When You Can’t See an Upside

by Ann Sullivan

Years ago, I heard a story that really stuck with me. It was about a man who was shipwrecked on a deserted island. He was desperate and alone.

He spent his days struggling to survive, gathering branches to build himself a shelter and scrounging for something to eat. At night, he’d collapse in exhaustion by the small fire he struggled to start.

Wearied to the bone, he thought of home and prayed that God would rescue him. But months went by and no one came.

Then, one day, still clinging to hope, the man left his shelter to find food. But when he returned, he discovered that everything he’d worked so hard to build was engulfed in flames. His eyes burned as he watched the billows of smoke. Everything was destroyed.

Dropping to his knees, he wept. In anger and frustration, he cried out to God, “How could you let this happen when I begged you for help?”

With his energy spent, he fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning, he was awakened by the sound of voices on the beach. He looked up and squinting against the brilliant sun, he saw a man dressed in a captain’s uniform with several men standing behind him.

The shipwrecked man sobbed with joy. When he finally found his voice, he asked, “How did you find me?”

The captain answered, “We saw your smoke signals.”

This story continues to impact me because it illustrates the power of perspective. Let’s face it, life gets really messed up, and sometimes it’s hard to see any rhyme or reason to things. We wonder if God is even paying attention.

I was reminded of the power of perspective as I watched a debate between two philosophers. Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens. Both brilliant thinkers, in their own right, I marveled at how differently they perceived life.

Craig looked at the cosmos and saw evidence of God’s fine-tuning. He saw beauty and design. Hitchens saw the destruction of shooting stars, collapsed suns, and failed galaxies.

Craig saw evidence of God’s grace and restoration in the midst of mankind’s faulty choices. Hitchens said that if there were a creator, he would appear to be “capricious, cruel, and incompetent.”

How does this happen? How can two people look at the same evidence and come to such different conclusions? Is it temperament, personal experiences, or something else?

As I’ve been writing about the ever-elusive qualities of contentment, I’ve been wondering about how our perspectives are shaped. And is there anything we can do to change them?

The Apostle Paul seems to have given this a lot of thought. In his letter to the church in Philippi, while under house arrest and facing possible execution, he wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

This is quite the statement, given his predicament. A real attention grabber. But it makes me wonder, was Paul toying with hyperbole, or do his words reflect a man who has suffered greatly for his convictions?

Two women I admire are both in their 50s and have lived with huge obstacles since their early 20s. They should be complaining, yet they seem to do very little of it.

One discovered she had Type 1 diabetes in college. While studying abroad and dragging herself through the streets of London, she struggled to keep up with her classmates. The other one was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after she stood up from the couch and discovered her legs wouldn’t work.

Both women are greeted by their limitations every morning. And while each of them could be really mad at God, (and maybe they are occasionally, which is OK because He can take it) neither seem to stay mad.

And while I’m busy complaining about pulled muscles, bad haircuts, or high gas prices, they seem to measure out their complaints judiciously. It’s like they decide which ones are really worth their time and effort. They live like they sense God sees their smoke signals and sends out rescue ships daily.

Here’s the thing. We basically have two options when disappointment and pain come our way.

  1. We can allow it to destroy our faith and leave us disillusioned.
  2. Or we can allow it to remind us that God is about to do what He does best, weave the rough edges of our lives together for our good and His glory, as the Apostle Paul puts it.

If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself dabbling with Option One before you finally land on Option Two. Fortunately for us, the Apostle Paul didn’t keep his secret to contentment under wraps. He reminds us throughout his writing that nothing transforms a perspective faster than bathing it in truth.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossian 3:16).


Ann Sullivan is an author, speaker, and blogger. Download her new free study guide for Permission to Doubt (Kregel). And watch for Ann’s next book on our universal search for contentment. Website: www.anncsullivan.com | Blog: www.annsullivansimpletruths.com