If anyone had told me beforehand that surviving the worst year of my life would prepare my family and me to thrive during COVID-19, I might have slapped them. Or at least asked for a hard pass on that horrible plan.
I have never been a fan of suffering. The idea that a God who loves me would allow me to go through pain and use it to grow my spiritual capacity and make me strong just seemed cruel. If you’ve ever been around church, you might have heard something along those lines and bristled too.
But the truth is that as a follower of Jesus, I am given example after example in the Bible of how God uses hardship to prepare his people for something better. I wouldn’t have signed up for this journey, but having survived it now, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would not be thriving emotionally and spiritually in the midst of a terrifying global pandemic if I had not walked through it. And if you’re suffering right now, it might be the same for you.
In the Bible, there is a story about the nation of Israel being rescued from slavery in Egypt. God parted the Red Sea so they could cross and evade the army pursuing them. It was an epic escape from four hundred years of slavery into a desert where they wandered and waited for forty more years to enter the promised land God had said he would give them. Surviving in a desert was not easy, but God also provided a magical meal of manna—bread that appeared on the ground each morning to fill their hungry bellies.
It was a story I’d heard as a kid. I had always thought of manna as abundance—provided daily and just laying around on the ground like dew—kind of like food raining from the sky in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
To receive the blessing of a magical meal every day sounded like winning the lottery. No need to drag myself to the grocery store or figure out what to cook for dinner. So when a friend gave me a beautiful woven basket for my birthday and told me that she had heard from God that this was going to be the year of manna for me, I was excited. Blessing was on the way! As crazy as it might sound, I’ve experienced hearing God speak promises through other people like that before, so I believed soon my basket would be overflowing with more goodness than I could even carry. What a year this was going to be!
Instead, I faced one of the most challenging and painful years of my life. Dreams died. Plans failed. Relationships fractured. Things I had been working hard for, sacrificing for, and praying for with all my heart fell apart. I was in crisis.
One particularly difficult day, I looked at this basket sitting on my table and thought, “Well, this is some real bull shit, God. I thought this was supposed to be the year of manna.”
“Yes,” said God, “exactly.”
It struck me like a bolt of lightning. Revelation can be painful. I might have gotten the meaning of manna a bit messed up. I decided it was time to rethink what I was believing and break down the gift of manna to the people of Israel found in Exodus 16:
- A people persecuted and enslaved: Check. I felt persecuted and trapped by a host of terrible things that were happening in my life.
- Rescued from certain death: Check. This had played out quite literally in my family.
- Sent just enough, just in time so that they did not die but could continue to follow God through the desert: Check. I, too, had received just enough, just in time to survive.
Ohhhhh. Now I was starting to get it. Manna. It took on a whole new meaning.
The Israelites had so much to be thankful for—rescue and survival and the promise of being brought into a land flowing with milk and honey. And yet they had so much to mourn—like being in the desert for 40 years after all the pain and trauma of Egypt.
It turns out manna’s promise is not like winning the lottery or having the best year of your life. Manna is rescue and survival.
I had indeed been receiving a daily gift of just enough, just in time. It was just hard to recognize my manna as the blessing I had been expecting and evidence of God being with me because it came on the heels of suffering. I wanted manna to be gravy, to be icing, to be good on top of good, but instead, I was given sustenance to survive hard times. The truth about manna is that it is both proof of suffering and miraculous mercy.
Manna in my life looked like meals, our community of friends delivered to us with love notes tucked inside because even though we weren’t sick, they knew our hearts were broken.
Manna was the extravagant gift of family paying for a counselor we couldn’t afford because we needed help.
It was friends replacing our breaks when they started grinding.
It was my parents’ staging “Grandparent” camp over the summer and building into my kids in the most generous and loving ways to refill their empty tanks.
Manna was money sent via Venmo at exactly the right time to solve a problem we were facing.
It was the gift of a car when ours broke down, and there was no way to afford a monthly car payment.
Manna was my team at work, finding ways for me to take time off to care for my family because they needed me.
Manna was my small group surprising me with a fun day out with them while paying for someone to clean my house to bring order to chaos.
It was being gifted a fitness program so I could fight for my health and regain strength.
Is this not an embarrassment of riches? How could I not see and celebrate the blessing of manna being poured out on me? At any other time in my life, all of this would truly have felt like winning the lottery, but when you are in the desert and think you are about to die, manna is just simply the gift of survival—just enough, just in time.
Manna comes on the heels of suffering and at the beginning of the journey to the promised land. It took me a while to accept manna as a gift because my circumstances didn’t seem like a gift from God. I had lots of evidence saying God was not with me. I feared I had somehow stumbled out of his purpose for my life. But I learned something about fear.
F.E.A.R = False Evidence Appearing Real
Here is some false evidence that seems really truthie: When the road is rough—you must be on the wrong road. FALSE.
Just because the road is rough doesn’t mean you aren’t exactly where God wants you in this part of your story, even if YOU don’t want to be there. His chosen people, Israel, were in and out of terrible trouble throughout their history, and it was all a part of God revealing himself to the world and teaching us who He was. Just because you are suffering does not mean you are not chosen and walking in the purpose of God for your life.
The truth about manna—God’s gift of survival and sustenance—to his chosen and beloved people is that it is a balm to suffering. It is not the removal of suffering or challenge.
During this season, a friend texted me to ask me how I was doing. I told him that I was grateful to be surviving. He promised me that I would do more than that. He said, eventually, I would thrive. I had trouble believing this at the time. I was so far from thriving; it felt like an impossible dream.
But first surviving and then thriving is the promise of manna.
It will sustain us until the promised land. It may take a while. In fact, it is sure to take longer than we think we can survive. It may take 40 years of wandering in the wilderness or living through the “worst year of our lives.” Romans 5:3-4 says that “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…”
Rejoice in our suffering? Really? Is this possible? Can suffering lead to hope? It seems unbelievable but YES. I am not flippant about pain—yours or mine. But I do not resent it anymore, and I do not despair when I experience it.
As much as I could not believe in my darkest moments that it would ever be possible, it is true that I am now thriving.
I have seen God heal and restore things I thought were too broken to be put back together. He has removed things that caused confusion and stress to make way for things like peace no matter what circumstance or uncertainty we are facing. I now trust him to walk me through scary or frustrating or painful situations safely.
My perspective has shifted, from despair to gratitude. Our current coronavirus crisis has done nothing to shake my confidence in the power of God to save and rescue us because I just watched him perform impossible miracles in my life. I do not fear the future because I have walked through a desert of suffering and learned to survive on the manna God provided daily.
I now live in a manna mindset—daily trusting my Father to provide just enough, just in time. I walk through desert times with hope he is leading me towards the promised land. I don’t believe anymore that the promised land is a world without trouble. I believe it is a world where we are faced with trouble as devastating as COVID-19 in our lives and can replace fear with peace, anxiety with trust, brokenness with redemption, and despair with hope.
That feels like thriving to me. Not the absence of hardship but the capacity for peace and hope and joy no matter what challenges we face.
So to combat that lie of fear—here is something true:
God is who he says he is, always. He is faithful even when our circumstances do not look like it. What is necessary is for us to see our circumstances with new eyes. I call this putting on “God-goggles.” Because God does not change, the perspective shift needs to come from us.
When we are looking at our life and thinking, “this is not what you promised me, where are you?” The best thing to do is put on our God-goggles and take another look at our circumstances through the lens of who the Bible tells us God is, what he has done for his chosen people over and over again (if you have chosen to follow Jesus, that is you!) to show them how he fulfills his promises and how he works all things together for good. All things? Even your super shitty situation? Even COVID-19? Yes.
He will take any mess and redeem it and use it to push us forward into his blessing if we let him. It is not the lack of struggle He promises. It is manna.
This is the promise of manna for us all:
You are not too lost.
You are not alone.
You will be rescued.
You will survive the desert.
You will thrive in the promised land.
No matter how crappy your circumstances, no matter how broken your heart, no matter how wide your desert, there is manna for you. You can fill your basket with the mercy of God that is new every morning. God has exactly what you need to make it through your desert. Do you have pain you aren’t sure you will be able to survive? Let me pass on the promise that one day you will thrive. Put on your “God-goggles” and look at your circumstances through a different lens. Has God provided manna for you in the form of just enough, just in time? Pick up your basket and fill it to the brim.