From the book
WHEN GOD DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
Must Be Tough
We ended the last chapter in a discussion about Christians being in proper "fighting condition." That analogy is not so farfetched. It is interesting that the Apostle Paul used military terminology to describe the service to which we are called. He wrote in 2 Timothy 2:3-4, "Endure hardship [there's that word again] with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer." That leads us to ask what this reference really means? How is the training of a soldier relevant to the life of a believer? And what does it mean to "endure hardship . . . like a good soldier"?
We have all seen John Wayne movies that made combat look like a romantic romp in the park. Men who have been through it tell a different story. The most graphic descriptions of battle I've read came from Bruce Catton's excellent books on the American Civil War. After reading several of these texts, I wrote the following description of military life in the nineteenth century and what soldiers endured during the War between the States. As you read it, reflect on Paul's analogy between good Christians and hardened troops:
The Army of the Potomac and other books by Catton provided a striking understanding of the toughness of both Yankees and Rebel soldiers. Their lives were filled with deprivation and danger that is hardly imaginable today. It was not unusual for the troops to make a two week forced march during which commanders would threaten the stragglers at sword-point. They were often thrown into the heat of a terrible battle just moments after reaching the front. They would engage in exhausting combat for days, interspersed by sleepless nights on the ground—sometimes in freezing rain or snow. During the battle itself, they ate a dry, hard biscuit called hardtack, and very little else. In less combative times, they could add a little salt pork and coffee to their diet. That was it! As might be expected, their intestinal tracts were regularly shredded by diarrhea, dysentery and related diseases that decimated their ranks. The Union Army reported upwards of 200,000 casualties from disease, often disabling up to 50 percent of the soldiers. The Confederates suffered a similar fate.
Combat experience itself was unbelievably violent in those days. Thousands of men stood toe to toe and slaughtered one another like flies. After one particularly bloody battle in 1862, 5,000 men lay dead in an area of two square miles. 20,000 more were wounded. One witness said it was possible to walk on dead bodies for 100 yards without once stepping on the ground. Many of the wounded remained where they fell among dead men and horses for 12 or 14 hours, with their groans and cries echoing through the countryside.
Someone recently sent me a musket ball found on an historic battlefield. I was surprised to see how large and heavy the molded lead was. It's no wonder limbs usually had to be amputated after being hit by these missiles. They tore into flesh and shattered bones beyond repair. Surgery was usually done without anesthetic, as unsterilized saws and knives were used to cut through flesh and bone. After each great battle, it was common for a huge mound of severed arms and legs to be piled up outside the surgeon's tent. Men were seen riding back from the front in wagons, holding bloody stumps upward to ease the pain. Antibiotics were nonexistent, and gangrene often finished the job a sharpshooter's bullet had begun.
While their willingness to endure these physical deprivations is impressive, one also has to admire the emotional toughness of the troops. They believed in their cause, whether Union or Confederate, and they committed their lives to it. Most believed that they would not survive the war, but that was of little consequence.
Please understand that I do not see unmitigated virtue in the heroic visions of that day. Indeed, men were all too willing to put their lives on the line for a war they poorly understood. But their dedication and personal sacrifice remain today as memorials to their time.
There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this commitment to principle and honor than is seen in a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Union army. He penned it to his wife, Sarah, on July 14,1861, one week before the Battle of Bull Run. They had been married only six years. These powerful words still touch my soul:
My Very Dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. . . .
I have no misgivings about or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this Government and to pay that debt. . . .
Sarah, my love for you is deathless: it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break, and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains, to the battlefield.
The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God, and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us.
If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often-times been. . . .
O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the gladdest day, and in the darkest night, amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always: and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath: or the cool air cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead: think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again. . . .
Major Ballou was killed one week later at the first battle of Bull Run. I wonder, don't you, if he did indeed utter Sarah's name as he lay dying on the battlefield.
1 Adin Ballou, compiler and editor, History and Genealogy of the Ballous in America (Providence, R.I.: E. L. Freeman & Sons, 1888), pp. 1058-1059.
She undoubtedly suffered the greater pain in the aftermath of that terrible war.
Is this the level of dedication and sacrifice to which the Apostle Paul calls us in 2 Timothy 2? I believe it is, yet the concept seems almost unreasonable in this day of individual rights and self-fulfillment. How long has it been since we've thought of ourselves as highly disciplined soldiers in the army of the Lord? That was a familiar theme in years past. "Onward, Christian Soldiers" was one of the favorite songs of the church. Christians, it proclaimed, were "marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before." We also sang, "Stand up! Stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross." Then there was "Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known." That was the way Christians saw their responsibility in days past. Well, we've come a long way, baby. Now our emphasis is on harnessing the power of God for more successful (and prosperous) living. Something seems to have been lost in the translation!
One of the popular choruses of today offers this happy thought, "Something good is going to happen today, happen today, happen today. Something good is going to happen today, Jesus of Nazareth is passing this way." I have a strong dislike for that well-intentioned little rendition because it is based on bad theology. I understand how the lyrics are intended to be interpreted, but they imply that Christianity guarantees a person only "good things." It is not true. Let's be honest. As the world interprets it, something terrible could happen to you today. Christians do get sick and die, just like the rest of the world. They do lose their jobs like other people, and they do have car wrecks and dental problems and sick kids. Believing otherwise is a trap from which many young believers, and some old ones, never escape!
There is a reason why the great hymns of the church have endured, in some cases for hundreds of years. They are based not on words that tickle our ears, but on solid theological truth. One of my favorites relating to our theme is entitled "Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken." The lyrics were written by Henry F. Lyte back in 1824, and the music was arranged from Mozart. Absorb, if you will, the truth in these incredible words:
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee;
Naked, poor, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shalt be:
Perish every fond ambition,
All I've sought, and hoped, and known;
Yet how rich is my condition—
God and heaven are still my own!
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure!
Come, disaster, scorn and pain!
In Thy service, pain is pleasure;
With Thy favor, loss is gain,
I have called Thee, "Abba, Father";
I have stayed my heart on Thee,
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.
This message is a little different from "Something goooood is going to happen today," and it may even be unpalatable to a modern world. But it is biblically accurate, and you can build a rock-solid foundation of faith on it. With it, you can cope with whatever life throws at you, even when God makes absolutely no sense. It will hold you when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because you need fear no evil. Life can never take you by surprise, again.
Everything is committed to Him, whether you understand the circumstances or not. He becomes your possessor and your dispossessor. With this biblical understanding and a tough, well-fortified faith, the "awesome why" loses its scary significance. A better question becomes "Why does it matter?" It is not your responsibility to explain what God is doing with your life. He has not provided enough information to figure it out. Instead, you are asked to turn loose and let God be God. Therein lies the secret to the "peace that transcends understanding."
This theological interpretation may not be what the reader wanted to hear—especially the one who has grieved until there are no more tears to shed. If you are that person, I hope you will understand that I have not intended to trivialize your loss. My heart is tender toward those who have undergone severe suffering. Just last week I received a letter from a father whose daughter was killed in a car crash some 18 months ago. He wrote to say how keenly he and his wife still feel the pain—pain that few of his fellow believers seem to comprehend. As I read his words and thought of my own daughter who is just a few years older, I grieved with this heartsick father. Life can be incredibly cruel to those who have loved and lost. Such a person needs the loving friendship and prayers of a Christian brother or sister who will simply be there to say "I care." More importantly, he needs to know God cares!
I am convinced that the heart of the Lord is drawn to those who hold fast to their faith in such times of despair. How tenderly he must look upon those who have lost a beloved son or daughter. What compassion He feels for those with lifelong physical deformities and diseases. This identification with the woes of mankind is a major theme of Scripture.
I think often of a young man in his early teens whom Dr. Tony Campolo described in one of his messages. This boy was named Jerry, and he had been afflicted from birth with cerebral palsy. Jerry walked and talked with great difficulty, yet he came to a Christian summer camp where Dr. Campolo was the principal speaker. It was apparent from the first day that Jerry would be rejected by the other junior highers who immediately set about establishing a hierarchy of social power. An "in group" emerged, as it always does, composed mostly of the good-looking guys and the cute girls. They were far too sophisticated and selfish to mess around with a cripple—a loser like Jerry. They were also rude to the other outcasts—the kids who had been hurt and those who lacked confidence. They didn't stand a chance.
All week Dr. Campolo watched Jerry struggle to find his place. It was brutal to witness. The popular kids mocked the way he walked and talked. They would imitate his labored speech, saying "Whhaaaaaaaat . . . tiiiimmmme . . . issssssss . . . ccrrrraaaaaffffttttss . . . ccrrraaaaasssss?" Then they would all laugh hysterically as though Jerry were deaf. At other times, they avoided him like a plague. Dr. Campolo said he has never hated anyone in his life, but he came close to it in that instance—seeing what those insensitive and cruel teenagers were doing to the spirit of one who had already suffered more than his share.
A service was held on the final morning of the camp, during which the students were invited to give their testimonies about what Jesus Christ had meant to them. One by one, the superstars came to the microphone— the athletes, the cheerleaders, and the popular kids. They delivered their little canned speeches, but there was no power in their witness. Their words were empty.
Then, as Dr. Campolo sat on the platform, he was startled to see Jerry making his way down the aisle from the back of the auditorium. The other students saw him too, and they began to whisper and point. Then a ripple of laughter passed over the crowd. Ever so slowly, Jerry came to the platform and then carefully and painfully climbed the three stairs at the side. Finally, he reached the microphone. He stood for a moment looking at his peers, and then said with great effort, "I . . . looooovwwe . . . Jeeeeesssssuuuusss . . . aaannnnnddddddddd . . . Jeeeeeeessssuuusssss . . . loooooowwwesssssss . . . mmeeeeeeeeeeeee."
Then Jerry turned to make his long journey back to his seat.
Campolo said Jerry's simple testimony went through that crowd of teenagers like a bolt of lightning. His expression of love for God, despite the physical disability and the ridicule he had taken, exposed the sin and selfishness in their lives. They began streaming into the aisles and down to a place of prayer at the front. The Lord had used the least capable spokesman among all those teenagers to accomplish His purposes. Why? Because Jerry was tough enough to be His vessel.
Just how tough is your faith? How secure is mine? Will we permit the Lord to use our weakness, our disability, our disappointment, our inadequacy, to accomplish His purposes? Will you and I, like Jerry, worship and serve this Master even in suffering? Does our "expectation" as followers of Jesus leave room for frustration and imperfection? Does the Word have anything to say to us here about how we live our lives and what causes us to complain? It certainly does!
My favorite Scripture specifically addresses this issue of toughness, and we will conclude with its powerful insight. The passage is found in a letter to the Philippians, which was written by the Apostle Paul from Rome, where he was confined and may eventually have been executed for sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul had every right to be distraught at that stage of his life. What had happened to him was not fair! There had been times recently when he had been publicly whipped; he had gone without adequate food and clothing; he was once stoned and left for dead. He could have complained bitterly that the Lord had called him to a difficult task and then virtually abandoned him. The "awesome why" could certainly have been on his lips. But that was not what Paul was thinking. He wrote to the believers at Philippi:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Then Paul addressed the matter of expectations directly:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)
Paul's secret of contentment emerges from a universal principle of human nature. It is to trust God regardless of the circumstances and not to expect too much perfection in this life. A better day is coming for those whose source of contentment is in the personhood of Christ Jesus!
TO BE CONTINUED
THE LAST TWO CHAPTER HAVE BEEN HARD HITTING, ON THE LIFE MANY CHRISTIANS HAVE TO FACE AND DEAL WITH IN THIS PHYSICAL LIFETIME. BUT WITH GOD THE FATHER AND CHRIST JESUS IN YOU, THEY WILL GIVE YOU STRENGTH TO WORK YOUR WAY THROUGH WHATEVER LIFE THROWS AT YOU. AND INDEED WE DO HAVE A BETTER LIFE AND AGE THAT IS SURELY PROMISED AND COMING TO ALL THE CHILDREN OF GOD.