My cat, she howls.
She does it when she thinks I have forgotten about her. She sits on her haunches in the hall, or in the upstairs loft, and she sings this strange, mournful meow that only ever happens when she thinks I’ve wandered off and left her to die: mrrroooooow. Mrrooooow. Mrroooooow.
“Hi,” I say to the air. “I’m right here.” Sometimes that stops the wailing. Sometimes not. When it doesn’t, I walk outside and she – waiting for me eagerly – immediately runs for her upstairs water bowl in the urgent way that means hello I am dying, there is no water, this is the Sahara and you are cursing me to thirst to death in it.
I look in the water bowl, and there’s water in it. I look at the cat. When I start to walk away, she panics. And then I look back at the water bowl, and I realize one of two things: 1) there is a single minuscule piece of hair in it that has to her standards rendered the entire bowl of water undrinkable, or 2) the water is fine, clear, and perfectly drinkable, and she just wants a fresh bowl of water from the faucet because I don’t know why.
I remove the hair or refill the water or sometimes both, she drinks like we’ve never given her water in her life, and twenty minutes later she is almost always in my lap purring. And I realize that to her little cat-brain, a bowl of fresh water means something like I love you or you’re safe, and that a single hair floating in the bowl means your people have left you and doomed you to die alone. And I forgive her for that, because she’s a cat.
But we aren’t, and so there’s really no excuse for us when we do it to God.
The minute circumstances deviate from our preferred norm, we start pacing and wondering and worrying and wailing. Where is God? Did He go away? Why is there a hair in the water bowl? Has He abandoned us? Does He not hear us yelling? Does He not notice? Did He stop paying attention? If something else more important? We sit on our haunches and we bleat, praying the same thing over and over: hey, fix this. Hey, pay attention to me. Hey, love me. Hey, please care about me.
And that’s because we make the mistake, a lot of time, of conflating positive circumstances and material blessings with God’s favor and love. We assume that when things are going well and we have what we need He must really love us, or we must be doing something right; therefore, when things go wrong, we assume He’s turned His gaze elsewhere for the time being or gotten angry or neglectful of us.
It’s true that God blesses those He loves. It is also true that the blessings promised by God in Scripture to His children are not necessarily of the health-wealth-and-endless-earthly-happiness variety (contrary to what the prosperity gospel will tell you). In fact, Jesus makes a point to promise His disciples trouble (John 16:33). And the Bible points out that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). We’re living in a fallen, cursed world and we are a fallen people redeemed only through Christ. We’re not exempt from problems, struggles, or simply less than preferable circumstances.
More to the point, sometimes God’s definition of “favor” differs from ours. David was beloved of God and–well, just go read his story, and you’ll see what a mess of problems he had to deal with and work through. Paul cautions us in Hebrews not to lose heart when God rebukes us because “God disciplines the one he loves” (12:6). Struggle, confusion, annoyances, obstacles: none of these indicate that you’ve fallen into disfavor with God or that He is angry with You. They can certainly, of course, indicate a lack of repentance or a sin problem in your life. And you should examine that. But in many cases these things can also be strong indicators of His presence and guidance through what I have come to call “a teaching season.”
So be wary of reading the tea leaves of your circumstances to deduce how God feels about you. Going by the presence or absence of material blessings is a dangerous game. We’re not cats, and so we should realize that the presence of a figurative hair in the water bowl doesn’t mean we’ve been abandoned, forsaken, neglected or betrayed any more than a fresh water bowl means we’re loved or cherished.
God loves you always. But His favor in your life may well take forms you don’t expect.