When the Future You Planned for Never Comes

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Before we turned 32, my wife and I said goodbye to our golden years — and to the second half we had hoped for. The one where our kids, deeply committed to the Lord, finally grow up and leave college, giving us long-awaited margin and freedom to serve the church more deeply, relocate, and travel together.

Our precious son Matthew has autism. His diagnosis changed our family’s future forever. Matthew will not go off to school, get married, or do all the other things we typically hope for our children. At a time where we were hoping to launch him into the world for Christ, we need to have him declared legally “incompetent” so we can make decisions on his behalf. But the hardest losses are unseen, and we still grieve not truly knowing, and being known by, the person we thought he’d be.

While we know this is God’s best for us, it’s still very hard and can bring us to tears on any given day, often without warning. The next season of our lives is going to be messy, unpredictable, and far more restrictive than we imagined on the day he was born.

We know we are not alone. Many of you are facing your own challenges as you look ahead. A failed, or cold, marriage. Physical limitations that make life painful and slow. Children who aren’t walking with Jesus. Aging parents who now need you to parent them. Work that pays the bills but offers little else. Yet even if the journey ahead looks bleak, God invites us to find deep joy in him, often through stories like Job’s.

What to Do When All Goes Wrong

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We can’t be sure how old Job was when calamity found him, but he was old enough to have ten children, and be known as “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). He was on top of the world until disasters struck, and he wasn’t. In a matter of minutes, he lost his property and wealth (Job 1:15–17), children (Job 1:19), health (Job 2:7), and his wife’s support (Job 2:9). All that remained were his life, and God. His second half wasn’t going to be anything like his first.

But Job’s life offers us massive hope when our own futures seem to veer off course. Here are three lessons to increase our joy in God, even when storm clouds loom on our horizon.

1. Don’t look back and obsess about why you’re suffering.

When our future looks grim, it’s easy to look back and become consumed with why we’re suffering. To question whether better choices might have led to a different, happier path forward.

Do you ever find it difficult to trust that God has the plan?

After Matthew’s painful diagnosis, I wondered if stubborn defects in my character had played a part in his condition. At the time, I had just finished seminary and still had a fairly academic faith. Did I need a serious dose of reality — in the form of Matthew’s autism — to prepare me for the pastorate? Day and night, new possibilities pressed in on my conscience and made a dark future feel even darker.

Job, “blameless and upright,” certainly did not cause his suffering (Job 1:1). But he and his friends didn’t know that, and they tortured themselves trying to determine what went wrong as they faced his new reality. When suffering derails our future, we should repent of any known sin and consider that God may be disciplining us. Usually, though, we simply don’t know why we’re suffering. We’re not supposed to, which frees us to rest in God’s sovereign care.

2. Remember that God doesn’t owe us the future we wanted.

Like I did, many of us quietly assume our second halves will glide toward a predictable, carefree retirement. When God rewrites our story, we can get angry and demand a rationale. God has never fully explained Matthew’s autism to us, and he never fully explained Job’s suffering to him. He probably won’t fully explain yours — at least this side of glory — either. He doesn’t owe us that.

After the initial shock of our son’s diagnosis passed, the implications for our future began to sink in. We felt despondent as we realized Matthew would never get married, have children, or possess the ability to share his heart with us. Overwhelmed with these realities, my wife took a weekend away and read through the entire book of Job. As she reached the part where God shows up, her perspective began to change.

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“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)

God reminded my wife she was a creature who simply couldn’t comprehend God’s purposes for Matthew, or why our future wouldn’t follow the usual script. While God didn’t change the forecast, he transformed my wife’s perspective on it by reorienting her toward his majesty and loving care. When we truly learn that God is both sovereign and good, we can open our hands, without resentment, to the future of his choosing rather than our own.

3. Bring your confusing, frustrating future before the King.

As we truly come to terms with the limitations God places on our future, it’s natural for our thoughts and emotions to bounce all over the place. I remember the day we discovered Matthew’s yearly therapy costs would approach half of my salary. And then, learning our insurance company wouldn’t cover them. In one moment, I would experience deep anger and resentment toward God, then in the next a desperate hunger for forgiveness and faith.

In his distress, Job accused God of wronging him and withholding justice (Job 19:6). But in the next breath, he erupts with this beautiful confession:

“I know that my Redeemer lives,and at the last he will stand upon the earth.And after my skin has been thus destroyed,yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26)

When we’re struggling with the rocky path God has placed before us, we don’t need to pretend we don’t struggle. God invites us to bring our sorrows and confusion to our Father. As Paul Miller puts it, “The only way to come to God is by taking off any spiritual mask. The real you has to meet the real God.”

The Coming of the Lord

You may be thinking, Job’s suffering was worse than mine, but his story had a happy ending. God gave him back everything he lost. That’s never going to happen for me. You may be right. Often, God orchestrates deep losses that are never restored in our lifetime. That’s where we need to look beyond Job’s story — and frankly, our own stories — to Jesus.

Jesus endured unparalleled suffering and shame by keeping his focus squarely on “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). His unhappy ending wasn’t really the end. And your second half, no matter how unhappy, won’t be the final word for you, either.

While we persevere in suffering like Job (James 5:11), we’re waiting with him for “the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7–9), when God will transform the future we’re dreading and everything that caused it. One day soon, I’m going to have a long, heartfelt talk with Matthew, and the sorrows still ahead will fade away. In the twinkling of an eye, your bleak future will be transformed, too. Can you picture it?

At that time, as C.S. Lewis puts it, we’ll begin “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Bryan Stoudt (@bryanstoudt) is a pastor to healthcare students and professionals (with CMDA), a life coach, and a writer. After Jesus, his passions include his beautiful wife, Sharon, their four children, coffee, and running. He writes at bryanstoudt.com, where he offers a free course on preparing couples for marriage.

A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “When the Future You Planned for Never Comes”

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