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Don’t Quit, Keep Playing

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There is a tale of the renowned Polish concert pianist and composer, Ignacy Paderewski, performing in a series of concerts. A mother bought tickets to the series, hoping to encourage her young son with his piano lessons. The two arrived early and located their seats near the front of the concert hall. The mother, seeing some friends nearby, went to speak with them—leaving her son unaccompanied in his seat. After a while, the boy grew restless and wandered off to explore the concert hall.

A short time later the house lights dimmed and the audience turned their attention to the stage in enthusiastic anticipation. The mother returned to her seat, only to discover her son missing and at that very moment, the curtains parted. The spotlights focused on the stage, highlighting the magnificent Steinway piano, and to her horror, she saw her son sitting at the keyboard. He began an elementary two-fingered pluck of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

The audience jeered and hissed at the boy to get off the stage but he tinkered away. Before his mother could make a move, the great piano master appeared from behind the curtain and walked briskly to the keyboard. The crowd silenced, anticipating a stern admonition. Instead, he leaned over the child’s small frame and could be heard whispering, “Don’t quit, keep playing,” as he reached down with his left hand and began playing an accompanying bass part. He then encircled his right arm around the boy and added a running obbligato. Together, the great master and young novice mesmerized the concert crowd with their music.

However rudimentary we may feel at times in our spiritual pursuit, this anecdote is a poignant reminder of our Great Master’s arms wrapped around each of us. He does not call the equipped, but He does equip the called, and He augments and supplements to create a masterpiece within those He calls His own. Actively working in the lives of individuals who have committed their lives to Him, Scripture paints some very descriptive word pictures of how He personally engages to assist in our development and success of this worthy goal.

Looking back, I have identified chapters in my life when this perspective was obscured from me. By my own doing, I denied myself the blessing of recognizing His presence beside me as He worked in my life. If only I had used a spiritual telescope and focused my gaze up on the Great Master when ongoing difficulties fogged my vantage point. Instead, I often focused down through the lens of a physical microscope, agonizing over nuances and uncertainties over which I had no control. This only resulted in anxiety and a floundering, murky perspective. Reflection on this has brought re-orienting principles to the forefront, and I hope they will aid in bringing equilibrium and clarity to you too when you feel bogged down in the quagmire that substantial difficulties often bring.

Find your strength in God

Following God never “just happens.” It takes a deliberate intention to be a disciple and give up our will, pick up our cross and follow no matter the cost. Let’s be real. There may be times in our discipleship when emotional or physical pain consumes us with such sorrow that it feels as though our innermost parts are unraveling. Or as Job experienced: loneliness, hurt and disappointment run deep when human encouragements seemingly evaporate. For some, pain from the past may linger into the present, or sometimes our own thoughts may hold us captive. The truth is, our enemy has great power—but let us label him for what he ultimately is, a defeated foe. So why do we listen to the thoughts he puts in our head? Our Great Master is not just greater, He is the greatest, and it is essential to find strength and encouragement in Him no matter the hurdle before us.

We cannot always control that which happens to us, but we can be assured that God does not randomly allow trials in our lives just to make us fearful, nor are our lives simply an exercise in futile anxiety. He does not play with or experiment on our faith. When we love God and His Spirit is dwelling in us, He works to prepare us for His coming Kingdom. Everything we experience is to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and nothing is wasted. Faith tells us that wherever we are going He is already there, so we find strength and hope by seeing that which is unseen. As His plan for us unfolds, we can trust that He is in control and He will never leave us.

Take time to see the unseen. Make a list of the ways God has actively worked in your life and set aside time to thank Him. Read 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 and identify the profoundly personal relationship He has with each of us. From these passages we can draw this hope:

  • When I am anxious, He is my Rock.
  • When I am defenseless, He is my Fortress.
  • When I am distressed, He is my Deliverer.
  • When I am weary, He is my Strength.
  • When I am encircled with evil, He is my Shield.
  • When I am vulnerable, He is my Refuge.
  • When I am in despair, He is my Support.
  • When I am lost, He is my Lamp.

Isaiah puts it this way: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:28-31, New International Version).

Personal reflection: Have I ever been disappointed with someone for not being as supportive as I would have liked or felt I needed? If so, have I ever contemplated that perhaps God wants me to find my strength in Him and not from reliance on others? Would I be willing to forgive the person or people I believed failed me and consider what it is that God really wants from me?

Understand the perspective of God’s priorities

Significant difficulties can leave us with significant questions. Before the long haul of trouble invaded our lives, perhaps we were content with our understanding of God’s sovereignty and the way He works with us. However, when the issues are no longer theoretical but rather very real, solace is not found in religious platitudes. We want answers as we try to make sense of our infirmities and uncertainties. Sometimes there are no easy answers and questioning God’s whereabouts when we feel abandoned is a very human response—showing how desperately we are in need of His mercy and grace.

Often the eternal reasons for our suffering are masked and the truth is only discoverable as His Spirit illuminates our understanding to see that His utmost desire is for us to grow into the likeness of His Son. God has a unique plan for each of us and there will always be trials, because they are a part of our preparation. Only when this understanding becomes a part of our learning will we find the peace that transcends and releases us from anger, disappointment or bitterness toward God.

In Matthew 6:8-10 Jesus shows us how to pray: “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here we are told that the Father already knows exactly what we need even before we ask Him. So, there must be more to prayer than simply meeting our needs, because if He already knows them, why should we ask? The prayer begins by recognizing God as our Father and us as His children. We are then to honor who He is and what He has done, anticipate and welcome God’s Kingdom on earth, long for the day in which He reigns and be conformed and aligned with His will in the accomplishment of these things. Why? Because to pray in this way puts us in a mindset which transcends the physical.

Personal reflection: By praying in this prescribed way, I change how I think. It helps me to recognize God’s priorities, keep my eyes on the higher purpose and modify my outlook to become more aligned with His.

Irritation is a teacher

Consider the only gem produced by the stress and irritation of an undesired intrusion, the lustrous pearl. When an outsider intrudes the home of a sensitive, soft oyster its defensive response is to secrete a blend of minerals, creating nacre—a substance that encases the irritant and keeps the oyster safe and comfortable. Researchers have found nacre to have qualities of resilience and extraordinary strength. It is lighter and stronger than concrete and as durable as silicone. Layer upon layer of nacre cements together until slowly, over time, a gem of great beauty is conceived through wounding stress and irritation, without which there would not be a pearl.

“If we love God and are called according to His purpose, everything we experience, good and bad, helps to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. When you are a child of God nothing is wasted, even painful events and experiences are part of a grand purpose” (Greg Thomas).

God’s method of spiritual growth is to permit irritants to intrude upon our lives. These can include world turmoil, hurts and disappointments, relationship difficulties, anxiety, illness or chronic pain and often our own imperfections. How we respond to these stimuli determines if our struggles will take us closer to God and whether we develop spiritual maturity. Faith tells us that God is working something out in our lives, and this perspective is crucial to avoiding resentment and to becoming disciples with mature character. Both Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4 provide us with the same formula: when we respond to trials in faith, we build resilient endurance.

Faith does not mean we will be spared from trials, but that we recognize they serve a purpose that is spiritual and not physical. Honestly, there have been times when I have struggled to maintain this outlook. One exercise I have found to be helpful is to say out loud to myself: “God’s plan for me is right on schedule.” If ever we lose this perspective, read James 1:5 which tells us if, in faith, we ask God for wisdom it will be given to us. Ask Him to grant the wisdom and personal perspective needed to forge ahead.

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself” (C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” pg. 176).

Personal reflection: There will be heartache, frustrations, regrets, physical and emotional obstacles that may succeed in sapping our resolve—but a hopeless response to suffering can become an impediment to our faith. Will I tell my story from the perspective of a victim or as a hero, from despair or hope, survival or woundedness, fear or courage, emotional resentment or forgiveness, a physical mindset or a spiritual mindset?

The acceptance and submission of that which will not be removed

For millennia a difficult aspect of the human struggle has been in trying to reconcile the knowledge of a loving God who has the ability to eliminate sufferings, injustices and atrocities but chooses not to. How can we believe He shares in our sorrows, cares for us and loves us when He hears our cries yet allows us to endure such hardship?

In this context, Hebrews 5:7-8 has been a helpful passage to meditate upon for me personally. Here we see a glimpse into the very personal struggle the human Jesus Christ felt as He anticipated the intense suffering and tortuous execution ahead. Three times He prayed and petitioned with anxious cries and tears of blood running down His face to the One who could deliver Him from the events soon to unfold. He beseeched God to remove what was to come, and perhaps find another way that was not so dreadful to anticipate. He wrestled with this in emotional and mental anguish (Luke 22:42 and Matthew 26:38). But then, He showed His faithful acceptance and reverent submission to the perfect plan when it was not removed from before Him.

We are told that He endured it all “for the joy that was set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2-3), meaning He kept His eyes on the higher purpose. His trial was temporary but His reward was everlasting and uniquely qualified Him to be an Advocate. Now He is our Advocate and His death bears truth to the fact that our pain, suffering and tears are never dismissed. He understands what it is like to agonize and wrestle with challenges that may loom before us. He understands the sting injustice inflicts and the depth of pain that emotional and physical travail can bring. He understands when it seems as though our human suffering has been climaxed, and He understands when we wrestle with God’s plan for our lives—even when we also seek to submit ourselves to it. Meditating upon this is a balm to my soul when I am in the middle of something very hard.

Luke 22:43 tells us that, in the midst of Christ’s prayer, an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened Him so He could endure what was yet to come. Reassurance washes over me to know that when we lay our hopes, fears and anxieties before God’s throne, He hears us. Our petitions enter His ears and He will provide the strength we need to bear what lies ahead. 2 Samuel 22:7, “In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry entered His ears.”

Personal reflection: Christ’s crucifixion is simultaneously the worst and best of all historical events. The empty tomb changed everything. His hardest trial became the most amazing love story of all time. He loved us enough to die for us, knowing what awaited all humanity on the other side of this trial was a reason to endure. Now we too have a reason to endure, knowing what lies ahead. He may not take our distresses away, but He knows our pain must be attended to. He will commune with us in our suffering with the hope it forms us into holy people dependent upon Him, knowing who we are and to whom we belong.

Friends, remember the story of the great master and the young boy and “don’t quit, keep playing.” What we do in this life echoes forward into all of eternity. Let us keep our eyes on the higher purpose and be faithful through the long haul, knowing our Great Master is always with us.