Faith In Difficult Times: “In Focus” With Pr. Bob [E007]

What do you do when the plan you had for your life runs off the road and into a ditch? How do you deal with the pain and disappointment that comes from shattered dreams? Is God to blame, or even to be found? If you've ever found yourself angry and depressed over events that have altered the plans for your life, then you know how your faith can be challenged. And if you've ever said, "I never thought I would be in this situation, and I am struggling to survive it!" then this episode is for you.

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We Are Not Immune From Difficult Times

We Are Not Immune From Difficult Times
Photographer: asoggetti | Source: Unsplash

Disappointment, discouragement, depression about how life has turned out. Maybe it stems from a divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job, a health issue. You name it. There are countless reasons for the general feeling that your life has not turned out the way you planned. You are in unchartered territory, barely staying afloat.

Intuitively we know we are not immune from difficult times. But they can take us by surprise and create a sense of crisis. Let's face it, when we're planning out our lives to the extent we can, no one ever sets aside time and energy in their life plan for disappointments and setbacks. But they all do occur in our life.

There are countless ways people react to that feeling. Yet, the statement that I hear most often is this: "I would have never guessed this would have happened to me. This was not on my radar in my plan. So now what do I do?"

I understand that. The first step is for us to acknowledge the pain. Acknowledge the disappointment, to put it in words. One of my favorite poems on this topic is one by Emily Perl Kingsley called Welcome to Holland. Kingsley wrote this based on her experiences of having a child with down syndrome. Something that wasn't in her life plan. You'll love this. So listen closely.

Welcome to Holland

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability. To try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it. Imagine how it would feel. It's like this…

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo-David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands, the stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy. I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life, I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine, disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guidebooks and you must learn a whole new language. You will meet a whole new group of people you would have never met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around. You begin to notice that Holland has windmills. Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone is busy coming and going from Italy.

The Other Side of Pain Is Opportunity

And they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. For the rest of your life, you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

The pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away. Because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

Isn't that great? The acknowledgment of the pain, but also the other side of that pain is an opportunity? Yet, so often we as human beings, we get angry and it is God who is often the recipient of that anger. Realizing the often felt anger and resentment is the second thing we can do.

You see, there is for many an assumed agreement. When we follow Christ or we become more involved in our church, or we work in some way to further the kingdom that God will protect us.

We may even cite scripture, specifically Romans 8:28. Saint Paul writes, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." S when bad things happen, we may say, "Oh, I don't see any good in this." But as Paul says here in Romans 8, that really has not been the agreement. It hasn't been the deal.

All Things Work Together for Good

All Things Work Together for Good
Photographer: Lorenz Lippert | Source: Unsplash

What is the deal? It's that all things work together for good, which brings into play the definition of good. If your definition of good is that your life should be free from discomfort, free from disappointment, from tragedy and any pain, you may have to come to grips with God's definition of good. And what is that? God's good is that you become conformed to the likeness of Jesus. God will use whatever need be even the bad things to get you there.

If you feel God has turned his back on you because your life hasn't turned out exactly the way you wanted it to, you've had setbacks and disappointments, I promise he hasn't. If you feel God has not held up his part of the deal, that was never the deal. The deal is this, that you grow in the likeness of Jesus.

In 2001, one of my graduate students, Marcia Wessels decided to perform for her master's thesis a life review for hospice patients, terminally ill. Life review is pretty much just what it sounds like. Marcia would see each patient for about an hour, a few times per week, developing a story of that patient's life. She would ask questions like, "What was your childhood like?" or "Who were your best friends in high school? What was your conception of God during a particular time?" and so on.

Now for most people, those of us not at the end of our lives. If we were to describe the events of our life looking back on them, we would probably categorize them in terms of good and bad. Peaks and valleys.

Maybe God Didn’t Desert Me in the Difficult Times

"Oh, I was here and did this and had this job, and met this person. Then this really great thing happened. I went here and I did that, then this bad thing happened." We tend to describe things in terms of good times and difficult times.

What was very interesting to us is that at the end of their lives, most terminally ill people would, for the first time ever not look back in their lives as a series of disjointed events. A was good, B was bad, C was good, but rather as a story. There were good times and difficult times, but it was all part of their story. All of it, even the difficult times, they made up their life. You see their good and their bad descriptors were lost.

They may have at that time, felt that event D was a terrible thing. They wondered where God was in all of that. Now they can look back and say, "Yeah, it was horrible. I would never wish that on anyone. But if it weren't for that event, I would have never met this person. This would have never happened. So maybe it kind of had to happen that way. At least it wasn't so bad and maybe God didn't desert me then."

What logically follows is, "If God was with me then when I thought he had deserted me, maybe he's with me now. Even as I die." We published that study in the journal of pastoral care and counseling in 2003. I'm reminded in my own life of arriving at the University of Florida many years ago with plans to wrestle. Perhaps going on to national championships and who knows, maybe the Olympic trials.

Are You Really Calling It Quits

I get to Gainesville to the news that Florida has financial difficulties and just cut two sports, women's volleyball, men's wrestling. I figured I would transfer, after all there's nothing any longer for me in Gainesville. The next week, I'm in an impromptu wrestling workout. I hit my head on the floor in a gap between the mats. Concussion number five.

For some reason, I was just prone to concussion. Some wrestlers struggle with their knees or their shoulders or their backs. For me, it was my head. I tended to get concussions. This time my doctor said, "Bob, you're done." I pushed back hard. I knew he was right, I could feel it. Few university teams were going to offer me a scholarship with a reputation of having concussions. Dream shattered. Life plan altered.

Everything I'd worked for, years of training, over. I fell into a deep depression, I didn't know what I wanted. What I was doing there, where I should go and how. Few days later, I get a call from a teammate. "Hey, you really calling it quits?" "I don't know, man, I think I have to." "Well, not sure you'd be interested, but Gainesville High School has an assistant wrestling coach job open. It pays. I think you'd be good at it. Just passing it along."

I don't know why, but I felt I should stop in and see them. Here's the God's honest truth, the head coach was a former Florida lineman named Melvin Flournoy. I went to the high school, was told where he was. They gave me a permission slip to go see him. I'm walking up the ramp to his room.

His Good Is Better Than My Good

His Good Is Better Than My Good
Photographer: Liuda Brogiene | Source: Unsplash

I hear this guy, big, booming voice yell out, "Here comes my assistant coach." I never met him, never laid eyes on him. He had no idea I was coming. He said, "I could tell as soon as I saw you."

We became fast friends. The next year he turned the team over to me. I love my time coaching and I love the University of Florida Gainesville. Then in my last year there, I met my wife of 36 years. That, my friends, is where I was supposed to be.

How it happened and for what reason, and by whose hands? I don't know. What I do know is that God saw to it, that I was where I needed to be and doing what I needed to do. Let me tell you something. Not having that faith, I'm telling you had my doctor not made the determination he did, I'd have risked my health in a minute in order to pursue my life, my way.

My keen being cut was not good. Not at all. But God showed me that his good is better than my good. His plans are better than my plans. That does not mean that God brings about setbacks and tragedies to teach us a lesson or to correct our path. No. Some people see that in scripture. What I see there is God taking the tragedies that do occur in our life and bringing good out of them. Making all things work together for good.

We Have a Promise of How Difficult Times Shall End

We can get angry and ask, "Why did you let this happen to me, God?" It's not going to change anything. Or we can create a new plan that includes God and pray, "Father, I put my life in your hands, take over." We can get angry or we can lay it all on God.

We cannot know all of God's plan and purpose. But we do know this, while life can be hard, God is infinitely good. Do you believe that? If so, it gives you courage to trust in his promise that nothing, tragedy, suffering, even death itself. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ.

So I say to you, welcome to Holland. This life will never be as we plan. We will have disappointments. The disappointments are real and they are often painful. Yet, while we will never know exactly what the future will hold, we have a promise of how all of this shall end.

"Do not fear," the angel said to Mary before Christ's first arrival in this world. Why? Because the future is God's. Thanks be to God. See you next time on Inspirational Sermons.

About the author

Bob LeFavi

As pastor, professor and researcher, Dr. Bob is dedicated to exploring sermons that inspire people and breathe life into them. His passion is to seek out the best preachers in America, highlighting how they use their insights to change lives.

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