December 13, 2006

A God of Little Gifts

2006 1534 page31 capet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better (Heb. 11:39, 40, NRSV).*
A dark night of trouble and pain, inching toward despair. We prayed. God gave us peace. Our real desire was for healing that would last. Instead He gave us a small gift for that one dark night.
That gift has become a light for me, a light that softens the shadows from other dark nights; nights of urgent voices crying out to Him. Nights of trembling hands waiting for even the smallest of gifts. Nights when the heavens are as brass and silence is His response.
It’s clearer to me now. He does not always give us the gifts for which we ask. He gives us what we need.
That’s a truth I want to believe. But it’s hard. You see, my heart longs to experience another truth that I hold dear: the promise that I can be so close to Him that my will merges into His, and that my every need or want becomes simply what He wants for me.
That’s a beautiful ideal. But it can only be mostly true. A friend’s story of small joys and a great sorrow illustrates why.
He was sharing prayer experiences. “From my childhood,” he said, “I have many memories of answered prayers about lost baseballs or missing pocketknives. But the most urgent prayer of all came when my parents began talking about divorce. I asked God not to let it happen. It happened anyway.”
2006 1534 page31Quietly he added, “I gladly would have given back all those baseballs and pocketknives just to see my parents together.”
God’s will that a marriage fail?
Simply a lack of faith?
That would be a cruel burden indeed for a heart already torn by grief.
No, it’s not enough to say that He gives us what we need. Nor is it enough to say that oneness with Him results in a perfect match between the wish and the gift. Scripture reminds us that even great saints can’t sort out wants from needs. They praise Him for gifts both great and small. But the pages of Scripture are generously sprinkled with weighty requests to which He has said no. He often has been a God of little gifts.
Moses begged to enter the Promised Land (Deut. 3:24, 25). The Lord said no, and gave him a small gift instead: a mountaintop glimpse of Canaan.
Three times Paul pled with the Lord to take away his “thorn in the flesh.” The Lord said no, but promised him sustaining grace (2 Cor. 12:8, 9).
Most perplexing of all, however, is the story of Solomon, to whom the Lord gave a blank check. “Pick your gift,” He said. When the king admitted his great need and asked for wisdom, the Lord was delighted and added a handsome list of extras (1 Kings 3:10-14). Yet Solomon’s “right” choice did not keep him from going horribly wrong.
Now, if I had the same choice that God gave to Solomon, my calculating side might be tempted to ask that all my future requests be granted as per my wishes. Yet my life as a father of two daughters hints at a partial answer that emerges from the tension between the needs of moral maturity on the one hand, and the impulse to nurture and protect on the other.
I often have to stifle the urge to intervene.
Small gestures and little gifts remind us of a love that longs to help, but chooses not to. And all for the greater good. That explains the remarkable blend of heroic deliverances and disastrous martyrdoms found in Hebrews 11. All cherished a greater desire based on God’s promise. Yet they “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better” (Heb. 11:39, 40).
This is the season to be thankful for gifts great and small. And if He leaves you with a little gift instead of granting your real desire, it’s because He wants something better for you. Pray for eyes of faith that you may be thankful and rejoice.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University in Walla Walla, Washington.