It took a while before I discovered my new normal and even longer to find the purpose in my pain. I’m still amazed at the impact my story has on people, and although I still long for that perfection that is heaven, I know I’m doing exactly what God intends for me to do.
As I travel the world sharing my message of hope, I meet many people who have crossed a bridge and emerge on the other side with a greater sense of purpose. But you don’t have to look further than the Bible for some stunning example. Immediately I think of Paul, the great apostle and writer of the Bible. Before he became a Christian he was a religious man and a devout follower of the Law of Moses. One day, on his way to capture, imprison, and kill Christians, he fell down on the road, totally blind. This was a bridge for him, and his life would never be the same. He could have refused to turn to the Lord but he listened, prayed, was healed, and became a leading force in proclaiming God's love to the world.
As powerful as that was—and I don’t want to minimize this event—the second bridge became even more powerful. This was the bridge that gave Paul his life’s purpose.
People may not notice this second major turning point in Paul’s life. It's veiled but it's there. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul writes at length about his suffering (2 Corinthians 11:16–33). He makes such statements as: "I have… been exposed to death again and again (2 Corinthians 11:23 NIV) He write of being “caught up in the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2 NIV) and “was caught up to Paradise" (verse 4).
After that, he says, "I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know…" (12:2b).
No one truly knows what he meant by the third heaven. He says little about the experience except that "he was caught up to Paradise" and "he heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell" (12:4).
Because of my ninety minutes in heaven, I believe Paul had an experience of heaven. Did he die as I did? Did he have a near-death experience? Was it a Vision of such Power that he temporarily all sense of reality in his life?
None of us know, but he had an absolutely glorious experience. When he wrote to the Philippians he wrote of his great struggle: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain….Yet what shall choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24 NIV).
After that experience, Paul also wrote about a thorn in the flesh. Most scholars believe it was some kind of physical limitation. Whatever it was, he was different after his journey to the third heaven. Inwardly he was stronger than he had ever been; outwardly he had diminished.
We can see another example of this transition in the apostle Peter. Jesus called him and his companions to leave their fishing nets and follow Him. Peter followed Jesus and this can certainly be seen as a bridge in his life. But the bridge where I think Peter found his life's purpose recorded in Luke 5. Apparently Peter and his friends continued to fish. One day, Jesus came along and saw their boats were empty. He told Simon Peter to go out deeper, let down the nets, and they would catch many fish. "Master,' Simon replied, 'we worked hard all last night and didn't catch a thing. But if you say so, I'll let the nets down again" (verse 5). They did and caught enough for two boats to overflow.
Here's where Peter's bridge comes in: "When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, 'Oh, Lord, please leave me—I'm too much of a sinner to be around you.' For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him" (verses 8-9). Peter didn't think he was worthy and fell down, not knowing what to do with himself. "Jesus replied to Simon, 'Don't be afraid! From now on you'll be fishing for people'" (verse l0b). At that moment, Peter knows what his purpose in life is.
A third example can be found in the life of Jesus, Himself. Jesus crossed a bridge immediately after His baptism. “A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17 NIV). That’s a powerful experience, but the next verse reads, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (4:1 NIV). If Jesus ever had a new normal experience, that’s where it began. Until that moment, he was son of Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth. After that day, He was Jesus, the Messiah. His life changed forever between His baptism and the forty days of temptation. He entered the desert in obedience and emerged as the herald of God’s good news.
Of course, there is also the most significant of bridges that Jesus crossed. He went from being the Great Teacher and the Healer to become the Savior. His death on the cross was the last bridge for him to cross. His entire life had led to that great moment when He gave His life as a substitute for others.
The issue we have to face—and the one that may be the most difficult— is that we have crossed over the bridge, and we're on the other side. Now we have to ask ourselves: What is the focus of our lives? Where are we going? We know where we've been. In some ways we liked it and we may have found it enjoyable, even wonderful. But we can never go back. We're at the great threshold of life and we know the only way to go is to move ahead.
Where is our focus now? We know where we don't want to be: languishing in self-pity and alienated from ourselves. But where do we want to be? Where do we go?
Given the constraints of what we now have to work with, which may include physical disabilities and certainly the pain of loss, confusion, and anger over what we went through, we still have to make a choice: What is our new focus? If we're wise, we move from a temporal perspective to an eternal perspective. Peter did in that powerful moment of realization that he was a great sinner. Paul came back from the third heaven and he couldn't be the same. Even Jesus, the perfect man, had to face the fact that He had a destiny that He had to fulfill.
So do we all. What is yours?