Kress Christian Publications
In the chill of a predawn Monday morning, I walked down into our unfinished basement where I had a small office. As pastor of a church in Maryland, my responsibility was to write the monthly church newsletter, something I very much enjoyed doing. I needed to write to the church, and I needed to write to myself. It had been a life-changing week.
Berwyn Baptist Church Newsletter
March 29, 1993
"Place them both in my hands."
"But I don't want to."
Joe Hammond had just given me a piece of peppermint taffy, a ritual he had performed after every church service for as long I can remember. Ben, almost three years old, watched him as he gave it to me, as did my daughter Lauren. Being a father of two I knew the predicament of having one piece of candy that could not be shared. Doris Stough saw this too and graciously added another piece of peppermint candy she had in her purse. My children and I then headed back to my office. Placing my Bible and the candy on the desk in the foyer, I proceeded to deal with some office details in another room. When I came back to the foyer, Lauren had taken both pieces of candy.
"Place them both in my hands," I told her.
"But I don't want to, Daddy," she replied.
"Lauren, those are my two pieces of candy. They are not yours until I give them to you. I may give you one or both, or I may not, but they are mine to give or mine to keep."
"Place them both in my hands."
Lauren reluctantly placed both pieces of candy into my hand. I think she was expecting since she had given them to me, I would automatically give them back to her. In this case, I closed my hand over the candy and told her we would talk about this on the way home. As parents, Betsy and I do not want our children to take what has not been given them or to be presumptuous. We want gifts to be pleasant surprises and not perceived as some guaranteed right of their existence. We want our children to learn a gift is, well, a gift--something to be appreciated and never taken for granted. We also want them to learn the necessity of waiting; not everything that we want works out in the way we desire or even as quickly as we would like.
This vignette happened last Wednesday night, March 24, after our Wednesday night service. Little did I realize what I was trying to teach our children would in just a few hours be thrust on Betsy and myself as our heavenly Father would call for the same obedience from us. Having informed those at the Wednesday service of the serious problems in Betsy's pregnancy, problems discovered only on the previous day, and having been comforted by the love and support of these cherished friends, we moved in a dazed stupor as Betsy unexpectedly went into labor later that very night. As we rushed to the hospital about midnight, we knew the situation was quite grim for the identical twin girls she was carrying. As Lauren's earlier, my response was quite reluctant. Even at the hospital when we first received the news the babies yet to be born would not live, I still expected down deep inside if I gave the twins to God, then He would give them back to me. Until the nurses gently wrapped the first lifeless baby into blankets and carried her away from us, and then repeated the process with the second baby, I somehow believed there was still an outside hope for them. Only after the nurse walked down the hall with our second baby and turned the corner forever out of our sight this side of heaven, did I fully realize this was one of those times when God had closed His hand over what had been placed into it.
Actually, Betsy and I had not yet placed our twins in God's hands. It was something God did. We had no choice but to accept what He in His sovereign wisdom had chosen to do. Our part in placing the twins into His hands occurred for us after the fact when we acknowledged God is God, and God is good. If God saw best for the twins to be in their eternal home with Him, then we could--and actively would--entrust their keeping to their ultimate Father. This is the cornerstone of our hope and confidence in Christ Jesus.
Hours earlier I had instructed Lauren how deeply we loved her, and how we desired the best for her. I told her whether or not I gave her the candy she wanted was no indication of our love for her. These words were said probably more for my own benefit than for that of a four-year-old. Once more the Lord brought my own teaching back to me. God's love for His children is not only stated in Scripture but also ultimately demonstrated in the sacrificial death of His own Son, Jesus. Even more so, God knows firsthand what it was like to stand by and watch the death of His own child--and He could have intervened and stopped it at any moment. God has exhibited His love for us in not only making us His children, but in infinitely countless ways every day of our existence. His love for us--and for the twins--is not contingent on whether we bring the little girls into our home, or God brings them into His.
"Place them both into My hands."
"We have, Lord, and thank You for taking such good care of them."
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus, we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, comfort one another with these words. --
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
May the Lord bless you all. We are greatly blessed and comforted by you.
Your brother in the Lord,
There. It was finished. Having a child or children die is something unnatural. I do not have anything with which I can compare it. I have found although you can enjoy life again, you never completely get over it. Part of your deepest heart will always contain a hole. I marvel how it is possible for someone to endure a child's death without leaning on the love of Jesus. People do it every day, but for the life of me I cannot bring myself to perceive how they do.
Nobody knows what to say when someone's child dies, and nobody knows what to say especially to the pastor when he is among the grieving. I wrote to the church to try to give the death of the twins the proper perspective, and as I mentioned, I wrote for myself as much as I did for them. I meant what I wrote then, and I stand by it today. Nothing has changed.
I had stepped into the ever-expanding society of mourners and sufferers. I had rarely been there before and never on this level. It is not a realm you enter voluntarily. Still in the midst of my overwhelming grief the underlying support and love of God were evident in a manner I never knew existed. Although the death of the twins was the greatest sorrow I had ever experienced, I could not break through the quarry rock of God's support of me. I existed in a composite of grief and grace, mourning and peace, heartache and hope--and I have never felt so infinitely loved by God as I did during this time.
I had weathered my trial, or stated more accurately, God had sustained me through it. I expected to continue with both life and ministry. A few months later I left the church in Maryland and moved my family to North Carolina. My brother had built us a house, mostly because the twins would have made us a family of six. We signed the contract for the house on a Monday; the twins died three days later on Thursday. We could not explain the timing, but we knew it was no practical joke with God. While pastoring the church I was also a professor at Washington Bible College. After the twins died I still taught at the college, commuting from North Carolina on Tuesday nights and returning home in time for supper on Friday.
An additional chapter was added almost two years later when I encountered sorrow's twin sister, suffering. Having just completed a two-week summer school session at the college, I returned home for the start of summer break bursting with plans and activities. My plans soon changed. I awoke the first morning I was home and literally fell on my face. Only with much effort could I walk at all. I had been involved in athletics all my life and figured maybe I had a small stress fracture from my run of the previous day. A red dot about the size of a large pea was the only symptom, appearing on the base of my right foot's big toe. My condition, however, rapidly worsened. Soon, my entire right foot massively swelled and had turned to a sickening blue-black hue. I spent almost a week in the hospital as multiple doctors performed countless tests and procedures attempting to identify what was so viciously attacking me. In the meantime, the mysterious assailant spread throughout my body: both feet, both ankles, my right knee, hips, my left wrist, some of my fingers, and even my jawbone. Massive swelling and excruciating pain intensified as the unknown marauder invaded each new body part. After a long process of elimination, the doctors determined I had rheumatoid arthritis, and had it quite severely. It would be more accurate to say not so much that I had rheumatoid arthritis, but rather "it had me."
I became virtually crippled for three months and on disability for seven. I eventually progressed to walking with a cane. Only after about a year could I attempt to wear shoes without getting nauseated. During the initial stages of arthritis, I learned a new definition of the depths of physical pain as my condition continually worsened for a while after I left the hospital. The arthritis became so bad that I could not lie in bed; my only "comfortable" position was in a recliner we had downstairs. Surprisingly the pain was not on a constant level, but would instead peak and recede. For some reason my most severe pain began about four o'clock in the morning. Throbbing would begin, intensify into frenzy, and then gradually level off about four hours later. During the throbbing, the sensation was similar to having my bones broken about every fifteen seconds, being so engulfed in pain I could not isolate what hurt--I hurt.
Sometimes the prescription painkillers deadened the pain; sometimes they did not. I would break out into a full-body sweat, pass in and out of consciousness, not knowing whether I had previously passed out, and if so, for how long. I would grovel in the chair or on the floor, thankful my children were asleep upstairs and did not have to see me in this condition. They were six and five at the time. They knew Daddy was sick, but they were oblivious to the severity of the disease. After the throbbing ceased I spent the remainder of the day trying to walk on feet that felt as though each had several broken bones in them. At the early stages it took four to five hours to "loosen up." Night would soon come, and the warfare would begin all over again. This was my normal routine for months.
I began to wonder if I would ever walk or even stand up straight again. Yet, as strange as it seems, and at the time of this writing the arthritis has improved tremendously, I never was really all that much concerned about it. As with the death of the twins, I felt the reassuring peace and presence of the Lord. I knew He was fully aware of both me and my illness. I also knew my arthritis was abnormally severe in its onset, so I figured it must somehow be part of God's plan for my life. What I really wanted to do was preach again. I missed the treasure hunt of digging deeply into God's Word on a weekly basis, and the unspeakable joy of watching God use it first in my life and then in the lives of others. Not that one can bargain with God, but I told God if I had my choice whether to preach again or walk normally again, I would choose to preach. In simplest terms, I would rather preach while having arthritis than to walk normally and not preach. I do not write this as a bragging statement; it was merely the desire of my heart, and I believe God placed the desire there.
So I had a dose of both suffering and sorrow, but in my heart knew we had honored God. I fully expected Him to assign me my next ministry task. Since God had wonderfully blessed the previous ones I had been a part of, and since we had been tried by fire, I expected a substantially more extensive ministry.
Instead, exactly the opposite occurred. Far from having suffering and trials ending, they intensified as I unexpectedly stepped into the wilderness. The wilderness is a domain that I did not know existed. I was, however, learning. My first step in the learning process came when I listened to a Michael Card song entitled "In the Wilderness". His song perfectly expressed where I was. Before that I viewed the wilderness as a place in the Bible such as where Satan tempted Jesus. I also know now from additional studies that "In the Wilderness" is what many Hebrew scholars called the Book of Numbers, based on the fourth word of the Hebrew Bible. "In the Wilderness" is much more expressive a description than the rather bland designation of Numbers. I understand much more about the wilderness now than I did.
The wilderness is not a place as much as it is a condition. Nonetheless, it is quite real. Often we will seek to be with God away from the distractions and problems of our everyday life. We call this a retreat, or to some, communion with God. What makes the wilderness the wilderness is the appearance of the lack of God's presence. It is that baffling condition of going from spiritual light into spiritual darkness, and often you do not realize you are there until you are in its midst. I had been in a teaching and pastoring ministry for over ten years, and I know that nothing--nothing-- can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. While I understand and acknowledge that I am a sinner saved by grace and have many areas of my Christian life that fall short of God's desire, still I was actively seeking God and His work in my life. I was not a Jonah--I was a Paul.
Yet, this juncture was unlike any I had previously encountered. For almost eight months it was though for some unknown reason to me, God did not desire fellowship with me any longer. I felt as though a close friend were mad at me and marked me off his list of close associates, without letting me know why, or what I had done to cause this. The wilderness is extremely painful, and it is extremely lonely. You do not have to be in a prison, in isolation, or under persecution. Family and friends can surround you in the comfort of your own home, and you still remain in the wilderness. In some ways, this was more painful than the death of the twins or the ravages of arthritis. I was more confused than I had been at any time since I began following Christ. I could not explain to others what I was experiencing because I could not adequately explain it to myself. I had reached an insurmountable wall. I had nowhere to go, and no way out, completely devoid of any direction or light. And by all means the hardest part of all--no apparent fellowship with God.
My prayer life changed considerably during this wilderness segment, being marked repeatedly by tears and anguish. Often I would speak intensely to the Lord--and for hours. In trying to explain to others what it was like, the best example I could think of was the Apostle Paul. In Colossians 2:1 Paul wrote of how great a "struggle" he had for those at Colossae and Laodicea. He used the Greek word agon, which is where we get our word "agony." What Paul referred to was his agonizing prayer for those at Laodicea. This one verse offers a glimpse into just how arduous true prayer can be. When was the last time you would describe your own prayer life as agonizing? If you want to be humbled further, when was the last time you would use the word "agony" to characterize your prayer life on behalf of others? If you want to feel totally unworthy, when was the last time you would describe your prayer life as agonizing on behalf of others whom you do not know? Paul had never met the Colossians or Laodiceans, yet he was consumed by agonizing prayer on their behalf.
To top it off, Paul ministered his agonizing prayer while he himself was imprisoned in Rome. I have not consistently arrived at the last two levels of sacrificial prayer yet, but prayer for me became agonizing--and prolonged. I do not know what it was like for Jacob to wrestle with God, and there was no accompanying physical manifestation, but wrestling with God was what I perceived was occurring. Instead of God being the Paraclete or Helper, He seemed like the opponent. Instead of assisting and uplifting, He held me down and held me away--and I did not like or appreciate it at all.
Part of the pain during this time came from what others unwittingly said to me, but I knew God knew. As mentioned, my brother built us a wonderful house, partly with the twins in mind. Friends would compliment us on our house and comment on how blessed we were by God. Deep inside I boiled in turmoil. I didn't want the house--I wanted the twins. People who saw me crippled would see me months later walking or even running again and would praise God before me for His wonderful faithfulness to me in restoring my health. Again the dull ache of sadness permeated throughout me. I didn't want to walk; I wanted to preach--and I knew God knew. Similar to my arthritis scenario, this became my normal routine for months. I would pray for one thing, and God would give me exactly the opposite. God sustained us and met our physical needs, but not the secret desires and passions of the heart.
Ministry opportunities vanished before my eyes. Students I had taught years before would excitedly call or write to inform me of their first pastorate, mission placement, or teaching ministry. They would inform me how great things were going, and then would thank me for making such a profound contribution in their lives. Although their situation delighted me, and it warmed me to have played some part in their spiritual growth, I failed to see why God no longer used me. It was not that I was better than they were; it was that God had used me before, but now He chose not to. I felt as though He had forgotten all about me. While former students actively worked in their new ministries, I sat on the sidelines and watched available positions for which I had applied turn me down. Frequently the human references I had were of such a magnitude it would be most unlikely I would not receive the invitation to minister there. Despite this, each ministry possibility would evaporate before me. I would return to agonizing prayer in the depth of the pit, wondering why God would not have mercy on me and rescue me from my despair.
Although I do not blame them for this, one of the hardest things to endure during the wilderness was attending different churches, especially those who deem themselves a "seeker sensitive church." "Praise songs"-- which are misnamed because most of them are songs about us and what we intend to do for God ("We proclaim that the kingdom is here" . . . "I will go with Jesus" . . . "I will stand up for Him") instead of songs about who God is in essence and what He has done for us--were most difficult to endure. I would watch as the congregation enthusiastically sang about the Christian experience and how they would gladly take up their cross and follow Jesus. No sacrifice was too great--their victory assured--and how they would joyfully bask in the radiance of God's presence each day of their lives. I would be thinking, "You don't know what you're singing. You just don't know." I would hear messages admonishing people to accept Jesus. "He will give you His unspeakable joy. You will continually feel His love and His presence. You'll never feel alone again. Jesus will lead you and give you a sense of direction you currently lack. Life will have meaning and fullness and joy in it--all you have to do is give your life to Jesus and walk with Him." And I would be ripped on the inside. It was not what they said was wrong, it was only incomplete. I was walking with Jesus, but the elements of which they spoke were absent from my life--and I did not understand why. I thought how much better it would be to become a baby Christian all over again just to experience afresh God's grace and presence, but I did not understand why He would care less for those who had walked with Him for years.
I would return again and again to the lonely isolation of prayer. Repeatedly my prayer would be, "I do not understand. I do not understand. " One of my greatest heartaches was as a father I have a deep and joyous relationship with my children. I also know Scripture teaches that God is our loving, heavenly Father as well. Yet, here was one of His children repeatedly calling out to Him in despair--but God would not answer. I told God, "Lord, I know you are a better Father than I am. Everything I do as a father, You are my role model: love, support, security, discipline, protection, and encouragement--I learned them all from You. But I do not have a parallel for what You are doing now. I cannot think of any situation where I would hold my children at arm's length and not want to be with them when they sought me. I will not curse you, and I will not deny You are my Lord and my God, but I do not like what You are doing. I would not treat my children the way You are treating me. I do not understand. I do not understand."
At the height of this intense struggle the college where I used to teach invited me to speak in chapel. Even the week before I was scheduled to preach I still had not the remotest idea what the message would be. Somehow 1 Peter 5:10 came to mind as a possibility: "After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you." Only a few weeks before, my family and I had survived a hurricane that did massive damage to our county and state. I knew the four words Peter used to describe what God would do were words of rebuilding and remaking, in some cases making something right after extreme devastation. I asked, "Lord, what can I tell these people? I believe You and Your Word, and know this is true, but I cannot speak experientially of this passage in my own life yet." It greatly bothered me because for the first time I was about to preach something I was not totally convinced would transpire-- and I felt sickeningly hypocritical.
So battered, bruised, weary, and despondent, I hunkered down in God's Word. I did not set out to prepare a sermon or to write a book; I set out to find answers from God and His Word, trying to make some semblance of sense out of the last three-and-a-half years of my walk with Him. As with virtually everything from God, what I found was vastly beyond what I had expected or imagined. He more than answered my questions--He answered my heart. Then He patiently and lovingly bound up that which was hurting, as we would expect the Good Shepherd to do. What follows are some of the lessons He taught me from this, some of which I was most reluctant and slow to learn. They are not necessarily for everyone, but rather are intended for those who are presently struggling with suffering in some area in their life, especially the painful perplexity of why God would allow them to experience such depths of misery, when we know He could remedy it whenever He wanted. Hopefully, it will offer new insight into the graciousness of God as He lovingly uses suffering to draw us nearer to Him and to conform us closer to the image of Christ. At its heart, the lessons re-teach us the simple truth that God is God--and God is in control. We can never walk with God long enough to out-walk this essential doctrine; He will not permit us. If this book helps you or someone you know through their dark times of suffering, or even the darker times in the wilderness, then it will have been wonderfully worthwhile. I invite you to bring your heart and bring your hurt. But you need not bring your cup--God has one waiting for you.