Life and Death
I’ll never forget sitting at the bedside of my friend’s brother when he died; the scene was one of the ordinary visited by the extraordinary. Three of us were talking quietly when we realized that Richard’s breathing was becoming more labored. We gathered around him, watching, waiting, and praying. When he took his last breath, it felt like a holy moment; the presence of God enveloped us in the midst of our tears over a wonderful man dying in his forties.
Many of the heroes of our faith experienced God’s faithfulness when they died. For instance, Jacob announced he would soon be “gathered to [his] people” (Genesis 49:29–33). Jacob’s son Joseph also announced his impending death: “I am about to die,” he said to his brothers while instructing them how to hold firm in their faith. He seems to be at peace, yet eager that his brothers trust the Lord (50:24).
None of us knows when or how we will breathe our last breath, but we can ask God to help us trust that He will be with us. We can believe the promise that Jesus will prepare a place for us in His Father’s house (John 14:2–3).
Trial by Fire
Last winter while visiting a natural history museum in Colorado, I learned some remarkable facts about the aspen tree. An entire grove of slender, white-trunked aspens can grow from a single seed and share the same root system. These root systems can exist for thousands of years whether or not they produce trees. They sleep underground, waiting for fire, flood, or avalanche to clear a space for them in the shady forest. After a natural disaster has cleared the land, aspen roots can sense the sun at last. The roots send up saplings, which become trees.
For aspens, new growth is made possible by the devastation of a natural disaster. James writes that our growth in faith is also made possible by difficulties. “Consider it pure joy,” he writes, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).
It’s difficult to be joyful during trials, but we can take hope from the fact that God will use difficult circumstances to help us reach maturity. Like aspen trees, faith can grow in times of trial when difficulty clears space in our hearts for the light of God to touch us.
Bearing Good Fruit
The view from my airplane window was striking: a narrow ribbon of ripening wheat fields and orchards wending between two barren mountains. Running through the valley was a river. Life-giving water, without which there would be no fruit.
Just as a bountiful harvest depends on a source of clean water, the quality of the “fruit” in my life—my words, actions, and attitude—depends on my spiritual nourishment. The psalmist describes this in Psalm 1: the person “whose delight is in the law of the Lord…is like a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season” (v. 1-3). And Paul writes in Galatians 5 that those who walk in step with the Spirit are marked by “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (v. 22-23).
Sometimes my perspective on my circumstances turns sour, or my actions and words become persistently unkind. There is no good fruit, and I realize I haven’t spent time being quiet before the words of my God. But when the rhythm of my days is rooted in reliance on Him, I bear good fruit. Patience and gentleness characterize my interactions with others; it’s easier to choose gratitude over complaint.
The God who has revealed Himself to us is our source of strength, wisdom, joy, understanding, and peace (Ps. 119: 28, 98, 111, 144, 165). As we steep our souls in the words that point us to Him, the work of God’s Spirit will be evident in our lives.
To celebrate Winston Churchill’s eightieth birthday, the British parliament commissioned artist Graham Sutherland to paint a portrait of the celebrated statesman. “How are you going to paint me?” Churchill reportedly asked the artist: “As a cherub, or the Bulldog?” Churchill liked these two popular perceptions of him. Sutherland, however, said he would paint what he saw.
Churchill was not happy with the results. Sutherland’s portrait had Churchill slumped in a chair wearing his trademark scowl—true to reality, but hardly flattering. After its official unveiling, Churchill hid the painting in his cellar. It was later secretly destroyed.
Like Churchill, most of us have an image of ourselves we want others to have of us also—whether of success, godliness, beauty, or strength. We can go to great lengths to conceal our “ugly” sides. Perhaps deep down we fear we won’t be loved if the real us is known.
When the Israelites were taken captive by Babylon, they were seen at their worst. Because of their sins, God allowed their enemies to conquer them. But He told them not to fear. He knew them by name, and He was with them in every humiliating trial (Isa. 43:1–2). They were secure in His hands (v. 13) and “precious” to Him (v. 4). Despite their ugliness, God loved them.
We will find ourselves less motivated to seek the approval of others when such a truth truly sinks in. God knows the real us and still loves us immeasurably (Eph. 3:18).
East Meets West
When students from Southeast Asia met a teacher from North America, the visiting instructor learned a lesson. After giving his class their first multiple-choice test, he was surprised to find many questions left unanswered. While handing back the corrected papers, he suggested that, next time, instead of leaving answers blank they should take a guess. Surprised, one of the students raised their hand and asked, “What if I accidentally get the answer right? I would be implying that I knew the answer when I didn’t.” The student and teacher had a different perspective and practice.
In the days of the New Testament, Jewish and Gentile converts were coming to Christ with perspectives as different as East and West. Before long they were disagreeing over matters as diverse as worship days and what a Christ follower is free to eat or drink. The apostle Paul urged them to remember an important fact: None of us is in a position to know or judge the heart of another.
For the sake of harmony with fellow believers, God urges us to realize that we are all accountable to our Lord, to act according to His Word and our conscience. However, He alone is in a position to judge the attitudes of our heart (Rom. 14:4-7).