(Originally written June 2007)
A beautiful woman died the other day. And, for my own life, I have no reason at all to complain.
Jacqui was to turn 28 in a month or so. She was a gorgeous, petite girl with striking eyes and auburn hair. She was filled with love and with an amazing energy for life. She was married just under 2 years to a wonderful man. But, she died. Of cancer.
I went to her funeral with that sick feeling in my stomach. Why this tragedy? Why would God allow such a wonderful young woman to be taken so soon? The scale of this injustice seemed almost too high to fathom. It was so absurd, so cruel, that amidst the anger, all I could do is laugh.
So, I prepared myself for my internal role at this service. To remember her, yes, to mourn her, but what I perhaps most anticipated was to join in with all the others in an angry cry to God. “How could you do this?!!” I imagined perhaps we’d all be shaking our fists at heaven and condemning God for his rank stupidity and carelessness.
But what awaited me there was something altogether different. What I found wasn’t some paltry jury full of vindictive, bitter God-haters, but a group of family and friends who had come to celebrate a miracle. Through personal stories and the pastor’s eulogy, I was reminded that Jacqui’s life, although way too short, was one of victory. And that nothing so simple as death could stifle that.
By her own public admission, Jacqui had been delivered from a past of hopelessness, where in a sense, though still living and breathing, she was already dead to anything that mattered. She had a baby daughter while still in her teens. Her life was devoted to the numb pleasure of drugs and recklessness, falling in and out of selfish, superficial relationships. Her behavior became so bad, that the powers-that-be removed her daughter, and so the one good thing she had produced in life was also taken from her.
But, then, in her early 20s, she started attending church and the miracle, although slowly, began to happen. Within a few years, she began to see that there was more to life than her own self-destructive desires, that God had a plan for her to rise out of the pit of her own making, and that no matter who she had been, God wanted to breathe into her a new life and a fresh start. She became free of the drugs, met and married a man who didn’t run when things got tough, and after everything, achieved a goal she once may not have thought possible–she was given her daughter back.
Sitting at her funeral, I was reminded that amidst her past failures and future triumphs, Jacqui embodied two characteristics that I have found to be crucial to knowing true happiness–humility and gratitude. Jacqui was humble. After committing herself to God and seeing the changes he was working in her life, she knew that any value or worth that she had came solely from him. She once offered to help out around the church, but felt so unworthy at the time that she asked if she could serve in a capacity where she would “remain unseen.” The process of change was long and tedious, but when she made a particular commitment to alter her behavior, she stuck to it. At one point, feeling she was perhaps falling back into the overwhelming desire to do drugs again, she independently entered rehab to make sure the change would stick. Her humility strengthened her resolve to rise above who she had once been.
And, Jacqui was grateful. She saw that she’d been given a precious gift, and that, no matter what future lay before her, she would never take it for granted. So, when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and was progressively given news that her body was failing her, her sense of humility and gratitude never left her. In the latter stages of her sickness when all physical hope was lost, she wrote a friend a letter in which she referenced a passage of Scripture that had encouraged her deeply:
We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.*
Freed from her own self-indulgence, Jacqui was able to see that 1) we should be humbled by the fact that none of us are guaranteed our next breath, and that, 2) we should be grateful for the life we have been given. And because of her commitment to God and his Son, Jacqui knew that the life she’d been given would go on forever. And that her miraculous transformation of character, her new husband, the return of her daughter, were just a small taste of what that new life would be like. Jacqui was humble. She was grateful.
So, I look to my own life and see that it’s not about what’s happening around me, or even what’s happening inside me, i.e., my health, etc., but how I choose to respond to it all. Believe me, I can often find myself griping about the smallest offense, or the silliest disappointment, but for my own life, I just have no reason to complain.
You see, I often don’t have control over what will happen to me when I step out of bed each day, but I do have control over my perspective. When I’m feeling down about my life, about the people who’ve hurt me, about how I’m not getting my just due, or even about how God could allow people like Jacqui to suffer and die, there are specific traits that are missing from my psyche. I’m not truly humble. And, I’m not grateful. When I really get honest with myself, I have far more reasons to be humble and grateful than I have reasons to complain.
But, the hurts and disappointments of life keep coming at us, don’t they? So, amidst my own self-indulgence, this true perspective of life must be renewed each day. My perspective must ultimately be about who I am before God in the context of eternity, more than who I am in this relatively short visit to planet Earth.
If you find yourself in the pit of depression, despair or bitterness, I know that this might seem like a tall order. But it is possible. Sometimes, it needs to just begin with a single area of focus, and we can grow from there. So, I’ll start with Jacqui. I am humbled by her amazing life and am most grateful to have known her. And now, not surprisingly, my life is a whole lot brighter for having entertained that thought.
* 2 Corinthians 4:7-9,15-18