The things we lose in the fire–and the life it reveals

“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’

 “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”  (Genesis 50: 15, 19-21)

You don’t need me to tell you that you and your church have lost things due to the pandemic. What you may feel less certain about is God intends that ultimately much good should come from it.

The Bible doesn’t end with the prophets and their doomsday messages or the fall of Jerusalem. The New Testament exists because of the new covenant foretold in the Old Testament. The old kingdom passed away; a new kingdom replaced it. We’re living in that kingdom, so don’t be overwhelmed by the things that seem to be slipping through your fingers or sinking out of sight.

I recently wrote several posts describing the effects of COVID-19 as a kind of captivity akin to the Babylonian captivity beginning 587-586 BCE. I then wrote about how the same kind of captivity can happen in and not just to the church.

I hope you read some of the latter—especially Parts 3 and 4—so that you realize I’m not gloating or applauding the downfall of ministries or churches. I’m acutely aware of what people are feeling. I know it’s unpleasant for you. I’m not glad that it is.

After the thorough and absolute rejection I experienced 30 years ago from a church that once loved my pulpit teaching and told me so effusively, you could have knocked me over with a feather. (Incidentally, when this happened in 1989 this was the last time I taught publicly.) “All your waves and breakers swept over me,” Jonah prayed (Jon 2:3). Something like that, overwhelming and feeling helpless.

To save you some mental strain and sleepless nights, I would encourage you to shuck the Plan B mentality that is our default way of adapting. First of all, this is above your pay grade; there are sovereign plans of God already set in motion.

And God doesn’t have a Plan B or a Plan C or any other letter. In fact, if that were God’s logistical MO he would run out of letters (and credit card-length numbers) by the time you finish reading this sentence. God’s Plan B is mercy.

In the next 48 hours, I may half-heartedly obey when I should obey wholeheartedly. I may walk right past someone I know I should speak to because I’ve rationalized it can wait. I may delete something I ought to write because I lose my nerve. And that’s just one person in the next 48 hours.

Multiply that by millions and then contemplate the millions of additional permutations that are created by the millions that have missed their cue and now it affects the lives and choices of millions of others.

The first analogy that popped into my head was something most of us are familiar with: the family car(s). They can be costly to maintain and sometimes even more costly when you don’t maintain them.

Ergo, most of us know what it’s like to live with a piece of hardware that’s fallen off or stopped doing what it should. It’s not the end of the world. The car still runs.

And then I looked again at the passage at the top of the post. There was nothing “make-do” about the outcome of Joseph’s ordeal. I realized that the car analogy was really a slander on the power of God, “contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience” (Rom 2:4), the riches of his grace.

It sounds more like the third servant in the parable of the talents, the one who said, “I knew that you were a hard man . . so I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground” (Mt 25:24-25).

It’s of course easier to say now after 30 years has passed, but the best thing that ever happened to me was the rejection—and even hostility—I experienced in my former church. There are many tributaries that feed into the stream that has equipped me to do what you’re reading. The most important was ostracism from my church.

The “one thing lacking” in my life (cf. the rich young man’s love of his wealth) was dependence on others’ approval. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare,” Solomon wrote, aptly (Pr 29:25). The more you struggle with it, the tighter its hold on you becomes. Seems like no way out sometimes.

But if you can’t receive man’s approval, you find that you can, in fact, live without it. In a nutshell, that’s what happened to me.

Stop and think about the trials of the saints. Joseph, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, maligned by Potiphar’s wife and imprisoned, forgotten by the chief cupbearer. His conclusion, to reassure his perfidious brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

What is happening here? It doesn’t sound like, We’ll just do the two front tires and skip the alignment for now, does it? What is being revealed? What do you see, in sharp relief?

Here’s a clue: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’

“They replied, ‘Certainly, Your Majesty.’

 “He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’” (Dan 3:24-25). (And did you notice Nebuchadnezzar saw the three men who had been bound and thrown in were now unbound and unharmed?)

And another: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

Could it really happen? Out of the ashes of a pandemic? At the end of captivity? Could a watching world be amazed? Astonished? Tell me why it can’t.

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