When I question my purpose in life or find myself at a crossroad not knowing which way to turn, the truth in God’s Word reminds me that He chose me for a specific purpose. The gift of knowing that God has a plan and purpose for my life encourages me. Along with that fact is the beautiful promise that the days of my life were written in a book even before time began – knowing this gives great security and peace. When pain was inserted into my life, I held onto the simple phrase, “for my good and His glory.” Oh how I wanted to see God’s glory and for Him to be glorified. For me, God’s glory to and through me was the purpose for my suffering.
1. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:8-10
2. “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” – Psalm 139:14-16
3. “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” – Job 42:2
4. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” –Genesis 50:20
5. “For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.” – 2 Corinthians 4:15
When trials come that seem to intercept God’s plan, I know that God is still there. He promises to use what was meant for evil for good, nothing can stop His plans, and God is always at work for my good and His glory!
My head is clear up here. Maybe because I have time to think and nowhere to go but to seat 35F. The perspective from 30,000 feet is almost life altering. It makes me think about my suffering and the suffering of the world all around me, like most things tend to do these days! On the ground we only see what’s around us, the baggage lifting, the hustling, the inevitable security snafu, plans changing, planes leaving on time, off time, really whenever they want. And for us, the passengers, we don’t really know why in the world we can’t just get on the plane and get to our vacation, our home, our final destination. But then, we finally do get the kids moving, the bags sent off, and all our clothes back on after the security assault. Boom! Trays are locked and seats are upright; we take off. It’s then that everyone takes a deep breath because, for one, drinks and snacks are on the way but mainly because we can see that we are actually going somewhere.
Isn’t it like that with our suffering? We are on the ground level and all we see is chaos. Plans didn’t pan out. Frustrations are mounting. Finally, we fall to our knees screaming, “Get me outta here, I didn’t sign up for this. I just want to get to where I am going.” I’ve been there 1,000 times over. I don’t want the process I want the paradise. I want to skip sanctification and get to the “well done, now come and rest.”
Christ must have felt that too. He is the King over all, yet came down to ground level to live in the hustle and strife of earth. In the garden he pleads with God asking him to deliver him to the destination any other way than the one that was planned, but that’s not what happened, so Christ submitted to the plan, knowing what was to come – purpose, restoration, and life, life for all.
So, when life around you starts to crumble and you think your heart can’t take anymore, bring your hope back up to 30,000 feet. From there you can see that Christ is working for your good. All the little and big things were indeed painful but also momentary and purposeful. God knows every last thing we need to get us to where we are going. What seems meaningless to us on the ground, may not seem so meaningless from the aerial view (thankfully they take the extra time to double check the engine, right?). The cross sure seemed that way too. From ground level it was the brutal death of a faultless man. Keep your hopes high because you have cause to. That dark picture on earth was God working for us an eternal salvation, an eternal final destination with him.
Keep your eyes on the final destination because it’s coming. The anticipation of the destination gives us the endurance we need to fight the stresses and pains of the day to day.
May always used to be my favorite month. The beginning of truly warm and sunny weather, everything that was once lifeless for the winter now lush and green, the end of the school year, and my birthday. Aside from the intense pollen we have here in North Georgia, there wasn’t much I didn’t like about the month of May.
Now it’s a strange month. I stray from saying “bad” because there’s always good to be found, so it’s just a strange month. As April nears its end and May approaches, I find myself becoming easily annoyed and impatient. I know I’m a sinner, it doesn’t take spending much time around me to find that out, but this specific time of year is different. All of my tasks seem overwhelming, and I can’t think clearly.
Then I realize it’s a larger, unanticipated wave of grief crashing on me with strength and persistence. The days surrounding painful anniversaries bring on a sometimes surprising level of grief.
I could say May is a bad month for me, but the truth is it’s a blessed month. The sweetness of salvation becomes greater juxtaposed with the bitterness of loss. And it’s strange, but it’s the good kind of strange.
When grief hits hard, whether expected or unexpected, I encourage you to lean into the One who is strong enough to carry all the pain of the world. We all need relationship with our Heavenly Father. A relationship where we know we are destitute of any hope, and the only hope we have rests in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
I could tell you a million things to help you along your walk with grief, but there’s only one true way to healing and without that all the rest will only momentarily cover your pain. That one way is Jesus; fixing your eyes on Him, thinking on Him, dwelling and meditating on His word, talking to Him and listening to Him. When we want to scream at the ones we love because we feel strangled by grief, we can cry out to Jesus to not let our flesh be overtaken by the pain of this world. When we feel like we haven’t a bit of energy or mental clarity left to get us through the day (or even begin the day) we can call on our great God to hold us up throughout the day. There is victory in Jesus alone. May is my strange month, but it’s a month filled with the deep reminder that Jesus is the Victor of my life – not me.
Last week we crossed over the 20th anniversary of my husband’s death. Without fail, this day still produces a catch in my throat, tear in my eye, and tenderness in my heart. It doesn’t take much effort for memories of the trauma to flood my soul even for my children as well.
Is that okay? I think so. May 17th is our Good Friday—a dark day of death. Are we emotionally stuck even after two solid decades? I don’t think so. For the Apon family of nine, remembering this scene in life’s drama has been good, necessary, and impossible to avoid. This is the day that changed the trajectory of our lives.
From our finite view, this day wasn’t supposed to happen, or was it? God wrote the story in a book even before time began. Because of Psalm 139 we know He knew, but did He allow or appoint such suffering? The same unanswered questions remain. The enemy knows when and how to use these to bring torment, if I let him. However, like Job, my response to silence the enemy keeping me at a place of surrender to my God is this information is too wonderful for me!
God responded to Job’s questions with the reminder of Who He was instead of explaining what He was doing. In my Bible, the title of this section makes me smile, “Job’s wise silence.” We are told that Job even put a hand over his mouth almost as if to say, “I am nothing, know nothing, and already said too much.” I can relate to Job.
“Then Job answered the LORD and said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
When you break down the word wonderful in this famous response, it means marvelous, surpassing, extraordinary, beyond one’s power, and difficult to understand. Most of us easily admit that suffering is beyond our control and too difficult to understand, but to define suffering as marvelous, surpassing, and extraordinary requires an eternal faith-based perspective. Shifting the focus from the natural to the supernatural is often a moment by moment, day by day, week by week and year by year requirement for healing.
A famine required relocation for survival taking Naomi, her husband, and two sons to a completely new place. Soon after their arrival, Naomi’s husband died leaving her a widow in a strange idol-worshiping land.
Being transported to a physical far-off land isn’t necessary for a widow to feel estranged in her own community. When the curtain falls signaling the end of the marriage season, women left alone often experience loss of the familiar taking them to unknown territory emotionally and sometimes physically. Here she finds herself in an identity crisis—she is no longer a wife, but a widow with the potential not only to uproot her physical being but her identity as well. One moment she is Mrs. Elimelech and overnight she became Naomi-the-widow, asking who am I?
Within a few short years, Naomi also buried her two sons! Talk about potential to lose identity—she was now no longer a wife or a mom! I will be the first to admit how easy it is to wrap ourselves up in the identity of who we are to other people or for other people instead of who God says we are. Not only do our roles in our family vie for our identity, but our dreams and aspirations also create a sense of a false self—someone I want to be but deep inside I am not. Don’t fret, the Apostle Paul struggled with this identity dilemma as well when he cried out, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…miserable person that I am” (Romans 7:15,24).
In order to identify someone or something, one must recognize traits that establish the person or thing. If three objects were presented for identification, their characteristics would help one to identify that specific substance. For example: hard, grey, and mass of stone would help one to detect a rock. Noticing a transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid would aid in detecting water. We recognize people in similar fashion—by their appearance, sound of voice, or the way they smell. These characteristics help to clarify who we are; however, identity is determined not only by outward appearance but who we are as a whole.
For the Christian, Jesus Christ plays a huge part in our identity. In fact, Jesus paid a high price—purchased us with His blood so that our identity would be in Him and not ourselves. We must die daily allowing Christ to live His life in us. My identity is no longer my own unique personality, but His. If someone wants to identify a Christ follower, the characteristics of Jesus Christ must be evident, “no longer I but Christ.” My identity should not be based on who I think I should be or who others want me to be but in who Jesus says that I am. My identity is in Christ.
Rejected: I am God’s special possession
“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” Deuteronomy 14:2
Betrayed: I am chosen by God
“But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION…” 1 Peter 2:9
Worthless: God treasures me
“The LORD has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you…” Deuteronomy 26:18
Messed up: Forgiven
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
In bondage: Free indeed
“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1
Unprotected: God is a Defender of the widow
“… a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Psalm 68:5
Unloved: Loved beyond comprehension
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39
Set aside: Set apart
“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain…” John 15:16
Widowed: Jesus is a Husband to the widow
“For your husband is your Maker, whose name is the LORD of hosts.” Isaiah 54:5
Fatherless: Child of God~Fathered
“A father to the fatherless is God in his holy dwelling.” Psalm 68:5
Insecure: Eternally security
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” John 10:27-28
When tragedy strikes, it is easy to place our identity in that crisis instead of Christ. Our circumstances become our identity—widow, divorced, betrayed, fatherless, rich, or poor. Naomi returned home embracing the identity of bitter only to discover as time went on that God would change her circumstances to better. Did you know that this bitter-circumstanced-widow became the great, great, great, great, great grandmother of Jesus Christ?! That’s right! Her daughter-in-law from that foreign land followed her home experiencing conditions allowing her to meet Boaz—her kinsman redeemer placing her in the bloodline of Christ.
Psalm 123:1 “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!”
Imagine it’s a Friday afternoon, you just got off work and you’re making a bee-line for those plans you’ve been looking forward to all week. You click on the radio and your favorite song is just starting, so naturally you turn it up, roll down the window, stick your hand out, and cruise down the highway making waves in the air as it weaves up and down over your fingers. Pause there in your mind. It’s bliss. Beside the inevitable Friday traffic, all seems right with the world. Have you had moments or seasons of life like that? Where things are going good, I mean really really good, so much so that you pause and look to heaven to say, “Why me?” or “God, I don’t deserve this…but I accept!” Those moments are meant to be celebrated, and I think they teach us something about our God and his economy.
JM, my late husband, and I looked to heaven a lot together over the years of our relationship. Sometimes in confusion and sometimes in praise, but (mostly) always in awe that we had a God who gave us such good gifts. From the time I met him at Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters camp, I remember looking to heaven and saying, “God why am I so attracted to this weirdo guy?” and he looking up with a completely different response, “This girl is smoking hot, God, and there is no way I am on her level.” (His words, not mine). We spent that summer sneakily flirting, dropping humble brags about how we were killing it with our campers, and shouting Ephesians 4:29 at each other from all over camp, because I guess that’s how Christians flirt… I still laugh when I think about JM looking to heaven and begging God not to let me friend zone him because of the many nights I spent putting make-up on him for a dumb British Rock Star character that he insisted on playing every Thursday night at the camp’s rodeo. And thankfully enough for him, he found out that God was enthroned and in the details because I didn’t even know what the friend zone was.
Almost exactly one year later, we went on our first date. I am sure we both spent many nights leading up to this date looking up to heaven for guidance as we got to know each other from long distance phone calls and texts. When the night came, we literally looked to heaven for the first time together as the small red and yellow biplane left the runway, headed for the sky. As we held hands for the first time watching the summer sun melt into the trees behind Kennesaw Mountain, we were both reassured that God was indeed the author of more than our story, but the great story that all creation was telling. Thankful we got to participate in that is an understatement.
I remember one night in particular, September 9, 2012. I was terrified as JM asked me to take the adventure with him in becoming his girlfriend. I rattled off my list of excuses as to why I wouldn’t make a good girlfriend, and he wasn’t even phased by one of them. He had spent countless hours that summer knocking on heaven’s door to receive guidance from a God that gives to those who ask. Again that night JM led my eyes to heaven, and although we realized that it was risky business to trust in a God who is a sovereign mystery, JM reminded me that it was the best place we could be. So I said yes, yes to a journey that terrified me in all the right ways. We had no idea the path that lay before us, but hoped in a King who promised to lead his people.
Oh, and the night he proposed…there were so many moments between September 9, 2012 and that crisp November day that made me fall deeply in love with him and the God we were following. How fitting that for our final date as boyfriend and girlfriend JM would again lead us skyward. The helicopter blades whipped through Atlanta’s night sky as I sat next to him asking God how in the world I got this guy to like me. Little did I know that JM, sporting the hottest outfit I have ever seen by the way, was looking at more than the beautiful skyscrapers towering into the blackness above but looking to his God to calm his nerves, for in moments he would bend his knee to ask the girl next to him to spend forever by his side. About 30 minutes later, I had a ring on my finger and we both looked to heaven rejoicing in the fact that we got the gift of each other.
Or how about the time we looked to heaven because we had both finished college and were about to get married! We were broke, in desperate need of jobs and money, and so many other things, but boy were we content with the love that we had and the life we were making with God. We turned to God like needy kids and hoped that, like all the others times along our journey, that he would provide. And do you know, he did!
Then came July 13, 2014, the day JM and I said “I do” and vowed before God to love and serve each other until death do us part. We had no idea the commitment that we were actually making, and honestly, it’s probably best that we didn’t! On this day and in this moment in particular I remember looking to heaven with him. We had just finished our vows, placed the rings on each other’s fingers, and were singing In Christ Alone, only the kiss was left to seal the deal. In those last moments we gazed skyward. My eyes were closed and JM’s were staring up at God, both of us praying a very similar prayer, “Christ, be our light and our song on days when loving comes easy and be our solid ground when the fiercest droughts and storms come rolling in.” Gosh, I remember our faces so clearly, his blissful glance and my sweet contentment as we accepted the greatest gift God had given us to date.
The very next day the hard work began. Marriage was fun, but it wasn’t easy, we would be the first to admit that! We looked to heaven several times a day and sometimes several times an hour asking God how to love each other better. We were selfish and clueless, but at the end of the day no matter how it had unfolded, we would look to God together before our heads sunk deep into our pillows. Even though our eyes were closed, and mine sometimes half asleep, our hearts were pointed towards the throne. We needed sanctification and grace and mercy. God came through, every time.
This year as I approach Valentine’s day, I cannot help but stare unendingly at the heavens, life was not what I expected it to be, but God has been faithful both in the past and in my present. I cannot help but think back on all those “Friday post-work drive” moments I got to have with JM, the few I had during my grief journey, and the ones that brought me to where I am now with my now husband, Alosha. There may have been traffic, but the song was just right and the wind was so fun to play in, that it didn’t matter how long it would take us to get to where we were going. That’s what I am declaring over my life today and what I pray you declare over yours. The idea is this: that we would lift our eyes to a God who gives us these beautiful, bliss filled moments to give us a small taste of what heaven will be like. There will be stops, bumps, and maybe a few tickets along your crazy ride, but rejoice in that fact that no matter how long it takes you to get to that final destination, you will indeed get there, and it will be more awesome than any weekend plan you have ever dreamed up!
Philippians 3:14 “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A new year. A fresh start. Some of us really need that right? For some of us reading this 2018 tested the very limits of what we thought we could handle. It took us right up to the edge of our worst fears and even had the gumption to drag us a step further. It. Was. Hard. For others 2018 was a year of restoration in ways you never thought were possible after the suffering you experienced in the past. In 2018 a lot of us lost “normal” or were somewhere out there trying to find a “new normal.” But here we all are, some more tattered than others, at the doorstep of a brand new year, a clean slate, whether we like it or not.
When I rang, well actually cried, in the New Year of 2016 I remember thinking, blah blah resolutions and fresh starts and everyone all amped to have the “best year yet!” All I wanted was the past. I wanted 2011, the year I met JM, I wanted 2014, the year we got married, I wanted everything back pre September 19, 2015. Could I make it my resolution to have my life back? But as the ball dropped, the clock stuck midnight, and people all over the world kissed their way into the new year, there I was on my couch, lips unkissed, and alone with nothing left to do but resolve that 2016 would be the year I kept going.
For those of you who have gone through suffering you know sometimes the resolutions you make are simply the only choice you actually have to make…so no, I was no stronger than you when I resolved to keep walking forward, I just knew it was simply the only real option. I could have mentally disallowed 2016 to come and lived in the shadow of September 19 forever, but I knew in my spirit that’s not at all what God called me to, as his child he wanted me to keep going, because even though I couldn’t see the future, he could, and he was prepared to resolve with me that we could keep going into the new year together.
And like most resolutions, we get 5 days in, 1 month if you are the most dedicated amongst us, and we are exhausted. We start looking for all the excuses to just stay where and how we were the year before. I felt this pull too, even though I hated where I was at after losing my husband, it was still comfortable and predictable…wake up, cry, sleep, try to get life back together, fail, sleep, cry, repeat.
This is why we have to resolve with Christ, when he resolves something he brings it to fruition, every. single. time. Don’t believe it, because you can’t see it or feel it? Look at Hebrews chapter 11. “By faith Abel…,” “By faith Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Jacob, and Moses…” The list goes on to name every biblical figure that even non-Christians know about. “By faith” they did what God called them to do. “By faith” they offered themselves, obeyed in the hard stuff, built a stinking ship in the desert (like come on?!). “By faith” they left what was behind, their homes, THEIR NORMAL, and walked into foreign lands. Why? Because that is what God called of them. He even promised and resolved, if you trust me at this new juncture, even though it is hard, and you cannot see how you can possibly move forward or this could possibly work out, you will be blessed, you will know me more, and you will get what I promised you, life with me in abundance.
Of course there will be days when we look back and long to be in that old familiar world we used to call home, I am sure Abraham and Moses did too. I am sure at times it got really tiresome waiting for what was promised but had not yet come, especially since some didn’t even get to see the promised land with their earthly eyes. I like to think that on the days when Noah was tired of people thinking he was crazy and just wanted to be a regular guy again or when Sarah was celebrating yet another birthday without the present of a child, wishing she could be younger and maybe conceive a child, that they would take a minute to ponder on it all, life’s past pleasures and blessings, then wipe the tears from their faces and say like C.S. Lewis would later write,
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind,”
and then get back to the work of placing their faith in God! Of resolving to move forward.
When we go with God into the new year, we go with the promise that nothing will happen to us that God has not planned and that he cannot handle. Fellow sufferers, we know all too well that even though we go with God, we are not promised an easy road, but we are promised God’s presence. Like the Israelites following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night as they escaped from Egypt, God’s presence will lead us in 2019. And although the path may not always be easy, we too will reach the true promised land, where suffering will be no more and each day will be more beautiful than the last. Here’s to seeing all that God will do in between, both in our lives and in others.