Not long after beginning my seminary training at The Master’s Seminary in January of 2007, my wife and I became good friends with Dr. Harris and his wife Betsy, and our friendship has grown and deepened over the years. We found that we had much in common. We were both from the South and both recent transplants to southern California, still suffering from culture shock. I understood Greg’s southern colloquialisms which mystified the locals. We had both made life-altering moves– Greg and Betsy had uprooted their family, left behind family, friends, and a new home in North Carolina to follow the Lord’s call, and we had moved our six children from rural Tennessee and sold our family business of 20 years. We are about the same age. But more profoundly, we are co-members of a unique community. Greg and Betsy’s twins had died at birth in 1993, and our second child, Matthew, had died in my wife’s arms of Group-B Strep in 1992 two weeks after his birth. We share a grief that never completely goes away and still sneaks up unexpectedly from time to time. Greg and Betsy had already walked a long way on their road to Troas while, unknown to us, we were just beginning ours.
Reading and listening to others’ stories of God’s faithfulness in the midst of their sufferings is encouraging and comforting; I, by no means, want to minimize the benefit such testimonies have brought to myself and others or the glory they give to God. But one thing I have learned is that more often than not these testimonies are the result of hindsight, of being able to look back after passing through the fire and seeing God’s providential hand directing every event. Everybody loves stories which have a happy Hollywood ending where everything turns out well for everyone.
But what if your trial has not ended? What if your trial has been going on for years with no end in sight? What if your trial is not a physical illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or anything else that you can do nothing about? What’s more, what if you have the ability to end your trial simply by abandoning God’s call or compromising His word? What if merely rounding off the sharp edges of biblical truth, sanitizing your beliefs of its unique doctrines, and making it compatible with virtually any other moral or religious system could drastically ease your hardship? What if going along with the flow, with the crowd, with family and friends, or with the culture would significantly improve strained relationships, eliminate your financial struggles, and bring some comfortable stability to the life of you and your family? In short, what if your trial shows no prospects of ever having a happy ending, of ever bearing any noticeable fruit, or of ever having any discernible purpose?
Hollywood happy endings are of little comfort when you are hoping to see Troas in the distance as you top the next hill–only to be met with what seems like an unbroken sea of hills stretching to the horizon. From where do you draw your strength and comfort now? What motivates you to keep walking now? Now, what keeps you from wondering if you are on the right road? Why is it the further you walk, the lonelier it gets and the more isolated you feel? It seems others have arrived, but you have not. What keeps you from doubting the directions, doubting yourself, or doubting your call?
There can only be one answer, one source, and it is found in Jesus’ teaching in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. Chapter ten is one of the most glorious chapters in the Bible and contains one of the most precious and comforting promises of Jesus for all His sheep, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27, 28). But this marvelous promise is predicated on a truth found earlier in the chapter, a truth that really is illustrated in chapter nine by Jesus’ healing of the man born blind.
John is the only gospel writer to record this miracle of Jesus, and it is the sixth of the seven signs recorded by him. For the purpose of this study, I want to focus not on the miracle, but on the last sentence of John 9:34, “And they put him out.” Why is this important? Because it points to how someone becomes one of Jesus’ sheep, and therefore heir to His promise.
The verb translated “put him out”, ekballo, is a very strong verb and means “to throw out; drive out; cast out.” It is used of Jesus casting out demons (Mark 1:34), for plucking out an eye (Mark 9:47); and here in John 9:34 for the Jewish leaders expelling and driving out this man from the synagogue for confessing Christ. But more importantly, it is the verb used by Jesus in 10:4 to describe how He separates His sheep from those who are not His sheep; He “puts forth (ekballo) all His own.” Notice Jesus said “all His own.” He does not miss any of His own.
First-century shepherds would gather all their sheep together into a common fold at night for protection against predators and thieves; then, each morning the shepherd would separate his sheep from the other sheep in the fold. But sheep, being herd animals, do not like to be separated; therefore, the shepherd would often have to physically drive his sheep out and away from the other sheep. Once separated from the others, the sheep now follow their own shepherd “because they know his voice.” He becomes their source of security and comfort, not the other sheep.
Apply this to the man born blind. Who really expelled this man from all he depended on, from all he knew and loved? Who really cast this man out of Jewish society? Even this man’s parents were willing to sacrifice their own son to avoid being driven away (John 9:18-23). Whose voice did this man follow? The Jewish leaders’, his own, or Jesus’? Jesus knows His sheep. Jesus puts forth His own. He will not allow His own to be swindled by robbers, molested by thieves, or mauled by wolves. His own hear His voice and will not follow another. This is why Jesus’ flock is always a small flock. This is why the road seems lonelier the further you walk. It is not that others have arrived; it is because they have left. They have followed the voice of another.
What is to be said of those who leave this road, who follow other, more seductive voices which promise an easier road? In our materialistic, contemporary church culture, suffering and blessing are considered an oxymoron, and anyone who would equate suffering with blessing is considered to be three letters shy of an oxymoron, especially if that suffering is avoidable. Only one thing can be said of such people–they are not His sheep, and they prove it by following the voice of strangers. Jesus speaks to us exclusively in His word. He tells His sheep, “And your ears will hear a word behind you, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right or to the left” (Isaiah 30:21).
Where do we find the strength, comfort, and assurance to keep walking when Troas is nowhere on the horizon, when our road seems to be interminably long and lonely? In friends or family? In psychology? In motivational messages? In self-absorbed religion? We go to the only place His sheep can hear His voice–to His word. Here we find the nature and character of God revealed. And the sparkling gem of His nature is His absolute sovereignty over the affairs of men. Not just a raw sovereignty, not an arbitrary sovereignty, but a loving sovereignty. Instead of judging God’s nature through the distorted lens of our circumstances, we can judge our circumstances in the clear light of His revealed nature. When we understand His nature, we can joyfully submit to His sovereign disposal of us. We can look to Jesus, not just while we are on this road, but as we realize He is the One who put us on this road, Who chose this road for us. Since He put us on this road, it must be the best road. And even if our road is a road of unending trial, it is just as much an expression of His loving sovereignty as a road strewn with blessings.
Why do some have huge ministries and others have tiny ministries? Why do some succeed with little effort and some work to exhaustion with little visible fruit? Why are some endowed with great gifts and others’ gifts seem mediocre? Why does Jesus put forth some and not others? Why do some walk a road of ease and comfort and others of unending trial and suffering? Why was this man born blind and the Jewish leaders not? Why was he given sight and the Jewish leaders blinded? There is only one answer: God’s sovereign purpose.
The man born blind gained more than physical sight. Perhaps he learned that all those years of blindness had a purpose–the glory of God. Before the religious authorities put him out, Jesus had put him forth, and he followed the only voice he knew, the voice of Jesus. This is how we stay on the road. This is where we get our strength and comfort. This is where we derive our motivation. Testimonies are wonderful, and we praise God for stories of His faithfulness. But the greatest encouragement we can have is found in His word. Here we find His precious and magnificent promises. Here, and only here, we hearken the only voice we dare to follow. We walk the road He has determined for us, so it must be the best for us. It is a road already walked by Jesus and others, and He still promises not only to walk it with us, but to keep us securely on it, bound in His omnipotent and lovingly sovereign hand.
 Greg Harris, The Cup and the Glory: Lessons on Suffering and the Glory of God, (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2006), 37-49.