Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:7-10)
We can't avoid difficult times in our lives; circumstances spin out of control, people fail us, and our finances can be devastated with one turn of life's events. It's not always enough to have a positive attitude and bounce back. Popular wisdom says that “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how you react to it,” but things don't get better just because we put on a smile. Having a positive attitude is often a mere hope or an attempt to bury negative thoughts. The older you get, the more you come to realize that time is running short to have the life you always wanted. It's not a question of attitude. Popular wisdom doesn't give us a path through hardship that is rooted in anything real.
I've found myself going through the same difficulties over and over. You don't always see them coming, but I've reached moments when I suddenly scratch my head and think, “Here I am again, caught up in the same mess.” Some of those things are because we make the same bad decisions over and over. Some of them are out of our control; we find ourselves in the same financial quagmire again and again, for example, because we can't simply choose to have more income. Or we might find ourselves in the same bad relationships, but not for reasons that are obvious to us. Having a positive attitude is better than having a negative one, but it doesn't solve our problems.
We can't simply pick and choose emotions. What we need is not a positive emotional response but a point of reference beyond what we're facing. We need a way to look at what is happening in our lives and grow from it. We have to recognize that we're not victims, that things happen for a reason, and we can choose a reaction that takes us closer to who we should be or we can find ourselves in a cycle of heartache. It starts with a recognition that there is a God above us who loves us, and the knowledge that we don't always seek him out.
When life takes a bad turn, instead of looking at it as a bad thing, look at it as a wake-up call. We get our focus tied up in ourselves in an effort to be happy, and we can lose track of the big picture. Difficulties are not a way to rob us of life, but a chance to find our way to something better. They are roadblocks, but not necessarily to the destination we need. When they stop us, the first thing we need to do is to stop trying to control things and listen to God. He speaks in the middle of our hardship.
The story of Samuel, when he was a boy living in the temple with Eli, has become a model for how I think about responding to hardship. Samuel heard God calling to him in the middle of the night, and kept going to Eli, thinking the high priest was calling him. Finally, Eli discerns that it is the Lord, and tells Samuel how to respond. “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (1 Sam 3:8). We can miss God's voice if we're not aware of how it sounds or if we're not expecting it. Or if we think he's not interested in communicating with us. God speaks to those he loves; in the quiet moments we create in the midst of busy lives, we can hear him. But we need to stop and listen.
Hardship is an opportunity to do that. It's a wake-up call, a reminder that we're not in control of things. We can forget that, in today's world. We can find ourselves on the wrong path, caught in cycles of sin or simply off-course, in pursuit of things that are not truly important. God loves us too much to let us go very far. When things don't work out the way we hoped, it may be his doing, to reach us for our own good. God disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:6). When things go wrong, stop. Be still. Say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Give him a chance to tell you about his love for you and to guide you.
Listening means being willing to obey. It's more than just hearing; it's understanding that he has a great destiny for you, and that might mean making some different choices. If things aren't going the way you'd hoped, a change might not sound bad to you. I've found, in the disappointments I've experienced, an opportunity to do things differently and experience his blessings. Give him a chance to lead you to something greater.