Geoff is a youth pastor today in the same city where he once abused heroin. God transformed both his heart and his circumstances in a breathtaking way. “I want to keep kids from making the same mistakes and suffering the pain I went through,” Geoff said. “And Jesus will help them.” Over time, God set him free from the slavery of addiction and has given him a vital ministry in spite of his past.
God has ways of bringing unexpected good out of situations where hope seems lost. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt and falsely accused and sent to prison, where he was forgotten for years. But God restored him and placed him in a position of authority directly under Pharaoh, where he was able to save many lives—including the lives of his brothers who had abandoned him. There in Egypt Joseph married and had children. He named the second Ephraim (drawn from the Hebrew term for “twice fruitful”), and gave this reason: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52).
Geoff’s and Joseph’s stories, while separated by three to four thousand years, point to the same unchanging truth: even the hardest places in our lives can become fertile ground for God to help and bless many. Our Savior’s love and power never change, and He is always faithful to those who trust in Him.
Sometimes when my Labrador retriever wants attention, he’ll take something of mine and parade it in front of me. One morning as I was writing at the desk with my back turned, Max snatched my wallet and ran off. But realizing I hadn’t seen him do it, he returned and nudged me with his nose—wallet in mouth, eyes dancing, tail wagging, taunting me to play.
Max’s antics made me laugh, but they also reminded me of my limitations when it comes to being attentive to others. So often I’ve intended to spend time with family or friends, but other things occupy my time and awareness; and before I know it the day slips away and love is left undone.
How comforting to know that our heavenly Father is so great that He is able to attend to each of us in the most intimate ways—even sustaining every breath in our lungs and synapse in our brains for as long as we live. He promises His people, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:4).
God always has time for us. He understands every detail of our circumstances—no matter how complex or difficult—and is there whenever we call on Him in prayer. We never have to wait in line for our Savior’s unlimited love.
“Several years ago I was prompted to pray for you often, and I wonder why.”
That text message from an old friend came with a photo of a note in her Bible: “Pray for James. Cover mind, thoughts, words.” Beside my name she recorded three separate years.
I looked at the years and caught my breath. I wrote back and asked what month she began to pray. She responded, “Sometime around July.”
That was the month I was preparing to leave home for extended study abroad. I would be facing an unfamiliar culture and language and have my faith challenged like never before. As I looked at the note in her Bible, I realized I had received the precious gift of generous prayer.
My friend’s kindness reminded me of another “prompting” to pray, Paul’s instruction to his young missionary friend Timothy: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1, italics added). That phrase “first of all” indicates highest priority. Our prayers matter, Paul explains, because God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” about Jesus (v. 4).
God moves through faithful prayer in innumerable ways to encourage others and draw them near to Himself. We may not know someone’s circumstances when they come to mind, but God does. And He will help that person as we pray!
“I got you a present!” my two-year-old grandson shouted excitedly as he pressed a box into my hands. “He picked it out all by himself,” my wife smiled.
I opened the box to find a Christmas ornament of his favorite cartoon character. “Can I see it?” he asked anxiously, as soon as I unwrapped it. He played with “my” present for the rest of the evening and as I watched him, I smiled.
I smiled because I remembered gifts I had given loved ones in the past, like the album I gave my older brother one Christmas when I was in high school that I really wanted to listen to (and did). And I realized how years later God was still stretching me and teaching me to give more unselfishly.
Giving is something we grow into. The apostle Paul encouraged the Christians in Corinth, “But since you excel in everything . . . see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7). Grace fills our giving as we understand that all we have is from God, and He has shown us “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
On the first Christmas, God generously gave us the most unselfish gift of all: His only Son, who would die on a cross for our sins and be raised to life. Any who receive this ultimate gift are rich beyond measure. As our hearts are focused on Him, our hands open in love to others.
African gazelles instinctively form “alert circles” while resting on the savannah. They gather in groups with each animal facing outward in a slightly different direction. This enables them to scan the horizon a full 360 degrees and to communicate about approaching dangers or opportunities.
Instead of looking out only for themselves, the members of the group take care of one another. This is also God’s wisdom for followers of Jesus. The Bible encourages us, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:24–25).
Christians were never intended to go it alone, explains the writer of Hebrews. Together we are stronger. We are able to “[encourage] one another” (v. 25), to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4), and to help each other stay alert to the efforts of our enemy the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The goal of our care for each other is so much more than survival. It is to make us like Jesus: loving and effective servants of God in this world—people who together look forward confidently to the hope of His coming kingdom. All of us need encouragement, and God will help us help each other as together we draw near to Him in love.
As Hurricane Florence was bearing down on Wilmington, North Carolina, with devastating force, my daughter prepared to leave her home. She had waited until the last moment, hoping the storm would veer away. But now she was hurriedly sorting through important papers, pictures, and belongings, trying to decide what to take with her. “I didn’t expect it would be so hard to leave,” she told me later, “but in that moment I didn’t know if anything would be there when I got back.”
Life’s “storms” come in many forms: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, unexpected problems in marriage or with children, the sudden loss of health or finances. So much we value can be swept away in a moment.
Amid life’s storms, Scripture points us to the safest place: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way” (Psalm 46:1–2).
The writers of this psalm, the sons of Korah, were descendants of a man who generations earlier served God but then rebelled against him and perished in an earthquake (see Numbers 26:9–11). The outlook they share in this psalm shows humility and a profound understanding of God’s greatness, compassion, and redeeming love.
Troubles come, but God outlasts them all. Those who run to the Savior discover that He cannot be shaken, come what may. In the arms of His eternal love we find our place of peace.
Outside the Shibuya train station in Tokyo is a statue commemorating an Akita dog named Hachiko. Hachiko is remembered for unusual faithfulness to his owner, a university professor who commuted from the station daily. The dog accompanied him on his walk there in the morning and came back to meet him every afternoon just as his train arrived.
One day the professor didn’t return to the station; sadly, he’d died at work. But for the rest of his life—more than nine years—Hachiko showed up at the same time as the afternoon train. Day after day, regardless of weather, the dog waited faithfully for his master’s return.
When the apostle Paul wrote the Christians in Thessalonica, he commended them for their faithfulness, citing their “work produced by faith,” “labor prompted by love,” and “endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Thessalonians 1:2). Despite harsh opposition, they left their old ways “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (vv. 9–10).
These early believers’ vital hope in their Savior and His love for them inspired them to see beyond their difficulties and to share their faith enthusiastically. They were assured there was nothing better than living for Jesus. How good it is to know that the same Holy Spirit who emboldened them (v. 5) still empowers us today to faithfully serve Jesus as we await His return.
Mary Lee is a sixteen-foot, 3,500-pound great white shark tagged by oceanographers off the coast of Cape Cod in 2012. The transmitter attached to her dorsal fin could be tracked by satellite when she surfaced. For the next five years Mary Lee’s movements were observed online with great interest by everyone from researchers to surfers, up and down the east coast of the United States from Maine to Florida. She was tracked for nearly 40,000 miles until one day, somewhere off the coast of New Jersey, her signal stopped—probably because the battery on her transmitter expired.
Human knowledge and technology reach only so far. Those “following” Mary Lee lost track of her, but you and I can never evade God’s awareness throughout every moment of our lives. David prayed, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:7–8). “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” he exclaims gratefully (v. 6).
God chooses to know us because He loves us. He cares enough to not only observe our lives but also to enter into them and make them new. He drew near through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, so we could know Him in return and love Him for eternity. We can never go beyond the reach of God’s love.
“You’re going to be an exchange student!” I was seventeen and thrilled to hear I was approved to study in Germany. But it was only three months before my departure, and I had never taken a class in German.
The days that followed found me cramming—studying for hours and even writing words on my hands to memorize them.
Months later I was in a classroom in Germany, discouraged because I didn’t know more of the language. That day a teacher gave me wise advice. “Learning a language is like climbing a sand dune. Sometimes you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But just keep going, and you will.”
Sometimes I reflect on that insight when I consider what it means to grow as a follower of Jesus. The apostle Paul recalled, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Even for Paul, personal peace didn’t happen overnight. It was something he grew into. Paul shares the secret of his progress: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12–13, emphasis added).
Life has its challenges. But as we turn to the One who has “overcome the world” (John 16:33), we discover not only that He is faithful to get us through but also that nothing matters more than closeness to Him. He gives us His peace, helps us to trust, and empowers us to go the distance as we walk with Him.