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).

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!

Please forgive me if this post is personal.  It’s something going on in my heart right now, something that I have shared with college-aged friends before, and something I’ll undoubtedly need to use (for myself and others) again in the future.

As some of you know, God has put me in a desert period for the time being–for the last four years, in fact.  One October day in 2010 I woke with vertigo so bad I couldn’t get out of bed and couldn’t hold down more than one meal a day.  Over three years God led me to the help of various Christian doctors–beginning with our family doctor, Dr. Saito, and reaching as far as Christian specialists at Jacksonville Hearing and Balance Institute in Jacksonville, FL, and in the neurology and pain center at Cleveland Clinic in OH.

Through the help of those gifted Christians, my symptoms decreased in frequency and severity, but it has never pleased the Lord to bring things enough under control that I can do adequately and consistently enough what I believe the Lord called me to when I was about 6.  God’s goodness, shown directly to my family and me, and His goodness demonstrated to us abundantly and repeatedly through co-laborers and others in Jesus’ Body, has been astounding.

However, I have to admit that my faith grows repeatedly weak, emotions are always near the surface, and there are many days I cry out to God for release or relief.  Sometimes the “shadows” of this “valley experience” of the Christian walk seem too great to face one more day, and other times the Accuser shouts that God has somehow forgotten us and that friends and mentors have abandoned us (cf. Psalm 38-40, where the Psalmist felt almost identical, particularly Ps. 38:11), leaving our already-pained hearts and nearly broken spirits gasping and grasping for relief.

And all of those emotions are lies.  Sure, even David felt that way, but each time, God lifted David’s eyes heavenward and Truth-ward.  So I’ve done a lot of reading by Christian authors who’ve hurt.  I’ve got two books running now, and it helps to be reminded again and again that: a.) suffering is part of God’s plan for helping us die to ourselves and become even more fruitful; and b.) Jesus suffered first–unimaginably beyond anything we will ever be asked to bear–and He did it for the joy before Him–to exhaust God’s wrath against our sins, to demonstrate both God’s love and His justice, and to bring sinners like us to Christ for salvation.  That’s truth.

One of the Christian books that has helped prevent me from crumbling into self-pity over my own narrative of pain is “Off-Script,” by Cary Schmidt, a pastor who received a cancer diagnosis and was immediately thrust into the same kind of pain, doubts, and fear that almost every sufferer faces.  One thing that stood out in his book was his encouragement to write a prayer of thanks to God–focusing on what’s true, and leaving what’s uncertain up to God’s goodness and control.  So back in January, when my symptoms kept me holed up in a New York City hotel room for multiple days, I wrote a prayer.

God burdened me to share this prayer today, because it (combined with the ministry of the Word of God today), has helped plant my feet for another “round” of trusting God against the battery of pain, uncertainty, and the lies of my emotions.  Though God burdened me to share it, I’m burdened that in sharing some could see it as spiritual bragging–making myself out to be more godly than I am.  Exactly the opposite is true.  Sharing this is humbling, because it simply unveils my feebleness and carnality amidst “suffering” that Paul calls “light”–suffering that will one day be swallowed up and forgotten by the glory to be revealed to God’s children.

This is directed to our gracious, good, and sovereign Heavenly Father:

“I thank You for this illness, for its duration, and for the grace you gave in realizing that my resignation was the right thing for BJU and for us.  It hurts more than I can say, and the way ahead is dark; but if You’ll hold my hand, I promise to walk forward with You.

“Please help me steward this trial for my family and then for others around us.  Remove self from any of it.  Help me merely be Your servant seeking to take what You have entrusted to me and invest it for Your glory and gain.

“Please help me guard my emotions with Your Truth.  Please do whatever You know to be needed in my heart.  ‘Lord, I believe…help Thou my unbelief!’  And please draw our family closer to You and closer to each other as we walk each step with You and see You one day open a path before us.

“And in all, may Jesus Christ be praised and may Your Name be hallowed in and through our lives.

“I love You, my God and my Redeemer.”

Stephen (Jan. 12, 2014)

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who  comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Teddy Roosevelt

from http://www.goodreads.com

At some point in one’s growth–particularly for those who have been saved for a while–one comes to a massive decision point: Do I (Can I) trust God with my life?

At this point, you may look around you at Christian parents in ministry, a faithful pastor and his family who barely seem to make it by, or other Christians you know who are either suffering or are perhaps serving in near obscurity.  Pride and our natural instinct for self protection (and self-promotion) rise up and scream, “I want more than that!  I want better than that!”

We may cloak our resistance in spiritual terms–such as wanting to earn as much as possible to be able to support Christian works around the globe, or some such defense, and I’m not minimizing the need for Christians who actually DO that, rather than getting sucked into the materialism that seems to intensify with success.  There are people God has entrusted with material wealth and who are faithfully living on a little while distributing a lot.  But the point is, it was God‘s choice to give such a person success–not their own grasping or self-advancement.  Undoubtedly it took initiative and hard work on their part, but what I’m getting at is that at some point they also had to decide, “Will I trust God with the outcome?”

And no matter our upbringing or position, when we reach that point of decision–“Will I hold on to my rights to orchestrate my own life, or can I trust God?”–it comes down what we believe about God.  Does He know best and want what’s best, or do I?  Or you might better phrase it, “Does He love me sufficiently to trust Him, or am I better off loving and pleasing myself?”

When I came to that point as a college student (and it’s a point you may have to re-visit at difficult times throughout life), a friend shared two verses with me.  The first is Psalm 84:11, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” [emphasis mine].

The second verse is from a familiar passage in Romans 8, where we usually stop with the wonderful truth of verse 28.  But I’d urge you to continue in that passage (which goes on to explain that the ultimate “good” to which God is working everything that touches our lives is our Christ-likeness), to verse 32.  That verse asks a question that has only one answer.  The verse reads: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He [the Father] not with Him [Jesus] also freely give us all things?”  The answer is, “he won’t.”  God has proven He loves us better than we could ever love ourselves by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves–saving us at the cost of His Son!

God’s value system isn’t material or perishable–it’s eternal and ultimate.  Though trusting God may not lead to a life with three houses and two BMW’s, it will lead to a life where EVERYTHING that touches us is truly best for us.  It may lead through pain or times when the bank account runs low–or it may not.  But the point is, we can trust His love in every circumstance.  We can trust His leading.  We can trust His work in our lives.  He alone will always do what is only for our ultimate best.  And trusting Him with every aspect of our lives will never lead to regret…in this life, or the next!

Two days ago, a kind friend reminded me of a truth I used to share often with my classes or in conversations with struggling friends.  This truth gave encouragement I needed, and it seemed timely to share.

As a Christian growing daily in your walk with the Lord, it may begin to seem like you’ll “arrive” at some point–that the pressures and challenges the Lord uses to chip away imperfections will cease and all will be smooth sailing. Ultimately, of course, that is what God will do through the Gospel, when believers leave this sinful flesh behind. But until then, the opposite is true. Contrary to those who teach a health-and-wealth message, Christians can EXPECT pain in this life.

John 15 is the beautiful passage about our dependence on Jesus as the Vine. The opening verses make it clear that Christ (and the Heavenly Father as the Vine-dresser) desires fruitfulness from our lives. He desires to see increasing evidence of godliness in our thinking, dispositions, and actions.

Verse 2 is the pointed truth we easliy overlook. There WILL be some pain in every Christian’s life. Jesus gives two scenarios. The first is the truly saved individual who does not go on to grow and live consistently with his/her identity as God’s child. After patiently waiting for fruit and giving that believer every opportunity for growth (Luke 13:7-9), God may cut away the unfruitful branch, taking the consistently unrepentant Christian to heaven prematurely (see also I Cor. 11:30, where “sleep” means “death”).

The second scenario is for the growing fruitful Christian.  What can he or she expect?  Well, John 15:2 makes it clear they can expect some discomforts, too. God’s goal for us is that the Gospel fully accomplish its purpose in our lives, transforming us into obedient followers, whose lives are characterized by abundant fruit. That’s beautiful–and it’s an outcome that every devoted Christian would earnestly desire…that God find our lives supernaturally overflowing with fruit!

But how will God accomplish that in us? By pruning. By cutting away fruitful stems at the end of the season so that the next season they will grow back to be even more fruitful.

Abundant fruitfulness is what God wants to see in each of His children, and I pray that you desire to be abundantly fruitful from the very core of your being as a Christian. If so, keep in mind that the route to that abundance lies through a divinely wise and loving work of tenderly shearing areas of our lives (obedient, godly areas, even) to make way for an even greater harvest.

Pruning involves a severing of some kind (often bringing disappointments, hurts, loneliness, illness, or many other possibilities in the spiritual, emotional, or physical realms of our lives), and it makes us wince.  But don’t focus there. The cutting is just the process–not the end. In fact, it’s just the temporary route to a joyous outcome that will be far better than anything we could have hoped for.

As a Christian, anticipate discomforts in this life. And knowing they’re overseen by an infinitely wise and loving God, rest in Him. Take your pain to him, then wait patiently and trustingly for the life he’ll bring out of the “death” of that stem.

God has told us how He works and what He intends, so let’s not resist His work in us.  And because we know the great heart behind the work, we can be confident that the result will be worth it all–and then some!