When pain jerks me awake at night, I first glance up. If the digital display on the ceiling says only the second watch of the night, I push through the pain and try to breathe my way back to sleep. But if the clock says 4:00 a.m., I smile. Jesus has awakened me to enjoy communion with him, even though it’ll be hours before I sit up in my wheelchair.
Do I need more sleep? Of course. Will my pain subside? Unlikely. But at four in the morning, there is a more necessary thing, and it makes me happy to think that long before dawn, I am among the early ones who are blessing Jesus. Filling my chest with Jesus. Rehearsing his Scriptures, murmuring his names, and whisper-singing hymns that cascade one into another, all filled with adoration.
It’s hard to do that when you’re wearing an external ventilator. And so I wordlessly plead that he unearth my sin, fill all my cavernous, empty places, and show me more of his splendor. He always responds with tenderness. He sees me lying in bed paralyzed and propped with pillows, encumbered by a lymphatic sleeve, wheezing air-tubes, a urine bag, and hospital railings that “hold it all together.”
One of my helpers knows all about these nighttime rendezvous with Jesus, and so one night after she tucked me in, she stood over my paralyzed frame with an open Bible. “This is you,” she said, and then read Psalm 119:147–148: “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words. My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.”
That pretty much describes it. In the morning when a different helper draws the drapes, unhooks my ventilator, drops the guard rails, removes the lymph-sleeve, and pulls out my many pillows, she’ll usually ask, “Sleep well?”
“Not the best, but I am so happy.”
Blessings that Bruise
Real happiness is hard to come by. Many Christians default to the lesser, more accessible joys of our culture. But the more we saturate ourselves with earthy pleasures, the more pickled our minds become, sitting and soaking in worldly wants to the point that we hardly know what our souls need. We then seize upon the loan approval, job promotion, the home-team victory, or rain clouds parting over our picnic as glorious blessings sent from on high. Yet if Jesus were counting our blessings, would these make his top ten?
I am the most blessed quadriplegic in the world. It has nothing to do with my job, a nice house, my relatively good health, or a car pulling out of a handicap space just as I pull up to the restaurant. It does not hinge on books I’ve written, how far I’ve traveled, or having known Billy Graham on a first-name basis.
Jesus goes much deeper than the physical-type blessings so reminiscent of the Old Testament. Back then, God blessed his people with bounteous harvests, annihilated enemies, opened wombs, abundant rains, and quivers full of children. Jesus takes a different approach. He locates blessings closer to pain and discomfort.
How Suffering Invites Blessing
In his most famous sermon, Jesus lists empty-handed spiritual poverty, hearts heavy with sorrow, a lowly forgiving spirit, eschewing sin, and struggling for unity in the church. Jesus tops off his list with, “And what happiness will be yours when people blame you and ill-treat you and say all kinds of slanderous things against you for my sake! Be glad then, yes, be tremendously glad — for your reward in Heaven is magnificent” (Matthew 5:11–12, J.B. Phillips).
How does one accept these hard-edged things as blessings? First Peter 3:14 suggests that “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” It is affliction that sends us into the inner recesses of Christ’s heart and shuts the door. There, “a new nearness to God and communion with him is a far more conscious reality. . . . New arguments suggest themselves; new desires spring up; new wants disclose themselves. Our own emptiness and God’s manifold fullness are brought before us so vividly that the longings of our inmost souls are kindled, and our heart crieth out for God” (Horatius Bonar, Night of Weeping, 74).
“A godly response to suffering places you under a deluge of divine blessings.”
These new desires and wants give birth to a strong desire to obey him (James 1:2; 2 Corinthians 5:9). David the psalmist knew this. He said, “Before you made me suffer, I used to wander off. But now I hold onto your word” (Psalm 119:67). A godly response to suffering places you under a deluge of divine blessings.
‘If You Love Me’
Jesus summed it up, saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Here, Jesus is not likening himself to a stern husband who walks through the front door, notices that dinner is not on the table, and mutters to his wife, “If you love me, you will have my meal ready when I come home!” Biblical obedience is not a duty to do the right thing because that’s what good Christians should do.
John 14:15 is like a promise. Like Jesus saying, “If you love me, if you make me the center of your thoughts, delighting in me and doing your most ordinary tasks with an eye to my glory, then wild horses will not be able to stop you from obeying me.” Obedience that is motivated by unbridled love for your Lord has a powerful sanctifying effect. What euphoria when your delight in Christ meshes perfectly with your delight in his law! (Psalm 1:1–3) You are then able to cry out, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Psalm 119:20).
So David could say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Think of affliction as a sheepdog that snaps at your heels, always driving you through the gate of obedience and into the safety of the Shepherd’s arms. Affliction and sanctification then go hand in hand as you are constrained on all sides and pushed hard “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
This Blessing Has Fallen to Me
All the New Testament-type blessings that Jesus preached about now lose their hard edge. No longer off-putting, Matthew 5:11–12 feels smooth to your soul. You can rejoice with the psalmist who effused, “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Psalm 119:56). We are blessed — supremely happy — not when we have everything going for us, but when all of us is going for God.
“We are blessed, not when we have everything going for us, but when all of us is going for God.”
Does it get any better? Yes. Jesus describes an extraordinary blessing between obedience and the prize of himself in John 14:21: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me . . . and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” This is the sweetness of obedience. When you sanctify yourself, he opens layer upon layer of his heart, inexorably wooing you with his loveliness — and his holiness (Hebrews 12:10):
This is the blessing which above all others [God] desires for us . . . when we come to be perfectly at one with him, then the struggle ceases. How blessed when his desire to deliver us from sin, and ours to be delivered from it, meet together . . . then divine fullness flows into the soul without a check, and, notwithstanding the bitterness of the outward process by which [it is secured], joy unspeakable and full of glory possesses the consecrated soul. (Night of Weeping, 68–69)
Beholding Holiness Himself
In the hours before dawn when I lie awake, I fill my chest with such thoughts. I marvel at Jesus’s loveliness, picturing him carving out canyons, puckering up mountains, ladling out streams, rivers, and seas. He breathes suns and stars into orbit; nebula and galaxies, all spinning in motion, all so that we might behold his glory. Even more glorious, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Mountains, seas, and stars would — poof! — disappear, every molecule would vanish, if he stopped willing the universe to be.
This barely scratches the surface. Our Creator God then wills himself to be nailed to a cross. He gazes up into the eyes of a soldier about to drive in iron spikes. But as the soldier reaches for the mallet, his fingers must be able to grasp it. His heart must keep pumping. His life must be sustained nanosecond by nanosecond, for no man has such power on his own. Who supplies breath to this Roman’s lungs? Who holds his molecules together? Only the Son can, through whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Jesus wills the spikes be driven through his flesh. He gives the executioners strength enough to lift the cross, heavy with his impaled body. God then goes on humiliating display — in his underwear. He can scarcely breathe. Yet he looks down upon these poorly-paid legionnaires jeering at him and utters, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus graciously and unbegrudgingly grants them all — every wretched one — continued existence.
Yet his crucifixion was a mere warm-up to the greater horror. At some point during that dreadful day, Jesus began to feel a foreign sensation. An unearthly foul odor began to waft in his heart. He felt dirty. Human wickedness crawled upon his spotless being — the living excrement from our souls. The apple of his Father’s eye was turning brown with the rot of our sin (see Steve Estes, When God Weeps, 53–54).
This is what Jesus was talking about in John 14:21. This is the Ancient of Days manifesting himself to us. And wonder of wonders, the Father now calls us the apple of his eye (Psalm 17:8).
Who Will Have Your Heart?
If you long for divine fullness to flow into your soul without a check, embrace your afflictions, get actively engaged in your own sanctification, and let your delight in Christ mesh with your delight in his law. For God has given you the sun, stars, and the universe; he has given you flowers, friendship, goodness, and salvation. He’s given you everything — can you not give him your heart? If God does not have our heart, who or what shall have it?
I trust that at four in the morning, Christ has yours.