Loss and Gain
“How’re you doing, Sal?”
“Not bad, love. You?”
That was the exchange I overheard, walking across the car park at Tesco this afternoon. A cursory exchange, at best. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what we do because we’re too polite to walk on by but too busy to actually really want the answer, isn’t it? But it wasn’t so much the brevity of the exchange that struck me, it was the unknown gentleman’s one word answer that wrapped it up. “Breathing!” As I walked away, my mind filled in a million blanks and created a whole back story of what he meant and what he didn’t mean.
It sounded, in my opinion (which may be biased simply to suit the creation of this post) not that he was appreciative of his respiratory achievement nor its inherent link to the sustaining of life, but as if the presence of this one thing actually highlighted his distinct lack of prospering in other aspects of life. In other words, what he meant – in my mind – was ‘not too well, truth be told, but never mind.’ His one-worded answer conveyed loss rather than gain; lack rather than plenty.
As I pondered this answer on the walk home, I realised how easy it is to focus on loss during this time. COVID-19 has stripped us of many things. Precious things. We feel acutely the loss of physical contact, especially hugs. We’ve lost the ability to ‘just pop in’. We grieve the loss of opportunity to show we care by visiting sick friends in hospital. We’ve been robbed of the opportunity to be there for births, for deaths and friends have lost the chance to exchange vows and start their ‘happily ever afters’ all because of the Corona-virus. Loss, ironically, can be found in abundance.
But this gentleman’s answer – I’ll call him Eric for now, it’s easier than writing ‘this gentleman’ - did convey something that he had. He had life. He had the ability to breathe. And, based upon the presenting evidence, the ability to walk, the ability to go shopping, the funds to be able to do so. He actually had things he could appreciate. There’s something about human nature that readily mourns loss, but not always in healthy balance with appreciation and gratitude for what we do have. Instead, we can easily over-focus on what we don’t have; what’s not right and what we’d like to be different.
But I wonder if there’s a different way. A better way. Dare I suggest a more biblical way? The Apostle Paul was a man who helped in the establishing and growing of the early church. He loved Jesus with an impressive love, and wasn’t afraid to suffer anything that was thrown his way as punishment for doing so. He wrote to a church in Philippi (in Greece) from a prison cell. He’d run into a spot of bother and wasn’t certain whether he’d live or he’d die. He’d lost his liberty. He’d lost his opportunities as he’d planned them. He’d lost some of his friends. And yet he wrote that ‘At the moment I have all I need.’ (Phil 4:19) He didn’t deny what he’d lost, and that things weren’t as he’d planned, but he was able to focus on what he did have. And what he did have was enough for him to celebrate not only the kindness of those who had supported him, but the God who provided everything – through other believers – that he needed in any given moment.
A simple principle can be seen: God will make sure we have exactly what we need, exactly when we need it. A problem arises, however, when we determine that we know what we need better than God, and resolve not only that we should have it, but that life is incomplete without it. At that point, we easily gravitate towards bemoaning our lack, like Eric seemed to be.
So what do we need?
I want to suggest that so much of our perception of ‘what’s needed’ is actually shaped by the world we live in. In fact, whole studies and schools of sociological and anthropological endeavour have been built on such ideas. We need shelter. We need an income. We need status. We need a new car. We need, we need, we need. And therefore, having bought into this mindset, we pursue. We spend, we crave, we long for, and often we get. And this, sometimes, staves off the feeling of lack for a short time. But then it returns. With a vengeance. We need better health. We need our loved ones safe and well. We need to know it all works out alright. We need, we need, we need. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we don’t need all of these things. We may want them, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with many of the things I’ve listed. But what we actually really need is to know the unconditional love of God, to know that we’re saved by grace, and to know that God really can be trusted.
That’s how Paul could write what he did. He knew beyond anything that God loved him. He knew he was saved by an outrageous act of unmerited kindness by God, and he knew that God could absolutely be trusted, despite circumstances and despite appearances. He knew that trusting God was the safest place he could be, and that if this led to material abundance or lack, he could be content in all who God was. His contentment was not linked to his circumstances.
So, you’ve probably lost during this season in ways that are real and likely difficult, maybe painful. I don’t deny that, and neither do I diminish it. But even in the midst of loss and lack, you still have all you need. Could we, together, respond to the ancient wisdom that Eric needs to hear and we need to recall: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.