David and Adèle Ellis were married in Java in 1964 and served together for fifty-two years in Indonesia, Singapore, and the UK. In a moving chapter from his recent book Through All the Changing Scenes: A Lifelong Experience of God’s Unfailing Care, David shares their experience of how Adèle’s encounter with Alzheimer’s made the things of earth grow strangely dim as God prepared to welcome her into the light of his glory and grace. David’s honest reflections about questions and fears in times of upheaval, pain, and grief provide precious and timeless truths about the covenant love of God and our identity in Christ.

David Ellis and his wife Adèle served with OMF in Asia for about two decades before they returned to the UK in 1982. There they served in Glasgow where David was Associate Minister at St. George’s Tron until 1989 when he became the national director of OMF UK. In more than fifty years of ministry they travelled and taught widely before retiring to Scotland. After caring for Adèle through her Alzheimer’s, David now lives in Dundee where he serves as an elder in the Free Church.

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David Ellis

The God of Covenant Love[1]

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 40-47

Even when I am old and grey, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:18)

One of the most unforgettable messages I have ever experienced came from the lips of a dying man. In his day, the godly Dr. Johnstone Jeffrey had been a Moderator of the Church of Scotland. He had been invited to the lectern at the front of the lecture hall in the old Glasgow Bible Training Institute to give a word to the students.

As he stood in front of us, he looked elderly and was clearly very frail. He opened his Bible and simply said that he wanted to read his favourite Psalm to us, Psalm 139. As he read, the sense of God’s presence in the room was palpable.

O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
You are familiar with all my ways. (Ps 139:1–3)

We were conscious of hearing that other still small voice. He finished and looked exhausted. He had our sympathy. We waited for his message. We wondered if he was strong enough. His message, when it came, consisted of three halting sentences, nothing more.

“Young people often have problems with guidance for the future.”

There followed a very long pause.

“God will always give you enough light to take one more step.”

Another long pause.

“Take that step!”

And with that, he sat down.

The silence was eloquent. We searched our hearts; we felt we were being searched; there we found unfinished business: weaknesses in our prayer life, disobedience, areas where we knew God wanted us to “take that step.”

A week or so later Johnstone Jeffrey died. The message that came through his reading of that Psalm and those three sentences have lived on with me to this day.

All of that was more than fifty-eight years ago and it was what came to mind forcibly as we found ourselves facing retirement, wondering just what the next step for our ministry might be.

Retirement. Something the media likes to portray as the warm afterglow on the sunny uplands of life. An attractive dream? The end of the rainbow?

Not without some truth—but not the whole truth. The halting questions and the answering affirmations in Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poetic metaphor of life as the struggle of a journey “up-hill … the whole long day,” echo with those who would seek to live the life of faith.

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.[2]

It would be comfortable to think that as the pilgrim life progresses the incline might ease off some before we reach the “resting place”. The language is deceptively simple yet captures the life experience of many godly men and women through the ages. It was the converted slave trader, John Newton, who wrote poignantly about his own uphill journey:

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favoured hour
At once He’d answer my request
And, by His love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea, more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart and laid me low.

“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried;
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“’tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”[3]

There was a time in the life of John Henry Newman when sailing home from Italy he became very unwell. Becalmed somewhere between Palermo and Marseilles he was overwhelmed by illness and doubt. Homesick and with his mind in turmoil he penned a poem which in later days was to be made into a hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.[4]

“One step enough for me?”

Enough! Really? Facing retirement, we wondered just what that step might be for us. We had often quoted those words from Renè Padilla’s experience, “God will not give you a map, but He will give you His hand,” when counselling missionary candidates stepping out in faith for service in Asia. Now we were about to face a time when we were going to need to know, more than ever, just how to grasp and be grasped by that hand and walk on uphill, one step at a time!

Of course, there are times when we can, and indeed we should, do as much as we can to look to the future and plan ahead, sensibly. But then there are other times when the way ahead is not that clear and we just don’t know where another step along the road will lead. Just as when climbing the Scottish mountains in a mist, you don’t know what’s beyond the next cairn because you just can’t see through the mist. And, of course, you won’t ever get to know until you reach the next cairn. But if God has given enough light for the next step, then, in faith, the challenge is to have the courage to trust Him and take it!

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Adèle at Schynige Platte near Interlaken, Switzerland.

We had retired to a beautiful home in Perth. There was a preaching ministry round several churches in Perthshire, walking holidays in the Lake District, and wonderful trips to Switzerland with our caravan to meet up with some of Adèle’s Swiss relatives along with former OMF colleagues. There were happy times with our children and grandchildren in Dundee and Glasgow. However, after a few years it was becoming more and more obvious that Adèle was having difficulties. Cooking became complicated. Writing letters, confusing. Knowing how to answer people’s questions at church, intimidating. Offering hospitality and accepting invitations out from friends, daunting. Deciding what to wear, a mammoth exercise fraught with repeated attempts to get it just right. And trying to remember names and faces or just even to find words, stressful and, at times, impossible.

As for most older people, past their three score years and ten, memory problems are nothing out of the ordinary. Yet somehow Adèle’s memory problems were not at all ordinary. What was the next step going to be?

Probably none of us go through life without fears of one form or another. For Adèle it was fear of the slow, cruel disease she had seen stealing away the life of her mother. She was becoming more and more afraid of suffering from the very thing she had feared the most, ever since we first met at college some fifty-seven years ago. Alzheimer’s.

As retirement progressed, she became more and more dependent. It became increasingly obvious that when I was not around, she would become disorientated, anxious and distressed. So, the next step was to move to a new house—hopefully for one last time. We wanted to be nearer to our children. We left Perth for Dundee. That was the easy part. We were used to moving to a new house! What followed proved to be more delicate. When you suspect the very thing you fear the most, how can you find help to face it? And how, as one who is looking on, can you help the one you love to summon up the courage they need to face up to the very thing they fear without adding to their fears?

For some time, both of us tried to live as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But as time went on it became harder to ignore what was becoming obvious. Slowly Adèle herself became increasingly aware that things were not right. She was struggling. She wrestled, we both wrestled, and finally it was with real courage that she decided to share her fear with our doctor.

It is one thing to fear the beast, but another to be brave enough to be prepared both to name it and look it in the face. Yet, again, in the remarkable gentleness of our loving Shepherd, it seemed that once the psychologist and psychiatrist had confirmed a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, she was given an amazing sense of acceptance. Her condition was no longer the thing that could not be named—the elephant in the room. It had been named, and by the grace of God, the Great Physician gave her the strength to accept the very thing that had so long been the nightmare that haunted her. He tempered her fears with the balm of His peace. In a spirit of gentleness that was evident throughout her life she proved the truth that the Lord was with her. She had learned Paul’s secret:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6–7).

From that day to the day the Lord finally took her to be with Him, more than six years later, the progression of the illness was slow but the outcome inevitable. Going out became more and more difficult. It was neither easy nor appropriate to go into explanations to folk outside the family circle. The loving support and understanding from within our family and closest friends were wonderful, but the reactions of some outside that circle to the very private and sensitive personal decisions we had to make was not so easy to handle. We had to learn to live with the fact that some clearly didn’t, and probably wouldn’t, ever be able to understand. And it was inappropriate to go into lengthy explanations; a difficult time as our circle of life, and what we had imagined was going to be our ministry, narrowed.

But it was a time when we were having to learn that, facing the prospect of what lay ahead, no matter how frightening, our loving heavenly Father would somehow use it for our good—to make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:28–29). The important thing was to allow Him to do that in us and for us and even to each other. We had to learn to handle any uncomfortable thoughts we might have about what others might be thinking about us!

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Fathers often disappoint and fail in our fallen sinful world. When Jesus taught us when we pray to say; “Our Father,” He wanted us to know what it means to be able to call God our Father. Human fathers fall short of the ideal, but God is not like an imperfect human father. He is the perfect pattern of what a true father should be. As Paul says, all fatherhood on earth derives its pattern from Him (Eph 3:14–15).[5] It is not the other way around.

Walking the life of faith should teach us that, as our loving father, all His ways are love even when we don’t understand. Throughout our life and ministry, we had many experiences of that. We knew that God is love and all that He does He does in His love. But that does not mean we are the ones to decide to define what His love should be or how we should experience it in our lives. To do that would be to make ourselves judge and jury.

God’s assurance to the prophet Isaiah is a beautiful reminder of His fatherly love for us even to grey hairs and the possible experience of failing mental powers as we grow older:

Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me (Isa 49:15–16).

In the words of the hymn:

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing …

The work which His goodness began,
the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen,
and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo,
or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands
eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains,
in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
as sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
the glorified spirits in Heaven.[6]

Questions? Of course, there were. Many! Yet all through those years came a deep conviction that the Lord knew what He could trust us with. One of the Puritan writers wrote that in the battle of life whatever arrow, from whatever source, by the time it has been allowed access to our lives, has become the Lord’s will for us. We believed that to be true. “In His will, is our peace,”[7] and therefore sickness or health, poverty or riches, the very things we promised to weather when we took our marriage vows, are not works of chance but all came to us from His fatherly hand. Truths so beautifully expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism.[8]

The Psalmist in his distress said: “My soul refused to be comforted”—but then he gets a new perspective on his problems when he says, “then I thought, ‘to this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the most high. I will remember the deeds of the Lord’” (Ps 77:1–2, 10–12). He looks back to God’s saving acts and His faithfulness and finds comfort. He remembers God’s covenant with His people; He saves; He delivers; He is faithful to His promises; He does not change when our circumstances and experiences of life change! There lies our confidence that His love will not fail us in the time of stress. His Covenant Love never changes. It does not “alter when it alteration finds.”[9] So we can move forward in confidence as Newton put it:

His love in time past forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review,
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.[10]

Alzheimer’s has famously been called “the long goodbye.” Watching as slowly your life partner recedes from being the person you once knew to be your dearest friend, mother of your children, and life companion, is a grief I find utterly beyond the capacity of words to describe. It is a heart-rending, unresolved grief. As a psychiatrist friend, who had cared for her husband for many years in his dementia, put it: “You spoke in your letter of grieving as if bereaved and I can so understand that. In my worst moments I felt neither a wife nor a widow …” But God is close to us,[11] even in the loneliness and pain of bereavement.

I was asked at that time as to how I felt. I only share what I wrote then if perhaps it might help anyone reading this who is facing a similar experience with his or her loved one. I wrote:

It is not easy to explain and folks looking on from the outside just would not be able to understand what it means to be living with someone who is, at this stage, defined clinically as being at the “moderate stage” of the illness. The hardest thing of all is at the deepest of levels—our relationship as man and wife and the mutual comfort of meaningful discussion and dialogue of companionship—the fundamental of any marriage.

Some illnesses, like cancer, we would all dread but even that would be something we could face together as a couple. We could talk about ways to try to fight it and still know the meaningful intimacy of debate, discussion and relationship. We could talk about it and share our fears but the progress of Adèle’s Alzheimer’s no longer allows for that. There is no way I can talk to her about problems—she will only register distress and fail to understand really what I am saying or get distressed. There is now no way to discuss what we can do for the best. No way to discuss what course of action we should take or what decisions we should make. That, I find, is one of the hardest things to live with. And it means, in some way I have to try and sense what is in Adèle’s best interests even when I cannot hope for a rational answer from her.

The problem is that whatever our public face may seem to be—and Adèle can almost seem normal when people greet her socially—it is just not really possible to explain the mental and emotional strain of living with what in some ways feels like a living bereavement—and even just expressing that doesn’t begin to tell the half of the story.

Someone said I have to learn to manage a “balancing act” between my needs and Adèle’s, but it is not a “balancing act” as such but rather a situation where the “one flesh” finds itself being irreversibly and painfully torn apart in slow motion—not something anyone who hasn’t passed this way can be expected to understand. Someone, trying to be nice, said; “Oh yes, I understand, I had a relative who has Alzheimer’s”—they meant well, but their experience and ours could not be more radically different. When it is your life’s love and companion (your other half—your better half) who is fading away—dying by instalments—that is not the same thing as dealing with a “relative” in the family.

There are times when Adèle is not clear as to who I am—a good loveable (I trust) friend and carer for sure—and I am grateful for that. More often than not she seems to confuse me with her brother Len. That makes the experience of the illness within a marriage relationship to be of an entirely different order. The experience and my emotional reactions to it are not something I can verbalise. And how Adèle for her part feels about where she is at in terms of her own inner consciousness is not something I can know because she cannot tell me. And yet I have to try and sense where she is at. I have to monitor her emotional reactions. Her perception of reality.

And speaking of that perception of reality, there was a time when we might watch the news, a DVD, or some other programme on TV but now I realise that when the TV is on she confuses what she sees with the realities of where she is. That narrows down what it is “safe” for her or for us to watch together. The news broadcasts which portray tense situations have her very agitated and distressed …

It was around the time that I wrote those words, that a friend of ours in North America sent us a small book by Robertson McQuilkin, who for twenty-two years had been the president at Columbia International University. His wife had the same form of dementia as Adèle and in the book he described the moment he made the decision to resign his position as President to care for her.

Some questioned the wisdom and appropriateness of resigning his position for her. Was he not leaving a strategic and important work and losing wider influence he could have had for the kingdom?

He wrote one of the most winsome and Christlike explanations of his reasoning, and most importantly of the privilege of his first and last covenant calling to his wife. It was both a comfort and a challenge to me and I realised God was giving me enough light to take the next step—Adèle’s full time care. He said:

The decision to come to Columbia was the most difficult I had to make. The decision to leave, though painful, was one of the easiest … Let me explain.

My dear wife, Muriel, has been in failing mental health for about twelve years. So far, I have been able to carry both her ever growing needs and my leadership responsibility at Columbia. But recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time when she is with me, and almost none of the time when I am away from her. It is not just “discontent.” She is filled with fear—even terror—that she has lost me, and always goes in search of me when I leave home. So, it is clear to me that she needs me now, full-time.

Perhaps it will help you understand if I share with you what I shared in Chapel at the time of the announcement of my resignation. The decision was made, in a way, forty-two years ago when I promised to care for Muriel ‘in sickness and in health … till death us do part.’ So, as I told the students and faculty, as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years. If I cared for her for the next forty years, I would not be out of her debt. Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. There is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me—her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don’t have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honour to care for so wonderful a person.[12]

You have to wonder if Robert and Muriel, as they pledged and affirmed their love to each other in covenant before God and the congregation of His people, in the first flush of youth, full of joy, with health and strength and physical beauty, could ever have pictured having to face this moment in their lives? If they had, might they have retreated in fear from that picture of themselves in their latter days?

So, for us the “the Next Step” was clear. For me it was: “I love … Adèle … I don’t have to care for her. I get to. It is a high honour to care for so wonderful a person.” For Adèle it had to be to accept the very thing she had so long feared and trust that I would continue to do my utmost, humanly speaking, to love and care for her, “till death us do part.”

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Newly engaged David and Adèle during their brief meet up in April 1963 in Singapore where she was attending orientation training.

In our entire ministry together, she had always been my memory for faces and names! Now remembering names was quite beyond her. A glimpse of the face of a friend we may have met on our travels many years ago would come back to her mind suddenly, and she would think that they were somewhere in the house. The result of our nomadic life and an open home, meant that at such times she experienced the powerful sense, but ill-informed, that some form of hostess duty was expected of her and she would become quite ill at ease and perplexed, not knowing how to do what she thought she ought to be doing. Adèle loved exercising the gift of hospitality. Now she could no longer open the home; our world began to shrink.

Finally, one evening while watching the news, she asked me, “Are you going to send me home?” Of course, my immediate answer was to reassure her and say, “But this is home!” But although she smiled sweetly, my answer made no sense. Inexorably the illness progressed. She began to lose all concept of where home was. Gradually she even began to wonder who I was. At times she would look at me quizzically and ask, “Do you know David Ellis?”

Early one morning the doorbell rang and our neighbour from across the road stood on the doorstep, having found Adèle shivering in her night clothes far down our street refusing to be led back to the house. With Adèle’s brother and his wife from Canada staying overnight with us we had forgotten to lock the front door. Adèle, who would frequently get up in the night and walk about, had managed to get out of the house and wander down the road. I ran outside and down to the next bend in the road to find her holding hands with our neighbour’s wife, then she came back home with me. This was not the first time this had happened.

I select these few vignettes from so many similar stories through the years, leaving out others which it would be too painful to relate; quoted, not because they were dramatic and exceptional but because they typified the routine of our lives through those days. Domestic scenes made poignant by their very ordinariness and our seeking to understand God’s hand on both our lives. We knew Him to be the faithful and loving Lord who had delivered us from many of our fears in many strange and exceptional dangers. Somehow, we had to see that He was still with us in this, the mundane and wearying day-to-day experience He had permitted for our pilgrimage. He is the God of the big picture, raising up and bringing down nations and kingdoms, but now we had to discover that He is not silent or far away when we need Him more than ever. We were grappling with the intimate needs of our frail and failing bodies and minds, but He was true to His promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you!” Or as the Classic Amplified Bible (AMPC) highlights the impact and emphasis of the text in the original:

… for He [God] Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. [I will] not, [I will] not, [I will] not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let [you] down (relax My hold on you)! [Assuredly not!] (Heb 13:5)[13]

Did the Lord have to take us through this path in our marriage that we might come to understand, at a much deeper level, the nature and meaning of His Covenant Love for us? Christ, as our great bridegroom saw and knew from before the world was made, exactly what it was going to cost Him to establish that covenant relationship with us as His bride. It would cost Him His life. All that was something we thought we knew—but to what extent was it embedded in our hearts?

Towards the end, when her illness was getting to be more than we could handle as a family, we had to face up to the reality that she needed professional care. And so, with the advice and help of the family, and in the goodness of God we found a place nearby in the community. The staff there made it a loving home. Being the gentle, gracious, and godly person she had always been, they did not find it hard to love her. I was able to visit her most days for the final two years of her life and whenever we would sit together on a sofa, read the scriptures and pray she was calm and at peace. Often, I suspect, she mightn’t have been exactly sure as to who I was. But there were just one or two occasions when I would arrive and see her face light up with a beautiful smile of recognition. The sense of joy of being able to lock eyes with the dearest face in all the world on such days was an unforgettable experience. A memory that even now moistens my eyes.

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But we must see through our tears and look into the face of Christ. And it is, as His face comes into focus, that we discover, in greater depth, the health-giving fear of the Lord. He is the bridegroom who has made, and will keep, His covenant promises to us as His bride no matter what changes in us. He doesn’t love us because He saw us as warriors who would hold the course. He did not choose us because we might become characters you write legends about (Eph 1:4). None of us dare claim to be heroes that merit His love. Our doubts and fears and failing powers may surprise us. They do not surprise Him or weaken one billionth part of a percent His willingness to love us to the end and help us along the road as it winds uphill “the whole long day.” His covenant of love stands on an unshakeable foundation—He gave Himself for us. He loves us and redeemed us with His own life’s blood.

Throughout Scripture God describes His relationship with His people in terms of a marriage relationship. Marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman; an analogy of the covenant relationship we have with our heavenly bridegroom, Christ. That is why it is so very special, a covenant promise establishing our identities within the relationship we have to one another as husband and wife, never to be entered into without serious commitment. Doubts, fears, frailty, illness, pain, and weakness do not change that relationship. That is the crowning glory of marriage, as God designed it, that it survives and holds firm no matter what winds He may allow to blow upon it! God gave marriage to us to be a picture of His forever-husband love to us!

Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church(Eph 5:25, 31–32)

Despite the adjustments we had to face in the last years of our marriage, one thing never changed—our relationship. Adèle was my wife; I was her husband! Before God, and before the law of the land, we had entered into the covenant of marriage and made our vows to one another. It was that mutual promise that underwrote the bond between us. Before God we were man and wife. One flesh. Our identities did not alter on account of her illness.

And, whether or not she was able to understand it, as her mind began to shut down, it was that covenant love into which we entered before God and our Indonesian brothers and sisters in the Javanese Church at Salatiga, more than fifty years ago, which was the assurance that I would always love, care, and provide for her for as long as I was able to look after her.

As believers we are “in Christ”. And Christ lives in us by His Spirit. It is through His indwelling presence we are empowered to live, for He “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20). No matter what we experience, how we feel, or whatever happens to us in this world, that is what defines our relationship to God. Being “in Christ” has become our identity.

Adèle committed herself to Christ in her teenage years. She had been born again and knew the truth that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come” (2 Cor 5:17). She, by the grace of God, was a new creation living in a new relationship to God. The identity that defined her was that she was “in Christ”, the identity that was described by the Apostle Paul when he said: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

She walked with God and knew the secret that so many of the Lord’s people have discovered: “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). People today have become obsessed with the question of identity and, of course, as you watch the sad progression of someone with Alzheimer’s, the question of identity inevitably rises in your mind. But for Adèle we knew the wonderful truth that, being “in Christ”, that identity of hers would never change.

That’s who she was. That’s who she still is. Despite her frailty, that identity was never lost—it remained unaffected by what she was able to feel or understand. Nothing could alter it. And it was with that very identity she was welcomed with open arms into the “resting place”. Towards the end of her road, when all her human resources were depleted and her mind had all but closed down, what she could not now understand any more didn’t matter. Her Lord’s resources were more than enough for her. She was His.

Christ never promised immunity from suffering and times of anxiety. None of us go through life without fears, a fear that our faith might fail in the last years under severe testing, a fear of persecution, a fear of being challenged to deny our faith, a fear of suffering, a fear of ill health, a fear of pain, a fear of poverty, a fear of bereavement, a fear of loneliness—the list could go on and on and on. But if our trust is in Christ then, being “in Christ”, we are secure in the promise of His unchanging covenant love. “I will never leave you or forsake you!” The One, who sees us as His bride and reveals Himself to us as our husband, will never abandon us. Never—not ever!

It is three years ago since Adèle passed away. We were happily married for fifty-two years. For all of us life has its good days and bad days, its massive reversals, its domestic day-to-day traumas, and everything in between. But for believers, none of that changes who we are in our relationship and identity as those who are “in Christ”. It isn’t dependent on how we feel nor is it destroyed by anything that life might throw at us. It is an identity and relationship based on His covenant love—His marriage commitment to us. And that is the guarantee we have, as followers of Christ, that He will keep us safe and secure as His own to the very end of the way.

Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in Heaven.[14]

As the Good Shepherd says of His lambs: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

What an extraordinary gospel! Christ left heaven to make me His bride. Beautiful in His eyes! I am loved, not because of anything in me but because of the beauty of who He is—for God is love. If being “in Christ” defines my identity, then nothing can make me unattractive in His eyes. Nothing can separate me from His love.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31–39).

Incredible? Yes! But glorious, gospel truth!

And that is what it means to fear God. That is the fear that can drive out every other fear. And if that sounds a lot like love God, that’s because in the end they come to the same thing.

Of that love Paul says: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). Throughout her life, Adèle knew that love “in part”. Now she knows it fully, even as she is “fully known”.

Let us bow before Him. May He, in His grace, help us come to know the wonder of His covenant love in greater depth so that the very peace of God, that passes understanding, might keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6–7).

Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.
O make but trial of His love;
Experience will decide
How blest are they, and only they,
Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight.
Your wants shall be His care.[15]

God will always give you enough light to take one more step—take that step!

[1] This article is from David Ellis’ book Through All the Changing Scenes: A Lifelong Experience of God’s Unfailing Care (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2020).

ebook available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

A review of the book by David Robertson is available at https://theweeflea.com/2020/10/11/through-all-the-changing-scenes-ap/

[2] Christina Rossetti, “Up-Hill.”

[3] John Newton, “I asked the Lord that I might Grow,” Olney Hymns, 1779.

[4] John Henry Newman, “The Pillar of the Cloud.”

[5] “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” The Greek for family (patria) is derived from the Greek for father (pater).

[6] Augustus Montague Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.”

[7] Dante, The Divine Comedy.

[8] G. I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism: A Study Guide (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1993), 48.

Q 27 What do you mean by the providence of God?

A: The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, … food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.

Q 28 What does it profit us to know that God has created, and by his providence still upholds all things?

A: That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future may have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

[9] William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds …”

[10] John Newton, “Begone unbelief,” 1779.

[11] As Acts 17:27–28 says, “he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’”

[12] Robertson McQuilkin, A Promise Kept (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1998), 21–23.

[13] Amplified Bible Classic Edition. Cf. Deuteronomy 31:6.

[14] Augustus Montague Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone.”

[15] Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life.”

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