From the book
WHEN GOD DOESN’T MAKE SENSE #2
THE BETRAYAL BARRIER
I heard a story many years ago about a man who was driving his truck on a narrow mountain road. To his right was a cliff that dropped precipitously nearly 500 feet to a canyon below. As the driver rounded a curve, he suddenly lost control of the vehicle. It plunged over the side and bounced down the mountain, bursting into flames at the bottom. Although the terrified man was ejected as his truck went over the edge, he managed to grab a bush that grew near the top. There he was, frantically holding the small limb and dangling precariously over the abyss. After trying to pull himself up for several minutes, he called out in desperation, "Is anybody there?"
In a few seconds, the thundering voice of the Lord echoed across the mountain. "Yes, I am here," He said. "What do you want?"
The man pleaded, "Please save me! I can't hold on much longer!"
After another agonizing pause, the voice said, "All right. I will save you. But first you must turn loose of the limb and trust Me to catch you. Just release your grip now. My hands will be under you."
The dangling man looked over his shoulder at the burning truck in the valley below, and then he called out, "Is anybody else there.”
Have you ever found yourself in a similar fix? Have you ever pleaded for God's help in a distressful situation and had Him ask you to trust Him with your life? Have you ever weighed His reply and then wanted to ask, "Is anybody else there?" As we have indicated, that is not an uncommon experience in this Christian walk. We think we know what we need in a moment of crisis, but God often has other ideas.
After years of consistent answers to prayers, the Lord may choose not to grant a request we think is vitally important. In a matter of moments, the world can fall off its axis. Panic stalks the soul as life and death hang in the balance. A pounding heart betrays the anxiety within. "But where is God? Does He know what is happening? Is He concerned? Why have the heavens grown dark and silent? What have I done to deserve this abandonment? Haven't I served Him with a willing heart? What must I do to regain His favor?" Then, as frustration and fear accumulate, the human spirit recoils in distrust and confusion.
I wish I had the words to explain the full measure of this experience. Indeed, from my 26 years of professional counseling, I have seen few other circumstances in living that equal the agony of a shattered faith. It is a crisis brewed in the pit of hell. Dr. R. T. Kendall, the gifted senior minister of Westminster Chapel in London, said it leads directly to what he calls "the betrayal barrier." In his opinion, 100 percent of believers eventually go through a period when God seems to let them down. It may occur shortly after becoming a Christian. The new convert loses his job, or his child becomes ill, or business reverses occur. Or maybe after serving Him faithfully for many years, life suddenly starts to unravel.
It makes no sense. It seems so unfair. The natural reaction is to say, “God, is this the way You treat Your own? I thought You cared for me, but I was wrong. I can't love a God like that." It is a tragic misunderstanding- Scripture is replete with examples of this troubling human experience. We see it illustrated in Exodus 5, when God commanded Moses to appeal to Pharaoh for the release of the children of Israel. Moses did as he was told, after which the ruler angrily increased his oppression of the people, beating them and forcing them to work even harder. The people sent a delegation to Pharaoh in hopes of getting some relief. But Pharaoh was in no mood to negotiate. He called them "lazy" and ordered them to get back to work—or else. The men left the palace visibly shaken and ran straight into Moses and Aaron. They said, "May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us" (Exodus 5:21).
Moses had good reason to feel God had pushed him out on a limb and abandoned him there. He reacted as you or I would under the circumstances. The Scripture tells us he said, "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all" (Exodus 5:22-23).
We can see today how Moses misinterpreted what God was doing, but who can blame him? He appeared to be the victim of a cruel joke. Fortunately, Moses clung to his faith until he began to understand the plan. Most of us lesser mortals do not do as well. We bail out before the pieces start fitting together. Forever after, we're disillusioned and hurt. Dr. Kendall said more than 90 percent of us fail to break through this betrayal barrier after feeling abandoned by God. Our faith is then hindered by a bitter experience that we can't forget.
Dr. Kendall's observation is consistent with my own. Many people who want to serve the Lord are victimized by a terrible lie that distances them from the Giver of Life. Satan is, as we know, both the "father of lies" (John 8:44) and "a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). It is his specific purpose to discourage us and distort the truth. He can usually be expected to show up at the moment of greatest discouragement, whispering his wicked thoughts and taunting the wounded believer.
For the benefit of those of you who are enduring that withering attack on your faith, I want to share some similar experiences in the lives of other Christians. As indicated, it is important to recognize that you are not alone. Your pain and discouragement, which might lead you to ask "Why me?" are not unique. You have not been singled out for sorrow. Most of us are destined, it seems, to bump our heads on the same ol' rock. From ancient times, men and women have grieved over stressful circumstances that did not fit any pattern of logic or symmetry. It happens to us all sooner or later. Millions have been there. And despite what some Christians will tell you, being a follower of Jesus Christ is no foolproof insurance policy against these storms of life.
Consider, for example, the life and death of Dr. Paul Carlson. In 1961, he had joined a relief agency to serve as a medical missionary in the Belgian Congo. It was only a six-month commitment, but what he saw there changed his life. He could not forget the hopeless people when he returned to his thriving medical practice in Redondo Beach, California. He told a colleague, "If you could only see [the need], you wouldn't be able to swallow your sandwich." Soon, Dr. Carlson moved his family to Africa and set up a makeshift clinic, operating at times by flashlight and making house calls on his motorbike. His salary dropped to $3,230 per year, but money didn't matter. He was marching to a different drummer.
Two years later, however, Dr. Carlson became a pawn in a bloody confrontation between rival revolutionary factions in the Belgian Congo. He was among a small band of Americans who were held captive near the battle zone. They had one fleeting opportunity to escape by scaling a wall and dropping to safety on the other side. Dr. Carlson reached the top of the barrier and was a split second from freedom when a burst of bullets tore through his body. He fell back into the
courtyard and died. It was a senseless killing by rebels who had nothing to gain by his murder.
Time magazine, 1 in its report of the killing, said this about the physician:
Dr. Carlson's murder, along with the massacre of perhaps another hundred whites and thousands of blacks, had a special, tragic meaning. [He] symbolized all the white men—and there are many—who want nothing from Africa but a chance to help. He was no saint and no deliberate martyr. He was a highly skilled physician who, out of a strong Christian faith and a sense of common humanity, had gone to the Congo to treat the sick.
That humanitarian commitment cost Dr. Paul Earle Carlson his life.
And we are left to ask, "Why, Lord? Why couldn't You have distracted the gunner for another instant?" Even a butterfly in front of his nose or some sweat in his eyes could have changed the tragic outcome. No such distraction occurred. And so ended the earthly days of a good man who left a loving wife and two children behind.
How about the experience of my friends Daryl and Clarita Gustafson? They were infertile for many years, despite exhaustive medical tests and procedures. They prayed consistently for God to grant them the privilege
1 "The World, Africa, The Congo Massacre," Time (December 4, 1964).
of bringing a child into the world, but the heavens were silent and the womb remained barren. The ticking of Clarita's biological clock was deafening as the months slid into history. Then one day it happened. Clarita discovered that she was gloriously pregnant. God had spoken at last. A healthy baby boy was born seven months later, and he was named Aaron, after Moses' brother. This child was their pride and joy.
When Aaron was three years old, however, he was diagnosed as having a very virulent form of cancer. What followed were 10 months of painful chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Despite all efforts to arrest the disease, Aaron's little body continued to deteriorate. His mother and father vacillated between hope and despair, as only the parents of dying children can fully comprehend. Despite many prayers and countless tears, Aaron went to be with the Lord in 1992, at four years of age. Thus, the miracle child, whom Daryl and Clarita called "God's little angel and our little pumpkin," was taken from them. The faith of this remarkable family has remained strong, although their questions still have not been answered.
My heart aches for these and all the other mothers and fathers who have lost a precious child. Indeed, I hear regularly from parents who have experienced a similar tragedy.
One family, in particular, stands out in my mind. I learned of their sorrow from the father who sent me a tribute to the memory of his little girl, Bristol. This is what he wrote:
My Dear Bristol,
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my heart I knew that you would be a little angel. And so you were.
When you were born on my birthday, April 7, it was evident that you were a special gift from the Lord. But how profound a gift you turned out to be! More than the beautiful bundle of gurgles and rosy cheeks—more than the first-born of my flesh, a joy unspeakable—you showed me God's love more than anything else in all creation. Bristol, you taught me how to love.
I certainly loved you when you were cuddly and cute, when you rolled over and sat up and jabbered your first words. I loved you when the searing pain of realization took hold that something was wrong—that maybe you were not developing as quickly as your peers, and then when we understood it was more serious than that. I loved you when we went from hospital to clinic to doctor looking for a medical diagnosis that would bring some hope. And, of course, we always prayed for you—and prayed—and prayed. I loved you when one of the tests resulted in too much spinal fluid being drawn from your body and you screamed. I loved you when you moaned and cried, when your mom and I and your sisters would drive for hours late at night to help you fall asleep. I loved you with tears in my eyes when, confused, you would bite your fingers or your lip by accident, and when your eyes crossed and then went blind.
I most certainly loved you when you could no longer speak, but how profoundly I missed your voice! I loved you when your scoliosis started wrenching your body like a pretzel, when we put a tube in your stomach so you could eat because you were choking on your food, which we fed you one spoonful at a time for up to two hours per meal. I managed to love you when your contorted limbs would not allow ease of changing your messy diapers—so many diapers—ten years of diapers. Bristol, I even loved you when you could not say the one thing in life that I longed to hear back— "Daddy, I love you." Bristol, I loved you when I was close to God and when He seemed far away, when I was full of faith and also when I was angry at Him.
And the reason I loved you, my Bristol, in spite of these difficulties, is that God put this love in my heart. This is the wondrous nature of God's love, that he loves us even when we are blind, deaf, or twisted—in body or in spirit. God loves us even when we can't tell Him that we love Him back.
My dear Bristol, now you are free! I look forward to that day, according to God's promises, when we will be joined together with you with the Lord, completely whole and full of joy. I'm so happy that you have your crown first. We will follow you someday—in His time.
Before you were born I prayed for you. In my
heart I knew that you would be a little angel. And so you were! Love, Daddy
Though I have never met this loving father, I personally identify with the passion of his heart. What an understatement! I can still hardly read his words without fighting back tears. I've had the same tenderness toward my son and daughter since the day they were born. Even with this empathy, I can only begin to imagine the agony wrought by the 10-year ordeal described in this dad's letter. Not only is this kind of tragedy an emotional nightmare, but it can become the spiritual mine field I have described.
Again, these examples of heartache illustrate the fact that godly people—praying people—sometimes face the same hardships that nonbelievers experience. If we deny that fact, we create even greater pain and disillusionment for those who are unprepared to handle it. That is why we must overcome our reluctance to admit these unpleasant realities. We must brace our brothers and sisters against the betrayal barrier. We must teach them not to depend too heavily on their own ability to comprehend the inexplicable circumstances in our lives.
Remember that the Scripture warns us to "lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). Note that we are not prohibited from trying to understand. I've spent a lifetime attempting to get a handle on some of the imponderables of life, which has led to the writing of this book. But we are specifically told not to lean on our ability to make the pieces fit. "Leaning" refers to the panicky demand for answers—throwing faith to the wind if a satisfactory response cannot be produced. It is pressing God to explain Himself—or else! That is where everything starts to unravel.
Admittedly, I do not have tidy answers that will satisfy Aaron's parents, or Mrs. Carlson, or Dr. Karen Frye. I have no airtight explanations for Bristol's aching father or the parents of Steve White. In fact, I find if irritating when amateur theologians throw around simplistic platitudes, such as "God must have wanted the little flower named Bristol for His heavenly garden." Nonsense! A loving Father does not tear the heart out of a family for selfish purposes! No, it is better to acknowledge that we have been given too few facts to explain all the heartache in an imperfect, fallen world. That understanding will have to await the coming of the sovereign Lord who promises to set straight all accounts and end all injustice.
If you have begun to slide into despondency, it extremely important to take a new look at Scripture and recognize that trials and suffering are part of the human condition. All of the biblical writers, including the giants of the faith, went through similar hardships. Look at the experience of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of the Old Testament. His entire life was in shambles until the triumphal reunion with his family many years later. He was hated by his brothers, who considered killing him before selling him as a slave. While in Egypt, he was imprisoned, falsely accused of attempted rape by Potiphar's wife, and threatened with execution. There is no indication that God explained to Joseph what He was doing through those many years of heartache, or how the pieces would eventually fit together. He was expected, like you and me, to live out his days one at a time in something less than complete understanding. What pleased God was Joseph's faithfulness when nothing made sense.
Consider the account of Elijah in 1 Kings 17. In the third verse we learn that God is telling him to "leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there." That was good news because of the great drought in the land at the time. At least he would not die of thirst. But then we read in verse 7, "Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land." What a strange thing to happen! Do you suppose Elijah was thinking, You sent me here, Lord, and promised me food and water. So why did You let the brook run dry? Good question. Has the source of God's blessing in your life ever run dry?
Let's zip over to the New Testament and look at the disciples and other early Christian leaders. John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said there was no greater man born of woman, found himself in Herod's stinking dungeon. There an evil woman named Herodias had him beheaded in revenge because he had condemned he immoral conduct. There is no record in Scripture that an angel visited John's cell to explain the meaning of his persecution. This great, godly man, who was the designated forerunner to Jesus, went through the time confusing experiences as we. It is comforting to know that John responded in a very human way. He sent a secret message to Jesus from his prison cell asking, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matthew 11:3). Have you ever felt like asking that question?
Look at the martyrdom of Stephen, who was stoned to death for proclaiming the name of Christ. And the disciple James, to whom Acts 12 devotes only one verse: King Herod Agrippa "had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword" (Acts 12:2). Tradition tells us that 10 of the 12 disciples were eventually executed (excluding Judas, who committed suicide, and John, who was exiled). We also believe that Paul, who was persecuted, stoned, and flogged, was later beheaded in a Roman prison. The second half of Hebrews chapter 11 describes some of those who suffered for the name of Christ:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in
deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. (Hebrews 11:35-39).
Read that last verse again. Note that these saints lived in anticipation of a promise that had not been fulfilled by the time of their deaths. A full explanation never came. They had only their faith to hold them steady in their time of persecution. The Life Application Bible Commentary says of this chapter, "These verses summarize the lives of other great men and women of faith. Some experienced outstanding victories, even over the threat of death. But others were severely mistreated, tortured, and even killed. Having a steadfast faith in God does not guarantee a happy, carefree life. On the contrary, our faith almost guarantees us some form of abuse from the world. While we are on earth, we may never see the purpose of our suffering. But we know that God will keep his promises to us." That is precisely the point.
Few of us are called upon to lay down our lives like those of the early church, but modern-day examples do exist. Try explaining this one: Rev. Bill Hybels shared an experience in his book Too Busy Not to Pray that speaks dramatically to this issue:
“A couple of years ago, a member of my church's vocal team were invited by a Christian leader named Yesu to go to southern India. There we joined a team of people from various parts of the U.S. We were told that God would use us to reach Muslims and Hindus and nonreligious people for Christ. We all felt called by God to go, but none of us knew what to expect.
When we arrived, Yesu met us and invited us to his home. Over the course of the next few days, he told us about his ministry.
Yesu's father, a dynamic leader and speaker, had started the mission in a Hindu-dominated area. One day a Hindu leader came to Yesu's father and asked for prayer. Eager to pray with him, hoping he would lead him to Christ, he took him into a private room, knelt down with him, closed his eyes and began to pray. While he was praying, the Hindu man reached into his robe, pulled out a knife and stabbed him repeatedly.
Yesu, hearing his father's screams, ran to help him. He held him in his arms as blood poured out onto the floor of the hut. Three days later, his father died. On his deathbed he said to his son, "Please tell that man that he is forgiven. Care for your mother and carry on this ministry. Do whatever it takes to win people to Christ.”
What an inspiring and humbling story! It makes me feel ashamed for complaining about the petty problems and frustrations I have encountered through the years. Someday, the Lord may require a similar sacrifice of me in the cause of Christ. If so, I pray I will have the courage to accept whatever His will is for me. Untold multitudes have dedicated their lives to His service in this manner.
So tell me, where did we get the notion that the Christian life is a piece of cake? Where is the evidence for the "name it, claim it" theology that promises God will skip along in front of us with His great Cosmic Broom, sweeping aside each trial and every troubling uncertainty? To the contrary, Jesus told His disciples that they should anticipate suffering. He said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Paul wrote, "In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within" (2 Corinthians 7:4-5). Peter left no doubt about difficulties in this Christian life when he wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But joice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12-13). Note in each of these references the coexistence of both joy and pain.
This is the consistent, unequivocal "expectation" that we have been given by the biblical writers, and yet we seem determined to rewrite the text. That makes us sitting ducks for Satanic mischief.
My concern is that many believers apparently feel God owes them smooth sailing or at least a full explanation. We must never forget that He, after all, is God. He is majestic and holy and sovereign. He is accountable to no one. He is not an errand boy who chases the assignments we dole out. He is not a genie who pops out of the bottle to satisfy our whims. He is not our servant—we are His. And our reason for existence is to glorify and honor Him. Even so, sometimes He performs mighty miracles on our behalf. Sometimes He chooses to explain His action in our lives. Sometimes His presence is as real as if we had encountered Him face to face. But at other times when nothing makes sense—when what we are going through is "not fair," when we feel all alone in God's waiting room—He simply says, "Trust Me!"
Does this mean that we are destined to be depressed and victimized by the circumstances of our lives? Certainly not. Paul said we are "more than conquerors." He wrote in Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice, Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. So be not anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, giving thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Clearly, what we have in Scripture is a paradox.
On the one hand, we are told to expect suffering and hardship that could even cost us our lives. On the other hand, we are encouraged to be joyful, thankful, and "of good cheer." How do those contradictory ideas link together? How can we be triumphant and under intense pressure at the same time? How can we be secure when surrounded by insecurity? That is a mystery which, according to Paul, "transcends all understanding."
In the next chapter, we'll discuss the principles that lead to this uncanny peace of mind in the midst of the storm. It is available in your life too.
TO BE CONTINUED