And who doesn’t struggle to understand his ways at times? I appreciate the humility and the boldness of these lyrics as a struggling believer speaks with God about seeking answers.
Could I steal a word with you
Can I offer you my hand
Though it seems your time is priceless
I can’t help myself but ask
Every term you make is foreign
Every breath a mystery
It's the answers that I’m going for
It’s the answers that I need
How can I hope to ever see to understand
I’m a broken mind in a broken man
How can I hope to understand
Even all the angels don’t know
They’ve never seen every side of You
All eternity can’t hold
The majesty the whole sight of You
Is it me who forms the puzzle
Is it me who sets the trap
Though I’ve tried so hard at knowing
Maybe you never wanted that
I can see my heart is hardened
I can see that flesh is stone
But I will pray my blind eyes open
I will pray my off ears on
Since returning to Central Asia we have been talking about the phrase once said of J.I. Packer, that he lived slowly enough to think deeply about God. What an aim. Connected to this we have also been trying to live slowly enough to see “normal” interactions with locals as opportunities for eternal impact. This might seem like a basic concept, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into a mindset where certain types of relationships are ministry and others are just business. Some are very gifted at turning everyday interactions into spiritual conversations – with gas station attendants, neighbors, restaurant servers, etc. That has never been me. I’ve been prone to mostly dismiss many necessary and brief interactions as not really fertile ground for spiritual conversation. We’re hoping to change this orientation of ours toward relationships. It will require leaving enough margin in our days to be able to stop, slow down, visit, and converse in-depth when God opens that door. But so far we have been very encouraged by the conversations God has given through our initial attempts at this more relational pace. In a city where we have struggled to find our “fishing holes” for evangelistic conversations, this has been doubly encouraging.
One surprising outcome has been a new friendship with our local lawyer. I’ve always had difficult interactions with the various local lawyers that help us foreigners acquire our visas. Their task is an unenviable one, navigating a labyrinthine bureaucracy of forms, numbered windows, and changing policies. We are deeply indebted to their tireless efforts to make sure that we can live here legally. And yet most of the local lawyers I’ve interacted with have seemed self-important suited men, hurried and shady individuals who weren’t always completely honest with us and the government. We have been left stranded at times because of faulty legal advice given – not to mention struggling to adjust to the crazy and unpredictable schedules they keep. “Hello? Mister? Were you sleeping? Good morning. I’m on my way to your house with an officer of the secret police. He needs to see your documents. We’ll be there in five minutes.”
But this time around we were set up to show some basic hospitality to our local lawyer during each step of the process. It’s amazing what a small table and chairs in a courtyard with a little bit of chai can do. It’s as if these basic elements (married to a genuine invitation to sit down) snuck past the lawyer identity of this man and tapped into his deeper Central Asian wiring. We’ve actually had a really good time getting to know one another and working together. He came by the other night to drop off the successfully acquired new visas and once again accepted the offer to take a seat. Eventually the conversation turned to our daughter’s type-1 diabetes because of an emergency travel exception he had acquired for us.
“You know,” I said, “we believe that even this kind of illness and suffering is a gift from God, because he loves us.”
“Wait,” responded the lawyer. “What do you mean? Don’t you think that people suffer because they do wrong?”
“Yes,” that is also a common cause of suffering, according to the Bible. “And yet for those who love God and walk with him faithfully, the suffering in their lives is given for a different reason – so that they would know the love of God more deeply. God will teach us more deeply about his love through this suffering and will do many things through my daughter’s illness.”
“So you really believe your daughter’s disease will result in good?”
“Yes! Do you know about the prophet Joseph?” I asked. The lawyer nodded. “After being sold into slavery (by his brothers no less), he became the prime minister of Egypt. In that role he was able to save the whole Middle East from a terrible famine. God used something terrible to do something very good. Joseph says so himself.”
I opened up my phone to show my friend Genesis 50:20 in parallel English and the local language, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” We then went on to talk about the story of Lazarus, how Jesus had denied a good request – Lazarus’ healing – in order to bring about something better, a resurrection from the dead. I shared with my lawyer friend how this idea is actually at the very heart of Christianity, since the murder of Jesus was meant for evil, but through his death on the cross he made a way for someone like me two thousand years later to have all my sins forgiven.
My lawyer didn’t push back on my claim that Jesus had died on the cross and risen three days later. Instead he listened intently, pulling his face mask up and down as he sipped his chai.
“We trust that God is going to do so many good things through my daughter’s diabetes. We don’t know what they are yet, but we are waiting, like excited children, to see all the good he is going to accomplish.”
I continued in this vein for a little while longer, sharing some more examples, then paused.
As if catching himself, my friend quickly blurted out, “We believe the same thing too.” But it was clear he was thinking deeply about the conversation, perhaps wondering about the suffering in his own life.
In my mind I thought to myself, and here’s one good purpose already, getting to share the gospel with you for the first time – a member of an unengaged people group no less! I had recently learned that despite seeming like a member of my focus people group, our lawyer was actually a member of another minority group, four million strong, with zero confirmed believers among them. (This is one reason these groups remain unreached. They get good at blending in and remain “hidden.”)
The visit wrapped up and we said farewell. It was an encouraging conversation. My wife and daughter lit up when I later told them about it. This kind of deep and practical trust in God’s sovereignty doesn’t lessen the reality of the suffering. We still shudder when we look at pictures from seven months ago, when the undetected diabetic ketoacidosis was wreaking quiet havoc on my daughter’s body, bringing her right up to the brink of a diabetic coma and possibly even death. We caught it just in time. After rushing to the hospital, she and I spent a surreal week there together during the first local Covid-19 lockdown as her body was slowly stabilizing. Seeing the same kind of ambulance the other day brought it all rushing back. Most of the time she’s remarkably strong for a six year old going through something like this. Other days, well, that favorite food she’s no longer allowed to have or the jab of yet another needle is just too much for her heart and she breaks down.
A thousand good things. That is what we strive to trust that God is doing through her illness. Like getting to share the gospel with our lawyer. Like teaching us as a family how to add one more weakness to our growing collection, learning once again to lean on God’s power and not our own. Like pointing our kids to the reality of a new heavens and a new earth, where the ever so practical hope of unbroken bodies awaits us if we will love and trust in Jesus. One way or another, glory.
This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
My best friend, *Hama, had come to faith. On a mountain picnic overlooking the city, he had professed to me his love for Jesus, his brokenness over his own sin, and his desire to live and die for Jesus. Several months of Bible study in the book of Matthew, many long discussions, a near-death experience, and a dramatic answer to prayer had led him to this point. Really, it was more like decades of preparation as the Holy Spirit used even events in Hama’s childhood to make him ready for the gospel when he finally had a friend to explain it to him. An elderly ethnic Christian woman in his neighborhood had modeled a heartfelt love and respect. Italian Christians had sheltered him in a church when he was making his way through Europe as a desperate refugee. The Muslim taxi drivers in the UK had begun to unwittingly reveal to him his own hypocrisy in his professed Islamic faith.
It had been a long journey for Hama to be ready to give his life to Jesus. But, like many new believers, Hama immediately began aggressively sharing his faith with his family and friends as if they should be able to see the truth immediately. His passion was admirable. His methods, well, I often had to encourage him to talk about Jesus more and spend less time bashing Mohammad and Islam. He was in what he and his wife *Tara would later call the “attack helicopter” phase. He quickly got into heated arguments with his mother and sisters and he and his pregnant wife were kicked out of the family home. Work as a wedding musician was already slim for Hama and now they were practically homeless, heading into the hottest months of the summer.
Hama had a nephew who invited him to stay with him in his house. It’s not typical for young men to have their own house, but Hama’s nephew had been gifted one by a very powerful patron, the wife of the president. In a previous era this nephew’s father had served as a bodyguard for this powerful woman and had died in the line of duty – at the hand of Islamic extremists, if I remember correctly. Because of his father’s loyalty, Hama’s nephew was taken care of. He later went on to become a famous television personality who regularly got into trouble for taking shots at Islam while on air. He had a house, he was close to Hama, and he was no sympathizer with conservative Islam, so it made sense that Hama and Tara would end up staying with him. He was utterly confused by Hama’s new faith, in spite of our attempts to explain it to him. But it was a good temporary solution until Hama’s family cooled down and accepted his new identity, which they did, several months later.
Tara, however, felt as if her world were collapsing. Her first pregnancy had ended in a traumatic miscarriage. Her new husband had now apostatized. Midway through her second pregnancy, they had been kicked out of their home. She was terrified that God would punish them for Hama’s apostasy by causing the second child to die also. We began to pray specifically that God’s protection for this baby would soften Tara to the faith of her husband. I would still spend the night at their place once a week, often studying English and the Bible late into the night with Hama. Tara was still as respectful a hostess toward me as ever. But every time the Bibles came out, Tara would get agitated and leave the room. Hama insisted that we keep going because he noticed that sometimes she would do chores just close enough to be able to overhear our discussion.
This went on for the next couple months. Hama’s family refused to talk to them. Tara’s pregnancy got more uncomfortable. The summer heat reached its worst stretch. And Hama’s work almost completely dried up. It was 2008 and the financial crisis had brought the local economy to a standstill, leaving precious little money to spend on live wedding musicians like Hama. Tara’s stress and anxiety has reached the boiling point.
One evening she couldn’t take it anymore. After yelling and arguing with Hama about how all this had been his fault, she broke down in tears. Hama tried to comfort her and to help her calm down. In spite of everything, their love for one another was deep and strong, enduring the kind of season that has destroyed many other local marriages. When a little while had passed, Tara asked Hama how, in contrast to her, he could possibly have peace and joy in the midst of such a terrible season.
“It’s Jesus,” Hama had replied. “Jesus has filled me with such joy. Even though this is the hardest time of our lives, it is the best time of my life because I now know Him.”
Tara chewed on Hama’s response. Then she replied that whatever Hama had, she wanted it. From that point on she began sitting in on our Bible study together, listening intently. Hama soon began reading the scriptures to her when she had trouble getting to sleep because of pregnancy pain or fear. Soon she started devouring the Bible on her own, surpassing Hama in her passion for reading. Their suffering had brought Tara to a point of desperation. But it was Hama’s joy in the midst of suffering that had overcome her fear. She had seen that deep peace and joy in the midst of suffering were possible – and the power of that sight overcame her fear of studying the Bible. She was not yet a sister in the faith, but she was well on her way.
You made me alive when I was dead in trespasses
The passion of Christ left my sin in the past tense
Every good and perfect gift comes from Your hand
You set me back on course when I run from Your plan
No excuse to refuse to lift my voice
Because the Gospel is true, there's always reason to rejoice
And that don't mean that my sorrow is inconspicuous
But when I grieve, I got a greater joy in the midst of it
The joy of knowing I will see You face to face
And it's all to the praise of Your glorious grace
I am tempted to become bitter with God over the ongoing trials that he has not removed.
There are certain forms of chronic suffering and weakness that I have brought before his throne for years. And still, no deliverance. Sometimes, the suffering and weakness seems to be getting worse. I have been able to freely give big tragedy to God, accepting his good sovereignty through suffering. But it’s the mid-grade stuff that’s gets me, the embarrassing, annoying, hindering kind of suffering and shame that hovers like a cloud of mosquitoes on a tropical night – especially when that suffering seems to make me unable to do the work that God has called me to do.
If God has called me to a certain kind of life and ministry, then why won’t he remove these weaknesses that keep me from the kind of Spirit-empowered freedom that I know is possible? I’ve learned this question is dangerous enough that it needs an answer. If left unanswered, the belief slowly starts to grow that God is holding out on me. If that belief grows, I begin to try holding out on him, not slackening in my obedience necessarily, but at least holding my heart back from intimacy with him. I feel as if he is hurting me and I don’t understand how that fits with his professed love for me. So I keep myself at a safe distance. That, over time, is deadly.
I’m sure that others are familiar with this dynamic.
The phrase that I have been turning to recently in this struggle is that Eternal Glory is Better. It comes from 2nd Corinthians 4, where Paul is describing the suffering encountered in his ministry. He is honest about the real toll it is taking. Our outer self is wasting away (4:16). Yet Paul doesn’t stop there.
 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, (2 Corinthians 4:16–17 ESV)
Paul acknowledges that an inner renewal is taking place simultaneous to the external wasting away. God is working this for good in Paul’s character in the here and now. But then he pivots to focus on the eternal. He claims that the suffering we experience as believers is actually for an additional purpose: to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory.
Why does our eternal weight of glory matter? Well, deep down we are all made for it. We are made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yes, but as we do that we will actually be entering into his glory, taking on his glory, ourselves becoming glorified. We ache for this.
The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is... We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.
This is C.S. Lewis, exploring this longing for glory in his sermon, The Weight of Glory. If you’ve managed to never read this piece by Lewis, please take the time to think over this short sermon. Key to our understanding the coming resurrection is that we understand how we are to hope in the revelation of God’s glory – yes, and also hope in the revelation of our own glory (Rom 8:23). When we are resurrected, we will be honored by God and we will ourselves somehow shine with the glory of God, like stars in the heavens (Dan 12:3).
But what about pride and our human desire to steal glory from God? Well, on the day that our glory is revealed we will also have been set finally free from the presence of sin. We will be free then to delight in our own glory and in God’s without any sin whatsoever. It will all be in line with love.
So then, according to 2nd Corinthians 4, my suffering is producing eternal glory for me, more eternal glory than would have been mine otherwise. That is its outcome, its purpose. I desperately want God to remove the trial, but if he doesn’t, then I don’t have to give in to bitterness or shame. Instead, I can rest, knowing that its purpose for me is good. Its purpose is to give me more eternal glory – in all its tantalizing mystery – and that means its purpose is clearly in line with love and a kind father who doesn’t deny the best gifts to his children. Though he does at times deny the lesser in order to give the greater.
Eternal glory is better. Better than the freedom that would come from having my trial taken away now. Better than the absence of suffering. Better than my own visions of free and powerful ministry done for Christ.
Eternal glory is better. It’s a simple line, but I am finding it helpful as I fight for faith in God’s goodness when that weakness emerges again. God is not holding out on me. He is for me, just as he always has been.
Blood-bought children who are suff'ring
It won't be long, it won't be long
Storm-tossed pilgrim, if you're struggling
It won't be long, it won't be long
Though your flesh is now decaying
It won't be long, it won't be long
A new body God is making
It won't be long, it won't be long
For all God's redeemed
And we'll be free...
Still as meaningful as the first time I heard this song. By faith we know that one day we will go out with songs of joy.
Although we are weeping
Lord, help us keep sowing
The seeds of Your Kingdom
For the day You will reap them
Your sheaves we will carry
Lord, please do not tarry
All those who sow weeping will go out with songs of joy
The nations will say, "He has done great things!"
The nations will sing songs of joy
-"Psalm 126" by Sojourn Music
I love the chorus of this song, which looks back from the future resurrection. And, man, I love how those horns build at 2:20.
As I reach
For the bread and the wine
For the comfort I"ll find
Picture the scene
To the table we'll come
Every daughter and son, finally free
Gone are the days
When we cry
Here are the days
When we'll fly
All our hopes will turn to sight
Beyond the veil, in the morning light
We'll sing gone
Are the days