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).

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.

When working with teens and college-aged students, two things become immediately clear: 1.) They can smell hypocrisy a mile away; 2.) They resonate with and respond to transparency from the generations before them.

While some older Christians wring their hands over these characteristics in young adults, I believe we actually should view it as a tremendous opportunity. We’re ministering to a generation that is a.) highly relational, and, b.) highly responsive to truth spoken and demonstrated to them.  What a perfect time to touch young lives!

Transparency should be a natural thing between older and younger believers. After all, it is the wisest man in the world who equates an “honest answer” with a kiss of true friendship (Prov. 24:26).  Additionally, Asaph the psalmist reminds Israel that God commanded each generation to tell the next about God’s works and commandments, in order that each generation might make its own choice to place their trust in God (Psalm 78:5-8).

That passage in Psalms makes it clear that the young generation HAD to know these things if they were to avoid the failures of/in the previous generation–failures of stubbornness, rebellion, inconstancy, and unfaithfulness.  And Paul makes it clear that the Body of Christ should be characterized by people who have left falsehood behind and now speak only truth to each other (Ephesians 4:25).

There are many pastors, parents, and others in the elder generations who understand and practice this with their own children and the young people entrusted to their charge.  But there are others who risk the next generation’s faithfulness by holding to a more stoic and distant approach that was modeled to them by generations that spoke right things, but didn’t often speak of personal struggles and growth.

To continue that approach is appealing.  After all, admitting we still struggle in our walk–inconsistency in time with God, wicked thoughts, pride, covetousness, the pressure to conform to this world, and all sorts of fleshly desires–is painfully humbling. Focus instead, however, on the fact that you would be sharing those words with younger believers who struggle daily with the same things–and often feel hopeless and failing in their desire for growth.  Sharing warnings and lessons from our own lives demonstrates that we’re after the bigger picture–commitment to and love for God in theirs.

We can also share with them that growth is possible; that God supplies grace and maturation over time (Philippians 1:9-11); that the struggles weaken when we’re walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-24); that God has given us His Word, His Spirit, and everything we need for life and righteousness (2 Peter 1:3); that God’s love is steadfast–independent of our performance, yet strengthening us to live in a manner suiting the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27); and that God’s forgiveness is faithful and just, no matter how many times we have to return to Him in confession of the same sins (I John 1:9)!

These are things that help put flesh and bones on the “pilgrim’s progress,” and they give encouragement that younger Christians aren’t alone in their struggles or their walk.  Christ has blazed a trail and left a testimony.  Older generations have followed Him obediently, though imperfectly.  And this generation can follow Christ even more faithfully, aided by the honesty and transparency of those who have already lived and learned these lessons–by God’s grace and to His glory!

Stephen

P.S. This is part one of a two-part entry.  Obviously, this post is largely addressed to those 40 and above.  The next will be an appeal to younger believers to live as citizens of heaven.