It is common when facing hardship to lose our gospel-drive. Self pity, and just the attention that grief needs can, and often does, take our eyes off the proverbial gospel ball. We can easily forget who we are and why we do what we do. Our sense of existing -to fulfill the Great Commission – diminishes against the now dominant reality of our own dilemma. It happened to me about eighteen years ago.
When I graduated from college in 1985 I lunged forward, shoulders down, determined to run my course like a sprinter with only the finish line in view. I pushed off the starting block of my call with resolve that this life would count for something. Nothing would get in the way. Lost people mattered to God, and they mattered to me. My wife and I were eager to serve, driven by a mission, and that mission was fueled by a passion to serve Jesus wherever he put us. Our lives were his to do what he wanted. A blank sheet for him to write his story, no matter the cost.
Dreamers always wake up, eventually.
The first time I hit real hardship my commitment to the gospel was severely challenged and tested. Nearly damaged. In the end, I did not reclaim the gospel; it reclaimed me. Let me explain.
A Dependable Platform
When my son died of cancer, just months following my wife’s recovery from brain surgery, it was the gospel that pulled me back to my feet. It was the gospel that pushed through the grief for Jesus to claim full ownership of my life again. This message I was so determined to share with others took on new life and meaning in my now shattered world. He was now speaking to me in a powerful and new way.
When everything was taken from me, thankfully the sole platform revealed and remaining was a dependable one.
That story of Jesus now came alive as I stood alone on this stage, telling me that I was a sinner, deserving death, and the only reason I was still standing was because Jesus died in my place to take God’s wrath for me. And now, having declared me forgiven, I was his to use as he wanted. I had no rights to this life. Suffering painted a profound and personal backdrop to capture the beauty of what Jesus did for me. Until then, it was just a story. Now it became my life.
What I expected would rescue others now rescued me. This was far more than me finally slipping off the platform to jump back on the Great Commission train. It was about that gospel working through the grief and shaping a new call for my life.
Sudden loss, or any kind of tragedy has a way of shaking us to our core.
What exists at that core is exposed in suffering, revealing our own brokenness and need for redemption. The very thing that happened at the cross to bring lost souls back to God continues to bring believers to a deeper place with Him. It reached that depth in my life. This double-edged sword of the gospel broke me, but also filled me with a new kind of love for others. Until then, I’d taken the gospel for granted. Each moment of sharing Jesus had taken a notch-in-the-belt responsibility for me. It was a thing I held onto that needed to simply be passed on to others. It’s why my golfing friend wondered why I stopped spending time with him once he’d come to faith. Naively I envisioned myself at the end of this race receiving a pat on the back from God who’d welcome me with a Mission Accomplished banner in the background.
It’s all less simple to me now. Less predicable. More of a life than an assignment. The gospel pushing its way past self and through the grief and pain to embrace me did that. I had tried to embrace the gospel; now it embraces me.
The Gospel Reclaims
I’m at a season, what I call the final third of my life, where I feel less useful, but only because my measure of effective service is so different than it was pre-pain. I see God more at work when I’m less in the thick of a situation, where before I could not see him working unless I was the catalyst. I now observe people responding to Jesus, strangely from the little I have to offer, like my story, his story with me, where before I could not imagine a response unless I’d given sweat and blood for it. I’m like Jonah in a way, less angry perhaps than he, but nonetheless expressing equal awe with a God that can do just as much through my brokenness and failure, as my obedience and success could ever do.
Strange, isn’t it? God let Jonah hurt, and fail, so He, God, would receive all the glory.
That is the gospel at work. At work in me so it can finally work through me.
For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil. 2:13
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us .. always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 2 Cor. 4:6-10
“But just as a good story can’t be told without conflict or tension, the good news of Jesus Christ can’t be told without suffering. So crucial is suffering is to God’s revelation of Himself and His love that we might even dare to speak of ‘The Gospel of Suffering.’” – Fr. Charles Erlandson