Your History Is Not Your Destiny

Mom and I

Eighteen years ago today my Mom passed away after suffering a massive stroke. I will never forget the sense of dread that swept over me when the president of the college where I was teaching came to my classroom and told me I needed to call my Granny. My worst fear had always been that something would happen to my Mom, and then Granny would die shortly after, and I would be all alone.  On April 11, 2000, that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

As it turned out, I was wrong (as is often the case with the anxious worries we experience). Granny lived ten years after Mom passed away, and I can’t imagine any grandson having a closer bond that I did with the woman I talked to every day for a decade. And the same year that Granny’s body began to slowly wear out, I reconnected with a friend from my college days and started dating. Granny never got to meet Kristi, but I told her about my new love, and Granny was very happy.

By the spring of 2011 I knew that I was going to ask Kristi to marry me – I just needed to pick the right time. And then it hit me – April 11. That had been such a sad date for so long, but I could choose to give it new significance. And so, the evening of April 11, 2011, I popped the question, and Kristi said, “Of course.”

There are things in life that we cannot control and cannot change (like my Mom’s passing). Sometimes these events are the result of choices other people make that we have no influence on at all (like my father’s decision to abandon Mom when she became pregnant). Sometimes we make bad choices or let good opportunities slip away (why didn’t I pursue Kristi in college?!?!?!). But whatever has happened in the past, we have the freedom to make better choices in the present and create a better future.

Is there a clearer example of this in the Bible than the apostle Paul?

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)

Paul’s encounter with Christ forced him to dramatically reevaluate his past and chart a different course for the future. Paul’s history was not Paul’s destiny! And Christ can make the same difference in your life.

Perhaps there is a date in your life that marks a heartbreaking loss. Grief and remembrance are an important part of life, but this may also be a great opportunity to give that date new significance by serving someone else. During one of our trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for Kristi’s treatments we ran into the husband and daughters of one of our church members who had passed away. They were marking the anniversary of her death by passing out flowers at the clinic. What a beautiful gesture!

Or, maybe there is a day seared into your conscience because of a moral failure. That date on the calendar might become a reminder to get away and spend time alone with the Lord – or to spend a day sharing the gospel with others. Or, perhaps it could be a time to seek out the fellowship of Christians who will encourage and reassure you.

And there may be a day that is memorable because of something good that happened that you can reassign an even greater spiritual significance. This is what the Lord did with the sabbath command, which was first given as a day of rest from toil (Exodus 20:8-11) but invested with additional meaning as a celebration of the deliverance from the toil of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And it is what Jesus did in taking the Passover and (in musical terms) raising it to a higher key through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).

The point is that we should not ignore the past, but neither should we feel imprisoned by it. Christ enables us to put the past in its proper perspective because of what he has in store for us in the future, and that gives us the guidance we need to live in the present.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)


Take Up Your Cross

And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:21-23)

Jesus predicted his death three times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and with each prediction Jesus also taught about the nature of discipleship – what it means to follow him. To follow Christ is to imitate Christ, to do what he did, to go where he went. And in this passage, Christ laid out the grim destination of this call to imitation – the cross.

Jesus came to do the Father’s will, regardless of the cost to himself. And he invites us to follow him in the same self-denying journey of commitment to the Father’s will. So that none of us would misunderstand the painful nature of this commitment, Jesus expressed it in the most graphically violent way imaginable in the first century. We are summoned to follow Jesus in the shameful procession to Golgotha, bearing our own cross on the march to the grisly execution called crucifixion.

This language is not to be pressed into crude literalism (although many Christians through the years have been put to death for their faith – even by crucifixion). But this language should not be diluted, either.  Following Christ in absolute commitment to the will of the Father is very, very difficult.

It means surrendering your desires to God’s. It means ignoring the jeers of the crowd to stay on the unpopular path of conviction. It means loving and forgiving those who are undeserving (though never as undeserving as you were of the Father’s love). It means sacrifice, and some day it could even mean death.

But the final destination of the way of Christ is not the cross – it is an empty tomb and a glorious new life. Jesus promised. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Following Christ means losing your life to save it, becoming first by becoming last, seeking greatness by serving others.

So take heart! Yes, those of us who have joined the procession of cross-bearers have chosen the most difficult path of all. But our Lord’s resurrection guarantees that the journey will be worth it.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love
and joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
till death shall set me free;
and then go home my crown to wear,
for there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down,
at Jesus’ pierced feet,
joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
and His dear name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from heaven comes down
and bears my soul away.

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone by Thomas Shepherd (1693)

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

The Bible reading schedule my wife and I are using  raised an interesting contrast between two passages from Monday’s reading (which was Gen. 16-18 and Mark 6).

Is anything too hard for the Lord? (Genesis 18:14).

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief (Mark 6:5-6).

In the first instance, the angelic visitors reassured Abraham (and an eavesdropping Sarah) that God indeed could give the elderly couple a child, even though he would be 100 years old (and she 90). But in the second instance, the text of Mark 6 says that Jesus could do very few miracles in Nazareth.

From one perspective, God’s power is not limited by man’s faith. God can do anything

Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari, Abraham and the Three Angels, 1660s, oil on canvas, Saint Louis Art Museum, St Louis, USA

He wants to do. And even though Abraham and Sarah literally fell down laughing when God told them He intended to keep His promise and give them a son of their very own, He kept His word. So God’s power is not inherently dependent on human faithfulness.

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