“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 me! And for you . . . you! And it aches because He, by His choice, has made Himself 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 yearns. And 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 Him — badly — right 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,
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,
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:
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 eternity. Yes, 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???
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 heart — that 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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, so that you can be helped along as you begin to walk with God through the rest of your life(!).