The Spiritual Mile
By Rex D. Johnson
Surviving Immeasurable Suffering
Romans 14:11 tells us that one day “every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” However, before every knee bows and every tongue confesses, I believe every human being will face some situation in which nothing adds up. Nothing makes sense. There are no orderly, logical, or rational explanations for what went wrong or how we ended up here.
For a growing number of Americans (not just those suffering from tragedy), I believe life is just not adding up. Some who never made much money have wonderful relationships with their kids, one of life’s greatest treasures. Others realize all too late that while they secured healthy savings accounts, they sacrificed healthy relationships with their kids. Parents on both ends of the parental spectrum can find themselves suddenly feeling they don’t measure up.
How can loving parents end up feeling so inadequate? They did everything they were supposed to do to provide for their families and secure for themselves and their spouses a good retirement. They attended the right schools, landed the right job, married the right mate, and worked the right number of years. They showed up on time everyday for work. They never cheated the company. They neglected their families when the company needed them. Yet, they are suddenly without medical Insurance or retirement. Suddenly, they find themselves unemployed, divorced, or abandoned. In short, I believe life is just not adding up for any number of people, grieving and otherwise.
In Isaiah 40:25-26 God shows us exactly how to deal with life when life doesn’t add up and when we feel we don’t measure up. First, God poses a powerful question in Isaiah 40:25, “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal?” Immediately, God follows His question with a command: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth” (Isaiah 40:26).
God poses the question to discourage us from ever trying to “figure Him out.” He poses the question in a numerical form, to whom shall He “be equal” so we can see the futility of looking for anything to solve our problems other than Him. God reminds us He alone is in control of the measurable aspect of life: “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40:12).
Still, I hear people say, “Wait a minute-I’ve lived for God all my life. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do; I did all that was asked of me. How can I suddenly be facing this horrible illness?” “What do you mean, my spouse isn’t going to make it?” “How can it be that my dad, who never smoked a day in his life, is going to die of cancer, when some people smoke every day for decades live well into their eighties?” “How can you say my retirement is gone?” “Surely, I am not being laid off after 25 or 30 years of faithful service?” Admittedly, as I mentioned previously, I don’t have the answers to all the questions grieving people face. I did discover a way to address some of these.
Abraham, Isaac, and the Unimaginable
When I learned my loved ones had died, it was possible to have lost my mind searching for answers that would explain my loss. When I learned that the drunk driver who killed my wife and son was going to walk away without serving so much as a day in prison, I could have burned up my mind running figures, and still never “figured things out.” I could have spent the rest of my life calculating, and still not arrived at a solution. Instead, I learned something from watching how Abraham handled his own suffering when God asked him to take his only son, Isaac, up Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there.
Traditionally, Abraham is revered for his unflinching obedience to God. But more important than Abraham’s obedience were the things he didn’t do. Abraham never reacts as we might imagine. He never reacts as we would if we were in his place. He never reproaches God, saying, “But he’s my only son!” Abraham didn’t count how many days, weeks, months, and years he had had with Isaac, and tell God, “It has not been long enough; our time together is just beginning; he’s only a boy!” Abraham neither blames nor accuses God of mistreating him by saying, “It’s cruel and unfair that I should outlive my son.”
Many could argue Abraham simply trusted God. I believe Abraham was old enough and wise enough to know the moment he started measuring, life would never add up, not even with God. Abraham was successful in resisting the temptation to flee with Isaac and disobey God because he knew better than to count in the presence of the Immeasurable Alpha and Omega, to measure in the presence of the Immeasurable God, to calculate in the presence of the Incalculable Creator.
Having resisted these temptations, Abraham never seems tempted to preserve or defend Isaac in any way. He never goes the way of the abacus with God, never attempts to reason, bargain, or negotiate for the life of his only son. Abraham resisted every temptation to contemplate the loss of grandchildren he would never see, to calculate the generations never sued, to count the cost in terms of legacy lost.
Suffering From A Spiritual Perspective
Instead, he quietly, steadfastly surrenders Isaac back to God. Abraham lifted Isaac to an al tar of sacrifice before Almighty God, seeing only this: God had kept His word with Abraham and Sarah by adding the immeasurable, the incalculable, and the innumerable to their lives. Perhaps this explains why we never find Abraham trying to figure the odds against him and Sarah having another son, in the event God took Isaac. He had played the improbability game once with God and found it doesn’t matter what the numbers say.
Once we ever start counting the obstacles impeding our path, and the moment we start calculating the odds against us ever traveling successfully from grief to grace, thoughts begin coursing through our minds. We begin telling ourselves we should pack it in, abort our journey, curl up into a ball, give up, and die.
To the degree we get lost trying to “figure out how this happened,” or trying to wrestle from life or from God some plausible explanation, we allow our physical suffering to pose spiritual hazards. The moment life deals us some blows, the enemy starts counting us out. In an instant he is there, standing over us like a referee in a boxing match giving us a ten-count: “one, two, three … ” waiting for us to throw in the towel. “Four, five, six…” counting on us to stay down. “Seven, eight, nine…” waiting for us to pass out.
Abraham, however, teaches us there is a sure cure for counting. When we factor God into the equation, wonderful, otherwise impossible things can happen. Abraham teaches us that when we encounter immeasurable suffering, incalculable grief, and innumerable losses we need to turn to an immeasurable God. When life doesn’t add up, we need to turn to an incalculable, innumerable God. We may suffer immeasurable losses because we’re flesh, but survive immeasurable suffering because we serve an immeasurable God.
God’s Irrational, Immeasurable Love
The story of Abraham and Isaac is truly inspiring, even comforting. While this story led me toward a level of understanding, however, Abraham’s example did not provide everything I needed to deal with grief on a number of mental levels. Abraham almost losing his son did not compare to the grief I felt at actually losing mine.
Mentally, I was at an impasse. There were aspects of my suffering I just could not make sense of, variations I simply could not get my mind around. Not even God seemed able to give me rational explanations to an irrational tragedy. Then, when it seemed I was doomed to exhaust myself seeking sense in a labyrinth of irrationality, God showed me something about His relationship with His own Son that helped me face some of my most daunting questions in an enlightening context.
Though God never explained the reasons for my suffering, I still had at least one very good reason for living for God. In Jesus Christ I found reason enough to go on living without demanding to know the reasons for my family’s horrific death. Without answering my questions directly, God showed me nothing is more irrational than God offering His only Son for the sins of the world-nothing is more irrational than God trading His Son for my salvation. From the irrationality I faced at the corner of Kiest and Westmoreland, I could look up and see the irrationality of Calvary. That was answer enough for me.
Learning to Trust God with a Heart That’s Crushed
The story of Abraham and Isaac helped me spiritually in at least one other way. I was moved by the immediacy with which Abraham obeyed God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. He displayed a fierce and unwavering resolve to obey God at all costs. At no point in the scripture does Abraham ever show any sign of hesitating, or doubt, or lack of faith.
In fact, Abraham’s preparation for their journey reveals his commitment to sacrifice Isaac. According to Genesis 22:6, Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.” Apparently, before they ever arrived at the mountaintop, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. By laying the wood upon Isaac, and carrying the fire and a knife in his own hands, Abraham was ready at a moment’s notice to obey the voice of God. Before he ever arrived at the appointed place of sacrifice, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. Before he ever climbed Mount Moriah, he had already resolved to obey the voice of God at a moment’s notice.
When they arrive on the mountain, Isaac asks his father a very pointed question: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham simply said, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:7-8). Despite the reassuring words he spoke to Isaac, Abraham was steadfast in his commitment to obey God. Though he said “God will provide himself a lamb,” I believe Abraham had resolved in his mind and accepted in his heart that that lamb might well be Isaac.
No doubt God honored Abraham’s resolute obedience. Just as Abraham lifted the knife high above Isaac, an angel of God called out to him:
Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou flarest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-Jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen (Genesis 22:12-15).
God recognized Abraham’s courage and rewarded him for his obedience. God promises Abraham that, “in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven” (Genesis 22: 17).
Obviously, my situation was quite different than Abraham’s. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac-Abraham didn’t have Isaac snatched from him by a drunk driver. God asked Abraham to lay Isaac on an altar of sacrifice-Isaac wasn’t consumed in a fiery car crash. Abraham was given the opportunity to give his son back to God-Justin was taken away suddenly, violently, and without my consent. God never offered me a ram that could be offered in Justin’s place. Instead of finding a ram in the thicket, I just suffered being caught in the thicket myself. Finally, while Abraham could have returned to Sarah for consolation had God consumed Isaac that day, I no longer had a wife to console me over the loss of my son, since both perished together in a senseless and preventable automotive inferno.
When Moving Mountains Means Moving On
Loss can bring us to a particularly difficult place, a place that lies between the grieving process and the healing process. Grief can envelope us to the point that we overlook God’s promise. We can purpose in our hearts to never know loss or heartache by vowing to never allow life to deceive us again. ~s suffering sets in, and becomes more familiar, we can begin clinging to our grief. Eventually, we may even start professing our undying love for our deceased loved ones by slowly dying ourselves. By committing ourselves to a slow and painful death, we forego opportunities to begin life anew. In some cases, we are reluctant to let God restore us because we fear being accused of not loving those we lost.
Sadly, we drape ourselves in black in the presence of the God of light. We refuse to grant ourselves permission to long for anything other than what we had once held and lost. Clinging to our loss becomes our lot in life. We build a shrine to our lost loved ones out of and upon the ruins of our life. Our only tribute to them is that~ we become pitiable and impoverished in spirit, if not in family, health, and profession. To the degree that we allow grief to destroy us, our tragedy compounds itself.
Part of journeying from grief to grace involves living out the life God left in us. Yes, a huge part of me died when I lost my wife and son. But, a huge part remained. While I was committed to honoring their memory, I was still obliged to follow God’s will. As difficult as it is for most of us, when God says, “Follow Me,” we are obliged to be obedient.
A Glimpse of Grace
The truth is God intends to restore and rebuild our lives. His doing so is no discredit to our lost loves. Those who feel guilty at the prospects of God restoring them should remember this: nothing God does for us on earth will ever rival what He has prepared for us in eternity-streets of gold, heavenly mansions, eternal life, perfect peace, perpetual praise. We are not betraying lost loved ones when we allow God to restore us. Children left with a sitter for the evening are not betraying their parents by eating, studying, bathing, and getting a good night’s rest. We are living out the life God has for us as His children.
Just as we wouldn’t ask our lost loved ones to mope around heaven, miserable and bleary-eyed, they wouldn’t want us to live out our days desolate and alone. Given the chance, I feel certain
they would tell us, “Receive all that God has for you on earth, but know that all the joy of earth cannot compare with an instant of what I’ve already felt in heaven.”
More Than One Side To A Mountain
There is one way, however, in which God was as good to me as He was to Abraham. Little did I know as I faced my mountain of grief, God was bringing my future joy up the other side of that very mountain. If God honored Abraham’s obedience, then I must have found favor with God for my faithfulness. While I yet stood in darkness, God was preparing to send light back into my world. While I was yet devastated, God was preparing to send the key to my restoration.
The news of the tragedy spread quickly among my friends, acquaintances, and fellow ministers. Within thirty minutes of their deaths, I was receiving calls from as far away as California. Of the many pastors who were notified, the news arrived at one church with a particular impact. Upon receiving the news, the Associate Pastor of a church in Houston, Texas called the staff together and informed them of the tragedy.
Within a few minutes, a young lady who was there cleaning the church began calling my family’s name in prayer. Weeping, praying, and petitioning God, she interceded on my family’s behalf. She prayed for the souls of Denise and Justin. She prayed for Misty and me. Then, in the quiet stillness of His Holy presence, she received a word from the Lord. To her amazement, God spoke to her and said, “In time, I will use you to help restore Rex Johnson back to health.” Like Mary, ~he mother of Jesus, she pondered these words in her heart (Luke 2: 19). The words she heard were quite unexpected, even untimely. Just hearing them made her feel presumptuous. For months, she kept them to herself. That young lady, Patti Joyce Jones, would later become my wife.
The Thought Of Dating As A Single Dad
The idea of moving on didn’t move me. Beginning anew was new for me. And I was not at all thrilled by the idea of having to date as a single dad. Even though God was encouraging me in the Spirit, I questioned whether I was doing the right thing, if the timing was right, if I was ready. For a time, I even fretted over what others might think. God knew I was wrestling, and He was kind enough to send some unique confirmations regarding our courtship and subsequent marriage.
I was scheduled to be in Houston for a state youth function. Having seen Patti two months earlier at another state event, I asked her and her entire family to join me for dinner. We had a wonderful family evening together. Before they left, I had an opportunity to speak with Patti. As awkward as it was, I asked if she would like to go out for dinner again one night. I added, that I had no interest in dating around. I just wanted to know if she was interested. As I would find out later, it was really a rather unfair question-God had already told her to say, “Yes.”
We scheduled our first date for a week later. Without knowing it, I had asked her out the weekend of her birthday. I thought that was special, and so did she. We soon found out her birthday and my deceased wife’s birthday were only one day apart. As it turned out, our first date was on Denise’s birthday, August 7. Patti’s is August 8!
Just a week prior to our wedding, I received what I consider another unique confirmation. A church member told me of a conversation she and Denise had in 1980, just months before Denise’s death. The conversation took place at a softball game in which her husband and I were playing. She and Denise were discussing some of the “what if’s” of life. Denise told her, “If anything ever happened to me, I want Rex to remarry for our children’s sake. As their conversation continued, Denise confided, “In fact, I would want him to marry Patti Jones. She is the only person I would ever trust to raise my kids.”
Perhaps the greatest confirmation came from a lady in my church in Dallas. She had always been really close to Denise and me. She was there for us, helping around the house, babysitting our children, and doing whatever she could. Whatever we needed, she always came through. Even more than being a help, she was a friend. She loved us all very much.
When Denise passed away, this kind lady became somewhat protective of me. She hurt to see me hurting. Above all else, she didn’t want to see me hurt in a new relationship. She prayed about it, and one night she had a dream. She saw me walk in the back of the church with a young lady whom she believed was the woman God would send to restore me. In the dream, the young lady was wearing a red dress. Her walking beside me seemed to have God’s blessing. Although she remembered her face when she awakened, she did not recognize her.
Even though we were close, she never told me about her dream. When I brought Patti to the church for the first time, however, her amazement was evident. She could hardly wait until the service had ended to tell about her dream. She said, “That’s her. That’s the young lady I saw in my dream! I would recognize her anywhere!” And yes, Patti just happened to be wearing a red dress. Even now I find it remarkable that the infinite God of glory can be so good with the little details of life!
After Patti and I started dating, she disclosed to her parents how the Lord had spoken to her the day she learned of the tragedy. Immediately, her mom started crying. She told Patti, “I have something I need to tell you. Actually, I’ve wanted to mention it for some time, but I was always too unsure of myself to do so.” The day Patti received news of the tragedy, her mom and dad were out of town. Yet, her mother received the same message. God said to her, “I’m going to use Patti to restore Rex Johnson back to health.” Her mom said, “Maybe I should have told you sooner, but I just felt too awkward.” Patti was amazed. Then, suddenly, she understood. She shared with her mom the words the Lord had spoken to her at the church. The two wept together, marveling at God’s goodness. When God confirms a courtship, He lets both parties know.
Don’t Be Surprised If God Surprises You
In time, the words God spoke to Patti and her mother came to pass, and Denise’s wish came true. Patti has been essential to my restoration. As my wife, she brought a healing balm to both Misty and me at a time of our deepest sorrow. As a mother, she filled a void for Misty and me, created by the open wound of Denise’s absence. As “Sweet P,” she has been a loving, doting, and attentive grandmother to Misty’s boys, Kaden and Conner. Little did I know that as I faced a mountain of insurmountable sorrow, and during the days, and weeks, and months I spent grieving beneath the weight of my monumental grief, God was bringing joy up the other side.
To readers feeling yourselves trapped under an avalanche of absence, a landslide of loneliness, let me reassure you that the psalmist’s words are true, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). The same side of the mountain that shrouds us in darkness prematurely is also the side that first welcomes the sun.
Often people wonder how long they should grieve. Some may try to move on with their lives as quickly as possible. They plunge ahead, grabbing as much satisfaction from life as they can, as fast as they can. Others might be reluctant to recover, hiding away in caves at the first sign of God bringing the light back into their world. Honestly, I suspect grief varies from person to person. What seems appropriate to one person may seem disrespectfully short to another.
I can’t tell anyone how long they should grieve. I can say there is more than one side to a mountain. God works as well with darkness as He does with light. When the time is right, darkness will recede. Even as you read this, God is doing things to restore you that would be hard to believe. When God does bring light back into your world, it is okay to bask in it. God has a way of working things out in the spirit world long before we see them in the physical world.
How do I know all this? The same lady who had a dream about Patti, also had another interesting experience. One day she went to clean the church, as she always did. When she entered the sanctuary, she saw a man standing in front of the altar. She had never seen him before, and was startled by his presence. In a calm, steady voice, he said, “Tell Rex God is going to be with him, and I am going to be beside him.” Without saying another word, he turned and walked out the side door of the church. She quickly went out the front door to catch up with him. Obviously, she had some questions for him. However, when she went outside, he was gone. Though I had lost my wife and son, my Heavenly Father had not lost me, and I had not lost my Heavenly Father. Long before I ever believed the sun would shine in my world again, God was working wonders in the spirit world that were unimaginable in mine.
This article “The Spiritual Mile” by Rex Johnson is excerpted from With A Palm And A Willow. 2004