Have you ever had a surprise party thrown in your honour? Maybe you enter the house thinking you’re alone, and suddenly, uncles and aunts, plus assorted friends, pop out from behind the furniture and yell, “Surprise!” Then young cousins by the dozens rush in from every door, squealing with a delight they’ve been barely able to contain. I guess surprise parties are an acquired taste–like practical jokes. Some folks don’t seem to mind being scared witless by a sudden barrage of noise and confusion. Others would just as soon go to the dentist for root canal work.
But there is a surprise of a different kind that is well worth experiencing. It’s described in a hymn written by Johnson Oatman (1856-1922). Oatman had a truly varied career. He was a busy merchant, and the successful administrator of a large insurance company. But he was also licensed to preach by the Methodist-Episcopal church, and he wrote hymns–over 5,000 of them. Most of his songs have passed into obscurity, but several have endured. One quickly became the most popular American hymn ever exported across the Atlantic.
In the early 1900’s it was said, “In South London the men sing it, boys whistle it, and women rock their babies to sleep on this hymn.” During the great revival in Wales, congregations reportedly sang it at every service. The hymn is “Count Your Blessings.” And it says if you do, “it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Whenever we take time to tally up our blessings, and all we are thankful for, it is bound to surprise us. Why? For one thing, because the list will be surprisingly long. There are many material blessings enjoyed by even the poorest of us. In addition there is “every spiritual blessing” provided for the child of God through Christ (Eph. 1:3). And for the discerning there may be some things included in our list that are in themselves surprising.
The lowest form of accounting is illustrated by the prayer of the proud Pharisee, “I thank You that I am not like other men” (Lk. 18:11). We can always find those whom we think are worse off than we are. Is that a blessing? Maybe for us. But what about the other fellow? That seems a mean-spirited way of computing our advantages. In contrast, the Word of God expands our view to see things to add to our list that might otherwise be missed. James says, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, [and] blessed is the man who endures temptation” (Jas. 1:2, 12). Jesus tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, [and] blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt. 5:4, 10).
Are those truly “blessings”? They can be. Because we can meet God in them, and learn from them. The Lord makes good use of every experience, including the painful ones. That realization caused the Apostle Paul to rejoice in his weakness because it became an opportunity for the power of God to be revealed, to His greater glory (II Cor. 12:9-10). As Mr. Oatman’s song says: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, / When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, / Count your many blessings, name them one by one, / And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
Christians are assured that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). God is able to take the raw materials of our lives and work them into something unexpectedly beautiful. The prophet Isaiah, speaking prophetically of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, says He will give “beauty for ashes, and the oil of joy for mourning” (Isa. 61:3). The Lord is able to do that, if we will trust Him. Why not try counting your blessings today? Ask God to give you a realistic view of them. It may surprise you!