Life doesn’t always go the way we expect it to.
Let me rephrase that—life almost never goes the way we expect it to. The year 2020 is proof of that. Life is full of surprises, both good and bad.
But God is always good.
Reflecting on my life, especially the last fifteen years, God’s goodness in the midst of uncertainty has proven true over and over and over again.
As a kid, I had my life pretty much figured out. I was going to leave the family farm one day and become a children’s book illustrator. Easy, right? I took my sketchbook with me wherever I went, drawing while (or instead of) completing my chores. I knew God had made me to be an artist, not a farmer, and I found so much joy in creating. When I decided to go off to college and get a degree in art, my parents were not surprised. They encouraged me to use my gifts for the Lord, and for that I’m grateful.
The first major surprise came after I graduated. My wife Katie and I had been married only a few months when I became terribly sick. The illness was a mystery at first. It made me achy and severely fatigued all the time. Over the course of several years I was diagnosed with several things: Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, a co-infection of Lyme, and finally CIRS (mold illness). There were many days over the following years when all I could do was wrap my painful body in a blanket and sleep. Even picking up a pencil hurt too much. I felt like a failure and thought my dreams were dead.
I wrestled hard with God. Why would he create me with a gift, and then not allow me to use it? Why wouldn’t he heal me? The Psalms became my favorite book of the Bible because the words echoed the depths of my heart.
“But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.”Psalm 88:14-15 (ESV)
This was how I felt—totally helpless. If you read Psalm 88 in its entirety, you’ll see that doesn’t end on a high note, and that was an encouragement to me. I was allowed to cry out to God, to share my frustration with him as the psalmist did. There was no neat “tying a bow on it” ending. Just crying out to God.
And yet I knew the character of God. I’d learned it from my church and from my parents. God is good, and God is love. There’s that Sunday School song we all know: “God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, he’s so good to me.” I knew it was true, and I trusted God was still good, even if my life wasn’t turning out how I thought it should.
So, what should I do with my life? I had no energy to create a winning portfolio and present it to publishers; I needed something more stable and less risky. I needed to provide for my family.
Waiting and Longing
So, we settled for plan B. I finished my education degree and got a job teaching art for grades 2–12 at my alma mater. God blessed those years. My health improved gradually as I went through many different treatments, and we were surrounded by an incredible community of faith who supported us through acts of kindness and prayers. We welcomed four precious children into the world who continue to bring much joy, and who love me in spite of my limitations. I found a wonderful Christian counselor who helped me get past my feelings of failure and find peace with the life and work the Lord had given me. There were still things I could do, and ways I could serve. I could hold my children and read to them, even if my body wouldn’t let me ride a bike. I could sit at my desk and mentor students even when my legs hurt too much to walk around the classroom. I wasn’t a failure, and God hadn’t failed me. He was still good, and he was still working in me and through me, even when the only art I was creating was for classroom demonstrations. My life still had purpose, even if it looked different from my dreams.
And yet there was still that longing deep inside me to illustrate, and I spent years praying and waiting for the Lord to answer this desire.
As my health allowed, I took baby steps—first picking up the sketchbook, then posting illustrations on social media. I started doing more art commissions and graphic design work, and then eventually was asked to illustrate a book for a local author. One book turned into two, then three, and eventually I decided to quit part of my teaching job. It was financially scary, but my wife Katie and I both felt peace about it, trusting that God would be good to us as he so faithfully had been through the most difficult years of my illness. Katie had written a few books, and we started sending them to a few publishers with my illustrations to see if we could get noticed.
One publisher we reached out to was New Growth Press. We were huge fans of The Gospel Story Bible and knew that NGP would be a company that would share our desire to put quality, gospel-oriented content out into the world. Little did we know that God was already orchestrating what would become the Good News for Little Hearts series. It was still in the idea stage, and when they saw my work they asked me if I could draw animals. Yes! Absolutely! We were so pumped, and I got to work as quickly as I could on sample artwork. I can’t express how antsy I was to hear back—I was on pins and needles! After several weeks of back and forth, they selected me as the illustrator. We were in shock. After years of thinking my dream was dead, God laid this opportunity in my lap. It was so much better than anything I could have ever planned on my own. It wasn’t just one book, but a whole series! And not just any series, but one that would bless many Christian families. God is so gracious!
When New Growth Press approached me about illustrating The Moon is Always Round, Katie and I read the manuscript and we both wept. We cried not only because we had experienced miscarriage (and struggled with how to explain it to our kids), but also because it was a beautiful picture for life in general. We couldn’t always see God’s goodness during the worst of my illness, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t good. Just as the moon is always round, God is always good. We’ve experienced that over and over.
God’s Goodness Even in Sorrow
During this same time, Katie’s mom was battling pancreatic cancer. Her diagnosis hit us really hard. She was a huge part of our lives, having moved to Iowa to help us during the worst of my illness. For five years she helped at our house daily, managing kids and housework with grace and selflessness. She was also a huge encouragement to all of us, and she cheered me on in my illustration career, delighting in how God was using my gifts. She was in hospice care when I was making the final edits on illustrations for The Moon is Always Round, and her dying mantra was “God is so good, God is so faithful.” Hearing her repeat those words over and over was a beautiful gift to us. It was the theme of her life, and the same theme I had just been illustrating. It was a crazy but beautiful full-circle moment for us, one that only God could orchestrate. We cried with our kids as we looked at the moon, saying and knowing with confidence, “God is always good.”
This is such a simple yet powerful truth. If we can trust God’s goodness in the midst of death, as Katie’s mom so beautifully did, we can trust God in all things. His plans are better than any and all of mine, because he is God and I am not. He can and will create beautiful stories through sorrow and suffering. He works all things for good and for his glory.
During these unprecedented, unexpected days of 2020, know that God is still working. He’s working in your life and in mine, making better stories than our own plans A, B, C, or D. We can trust him because he is good.
“Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind.”Psalm 31:19 (ESV)
The moon is always round
Even young children want answers to the hard questions about God and suffering. In The Moon Is Always Round, seminary professor and author Jonathan Gibson uses the vivid imagery of the moon to explain to children how God’s goodness is always present, even when it might be hard to see in difficult circumstances.