"...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." (from 2 Timothy 1:12)
Those words from 2 Timothy 1:12 are also the words of a beautiful folksy, and inspirational Christian chorus from several decades ago. I remember learning that chorus somewhere around 1975 at Evangelical Baptist Church in Sharon, Massachusetts (now called "Hope Church"). I'm so glad I learned that chorus because in learning it I also learned that Bible verse, and it's helped me to sing it to myself during some very difficult times of my life.
This year, 2017, is now half over, but since January first, I've attended more funerals and memorial services than I can ever remember attending during a six month period. I've also known a large number of good Christian people who have been going through extraordinarily sorrowful and painful times during 2017. I've been a "born again Christian" since 1970, and I spent about thirty years in "full-time Christian ministry". It's exhilarating to be a pastor during people's times of victory and success, but it can be draining, perplexing and confusing to try to pastor people during times of great pain and loss, and especially during sorrowful times that almost anyone would label as "very unfair".
Most pastors like to preach sermons about "Being an Overcomer" and "Pressing Onward to the Victory"- stuff like that. I know that for me it's very difficult to get motivated to prepare or preach a sermon about "Why Bad Things Happen to Good Christians".
It's even hard to write about it here. And, no kidding, I wrote this piece (from a set of very rough notes) this past Saturday only to have it literally disappear from the computer screen into cyberspace and no matter how much I tried, I couldn't retrieve it! When you're a Bible college student, and a recent Bible college graduate, typically you "have all the answers". I was no different. But very early in my ministry, I had an experience that really jolted me.
The year was 1981. I had only been on the staff of Christian Life Center church in Walpole, Massachusetts for a very short time. It was my day off, and I received a call that several people from the church were coming over to pick me up and we were then going to the home of a woman who'd just experienced a tragedy. I don't remember the woman's name. She had only been attending our church for maybe a Sunday or two. She was (what evangelicals typically label) a "brand new Christian" or a "baby Christian". She'd only received Jesus Christ as her Personal Lord and Savior maybe a handful of weeks earlier. Now, her brother had committed suicide. On that visit to her home were a very godly elderly man, a middle aged-woman, a young woman in my age group, and me. We tried and tried to say comforting words. We tried to console her. We tried to reassure her. Honestly, we didn't get anywhere. She told us she'd been praying for her brother during the days prior to his suicide. I will never forget her poignant and melancholic words: "My prayers weren't answered."
She said them flatly with no emotion or expression. She never came back to our church. I don't know if she continued on following the Lord or not.
In Bible college, I remember a film being shown one evening in the school's chapel about some missionaries to a third world country who were brutally murdered. In the latter part of the film, the widow of one of the murdered missionaries was interviewed. She also spoke words I will never forget. Several times in a row she just kept asking, "...pwhy? ...phwy ...pwhy ...pwhy?". I remember that later one of my fellow students did a "spot on" impersonation of her, dramatically saying, "...pwhy? ...pwhy? ...pwhy? ...pwhy?". We laughed. I laughed. I know. That's probably pretty sick and insensitive. But I think it's rather like why people "whistle in the dark while walking past a graveyard". (I really don't know why that widow said "pwhy" instead of "why". Perhaps that was just her regional accent.) The thoughts of what had happened to those missionaries were so troubling and disturbing, it was easier to just make a joke of it all.
A few days ago I had a conversation with a Christian woman I know about why some Christians go through so many difficulties. She was of the opinion that in general dreams don't come true and all Christians suffer a great deal. I disagreed and I still disagree. My own experience after many years in the Christian life and many years as a pastor is that the life experiences of all present-day American Christians could probably be graphed on a bell curve. There are probably about two-percent who experience amazingly easy, stress-free, fun-filled lives. There are also probably about two-percent who experience just about constant unspeakable hardship, loss, pain, grief, heartache, and devastating disappointment and suffering. The other ninety-six percent of the Christians fall somewhere in the middle of these two positions on the bell curve. Most experience about half of what happens in their lives as "good stuff" and about half as "bad stuff". Some lives lean more heavily toward the "bad" end and some lives lean more heavily toward the "good" end. As far as the reason one person's life falls at whatever place on the bell curve, I'm inclined to use the word, "...pwhy?". I know some of my fellow Christians will "take me to task" for what I've written here; some will argue that many Christians "just don't have enough faith" or "just don't know how to confess God's Word". I think that can be a piece of it, but I don't think we can just sum it all up that easily.
Please don't get me wrong. In my life, I've seen extraordinary answers to prayer, and I've truly seen miracles! There's an "old time" Pentecostal song that the late Pastor David Milley taught the church in Walpole which says, "The windows of heaven are open! The blessings are falling tonight!" And, yes, I've seen and experienced that! The Christian film, War Room, which was released two summers ago challenged and exhorted today's church about the miracles we could see and experience if we'd only pray and believe. And I love that movie and I believe in that! I do! But, my own life has seen its ecstatic times and its times of absolute despair.
There are things I experienced over the past decade, and especially during the years 2008 through 2012 that were so dark and painful I just don't even think it would be proper to write in great detail about them. I do remember the day I spoke to my daughter on the phone, broke down, and asked, "Is God mad at me?" I thought He was. And worse. Yes, it was a very, very dark and bad time. How I thank God for two brothers in Christ who "walked with me" during those dark years. They prayed with me. They prayed over me. They prayed for me. They listened to me. They counselled me. They loved me like Jesus said to love people. I very likely would have totally fallen away from God were it not for these two men. (I know some reading this may be thinking, "But I prayed for you, too!" Yes, of course you did, and I am thankful for all who prayed for me during those days, and sent me cards, etc.) In so many ways, I wish I did not go through those very dark and difficult years. Yet, even though I'm not pastoring today, I will say there's a compassion and a love and a wisdom in my heart today that I absolutely did not have when I was pastoring. It came from walking through that pain and loss!
The Rev. Jim Spence is a very good friend of mine. He spent a long time as a prison chaplain. There's something he said to me many years ago that I never forgot. He said that when some supposedly great or famous Christian is coming to the area to speak, he always asks, "Has this person suffered?" If the answer is "yes" he will attend. But if the answer is "no" he will not attend because, "a Christian who hasn't suffered really has nothing to say to me". I think Jim makes a good point, here.
Do you remember "The Parable of the Sower"? It's found in Matthew chapter thirteen. Remember the seed that was planted in stony ground? Jesus said it represented the Christians who started out really well, but when problems and difficulties came along, they fell away. I've learned a lot over the past decade. In my darkest times, I read my Bible almost every day, even when reading it was like reading the phone book and I felt like I was getting nothing out of it. I read it anyway. I prayed almost every day, usually for at least a half hour- even when it felt like my prayers didn't even reach the ceiling and God seemed a million miles away. I did it anyway. I went to Sunday morning services, even when I didn't feel like going, and especially in the first years after the church I'd pastored closed, I didn't feel like going, but I went anyway. And, at church, I didn't feel like singing and praising God; at times I felt phony doing it, but I did it anyway. You may not understand this, but ultimately practicing those Christian disciplines helped me. I came very close- too close, mind you, to walking away from God, but I didn't!
Thank God- today I still have a lot of problems and challenges, but I'm not in that darkness any more. It's a lot better!
I don't have all the answers. There are so many things I wish I could change and there are so many things I wish I could fix. But what does it all come down to?
It comes down to one of two positions.
It's either: "...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."
Or, it's: "...pwhy?".
Where are you at today? Is this a painful and dark time? What will you choose to believe?
(Note: During my own dark time, I wanted to totally isolate myself. That's actually the worst thing you can do. You are welcome to contact me. If I'm personally not able to help you, I can put you in touch with fine Christians who can. And, I can pray for you.)