by Mike Ratliff
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 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. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:1-6 ESV)
I have heard it both ways. I have heard that this Christian walk is one of balance between legality and grace. I have also heard that that view is a fallacy. My own observation, however, is somewhat different. I do believe we must be balanced. We are not to judge others in hypocrisy, and we are also to carry out God’s righteous judgments according to His will. However, I believe our walk of balance is one of enduring the harsh realities of this life in the power of God’s grace. This walk defies the logic of the natural mind. However, at the same time that we endure our tests and trials by the grace of God, we reflect Christ to those around us. This walk of balance is what the believer inherits as part of the suffering Church. It is enabled by God’s grace as He applies His balm of hope in our hearts.
In my own walk, I have experienced the dreadful attacks of doubt, bitterness, and anger at the complete unfairness of this life. I have come close to despair many times. What happens when we despair? Don’t we often lash out at those around us when they let us down? When bitterness takes over the focus of our hearts, we become locked into a walk marked by bitterness, resentment, self-pity, self-focus, self-protection, and self-justification. Spiritual blindness descends over our hearts. Hope dies away and with it, any level of Christlikeness we did have. Isn’t this a depressing scenario? I shared the following story in my book All for His Glory, but it bears another look to help us exposit the truth that God’s balm of hope is crucial to our walking the walk by faith in a completely non-judgmental fashion.
At 9:01 am on April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb. At that moment, I was at my desk working at Bank of Oklahoma just one and a half blocks to the south. I was in my office preparing to walk upstairs to talk to one of our network users about an application problem. I walked to the door, turned to one of my coworkers to tell him where I was going when a sound I had never heard before raced through the ceiling above our heads. I cannot really describe the sound very well, but all of us in that office knew something very extraordinary had just happened. It was the shockwave from the blast. There was an elevator shaft next to our office space. We all thought a cable had broken and the car had fallen down to our level. I ran to the door and opened it. I was stunned by what I saw. I worked in the basement level of the building. We were more than two floors underground. My office was between a very large bombproof safe-deposit vault and a very stout elevator shaft. However, right outside of my office door the lobby to the safe-deposit area was in chaos. Several of the fluorescent light fixtures had broken loose and were swinging from their support wires. The insulated ceiling tiles were missing from several areas. The stairwell next to the elevator shaft was full of people running in both directions. Several ceiling tiles had fallen onto the stairs and the people where stepping on them breaking them to pieces. I heard screaming from the teller lobby on the main floor. Without much thought, I bounded up the stairs.
The first floor of our building had glass panes that were three stories tall on the north, east, and south sides. The north side of the first floor seemed to be where most of the confusion and damage was. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw all of that glass was missing. The tellers were closing up their area and evacuating. I hurried down to the north end of the floor. The cool air from outside added to the surreal atmosphere. It appeared that some of the glass panes had fallen onto the desks along the north wall. Others had fallen outside. Broken glass was everywhere. That glass was about an inch thick. One of the desks had a shard of glass that looked like a long spear sticking out of the top of it. The loan officer who worked in that cubicle was still in his office. He was shaking and I think I heard him praying. He had been sitting with his back to the north wall while he worked on his computer. When the blast happened our building flexed to the south then back to the north. This flexing action popped the glass out along the north wall. When he detected he was in great danger he simply tucked his head down between his arms on his desk as that huge glass pane dropped over him. For some reason he was not injured at all. His furniture protected him. He told everyone he was very grateful. A few cubicles down another loan officer had a large piece of glass sticking out of his side. Some of those he worked with were giving him first aid.
I walked outside through one of the empty windows onto our plaza area. That was when I heard the Federal Building had been bombed. I had parked my car at the Federal Center parking garage so I decided to go see what was going on. Even though they were forcing people to evacuate, I went back to my desk and got my jacket. I am very glad I did. I also grabbed my cell phone. One of my coworkers and I started hiking north on Harvey to the Federal Building area. Everyone seemed to be walking or running away from it. I found my car. It was fine, but covered with about a half inch of dirt or dust. Then we walked to the front of the Federal Building. The south side of the building was intact, but I could see through the windows that the north side of the building was gone. There were no sirens yet. The crunching of glass under our feet sounded deafening because everything was so still. I looked up to the top floors of the Federal Building and could see the smoke billowing from the fires on the other side. Every so often small explosions coming from the front of the building would drown out the continuous crunching of glass coming from each step we took. We got to the front of building and beheld hell on earth. Cars were burning and exploding. The Water Resources Board building on the north side of the street looked like a wrecking ball had hit it. It was burning too. The roof of the Journal Record building on the north side of the street was missing. There was a huge smoking crater where the street used to be. There were blood soaked bodies all over the place with people trying to give them first aid. I remember looking up at a news helicopter hovering over us. Sirens were getting louder and louder as police and fire units responded. Then my cell phone rang.
My boss in Tulsa wanted to know what was going on. I could hear other managers in the background. I told them what I knew and where I was. They told me to get out of the downtown area and somehow get to our Windsor Hills branch. I shut off my phone to save battery power as we walked out of there. The police had already blocked the entrance to the parking garage so I could not get my car out. My coworker parked a block further west so we walked to his car. We took back streets with several detours and finally got to our gathering location. On the trip over, I tried numerous times to call Ina to let her know I was okay, but my cell phone would not work because all of the channels were jammed. When we got to the branch bank, I commandeered a cubicle with a phone. I called Ina to let her know what was going on. I had no idea she had been frantically trying to call me for the last several hours. It seemed like just a few minutes to me, but it had actually been over three hours since the blast until I was able to get to a phone to call her.
A couple of hours later the recovery team from our main office in Tulsa arrived. The plan was for me to commandeer a couple of cars then escort these executives to our downtown branch. That meant going back into hell. Our security people arranged for passes from the OKC police that we had to pick up at command headquarters across from the blast zone. We caravanned back to the area, but had to park several blocks north of downtown in front of people’s houses then walk the rest of the way in. We started walking. It took almost an hour to reach headquarters. It was getting cold by this time. We got our passes, but the police would give us no help. I was the guide. We started hiking over stuff in the street that should not have been there. Broken glass was everywhere. Parts of buildings and cars were lying in the street and blocking sidewalks. That walk would normally have taken about 5 minutes, but it took us 45 minutes. The smell of burnt-out cars and the noises of rescue and recovery coming from the blast zone were indescribable.
Once we were inside the building, I took possession of our department’s van, which was still in its parking space in our underground garage. The recovery team had us put all of the item processing bags into the van. My job was to get those bags back to Windsor Hills so those going back to Tulsa could take them to the processing center there. We loaded all of the bags then I called my boss in Tulsa for further instructions. She told me the fire department had requested we shut power off in the building that evening. I had to go back into our server room to power down all of our network gear and all of the servers. I powered down our data center, which effectively darkened our Wide Area Network for half of Oklahoma. Then I drove out of there. I delivered the bags then drove home. It was Wednesday evening so I went to church that night. The surreal nature of it all was striking. The people who were not there that day seemed incredulous as I described what had gone on.
That evening our facilities people somehow managed to get a contractor onto our plaza area to screw huge pieces of plywood over the open windows on the north side. That was very good, because it rained the next two evenings. The next day I got a call from my boss wanting me to try to get back to my office so I could power up the Data Center. With it powered down none of our outlying branches in OKC could operate on the Wide Area Network. I drove downtown but was stopped a block away from my building at a checkpoint set up by National Guard troops carrying M-16s. They told me I had to go to command headquarters to get a pass. I tried to do that, but they would not let me in. I started walking back to the van when I heard a car honking. I turned around and saw one of our company cars full of our security people. I had parked the van legally so they told me to get in. They were able to drive through all of those checkpoints I could not get through. This whole process took two or three hours. I got into the Data Center then started powering up everything. Since I was in the building without a pass, I could not go back out by myself so I decided to spend the rest of the day in my office. No one else was in the building except for security and repair crews. I did an inventory of the wrecked computer equipment along the north wall. Every keyboard, mouse, and monitor had been shattered. Some of the printers were full of broken glass. Our facilities people arranged for me to get a pass from the FBI so I could get in and out of the blast area. I did not see any of my coworkers for a couple of weeks. I had them out handling support calls at the branches. They all worked from different parts of the network. I stayed at my desk and tried not to think about that horrible mess just a couple of blocks away.
A few days later, we discovered who Timothy McVeigh was. Many of us discussed how wonderful it would be if they hanged him publicly out there on the site of the Federal Building. I was able to get my car out of the parking garage a few weeks after the blast. Our office reopened and our executives had all of us who were there that day participate in a debriefing. They brought in a counselor who specialized in traumatized cases. We sat in a circle and the counselor started asking questions. When he came to me he asked, “When did you realize you were afraid?” I glared at him and said, “I don’t remember being afraid at all, but I would like to get my hands around the neck of Timothy McVeigh!” Then he went to the next person. He was the head of our security. We did not really know each other very well. I will never forget his remark. He said, “I have never been afraid during any of this either, but I do want to be the one to pull the switch when they execute that jerk!” We were close friends from that point on. I got a new nickname at work. Some of the loan officers started calling me “Iron Mike.” I really did not feel good about that though because my anger was consuming me and that did make me afraid.
Most of the employees at the Federal Employee Credit Union at the Federal Building died when their floor collapsed during the blast. I had been in there making a deposit the day before. I knew several of them. One of our friends at our church worked in the Social Security Office, which was ground zero for the blast. He had stayed home that day. I knew some of the workers in the Veterans Administration office there as well. As I said, my anger consumed me. I became even angrier over the next several months and that terrified me. It was during this time I started to experience burnout at church. I tried to be spiritual about it all, but did not really know how. I tried praying, but my prayers seemed to go nowhere. I became a very irritable person. I started running again so I could compete in the Corporate Challenge. I did well, but that did not help with the anger. When other believers tried to tell me things like “God is in control so I don’t understand why you are still upset about it…” I would seethe with anger. Later people who had not been there that day would make comments about it that seemed to minimize or trivialize everything. I would explode with raw anger.
The anger started to subside over time, but I still hung onto some resentment about the whole thing. Timothy McVeigh execution seemed to help a little, but I knew deep down I still had issues. On September 11, 2001, it all came back. For the first several months after those terrorist attacks, my anger kicked into high gear. Fortunately, I was busy so that dampened a lot of it. When God broke my heart in 2004, I surrendered. It was at that time I was able to let go of the anger and resentment I had been carrying for nearly ten years. God is faithful. He never let me go even though I was certainly a worthless believer during that period. During that period, I served as a deacon and a teacher. I even mentored a few new believers at our church, but I had a divided heart. It seemed I had lost my self-control at times. Anger seemed to rule my life when I was not serving God. Since August of 2004 I can honestly say, God has rebuilt my heart. He took His wrecking ball and smashed it then remade it. Of course, He is not done.
My suffering during this was very slight and nothing compared to some of those poor people who were in the Federal Building that day. Wives lost their husbands. Husbands lost their wives. Many preschoolers in the day care center died. However, God is faithful. What we must understand about God and our relationship to Him is He will not hesitate to allow things in our lives to accomplish His purpose even if we perceive it as the absolute worst tragedy.
The prophet Ezekiel ministered to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. God used his life to reveal how He was dealing with the stiff-necked rebellion of the Jews.
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded. And the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” Then I said to them, “The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul, and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men. Your turbans shall be on your heads and your shoes on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another. Thus shall Ezekiel be to you a sign; according to all that he has done you shall do. When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord GOD.’ “As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul’s desire, and also their sons and daughters, on that day a fugitive will come to you to report to you the news. On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 24:15-27 Emphasis Mine)
When our perspective is temporal, we recoil from the concept that God would have us endure such a thing. However, Ezekiel had an eternal perspective. God took Ezekiel’s wife and commanded him to react as if nothing had happened. His heart must have been broken yet he obeyed. Ezekiel knew his God and His ways. He obeyed God because he knew God’s glory was paramount over all other considerations. Ezekiel was a tree planted by water that was fruitful for God’s glory.
‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.’ (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
God’s ways are not our ways. His ways are infinitely higher than our ways. When bad things happen to God’s people, it does not diminish God’s faithfulness. His purposes have the highest priority and His actions are always right. Those who grasp this will be like Ezekiel who endures the worst by resting in the Lord. One of the biggest spiritual changes for me came after God healed my heart by wrecking it. After breaking it into pieces, He applied his balm of hope to it and my anger dropped away. My resentments, which had ruled me in terrible ways for so long, dissolved into pools of tears. After writing three books about the wonderful spiritual growth God wrought in my heart, I have found that my old resent-driven judgmental nature had been put in chains. Patience with others grew. Wisdom and patience go hand in hand. As I grew in grace, I prayed for wisdom constantly. God gave me hope and with it grew more patience than I thought I would ever have. As I reacted towards others in a Christlike manner instead of from resentment, I found my focus directed towards serving them instead of self-protection or self-preservation.
God’s balm of hope enables us to see things from His perspective. Why? It comes via His grace. God’s grace is truly amazing. Even though our obedience is required so that we can walk in victory, His grace empowers it. I don’t think I would have ever been able to overcome the bitterness, anger, and resentment that was ruling my life if God had not intervened. As he healed my heart, I was able to see things from His perspective and I knew something miraculous had happened. My motivations became directed toward God’s glory instead of my own self-preservation. My value system had become completely altered. It took me a while to understand what had happened, but eventually God revealed that He had circumcised my heart as I surrendered completely to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I was not suddenly perfect, but I became completely focused on getting as close to my Lord and His will as I could. The balm of hope changed everything. My focus became eternal rather than temporal.
The most amazing thing that happens to us as we draw closer and closer to our Lord is God shining His bright and highly focused righteous light directly into our hearts. With glaring reality, we see what is there and it devastates us. We see our sin and like Isaiah, we fall on our faces and cry, “I am ruined!” However, it is God’s will not only for us to see that, but to put ourselves into position so He can heal us. We do our part by repenting and obeying. He then grants us repentance so we can mature and grow in grace. Our hope increases, which deepens our joy and peace.
Our hope is in Christ. (1 Timothy 1:1) We serve a God of hope. (Romans 15:13) Our faith is defined as being sure of what we hope for. (Hebrews 11:1) Our commitment is defined in relation to hope in the following passage.
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:17-18)
God’s balm of hope enables us to have eternal focus. Our focus is on our heart’s desire because where our treasure is our heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21) If we know where our treasure is, and God is building godly treasure in our hearts, then our hope will be placed in and on the indestructible. When we live this way, walking the walk by faith, running the race the Lord has set before us as we abide in Christ, then our hope will deepen our joy and we will judge not.
If we struggle with judging others then it is a sure sign we are being negligent in the Spirit-led walk. In other words, when we judge hypocritically, we are Soul-led and that is sin. When we allow our flesh to control us like that then we will react to others hardheartedly. The hypocritical believer is walking in unbelief. What is the solution? God must apply His balm of hope to that person’s heart. That means a demolition and restructuring project may be called for. However, if that believer will simply pray for wisdom and direction as he or she draws near to God they may shorten their time in the crucible.
God healed my heart as I fasted from what my flesh wanted as I feasted on Him. That means I turned off the TV. Instead of wasting those several hours each evening on mindless entertainment I studied my Bible, prayed and worshipped my Lord. Talk about an acceleration! I went from ineffective Soul-led Christianity to very devout Spirit-led service of my Lord in a period of about six months. The last month of that period was when I took off like a rocket, but God used those preceding months to prepare me. The best part for me when I look back on that was I knew God was drawing me into it the whole time. The closer I drew to Him the more doors into my heart’s desire would open up for me so that I started delighting in Him more and more each day. Worship became imperative. I began to see what worshipping God in spirit and truth was all about. As that sixth month came to a close I found my hope was vivid and active. Despair died. Bitterness was uprooted. Pride was cut away. I learned how to pray and what to pray for. (This is still a learning experience.)
God’s balm of hope is crucial to our growing into the Spirit-led, Christlike believers the Lord will for us to become. Without it, we despair. With it, we live for God’s glory instead of self-projection. Without it, we judge others in a vain attempt to feel better about ourselves. With it, we decry hypocrisy and seek the edification of those undeserving people all around us.
Dear Heavenly Father—praise you! We humbly come before you now, seeking your face. Oh Lord, your grace is beyond our ability to comprehend because our imperfect hearts tend to be mired in self-focus. However, you Lord are always right. You know all things and you never change. Thank your for our salvation Lord. I pray now for wisdom and grace. I pray that you will teach us and change us so that we will see that our hope in the Jesus Christ as Lord and savior is one of our most valuable treasures. I pray that you will cut away the callousness from our hearts so that your values become apparent to us. Give us hope Lord as your remake our hearts. All for you glory—Amen!
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.