The Cruciform Life
As a pastor, I do premarital discipleship with Christian couples. During a recent prenuptial conversation, I asked a couple to describe a recurring conflict they were having.
The groom hesitantly explained that they continue to argue about a flaw in his fiancé’s personality that they both agree needs to change. He loves her, was reluctant to bring up the issue, and was not demeaning her in his description of the problem. She agreed with his assessment and was equally frustrated with her lack of progress. They both understood this style of relating to be something she had learned from her family of origin. They recognized the source and were together trying to find a solution. The fact of the matter was this issue was continuing to be a sore spot about which they continued to argue.
What concerned me more than the conflict was his sense of despair. He wondered out loud if there was any hope for change. Would this always be an issue throughout their marriage? That led us to talk about changes he needs to make in his own life and ways of relating. Is there hope that he can change?
As I listened, I began to get a sense for why this lack of hope concerned me. These are Christian young adults who have grown up in godly homes and good churches. These two love Jesus dearly and long to be all that He wants them to be, devoted to God and one another. So, why would a committed Christian couple live with such a looming sense of hopelessness? In one of those rare moments when I actually thought to ask the Holy Spirit for help, the words “remember the Story” came to mind.
Remembering the Story
Then He reminded me of Ezekiel, chapters 36 and 37. If you’ll recall, in Ezekiel 36 God is furious with His people for persistently profaning His name among themselves and the nations. It’s the same old story that’s been told since the Garden: He created people to love Him and delight in His name, but they continue to leave Him and drag His name through the mud. Sounds hopeless to me. But not to God. He’s not finished telling the Story. When things seem to be at their worst, God’s best work begins. He promises to forgive and cleanse their sinful idolatry, to give them new hearts that are tender toward Him, to put His Spirit in them so that they will want to walk in His way of love for Him and others, and then He promises that they will dwell in fellowship with Him and one another forever (Ezekiel 36:25-28). Ezekiel 36 describes what Jeremiah and Jesus called the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:20) and what we call the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
Ezekiel 37 goes on to give us a picture of the Gospel transformation that takes place in the lives of those who enter this New Covenant with God through the blood of Jesus. God shows Ezekiel a valley of dry bones. If Ezekiel thought the spiritual condition of God’s people was hopeless, this vision was sure to drive his hopelessness over the edge into the valley of despair. But when God’s Word is proclaimed and His Spirit blows, resurrection happens, and the dead not only live, but thrive (Ezekiel 37:7-14). With Him there is always hope.
Telling the Story
Ezekiel’s version of the New Covenant and his vision of fossilized bones resurrected into full-of-life bodies now danced in my head. I said something like this: “Now wait, let’s not forget the Story. Remember the Story that God is telling. Remember what He’s up to. Do you remember the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel? You probably heard the story in Sunday School.” They remembered. So I proceeded to briefly explain the context of that vision. First, I reminded them of the larger context, the four-chapter drama that spans the entire Bible: Creation, the Fall, and God’s plan of Redemption and ultimate Restoration. This Story explains why we long for marriage to work (Creation); why we’re frustrated with relational brokenness (the Fall); and what God has done (Redemption) and is doing (Restoration) to make all things, including relationships, new. (I later found and shared with them this great summary statement of a Biblical view of marriage from Paul David Tripp: “[Marriage is] a flawed person married to a flawed person in a fallen world but with a faithful God.”)
With that big picture in place, I then explained the immediate context of Ezekiel’s vision: God’s promise in Ezekiel 36 to redeem and restore His people through the New Covenant (the Gospel). I explained that when we look at ourselves and one another and think there’s no hope for change, we have to remember The Story. It is a story of resurrection, of radical transformation, of selfish, dry bones becoming Spirit-filled bodies who love God and love others.
“Do you believe the Holy Spirit lives in her?” I asked. “Yes, of course.” “Then there is hope. He will change her. He is transforming her into the image of the resurrected Jesus. And He is doing the same in you. But it won’t happen overnight. Don’t look for perfection. Look for progress while you long for the promise of perfection. He who began a good work in you will complete it. There is always hope. But you have to remember the Story or you’ll wallow in despair. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that ‘love believes all things, hopes all things.’ Do you believe the Story? Do you believe that God is at work in each of you to renew His image in you? Love means believing this for each other, hoping this for each other.”
I sensed hope rising again in them (and in me).
Little stories in light of the larger Story
I shouldn’t be surprised that a Christian couple could so easily forget the Story and lose hope. I do it pretty regularly myself. That’s why our conversation was as encouraging to me as it was to them. I needed to hear what the Spirit was saying to them. It reminded me how often I despair over the slow progress of sanctification I see in myself and others. Do I really believe the Gospel for myself and others? Do I believe it is the “power of salvation for those who believe” (Romans 1:16)? Do I consciously and continually consider myself “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11)? Do I encourage my fellow brothers and sisters to apply this cruciform worldview to their own lives?
I am reminded of my good friend, Lea, who never fails to remind me how God continually calls His people to “remember and tell” His Story (Psalm 78). I think of another friend, Elizabeth, a “story consultant” who loves to help others “learn deeply, live freely, and love passionately in God’s Story of grace.” What my friends are doing is what all of God’s people are called to do—help one another see our little stories in light of the Larger Story. God wants us to remember His Story so we can see visions of our brittle, broken me-first hearts becoming living, loving you-first hearts, hearts that look at God, at people, and all that God has made and say, “You first!”
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Isn’t this what Jesus did for His friends on the road to Emmaus? On the day of His resurrection He told them the Story of Resurrection. He walked with them, listened to them, asked curious questions, heard their despair, and then “beginning with Moses” He rehearsed His Story. Jesus set their story in the proper context of His Story until they recognized Him in their midst and their hearts burned with hope (Luke 24). This is what it means to have, and help others have, a biblical worldview—where the rubber of our smaller stories meets the road of His larger Story.
Jimmy Davis is associate editor of Worldview Church and is associate pastor at Metrocrest Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.
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