The lights in the cabin were dimmed. The almost unnoticed sound of air slipping over the skin of the airliner reminded me that I was at 40,000 feet. I sat, bleary eyed along the rear bulkhead, reading light on, notepad on the tray in front of me. It was Father’s Day and I was suspended between heaven and earth separated from my children and facing an unthinkable tragedy–I was going home, alone, to the U.S. to help my family bury my father. There were no words to pray. Sitting numbly in a stupor, I pressed pen to paper and began to write. “The last words my dad ever said to me were, ‘I love you, son. . .'”
Mountains across the valley emerged from the darkness as dawn approached. Fog flowed through the valley below us, a great white river that would disappear soon enough. The friar bird began singing his morning prayer as did the dozens of Papua New Guinean neighbors encircling our house. I listened to the cadence of my wife’s breathing and of the gentle words of caring friends outside. Though we had lived in Papua New Guinea only a short time, my health was mysteriously failing. Why? Our friends were crying out to heaven for answers.
A different night a line of flaming torches flickered against the mountainside. People were descending into a maelstrom of violence and hatred, ready to burn, to kill, to revenge. Sin had to be dealt with, swiftly and severely, shame mitigated, respect restored. The torch bearers thought that someone in our village had performed a revenge-killing on one of their relatives and they were coming to make war. We were caught in the middle of friends who were suddenly at war with one another.
Loss, sickness, and violence. Three threads of my New Guinea experience. Why were they so frequently present? What was I to learn about shaking the gates of Hell from these harsh realities?
First, I learned that in even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations, I do not come to God with answers–I just come to God. I learned that I don’t have words, most of the time, to adequately express the loss, the hurt, the frustration or the fear. I learned that there is Someone to help me with all that.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27, ESV)
Second, I learned that in even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations, God is with me. I know this, in part, because the Son submitted to the most inhumane, brutal torture and murder, in order that I would not be charged and executed for my wrongdoing. I know this in part because when He was undergoing life in a human body–the temptation, the taunting, the torture, the rejection, even death–he experienced more of the unthinkable that I could ever imagine. Therefore, He is qualified to empathize with everything I’ve experienced. He takes that experience and prays with understanding for me.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Third, I learned that even the most unthinkable, hurtful, and skewering situations serve to make me more like Christ and are used by God to make me more than a conqueror. They are used to make me fit for heaven, to be purified in the inner man, to be holy as He is holy. They are normative Christian experiences, not exceptions. They do not separate me from Him, they deepen my dependence upon him.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-38, ESV)
These three truths transform my heart and mind, stealing me away from fearful, tentative tendencies, making me into a fearless, intrepid intercessor who intercedes along with the Holy Spirit and the Son, shaking the gates of Hell, causing rumblings in heavenly places, risking all for the honor of being called “son” by the Creator, Conqueror, and Counselor.