Recognizing God’s Care for an Unsettled World: Tim Muehlhoff
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Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
Could God be working in ways we don’t recognize? Author Tim Muehlhoff pries open our eyes to pick up on how God’s present and acting powerfully around us.
Recognizing God’s Care for an Unsettled World: Tim Muehlhoff
Dave: One of my favorite moments in the last 18 months—maybe, it was two years ago; I don’t remember—do you know what I’m going to say?
Dave: It was sitting in my middle son, Austin, and Kendall’s office in their home with their four kids; two of them, foster kids. Because it was during the pandemic, this meeting was over Zoom with a judge in a courtroom to adopt one of their foster children.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Why did you like it so much?
Dave: First of all, I thought, “This is going to be so bad, because it’s on Zoom—we’re supposed to be in a courtroom—why are we sitting in this little room in their house?” But holding their other little guy, Ryder, crawling around on us—the judge and other people on the screen watching my son adopt a boy, whose life would be traumatic if he didn’t intervene—was such a picture of God’s grace in our life.” That’s what I thought.
Ann: —and His adoption of us; yes.
Dave: You thought the same thing?
Ann: I get teary.
Dave: You’re teary, right now, thinking about it.
Ann: Yes, [emotion in voice] I get teary recalling it—because that is what God does to us—also, knowing his life will be completely different, being raised with Austin and Kendall. It’s this beautiful picture; because the judge asked, “Do you understand that he is now your son?”
Dave: It was one of those moments, which I feel like I miss most of the time; but in that moment, God gave me eyes to see Him at work. I just quoted the title of a really good book by the author, Tim Muehlhoff, who’s sitting in our studio today. Tim, welcome back!
Tim: It’s great to be back with you guys. Thanks for having me.
Dave: When I got your manuscript, Eyes to See, I was like, “I think I know this title.” I didn’t connect it immediately to C.S. Lewis: God giving us “eyes to see” His work in the little… In some ways, this was such a little simple thing.
Ann: You mean the adoption of Holden.
Dave: Yes; it was just that miraculous!
Dave: I was sitting in a holy place. I feel like, so often, I miss those moments; because they are so simple, and they’re everyday.
Ann: We’re taking for granted that we’re doing this on a computer—and we’re all over the country, watching and being able to observe—it’s kind of miraculous.
Dave: So Tim!—talk about Eyes to See. You decided, “I’d better write and help people have that lens to see life”; why?
Tim: Because I get disappointed, like other people, that I want to see God act in more overt ways. In the book, I share a joke—you’ve all heard this joke—but I’ll tell it very quickly for your listeners. A man gets word that there’s going to be a flash flood. He goes, “I’m fine; God’s going to save me.”
Now, the flood waters start to rise. He’s looking out the second story of his house, and a boat goes by. They say, “Hey! Jump in the boat, and we’ll save you.” He goes, “No, I’m good; God’s got me.” Now the floodwaters are even higher; he’s on the roof. A FEMA helicopter comes by, and they drop down the ladder, and they say, “Jump on the ladder.” He says, “No, I’m good; God’s got me.” He drowns. He stands before God, and he’s mad. God goes, “What do you want?! I sent you a radio message, a boat, and a helicopter.” To me, it was perfect for the book; because what did he expect?
We know—I mean, you guys are experts at this—expectations determine happiness—expectations of a marriage, a job, a church. “So what are our expectations of God?” If you were to ask that man on the roof, “What were your expectations?” “Well, that God would”—what?—a hand would come down to lift him up?—or winds would blow in such a way that the floodwaters would move away from the house?
What was so fun about writing the book is: do you know the story of how a helicopter was created by a man named Sikorsky? As an 11-year-old boy, he has these dreams of a flying boat that would go straight down, pick people up, and go straight up in the air. He cannot get away from this dream, so he keeps drawing it. He eventually becomes an engineer. Then, in the 1930’s, he forms Sikorsky Air Corps and the first fully-functioning helicopter. It was created to save people!
To this day, if you save a person in a Sikorsky helicopter, you get a pin that is revered within the industry. Thousands, and thousands, and thousands of people have been saved in Sikorsky helicopters. He believed that dream came from God. Think about it: you could have said to the man on the roof, “Do you not understand what it took for God to make a helicopter? [Laughter] Get in the helicopter,”—this is God reacting.
But I get that; I get how cool it would be to say: “I survived a flood.” “How did you guys survive?” “God rescued me.” “How did He do that?” “He lifted me in the air above the floodwaters, and we actually have video evidence of it on a cell phone.” Wouldn’t you want that?
Ann: What we think is—and I’ve been in this situation, when my sister was sick—I thought, “God, if You heal her, You will get the glory!” We all think that, because He would; and so we’re so disappointed when He doesn’t do it like that.
Tim: —when He doesn’t. I don’t want to minimize the disappointment.
Ann: He can!
Tim: Yes, I don’t want to minimize that He can do it.
Although, let me just say this—another thing I put in the book is: I’m a migraine sufferer—and I have prayed that God would take away my migraines. Actually, flying out here, I had to take two Maxalt®, which is the medication I take. I really want God to take away my migraines supernaturally—it would be awesome—but He hasn’t done that. This medication that I take works, but how cool would it be if He just healed me of migraines?
I’m either going to:
- become angry at God: “Why didn’t You answer my prayer in the exact way that I wanted You to answer it?”
- or I’m going to step back and say: “Every great gift is from God,” and “My talented neurologist, my medication, certain practices I can do: I’m going to praise Him for those things.”
Dave: Here’s the question: “How do you get there?” It’s so easy to live in the—especially, when a friend, or somebody you know, gets the miraculous healing—and you don’t. You can make your list—I’ve made the list; and then, a day later, I’m like pounding the table—like, “Come on!”
Ann: Or, usually, you think, “I’m not as spiritual as that person. Maybe God doesn’t love me as much.”
Dave: Sounds like you’ve been able to just resolve it, though; is that true?
Tim: Let me just say this: I’ve been suffering with migraines for, at least, 20 years. I gave a very raw sermon at my church called “James on a Migraine.” I was scheduled to preach; and the previous day, I had a blistering migraine. With this medication, you can take it, but then you have to wait two hours to take the second dose; so for two hours, I’m sitting in the dark. Again, listeners, who have migraines, know exactly what I’m talking about; right?
Ann: I get them too.
Tim: I’m preaching the next day on James [1:2]: “Consider it pure joy when you encounter various trials.” I’m sitting there, working on this sermon, with a migraine. It was one of the most raw sermons I’ve ever given, where I say, “There’s part of me that’s angry that God didn’t answer my prayer that day in the dark: ‘Take it away.’ But the joy isn’t happiness—that’s the mistake we’d make with that passage—happiness is the American way of thinking about joy. Joy is more of a maturing process.” As I’m sitting there, I’m wrestling with the Holy Spirit in the dark; and the Holy Spirit is saying, “How has this matured you?—the migraines.” I can think of ways it’s matured me: my view of God, my ability to empathize with other people.
Dave, I don’t want your listeners to think, “What a godly man!” It took me 20 years to get to the point to write Eyes to See. It’s my wrestling with God of how I can see Him amidst the disappointment in not seeing the big overt miracle. We know, theologically, common grace is just as much God acting as the parting of the Red Sea—theologians absolutely agree on that: “God’s good gifts are all His good gifts,”—so that’s the cultivation of the “seeing eye.” You have to step back and say, “What am I thankful for?”
I teach self-defense; I have a black belt in Kung Fu—it’s a virtuous system—it’s never to be used as the aggressor. You see, God didn’t leave us alone. When I’m at these domestic violence centers, I’m telling women, “I get why you would ask the question: ‘Where is God in my abuse?’ I don’t have an answer for that; I just don’t. But you’re at a center, being run by a woman who was abused; and now, she’s helping you with the aftereffects.” I think that’s God’s common grace.
Dave, it goes back to the question: “In that moment, when I was drowning in the floodwaters, You were watching me, God; right?” And the answer is, “Yes.” “You had the power to supernaturally lift me up.” “Yes.” The church has always wrestled with this: Jesus suffered; His main disciples were all martyred. I guess the only thing I can say is: Jesus never promised you you’d be exempt from this. Maybe we put that expectation on God; but Jesus Himself never said—no; He said, “I’m telling you right now, ‘This gospel’s going to divide families.’ I’m saying, ‘You will be hated in My name. Prepare for these difficulties.’”
Maybe we’ve shifted the Christian faith to fit our expectations, but we need to allow Jesus to define it as He sees fit. He never promised we’d be exempt from pain; He promised, “I’ll always be with you in your pain.” And ultimately, in heaven, He’s going to rectify everything. Revelation 21 is such a beautiful chapter of that: He will rectify everything, but we’re not there yet.
Dave: And yet, as I listen to you, I’m thinking, “This is one of the biggest issues that is causing our children to walk away.” You and I grew up in a day, where if there’s pain and suffering in the world, we’d hear about it on the news; we’d maybe read about it in a paper. But now, it’s in front of us—and especially our kids—every second on a cell phone/on the internet. We see all this evil. I think our kids are saying, “If that’s who God is, and He doesn’t stop this, I’m out,”—rather than—“I’m going to make a list of common grace blessings that I can still believe in.”
Ann: And Tim, you’re a professor at Biola University.
Dave: You deal with these kids.
Ann: These kids are talking to you.
Tim: Yes, I’m a technological immigrant—I can remember what it was like when we didn’t have the internet—I know what that life is like. But I teach natives—that this is DNA—they are 24/7 hooked into this virtual world of social media. They’re not separating themselves from it, so it constantly weighs on them. I do think they get a skewed—we call this “Mean World Syndrome”—that they, actually, get a skewed view of the world; because now, it’s all pandemic, all Ukraine, all sex trafficking—all this. They don’t realize the beauty of the world. It’s both, for sure.
Dave, going back to your comment: I get a constant reminder, every single day, that God is [supposedly] inactive in the world; I mean, 24/7. We need to counteract that with the common grace stuff; that even, the technology by which you’re getting the news is common grace, for sure. We can misuse it—I think it is being misused today—we see depression rates through the roof. We’re going to have to counteract this. Our students—your children—feel the weight of this in a way that—you’re right Dave, our generation/we could get away from it a little bit; we weren’t aware of all of it—today, they’re aware of all of it in crushing ways. We need to remind ourselves of the good thing God is doing constantly: the big miracles as well as the small things that He’s doing 24/7.
Dave: It’s interesting; when you say that, I’m thinking—I can’t remember his name—the actor who plays Jim on The Office. During the pandemic, remember what he did?—every Sunday night, he did that little broadcast, which was common grace: “Here’s all the good that’s happening in the world, right now, when it seems like it’s all bad.”
Tim: It was great!
Dave: And it blew up [increased viewership]; because people were like, “I need eyes to see something good going on.”
Walk us back to the conversations we would have, at our dinner tables with our families, to help our families see common grace—God’s good gifts—in the middle of all the evil.
Tim: Yes; let’s take a look at the issue of homelessness; it’s really pronounced in California. We have Skid Row—one of the largest accumulations of the homeless population in the entire world—is right there in Skid Row. So is the Dream Center: it is right there in the heart of Skid Row. It is this remarkable group of committed individuals—Christians/non-Christians—what they do is they have a plan for helping the homeless. You can go and volunteer: you can sign up for one evening; you can sign up for a weekend. It’s amazing work that they do.
On one hand, you have the homeless situation—and again, it’s complex; very complicated why homelessness exists. Let’s set that aside for one second—the Dream Center just steps in; they say: “We’re here to help you, spiritually,” and “We’re here to help you, physically.” That, to me, is all common grace.
The beautiful thing about common grace—I quote Wayne Grudem, one of our top systematic theologians—he said, “It is entirely possible that non-Christians get more common grace than Christians.” In other words, your non-Christian architect might be more studied, more dedicated, better skilled than a Christian architect. Common grace is bestowed on everybody—lavished on the entire world—because God wants to, 24/7, give us all of these inventions and discoveries.
My favorite one is penicillin. You get a sloppy lab tech, who goes off on a two-week vacation and doesn’t clean his petri dishes. He comes back; he’s annoyed because fungus has grown on some of the petri dishes, but not all of them. And some, it only grew on only half of the petri dish. He does this really interesting study, and then writes an obscure paper about it; and it gets buried.
Now, go all the way to WWII. British soldiers are dying in the bloody battlefields of WWII because of disease. This one guy, a medical researcher, is tasked with: “You need to save our soldiers.” He goes through the archives; he finds this obscure paper, and goes, “Oh, my goodness!” This is penicillin. The guy discovered penicillin! It saved, to this day, millions of lives. We cannot imagine life without penicillin; we’d be in the Dark Ages.
I read a book on medical histories, written by a non-Christian, who says, literally, about penicillin: “The biggest serendipitous mistake ever done.” He’s not attributing it to God, but we know the rest of the story; we know that’s absolutely from God. That’s, I think, is one way God works—is He gives us these clues, and He partners with us—and we get penicillin, that we can’t imagine life without.
Ann: I’m thinking of the dinner table: stories like that are remarkable; and then, to attribute it to God.
As you’ve been talking about our list, what’s been going through my mind is: “It’s almost like we create this neurological pathway, I’m assuming, if we’re always going to the negative or seeing: ‘This is the pain in the world,’ ‘This is the negative,’”—there’s enough going on in the world, we can all live there and be there.
I’m also thinking, “Can we help train our little kids in the home to see God’s common grace?” How would we do that?
Tim: Happiness has become a huge academic topic—it’s all the rage—getting funded by the United States government. There’s a man named Shawn Achor, who wrote a book called The Happiness Advantage, where he says: “If you just take five positives a day—notice five positives, and write them down—do it for a week; how long do you think the aftereffects of that would last?” If we were to take a look at the hypothalamus [in the brain], which tends to register powerful emotions.
By the way, I share this at domestic violence groups; because you can understand how, after enduring that kind of abuse, your perspective would be: “My life, rightfully, is crushingly difficult,”—we would never minimize that in a million years—“But in the midst of that, can you think of five positives?” I actually do this with the women. Sometimes, you need friends to give you the five; because you’re sitting in such pain: “I can’t think of five.” It’s interesting, in these groups, that women will come along and say, “You’ve got three. Let me give you two more that’s true about you.”
You do that for a week; how long do you think would be the positive effects of just doing it for a week?—five positives a day; you write them down.
Dave: I’m going to say, “Another half week.”
Tim: Half a week.
Dave: Another three or four days.
Ann: I would have said: “Half a day!”
Tim: A half a day!
Dave: Are we pessimists, Tim? I mean, which—
Tim: We’re pessimists; I’m like, “FamilyLife Today needs a cup of happiness.” [Laughter]
Dave: Six months?
Ann: Come on!
Tim: Six months.
Dave: What do you mean, “six months”?
Tim: He can do this/he can do an MRI and register—I don’t want to butcher the science—he can register the effects that it’s had, particularly, on your hypothalamus: six months.
Guess what?—don’t do it for a week. What if you did that for six months?—every day, sit down, and say, “I’m going to be thankful for five things.” Remember our list?—we did it in the previous one [broadcast].
Ann: Yes, yes.
Tim: We did the material; for sure, that’s important—then, we did the big dramatic, which that’s important—but then, we did the spiritual.
So to sit down every day and say—let’s do mine yesterday—I had to take two migraine medications on a plane; you do not want to get a migraine on a plane. But listen:
- I’m on a plane, with my wife.
- Coming to Orlando to be on FamilyLife Today.
- We used to be on staff with Campus Crusade [for Christ]® for almost 30 years. Noreen’s off with one of her best friends right now.
- Tonight, I get to go and have dinner with my in-laws, who are just wonderful people.
- I have a laptop computer—there’s something I forgot to do—that today, I got a chance to do it in time to not be late, via technology.
Again, that’s five.
You go: “You know, Lord, I’m bummed about the migraine,”—I will acknowledge that—"But life is still/I can see still some of the positives.” Again, that’s the beauty of what Shawn Achor is saying: “You don’t deny the negative,”—that would be supremely unhealthy—"But can you train your brain to see the positive first; and then, recognize the negative?” I think today, in the pandemic, we’ve flipped it—we see the negative first and then, maybe, we go…—Achor believes you can actually switch that and go to the positive first.
I have a whole thing in the book about how God’s constructed our brain: how He’s given us an autoimmune system. Even people, who don’t have access to the fine medical care that we have in this country, God’s given them a pretty robust immune system, that are like these Marines inside your body, that go to disease, pain—all those different kind of things—it’s pretty cool to see the body operate.
Dave: That’d be a great family table assignment—practice—like, “Let’s do this as a family: ‘Where did you see God work today?’”—you train your kids. I’m telling you what: if you’ve got adult kids, you could do it on the phone with adult kids: “Hey! How are you doing? I want to hear three great things that happened today in your life,” or “…this week.” Help them start thinking the positive.
Ann: I think that the scientific evidence with that is amazing—like six months. What’s going through my head is anxiety—the depression we’re all facing and our kids are facing—that could really help.
Tim: Again, you don’t deny the bad; it’s, literally: “The glass half full, half empty.” But you can train your brain to see it’s half full, and I’m not going to deny the emptiness.
Ann, I love it! What a great family discipline.
Dave: Hey, I came up with that idea, not Ann.
Tim: Oh! [Laughter]
Ann: I thought I thought of it too!
Dave: I’m just kidding. [Laughter]
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim Muehlhoff on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear how Dave, and quite frankly all of us, can struggle to see the good in every situation in just a minute.
But first, Tim’s book is called Eyes to See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World. I was thinking about this the other day—modern medicine is one of those things—if I have a headache, and I decide to take acetaminophen or ibuprofen, it eliminates my headache; and that is a common grace that I often overlook. I’m so thankful for Tim pointing out certain things like this, that we just don’t see all the time. His book will highlight a number of different things.
We want to send you a copy as our “Thanks,” when you give to help more families hear life-giving conversations just like the one you’re hearing today. You can partner, financially, online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Okay; now, back to Dave and Ann: “So who’s better at seeing the good in every situation?—is it Ann?—or is it Dave?”
Dave: Ann does this every week in our family—you are a positive, life-speaking—eyes to see the good common grace of God.
Ann: You are too!
Shelby: Tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson are back in the studio, talking with Tim Muehlhoff, about how to engage non-Christians with modern works of art so they can see God working in their lives too; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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