Category Archives: Healing

Does He Even Have a Name?

The story of the Gadarene Demoniac (whom I prefer to call the Gadarene Disciple) became deeply personal for me a number of years ago. This man, whose story had formerly seemed bizarre beyond relevance to me, became a beacon of hope for me and for others like me who have experienced severe demonic oppression. What I love about the way this author portrays him is that she has taken the time to humanize him, to restore the dignity that was so brutally stolen from him by the malice of evil spirits and the ignorance of fearful people. Just as Jesus looked beyond the grotesque form and bizarre behavior to connect with the image of God still alive in him, I pray that we as His representatives on earth will look at others with the same love.

Messy images.

Glorious hope.

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Secondhand Sighs

http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
http://stoneshout.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/bear-burden.html
I’ve been doing a lot of heavy sighing lately. I don’t mean to. Pathetic sounds just sort of escape my lips before I realize it. But I think they are a sound indicator of the state of my heart: burdened.

For me, life is good right now. I have much to rejoice and give thanks over. But for several of the people I love, life is a waking nightmare. The bottom has dropped out of their world and their dreams are dying a slow, painful death. As I walk with them through their dark valleys and listen to their anguished cries, I can’t help but absorb their pain. The question is, what am I supposed to do with it?

Of course these burdens have driven me to perpetual prayer, crying out to God day and night to put right what has been made so wrong. My emotional involvement makes my prayers for others fervent and passionate. But it is also weighing me down to the point where I feel I have little left to offer, and that just doesn’t seem right.

How do I love wholeheartedly without being consumed? How do I immerse myself in other people’s pain without being submerged by it?

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53:3-4

As always, God reminds me that He has walked this path ahead of me, not just as the transcendent God who reigns from heaven, but also as the fleshy mortal who wept here on earth. He knows what it is like to carry other’s burdens and be weighed down by their sorrow. He didn’t dodge the pain or distance Himself from the suffering. And yet somehow He managed not to be completely overcome by it.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
John 11:3-5

When I read John’s account of how Jesus reacted to his friend Lazarus’ death, I am amazed that He got emotionally involved in it at all. Right from the point that He first heard that news of His friend’s illness, He told His disciples that it wouldn’t end in death. What’s more, He could already see the big picture of what was going on, that this was a cosmic play in which God was setting things up to put His glory on display. Jesus understood all this. He could explain all this. And yet when He came face to face with Mary’s grief over the loss of her brother, He burst into tears.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
John 11:33-35

Her pain was His pain, because He loved her. He didn’t stand at a slightly detached distance, maintaining professional control over His feelings and offering wise words of truth. Even though He already new the future outcome, He entered into her current reality. He allowed it to affect Him right down to the core of His Spirit, disturbing His serenity and breaking down His composure. He didn’t preach at her. He wept with her.

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
John 11:40-42

But Jesus didn’t get stuck there. Nor did He try to go it alone. He entered fully into the seeming hopelessness of His friend’s immediate situation, but then He lifted it up into the context of God’s ongoing story. This was not the end. He believed it not only for his own sake, but He clung to it for her sake. He carried her burden to God in prayer, exerting His faith in God’s good purposes for her when her faith was too weak for the task.

And, as He does, God showed up to finish what He had started: in Lazarus, in Mary, and in Jesus. The Father comforted His Son. And in turn, Jesus comforted Mary and healed Lazarus.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5

This ripple effect of comfort flows down through history to me. Like Jesus, Paul, and the many others who have gone before, I get to stand in the crossroads between earth and heaven, stretched between the colossal chaos of what is happening in this realm and the cosmic order of what God is orchestrating in the heavenly one.

I am realizing that I cannot bear this burden in isolation, from God or from others. If I try to carry it alone it will crush me. But thanks be to God, He has built His Church out of a community of suffering comforters and of comforted sufferers. As we each go to the Father in desperate, dependent faith on behalf of the other, He will supply the comfort we need to sustain ourselves and support each other.

Second-hand sighs. Second-hand comfort.

These are what hold me together. These are what bind us together.

When There are No Words

Words escape me just now.

I have spent the past few weeks immersed in the life stories of my Ugandan students, listening, reading, and responding to their experiences of pain and trauma, survival and redemption. Even as I walk through my routine of homeschooling and hospitality back home in Scotland, the echoes of their ongoing stories continue to reverberate through my soul.

They have survived genocide and rape, bullying and witchcraft. Some have witnessed their parents butchered, their siblings shot, their husbands poisoned to death. Others carry the scars of intense hunger and severe beatings, crippling poverty and abusive families, obstructed justice and oppressive social systems.

Despite attacks from every angle, these valiant men and women have carried on working, ministering, leading, and serving. On the surface they are strong and capable, but just beneath their wounds lie festering and vulnerable. Their safety and survival have depended on the ability to stow away their painful baggage. But I have assigned them to pull it all out and put it into words.

Words offer a healing release, except for when they won’t come.

Sometimes prayer is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

Some traumas run too deep to put into words. Some experiences are too painfully fresh to be able to stand back and formulate into rational sequences of sound. They can only be relived in images and sensations, imaginations and dreams.

And so they remain locked inside the soul, expressing their presence through irrational behaviors and unexplainable tears. Left alone they slowly suck life out of the spirit, leaving little behind but the empty shell of a once vibrant person.

I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his mouth; I have become like a man who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply. I wait for you, O LORD; you will answer, O Lord my God.
Psalm 38:13-15

I have been there myself, walking around in my shell of a body, mechanically interacting with the people and events around me while feeling spiritually and emotionally trapped within invisible walls. Comforting comments bounced. Listening ears walked away empty. Without words to bridge the gap between my inner experience and my outer reality, I carried on a lonely, dual life, one of external performance and internal anguish.

I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart. All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.
Psalm 38:8-9

But the beautiful thing about God is that He is not limited to words. His Spirit passes through the walls of language and location and time. He is able to enter the world of our memories and emotions and commune with us there, too. He sees the images that haunt us. He hears the silent screams that reverberate through our souls. And He knows the longings that we haven’t figured out how to express.

Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:23

Prayer doesn’t have to involve carefully crafted words or even coherent sentences. Sometimes it is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Romans 8:26-27

And yet prayer is also the outlet for our pain, the bridge that once again connects us to Someone outside of ourselves. It is us laying bare our broken, messy selves before God’s holy, penetrating gaze, knowing that our only hope lies in communion with Him.

jesus-weeping-277x300

Even apart from words, we can invite God’s Spirit to come into our most privately held grief and pray the right words for us. Sometimes even His intercessions go too deep to be able to express with words. He cries along with us, compassionately expressing our pain with groans of His own.

That is where I find myself now, groaning along with the Spirit on behalf of my students. Some things I have words for, specific prayers on their behalf and written replies to their assignments. But for the most part I agonize in God’s presence over all they have endured, longing for the redemption of their pain.

Thankfully, God doesn’t need my words.

Challenging Forgiveness

“How can I forgive her if she hasn’t said she’s sorry?” My son looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, his sincere question about his sister unwittingly peeling a scab off my past.

How can I answer him when I haven’t yet resolved this issue myself? My mind instantly brings up the faces of people whose actions and words once wounded me so deeply that I still wince at their memory. What continues to hurt is not what they said or did, but the outstanding fact that they have never acknowledged that it was wrong.

Have I forgiven them?

If forgiveness means that I have completely forgotten their mistreatment, that I carry on our relationship as if it never happened, then no. I have not done that. I’m not sure how I could relate freely with those whose words and actions damaged me so deeply, not to mention radically redefined our relationship. The truth is, I don’t entrust myself to them, not if they haven’t expressed remorse or at least evidenced a desire to change.

Is it unforgiving of me to hold back, to maintain a bit of physical and emotional distance between myself and them? What is it that God is asking of me when He tells me to forgive?

Forgiveness has many appropriate manifestations, each determined by our current stage of relational healing.

Not to hold Joseph up as a perfect life model, but I think his story lays out an excellent example of what forgiveness looks like in the different stages of relational healing. His brothers had stolen from him his identity, his dreams, and his whole life as he had known it. Their betrayal cost him everything, including the ability to trust himself to them again.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”
Genesis 41:51

But even in a state of woundedness, Joseph did not harbor a grudge against his brothers. Rather than feed on memories of how horrible they had been, he simply tried to forget them. Though that was not an adequate long-term solution, I think it was an appropriate form of forgiveness for that stage of their relationship.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: …Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.
Genesis 42:7, 14-16

When God brought his brothers unexpectedly back into his life, Joseph did not seek revenge. Nor did he immediately run into their arms and pick up where they had left off. Joseph kept his distance and his anonymity, allowing himself the time and space to ascertain if they had changed. Instead of shutting himself off from them forever, he demonstrated another layer of forgiveness by creating opportunities for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:21, 23-24

Joseph may have seemed harsh and unyielding, putting his brothers through the tests that he did. But his goal was true restoration, not revenge. Like God so often does with us, he graciously set them up for a re-match. Another round of jealousy-inducing favoritism, this time towards Benjamin. The recurring offer to throw their little brother under the bus to save their own hides. But when they pleaded for Benjamin’s life, offering themselves in his place, Joseph knew that they had changed. He knew it was finally safe to come out of hiding.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Genesis 45:1-2

Deep springs of pent up emotion burst forth as Joseph made his startling revelation. That emotion could very well have been anger or bitterness. But Joseph’s tears manifested the forgiveness that had been working its way through the layers of his heart all along. Tears of grief over his freshly-awakened pain. Tears of sorrow over the years of lost relationship. And tears of relief and delight over this wonderfully unanticipated fresh start.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes.
Genesis 45:4-5, 15, 22

Joseph did not wait for an apology or an explanation. He already knew their hearts. He threw himself on his brothers, hugging and weeping over each of them like the prodigal son’s Father. He did the explaining for them, welcoming them back into fellowship and soothing away their fears. And he demonstrated the extent of his forgiveness, bypassing probation and jumping straight into extravagant provision. New clothes. New inheritance. A land for their families to settle in right alongside his. A relationship restored.

…”‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? … So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:15-21

But the reconciliation process wasn’t finished yet. Nor was Joseph’s healing. Years later, after the death of their father, fear prompted the brothers to finally apologize for what they had done to him. It had been a long time in the coming, and in many respects Joseph had moved on, not expecting to hear it, but their apology hit the spot. A fresh round of tears. A healing opportunity to verbalize his forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status,
a heart posture than a court verdict.

I look over these layers of development in Joseph’s story and begin to conceptualize forgiveness in a new way. Maybe forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status, a heart posture than a court verdict. Maybe what God is calling me to is to desire and work towards reconciliation, even if it is not a current possibility. Short cuts won’t get me there. Faking it won’t work. But persistently loving those who hurt me opens the door for God to bring about true restoration, one that neither compromises my wholeness nor denies God’s grace.

So how do I forgive those who haven’t said they are sorry? I pray that, just as He did with Joseph’s alienated brothers, God will write them back into my story. And I wait with open arms.

Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

When God Finally Says Yes

My husband and I were up till all hours last night, scrambling to find a solution to, what seemed at the time, a major crisis. Our 14-year-old daughter was about to be stranded in Houston overnight, stuck on an incoming flight so delayed that she had already missed the last flight out to her destination. We felt so powerless as parents, sitting in our kitchen in Scotland, unable to get to our child when she needed our help. So in between being put on hold again by the airlines and posting frantic facebook requests, we kept calling out to God to please take care of our girl.

We didn’t have to wait nearly as long as David did to receive God’s reply.

God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

David spent years as a youth, helplessly stuck between the rock of God’s calling on his life and the hard place of Saul’s jealous attempts to thwart it. Anointed as king but hiding out like a convict. Promised God’s protective love but constantly running for his life. Again and again he called out to God for help. He saw God intervene in the moment and deliver him from each immediate threat, but God did not instantly solve his ongoing, bigger problem. If anything, each time when Saul walked away from an encounter still the rightful king and still his powerful antagonist, David very well could have felt like God had just said “no.”

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. O LORD, save the king! Answer us when we call!
Psalm 20:7-9

But David didn’t stop asking. He didn’t really have much choice about his life circumstances; those were mostly out of his control. In the face of his helplessness, he clung all the more intensely to God as his only helper. And in the end, God came through.

O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength. How great is his joy in the victories you give! You have granted him the desire of his heart and have not withheld the request of his lips.
Psalm 21:1-2

When God finally removed Saul and established David as king, David’s prayers overflowed with gratitude and relief. His joy in what God had done was that much greater because he had waited so long to see it happen. What he might have taken for granted had it come quickly and easily he could now savor as a precious gift from God.

You welcomed him with rich blessings and placed a crown of pure gold on his head. He asked you for life, and you gave it to him– length of days, for ever and ever. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Psalm 21:3-5

Similarly, Jesus’ long wait for deliverance made His resurrection all the sweeter, His exaltation all the more glorious. He had begged God for His life, and for a time it certainly seemed as if God had said “no.” Long, silent night on trial. Eternal, agonizing day on the cross. Three solar cycles in the grave, wondering if God would show up, if He would reverse the natural laws of death and decay.

Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the LORD; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken.
Psalm 21:6-7

But Jesus didn’t stop trusting His Father’s love. And in the end, God came through. He had not prayed in futility. He had not waited in vain. God’s delay may have sounded like a no, but His reply was a profoundly gratifying yes.

Anticipation heightens gratification.

On a much smaller scale, God’s reply to our frantic prayers last night brought us greater joy because He made us wait for it. Of course we had asked Him to bless and protect our daughter as she left home yesterday morning. But had He answered that prayer in the time and way that we expected, she would have arrived at her grandparents’ home without a hitch and we would have carried on our routine with little thought for God’s intervention.

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Instead He allowed us a sleepless night and heart-stopping moments in exchange for the deep delight of seeing Him answer. Countless concerned friends. Loving, proactive strangers. A safe home to shelter our child. A kind-hearted soul to put her on the next day’s flight. At last we snuggled down into our bed, blissfully at rest in the unfailing love of our Father.

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
Psalm 116:7

When God Says No

What happens if I pray for a miracle but God doesn’t show up and do it?

I recently received an email from a woman struggling with how to pray expectantly for a healthy baby while facing genetic odds to the contrary. Her fearful questions reminded me of a time years ago when I faced similar circumstances, stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

Sometimes we feel stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

God had been teaching me much about faith, calling me to higher levels of prayer and expectation. I had been reticent to claim things of Him that He had not clearly promised, but at the same time His Spirit was convicting me to ask more of Him. As I slowly began to do so, I was amazed to see Him show up and do things that I never would have expected. Miraculous healings. Sudden changes of heart. My faith was growing in leaps and bounds, and I wanted that to continue.

So when I found out that I was expecting a child, I recognized another opportunity for my faith to grow. My joy over this new gift of life was mixed with fear that, like the three who had gone before her, she would die in utero. Each doctor’s appointment confirmed my fear as her development began to fall off the charts. I was tempted to resign myself to the inevitable, to protect myself from the crushing weight of disappointment by not holding out hope that God would work a miracle. At the same time, I wanted to live by faith, not fear. So I kept wrestling in prayer, begging my Heavenly Father to spare her life. I clung to the truth that He loved me and that nothing was impossible for Him.

God said no to His only Son.

When I lost the baby, I almost lost my faith. God had told me to ask, so I asked. Then He said no. I felt betrayed. My faith in His goodness was shattered. Where could I go from here?

Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
John 11:41-44

I was not alone in this experience. Jesus had walked this path ahead of me. He had approached God in faith, asking Him to do the impossible and watching Him answer with incredible miracles. He had related to God with the boldness of a child, confident in God’s fatherly love that would hear and respond to His requests.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

But when Jesus begged God to spare His life, God said no. Jesus had put His faith on the line, wrestling with God in prayer in the garden, refusing to resign Himself to the inevitable. He clung to the truth that God loved Him and that nothing was impossible for Him.

“He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “”Eloi, Eloi,” “lama” “sabachthani?””–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 27:43, 46

And yet at the end of the day, Jesus found Himself strung out on a cross, fighting a losing battle for breath, and crying out His feeling of abandonment by God. He had trusted His Father. Through prayer and supplication He had made His request known to God, but God hadn’t granted it. Where could He go from here?

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

In an ultimate act of faith, Jesus went right back to God. He laid His Spirit in His Father’s hands, trusting in His unfailing love despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And His Father didn’t fail Him. He let Him down as far as the grave, but He held His body intact through the agonizing wait for the third day’s dawn. Then He said yes.

God’s love is powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold us through a “no.”

As I teetered on the brink of losing my faith, I, too, reached out to God in a final act of desperation. I placed the last shredded remains of my faith into His hands, begging Him to hold onto it for me because I had no strength left to hold into it myself. And God didn’t fail me, either. He held my faith intact through the death of another dream and the long wait for hope’s resurrection.

On the other side of healings and deaths, high hopes and devastating disappointment, the confidence that I can claim as I boldly ask God for a miracle is His Fatherly love: powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold me through a “no.”

Expecting the Unexpected

“I’m nervous about this, Lord. How can I be sure that You will show up and heal her? What if I have misinterpreted You? I’m afraid to put Your name on the line, to expect something of You that You may not plan to do.”

Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it also kept my faith from growing.

Miracles were as foreign an idea to me as giants and dragons. I believed that they happened, but were more likely to occur long ago in a far away land. Why? Because, in my experience, that wasn’t the way God usually worked. Because the cost of discipleship had oriented my expectations towards suffering and struggle, not healing and deliverance. And, if I were perfectly honest, because I was too afraid to expect more of God and then be disappointed.

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
John 14:11-13

But Jesus’ words raised my expectations. They called my bluff, pulling aside my cover-up of piety and surrender and revealing my wimpy faith. Why didn’t I ask Him for more? Was it because I believed that asking for miracles would be inappropriate for a mature believer in His sovereignty, or was it simply because underneath my theological excuses, I was compensating for a lack of faith that God would actually do what I asked?

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

As I studied Jesus’ final interaction with His disciples before His death, I heard my own weak faith reflected in their responses to Him. Resignation. Fear. Doubt. And I heard Him nudging me to ask for more from Him, to extend beyond the safety zone of my expectations and risk disappointment with Him. Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it would also keep my faith from growing.

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
Psalm 2:7-8

God the Father had invited His Son to ask. Jesus in turn invited His disciples to ask. Now it was my turn to ask, taking Him at His word that both His glory and my joy would be increased through my doing so.

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
John 16:24
Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful… Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
Acts 3:2-6

And so I asked Him to heal my Hindu friend, whose rheumatoid arthritis had kept her crippled and in pain all the years I had known her. I went to her home and laid my hands on her knees, asking Him out loud to restore her ability to walk. And I returned to my own home, relieved to have dispatched my duty and wondering what would come of it. Would God show up and do what I had asked? Had I just raised my unbelieving friend’s expectations of a God who might not rise to meet them? My action had either set her up to encounter God in a powerful, personal way or to turn away from Him in disappointment and disbelief. Petrified, I could only watch and wait to see what He would do.

Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.
Acts 3:7-8

A few days later I went by her house. Much to my astonishment and my joy, I found her walking around without support, something I had never seen her do. My jaw hit the floor. It had worked. God had done what I asked!

When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Acts 3:12, 16

As it was for the disciples, my friend’s healing afforded me the opportunity to once again call her and her husband to faith in Jesus. But her healing also called me to greater faith through Him. Learning to trust our Father meant learning to ask Him for the impossible. I could not claim what He would or would not do with my request, but I could rest in the assurance that He would hold my faith in His goodness regardless of the outcome. Just as He had taught me to accept the undesirable, He now taught me to expect the unexpected.

A Healing Friend

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but I need you to believe me. My experience is real. It has redefined my life. I feel alone, because no one else sees it. I feel rejected, because no one else will risk facing it. I need you to take me seriously. I need you to walk this with me.”

David was still struggling to believe it himself. Saul, his beloved mentor, his idolized king, was also his manipulative abuser. After years of living in Saul’s home, fighting his battles, comforting his spirit, and being part of his family, the realization was just starting to sink in that David’s perception of their entire relationship had been a lie. Saul didn’t love him. Saul didn’t care two wits about him. Saul had only kept him close so that could control him, use him, and when that was finished, eliminate him.

A friend’s denial of abuse adds insult to injury.
The blow of not being believed re-opens the wounds of abuse.

This was such a radical paradigm shift that David was still wrestling with his own voice of denial. Hearing the same doubts reflected in his best friend’s voice sent him into an emotional tailspin.

Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?”
1 Samuel 20:1

As soon as possible, he had come to Jonathan for support. He always felt safe with Jonathan, secure in their friendship and confident that they saw eye-to-eye. In fact, Jonathan was the one who had first warned him that things weren’t right with Saul. If anyone would believe him about just how bad it was and be willing to stand with him through the mess ahead, it would be Jonathan.

“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without confiding in me. Why would he hide this from me? It’s not so!”
1 Samuel 20:2

Jonathan’s quick denial caught David off-guard. It was the last thing he had expected. Then again, everything in David’s life was turning out to be the opposite of what he had expected. Had Jonathan’s friendship been a lie, too? How could he not see what was now so painfully obvious to David? And yet David recognized his friend’s predicament. The abuser that he was naming was Jonathan’s father. For Jonathan, believing his friend would cost him his father. Accepting David’s veracity would mean affirming his father’s depravity.

But David took an oath and said, “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said to himself, ‘Jonathan must not know this or he will be grieved.’ Yet as surely as the LORD lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death.”
1 Samuel 20:3

David could hardly control the hysteria rising in his voice. This was a matter of life and death. He had never imagined that his best friend would doubt his word. The wound of being unbelieved would only add to the agony of the wounds from his abuse.

If I am guilty, then kill me yourself ! Why hand me over to your father?”
“Never!” Jonathan said. “If I had the least inkling that my father was determined to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you?”
1 Samuel 20:8-11

Jonathan was uncertain. He knew his father wasn’t perfect, but it was hard to believe that he was capable of such atrocity. Surely there was some other explanation, some other way to reconcile David’s testimony with his father’s. But he recognized that if he really loved his friend, he would have to consider the possibility that his painful story was true. To deny David’s experience would be to deny their friendship.

Then Jonathan said to David: “By the LORD, the God of Israel, I will surely sound out my father by this time the day after tomorrow! … But if my father is inclined to harm you, may the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not let you know and send you away safely. May the LORD be with you as he has been with my father.
1 Samuel 20:12-13

Jonathan started listening to David. He quit trying to smooth things over, quit trying to explain them away, and started seriously listening to David’s terrified, trembling report. He would do whatever it took to verify David’s claims. He would help however he could to get David out of danger, despite the cost to himself.

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!”
“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father.
But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him.
1 Samuel 20:30-33

And, as Jonathan would soon experience, uncovering the truth about David’s abuser would cost him greatly. Probing deeper into his father’s relationship with David would reveal the true nature of his father’s relationship with himself. Manipulative accusations. Violent reactions. Now it was Jonathan’s turn to experience pain, terror, and disillusionment. The solidarity of Jonathan’s love for his friend deepened as he shared in his sufferings.

So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.
1 Samuel 20:16-17

David was blessed to have a true friend like Jonathan who would walk with him through the messy aftermath of abuse. So many friendships fail to survive this difficult test, disintegrating at the very moment when they are most needed. But a friend who recommits his love in the midst of crisis is a healing friend.

Healing love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend.

True love manifests itself through willingness to share in the sufferings of an abused friend. But when friends and family fail to step up and acknowledge the full horror of abuse, then where else can a desperate, trembling survivor turn?

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24

His name is Jesus.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
You are my friends, if you do what I command. John 15:13-14

What to Expect When We’re Suffering

I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!

But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?

What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.

So what are we to expect now?

The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.

…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8

But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?

Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5

Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57

As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.

He is risen. Our turn is coming!