It’s not often I’m left totally speechless. But there are a few specific moments in my life when reality took me by surprise. I’m not talking about catastrophic moments, like the space shuttle explosion or 9-11; rather, I’m referring to something more personal that just grips you and emotionally slaps you. Two moments come vividly to my mind.
The first occurred during a family visit to the Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, GA. The museum is filled with things that, sadly, are quite expected in such a place. There are exhibits of the horrific ways prisoners have been treated in wars gone by, images of emaciated and feeble prisoners holding on to a thread of life, portraits of those who survived, and memorials to those who didn’t. While disturbing, it’s easy to separate yourself from the realities of such depravity. We had been to other remarkable places, such as WWII concentration camps, but nothing prepared me for what came next.
Turning a corner, I found myself facing a manikin fitted with a tattered flight suit, the kind worn by modern-day pilots or medical personnel on flight rescue missions. The name tag grabbed my attention like someone pointing their finger to my face. I knew this person. I knew this story. This exhibit was suddenly quite real. Colonel (COL) Rhonda Cornum had worn this very uniform while serving as a Medical Doctor in Iraq. The helicopter she was flying in was shot down, resulting in her capture and imprisonment by the Iraqis. The sleeves on the flight suit were cut open on the arms and legs to release her broken limbs. Most of those on that flight were killed in the crash, but, despite her own injuries, she rendered care to her fallen comrades until her capture. Her story is chronicled in the book, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story.
Seeing the familiar uniform straightaway confronted me with the reality that this could have been my own wife: Laura had served with Dr. Cornum on another combat deployment just a few years later. That could have been my wife’s uniform on display. I had heard the stories, watched the news, and knew the people. Still, the reality took me by surprise.
Fast-forward another few years later… Laura and I found ourselves as tourists once again. This time, in the biblical city of Corinth, we walked through the ruins, observing the architecture and statues and temples dedicated to gods and goddesses of stone. We imagined the lives of those in the 1st century church and recognized that the Apostle Paul had walked these same pathways, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. He had faced the risk of imprisonment, beatings, and loss of life (Acts 18:1-17).
Walking in the heart of the city’s gathering place, or forum, I turned to find myself standing in front a sign reading “Bema”, the judgment seat. Court cases were tried here. Victorious athletes were honored here. And it was to the Bema that Paul had been brought by his opponents, falsely accused. Paul had been in Corinth for about 18 months while making tents and making disciples for Jesus.
Now, like Paul, and without warning, there I was, standing at the judgment seat. In that moment, my own insecurities and acknowledged sin accused me. There was no mocking crowd and no human judge, yet I was shocked to think that judgment could be my reality in a brief, unforeseen moment.
One day, every one of us will find ourselves in front of the Bema. Romans 14:12 tells us that “each of us will give an account of himself to God”. But, as Christians, we have no need to fear the judgment seat of Christ. He paid our debt. Colossians 2:13-14 tells us that He paid our debt and has forgiven our sins.
Paul’s time before the Corinthian Bema was favorable, with his case essentially dismissed even before he was able to testify. In fact, regarding his witness in Corinth, he had been encouraged in a dream before these events to be bold, to “go on speaking and do not be silent” (Acts18:9, ESV). Paul later wrote to the Corinthian Church that those in Christ also had no need for fear. He reminded them, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).
We’re each confronted with things we don’t expect. But, we have no need to fear the circumstances of life any more than the judgment seat of Christ. Rather, like Paul, we are to boldly “keep on speaking and do not be silent”, even when we are surprised by reality.