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When God Breaks Your Heart
Choosing Hope in the Midst of Faith-Shattering Circumstances
By ED UNDERWOOD
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Ed Underwood
All rights reserved.
IF YOU HAD BEEN HERE
My personal crisis of suffering happened the night I almost lost my grip on faith in a sweat-soaked, blood-stained bed. My daughter's family had just returned from a day trip to Disneyland and wanted to spend some time at Papa and Boppie's home in the foothills north of Los Angeles. But Judy, my wife (Boppie to the grandchildren), and I were feeling less and less like the grandparents we used to be. Our life as we had known it was slipping away. I was very, very sick.
As the three grandkids bounced in with stories of pirates and princesses, I retreated upstairs. Judy followed me to our bedroom, which had become our secret place to cry together and beg God for mercy. How long will You ignore our anguish? What do You want from us? Have we failed You in some way? Why won't You give us our life back?
I lay in our bed trying not to think about the torment of another night in this condition. "Come on, honey, let's pray," Judy whispered through her tears. "You'll need to be quieter tonight when you pray. I know your heart is broken and I can't imagine your misery, but your wailing will upset the babies."
"Don't worry, sweetie," I answered coldly. "I'm through praying, tonight or any night. You pray if you want, but I'm not talking to God any more."
With a few decades as a pastor under my belt, I had heard many Christians claim they were through with prayer. I never believed they meant it. Now I do. I meant it that night. With all my heart I meant it.
I have had many close-up encounters with suffering, both physical and emotional. My years as a firefighter and soldier left a body scarred from injuries and surgeries. I have cried and prayed with friends through the worst life has to offer. Personal regrets have kept me on repentant knees through many sleepless nights.
Through all of this, I had never fully understood believers who give up on God ... until this night the malaise of my disease—Sezary syndrome—made it perfectly clear: Even those of us with hearts wholly given to God will give up on Him when we feel He has given up on us.
If you read about my disease in a medical journal, you would discover that it is a "late and ominous development of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma" that "likely represents the leukemic phase." And that the "typical patient is an adult with generalized erythoderma, pururitis (itching)" in danger of progressing to "extensive organ involvement."
What you won't read are the gory details that only victims writing on blogs and sitting in cancer waiting rooms will share. As our skin falls off and the blood and body fluids seep through whatever bloody wrap we choose for that day, the infernal itching drives us to scar our own tissue as we scratch and dig in a desperate attempt to soothe the pain—until many just give up and die. Or worse, swallow one of the many bottles of pills our oncologists give us to try to ease our suffering.
Rather than give up on life and choose suicide, I chose to lose hope and give up on God.
When I expressed my crisis of faith to Judy, she knew I had crossed over a dangerous line of doubt to a cynical and treacherous place. With our years of experience in ministry, we both knew I might never return to her side as a disciple of the Savior.
Shaken by my disbelief, Judy rebuked me in tears. "Honey, you don't mean this. The Lord is all we have, all we have ever had. He is our life. Don't say this, please. This is just the medicine talking. I can't imagine your pain and distress, but you can't give up on God!"
"Yes, I can," I said. "I just did."
"How? How do you just throw away our life in a moment? It doesn't make sense!"
"Yes, it does," I explained with effortless logic and indifference. "He's supposed to be my heavenly Father, right?"
"You know He is," she said quietly.
"And He claims to be a loving and compassionate Father who cares for His children, right?"
I knew I'd hit a nerve when Judy didn't object to that sentence.
"I'm a father myself and I know a father's heart," I said. "I would not let this happen to my child if there was any way I could prevent it. Not my child. If He truly cares for His children, I'm not one of them."
Her silence betrayed her weakening resistance to my reasoning. I had a point. This brutal disease had reduced her husband to a cruel caricature of his former self. But to my eternal blessing, Judy held to her faith even as mine was collapsing.
Please Bring Him Back!
"I'm not going to argue with you about this," Judy told me. "I choose to trust God and ask Him to bring you back to both of us—Him and me."
The answer to her prayer came from one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. I had always considered this to be the story about a man named Lazarus, a man the Lord Jesus miraculously raised from the dead. Now I see it as the story of his sisters' faith.
As my evening medications mercifully eased the pain and subdued the insufferable itching, my mind cleared somewhat. The scenes of John 11 played over and over as I battled to stay true to my vain resolve not to think about Jesus. I could not ignore the protests of Martha and Mary. Unrehearsed, each rushed to Jesus with the exact same brokenhearted complaint: "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21, 32).
That was my line, my grievance: Lord, You could have prevented this! I would never let this happen to anyone I loved, especially not my child. How can You tell me my Father in heaven loves me as His child? I'm not His child; if I were, You would have shown up sooner. You wouldn't have broken my heart!
I fell asleep drawn irresistibly to the experience of these two desperately disappointed women who had walked with my Savior.
Alone the next day, I retrieved my Bible from the corner I had tossed it to in anger. I turned to John 11. Maybe there was something here for me. Wrapped in the blood-spattered quilt that regulated my body's temperature in the absence of skin, I read verses 1–44 as if for the first time. Poring over the Lord's words to His followers again and again, I begged Him for the hope my heart needed to go on.
I found it that day in John's eyewitness account of the words and tears of Jesus. Some things I had never seen before—because I had never hurt beyond hope—suddenly opened my eyes and my heart to the love of my Savior.
When Judy returned home from work later that day, I shared these insights with her. We knew that God had used these truths to answer her prayer—He had brought me back to her ... and to Him.
I knew I was still His child.
Before You Give Up on God
If your physical or emotional turmoil is stealing your confidence in God, I want to share these comforting truths about Jesus' love and care for you and give you every assurance that you are God's child. As Jesus' words penetrate your heart, you will begin to think differently about your pain and find the strength to continue. More than that, you will begin to actually live expectantly again, certain of God's direction and influence in your life. Years after that night of suffering, still living with this chronic and deadly disease, I remain sure. And so do many others I have met around the world. Regardless of the topic of the sermon or seminar, the desperate and disappointed always find me. Some are ashamed of the same doubts and questions I voiced that night, when I, like them, felt I was losing my faith.
"I have to tell you, Ed, if you can't give me a reason to reconsider, I'm through with God," one honest pastor told me. "You said you were ready to give up on prayer. That's exactly where I am right now. Why should I cry out to Jesus? He never shows up!"
"Lord, if You had been here ..."
Over dinner in a hospitality house for career Christian workers in Central Africa, a despairing woman who had served Christ for years on the frontier of faith said to me, "Ed, I am ready to suffer and serve for the rest of my life. But my sister's twin daughters back home are dying ... again. Thousands of committed Christians around the world have been praying for my nieces for years. But their suffering continues. Why won't God either take these babies or heal them? I've always been told He doesn't trifle with us. Now I don't know. Why doesn't He step in? I mean, they're just children."
"Lord, if You had been here ..."
"Why do I have hepatitis when I have lived a life free of drugs and illicit sex? If I'm His child, then why didn't He give this disease to someone who doesn't belong to Him and who deserves it?"
"Lord, if You had been here ..."
"All I ever wanted was a Christian home. We met in Bible school! Why did God bring this unfaithful man into my life? Why do I have to raise my children alone while all these women who couldn't care less seem to have it so easy?"
"Lord, if You had been here ..."
"Look at all the children living in homes where there is no love, no care, even rejection and abuse. We have begged God for a child, but the doctors tell us we will never have a baby. Why does our home have to be childless?"
"Lord, if You had been here ..."
My answer is always the same: "All I can say is that when I felt just like you're feeling right now, the story of Martha and Mary at their brother's grave dramatically transformed my life."
In hundreds of conversations, without exception, the principles from John 11 bring what I can only call a "grace revival" to every believing heart.
Since you haven't put this book down, you're probably looking for a grace revival of your own. You wonder if Jesus' words to His followers that day offer any hope to you. You keep your dark secret—that you wonder if He is still in your life—even as you beg Him for evidence. When you pray, you find it hard to admit to the One you have always thought of as powerful and good that you feel betrayed.
You might be wondering what you would—or should—say to God in light of your circumstances. To be honest, I wondered the same thing. In the next chapter you will discover what I believe God taught me about prayer through the story of Mary and Martha. But right now, let me simply encourage you to give prayer another try.
Dear fellow sufferer, God knows your turmoil. He is aware of your words before they leave your tongue. Your secret feelings today were known to Him before you were born. He is neither surprised nor threatened by your doubts and fears. I believe that His mighty hand has brought you to this book, this paragraph, and this very sentence. His love has not let you go, but has prepared you for the lessons of faith His followers learned centuries ago in the village of Bethany.
If you can find it in your heart to come to Him one more time, may I suggest a prayer?
This is a prayer I guarantee He will answer, because He always underwrites His Son's requests. And the Lord Jesus is right now at His side, telling Him how you feel. "They are weak and life on earth is hard." He knows; He's been here. With a bottle of your numbered tears in His lap, the Lord is your advocate in heaven. And He is asking His Father right now to use His words recorded in John 11 to persuade you that you are still His child.
Agree with your Lord in prayer before you continue.
Father, if it is true that You come near the brokenhearted, I need You now. You know how I feel about this. I can't hide it from You. I don't know if I can go on, and I wonder if You care. I hate to admit it, but I have even doubted Your love for me. I want to believe that I am Your child, but feel like I'm not. Please use the words of Your Son in John 11 to show me where my thinking is wrong and my conclusion flawed. The deepest desire of my heart is to know Your love and to feel Your power in this. I long for Your comfort and care. Encourage me in the pages to come. This may be my last chance to come back to You and the closeness I knew before this tragedy. Please, I beg You, heal my broken heart and give me hope. In Jesus' name, amen.
If you prayed that prayer, you are about to become one of God's very special children. Few Christians will ever appreciate the deep joy and unshakable confidence the Lord is giving you the opportunity to know. He has prepared you for a blessing reserved only for those who hurt. And He is sure to answer your prayer by taking your hand and leading you in the direction you desperately want and need to go.CHAPTER 2
The first lesson God taught me through my affliction was regarding prayer: He taught me the difference between a request and a report. It was an uncomfortable lesson because it required a shift in theology—the same shift I walked a skeptical student through after a class I was teaching at a Christian university.
I had just finished teaching a class on Bible interpretation when she came up to the podium wearing what I call her "Christian frown." Although she was smiling just enough to cover her discomfort with my class, her eyes betrayed her disapproval. Karen was brilliant and dedicated, a model student at our university. When I asked her how I could help her, she gathered her courage. "I disagree with a lot of what you taught today. You took verses out of context and encouraged people in risky ways. I would never pray like you told us to pray just now."
Karen objected to one specific line in the lecture: Stop offering information to the Lord, and start telling Him what you want ... before it's too late.
"I just feel it's wrong to make Christians think that somehow they could miss something by not asking for it. I pray to talk with God, not to get something from Him," she said. "This idea of having to beg Him for help could cause someone to become dangerously preoccupied with their personal problems."
I opened my Bible to a few of the verses we had studied. "I know many who agree with your fear that this teaching is dangerous," I said. "Read these words with me and answer me this. Is it my teaching or the passage itself that is dangerous?"
Reminding her of our firm commitment to a literal interpretation—that the Bible can never mean what it never meant—I turned to these sentences, asking her what she thought they meant to the disciples who first heard them. The first verse I asked her about was James 4:2: "What does James mean when he says, 'You do not have because you do not ask'?"
She just stared at the page, so I stated the obvious.
"Doesn't this raise the possibility of not receiving something God wants to give you because you did not take advantage of your privilege to ask for it?"
Still no answer, so I directed her to Mark 11:24.
"After picturing what faith in God can do with the impossible feat of casting an enormous mountain into the sea, Jesus says, 'Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.'"
I had underlined three words as I read—things, ask, believe. "Karen, you seem uncomfortable with all three," I said. "But the Lord's advice is to ask for whatever specific, definite things are on your heart, and believe that He will do the impossible."
"How do you get 'tell Him what you want before it's too late' from this?" She seemed to concede the need to ask for something in faith.
"Karen, do we need to turn back to James 4:2? It's not my words but God's words that are making you uncomfortable. Would you mind if we made this a little more personal and less academic?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" She seemed fearful.
"Karen, if you could ask God for anything right now, what mountain would you ask Him to cast into the sea? Think of that one thing in your life you would ask Him to deliver you from," I said. "What heartache, fear, or disappointment is breaking your heart right now?"
I could tell a very specific crisis or sorrow was on her mind.
"The Lord Jesus knows what you are thinking right now," I pressed. "It would take us hours to review all the conversations about prayer He had with His followers. They all speak of urgency—keep asking, seeking, knocking; My Father wants to give you good things; ask in My name. The early leaders of the church heard Him. Peter and Paul constantly begged their followers to pray for them."
I reminded her again of James 4:2: "You do not have because you do not ask."
"What is your mountain?"
Karen looked at the floor. "My parents are getting a divorce, and I won't be able to come back to school next semester. They don't have the money," she said quietly.
I handed her a napkin to wipe her tears. "Ask the Lord before it's too late, Karen. Beg Him to let you stay here with your friends," I told her. "You never know. He may cast that mountain into the sea. But you must ask!"
Before I got sick, Christians never seemed uncomfortable with my teaching on prayer. It was "safe," the usual. But on the night I almost died, a revered mentor named Charlie White prayed for me in a dangerous way—and I lived.
Like Karen, and like me before her, millions of hurting Christians are afraid to pray dangerous prayers of faith. They've never known this type of excruciating pain before. They believe that God loves them. They want to pray. But the words in their hearts scare them.
Excerpted from When God Breaks Your Heart by ED UNDERWOOD. Copyright © 2008 Ed Underwood. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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