The Greater Reality
For several years I’ve written and taught on the power of seeing the Invisible. It’s one of those themes we can trace from beginning to ending of the Scriptures, a theme woven into the very fabric of the lives of men and women of God. It transforms our perspective, it replaces uncertainty with confidence, it expunges doubt, and it changes the way we live.
Why? Because seeing the Invisible defines our connection with the God who made us and who is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
But many times, it’s hard to look past the lurid details of our present circumstances and painful memories and future fears to God—in spite of the fact that seeing Him is exactly what we need at precisely this juncture.
I’ll confess, this has been my experience many times over the course of the past years: I’ve believed and taught and studied and learned about seeing the Invisible God—then, incomprehensibly, turned back to looking at my own problems. Stumbling through my own experience, I’ve discovered foundational reasons why we fail to keep the Invisible in view . . . and that’s a topic for another time.
For now, I want to focus our attention on one man who saw God—and how that sight transformed him.
“But he (Stephen), full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
Stephen’s situation: surrounded by an enraged mob.
Stephen’s crime: telling the truth.
Stephen’s perspective: up, not out.
It can be argued that not everyone who looks up to God in the midst of trial sees the heavens opened. That’s true. But how many of us even look up to see? I’d argue that the heavens are always open to God’s son, God’s daughter who looks for Him. Not in visions and voices, but in reality nonetheless. It’s to that end that Paul (who kept the coats of the angry mob that day) later admonishes, “. . . seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
The easiest, most natural perspective for Stephen was to look at the furious crowd gnashing their teeth at him in rage. Stephen wasn’t asleep. The crowd was real and their anger had reached a fever pitch. He knew that. But he chose to look to the Invisible, a Reality greater than the reality of flesh and blood and flushed faces and shining eyes.
Stephen was more overwhelmed by God’s reality, by God’s presence in that place, than by the place itself. He was awestruck by his view of the Invisible God. “And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
That’s the last thing the natural man would say in Stephen’s situation. We’d give a defense; we’d retort with anger begotten by anger; we’d hurl accusations. None of this escaped Stephen’s lips.
So was Stephen a spiritual superman? Was his experience something only for those who climb stone staircases on their knees? No. What Stephen saw was not due to bionic eyesight. The power he experienced that day was the power of the Invisible God flowing through Him. All he did was to open his eyes and God overwhelmed him:
Our responsibility is to turn our eyes to God, to look to Jesus, the “Founder and Perfecter of our faith.” God’s nature is to transform those who truly see Him. (“When He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is”—I John 3:2.)
The crowd dragged Stephen out of the city, picked up stones, and hurled them at him. Rending, breaking, crushing pain. Stephen stood as the rocks began to fly, then, pummeled and beaten, he fell to his knees, committed his spirit to Jesus and prepared to meet His God.
And because He saw the Lord, he was just like Him. In the beginning, they saw Stephen’s face, Moses-like, shining like the face of an angel. In the end, they heard Stephen’s words, Jesus-like, pleading for their pardon. “. . . he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’”
Unaccountable words. Forgive the unforgivable? Beg God for mercy to the merciless? But Stephen, seeing his Lord, overflowed with the same abundance of grace and followed in the footsteps of Jesus—Jesus who filled his view. “Father,” the crucified Jesus cried, “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Here seeing the Invisible God gets right to the down and dirty side of who we really are. Forgiveness is as far from my natural way of doing things as flying. But it’s natural for God.
Not long ago, I found myself hurting and fearful and needing to face a painful situation all over again. It was then that Stephen’s story came back to mind. I’m no martyr and I’m not getting stoned, but I need to forgive just as much as Stephen.
“And whenever you stand praying,” Jesus says, “forgive, if you have anything against anyone . . .” (Mark 11:25). Jesus finishes the thought, “. . . so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Face-to-face with the Invisible God, I know that I need His forgiveness. In fact, I must have His forgiveness. Apart from His forgiveness all is lost for my soul.
And the only path to true forgiveness is seeing the Invisible.
Note what Stephen saw as he looked up to heaven. There was the glory of God—and Jesus standing. When we get glimpses of Jesus in the throne room of heaven, he is typically seated—one with the Father and at ease in His presence, authority and power belonging to Him. But in this instance we see Jesus standing—active in receiving His beloved son, Stephen.
Stephen did not just see God as an abstract personality, distant and removed from his circumstance. He did see God in His transcendent glory, but He also saw God in His immanence. Stephen saw God involved.
Stephen’s experience parallels the experience of every person whose faith is real: “. . . whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). God is God and God rewards. He is actively engaged in the lives of His men and His women. What we endure, He understands. What we suffer, He suffers with us. What we must forgive, we forgive for His sake.
Tossed by the emotions of my own trial and torn by the ugly reality of having to face it again, this truth sang to my soul and changed my perspective. Of course I believe that God is God. Of course I know that He is great and holy and just and good. But I need to see God at work in my trial; I need to see that His goodness applied to me, that He is big enough to be in control right now, that His justice will not be mocked. I need to see that He has not forgotten me any more than He forgot Stephen as the rocks flew and the pain increased and the injustice of the whole debacle mounted to heaven. I need to see Jesus “standing” on my behalf.
God is God—and He is at work in every circumstance of everyone who loves Him. When I look I experience His transforming power, a power that explodes the normal way we think and opens our minds to divine realities. A power that can even forgive in the middle of injustice and pain.
There is a good deal of talk these days about grievous wrongs committed by a leader who purported to be God's man. Bill Gothard’s hypocrisy and inconsistency and ruinous moral behavior have left an ugly mark on the lives of many who followed him and believed in his mission. His failures have left nightmares for the affected women to face again and again and again.
Where is the God of justice? He will not tarry forever, and in that day, Bill (and every one of us) will answer to Him. In the meantime, we must work for justice, protect the innocent, and uphold the right—while trusting the Judge to utter the final sentence.
It’s easy to miscarry true justice. Our pain can drive us to hypocrisy—and like Bill we “exchange places” with God. At that point, we find ourselves caring less about what God thinks and more about how much we hurt, less about what’s best and more about what we want. Remember Job? In the midst of pain and surrounded by mocking friends, God showed Job who He really was. “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to Me. Will you even put Me in the wrong that you may be in the right?” No trading places with the Almighty. God is God. Finally, Job replied, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted,” Job said. “I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You; therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job’s awareness of God put him back in his place. God did not owe Job an explanation—in fact, we’re not told that he ever received one. And when Job was back in his place under God, he got his first new assignment: to pray for his “friends.”
Aside from a view of the Invisible, it’s likely that Job would have responded Jonah-like. When God relented from bringing disaster on Ninevah, Jonah was angry. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish,” he told God. “. . . for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”
Jonah’s anger was a miscarriage of justice, but he believed he was in the right and God was wrong. It’s at this same point, when we misunderstand the Greater Reality, that our trust in God is tested. Can we still trust Him—or do we insist on exchanging places with the Almighty?
But Job had seen the Invisible, and so he had the power to pray, the power to obey, the power to forgive. And sure enough, when Job prayed for his friends, the Lord heard his prayer and turned from the punishment he was going to bring on them. That prayer was also the turning point for Job: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends.”
So what will we do if God’s measurement of justice or His timing in carrying it out is different than ours? This is our test.
The need for justice is primary. We need justice because we need God and God is a God of justice. Read the need for justice through the imprecatory Psalms. Hear it in the cry of the voices from under the altar in Revelation: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood . . .” “Doing justice” is one of the essential duties of man (Micah 6:8).
But we are imperfect judges, so Paul instructs us in the practical application of justice. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of meekness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
In other words, don’t forget that you’re made from the same stuff. The same sin you abhor, or the same essential quality of that sin, lurks in the dark recesses of your own soul. And all it’s waiting for is a breath of spiritual pride to bring it to life in the ugliest, deadliest attack you’ve known. Guard yourself while you stand for truth.
An older friend has pointed out more than once, “flesh begets flesh.” Couldn’t be truer in my own life. I think of myself as fairly level-headed and long-suffering. But if you want to see me get angry, put me in a room with angry people. I may get angry for different reasons and in different ways—and I’ll undoubtedly believe that my anger is “righteous.” But, apart from grace, anger typically begets anger for me.
It’s not just anger. Hypocrisy begets more hypocrisy. Moral failure begets more moral failure. Pride begets more pride. What’s more normal than that? The child of every sin is like its parent, though it expresses it’s wicked character in different ways.
So we must guard ourselves when we walk into a situation characterized by failure. How to guard ourselves? Seeing the Invisible God is a good starting point. It’s at that place that we remember God is the judge and that we are inclined to the very same kinds of sin that anger us. It’s at that place we remember that justice never walks alone: We are to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
We trace this reality in King David’s life as he fled and Shimei cursed: “If he is cursing because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?"’ David saw through Shimei, through the injustice and humiliation of a nasty situation, through dust and rocks to the Invisible God—and to his own failings.
Humility is the only gateway to grace. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Anything that calls itself grace but has the acrid aroma of pride is actually self-righteousness or revenge or charisma or . . . but not grace.
Grace is completely counterintuitive. We count success as achieving our goals; grace counts our successes as loss in comparison to gaining Christ. We evaluate justice on the basis of the bad guys getting their just desserts; grace evaluates justice on the bad guys becoming just. We forgive when there is “due repentance;” grace forgives because God is God and God forgives His enemies “for Christ’s sake.”
That’s Joseph’s testimony. By all rights he should have been a bitter, angry man: powerful, but evil. But when his brother’s showed up on the scene we see a man of brokenness and humility. In fact, we find him comforting his persecutors: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). Counterintuitive? Yes. But that’s grace—grace that sees past the visible (people who have hurt us) to the Invisible God whose ways are always right, whose purposes are always good.
After Jacob died, the brothers got worried that Joseph would take this opportunity to get revenge, so they sent a message to him begging his forgiveness again. Joseph wept (Genesis 50:17). They still didn’t understand. They still didn’t realize the power of grace. They still didn’t grasp that Joseph had his eyes on God, not on how they had wronged him in the past. “Do not fear,” Joseph told them. “Am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive . . .”
Notice that Joseph didn’t say: “It’s OK boys. No troubles.” He didn’t whitewash evil and pretend that bad was good. That’s not grace. Grace calls good, good and bad, bad. But grace returns good for evil and heaps good upon good.
It’s by that same grace that Stephen cried out for mercy for his murderers, forgiving as they snuffed out his life. He was connected to the God of grace; his life, as it ebbed away, was a conduit for the overflow of that grace to others.
So what do we do with our wounds? We acknowledge that they’re real. That the pain and hurt and scars are real. We stand up for the protection of the innocent—in the power of humility. And we look behind the curtain of visible things to a Greater Reality. The Invisible God stands up on behalf of His own, and somehow through our grief, He works good for us and deliverance for others. That’s enough. That’s grace. That’s the power to return good for evil, even when that “good” means painful confrontation. That’s the power to stand up for the right while staying under God. That’s the power to do first things first, to deal with our brokenness, our guilt, before attempting to fix the brokenness of others.
That’s even the power to forgive.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
© March 2014 by Robert G. Robbins