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Sometimes Things Are Not What They Seem

Philippians 4:10-13

Sometimes in life things are not what they seem.

Perhaps you have had the experience—I know I have. Sometimes we think we have accomplished some great victory or achieved some great goal and then it turns out to be a triumph not worth winning or a goal not worth attaining. Or, on the other hand, sometimes we suffer a stinging setback or defeat, and then it turns out to be one of the best things that ever happened to us. Yes, sometimes in life things come to us in disguise. In Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem, “If’, a father is delivering instructions to his son about the secrets of successful living. One of those secrets is this:

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…”

Good advice. Truth be told, sometimes triumph comes to us masked as defeat, and defeat comes to us disguised as triumph. And because that is true, there are three Bible-based principles we need to remember. Here they are:

Principle Number One: The nature of any or every circumstance that comes our way is determined by the perspective from which we view it.

I’ve always loved the story of the Norweigan father and son who went out fishing in their small boat. Suddenly a fog bank surrounded them and they were lost at sea. While they were desperately struggling to find their way, back on shore the kitchen of their little house caught on fire. The wife and mother tried to stop the blaze, but it raged out of control. The home burned to the ground. Just as the last pieces of wood fell into ash, the father and the son made it to the shore in their little boat. The woman cried out to them: “We have lost everything. The house is burned. Everything’s gone!” The father and the son simply stared in shock. She was more insistent: “Didn’t you hear what I said? Everything we had is in ashes!” The father looked at her and said: “A few hours ago we were lost at sea. There seemed to be no hope. Then we saw a golden glow in the fogbound sky. We decided to row toward that glow. The flames that burned our house saved our lives!” You see, the perspective from which we view the things that come our way in life can make all the difference.

Do you remember when Peter, James, John, and Andrew were fishing on the Sea of Galilee? They hadn’t caught a thing. Then suddenly Jesus came walking along the shore and called out to them: “Cast your nets out on the other side.” You see, from the elevated slope of the shore Jesus could see things they could not see because they were right on top of it. Mind you, it was a big job to haul in those wet, heavy nets and cast them out again. But the four fishermen yielded to the power of a new perspective. They did what Jesus told them to do. The result? Their catch was immense. They cried out: “Wow!”- in Aramaic, of course. But there and then they learned a lesson that would serve them well later on in their lives. You can capitalize on your catastrophes if you look at life from Christ’s perspective. Learn that lesson in your life. I’m sure trying to learn it in mine.

Principle Number Two: The nature of any or every circumstance that comes our way is determined by the use we make of it.

John Wooden was for many years the basketball coach at UCLA, establishing a record of national championships there which may never be equalled. He wrote a book entitled, They Call Me Coach, and he included in that book this line: “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” Instant replay: “Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.” If we misuse a good circumstance then the results can be tragic. On the other hand, if we use well a bad circumstance, we can bring forth something good and beautiful.

Joseph—you remember Joseph from the Old Testament. (By the way, I understand that the success of the animated feature film “The Prince of Egypt” has encouraged Hollywood to begin working on a project about Joseph. Oh, I hope that is true.) In any case, Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite son and Joseph’s brothers resented that fact. So they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. There Joseph was put to work for an Egyptian official named Potiphar. Joseph’s raw talent and hard work caught the eye of Potiphar so that soon Joseph was raised to executive status in the employ of his master. At that point, Joseph caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. When Joseph rejected her advances, he was framed and thrown in prison. There he became known as an interpreter of dreams. That unique ability caught the eye of the Egyptian pharaoh and as a result, Joseph soon became the Prime Minister of Egypt. Then a great famine struck that part of the world, but Joseph’s skill and vision spared Egypt the disastrous results other countries were experiencing. Back in Joseph’s homeland, Joseph’s family was starving. Consequently, they journeyed to Egypt in search of food. When they encountered Joseph there, he showed them grace and mercy. He said to them: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” What looked like a defeat- being sold into slavery and tossed into a dungeon-turned out to be a great victory for Joseph. Why? Because he had learned that things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out. Learn that lesson in your life. I’m sure trying to learn it in mine.

Principle Number Three: The nature of any and every circumstance that comes our way is determined by the time we give it. 

This last Thursday afternoon Trisha and I were on a plane leaving Washington, D.C. As we pulled away from the gate, a hard, blowing thunderstorm broke. The pilot stopped the plane out on the taxiway and said over the intercom: “Flight operations here at Ronald Reagan Airport have been suspended due to the storm, but remember that it is in the nature of storms to pass.” That’s so true, isn’t it? In life, storms come, sometimes terrible storms, yes, but in time those storms pass. You see, sometimes when dealing with all of the challenges and difficulties in life, we have to let some time pass; sometimes we have to wait to see things as they really are.

Look at what happened to Paul. This letter to the Philippians was written while he was in prison. Here he was, surrounded by what seemed to be defeat. He was under the sentence of death; he was cut off from the people he loved most; he was facing the prospect that his great work for the Lord would never be completed. And yet, what does he write? “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” Everything in his life at that point symbolized “defeat” but he wouldn’t be defeated by those circumstances. Why? Because his faith in Christ had long since taught him that situations which may look like defeat, in time, can be transformed into victories. It had happened in his own life.

In his early life, everything in his life had signalled “victory.” He was superbly educated first at the schools in his hometown of Tarsus, then in graduate courses under the leading teachers of the day in Jerusalem. He walked where prophets and kings had walked before him. He sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest religious leader of his time. Paul learned everything there was to learn about the law, but the law enslaved him. It frustrated him. This education, which most people would have coveted, became in fact, a great burden to him. It fostered in him a vengeful, hateful, judgmental spirit. It led him to engage in bloody persecutions. It led him to become a co-conspirator in the death of Stephen. What appeared to be a triumph—this magnificent training of his—turned out to be a tragedy.

But then came the Damascus Road experience when he was knocked into the dust by a light brighter than the Syrian sun. Groveling there, robbed of both his sight and his dignity, he heard the voice of Christ saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He wound up being led into the city where he had intended to go as a proud, confident, conquering persecutor, but where instead he entered as a blind, stumbling, dependent, defeated shell of a man. Within a short while God restored his sight, but it took a long time; years-ten years perhaps- before he could make sense of it all and build his life on these new realities. As a result, the rest of his life was lived to the glory of the God who was big enough to throw him down in anger but who is also big enough to lift him up in love. It looked like darkness- it was really the light. It looked like defeat- in time it turned out to be victory. And after all those years of serving the Lord, as the end of his days drew near, he was able to say to the Philippians: “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I can take both triumph and tragedy and treat them both just the same.” Learn that lesson in your life. I’m sure trying to learn it in mine.

So…

My beloved, many times the things that come to us in life are not what they first seem. Many times what we think is a victory turns out to be a defeat. Or, what appears to be a defeat is transformed into a victory. So evaluate the things that come your way from a new perspective- the perspective of Jesus Christ. Use the things that come to you to bring from them some Christ-like good. And remember to think of things not in terms of the immediate minutes and hours, but in longer and truer times. If you do that, then by the power of the Christ who strengthens you, no matter what happens to you in life, you will be more than conquerors…

Soli Deo Gloria!
To God alone be the glory!

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