“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
A friend was talking about the decline of his parents, whom I had worked for a number of years prior. His mother’s mind was nearly gone – lost to dementia, and his father’s health was failing as well. My friend lamented that from this point on, “all was loss, nothing but loss.”
It certainly is true: after a certain point in life, everything in the physical realm is in decline. And of course, we will face loss and tragedy throughout life, not just when life as a whole is in decline.
But it does not have to result in a net loss: not if we exchange the temporal for the eternal. If we make the right choices, these “losses” will result in greater gains for us, in terms of character growth and positive influence right now, and eternal wealth in the next life.
Graham Cooke tells us there is an “upgrade” reserved for us in each trial, and I know it’s true. It is so natural and easy to focus on the losses: they grab our attention in painful, unavoidable ways. But when I can bring myself to look up, above their clamor for attention, and look to the Lord, with His eternal reward (Colossians 3:23-24), I can be assured that I am exchanging the temporal for the eternal. Then it’s about exchange, rather than loss.
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Cor 4:16-18
And 1 Peter 1:6-7: “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”
But this exchange does not come automatically, or without considerable effort and preparation from each of us. I cannot live my life in a self-indulgent manner for most of my years, then at the end flip a switch and exchange the physical loss for eternal gold.
Many of us were taught in our younger years, when we whined about difficult circumstances or unpleasant tasks, that “it will build character.” Even in those early years the character building was not automatic or assured: it happened only as we decided to endure and persevere with a good attitude, willingly learn the lessons built into each situation, and not indulge in anger or self-pity.
Patience – one facet of character – is not enduring until an undesirable situation is over, but persevering with a good attitude. “Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.” Joyce Meyer
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5
This passage is clearly talking about growth in character – who we are – not just learning to behave better. And it does not describe a single decision or action, but a process of growth through wise decisions over many years. We become hardened in our ways, for good or for bad, for better or for worse, and we eventually reach the point where we are no longer able to make the choices and learn the lessons that were possible in younger years. This is most obvious in those individuals that lose their mental faculties to dementia in later life: they gradually lose their inhibitions: those layers of behavior that hide what has been lurking inside all along. For them, the opportunity for change and growth is long gone. The lesson here: choose to change and grow while you still can.
It does not matter so much what we have done in our lives, or what has happened to or been done to us, but who we have become in the process.
It is far beyond the scope of this writing to say how we make changes that are internal rather than merely behavioral, but I will mention one very common issue that deserves our attention. If in the recall of a situation or person a strong negative emotion arises: anger, resentment, fear, jealously or hatred, there is a lack of forgiveness that must be dealt with. If it’s shame, it’s yourself you must forgive. Forgiveness is like peeling an onion: there can be many layers, and deep wounding is seldom fully dealt with in a single session: it must be revisited until every aspect has been released.
Forgiving is but one of many of the right choices we must make, and not just once or twice, but as a lifestyle. And whether or not a person forgives determines whether they sweeten, or become bitter with age.
Back to where we started:
How we see life, and all that it brings and involves, is determined by our focus, perspective, and attitude: Jesus often admonished His listeners to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” We can choose to focus on the hardships and tragedies of life, or on the blessings. We can see each circumstance for the misery that it brings, or for the opportunity that it presents. And we can spend our life on things that will pass away and be lost, or invest it in the eternal. The choice is ours, and those choices determine what kind of person we become.
To paraphrase what Jim Elliot said in the opening quotation: there are things that we cannot keep, so why not exchange them for what cannot be lost?
Sunrise in Galveston, Texas.