of the greatest benefits we gain from our troubles are the lessons we learn. We learn, for example, that failure is an event, not a character description, and that the only real failure is giving up. In a similar sense, problems can be our greatest opportunity. While it doesn't do much good to ask why God does something for someone but not for you, asking how you can transform your situation into something good begins the process of transformation and redemption. Most important of all, we must bring our heart concerns to God. For it is in times of difficultly and pain that we learn to appropriate the strength of God. God has a purpose for everyone who loves him. That purpose is unique for each individual, but it has one common characteristic: Everyone is being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No matter what our circumstances, God can use that experience to make us Christlike.
The above piece is an adaptation from Transformation, by Steve Arterburn and Dave Stoop. Nashville, W Publishing Group, 1988.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder of New Life Ministries, the largest provider of Christian counseling and treatment in North America. As host of the daily New Life Live! radio program, he is heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. Steve is the lead speaker at The New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Balancing Your Life, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness. Steve is also the creator of Women of Faith® Conferences and the author/coauthor of over fifty books, including Healing is a Choice, Lose it For Life, Internet Protect Your Kids, Every Man's Battle, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, Reframe Your Life, and Midlife Manual for Men.