"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Grief, Glory, and a Dear Old Friend

Grief is sometimes a surprisingly slow burner.  Tragedy deals you a very shrewd, very unexpected sort of blow, but rather than finding yourself immediately laid on your beam ends like a ship in a hurricane, you merely shrug, or scowl, or raise an eyebrow.  This is your brain's equivalent of a counterweight on an elevator, I suppose - it keeps you from falling too quickly.  An hour later, though, you feel it, and you hate yourself for that shrug or that eyebrow, and the tragedy turns over in your mind a hundred different ways, unbidden, for day or weeks or months, until you wonder if you will ever cease to discover new reasons the said tragedy is so tragic. 

A few weeks back, I received word that my dear friend Nick had been badly injured in an accident.  We had been best friends throughout our teenage years (he moved to Colorado a few years after high school).  The years of teendom are, nearly invariably, the silliest years accorded to the cycle of humanity:  indeed, if you possess such a friend as is able to endure you through that complete, interminable succession of seven years, this is a friend indeed. 

I will spare you, dear reader, of the descriptions of our bookish exploits and nerdish frivolities.  I remember these times with great fondness indeed, but they lie behind the realm of the discussion at hand (and at any rate, it is difficult to stop such amusing nostalgia once it is begun).  However, it is enough at this point to explain that for long years, we were inseparable friends.

The day after his accident, he succumbed to his injuries in a quiet hospital and slipped away.  Amazing to consider, no?  Only 36 hours before that, he had been as healthy and strong as anyone aged at 30 years.  How quickly one's situation changes.  Children are born, people join in marriage, fortunes are made, souls enter eternity. 

And in the midst of all of these things, God is at work.  As we dismantle the tragedies in our lives, we naturally attempt to reassemble them in ways that make sense to us, but how futile this endeavor is, how hollow these efforts sound, how weak and insubstantial are the end results, unless we find the Lord in the center of it all.  Even if the tragedy in question is a loved one who died saving a busload of orphans from certain death, the clearcut nobility of such a death can hardly surmount the sad reality that your loved one is gone, and that in perhaps 50 years, there will be scarcely anyone who remembers this incredible sacrifice. 

And then, of course, you have, quite suddenly, this sense that basically anything can happen.  I am, most decidedly, not referring to your "I Believe I Can Fly" high school guidance counselor telling you to reach for the stars and be yourself - no; I mean that all of those things which you assumed could only touch your life if you saw them in a newspaper quickly begin to seem more real - house fires, muggers, accidents, terminal illnesses, and so forth.

Again, though, if we can at all, we must meet with tragedies knowing that God is at work, and that His work, furthermore, is always purposeful, is always in keeping with His character, and does extend to all things (cf. Rom. 9:21-24, Ps. 135:6, Ps. 33:8-11, Dan. 4:35, and many others).  The sovereign purpose is glory - salvation of undeserving sinners with staggering love, grace, patience, and righteousness, and conquest of evil by means of infinite power, wisdom, and righteousness.

We have discussed this before, so I merely touch on it here.  The point is, God's sovereign work gives us not merely a reason, but the reason, that things happen:  because He is somehow glorified by it.  Some will reread that statement with horror, but yes, God has designed even tragedies for His own glorious ends.  Think of the cruelties that Joseph's brothers visited upon him, and then think how God used those circumstances.  Said Joseph to them much later, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive." (Gen. 50:20)

Other examples abound in Scripture, and once you begin to identify them, you cannot help but see them everywhere in its pages.  Paul and Silas are imprisoned wrongfully and beaten brutally, but (literally) at the end of the day, the jailer is saved by the grace of Christ (Acts 16).  The Jerusalem saints were persecuted and scattered, but this dispersion caused the gospel to go forth into new places (Acts 8:1-4).  Even the death of Jesus Christ, the most appalling treachery and crime in all of creation's history, was predestined by God to produce the only way of salvation for a lost and wayward race of sinners.  Incredible.  Go and read Acts 4:27-28 this minute if there resides any doubt in your mind that God Himself was the architect of Christ's death.  Go and read Isaiah 53:10.  Does this not add yet another layer of glory to Christ's death, to consider that the Godhead conspired to bring it about in order to secure the salvation of Christ's church? 

Walking through life with an understanding of God's sovereign purpose of glory helps us to declare, "I cannot say why this tragedy has befallen us, but I know beyond doubt that God is in control, and that this tragedy is an essential part of His plan, and that by this, God is sure to be glorified."  Because we trust in His wisdom and goodness (having tasted them again and again), this sort of understanding is a boon to the distressed believer; it offers real joy in the midst of admitted sorrow. 

And if the tragedy is appallingly black and difficult, let the arduous burden of sadness convince our hearts still more of the overwhelming greatness and surpassing importance of God's glory:  this may be harder than anything you had ever reckoned you would (or could) face, but this means that God's glory is more incredible, and more essential, than you had ever imagined.  There is great purpose at work.  If God has promised us that we will, upon our deaths, experience an eternity free of hardship in His very presence, then He is surely not trifling with us in this life by allowing such tragedy.

We can bring this full circle, then.  I do not know the many reasons why God designed that my friend should die at age 30, but I know that He will be rightly glorified in all of this.  I can say this with all my heart.  And I think that one reason among many, perhaps, is so that His gospel might be proclaimed.  Below is part of an e-mail that my friend Nick sent me years ago; it is undoubtedly the best thing he ever told me in all of our years of acquaintance:

As you know we've both grown up in Christian homes. Myself, I thought I had become a believer WAY back in the day when I was but five or six years old. Did the whole "accept Jesus into my heart" deal. And sure, I spent a good amount of my time serving the church, doing missions, and the like. And I have no doubt that God had me doing those things for His glory, but all those times I was so brokenhearted and downtrodden by the things going on in my life, I never realized God was simply trying to get my attention and let me know that I wasn't saved. How do I know that to be true? How do I know that it wasn't just me being a backslider, or just not being a good enough follower of God? Simple. I never understood sin to be what it was. I was never shown the Law as a mirror to help me SEE my sin. And past that, I thought I was saved. I was proud, selfish...I did good things in the name of God, but I was like the people who will come to God during Judgement Day and be turned away even though they did all those great things in His Name.  
I never read my Bible. I never hungered for it, I never wanted to be at church and looked for ways to leave early. So that's my setup. My preface for my conversion.
Years and years and years have gone by. Twenty three to be exact. Many of which I was fully capable of making a wise decision regarding God. In the last couple years since moving to Colorado life has been pretty miserable. But, something was still missing. Remember now, I THOUGHT I had God in my life, but He wasn't dwelling within me. So somehow by a miracle I started listening to a radio talk show called The Way of the Master Radio. I had been given some from a friend of mine, but it was a year or two before I even tried listening. Well, Way of the Master is based on some really neat ideas. Ideas of the Bible, go figure. Here's their deal: Law to the proud, grace to the humble. They do a lot of phone fishing (witnessing to people on the streets) and ask some questions such as these: Do you think you're a good person? What do you think happens to you when you die? Have you ever lied? Stolen something? Used God's name in vain? So basically these people brought it to my attention that I am a filthy rotten sinner and there is absolutely NOTHING I could do on my own to save myself from eternal damnation. That scared the living daylights out of me. I was never certain in my salvation, always had doubts. So I heard these messages and started thinking. I was consumed by the fact that I was a sinner. And I knew Jesus died for me, but I couldn't get past it all. Was I saved? Was I lost still? Way of the Master asks some simple questions to help you see if you are in the faith. Nothing special. "Is Jesus precious to you? Do you read your Bible without fail each and every day and enjoy it? Do you share your faith? Are you growing in holiness?" I looked back on my life. I could not answer yes to any of those questions. In fact I was worse off than before.
So one evening after I got home from work I fell on my face and wept. I repented for my sins and I put my full trust in Jesus. I understood that He really DID die on that horrible cross to save me from my wretched self. I realized that if I would have died the day before I would have spent my eternity in Hell and I was terrified of that thought. But God is so ultimately kind that I couldn't help but stay on my knees and cry for a good long time. Every time I think about it I can't help but weep with joy due to His kindness. I am radically new. I've been regenerated!!!! I absolutely love reading my Bible and read it every day. I love worship and understand what it's really about. I've stopped watching a lot of movies and shows that I used to like. I stopped listening to a lot of music. I'm thankful, I watch my words, my thinking is radically different. I'm learning tons of new stuff each day and I know God has a lot of work yet to be done in my life. Ha ha, if I were to name all the things He's working on currently with me it'd be a pretty big list. I hate sin because God hates it. My conscience is way more active these days. I know it was dead previously. I had no real remorse. I can't even attend church anymore without being in tears through the worship. Even now as I listen to some stuff I'm ready to cry.
He is so kind, isn't He? So loving, so amazing. So big and powerful and sovereign and righteous and just. So perfect, so merciful. "Indescribable, uncontainable. You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name. You are amazing God." So cool. So cool...!
So yeah, that's my story.


Gregg Metcalf said...

I am sorry for you loss. Wonderful post.

Josh said...

Thanks, Gregg. God is remarkable in His faithfulness and in His sovereignty, in all things; amen?

Steve Wilkin said...

Thanks Josh, this is Nick's parents. We truly appreciate your words of wisdom and for sharing Nick's email. Losing our son has been very difficult, but knowing Christ, we are comforted by the knowledge that God's ways are always greater than ours. Nick you will be deeply missed!

Josh said...

Steve and Dianne - I hear you there. It was such a blessing to receive those words from Nick, and then to rediscover them these years later. So thankful that God's grace is greater than our deepest grief (and yours far, far deeper than mine as Nick's parents).
Nick will always be my dear friend and brother, and I'll always miss him.

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