By Charlie Johnston
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” – I Peter 4:12,13
I am inundated these days with people who are going through agonizing trials within their family, among friends…things in their personal life that they just never expected. Many tell me they have lost their peace, that they can’t do much at all, and feel like a terrible failure. Whatever agitations are already there seem terribly sharpened, consolation seems terribly far away. People are having their personal world rocked even as the larger world seems to be teetering on the edge of a great abyss. Those of you who read the comments here can see that much of this spills over into that section as well.
I always pray for those who are in the midst of such trials and usually try to console them. Today, though, I want to call you a little deeper into what is happening. If you are suffering in such a manner, it is not just an attack from the evil one: you are also being given an audition by the Master. Many preach trust in God – and can trust in Him so long as it is only themselves who are affected. But if your trust crumbles the moment those you love are attacked, what good is such fair-weather trust? If you are suffering such sorrows right now, rejoice, for God contemplates that you might be a useful tool to spread the hope that is in Him.
Those who have suffered intense sorrows and endured are the most useful in helping others do the same in the midst of crisis. It is sort of a Divine Inoculation. Once you have been through fire and have chosen, with your active will, to trust with fortitude, it becomes much easier to trust through the next fire. Even beyond that, you have no idea how many people take inspiration – even change their lives – by your grace under fire, Even many of those who torment you will be changed.
I was often surprised when I was in politics how many of those who had been my public enemies would quietly come to me seeking help or comfort when they were under fire. In 1989 through early 1990, I was in the midst of a public controversy. A group of newspapers spent a year sliming me every week. It was nightmarish. They just made things up – horrible things – to smear me. At one point they wrote a horrific story to tug at the heartstrings about how I had abandoned my children, leaving them penniless. At the time they wrote this, they knew that I had sole custody of my children. It didn’t matter. For political reasons they wanted to destroy me – and Illinois then had among the loosest rules on libel of a public figure. You could tell any lie about a public figure, so long as it did not make them guilty of a crime and you did not reasonably know it to be a lie. It was hard to endure, as even people who had been friends began to have doubts because of the unceasing pounding.
I was at a convenience store once during this time to pick up a few things when a woman – a stranger – recognized me and starting ripping into me for my callousness to my children. The kids were right out in the car. I told the woman so and asked her to step out for a moment with me. When we got out, I introduced her as someone who was worried about them. “Who do you live with?” I asked the kids. My daughter looked at me like I was crazy and said, “We live with you, Daddy.” We chatted a little bit about things and some plans for a day trip. The woman was silent and we went back into the store. “How can the paper say these things,” she asked me in horrified wonder. “They lie,” I responded. We talked a little about it, with her offering profuse apologies and saying she was going to tell all her friends. It was not the only time this happened, but it stuck with me because the kids were right there and I could easily demonstrate the lie without having to drag the kids through the horrific allegations.
Many people got caught up in the feeding frenzy. But when I sued the newspaper for libel (they made a technical error that allowed us to move forward – and once they opened the door, the whole year’s worth of slime was let in to demonstrate a ‘pattern of malice.’), I kept it very narrow and did not agree to having my attorney list any others as co-conspirators, though there were about five who could have been so charged. I even protected one of my tormentors from having his drug-addicted teenaged child dragged through the mud. Newspapers are notorious for refusing to settle libel suits, for fear of opening themselves up to never-ending assaults. After depositions, the newspaper and its insurance company settled in my favor. I was told, but never checked it myself, that mine was one of only three instances in the previous decade where a newspaper in Illinois paid any settlement at all, much less a significant one. After it was all over, one of my neighbors told me that for months he had feared hearing a gunshot at my house, it was so brutal and humiliating. He did not know how I was able to bear it.
Some interesting things came in that ordeal’s aftermath. All the serious political people regarded it as the most brutal, sustained public mauling they had ever seen – and were horrified by it. But after that, when a crisis came and I helped them, it calmed them tremendously. They had seen what a storm I had been through – and ended with my dignity intact – enhanced, in fact. People were more willing to do bold things if I was involved, for they had already seen graphic evidence that I do not fold under pressure.
Amazingly, almost all of my tormentors took great pains to treat me with genuine courtesy and affection in the year after the suit was settled. Only one actually apologized…said he just got caught up in the frenzy and didn’t really understand why he had done it, but considered it the most shameful thing he had ever done. Several became steadfast supporters of my work. All wanted my forgiveness, even when they did not directly ask for it. They would fall all over themselves trying to show me a kindness or do me honor.
Inspiring words have a powerful use – and I use them. But I have found that the thing that has the greatest transformative power I know of is the ability to publicly suffer with grace and magnanimity. That does not mean to be a doormat. I did sue the newspaper and win; I did fight on in my political battles – and almost always won locally. But to let those who torment you up easy, to deal with their humanity even as they make a mockery of yours…that is the stuff that lights a long fuse to transform lives and outlooks.
I hate infantile “prosperity gospels,” that silly outlook that if you are just good enough, God will keep you from any fundamental sorrows. That is a childish, self-absorbed fantasy that makes God into a mere genie to give us what WE want. I have seen far too many seemingly pious people crumble into bitterness when they find that the rain falls on them, too. God is in the business of calling His children to the safe harbor He is, to carry them to safety in eternity with Him – and He is ever on the watch for people who will participate in doing the same. The ordeals many of you now suffer with great intensity are, in part, an inoculation against the greater trials to come. Trust now when all seems haywire and your trust will become tempered through the fire. It will not fail in the great crisis. Even more important, this is an audition – an audition to take your place among the Troops of God and His Missionaries of Mercy. If you can suffer with grace and dignity, staying steady and not panicking, always keeping first things in mind, you will win many souls to Christ. Among them will be many of those who now torment you. When suffering, you cannot help but agonize and lament. In the midst of that, think to thank God for this extravagant invitation He has extended to you to participate with Him in winning souls to eternity. Don’t fail to fight when you must – and do it with vigor and fortitude. But remember in the midst of it that those you are fighting against are also souls you are fighting for.
Onward, Christian Soldiers! God is preparing you well for the battle ahead. Trust Him!