Day 131 — May Your Heart Soar!

“God does not need us for anything, yet it is the amazing fact of our existence that he chooses to delight in us and to allow us to bring joy to his heart.”  W. Grudem, Systematic Theology (emphases omitted).

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With school back in session I found myself, for some reason, thinking about Christian Communicators of America (CCA) speech and debate tournaments.  At these tournaments, children ages 5 to 18 participate in a variety of rigorous, age-based speech/debate competitions, including limited preparation events such as extemporaneous speaking, where they are objectively judged by adults.  Top performers earn awards.  At the end of the tournament, each competitor receives the judges’ written scores and critiques of the competitor’s personal performances.  The debaters also receive oral critiques immediately after most rounds.  (You can learn more at www.ccadebate.org.)  My family has been involved with CCA for roughly eight to ten years.

At each tournament, I am endlessly amazed at the courage, talent, skill, and accomplishment I am privileged to witness during every round, no matter the age group.  And if I know anything during the competition rounds, I know this:  I’m glad I’m not the one on that platform (in front of everyone) who has just two minutes to prepare a five-minute, well-reasoned, critical analysis of an obscure quotation, or the person who has three minutes to construct a sound, thoughtful, seven-minute apologetic regarding a theological quandry, or the student who has a couple of minutes to prepare an eight-minute rebuttal to a thoroughly researched, persuasive position regarding the need to reform, e.g., federal regulation of agricultural production.  Yes, I’m glad it’s not me up there in those events!!  I mean, it takes me at least ten minutes just to make a wise, well-informed selection from The Cheesecake Factory menu (and that was before my cancer diet ☺)!

And the competitors can be so impressive, so knowledgable and articulate, so well-informed, that I often need to remind myself that they are not adults.  Indeed, there is a real temptation to begin silently critiquing these mature 14-year olds as if they were Charles Krauthammer on the Fox News Panel of Experts, rather than who they really are:  kids taking a couple of days “off” to engage in an extra-curricular activity.

As I watched and judged several of the competitions at the March 2012 tournament in Akron, Ohio, I could not stop thinking about “vulnerability”.  In fact, I contemplated it for several weeks afterward.  Vulnerability.  The dictionary tells us that to be “vulnerable” is to be assailable, or susceptible to injury or attack, as with a “vulnerable” military position.  But the vulnerability we’re talking about in a CCA tournament is not the strategic vulnerability of an army brigade, but the tender vulnerability of a child’s heart.  For when a child stands, alone, and speaks in a quiet room in front of his or her peers, grown-ups whom they respect and admire, and strangers they do not know — all of them “judging” the performance to a degree — the child is particularly susceptible to arrows that strike at the heart.  Arrows in the form of unduly harsh comments and even careless, off-handed remarks.  And as we all know, arrows that strike the heart of a child (even an 18-year old child) can shift things deep inside, shift fundamental beliefs about identity and worth.  Wounds that can last a lifetime — particularly if the arrow is launched, even inadvertently, by a parent or highly-respected adult.

Now, any one who finds himself in this “arena” surely can take comfort from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous observation:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

But that sentiment is difficult enough for a man to take to heart, let alone a child.  Thus, judges, parents, and other audience members at CCA (and similar) events are not merely observers of these children, but they are, necessarily, stewards over their hearts.  Yes, every time a competitor stands alone on that stage, or at that podium, that child is, in a very real and immediate sense, offering his or her heart to those of us who watch and critique and comment.  And, to that extent, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, we become stewards in every sense of the word.

And what are the unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) hopes and desires of the children in this regard?  That we will take this stewardship role seriously:  that we will proactively protect and nurture their hearts; that we will be there to provide “pre-op” triage and/or “post-op” encouragement and ministering, if and when the need arises; that we will endeavor to be discerning and loving as we guide and direct them and help them process their experiences; and that all of our efforts will be seasoned liberally with wisdom and compassion.  I think John Eldredge very effectively captured what this “seasoning” should look like, at least in part, when he described the tenor of a wise and compassionate man (which I also cited in an earlier blog post):

What he offers, he offers with kindness, and discretion, knowing by instinct those who have ears to hear, and those who don’t.  Thus his words are offered in the right measure, at the right time, to the right person.  He will not trouble you with things you do not need to know, nor burden you with things that are not yet yours to bear, nor embarrass you with exposure for shortcomings you are not ready yet to overcome, even though he sees all of that.  For he is wise, and compassionate.

So what does all of that have to do with “Walking With God Through Pancreatic Cancer” (which, after all, is the title of this blog)?  Well, I recall that the very first thing — the very first thing — that hit me when I found out I had pancreatic cancer and that I might die soon, was regret.

Deep, deep soul regret that I had said “no” to God so many times.

Not from the standpoint of “uh-oh, I should have been better so I don’t go to hell” — because salvation is not something we somehow earn by being good enough.  Instead, my deep soul regret concerned how I had handled the heart of my Abba Father, the heart of my Savior, the heart of the Holy Spirit.

Over the years I’ve grown to see that God’s heart is one of utter longing — longing for His children to draw near to Him and fall passionately in love with Him.  It almost saturates the pages of Scripture.  His “heart yearns” for His children (Jer 31:20), and He is “crushed“ and can “no longer bear it” when His love goes unmet (Ez 6:9; Jer 44:22).  He “begs” His chosen people, His beloved children, to turn their hearts from the things of this world, unto Him (1 Pt. 2:11).  His ardent longing, moreover, does not waver even when a beloved child of His chooses to crush His heart:  “Behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her. . . . And it shall be in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me “my Husband,” . . . I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me, . . . I will betroth you to Me . . .” (Hos 2:14-20).  On and on it goes throughout Scripture, as He openly, unashamedly bares His soul, declares the passionate longing of His heart:  “O that their hearts would be inclined to Me” (Deut 5:29), “O that my people would listen to me, walk with Me!” (Ps. 83:13).

Indeed, the Greek word “charis”, which we translate “grace” throughout the New Testament, has a much richer aspect than we often ascribe to it.  “Charis” communicates that the Lord is freely extending Himself to you.  More precisely, the picture of “charis”, grace, is a picture of God freely reaching and inclining Himself to you because He longs to bless you, to be near to you.  And so, the point of “charis”, grace, is not so much that God longs to give you something, but that He longs to give you someone — Himself.  “Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself” (J. I. Packer).  Or, as my Pastor once said, “Grace in its simplest definition is God running after you!”  And of course the pinnacle expression of God’s heart, His longing, His passionate pursuit of you and me, is the Cross, where Jesus gave up His life so that through Him we could live in intimate communion with the God who loves us.

And so here we have God hiding nothing of His heart toward us, laying it all on the line.  Throughout Scripture God is, in effect, baring His heart, telling me, and telling you, “Look, here is My heart.  No mind games, no tricks, no hiding, no sheepishness, no you-go-first.  Here . . . here is My heart.  I — Abba, Jesus, the Holy Spirit — I long for you, I yearn for you, I am reaching out to you, I’m leaning into you, I’m inclining all of Me to you.  Always!  And I’m longing — longing — for you to just grab hold of Me and hug Me.”

You see, the one, true, awesome God has a heart that aches for me.  For meAnd for you . . . you!  And it aches because He, by His choice, has made Himself vulnerable.

Vulnerable.

 Susceptible to being hurt.

Yes, the Lord makes Himself vulnerable when He bares His heart, when He cries out to you and to me:  “O that your heart would be inclined to Me!  O that you would walk with Me!”  And, when our hearts fasten elsewhere, our Savior unashamedly tells us He is crushed, that He cannot bear it, that His heart yearnsAnd yet He nonetheless continues, unwaveringly, to fiercely pursue us, to put His heart at deeper and deeper risk!!  Think of it!!  How utterly vulnerable is our Lord — the great I AM – to you and to me, in all of these things!  Is it not too much to take in?!

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“Most of us forget that our Shepherd is looking for some satisfaction. . . . He longs for love – my love.”  W. P. Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

 

Now, it’s easy for me to understand a child’s vulnerability, and to long to do something about it, to address it, to make sure his or her fragile heart is not hurt, not wounded.  I take that stewardship opportunity seriously.

I “get” that.

But, truth be told, over the years I somehow began to forget that God, too, has a heart.  A heart that He made vulnerable to me (and you!!).  A heart that aches for me (and you!!).  And I would forget — and oftentimes ignore — that I could hurt Himbadlyright there, in His heart.  For some reason, I just didn’t seem to “get” that truth in my heart, and so I found myself being very cavalier about “little” sins and “small” omissions.  I even found myself feeling non-chalant about “big”, ongoing sins that I just couldn’t shake, as if somehow those sins didn’t matter, that they were no big deal, since it was so hard to overcome them.  In other words, in all of it – all of it – I acted as if, somehow, God’s heart didn’t matter.  As if the greatest, most magnificent stewardship opportunity I had, was nothing to me.

Of course, what I should have done was gaze upon my Abba, my Dad, my God, and reflect upon the longing of His heart for me – His longing to spend time with me.  His longing for my heart.  Yes, gaze upon my God and pray that I would grasp, deep, that He made His heart vulnerable to me – dust, vapor, a speck in the universe.  And instead of hurting Him badly, right there, in His heart, what I should have done was say to Him, to my magnificent Savior and King, “I choose You” — unto the satisfaction of His heart’s longing.  Yes, I should have said to Him,

Be Satisfied.”

For in “charis”, grace, the Lord is offering Himself to me . . . and that is precisely what He wants me to offer back to Him:  myself.  He yearns for me to offer myself to Him.  You see, the Lord doesn’t expect me – or you — to try hard in our own strength to act like Jesus, to “be good”.  In that sense, He doesn’t want even the smallest thing from me, or from you. No!  He wants me.  And He wants you.  Just to be with Him.  Just to be with Him.  And when we go to Him like that, when we spend time with Him just to spend time with Him, when we seek Him amidst the “mundane” of life, when we draw near to Him from the mountaintops of our joy and our successes, when we set aside selfish plans and join Him where He is walking, we are saying to Him, to His heart, “Be Satisfied.”

No, the Lord doesn’t expect us to try hard in our own strength to act like Jesus.  But as we draw near unto the satisfaction of His heart, He will more and more touch us, shape us, deeply.  And our hearts will more and more reflect His.  Yes, by His “charis we will grow, naturally, from the inside out, not to act more and more like Jesus, but to be more and more like Jesus. . . .

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One Hundred Thirty-One days ago, on May 2, 2012, at the moment I first considered that I might die soon — very soon — nothing mattered more dearly to me than that I had, so many, many times, hurt my Abba-Father in His heart.  That I had so often, so cavalierly, said “no” to the longing of my Savior’s heart for me — His longing to talk with me and hear my heart telling Him “I love You”.  His yearning to (metaphorically) see me excitedly running toward Him, hold me in His arms, feel my arms around His neck, walk hand-in-hand with me on His “rescue path” of obedience.  His desire to love and minister to others through and with me.  In the moments when death first became real to me, those regrets are what mattered most to me.  Regret for having broken His heart so cavalierly, so frequently, so callously, when instead I could have said to my Beautiful God,

Be Satisfied.”

And so I share this with you, trusting that it is the wise and compassionate thing to do, because I want you who have trusted Christ as your Savior to know this now, while you are in the midst of making your own choices.  Right now, it may seem to you that there are decades on the horizon.  And from that perspective, how you choose to handle God’s passionate longing for you really may not seem to matter too much.  I “get” that, because I lived that.  But I want you to know — to know deep — that there will come a day when those very choices (that may seem unimportant to you today) will matter dearly to you.  My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, there will come a day when you will care, deeply, how often, how much, and how passionately, you pursued — and requited — your Savior’s love for you, and gave yourself over to the One who saved you unto eternal life.  And by God’s grace at work in your heart in the days, years, and decades (God willing) leading up to that moment, may your reflections (unlike mine) be encouraging to you, and not be cause for painful regret.

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 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  God, Gal 5:1.

 

But my greater longing for you is that your love for Christ, and your gratitude for what He has done for you, will soar(!) in that moment.  Yes:

SOAR!

You see, although my fiercest initial reaction to the stunning “revelation” of my mortality was regret – as I said, in those initial moments my regret “mattered most to me” — two things subsequently happened.  First, as the days of my life continued to roll by, and the freshness of my regret began to fade, I began to fall back into a number of my old, selfish, callous ways – and, truth be told, it didn’t take me long to do so.  And so, despite the heart-wrenching insight the Lord had given me on the threshold of eternity, I still hurt Him in many ways, right there, in His heart.  (Which I am extremely ashamed to admit.)  And I do so daily.

For I am fallen.

I am not Jesus.

And I can not live like Him by trying to act like Him.

But, mercifully, a second thing happened to me after I was overwhelmed with regret.  I ultimately remembered that what truly matters most is Jesus.  Not my failures toward Him, but Him.  For on the cross, Jesus “was made sin”, accursed of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal 3:13).  On the cross, Jesus’ soul – His very soul — was an offering for sin (Is. 53:10).  An offering for my sin.  And because Jesus, on the cross, became my sin at a soul level, He was wholly separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit for the first (and only) time in eternityYes, because of me, Jesus hung on the threshold of eternity accursed, utterly forsaken, having been made sin at a soul level.

Consider those moments that Jesus experienced!  It’s an incomprehensible horror.  Entirely beyond our ability to reason.

Why would Jesus — God the Son — go through this?!  Why???

Love.

He loves me, and it was the only way – the only way (Mt. 26:39) — that I would be able to have an abundant, eternal life here on earth, and one day enter into heaven — into the presence of a thrice-holy God — despite my abject failure to live perfectly sinless, entirely sin-free.  Yes, Jesus lived a perfect, sin-free life, and then gave it, gave Himself, as a sacrifice for me.  And in so doing, He took upon Himself the death that I deserve (Rom 6:23) — all the while knowing full well the entirety of every sin that I would ever commit (including all my future sins)Every hurt that I would ever inflict upon His heart.  Yes, Jesus lived the perfect life, and then died a sacrificial death, so that I, by believing that truth, by believing in Him, could have abundant, eternal life, with Him, the Father, and their Spirit:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  And the exact same things are true for you, as well.  (How about re-reading the previous several paragraphs using the pronoun “you” instead of “I” or “me”, and “your” instead of  “my” ☺?)

Yes, Jesus did that for me (and for you), because He loves me (and you).  (As my daughter Mallory puts it, if you ever doubt His love for you, just look to the cross.)  And there was no other way (Mt. 26:39; Jn 3:18)!!

So when I fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail.  And fail and fail and fail some more.  Again and again and again and again and again.  When my Beautiful Savior shows me His heart, shows me His longing for me, shows me that I can either hurt Him in His heart or say to Him “Be Satisfied” – and I nonetheless choose to hurt Him — my failures are not what matter most.  No, for Jesus saw all that – and held all of it upon Himself at a soul level — at the time He made His choice, on the cross, to die for me so that I could live with Him forever.  And thanks be to God(!!):

That’s what matters most!

Yes, His love for me (and for you), expressed ultimately on the cross, is what matters most.

So, on the day when your mortality becomes really real to you (whenever that may be), may you be able to say with the apostle Paul, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Rom 7:24-25.  Yes, on that day, may you look upon your failures, but then meditate upon your Savior, Jesus the Christ, staked to the Cross by those failures.  And may you know, believer in Christ – know, in your heartthat He chose to die for you knowing every sin you would ever commit, and that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  No, there is no condemnation for you.

And may your heart then soar!

SOAR!!

Indeed! May your heart now soar in this truth!!  In the freedom for which Christ has set you free!

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In closing, let me ask you this, given all we’ve just considered:  would you give yourself to Him, even now?

If you are already a follower of Jesus, would you pull aside, move aside, lay aside, set aside whatever you are doing, right now, and simply lie down and quietly give yourself over to His embrace?  No words, no prayers, no petitions, no thanksgiving, no worship.  Just:  lie down and let Him hug you – yes, let Him wrap His arms around you and hold you.  Rest, in His arms.  Give yourself, if even for a moment, to Someone who is deeply in love with you.  And satisfy the longing of His heart, just to hold you in His arms; in a sense, perhaps, a “mark this” moment from you, to Him.

If you are not yet a follower of Christ, but would like to become one, and find rest in Him, freedom in Him, would you simply tell Him that?  Tell Him that in your own words.  And then reach out to someone you know who is a dedicated Christian, or contact my pastor, Paul Wides, at paul.wides@ccchapel.com, so that you can be helped along as you begin to walk with God through the rest of your life(!).

Day 125 — Comfort

(This blog-post is in many ways a continuation of the prior post (“Day 99 – Presence”).  Since that post was woefully long, I decided to cut it “short” and pick it up in this next post.  A part of the Day 99 introduction is repeated here, but other than that I’ll assume you’ve already read the Day 99 post and are familiar with that material.  I’ll also assume you’ve read “Day 59 – His Voice.”  Finally, discussions of pain are pertinent to the particular time in question.  My pain has been much reduced, and the most current status can be found at the “Med Status” page.)

My struggle with pain began in earnest well over a month ago, and steadily deteriorated through mid-August.  (See the “Med Status” page for most recent developments.)  There are, of course, varying degrees of pain, and as it became more and more apparent that the battle with pain was entering new challenges, I began to explore how I could draw near to the Lord in the midst of pain.  I did this because, as the pain grew, it became abundantly clear to me that it separated me from the Lord.  So I needed to prepare myself as best I could to draw near in the midst of great pain, should it continue to increase in its severity.

As that study unfolded, I experienced a night that, thus far, has been the worst of the worst.  That night was Sunday night / early morning Monday of July 22/23.  With regard to that night, I wrote this in the prior blog-post:

[I]n my moments of greatest pain, relentlessly on my feet (or sometimes restlessly kneeling for a moment or two), hour upon hour upon hour, from pre-midnight to after dawn, pacing, moving, without any relief whatsoever, exhausted but unable to rest, I cried out to God in barely audible whispers, unable to muster more than a few syllables at a time.  Spiritually, no longer able to praise Him.  Mentally, no longer able to pray through James 1:2-4 (“[C]ount it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [perseverance].  But let patience [perseverance] have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing”), Romans 5:3-5 (“[W]e also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”), or 2 Cor 4:16-18 (“[W]e do not lose heart.  Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”)

No, all I could do was say the name of “Jesus”.  Over and over and over again, as I paced and stepped, kept moving, in pain, holding my hand lightly upon my lower abdomen, trusting He knew my heart, my need, and the prayer held within my whispers, “Jesus. . . . . Jesus. . . . . . Jesus.”

But as the pain continued that night, things deteriorated further.  Much further.  Soon enough I could no longer bring myself to even whisper the name “Jesus”.  Not because I was physically incapable, but because I realized that my prayers had become accusations.  For in the depths of my being I could only, in those moments, manage to see insult (agonizing pain) heaped upon injury (cancer), salt smeared liberally into raw, open wounds.  My attitude toward God became “isn’t enough enough already?”, and expressed itself in tones that became increasingly bitter and angry.  Even as I spoke the name above all names, my mind accused Him.  “Jesus” (where are You!?) . . . “Jesus” (why are You letting this happen to me?!) . . . “Jesus” (why won’t You help me?!).  I silently pleaded with my Father, confused and growing hostile, as to how and why He could stand by and allow even more misery to be heaped upon me, hour upon hour:  “But You’re my Dad,

my Father

where are You? 

Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?

Why won’t You help me?  

Spiritually, those were perilous moments.  Moments where bitterness could have been embraced and the heart hardened against God Himself.  My defenses were anemic, my emotional state fragile.  The pain was so severe, and that’s right where I focused:  the pain, the pain, the pain.

Though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, a spiritual battle was raging, “[f]or we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Eph 6:12.  The evil one had a toehold over me — the rising bitterness and anger, the bile — and was fighting for more:  a foothold, a stronghold, deep inside of me.  The battle was fierce!  I felt so alone(!), and with each epic twist of pain it became easier to coddle anger and resentment against my Lord.  I became less and less capable of fighting as I spiraled further and further into an abyss.  I needed someone to fight for me.  But who?  Who?  Who would fight for me?

My King and my Savior.

Yes, He whom I accused.

For unbeknownst to me God was raising up His army even as I was surrendering ground under siege, gathering bile:  “Email, Duane to Joe.  9:50 a.m. July 23.  Re:  checking in.  Joe, I prayed for you at 3:30 this AM.  Why?  Because I had gotten up . . . Nothing more sophisticated than that.”  (Emphasis added.)

Who would fight for me?  The kingdom of God and God Himself!  Prayers were being offered and answered on my behalf in the very moments I felt forsaken and alone.  Even as I paced my blackened basement with accusations hurtling toward my dear sweet Savior and Abba Father, He raised up prayer warriors on my behalf and fought so that His voice, His love, would move me, His son.  Of course, I didn’t know that.  I didn’t see it or hear it or sense it in any measure.  But somehow, somehow, I realized God, Truth, was all I had.  My only hope.  And in the darkness my mind slowly, laboriously began to turn, Titanic-like in its lumbering clumsiness, to search for truth.

“What is true?” I silently asked myself.

The battle raged.  The abandonment seemed so very real.  My will was weak, the pain relentless.  In the midst of the misery it was beyond hard to focus, let alone claw my way to right thinking.  I felt like Jon Krakauer struggling to ascend Everest:  “The wind kicked up huge swirling waves of powder snow that washed down the mountain like breaking surf, plastering my clothing with frost.  A carapace of ice formed over my goggles, making it difficult to see.  I began to lose feeling in my feet.  My fingers turned to wood. . . .  I had to stop and draw three or four lungfuls of air after each ponderous step.  Then I’d take one more step and have to pause for another four heaving breaths – and this was the fastest pace I could manage.”  This should not have been surprising to me!  Our battles with spiritual forces are fierce.  And, as John Eldredge puts it, “[i]n the midst of battle you will often feel confused, disoriented, perhaps overwhelmed, troubled with self-doubt.  You will certainly feel the spirits that are present. . . . [So] set your face like a flint.  It will clear, eventually, and you will again feel the presence of God and who you truly are [in Christ].  In the midst of it, war is chaos.” Well said, for that is right where I found myself — confused, disoriented, overwhelmed.  Choking amidst the backdraft of chaos, asking

What is true?

“What is true?

I’d been through this “what is true?” drill dozens of times before – times when God seemed distant and uncaring and unloving.  I can’t begin to number the times I’ve written “What is true?” in my journal, and then penned Scriptural truths about who God is, His heart toward me, and who I am in Jesus.  Anchoring myself to truth amidst hurricanes of lies (“God has cast you off”; “How could God love someone like you?”; “why would God want to talk with you?”; “you’re not His son – you’re headed to hell”; “He is punishing you”; etc.).  A way to regain center, become grounded (as John Eldredge might say), in the midst of a spiritual “wilderness”.

But this time it was different.  The unyielding pain had taken too great a toll.  I couldn’t focus long enough to identify truths, let alone embrace them and regain my center.

And yet, God was working in me “both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  Fighting for me; strengthening and enabling me to consider truth.  Truths about who God is and His heart toward me.  Scriptural truths about God that I’d experienced in quieter, gentler times, in fragrant, sun-drenched moments perfumed by Christ Himself.  Truths that seemed so, so distant from my black basement outpost, where I was teetering on the cusp of disillusionment.  I could only focus for a moment or two, in the most vaporous, fleeting fashion, but that was enough.

Where are You?  Suddenly I remembered the dolphin (see “Day 99 — Presence”).  The sentiment was clear:  “I am right here with you.  I have never left you, nor will I ever leave you.”

Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?  “The revelation will come when it’s time.”  Truth from the Ocean Grande, from Brandywine Falls and my kitchen, from “our” corner of the family room. (See “Day 59 – His Voice” and “Day 99 – Presence”)

Why won’t You help me?  “I am giving you all I can give you.”

(Perhaps this last point requires an explanation, and I’ll offer a brief one here.  God is perfect in every way.  He loves me perfectly.  He is perfectly true and good and merciful.  He is perfectly generous.  Etc., etc., etc.  He fathers me perfectly.  And as He perfectly fathers me He always provides perfectly.  In that sense, He gives me all He “can” give me in every situation.  For example, upon becoming a Christian I waited over six years to experience God as my Abba-Father (see “Day 99”).  Why did He have me wait six long years to experience such intimate sonship!?  Well, for whatever reason, He couldn’t perfectly father me (with perfect love, mercy, goodness, generosity, etc.) and at the same time give me that particular gift.  For whatever reason, He couldn’t be perfectly true, perfectly faithful to Himself, His character, and His kingdom, and at the same time bless me with that revelation.  Why not?  I don’t know.  It doesn’t matter.  For all I need to know is that, in any given circumstance in my life, He always gives me everything He “can” give me — His son whom He loves.  Charles Spurgeon puts it this way:  “[w]hen the veil is rolled up, to the astonishment of all God’s creatures, it will be seen that He did the best, the wisest and the kindest thing which, all things considered, could have been done and, therefore, though I cannot yet understand all His dealings with the sons of men, yet I believe that they are right and I will praise His name for His lovingkindness!”  And again, “as rich as God is in glory, so rich is He in giving.  He never demeans Himself in the mercies that He gives.  He gives according to His rank and that is the highest conceivable. . . . The fact is, Brethren, God gives gloriously.”)

So God, in His infinite grace, compassion, and mercy, in His perfect fathering of me, responded that night to my ugly, bitter accusations (Where are You?  Why are You letting this happen to me?  Why won’t You help me?).  And although His actions and His heart were (as always) loving and good and beautiful, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my experience in those moments.  I was in pain, and those moments were not intimate moments for me.  As C.S. Lewis puts it, “Pain hurts.  That’s what the word means.”  And so the questions plaguing my heart necessarily were answered in quick-hitter, almost mono-syllabic efficiency.  Nothing fancy.  No long soliloquies.  No epic, experiential oneness with God.  Just heart triage on the battlefield.  If I had to pick appropriate background music for those moments I would think more in terms of the pulsating mania of a brutal car chase than the swelling crescendo of a romantic first kiss.  I felt like I was hanging on for dear life by my fingernails — even the few words and images I had the capacity to assimilate were almost deafened by the pain and suffering.  (Of course, it wasn’t me hanging on for dear life — it was my Savior clutching me all the while.  Jn 10:28-29.)  It was all I could do to steer away from bitterness and anger, and face toward God.  An intimate experience?  No!  Not at all!   Chaos.

Finally, after sunrise, the pain began to ebb away to the point where I could sit down and try to sleep, sitting upright on the basement couch, my head lying against pillows stacked head-high to my right.  And so the trial inched to a close as sleep mercifully enveloped me, ushering me into peace and rest.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

As I said, in the weeks leading up to July 22/23, I had been studying how to draw near to the Lord in the midst of pain.  And up to that point, my trek had ambled through the writings of Spurgeon, Tozer, George Whitefield, C. S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, and others.  Much of what I had found struck me, forcibly:

  • Eternal perspective:  “You will find the Spirit to be in sharp opposition to the easy ways of the world. . . .  He will be jealous over you for good.  He will take the direction of your life away from you.  He will reserve the right to test you, to discipline you, to chasten you for your soul’s sake. . . . . Yet the flesh will whimper under His yoke and cry out against it as a burden too great to bear.”  A. W. Tozer (emphasis added).
  • The coming Holy Spirit:  “The value of the stripping experience lies in its power to detach us from life’s passing interests and to throw us back upon eternity.  It serves to empty our earthly vessels and prepare us for the inpouring of the Holy Spirit.”  A. W. Tozer.
  • Ultimate purpose here on earth.  “[T]he work of grace aims at . . . an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. . . . How does God prosecute this purpose?  Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely.  This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another:  it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast.”  J.I. Packer (emphasis in original).
  • Future restoration and glory.  “I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties.  We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.” . . . The Biblical view of things is resurrection – not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had, but a restoration of the life you always wanted.  This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater. . . . All will be healed and all might-have-beens will be. . . . [Some people] say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory. . . . [And so this] is the ultimate defeat of evil and suffering:  It will not only be ended but so radically vanquished that what has happened will only serve to make our future life and joy infinitely greater.”  Tim Keller (emphasis in original) (borrowing, in part, from C.S. Lewis).
  • Divine rescue.  “God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him.  Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for.  While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him.  What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness.”  C. S. Lewis.

Tremendous sentiments, consistent with Scripture, all of them.  And yet, truth be told, all I wanted on July 22/23 was for the pain to go away.  To end!  The sentiments that seemed so powerful when I was sitting at my kitchen table during bright summer days counted for nothing when the salvos were launched and the pain actually hit.  For that night I was focused not on “Eternal perspective” or “Ultimate purpose here on earth”, but on “the pain, the pain, the pain.”  I mean, look at my accusations:  Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?  Why won’t You help me?  Where are You?  The underlying cry in all of that was:  “Rescue me from this pain!  Take this pain away!  NOW!!”

I looked back the next day and wondered, “what was the victory in all of that?”  Indeed, “was there a victory?”  It sure didn’t seem like it to me.  True, my faith ultimately did not fail, but that seemed so hollow to me at the time.  I wanted more — more than just cowering in pain and crying out to God to end it.  I thought of Paul and Silas, beaten with rods, chained . . . and singing hymns(!).  Acts 16:22-25.  They experienced joy amidst pain.  For them, there was singing and praise and worship while imprisoned in a dungeon, racked with fresh, open wounds.  A far, far cry from my personal experience the previous night.

I began to search the Scriptures, and landed at 2 Cor 1:3-11.  Verse 3 reads as follows:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation. . . .”  What immediately took my breath away was the tiny preposition “in”.  “In.”  That two-letter word launched from the page and landed smack between my eyes.  “In;” meaning, “in the midst of”.  Whereas, in my mind, comfort from pain meant removal of pain, God was showing me, telling me, that He would comfort me in the midst of the pain.  That He would comfort me during the pain.  And surely, as God comes and personally ministers to and comforts me, in close communion, drawing from the riches of His glory, joy will follow.  How could it not?  For as David testifies, “in Your presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11).

But how to get there?  As I shared earlier, in my experience pain breaches and interferes with intimacy.  So how can I, or anyone, get to that place of experiencing the comfort of God in the midst of pain?

Some days later, the pain came again, this time during the afternoon.  Not the “worst of the worst,” but pain enough to drive me to my knees.  I headed to our bedroom, alone, and knelt down.  Leaning against our bed I simply told my Abba, “Lord, I trust You. . . . I trust You. . . . I trust You.”  Over and over again.  In the pain I couldn’t really muster much more, but somehow I knew it was enough.  For I knew those few words conveyed the world of my heart — my heart’s deepest cry of faith and love.  Of trust in who He is and His heart toward me.  No bitterness.  No anger.  No questions.  Tears flowed, born not of pain, but of the Holy Spirit at work within me amidst the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:5).  God silently confirming that those moments on my knees were good and right and true.  Not because of who I am in and of myself, but because of the King of kings mercifully working within my deepest places.

(Working, too, through His kingdom.  For here is the text message I got from a brother in Christ several hours later:  “Hi Joe, felt a super urgent need to pray for you all today about 12:45.  How are things?”  God, yet again, raising up intercessors on our behalf, in the midst of tremendous trial!!!)

But He knew I needed further consolation, further healing.  There was a hurt deep within me, a doubt that was festering.  Doubt concerning my heart toward Him.  Doubt planted by the evil one on July 22/23 alongside the bitterness and anger.  Doubt that remained, putrid and cancerous, even as the foul bitterness and anger were washed away by the soundbites of truth I was able to assimilate amidst the chaos of battle.  I was hardly conscious of the rancid tumor, yet my Father saw it slowly eating me from within, and was ill content to let it further malign me.  And so, the words “I trust You. . . . I trust You. . . . I trust You” still fresh upon my lips, He took His holy salve and, through the words of Charles Spurgeon, spoke encouragement deep within my soul:

Paul [, when writing 2 Cor.,] was sore beset in many ways, yet he could say, and he did say, “Blessed be God.”  Job was greatly tried and sorely bereaved, but he still said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”   And as long as we can keep the blessing of God to the front, it is a sure sign that whatever the adversary may have been able to take away from us, he has not taken away our confidence, which has great recompense of reward and, whatever he may have crushed, he has not crushed our heart!  He may have surrounded it with bitterness, but the heart itself is not made bitter — it is a fountain that sends out a stream of sweet waters, such as this utterance of the Apostle, “Blessed be God”.  (Emphasis added.)

Oh how I needed to hear those words!  My heart – my faith — had not failed . . . and it was a tremendous victory!  For on the night of July 22/23, “the devil’s purpose was to make me “curse God and die” (Spurgeon).  And though bitterness and anger had swept upon me like a foul wind, yet in the end, by the grace of God, the Author and Finisher of my faith, Emmanuel (God with us), I still could lift up my voice in loving trust.  Trust!  Tears again welled up as my Father showed me who I am in Christ.  No, my faith had not failed(!) – a wonderful and mighty blessing from a wonderful and almighty God.

And notice the devil’s wiles in this!  First he planted the seed of doubt regarding the depth of my heart for God.  Then when the evidence of victory through faith (the true depth of my heart) came to the fore, he undermined it.  (“So what if your faith did not fail!  What kind of a hollow “victory” is that?!”)  And once I agreed with him, and even adopted those thoughts as my own, the malignant wound was left in place to fester.  So God took me to my knees once again, showed me the faith that He instilled and maintained even through that horrific night, and then showed me what a lasting and wonderful victory it was.  Showed me that His gift of faith (Eph 2:8) is a fragrant aroma, rooted deep within me, that delights my King!

With that addressed, my Abba Father then ministered further to my heart, for He likewise wanted me to know that those moments in my room, those declarations of trust, unto tears, were His answer to my pursuit of – my cry for – His comfort.  That those moments were guided and directed by Him, for me.  For in that same sermon, Spurgeon spoke of “one of the shortest and surest recipes for comfort [in the midst of pain and difficulty]:  begin to praise God. . . . If you are in trouble and do not know how to bear it, divert your thoughts by praising God! . . . There never was a heart that waited and wanted to praise God but the Lord soon gave it opportunities of lifting up Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to Him.  It shall never be said that we were ready to praise God, but that God was not ready to bless us!  So, dear Friends, praise God and He will bless you!”

Yes, my Savior and my King had handed me His personal invitation into experiencing His comfort in the midst of pain:  Praise!  Indeed, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “[i]t is just here [amidst pain and suffering], where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.”  Not praise for the pain, but praise during the pain.  Praise that my Abba, my Savior, my Holy Spirit is my only hope, my true hope (Jn 6:68-69) – and He is mine(!); that He is jealous over me for good; that He is my Dad who loves me and longs for my best; that He is the King of kings, deserving of all my trust; that He is drawing me – the apple of His eye(!) (Ps17:8) — to Himself; that moment-by-moment He gives me all He “can” give me; that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17); that He has prepared a place for me; that one day He, He, He Himself(!) will welcome me into heaven (Ps. 73:24); that one day I will be cresting heaven’s hill and see my God and King running to me – to me! (Lk 15:20); that one day I will run across the field to Him and throw my arms around His neck and hug Him and kiss Him, be experientially one with Him(!), unfettered from the world, the flesh, and the evil one; that one day all my suffering will be redeemed; that one day — and then forevermore(!) — I will explore our redeemed universe with my Savior and King, and those I love.  Yes, Spurgeon’s sermon was my Savior’s call to praise Him, unto deep, abiding comfort.

And then, to further usher my heart into praise, the Lord pointed me to Psalm 100:

Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Worship the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
Know that the Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.

The generosity with which the Lord ministered to me through this experience is too much to take in.  The creativity.  The relentlessness.  The simplicity.  The heart and soul.  It’s just too much.

And yet He was not finished.  For the Lord then condescended to confirm this “praise message” not once, or twice, or even three times.  But four and five times over — independently(!!!) impressing similar praise messages upon my wife (Scripture’s patterns of praise/gratitude leading to blessing), my mom (praise Him, inviting His kingdom rule into our circumstances unto entering into His presence), my sister (prepare the fields of our hearts for a cloudburst of blessing, through breakthrough praise with lifted hands and lifted voices), and my mom’s prayer-warrior friend (praise Him — pressing through, pressing through, pressing through to the realm of His glorious presence).  Stunning!!  Beyond belief!!  Within the span of a few days God independently called each of us – unbeknownst to the others! — to praise Him, however that looks in the ebb-and-flow of each of our lives.  And the cherry on top?  In the midst of praising the Lord, my sister – like me — was led to Psalm 100!

Whew!  Is He not breathtaking?  For He is the God of the universe – the God of all creation – and yet He condescends to reach out, with genuine care and concern, to each of His sheep.  Yes, “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.  And when He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.”  Jn 10:3-4 (emphasis added).

That we heard His voice is beyond doubt.  And certainly His cry in the midst of this backbreaking trial is unmistakable:  “Praise Me!  Take your eyes off the trial, off the storm, and praise Me!  Look to Me, behold Me — unto praise!  Look not away!  Press through!  Yes, breakthrough(!!!) — into My glorious presence.”

And notice, His call is not for His benefit, but for ours:

“Praise Me and receive My comfort!” (2 Cor 1:3-4)
“Praise Me and know My presence!” (Jas. 4:8)
“Praise Me and watch the blessings overflow!” (Neh 8:1-12)
“Praise Me and experience My glory!” (2 Chron. 5:13-14)

And so our Good Shepherd steadfastly is calling us to Himself as we walk through the valley of the shadows of death.  Calling us to Himself through the conduit of:

Praise!  Praise!  Praise!

Nothing complicated.  In the ebb and flow of active life, praise Him.  Set apart in my room, praise Him.  In the quiet of my heart, praise Him.  Whether praying or singing, in whispers or in tears.  Whether corporately with family and friends, or off by myself simply speaking those three words, “I trust You.”  Whether praying around the kitchen table, or singing side-by-side with my wife and daughters:

I was sure by now
God You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

As the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain:  “I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

I remember when
I stumbled in the wind
You heard my cry to you
And you raised me up again
My strength is almost gone
How can I carry on
If I can’t find You

But as the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain:  “I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

Casting Crowns, “Praise You in This Storm”.

Yes, I asked my Abba-Father, “How do I experience Your comfort in the midst of pain,” and He answered me, with clarity and confirmation, with heart and grace.  With the love of a father.  A simple answer, from a perfect Father.  No equations.  No semester-long course.  No twelve-step program.  No charts or graphs.  Just two syllables.  Two syllables expressing the cry of His heart, for my best.

“Praise Me.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

In the midst of pain, am I there yet?  I am sorry to say, no.  I don’t praise-Him-unto-experiencing-His-comfort whenever pain strikes.  Not yet.  And my heart has never “soared” amidst pain.  In fact, pain often takes me — suffering, quiet, and distant — to my room, where I can be alone.  For if I can’t glorify God in the midst of pain, it seems best to be alone with Him.

But He is at work in me.  I am headed to the hospital today (Tuesday) for serious complications related to my gall bladder, which may need to be removed.  I have also been told that the cancer in my pancreas and in my liver has grown.  Sobering news, indeed.  News we received four days ago, Friday, on the cusp of sharing the holiday weekend with my brother visiting us from New York, my mom visiting us from Pennsylvania, and my eldest daughter home from college.

And we – my mom, my brother, my family and I – strengthened and upheld by God, drew near to Him, each in our own way, heartfully, in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23-24), unto praise.  And so the weekend was not ruined by the doctor’s report.  No, we were comforted by God.  There was laughter and joy and celebration.  Would we have preferred better news?  Of course!  Was there an ever-present “reminder” that I may be gone in six months?  Yes!  Did that impact the weekend?  Of course it did — to a slight degree.  But the overarching tenor of the weekend was one of peace and joy and love.  Of celebration, for we were together(!).  And it was good.  A good and perfect gift from the Father of lights who does not change (Jas. 1:17).  But even beyond that, we could celebrate with peace and joy and love because our hope — our eternal hope — is in Christ.  And we are assured that one day we will be together, celebrating for all of eternity in a redeemed universe, in the midst of our Savior and King.

I told my wife the other day I just couldn’t imagine being on the threshold of eternity without this assurance, this hope.  If all we had to hope in was whether the test results came back good, then Friday would have been a doomsday scenario.  If all our hope was pinned on me living an extra 15 years, the weekend would have been filled with angst and gloom and hopelessness, instead of laughter and song and hope.  I can’t imagine how hard, how impossible, that kind of a life would be.  By its very nature, that type of reliance upon good fortune and good health inevitably yields hopelessness.  Maybe not today, or next year, or next decade.  But it is inevitable.  For there’s just no getting around the truth that each man is appointed once to die (Heb 9:27).

“Praise Me, and be comforted.”  It’s still so very hard for me to do that in the midst of serious pain.  But in other ways my Abba-Father — God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth — is mercifully and compassionately reminding me that comfort follows praise.  For when I am confronted with my very real mortality, I find myself contemplating, with grace and thanksgiving, who He is, His heart toward me, and who I am in Christ.  When death seems to inch closer and breathe upon me, I consider that my tombstone inevitably will read 1960 – 20xx — and realize, to the praise and glory of my Savior, that whether the “xx” is 12 or 42 really doesn’t make all that much difference.  For the truth is that one day I will be cresting a hill to see my God and my King running to me – to me!  And yes, one day I will run to Him and throw my arms around Him and hug Him and kiss Him and know Him so intimately.  And one day – one day — to the praise of His glorious name, I will either be in heaven to welcome my loved ones into eternity, or I will be welcomed into eternity by my loved ones.  Those who also know Him, who look to Jesus as their Savior.  Their one true hope.  The only true hope.

And for these things I praise(!) Him.  Yes, praise Him!  Even when — no, especially when! — death stares me in the eye.  And as I do this, as I praise Him, I find my soul is quieted, refreshed.

Comforted.

And in that way, through those experiences, my Abba-Father is gently encouraging me, preparing me, strengthening me, to praise Him even in the midst of pain, which currently is so very hard for me to do.

May it be so, my King.  May it be so!  To the glory of Your name!