Each day as I leave my house this is the view I face at the end of my driveway.
Until just recently there was a house directly in front of us blocking our view of the cemetery, but the house has been removed. So now as I leave my home every day I face the cemetery. It’s not just any cemetery, though. It’s the cemetery where my seventeen year old daughter’s body is buried. Now, since the removal of the house, the start of every day for me includes facing her body’s grave.
For some, the cemetery is comforting, a place they like to go and remember. That’s wonderful, but that’s not me. I dislike the cemetery. My dislike is not rooted in failure to accept, or avoidance of death. Every moment of every day I am aware of the reality of death. My heart continually bears the painful temporal remains of death’s sting, our separation from Sarah.
I dislike the cemetery because seeing her grave invariably transports me back to one of the most excruciating days of my life. I rarely go. When I do go, it is raw and painful. The first time I drove down the driveway after they took the house away, my heart was pierced by the painful realization that I would now be forced to face the cemetery at the start of the day, everyday, indefinitely.
One morning last week, shortly after my now unavoidable daily routine of facing my child’s grave, I heard a song on Christian radio that, like so many others, was proclaiming God’s faithfulness to miraculously deliver us. It linked hope and an absence of fear to His capacity to perform earthly miracles. The song referenced the parting of the sea, walking through fire and shutting the mouths of lions. Hearing those truths exuberantly sung as a proclamation of hope in miraculous deliverance immediately brought to mind Hebrews 11:37-40.
“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated ([men] of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” Hebrews 11:37-40 [NASB]
Each of the miraculous examples of deliverance cited in those song lyrics, the parting of the sea, walking through fire and shutting the mouths of lions, are referenced in Hebrews 11 (29-34). But they are divinely yoked in scripture with the equally significant examples of those persecuted and martyred for their faith listed in the very next verses (35-38).
I am not thankful for Sarah’s death, but I am thankful for the perspective her death has provided. As I face death daily through both the constant void of her absence and facing her grave each morning, I am continually reminded of the temporality of this life and the tremendous Hope of the eternal life found in Christ Jesus.
The temporal deliverance He provided and provides in earthly miracles is certainly worthy of our praising Him. But those momentary miracles of deliverance instantly pale in comparison to the miraculous eternal deliverance already secured through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and made freely available to whosoever will believe upon Him.
My certain hope and absence of fear is not found in the idea or hope of miraculously avoiding physical suffering or death here on earth. My certain hope and absence of fear is found facing the reality and imminence of my physical death and confidently knowing that “to die is gain” and to depart and be with Christ is “very much better” (Phil 1:21-23). In fully facing death I am then able to lift my eyes to look just an instant beyond it to the glorious eternity before me in Christ Jesus.
The miracles of temporal deliverance, parting of the sea, walking through fire and shutting the mouths of lions, are incredible displays of God’s power. But for me the more inspiring and encouraging displays of God’s power are in the verses that follow, the stories of His miraculously sustaining His children to persevere in the absence of deliverance.
In our prosperity theology laden Christian culture we must continually be sober and alert to push back against a false gospel that wrongly proclaims promises of guaranteed temporal deliverance from suffering, sickness, and death. It’s a lie from the father of lies, a brilliant scheme designed to thwart the salvation of many.
“Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are [just] a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” James 4:14 [NASB]
Prosperity theology is myopic. It causes its victims to wrongly focus on this life and lose perspective that this life is but a vapor. Those rooted by the seed of a prosperity theology gospel are in grievous peril of becoming “the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17).
It is significant that scripture says “when affliction or persecution arises” not “if affliction or persecution arises.” At some point most of us, if not all of us, will face flames that will not be quenched, waters that will not be parted or lions whose mouths will not be shut. And when that happens, God is faithful still.
“Be of sober [spirit,] be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in [your] faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen [and] establish you.” 1 Peter 5:8-10 [NASB]
The miracles He offers in the midst of suffering are just as powerful, if not more so, than the miracles of temporal deliverance. He offers to miraculously strengthen us “with all power according to His glorious might for the attaining of all steadfastness” (Col 1:11). As we fix our eyes and our hope on Him, He will miraculously equip and enable us to persevere in the midst of the suffering. He is uniquely “near to the brokenhearted.” His intimately ministering to us in the depths of suffering allows us to know and experience Him as never before (Psalm 34). As we look to Him, trusting the truth of His promises, He also grants us the incomprehensible miracle of His redemptive power that brings forth beauty after beauty from the ashes of our suffering.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to [His] purpose.” Romans 8:28 [NASB]
No doubt temporal deliverance from suffering is a gracious miracle granted by the omnipotent hand of God. But I believe God in scripture sovereignly linked the accounts of miraculous temporal deliverance with the testimonies of the suffering saints who were miraculously sustained but not temporally delivered to remind us His miraculous power as well as His glory are equally displayed in both.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” 1 Peter 4:12-13 [NASB]
It is good and right to remember God is capable of miraculously delivering us from temporal suffering, and it is appropriate to pray for that. But when He does not grant temporal deliverance, we must not be surprised. We must never forget or deny that He, through His Word, has clearly forewarned us that we will suffer in this life.
“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3:12 [NASB]
We are absolutely not guaranteed to be delivered from suffering in this earthly life. But with certainty there is is coming a day, in just a “very little while,” when we who are found in Him, will be finally and gloriously delivered, never to suffer again. So fixing our hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ, we can and should boldly face suffering and death, not as those who shrink back and are fearful, but as those with confident assurance in the glorious Hope that awaits us on the other side.
“But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. FOR YET IN A VERY LITTLE WHILE, HE WHO IS COMING WILL COME, AND WILL NOT DELAY. BUT MY RIGHTEOUS ONE SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; AND IF HE SHRINKS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” Hebrews 10:32-39 [NASB]