As we live our lives, we are writing a story. The best stories include challenges and adversities. Years after the death of his wife, mother and daughter, Jerry Sittser discusses how God uses suffering to write his story.
As we live our lives, we are writing a story. The best stories include challenges and adversities. Years after the death of his wife, mother and daughter, Jerry Sittser discusses how God uses suffering to write his story.
Bob: Which can God use more effectively for Kingdom purposes—your brilliance or your brokenness? Jerry Sittser says, “God uses both.”
Jerry: This is part of the mystery of redemption—is that story matters. Sometimes we’re going to have great sections. There are going to be beautiful chapters in that story. We’re going to want to retell those stories a lot and think about them a lot; but all of us at some time have dark chapters too, painful chapters, sometimes, shameful chapters.
But we have to remember those too, because they are all a part of the story; and God is in the business of taking the wreckage of our life and somehow, by His grace and discipline, I will say, work that out into a story that is redemptive and beautiful and healing and whole.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, November 13th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to learn today how God wants to take the mountain peaks and the valleys of your life and use both of them to advance the Kingdom.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I think our listeners are going to learn a new concept today—at least, it was a new concept for me—the idea of becoming spiritually ambidextrous. Are you spiritually ambidextrous?
Dennis: I don’t know. Let’s find out. Jerry Sittser joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Jerry, welcome back.
Jerry: Thank you, Dennis and Bob.
Dennis: Jerry is a professor at Whitworth University. He has won the Professor of the Year seven times at last count—unless you’ve added another recently? (Laughter)
Bob: One more.
Dennis: Oh, it’s eight. Eight times Professor of the Year. He holds a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Doctorate from the University of Chicago. He and his wife, Patricia, have five children. They live in Spokane, Washington, and he’s written a book called A Grace Revealed.
Bob: And spiritual ambidextrous, what does that mean?
Jerry: Well, it comes from one of my favorite groups of people, the desert fathers, who thrived in sort of the Eastern Mediterranean area in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. I can’t go into the historical background. They’re just a very odd collection of Christians oriented toward what we’ve called the Disciplines of Deprivation of setting disciplines. They fasted. They lived in solitude, lived out in the desert and so on.
One of the figures from the West, John Cassian, visited Egypt, interviewed a bunch of folks. Then, when he returned to Gaul, modern-day France, Spain, he wrote about it in two books. One of the books is called The Conferences, and it summarizes the interviews he did with a bunch of these desert fathers. One of them, Abba Theodore, introduced this concept called being spiritually ambidextrous.
Now, ambidextrous means that you are as comfortable using one hand as the other. So, in baseball, you might be a switch-hitter, for example, if you’re ambidextrous.
Jerry: But he said that to be spiritually ambidextrous means that you are as open to God, as submissive to God, as obedient to God in both adversity and prosperity; that you don’t require God to work only under a certain set of circumstances.
Now, when you think about it, we tend to associate God and God’s work with prosperity. So, things are going great; then, we love God. He’s doing a good work in our lives; we’re grateful. But when we face adversity, it becomes much more difficult. Abba Theodore said, “God works in both.”
Bob: Sunday Pearson, who you also write about in your book, had to learn how to use the other hand because her life—there was curve ball that got thrown. She had to learn how to hit it from the other side, didn’t she?
Jerry: Sunday gave me permission to tell her story after I wrote A Grace Disguised. Over the years, I’ve gotten thousands of letters. Sometimes they tell amazing stories. This is one of them, and she gave me permission.
So, back in the ‘80’s, her brother, a law enforcement officer in California, was shot and killed in a drug bust. It was catastrophic for the family, as you can well imagine. She had already lost a younger brother to cancer. She told me her mother really never recovered from this; but she was married, eventually, kind of “moved on”, got better, realized one day that she had really forgiven him in her heart although she doesn’t really give you an understanding of how that happened.
Then, she got this word from God that said, “You need to find this man and visit him.” Now, he was somewhere stuck in the California prison system. She started doing research, found out where he was, asked for permission to visit him, and so on.
But God gave her a very specific reason to visit this man. He said to her, according to her story, “I have two words I want you to share with him: ‘God loves you. He loves you because of Jesus Christ’”—lesson number one. That seems well enough from a Christian point of view. It was the second message that seemed a little more astonishing to me. “‘You can always become the man God intends you to be.’”
Now, I thought about that. I thought he’s stuck in prison probably for the rest of his life, and she has the audacity—or better put, God has the audacity to say to her to tell this murderer of her very brother, “It’s never too late to become the man God intends you to be.”
Well, she got permission. She went to visit this man. She tells the story in amazing detail how she went to the prison, her husband stayed in the car. She walks down this long corridor and through one steel door after another. Finally, arrives in the visitation room. She’s sitting in a corner. All of the sudden, she hears a door open. She looks up, and for the first time in her life she looks into the face of the man who murdered her brother.
He comes and sits down, and they talk and share life for several hours together. She delivers these two messages, God loves him and that it’s not too late to become the man God intends you to be. In the course of the conversation, she witnessed the miracle of this man’s conversion. Since then, they’ve been corresponding regularly; and he said he was terribly sorry and then repented, right in front of her, of what he had done and gave his life to Christ.
Now, what’s startling to me is to think about that second message. It’s never too late to become the man God intends you to be. I think to myself, “Well, there are a lot of people it’s too late for—people who are disabled, people who are old, people who are suffering from some debilitating pathology, and people who are going to spend the rest of their lives in prison.”
But the redemptive story tells us it’s never too late, no matter what your circumstances are—ambidextrous spirituality, in both adversity and prosperity. God is still God. God still does His work.
In fact, one last note, Abba Theodore warned that prosperity may be more spiritually disadvantageous than adversity because it can lull us into a dull complacency and infuse in us a spirit of entitlement.
Bob: Well, Proverbs says “Give me neither poverty nor riches. If I have poverty, I’m tempted to go steal and bring dishonor. If I have prosperity, I’m tempted to forget You and ignore You”—because why do you need God if you’ve got everything else you need, right?
Jerry: So we have to figure out how to live for God in our circumstances, no matter what they are.
Dennis: Thomas Carlyle made a statement. He said, “For every one hundred people who can handle adversity, I can only show you one who can handle prosperity.”
Ours is a country of abundance. Bill Bright once looked me in the eye—of course, Bill was the President and Founder of Campus Crusade for Christ®, and I was working for him—but he looked me in the eye and he said, “I believe, today, materialism is choking the Christian community to death.” He looked at me sternly and exhorted me. He said, “Dennis, wear the cloak of materialism loosely.”
Jerry: Well, he’s in good company. Alexis de Tocqueville, back in the 1830’s when he was visiting America, warned that the two great dangers of American democracy were individualism and materialism.
Dennis: No doubt about it. Your book is about redemption, but you use story to talk about this theme of redemption. You talk about there being two kinds of stories: the big story, which is what God is up to, His story on planet Earth, and secondly, how he engages us as we live out our stories and wants to show what redemption looks like in our lives, in our little stories.
Of course, you tell your story of how you lost your mother, your wife, and your four-year-old daughter in a tragic car wreck to a drunken driver in 1991. One of the areas of the book that I got the most out of—and it was a short section, Jerry, and I thought I want Jerry to share this with our listeners because I think they can benefit from this.
You talked about how a story has a plot, a theme. It has something that is taking place that’s very intentional. You actually dig into the Scriptures; and you say there are at least six that you’ve found that are kind of mapped out for us in terms of what kind of plot may be occurring in our lives. I think it may be helpful for our listeners just to listen to these six and to determine which one is most like their story that they’re living out right now.
Jerry: Well, these six are only suggestive. I think there are many others, but my point is not to give an exhaustive list but to give some examples that they can think about, ponder, for their own lives as they consider how their little story—because most of our stories feel very little, very local, very small—how those little stories of our lives might actually fit into the larger biblical story of how God is literally redeeming planet Earth.
I should add that one of my favorite biblical stories is the story of Ruth because it shows in very clear form the juxtaposition of big and little.
So, here’s Ruth. She’s living in this small town—or ends up, I should say, in the small town of Bethlehem. When she dies, it seems like a pretty happy ending to the story; and it seems pretty quaint, a nice little bedtime story, until you realize that three generations later, born to the heritage of this foreigner, this woman from Moab, who just accidentally marries into the family line of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, that her great, great grandson is the great king of Israel, David.
But even then, the story is not done. Many generations later, another Son is born to this family line who just happens to be the Savior of the world. Now, Ruth didn’t know any of this was going on. So, her little story taking place in this small town in Judea, in a backward period of Israel’s history, ends up playing a major role in all of salvation history.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all our stories are going to have that kind of significance, but we do need to realize that what seems little to us might not be little at all.
Bob: One of the plot lines you suggest in your book is that our story may be the turning, the passing on of a different legacy. In fact, I like the way you said it. It may be the turning the deficit into a surplus—inheriting a mess and bequeathing a blessing.
Jerry: I call that passing on a new legacy. So, let’s say you come from a family background that is virtually bankrupt. It’s—you come to know Christ in your teen years or your twenties or your thirties; and you have a mess on your hands, lots of dysfunction, lots of problems. You realize that you may be called to be, what I would name, a transitional generation.
You’re the pivot point. You take this mess that you’ve inherited and, through submission and obedience to God and good decision-making and relationships with others and being grounded in a church and other things, you literally pass on—it could be to your children, it could be to the next generation of Christian leaders—a very different kind of legacy.
Now, there are many people in our culture that face that kind of script. We don’t have a lot of strong, stable families now. Many people come from incredibly dysfunctional backgrounds. I see it all the time at the University where I teach.
In fact, I tell this story in this particular chapter of a young man named Greg who came from a family in which both of his biological parents were married five times. He was living on his own by the time he was 15 years old, working at McDonalds full-time while he was working his way through high school. You hear about people working their way through college but not high school. He became a Christian while he was at work.
Now, he’s married. He’s got a baby. He’s a pastor. He has literally changed the trajectory of his entire family story. I call him a transitional generation.
Dennis: One day in staff meeting, Jerry, we had a young man who interrupted the very end of the staff meeting. He grabbed a microphone, walked down front, shot to his knees, and began to propose to a young lady. In his proposal to the young lady he said, “And I want to leave a different legacy than the one I was given.”
It’s like he was this young man you are talking about, because I contacted him after the staff meeting. It turns out his father had been married 15 different times to 13 women. And he, as a man, wanted to leave a different legacy to his descendents rather than the one he’d been given. There is hope. That’s what redemption is all about.
Jerry: That’s what redemption is all about. Another plot or map—I call them a plot line and a map—is almost the exact opposite.
That is, you inherit a rich legacy. You come from a great family. You’re the seventh generation Christian or something like that. You’ve been given all kinds of amazing opportunities for athletics and music and education. You’ve got relationships with people. Your extended network of friends and family is just astonishing. And in this case, you choose, instead of to squander that inheritance, to build on it and invest it in the next generation. You become a steward of the bounty that God has given to you.
Bob: And that’s a choice everybody faces. If you receive much, you can either squander it or you can invest it in the right direction, right?
Jerry: That’s right.
Dennis: It seems like a lot of generations have squandered it in the past. Have been given a great legacy, but they don’t steward it properly.
Jerry: I had a meeting about four or five years ago with my financial counselor, I guess you could call it, and I brought my kids in. I wanted them to meet him, and I wanted them to talk to him about stewardship. He said to my kids, “Over 90% of my clients with any degree of wealth at all”—and we’re not talking about millions, just any degree of wealth at all—“Over 90% of my clients, their children squander it.”
He warned my kids, “Do not do that.” Set a course for your life of stewardship rather than simply inheriting, in this case, financial wealth—could be any other kind of wealth too.
Jerry: Not squander it, invest it. Be a good steward of it for the common good of church and society.
Bob: There’s something about the human condition. When we are given what we did not work to earn, it kind of slips through our fingers like it’s not really ours in the first place.
Bob: I see that happen over and over again as parents pass wealth on to the next generation, and the kids are—they don’t know how to handle it.
Dennis: Yes, there is a third plot line of pursuing a noble vision.
Bob: I could hear Dennis Rainey cheering in the background as I read this one.
Dennis: I have to say, “I did like this one.” (Laughter)
Jerry: Well, you know a lot of people. You’ve had many people come through this radio program over the years that have done exactly that. You mentioned Bill Bright.
Jerry: There’s a telling example, an outstanding example, of a person who’s pursued a noble vision. It’s simply people who listen to God; and by virtue of life experiences and a sense of calling from God, they simply embrace some kind of great cause for the sake of the kingdom. And who knows what it is? Could be lots of different things—
Jerry: —could be in higher education, could be in business, could be some kind of entrepreneurship, could be starting a new non-profit; but they have this steely sense that God is calling them to do this. They figure out how to make it happen by the grace of God.
Dennis: Yes, I’m thinking of Elisabeth Elliot. We’ve had the privilege of interviewing her—Henry Blackaby, both of them were calling people to a noble vision.
Jerry: It doesn’t have to be big either. Noble visions can be small. I use—I have two examples in the book of—
Jerry: —Whitworth grads, both still young men, who have started little non-profits in the city of Spokane. They’re probably not going to go national. One works with street kids. The other one works with refugees; and here, these young men forming a team, raising money, accomplishing a noble vision that is small scale but still significant. Frankly, everything in the end has to be small scale.
Bob: Yes. I think of two families I know—two young families, lots of kids, who in recent years have packed up everybody and everything; and they are now living in Uganda, in much less adaptable conditions than they were living in over here, but it’s for a noble vision.
Bob: They are there because they have a higher purpose in mind.
Dennis: I love the fact that you included things that are done not on a national scale but on a local scale as well. Is this next one yours, Jerry? This fourth—
Bob: This plot line of bearing a heavy burden?
Jerry: I don’t think so.
Bob: Even given the tragedy you went through in your family?
Jerry: I really thought about that. In fact, I even talked to my kids about this one. We did experience a catastrophic event. I grant that, and it was very hard; but if you look at sort the trajectory of my whole life, it’s actually been a very good one. I would rather put myself in maybe number six, the one I give, honoring the ordinary.
Dennis: Yes. Yes.
Jerry: Where most of my life has been just a good, solid, ordinary life of welcoming neighborhood kids in and putting three meals on the table and coaching my kids and teaching at a university. It’s been a pretty rich life, all things considered.
Dennis: I don’t know how you could call yourself ordinary. I’m sorry, Jerry, I’m not buying that description.
You did skip over the fifth one which is triumph through suffering. Frankly, as I thought about your life, I thought, “To move from A Grace Disguised to A Grace Revealed given the circumstances your life has been taken through, triumph through suffering pretty much describes what I’m sitting here looking at in terms of how you’ve used the lessons God has taught you to pass on to other people.”
This book—the thing I like about this book—and others have said this to you I know as well—is this is hope-filled. This is talking about how redemption really fuels our souls as people who are attempting to follow Jesus Christ. You’re talking about how God is at work within us both to will and to work His own good pleasure. He’s working out His big story even through our own little-story lives.
Bob: Well, for you to figure out “What is my story and how is God working that into His bigger story,” you may need a little coaching. You may need somebody who has given that some thought to help direct you.
I think that’s what we’ve tried to do on today’s program. I think that’s what you do so well in your book, Jerry. It’s called A Grace Revealed. It’s a follow-up to a book that we’ve recommended many times on FamilyLife Today, a book called A Grace Disguised, that tells the story of the tragedy of your life when you lost your wife and your mom and one of your children in a car accident, and how you saw God’s hand in the midst of that.
Now, twenty years later, in the book, A Grace Revealed, you have a fresh perspective on how God uses our stories, the good and the bad, to advance the Kingdom. So, I’d encourage listeners, “Get a copy of both books.”
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information. Again, it’s FamilyLifeToday.com. There is information there about Jerry Sittser’s books A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed. You can also request those books when you call us toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
Now, we want to take a minute here today to say a word of thanks, thanks to those of you who from time to time get in touch with us and offer financial support for the ministry of FamilyLife Today. The costs associated with producing and syndicating this radio program are significant, and it’s only when folks like you go online or call to make a donation that we are able to move forward, to continue this ministry on this local station, on the internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Today we’d like to say thank you, if you are able to make a donation, by sending you a couple of CDs, a conversation we had recently with Nancy Leigh DeMoss, well known author and conference speaker.
She is the host of the daily radio program, Revive Our Hearts®. We talked to her about the subject of gratitude, learning to be grateful both as individuals and how do we help our children capture this idea of gratitude. We’ll send you the two CDs that feature more than two hours worth of dialogue on this subject when you contact us.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to make an online donation. Click the button that says, “I CARE;” and as you fill out the donation form online, we’ll send you the CDs automatically. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY, make your donation over the phone, and ask for the CDs with Nancy Leigh DeMoss or the CDs on gratitude. We are happy to send them out to you, and we appreciate so much your partnership with us here at the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
We want to encourage you to be back with us tomorrow as we’re going to continue exploring how God wants to use our story, the story of our life, to advance His Kingdom in the context of the bigger story of redemption that we find in the Bible. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Hope you can be here.
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 next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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