Christians often pray, “God, let us see you work in power.” We may not understand what it is we ask. God does His best work following a death.
I approach this topic very cautiously, for though there is something important to say here, there is a danger of trivializing it. I just spent several hours with a very good friend whose mother passed away a few weeks ago. Her passing was very difficult. The pain of my own mother’s death, almost a year and a half ago, is still very real, though not as fresh and strong as my friend’s grief is today. Death is not what God originally intended. It means something is wrong with the world. It is an enemy. In Christ’s resurrection, death was dealt a mortal blow; but it still kicks in its final throes. It is the last enemy yet to be defeated, at the end of the age.
Imagine being one of Christ’s followers in the day when He was taken to trial, to torture, and then to execution. He had told them often in advance that this had to happen. They did not understand; they fought the idea. Nothing, not even His frequent warnings, could prepare them for the loss, the injustice, the massive dashing of their hopes and dreams. Peter denied Him, others deserted Him. The women, more than the men, stayed with Him to the end; yet even for them, what a horrific end it seemed to be. This man had brought them unparalleled hope, healing, and love. He was the one who had words of eternal life. He had proved his supernatural power through repeated miracles. Then He was gone. I don’t know if any other death in history could have produced so much shock and grief.
We experience the grief of loved ones dying. We each face our own end. Further, we all experience loss and disappointment: being turned down by someone we love, being rejected by family members, losing jobs or opportunities, suffering injury or disease. These are lesser deaths.
Yet just as Christ’s death brought unparalleled pain, surely His rising brought His followers unparalleled joy! What could compare to Mary’s elation when she saw Him alive that Sunday morning, or the other disciples’ relief and happiness when He appeared among them? How often and with what unrestrainable smiles do you suppose they spoke of that among themselves, the rest of their lives? What could have been a happier moment than seeing Him alive? And what could have been a greater display of God’s power?
We pray for God to work in power, not always remembering that this is when we see Him most at work: when we most need Him. God does His best work following a death, even if it’s of a death of the lesser, figurative sort.
In 2001 my wife and I realized we ought to leave our positions at the headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. I was getting what I call “headquarters disease.” I was a Human Resources director, with national responsibilities, but I was getting disconnected from the field and from the reason I was doing what I was doing. When someone called me on the phone, it felt like an interruption, a bother to me. That was obviously wrong, and we decided the cure had to include leaving headquarters and going back to front-line ministry work.
We ended up in southeast Virginia–and it didn’t turn out to be what we had expected. We experienced some very deep disappointments, unfulfilled expectations, and very difficult conflict (this was with persons who are not now part of the ministry). I was certainly part of the problem; some real changes were needed in my own heart.
For a while it was, well, really awful. We had uprooted our family from one city, and now we were seriously wondering whether we were going to stay in this new one for long. We were living in an apartment we had rented as a base for living while we hunted for a home to buy. It would have been easy, in one sense, just to leave. It would have been terribly wrenching in another sense.
My wife was feeling it as badly as I was. One day she went for a drive down a street that we had visited more than once before, that we thought would be a particularly nice place to live. There were only a few houses on the cul-de-sac at the end of the street. None of them, unfortunately, were for sale. She prayed that day in a kind of desperation for answers and for hope “God, we don’t know if we’re supposed to be here. If you want us to stay, would you please, please, please open up a house on this cul-de-sac suitable for us to live in!”
Two days later I was with several co-workers driving north toward a conference in Gettysburg. We hadn’t even crossed the county line when my cell phone rang. My wife said, “The real estate agent has a house for us to look at.” I said, “Come on, you know I can’t look at any houses until after the conference!” She said, “It’s on the street we want, Tom.” I said, “Oh!” (Brilliant, no?) “I guess you’d better go look at it!”
She checked it out that same morning. It was listed for well below market price, and it fit our desired description almost exactly. The seller accepted our bid with a contingency clause, such that we could pull out of it if I disagreed when I came home. That house is where we’re living now. God was starting to do some of his best work, giving us hope and direction in the midst of what seemed like a deathly situation.
Relationships at work did not improve just then; in fact, for a while the situation continued to get worse. It became clear that I was not going to thrive in that position, and that we would have to make a change. We had no clue what that could mean. We had bought the house, we were not interested in moving (nor did we believe God wanted us to move), and yet there was no other position on the horizon for us locally. Around that time we also took a very severe financial loss, and my father-in-law died a very difficult death. Things were not getting easier.
And then another job with our organization opened up, virtually out of nowhere right near home. It was going to be what I would have considered to be my dream job, working with some of my favorite people in the organization. (And the office was walking distance from Starbucks!) It started out looking great, but even that dream died, too, when for reasons too complicated to explain, there just wasn’t a lot of work to do. The income was there, but the projects weren’t. Another dream seemed to have been spiked.
But God was doing some of his best work still. I was starting to recognize what I had learned from the rough relationships I had just been in–some extremely important personal leadership and character lessons. I can’t go into them here without sharing more openly than I should about the whole situation. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t be doing what I am now without having been through all of that. I am stronger than I was; and I am unreservedly grateful to God for it all.
Now let me back up a moment to another dream. I had always wanted to write–I just never had a clue how to get published. Now I was in a situation that afforded me time to think, study, and write–and now, too, there was blogging. That was the beginning of this whole adventure; and the dream has borne fruit in being published several times beyond the blog (see “Clips” above). I can’t imagine how this door would have opened without being in a situation that seemed like a dream that died.
And since then, the job projects and opportunities have opened up as well, just as I had thought and hoped they would two years earlier. (The story on that transition is as amazing as others I’ve told here, but to go into it all would make this long post really long.) I believe this new set of responsibilities and opportunities was in the plan all along–but that God also had a plan to fulfill a lifelong dream and vision (writing) along the way.
This has been bought the short version of a long story. I could tell much more about this and other things like it, and so could any follower of Christ. The Bible is full of such tales–Joseph, Moses, and many more. We all have dreams, hopes, plans, relationships; and some of those dreams, hopes, plans, and relationships die.
I look back over the past few years and I see both deaths and resurrections. The resurrections are where God’s hand is most clearly visible. They are where God has been most glorified. They wouldn’t have happened–couldn’t have happened–without the deaths. These experiences are miniatures of his final work yet to come, when both death and resurrection (for His followers) are not metaphorical but very real. Christ was first. He opened the door, so that any who are willing to follow may walk through after Him.
For a follower of Christ, no death, whether figurative or literal, is final. It’s God’s preparation for His best work.
Part of a Series: What Christ Does For Us
Related: How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions. This post elicited a short question, to which I’m writing a very long answer in the form of this series.