Appreciating the Unseen Ways God Works for Our Benefit

Each of us, as we think over our lives, can remember times -- probably many of them -- when we expected an unhappy turn of events that never occurred. Now, in fact, it's embarrassing to admit just how much mental energy we dumped into worrying about the misfortune that never took place.

It's during times of extended waiting that we're most prone to expect the worst. We interview for a job, or apply to a graduate program, or make a financial investment that will only prove its worth over time, or write a letter to someone with whom we would like to develop a serious relationship. Then we wait for the results. And wait. And wait. If the reply or outcome is longer in coming than we expected, fears of calamity begin to flood our minds.

And our minds are incredibly creative in the art of “catastrophizing.” Not only do we worry about an eventual negative outcome, but we obsess about what may be going on right now: The employer believes we lied about our qualifications and has decided not to give us the courtesy of a reply; our college application was rejected by a capricious registrar and is lost in a mountain of paper in his office; the financial investment is doing poorly and will never recover; our friend is offended by our letter and is mocking it to her friends.

Life, though, is not so predictable; and God, as C.S. Lewis has said, is not tame. In the end, the results are sometimes downright gratifying. And we have to admit that what was going on behind the scenes during all this time of self-torturing speculation was quite different from what we assumed.

A Welcome Surprise

When I sent the first manuscript of Knowing God's Will to InterVarsity Press in December 1977, I hoped they would want to publish it. I was also eager for a quick reply. But when a month passed with no answer, I began to doubt that the book had caught their attention. When two months dragged into three, then four, I increasingly feared a negative response. Any discussion taking place about the book must be critical, I supposed. Even worse, they may have overlooked my manuscript altogether and forgotten even to send me a rejection letter.

Finally, in the middle of May, a letter arrived. As I read the first page, which outlined some criticisms of my work, I assumed my worst fears were being confirmed. Dismayed, I turned to the second page, expecting the predictable conclusion--that the book was not marketable to their audience. Instead, the editor went on to say that, overall, they liked the book. If I would make some modifications, he explained, they wanted to publish it. I gasped to realize I wasn't reading a letter of rejection but acceptance. This wasn't what I had anticipated!

In an instant my negative expectations were shattered. Of course, I was more than happy to have them smashed. Yet I was astonished to realize how off-base all my negative speculating had been. It had taken up lots of energy yet accomplished nothing.

Hope for the Present

As I was reflecting on my experience with that first manuscript in preparing for this article, I thought how wonderful it would be if I could be a fly on the wall and spy behind the scenes in situations like this. If I could glimpse the unseen circumstances that are affecting my destiny, I would often be encouraged by what I found.
But then came a startling thought: If my faith in Christ is what it ought to be, it should be producing in me the same reassurance and confidence that I imagine such clairvoyance would bring. Faith, in fact, should bring even greater comfort than clairvoyance. If I truly knew everything going on behind the scenes that's affecting my life, I would be unsettled by plenty of it, for I wouldn't automatically know how to put it all in right perspective. Yet I have an extraordinary basis for knowing -- simply as a matter of faith -- that Christ is working behind the scenes to bring about his best for my life. Without knowing any of the details of what he is doing, I have profound reason to be hopeful.

This wasn't the first time I've been intrigued with the thought of Christ working behind the scenes in our lives. It's something I've often thought about and have written about before. But I don't think the significance of it had ever hit me quite so strongly.

Of this much I'm certain: our need to appreciate this aspect of Christ's work is much greater than we normally realize. One reason we have this need is because we tend to worry as much about the present as we do about the future. Much of our anxiety is directed not only toward what we fear is coming up, but toward what we imagine is happening now -- in all those areas of our life where we have no control. Our well-being depends not only upon trusting that Christ holds our future but that he holds our present as well.

We should dwell on the fact that right now -- at this very moment -- Christ is working behind the scenes for our good in countless ways that we cannot begin to recognize. We need to take frequent comfort and encouragement from knowing this.

Healthy Optimism

This doesn't mean that we're called to blind optimism or uncritical positive thinking. Some pessimism can be healthy if it serves as a reality check to keep us from getting presumptuous. Pessimism can be useful if it warns us of the perils of being irresponsible and spurs us to take steps that we actually need to take to reach a goal. Far too often, though, pessimism goes well beyond this healthy stage and undermines our faith in Christ. We focus on negative possibilities to the point of obsessing.

As a driver, for instance, it's vital that I keep in mind the possibility of having an accident and the dangers of carelessness behind the wheel. Yet my overriding attitude needs to be one of confidence. Too much concentration on the possible hazards of driving will be detrimental to my safety.

This is a good parallel to how pessimism and optimism should relate as we walk in faith. When we have sought God's direction and taken a step in faith, we have reason to be optimistic. Some pessimism will keep us alert to what we need to do, and mindful of our potential to sin and our need to stay dependent on Christ. It will also prepare us for disappointment if it does occur. Yet our overriding attitude should be one of hopeful expectation.
Again, this hope should operate not only as we envision the future but as we consider what may be going on behind the scenes right now. It's here especially that our faith often needs a significant boost.

A Lift from Scripture

Fortunately, Scripture gives us considerable encouragement at this point. The theme of God working behind the scenes pervades the Bible. And certain passages proclaim this theme in a particularly helpful way.

  • In Judges 7:9-15 the warrior Gideon, about to face the troops of Midian with a much smaller and less-equipped force, is terribly frightened and doubtful of success. But on the night before the battle God leads him to spy on the enemy camp, giving him a unique window on God's hidden activity. Gideon hears one soldier telling another of a dream he has had of Gideon's army defeating the Midianites. He discovers that God is already waging the battle -- giving the enemy a faint heart so they will be an easy match for Israel.

    Gideon's experience is good to keep in mind when we feel hesitant to take a step of faith. It reminds us that God is remarkably capable to change hearts and rearrange circumstances when he wants us to succeed. We should not be quick to draw a gloomy conclusion about what is happening behind the scenes. Instead of ruminating over possible disaster, we do better to invest our energies in praying for God's help and staying hopeful.

  • Consider, too, the experience of the widow of Shunem in 2 Kings 8:1-6. Elisha counsels this woman, whose son he had restored to life, to leave Shunem for seven years in order to avoid a famine. She obeys, then returns after this period to petition the king for her land. At the very moment she arrives to meet with the king, Elisha's servant Gehazi is talking with him, telling him about the prophet's activities. Seeing the woman and her son, Gehazi presents them to the king as a testimony to Elisha's ministry. Then the king, obviously impressed, "appointed an official for her, saying 'Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.'"

    This event is a helpful one to remember at those times when, like the widow of Shunem, we choose to pull out of the mainstream of life for a personal sojourn of some sort -- to pursue an educational program, for instance, or special project. The passage demonstrates how God can arrange circumstances to help us get a foothold once we're finished. It points out, too, the value of sticking with the commitment we've made and not trying to take unreasonable shortcuts toward our goal. If the widow had returned early to Shunem out of concern for preserving her property, she might have defeated her own purpose.

  • Then there is the more mysterious incident in 2 Kings 6:15-18, where God opens the eyes of Elisha's servant to see the vast angelic army in chariots of fire ready to fight for them against Aram. It shows how God's spiritual forces working behind the scenes to accomplish his purposes vastly exceed our comprehension or ability to imagine.

    The situation, of course, was unique and involved a military battle; it would be naive to conclude that God needs to employ an army of angels to meet most needs that we face. Yet the passage gives us hope not only about what is happening behind the scenes on earth but in the spiritual realm as well. We may trust that God will use whatever means needed to work out his best in the world and in our own lives.

  • Finally, at this time of year especially, we should consider what the Christmas story suggests about God's behind-the-scenes activity in human life. When Jesus was born, few realized that God was acting in a way that would forever alter the course of human history and the destiny of innumerable lives. For most, it was simply business as usual. An event that would make unprecedented healing, salvation and purpose available had occurred. Yet few had any inkling of it.

As God was working behind the scenes for the benefit of many at the first Christmas, so he continues to do in our lives today. Take heart from this unspeakable fact. And in the midst of this hectic season, take time to reflect on Christ's goodness in your life -- not only upon his many blessings that you can see, but upon the fact that he is providing for you and protecting you in so many ways that you cannot see. Keep that thought in mind as you enjoy the festivities of this season, and let this be a time when your faith is strengthened as well. And may the knowledge that God works behind the scenes in your life give you the encouragement to take steps of faith and to stay hopeful in all of the challenges that you face.

Copyright 2001 M. Blaine Smith. All rights reserved.

Blaine Smith is the director of Nehemiah Ministries and author of Knowing God's Will.

/p>