Mom, I'm scared." The agonized words tumbled out of Tara Lipinski shortly before her figure-skating competition in the 1998 Olympics in Japan. This 15-year-old American skater needed her mother's reassurance.
"It's OK to be scared," said her mother. "But you can do it."
Tara went on to win, the youngest gold medalist ever in the history of Olympic figure skating.
Later, when watching a rerun of her final performance, I was not the least anxious about her final triumph. I was experiencing the "thrill of victory" for her, even though she, her parents, and fans were anxious and unsure during the event itself. I already knew the final outcome; they did not.
As pastors, we already know the final outcome of the spiritual race in the great controversy. In the throes of anguish and of darkness, there is good news for us and our members. The light at the end of the tunnel shines brightly. Our Redeemer has already run the race and won the victory for us. Now He is running life's road with us and will be awaiting us at the end with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant... Enter into the joy of your Lord" (Matt. 25:21).
Thus, we, the undershepherds of the Great Shepherd, must join the apostles Paul and Peter not only in knowing what it means to believe in Christ but also to suffer for Christ: "For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:29). "But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy" (1 Pet. 4:13). The pilgrims on heaven's highway persevere in suffering for the joy that is set before them, the joy that culminates in glory, because we know the outcome of the great controversy between good and evil; we know that triumph is assured; we know that at the end of this rugged road a rich reward awaits.
If the prospect of a loved one coming to visit fills us with joyous anticipation in the midst of suffering, how exceedingly more should the coming of our beloved Lord? Suffering must always be viewed from the perspective of His divine sustenance. We must never allow the strain and stress of ministry to eclipse the future glory. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). The glorious prospect set before us surmounts our present suffering and transforms it into transcendent joy.
The signature of Christ Brennan Manning depicts the scandal of the cross as the Signature of Jesus. This signature is eternally etched in His blood and carried on His heart. It is indelibly traced upon every soul that seeks to follow Him. It is imperative for us, ministers of the gospel, to be like Christ. For we do not merely partake of His salvation but also participate in His suffering. His condescension and crucifixion leads us to deny ourselves daily, carry our crosses, and follow Him.
The cross propels us to experience radical discipleship, which must include being humiliated for Christ's sake. This is risky and dangerous business, for in doing this the bloody signature of our Lord is traced upon the soul of every one of His followers. When the crucified and risen Lord becomes our life, we share not only in His joy, victory, and exaltation but also in His sorrow, struggle, and humiliation. The humiliation of sharing in Christ's suffering in this world will culminate in the exaltation of His glory in the world to come. The beautiful crown awaiting us above emerges from bearing the bloody cross below. Carrying the cross here contains more honor than wearing the crown there. "Of all the gifts that Heaven can bestow upon men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust and the highest honor''1 Suffering with Christ brands us with His indelible mark, a badge of honor to be worn before the whole universe for all eternity.
Living the signature of Jesus liberates us from the bondage of needing the praise and applause of the world and releases us into the embrace of seeking to please God. In the final analysis His pleasure and approval is what matters. It is His words, "Well done," that count. When we are struck by the stark reality that absolutely nobody and nothing can ultimately help us, then we are at last seized with the liberating and unmistakable conviction that God is enough.
Trusting in Christ
Why do our trusted friends or church members sometimes disappoint us? Perhaps we are leaning more on them than on Christ? "We are prone to look to fellow men for sympathy and uplifting, instead of looking to Jesus. In His mercy and faithfulness God often permits those in whom we place confidence to fail us, in order that we may learn the folly of trusting in man and making flesh our arm. Let us trust fully, humbly, unselfishly in God."2
When we ask God to humble us, we have to mean it. Then He allows circumstances to humiliate us, thrusting any residue of pride in the dust and tearing to shreds the fabric of our self-trust so that we may finally learn to place our full trust in Him. When we ask Him to help us to pray, we must be serious. Then He allows trials to bring us down to our knees in intense prayer, unable to leave Him until He blesses us. When we ask for a sturdy faith and a salient character, we must mean business. Then He proceeds to pull down all our human props and crutches so that in desperation we may hold on to His mighty arm, crying out, Lord save us or we perish!
This is the stuff tenacity is made of. It is clinging to Christ, not out of resignation but out of recognition that He is a Winner. If Jesus Himself held on to His Father amidst the darkness, how much more we need to hold on to Him in our own darkness? He is able to sympathize with us because He was constantly confronted with the forces of darkness. But He would never give up, for He knew that His cause is righteous and victorious. To Him persevering spelled prevailing. "As the world's Redeemer, Christ was constantly confronted with apparent failure. He seemed to do little of the work which He longed to do in uplifting and saving....But He would not be discouraged .... He knew that truth would finally triumph in the contest with evil."3
Living by faith
It has been said, "Seeing is believing." In the spiritual realm we know that it's more like "Believing is seeing." That's why Jesus told Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). When we long to live in the brilliance of His light, He allows us to plunge into the darkness of night so that we may live by faith and not by sight. When our way is hedged by darkness, when we stare at a moonless and starless night, when we are enveloped by dark clouds shielding God's presence from us, then we finally learn to testify, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Job. 13:15), and to sing, "When darkness seems to veil His face, I rest on His unchanging grace." We finally learn that sometimes, in the profoundest way, God's silence is His answer.
Jesus experienced His Father's deafening silence on the cross. He could not see His Father's face. "The withdrawal of the divine countenance from the Saviour in this hour of supreme anguish pierced His heart with a sorrow that can never be fully understood by man." Moreover, He "could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror."4 But He knew in Whom He had believed, and by faith, not by sight, He gained the victory. In His agony He cried out with a loud voice only to hear no answer: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Mark 15:34). Indeed, He was forsaken so that we may never be forsaken. Yet His implicit trust in God came through despite His sense of being forsaken for again He cried out: "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit" (Luke 23:46).
Only the Son of God ever plunged into such an abyss. No human was ever summoned to drink such a bitter cup nor came close to such utter abandonment. We can see a light at the end of the tunnel; He could not. His perfect faith is what we desperately need to inspire and fortify our struggling faith. Our faith riveted to His faith pierces through the darkest night to discern the light beyond, learning to trust ever more in the unseen and ever less in the seen.
Tara Lipinski, in her undivided concentration on winning an Olympic gold medal, endured untold hardships, ridding herself of any hindrance that may have impeded her progress. If this child endured so admirably in order to win a mutable gold medal, how much more are we to endure so that we may win the crown of everlasting life. We are called to "run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:1,2).
1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 225. Emphasis supplied.
2. ____, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 486. Emphasis supplied.
3. ____, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 514,515. Emphasis supplied.
4. The Desire of Ages, 753.