The Pressure of Difficulties
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Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Shelby Abbott reminds listeners that the gospel has solutions for everyday pressures. Abbott tells of a time when the pain from a herniated disc had him scrambling to understand the character of God.
The Pressure of Difficulties
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, August 9th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson, and I’m Bob Lepine. The instant culture we’re living in is not only having a negative effect on character, it’s also leaving a lot of college-aged young people really stressed out. We’re going to talk with Shelby Abbott about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know what I remember about my freshman year in college? Two things I remember—
Dave: I can’t wait to hear.
Bob: I remember going to see a movie on a Tuesday night—a school night—I could go out on my own—I didn’t have to ask anybody. I could go to the movies on a school night. I didn’t even care about the movie. I just wanted to go to a movie on a school night.
Bob: Yes. And I remember the first time at 10 o’clock at night, I was hungry, and there was a place nearby that would deliver pizza at 10 o’clock at night. I was like—“I am living the dream. I can go to the movies on a Tuesday night. I can order pizza at 10.” I mean, how much better does it get than that? Do you remember the feeling of, like—“There are things I can do that I was never able to do before?”
Ann: I just was sad I didn’t have a car because at UK we couldn’t have cars our freshman year. I thought, “Oh!”
Dave: Here is what I remember. I think I ordered a pizza every single night. [Laughter] I’m not kidding—every night. I was just like you, Bob. They’re going to bring it to our dorm—
Bob: I know.
Dave: —and I get to eat anything I want at any time. That was freedom.
Bob: It was—it was pretty amazing. So, I do remember kind of this—the world is new. There are things about life that I’ve never experienced before.
Bob: With that comes pressure. My daughter—I think if she were here, she would tell you about one of the things she remembers—was getting the credit card that she didn’t tell Mom and Dad about.
Bob: —and then about charging things to the credit card that Mom and Dad didn’t know anything about, and then not being able to pay off the credit card that she had charged things to.
Ann: I bet she felt pressure with that.
Bob: That was the time Mom and Dad got involved when they found out that she couldn’t pay it off. That’s when—yes, we had to have some—
Dave: What did you do?
Dave: Did she pay it off?
Bob: Here’s what we did because I detest the whole high, exorbitant interest rate thing. So, I said, “Here’s how this is going to work. You are paying me.”
Bob: And I paid the credit card, and she paid me back—
Dave: 38 percent?
Bob: —from—I charged her a little—no. [Laughter] I kept her out of that, but those are the kinds of pressures and lessons. We’re talking about this because the college experience can be an invigorating experience for young people. It can be life altering in either positive or negative ways for young people and can be full of pressure which is what Shelby Abbott has been addressing with us this week on FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us again.
Shelby: Thanks for having me.
Bob: Shelby has written a book called Pressure Points. The subtitle is A Guide to Navigating Student Stress. You hope that this book would help college students understand that stress is not abnormal—and that the real way to address it is not behavior modification—but it’s to understand the gospel.
Shelby: Yes; it’s a totally different approach when you’re talking about college students who are Christians who follow Jesus. There’s a different level of, kind of, what it means—because you are asking questions, maybe, that other college students are like—“What’s my purpose? How do I interact with people well? What happens when hard things happen? How am I going to deal with those in a way that is different than the average college student around me? How am I going to be processing things? What am I going to think about? Where am I going to go to?”
So, my goal is to push them toward the beauty and the truth of the gospel through this book and help them to understand that Jesus provides, not only future help and glory, but present every day, right now—right here—love, guidance, and grace. That’s what I’m going for.
Bob: I think it’s really important that listeners understand what you’ve just said because, for years, here is how I viewed the Gospel—the Gospel is the message that we hear that introduces us to Jesus where we learn about salvation. We respond to it, now we’re children of God—now we move on to other things.
Shelby: Right; yes.
Bob: What you’re saying is the Gospel is the message that you need to be reminded of regularly in order to deal with the things that life is throwing at you. It’s not like you need the new message or the different message or the deeper things. That’s almost a gnostic tendency; but you need—you need to be reminded of the Gospel and see how it applies to the fact that you’re facing pressure today or you’ve got relationship stress or whatever it is that is going on in your life.
Shelby: We’re never Gospel graduates. We never move beyond the “simplicity” of the Gospel. In fact, the book of Hebrews talks about angels staring into the Gospel and never getting bored with it because Jesus didn’t die for the angels—He died for us. They are enamored with that—the thing in which angels long to look. We shouldn’t ever be bored with the Gospel. I heard a pastor once say, “If you’re bored in your Christian faith, you are doing it wrong.”
So, helping people to understand that the Gospel isn’t just this message that changed the eternity of my soul—which it is—it’s something that can then affect my daily life in a very real and practical way. I’m a practical guy, and I want to make sure we are dealing with the practical issues that students are going through—not just these ephemeral, spiritual things.
Bob: Here’s how that functions for me. Every day, I mess up at stuff.
Shelby: I believe that. [Laughter]
Bob: And so do you; all right? We’ll throw that in.
Bob: So, I need to be reminded every day that there is grace and forgiveness for the messing up I did today.
Bob: I need to be reminded of that every day.
Secondly, I am in need of transformation every day. I need to be a different person than the person I was—and God is at work doing that transforming work. That’s the promise of the gospel. So, I need to remember God is still at work in my life. He’s changing me—so, to remember that every day.
And I have a hope for whatever I am facing today that looks hopeless—there may be circumstances that look hopeless—but I have a hope that is beyond what my circumstances are presenting to me. So, every day, I need to think about that and remember that. Forgiveness, transformation, and hope are the words that I keep coming back to that say, “In the daily-ness of life I need to be reminded that the promises of Jesus apply to those areas of my life.”
Shelby: Yes; the gospel is true whether things are great or they’re—things are going poorly.
For me, a lot of this—and I address this a little bit in the book, too—of when hard times come, that’s really where the rubber meets the road. We start to go—“Maybe, it’s not just about I do the Christian life and then God gives me—like a vending machine—blessings the way that I want”—because, many years ago, my wife and I ran this race called the Broad Street Run which is a ten mile race down the center of Philadelphia.
About a week after we ran this race, I started to feel this really sharp pain in the back of my leg. I was like—“What is this feeling?” I was on a missions’ trip over the summer. So, my doctor couldn’t deal with it at the time. He said, “When you get back from the missions’ trip, just come see me.” So, I kind of gritted my teeth through it. It just felt like someone was stabbing an ice pick into the back of my leg.
I went to the doctor. They took some blood to check whether I had Lyme’s Disease. They ran a bunch of tests, did an MRI, and x-rays. It turned out that I had a bulging herniated disc in my L5 and S1 vertebrae that was putting pressure on my sciatic nerve causing the radiating pain down my leg.
He prescribed some anti-inflammatory medication and some physical therapy. I did that—didn’t work. I went for three different series of shots of stuff right into my back. That didn’t work. I went to three different chiropractors. I even went to an acupuncturist, and nothing worked. I went to see the top neurosurgeon at Penn Medicine. He said, “There’s—everything that I’m seeing on your MRI here would not communicate to me that I need to do surgery. In fact, you can go into surgery and even come out with more pain.”
So, ten years later, I’ve been living with chronic pain—something that I never would have chosen for myself. I never would have looked at a list of ways I could suffer and go—“I’ll take physical pain.” That’s what I’ve been dealing with. Like I said, when your faith rubs up against the reality of pain and suffering and difficulty, you start to look at your relationship with God and the nature of the gospel in ways that you never did before. You start to examine, “What do I really believe about God? What do I really think He wants from me? What do I think He is really capable of doing in my life?”
I’ve been able to—not only identify with Christ sufferings in that way—but students are going through hard things themselves. They’re losing parents to cancer. I know students who have gone through their parents getting a divorce—failing out of school—there’s a number of different things that they experience in terms of hardships. How are they going to deal with that in a real way that’s biblical, that draws them closer to God and helps them to see that the gospel is applicable in their lives in the good times and in the bad?
Dave: Talk personally about the gospel in your situation applied to that pain—because what a beautiful illustration—easy for me to say. I had the surgery—the pain went away. I know that physical pain; but looking at you, I would not know you have that pain. Looking at college students—most people—the pain is hidden. So, how do you apply the gospel practically to that pain?
Shelby: What I realized, kind of, maybe, eight years into—so way too late—was that I had been living most of my life as when something difficult happens, my immediate, knee-jerk reaction was to look at it and say, “When is this going to end?”
Shelby: “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? When is this going to stop?”
What this experience did was help me not so much look toward the end of the race, so to speak, when things will be over—but look to the side to be able to see Jesus running alongside me in this race with me every step of the way with understanding in His eyes—because He gets it. Then I would be so enamored my relationship with Him that—as He runs alongside me—that I wouldn’t even really know whether or not I even crossed the finish line because life with God is really what the goal of Christian life should be.
It’s not like—“Hey, when will you make this better”—because I discovered, in my own heart, at least—and I’m not saying that for everyone who suffers—but in my own heart, I wanted God for what He could give me—what He could bless me with—as opposed to God Himself. I wanted the blessings of God more than I wanted a relationship with God.
This suffering has led me to a point where I’ve been able to—number one—admit that; but then come to a conclusion that says, “You know what? A life with God is better than a life without Him where everything feels fine.” Plus, I get to identify in Christ’s sufferings in a way that draws me closer to Him—and that’s helped me to feel even more special in the fact that I’m suffering in a way that helps me to see God in ways that I never would have before if I had not suffered.
Ann: I talk to many people that, when they envision Jesus running beside them, they are angry with Him and accusing Him for allowing this suffering. How would you respond to that because you went the opposite? You’re saying, “I need You to run beside me. I’m seeing You. I’m watching You. I’m walking in the truth of the gospel.” What do you say when someone says, “He caused this,” or “He let this happen in my life.”
Shelby: Yes; I think it’s—maybe—a perspective—and I didn’t get it right away.
I remember like standing in my bathroom with my head buried in the towels hung from the towel rack just crying my eyes out when one the injections that was in my back that the doctor accidentally clipped the nerve and it spasmed for, like, two days—it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever been in in my life.
I realized in that moment as I was crying, I was like—“God, take this away. Why are You doing this to me? Why are You doing this to me—instead of helping me to get better so that I could really do ministry better—do life better—be a better husband—better father—all that kind of stuff?”
I think the realization I came to was that He graciously ushers those things into our lives as a means to help us kick ourselves off the thrown of our lives—to help us realize that He is the one who is in charge. God is the ultimate desire of our hearts. When in reality most of the time, what we settle for is a sugar substitute. It’s that perspective where you need to back up and go—“Okay; I definitely want to be pain free more than I want a relationship with God.” Well, that immediately reveals the idol of your heart. It really does.
The idol is there. The idol needs to be executed—it needs to be killed. Now, I look at stories like—from when the Israelites are waiting for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and after a while, they are like—“We need a god to worship.” Aaron is like—“All right; give me your earrings and your necklaces. I’ll go ahead and fashion a golden calf. By the way, this golden calf that I made—he’s the one who brought you out of Egypt.” “YAY!” 40 days—that is all it took—40 days for them to completely abandon God.
I read that, and then I go—“They are so stupid!” But then, I go—“Oh, wait. I’m so stupid!”
Ann: I do that.
Shelby: Yes. “I’m so stupid. I want to worship a life of comfort and ease and painlessness more than I want to worship God, Himself.” God was gracious enough and kind enough to me to not allow me to experience a life without pain before I got in my heart that I wanted Him more.
Dave: I remember the night before my back surgery, gripped with fear—and for whatever reason—I felt like God led me to Psalm 34. I remember—I’ll never forget this moment. I’m lying there, and I’m just—in the quietness, I read this—“I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in mouth.” I’m like—“Nope. Not me.” That’s what I thought. I’m like—“I can’t praise You right now. I just want You to do what You do. You’re God. That’s what You’re supposed to do. Heal this.”
Then it says, “My soul makes its boasts in the Lord. Let the humble hear and be glad.” I’m like—“Nope.” That’s where I was. “Oh, magnify the Lord with me. Let us exalt His name together.” I still was like—“I just can’t get there.” Then I read verse four—“I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” I’m like—“That’s why I’m reading Psalm 34 right now—I am gripped with fear. Who is going to remove that?”
It was—He’s right here. Just turn to the side. What you just said—He’s going to heal me in a different way through a surgeon with a beautiful gift called medical science—and He’s right here.
Then I’ll never forget as I got down to verse 18: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” I remember just praying and just saying, “Okay, God, we get to go through this tomorrow together, and I know you’re with me. I think I’m going to be better man because of this pressure and this pain that I’ve seen You meet me in and through it.” I was applying—in your words—the gospel.
Dave: He’s right here.
Shelby: One of the things that has really helped me to understand what I truly believe about my relationship with God is the way I’m able to explain stuff to my children.
I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old. About a year ago, I had this growth that was on my neck—like this bump. So, we scheduled an appointment and went in. It was like outpatient. Right there in the doctor’s office, they just numbed it, cut it, put two stiches in, and then I was done.
I’ll never forget. Later on that day, I went to pick up my daughter from gymnastics; and I told them about the surgery I had that they cut open my neck and they took this thing out. My five-year-old goes—“The doctor cut your neck.” I was like—“Yes; he did.” She goes—“Did you forgive him?” I was like—“Sweetie, I love your heart—but no, I didn’t need to forgive him because he’s my doctor. He cares about me. He wants what’s best for me. Sometimes, when we want to get better, sometimes, that means surgery—but we trust the one who takes care of that for us because it’s a process.”
I remember lying in bed and praying those things, too, when my leg was throbbing: “Lord, You can do this right now if You wanted to. You could take it away right now. Would You please do that?”—begging and just saying, “Please You can. Why won’t You? You can. Why won’t You?”—and recognizing that God is with you in those times whether they be excruciating physical pain or emotional pain or the pain of the fact that you are failing a class.
Regardless of what someone is going through, there’s always going to be difficulty in the lives of people who they could compare and say, “Oh, well, I’ve got it off worse than you do”—but talking to college students and recognizing that—“Hey, your pain is legitimate.
Things are going to be hard, and they may seem fine right now, but they are going to be hard. Where are you going to go when the pressure hits? You can run to your old ways of coping with things, or you could run to the open embrace of the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That’s where I’m encouraging people to go. That’s where I want people to run.
Bob: I’m just looking at the whole last section of your book, Pressure Points, and the third section is about difficulties and how that brings pressure into our lives. I’m hearing you say it also brings character development—it also brings sanctification—to use the theological term—it’s a good gift from God even in the midst of what we’re going through; and God is drawing us to Himself.
He says, “Though you walk through the valley of the shadow—I am with you.” He doesn’t say, “I will keep you out of the valley of the shadow.” He says, “I’ll go through it with you, and we’re going to go through some hard places and some hard times and some painful things—but I’ll be there, and it’ll be for your good and I’ll get glory for it.”
Shelby: Patience is never built quickly. It’s never, ever built quickly. It’s one of those things.
Ann: Oh, I wish it was; don’t you?
Shelby: Yes; I do. It’s one of those things that—especially in today’s culture, too, we’re used to getting things immediately.
I quote this one guy, Simon Senik, who is kind of a cultural guru right now. He’s like—“Young people today don’t need to wait for anything. If you want to watch a movie, you log online and watch a movie—you don’t go to the theater. If you want to buy something, you don’t go to the store—you order it on Amazon, and it arrives the next day. If you want music, you get it immediately. If you want a date, even—and I’ve addressed this before—you just swipe right. Boom—you’re done.”
But there is no app for character. There is no app for integrity. That’s one of the things that young people need to realize in a way. It will determine the course of their future.
You mentioned, like, where people are going to run—and it reminded me of when the 72 come back to Jesus after they’ve done all these crazy things in His name and then He says, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Everybody is like—“What?! You’re a weirdo. We’re out of here.” They run away. Then, as they go away, He spins on His heels and looks at the disciples—the twelve and says, “What about you? Are you going to leave too?” Peter goes—“Where else am I going to go? You have the words of eternal life.”
My hope is that with this book—regardless of what hits and the pressure points of life—whether it be purpose, relationships, or difficulties—that we would look to Jesus and go—“Where else am I going to go because You have the words of eternal life.”
Bob: Well, really, for our kids, it starts in elementary—maybe middle school—high school—but they start to experience difficulties and rejection and challenges and pain. Part of God’s design for them is to take them through those moments to teach them to lean on Him and to trust Him. It’s where you point college students in the book, Pressure Points, which, again, we want to commend to listeners.
This is a great book for young people to go through as they’re headed toward the college campus or in their first semester to go through it with other students and campus ministry. We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online to order your copy. Shelby, again, thank you for taking time to be with us and to talk about this today.
Shelby: As Chick-fil-A says, “My pleasure.” [Laughter]
Bob: Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of Shelby’s book, Pressure Points. Order it from us online, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, our website, FamilyLifeToday.com—or order by calling 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I know David Robbins, the President of FamilyLife who is joining us here—I know you have known Shelby Abbott who has been on the program with us today. You’ve known him for a while, and you are really a fan of his; aren’t you?
David: Yes. I mean I’m a fan because he really is effective with the next generation. I have watched him with college students and with 20-somethings and how he ministers and effectively pushes people to Jesus. People really surrender and really grow and form and disciple under some of his tools and his resources of ministry.
I think one of the things Shelby does—that really all of us can do—is that he simply believes in the next generation. He believes that Ephesians 2:10 is for them. He doesn’t belittle the next generation. He goes—“Okay; you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, and He has prepared in advance things for you to step into.” That is his posture to them.
He really takes Psalm 145 seriously of one generation commending God’s works to the next generation. You know many of us have kids who are millennials or Gen Z or people in your church that God’s put around you—and they so long for people to invest in them. I think we, sometimes, need to shift our posture to really believing God has His hand on this generation just like He’s had His hand on our generation. He wants His ways to be known and to be declared. Let’s call out the best in them, not just be frustrated with them.
Bob: Shelby models that for us, and hopefully, we can all follow that model—that example. Thank you, David.
With that, we’re done for the week. Thanks for joining us. Hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend. Then I hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk about the importance of perseverance in every aspect of life—but particularly in your marriage and in your family. Kyle Idleman joins us to talk about that—about not giving up. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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