Defining Moments: Change Points in our Lives

A challenging and insightful article which should speak to each of us.

Students of language know that words can never be defined in isolation from their context. Dictionary meanings supply only the raw material from which a contextual significance can be built. Words have a range of meanings, called the “semantic” range, and have location in a sentence, the syntactical position. Consequently, words can be properly understood only in a setting within surrounding elements.

At times, the skillful placing of an otherwise ordinary word can make it shine with new brilliance. Some writers can take a five cent word and mint it into a million dollar one. Everyone has had the experience of picking up a volume written by a wordsmith and becoming captivated with a book that was a real page-turner. It is a pleasure to read anything penned by an artisan who can thread words into the fabric of his story and weave a beautiful tapestry on a blank piece of paper in a way that dazzles the eye of the mind.

But not only do words have context and syntax, people do too. Each of us lives in a context of circumstances and in a syntactical arrangement of events that precede and follow certain moments in our lives. Those moments may seem as insignificant as an ordinary word in a sentence. Yet, in a certain setting, our responses to them reveal hidden weaknesses or highlight strengths that might otherwise go undetected. Hence, we are defined in a new way.

I was reminded of this earlier in the year when I read the incredible story of Aron Ralston, an avid outdoors man and expert climber, who amputated his own arm to save his life. On Saturday, April 26, 2003, he was canyoneering down remote Blue John Canyon in southeastern Utah when he was pinned with a boulder weighing about 800 pounds. Ralston tried ropes, anchors, anything to move the boulder, but it wouldn’t budge.

When he didn’t show up for his job in Aspen, friends called authorities. Sergeant Vetere, a patrol sergeant with the Emery County Sheriff’s Office, got the call Thursday morning, May 1. Terry Mercer, a helicopter pilot with the Utah Highway Patrol, met Vetere and another deputy at Horseshoe Canyon, where Ralston’s truck was parked. They flew for about two hours. As they were about to land, they looked down into the canyon and saw two people waving. They had encountered Ralston covered in blood.

In his first meeting with reporters, the 27-year-old Ralston calmly described his desperate attempts to free himself from the boulder and how he eventually did the unthinkable: cutting off his arm to save his life.

After he ran out of water, Ralston said he knew he would have to cut off his arm to save himself. He used the pocketknife he had stuffed into his short’s pocket. He then rappelled down some 60-75 feet to the canyon floor and walked 4 to 5 miles before he saw the tourists from Holland.

Many questions stirred in me when I read about this incredible event. I wondered, as I am sure many others did, if I could have done the same, what thoughts he struggled with before he finally realized that there were two options: lie there and die or amputate and live.

The point is that, while we may not have to make such a drastic choice, each day we are set in the context of our own personal world and circumstances, and these continually reveal hidden motives. Moreover, there are special contextual seasons that give the clearest picture of our fundamental character, times rightly called “defining moments.” More specifically, I am thinking of the periods when weaknesses are uncovered, when our behavior exposes character traits that must be altered or abandoned. The Scriptures are full of such times in the lives of individuals.

For example, consider King Saul. He had been chosen to be the leader of the nation of Israel. Yet when he was confronted by Samuel about his disobedience, he admitted, “I have sinned” (1 Samuel 15:24). The need for acceptance and preeminence was a driving force in his life. Instead of resisting this weakness, however, he allowed it to goad him for the rest of his days until that moment of sad lament, when he said, “I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly” (1 Samuel 26:21). Early in his public life, he had a defining moment which could have been a turning point, but he refused to be redefined and never turned around.

In contrast, King David placed himself in a context that revealed a flaw in his life that had never been properly examined and judged before the Lord. For him, the sad experience with Bathsheba was a defining moment. Yet in a spirit of repentance, he allowed God to redefine him through a deep heart-work. He prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). And the Lord answered his prayer.

Much of the time we do not recognize our true disposition because our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). But the Lord loves us too much to allow us to delude ourselves indefinitely. Inasmuch as He desires “truth in the inward parts,” He allows us to be brought into settings where we view ourselves in contexts that highlight weaknesses and afford us opportunities to face ourselves honestly and change direction.

Sometimes, however, we refuse to deal with flawed character and continue with pretense and facade, dismissing occasions to humbly acknowledge failure. Some deceptions are masked under an air of spirituality, an eloquent tongue, half-truths told to squirm out of consequences, the minimizing or excusing of bad behavior, or even a legalistic spirit that gives an impression of loyalty to the Lord. There are a thousand ways to spurn change.

The tragedy of all this is that ultimately we ourselves suffer the greatest loss. When God has graciously provided us a prospect for change and we resist it, we do so to our own detriment, both for the present and for eternity. King Solomon has left us a solemn warning, “If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself: but if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it” (Proverbs 9:12). The highest wisdom is to take the low place.

As I thought further about Aron Ralston, I thought of the words of the Lord Jesus: “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off…” (Mark 9:43). While I don’t believe the Lord Jesus intended this be taken so literally as to follow the example of Ralston, nevertheless there are times when we need to become very intense about change. If our conduct is squeezing the life out of us, we need to amputate it through the power of the Holy Spirit!

We will have defining moments in our lives. These times might shock us and, perhaps, engender grief and disappointment. Yet if we learn valuable lessons from them, unquestionably these dark seasons will be the antecedents to brighter days in our Christian life. Certain events in our lives are pivotal points and we will tip one way or another. May the Lord give us grace, courage, and strength to use the defining moments to let Him redefine us.