A time for your imagination and a time to cut it loose

Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)

“’What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

At one time or another, I’m sure you’ve felt the quickening touch of the Holy Spirit in underlining some promise in the word that applies to you, right here and right now. Or felt the same assurance in prayer. Or heard it declared from the pulpit.

Quickening is of course the sign of life in the womb, when the abstract pregnant becomes person growing and developing inside. The baby isn’t kicking all the time, but even when she’s quiet you know she’s there.

The promises of God often have to be renewed because “all flesh is like grass.” Our hopes fall just as “the grass withers and the flowers fall” (Is 40:7). Knowing our weakness, God graciously obliges us by renewing those promises.

There are some things in my life for which I have been waiting 20 years, and the Lord, in many and varied forms, has confirmed that I didn’t get it wrong way back when and, in fact, got my hopes from a trusted source. My flesh is “like grass,” too. I’m no spiritual pillar of strength.

That’s important, because faith only has meaning when it is yoked to a definite promise from God. Some “word-of-faith” and so-called “prosperity” teachings seem to view faith as a kind of talisman; just plug it in and the magic will happen (magic was a deliberate choice of words, btw).

The truth is, faith has no generative powers. It’s as ineffectual acting in isolation as a light fixture with the hot (power) wire disconnected from the black lead. Unless you complete the circuit, nothing is going to happen when you turn it on.

There are also instances where our imagination embellishes the promises of God with possibilities, both good and bad. In some cases, this is perfectly harmless. The substance of the promise is what’s important, not the details. The fulfillment may be pleasantly surprising in the form it takes, but if you examine it carefully it is not inconsistent with the actual promise.

And then there are the unfounded hopes in which we invest too much emotionally, perhaps without realizing it. I have known good, mature believers who “believed God” that a cancer-stricken relative or friend would be completely healed and then they died. The imagination can play cruel tricks.

But then there are times when it is the Lord’s will that our understanding, driven by our imagination, runs aground on reality. The case of Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead is one (Jn 11:1-44).

When Jesus was informed by the sisters that Lazarus was sick, Jesus replied, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” We’ve read the story a hundred times, so this creates dramatic tension for us because we know that Lazarus died. But in the sisters living in that present day, it was a word of hope.

Then John inserts this strange sentence, or at least very strange had the sisters known Jesus’ very next decision. “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judea.’” Strange and deliberate, it would seem. Must not really care, is what we’d be tempted to think if we didn’t know the whole story.

The key here is understanding Jesus’ overriding purpose, which is easy to gloss over because we have “defined down” the kingdom (HT to Senator Moynihan for the phrase) over time: “it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

Peter earned the mother (and father and the whole family photo) of rebukes for his “things of men” interpretation of the way the kingdom operates. No, I’ll tell you how it’s going to be, Jesus said.

And the way it operates is: You try to “save your life” and you’ll “lose it”; if you “lose your life” for Jesus Christ, you find it. Notice this doesn’t provide another option, like trying to select if you are going to pay for 110 or 60 or 30 channels you won’t watch while you use probably 3 or 4 nearly all the time.

If you’re not engaged in “losing your life” for Jesus, you’ll be trying to “save your life.” If you’re preoccupied with “saving your life,” you’re not simultaneously “losing” it. You may imagine—there’s that word again—you can do that, but it’s impossible, because no one can serve two masters.

The first commandment is love the the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. That doesn’t mean you can’t love your children, your husband, your wife, your father, etc. with abandon and passion. But you can’t love your husband when by doing so it causes you to completely and consistently disobey God.

If you try, you’re trying to “save your life” when you should be “losing it” by determined obedience. Doesn’t work. Won’t ever work. Was never intended to work.

But if you’ve ever faced one of these dilemmas, you may be getting a sense of where this is headed. “No eye has seen and no ear has heard”—we’ll call it prior experience—how to deal with this two-headed conundrum. God, you created the family. I want to honor my father and mother. I just don’t see how to do that and still obey you. You “don’t see” now, present tense, because you never saw it resolved. Or not yet anyway.

But it goes a step further. “What no human mind has conceived.” Conceived. A quickened hope is evidence that something has been conceived, or you wouldn’t be feeling that kick from the womb. But not by a “human mind.” It was “revealed to us by his Spirit.”

You’re not imagining that kick; it’s real. The hope quickened by the Holy Spirit is real, not wishful thinking.

Unless you’re the Shunammite woman. Told of the promise of a son, she remonstrated with Elisha. “No, my lord!” she objected. “Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!” (2 Ki 4:16).

She knew he was a man of God, so she believed him. But then she didn’t want to believe. She wanted to hear the promise of a son; she didn’t want to hear the promise of a son. Save your life, lose your life. It’s a cliché to say she couldn’t make up her mind, but the phrase is pregnant with meaning. (Lots of pregnancies and conceptions in this post. Congratulations!)

She couldn’t make up her mind, not then and certainly not later when the promised son died, crushing her emotionally for the umpteenth time in her life. When someone repeats “everything is all right” as mechanically as she does, you know there’s a tragic backstory even if we don’t know the details.

I want to believe this with all my heart! At one time I did believe it with all my heart—and my hopes were crushed by reality. So don’t “resurrect” hope by telling me it really will happen this time. I’d like to believe that, too, but the memory of all that hurt is too much for me to take that step and believe.

She couldn’t make up her mind because her mind had run aground on reality. Save your life to find it? What does that even mean? It’s not like “born again,” a simple metaphor for spiritual rebirth.

She’s now standing at the door to life. I don’t know how to explain the “lose your life to find it” principle to someone at the door except to tell them, Step inside and then you’ll know.

“These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” “Flesh and blood” won’t reveal it and neither will your imagination be able to conceive it. By design. It requires faith. But the promise is stamped right on the package in plain view; it’s not hidden in the fine print. You will “find your life” when you “lose your life.”

There’s a dramatic scene in the movie Master and Commander: Far Side of the World that illustrates the choice every believer faces. It’s a sobering one; I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. Here’s the link to the YouTube clip.

The episode in a nutshell: In a terrific storm, one of the crew aloft in the rigging falls into the churning sea. The wind is so strong it cracks one of the crosstrees (I believe that’s what it’s called; I’m no expert on early 19th-century wooden ships), which also falls into the sea with ropes still attached. It doesn’t break cleanly; still tethered to the ship, it is being dragged, but just beyond the reach of the frantic, bobbing sailor.

Some of the crew are screaming at the sailor to swim to the floating rigging to safety. But another sailor notices the ship is listing. He tells the captain the wreckage is acting as a “sea anchor,” which can be a good thing in choppy seas to stabilize a ship at the mercy of the elements.

But not in this instance. The captain realizes he has no choice. He has to cut the wreckage free or it will pull the whole ship under. But the implication for the man overboard is obvious: he will die in the process. That’s a certainty.

The ropes dragging the wreckage aren’t like the cords you tie down your daughter’s furniture with when she moves to a new apartment. These are fat, tough ropes (they have to be on a ship) and cutting them means taking a hatchet to them.

Every hatchet blow is accompanied by the knowledge that life for the ship means death for the man overboard. It takes many blows, it takes concentration, and it takes determination. The ropes are cut, the wreckage floats safely away from the ship and the man overboard disappears from sight. They made a choice, a choice with real consequences and real costs. The only other option was death.

The story of Lazarus and the story of the rich young man have two narrative details in common: “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21). This was just before telling him he had to “lose his life” to inherit eternal life. Tragically, though, this ended in “death.” The man went away, to “save his life.”

And of Lazarus: “’Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.

Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (Jn 11:34-36).

In the end, Jesus was as good as his word. Death was involved, but this didn’t end in death. Who could imagine that?

More about this blog:

The name, the photo and the reason I do this

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