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,


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.


*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.)

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)