Maybe the difficult person in my life is God's blessing rather than his curse. I think that is what Marilynne Robinson is telling me in her Pulitzer-Prizing winning novel, Gilead.
Robinson takes me to the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa where I meet John Ames, a minister dying from a heart condition. In his journal, Ames pours out a lifetime of insights, wisdom, and the workings of God so his 7-year-old son will have them when the old man is gone.
I listen as Ames puts pen to paper. Memories flow. Looking over his shoulder, reading every word, I see his weakness, but I also witness his wisdom and theological insight.
Ames' nemesis in this tale is his namesake, John Ames (Jack) Boughton, his best-friend’s recalcitrant son. The young Bougton has caused a world of trouble for the dying man. As John Ames journals about and prays over this frustrating thorn in his side, the old preacher remembers the words his father told him, words that echoed down from his grandfather.
When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the change to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. . . . You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.
He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
When I muse on the goodness of God and the good gifts he gives, I can forget that goodness often comes disguised as Jack Boughton. In other words, the pesky person is for my benefit -- and his.
Paul tells me the entirety of life finds its continuity in Christ:
That means even the troublesome Jack Boughtons of life cannot enter my personal space apart from God's invitation, permission, or assignment. That's why Ames says of Boughton,
The person may be a problem, but God specializes in turning problems inside out.
And knowing my Jack Boughton is a blessing -- perhaps a very carefully disguised blessing -- and not a curse, I can pause and ask:
When I consider the nature of God, the grace he has given me, and the certainty this unwelcome package sitting on my doorstep is in some way meant to benefit me -- and him -- then I know I can bless and not curse.
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Notes: What is the Lord asking of me? from Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. New York: Picador Publishing. 2004. Page 124.