Hope In The Face Of Affliction

(One year ago today, after spending the night by my brother’s bedside, we said our last goodbyes just twelve hours before he passed into eternity. As I reflect upon his final years as he struggled with various illnesses triggered by diabetes, I have no doubt that our conversations about faith helped inspire my decision to establish this blog. If you or anyone you love has been impacted by severe affliction, I trust that this post, which is adapted from my remarks at Ronnie’s funeral, may resonate with you no matter what trials you may face.)

image“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

In the weeks leading up to Ronnie’s passing, I was drawn not only to God’s Word for comfort and inspiration, but also to some of the writings of one of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, who offers uncanny insight and wisdom on the subject of pain, suffering, and grief with books like “Reaching For The Invisible God”, “Where Is God When It Hurts”, and “The Question That Never Goes Away”.

You cannot talk about Ronnie’s life without addressing the suffering he endured when diabetes entered his life. Yancey reminds us that while the Bible is certainly a source of great comfort in times of trouble, sickness, and grief, it never gives clear answers to many of those troublesome Why? questions we all face in this life. Even at the end of the Book of Job, where God had the perfect opportunity to address the problem of pain and suffering- the longest speech by God in the entire Bible- he seems to avoid the topic entirely. God’s reply to Job in a nutshell is that divine providence is a mystery that only God understands.

In his initial struggles with the diabetes that would dominate his life, Ronnie wrestled with those unanswerable Why? questions. He had difficulty sensing God’s presence or even accepting that God heard his prayers. He felt unworthy of God’s forgiveness for past transgressions. But through the years, as he focused on God’s Word, and as he drew closer to God through his affliction, he began to recognize the presence of God, experience the reality of God’s forgiveness, and receive the assurance of his salvation. And those things made a tremendous difference in his outlook.

Only God knows whether it required years of affliction for Ronnie to come to that assurance. But God’s Word informs us that he works all things together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28) I saw that Biblical truth exemplified in Ronnie’s life. After one of his last hospital stays, he told me that looking back on all that he had been through, he could see the hand of God guiding all the circumstances of his life. That is evidence of a mature faith- the ability to reassemble all the events of our life around trust in a loving God, believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.

As I examined his Bible before preparing my remarks for his funeral, the verses from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 that are cited at the top of this post clearly had very special meaning for him. He had started to view this life from a heavenly perspective.

Lessons from the 23rd Psalm
In times of grief, we often quote the 23rd Psalm, a psalm most of us likely memorized in our youth. But I doubt if many of us have ever noticed a subtle transition in that psalm. It begins with those reassuring words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” But then the subtle shift occurs, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (KJV)

Have you ever noticed the subtle shift in perspective there? When the psalmist spoke of experiencing green pastures, still waters, and paths of righteousness, he spoke of God more distantly, using the third person, “He maketh me to lie down, he leadeth me, he restoreth me”. But when he begins to speak of the valley of the shadow of death and the presence of enemies, notice how his tone becomes more personal, referring to God no longer as “He”, but as Thou or you. “Thou art with me … thy rod and thy staff they comfort me … Thou preparest a table before me … thou anointest my head.”

God had drawn closer in his trials. Yancey says that those reassuring words, “Thou art with me” are the best biblical answer to the question that never goes away in difficult times. Where is God when it hurts? … He is with us. No matter the circumstances, we have the assurance of “Immanuel”, which simply means “God with us”.

Grieving With Hope
Since delivering my Mother’s eulogy eleven years ago, I have spoken at several other funerals, including those for my sister, Paulette, my Uncle Frank, my Uncle Ralph, my dear friend, Jay, and most recently, my Aunt Carolyn- the last surviving sibling of my mother and father. As I look back on those messages today, years after their passing, I still grieve. Tears come to my eyes. I can be sitting in church, and the choir starts singing “In Christ Alone” which was sung at Paulette’s funeral, and I rarely get through it without choking up.

A few years ago, at our church in Hendersonville, we hosted a singing group called “This Hope”. I love that name- it is based on Heb. 6:19 which says “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” They sang a song I had never heard- “There Is A Heaven”. The lyrics hit me like a brick. The writer laments about a friend who has died too soon. He talks about the days they could have had together. But then he reflects on his friend’s destination as he gets to the chorus, singing “But I know there is a heaven. And one day I’ll see you there. Where Jesus holds us through forever. There will be no goodbyes when I see you in Heaven. I close my eyes and see you basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace you now know face to face.”

As I processed those words, I began to cry once again. But for the first time since my sister and mother’s deaths, they were not tears of grief or sadness. They were tears of joy as the thought of them together in their heavenly home overshadowed my grief.

As I remember those loved ones, I grieve only for myself and those of us they left behind- but not for them. They are basking in the presence of our Lord. The fullness of His grace, they now know face to face. While times of grief are always times to reflect on experiences from our past, as Christians we must remind ourselves that there is also a future. Based on God’s promises, we grieve knowing that because of our faith in Christ and the promises of God’s Word, we’ll be together again one day with all those loved ones who preceded us in death knowing Christ as their Lord and Savior.

And my prayer is that because of your relationship with Christ, you can be as confident of that as I am. And that on the day The Lord calls your name, you can face it with the same dignity, grace, peace, and positive expectation that they did.

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In memory of Ronnie and all those loved ones who are awaiting us in Glory, please enjoy “I Will Rise” performed by Chris Tomlin.

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)

 

Reflections On God’s Love

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” ( 1 John 3:1 NIV)

I had an interesting experience this week as I pondered the subject of this post. Since I began writing this blog in February, I have been accumulating ideas for future posts in a journal I keep for that specific purpose. Reviewing that journal Tuesday night and reaching no clear decision concerning this week’s topic, I prayed for divine guidance as I prepared for bed. Immediately upon waking Wednesday morning, I received my answer as I was overwhelmed with the thoughts of God’s love.

imageInterestingly, that was not one of the topics I had recorded in my journal. But I have found it always advisable that when God’s plans differ from my own, always yield to God’s plans. It is absolutely fitting to devote this 10th post to that subject, since the seeds of this blog were planted when my heart was flooded with an overpowering sense of God’s love one night last June while observing this beautiful sunset and reading John’s first epistle.

But just how does one adequately convey the reality of the depths of God’s love. That is a challenge for even the most skilled of writers, much less for one as inexperienced as myself. Words are simply inadequate. Like trying to describe heaven from the perspective of earthly experiences, I believe that no expression of flawed human love even comes close to matching the perfect love of our heavenly Father.

But thankfully, as the Holy Spirit reminded me Wednesday morning, I really don’t have to describe God’s love – He has already done so flawlessly in His Word. And there is little I can add to improve on that. Attempting to do so would only prove futile. And so, I will simply let the Lord speak for Himself and ask you to take the time to truly digest what God has to say about this most important topic. All the following verses are taken from the King James Version, because I believe no modern translation matches its eloquence on this topic.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-11)

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he might exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7)

“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:4-7)

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

How can I improve upon those clear expressions of God’s love? I could go on and on, because God’s Word is one long love letter to us, his children. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to locate those verses in your Bible and highlight them. When you come to them in the future, take time to pause and reflect on God’s love, its impact on your life, and its implications for your future.

In my post titled Glimpses Of Heaven, I spoke of my departed mother speaking to me in a dream one night, saying “Wait till you see Jesus! You won’t believe His eyes.” I’ve often wondered what it was about Jesus’ eyes that prompted that statement. The more that I have considered that question, the less I’m convinced that it had anything to do with His physical appearance and everything to do with the inexpressible love His eyes convey. I believe the greatest thrill of heaven will be when we gaze into the eyes of the One who loved us so much that He poured out His life that we might live eternally with Him.

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My prayer is that you may know and experience that love today and that it may overflow from within you and touch the lives of those around you.

“When our broken love is the only love we can have, we are easily thrown into despair. But when we can live our broken love as a partial reflection of God’s perfect, unconditional love, we can forgive one another our limitations and enjoy together the love we have to offer.”

Henri Nouwen, Bread For The Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith

Glimpses Of Heaven

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

Recently I have found myself reflecting on the realities of heaven as I have prepared messages for my brother Ronnie’s funeral in January, followed by my Aunt Carolyn in February. One of the most encouraging aspect of such messages is reflecting on the present reality of a loved one whose destiny is heaven. And yet, while God’s Word is very clear about the certainty of death and the reality of heaven, there is much that remains a mystery.

And so that leaves us with a natural curiosity about what heaven will be like – what will it look like, what will we do there, will we know our loved ones who have gone there before us? As I sat at my brother’s bedside on the night before he passed, I browsed through his iPad and noted the books that he had downloaded. As best I could tell, there was only one that he had actually completed – Randy Alcorn’s book titled “Heaven”.

God’s Word gives us glimpses of heaven, but it leaves us thirsting for more. But I don’t believe there is any experience or sight here on earth that would give anyone the ability to adequately describe heaven. As Paul said in the verse above, our eyes have not seen, our ears have not heard, nor has our mind even conceived what it will be like. In 2 Cor. 12:4, Paul talks about being “caught up to paradise” and hearing “inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell”. The apostle John makes his best effort to describe his visions of heaven in Revelation, but I believe we’ll discover one day that his words fall woefully short when we experience it for ourselves.

It’s like those photos we take that never truly capture the wondrous beauty of God’s creation here on earth. Traveling around the country, I have had the privilege of seeing some of the most beautiful sites imaginable. I have had my breath taken away standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, gazing on fresh fallen snow at the top of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park against the backdrop of a crystal imageclear blue sky, spending a day on a perimeter island just outside Nassau with the whitest sand and bluest water I’ve ever laid eyes on, and taking in a sunset at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks here in North Carolina, surrounded by a flood of lavender and pink hues. These also serve as glimpses of heaven here on earth. But as awe-inspiring as those scenes were, I know they are poor reflections of the reality of heaven.

In recent years there has been a flood of books written by people who have had near-death experiences, claiming to have gone to heaven and returned. One of those books, “Heaven Is For Real” was even made into a movie. I have read a number of them and enjoyed the movie. But while I am intrigued by the experiences they attempt to describe and encouraged by the similarities between their accounts, I must confess to a certain skepticism over their claims. We’re drawn to them because we want more detail about what heaven will be like. For many of us, perhaps we want eyewitness assurance that heaven truly is “for real”. But the only truth we can count on concerning heaven is the truth found in the pages of God’s Word. And that reality as described by God’s appointed eyewitnesses is indescribable, inexpressible, and even unimaginable.

A very common concern people express about heaven is whether or not we will recognize each other there. There is Biblical evidence to support my belief that we will know each other, in spite of the fact that Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:44 that our bodies will be “raised a spiritual body”. Many people recognized Jesus after His resurrection. At the Transfiguration, Christ’s disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, even though they could not possibly have known what they looked like in their earthly bodies. A great source of comfort when we are grieving over the death of a loved one is the assumption that we will join them there one day in a great family reunion. And I firmly believe the glimpse of an afterlife reunion as described by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:14-18 justifies that assumption.

Shortly before my mother died, several of us were sitting with her in her hospital room before she was moved to hospice. She kept pointing at invisible people she claimed to see there in the room with us and calling them out by name, seemingly incredulous that we couldn’t see them as well. This went on for a couple of days. I’ve since learned that this is a more common experience than I realized at the time. Many believe these experiences are nothing more than hallucinations caused by certain medications. But I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t “hallucinate” seeing anyone who was still living!  I believe loved ones were already starting to welcome her home.

From our perspective here on earth, the thoughts of being reunited one day with our loved ones is surely our greatest source of comfort in our grief. But I believe when the Lord calls us home, that perspective will change immediately. Some may debate whether we will know each other in heaven, but there should be no debate that we will know our Savior. To comfort His disciples on the night before His death, Jesus told them that He was going to His Father’s house to prepare a place for them, that where He would be, there they may be also. (John 14:1-3)

While John no doubt struggled with words to adequately convey the beauty of heaven and the exhilaration of being there, he was very clear about the overwhelming presence of our Lord in Rev. 22:1-5, saying that we will see His face, His name will be on our foreheads, and the Lord Himself will be our light. Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:8 that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In his letter to the Philippians, Paul proclaimed that “to die is gain” because to depart and be with Christ is “better by far”. (Phil. 1:21,23)

I’ll close with one last illustration involving my mother. A few years after her death, I dreamed of her one night. It remains the only time I’ve dreamed about her since she went home to be with the Lord ten years ago. In that dream she was in her spiritual body – she looked nothing liked she had looked in life. And yet I knew her instantly. I often have trouble remembering the details of dreams, but that one was very short and her words to me were very clear and memorable. She said “Wait till you see Jesus! You won’t believe His eyes!”

As I’ve pondered that experience through the years, I’m increasingly convinced that it was no dream at all. I believe the Lord allowed her to visit me briefly and deliver that poignant message- a message that I have often shared with others who are grieving. It was not lost on me that she said nothing about how beautiful heaven was or who else was with her there. Being with Jesus overshadowed everything else. It is perhaps the most memorable glimpse of heaven I have ever experienced. What a blessing it is to know that because of her faith in Christ, she is basking in the presence of our Lord. The comfort of His grace she now knows face to face.

Until next time, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Cor. 4:17)

Note: All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version (NIV)