Jeremiah 29:11-13 “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.’”
James 1:2 “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
About four years ago I had the incredible privilege within a month’s timeframe to meet three people who won my utmost admiration with the way they had faced adversity head on and won. By winning I mean they overcame the temptation to allow the seemingly “unfair” circumstances in which they found themselves to cause a bitterness or resentment in their life attitude and perspective. When the average person would nurture a chip on their shoulder and point blaming fingers at someone else, or even God, for their situation, these saints had the courage and foresight to allow their circumstances to refine and develop them. This takes remarkable wisdom and an all-embracing trust in God, but what a witness and example all three have become as a result. Let me introduce them to you.
The first was a beautiful young lady in her early twenties who went to the church my family and I attended. Her name is Melissa Walsh. Six years prior she changed schools from a small private Christian school to attend the local public high school in the middle of her junior year. Her parents let her do it at her request, though they were not necessarily thrilled with the idea. While attending the public high school she found herself being pulled in a direction that was counter to her heritage and upbringing, and she allowed herself to go with the flow. She befriended those that did not share her values, began drinking, and routinely lied to her parents about where she was spending her time, and made other poor decisions. It all caught up with her one night, and she found herself thrown from her truck and breaking her neck after misjudging a turn she was attempting to round. She was driving back after an evening of drinking with friends. Still to this day she is still confined to a wheelchair and is slowly gaining some control of her arms and hands through extensive therapy. After addressing our student body in chapel this particular day, she was asked by an interviewer if she would change the events of that night six years ago if she could. Knowing what she knows now, would she exchange that night for an uneventful one in order to regain the use of her arms and legs? This beautiful girl, having to live at the full mercy of others for literally every life function, who consequently enjoys very little privacy or what we call freedom, said no, that she would not change it. As I stood there somewhat stunned by her response, tears began to fill my eyes as she explained her answer. She stated that this experience has brought her to her figurative knees and revealed her need for an abiding and intimate relationship with Christ, and that He has radically changed her life and given it meaning and purpose. She further explained that she did not think she would have that same relationship had she not lost her mobility. She closed by saying that the joy and peace she has in Christ now far exceeds any benefits she would gain by having the use of her arms and legs. Now that is the relationship I long to have with my Savior! Why am I not that sold out to the One who gave me life and freedom?
A week and half after meeting Melissa I had the distinct privilege to meet Nick Vujicic, the gentleman with no arms and no legs from Australia. He now lives in California, is married to a beautiful young lady named Kanae, and they have four children! Nick had graciously agreed to address our student body between speaking engagements on a tour through central Florida, and what an impact he had! It is difficult to refute a man who is waddling back and forth on a table, seemingly helpless and totally vulnerable, when he says something. I mean able-bodied men and women can fake it, or speak from their head in theoretical jargon, or with good intention and all sincerity say one thing but live another; but when someone with no arms and no legs stands before you and is encouraging you, and admonishing you, and throwing down the gauntlet, one cannot let that one go – it absolutely hits you like a nuclear shock wave! I don’t care who you are – you will not leave unmoved and unchallenged. One who has every right in the world to give up, throw in the towel, or nurse a grudge and a chip on the shoulder, is teaching me with his life how to live mine! One who was raised with, let’s be honest, no real hope of living an independent life, much less holding a job or marrying and fathering children, is hopping on a table coaching a spell-bound audience on how to live! Not only is he enjoying an independent life with his wife and children, he has captured the heart of the world, and has booked private meetings with presidents and addressed congresses! I allowed a student to briefly interview him after his address with our student body, and the student asked him one question – you guessed it. “If you had the chance to trade in your life for one with arms and legs, would you do it?” Nick’s response hit me right in the heart. He said no. He further explained that a life with arms and legs would certainly not preclude him from serving God, but that the opportunities he has under the conditions with which he lives opens so many more doors for him to glorify His Savior. Wow! Another powerful life! One who loves his Savior so much that he is willing to live life with such restrictions if it will bring the One who saved him honor and glory! What do I have to complain about? What is holding me back from totally being radical for the One who laid it all down for me?
Four days after meeting Nick I find myself with another faculty member and eleven of our then juniors at the Leadership Forum held at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. The closing speaker … Dr. Ben Carson, the former Chairman of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins and 2016 Republican candidate for President– a very intelligent and inspiring man. He gave a brief synopsis of his testimony – of his life as a young boy, growing up alongside his older brother in poverty with his mother, who only had a third-grade education. Life looked grim and the future appeared virtually hopeless. Like Nick Vujicic, Dr. Carson did not ask for this life. He could have succumbed to bitterness, the blame-game, or adopted a victim mentality, but he didn’t. His mother, despite her severe lack of education, raised him and his brother to be all they could be – to live their potential. She encouraged them and wasn’t afraid to challenge them. She would not let them settle for excuses to justify mediocrity or condone apathy. She did not follow the conventional wisdom of the culture, but looked to God’s ways to guide her parenting. Ben and his brother remained teachable under such trying and hopeless conditions, and that is why Ben is where he is … and more importantly, that is why he is who he is. That is also why he has the influence and the followers he has.
What inspiring true stories, and what examples to us all to consider the trials we face and the burdens we bear as molders and shapers of our character, and as opportunities for being an encouragement to others. However, if our lives were random narratives with no governing plan or sovereign overseer, these challenges could quickly become meaningless and hopeless, serving as hindrances and encumbrances that drain us rather than motivate us. But knowing that the sovereign God, our Creator, has a loving and perfect plan in hand, and that He has our best interest at heart, provides such comfort and assurance that we are right where we need to be. His omnipotence and sovereignty, coupled with His boundless love that He has so mercifully demonstrated to us, combines for the perfect recipe for hope and peace through all our trials. It was Melissa’s, and Nick’s, and Ben’s surrender to God that led them to view their afflictions as opportunities rather than life killers, and it rekindled a love for Him that inspires us all.
What is the affliction in your life that you can allow God to use to be an inspiration and an encouragement to another?