About the Guest
Has God ever let you down? Jerry Sittser lost his wife, mother and daughter in a tragic accident that left him wondering, "Why?" Then a friend challenged him with the thought, "Why not?" Rethinking his expectations about life and Christianity, Jerry came to realize that God didn't promise him a pain-free life, but promised instead to be with him in his loss and suffering.
Jerry SittserGerald Sittser is professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University, where he has served for 30 years. Over the past few years he has worked with many partner churches to engage the culture and equip disciples with the good news of Jesus. He has written nine books, among them A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss and A Grace Revealed, The Will of God as a Way of Life, Water From a Deep Well: Ch...more
Has God ever let you down?
Bob: Jerry Sittser will never forget the moment when a car crossed the center line and hit his car head on, claiming the lives of his mother, his wife, and his young daughter.
Jerry: I bet a tape played a thousand times of figuring out how I could reverse the events of that day. I’d stop at a stop sign for one second longer. I’d change the seating in the van; anything that would give me that two second window of time that would have spared us that tragedy because I didn’t want it to be true. Who would want it to be true?
Well, I started thinking I’d want to reverse this and I’d want to reverse that because I want a perfect life. But that’s not what the Gospel promises us. The Gospel promises us a resurrected life.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, November 21st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about finding God in the midst of pain and sorrow and suffering.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to revisit a subject today that we’ve spent some time exploring; but we thought there were some aspects of this particular topic that we really needed to unpack a little further, right?
Dennis: That’s right. Suffering is such a part of life and I think a part of the Christian life. I look back on my beginning steps of faith and it was so much of a Pollyanna faith, thinking that there was going to be this life of blessing and obedience. You know, I’ve failed many times and there have been valleys and mountaintops and all sorts of terrain in between. In the midst of all of it, God is there. He uses those valleys to shape and mark us in profound ways. I’m grateful to my wife who joins us on the broadcast; Barbara, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Barbara Rainey: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Dennis: She gave me this book A Grace Disguised which is subtitled How the Soul Grows through Loss; it’s by our guest on today’s broadcast, Dr. Jerry Sittser. Jerry, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Jerry: It’s an honor to be here.
Dennis: Jerry is Professor of Theology at Whitworth University. He has his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago and he’s a Dodger fan. (Laughter)
We found that out on a previous broadcast.
Bob: And we also found out on a previous broadcast about your experience more than 18 years ago. You and your family were traveling back from Idaho to Washington when a car swerved across the middle line and came right at you. There was a subsequent car accident that took the life of your wife, your youngest daughter, and your mother. It left you and three children as survivors who have had to deal with this issue of loss over the last two decades now.
Dennis: Right. Jerry, you’ve been gracious to allow us to peer into what God has taught you around this subject. Again, I’m grateful that Barbara passed your book on because we needed your advice and your story to identify with as we went through the loss of a granddaughter with our daughter Rebecca and her husband Jake. This was the book that most ministered to us in that process.
One of the questions that people ask when they go through a period of suffering is… It’s a two word question.
Jerry: “Why me?” It’s a reflective question. You can’t help but ask that question: “Why me?” We often blame God in the wake of some kind of loss. We think that He’s in control of the universe and He simply failed to do His job. I asked that question, too. “Why me?”
But somewhere along the line a friend challenged me and said, “Why not you?” It got my mind thinking down a different track than I had previously thought about. Why not me? Why should I be different from the rest of fallen and struggling humanity? Why should I be somehow spared?
I think behind the why me question was this expectation that I really have a right to this sort of nice middle class life, a gated community, with three or four wonderful kids, all of whom are going to have children and live within a mile of my house. We’ll all go to the same church and all play soccer and musical instruments.” (Laughter)
When I started to ask the question, “Why not me?” it opened up a whole new world for me, not to just think about, but to feel deeply. For example, I started to think about my identification with the rest of the world. There are people whose daily life is constant suffering. They are refugees. They experience war. They are in a society where they have to struggle constantly with malnutrition or AIDS or something like that.
We’re not talking about a handful of people. We are talking about hundreds of millions of people. Why is it that my life should be better than theirs? Now, I know this sounds kind of harsh and even kind of preachy to say, but you have to realize I was thinking and feeling this myself. This was my own personal struggle to ask the question, “Why not me? Why should I live a privileged life?”
I’ll tell you one of the things it did - it caused me to rethink what I was expecting from the Christian life in the first place. I started thinking more in terms of holiness of life; impact of my life. I started thinking differently about how I was going to raise my kids.
Ten years after the accident I took my kids to Kenya for a summer and I taught at a university. My kids did service at a Mother Teresa orphanage over the course of the summer. You have to think about what this is like. At the time, they were 17, 15, and 11. (Laughter) They would ride this van through a slum of 250,000 people, cardboard shacks, corrugated tin. No plumbing. No electricity. No services whatsoever; just a sea of suffering humanity.
Then they would go into this little gated orphanage that had 90 percent kids that either had AIDS or were the children of AIDS victims, lots of disabilities. They would spend five or six hours just caring for these kids: playing with them, feeding them, rocking them, working with these African nuns.
I will tell you - it had an impact on the lives of my children! As they thought about this part of humanity: Did these children choose any of these things? Was this the product of the course that they had set for their lives? They were victims like we were. It gave us a sense of kind of identifying with the larger community of suffering around the world. We found it profoundly meaningful.
Dennis: There is also a community of suffering throughout history within the Christian faith as well.
Jerry: There is. I teach “History of Christianity” as a part of my living at a university. One of my goals in my teaching is to help my students realize that we are talking about realpeople. Sometimes I tell them personal stories of suffering.
Dennis: One of those stories is about a famous Christian leader who gave birth to the reformation.
Jerry: Martin Luther. Luther was a monk - an Augustinian monk - and obviously, when he gave his vows to become a monk, he was assuming he wouldn’t marry. He stayed single until he was 40, but after the reformation got underway he chose to marry as a witness, a witness to the Gospel. As he said, “I’m choosing to marry to please my father and to spite the Pope.”
Jerry: And he could be kind of nasty and a little sarcastic sometimes. He married at the age of 40. He married Katharina von Bora, a nun who was 26. She had been smuggled out of a nunnery in an empty pickle barrel. He tried to marry her off to somebody else but couldn’t find someone, so he married her himself. (Laughter)
He’s at the age of 40 when he marries - just imagine this. She is 26 and they had six children. They lived quite a life. They really were, kind of, architects of our modern notion of family life. They took over an old monastery. They had people living with them; sometimes thirty people – riffraff, students, elderly. She became an excellent herbalist and raised a big garden. They raised those six children.
Dennis: And you were speaking of unwrapping these stories of great Christian leaders in history around their suffering. Martin Luther and his wife were no strangers to that aspect of the Christian faith.
Jerry: They weren’t. They had six children, as I said. Two of them died; one in infancy. The other one, the more painful experience for Martin Luther was the loss of Magdalena when she was 13. In his Table Talk, there are several pages devoted to the loss of Magdalena by both Luther’s reflections as well as some other people. It’s just powerful. It is a moving story of loss.
History is full of these kinds of examples. What I discovered is that I belong to a community of suffering; not just around the world, but one that goes through all of history.
Bob: Jerry, you’ve talked about how we become conditioned to this entitlement mentality. We just grow up expecting that life should and will go right for us and we will not experience suffering. I think there is another aspect. I think there are some who look at their faithfulness or obedience to Christ and think, “If I am faithful and obedient, then God owes me a life that does not include suffering.”
Jerry: Or, “If I have enough faith, I’ll never suffer.” Or, “If I do suffer, my faith is going to be able to reverse it.” You know, there is a lot of teaching out there in the Christian community today that almost gives us this impression that we can pretty much get our way. As if God is kind of a vending machine and if we figure out how to pray the right formulas or how to conjure up enough faith, we’ll be able to have God do for us what we think He ought to do. We have a very narrow understanding of what that is.
In other words, we are hungry for miracles. Now, I believe in miracles. I’ve seen miracles. I had a deadly disease when I was 28 and I was on my deathbed. My doctors called in the family and said, “Say goodbye to him.” And I recovered. I recovered quickly and miraculously from that, so I’m not a stranger to miracles.
I do not think that miracles are a guarantee that we are going to live this perfect, nice, convenient, middle-class existence. Miracles occur to be witnesses to the power of the Gospel and God’s resurrection life. They don’t happen all the time. Jesus didn’t heal everybody. He didn’t feed everybody. He did it on occasion to bear witness to His identity as the Son of God and Savior of the world.
The problem with a miracle is that it gives us a reversal of something; but that reversal does not mean life is going to be perfect from that moment on. I think, for example, of the raising of Lazarus. He was resuscitated from the dead. When Jesus delayed His visit for a couple of days, Mary met Him at the road and said, “Lord, if You had been here, this would not have happened.” It’s a very typical statement that all of us have said before God. “If you had been here, this would not have happened.”
Jerry: Well, Jesus came through. Jesus resuscitated Lazarus and he came back to life. The problem with the miracle is that Lazarus died again. We don’t know how. He might have died of cancer five years later. It might have been hideous and prolonged. The real miracle of that story is not the resuscitation of Lazarus; it’s what Jesus said before He raised him. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” We want reversals. The Gospel promises us a resurrection.
Dennis: Barbara and I just got away for a weekend and we had a lot of conversations as we were driving to our location. Earlier, you mentioned how Martin Luther had six children – well, that’s the number we have. It is interesting how as we started out our marriage and family together, we had these ideals, what we thought an ideal family ought to be and what we hoped it would become.
It’s not that the ideals are wrong; it’s just that in the midst of life those ideals aren’t always all realized, and that is what you are saying here. God is using all of life to draw us to Himself and to get through to us in our selfishness, our sinfulness and to be able to communicate to us that He is the God of resurrection and that our hope, ultimately, needs to be in Him.
Jerry: God works redemption in lives. You think about all these great biblical stories. There are dark aspects to a lot of these stories, including mine and including yours.
Jerry: I wish I could reverse what happened. I remember in the weeks and months after the accident: I bet a tape played a thousand times of figuring out how I could reverse the events of that day. I’d stop at a stop sign for one second longer. I’d change the seating in the van; anything that would give me that two second window of time that would have spared us that tragedy, because I didn’t want it to be true. Who would want it to be true?
And then, in a conversation with my brother-in-law, he said, “Okay, I’m going to concede it to you. You get them back again. You have life exactly as you had it and wanted it. Fine. Now, what happens if five years after that, Linda got breast cancer? You’d want to change that, too, right?” I said, “Of course I would.” “Or what happens if Dinah Jane had become wayward? You wouldn’t want that either.” “Oh, no, no.” “So, you’d want to reverse that.”
Well, I started thinking, “I’d want to reverse this; I’d want to reverse that, because I want a perfect life.” But that is not what the Gospel promises us. The Gospel promises us a resurrected life and redemption. That redemption can occur through a family of four that used to be a family of six, and that has been our experience.
We have six stockings that we put up over the fireplace at Christmas. Only four people are alive. But our lives are rich with meaning and purpose and faith. It’s been a beautiful story in its own kind of strange way.
Bob: You do have a hope that, although you are separated, there will be a reunion, right?
Jerry: There will be a reunion. Glorious!
Dennis: Barbara and I talk about this all the time -- about the hope of heaven and how we both look forward to heaven and how, increasingly it seems, that although this life is purposeful and rich as you describe it, and that God is really good to us now, what we long for isn’t really here. What we long for is a face-to-face meeting with Him and a stripping away of all the selfishness and of all the suffering that you are talking about, where there will be no more tears and sorrow and suffering.
Jerry: I want to say that I had a wonderful conversation with my eight-year-old son. Then he was eight; he’s 24 now. We were on our way to a soccer game and it was about a half hour away and, out of nowhere, he says to me, “Do you think Mom sees us now?” This was typical for David.
I looked at him and I said, “What do you mean? Keep going, David.” He said, “Well, if Mom sees us and she is in heaven where there is only happiness and joy, how could she stand to see us in our suffering and our pain? How could she stand to see us sad all the time?” Eight years old.
Jerry: I asked him a few more questions and pondered it and then this is what I said to him—one of those few moments when I’m on; most of the time I’m not, but this one I was—I said to him, “Because she sees how everything is going to turn out and that gives her joy.”
Jerry: I believe that people in heaven experience reality. It’s substantial. It’s more real than we could take. We live in shadow. Linda and Dinah Jane and my mom - they live in reality and some day I’m going to join them there.
Dennis: They know the rest of the story.
Jerry: They know the rest of the story. They transcend it. They see its beginning and they see its end. They experience it simultaneously all at the same time. It’s a beautiful story. It’s got some bad chapters; but, you know, when you read great novels - really great novels – you have all of these sections where you kind of gasp at the suffering and you wonder, “Oh my gosh, how could anything turn out well here?”
Jerry: Until you get to the end and then you breathe a sigh of relief and you realize that part of the greatness of the story was the sadness of some of those chapters.
Bob: You teach a class with your students where you get away for almost a month of solitude. It’s a mini-monastic experience that you take them on, right?
Bob: You said that you read to them each night. One of the things you read is The Chronicles of Narnia. As you were talking about this, I was envisioning that breakthrough in the seventh book where the wall is pierced and where the children find themselves on the other side of the curtain. All of a sudden, life looks different than it has ever looked and they have left the shadow lands and now they are in what has never been more real.
Jerry: Yes, and there is a wonderful image where they ascend this hill and they come to this garden. The garden is gated. When they are looking at the garden from the outside, it seems smaller; but when they get inside, it is bigger than the world they left behind. This is what it means to have Christian hope. We are being prepared for a world that is simply bigger than the one we’ve experienced now.
Dennis: That really is the message of Jesus Christ and of the Bible. It really does bring purpose and hope to whatever we are facing today.
Jerry, I wanted to ask you one more question about how you helped your kids process loss. Undoubtedly, we have listeners right now who are in the midst of a loss; maybe it’s a divorce; maybe it’s a loss of a loved one or a loss of a job or loss of health. What would you say was the most important thing you did with your kids to help them really discover God in the midst of this process as well?
Jerry: I think I did two things that, as I look back now, were very meaningful and useful. The first was stability. I really established a good routine. Bible reading during meal times, prayers, a clear bed time ritual, because they were very young at the time, and reading aloud to them great literature.
I’d sing hymns to them every night. I probably had a repertoire of about 60 hymns I sang to them; prayers that we would pray and that sort of thing. Trips, vacations that we would take, including service kinds of things - routines that were meaningful and stable for them. I was very consistent with that.
The second thing is I would look for cues. I think that all of us, but especially children, give cues, if we are attentive, if we’re watching them. I kept a journal on each of them, by the way, just scratching out notes as I was watching what was happening to them on this journey that they were on, too.
With each of my kids, there were five or six key occasions when they gave me a cue that they were ready to do some work, ready to talk about something, ready to cry and explore something. I wanted to be attentive to those cues that they gave me so I could respond appropriately, instead of imposing, forcing them to be adults, because we have a kind of rational component to us, we can do that.
I don’t think kids can. I think they will give their own cues when they are ready to do that work. We need to be ready to respond. The best place for that to happen is the safety of the home.
Dennis: I’m glad you took those notes and scribbled a few of them in this book and passed them on to our family, because we needed them as we went through a difficult period of time. I just appreciate you joining us on FamilyLife Today. I now have a better idea, Bob, why Jerry was voted the most popular professor on campus.
Bob: You want to enroll?
Dennis: Seven times. Well, I would like to take his “History of the Christian Faith” class, but it’s not available on the internet yet.
Jerry: And won’t be either.
Dennis: Thanks for doing your duty and coming down to Arkansas and being on our broadcast, Jerry.
Jerry: Thank you.
Bob: You know what we do have on the internet? We do have copies of two of Jerry’s books: the first book that he wrote, A Grace Disguised, which talks about the loss of his wife, his daughter, and his mom in a car accident more than 20 years ago; and then, his most recent book 20 years later, called A Grace Revealed, where he looks back on how God uses suffering redemptively in our lives. We talked a lot about that book last week.
I want to encourage our listeners to go online today at FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more about how you can get either of Jerry’s books. Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY” for more information about the books by Jerry Sittser.
Now, of course, tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States. We ought to experience and celebrate thanksgiving every day in our lives as Christians. In fact, the Bible says, “Be thankful in everything. In everything, give thanks to God.” The issue of gratitude is something that we can choose. We had a conversation about that not long ago with our friend Nancy Leigh DeMoss, who has written a book called Choosing Gratitude.
We’re making CDs of our conversation with Nancy available for those of you who can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation here during the month of November. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and click the button that says, “I CARE.” When you make an online donation, you can request the “Choosing Gratitude” CDs with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY - 1-800-358-6329 – to make a donation over the phone and ask for the CDs on gratitude when you get in touch with us.
Let me just say how grateful we are for those of you who help support this radio program. We could not do it without you and we appreciate those of you who take a minute from time to time and call or go online and make a $25 or $50 or $100 donation or more. Thank you so much for your support of what God is doing through the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
We hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. On Thanksgiving Day, we’re going to welcome in our friends, songwriters – hymn writers, actually – Keith and Kristen Getty. They’ll join us tomorrow. We’ll hear some of the songs from their new CD and talk about modern hymns. I hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
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