The sun was going down when we landed in Charlotte, North Carolina after 18 unexpectedly tumultuous months in Papua New Guinea. Relief at being home in the Carolinas mingled with exhaustion and grief as I tried to push away a quietly growing awareness that the sun was also setting on a beautiful season of ministry.
My husband and I joined Wycliffe specifically to minister to teenage missionary kids and their families. Since both of us grew up in missionary households, we were equipped to understand the needs of the families we served, and we’d spent the last decade faithfully caring for them in the U.S. and overseas. Our work wasn’t easy, but we loved nearly every minute of it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else — until we gradually realized we were done. Continuing in youth ministry would take more time and energy than we could afford as our family healed and settled back into American life.
I’d like to say that we immediately knew our next steps, but it wasn’t that simple. For eight months we prayed, sought advice and considered our options, but the only thing we were confident of was that God had asked us to walk away from a ministry we had never considered leaving. We had no idea where we were headed.
We’d lost our plans for the future and our identity as youth leaders, and we wondered if God had forgotten us. Each time we attempted to fill the void with new ministry possibilities, we ran into obstacles. Finally we realized that God intended for us to be still and grieve for a season.
It wasn’t comfortable; grief rarely is. But while we grieved, we learned an important truth: The painful loss of our own plans can clear the way to see God work in new, astonishing ways.
Waiting in Grief
When Jesus asked his disciples to follow him, they walked away from everything familiar — their livelihoods, families, homes and communities — without a clear idea of where they were headed. But the loss of familiarity was outweighed by their certainty that they would witness Jesus rescuing their nation from its Roman conquerors.
The disciples’ new nomadic way of life must have been difficult at times, but neither the physical hardship nor political opposition prepared them for their teacher’s violent death on a Roman cross.
“The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One’ … By this time it was about noon, and darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, ‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!’ And with those words he breathed his last. When the Roman officer overseeing the execution saw what had happened, he worshiped God and said, ‘Surely this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow” (Luke 23:33, 44-48, NLT).
Can you imagine the depth of loss Jesus’ friends and family must have felt the evening after his crucifixion? The hope of Israel, the one they’d counted on to lead them to victory, was dead. Even creation seemed stunned. All they could do was go home and weep. We understand now that despair wasn’t the end of the story, but the disciples didn’t know that yet. Between Jesus’ death on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday, they had to wait in devastating, disorienting grief, letting go of their assumptions about how God would work.
A Sacred Ruin
The disciples had to experience the destruction of their dreams, which were built on generations of tradition about the Messianic prophecies in Scripture, to understand what God was doing through Jesus’ death. God sometimes allows the ruin of what feels sacred to make room for a bigger, better story.
One poignant example of this occurs in Luke 23:45b: “And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle” (NLT). This was no ordinary curtain. The curtain that tore at the moment of Jesus’ death was the massive, ornately decorated divider between the Temple’s Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, the room that the High Priest would enter once a year to present the blood of sacrificed animals to pay for Israel’s sins (Leviticus 16). When God’s glory ripped through the curtain that had been hung to shield his people from his overwhelming presence, not only was a sacred treasure ruined, but the ruin itself became sacred.
The torn curtain symbolized Jesus’ sacrifice permanently removing the barrier between God and his people, bringing us into direct relationship with our Creator. God’s glory couldn’t be contained and his story wouldn’t be limited by human understanding.
So Much Greater
While my family and I were still sitting in the ruins of our dreams and plans, my husband printed out a portion of Isaiah 55 and hung it in our bathroom as a constant reminder that God was working in ways we couldn’t perceive: “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts … Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow. Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up. These events will bring great honor to the LORD’s name; they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love’” (vv. 8-9, 13, NLT).
My family and I didn’t know how much we needed our plans to be ruined by God. If I had written and directed our story, my husband and I likely would have burnt out and missed a new energetic, joyful season of ministry perfectly tailored to our needs, experiences and skills. We would have lost critical opportunities to grow and flourish as a family, and we might not have seen our kids learn to trust their heavenly Father in the midst of uncertainty.
If the disciples had authored Jesus’ story, his victory would have fallen far short of conquering sin and death forever. God had to ruin the disciples’ dreams because the scope of his plan was so much greater than they could imagine.
Living within the confines of space and time, you and I may not always see the restoration waiting beyond the loss of dreams, plans and loved ones. But God brings new life. Loss can hurt intensely, and it’s appropriate for us to grieve deeply and express pain.
Ruin is never the final scene in God’s story, however; glory always has the last word.
Look for God’s Glory in Your Ruin
- Think of a time God removed something precious from your life. How did that loss make room for new dreams, opportunities or relationships?