All the relatives gathered in the living room for the celebration. In the center, four-year-old Donny bounced up and down in front of his colorful gift pile.
“Go!” his dad shouted.
Grinning, Donny ripped into his first present. Demolishing paper and box, he held up the contents. But instead of squealing with delight, he dropped the gift — clothes! His shoulders slumped and he pouted. “Just what I always didn’t want!”
Immaturity? Yes. But we may all feel that way sometimes about situations life hands us.
The Chelsea challenge
When our older daughter was in high school, she asked if we would take in her best friend, who had been kicked out of her home. Adopted at birth, Chelsea* saw her adoptive parents’ marriage disintegrate. A second marriage fared no better.
One night under the influence of alcohol, her dad chased the family through the house with a loaded pistol. Another divorce. Chelsea stayed with her stepmother but soon got the boot.
At seventeen, she couldn’t afford to live on her own and feared her father’s finding her. Since she practically lived at our house anyway, we welcomed her into our family with the stipulation she observe boundaries set for our own three teens. We promised we would never kick her out.
All went well until friends encouraged Chelsea to balk. She began testing us to see if we would keep our promise. My heart broke each time she argued bitterly about curfews and questionable activities. It seemed like a kick in the teeth.
Just what we always didn’t want.
When you get that coveted college diploma, you never think that twenty years later you’ll be struggling financially. When you marry, you never anticipate an unfaithful spouse. When you start a family, you never imagine a child’s scary medical diagnosis. When you take a new job, you never foresee co-workers spreading lies about you on social media. When you dream bright-future dreams, you never believe they can quickly vaporize.
Because we can’t know what life will bring, our challenge is to cultivate contentment no matter what. The apostle Paul, who suffered much in his lifetime, said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12, NIV, emphasis mine).
But what happens when life hands us just what we always didn’t want? It’s often natural to complain, retaliate, or bail out.
During the 1995 US Open semifinals, German tennis star Boris Becker complained that the umpires were favoring American players. After a particularly close corner shot by Andre Agassi, Becker pointed to the corner and looked up to the chair umpire. “One?” he cried. “Just one something for me?”
Complaining allows us to let off a little steam, but does it change anything? For Becker, it only antagonized the umpire, alienated spectators, and perhaps led to his defeat. Habitual complaining about life’s “lemons” sours our personality, repulses people around us, and worst of all, displeases Almighty God (Numbers 11:1).
But what good is Retaliation
The desire to retaliate also comes naturally, but it isn’t healthy.
African-American John Perkins grew up in Mississippi during the raw racial hatred of the 1960s. After his brother was killed by a white man, John wanted to get even, but he never got the chance.
In his book Let Justice Roll Down, Perkins describes an incident in 1970. [Deleted her footnote and put it in Sources folder] In 1970, A highway patrol officer, full of hate against civil rights marchers, pulled over a van of black student demonstrators on a deserted stretch of highway. Arresting them, he and his backup unleashed curses, insults, and threats. During booking, the officers kicked them and beat them with billy clubs.
Perkins went to bail out the students but walked into a trap. He was beaten and stomped into bloody unconsciousness. The officers’ faces twisted with hate, Perkins recalls, but he couldn’t hate back. “I could only pity them. I didn’t ever want hate to do to me what it had already done to them.
Perkins knew that God says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).
But what good is Bailing out
Sometimes our natural reaction is the futile attempt to bail out.
When a marriage doesn’t live up to expectations, some people give up. Separation. Divorce.
When life’s pressures overwhelm us, some surrender to anything that will numb the pain. Substance abuse. Addiction.
When problems obscure all reasons for living, some give up. Withdrawal from society. Even suicide.
But obviously no future exists in those responses either. So how can we handle all those just-what-I-always-didn’t-want situations?
Doing what doesn’t come naturally Vision adjustments
A comically nearsighted vintage cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, bumped into one calamity after another — literally. Maybe some of our disappointments and difficulties are heightened by a Mr. Magoo syndrome. We become severely nearsighted, and, unfortunately, it’s not funny. But a couple of vision adjustments can often help us find contentment. We can choose to look beyond the immediate and look outward rather than inward.
Looking beyond the immediate
In ancient Egypt, a man named Joseph learned to look beyond the immediate. Hated by his brothers, he was sold as a slave, falsely accused of raping the pharaoh’s wife, unjustly imprisoned, and deprived of credit for securing another inmate’s release. Talk about “Just what I always didn’t want”!
Years later, Joseph did the inconceivable: He forgave his brothers for setting in motion that evil chain reaction. He said, in effect, “You did it because you wanted to hurt me, but God had good purposes” (Genesis 50:20, paraphrased).
Joseph looked to God for strength to get through those horrendous circumstances. As he did, he became leadership material in the government’s eyes. And ultimately Joseph saved the lives of his brothers, and many others, because he chose to look beyond the immediate, reject hate, and trust God for the future.
Jesus set the ultimate standard: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies . . . do good to those who hate you” (Matthew 5:43, 44).
If we let go of our hurts, hatred, and vengeful desires, we can persevere through tough times.
Looking outward instead of inward
Corolee Pier was a woman who wanted, more than anything, to have lots of children. But she and her husband, Alan, couldn’t have children of their own, and the idea of adoption didn’t interest them. “I didn’t feel Alan could ever love a child that wasn’t his own flesh and blood,” Corolee admitted.
Although she had been a meticulous housekeeper, anger and depression over their childlessness robbed her of homecare interests. One afternoon, when she discovered how cluttered the basement had become, her anger exploded. “If our belongings can’t be neat and tidy, we shouldn’t keep them at all,” she said. She swung open the basement window and began pitching things — books, trash, magazines, precious letters, “everything that wasn’t tidy,” she recalled.
Corolee grew so inwardly focused that she couldn’t think about anything but the denial of her solitary heart’s desire.
A different focus and outcome
But Corolee also began to see that God could be her strength, “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). She started focusing outward, and opportunities arose for “mothering” and teaching neighborhood children about God.
Ultimately, Corolee and Alan Pier became house parents in a group home, caring for children whose parents were imprisoned. Many children had been victims of unspeakable abuse and incest. Some witnessed their father murder their mother.
Over a period of twenty years, Corolee and Alan lovingly parented nearly seventy children! Many of them also learned to look beyond themselves, developing faith in God. And Corolee found a contentment she couldn’t have imagined.
Adjusting our vision to look beyond ourselves helps us do what we can and leave the rest in God’s hands.
For my husband and me, that meant continuing to love and provide for Chelsea no matter what she said or did to us. It wasn’t easy. We made mistakes. But we kept our promise and leaned heavily on God to keep going, despite feelings of failure when she moved out, trying to make it on her own.
The other side
Ultimately, that experience made me realize how God may feel about us sometimes. He created us. He provides what we need. Yet we often try to write our own rules, live the way we please, and, in essence, kick Him in the teeth. But He loves us much more than we can ever love anyone. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us” (1 John 3:1, NIV, emphasis added).
He keeps pursuing us, placing little reminders of His love in our path so we will seek Him and admit we need Him. You see, Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
In every “Just what we always didn’t want,” we can trust God, look beyond the immediate, focus outward, and do what we can, ultimately trusting Him in everything. A relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ, can give us strength, and, yes, even contentment, in any situation.
Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.
*Name and some details changed.
Joyce K. Ellis has published hundreds of articles and eighteen books, including Our Heart Psalms, an interactive devotional book. She has also written One Minute Bible for Kids, winner of the Gold Medallion Award (out of print), The Fabulous World That God Made (picture book), and Write with Excellence 201. Joyce lives in Eden Prairie, MN.