It’s incredibly exciting to see the students on campus for a new year. Christian students are the whole reason Bob Jones University exists, so when they flood back to campus after time away, it’s like a body coming back to life!

Many of our college peers have children who will be in the same classes with our freshman daughter or will be her “Chapel buddies” at some point during the year.

I find myself praying with renewed burden for God’s work in hearts through the Opening Evangelistic Services the next 3 nights, for Dr. Pettit and all the others who will be preaching in Chapel this semester, and for my daughter to meet numerous godly students from across the world–who will become lifetime friends serving God all across the world!

Those are some of the treasures with which God showered me at a crucial point in my Christian growth, and I pray them now for each student He has brought to BJU this year. May the Lord be pleased to give the best year ever to the students He has called here!

Right now, many friends I love and admire greatly in life have had their world turned upside down.  Through no fault of their own, they are suffering the loss of a ministry to which many of them have given decades.  These are godly people, and they are doing their best to handle this catastrophic loss in a godly way.  Yet no matter how many times they kneel in prayer and genuinely release their hurt and their future, waves of devastation, pain, and aching disappointment still pound against their hearts in rhythmic succession.  So they go back to their knees to surrender it all once again . . . and once again move forward for a few hours before their very natural, understandable agony crashes back against their souls–loaded with the “silt” of questioning, uncertainty, and a wordless sorrow that can only be moaned in prayer to the God they trust, but Who has allowed them to experience this racking pain.

I pray for you, my friends, wishing I could carry some of the burden you bear, and begging God to soon turn your night of weeping into the joy of morning.  But the only other help I can give is to commend to you Job, Joseph, and Jesus, all of whom experienced unimaginable loss and extended pain–One of Whom surrendered to infinite pain on our behalf.  I have been going back to these Exemplars many times for the past few years, and here is what I read today.  I pray before I type that God will use His Word and the devotional thoughts of R. Kent Hughes to minister to you right now, and perhaps in the days immediately ahead.  And let me point out one thing Hughes doesn’t say in this excerpt that God has used to encourage me: The latter half for Job, Joseph, and Jesus was superior to the first!

In Genesis 50, Joseph’s brothers fear that the death of Joseph’s father means Joseph will now turn on them in revenge.  In verse 20, Joseph utters that beautiful Old Testament crescendo of Truth that is, no doubt, one of the hard-learned lessons of his 13 years of captivity: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  Looking back, we know that Joseph’s presence in Egypt had saved the 70+ members of his family who came from Canaan, and that the 400-year sojourn in Egypt–though it would entail slavery–would become the incubator of a nation of perhaps 2.5 million who would march victoriously from the decimated land of their enslavement!

R. Kent Hughes notes, “The prophet Jeremiah voiced this same truth to encourage his people when they were about to go into captivity in evil Babylon: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the L ORD , plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” ( Jer. 29:11 ). “Welfare” here is the Hebrew word shalom. It means peace, or “wholeness”; it means God’s good plans for us. God can have no evil thoughts toward his children—no thoughts of calamity. He has never had an evil thought toward a child of his, and he never will. This doesn’t mean that his people are shielded from hardship or misery (consider Joseph’s life!). What it does mean is that God’s plans are never for evil in the believer’s life, but with an eye to their well-being and wholeness—always. The apparent evil that we suffer is for our good” [Taken from notes in the ESV Study Bible].

Clearly, God has not shielded you from hardship.  Life hurts right now, and only God knows when the hurt will be replaced with provision and joy.  But as Romans 8:28-32 join the chorus of these Old Testament promises, hundreds of your friends are praying for you.  We ache for your pain and weep for God to comfort and uplift you.  But the best thing we can pray is that you will experience in the midst of pain a work of God that He wasn’t doing when life was normal, because you didn’t need it then.  As you question, hurt, and cry out, may you know God binding you up.  May you remember from Psalm 23 that He is at your side in the “valley experiences” of life.  May you clearly witness Him working for your welfare.  And very soon, may you see Him making the way plain before your face!

With love, prayers, and deepest admiration,

Stephen

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross studied individuals who were dying and posited that those patients went through five distinct stages from the time they were informed of their illness until their death.  Since Kübler-Ross wrote, her theory has largely been debunked, even though some patients and family members do experience some of her “stages” from time to time as they work through personal loss.

While the Bible is my authority, rather than psychology and the social sciences, it has been my personal experience and my observation of other believers, that Christians dealing with internal suffering, shattering disappointments, and other forms of deep personal trials journey through a process of numbness, grieving and growth.  It’s important that I readily admit to the traitorous flesh within me and the savage spiritual enemy pursuing me, because I cannot claim that my responses have always been without reproach, like Job’s, Joseph’s, and Jesus’ were.

There are hundreds of Christians I know who are going through far deeper waters than my family and I are, and I am challenged by them to remain faithful and joyful.  But if I am to be honest in the hope of being helpful, I’d have to admit that over five-and-a-half years now, I have gone through the following “postures” of the suffering God has allowed: hopeful, numbness, fetal position, confidence.  Let me describe each briefly.

  1. When I awoke October 12, 2010, and fell to the floor with vertigo, the next three months could be characterized as hopeful.  We saw numerous routine doctors to deal with balance, nausea, migraines, the inner ear, and digestion, and I entered each doctor’s office with a sense that surely this visit would unveil the core problem and trigger the solution.
  2. From three to twelve months, I reverted to numbness.  We began to see specialists at Duke, Mayo (in Jacksonville), Cleveland Clinic, and other doctors of note; however, I tried very hard not to get excited about the visits or the diagnoses.  In fact, most of the diagnoses would have been downright discouraging, if I had set all my hopes in them, as I had previously.  Numerous brothers and sisters in Christ recommended homeopathic remedies, as well as medicines and doctors outside the mainstream.  It was impossible to try everything recommended to me, but I did try many things.  Even these remedies, which had reportedly been of help to missionaries and laymen around the world, became part of my routine with numb appreciation, but no real hope for change.  But I plugged along, trying to do my best to meet my obligations with a body that had symptoms that were only growing worse.
  3. Three years later, in December of 2013, my numbness was shattered by *the loss of two close friends, concurrent with the gentle, growing work God was doing within me, burdening me that it would be best for the faculty, staff, students, and ministry of Bob Jones University for me to step down as president.  This was a rending experience for me.  My love and burden was still for the ministry of BJU, but that love demanded that I do what was best for the University.  Since that December, a return to the numbness stage has not been an option.  After finishing the year on May 9, 2014, I moved into the next posture of my response to the trial God has chosen for my family and me: the fetal position.  Suddenly, the calling I have felt on my life since I was five was impossible, my family had to make multiple changes my children didn’t understand, our medical expenses skyrocketed, my wife became the sole bread-winner–and I felt I was the cause of it all.  My days were spent largely in bed because of my vertigo, nausea, and migraines, and I lay much of that time crying out to the Lord.  A friend sent the verse that comforted me most deeply in this “fetal stage,” which really was a kind of mourning.  It was Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  That was a verse for me!  Over and over I claimed it, cried it, prayed it, confident that God was with me in the same way He had promised to be with David and all His brokenhearted children.
  4. During this time, in the summer of 2015, Erin and I were referred by a pastor friend to a Lyme disease specialist.  This pastor’s daughter had experienced a range of symptoms similar to mine for years, and had found relief from this specialist in just the last year.  Still in my “fetal position,” we made the trip to the specialist and sensed from our first visit that this was the right place.  We made several trips to the practice for examinations and labwork, coming into December with a list of medicines to start taking.  It’s important to state, though, that even before the medicines started to have an effect, God was changing my outlook.  Instead of the fetal, discouraged, almost depressed way I had spent so many days, my repeated readings of Job had led to a place of confidence.

In Job 42:2, Job asserts with conviction: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”  That was what I needed to shake off my sense of forgottenness and despair!  God reminded me that He is perfectly able to say a word and deliver me from my sickness at any moment–if He sees fit.  But until He sees fit, God has a purpose for me–and for every suffering Christian–within the suffering!  Instead of trying to simply survive the day, I began trying to look for God’s purpose in it–calling to encourage another ill Christian, calling to witness to individuals we’ve worked with while I was well, trying to mentor younger brothers in Christ.

Suddenly–like Job and Joseph–there was a purpose (a Person) for me to serve each day, no matter how limited that service might be due to circumstances.  I was reminded that, should He wish, God is fully able to heal me at any second.  But each day He does not, it’s because He has other things for me to do–things I probably couldn’t do if I were well–things my illness enables, rather than thwarts!

Like Job and Joseph, suffering believers can look at Satan and at people who may have hurt us deeply and we can rejoice at the worst they can throw at us.  With confidence and whole-hearted forgiveness, we can look at all opposition and say, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20a).

For today, this blog is one of God’s purposes for me.  I pray He will use it to encourage many others who are hurting.

Stephen

*I adjusted this sentence slightly from the original post because my previous wording was distracting people from the point I was trying to make–the pain of losing close friends for ANY reason (a pain that Jesus also experienced as one of His sorrows on His way to the Cross).

This year has been one of the most challenging of our lives.  Due to the five-year-old illness that has been part of my life and my family’s, I needed to step away from the ministry role that has been–to this point–the most joyous and fulfilling of my life.  The University was overwhelmingly generous in continuing my salary and most of our benefits until December 31, which helped significantly with medical bills and other needs.  But God has kept the pressure on with health issues, being turned down for disability income (something we’ve been appealing with Mutual of Omaha for two months), and in numerous other ways.

But as we look back over the year, we wouldn’t change a thing.  God has drawn us closer to Himself, and He has drawn nearer to us.  We’ve learned about prayer, trust, hope, dependence, God’s provision and faithfulness, the ministry of Christians to each other, and numerous other lessons that have breathed life into concepts we’ve known about intellectually or heard about in the testimonies of others.  We’ve experienced renewal as a couple and greater closeness as a family.  All these lessons have made the trials of the year worth experiencing.  We have no regrets.

These lessons have also impressed upon me the Fatherhood of God to the point that I didn’t feel right allowing Father’s Day 2015 to focus on me.  Instead, I told Erin and our kids several weeks ago, that I don’t want any presents.  Instead, I asked each of them to write down a list of ways for which they’re glad God is their Father and how they’ve seen Him show His Fatherly love to them and our family this year.  After church and lunch, we’ll each read our list aloud, in praise to God.  I don’t know if this will become a new tradition in our house or if the Lord will use this idea in other families, but I wanted to share with you my list of how my “Father, which is in heaven” has become more dear and more near in my life this year.  I pray that my personal list will bless your heart and remind you of God’s tender, Fatherly workings in your own life.

Here goes . . .

            This year, God’s omnipresence has meant more to me than ever. God is always with me. While that’s sobering, and should inspire me to make every action one of which He would approve, it is also immensely comforting. God is with me at every moment—every doctor’s visit, every attempt to minister to someone in person or over the phone, every moment with Erin, every moment with each of the kids. He is with me in dark hours of discouragement, available to give comfort even when everyone else is sleeping or away from the house. And every day as I read my Bible, God’s presence with me makes it an act of worship. He opens the Word to my understanding, using it to convict, instruct, and change me. God’s presence is the one constant in this trial, where my body is hurting and changing daily, and it makes me long to be present with Him in the Home Jesus is preparing even now.

God’s unlimited knowledge and power also mean more to me than ever. There are things in my life beyond my control and beyond my understanding. I do not know why God has led our family through my sickness, and I ache for all the times I’ve been unable to attend one of the children’s functions. I feel guilty every time I have to move a commitment or cancel a meeting. But I’ve begun to learn that–while God expects me to do all the things I can do–He has a purpose in the things I can’t.  I can’t be ashamed of those. He is working even those things together for His glory and my best.

Though there are countless other things I can say about how God has especially revealed His Fatherhood to me this year, I want to close with what I’ve learned of His provision (a function of God’s love, His omniscience, and His omnipotence combined). There are things He has asked us to let go of that we were more attached to than we knew; but every “sacrifice” gave us an opportunity to see God provide sweetly and personally for each thing to which we’d been clinging! He has given us a great home back campus, with all the  room we need; He has given us more time being near the children because the rooms are closer together; He has provided friends on our street for the boys, placed us closer to the fields, continued to allow the kids to walk to school, and gave  our daughter with her first summer job. He has made it possible to get a loan on the van we love, and my one paying insurance policy covers our lease on campus and a few other needs.

In His provision, God has almost exclusively given help exactly when it has been needed. Right now we have an ongoing need created by a disability insurance company that has refused to honor the policy BJU bought in my name (as BJU does for each employee). That would double the amount I receive each month, allowing us to pay off the van more quickly and take care of almost every other bill we have. We have engaged a company to help, but all of this has dragged on since January.  Like our other needs, we have taken this one to God time and again; but there seems to be no answer. That no longer makes me fearful, because God has answered every one of our prayers for provision just in time and–usually–in unexpected ways—keeping us faithful and persistent in prayer, as well as reminding us how precisely He hears and answers His children with provision.

I believe all of us as a family know God better, trust Him more, and care less about the things of this world. That makes this past year priceless–something we would never undo!  Thank you, Father, for being “Our Father, which art in heaven.” Even in hardship, we pray that You will do whatever it takes to draw us and our loved ones closer to You. You are our Joy; You are our Hope; You are our Strength; and one day You will be our Reward.

Thank you for so amply showing us Your magnificent Fatherhood this year. We love You all the more for all You have taught us! Be honored this Father’s Day with our praise and overflowing hearts’ gratitude!

Your son,

Stephen

“Does our faith rest on having prayers answered as we think they should be answered, or does it rest on that mighty love that went down into death for us?  We can’t really tell where it rests, can we, until we’re in real trouble.”

Elisabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering

The last two weeks have been difficult ones for personal discouragement.  Just weeks before, I had really good weeks physically, but now again my daily vertigo has worsened (taking turns with immobilizing migraines and nausea), conspiring to make for difficult days and lower spirits.

Sunday morning after spending time in Scripture, I picked up where I had left off reading A Path Through Suffering, by Elisabeth Elliot (who went Home to be with the Lord the same day).  She recounted a phone call in which she was trying to provide comfort to a 30-year-old cancer patient and mother of three young children.  After counseling, encouraging, and praying for the mother.  Later, as she lay in bed, Elisabeth Elliot replayed in her mind the things that had transformed her own view of suffering over the years.  They are separate paragraphs in the book, but I’ll number them hear for ease of grasping each powerful truth:

  1. “Suffering was indispensable for the world’s salvation.
  2. “There was no other way but the cross.
  3. “The servant is not greater than his Lord.
  4. “If we suffer with Him we shall also reign with Him.
  5. “Shall we not follow the Master in suffering as in everything else, sharing with Him in His work, that the world and the devils themselves [think of the opening chapters of the Book of Job] may be shown in this [day]that we love the Father and will do just as He says?  The world does not want want to be told.  The world must be shown-shown the very guts of faith.”

 A Path Through Suffering

Elisabeth Elliot

Christina Georgina Rosetti

(1830-1894)

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

No so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon–
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Over a series of three summers during college and graduate school, I was privileged to work at a medium-sized camp in the eastern hills of Pennsylvania.  It was a wonderful experience to touch the lives of so many campers and to form lifelong friendships with the year-round staff and my fellow counselors.

Early in that first summer, one of the full-time staff invited all of us to his house for a devotional time.  It made a deep impression that Rudy (not his real name) and his wife Violet (not her name) would go to the effort and invite us to get away from the camp for a while in their home.

The more I worked with Rudy and all the full-time staff, the more I saw his huge heart for God and for others.  In one situation, I saw him working with one of my campers who was more than I could handle.  Patiently, lovingly, and filled with God’s Word, Rudy touched that child’s life and started to deal with some of the core issues.  Some people wear off their testimony, but others grow on you; and that’s what Rudy and Violet did.

At one point Rudy shared with a group of us that he and Violet had tried to have children for almost a decade, but weren’t able.  So they told us they were going through the adoption process and kept us updated.  At some point in the following school year, Rudy called with the thrilling news that the adoption agency had located a child for them.  But within months, the birth mother changed her mind, and Rudy and Violet went home to grieve in an empty house.

The second summer I worked there, Rudy and Violet again got called.  A young teen was expecting a little girl, but didn’t want it.  They visited the birth mother and endured numerous other evaluations of their home and their suitability for a child.  But even these hurdles seems tiny compared to their joy.

After birth, the mother transferred the papers to my friends.  To say they were ecstatic is too tame a word.  They instantly became the godly parents we had observed every summer as they worked with campers and counselors.  They were happier than I’ve ever seen them.

A couple of months into the following school year, I again got a call from Rudy.  He explained that Pennsylvania had a law allowing a birth mother a certain number of weeks/months to reconsider.  If she changes her mind during that period, it cancels the adoption.  Their baby had only been with them for four to six months, but the teen mother decided she wanted to try to raise her daughter.

Again, we were all in shock and aching for our friends.  After having a baby and creating a family home, Rudy and Violet now had to pack up their nursery things and pass back the daughter who had been “theirs” since her birth.

Many of us questioned God’s goodness and His justice.  Here was a young couple dedicating themselves to ministry, praying for a child, but investing themselves in other people’s children.  Rudy, on the other hand, tried to help all of US work through our grief for them.

During my third and last summer of camp work, Rudy shared that they had once again been contacted with the possibility of an adopted child.  This time they were still excited, but more reserved.  The extra exciting thing we learned was that this was going to be a little boy–the perfect match for a Christian School teacher who was also a die-hard sports coach and fan!

We prayed about it all summer, and then kept in touch often to make sure nothing had gone wrong.  Nothing did…and little Michael has now been a part of the family for almost 20 years!

But less than a year after Michael arrived, Rudy called with news of Violet.  During some testing the doctors had found a mass in her abdomen.  It turned out to be cancer with limited treatment options, given its progression.  I wept with Rudy on the phone and again prayed and wrestled with God.  It just seemed that this couple DESERVED better from the God, Who had already tested their faith in heart-broking ways.

Violet endured multiple treatments, surgeries, nutrition regimens, and medicines, but the cancer continued to grow.  All in all, Violet had about three years more with Rudy and Michael.

When I heard that she was close to finishing her race and had been moved to a facility that tries to make terminal patients as comfortable as possible during their last days (otherwise known as “palliative care,” I called Rudy to let him know they were constantly in our prayers.

Even as the phone on his end rang, I began sobbing.  Rudy picked up, we cried together, and I asked about Violet and Michael.

Rudy shared something on the phone that I will never forget.  He said that he and Michael had just been down to the little stream on the property, because Rudy felt he needed to help Michael prepare for Violet’s Homegoing as best he could.  After talking about Mommy going to live with God and being free from any more pain, Michael asked simply: “Are we going to be OK without her, Daddy?”  Rudy answered, “Yes,” but Michael immediately asked how his dad knew that so certainly.  Rudy said he started internal panic prayer for the right answer.  Then God gave it to him.

“Michael, I know we’re going to be OK because God loves us, and everything that touches us is filtered through Him, to make sure it’s good for us.”  A short paused punctuated the conversation; then Michael looked up at his dad, satisfied, and said: “You’re right; we’re going to be OK with a God like that.”

That thought has often come back to me in hardship and many times in my own illness.  I pray it’s a thought that will change your life, too–whether people have hurt you, illness stalks you, or you daily wake to face disablement, Go back and read the first two chapters of Job, Christian.  Read them well.  Note Satan’s destructive, malicious intent, and then note that Satan could have never touched Job’s family, wealth, position, and body, unless God allowed it and intended good for Job through it.

Remember this blessing of being a Christian: Nothing can touch our lives unless it has first come through God.

(In Memory of Violet Soane–a friend, a Godly example, a wonderful wife and mother, and an ongoing inspiration to trust God’s hand and timing.)

Weakness stinks.  Coming to grips with dependence on others has probably been the most difficult and continuous challenge of chronic illness for me.  For those who haven’t experienced such challenges, let me use this analogy: Imagine yourself as a Navy SEAL–buff, tough, and unstoppable.  Then something as mundane as a car crash severs a nerve in your spine and leaves you paralyzed from the neck down.  Once strong and in control, you now must rely on others for feeding, cleaning, transportation, and numerous other things you once took for granted.

By God’s grace, I haven’t had to deal with paralysis; but I have had to rely on others (usually my wife, family, and close friends) for transportation, care, and even income.  Going from health and independence to illness and reliance upon others was a huge blow to my pride and my assumptions about myself as a man/husband/father.  In many ways, that affect of my illness has been even harder to accept than illness itself.

And that is where Christmas has taken on a more profound meaning in my life.  Though I would never choose to have to rely on others, that is exactly what Jesus Christ, the Son of God, CHOSE to do in His love for sinners.  The One Who is eternally self-existent and all-powerful took on human weakness by choice, becoming dependent upon a human mother and adopted father for nourishment, protection, shelter, and everything else that comes with birth and childhood.  He came to know loss, the attacks of Satan, rejection, sorrows, separation from the Father and death–all by choice and all because our salvation required a fully and perfectly human Sacrifice as our Substitute.

When we stop at Christmas and ponder Jesus’ choice to become “God with us” and all that means, it should lift our hearts to Him in awe-struck worship and praise, eclipsing the temporary losses and challenges of this life and renewing our commitment to bear our crosses daily out of love for One Who chose to bear our hell on the Cross.  Nothing is too great to carry while following a Savior like that!