April 30th–A Turning Point

It is not a significant date for everyone, but it is for me. It was the beginning of a new journey in my walk with God.

Prior to April 30, 1980, I thought I had God basically “figured out.” Oh, I don’t mean that I arrogantly thought I had fully comprehended God or knew everything there was to know about God. By no means! Twenty-two year old ministers can be quite arrogant, but I was not that arrogant.

Nevertheless, I was working on the quid pro quo plan. I thought that if I did my part–did the best I could, sought the will of God, dreamed big for God’s church and my ministry–then God would do his part. That is, he would bless my plans, dreams and goals. God would be “good” to me because I was “good” to him.

I may not have thought of it that crassly and memory does play tricks on you, but I am certain that my understanding of God was rather mechanistic. I did my part–I worked the plan, and God did his part–he would bless. It was an impersonal understanding of God; non-relational at its heart. It was as if God had worked out a deal with humanity, and me in particular. It was a pactum, to borrow a term from medieval nominalism. God and I had a contract.

But God did not keep his end of the bargain.

I planned to do big things for God–missionary to Germany, doctoral work under Pannenberg in Munich, and then return to the States to teach theology and missions in one of our Universities. I was going to do my part–I had goals, dreams and hopes. And I had expectations. I expected God to do his part.

But God did not keep his end of the bargain.

On April 30, 1980, at about 3:00am in the morning I was awoken with the news that Sheila, my wife since May 22, 1977, was dead. She died when a blood clot went through her heart as she slept. She was recovering from back surgery that would have permitted her to carry our children full term.

God did not keep his end of the bargain!

My mechanical understanding of God went kaput! It took me many years to work through what exactly shifted in my thinking as a result of that experience. It involved months and years of lament, some rebellion, frustration with God, shifting theologial thoughts, and even silence (refusing to speak to God). But ultimately somewhere along the way–almost unidentifiable in my experience–I shifted from a mechanical to a relational understanding of God.

This shift was primarily a shift in my understanding of prayer, providence and God’s work in the world. But the shift had implications for my understanding of the Holy Spirit, worship, grace, etc. In other words, my whole theology made a slow turn toward the relational. My “doctrine of God” shifted and as a result my whole theological orientation shifted.

As I think back on that slow shift that began on April 30, 1980, I am awed by how I was changed through that experience. I can even confess with the Psalmist that “it was good for me to be afflicted” (Psalm 119:71).

God was not seeking a pactum with me, but engaging me in a relationship. While journey language has become almost cliche, it is nevertheless the reality of my walk with God. And the journey took a radical turn on April 30, 1980….twenty six years ago today.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

16 Responses to “April 30th–A Turning Point”

  1.   Bill Says:

    God bless you, dear brother. Thank you for opening wide your heart.

  2.   Fajita Says:

    Your story challenges me. Thank you for being so generous with it.

  3.   james Says:

    Your story and book “Yet will I Hope in Him” has really changed my views about God. I was at some lectures at DLU a few years ago and got to hear your classes on Job.

    Learning that God is a loving, caring and sympathetic God even when my mind can’t wrap around the events that would tell me otherwise takes trust, faith and love on my part.

    Anniversaries are hard.

  4.   Michele Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this, peace to you! It’s humbling to look inside one another’s soul.

    I wanted to tell you that this is very timely for me. For what you discuss of how the sorrow brought about so much in your theology, I am finding the same things happening in my life. You have given me some hope this morning.

    Thank you for your example and may our God bless you!

  5.   L.E.Meredith Says:

    We have to want understanding and search it out.

  6.   pilgrimdan Says:

    thanks John Mark for sharing your thoughts on this…

  7.   Missionary's Missionary Says:

    Dear John Mark,

    I am so sorry for all your losses. You have had one loss upon another! I am thankful you took hold of God and did not let Him go, for I do not think what you write would have the richness that it has, had you not wrestled with God. You might have been able to write what you did on the 29th (for which you received no comments – how ironic!), but the writing would have lacked depth. Because of your experiences, nothing human is alien to you and all things godly have become your passion. I’m not sure we will ever have answers – real answers, but to live without them is to have faith! God bless you.


  8.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Yes! We will trust in him — even as he is still a mystery in many ways.

  9.   Chris Field Says:

    Random but your book on communion is amazing. Thanks for your wisdom and willingness to learn and teach others along the way.

  10.   Jim Martin Says:

    John Mark,
    After reading this post, I thought about how you must have relived it all over again just in the telling of the story.

    I’ve been blessed by your work and ministry through the years.

  11.   Stoogelover Says:

    I first heard you teach at a Zoe conference on Lament. For the first day, you were just another teacher. Then you blew us away with your personal story and suddenly all of what you’d taught earlier fell into a completely different context. You spoke from experience, not just theology. I’ve learned much from you! Thank you for sharing your heart, even when it was broken.

    I spoke to you briefly in line for lunch one day at Pepperdine last week and told you how much your teaching on the table had blessed our church. I’ll write more about that to you in another venue, but just wanted to thank you, again, for your impact on my life and ministry.

    Greg England
    Long Beach, CA

  12.   Pete Heiniger Says:

    John Mark,

    I would have to say that your relational understanding about God has given you the propensity to be relational with so many others. It reminds me of 2 Corinthians 3:14-18 – we become what we see. He transforms us as we behold him. I know from my experience with you, that you love others in a very godly way. You helped a struggling man way out in California – find his way to Michigan – and also open a new dimension in his relationship with God.

    While I know April 30th is filled with mixed emotions for you – I know I thank God for the change in trajectory that it gave you. Praise God for you brother.

  13.   John Roberts Says:

    I find myself coming under your thoughtful teaching more and more often – sometimes intentionally, other times completely serendipitously – but always with such a great blessing to my life. Thanks for sharing your story again and reminding me of my “walk” with Jesus.

  14.   bradfordlstevens Says:

    Your story reminded me of the apostle Paul in II Cor. 11:24-31:

    “24 Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I do not lie.”

    Those kind of events are the baptism of fire that change us. If Jesus had to learn obediance through suffering, why are we surprised when bad things happen to us? Yet, we all struggle and in the process are transformed into His likeness. Thanks for your testimony and witness. May the Lord lift you up as you travel the Way. I look forward to spending time with you in heaven.

    God bless,

    Bradford L. Stevens
    St. Louis, MO

  15.   Phil Says:

    You blessed me today. Thanks for allowing God to use you in this way.

  16.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    Thanks. Your thoughts are always helpful. God does want a “relational” understanding of himself from us. Warren

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