We will burst into heaven shouting to everyone, “It was grace that saved us!”
The last few days I’ve been a bit homesick for heaven I suppose. I wonder a lot about what it’s going to be like. I also think about dying. What is going to happen? Will it be painful? Can I opt out?
I also believe that each will stand there exclusively by God’s grace, and everyone present will all know it.
For many, not understanding this leads to terror. Death for these poor souls is a horrifying idea, and it certainly must be avoided at all costs. But death should not be a fearful thing. I suppose it is like a doorway that leads from one room to the next, but in the next room we will meet Jesus. the Savior of our souls.
Some Christian traditions believe that the angel Michael has been chosen to escort every believer into heaven. Apparently Satan’s attacks intensify at that moment and an archangel is needed for our transition. (I suppose that Satan takes a last chance to try to destroy us.)
I am consoled by the extent of God’s mercy on me. You see, I’ve got this propensity to bollocks up everything I get involved in. It’s highly doubtful my death will be any different. I have to believe that at that moment all will be well; that I will know His ‘super attentiveness.’ God loves me far too much to let me face that moment alone.
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
1 Corinthians 15:55
The strong issues of death can’t touch me. I believe there is enough grace to hold on to us while dying. I’m confident and sure of this. I am no longer afraid.
“Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” –CS Lewis
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
“The death of one that belongs to the Lord is precious in his sight.”
Before I entered college I hardly gave a thought to cancer and terminal illness. But ever since those college days death by disease has walked beside me all the way. Two of my college acquaintances died of leukemia and cancer of the lymph glands before they were 22. At seminary I watched Jim Morgan, my teacher of systematic theology, shrivel up and die in less than a year of intestinal cancer. He was 36. In my graduate program in Germany my own “doctor-father,” Professor Goppelt, died suddenly just before I was finished. He was 62—a massive coronary. Then I came to Bethel, the house of God! And I taught for six years and watched students, teachers, and administrators die of cancer: Sue Port, Paul Greely, Bob Bergerud, Ruth Ludeman, Graydon Held, Chet Lindsay, Mary Ellen Carlson—all Christians, all dead before their three score and ten were up. And now I’ve come to Bethlehem and Harvey Ring is gone. And you could multiply the list ten-fold.
What shall we say to these things? Something must be said because sickness and death are threats to faith in the love and power of God. And I regard it as my primary responsibility as a pastor to nourish and strengthen faith in the love and power of God. There is no weapon like the Word of God for warding off threats to faith. And so I want us to listen carefully today to the teaching of Scripture regarding Christ and cancer, the power and love of God over against the sickness of our bodies.
I regard this message today as a crucial pastoral message, because you need to know where your pastor stands on the issues of sickness, healing, and death. If you thought it was my conception that every sickness is a divine judgment on some particular sin, or that the failure to be healed after a few days of prayer was a clear sign of inauthentic faith, or that Satan is really the ruler in this world and God can only stand helplessly by while his enemy wreaks havoc with his children—if you thought any of those were my notions, you would relate to me very differently in sickness than you would if you knew what I really think. Therefore, I want to tell you what I really think and try to show you from Scripture that these thoughts are not just mine but also, I trust, God’s thoughts.
Six Affirmations Toward a Theology of Suffering
So I would like everyone who has a Bible to turn with me to Romans 8:18–28. There are six affirmations which sum up my theology of sickness, and at least the seed for each of these affirmations is here. Let’s read the text:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (RSV)
1. All Creation Has Been Subjected to Futility
My first affirmation is this: the age in which we live, which extends from the fall of man into sin until the second coming of Christ, is an age in which the creation, including our bodies, has been “subjected to futility” and “enslaved to corruption.” Verse 20: “The creation was subjected to futility.” Verse 21: “The creation will be freed from slavery to corruption.” And the reason we know this includes our bodies is given in verse 23: not only the wider creation but “we ourselves (i.e., Christians) groan in ourselves awaiting sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Our bodies are part of creation and participate in all the futility and corruption to which creation has been subjected.
Who is this in verse 20 that subjected creation to futility and enslaved it to corruption? It is God. The only other possible candidates to consider would be Satan or man himself. Perhaps Paul meant that Satan, in bringing man into sin, or man, in choosing to disobey God—perhaps one of them is referred to as the one who subjected creation to futility. But neither Satan nor man can be meant because of the words “in hope” at the end of verse 20. This little phrase, subjected “in hope,” gives the design or purpose of the one who subjected creation to futility. But it was neither man’s nor Satan’s intention to bring corruption upon the world in order that the hope of redemption might be kindled in men’s hearts and that someday the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” might shine more brightly. Only one person could subject the creation to futility with that design and purpose, namely, the just and loving creator.
Therefore, I conclude that this world stands under the judicial sentence of God upon a rebellious and sinful mankind—a sentence of universal futility and corruption. And no one is excluded, not even the precious children of God.
Probably the futility and corruption Paul speaks of refers to both spiritual and physical ruination. On the one hand man in his fallen state is enslaved to flawed perception, misconceived goals, foolish blunders, and spiritual numbness. On the other hand, there are floods, famines, volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, plagues, snake bites, car accidents, plane crashes, asthma, allergies, and the common cold, and cancer, all rending and wracking the human body with pain and bringing men—all men—to the dust.
As long as we are in the body we are slaves to corruption. Paul said this same thing in another place. In 2 Corinthians 4:16 he said, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man (i.e., the body) is decaying (i.e., being corrupted) yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” The word Paul uses for decay or corrupt here is the same one used in Luke 12:33 where Jesus said, Make sure your treasure is in heaven “where thief does not come near and moth does not corrupt.” Just like a coat in a warm, dark closet will get moth eaten and ruined, so our bodies in this fallen world are going to be ruined one way or the other. For all creation has been subjected to futility and enslaved to corruption while this age lasts. That is my first affirmation.
2. An Age of Deliverance and Redemption Is Coming
My second affirmation is this: there is an age coming when all the children of God, who have endured to the end in faith, will be delivered from all futility and corruption, spiritually and physically. According to verse 21, the hope in which God subjected creation was that some day “The creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” And verse 23 says that “We ourselves groan within ourselves waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” It has not happened yet. We wait. But it will happen. “Our citizenship is in heaven from which we await a Savior, the Lord, Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our lowliness to be like the body of his glory” (Philippians 3:20, 21). “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no longer any death; and there shall be no longer any mourning or crying or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
There is coming a day when every crutch will be carved up, and every wheelchair melted down into medallions of redemption. And Merlin and Reuben and Jim and Hazel and Ruth and all the others among us will do cartwheels through the Kingdom of Heaven. But not yet. Not yet. We groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. But the day is coming and that is my second affirmation.
3. Christ Purchased, Demonstrated, and Gave a Foretaste of It
Third, Jesus Christ came and died to purchase our redemption, to demonstrate the character of that redemption as both spiritual and physical, and to give us a foretaste of it. He purchased our redemption, demonstrated its character, and gave us a foretaste of it. Please listen carefully, for this is a truth badly distorted by many healers of our day.
The prophet Isaiah foretold the work of Christ like this in 53:5–6 (a text which Peter applied to Christians in 1 Peter 2:24):
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (RSV)
The blessing of forgiveness and the blessing of physical healing were purchased by Christ when he died for us on the cross. And all those who give their lives to him shall have both of these benefits. But when? That is the question of today. When will we be healed? When will our bodies no longer be enslaved to corruption?
“I will not leave you alone. You are mine. I know each of my sheep by name. You belong to Me. If you think I am finished with you, if you think I am a small god, that you can keep at a safe distance, I will pounce on you like a roaring lion, tear you to pieces, rip you to shreds, and break every bone in your body. Then I will mend you, cradle you in my arms, and kiss you tenderly.”
God stalks us. He never lets up. We can never, never out run Him. A popular 182 line poem, from a generation ago, was called “The Hound of Heaven“. It described a person being pursued by God. This is part of it.
I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot precipitated.
The very remarkable thing is not our prodigal hearts; rather it is the amazing love the Father has by chasing us. Jesus is consistently reckless about capturing us, and making us his own. His love is like a homing mechanism in a missile shot at us that defies our escape. We can weave and dodge all we want, but we have been targeted, and He is coming for us.
The way we talk and posture, it as if it is us that does the choosing. I’m not saying we don’t to a degree. But the Bible paints God in a different light. He initiates, and He chooses. He superintends our life, choreographing our movements. If you remember the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis it will support this reasoning.
My Bipolar depression and epilepsy issues can never thwart or nullify Jesus’ love for me. I can’t point at them as reasons not to be his follower. He is not intimidated by my medical condition. My brain tumor and the death of my daughter didn’t phase Him. They are merely physical footnotes to the story of my life.
We opened with a Brennan Manning quote. He observes that life with Jesus will involve being torn to pieces and such. He will not complacently love us, He just isn’t fond of you because you’re sort of a likable person. His love is rough, and savage and furious. He is quite tempestuous and intractable. He won’t let go. Your issues are probably not as significant as you think.
If you’re depressed, manic, paranoid or delusional you can still surrender to Jesus. These are not your identity, they are not permanent. Yes, I get depressed and have incredible issues with anxiety. I have a hand tremor almost all the time. And I can get really paranoid. But, I am his follower–first and foremost.
Let Him love you today. His kind of love will heal you completely.
He will seize you and draw you close. You will find the rest you seek leaning on Him.
“Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30, NLT
“Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.”
As I look over the last two posts on the blessings of a long battle, I’m reminded of what the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians about the importance of not being ignorant concerning the schemes of Satan (II Corinthians 2:11). After reading those posts, I realized a word of balance was needed in discussing the relationship of formulaic Christianity to spiritual practices lest the devil distort the truth to his advantage.
Both posts encouraged the believer to move beyond canned formulas to a restful trust in and radical dependence on Christ. A common formula for someone who finds themselves in a protracted struggle with sin, weakness, or some thorn in the flesh is “Read the Bible, pray, and attend church and that will solve your problem.”
These are wonderful spiritual practices but the problem is that people begin to trust in the formula more than the Person who can heal their inner leper. The formula can become a religious idol.
The biblical view of spiritual practices (prayer, Scripture study, church attendance, fellowship, fasting, meditation, and the sacraments) is that they are both avenues of renewal and bridges to intimacy with the Living God. They are sacramental; they are a means of grace.
Christ is the Vine; we are the branches. One of the primary ways that the branches stay connected to the Vine is through spiritual practices. That is how we abide in him and apart from abiding in him, we can do nothing.
This next part is crucial, and, if you only get one thing out of this post, this is it: when the believer gets frustrated enough to forsake impotent formulas, the devil’s primary agenda then is to get that person to forsake authentic, life–giving spiritual practices too.
That’s why the Christian should ask for wisdom every day so that he or she can tell the difference between the two. Satan is more than happy to allow us to forsake the false as long as we don’t replace it with the real.
It’s part of the human condition that, in our anger and frustration, we often throw out the wheat with the chaff. And a person who is involved in a long, difficult battle is going to need all the grace–filled spiritual practices they have time for!
I’m convinced that when the devil sees a believer, who is involved in a long battle, leave anemic formulas and begin to become engaged in regular, soul–nourishing spiritual practices, it fills him with uncontrollable rage. He will come to that Christian with many false voices in an effort to separate the branch from the Vine. Here’s a small sampling:
“ You tried this religious stuff before and you still have the same addiction/weakness/problem. What makes you think it’s going to work this time?”
“If you have your quiet time with God in the morning when you don’t feel like it, you’re being a phony. You should only do it when you feel like it.”
“If your quiet time with God becomes a regular thing, it will become a dead religious ritual. You don’t want to become legalistic. Keep things spontaneous. Just do it when your heart moves you to do it.”
“Regular spiritual practices aren’t the real you. You can find God in every day life without them in a way that fits your personality.”
“You’re a person of action not of contemplation. You get things done without all this navel–gazing and spiritual stuff.”
These are just a few plays out of the devil’s playbook. May God give us the discernment to recognize his voice and the wisdom to reject his counsel.
“But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”
Isaiah 43:1-2, NLT
“YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — July 1, an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of “hotshots,” authorities said Monday. It was the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.”
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. Firefighters have a dangerous job. They put their lives on the line.
The promises here in Isaiah 43 meant to prepare us, and promise us. Fires burn and consume. Floods keep growing and multiplying. Yet in this world full of fires and floods, we have these promises of His presence in the middle of it all. He intends to be right there when things are going very, very wrong.
And dear broken believer, trials and tribulations are a fact of life for us. Life is often full of badness, but my God, we learn. (Oh, how we learn.) You may be struggling now, but we are being made into something wonderful.
“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.” –1 Peter 4:12
No surprises– burning trials– something strange? Hardly, it’s just the life of a saint, as he travels home to heaven. And isn’t heaven is worth just a little temporary pain? (I walk with a cane, so I’ll be behind you a bit.)
The reality is this, the Isaiah verses declare that there will be floods, and rivers to cross, and fires and flames. These are going to happen. But, the Lord does promise that He will walk with you, as your Companion, and Protector.
“It is quite useless knocking at the door of heaven for earthly comfort. It’s not the sort of comfort they supply there.” –C.S. Lewis
We are looking to be given comfortable things, naturally easy things. Like lots of money in our bank accounts, bills paid off. A redesigned kitchen would be nice. And one of those huge refrigerators (big enough to hang a cow in.) A new VW Jetta, maybe. But this is not the comfort that God is supplying us.
You may have to shift things in your thinking. But maybe you have already learned this, and might just need a tiny reminder. There is a definite upside to this– the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is standing at your side, and you will know his true comfort and assistance. It is a promise. And it is yours. (But not the VW, most likely).
“Who is this coming up from the wilderness, Leaning upon her beloved?”
Song of Solomon 8:5
Once while stranded in the Alaskan wilderness I almost froze to death. It was cold, 20 F below zero.
About 30 years ago, a friend and I felt directed to bring in Bibles and discipleship materials into the village of Minto, very near the Arctic Circle. We were driving in a little red Datsun through about eight inches of snow late at night. Suddenly, the car just quit running. We looked at each other, and we started to assess our situation. No cell phone, on a very remote road with no heat. We both knew that unless God made a direct intervention, we would never survive the intense cold. We prayed, and waited and thought. We had to fight the panic.
There is a wilderness we all must traverse. It can be as difficult and extreme as an Arctic landscape. The Shulamite girl in Song of Solomon knew this terrain. It is a desperate place to be. This world is a bitter place, and provides little in the way of solace and comfort. We are called to be “pilgrims and strangers,” making this journey of faith to a heavenly city.
The opening verse has witnesses or observers making a declaration. They seem to be shocked, and amazed by what they see. The Shulamite girl was spotted, making her way, slowly threading her way up from the wastelands. The path has been difficult, it would’ve been easier to quit. It has taken everything she could muster up.
But the crescendo in this verse is the declaration, “she is coming up…leaning on her beloved.” She found the help she had to have, at the side of One who loved and beloved. He had come, at just the right time to lift her up and lead her out her extremity. She has found that He is her strength. It is He who has come to deliver her. The verse suggests that it is the bridegroom that is the determining factor.
His presence changes everything.
We were miraculously rescued after about 20 hours. How we survived in that frigid isolation is beyond me. Freezing to death was truly imminent. I remember squeezing through the car window when it became first light. The snow had completely covered the car, and as I surveyed our surroundings, I remember thinking how desolate it was. We had stalled on a high ridge, and it seemed like the loneliest and most isolated place on Earth.
This afternoon I sat out on my deck, looking and thinking. This verse entered my brain like a bullet. Walking with Jesus through my wilderness has challenged and wearied. I have fallen more times then I can count. Each time I have picked myself up. Do you know why? Because when I’m with Jesus, I know I will be fine.
It’s strange to be in the position of being older. A whirlwind of days and nights swirl from this human drama, and I think I may be starting thinking about my exit— Lord willing, stage right.
I’m supposed to be a ‘veteran’ now– a mature believer. I’m not supposed to get stressed. However, age is a brutal teacher– and it seems we have to learn so dang fast, it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose. (Just the other day three teeth almost came out from the blast.)
Getting old is great in some ways. I only wish I could do it more gracefully.
On top of it all, it seems to me like my sin has poisoned the air that others must breathe. I have contaminated so much. You might just say, I have ‘soured’ everyone’s milk. “Learning to live with the regrets” is a class that we should add to the local high school’s curriculum. It certainly would be useful.
A old friend is celebrating her birthday so I volleyed a semi serious “tongue and cheek” regret at her. But then, I suddenly realized that there is a point when we realize that behind every older person, is someone else wondering what the hell has happened, and how did it get this way so fast? It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
As a Christian, I tentatively believe that this world I’m in, has folded open for me, and God has specified a direction. I do contend though, unbelief is easier on a certain level, but I do not intend to take any detours. Perhaps the real trick about reading a map in the car is that you most likely won’t get it folded back the same way ever again. You must learn to accept this. And as a rule, maps seldom reveal the best detours.
“I will be your God throughout your lifetime— until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”
Isaiah 46:4, NLT
I must admit to having a connection to “Bumble”, that crazy, loveable, abominable snowman in one of those schlocky, animated children TV classics from my youth. I guess I identify with that ‘misfit’ yeti– someone who finally sees the light, but only when all his teeth are pulled! Somewhere in that show he seemed almost good, but didn’t we all wonder for a while if he would come around or not?
I also wonder about the thief on the cross who got his ticket punched by Jesus at the last possible moment. When we finally make it to heaven, we will find him there laughing and celebrating like everyone else, just like he belonged. I guess grace does that to a person.