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The Difficult Story of Displayed Glory

November 7, 2011

A small group of Christians suffering under Adolph Hitler once heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer preach to them from Psalm 85:8: “I listen carefully to what God is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways.”

My many-months-ago agreed upon assignment was to write an article that fit in with the theme of this issue of Conversations, the problem of pain. As one member of the editorial team put it, I have the reputation of being “so open about what God teaches [me] on [my] personal journey of pain.” It was thought that perhaps I might be able to help understand the promise of pain more than to strategize its relief.

When I agreed to write this article, I did not know that the cancer that nearly killed me 14 years ago was back. There were suspicions then, but now it’s been confirmed that gastrinoma has found its way both into my liver and in nearby areas. I am writing these words in early June 2011, two months before scheduled surgery. You are reading these words two months, perhaps longer, after the surgery.

Do I believe in divine healing? Of course. But only for a divine purpose. If God will be more meaningfully revealed if the cancer disappears, then the upcoming and final imaging of my abdominal area will show none of the lesions that were earlier spotted. If God can impact my soul and the souls of others more through successful surgery, then I can count on the surgeon removing his mask and telling me as I wake up in the recovery room, “We got it all. You’ll be fine.”

If God can more clearly and powerfully tell his story either through difficult recovery with chemotherapy and radiation or through my death, then I will slowly recover or I will die.

From childhood, I’ve heard that a Christian is to be all about God’s glory. I’ve sung “to God be the glory” a thousand times. But I can remember sitting in church thinking, Isn’t that rather selfish of God? If I live for my glory, perhaps by getting A’s on my report card or winning a match for my tennis team in college, I’m subject to the charge of narcissism. But when God displays himself, I’m supposed to admire him. Is he really that insecure, so self-centered that he lives for my applause?

Childish thoughts, of course, but they linger. And they lead me to wonder what’s in God’s glory for me. For many years, I answered that wondering with reminders that God displayed himself by rescuing me from hell, from Satan, and from sin. But I didn’t recognize that when I centered God’s story in my salvation, I was insidiously feeding my spirit of entitlement, my inheritance from Adam that made it seem reasonable to enlist God’s cooperation with how I wanted my story to be told. Salvation was a good beginning. Heaven was an appreciated ending. But in between I wanted whatever blessings from God that, in my judgment, were needed to give me the abundant life of feeling good in this difficult world. Good health ranked high on the list. If God was loving and good and powerful and if he wanted to unselfishly display his glory, I had no trouble coming up with suggestions for what he might want to do for me. And those suggestions became my prayer life.

I had written about shattered dreams and change from the inside out. I knew that God promised to mature me through suffering, to spiritually form me like Jesus in any circumstance of life. But I couldn’t shake the assumption that the display of his glory meant the enjoyment of my story. If he loves me, he will bless me.

What I did not see was that he wanted to bless me with himself. I was still too much like the spoiled child at Christmas who really didn’t much care if Dad showed up on Christmas morning, as long as he had stacked lots of presents beneath the tree. Christmas without presents? Christmas with only my father? Unthinkable. It wouldn’t be Christmas.

It still amazes me how easily and naturally I assume that the Christian life consists of my efforts to persuade God to help me tell my story as I want it told. It still humbles me to realize how I wrongly think that God’s commitment to his own glory is really a bit selfish unless he reveals his love and power by protecting me from the tragedies I fear the most, and unless he provides me with the blessings I value the most.

Bonhoeffer encouraged suffering Christians whose stories were about to end in Hitler’s ovens to listen carefully to what God was saying because God speaks peace from his loving heart in any circumstance of life, even in Nazi Germany. And God’s words reveal a story that becomes a privilege to tell through comfort or persecution, through life or death, through pleasant or troubling times. When we hear his story and actually meet the storyteller, our spirit of entitlement loses its power, and we see the proud foolishness of our enlisting God’s cooperation in telling our stories according to a script we provide for Him to follow.

Reading The Love Letters

Twenty years ago, I read that the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to the Bible as a divine correspondence of 66 love letters. Six years ago, those words came back to me with compelling force. Perhaps if I could see Genesis and Judges and Lamentations and Obadiah and Malachi and Acts and Jude—all the books of the Bible—as love letters, perhaps then I might see the love story God is telling by displaying himself. Perhaps then I would sing “to God be the glory” as never before. Perhaps then I would see God in the face of Jesus and I would realize that when God turns himself loose, a tidal wave of radically unselfish love will engulf me. Perhaps then I would humbly and gratefully seize his invitation to tell his story with my life, to delight in him whether on a golf course or a surgeon’s table, and to display his nature of sacrificing love by the way I relate to others. And perhaps then I would count it a privilege, not a burden, to do so, no matter the cost to me.

For these past six years, I’ve been reading each book of the Bible as never before, approaching each one as a love letter written by God to me. Commentaries and devotional guides have accompanied prayer and meditation as I put together conversations with God about each book, conversations in which I presented myself to God with whatever was happening in my life and then listened carefully to whatever God was saying. My most recent book, 66 Love Letters, is the product of those six years.

Dark nights remain dark. But rather than merely persevering through them and waiting for the promised dawn, I seem to be glimpsing the morning star before the sunrise and the effect is to realize I want nothing more than for God to glorify himself through my life. His resources are limitless, his joy is without comparison, and his nature is to give. To give himself is his glory.

If he is that good and unselfish, why would I want anything less than for him to make known his glory? And why would I value anything more than to most fully delight myself in who he is and to most powerfully display his nature in how I relate? And if I can most fully delight myself in him and display him even as a technician slides me into an MRI—if that is the story he is telling that makes the most sense to him, why would I want anything better? There is nothing better.

Perhaps I can best tell the difficult story of displayed glory by reproducing a letter I recently wrote to trusted friends. When I wrote the letter, I was preparing for my first conference in which I would be sharing the story of God as told in his 66 love letters. The challenge seemed overwhelming. I so badly wanted to convey that even with impending surgery for cancer—really in any situation—our joy depends on seeing Christ, hearing the story he is telling, delighting ourselves in who he is and displaying his completely countercultural and counterintuitive way of loving by how we relate.

Either we try to fit God into our story and never know real joy, or we live to tell his story, to bring him glory by revealing him in how we relate, and we discover that joy is not circumstance-dependent.

I felt inadequate because I was inadequate. Never had the Lord’s words felt truer: “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NKJV). I needed prayer. So I wrote the following letter, which I’ve only slightly edited for this article. Don’t miss the point: Either we try to fit God into our story and never know real joy, or we live to tell his story, to bring him glory by revealing him in how we relate, and we discover that joy is not circumstance- dependent. If we live to tell his story we then live to tell the difficult story of displayed glory. And that is the Christian life. It’s a good life—abundant in love, love from God, and his power to love like Jesus.

Here’s the letter:

May I ask you to pray fervently for me as I prepare to lead NewWay’s first 66 Love Letters Conference at the Cove on Tuesday, May 31 (one evening session); Wednesday, June 1 (three sessions: morning, late afternoon, and evening); and Thursday, June 2 (one morning closing session)?

Preparation has been a battle in darkness. As of this moment (I’m penning this at 9:45 Saturday morning, May 21), I’ve re-read both my book and my study guide (not all of either, but most of both), I’ve read several related books (most notably Piper’s God is the Gospel and McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet), I’ve spent several early mornings in painful prayer (God, are you there? What can I count on you for?), I’ve received difficult medical news (cancer not only in liver but also in nearby lymph nodes plus a spine problem that needs a specialist’s consultation), I’ve felt overwhelmingly fatigued in body, weary in spirit, and foggy in mind, unable to think or write (perhaps in part due to high gastrin levels in my blood and bouts of diarrhea), I clearly sense I’m in an intense spiritual battle (only rarely before have I felt such satanic efforts to block my moving forward on the narrow road), I’ve written 30–40 pages of notes for the 66 conference (none of which resonate with what I sense are the Spirit’s embryonic stirrings within my center, stirrings I can only dimly but with hope recognize), and through it all, I have a strange, anchoring confidence that God is actively and powerfully working in me and will work through me at this conference, and that God will advance his purposes in ways I cannot anticipate, in ways I might not immediately enjoy, in ways I may never recognize till heaven.

Vague clarity is present. I see trees that are beginning to morph into men. The Spirit, as he so often does, is giving sight slowly. He could answer my prayer for quick sight but I must assume (and I do!) that sighting me slowly is an expression of his love for revealing his glory through my confessed weakness and humbling dependence.

I’ve felt debilitating pressure to prepare well. As of this morning, I think that pressure arises from a self-glorifying desire to soothe my fears of inadequacy by presenting material that will be clearly heard, well received, and life impacting. I am seeing now how this me-centered longing has been nudging aside the longing of my redeemed heart to reveal God as our greatest good at any cost to me.

With that recognition (as of early this morning), I feel no more physical energy but greater spiritual release. Brokenness becomes an opportunity and repentance a joy as my nonproductive struggle of the past several weeks is now opening my eyes to a struggle full of hope—hope that I might actually be being prepared to become (in Lewis’ words) “an ingredient in the divine happiness,” to be able to say from my center “there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25, ESV).1

I’m right where God wants me: in the battle to kill my flesh and release who I am in Christ. I’m wrestling in darkness that, when it reaches its darkest, lets me see the bright and morning star. I’m seeing it!

I’m right where God wants me: in the battle to kill my flesh and release who I am in Christ. I’m wrestling in darkness that, when it reaches its darkest, lets me see the bright and morning star. I’m seeing it! Joy! Hope! Worship! “Darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18 NIV)—it releases levels of dependency I fear the most and desire the most, and it puts me in closer touch with my spirit. It grants resolve to persevere through anything for “the praise of his glory,” not for the satisfaction of fulfilling ministry (Ephesians 1:14, NIV).

Only by his grace and mercy, this self-centered, obsessively fearful, demanding sinner actually longs to make much of Christ, not of himself. I have seen a faint glimpse of John the Baptist’s joy when he said that someone was coming, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.… He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 1:27; 3:30, ESV). If that requires a poorly received 66 conference, so be it. I am on the verge of being able to say with Paul when his ministry was opposed, “But that doesn’t matter.… The message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT).

The fire kindled by God is burning more brightly. I want to be found worthy (only by his grace) to be the Spirit’s instrument in bringing sight to others like me whose self-obsession keeps us from seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, ESV). Only that sight, nothing less, has the power to transform us into lovers who love like Christ, with no concern for self because we place all concern for self in God’s hands, to form us like Christ, to change us in ways that Jesus died to make possible, to keep changing us slowly until we see him and are then formed in his image as never before.

So pray—I ask you to pray in whatever way the Spirit leads you—for my soul, for his work in and through me, for my health concerns to be realized as treasured opportunities to reveal the nature of God’s love, whether through my healing or death, and that my life will declare his supreme worth in any circumstance, including the 66 conference.

A final thought. Never before have I felt so clearly that the Good News does not center in our present experience of fulfillment or in the satisfaction we desire from our ministry or in the blessings of good health, recognition and respect, adequate income, pleasurable church experiences, fun vacations, or nice homes, or in any other blessings that God gives us to enjoy. At its absolute center, the Good News of the “gospel of the glory of the blessed [makarios: glad, happy] God” finds its deepest expression in God revealing himself as everything our soul desires (1 Timothy 1:11, ESV). “Christ also suffered…” Why? To heal our diseases either in this life or the next? To forgive our sins? To escape hell and get us to heaven? All true, but none central. “Christ also suffered… that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV, italics mine). “Your face, Lord, do I seek” (Psalm 27:8, ESV, italics mine)2. “O Jerusalem, herald of good news… say to the cities of Judah…” What? Behold your blessings? Enjoy a blessed life? No!!! “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9, ESV, italics mine).

The angel declared that “good news of great joy” came with the incarnation (Luke 2:10–11). According to Jesus himself, the good news of great joy is that we may know God and Jesus Christ through His life, death, resurrection, and soon coming (John 17:3).

Brothers and sisters, may God by his Spirit do what only he can do through Jesus Christ, may he lead us through every dark night, every shattered dream, every relational wound, every crippling terror, every inexcusable failure, and every temptation to shrink back—may he lead us into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” the glory not of the Eternal Son but rather the glory that the Father gave to the Incarnate Son—the glorious freedom to reveal the beauty of God in a human life (Romans 8:21, ESV). It is that glory that Jesus told his Father he has now given to us. It is “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” to delight ourselves in God above every other conceivable and desired good. To display the glory of our relational God to others by the way we relate that is increasingly similar to the way Jesus related during his 33 years on earth, so that we, along with others, might see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, ESV). Nothing else will change us as God wants us changed. Nothing less will bring us the hope and joy that we were created to know. Nothing more will dress the church as a bride fit for her bridegroom. And nothing will complete the Spirit’s work until we see him face-to-face. Then, and not until, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, ESV).

With Confident Hope,
Larry

1 Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory.
2 See Psalm 27:4-7 for more context.

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are from The New King James Version, Copyright © 1982 Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Larry Crabb is a psychologist, author, spiritual director, and founder of NewWay Ministries. He currently serves as distinguished scholar in residence at Colorado Christian University and spiritual director for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Among his more than twenty books are Inside Out, Shattered Dreams, The Pressure’s Off, Soul Talk, and The PAPA Prayer. His most recent book, 66 Love Letters: A Conversation with God That Invites You into His Story, came out in January 2010.

Conversations: A Forum For Authentic Transformation
{ THE PROBLEM OF PAIN | FALL/WINTER 2011 | VOLUME 9.2 }

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2 Comments
  1. Tom permalink

    Love Shattered Dreams – go back to it often. That aside, you probably know this by now, but in the 2010 expanded edition, there are some duplicate pages: Pgs 137-139 are copies of 135-137.

  2. In this world today of high-profile and influential public figures telling us that their spiritual advice to us is to “Believe in yourself,” and “Don’t be trapped by dogma … the results of other peoples’ thinking,” and “follow your intuition … everything else is secondary,” I find it very refreshing to read Dr. Crabb’s spiritual words which proclaim the real truth. Truth is not opinion. May God richly bless you Dr. Crabb.

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