Life never seems to turn out the way we think it will, at least for most of us. Some of us knew from an early age what we wanted to do when we grew up. Others only thought they knew. How many aspiring firemen, forest rangers, and astronauts ended up being plumbers, accountants, or insurance salesmen? Or how many with modest ambitions found themselves in exciting careers? Some of us planned to get married and have three children and a Golden Retriever. We thought we would live in the suburbs with a nice green lawn, a white picket fence, and perhaps an oak tree with a tire swing hanging by a rope from a strong limb, yet now, for better or worse, we live in something quite different.
The reality is that, for a host of reasons, most of our dreams do not turn out exactly the way we expect. Sometimes our likes and dislikes change, but sometimes unforeseen events blindside us. Lives are interrupted by wars. Dreams are stolen by economic downturns and depressions. Marriages do not always last like we had hoped, nor do they always produce children. And when we are blessed with children, we sometimes find they are harder to work with than we had expected, leaving us wondering, “Was there a mix-up at the hospital?”
The 2020 coronavirus event is one such disruption to dreams and plans. We know wars and pandemics are going to come, but why now? Who foresaw COVID-19? A number of young couples in the Church planned for “storybook weddings” this year. How did those events work out? As the old saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” But life-disrupting events are nothing new and, while we shouldn’t minimize the disappointment of these young people, other individuals have had it far worse.
It is hard to determine the exact number, but historians estimate that 50 to 100 million people perished in the 1918 pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of young couples had their plans interrupted by the First and Second World Wars—and for many, that interruption was permanent. Many young men breathed a sigh of relief when that war ended, only to find themselves sent to the Korean peninsula a few years later during one of the coldest winters on record. And Vietnam was no picnic for those drafted and sent to the jungles or rice paddies. Truly, the mettle of every generation is tested.
How Sudden the Change!
Have you ever wondered what Lot’s daughters thought when two mysterious men showed up unexpectedly? The day after they arrived, these angels rushed the girls and their parents out of their city, never to return. But consider—Sodom was where their childhood friends lived. They may have had their eyes on young men they hoped to marry. And then there was the tragedy of losing their mother during their flight. All this came upon them suddenly, in one day, as they fled to a destination unknown. This was not what they had planned for their lives!
We know that Lot’s wife could not leave without looking back longingly at what she was giving up. It was not easy leaving behind the home in which she had brought up her family. There were the beautiful carpets, pieces of furniture, vases and other decorative items, perhaps handcrafted coverings for the windows—all etched with memories. And it must have been even more difficult to leave behind her married daughters (cf. Genesis 19:12–14) and their families, very likely including her grandchildren. It is easy for us to be critical of her for foolishly looking back, but we know the end of the story and how the city was suddenly devastated. Lot’s wife has been a perpetual witness to every generation of God’s people, a warning against clinging to this present evil world (Luke 17:31–33).
A Difficult Choice?
Daniel and his three friends are among the best-known biblical personages. How inspiring are their stories of faith and courage! We love to read to our children about their lives, hoping to encourage them to stand strong with God and against the world. We pick up the account of their lives only after they arrived in Babylon, but can we imagine what it must have been like when their city was besieged and then fell, when foreign soldiers led them on a long, uncertain journey to a foreign land hundreds of miles away? This was, no doubt, not how they had planned their lives.
Consider Christ’s apostles. At least a third of them were fishermen who worked in their family businesses. As many young men do, they probably had ideas about how to grow the business once it was handed over to them. Some of the twelve were devout men, followers of John the Baptist, but did any of them ever imagine that they would become fishers of men? Did any of them think they would become martyrs for the long-awaited Messiah? This was not how they had planned their lives.
It was the same for many of us. We were going along on our own paths until our heavenly Father called us. What a change that was! Our Friday night parties and the Saturday pursuits we were so comfortable with came to an abrupt halt. Many gave up their favorite grilled meat—you know, the one with the corkscrew tail. Some of you gave up your dream job. A few of you lost a mate who did not appreciate your “new religion.” We are hardly alone in giving up things we loved.
When considering the difficulties of life, we must not forget the prophet Jeremiah. God called him as a youth (Jeremiah 1:6), and the message he was to deliver was not a popular one. His life was threatened by his neighbors (11:18–19, 21–22), his own brothers turned against him (12:6), his reputation was tarnished by “fake news” (18:18), and he was thrown into prison (37:16) and later into a dungeon where he sank in the mire (38:6) and would have perished, had it not been for the intervention of Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian (38:7–13). Perhaps the trial least recognized by most readers was that God commanded Jeremiah not to marry while in the land of Judah (16:2). This effectively meant that marriage was delayed until he was in his late 50s or 60s, so perhaps he never married at all. This was not likely how Jeremiah had planned his life!
Joseph’s brothers first intended to kill him, but later decided to sell him into slavery. What must it have been like to be treated so brutally by your brothers, and then end up in prison for obeying God’s law? Betrayal is one of the most difficult offenses to forgive, and none of us know Joseph’s private thoughts as he lived through 13 years of slavery and imprisonment. Did he experience sorrow? Most likely. What about anger and depression? Probably. Yet his life was in God’s hands the whole time. Judging by his response when he revealed himself to his brothers, Joseph no doubt understood this—maybe not at the beginning of his trials, but certainly in the end. Life did not work out as either Joseph or his brothers had planned.
Cutting Through the Fog
How we react to life’s difficult times is all-important, and making the best of a bad situation is a choice. Why do people react so differently to horrific circumstances? Some rise to the occasion, while others descend into self-pity. What was it that caused three Jewish lads to rise to the occasion when confronted by a terrifying choice? Author and successful businessman Robert Townsend makes this astute observation: “Values are critical guides for making decisions. When in doubt, they cut through the fog like a beacon in the night.”
For Daniel’s three friends, the decision between living as idol-worshipers or dying as God-fearers was easy. Their values cut through the fog. There was only one choice to make in what must have been a terrifying situation. When confronted by the powerful king, they boldly responded, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16–18). They believed God existed and they valued His commands. This gave them courage to make the choice that many would have considered foolish, and that is why—thousands of years later—we read of these three young men by name while their critics go unmentioned.
The late Mr. Carl McNair often remarked, “Everything in life is a trial. If you don’t pass it the first time, God will give you another opportunity.” He meant, of course, that it is better to pass the test the first time. We see this when Moses rehearsed the lessons of the years in the wilderness. Deuteronomy explains an important reason why an 11-day journey took 40 years (Deuteronomy 1:2–3). God tests us constantly along the path of life, just as He tested Israel. “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2–3).
Sadly, few of the children of Israel passed the test. But one individual who learned to adjust to the twists and turns of life was the Apostle Paul, who said, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:11–12). And what was it for him that made the difference? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13).
Good News: God’s Great Plan for You
Those alive today will look back on this time as a moment of great significance, just as many of us who are a bit older will never forget when man first walked on the Moon or what we were doing on September 11, 2001. The British will remember waking up on 24 June 2016 to learn the majority voted to leave the European Union. We remember precisely where we were when these events happened. COVID-19 may not be remembered as a precise day, but it will be, for many, a defining period in their lives—that is, until something more momentous comes along. We understand from Scripture that “in the last days perilous times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). In addition to corrupt and selfish human behavior that brings about these perilous times (vv. 2–5), we read of famine, persecution, worse plagues, wars, and natural disasters on a scale never before seen (Luke 21:10–11).
Along with the trials that came upon Daniel and his three friends, there were surprising blessings and rewards that went far beyond their wildest dreams. How could four Jewish teens in a country on the decline anticipate someday being in the palace of the greatest empire of the time? How could they know that, through them, God would work miracles that had never before been seen and would be spoken of for millennia to come? Just think about being thrown into a fiery furnace or a den of hungry lions and living to tell about it! And remember, they did not know the end of the story when it began.
What must it have been like for Jeremiah to understand near the end of his life that God had used him to preserve the promise made to David of an enduring dynasty, and to know that the throne of David would remain to be claimed by the returning Messiah at the end of the age? There are so many more stories of great men and women in the Bible. What a reward to have your name in the greatest book ever written! But their greatest reward is having their names written in the Book of Life in heaven (Luke 10:20). If we endure to the end, our names will be there, too!
When the disciples recounted to Jesus all they had given up and asked, essentially, “What’s in it for us?,” He replied, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:27–28). What they had planned for their lives could never compare with what God had planned. Note the amazing promise in the next verse: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (v. 29). That promise is for you and for me!
It is important to put trials and setbacks in proper context. They may be painful and disappointing. There is the fear of the unknown. Will we permanently lose our job or our business? You may by now know the answer to that question, and the answer may not be what you had planned. In the case of this coronavirus, none of us knows for sure how it will turn out for us. Will you get sick? Will you survive? These unknowns are at least in the back of most people’s minds during this trial.
Can we realize what is at stake here? If we know the truth, have the big picture of what God is doing in our lives, and have genuine faith that—no matter what happens—God is working out a wonderful plan in us, we will come out just fine. The plans we make in this life cannot be compared to what God has in store for us. “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel—that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21).
No matter the unexpected twists and turns along the way, the outcome for those who remain focused and faithful will be eternal life in the Kingdom of God as born children of God. That is why we must “roll with the punches” thrown at us, learning to rejoice rather than complain. That is why we pray “Thy kingdom come!” That is what we live for. Now, that is a plan!