Category Archives: Grief/Mourning

Reckon

In His Word, the Bible,

God has given us a glimpse,

We see now through a veil,

but we still can see the hints.

And hear the whispers spoken

of what’s coming.

To the suf’fring Roman church

Paul wrote to build their strength.

To firmly anchor down their hope

He urged them to do this…

To reckon –

A term that comes from counting,

or from running through the math.

So run the numbers to their end,

and calculate the facts,

take stock of all your inventory,

see where things are at.

Place on one side of these

scales of comparison

all of your struggles,

heartaches and failures,

The heavy stuff of life

in the stressful here and now,

the dirt, the pain, the struggles long

through which our hearts must plough.

Before we count the other side,

Paul wrote another note,

a letter to Colossae

with a sister vein of thought.

He taught them to direct their minds

up from the muck of life,

to set their hearts on things above

and value knowing Christ.

Speaking of which, it was Christ himself

who told us, “seek ye first.”

Seek the treasures of that kingdom,

not the joys of earth.

So on the other side,

on these scales that measure worth,

should we place the glories of the Heavens,

all the joy and mirth,

streets of gold, and mansions,

life eternal without sin,

a city filled with peace and grace

for time without an end?

“But just a minute.

Something doesn’t seem to sit quite right.

I thought these things – the joy,

the peace from trials, were the birthright.

I thought the worth of things above

was the things above.

Why ask if they should don the scales?

Would they not measure up?”

The simplest answer is a ‘yes.’

They’d surely outperform.

The scales would tip decisively,

But that is not the problem.

The problem is that in this counting

measurements of worth,

the source of value has not yet

been factored or brought forth.

Each one of Heaven’s joys

has value without measured price.

That value, though, is not intrinsic,

all their source of worth is Christ!

If we could somehow know the wealth of Heaven

without Christ,

the value in our treasure gained

would fully be deceased.

Our peace will come from knowing Him,

the perfect Prince of Peace.

He will be our joy

He will be our hope

And He will be our light, our wealth, our song!

So, tip the scales! Rejoice,

despite the heaviness of life.

Reckon.

Take an inventory.

You own, right now,

a treasure beyond worth in Jesus Christ!

One second’s worth of peeking

at the glory of His face,

will “all the toils of life repay,”

and “sorrows all erase.”

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Memories and Gratitude

In some ways, I can’t believe it’s been two whole years. And in other ways, it seems like so much longer because so much has changed since then. Today, as I think about my short time with Heather before she died, I can’t help but feel a swelling up of gratitude.

God gifts each person with skills, tools, strengths, and so on. And, while Heather had her weaknesses, it’s some of her strengths that I remember most.

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(Some family photos before Heather’s second surgery)

God gave her a heart that was intensely wired to enjoy time with people. In fact, the more people in the room, the more her emotional batteries would begin to charge up (like solar panels picking up the sun’s light). It wasn’t just being around them, she enjoyed deeply connecting with them relationally – listening to their hopes, hurts, dreams, and plans, and in turn, sharing her own with them. When a new opportunity for friendship presented itself, for Heather, the open connection was instant. While this trait was harder for me at first (I like some interaction, but it gradually drains me down and I need to recharge with alone time), I can see where God used the example of this strength in Heather to build in me a greater love for connecting with people.

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(Heather hugging our two sons, Judah and Levi, after her first surgery)

Another memory that makes me smile is the way Heather wore her heart on her sleeve. She was strong in the emotions category (which took some getting used to for me), but I’m thankful for how her feelings were tempered with a softheartedness. When she was smiling or laughing – which was most of the time – it seemed to literally brighten the room. When she was feeling deep sadness at the loss of her mother or during other trials we faced together, the room was dimmer, the air heavier and almost desaturated. When a friend or one of her siblings was hurting, her tears for them were quick and genuine. When she got frustrated with me, she was quick to return gently and ask for forgiveness. And when I needed forgiveness, she was eager to give it. In all these ways her heart was big, soft, naturally oriented towards others, and eager to give God glory.

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(Heather as Elaine, Josh as her father, and me as Mortimer in a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace) 

Finally, I remember the hardest aspect of her final preparations for saying goodbye. The physical suffering was difficult for her in ways I’ll never know. And the concern for me, for her dad and new mom, for her sisters and her brother was difficult also. Surprisingly, fear of the coming unknown (meaning, what it’s like to step out of this life into the next) didn’t bother her as much. I remember asking her, “So, are you ready?” And she smiled and answered, “Yup.” The thing that troubled her most was having to leave this world to be with Christ, without knowing whether or not those closest to her, who hadn’t yet accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, would do so. And she realized that her time of influence in their lives toward that end, was coming to an end. The way she expressed it was, “It’s just so hard not knowing if I’ll get to see them again.”

Just one more potent example of how God had graced her heart with Christlike concern for others over herself.

And just one more reason I have to be thankful for the short time God allowed her to influence and strengthen me to be a better man, a better husband, a better father, a better pastor, and a better servant of Christ.

“Thank you Lord, on this special day, for your design of Heather’s life – from the beginning, over the ups and downs, and to the end.”

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(One last Christmas together as a family – a fitting way to celebrate God’s grace)


Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: R.C. Sproul Jr.

I realize that not all of those who follow this are suffering. But I am equally certain that everyone following this will likely suffer to varying degrees at some point. Paul tells Timothy this in II Tim. 3:12 – “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Romans 8:22-23 further explains that all of creation is groaning under the weight of our sin.

What’s my point?

You really should watch this video interview with R.C. Sproul Jr. as he explains what God has taught him about His sovereignty in his suffering. Whether you’re in the middle of difficulties now, you’re recovering from a deep valley, or you have one just around the corner, you will benefit.

Here’s a couple of nuggets that impacted me:

“Doctrine is life”

C.S.: “So, why do bad things happen to good people?”

R.C.S.: “Well, that only happened once, and He volunteered.”

C.S.: “How can christians come alongside those who are suffering and be an encouragement to them?”

R.C.S.: “Well, just some very practical counsel, people are afraid they’ll say something wrong and so they don’t say anything at all… A) Don’t be afraid, and speak the Word of God. Encourage them to believe God’s promises B) empathize with them just by sharing in their suffering, acknowledging it. C) Don’t underestimate the power of prayer.”

Watch here:

https://vimeo.com/72771958 


The Hidden Smile of God – A Book Review

“With great spiritual privileges comes great pain. It is plain from scripture that this is God’s design: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Great privilege, great pain, God’s design. So it was with Bunyan, Cowper, and Brainerd. But they did not all have the same pain. For Bunyan it was prison and danger, for Cowper it was lifelong depression and suicidal darkness, for Brainerd it was tuberculosis and the ‘howling wilderness.’

What was the fruit of this affliction? And what was the rock in which it grew? Consider their stories and be encouraged that no labor and no suffering in the path of Christian obedience is ever in vain. ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face’” (14).

So ends the preface to John Piper’s book, The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. God has greatly used this book to illustrate biblical truths about himself to me, and to solidify my trust in His sovereignty.

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There can be no harder test of your trust in God than to face suffering that comes straight from His decree and design. It would be one thing if a person caused you hurt. God would still have allowed it, but there would have been an intermediary choice maker who was most likely in sin. But when there’s no one standing between you and God during your time of pain, that is when trust is most potently tested. It is difficult to know that your suffering comes (in a different sense) straight from God’s hand – meaning that he designed it and intends to use it in his plans. But it’s that very truth – that he intends to use it – that has brought me the most comfort through the past year and a half. Even today as I write this, my fiancée, Anna, and I are facing new trials and are finding comfort in the truth that God is somehow using it for good. She keeps saying to me that, “God is doing a thousand things in everything he is doing,” a very helpful and needed reminder.

INTRODUCTION:

Piper wisely begins the book with an introduction that highlights the fruit accomplished in their suffering before delving into the darkness of their experiences. Also, he handles the question of God’s role in our suffering (designer yes, but not implicated in sin).

“The afflictions of John Bunyan gave us Pilgrim’s Progress. The afflictions of William Cowper gave us [hymns like] “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” And the afflictions of David Brainerd gave us a published Diary that has mobilized more missionaries than any other similar work. The furnace of suffering brought forth the gold of guidance and inspiration for living the Christian life, worshipping the Christian God, and spreading the Christian Gospel.

There is a certain irony to the fruit of these afflictions. Bunyan’s confinement taught him the pilgrim path of Christian freedom. Cowper’s mental illness yielded sweet music of the mind for troubled souls. Brainerd’s smoldering misery of isolation and disease exploded in global missions beyond all imagination” (19).

“We are the beneficiaries today of the fruit of their affliction. And God’s design in it is that we not lose heart, but trust him that someone also will be strengthened by the fruit of ours” (38).

CHAPTER ONE:

Piper recounts the events surrounding the long imprisonment of John Bunyan, which prompted Bunyan to pour himself into Bible study and to write as extensively as he did. It has been said in reference to the apostle Paul that much of the New Testament’s existence is owing to his long periods of imprisonment. Though Bunyan’s works came after the close of the scriptural canon and are not God-breathed, the same thing could generally be said about his active writing career. His passion to dig deep into God’s Word and then to correspond with his church in writing has given us many great works, not the least of which is Pilgrim’s Progress.

“This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the Word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood is ‘Bibline’ –the essence of the Bible flows from him.

And this is what he has to show us. That “to live upon God that is invisible” is to live upon the Word of God. To serve and to suffer rooted in God is to serve and suffer saturated with the Word of God.” (78).

CHAPTER TWO:

If there has ever been a man who fits the description of a troubled soul, William Cowper was the man. His mother died when he was 6 years old and his father sent him away to school. His courtship and engagement to his loving best friend was suddenly broken off by his father-in-law to be and she remained single for the rest of her life due to grief. They corresponded in writing but were never married. His shaky career was derailed when mortal fear of a public interrogation-like job interview sent him into what would be the first of 4 major valleys of depression in which he would repeatedly try to take his own life.

“In 1786 Cowper entered his fourth deep depression and again tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide…He wrote his last original poem in 1799, called “The Castaway,” and then died…

William Cowper’s melancholy is disturbing. We need to come to terms with it in the framework of God’s sovereign power and grace to save and sanctify his people. What are we to make of this man’s lifelong battle with depression, and indeed his apparent surrender to despair and hopelessness in his own life?” (98-99).

““Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification….” One might wish that the story were one of emotional triumph after his conversion. But it did not turn out that way. Far from it.” (93-94).

“God moves in a mysterious way,

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower” (80).

CHAPTER THREE:

When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable….Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God….Oh, that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every ‘cluster from Canaan,’ to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance. Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey!” (122).

To read Brainerd’s writings and to meet the man in person would likely have seemed to be two contrasting experiences. His relationship with God and his love for scripture poured out with passion in his writings. But his solitary personality, gloomy moods, and almost constant, debilitating struggles with health would have made him a solemn roommate.

Piper gives enough background about Brainerd’s struggles to help us understand where the gloominess comes from. His tuberculosis made life difficult, let alone trying to minister to the native villages that he travelled to. His desire and vision for ministry seems not to have been realized (at least not what he dreamed of accomplishing). But the limitations he faced in public ministry were made up for in God’s blessing of the influence of his writings on many others who would take the gospel around the world.

“We turn finally to the question, what was the fruit of Brainerd’s affliction?….As a result of the immense impact of Brainerd’s devotion on his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote, in the next two years [after Brainerd’s death], the Life of David Brainerd, which has been reprinted more often than any of his other books. And through his life the impact of Brainerd on the church has been incalculable. Beyond all the famous missionaries who tell us that they have been sustained and inspired by Brainerd’s Life, how many countless other unknown faithful servants must there be who have found from Brainerd’s testimony the encouragement and strength to press on!” (155).

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CONCLUSION:

Piper’s main purpose in this book is not merely to recount the difficult events of the lives of three faithful servants of Christ. His purpose is to use those accounts to solidify our confidence in God’s goodness even in the middle of our trials.

“The afflictions of John Bunyan and William Cowper and David Brainerd were not for naught. The pebbles did not drop in vain—neither in their own lifetimes, nor in the centuries to follow. God has breathed on the waters and made their ripples into waves. And now the parched places of our lives are watered with the memories of sustaining grace” (164).

The waves of cause and effect resulting from Heather’s cancer and death have just begun to travel through time. But I am confident in God’s design despite those plans involving my pain. I trust Him. I know it has brought Him glory. And I know it will continue to do so in His perfect way.


Something Old and Something New

T-storm

Sometimes we find a new source of encouragement in old, abiding truths expressed by a man of God of days gone by.

Men of God have been writing on the topic of God’s sovereign design in our hardships long before I heard the neurosurgeon say the word, “cancer.” Here are two such writings that have greatly strengthened me in hard times – one new (to me) and one from way back.

1) John Calvin (posted recently by Kevin DeYoung on his blog. taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.17.1. To see DeYoung’s original post, click here.)

John Calvin:

Now this, also, ought to be added, that although either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of the events are hidden.

So the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; or the flesh incites us to contradiction, as if God were making sport of men by throwing them like balls. It is, indeed, true that if we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan:

either to instruct his own people in patience,

or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust,

or to subjugate them to self-denial,

or to rouse them from sluggishness;

again, to bring low the proud, to shatter the cunning of the impious and to overthrow their devices.

Yet however hidden and fugitive from our point of view the causes may be, we must hold that they are surely laid up with him, and hence we must exclaim with David: “Great, O God, are the wondrous deeds that thou hast done, and thy thoughts toward us cannot be reckoned; if I try to speak, they would be more than can be told” [Ps. 40:5].

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2) C.H. Spurgeon  (From Morning and Evening, August 31, on Isaiah 51:5)

In seasons of severe trial, the Christian has nothing on earth that he can trust to, and is therefore compelled to cast himself on his God alone. When his vessel is on its beam-ends, and no human deliverance can avail, he must simply and entirely trust himself to the providence and care of God. Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! O blessed hurricane that drives the soul to God and God alone! There is no getting at our God sometimes because of the multitude of our friends; but when a man is so poor, so friendless, so helpless that he has nowhere else to turn, he flies into his Father’s arms, and is blessedly clasped therein! When he is burdened with troubles so pressing and so peculiar, that he cannot tell them to any but his God, he may be thankful for them; for he will learn more of his Lord then than at any other time. Oh, tempest-tossed believer, it is a happy trouble that drives thee to thy Father! Now that thou hast only thy God to trust to, see that thou puttest thy full confidence in him. Dishonour not thy Lord and Master by unworthy doubts and fears; but be strong in faith, giving glory to God. Show the world that thy God is worth ten thousand worlds to thee. Show rich men how rich thou art in thy poverty when the Lord God is thy helper. Show the strong man how strong thou art in thy weakness when underneath thee are the everlasting arms. Now is the time for feats of faith and valiant exploits. Be strong and very courageous, and the Lord thy God shall certainly, as surely as he built the heavens and the earth, glorify himself in thy weakness, and magnify his might in the midst of thy distress. The grandeur of the arch of heaven would be spoiled if the sky were supported by a single visible column, and your faith would lose its glory if it rested on anything discernible by the carnal eye. May the Holy Spirit give you to rest in Jesus this closing day of the month.

 

 


Learning to Live Under a Sovereign God – Part 3

This is part 3 in a series, so be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 if you need a little bit of context.

It’s that feeling you get when another kid that’s braver than you has the guts to stand up in class and confront the teacher about something that seems unfair. In your mind you’re thinking, “Wow! I can’t believe he just said that! He’s gonna get it now.” That’s the feeling I get when I read Habakkuk. He’s asking what we’re either too afraid or too self-centered to ask because we don’t understand our circumstances in light of God’s sovereignty. Our lives make as much sense as 2 + 2 = 13. And they’re all upside down in terms of attaching our theology to our feelings. And it hurts. And we don’t understand why. Know that feeling?

Habakkuk knew it well.  So did Job. They both approached God for an explanation. And we can tell what sort of attitude they came to God with from God’s responses to them. Job gets silenced and humbled – meaning he spoke in a self-serving way and shouldn’t have spoken. Habakkuk gets a gracious answer and the delegation of a very important mission – meaning he came humbly and was ready to receive whatever answer. In short, ‘Why’ + ‘It’s all about me’ = Bad. ‘Why’ + ‘What about Your glory?’ = Good.

Habakkuk asks God for an explanation, and instead of crushing Him, God affirms his humble courage by explaining some things. It’s here, in this dialogue, that we get one of the most revealing glimpses into the inner mechanics of God’s sovereignty at work in the “real world” where we live. If you’re suffering and struggling to grasp God’s sovereignty, stop reading this blog and go read Habakkuk first – then come back and read this.

To sum up Habakkuk’s 3 short chapters, the prophet complains to God about rampant corruption and a perceived lack of justice in Israel. He asks God,  “Why the delay in judging sin?” God responds by revealing to Habakkuk the rising power that He is building in Babylon. He was strengthening them up to sweep through and conquer Israel as a judgment for her sins. This answer shocks Habakkuk. In confusion, he asks God how He could prosper a violent, idol-worshiping empire in order to use them as a tool of judgment. He measures Israel’s sins against Babylon’s and concludes that God is prospering the really, really sinful ones to judge the sinful ones – which to him, seemed like a step away from justice, not a step towards it. Then God reveals more of the picture to Habakkuk, showing him that after Babylon is used as a tool to judge Israel’s sins, they will be greatly judged for theirs as well. So what is Habakkuk’s conclusion after being given a glimpse into God’s sovereign design?

“…my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. “ (3:16-19).

To put hypothetical words into Habakkuk’s mouth, I imagine he would have said, “Wow! God is moving all of mankind in a grand scheme. This is going to be terrifying (being invaded and made slaves to a massive empire), but I will wait with faith for the day that our captors will be judged and we’ll be free again.  God is in charge and He will carry me through this. The just will live by his faith, so I will focus on being a just man.”

How come God doesn’t always explain to us why things are the way they are? Habakkuk sums up the reason perfectly. “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait…

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God – in His sovereignty – is unfolding the most intricate series of “things” (can’t get the right word, sorry). It’s a more complex web than we could possibly imagine. He is weaving together judgments, mercies, consequences, forgiveness, testings, circumstances, encounters, and more. And He’s simultaneously serving them to nations, groups, local churches, individuals, orphans, widows, queens, kings, presidents, beggars, etc. And all of these “things” are linked to sin and its consequences because all of those involved in His plan are sinners. So He is – at the same time – judging with consequences and offering mercy, punishing pride and rewarding righteousness. And ALL of it links through the cross! The trunk to which every tiny twig is connected is the glory of God. He is weaving it all together to demonstrate His ability, power, and majesty. His intent is for us to be beneficiaries of this process, not victims of it. One of the most amazing parts of this reality is that even though our individual corner of this web of God’s creation is tiny, He explicitly states that we are no less significant to Him. His degree of care for you was nailed in plain sight for all to see. The bigness of His plan does not negate His care for each part of it. You know that saying, “better to do a little well, than a lot poorly?” Yeah, that doesn’t apply to God.

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Imagine opening up the server room at one of Google’s facilities and seeing a massive screen with a visual representation of all of the bytes of data that are traveling through that room linking together seemingly endless connections and links. And that’s a design of man’s making. Now imagine how much more complex the power and abilities of a Sovereign Designer must be to manage the universe. I admit, it is hard to imagine. And that’s good because God is transcendent. But don’t let that “out of sight, out of mind,” pattern we all tend toward rob you of seeing your personal connection to this grand meta-narrative.

It was as if Habakkuk – as a representative of everyone who will ever question the sovereign choices of God with an honest bewilderment – was given a glimpse into a mere tiny corner of the most intricately designed engine that is human existence. And God’s intent in granting that tiny glimpse was to so overwhelm us with the task that He has assigned to Himself that we would fall to our knees and let go of the question, ‘why.’

I asked, “Why cancer? Why now? Why Heather? Why not me? Why two motherless children (which was hard to ask because we cried out to God for a couple of years to even have those children)? Why!?

In the intensity of a trial, your “why” is as big as the universe. But here’s the process God had to take me through (it’s the process He will take you through too if He has designed deep trials into your life): Take that “why” and hold it up to the brilliant light of a sovereign plan – a meta-narrative – in which He is weaving every minutia of detail together into a grand collective whole that will in the end exalt His abilities as both Designer and Sustainer. In time, your “why” becomes smaller and smaller, and God becomes bigger and bigger. This is a work of grace.

Say along with Habakkuk, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I don’t understand it all, but I see God’s power at work unfolding His master plan. I will trust in Him, and I will trust Him.” There’s a difference. And we need His grace to help us do both.

How do you live under the hand of a sovereign God? You already are. Nothing needs to change in one sense. On the other hand, ask Him to show you new layers of His sovereignty and to build up your trust. He will – in His time and in His way. Were you hoping for one of those, “7 steps to living in line with God’s control over your life,” kind of answers? Nope. It’s a work of grace. It’s both passive and active – active in that you should be asking God to do that work and choosing to live in line with it by building up godly character habits, and passive in that you can’t change your own heart.

How do you live under the hand of a Sovereign God? The same way you got saved, the same way you get sanctified, and the same way you’ll be glorified.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things…” (Phil. 2:12-14).

Next post: A book review of John Piper’s “The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd.” This book ministered to me greatly through my darker weeks and months recently. I’m hoping to convince you to read it too. You’ll see a little bit of why. (And I promise to try to get the post length down to a more manageable size.)


Learning to Live Under a Sovereign God – Part 2

NOTE: This post is part 2 in a series. Please check out part 1  for a fuller context.

Knowing that God is in charge of everything can be a neat, tidy, easy truth sometimes – that is, if you try not to think about it too much. When life is rolling along nicely and everything is going well for you, God’s control is no problem. It’s easy to accept because the weight of it isn’t pressing in on you. It only seems to be such an agreeable truth because His will happens to line up with your plans and your life.  But when His control of your life steers your circumstances in opposition to your expectations, plans, opinions, etc. then how do you respond?

You will never truly know how deep your submission to God’s sovereignty goes until it is tested. Living through those tests is simultaneously the most excruciating and most rewarding thing a person could ever experience. And it is only because of the rewards and the benefits that I hope that God will test you as He has been testing me. Trust me, if there was a way without the pain, I would wish for that instead. But they are inseparable in His design. How else can we claim to follow Christ if we won’t follow Him through pain, considering the joy set before us as He did?

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In the previous post, we posed two questions:

– How can God claim both goodness and omni-ability, and yet still allow bad things to happen to people He claims to love?

– Can there be responsibility for us to act/think/be a certain way if God is ultimately in control of everything we act/think/say? Isn’t there a tension between these two claims?

 

For the sake of time and space, I’m going to assume a certain level of understanding on these topics already and attempt a skim treatment. (Hopefully I’m not too far off in guessing the understanding level of my audience. Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure who my audience is. That’s one of the strange aspects of going through a major trial – God can use it to channel grace through you to people you’ve never even met.)

The answer to these questions begins in Romans 5.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (vs. 12, 18).

Sin – by definition – is crossing the “line” of the will and character of God. In short, to sin is to go against God. As soon as God created beings with the freedom to obey Him or not, the possibility for sin came into existence. But Romans 5 is clear, the decision to plunge humanity under sin’s weight was made by one representative, literal human being – not by God. Every betrayal, every sickness, every emotional pain, every physical pain, every instance of suffering, every act of evil that you’ve committed or been the victim of – all of it traces back to Adam’s choice on our behalf. There is sin because we are sinners. Scripture – while affirming God’s all-encompassing sovereignty – denies any option of charging Him with responsibility for our sin-caused suffering.

Because sin is at the root of all suffering, if God is not the author of sin, then He is not the culprit in my suffering. To be convinced of this, a person needs to absorb the following passage and really chew on it.

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:12-18).

 

James makes a concerted effort to credit us (as a collective race) with the consequences of evil as a result of our sinful choices and then to credit God with good. Scripture is full of examples of God working to hold the evil of humanity back from its full expression. In fact, scripture promises a full restoration of creation and justice for all sins committed.

In short, God is in charge of it all. He exercises an active, overarching control over everything – including your freedom to choose between right and wrong. Scripture is consistent in holding you responsible for all of your thoughts, actions, and feelings while attributing simultaneous control over them all to God. Illogical? Yes. Inconsistent? In a sense, yes. Confusing? People have been debating the implications for 1600+ years.

 

So there’s the sovereignty of God in a nutshell. Trying to describe it in a few paragraphs is like taking the energy of our sun and condensing it into a popcorn seed without letting it pop. But it was important to summarize in order to set up the next post.

 

Here’s the trick: A truth so complex and paradoxical as this is intended to have some pervasive impacts on how you think, how you feel, and how you live. Just how do you live under the hand of a Sovereign God? We’ll ask Habakkuk in the next post. He knows.


Learning to Live Under a Sovereign God – Part 1

Keith Getty and Stuart Townend put it perfectly in the first and third verse of their new hymn, “The Perfect Wisdom of Our God.” (© 2011 Thankyou Music and Gettymusic)

“The perfect wisdom of our God,
Revealed in all the universe:
All things created by His hand,
And held together at His command.
He knows the mysteries of the seas,
The secrets of the stars are His;
He guides the planets on their way,
And turns the earth through another day.

Oh grant me wisdom from above,
To pray for peace and cling to love,
And teach me humbly to receive
The sun and rain of Your sovereignty.
Each strand of sorrow has a place
Within this tapestry of grace;
So through the trials I choose to say:
‘Your perfect will in your perfect way.’”

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Exactly 365 days ago today I stood and listened to the slowing pace of my wife’s last few fighting breaths. I remember holding my own breath to listen. I remember how deafeningly silent the room was while we waited to see if she would inhale again. That happened a couple of times before the room went completely quiet. In that moment, and in the weeks and even months leading up to it, I had a heavy reality to grapple with. Like it or not, I am living under the hand of an Almighty, Sovereign God. Some of us have accepted this fact in faith, and others have not. This series of posts is intended specifically for those of us who have already accepted it in faith and have chosen to be followers of Jesus Christ. Accepting God’s sovereignty in faith doesn’t automatically mean a person understands the full biblical picture of that sovereignty. Nor does it mean that they are doing well, living in a way that acknowledges that rulership. So whether it be instruction, correction, or a timely reminder, my prayer is that the same God I am seeking to exalt would – by His grace – use these posts to help you live as you ought to be living.

So, how do you live under the hand of a Sovereign God?

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Have you ever signed up for something and then realized that you were in over your head? I know many people who have a bad habit of over-committing to things and then they end up realizing that their commitments are much bigger than their abilities or schedules will allow for. I’ve done it quite a few times, so I get how it feels – that moment when you realize, “What have I gotten myself into?” My journey through Heather’s cancer, her subsequent death, and then starting down the pathway of remarriage have all brought me face to face with the reality of God’s ability and right to do anything He wants to do with my life. I was forced to figure out how I was going to respond to that new awareness of reality. I remember thinking, “Uh oh. I signed up for a life of submission to God’s control. But I didn’t know it was going to look like THIS.” The first factor in living under the hand of a Sovereign God is wrapping your mind around the scope of the sovereignty of God itself.

I. The Scope of Sovereignty:

Just how much control does ‘sovereign’ entail? I can remember many times in my 24 years as a Christian when I ‘surrendered’ my life to the Lord. But how do you surrender control to someone who already has it? (My intention here is not to dive into the turbulent waters of the various perspectives on salvation/sanctification (Keswick, Arminian, Perseverance of the Saints, Lordship, etc.). Suffice it to say that the experiences along my post-conversion path were nothing more than human efforts to pay for my own shame and an attempt to do better this time.  In fact, I can honestly say as I look back on my Christian life – even in the pastorate – that I never truly grasped how much control God had/has over my daily life.

Between these “God-experiences,” he seemed far away, silent, and uninvolved. But now I know that it was only my untrained eyes, ears, and heart. Some people see the hand of God in coincidences (like if they happen to be praying for someone then find out that the person really needed prayer that day – it must have been God!). Some claim God’s hand at work in certain things that they feel – claiming, for instance, that He gave them peace about a particular decision. Or, something sensational will happen (however big or small – maybe “sensory-ish” is a better word here) and they will say that they’ve seen God move. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not attempting to diminish what might be – in some cases – the legitimate work of God in a person’s life. But here’s the point: sadly, everything in between these experience-based “signs” often unintentionally gets demoted to the realm of being merely human. I think you can see where I’m going with this. If someone gets saved, God is sovereign! Some are even willing to go into more detail than that: If it rains on the church picnic day, then God willed it in His sovereignty. But what if my new vehicle ends up being a lemon? What if my flight is cancelled? What if a duck gets separated from the rest of the flock as they fly north over the prairies in the spring? What if a mosquito gets into my tent on a camping trip and it never manages to bite me the whole night? Is that God’s sovereign hand of protection? Here, we are dealing with the question of scope.

The biblical record is full of answers to the question of the scope of God’s sovereign control. But rather than survey all of them – or even a few of them, we need only consider the very first verse: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth.”  Before His decision to create (in the beginning), there was only Himself – the eternal, Triune God – alone, self-sufficient, and intrinsically independent of anything outside of Himself.  Because He wanted to, He spoke, and things that didn’t even exist yet obeyed Him, coming into existence out of nothing! Everything that is not God is under the control of God. This is the scope of His sovereign control. It encompasses everyone and everything (physical and non-physical). He holds galaxies, hearts, dreams, decisions, mountains, oceans, lives, health, desires, fires, jobs, circumstances, safety, outcomes, words, weather, squirrels, appearances, sleep, tornados, food, time and even hands in His hands! Basically – aside from God Himself – if you can think of it (or even if you can’t think of it, for that matter) it is under His control.

But what about those areas we tend to disconnect from His direct authority and influence? Is there anything too small to be considered His territory? Matthew 10:29-31 tells us that the answer to that question is no. Your hangnail, that person’s weird laugh, the average temperature of our planet, how many times you’ve yawned while reading this post (or will now that I’ve mentioned it) – all of it falls within the realm of God’s hand of control. And yes, the deep pains some of you are carrying, the times you’ve been hurt, betrayed, sinned against, or sinned against someone else – even these are under God’s control. You heard correctly – sin, sickness, pain, hardships, trials, death, and Hell itself are all part of the realm of God’s sovereignty. In terms of scope, there truly is NOTHING that is outside of His control. If something is it’s because He allows it to be. And if something is not it’s because He hasn’t. He’s in charge of it all.

This first Bible truth certainly begs a few questions:

1) How can He be in charge, have all the power He does, and still allow these things to happen while claiming to be a good, loving God? Is God responsible for the evil we see? This debate was certainly raging after 20 elementary-aged children were shot in Sandy Hook Elementary School. And I felt the tension inside my heart while sitting there listening to my wife groan in pain over and over again. It’s a question we are supposed to ask. And it’s a question that the Bible has a very clear answer for.

2) How can people choose to go completely against His will if He is in charge of everything a person does, thinks, and is? Does man have a free will, and if so, how can God truly be Sovereign over my spiritual growth? Who is responsible for the pace of my growth?

I’m glad you asked. Stay tuned for parts 2 and following…

Take away truth:

I never have to feel like things are spinning out of control because God tells me that He is in charge (Col. 1:16-17), that He is faithful (Ps. 111:1-7), that He wants (and defines) what is best for me (Ps. 37:4, Rom. 8:28), and that all that is is working towards His planned goals (Eph. 1:11).


A Gap Theory

Don’t worry; it’s not what you might think. I just enjoy grabbing your attention with a good title. There’s been a gap in my posting for quite some time now. And before I pick up again and move along, I’d like to explain a few things about how God has been working in my life since this past summer.


huge-waves

 

There was a period of time through Heather’s sickness and after her death where the public nature of the events – and of my life in general – felt like a good thing to me, most of the time. There were days when I felt like I was being swept away in a flash flood or a wave of circumstances. But the constant stream of supportive love and prayer from hundreds of friends and family was like a strong current flowing the opposite way and cancelling out the rush of water that was trying to knock me down. One force cancelled out the other and kept me standing. This wouldn’t have been the case had I not made the decision to live the events so publicly for everyone to see.

As some of the dust slowly started to settle, I too began to settle into a pattern of expressing what God was teaching me. It wasn’t the plan from the beginning. It just sort of took shape on its own. Keeping concerned prayer partners updated online gradually turned into sharing how God’s grace was ministering to me. But the feeling that I was being ‘followed’ by so many people started to get to me as time wore on and I just wanted to disappear sometimes. (Depression puts a weight around your neck, and that weight is trying to get you self-focused instead of thinking about serving others. I’ve never felt such a strong draw towards isolating myself as I have these past few months – especially from the local church, and that’s not a good thing).

 

Then things got more complicated.

Let me go back a little and then work my way forward again. God had been working in ways that I wasn’t even fully aware of leading up to Heather’s sickness. She and I both recognized that He had prepared us for the emotionally tricky topic of remarriage. In short: she pressed it; we talked repeatedly; and, God used her to settle my mind a great deal.

So after some time for prayer and for focusing on celebrating Heather’s life, I wrote a letter to the one God had put on both Heather’s mind and mine (independently I might add – which was really cool to discover).

Conventional? Nope.

Recommended? Nope (not unless God clearly leads as He has led me, but that’s up to Him).

But was it “right” for me, for my relationship with God, and for my two boys? Yes. And, as it turns out, it was also right for Anna who has embraced the situation wholeheartedly as being God’s design – another evidence of grace at work. And I can’t express enough how grateful I am for Anna’s attitude in all of this as I build a new relationship with her and celebrate Heather’s memory at the same time.

So what about the gap?

 

There’s been a lot going on in my heart over the past few months, and not all of it is easy for me to understand, let alone express. But my theory is that the gap in posting to this blog (trying to minister to people) came from a fear that people would see the unconventional path I’m taking and would make judgments about me and my walk with God. Transparency is easy when it brings a response of encouragement. It’s not so easy when it carries risk. My responses to opposition so far have ranged from pride, to feeling indignant, to getting discouraged, to worrying, to humbly leaving it with God. Not very consistent. In other words, in my insecurity, I was sensing a risk with bringing people along for the journey.

God has moved again in my life and it happened at Heart Conference (at Northland International University) two weeks ago. One word of encouragement came from an old friend I went to school with and one from a new friend. The new friend had followed our story through a mutual acquaintance and had been praying for us. He was glad to put a face to his prayers, and I was grateful to give an update. So while I was sharing, he could sense my insecurities when I arrived at the part about dating again and getting engaged so soon after my wife’s death. He said, “Brother, you don’t have to defend yourself. If God has designed it, then He has designed it.” He didn’t have the full picture of what I had been struggling with internally, but God used his words to challenge me about my self-focus in it all. I’ve been far too worried about what people think and not focused enough on what God thinks.

The second word of encouragement came from an old friend who had also been following our story (and this blog). He asked if I would be posting any more posts. So I sheepishly explained how I’ve been struggling with sharing out of a fear of people’s response to how God has led. I wasn’t sure if it was wise to express thoughts to others when I’m struggling. He mentioned how much the blog had been used of God to encourage him and how much he thought it would be helpful for people if I kept writing – even if I wasn’t always doing as well as I’d like. He might not have meant for them to, but his words carried heavy weight for me. I knew he was right. Thanks, Paul and John.

So here it goes. Blog 2.0. Round 2. Chapter 2. Call it what you will.

My goal is to share different things God has taught me and is still teaching me – same goal as before. As my life moves towards a second marriage in June, I want to be sensitive to those who are still deeply missing Heather, or find it hard to understand how someone could marry again so soon. But that being said, I don’t want to be so oversensitive that I don’t post anything at all. With God’s grace, I will find the right balance – and since my goal is ministry, that’s also my prayer. Please know that I am missing Heather too and will be for a long, long time. But, God has provided an incredible woman for me who does not feel threatened by the beauty of celebrating Heather. For her, it is securing to see the love I had for Heather, and it is reassuring that God will build something similar, but unique, for us. So as Anna, Judah, Levi and I begin to build a life together, we will be celebrating what we have and what we had with Heather at the same time. Come along for the journey, and we’ll boast about God and how His grace can do incredible things to move hearts for His glory.

Here’s a shameless “spiel” for an upcoming post that I’ve been mulling over. A theme that keeps resurfacing in the “struggle-thriving cycle” as I’ve been mourning is the idea of learning to live under the hand of a Sovereign God. He’s in charge and gets to call all of the shots. Obvious. But am I okay with that? And if not, how do I get okay with it? (Coming soon).


Of Flowers, Nebulas, Twigs and Forests

Consider the common denominator between these passages of scripture:

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!” (Ps. 84:3-4, ESV).

“And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?” (Mat. 6:28-30, NLT).

You’ve heard it said that sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees. We get so caught up in the details that we completely forget about the big picture. This can certainly be true in our theology as Christians. We run the daily rat race forgetting about the reality of the gospel, the meta-narrative our postmodern neighbours are working so hard to discredit. I get this. And sadly, I live this way sometimes. It’s so easy to put my head down. And as all good Canadians know, it’s when the hockey player puts his head down and forgets to look at the big picture that he gets slammed hard from out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: sometimes the coin falls to the other side too.

There’s been a significant, passionate emphasis on the big picture of the gospel coming from many great sources lately. This emphasis has been both needed, and highly beneficial for me in my personal walk with God. But in the last week or so I’ve been reminded in several ways that this big-picture passion MUST trickle down through the layers of my thinking and living so as to affect the seemingly insignificant details of my life. The catch is, the big picture can’t filter down to the detail-layers of my life if the big picture isn’t there to begin with – I’m all for the big-picture emphasis. But having the big picture in place is only the start. You can’t have a forest without trees, or even more minuscule – without twigs. We need to figure out the process of bringing the gospel to bear on daily living (which many are teaching to God’s glory). This could not be more needful for those of us who find ourselves suffering, mourning, or dealing with stressful trials.

We can see a parallel to this two-sided coin (the big picture and the details) in the very character and being of God. He is the infinite architect who designed and maintains the structure of the entire universe. And yet He is intimately involved in the colour, shape, water, nutrient supply, and daily protection of a mere flower that will only bloom for about a week. He cares about leading a sparrow – through her instincts – to the food sources she needs to keep her babies satisfied.

God is at the same time both a God of infinite immensity and of minuscule details.

It is very difficult to feel neglected, forgotten, or unimportant when we read a verse like,  “…for through him [Christ] God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see-such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.” (Col. 1:16-17 NLT).

The Eagle Nebula (the lone stellar spire circled in the image above) measures an estimated 90 trillion km in height. When I consider that God could rest this entire nebula region in the palm of His infinite hand, and when I think that He can span the seemingly infinite distances between galaxies within the reach of his fingers, I am left joining the Psalmist in amazement:

O Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your reputation throughout the earth! You reveal your majesty in the heavens above! From the mouths of children and nursing babies you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, so that you might put an end to the vindictive enemy. When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and the stars, which you set in place, of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them? Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them…” (Psalm 8:1-4 NET).

Isaac Watts penned the words, “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet…?” There are many paradoxes to be found in the passion of Christ, of which love and sorrow are but one example. The one my mind has been drawn to lately is the paradox of scales. That God the Son, beyond measure and worthy of all praise, would take on humanity and enter our race leaves me speechless. That He would then follow this act of loving condescension by standing between me and God the Father’s wrath against my sin – absorbing its full outpouring in my place – leaves me in tears of gratitude. Infinite God in a roughly 6-foot-tall human body bearing the infinite blast of God’s wrath against each individual, minuscule sin of mine…

Consider that the grandeur of the scale of God’s intimidating holiness, power, and justice is matched by an equally massive love without condition. Consider also that this grand holiness condemns me even for the tiniest of trespasses against God’s law. Consider that this condemnation is complete, spanning the full scope of my legal standing. Then consider that this condemnation has been completely canceled by the perfect substitute in the largest, single act of love ever to be witnessed.

This act of love cannot be put on trial. He really did do it. And He really did do it for me. Its effectiveness for my specific pain due to my specific circumstance today cannot be questioned.  Isaac Watts also wrote, “Love, so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” ‘All’ – by its very definition – includes the total sum of me and all of the minuscule details of me.

What is a nail of 9 or 10 inches in length compared to the brilliance of a constellation of stars? What is a tightly woven cluster of about 20 or 30 brittle thorns when considered alongside the power of a black hole? How can 2 beams of intersecting wood be enough to hold the weight of the very God of the universe? How can a single phrase spoken by an unwitting Roman centurion contain the full breadth of truth that holds more significance than all the oceans hold water?  How can the cries of mere hundreds of men be enough to result in the creator of trillions of stars being sentenced to die? How can the Son of God also be the son of man? What are 3 days compared to eternity?

If you are suffering, stressed, or grieving, think with me about God’s plan, His meta-narrative for all things. From the greatest of events to the smallest of details, He has it all meticulously planned. He is carrying it out in accordance with that plan.  And He has a purpose beneath it all. It is literally impossible for God to have forgotten about you, for Him to have lost track of the details of your particular trial, or for Him to love you less than He did the day He died for your sins. The God of the manger is the God of the universe. The God of creation is the God of tomorrow. The God of Israel’s exodus is the God of this blog. The God of the flood is the God of that traffic jam, that wildfire, that election result, that test grade, and that news story you read about this morning. The God of all…is the God of your trial. He did not create sin, but allowed it in choosing to create worshippers of choice. In that choice, we have sinned, and the results of that sin are continuing to unfold all around us. We see it in terrorist attacks, we see it in cancer, we see it in broken homes, we see it in anger, violence, and in that feeling of pride you felt yesterday. Pile all of these sins together underneath the sin of Adam, then turn and see the approaching judgment of God against it all. But watch as the mediating, sacrificial Lamb steps in and takes the blow for us. Recall His work in your heart to create faith in Him and spark a quickening ray of light – the light of spiritual life. Listen as the verdict is read, “Pardoned!” and the penalty of sin is removed from your record. And now look forward and allow your eyes to adjust to the brightness of the hope that lies ahead – a living hope, a salvation brought to completion where the presence of sin and all of its consequences are removed. No more tears, no more pain, and no more heartache. This future is our possession now. We already own it. We are asked only to wait for its full fulfillment with lives of grateful worship.

That’s the forest. But it’s also the twigs.

Force yourself to bring that reality to bear on daily living – especially during tough times.

I don’t need to feel alone yesterday, today, or ten minutes from now. God has proven what lengths He will go to to pursue a close relationship with me! I should respond by pursing that relationship too!

I don’t need to feel neglected. Christ promised through inspired prophecy that He would come the first time, and He came at the perfect time. His promise to come again at the perfect time is just that – a promise! And in the mean time, He has sent the gift of His Spirit to comfort me and be with me on a constant basis, reminding me of the rest of the inheritance to come. This is no copout, and no cheap substitute. It is a gift more valuable and more constant than anything anyone else could possible offer me.

I don’t need to feel frustrated. If I’m frustrated, it means I had an expectation, and reality didn’t line up with what I expected would happen. I, I, I, me, me, me. Who created it all? Who is in charge of it all (both in the collective-whole sense and in the tiny-detail sense)? So who am I to declare that things should have gone differently? Next time I get frustrated with someone’s horrible customer service skills, for example, I need to remember that their sinful attitude is only a reminder to me that God is mercifully allowing this sinful race more time to hear and accept the gospel before it is too late! That puts things into perspective pretty fast, doesn’t it? So should I be frustrated or should I be sharing the gospel?

If you are suffering, mourning, or stressed out, let me encourage you to take some time and consider the forest – the good news of God’s saving grace and what it means to you as a Christian. But don’t stop there. Force your gaze to zoom in on the forest until you can see the twigs. Let the gospel have a real, measurable affect on your day-to-day living. This one discipline alone will help protect you from some of the potential pitfalls that come with times of suffering and pain. It has helped me. (Writing this out was as much a reminder for myself as it is intended to be an encouragement to you).

Soli Deo gloria!