Like many of you, via the Internet, I’ve sat at the feet of R.C. Sproul Jr. over the past couple of years and learned so much from his honest, transparent, humble, and Christ-filled walk through death-shade valley as he lost his wife to cancer and then his beloved special needs child, Shannon. As far as I’m concerned, he’s shed the Jr. tag along the way.
And now, courtesy of Ligonier Connect, we have the opportunity to hear RC’s answers to huge questions such as “Why does God allow hardships into our lives? Can God really use our pain for His glory and our good?”
The course description says: “In this powerful course, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. seeks to comfort all Christians grappling with the sorrows of this fallen world as he shares poignant stories from his own life and presents important scriptural teachings about God’s role in human suffering.”
Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. will be moderating this special Ligonier Connect course. The class opens to students November 7, 2013 and ends March 13, 2014. The first lesson is due November 18. You may watch the lectures and complete the assignments any time of day. The due dates let you know when you must submit your questions for the Q&A session that will be recorded after each lesson due date. In this course, you’ll be able to:
Engage in discussion with classmates from around the world
Keep unlimited access to the course content
Watch lectures and complete assignments any time of day
Submit questions to be considered for a recorded Q&A session with R.C. Sproul Jr. that will be uploaded the Wednesday following each lesson due date
Attend a live class session at Ligonier Ministries National Conference for those who register
AND IT’S FREE!
This is an outstanding opportunity to learn from a dear brother who brings us lessons not just from books, but from the crucible of personal suffering.
Christians aren’t the only ones who believe that good can come out of suffering. Harvard Professor Dr. Shawn Achor argues that Post-Traumatic Growth is as much a possibility as Post-Traumatic Stress.
For example, after the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, “psychologists found many residents experienced positive psychological growth. So too do the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancers.” (The Happiness Advantage, 109).
What kinds of positive growth? Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in their social relationships. (110)
That’s why some psychologists even recommend that we fail early in life! In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar says, “The earlier we face difficulties and drawbacks, the better prepared we are to deal with the inevitable obstacles along our path.”
Story-telling Psychologists who have studied how people respond to trauma say that the key to profiting from pain is the story we tell ourselves when we are facing hard times. Optimistic story-tellers see difficulty as local and temporary (i.e. “it’s not so bad and it will get better”) whereas the pessimists see these events as more global and permanent (i.e., “It’s really bad, and it’s never going to change.”).
Their beliefs then directly affect their actions; the ones who believe the latter statement sink into helplessness and stop trying, while the ones who believe the former are spurred on to higher performance. (The Happiness Advantage, 123)
Optimistic story tellers, do better in high school, are less likely to drop out of college, perform better in sports, and even recover faster from heart surgery. Pulling together the research on this subject, Achor argues:
Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of a failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth. Conversely, if we conceive of a fall as the worst thing in the world, it becomes just that. (108)
Post Traumatic Growth One of the most remarkable illustrations of this is found in the growing body of research into post-traumatic growth (PTG) among military personnel. Until recently the focus and headlines have all been about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an emphasis that produces additional problems, as Dr. Martin Seligman explains:
If all a soldier knows about is PTSD, and not about resilience and growth, it creates a self-fulfilling downward spiral. Your buddy was killed yesterday in Afghanistan. Today you burst into tears, and you think, I’m falling apart; I’ve got PTSD; my life is ruined. These thoughts increase the symptoms of anxiety and depression—indeed, PTSD is a particularly nasty combination of anxiety and depression—which in turn increases the intensity of the symptoms. Merely knowing that bursting into tears is not a symptom of PTSD but a symptom of normal grief and mourning, usually followed by resilience, helps to put the brakes on the downward spiral. (Flourish, Kindle 2546)
Seligman refers here to an alternative route for potential PTSD sufferers. In his research he questioned 1700 people who had experienced one or more of “the fifteen worst things that can happen in a person’s life: torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment, and so on.”
To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three—raped, tortured, and held captive for example—were stronger than those who had two. (Flourish, 2578).
In another study “61.1 percent of imprisoned airmen tortured for years by the North Vietnamese said that they had benefited psychologically from their ordeal. What’s more, the more severe their treatment, the greater the post-traumatic growth.” Seligman goes on to caution:
This is not remotely to suggest that we celebrate trauma itself; rather we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth, and we must teach our soldiers about the conditions under which such growth is most likely to happen. (Flourish, 2601).
As Christians, we can celebrate these common grace experiences and insights. But in addition to seeing hard times as opportunities to grow in character, we also want to use these them to humble us, to sober us up, to make us examine our lives, to sanctify us, to make us appreciate Christ’s sufferings, to increase our evangelistic zeal, to drive us to the promises of God, and to make us long for the world to come. Above all, we get to know God more. We also have the huge help of the Holy Spirit in all this.
We agree that the key is the story we tell ourselves. But Christians don’t have to make up a story that may or may not be true, and that may or may not have a happy ending. They simply have to connect by faith with the already-written redemptive story of God. It’s the truest of all stories and has the happiest of all endings for all its characters. So, if unbelievers can get so much benefit out of suffering, how much more should believers!
All things for good? What about disease? What about bereavement? What about injustice? We must not deny nor downplay the agony of these experiences. We shouldn’t expect even the strongest of believers to just brush off these kinds of burdens as if they were feathers. Even Jesus wept over lost cities and dead friends.
If we take just physical suffering for example, there’s no question that it’s much easier to maintain strong faith when our bodies are fit, healthy, and functioning well. Indeed, one of the quickest ways to weaken faith is to abuse the bodies God has given us through overdoing work or underdoing sleep, exercise, and good food.
God has so made us that the body and soul are mysteriously tied together, dependent on one another, and to some degree each determining the health of the other. Many of the depressed people I’ve counseled have ended there through overwork, under-sleeping, and failing to exercise and eat well. A Christian psychologist friend of mine told me once that he always prescribes three pills as a vital part of his treatment plan for depressed patients: good food, good diet, and good sleep!
I know myself that when I’m not sleeping enough, or when I’m not getting daily exercise, that negative thought patterns quickly set in and I start spiraling downwards. My weary body drags down my mind and soul. But a few good nights’ sleep and regular exercise will usually turn me around again so that I can live with a more positive and God-glorifying faith.
But what if health is no longer an option? What if our body is sick, diseased, disabled, and even dying? That will happen to most of us eventually, even to those of us who have cared most for our bodies. God is able to work even the worst of suffering together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
He does this by helping us to find a redemptive perspective, which, Donald Miller explains, is really about creating two lists rather than one.
Normally when something hard happens we start a running mental list of all the negative consequences. And that’s fine and normal. Finding a redemptive perspective, however, is about creating a second list, a list of the benefits of a given tragedy. And there are always benefits.
The “Benefits” of Suffering
Why not go back through the yesterday’s list of “benefits” from the conviction of sin and calculate which of these fruits that suffering has produced in your life. Just like sin, suffering humbles us, sensitizes us, silences us, draws us, makes us dependent, increases carefulness, fans hatred for sin, motivates us to oppose the devil, drives us to the Bible and our knees, stimulates love for the Christ who suffered for us, provokes thankfulness for the good days and for the good God draws out of the bad days, makes us better comforters and encouragers, and above all, makes us long for heaven.
As the Apostle said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 1:18). But we don’t need to wait until heaven to see and enjoy the fruit of suffering. Though “no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
That’s a beautiful balance, isn’t it. The Apostles do not downplay sin or suffering; they feel both deeply and painfully. However neither do they view them apart from the sovereign power and wisdom of God who is able to make the most and the best of our least and our worst.
The suffering Apostle Paul put it this way: “As dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yetnot killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:9-10). Both sides together at the same time. Sorrowful and rejoicing. Mourning and being comforted.
This is what distinguishes faith from mere optimism and enables faith to trump optimism. We confront the brutal agony of our lives, our families, our churches, and our society. But, at the same time, we also keep steady faith in the Word of God, especially its sure promises of personal perseverance and the ultimate triumph of faith and of the Church of Christ. Optimism is not faith; but faith is optimistic.
He’s being called “the new Susan Boyle,” and you only have to watch the video to see why (two profanities edited out). The media are again making much of the “ugly duckling” angle, but there are two other lessons from this “parable.”
The power of partnership When you first see this so-called “Beauty and the Beast” pairing, you wonder how they ever got together…then you hear their moving story unfold. When Jonathan Antoine’s painful shyness and weight problems made him an obvious and easy target for bullies, Charlotte stuck up for him and protected him. Jonathan admitted: ”I would not be going on stage today without Charlotte at my side.”
“Do you think you can win?” asked a skeptical Simon Cowell as they stepped on stage.
“Yeah…together,” they replied in unison.
But when Cowell later suggested to Jonathan that he was unbelievably great, whereas Charlotte was just good; that Charlotte might be a drag on his certain future stardom; and even that he should “dump her” to get ahead, the audience held its breath.
Will he throw her under the bus? Will he take the gold and leave the gal?
“NO!’ he responded. We came on here as a duo and we’ll stay here as a duo.” And all the ladies wept (OK and not a few guys teared up too – this one included!).
There’s no question of Jonathan’s superior singing talent, but he knows that without her by his side he couldn’t sing a note on stage.
“Two are better than one,” said Solomon (Eccl. 4:9). True in Britain’s Got Talent. True in marriage. True in disciple-making.
The power of pain There’s something about suffering that gives a unique power to singing. You only have to look at Susan Boyle or Jonathan Antoine to know that they must have had a really tough time growing up in our cruel world.
And you can hear it in their singing. You can’t help but feel that, just as with Susan Boyle, Jonathan poured 17 years of agonizing suffering into those powerful three minutes on stage. It’s in his posture, it’s in his expression, it’s in his gestures, it’s especially in the deep pathos of his voice.
And we connect. We resonate. We empathize. 100 other singers, possibly even better singers, could sing the same song and it would do nothing for us. But there’s something mysterious, something indefinable, in the voice of a genuine sufferer that lasers our hearts and stirs our deepest emotions.
And it’s the same in preaching, counseling, and even witnessing. Suffering brings a unique, powerful dimension to all human communication. We can tell the difference between a preacher who’s just preaching the commentaries and one who’s preaching out of his own deep experience.
Suffering is not just the best singing school. It’s also the best Seminary.
I’m no poet, but I think this is a touching and moving poem. It was written by Kara Dedert, whose son, Calvin, was born with multiple disabilities while Kara and her husband Darryl were serving as missionaries in Cambodia. You can read her full story on her blog. This is how Kara introduces this poem:
Loss comes in different ways. I’ve been thinking about my friend’s mom with Parkinson’s, a girl recently separated from her husband and struggling to care for her disabled daughter, a father fighting cancer, a family whose children have been unjustly taken away. I think all of those situations, especially those that surprise us, leave us with these sentiments.
The cool thing about having a blog is you can write what you like. So here it is folks, the editor’s nightmare. And that’s okay. I have no idea if it’s poetry, an essay, or just freehand words. Whatever it is, it spilled out on paper and I wonder if you can relate to it too.
Loss sweeps you off your feet.
It comes, uninvited, with no apology.
It lifts you up, tips you upside-down
and shakes you til you’re empty
and it’s hard to find any piece of you left.
It broadsides you. You may be
looking up at the sun, reaching
for the next mercy that’s before you.
It hits you from behind and your feet,
they flail wildly unable to touch
the ground and find security, stability.
Survival makes them quiet. Makes
them set down beneath you and move
forward shakily on this new ground.
Your hearts stays behind but your feet
they move, driven by routine,
producing a stilted rhythm but
it’s in moving that your heart keeps
its beating and your life keeps on living.
They say time heals. Maybe it does.
But when I look back I still see
a deep, deep, hole. It has a sign
called LOSS at the edge. And a face
of a little boy there.
What face do you see?
But these feet shuffling forward
point my eyes to another spot. It is
a sign with GAIN written all over.
It also has the picture of
a little boy there.
In the folds of His providence
there are mercy treasures and
unexpected joys that my tired eyes
and slow heart never thought to see.
It continues beyond even what my
eyes can see.
So all these holes and
all these mercies exist, together.
The gains do not erase the loss.
And the loss opens our hearts to
gains we never imagined.
Jack Westerink has been a much-loved husband, father, elder, and Christian School Principal for many years. A few months ago, we were all shocked to hear that Jack had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease), a disease of the nerve cells in the brain that results in gradual muscle weakening and wasting. However, he and his dear wife Lena have continued to testify to the loving faithfulness of God as they navigate this shadowy valley. Here’s a sample of their most recent email update (posted with permission).
Just to keep you all updated on how the Lord has marvelously provided for us again last week.
I received a call from a school parent that an elder from her church had decided to donate a motorized wheelchair to me. He died six weeks ago from ALS. Before he died, he and his wife decided that because God had really blessed their business they would not sell any of his equipment but give it away to someone else who needed it. When they heard that I had ALS, they decided to give it to me.
Last week the widow, her grand-daughter and some friends came over with a truck and trailer.They delivered the electric wheelchair, a lazy boy lift chair as well as various other assistive devices, probably worth over $18,000.00! After talking with us over a cup of iced tea about their difficult journey, she said that she had other things at home that would be useful and that we could also have them if we were interested, all for free. She would bring them over on another day. At the end of the visit she gave us both a big hug, her best wishes, and said she was praying for us. We had never even met this woman before!
We were not looking forward to all the hassle and red tape of filling out forms [to apply for wheelchair, etc], but we had them all laying ready on our desk, when this woman phoned for the first time. I hadn’t prayed about these details yet, to my shame, and I was wondering how were we ever going to be able to purchase such an expensive wheelchair and all the other equipment I would need and here it was delivered to our doorstep and without even filling out one form!!
It brought to mind the scripture: “And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24)
Our covenant keeping God is so good, and true to His Word.