Tragedy and Recovery in the Life of the Believer
by Richard D. Dobbins
Gold has always been a precious commodity. Its rarity establishes its value. Goldsmiths estimate that in all of human history refiners have only refined about 100,000 tons of gold.
Anytime you buy gold, regardless of where you are, it demands a great price … especially 24-karat gold. In this purest form gold is a very soft metal. The karatage of gold indicates how many alloys the jeweler mixed with it to harden it. For example, only a little more than half of 14-karat gold jewelry is gold. When 24-karat is stamped on a piece of jewelry, you know it has been made of pure gold.
To produce pure gold, smelters must heat the ore during the smelting process to 5252Â°F. As you can see, pure gold never comes cheap; neither does 24-karat faith. Like gold, 24-karat faith is refined in the fire. However, once refined your faith is more valuable than 24-karat gold.
What is 24-Karat Faith?
Here is Peter’s definition of 24-karat faith: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6,7).
When Christ spoke to the church at Laodicea, He counseled them to buy from Him “gold tried in the fire” (Revelation 3:18, KJV). The lukewarm nature of their faith nauseated Him. He longed for them to have a fervent faith capable of helping them endure the trials that early Christians faced.
Believers Are Not Immune to Life’s Tragedies
In my work I have often needed to remind my patients that as believers we are not immune from trials and tragedies. God wants to use these trials to produce in us a faith that is more precious than gold ... a faith that has been refined in the fire and can stand the heat of adversity.
Today, some teachers tell believers that, if they obey the Word of God, God will protect them from all painful experiences of life. They will never get sick. Or, if they do God will always heal them. (When they are not healed, these teachers tell them they do not have enough faith. If they had more faith God would heal them.) They alwayswill prosper financially. They will never have to undergo the hardships of unemployment or job loss. God will miraculously provide some kind of divine umbrella to shield them from plane crashes, automobile wrecks, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, etc. Most people who believe this teaching have tremendous difficulty coping with the realities of life when they come crashing through on them.
Job’s wife and friends believed in this kind of divine protectionism. Even though God declared Job to be the most righteous person in the world (Job 1:8), when calamity rained down on Job, his friends were sure he had failed God in some way. Furthermore, when Job lost his wealth, his flocks and herds, his family and his health, his wife’s counsel to him was to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Nevertheless, through all the tragic things that happened to him, Job remained true to God insisting, “he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Job had 24-karat faith.
The Storms of Life Test All
Sometimes the poor choice a person makes causes the crisis that brings him to you. Sexual misbehavior, smoking, poor financial management, and careless driving are a few poor choices a person makes that can bring disaster. However, living a disciplined Christian life will not always protect a person from tragedy.
Life Treats Us Very Much Alike
Jesus concluded His Sermon on the Mount with an illustration that points out the fact believers might experience the storms of life (Matthew 7:24–27). Two men built identical houses. Jesus told His hearers that the same things that happened to one of the houses also happened to the other. The rain descended, the winds blew and beat against both houses. One collapsed under the weight of these natural tragedies. The other stood firm.
Even though one man obeyed everything Jesus taught, God did not protect him from the storms of life. Many of the things that happen to unbelievers and disobedient believers also happen to obedient believers. Model Christians die from fatal illnesses. Their children have mental and/or physical challenges at birth. Faithful believers lose their jobs. Fires or floods destroy their homes. They become victims of tragic travel accidents. Their spouses force them to accept unwanted divorces. They lose their jobs through economic downturns. Understanding that tragedy may befall you creates the spiritual foundation for facing it with 24-karat faith.
Sometimes We Suffer From Our Own Poor Judgments
People whose poor decisions result in their own tragedies need help in dealing with guilt and regret. Asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness for this irresponsible behavior is the first step toward recovery. The second step is helping them forgive themselves, which is often more difficult for them than receiving God’s forgiveness.
At times we all would like to undo and redo life. Many people waste precious hours wondering how they could have prevented what happened. This usually results in the painful and useless practice of blaming themselves while ruminating about what they would have, should have, or could have done to make things turn out different.
In helping people break out of this hopeless cycle, it is important to remind them that we all have a margin of error. Although our goal should be to reduce this margin, none of us is perfect. Even the apostle Paul made tragic decisions. Among other things he imprisoned Christians and put many of them to death. How did he deal with all this guilt and regret? Over time, he chose to forget all these things (Philippians 3:12–14). We need to remind people that if we allow him, the devil will use the poor judgments of our past to destroy the potential of our future.
We cannot undo or redo life. We seek God’s forgiveness. We forgive ourselves. And, we go on.
Tragedies Create Crises
A crisis is a dangerous time: a situation or period in which things are uncertain, difficult, and painful. Some come through crisis as bitter people and some as betterpeople. The difference between these two words is just one letter ... “I.” The choices I make as I am going through the crisis determine whether it will make me bitter or better.
In helping people deal with crises, remember that people can deal with unpleasant certainty easier than they can deal with uncertainty. So, regardless of how painful the circumstances, help the person face them honestly. Sometimes, in trying to be compassionate we try to shield people from pain they can manage better in the beginning of the crisis process than later on.
Often, during the first few hours and days following a crisis, people tend to be preoccupied with trying to figure out why it happened. Trying to answer that question for people is likely to aggravate their recovery. It is healthier to admit, “I just do not know.”
As you go through crises with people, you will observe that they move through four stages: Shock, Storm, Search, and Sequel.
Initially, the person cannot grasp the reality of what has happened. Mercifully, God has designed the mind to temporarily shut down when overwhelmed by tragedy. People think and sometimes say, “I cannot believe this is happening.” “This is just a bad dream.” “Sooner or later I am going to wake up and discover this is not true.” Other people may react by crying loudly, raging in anger, or withdrawing into silence ... sometimes for hours.
The shock phase of crisis recovery lasts for hours, days, or even longer. Wars and natural disasters may extend the shock phase for weeks or even months. During this time ministry needs to focus on compassion and prayerful support. Resist efforts to explain why God allowed this tragedy to happen. Such efforts will only alienate the person from you.
As a person begins to recover from shock and deal with reality, his emotions will erupt in unpredictable ways. At times, he may feel guilty for ways he believes he may have contributed to his dilemma. At other times he may be overwhelmed by his fear of the future. He may display intense anger at others he blames for his plight.
Displays of emotional turbulence may extend over several weeks or months. A person may fall into deep depression expressed by overwhelming sadness, remorse, and regret. Depression also depletes the person’s mental energy as he absorbs the shock of his crisis. During this time, he needs to see his pastor or a Christian counselor on a regular basis. He may also need medication to help through this difficult time.
Sometimes friends and loved ones grow impatient with the length of the storm. The normal recovery time for severe crisis, however, is 1 to 2 years. In cases of aggravated loss, where freak accidents or violence has taken a loved one, recovery may require from 3 to 5 years. And, in such cases life will never be the same again … but it can be good again.
One way the person facilitates his recovery is through mentally processing the crisis by retelling his story. This may become tiresome to family members and others who are close to the person. It does not really help the recovery process, however, to tell the person, “Get over it.”
For example, suppose on your way to a friend’s house someone pulls out in front of you and you narrowly escape a collision. What is the likelihood that you will not mention this to your friend once you have arrived at his home? One of the first things you are likely to say is, “I almost didn’t make it here today. Some crazy idiot pulled out in front of me. I just barely missed him.” In telling the story you reduce your anxiety.
As a person’s emotional response to the crisis subsides, the most important stage of the recovery process begins. During the months that follow he will compose a story about the crisis that leaves him a bitter person or a better person. After all,none of us lives with the facts of our lives. We live with the story we tell ourselves about the facts of our lives. We see this in the vastly different ways children raised in the same family recall their history.
We cannot change the facts of our lives. Mercifully we can edit the story we tell ourselves about the facts of our lives. For believers we call these stories we tell ourselves about the tragedies of life theodicies. A theodicy is a theological explanation of life events. Over a period of time by talking to God and ourselves we arrive at a version of this story that we choose to live with.
The role of the pastor or Christian counselor during this period of recovery is critical. Our task is to assist the person seeking our help understand that the way he has chosen to talk to himself about these painful chapters is not the only version of the facts. And, he can tell a different story to himself about these facts if he will. Our goal must be to help the person discover a way of viewing this painful chapter consistent with God’s love and his love for God. This task may not be easy or quickly achieved, but the person’s future is at stake.
The devil has a variety of destructive ways he wants to impose on these tragic facts. The Lord has a variety of creative ways He wants a person to view his tragedies. This spiritual battle rages in the mind of the believer. The goal of the pastor or Christian counselor is to help the believer choose one of the creative ways God has for him to put the facts of his tragedy together. This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the life of Joseph.
Joseph’s brothers treated him shamefully, selling him into slavery and telling his father he was dead. His master’s wife accused him of sexually assaulting her that resulted in him being thrown into prison. However, by the time he was Pharaoh’s regent God helped him win the mental battle over how he would view the events of his past.
When the famine forced Joseph’s brothers to face him in Egypt because it was their only source of food, he was able to say to them, “ ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold to Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you’ ” (Genesis 45:4,5).
Notice, Joseph did not forget the fact his brothers sold him to Egypt. However, mentally and spiritually he had won the battle for a healthy way of putting this part of his history together ... a healthy theodicy. This version of the facts allowed him to be at peace with himself and be reconciled to his brothers.
Those who know me well know that my birth caused my mother’s death. There is no way I can change those facts. Until I opened my life to Christ I thought of myself as my mother’s murderer. After all, my birth had killed her. However, one day at her grave I noticed she was only 19 when she died. I said to myself, This is too young for anyone to die. Then, the Lord spoke to my heart, “That’s right, not only did Jesus die for you, but your mother died for you. How valuable your life must be. Be sure you make it count for something.”
No longer do I think of myself as murdering my mother. I see her death as adding value to my life. Since that day I stood at her grave, her sacrifice has motivated me to try and make a difference in people’s lives.
This stage of recovery reveals the way we have finally internalized the crisis. During the weeks and months of battling our way from shock through storm and search,we settle on a version of the story with which we choose to live.
The way we mentally choose to manage the tragedies of life is evident by our presence. It is registered on our countenance. The people who live with us can tell whether we have settled on a redemptive way of living with the tragedies of life or a destructive way. They can tell whether we have found healing and peace for the hurts of our past or are still chafing under the pain.
Remind those seeking your help that there is no life without pain. We enter this world through a painful experience. And, between our birth and our death each of us is tried in the crucible of life. This is why Peter admonishes, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial that you are passing through, as though this were some abnormal experience: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are protectors of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:12,13, author’s paraphrase).