My youngest sister, Emily, received a garden hose for Christmas one year; she was absolutely thrilled. My children, however, were appalled. A garden hose for Christmas? They figured their aunt must be the best actress in the world to be able to pretend to be excited over a garden hose. Why in the world would anybody think that was a good gift to give or receive? After all, wasn’t Christmas a time for receiving cool stuff that you had seen on TV? Well, I guess it all depends on your perspective. You see, my sister and her husband had just moved into their first house and needed all those little odds and ends that come with home ownership, including a garden hose. For her, a garden hose was a much better gift than cool “stuff.”
I’ve been thinking about these two different perspectives on the nature of gifts. In particular, my thoughts have been drawn to the difference between what I might consider good gifts from God and what he considers the best gifts. I have to admit that, like my children, I’m partial to “cool” gifts, things that give me immediate satisfaction. God, on the other hand, is more interested in giving me gifts that, like a garden hose, bring living water to enliven my soul and nurture my progression.
Although the mortal me resists the idea, the most important of God’s gifts are the trials he brings or allows to come into our lives. I’ll be honest—I’m not a fan of trials. Let me rephrase that—I’m not a fan of going through trials. I know both intellectually and experientially the blessings of growth that come from undergoing difficulties in our lives. My family has experienced some really trying times in the past few years, starting with my dad’s brain injury and the subsequent dementia which eventually took his life. And it was two years ago this Halloween when we learned that my husband had prostate cancer. Then of course there was my battle with anxiety that landed me in the psych ward about 18 months ago.
As difficult as it was watching my dad die one brain cell at a time, I wouldn’t give up the lessons I learned during that time. From that experience, I began to understand what it means to unconditionally love someone, to love without any expectation of reciprocation or even acknowledgement. I think back to the last time I fed him his lunch, just four days before his death. There was no obvious reward for me. He didn’t know who I was. He didn’t realize that I was helping him in any way. But I knew I was helping him, and it was a privilege to do so. I remember in particular how much he enjoyed the orange juice I brought to him. I’m not sure who derived more pleasure from that last little delight—Dad or me. While I’m grateful that his terrible suffering has ended, there are times when I miss having the honor of taking care of him.
This lesson in unconditional love has blessed me in other ways, as well. It has made the principle of God’s unconditional love for his children come alive for me. Is it really possible, I have asked myself, that God loves me in that way? That he loves me just for being me and not for anything I can give to him? That he rejoices in taking care of me, in giving me orange juice-like tender mercies simply because it brings him pleasure to see my enjoyment? I have to admit, this has been a really hard concept for me to accept. Knowing my faults and inadequacies as I do, it is hard to believe he can love me in that way. But if I can feel that way about my earthly father, how much more can a perfect Heavenly Father love this imperfect child of his?
Likewise, Craig’s cancer brought its own gifts of growth and understanding. I learned what it means to experience “the peace that passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). After the first week of tears following his diagnosis, that peace enveloped my heart and I knew everything would be ok. That doesn’t mean I knew he would beat the cancer; rather, I knew that I would be content with whatever happened. I also learned the power of prayer offered for others, in this case, for Craig and me. We were carried through the months of treatment on the wave of those prayers. As much as I don’t want to go through it again, I can genuinely say I am grateful for the gifts of knowledge and understanding I received.
Now we come to the trial that has framed most of my adult life—mental illness. To be honest, I’ve had great difficulty learning to be grateful for this experience. Most of the time I have felt like it has hindered my progress rather than helped it, a perception—incorrect, I suspect—that has led to a lingering resentment. Yes, there are things I have learned. I have learned not to judge others because you never know what is going on in their lives. I have also learned empathy and compassion because I know what it is to feel like God has abandoned you. But, I tell myself, there were surely other ways I could have learned these things, ways that didn’t destroy my sense of well-being. Besides that, those lessons have seemed more like fortunate by-products of my experience and not the precise point of the trial.
Although it has taken more than thirty years, I have recently come to understand what I believe has always been the primary purpose of this test—to teach me submissiveness to the Lord’s will. I don’t do submission well; I suppose that’s why the Lord has had to keep repeating the lesson for such a long time. At long last, however, I finally feel like I truly understand what the Lord is trying to do in my life. For the first time, I am beginning to make sense of my continuing battle for well-being. I wish I could say that this knowledge has been an “off” switch for the resentment that has tainted both my mind and heart. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. It’s more like a dimmer switch that goes up and down based on my willingness to accept this test as the gift that it truly is. Some days are good, some aren’t, but there are good days.
I am coming to understand that trials and tribulations are the hose the Lord uses to deliver the eternal gift of living water to the garden of my soul where the seedlings of submissiveness are at long last beginning to take root. I guess a garden hose truly is the best gift.
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