Shortly after we heard about Jennifer’s cancer, I was speaking at The Cove (The Billy Graham Training Center) in North Carolina. The topic I had been assigned to teach (four sessions) was “Who is in Control?” All of a sudden that topic took an existential twist in a way I didn’t expect. I was going to teach about a sovereign and good God to people who were facing some hard stuff…but now the teaching was for me as much as anybody else. As I prepared, I was not dealing with biblical truth propositions but with my own questions and my own fear for Jennifer.
I have a pastor friend who recently retired. He told me that looking back over his preaching ministry he had come to the realization that his sermons weren’t primarily for his people but for him. The reason I teach a lot about forgiveness, faithfulness and God’s love is because I so desperately need to be forgiven, so often want to run, and know that if God is the monster some say he is, I’m in serious trouble. The sermon is for the preacher. I get that, and while I was at The Cove it was particularly true.
There is a wonderful doxological text in Romans 11:33-36 and one of my favorite passages of Scripture: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
So the questions I asked myself at The Cove were: Do I really believe that text? Is God really a rich and generous God? Is everything under his sovereign care? Is he loving? And then very hesitantly, does he love me and mine?
You will be relieved to know that I ended up answering all of those questions with a “yes”…but not quickly. Sometimes I’m a hard case.
When Jennifer got the news she had cancer, she was knocked over for about ten minutes. Then she said, “Jesus is in charge of this and it will be okay whatever happens.” Soon after she left for a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. That would not have been my response. I’m more of a “kick against the goads” guy. I would have started cussing and spitting. “Lord,” I would have said, “how could you do this to me? You don’t love me or you wouldn’t.” Then after telling everybody, I would have told them to leave me alone and had a pity party.
But eventually I would have gotten there and, in fact, did get there as I prepared the material for The Cove. I really do know and believe that God is in control of it all. I really do know and believe that “all things work together for good.” I really do know and believe that God is good all the time. It just takes me a while. I eventually got there. Do you know why?
First, frankly, I don’t have any other options. Job came to that realization and he was a “kicker against the goads” too. But finally after cussing and spitting, he said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted….I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 5-6). Or as the writer of Lamentations put it, “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape” (Lamentations 3:7).
Not only do I have no other options, I don’t want any other options.
My dying father told me, “Son, all my life I have played the angles. Now I don’t have any more angles to play.” I would like to say I’m still walking with God because I’m so spiritual, so wise and so godly…but I’m not that crazy. I’m here because I had very little choice. He fenced me in every time I thought I had found an out. He arranged circumstances in my life so that the circumstances didn’t leave me any wiggle room. He gradually and lovingly took away all the angles I wanted to play and I’ve gone too far to get out. It’s a “severe mercy” but in my finer moments, I’m incredibly thankful that I had no place to go but him.
You know something else? Not only do I have no other options, I don’t want any other options. Do you remember in John 6 when Jesus had said some hard things, and the crowd started leaving and looking for another teacher who would make them feel better? Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, “Are you leaving too?”
“Where are we going to go?” Peter said. “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
I’ve discovered that too. Who’s going to love me the way he loves me? Who’s going to forgive me when nobody else will? Who’s going to let me “cuss and spit, and kick against the goads” and still never kick me out? Who’s going to allow me to ask questions and express doubts, and still hug me? Who else is going to walk with me in the darkness, mix his tears with mine, and tell me that it’s going to be all right? So I’m here and I’m not leaving.
There is one other thing that causes me to lean hard on the sovereignty and goodness of God. It’s the gift of bidding others to “taste and see that God is good.” That’s called glorifying God and frankly, it’s insane I get to do that.
At The Cove a whole lot of people trusted me with their stories. There were couples whose sons had committed suicide, people who were living with the doctor’s not-so-good news about their health, women who had been abused, men who were trying to be strong and couldn’t pull it off, and people who were afraid and lonely. There were stories of dark places and pain…and I was the teacher.
What’s with that? They were looking for me to say something true about a God who was in control when I was trying to deal with my own stuff. I remembered Henri Nouwen’s comment and it was a great comfort. “I am deeply convinced,” he wrote, “that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” So I just pointed to a sovereign and good God, and in effect said, “Doesn’t he shine?!”
A lady at The Cove gave me something that was sent to everybody in her church: “Who you are and who you are not is uniquely designed to offer Christ’s life to the world. How you are gifted and how you are not gifted is designed for how you’re to make Christ known to the world. What you possess and what you do not possess is uniquely designed to make him known. What you can do and what you cannot do is his design to make himself known through you. You are uniquely designed to offer Christ, and it is your lack (what you are not, what you don’t possess, what you can’t do) that is the powerful part of the story. That’s the Gospel.”
Is that good or what?
He told me to remind you.