Zeke has fallen off a cliff.

For those who haven’t read my wife’s account of what has happened to our son Ezekiel in the past few days, you can read it here. He has significantly regressed since getting his feeding tube, and death seems far more imminent today than it did just two weeks ago. His body is constantly twitching and jerking in large, involuntary movements that steal his ability to rest or be comfortable. These movements are not the result of seizure activity, but of something much deeper, much more insidious, going on within his brain. The Batten Disease from which he is dying seems to be accelerating. Most children with his form of the neurological disorder die between the ages of 8 and 12. We suspect he’ll be gone within the next six months.

Breena and I have been faithfully praying for Zeke’s healing for over a year now. I know that many of those who read this blog, and my wife’s as well, are joining us in this prayer. As are other friends, family, friends of friends, and complete strangers. There are, quite literally, thousands of people all over the world that are praying for Zeke and for us. Our new church family, Grace Church in Toledo, has also been persistent in prayer for Zeke. After the service yesterday, Breena and I took Zeke forward for prayer. As Ralph, one of the elders, was praying for him, many others joined in and engulfed us in their prayers and tears. It was a very emotional moment for both Breena and me.

Zeke and BexBut despite all these prayers, Zeke’s condition has worsened. The picture on the left was taken less than a month ago, but the Zeke you see there is nothing like the Zeke that is shaking in Breena’s arms right now.  This has been a source of deep frustration for me. After all, Jesus said in John 14:13-14, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” I have asked in his name, and yet he has not done it. Thousands have asked in his name, but still he has not done it. In fact, the silence we have heard from heaven regarding Zeke’s healing has been unbearable. We pray, and…nothing. No word from the Lord. No sense from heaven. No comfort of the soul or warming of the heart. Not even a sense that he’s going to die.

To make matters worse, we recently started praying that God would have mercy on Zeke, and if that meant taking him home, then we could accept that. Just please don’t drag out his suffering. Shortly after we started praying this way he took this major turn for the worse. It seems as though God has been ignoring all of our prayers for his healing, but he jumped all over our prayer for a merciful death. What am I supposed to make of this?

Whether God’s mercy is responsible for Zeke’s downturn or not I don’t know, but I do believe in the goodness of God, and in his kindness. God is not killing Zeke. In fact, I believe it is God’s will that Zeke be healed, but I also know that God’s will is not always done here on earth. (Why else would Jesus tell us to pray that it would be done here just like in heaven?) But why this unbearable silence? I can hear him speak to me about other things, but not about my son. Is there something wrong with me? Do I lack faith? Is my prayer closet inappropriately adorned? Or could there be something much deeper going on here?

Matthew 26:36-46 tells the story of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was the night before he was to be crucified, and he was in deep distress. He told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” His instinct is to pray, so he does. Three times he asks his Father to let this “cup,” meaning his crucifixion and all that goes with it, pass by him. Let there be some other way! What was the Father’s reply? We don’t know. So far as we know, the Father said nothing, because nothing is recorded in Scripture. Another unbearable silence.

Many years later, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Philippi, in which he wrote “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Did you catch that? Paul wanted to participate in the sufferings of Jesus so that he could become like him in his death and then be like him in his resurrection. The core suffering that Jesus experienced wasn’t the physical pain of being crucified, though I imagine the pain of that was overwhelming. No, the worst of Jesus’ suffering was the cosmic reality behind his anguished cry, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!”

The Father and the Son [and the Spirit], together as one beyond time, were here, at the cross, torn asunder as Jesus became the sacrifice for human sin and the object of God’s wrath against that sin. The Trinity was broken. This is the suffering of Jesus, and it is a depth of suffering that you and I can never fathom or experience. But we catch glimpses of it. We feel the bee-sting prick of the sword-slash of Godforsakenness when we suffer and God is silent. This is when we begin to know Jesus in suffering.

To know Jesus in suffering. Have you ever longed for that? Probably not. I know I haven’t. I’ve always wanted to skip the whole crucifixion part and just go straight to the resurrection section. But there can be no resurrection without crucifixion. If suffering is central to who Jesus is–and Paul seemed to think that it was–then we must participate in the suffering of Jesus in order to know him. That, of course, doesn’t require us to be literally crucified. But it does mean that there will come times in our lives when God is distant, silent, or seems to have rejected us when we need him most. It is in those moments that we participate in the suffering of Jesus. These are the depths of sharing in the suffering of Jesus, becoming like him in his Godforsaken death, that lead to the heights of knowing the power of his resurrection.

My heart is broken for Zeke, but I’m not afraid for him. I know what, and who, awaits him. Though I pray and experience the silence of God, I can rely on the hope that I have learned from God’s voice over the past 30 years of my life. I know that resurrection awaits both me and Zeke, and that before either of us gets there, we’ll have known Jesus in suffering in our own unique ways. Maybe it’s all too ironic, but in this way, the unbearable silence of God is making room for the comforting word of God.

The subject of God’s will has come up quite a bit around here lately. Given Zeke’s condition, Breena and I both have many questions about the subject. What is God’s will regarding Zeke? Is it to heal him? Is it to let him suffer and die?

Perhaps you have similar questions about the difficult situations facing you. Was it God’s will that your parents got divorced? Was it God’s will that you lost your job? Is it God’s will to make an absolute laughingstock of the Cleveland Browns organization and the city of Cleveland in general? (I believe that all true Browns’ fans would answer that last question with a resounding Yes!)

So what are we talking about when we talk about God’s will? Most of us, I believe, think of God’s will in terms of his plan or purpose for our life, our church, the world, etc. God’s will is what God wants to happen in a given situation. For example, when faced with a major life decision like choosing a career path, most of us tend to believe that there is one path that corresponds to God’s will, and all the other paths lie outside of his will. So we pray in hopes of hearing which path it is he wants us to take.

The issue gets a little more complex, of course, when we move from talking about the choices we make to the circumstances that are thrust upon us. So I want to pose the question as bluntly as possible: Is it God’s will that my son Ezekiel have Batten Disease, and that he suffer every minute of every day over several years before he ultimately dies? Is that what God wants? Is that his plan for Zeke’s life and for ours?

Perhaps I could pose the question a bit differently. Does everything happen according to God’s will? In other words, is every event that occurs on earth God’s will? Or are there things that happen on earth that are outside of the will of God?

There are many Scriptures that would help illuminate this question, but I want to turn to one that is so familiar it often gets forgotten. It is Matthew 6:10, from the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s will would be done here on earth just as it is always done in heaven. If everything that happens is God’s will, why would Jesus teach us to pray this prayer? You only pray for what you do not have. Clearly, in Jesus’ mind at least, God’s will is not always done on earth. In fact, let me be so bold as to say that God’s will rarely happens in this world.

So, what then, is God’s will? I believe that God’s will is a vector. A vector is a quantity that has both direction and magnitude. The magnitude of God’s will is salvation, and the direction of God’s will is the new heavens and new earth. When Jesus and the authors of the New Testament talk about God’s will, they almost always talk about it in the context of salvation. And the aim of God’s will, or what he is up to here on the earth, is directed toward the end, when he will make all things new, and fully and finally dwell with humanity.

If that is true, then what is God’s will for Zeke? First of all, I believe it is God’s will for Zeke to be saved and to live with him forever. Secondly, I believe that it is God’s will for Zeke to be healed here on the earth. However, and here’s where it can get difficult, just because it is God’s will for something to happen does not mean that it is going to happen. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God wants everyone to come to repentance, but clearly that has not happened and will not happen. So it is with many other things. I don’t think that God wants any child to die, and yet thousands of kids die all over the world each day. Part of the horror and mystery of living in a fallen world is that God’s will is not always done here as it is in heaven. Which is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

You might say that this makes God weak. Perhaps. But, in the light of the cross, who are we to say that weakness is such a bad thing, particularly when compared with what the world considers strength? The world wants a God who is in control, and skeptics refuse to believe in God because the evil and suffering of the world testify that God is not in control. But I believe that God does not want to be in control. The direction of God’s will is not to create sinless puppets who are easily manipulated, but to purify a bride fit for his Son and raise up a kingdom of priests who are fully qualified, by the nature of their character and the testimony of what they have overcome in the power of the Spirit, to reign over creation. God is out to make us more human, not less.

Which is to say, it’s all a mystery. Or at least the middle part is. Which is why we live by, and are saved through, faith. In the end, all will be revealed and we will live by sight, seeing God face-to-face in a new world where his will is always done by everyone and everything. But until then, we plod through the muddled middle, now suffering, now weeping, now praying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is the first message I preached at Grace Church after joining the staff in September of 2013. It is a part of a larger work that is becoming my book on exile and suffering.

My church used to go camping. When I was little, probably just 8 years old, our entire church would drive out to the country, to a beautiful stretch of land owned by a sister church, and we would camp out.

For a kid who grew up in the inner city, camping was quite the experience. There are several things that I can still remember vividly: the height of the trees, the morning fog, the smell of the ashes and embers left smoking from the previous night’s fire. And the stars. So many stars.

I knew that our solar system was in a galaxy called the Milky Way, but I didn’t know that you could actually see the Milky Way from our planet. My view was always obstructed by the city lights. The sky of my childhood was mostly red, except for when we went camping. There, away from the buzzing street lamps and urban light pollution, I could finally see the night sky that my ancestors saw. I was filled with wonder.

How far away were these stars? Did they have planets, too? Were they bigger and brighter than our sun? My imagination was kindled by the heavenly lights, which, even though they don’t appear to move, put on a far better show than anything I could watch on television.

C.S. Lewis had this same sort of experience with the countryside of his native Ireland. He referred to the feelings that nature stirred up within him as Joy. It was as though something was calling to him from beyond the created order; a voice, perhaps, or a distant memory of someplace that he had never been but for which his heart deeply longed.

I have come to believe that I am haunted by the memory of something that I have never experienced, but know beyond reason to be true. We are all haunted by the memory of a place where everything was good, true, and beautiful; a place untainted by the tragedy and suffering wrought everywhere by evil. There was a time before the world bent in on itself, unleashing this torrent of death. That place is Eden, and that time is the beginning. Like a specter haunting its earthly home, Eden wanders the hallways of our imaginations.

Our hearts know that things are not as they ought to be. Something has gone horribly wrong, and as a result Eden’s gates have been shut and locked from the inside. We have been expelled, and there can be no going back, at least not by the old way. We have lost Eden, and our hearts won’t let us forget it. This memory has been burned into the human imagination.

•••••

I sit on the beach, holding my son as he is slowly dying of a rare and fatal neurological disorder, and I’m longing for a place that we lost. I’m regretting the sin we committed that let things like Batten Disease enter the gene pool. When we lost Eden, we gained death—death in all its forms and by all its means. Even the slow, crippling death of a child.

I want to run, to run back to Eden and throw open its gates. I want to carry my son to the Tree of Life, to lay him down under its shade and cover him in its leaves. I want to run with him through fields of grass untainted by the foolishness of humanity and build him a home in a land without idols. I want to go back to the place where we talked with God face to face, so that the Great [Re]Creator might breathe on him and HE WOULD LIVE!

But I can’t. There is no going back. The gates of Eden are shuttered forever. The Tree is gone. Eden is lost.

•••••

Every wistful desire, every indescribable longing—what C.S. Lewis called “Joy”—is misdirection. Our hearts ache for what we have lost and cannot regain. This is why all natural beauty is tinged with sorrow. A sunrise over the ocean fills us with awe but leaves us strangely empty. So, too, with a storm over the mountains, or the mist upon the rolling green hills on an early Irish morning. The earth reminds us of Eden, so we retreat to cities, congregating amidst the unnaturally straight lines of the structures we build, structures designed not to protect our stuff or our lives, but to protect our hearts from the pain of the memory of Eden’s loss.

We have to go back and we cannot go back. We must press on. The only way to go is forward, to hope that somehow, we will stumble our way into Eden again, or perhaps into something fuller and better. Perhaps, even, someone will come to us to show the way. Would that God may light the way again, to throw open the gate, to sound the trumpet, proclaiming Eden open once more. Would that he might come to us, to speak to us, to invite us, to know us, to suffer with us, and perhaps, dare I say it, to die with us. To participate in this Unmaking which we have made. To capture it. To engulf it. To swallow it up forever.

Yes, this must be the way. Not that we might find Eden again by luck or adventure or triumph, but that the One who inhabits the Original Eden, the Greater Eden, might come to us and speak to us in our exile. That he might bear our diseases and take up our infirmities. That he might even carry the burden of our sins, and in doing so, woo us out of our idolatry.

Eden, after all, is only Eden because of the One who abides there, who met us there, who spoke with us face to face and walked with us in the cool of the day. The sting of losing Eden is not that we have lost the beauty of trees and mountains and rivers–those we still have aplenty–but that we have lost the beauty of knowing God. The power of the Tree of Life is not found in the fruit or the leaves, but in the arms of the One who prunes it.

•••••

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed from your idolatry and lusts and deception and turn your face toward the One who is worthy, who is good, who is power wrapped in humility.

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed by the One who can heal with a touch and raise the dead with a word. Oh, foolish heart, turn yourself to the One who turned to you, who looked for you in the darkness of this land of exile, who suffered for you and all your foolish and idolatrous brothers and sisters. Turn your face to the One who died, and in dying forgave all your sins; who rose again, and in rising swallowed up death forever.

Oh, my heart, be wooed! Be wooed by the Bridegroom who pursues you with the ferocity of the purest agape. Be wooed, oh my heart, be wooed, because what you have lost in Eden you have gained a hundredfold in Jesus.

•••••

It’s easy for me to lose sight of this, to think about what I’ve lost in Eden, what I could lose with Zeke, rather than focus on what I’ve gained in Jesus. Eden haunts me, but Jesus is with me. No, it doesn’t always feel that way, but there is a reality, a truth, that exists independently of what I feel or perceive, and at the center of that reality, defining it, incarnating it, animating it, is Jesus.

Jesus offers you and me and all the rest of us far more than Eden ever could. Eden was a place from which God came and went; Jesus is a person, a man, who is God. He was God, is God, and will always be God. We know God through him, in him, and because of him. We see what God looks like, acts like, talks like, and loves like in Jesus. Everything about Jesus is God. There is nothing about Jesus that is not God.

But sometimes my foolish and shallow heart is drawn to pretty things that shine and glow. My desires turn toward idols, toward that which promises what it cannot deliver. I try to find Joy in created things rather than in the Creator, the Sustainer, the Redeemer. The Joy is not in the mountains; the Joy is in the One who treads the mountains. The Joy is not in the ocean; the Joy is in the One who filled the Ocean and sees its depths.

All that we have lost in Eden, and more, is found in Jesus. But he isn’t flashy. He isn’t urgent. He doesn’t shine or glow. He is patient. He is strong. He is brave. He is power wrapped in humility. He is agape love clothed in tenderness and strength and empathy and holiness. He loves and he loves and he loves and he haunts your heart, wooing you, calling to you. “Return to me! I can give you Eden and so much more! I can give you myself, perfect goodness and purest light and strongest love.” In losing Eden, do not lose yourself. Find yourself in the One who passed through death to find you.

In his forthcoming book, Fight, Craig Groeschel turns his insight and humor toward the issues that American men deal with every day. Using the famous biblical strongman Samson as a counterexample, Craig calls out the three primary sins that plague men today: pride, lust, and entitlement. Each of these, he argues, cuts men off both from fulfilling their intended purpose and from their most important relationship, which is with God, their true Father.

_240_360_Book.901.coverThe book is arranged in an easy-to-read format, with each section divided up into subsections (or subchapters) that typically run just 3 or 4 pages. A guy could easily read a subchapter between meetings, in a waiting room, or before work each day. The accessibility of the format, as well as the content, makes this book a prime candidate for small group studies. While the material of the book doesn’t go as deep as, say, John Eldridge’s classic Wild at Heart or LeAnn Payne’s Crisis in Masculinity, it may be more likely to reach men on the fringes of our churches–those who come because their wives demand it, and who are too distracted by the allures of this world to invest any of their time or energy into a relationship with Jesus.

The book is at its best when Craig combines his self-depracting humor with broadly-appealing biblical insight. He is casting a wide net, one that will capture the attention of most middle-class American men. In that lies the book’s value: to get men thinking about the deeper issues of life who may not otherwise stop and think about such things, much less develop a plan for fighting the various temptations in their lives.

If I were overseeing a men’s ministry and looking for a way to start discipling those men who are on the fringe of my church, I would definitely use this book. It’s funny. It’s challenging. It’s helpful. And it goes deep enough to get men invested in developing a plan to fight the most important battles in their life, but not too deep to overwhelm them. After taking men through Fight, I would probably turn to a book like Wild at Heart to help men confront the inner realities of sin and temptation, as well as deepen their relationship with Jesus.

All in all, this was a really good book with a lot of ministry potential. I recommend it, especially for use in men’s groups.

BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary, advanced reading copy of this book.