The last year has been a new experience for me in regards to relationships in ministry. Going on my fifth year as a full-time pastor, this year has brought a new definition of loss for my family and me. What began as some acquaintances and some friends leaving Kaleo Church began a snowball effect of really close friends leaving. A lot of these came as a shock to me because of the deep friendships I thought I had with so many of these people. People whose friendships were grounded on and sustained by our union with Christ. To be fair, the reason that these people moving on had such a deep effect on me was because I had an unfair view that we would spend the rest of our lives worshipping together and enjoying life together. Yet, this did not make it easier when person after person left, not just the church, but what I thought were deep friendships.
Lately the questions have continued to run through my mind, “Did they really love me the way I loved them? Were they using me to get something from me? Would they have still been my friend if I was not their pastor? After years of friendship, how could they leave without any words of gratitude or endearment? Can I love that way again? How much more can I take? Is this fair to my family?”
One of the hardest parts of the transitionary nature of people is answering the questions of your three-year old and explaining these things to her. When she asks, “Daddy, why did they leave? I thought they were family?” What about when you explain for the tenth time to her that sometimes people move, or get married, etc. and her little feet pitter-patter down the hallway with tears streaming down her face at the loss of another friend? What about when your wife cries so often because of the loss of family and friends that you are not sure this is the right life for her? Should you quit? Should you run and find something new to numb the pain? Or would that make you like everyone else?
That is the one temptation in ministry in a season like this, to run to something new. That’s what our culture teaches us, right? Try a new place, get a new car, get some new clothes, find some new friends. In fact, a lot of the conversations I had over the last year when people leave can be summarized by them looking for something “new.” Sure, some of these reasons are a good type of “new” like getting married, new callings, etc. But many are running from the lack of contentment in the present (Phil. 4:11-13) trying to find that “new” person, place, or thing that promises happiness and joy.
Yet, that is the temptation this season has brought me as well. What if somewhere else could make me happy? What if I could get that nice house for a reasonable price? What if I took that private contracting job that would promise all my college loans going away? What if?
All of these thoughts have led me back to the Scriptures again to ask, “What is this newness we so strongly desire, like a dehydrated man in the desert? The more and more I read and prayed through this, the more the phrase, “already-not-yet” came to mind. The already-not-yet is a theological term used to describe many realities in the Christian life. For instance, we are already raised with Christ (Colossians 3:1) but we are not-yet fully raised with Christ (1 Corinthians 15:50-53). In the same way, newness has an already-not-yet reality to it. It is not wrong to long for newness because it is a part of us. But it is wrong to chase every new thing hoping to find the fullness of that newness now.
Throughout the book of Hebrews, we read about a struggling church that is enduring persecution. They are tempted to go back to Judaism and find relief in the comfort of their persecutors. The answer throughout the whole book is that Jesus is better, he is what they are longing for. In fact, in Hebrews 11 is a chapter about the faith of many followers of Jesus who did not get what they desired in this life time because they were not meant to:
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
Again in Hebrews 11:39-40, the author writes,
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
It appears that within God’s grand design for his people that we are not meant to find the newness we long for this side of eternity. We all know this because the “new” things we could not live without a year ago are stuffed in a closet somewhere, or have become just like the rest of the stuff we accumulate. We are still longing for new.
This also means that tears will come to all of us who lose the people we love most when they leave looking for this newness. This means that tears are a normal part of the already for us and our families. In Psalm 56:8, the Psalmist assures us that tears are normal but God is keeping count of every one that falls from our eyes. He writes, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”
Where to Go Right Now?
If we are all going to deal with the loss of relationships in the pursuit of the new, where do we take these tears? Is there a proper place or person in the already who understands us? Yes. It is the same God that keeps a count of our tears. The good news is that in those times where the tears fill our eyes and blur our vision, when the lump rises in our throat and we can’t speak, the Spirit of God intercedes for us. Romans 8:26 says,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Just a couple verses later, Jesus himself is offered to us as an ear that offers to listen and make our requests known to God,
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:34)
No matter what loss we are experiencing, the place we go with our tears as we ourselves long for newness is the throne of our gracious God who counts all our tears and listens intently. Not only that, when everything around you seems to be changing the One we find at the throne of grace keeping count of our tears and hearing our cries is unchangeable. Hebrews 6:17-18 says,
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, 18 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.
I said earlier that we were all created with a longing for newness. This should make us sympathetic towards those that keep chasing new in the already. However, when we find comfort in the already at the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16), it moves us to hope in the not yet. The same Savior that raised from the dead as the prototype for the rest of redeemed humanity, is the same one who will enthrone and reign in the New Heavens and New Earth when he brings it down to us (Revelation 21-22). The New we were made for is found in the Fountain of Life Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. The One who raised from the dead as a loud proclamation that your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in him, is the same one who will satisfy you with newness in full while also wiping away every single tear from your eyes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voicefrom the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
Can you imagine that Day? All those tears blurring your vision and the fingers of the One you have been longing for your whole life gently wipes away the tears? The first clear sight you get is the glorified King of kings, the newness that you have desired and will never ever fade away. We might not know what we will say or do in that moment when it comes but I can assure you the weight we have carried in this life through loss and sorrow will seem like a feather blowing off in the distant winds. As Paul writes about this moment, he says,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
So, cry those tears, long for newness, and be sure that one Day those tear ducts will be wiped clean and the sight of your Savior will so satisfy all those longings for newness with himself. I am pretty sure that those tears will be replaced with tears of joy, causing us to need a second wiping from our God. Or, as Burk Parsons writes, “When we see Jesus, He’ll dry every tear from our eyes, not just the sad ones but our tears of joy, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see him.”
Wes Van Fleet is the Pastor of Discipleship and Leadership Development at Kaleo Church. He is married to Jenn and has two little girls, Olivia and Hadley.