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“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, NKJV)
If you are a fan of the television reality show Survivor, you know every player’s ultimate goal—the one that shapes just about every decision they make—is winning the game (and the million dollars).
But what if they don’t win?
After all, there is only one winner. And sometimes, through no fault of their own, even the best players are blindsided and voted out of the game. Was their Survivor experience a waste of time?
Most players would say, “No.” Even when they don’t win, they find value in what they have learned about themselves and how they have grown in strength and resilience. But that kind of value is hard-won and requires some soul-searching.
Like many today, I am in a season of stress. A good day is when I am only slightly overwhelmed. On a particularly bad day, I found myself breaking down while driving, because I had lost something I was hoping for.
Driving may not be the best place for tears.
But it does sort of force you into thinking your way out of them.
And my first thought? The surprisingly vehement: You know what, God? I have never really understood Philippians 4:13.
Oh, conceptually I understood the verse. We are in Christ. He is our strength. We will make it through.
But for that moment’s pain of hope lost? Not so much.
Then it occurred to me: we don’t live our lives conceptually, like a Survivor strategically planning to win a game they’ve never played before. We live our lives in the moments, like a Survivor who has been cast away on a deserted island trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast seventeen-odd other players, battling through hunger and thirst, extreme weather and tough challenges, all while struggling to keep their heads socially cool as they coexist with complete strangers, not knowing whom they can trust or what twists or turns the next day will bring.
It can be hope-crushing. To say the least.
And that’s the problem. Because our strength is found in hope. Charles R. Swindoll, in his book Stress Fractures, writes, “God calls hope the ‘anchor of the soul,’ the irreplaceable, irreducible source of determination (211).” Without hope, we give up.
But where can we find this kind of soul-anchoring hope?
There is a Survivor who has left us a spiritual legacy of hope. His name is Matthew Elrod of season twenty-two. That season introduced something new: Redemption Island. It was a desolate place where, instead of going “home,” voted-out players went to live and periodically duel through challenges for the hope of winning their way back into the game.
For Matthew, who had been voted out on day five, his hope of returning to the game propelled him through fourteen days on Redemption Island as he fought and won six duals before he finally made it back into the game.
Only to be voted out again two days later.
That’s when Matthew broke down. “I know God wants me to be here,” he said, as he cried alone on the beach of Redemption Island. “He has literally been carrying me for the past four days. I know it’s only a game. But I’m so over this game.”
Even if Matthew managed to dual his way back from Redemption Island a second time, he wouldn’t have been in the game long enough to earn the jury votes he needed to win. With his hope of winning the game gone, so was his strength.
Could we blame Matthew for giving up? Instead, he did some soul-searching and found a deeper hope, one that led him to say, “God does what He wants to and we have to be respectful of that. Whether we want to or not.”
How is that hope-inspiring?
When the apostle Paul wrote Philippians 4:13, he was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and very possibly execution by Nero—an emperor infamously hostile toward Christians. And yet Paul could confidently say he was content, because his hope was in Christ.
Well I’m no Paul. So how could his admonition help me in my moment of stressed-out despair?
Paul knew Jesus. They had walked together through many trials. He knew Jesus loved him and that his life mattered. He knew Jesus was in control and had a purpose for his life. Even if that purpose felt like a calamity, even if it led to his death, Paul trusted that Jesus’s plan was far better than he could understand in that moment, and knowing that gave Paul hope and comfort.
I believe God delights in seeing us live active, hope-filled lives as we strive toward our dreams. But it’s where we put our hope that makes the difference. If we hold onto the things we are hoping for too tightly, we are in danger of losing that hope.
Because ultimately our hope belongs with Jesus.
That’s the realization Matthew Elrod came to at the end of his Survivor journey: “God was with me every step of the way, and I think His will was ultimately done. I praise His name for just letting me be a vessel for Him. That’s been my reward for all the struggle and all the strife I’ve been through.”
That hope—that God had a purpose for his pain—gave Matthew the strength to finish his time on Redemption Island with grace. The players around him noticed, and at least one was inspired to dig deeper into his faith. Then millions of viewers watched. And now, more than ten years later, Matthew’s faithfulness is still inspiring hope in me.
Who knows what God is doing with the hope-crushing moments of our lives? Like Matthew Elrod, we can choose to find hope and comfort in trusting Jesus loves us and that His plans are ultimately of greater value than what we might have been hoping for.
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