My Provider

I was driving along a winding road, back home from work at an Ace Hardware in Asheville, North Carolina. The night was dark and cold, and there were still patches of ice skulking along the edges of the road. My mind was worn, my body was weary, my stomach growled from hunger. On the road I was filled with thoughts from the past and a melancholy longing.

It wasn’t so long ago that I was in college. Living in a house with other guys, boys learning to become men, and adult life seemed so distant. One year I slept every night on a mattress atop a wood floor—no bed frame, no box springs—but I barely noticed. I lived in a cycle of classes and college sports. There were late night parties in our house almost every week, though I was an introvert and slipped away from most of them, preferring the tranquility of my own thoughts and the posters on my bedroom wall to actual people.

I was intelligent, working smart more than I worked hard, always finding the easiest method that worked rather than drudging through old fashioned learning devices, catering to my strengths rather than polishing my flaws. I was able to attain a high GPA and work a part-time job my senior year, all while managing to play more video games than ever before. I ate and exercised and slept when I wanted. Most of all, I was carefree. My biggest concerns were walking to class in snow or ice and an Arabic teacher who berated her students. My only financial commitment was maintaining the old Nissan 200sx I drove; I didn’t worry about paying for the food I ate, the house I stayed in, or my college tuition—my parents were tending to my needs.

Then that sense of security ended as graduation loomed. Suddenly I was to be responsible, to pay for all my bills and figure out my healthcare. My future job, rather than my parents, was to be my source of income, my livelihood, and there was a weight that crashed onto my life. I was my own provider. I didn’t know how, but I learned, slowly, with the unsteadiness of a toddler learning walk.

When I fell in love, many years later, I had the audacity to move toward marriage. With that new direction my financial burden, which I had just started to grow accustomed to, suddenly grew. It wasn’t just my own welfare I was responsible for now; I had to think of my future wife and our potential children, who might come into existence as soon as our wedding night. The weight—weight I’d discovered those few years before—doubled, or perhaps tripled. Now I was to be a provider, not just for myself but for others.

It was as I was journeying home from the hardware store that day, down that narrow North Carolina road through trees and shadows worn long, that the darkness in my head suddenly vanished. More events from my life, stories and details were thrown into light and suddenly the thoughts in my head changed. In an instant, the nostalgia vanished.

It hit me, the way I’d seen God’s provision in my life since I graduated from college. I recognized already that, when I interned with Campus Crusade for Christ right after college, I worked diligently to raise my financial support, but it wasn’t until the deadline was days away and I’d exhausted my contact list, when I’d given up all hope of reaching my financial goal, that all my remaining funding rushed in—almost ten thousand dollars in the space of three days. That sense of divine intervention and provision were clear. I recognized though, that wasn’t the only moment.

As my internship came to a close, I found myself searching financially again. I remember it distinctly: six days of road tripping, from Kansas curling up through Canada, ending in Hanes, Alaska, where a couple of my friends and I drove our car onto a ferry. The boat ride was streaked with intermittent rain and sunshine as we surged over placid waters. We were surrounded by saltwater with mountains looming on every side. More jagged than the Rockies and blanketed by a dense layer of snow, the Alaskan mountains jutted out of the ocean, skirted by forests of giant hemlock, spruce, or cedar, and ringed by boulder strewn beaches. I was dwarfed by the magnitude of it all, left feeling insignificant in comparison and devoid of control.

The journey was part of completing my yearlong internship with Cru. I’d come to help staff the Juneau Summer Project knowing little about what I’d do afterward. My prayers, about whether or not to join staff or intern again, were fervent, but I didn’t sense God leading me to continue. Staying on staff would have been familiar and safe. Still, I didn’t sense that staying longer with this specific ministry was a part of God’s plan or my desires.

I’d heard it said that God is not a flashlight. He doesn’t reveal the distant details of our paths or light up the horizon of our future. Instead, as the Psalmist wrote, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet,” a light that shows only a few steps ahead (Psalm 119:105). Each stride brings us closer to mysteries and questions and fears, but as we walk the way becomes visible—perhaps not easy but visible.

My future was marked only by the unknown; I didn’t know where I would live or seek employment, and it was tempting to give into fear, rather than live in faith. While I reflected on the ferry ride, a humpback whale surfaced far off, then dived and surfaced again. Its presence was immense yet ethereal and shrouded by distance, like my fears.

As I rode on the front deck, I tugged the Bible from my backpack. I was studying Luke 12, and as the ship drifted onward, several of Jesus’ words captured me: “Are not five sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs of your head are numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” The verses were a balm upon the tension I felt; against the immensity of the landscape, I was nothing, but God attended to creatures smaller than me. I was not forgotten.

Weeks after I arrived in Juneau, I received an email from a previous employer offering me a job. He needed a backup manager for his mini-storage company. Since I was already familiar with the small business, and he knew I needed a job, he offered me the position. The job was temporary; it wasn’t a solution for the rest of my life—the horizon was still unknown—but it was enough light to see the next step.

As I was working at the mini-storage, another provision fell into place: I began to get to know Abigail, my future wife. Getting to know her wasn’t like getting to know a stranger; it was like getting to know the other half of myself. We had the same value systems, love for God and family and literature. It was the realization of a moment I’d had years before.

Just as I was finishing college, I was walking home from work one day, dejected about my lack of love life, when Matthew 6:33 came to mind, as if God were speaking the words directly to me: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [your needs] will be given to you as well.”

I answered, “God, I know you will provide for my physical needs, but I’m not sure wanting a wife is a real need.”

Immediately words from Genesis sounded in my thoughts, where God speaking within the Trinity says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18).

Even as I heard the words, I knew there was a promise, a promise for provision. And in truth, so many months later, when Abigail and I reconnected, as the adult children of long-time friends, it wasn’t because I was searching for a relationship. Circumstances simply fell into place. At the right time, my eyes were open, and I saw Abigail as the wife I hadn’t known myself well enough to desire. She possessed traits I would not have known to look for, like a passion for reading, while not owning characteristics I had desired (extraversion for instance) but not realized would have driven me crazy in marriage.

When my stint at the mini-storage ended, I went four months without a job. I sensed God leading me to Asheville, but upon arrival I found it a horrendously difficult place to find work. My life became a matter of networking, resume building, job applications, and the occasional interview—all to no avail. I watched the money in my bank account slip away, sand in an hourglass. Then, just before the clock struck, I got a job offer at Ace Hardware. When my first paycheck arrived, it was just in time; I had a brake repair on my car to deal with a grinding noise that had suddenly worsened. Even with the new cash influx, I came within one hundred dollars of broke, but my needs were provided for.

My new job was, in my mind, woefully inadequate: I was part time and making a dollar and a half more than minimum wage. Still my needs were met, just not in cash. A widow friend of mine gave me a place to stay for an incredibly affordable rate. Even working fewer hours than I wanted, for a wage that challenged my pride, I was able to pay all my bills and save.

Even with all the provision in my past, I struggled to shake my worry. With a wedding and future family looming only a few months in the future, I felt pressure—sometimes just a flutter in my chest, other times an almost crippling fear. How was I to provide a better income, a home, and health insurance?

I still remember the moment that began to challenge my fearful thinking. I was speaking with the woman I asked to do Abigail’s and my premarital counseling. I’d asked her what her rate was, and her answer halted me. She explained what her rate was when she worked for the hospital, but she finished by saying, “Pray about it. Decide what you can pay me, and whatever you decide is fine.” Then she added, “You’re not my provider, God is.”

It struck me that not only had she said that I wasn’t her provider, she also hadn’t stated that her husband was her provider. God was her provider. It was a mindset I immediately found myself at war with. All my life, I thought I was supposed to be the provider. Certainly, God was a provider in this grand cosmic sense, but I was supposed to be able to handle the mundane business aspects without God directing the minor details of my life.

I was conflicted one day when I wandered onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped my car overlooking the French Broad River. It was early fall. The leaves on the trees all around were shifting into deeper shades of yellow, orange, and red. The sky was clear, save for wisps of clouds, but in my heart I felt none of the tranquility. My thoughts were like the river: swift and tumultuous and muddy.

I’d brought my Bible with me, intent on reading the Sermon on the Mount. So many of the words Jesus speaks in it are directed at practical aspects of living, words I knew I needed to hear. All the same, I got hung up when I reached Matthew 6:31-33, “So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

This worry of the pagans was something I understood and even respected. They weren’t concerned with fancy clothes or lavish houses or riches; this worry was focused on their basic everyday needs. From my perspective there didn’t seem to be anything particularly wicked about their concern, and I felt indignant at being rebuked for such focus.

In my head the rebuttals started to shout. What madness was this? Jesus was single. What did he know about providing for a family? His words were irresponsible.

At the same time though, the Holy Spirit whispered back. Did I actually believe that Jesus’ single lifestyle meant that married people were exempt from his commands? Was the Sermon on the Mount delivered to a crowd of five thousand single men? Did I believe that Jesus, God incarnate, didn’t understand marriage and family?

His command was the same, and his promise was the same, single or married: seek first the kingdom. And all these things (food, water, clothing) will be given to you also. My focus wasn’t supposed to be about my provision; my focus needed to be on seeking the kingdom where God placed me, even if that entailed a part-time job, working in an Ace Hardware, earning a paltry wage. My orders were to seek the kingdom there and trust that God would provide.

It took me months to begin to live Jesus’ words at work, to think of the kingdom, to work at whatever I did with all my heart as working for the Lord. As I did, there was a surprising result. I started to disassociate striving for excellence at work with my paycheck. I was seeking the kingdom, and God was providing. In a practical sense, the two were related, but in my mind they began to become distinct and separate.

The impact on my psyche was surprising. On one side, my work became more enjoyable and I felt more fulfilled in my labor. On the other side, I finally started to relax about my money; it was a provision. While I certainly didn’t throw my budget out the window, I stopped worrying about whether or not there would be enough. I began to enjoy spending money I had once held so tightly.

In the midst of it all, the provision continued to increase. One day, while I was picking my fiancée up from the airport, my boss called: I was being promoted. This meant more hours, a little more pay, and healthcare. Short of some unforeseen events, Abigail and I were going to be able to rent an apartment (not a small feat given the pricy Asheville housing market), pay all our bills, and save. Even the potential of an early pregnancy wasn’t an alarming thought.

On top of all this, our premarital counselor had some friends who offered for Abigail and me to live with them when we were married. Not only was the space extremely affordable and mostly furnished, living in close proximity to a family addressed another concern of mine. Abigail, like me, is an introvert, and I was concerned that she would feel isolated moving to Asheville and working from home. Living around another family would provide a more natural entrance into the community.

With all this being said, it may be surprising to know that it was after all these events—the mental wrestling with Scripture, the promotion at work, and the new apartment—that I found myself on the road home from work filled with such a deep-seated longing for the past. Like the Israelites in the desert, I too have a fickle heart and an amnesic memory. Where had that freedom I felt as a youth in college gone?

What caused the pressure that stole my carefree sense? Was it the responsibility of paying my bills, the thought of providing for a wife, or the potential of children? Had dedicating so much of my time to a job suddenly made me more attune to the gravity of money? Could I somehow recapture that sense of freedom?

As I spun in this maelstrom of memories and emotions and questions, my old college life appeared in my head again. Only this time I saw something new: my parents didn’t provide for my education. Though I believe my parents would have done what they could to pay for my expenses, my degree was actually paid for because my grandfather, who wasn’t a believer for the vast majority of his life, left an inheritance. It wasn’t my parents’ provision; it was God all along.

Then I saw back farther. My parents were missionaries. They lived all my life on the financial support of people who believed in the ministry they were involved in. Certainly they worked diligently to establish and maintain a vast support network, but in the end, it was God who ultimately provided.

My mind’s eye swiftly turned to my own life. One of the first major acquisitions was a 1995 Nissan 200sx. It was a used car, a salvaged title that my brother had owned beforehand and practically gave to me. When I first bought it, my mechanic said, “Well it should see you through college.” Two and a half years after I graduated, it had required precious few costly repairs, was cheap as dirt to insure, got better gas mileage than most cars, and had never left me stranded.

What’s more this car, which I bought by necessity, was a stick shift. I couldn’t drive a manual transmission when I bought it and never would have looked for one. Yet I discovered driving a stick to be one of life’s mesmerizingly satisfying experiences; the rhythm of clutch and gas and gears is one of life’s simple pleasures—a gift.

Even as I looked back to my college years, I recognized how much richer my life had become. Before, I had less freedom, fewer belongings, fewer fond memories, less character, and most notably, I didn’t have the person I love more than anything. But somehow I found myself thinking of that prior time, three or four or five years ago, was when I was blessed. That notion couldn’t have been more wrong.

Years after college I had more evidence to believe that God was taking care of me and I didn’t have to hold life so tightly because I’d always been provided for along the way, whether I recognized it or not. It was a shock to my system to understand, and for a while my head went silent.

It was as if I was the addict first recognizing my addiction—admittance is the first step towards a cure. The problem was suddenly clear in my mind. I was living and feeling based on a false premise, that I was carefree before and a man in chains now. It was a silly notion. My situation hadn’t changed, or if it had, the change was a testimony to new gifts.

The insight was like a flash of light. I wasn’t my provider, God was. As I drove home on that North Carolina road, the thoughts in my head settled; the maelstrom ended. In that moment, inside me all was still and silent and content.

 

Post Script:

In this lifelong process of sanctification—this process of being made holy—I find that I am continually revisiting the same character deficiencies. I will think I have matured, moved past a particular flaw, only to find myself in a familiar wrestling match. I used to feel disguised when I would find myself reliving what I thought was past. “I thought I was over worrying about money,” I would snarl, cursing my weakness.

Then I recognized that the struggle continued to arise because the challenges were growing in difficulty. Take my concern over money. I worried when I graduated from college, as single person with minimal needs. I worried again as I was about to get married. I worried even more when my wife got pregnant six weeks into our marriage, contrary to our plan but not God’s. And I worried when we needed to find a new place to live because our young family was quickly outgrowing our wonderful but tiny apartment.

Now my wife and I have three children under three, I run a small business, and we have a little home. I make more money than I used to, but the demands on our budget are greater than ever before. So when the inner struggle over money arises again it is not because I have not matured, but because I have matured into greater challenges.

2018 has not been a friendly year for our budget: Business is slow, both our vehicles have broken down, and frigid temperatures inflated our heating bill. Still even with the challenges two moments stood out.

The first moment happened, when our second vehicle left the shop, I wrote a check for one thousand four hundred and forty dollars, bringing our automotive repair and maintenance expenses less than two months into the year well past two thousand dollars. Yet, somewhere in my mind I thought, “It’s only money,” and it was, and I was okay. Money wasn’t the goal or my security, something I was meant to cling to. Money was the means to an end.

The second moment transpired while grocery shopping. Feeding a family of five isn’t cheap, even when you are frugal, and I am very aware that it will not be getting any cheaper for decades as mouths grow in size and number. Every week when the cashier announces my total, I groan inside. It’s staggering just how much feeding a family costs. Yet in the last couple weeks that narrative has shifted. Today the total was unusually high, and instead of moaning internally, I thought, “Thank you, God, for entrusting us with the money to buy these groceries.” Instead of feeling dread and fear, I felt gratitude and trust.

These were small, simple moments, but they have given me hope and point to growth, though the change happens slowly. This journey with fear and money is changing. As the wheels of life run over this same flaw over and over and over again the path becomes more pronounced, the rut widens, and my character runs deeper.

 

 

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