Faith in a Fishbowl: Living and Dying for the Glory of God
“Truly, truly I say to you, when you were younger you girded yourself and walked where you wished;
but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”
This Jesus spoke, signifying by what death he (Peter) would glorify God.
And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”
Reliable church tradition attests that this amazing prophecy did indeed come to pass. Peter is said to have followed his Master in death by being crucified, head down, just outside the gates of Rome.
What if our Lord appeared to us and predicted that we too would endure a similar fate? How would we understand it? What theological “frame” would we put around it by which to gain perspective, courage, and comfort for the ordeal to come?
Would we view our predicament as an attack of the devil, to be repulsed by “spiritual warfare”?
Would we see it as a test, sent by God to strengthen our faith?
Would we conclude that God was chastening us, purging us from character defects rooted in residual sin?
Or would we abandon all efforts to understand, choosing simply to dwell on the thought that God loves us and has everything under control?
In such dire straits there may indeed be some truth in all of these perspectives. However, to stop there would be to miss the highest and widest perspective of all, and the one in which all of the others are properly set, as jewels in a crown. For the above alternatives, focusing as they do on man–on what God is doing in me and for me–suffer from one crucial defect: They have no eye whatsoever upon what he might doing for himself! In short, these thoughts exclude the most important thought of all: the glory of God.
John did not make this mistake. Bypassing all lesser considerations, he went directly to the heart of the matter: Peter would die in this manner, not simply or even primarily for the good of Peter, but for the glory of God. Moreover, John’s teaching here is but a single strand in a great, golden cord that weaves its way throughout all Scripture, uniting the entire fabric. What is true of Peter’s death, was true also of his life, and of all lives, and of all history and all creation.
What is this golden cord; what is God’s great and overarching purpose? With matchless brevity, the apostle Paul replies: “For from Him, and through Him, and for Him are all things, to whom be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans ll:36). All things are for him. All things exist for his pleasure and glory. We exist, above all, for the glory of God.
It has been awhile, I dare say, since you heard a sermon on the glory of God. Yes, the phrase occasionally graces our public prayers and preaching, but beyond that it is rarely contemplated or discussed. Disappointing as this is, it should not surprise us. For the same Bible that reveals God as seeking his own glory in creation and redemption, also reveals fallen man as indifferent and even hostile to that glory; as bent almost entirely on his own self-satisfaction and self-exaltation. If our eye is evil, our whole body will be full of darkness. How then can we see or delight in the glory of God?
Let us therefore take a few minutes to meditate upon this elusive but strangely alluring concept. In so doing it may be that we, like John, will discover a new, life-changing perspective on the things of God and man.
God’s Glory: The Infinite Beauty of His Character
In pondering the glory of God, I suspect that our thinking usually begins with what the Jews called the shekinah, the visible brightness or radiance by which God disclosed his presence in ancient times. Moses and the fleeing Israelites beheld God’s shekinah as a pillar of fire by night. Peter, James and John beheld it as a luminous cloud that overshadowed them on the Mount of Transfiguration. On the isle of Patmos, John saw the face of the glorified Christ enveloped in the shekinah, shining brighter than the noon-day sun.
These supernatural manifestations of divine radiance supply an important clue to the meaning of God’s glory. Intuitively, we understand that it must be something other than mere physical light, no matter how radiant. Physical light is a finite physical creation meant for finite physical creatures. God, however, is pure spirit, infinite, eternal, and uncreated. Accordingly, it must be that in associating his revealed presence with radiant physical light–a light that overshadows and dwarfs every other physical light we know–he is seeking to communicate some great spiritual truth about himself.
What might that truth be? I would answer by saying God’s shekinah was meant to betoken the spiritual radiance of his nature or character, a radiance that infinitely surpasses anything that may be found in the creation. In other words, just as God’s visible shekinah overshadowed the light of day, so too God’s divine nature–in each of his attributes, and in all of his attributes considered as a whole–infinitely overshadows the analogous characrteristics found in His creations.
Thus, if we humans exist, the glorious God must “super-exist”; he must exist infinitely more–and more necessarily–than any of the mere creatures that he–the eternal and omnipotent One–called into being out of nothingness.
Similarly, if we humans are at all good, then God must be gloriously good; he must be infinitely more pure, kind, and generous than the very best of men, who, upon entering his glorious presence, uniformly confessed themselves to be vile sinners, rightly covered with shame (Isaiah 6; Daniel 9:1-2; Luke 5:8).
Or again, if finite man is wise, then God is gloriously wise, for so infinite is his wisdom that even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men (l Corinthians 1:25).
And so it goes. What, in the case of the creature, has glory, effectively has no glory at all on account of the glory of the Creator that infinitely surpasses it. In attribute after attribute–and in the totality of those attributes, woven as they are into the infinitely beautiful mosaic that we call the Face of God–the Creator is to the creature as are a thousand shining suns to a candle’s flickering flame.
The Glory of God in the Face of Christ
The spiritual understanding of God’s glory–the ability to see it in terms of the infinitely beautiful character of God–is highlighted in the biblical testimony about Jesus Christ. Of him the apostle wrote: “And we beheld his glory, glory as of the Only Begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
But what exactly did the apostles see when they beheld Christ’s glory? John gives us a hint in his remarks about one of Jesus’ miracles, when he turned water into wine. “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). How did Jesus manifest his glory? Certainly not in visible light radiating from his body, else the wedding festivities would quickly have come to a halt. No, it was by an invisible display–albeit a very small one, a mere glimpse–of his divine nature: his infinite wisdom, goodness, power, and beauty. The apostles saw no light, but by the light of the Holy Spirit they saw the deity of Christ in and through the person and work of Christ. Therefore, by God’s grace, they believed.
This is Paul’s understanding of the glory of God and Christ, as well. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). How has God given us knowledge of his glory? Once again, it is by his Spirit, who enables believers to see the infinite and manifold beauty of his character in the life and death of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He who has seen Christ–loving, teaching, forgiving, healing, doing wonders, and otherwise displaying the limitless goodness, wisdom, power, and knowledge of God–has seen the Father. He has seen the glory of God.
How Can Finite, Sinful Man Glorify an Infinitely Glorious God?
Christians understand from Scripture that God is well able to glorify his people. That is, he is able to implant, grow, and bring to full maturity the character of his Son within them. Indeed, he is able to do the same for their bodies, and will, when, through Christ, he one day raises them from the dead, thereby bringing each and every saint into perfect conformity–body, soul, and spirit–with their risen Lord.
So then, God can add to our glory. But if the Creator, by his very nature, is already glorious–and infinitely so–then what on earth could we, his poor creatures, possibly do to add to his glory, to “glorify” God?
The answer to this fascinating question is, I think, locked up in the mystery of our creation.
Why did God create man? Was he lonely? Was he bored? Surely not, for how could a truly glorious God lack anything at all? How could the infinite fountainhead of all supply feel himself in need, so much so that he must satisfy his need by creating finite creatures to supply it?
No, the more we ponder the infinitely satisfying fullness of God’s glory, the more we realize that the truth about creation must lie in precisely the opposite direction. That is, the triune God–who, in the give and take of life among the Three Persons, knew and loved himself with absolute perfection–must have been so overjoyed by his own majesty, and so consumed with the immeasurable value of knowing it, that he determined, in his infinite goodness, to create a whole universe of intelligent beings–both men and angels–in order to share this knowledge with them forever!
In short, it appears that God created us so that we might know and enjoy the glory of God. In his high priestly prayer, our Lord confirms this very thing, saying, “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with me where I am, that they may behold My glory. . .” (John 17:24). This petition reflects the heart of the Father, and his eternal purpose for his creation: that a chosen people should, through creation and redemption, forever behold the glory of God triune.
But let us note carefully that when God created us, he did something more than simply equip us to perceive and enjoy his glory. Beyond that, he also gave us a manifold capacity to express our appreciation of his glory. In other words, he created us to be worshipers, spiritual beings fashioned in his own image and likeness who, seeing the “worth” (or value) of the divine character, could contemplate it, marvel at it, delight in it, speak of it, fall down before it, sing of it, dance around it, and more. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a people whom God was creating for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). All this and more is what he had in mind.
In considering the many possible responses to God’s glory, I believe we find an important key to understanding how mere man can glorify God. For when God desired worshipers to experience and express the infinite worth of knowing him, he did not create wooden Pinocchios dangling limply beneath his hand. No, he created warm-blooded human beings in his very own image and likeness, and therefore endowed with the gift of free will. Accordingly, it may well be true that in the presence of God or Christ the rocks are compelled to cry out, but it is not so with man. God may move or incline people to worship him; and he may even show them various creative ways of doing so. But he will not force them to do so. Man is free to “go with the flow.” Yielding to the Spirit of worship, he can express the worth of what he sees–or not.
Observe, then, that with the creation of a multitude of free spiritual agents–each possessing something of the vision of the glory of God, and each at liberty to express it’s value in worship or not–God introduces a mysterious new “commodity” into the universe, a commodity that he apparently prizes very much. The Bible calls it honor. I would define honor as the value, or worth, that men and angels alone are capable of freely ascribing to the object of their choice.
Because of this gift of freedom, we humans are at liberty to ascribe worth–indeed, supreme worth–to anything we wish: sun, moon, stars, mountains, seas, fish, birds, insects, animals, angels, or our own selves. In our hearts, however, we know that we ought to ascribe all honor to the One who is the true Source of all worth: God. “What is the chief end of man?” asked the Westminster divines. “The chief end of man is to glorify (honor) God, and to enjoy Him forever.” God wills, desires, and commands that he should do so. But–as Scripture and real world experience make painfully clear–he is free not to.
Faith in a Fishbowl
In a mystery passing all comprehension, Lucifer elected to honor himself rather than God, and so fell into sin and became Satan. In yet another mystery passing all comprehension, Adam honored Satan rather than God, and also fell into sin. Ever since, God has been graciously drawing a chosen people out of the fallen world system, and restoring their spiritual sanity by teaching them to worship and honor him alone. It is a painful business–and a glorious–full of high drama. To understand it better, let us consider the fishbowl.
Fish in a fishbowl inhabit a little world all their own. They are quite familiar with its boundaries, its routines, and its daily joys and sorrows. Moreover, they are usually fairly content to have it so. It is a rare indeed to find a fish that is actively curious about the enormous universe that looms beyond his bowl. It is rarer still to find one that understands anything at all of the secret pleasures he brings his owner–the person who enjoys feeding him, adorning his bowl, changing his water, and simply gazing at his beautiful color, shape, and graceful motion. So far as we know, fish simply do their fishly thing, playing to an audience of none.
Alas, spiritually speaking, the situation is not too different for the fallen sons of Adam. They too live in a fishbowl, the fishbowl of “this present evil age.” Accordingly, they more or less continually foul their water with sin. Pain, sorrow, and death are their frequent companions, Unbeknownst to most of them, demonic parasites are ever seeking new ways to attach themselves to them, and drain away their very life. And yet–if they are free to enjoy them–there are pleasures as well: a spacious, often beautiful environment that hints at the generous touch of a master’s hand; good food, family and friends, sensible work, music, play, and the simple bliss of rest at day’s end.
However, for the disciple of the Lord Jesus, there is more. Why? Because the Christian fish has come to understand that just outside his bowl there is a BIG world, where BIG things are happening! He knows, for example, that the souls of his departed brothers in Christ are out there, maybe even looking in. He knows that the holy angels are out there, very likely looking in. Above all, he knows that God–his creator, master, and friend–is out there, and that he is definitely looking in!
Indeed, more than looking in, God has sometimes made his presence known. He has gently touched him, fed him, warmed him, and even whispered to him in the night. What’s more, once in a great while–always through the swirling, murky waters of the bowl–it seemed as if he actually showed his face. True, it was only the tiniest glimpse, but somehow the fish can never forget it. Indeed, because of that glimpse, he is now determined to swim as worthily as he possibly can in the sight of the him whom he has seen, yet cannot see, yet hopes to see again. Henceforth, because of his master’s gracious self-disclosure, there is faith in the fishbowl–and glory to God.
All the World’s a Stage
The humble metaphor of the fishbowl highlights a great biblical mystery. As we learn from the opening chapters of Job, the human children of God are the object of intense scrutiny. An immense cloud of spiritual witnesses is looking on. Why is this so? We cannot say for sure. But this much is certain: God has set the stage for a vast and terrible cosmic drama–and whether we like it or not, we humans are definitely cast in a leading role.
The drama involves a war, and the prize is glory. To whom will it go: God or his enemies? Every eye is watching–all the more so when God’s own soldiers, who happen also to be his dear children and friends–are seemingly stripped of every spiritual comfort; when they are tempted, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, and sawed in two; when they are tested with tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. In such dire straits, what will they do? Will they obey their master at all cost? Will they plunge the knife into their one and only son? Will they face the monstrous champion of the Philistines? Will they sing God’s praises, though bloodied and shut up in a darkened cell? Will they fix their eyes heaven-ward as the lions circle the arena? Or will they defect to the enemy?
Happily, it is written that many do indeed take high road of submission, trust, courage, strength, and resolute rejoicing. When they do, they glorify God; which is to say that they honor him above all things; which is to say that they ascribe to him all worth and value; which is to say that they are willing freely to exchange all the comfort, security, esteem, health, wealth, and pleasure that this world has to offer–indeed, their very lives–simply to be in God’s presence; simply to enjoy yet another tiny glimpse of the infinite beauty–and the divine favor–that he created and redeemed them to enjoy.
But this is not the end of the matter. Far from it. For when any believer, at any cost, honors God, his decision is as a stone cast into a glassy mountain lake: It sends ripples throughout the entire body of the universe. In other words, all the other players in the drama see it and respond. The angels rejoice, for glory has gone to God. The saints in heaven let up a cheer, for glory has gone to God. The saints on earth take strength and offer thanks, for glory has gone to God. Unbelievers–pondering the radically inverted economy of the followers of Jesus–are awakened to God, and drawn to God, for glory has gone to God. And as for the demons, they are found writhing and howling, for glory has not gone to them or their cruel master, but to God.
And even this is not the end of the matter, for we have yet to speak of the greatest spectator of all: God himself. In all his domains there is nothing so pleasing to him–because nothing so honoring to him, nothing so harmonious with the truth about what is truly good and truly valuable in the world–as a poor sinful saint striving to honor his creator and redeemer. If reward can gauge his pleasure in this matter, then surely God’s words to Abraham reveal its heights and depths. For when Abraham honored God by offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice, God said:
By Myself I have sworn—because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall posses the gate of their enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.
God came to Abraham, looking for the most precious commodity in the universe: honor to his name, freely given, at great cost, in the sight of all his friends and foes. God got what he wanted. As a result, he who honored him was honored over all (1 Samuel 2:30).
Living for God’s Glory: Christ, Our Pioneer
The more we ponder the lives of God’s saints, the more clearly we see a great mystery: All follow in the footsteps of God’s Son. He is their pattern, their pioneer. He is the one who, by precept and example, taught his people to live and die for the glory of God.
What a theology of glory might be reared around the Person and Work of Jesus Christ! The ever glorious Son–the honored of heaven–lays aside his divine privileges and departs from unapproachable light to enter the dark fishbowl of this present evil world; to tabernacle among men in the likeness of sinful flesh. Why? Because his mission in life was to reveal the glory of God to sinful men (2 Corinthians 4:6), and because his mission in death was to fit them for experiencing it–now through a glass darkly (2 Corinthians 3:l8), and then face to face (l John. 3:2; Philippians 3:21).
And when, through Christ’s resurrection, God publicly declared the good success of that mission, what was the Savior’s reward? Yes, more glory still. For now the man whom the King desired to honor was himself made King of heaven and earth, lord of the entire cosmos. Accordingly, God gave him “. . . the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-12).
But glorious as Christ’s mission was, what concerns us here is the motive that impelled him to it. Was it love for sinful men that constrained him to live and die among us? To be sure. Indeed, such love is itself one of the most beautiful rays emanating from the sun of God’s glory. But sinful men ought not to think that it was only, or even primarily, the love of man that moved his divine heart. As we just saw, his supreme motive was love and zeal for the glory the Father.
Let us hear it from the lips of the Son Himself.
Speaking through David, the pre-incarnate Word gives this heart-rending glimpse into the divine counsels: “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me . . . Then I said, ‘Here I am–it is written about Me in the volume of the book–I delight to do Your will, O God’ ” (Psalm 40:6-8). Here the Son declares that he will freely embrace His Father’s will; he will take upon himself that human flesh by which, in sacrificial death, he might become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It was his delight to do so.
Elaborating upon this eternal consecration, the Lord Jesus, in the days of his flesh, said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me” (John 6:38). How could there be any other standard for him who ever lived in perfect submission to the Father? But now hear why he thus cleaves to God’s will, as he contrasts his own motives with those of the Jews: “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He Who is seeking the glory of the one Who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (John 7:18, 8:49).
Christ’s supreme desire–the desire of a Son devoted to his beloved Father–was that God should be honored through every aspect of his life. Time would fail us to speak in detail of how he accomplished this, and with what success. Suffice it to say here that in every attitude, every word, and every work of Jesus Christ, some great attribute of the Father’s character was revealed–whether his sovereignty, his purity, his mercy, his lovingkindness, his wisdom, his mighty power, and so much more.
And what was the effect of the revelations on those with eyes to see? As it is written, “They glorified the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31).
Here was true food for the Son of God, food which his disciples knew not of–but soon would (John 4:32).
Dying for God’s Glory: Christ, Our Pioneer
If Christ honored God in the triumphs of his life and earthly ministry, much more did he honor him in his death. Indeed, the very structure of the four gospels bids understand that here–against dark backdrop of Christ’s suffering and apparent defeat–we behold history’s supreme display of the glory of God, a display more radiant than any before or after.
Let us consider a few of the ways in which this took place.
As the final hour approached–the hour for which he had been born–Christ fortified his spirit with this prayer: “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy Name” (John 12:27-8). Thus did the Lord draw again from the deepest well of his heart: the longing to see his Father honored. And in all subsequent events–even as he faithfully loved and served his own until the end–this thought was always in the forefront of his mind.
In preparing the disciples for the gift of prayer, he said, “And whatever you ask in My Name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14: 13). This reminds us of an earlier teaching on prayer, wherein he instructed his followers to pray, before and above all else, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
In motivating them to abide him, he said, “By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples” (John 15: 8; Matthew 9:8). He wills that his supreme motive for service to God become theirs as well
Finally, the moment arrived for the great High Priest to intercede for his disciples–and then to descend into the valley of the shadow of death. But before ever a word of supplication for their future needs fell from his lips, the Lord once again voiced his deepest desire, and in doing so revealed the supreme motive of God triune in creation and redemption: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son may glorify Thee” (John 17:1).
Hours later, on Mt. Golgotha, this prayer was answered. And never in all the history of the whole wide world was there a fishbowl to compare with it.
Believers were there, broken and confused. Skeptics also, proud and cruel. The wise were there, side by side with mere “babes” who only knew that they loved and trusted their Master. There were men and women, young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak. There were Jews and Gentiles, people from every corner of the earth. The living were there, and, towards the end, the dead also, rising from their graves. Angels were there, perhaps the whole host of heaven. Demons were there, likely the whole host of hell.
Eyewitnesses were there as well, those who would later trace the terrible scenes for all posterity, that all posterity may come to see what they saw.
And God himself was there, he who had purposely filled the theater; he who had poised, as it were, the entire cosmos to behold the terrible spectacle of his incarnate Son dying on a bloody Roman Cross.
But why did he summon them? And why, by his Spirit, does he summon us still to behold him who was thus lifted up?
Christ himself had already given the answer: “. . . that all might honor the Son, even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).
And on Calvary God did indeed honor the Son, and that supremely; for there he revealed him as the center-piece of his plan of redemption, the author of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9). Moreover, because of the Scriptures, all of the elect of all ages also honor him, just as he prayed, for there they see their Redeemer. There too they see the face of hell, from which he delivered them. There they see the angels, whom he made to be their ministers. There they see the proud and unbelieving, from whom he made them to differ. There they see the first of the saints, whom he made to be their companions in the tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance that are in Jesus. And there they see God, whom Jesus made to be their Father.
But again, that is not the end of the matter. For just as Christ had prayed, so he understood: At Calvary there would also be a sublime revelation of the glory of the Father, an awesome display of the manifold character of God, revealed in and through his provision for the world’s redemption. Yes, for many of the onlookers it would be a veiled revelation: They would see little more than a deluded Palestinian preacher, tragically going the way of all the troublers of Rome. Nevertheless, our Lord was well-pleased to play his part, being confident that his own would see the glory: the sovereignty, the holiness, the wrath, the judgment, the mercy, the grace, and the fathomless, everlasting love of the Father for his people. In short, they would see that all things pertaining to their redemption were from him, through him, and for Him–and they would thank him for it, forever.
What a delight it was for the Savior to secure so great a prize of love and honor for his Father! And so, with this joy set before him, he endured the Cross.
Suffering, Submission, and Glory
We who are called to share in the sufferings of Christ must not fail to consider the way in which he achieved his goal of glorifying the Father, certainly in his life, but especially in his death.
This way may be summed up in one word: submission. It was as a docile lamb that he was led to the slaughter. In him there was no trace of resistance to Calvary, not because he could not offer it, but because he would not, knowing that Calvary was decreed at his Father’s hand. Therefore, when struck, he did not strike back. When reviled, he reviled not again. In the face of pain and death, he betrayed no fear. Scorning even the simple mercies of wine and myrrh, he drank the Father’s cup of sorrows to the dregs.
Indeed, when he might well have have expected to be served, he elected–once again in obedience to the Father–to serve. He provided for the care of his mother; he prayed for mercy to his executioners; he comforted the dying and penitent. In so doing, he was faithful to the very precepts he had taught, so that by imitating good works such as these his disciples might also glorify their Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
We find, then, that in every event of the final scene of our redemption Christ was motivated by a reverent and submissive regard for the honor of its Author. Even his anguished cries, so genuine and deeply felt, kept the Father’s will in view, since in giving voice to his thirst and his sense of God-forsaken-ness, he was obediently sealing up the prophetic Scriptures–all to the greater glory of the sovereign Lord of history (Psalms 22:1, 15, 69:21).
And when the curtain finally fell–when the Redeemer uttered his frail victory cry (“It is finished!”) and placed the laurels of triumph reverently at his Father’s feet (“Into Thy hands I commend My spirit.”)–what was the result?
Now when the centurion saw what had happened he began praising God, saying, “Certainly, this was a righteous man; certainly this was the Son of God!” And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts . . . ” (Matthew 27:54; Luke 23:47-8).
They had come for “a spectacle”–whole schools of benighted fish, banging their heads against the opacity of these dark events, hardly knowing why they were there, yet somehow sensing light trickling in from somewhere beyond the bowl. As best they could, they gave glory to God.
No doubt the Savior was pleased.
The Last Prop: Glory to God
Lizzie Atwater had recently arrived with her husband and new baby at the China Inland Mission in Fenchow. Though the Boxer Uprising–characterized by fanatical mob violence against foreign missionaries–was then in progress, she felt herself reasonably safe, since the province in which her family lived and served was governed by a friendly magistrate. Soon, however, the magistrate was replaced with one sympathetic to the Boxers. Suddenly, all human protection was gone.
Realizing that the end was drawing near, Atwater wrote to her family at home:
Dear ones, I long for a sight of your dear faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth. I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and he will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling, and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and oh the sweetness of the welcome above! My little baby will go with me. I think God will give it to me in heaven, and my dear mother will be so glad to see us. I cannot imagine the Savior’s welcome. Oh, that will compensate for all these days of suspense.
Dear ones, live near to God and cling less closely to the earth. There is no other way by which we can receive the peace that passes understanding. I must keep calm and still these hours. I do not regret coming to China, but am sorry I have done so little. My married life–two precious years–has been so very full of happiness. We will die together, my dear husband and I. I used to dread separation. If we escape now it will be a miracle. I send my love to you all, and the dear friends who remember me.
Less than two weeks later, Atwater and her family were killed.
What would we do if we found ourselves in Peter’s shoes, or Lizzie’s; what if we found ourselves facing a martyr’s death?
What thought would we cleave to, to bring us comfort and strength for the imminent ordeal? Indeed, what thought do we cleave to even now, to give us strength for the small ordeal called “daily life”?
My guess is that sooner or later every lesser prop will be removed.
We may try to lay our sorrows at the foot of devil, but eventually our rebukes will fail, leaving us in defeat and despair.
We may imagine that God is refining our faith, but if faith alone is our treasure, we may one day find ourselves offering the whole hoard for a pittance of relief.
Perhaps we cling to the notion that our sorrows are God’s chastisement for indwelling sin. But if personal purity is our only hope, we will eventually be crushed by the depth of the depravity that his chastisements incessantly reveal.
And even if we give up trying to understand altogether–choosing rather to lean on the love of God–will that be enough in those dark hours when he does not behave as though he loves us?
It appears, then, that there is but one “prop” left; and though we are far too weak to take hold of it completely, it is nonetheless the best prop we have. It is the same prop that supported our Savior, that remained the fountain of his joy and the ram-rod of his strength to the very end.
His prop–and our best prop–is the glory of God.
Jesus ever beheld it: the infinitely beautiful character of his Father, resplendent and captivating in every one of a multitude of divine attributes. Knowing him, he found that he could live for nothing less than to honor him. In the dark fishbowl of this world, he therefore kept his eye upon his Father’s glory. He sought, through perfect obedience, to reflect it in every word and deed. Moreover, he knew that as he did so, others, by God’s grace, would glimpse it and respond to it as well. All this was his anchor in the storms, and his anchor held.
Would to God that we, his children, could walk so well as our Master! But if we, being indwelt by the Spirit of the Son, have caught even the tiniest glimpse of God’s glory, then surely our lode-star is no different than our Lord’s. Through a glass darkly we have seen the same omnipotent Father (and the same glorious Christ) who has loved us with the same everlasting love, and whose purpose is to bring us–his many sons and daughters–to the same home in glory!
Let us therefore seek to do this one thing: Let us follow in the footsteps of Christ, our Pioneer. Let us keep our eyes upon God Triune, and upon his honor. When we triumph, let us rejoice, glorifying his goodness and grace. When we fail, let us confidently pick ourselves up and keep on keeping on, glorifying his tender mercies and the infinite forgiveness that is already ours in Jesus. When we suffer, let us do what we can to submit humbly, glorifying his greater wisdom, his unchanging goodness, and the secret power by which he will faithfully sustain the weak and wounded.
Remember: We are ever on display, a spectacle to men and angels and God himself. Therefore, whatever our circumstance, let us do all for the honor of his name.
In the great fishbowl of this world, such a faith–no matter how small–cannot fail. Whether by life or by death, it will surely bring glory to God.