Carmel and I have just returned from a whirlwind trip all over the Pacific Northwest, visiting family, followed by an incredible week in the Caribbean celebrating 20 years of marriage—to each other.
It’s great to be back in Michigan. We wait all year for summer, and it’s fantastic here. I love it. Our first day back home we participated in a fitness competition on the beach in Muskegon. It was over 90 degrees, and we were laughing and playing and running around with our friends. It was a perfect day. I must’ve thanked God a thousand times before 9 a.m. for the privilege of living here.
But at 9:02, I received an email. A man claimed to have hacked my computer, including my front-facing camera, microphone, and keyboard. He told me he was watching me, archiving video that he planned to manipulate in order to blackmail me. And I would’ve just shrugged the whole incident off as a hoax if it hadn’t been for the information in the subject line. It was my password. To all my financial information. My actual password.
He went on to tell me that he had logged onto my computer remotely and installed software that would make it look as though I were involved in criminal activity. He would send evidence to my family, friends, and church unless I paid him several thousand dollars in bitcoins. He warned me that, because he had access to my camera and microphone and keyboard, he would know if I contacted the FBI or local police.
Now, in that moment, I confess I knew two things:
1. I had nothing to hide. No big secrets. No illicit activities.
2. It didn’t matter. With, presumably, a few strokes of a keyboard and some expertise I don’t understand, a stranger could sufficiently damage my reputation such that I would never have credibility in ministry again.
I was prepared to lose my reputation, my job, and my calling. Out of nowhere. With no warning. Despite a clear conscience. I thought I was ruined.
Have you ever been blindsided like that?
Of course. We all have. It’s part of what it means to be human. But that doesn’t make it easy. Or less scary. We’re beginning a new series about how to handle life’s worst moments in the best possible way.
I won’t elaborate on all the steps I took to protect myself against this extortion scam. Suffice to say that I informed my wife, my family, and several leaders in our church immediately. I got exceptional IT help from our Westwinds community and later learned they probably hacked my phone while I was in the airport. I am no longer threatened, and of course I changed my password, but today more than ever I’m grateful for the presence of God’s Spirit to keep me calm, help me make good decisions, and overcome the malice of this dark world as I endeavor to serve Christ.
Let’s consider how 1 Peter 5.6-11 applies to moments like these, and others—including depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies, heartache, betrayal, and all the other good stuff we thought only happened to people on reality television.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
First thing you’ve got to know is that the word for suffering literally means “trouble,” so this passage isn’t limited to religious intolerance at the hands of others but also includes any time the fit hits the shan.
But the more important thing to acknowledge is that, even though God doesn’t cause our troubles, he exploits them. God redeems our troubles, so that the very things that look to destroy us actually develop us. Nietzche said whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—but he learned that from the New Testament.
God uses trouble to restore you. It’s the same word we use for re-setting a fracture—you have to re-break it. Sometimes, the troubles we experience are a direct result of our own malformed beliefs and behaviors. And the only way God can take us further in our spiritual development is to allow us to suffer the consequences of our aberrations and then heal us in the proper fashion.
For example, I had some wrongheaded ideas about marriage early on, and those needed to be broken in order for me to understand how things could better please God and Carmel. I used to think we had to do absolutely everything together—same friends, same hobbies, same passions, same interests, same recoveries—and later I learned that, through the force of my personality, I was making Carmel chase me around like a lost dog, involved in all kinds of stuff she didn’t like but was willing to endure because she loved me. That can only last for so long, because people need something that’s theirs. Not just ours. Hers. Her career. Her friends. Her passions. She has to be her own woman, not just the woman married to me. Learning how to better love and serve my wife involved—for one painful season—some breaking and re-setting. And on the far side of those difficulties, our marriage is healthier, and we are happier.
God uses trouble to establish you, to make you solid as granite. Trouble either makes you collapse or forges your character in a way nothing else could. I remember once I visited a protégé at his new ministry. I had tutored him, mentored him, and loved him like a brother. He had been having public services for about a month and was gaining great traction in an innovative new church. I thought I’d surprise him and sneak in the back, only to discover a sizable portion of his sermon was a rant about me, how I was a fool and a buffoon. The whole room laughed, repeatedly, at his lengthy tale of my ideas about God. I was broken. Devastated. Perhaps a dozen of the other leaders in that ministry were people I had personally led to Christ, had into our home, fed—both spiritually and physically—and now they were berating me publicly. That could’ve been the end of my efforts to love and serve others. Instead, that was the first time I learned the truth, that people will hurt you, but loving them hurts less than hating them, and forgiveness doesn’t excuse their sin; it simply empowers your nobility.
God uses trouble to strengthen you. Without trouble, you’d become flabby. Trouble is like exercise—you endure it, and it makes you strong. When people become pastors later in life, they almost always flounder under the strange pressures of ministry. What other job requires you to befriend strangers, settle grievances, counsel families, pray for cancer, kiss babies, and debate the homiletical strategies of John Piper and Rick Warren before getting on stage to deliver a 3,000-word oral presentation by memory in a dark room full of cell phones, energy drinks, and wailing infants to a mixed group crossing 4 generations and at least 6 different theological backgrounds, ranging from Anglicans to Agnostics? Your job as a realtor, banker, social worker, or dentist has not adequately prepared you for this. Thank God we only work Sundays. But the troubles associated with ministry invariably make us stronger. Not just the pros. You, too. Because you’re ministering. You’re carrying each other’s burdens. And the first time someone told you they thought about suicide, you panicked. But now you’re ready. You’re going to help. You’re stronger and more capable because of what you’ve endured.
God uses trouble to settle you, meaning, you figure out that some things cannot be shaken. And this is the bread and butter of how you get through trouble. Your mind is not like a bed to be made and remade daily. On some things, at least, your mind has to be made up.
I’ve got a new book coming out soon called Murder, Fantasy, Torment, and Death. It’s excerpts from my prayer journals from the last 35 years. It’s raw. So raw we won’t carry copies in the bookstore at Westwinds. You’ll have to order it on Amazon. Because I didn’t write it for you. I didn’t write it for anyone. Those times when I wrote down my prayers were because I was in absolute distress. It’s all the most extreme heartache, fury, lust, and rage. But it also demonstrates that NO ONE HAS IT EASY. When I wrote The Adventure of Happiness, people often remarked that it must be easy to be happy when you’re privileged, funny, and naturally cheerful. They had no idea about my battles. My losses. And the fact that I can attest to the power of the Spirit because God sustained me in my troubles, rather than because I never had any to begin with. For those of you struggling with suicide, with depression, with loneliness and betrayal and heartache; with body-image and sexuality, this book is going to help you, and I encourage you to get it. We can delve far more deeply into those issues in a book that we can in a church full of children. It’s rated R, but everyone that’s seen the proof has attested to the fact that these raw moments are useful, helpful, and encouraging.
So, I want to teach you how to endure life’s worst moments in the best possible way. Because I know, and it’s largely a matter of renewing your mind. Of choosing to believe what the Scripture says about you, instead of what everyone else says about you—your circumstances, family, crappy friends, whatever. And it’s not, as many assume, about self-actualization or empowerment. Quite the contrary. The power for victorious living requires you to become Christ-centered—which means thinking of yourself less—and that’s not a popular idea among those peddling help for our mental illnesses, failed relationships, and broken dreams.
Here are 5 things you have to know to get through the worst things in the best possible way:
- The future is more important than the past. Even the recent past. Even what happened this morning. Your troubles are not the final episode in your life. You will persist. God will sustain you. And there is something better coming your way if you choose to embrace the Spirit and your identity as a new creation.
- Christ-in-me is more powerful than sin-in-me. We all sin. We all struggle with sin. We think our sin disqualifies us. It does not. Sin is a speed bump, not a brick wall. When we sin, we’re forced to slow down and deal with us. But that doesn’t mean God kicks us out of the car. What good is God’s grace if it’s not enough to deal with sin, with ongoing sin, with deliberate sin. His forgiveness is more powerful than your stupidity.
- You are not defined by the opinions of others, but by the Truth of the Scripture. Others think you’re useless, a fool, arrogant, whatever. But God says you’re being daily refined into the best possible version of yourself for his glory. You’re not there yet, but you’re not trash. You’re royalty. And no one can rob you of your inheritance.
- You have power. God’s Spirit lives in you, and is giving you strength, insights, perspective, and authority to make positive changes in your life. You’re not a victim. You don’t need to wait for someone to rescue you. You can take action. You can take responsibility for your thoughts, your behaviors, and your relationships.
- God is greater than your circumstances. When I got hacked, I said “Okay, Lord. If this is how I go down, so be it. I trust that you’re working on my behalf. That even if the worst should happen, you will sustain me and heal me.”
When you go through trouble, you’ve got to confess these things. We normally think of confession as something negative, like confessing sin; but the most powerful confessions are the declarations of Truth in the presence of a Lie—to remind yourself what God says, despite the fact that it looks like all hope is lost.
So the next time you wonder if you’re doing it right
Or if your children will be okay
The next time you’re crippled by inadequacy
Or are wondering about driving your Jeep into a tree
Or swallowing a bottle of pills and chasing them with liquor
I have a future
Christ has conquered the sin in me, the weakness in me, and the sorrow I feel right now
I am royalty
I have all the power, gifts, equipment and wisdom I need to make the changes God requires
God sustains those he loves, and he loves you