On our way to church a couple weeks ago, we came upon a car accident. There was nothing unusual about this accident. The cars didn’t look particularly more mangled than any other crashes I’d seen before. In fact, if it hadn’t been for one tragic detail, we would probably have just glanced over in curiosity and then gone on about our day. But this accident wasn’t like others I had seen. There, beneath the Zimbabwe sun, on the red-dirt-stained tar road, in a white sealed body bag lay a man or woman who woke up that morning not having any idea it would be their last. Where were they going? Maybe they were also on their way to church or perhaps coming home from the store. Do they have kids? Who might be waiting for them, wondering where they are? Tears begin to flow. I’m overwhelmed by the implications of what I’ve just seen. I’m instantly reminded how fragile life is and how small I am. But I’m also offended. After all, where were the emergency workers with makeshift walls to shield all of us from this uncomfortable reality- the reality that we are not in control and our lives are actually dependent on something bigger than us.
Since we have lived in Africa, my husband and I have been consistently amazed by the “freedom” that exists here to hurt oneself. Don’t expect to see any warning signs about the missing parts of the road up ahead or to have any boundary fences to keep you from just walking right over and falling over a cliff. Swim at your own risk and only wear a seatbelt if you want while you drive on roads that have no clearly painted lines. It’s likely if you’re reading this from the US, you’ve probably never really considered all the warnings signs that are everywhere around you, because it’s all you’ve ever known. Before living here, I didn’t either. “Slippery when wet,” “keep out of reach of children,” “stay right except to pass,” “STOP,” “toxic if ingested,” “does not protect from UV rays.” What about all the boundaries, barriers, and fences, extensive instructions, warnings, disclaimers, vaccinations…everywhere we look the world is screaming at us “stay safe! You’re in danger!”
From this side of the ocean it is easier now for me to recognize how we constantly seek to orchestrate our lives around avoiding danger. We believe that if we stay between the lines, avoid certain foods, live by the rules, we can be “in control.” We can be “safe.” And of course this works just fine, until we hear about the healthy, athletic dad of three who suddenly and unexpectedly dies of a heart attack. Or when the tiny heart of a baby laid in bed by his loving mother’s hands simply stops beating as he sleeps in his clean, cozy crib. “But…he was safe! How did this happen? They lived by all the rules! They checked all the boxes!” We hear almost daily about masses of people dying somewhere overseas, but if we’re honest it doesn’t really shock us that much. Why? Because of course they died, they aren’t “safe.” They don’t follow the same rules we follow. They don’t live with the same protections.
What an illusion we entertain! We walk around in bodies that require miraculously intricate order to function, controlled by brains that could instantly be turned to mush by the even smallest puncture in a skull that is merely a fraction of an inch thick, propped up by skeletons that can be broken into pieces simply by falling, covered up and “protected” by skin that can rip, tear, burn, and even grow cancer! And yet we think that somehow, someway, if we just keep all the right rules and standards, we can avoid disaster.
How do we so easily ignore the fact that we are dust? Could it be that “you will not surely die…” Is still being whispered into our ears? Could it be the reason we don’t like hearing about death (the reason I was so offended at the sight on the side of the road that day) is because it reminds us that our “control” and “safety” is an illusion. Contemplating the horrifying reality that one day there will be a gravestone with our own birth and death dates on it, and the same goes for everyone we know and love, is disturbing. So we cling to our safety nets. We strive to keep our lives as perfectly “between the lines” as possible. And we are paralyzed or, as the author of Hebrews says, “subject to lifelong slavery” through our fear of death (2:15).
All these fears seem so normal, just part of life. But have you ever thought about the strangeness of these warnings and precautions? After all, why do we need to protect ourselves from things like other drivers, the sun, and diseases? There is a story behind this. Death is not simply a part of life, it is an enemy to be defeated. We were not designed to die or to live in fear. Our Creator actually made us to live forever in fellowship with Him. He is perfect and He made us in His image…without wrinkle or blemish, pain (physical or emotional). He created us “very good.”
So what happened? What changed? The Creator didn’t of course. But we did. We changed from sinless to sinful. The first transgression and its aftermath broke our fellowship with a Holy God because God hates sin. This isn’t because God is mean and judgmental, but because He is love. Because He is love He must hate the sin that has brought such suffering to His children. He must hate that which causes babies to die, entire countries of His image-bearers to starve, and hearts that He fashioned to experience the fullness of joy to be broken. God hates sin. He hates our sin. He hates it so much that He has gone to war against it. He has judged it. And yet, He has found a way to hate and judge our sin while also showing us mercy. By sending His Son into the world not to condemn or judge it, but to give His life as a ransom for it, God provided a way for us to be saved from the “wages” of our sin. Because of His mercy, God doesn’t desire to judge us for our sin, He wants us to begin to hate it like He does. He wants to give us power to see it for what it is and to receive forgiveness when we confess it and turn away from it.
God’s perfect creation was compromised when those He created to find their ultimate joy and satisfaction in Him chose inferior and fleeting pleasures instead. Animals started growing fangs and claws, white blood cells started being overwhelmed by intruders, hairs started turning gray, husbands starting losing interest in their suitable helpers. This isn’t some fairytale. It is history. It is our history in fact and it is the only story that makes sense of who we are, where we came from, what our purpose is, and where all of this is headed. Any other attempt to explain all the pain, suffering, and death around us will simply leave us wanting, terrified, and well, enslaved. Our aging and dying bodies groan for a better hope.
That hope comes to us in Christmas! Unfortunately, this time of year we are often numbed to the very truths that ought to provide the peace we are looking for. We see nice phrases in tinsel and lights like, “Son of God,” “born of a virgin,” “Savior,” “Lamb of God” and yet we have reduced such profound truths to nice slogans. But have you thought about what made this birth so special? What made this baby unique? As we celebrate the incarnation we tend to emphasize the things that made Jesus “like” us. But think for a moment about what made Jesus different. While every human being in history has done whatever was in their power to avoid death, what gave this One the audacity to follow His Father’s voice straight into death? It is because He knew the only power death has is sin. So Jesus didn’t fear death, because He had none of that. He knew death had no hold on him. Because He would never sin, He would never be separated from God. He knew that when He cried out to His Father, He would always be heard. And that includes from the grave. Three days after His crucifixion, even as Christ lay in death’s strong bonds, His Father heard His cries and raised Him up to a glory that is far better than any He could find on earth.
Apart from Jesus, our sin separates us from God, so when we die our cries for resurrection go unheard. Our fellowship with God is broken. But Jesus came to this earth and identified with us so that we might claim His victory as our own. And the good news is that God promises to hear and receive anyone who trusts in His Son. As Jesus is being stripped naked, mocked, and tortured on a cross, the soldiers ask a valid question- if He is really the Son of God, why didn’t He do whatever was in His power to be delivered from death? Come to think of it, why didn’t He since that is the logical thing to do? The Scriptures answer this question for us. He endured the cross and despised its shame so that our sin would be forgiven and our death conquered. The only One who wasn’t owed the wages of sin was be sent to receive the wages we were owed for ours. This One did not come to boast or be served, He came to save all who would acknowledge their imperfection and their need to be forgiven.
So let me ask, do you ever ignore the red light or the STOP sign? How many mothers let their children swim unattended at a pool with a “no lifeguard” sign? Hopefully we recognize the wisdom in heeding such warnings. But even as we do, are we also careful to heed the warnings that are even greater? After all, what good would it do for someone to abide by all the rules and warnings to protect their life here and now, but neglect to seriously heed the warnings in scripture which ensure their eternity is safe. “Whoever loves His life will lose it…” Could it be that sometimes the “wisdom” we see in focusing all our attention on temporary safety and protection now is actually “foolishness” as it is driven by self-preservation for fear of death and holds no value for eternity?
After all, how can we tell people to follow a Savior who calls us to “take up a cross” if we ourselves are paralyzed by fear of hardships and death in this life? We will only be free to obey the commands in scripture when we have the confidence of knowing death has no hold on us. Satan seeks to appeal to our pride and convince us that everything we need to live is not dependent upon God, but on watching our cholesterol or maintaining a gym membership. “Sell your soul and I’ll make sure you never go hungry. Bow to me and I’ll make sure no bones get broken. Just worship and serve me and I’ll make sure you get everything you want out of life.” Sound familiar? The same weapon Jesus used to battle these lies is one we must use…faith in God’s promises. We must believe that our true and lasting safety and provision is not here, but in the future. When Satan attempts to make us doubt God’s promises by offering empty and false assurance, his deceptions will only be disarmed by the truth of God’s promises.
These are the truths we have had to remember when criticized for exposing our kids to the danger of moving them to Africa. Have we ever considered the offense it is to God when we act as if safety is found in a location? Our security is not in a place, its in a person and that person has promised to be with us always. And whether our kids are called to international missions or the suburbs of Louisville, we aren’t training them for life in a country club in either setting, we are training them for a life of war on a dangerous battlefield. Our willingness to take our kids away from perceived safety is often mistaken for us not loving them as much as other parents. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The love God has for them is too deep to let the fear of death rob them of life. He loves them too much to give them the world, so why would we want to? I don’t want their hope to be in this sin-infested place, because this is where we are in danger. Instead I pray they will find a refuge in Him and His coming Kingdom. The truth is my kids, my husband, and I are all in the process of dying, But God wants to share with us His perfect Kingdom where there will be no tears or struggle, no growling bellies or abandoned children. He is inviting us into a world that will be perfect because it will have a perfect King who loves, serves, and fights for His people. This is the future I am working to point my children toward and the “safety” I desire for them.
Satan isn’t whispering anymore. He’s shamelessly shouting from the rooftops and boasting about all those he has in bondage through fear of death. But Jesus was born to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:15). Maybe we would find it easier to follow Him to resurrection and eternal pleasure if we weren’t so distracted and paralyzed by all the warning signs of danger in the wilderness. Of course I am not saying we should just throw caution to the wind and live like fools. But I am saying there is something that should be more frightening to us than following our Father’s voice past the “danger ahead” sign. And that is the thought of disobeying His voice and then one day calling out to Him to deliver us from the death all our planning and caution failed to deliver us from and hearing the reply, “depart from me I never knew you…” (Matt 7:23). If we have truly received the Spirit of adoption as sons through Whom we can cry “Abba! Father!” and know we are heard, we need not fear either scenario. So let’s march forward with our hope in a newborn baby who came to the little town of Bethlehem and met face to face with the fears brought by all the years of suffering, sorrow, and death in the human race, and silenced them all with the hope of a cross and an empty tomb!