Recently a friend showed me how she can take pieces of glass, china or stone and make them into a picture. Some of the pieces are brightly coloured, some are dark. Each piece, whatever colour it is, makes its contribution to the picture. It’s only when all the pieces are seen together, and seen from the right angle, that we can see the pattern that they make. I’d like to suggest that there’s a lesson for us here, because what is true of these mosaics is also true of our lives.

Pieces of the Picture

The various things that happen to us in our lives are like pieces of a mosaic, each contributing to the whole picture. Just as not all the pieces of the mosaic are brightly coloured, not all of the things that are part of our lives are pleasant. But they’re all part of the picture.

There’s a famous verse from the Old Testament which is relevant here. “I know the plans that I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jer. 29:11) There are a couple of things that we can say about this verse. The first thing is that this verse starts with God saying, “I know the plans that I have for you.” Notice that he says, “I know,” not “I’ll tell you.” God doesn’t promise us that he’s going to let us in on what he’s up to. But just because we don’t know what God is doing doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. So why would God want to not let us in on his plans for us? Perhaps because if we knew what the future was going to bring there would be no room for faith and trust. And God wants us to walk by faith, not by sight. If we walk by sight, we’re depending on ourselves, not on God. But God wants us to depend on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to trust that he’s going to look after us.

The second thing that we can say about this verse is that God’s plans for us are plans for good and not for harm, to give us a future with hope. God loves us, and he wants to do us good. What he wants for us is what’s best for us, and his timing is the right timing. Am I saying that God never lets anything bad happen to his people? No. God never promised us a rose garden. On the contrary, Jesus said that in the world we would have trouble. Going back to our verse in Jeremiah, it’s important to look at its context. Verses 10-14 say, “Thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are accomplished will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes.” Notice that it’s only after the seventy years, only after the time of testing, that God’s plans for our welfare will come to fruition. In other words, the bad times, the times of testing, are also part of God’s good plan for us.

So why would God include these difficult times in our lives? We see one reason for this in the passage from Jeremiah which we just read. These kind of times can lead us to seek God, and that’s what he wants us to do. Notice that when we seek God earnestly, with all our hearts, he promises that we’ll find him. The bad times can lead us to get close to God in a way that wouldn’t happen if everything always went smoothly for us.

Another reason why God sometimes allows these testing times is that they’re good for our spiritual growth. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to Christians in Rome, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-4). The testing times challenge us to exercise our faith like a muscle. Our faith will wither away if it isn’t used, but using it causes it to grow. You know what they say: no pain, no gain. And at this point it’s worth adding that God is more concerned with our spiritual maturity than with our comfort. Just as earthly parents delight in seeing their children grow into mature men and women, so also our heavenly Father delights in seeing his children grow to spiritual maturity. And the bad times, the times of testing, are as much a part of this process as the good times, because without them we wouldn’t grow very much spiritually.

Paul has more to say about this, further on in the same letter. He says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called in accordance with his plan. Because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29). God’s will for us is that we be like his Son, and he uses all kinds of circumstances in our lives to accomplish this. Similarly the apostle Peter tells his readers that trials come “so that your faith, which is more valuable than gold which perishes even though it is refined by fire, may be shown to be genuine and may result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). Gold perishes, but we still value it enough to refine it by fire until all the impurities are removed. Our faith is much more valuable to God than gold is to us. So it’s not surprising that he would want to refine our faith, using the fire of trials to remove anything in our character or attitudes that is not honouring to him. Again we see that God uses the hard times, the testing times, to build in us the character that he wants us to have so that he can use us. In these situation we’re not being punished, we’re being trained. Maybe even prepared for something bigger and better than we have now.

I suspect that a similar idea may be behind a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. At the Last Supper Jesus says to Peter, “Satan has asked permission to sift all of you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Now why would Satan have to ask permission to sift the disciples? And what exactly does sifting like wheat mean here? The answer to the first question is that God is in charge. It’s true that Satan has been given authority over this world; but that authority is a delegated authority which is still under God’s sovereignty. Satan is not more powerful than God; he can’t do anything to us without God’s permission (Job 1:12; 2:6). Not only that, but Satan’s authority over this world is only temporary, and there will come a time when God will take it back. Now, what does the image of the disciples being sifted like wheat refer to? It’s easy enough to guess that Jesus is referring to difficult times when the disciples’ faith would be tested. Satan is the enemy of disciples of Jesus, and he’ll attack us and foul up our lives whenever he can. But as the apostle John says in one of his letters, our faith is the victory that overcomes (1 John 5:4). And God is able to turn Satan’s devices against Satan. But there’s more to say than this. Because to sift wheat means to separate the grain from the chaff, to separate what is useful from what is not and keep only what is useful. This sounds like another way of expressing Peter’s metaphor of our faith being refined like gold. To put it another way: Satan wants to attack Jesus’ disciples to destroy them, but God will use whatever Satan does to build godly and Christlike character in them.

My friend also showed me that she can take bits of broken china and use them as pieces for the mosaic. If we drop a cup or plate we don’t have to just throw it away. Once again, our lives are also like that. If we mess our lives up with sins or mistakes, we don’t have to give up on ourselves. We don’t need to think we’re no good any more. God knows how to bring good out of evil. He can make these things part of the pattern of our lives, and use them to build in us the character that he wants, so that he can use us for his purposes. Now I’m not saying that we should sin just so that God can bring good out of evil. As Paul puts it, “Should we remain in sin, so that grace may be abundant? Absolutely not! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). What I am saying is that if we do go wrong, we don’t have to give up on ourselves. If we drop the ball, that doesn’t mean that the game is over. As John puts it in one of his letters, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2)

From the Right Angle

I said earlier that it’s only when we see the mosaics from the right angle that we can see the picture that they make. It’s like that with our lives, too. We must remember that as we go through our lives we can only see part of the picture. But God can see the whole picture. He knows the end from the beginning. He knows what pieces will make the right contribution to make the whole picture the best that it can be. Even in the bad times, God is still God; he is still in charge. We need to trust that he knows what he’s doing, even though that isn’t always easy.

This is also, I suggest, the theme of one of my favourite books of the Old Testament, the book of Job. If there’s anything we can learn from Job, it’s that when we’re going through a bad time it doesn’t mean that God is punishing us for doing something wrong. But there’s more to be said than this. I suggest that the answers that the book of Job provides can be found in my favourite part of that book, God’s speech from the whirlwind in chapters 38—42. Notice first of all that God doesn’t speak until after all the human characters have stopped talking. Is there a hint for us here? If we want to hear God’s voice, the first thing we need to do is to be quiet and listen. We should also notice that when God does speak in the book of Job, he speaks out of the whirlwind, out of the storm. I think that this has something to say to us too. It isn’t only in the good times that God speaks to us. He speaks to us in, and through, the hard times, the testing times, as well. This is why Paul can say that “all things work together for good.” But let’s go back to Job for a moment. In the speech from the whirlwind God asks a series of questions, each beginning with, “Were you/ are you there when...?” or “Can you...?” The answer, every time, has to be, “I wasn’t, but you, God, were,” or “I can’t, but you can.” What I get from this is that whatever happens, God is in charge. Even when things are out of our control, they’re not out of God’s control. That’s why after this speech Job answers God, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:1-2). It’s also why Job can say earlier in the book, “Shall we receive the good at the hands of the Lord, and not the bad?”

There’s another way in which it’s true that in order to see the picture in the mosaic we need to look at it from the right angle. When we come into hard times we can choose how to respond to them. It’s always tempting to react with bitterness, or self-pity, or anger at God or at others. But this is looking at the picture from the wrong perspective, and it distorts the pattern so that we can’t see it properly. We won’t understand what’s happening if we allow bitterness, self-pity or anger to get in the way. More than that, these wrong attitudes will block whatever God might be wanting to do in our lives, if the trials are intended to build faith or character. But if we trust that God knows what he’s doing and keep our focus on him, the results can be powerful. And not just in our own lives. As Christians we can be sure that those who aren’t Christians are watching how we respond to hard times. A Godly response can be a more effective witness to them than a lot of talk. I’m not saying it’s easy to respond to a hard situation with faith and trust. But God will help us do it if we ask him.

Let’s close by summing up. Our lives are like a mosaic, with different coloured pieces coming together to form a picture. Just as some of the pieces of the mosaic are brightly coloured and some are dark, so also some of the events of our lives are pleasant and some are hard. But each piece contributes to the picture, and the picture wouldn’t be the same if any piece were left out. When we go through hard times, times of testing, we must remember that these things also contribute to our lives, even though we may not understand at the time how they contribute. God doesn’t always let us in on his plans for us ahead of time, because he wants us to walk by faith, not by sight. But we can know for certain that he knows the plans that he has for us, and that they are plans for good and not for harm, to give us a future with hope. But it may be only after the time of testing that God’s plans for our good are fulfilled. Sometimes God allows these times because they contribute to our spiritual growth. Exercising our faith makes it stronger, and the fire of trials refines us, removing qualities and attitudes which are not honouring to God. These times can also make us get closer to God in a way which we wouldn’t do if everything always went smoothly for us. But it also has to be said that it’s up to us how we respond to these situations. If we react with bitterness and anger, we’ll block whatever God might be wanting to do in us and through us. But if we respond in faith, trusting that God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t know what he’s doing, he can accomplish much, and it can be a great testimony to others of what God can do.

Do you need to see the pattern in the mosaic of your life? The first step is to develop a personal relationship, a friendship, with God. If we don’t have this we won’t be able to see the pattern. We must understand that the hard times, the times of testing, are part of God’s plan for us. He uses these times to draw us closer to himself, strengthen our faith and build Christlike character in us. During these times we need to keep our focus on God, not on our circumstances, and know that whatever happens, God is in charge. He puts together the pieces of the mosaic of our lives.