I’ve just finished reading the biography of Rees Howells, a Welsh minister from the early 20th century. It arrived in my mailbox months ago, tattered and disintegrating, held together by a rubber band. A gift from a reader of this blog.
I don’t remember exactly why the woman said she sent it. I tucked it on a shelf thinking I might get to it someday. When a snowstorm iced us into the house indefinitely, the book jumped off the shelf into my hand and I began to read.
What a story.
The book narrates Rees Howells’ decision to say ‘yes’ to every leading from the Holy Spirit – no matter how difficult, unnerving, or humbling – and the amazing life journey that resulted. One particular story captured my imagination. It was the only story of (apparent) failure….
Howells had been praying for weeks for a woman in a nearby village who was dying. It was the first time he’d ever prayed so passionately for God to save a life. Suddenly, he felt in his spirit that she would be healed completely. He joyfully shared this news with her, and they were both confident of victory. But then, to his great surprise, she died suddenly. It was devastating for him. How could God have promised life, and yet she died?
According to Howells, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that God had responded to his prayers by healing the woman’s body just before she died. And the woman knew it. “She was shaking hands vigorously and saying ‘goodbye’ [to friends and family] with such excitement, as if she was going on a wonderful adventure.” She knew she’d been fully healed; she also knew that she was going to be with God. It was complete victory, and she was exuberant.
But Howells’ wasn’t. When he heard she’d died, he felt true spiritual distress. Why, if she had regained her health, did the woman have to die? What was God’s purpose in this outcome?
The Holy Spirit revealed that if the woman had lived, Howells would have been tempted to bask in the glory – as if he had saved her himself. Everyone in the village had known about his prayer campaign. He would’ve received the glory; not God. But he hadn’t cured her. He couldn’t. Only God could. And He did.
By curing her just before taking her to be with Him, God received the full measure of glory (in both the woman’s gratitude, and her demonstrated eagerness to be with Him), and Howells received the assurance that his prayers were powerful and effective.
The world just couldn’t see the victory.
When I read that story, I got a text-to-self jolt of adrenaline. That epiphany feeling that told me God was showing me something important. Victory sometimes looks like failure …. The world can’t see or understand it…. There is temptation to bask in the glory of a desired outcome…. A promise can come from God and be fulfilled, yet not save the life that was prayed for….
I realized that I had felt like Howells – as if God had made a promise to my spirit, and yet what I saw was not life, but death. It happened with our twins – the first children we conceived after a long battle with infertility.
Like Howells, we’d shared the good news when we’d received God’s promise (in our case, in the form of two beating hearts). And, like Howells, we’d assumed we knew exactly how the story would unfold: good news would be followed by good health, and good health by long life.
At the time, we didn’t think much about giving God glory. We were too caught up in the excitement, and the anticipation of something amazing. Were we tempted to bask in the glory of bringing the first grandchildren into the world? Maybe a little. But we would’ve said at the time that that was harmless.
When their hearts stopped beating – first Baby A’s, and then several weeks later, Baby B’s – we were consumed with grief and a spiritual distress much like Howells’. We had succeeded, and yet we had failed. A vision of the future as a family had come from God and been fulfilled (to a point), and yet the lives that were prayed for had ended suddenly.
Like Howells, we could see the failure… but not the victory. Until years later, when our two children were born. Despite being 22 months apart, people often ask us, “Are they twins?” I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that is victory… on God’s timetable, and on God’s terms.
To God be the glory.