Heather and Sherry sit in the chapel, the one place they’ve found that makes life in the state prison bearable.
Heather was sentenced to nearly a decade behind the prison walls for drug dealing and related offenses. Sherry, found guilty of violent crimes, faces a considerably longer term in prison.
On this night, both Sherry and Heather are praying fervently to God. They each have a hearing scheduled for later in the week, one that will determine whether they serve their full sentence or get an early out-date.
A week later, only Sherry shows up for the chapel service. Heather doesn’t come and she won’t show her face in the chapel for the rest of her time inside.
Why the difference? Neither of these women got what they prayed for. The board turned down both of their pleas for an early out-date.
Heather’s response is to turn her back on the God who, to her mind, turned his back on her. Sherry responds by returning to the place of worship and going again to her knees in prayer.
One decided not to believe in a God who won’t grant her the gift she thought she deserved. The other chose to begin her long journey toward learning the true heart of God, who is eager to give her every good and perfect gift. . . even if they don’t always look like gifts.
Expect Unexpected Gifts
When the author of Ecclesiastes observed “there is a time for everything, and season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), he was describing the wide range of gifts God gives to his people. Believers may find it natural and easy to thank God when it’s “a time to love,” but the praise doesn’t flow as easily when it’s “a time to hate.” Are we as eager to accept “a time for war” as we are “a time for peace”? “A time to mourn and a time to dance?”
“When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other” (7:14).
Learning to praise God for every gift doesn’t come easily.
When my wife and I were first dating, one of the things that drew us together was our shared desired to have children and to raise them to love the Lord. We spent hours talking about our plans for parenting, imagining what life would be like for our happy family.
After six years of marriage, there were no children. It turned out each of us had a medical anomaly that made it statistically impossible for us to conceive or bear children.
Is childlessness a gift from God? It sure didn’t feel like it. It felt like the genetic and biological dice had rolled and fallen into place against us.
We decided to become foster parents. Partly, we made this choice because it seemed the right thing to do. James 1:27 says caring for orphans is “pure religion.”
But also, perhaps mostly, we were motivated by our selfish desire to have children. We were so desperate we were willing to take them on loan, as it were. There’s no guarantee of permanent adoption when taking in a temporary foster child. The average foster placement lasts less than 20 months.
But something changed. Because of our half-selfish step of faith, we learned the joy of serving, of discovering the unexpected blessings God gives to those who are looking for them.
The average foster parent has little interaction with the biological families of the children placed in their homes. But we learned the very real truth “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Many over-simplify that promise to say God is going to make everything work out, that God will somehow make lemonade out of lemons. The actual promise is so much greater, assuring the people who are called by God that he will make things work out in a way that helps us achieve his greater purpose.
Our interaction with four of our five foster sons has continued on long beyond the brief time they were officially under our care. We’re now well into our third decade of ministering not only to our foster sons, but to their extended biological families and their friends.
God could have given us the expected gift of bearing children, but instead he gave us the extraordinary gift of bearing the burdens of others and sharing his gifts with them.
Accept Unexpected Gifts
God also used our unexpected foster parenting experiences to prepare us for another unexpected gift. Forty years ago, when we were daydreaming about our perfect family, we were naïve and sheltered from the difficult and harsh lives lived by many people. We knew nothing of real poverty, the downward spiral of addiction, or the trials of dealing with government bureaucracies.
Over the following 20 years as foster parents, God gifted us with a wide range of experience in that other side of life. And then he gave us another gift we would never have expected.
When asked to participate in a prison ministry we said yes because, again, the Word and our prayers told us it was the right thing to do. It turned out to be harder than we expected, but our long years as foster parents had trained us to embrace God’s unexpected gifts along the rocky roads of life.
During 15 years in the prison chapel we met many women like Heather and Sherry. We prayed and wept with them as they struggled to understand God’s gifts. We walked alongside them as they wrestled with God’s ways and his purposes. Our hearts broke when some turned their backs on God. We guided others to understand that going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to them.
Sherry continued to grow in her faith because she learned to embrace the paradoxical gift of prison. Could there have been an easier way for God to bless her? Perhaps. But family, friends, and circumstances had all been nagging at her for some time, begging her to change her ways. It took a guilty verdict to grab her attention, and she found God waiting for her in prison.
The habit of accepting every gift with thanksgiving comes only though the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4, 5). Prisoners like Sherry learned to seek God’s greater purpose the same way we did, by diving deep into the Word. And we all navigated the unexpected twists and turns of God’s greater purpose by bathing our daily lives in prayer.
The ability to see God’s gift in both the good and bad, in the happiness and tears, comes only through a long and steady journey, walking side by side with the Lord, carrying on a two-way conversation with him.
Just one month before writing this article I woke up in the middle of the night having a heart attack. Can a heart attack be a gift from God?
Childlessness was. I’ve seen that a prison sentence can be. I’m ready and eager to open this unexpected gift and see what’s inside.
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri.