Erik Reed: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
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Erik ReedErik is the Founder and Lead Pastor of The Journey Church (tjclive.com) in Lebanon, TN, a church that exists to show Jesus as incomparably glorious. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries (kjmin.org), a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. Erik has been married to Katrina since 2002, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord on December 1st, 2019), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.
What’s it look like to trust God when bad things happen to good people? Author Erik Reed describes his search for God’s goodness amidst tragedy.
Erik Reed: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
Erik: My whole understanding to that point was that, if you just love Jesus and have enough faith, everything’s supposed to just fall in place—it's like cupcakes, rainbows, pixie dust—everything’s supposed to just be perfect. So here we are—young married; we’re young in our faith; we're serving in our church, eager and zealous for the Lord—and we have a son born early, with big-time medical issues, who has challenges.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: Okay, I've got an Ann Wilson-exclusive question.
Ann: Ahh, I hate these!
Dave: I want to hear your answer to—actually, I'm going to throw you on the spot—it's a pretty heavy topic.
Dave: Alright: “Top one reason you think people walk away from their faith,—
Dave: —if they have faith, and then they just like, ‘I don't think I can keep believing anymore’”?
Ann: “How could a good God allow this pain or tragedy in my life and in the world?”
Dave: How did you know? You knew I was going to ask that.
Ann: I think that's what everybody—
Dave: That was too quick of an answer; she knew!
Ann: No; I think everybody wonders that. And the people on the street that I'll talk to—that they have no belief or maybe they've turned away—it's tragedy; and they're like, “I just don't know how God could allow that.”
Dave: “How could a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
Dave: I mean, that is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hurdle for—not just other people—us as well. I mean, that's a real—and there aren’t any easy answers—so we've asked a pastor to come in. Erik Reed is with us today on FamilyLife Today. You've never been here, so welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Erik: Yes; thank you, guys, for having me. This is exciting.
Ann: It is.
Dave: I mean, obviously as a pastor, you've dealt with that issue; but we're going to find out today, as a husband and a dad as well.
You pastor a church in Lebanon, Tennessee,—
Erik: That's right.
Ann: —founded it.
Dave: —which I don't know exactly where it is; but it's east of—
Erik: —east of Nashville.
Erik: Yes; home of Cracker Barrel®. It’s where Cracker Barrel was started.
Dave: What?! Ohhh!
Erik: That's right; so you're welcome. [Laughter]
Ann: Your claim to fame right there.
Dave: Do you go there a lot?
Erik: Yes, pretty regularly.
Dave: Yes; I mean, it's like a hometown thing. We love Cracker Barrel.
Ann: I love Cracker Barrel.
Dave: Yes; so talk about this: “How many years ago did you plant this church?”
Erik: We turned 16 in the third week of January.
Dave: So you're driving.
Erik: Yes; we're driving. We got the license, and people probably need to watch out on the streets. [Laughter]
Dave: And married with two kids.
Erik: Married with two kids. My wife Katrina and I celebrate our 20th anniversary on June the 17th.
Dave: Well, good.
Take us back to December 1st, 2019. I don't know if you want to go there, but it was a pivotal moment in your life. Sort of tell us that story.
Erik: It was Sunday morning. My wife and I had been in the hospital with my son, Caleb, who was 15, going on a couple of weeks. Throughout his life, we had been in hospital, weeks at a time, multiple times a year; and so it wasn't a new thing for us. We were very comfortable with being in the hospital, more comfortable than most families probably would ever be. We were at home—we packed our bags; we had routines—my wife would tend to the girls; I would stay at the hospital with him. I had my stack of books with me, my computer. We just had routines; we knew what to do, because we had done it so many times.
It was on this day that we would realize that it wouldn't be like any of the other times. A few days prior to December 1st, doctors had come up to us and said, “We need to start talking about possibilities of what happens if Caleb doesn't get better.” Caleb had been dealing with respiratory issues that were a result of a lot of other things going on in his life. We can talk about that and how he got to this place, but his respiratory condition wasn't improving. That was the first time that we had to kind of stop and go, “Oh, my mercy; we may not go home like we have every other time.”
When the doctors told us that, we had to have some hard conversations—with each other/with his primary care doctors—and talk about: “Do we think that everything has been done that could be done?” We also were looking at a son, who had been struggling and suffering for really his whole life, but the last couple of years, in particular, in a big way.
So early that morning, after discussions with the doctors and just a lot of tears, we knew that we were at the end of the road. We went and talked to Caleb and asked him if he was ready to see Jesus. With his inability to talk at that point—because of the stroke and plus he had a BiPap machine mask on his face—we just asked him to blink twice if he was ready to see Jesus. He gave the biggest two blinks you could ever imagine.
At that point, our daughters were at church. We had family let them know that they needed to bring them up there to the hospital. Of course, we started calling our family and letting people know what was happening. Our daughters showed up to the hospital. I went out to meet them. Boy, walking them, hand in hand, down the long hallway to their brother’s room, knowing I was about to have to tell them that he was going to go be with Jesus soon was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. They just cried; and I just hugged them, and tried to console them as much as you can.
We went into the room together. Katrina, my wife, was in there with Caleb. We, all the five of us, got to spend some time together before the rest of the family came in and he passed away. We prayed and read Scripture over him. We sang 10,000 Reasons, his favorite song. You know that that last line:
And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.
We just filled the ICU with praises to God. He passed; and went into eternity and, face to face, with Christ. I prayed and gave thanks to God for a son that I got to have for
15-plus years and just asked Him to help us. And He has answered that prayer over and over again.
Ann: Oh, Erik, I mean, I'm sitting here, crying; because you've lived through the fear of every single parent, and you've walked that. I think what we're talking about today is: “How do we find God in the middle of our pain?” because so many people are living that/experiencing that.
Your book is called Uncommon Trust, which is a perfect title.
Dave: Yes; because you can walk us through, because you had to do it. Give us a little of the backstory of the 15 years of Caleb's life. It started out in the hospital when he was born; you knew [he] had complications.
Ann: And you were just starting to plant a church at that time?
Erik: That's right. I was just brand-new in ministry; we would start a church the next year. We were—I was brand new in ministry—I didn't have much theology under my belt. I had a lot of love for Jesus and a zeal.
Ann: And you didn't grow up in the church.
Erik: I didn’t. I would go to church with my grandmother when I spent the night with her on Saturdays, as a kid. It wasn't that I minded church, but it was just something that I did with grandma; my parents didn't go to church. It was one of those things, where not a lot of grounding/not a lot of depth or understanding.
Honestly, if December 1st, 2019, would have happened 15 years prior, I had no grounding at all. And honestly, even if you do have grounding, you still get rocked and your legs get wobbly. I had to jump into the deep end with no floaties on, as a young man, married just over a year; now, with my first child.
We learned that he had some medical issues; he was born premature at 30 weeks. He had a bad kidney that had cysts all over it, and he had a good kidney. We were told: “Hey, listen, all we have to do is get this bad kidney out. Once the bad kidney is out, he can live a normal life with one kidney.” Doctors were telling us: “People live with one kidney all the time and don't even know they only have one kidney.”
Dave: So you're 24?
Erik: Yes; at that time. When he was born, I'm 23, about to be 24—
Erik: —thrown into the deep end with a son, with big-time medical issues. I don't have any theological grounding at all on: “Okay, what do we do?” My whole understanding to that point was that, if you just love Jesus and have enough faith, everything’s supposed to just fall in place—it's like cupcakes, rainbows, pixie dust—everything’s supposed to just be perfect. And every story you hear—that's always supposed to be like somebody else’s story: it's like: “It's those people,”—it's never you.
We wanted to wait for him to get bigger before they took the kidney out. When he was born, what they did is they put a drainage tube in, that would help keep these cysts from filling up. It kept draining the cysts, which was good; but the tube in his side [was] sort of creating infections—he started/it started causing problems—he battled for those first two months, off and on, with getting infections. It became one of those things, where doctors are saying, “Okay, there's a risk/reward here:
- The longer we wait, and the bigger he gets, the better it will be for his surgery.
- The longer we wait, the more opportunity there is for serious infection; and he may not survive these infections.”
These are—you know, he's getting really sick when this happens—which then sets him back from getting bigger too. So finally, they came to us, two months after he was born, and said, “It's best to get this kidney out.”
Ann: Had he been hospitalized that whole time?
Erik: —the whole time.
Erik: We were in the NICU at that point. He was born at 30 weeks in the hospital. We stayed there the entire time, anticipating this surgery to come.
The day of surgery comes, and it's kind of anticipation; because the idea is like: “Hey, we're going to have surgery, and this is done/this nightmare is over.”
Ann: So you aren't worried; you are anticipating.
Erik: We were excited. Obviously, there's a little nerves: because it's a surgery; it’s your child. But the whole thing was like: “We're going to get this kidney out,”—right?—“Soon as he urinates, and we see that the good kidney is good,—
Dave: —“we're going home.”
Erik: —“going home.”
They did the surgery; he goes to recovery. He's in recovery—and then getting/put him back into a regular room—we're told, “Hey, the next morning—everything checks out and everything looks good—you guys will go home.”
So the next morning, I get up early, anticipating the doctors won't come ‘til lunchtime or so. Actually, when I had a side job, just because I was doing an internship at the church and—
Erik: —I’ve got to go make some money. I was actually installing satellite dishes like side jobs. I told her/I was like, “Katrina,”—I said—“I think I can go get a satellite put up this morning, come back to the hospital, load up; we’ll go home with Caleb.” I took off to go do a job.
She called me a couple hours later; she said, “You’ve got to get up here.” I said, “Oh, what's going on?” She's like, “I don't know; the doctors are running around. His blood pressure is really high. His heart rates’ really high. They're doing ultrasounds, but they're not telling me anything. You just get back up here; something's not right.”
Of course, I immediately go back. It's like a 35-minute drive, and it’s the longest drive of my life. I'm just like/I'm praying like, “God, I don't know what this means. I don't know what's going on. Please be with my son; be with my wife.” I'm just/I felt so helpless. I was like: “I can't get here any quicker; I’m just sitting here.” I'm crying, and I'm praying. I don't even know what I'm praying for, because I don't know what's wrong. I just felt so helpless; I'm crying out.
I get to the hospital. That's where we eventually learn—the surgeon comes in—he says, “I don't know any other way to say this, but there's been a mistake on the surgery. Instead of taking just his bad kidney out, we have accidentally removed his good kidney as well.”
Ann: So they took out both kidneys?
Erik: Both kidneys were taken out in the surgery. The way that they/the way that that happened was: he had what's called horseshoe kidneys. If you're—for listeners to imagine/think about—if I held my fists together, and then I'd/I link them together with my pinky fingers, right?—that idea that those two kidneys, represented by my fists, are connected. And now, instead of fists, think about little bitty thumbnails; because this is a little bitty baby, who's preemie.
They were connected together and then folded on top of each other. So when they go in to take the kidney out of his body/when they—when they go in for the surgery—they look in; they see the bad kidney facing them. They see the cyst; and they go, “Okay, there it is,” and they go to remove it, not realizing that, with that bad one, is the good one, connected to it.
Dave: Could they have separated them?
Erik: No; once it's out of the body, it's done.
Dave: No; I mean, if they had a known.
Erik: If they would have known, they could have; but nothing that had been done up to that point, in terms of testing and all those things, picked up the fact that that was the case.
Ann: So you're sitting in this hospital, hearing—
Erik: —sitting here in the room, with him sitting beside us: blood pressure levels up 200/100—blood pressures’ 240/130—I mean, stroke-level blood pressure.
Ann: They say this to you and your wife.
Ann: What do you feel in the moment?
Erik: Numb. And the surgeon was so heartless—even when he/he said, “It's unfortunate,”—
Dave: He literally used those words?
Erik: —just deadpan; those were his exact words.
Looking back—and there's a story even about—I mean, you talk about a journey of having to learn to forgive him. His bedside manners were non-existent. I'm sure he was stunned; I'm sure he, too, was in a place of unbelief over what had happened. But his deadpan delivery—and his, “It's unfortunate,”—felt so indifferent; it felt so calloused.
When he left the room, we just looked each other—like I was so naive at that point in my life—I was just like, “But what does that mean? Can they put it back in?” I'm so naive at that point; I don't/I mean, I don't have any reason to know about kidneys. [Laughter]
Dave: Right, right.
Erik: It's like I got them, I think, so I don't need to know anything particular; right? I knew nothing.
My wife looked at me—she understand the full implications—she says “You can't live without kidneys, Erik”; that's when it hit me. Then the next question is: “What can we do?” Your mind immediately goes to solution: “What can we do? What's happening? What's the next step?”
We end up having a meeting later, with a team of doctors and hospital administrators. I mean, it was me and my wife at a conference table full of very important people. They're asking us and discussing with us what we want to do.
Ann: —these 24-year-old kids.
Erik: —never had a child; don't know anything about life. They look at us and they say, “We've got two approaches.” They said, “We can do something we've never done with a child this size,”—and this is at one of the top hospitals in the country—“or we can do nothing.”
Erik: And I asked/I said, “What does that mean?” And they said, “Your son will pass.”
I said, “Well if there is something that can be done, we would like to try to do that. If you think that it could be effective, we would like to try to do that.” They said, “Okay.” That meant the next thing that needed to happen was a surgery to place dialysis catheters. And what we would have to do is get him big enough to get a kidney transplant. He had to have an adult kidney in—even in a child—
Erik: —because of all the blood vessels. It would be so small if they were from a child, that they would just clot off; and it would be ineffective. They had to get you big enough/a baby has to be big enough to get an adult kidney.
We knew it was going to be a process. The only way to get to that process was dialysis. To start dialysis on a little bitty baby/they had never done that. They end up having surgery; we end up getting a catheter in. They end up—we were there I think another month or two—just getting his body back regulated: blood pressure down, getting all the fluid off of him. Then we get to go home with a kid that needed to do dialysis every night at home. After a year, the dialysis quit working; because he started getting infections and had to put new catheters in. The catheters wouldn't work.
So we had to shift over to a different kind of dialysis, which they do where they run your blood through a machine. That required us going to the hospital three days a week, three to four hours at a time. For the first two years, that was our lives with him.
Ann: I want to sit on the floor and just cry—imagining the two of you enduring this/walking through this, holding onto each other, praying for/hoping your son would make it—and thinking about all the dreams that you had for this little boy.
Shelby: You're listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Erik Reed on FamilyLife Today. We're going to hear Erik's response in just a minute. But first, we'd love to send you a copy of Erik’s book, Uncommon Trust: Learning to Trust God When Life Doesn't Make Sense; and I think we've all been there. It's our gift to you when you make a donation of any amount this week to support the work of FamilyLife Today and become a partner.
We are, as you may know, listener-supported. So if you've been blessed by FamilyLife Today, consider paying it forward and becoming a partner with us. You can give at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call with your donation at 1-800-358-6329. Again, the number is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann’s conversation with Erik Reed.
Erik: I grew up, imagining having a son. In fact, that's all I ever imagined was having a son. I was an athlete; I love playing sports. I always thought about: “I can't wait to have a boy to play ball in the yard with and do all these things.” And now, all of a sudden, here we are with our world turned upside down. After it happened, my wife couldn't even go into the room and see him. For days, she was so devastated; she couldn't even look at him.
A life-changing moment for me was the day after it happened. I went into his room; there's a rocking chair in there. He's in there, hooked up to all kinds of things, and machines are beeping. I had my Bible; I had a notebook. Of course, I haven't preached any sermons at this point in my life. I'm going in there for survival; I'm not looking for content. I just had my Bible and said, “God, I just need to know what to do, what to think, how to survive, how to help my wife.” I didn't even know where to turn. I'm just/I'm flipping around. I'm just/I don't know what I'm looking for, but I know I'm looking.
I'm flipping; I'm flipping. I'd read a few things; and nothing was resonating, where it was like, “Oh, okay God; You’ve got my attention here.” I got to the book of Daniel—and again, not growing up in church, at that point in my life, it isn’t like I voraciously just tore through the Bible and had it all implanted—I get to Daniel; the only thing I know about Daniel is like, “Oh, yes; the lions’ den. I know what happens there.”
Dave: The lions you know.
Erik: Yes; I remember the Sunday school flannel graphs and all those things.
I got to Daniel when, for whatever reason, I started reading right there in Chapter 1. The very first thing that happens in Daniel 1 is God allows for Nebuchadnezzar to go in and take Jerusalem/to take Israel and turns them upside down. These young men, and all the best and brightest of the land, get ripped, kicking and screaming out of their homes, out away from their families—dreams gone; everything changed in a moment—sent away: new identities, new names, new language, new everything.
I remember reading that; I just stopped. I was like/I felt like that's how I felt—like our world’s turned upside down; everything has changed now—I felt I could identify with these people.
And this is a true story—I had no idea where the story was even going—like, at this point in my life, I'm like,—
Dave: You’re just Chapter 1.
Erik: —“What's going to happen to them?”—you know? [Laughter]
Erik: But I was drawn in, especially by the idea that it says, “And God gave over Jehoiakim to Nebuchadnezzar, and Judah.” I just/I just sat there and was like, “Okay; well, now what?” I kept reading; and you eventually get introduced to Meshach, Shadrach, Abednego; and you see the command to bow down. They won't do it; and all of a sudden, they get summoned to Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar says, “This is it; this is your chance. Here's the fiery furnace. You can feel the heat on your face. Bow down and worship me and live. What god will save you from my hands?”
And their response to him—it was like the page/it exploded into life—when they said, “The God whom we serve is able to save us…” I wrote down in my little notebook: “God can save us.” I turned over, and I looked at my son; and I thought, “Okay, God, I know You can save him. I know this isn't the end of the story. I know you have his life.” I just sat there, kind of hopeful for a second, like “Yes, that's right. You are the God who can save,”—to think throughout Scriptures—like: “You’re the God who rescues Your people out of Egypt. You're the one that parts the Red Sea. You're the One that can send manna. You can do all things.” I was charged with hope in that moment.
And then I read the rest of the verse—
Dave: I was going to say, “…but if He doesn’t…”
Erik: —and I was wrecked by that when I read: “…but even if He doesn't/but if not, we will still not bow down and serve you.” And guys, at this point, I just sat there, really probably with a just a blank stare. I probably had a 1000-yard stare on my face, if you'd walked into that room. I was grappling with this idea that they were committed to following Him, even if He didn't rescue them.
I was wrestling with—I loved/I loved the idea that our God could save us—I was like, “Why didn’t He just put the period there?”—right? —“Why not stop?
Ann: You’re cheering, like, “Yes!”
Erik: “Just stop that right there is good enough for me”; you know?
I just started to really work through, like, “There's something in the theology of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that understood God could absolutely save them, but that God was under no obligation to do it.” And here's the thing—and that did not anger them—they were resolved and surrendered to say, “Whatever He wills.”
Guys, I’ll just be honest: I just/I wasn't there in my life. I could grasp with my mind exactly what they were saying. My heart could not comprehend: “Why wouldn't God rescue my son?” But I knew what I was listening to—what I was reading, what I was looking at, what I was thinking about—I knew it was right. I knew: “I don't know how to get there, but I know there is where we have to be.”
Shelby: You've been listening to FamilyLife Today. Now, what would you do if you randomly bumped into the surgeon, who critically messed up your son's kidney surgery? That seems like an impossible situation, but that is exactly what happened to Erik Reed. He's going to be talking about what he did, how he felt, and how he reacted in our time tomorrow. I hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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