God Knows What You Don’t Have
From Gospel Translations
“God has promised to supply all our needs. What we don’t have now, we don’t need now.”
When Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) says it, I perk up. I nod in agreement. I remember her life, her murdered missionary husband, her devotion to the gospel, her absolute earnestness about Jesus, and the congruity of her words and practice, and I say, “Amen.”
The circumstances of her life were the stuff of legend for me as a growing girl. It was undeniably evident that God was orchestrating all the hardships and massive disappointments she experienced, at the very least, to help all the rest of us. I wanted to be like her, because I wanted to know her God as deeply as she did — the kind of God who made every trial worth it.
But I hadn’t fully reckoned with the means of her unflappable faith in God. I thought, or at least hoped, that the intimacy and trust she had in Jesus could come through a life of ease. I found out that in order to be like her, and to know God in such a way, I would need to learn the glad surrender of discipline. I would have to walk a path through suffering, and I would need to discover the beauty in my own strange ashes.
What Are Our Needs?
I stood in the doorway of the biggest ER room at our state-of-the-art Children’s Hospital. There was barely room for me as thirteen medical staff moved with urgency, bumping into each other, with forceful words coming from the doctor in charge. And in the middle of it all, our 13-month-old son, looking still, pale, and lifeless. I wanted to cry loudly, or yell my son’s name, or make someone tell me how this was going to turn out.
I did none of that. I stood quietly, not moving, clenching my hands, while my heart did not pound, but seemed to dissolve. I thought that if I was quiet and composed, they would allow me to stay near my son. I watched them put an IV directly into his bone to get the meds into his marrow as quickly as possible. And I followed behind the gurney with a dry face as the nurse rhythmically pumped the manual ventilator, breathing for our son, until we arrived in our room in the PICU and he could be hooked up to the machine.
I had learned years before (perhaps not as well as I should have) that God doesn’t owe us children. And that sometimes he takes them away after he’s given them. My naïve twenty-something self was shocked by this reality. Subconsciously believing myself to be immune to miscarriage, I was surprised when it happened. The simple words of Job comforted and frightened me: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” (see Job 1:21).
And now, with five living children — the youngest with serious medical problems — I was faced with another plan that didn’t match mine. Which, to be fair, is a daily occurrence. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a day go according to my plan. But the differences between my plan and God’s have, with some notable exceptions, generally been of a small scale. Watching my son’s life hang in the balance was not a small-scale difference between God’s plan and mine.
What It Means to Thrive
That night in the hospital, alone with my unconscious son and the sound of the ventilator making a terrifying sort of silence, God was reworking my understanding of neediness and flourishing. Over the coming years, I would be faced with lots of questions about what I needed and what our family needed in order to thrive as his people.
Did I need my son to be healthy? How healthy was healthy enough? Did our older kids need a childhood untarnished by suffering? Did they need a family with fewer “needs”? Did they need me to homeschool them full-time to develop into decent Christian people? Did I need sleep? How much? Did I need less vomit in my life? How coherent did I need to be in order to be a kind human?
You likely have your own questions. Do you need a healthy marriage? Do you need your child to be saved? Do you need to move to a different city, a different house, a different neighborhood? Do you need to be rid of your chronic pain? Do you need God to give you a “yes” to the request that you’ve been bringing him for the last twenty years? Do you need to be rid of your aloneness? Do you need stability or change?
What exactly does Paul mean when he promises, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19)?
The Calm After the Storm
My son made it through that traumatic hospital stay. So did I. Although it wouldn’t be the last time we were there.
I felt like declaring victory. We survived. My faith was intact — even strengthened. But one discovery of the last decade of my life has been that the big trials aren’t always the test we think they are. Somehow, we get through those Big Scary Trials. By grace and prayers and the help of God’s people, we hold on to hope in God’s promises and endure. But often, it’s the little trials that follow the big ones that threaten to unravel us.
A couple years after that ominous hospital stay, when I should have been thrilled at my son’s progress and how well things were going, I found myself telling God at two o’clock in the morning, “I can’t. I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t do the things I’m supposed to be doing each day with so little sleep each night. I need you to give me relief. I need you to relent of this nightly disaster.” You see, our son has disrupted sleep because of his neurological problems. It’s improved in fits and starts, but by and large, the five years of his life have been challenging in the sleep department. And it was this small trial that was threatening to undo me.
Beware of Small Trials
I had the idea that in order for me to disciple my children, I needed to be coherent and less desperate. I had the idea that in order for God to use me to point them to him, I needed to shed this raw, at-the-end-of-my-rope status. I was okay with being brought low — I’d been there many times — but just how low did I have to go? I mean, I’d read Christian articles that declared, Sleep is an act of humility. So, why would God deny me that humility? I wanted to trust him with my eyes closed.
But God wouldn’t let me set my heart on lesser needs. We have bigger needs than sleep. We have bigger needs than our health or the health of our kids. We have bigger needs than a spouse or relief from chronic pain. We have bigger needs than coherency. We have bigger needs than that job, or career, or home. We have bigger needs than serving God the way we hoped.
What I really needed was to read more closely in Philippians 4 in order to discover that Paul himself had gone without his basic needs met. He says it like this: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12). Paul faced unmet needs, and he had learned how to abound in them.
In Every Circumstance
God’s ideas about our flourishing are different than ours. We think flourishing means eight hours of shut-eye, a good job, being surrounded by people who treat us with respect, being given the opportunity to succeed at something, good medical care, a loving marriage, and happy children. Those are good things, but they are not the things God is most concerned about supplying us in this life for our flourishing.
In God’s economy, we flourish when our need for him is met in him. Dear brothers and sisters, there is no circumstance under heaven that God isn’t using to grow us into oaks of righteousness. There is no need that he won’t fill with himself. The promise is really true: God really will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). There is nothing we truly need that is not found in Christ.
Even more, the circumstances of being denied an earthly need or desire are often his tailored means of accelerating our holiness and happiness in him. When we want, we are given more of Christ. When we suffer, our solidarity with him grows.
As usual, Elisabeth was right, “God has promised to supply all our needs. What we don’t have now, we don’t need now.” And what we do need now, we do have now: God the Father’s loving, sovereign hand working all things for our good (Romans 8:28); Christ the Son as our advocate, Savior, and righteousness (1 John 2:1; Philippians 3:20; 1 Corinthians 1:30); and the Holy Spirit’s intercession, help, and comfort surrounding us day by day (Romans 8:26–27).
So, at the end of our lives, we truly will be able to say, “I never wanted for anything. I never had a ‘no’ from my Father that wasn’t a ‘yes’ to better and deeper things.”