20 seconds – seconds, not minutes – that’s how long his Olympics lasted. A British judo competitor, in his first-round bout, he was caught by his Canadian opponent with a move that he had been expecting. Just 20 seconds into the bout, he was on his back, defeated. Years of preparation gone in seconds. It was a knock-out contest, unlike some of the other sports. No round robin to offer an opportunity to redeem himself. Olympics over: time to pack the bags.
But not just yet. Inevitably, as he walked off the mat, a TV reporter was ready, cameras rolling, live microphone to stick in the poor chap’s face. Of course the question would be asked: ‘How do you feel?’ What could he say? How do you think he felt? Barely able to speak, he managed to say that he has led down his family, his team, himself. He was shattered, overwhelmed, but the reporter wouldn’t let it go. ‘Are there any positives you can take away from this?’ Probably fighting a powerful urge to flatten the persistent idiot, he reply was honest: No, there were no positives he could take away. Finally they let him go.
And yet, it’s true, isn’t it, that there is something in us that pushes us to look for positives in even the worst situation. We may not be able to find them, but we still look for them. Why should that be? Do we just want to find a way of blunting the pain, making ourselves feel a little less bad? Perhaps, but there is surely something deeper at work. The fact is we are made in the image of a God who is the source of meaning, the one who confers significance and purpose on human life. Ultimately we can’t live without a sense of meaning and purpose. If we don’t find it in the Creator, we have to make it up for ourselves. It is no coincidence that some philosophers who have denied that life has any meaning or purpose have followed their philosophy to its logical conclusion and have ended their meaningless lives.
Christians who by God’s grace have been enabled to love and serve the God of meaning know that life has a wonderful purpose – namely to glorify God and enjoy him for ever (as the very first answer in the Shorter Catechism rightly says). We have the assurance that our God is sovereign and works out all things according to his infinitely wise and loving purpose. This truth lies at the heart of the biblical doctrine of God’s providence, which is the practical outworking of his absolute sovereignty. Nothing takes place that surprises him or catches him unawares. Nothing can derail his plan or force him to change direction. In the Bible he may use the language of regret or repentance regarding himself, but he is speaking a language that we can in some measure understand. To borrow Calvin’s illustration, he is addressing us in baby talk, because we couldn’t understand anything else. He is always and everywhere in full control.
The truth of God’s providential direction of all things assures Christians that every experience they pass through has been sanctioned by a loving heavenly Father and that it serves to fulfil his sovereign purpose, including his particular purpose for each of them. That is not to say that we can necessarily always understand how individual events fit into the divine plan – often we are mystified and left with all kinds of questions – but we know that they do. We know that whatever comes to us serves God’s glory and our growth in Christ-likeness. However hard the experience, those positives can be taken from it. No experience is pointless for the child of God.
Now, it might be difficult to see that if you were lying on your back, staring into the ceiling lights, at the end of a 20 second Olympic career, but it would still be true, and by God’s grace that can be our testimony in every situation that the providence of our God allots to us.