Part Five: THE MUD AND THE STARS
Two men looked through prison bars,
The one saw mud, the other stars.
Leslie and I have six precious children. My love for them is so deep that it’s hard for me to talk about them without choking up.
If you look at our family photo, you’ll see multiple nationalities represented. That’s because four of our children are adopted.
Four adopted kids, three adoption processes. All three adoption processes have been a mixture of pain and joy. But our third adoption was especially unique. We heard about two babies overseas, in need of a family. We were asked to prayerfully consider adopting them. Though we already had four young children at home and a very full life, after much prayer we felt directed to say yes to the need.
We bathed that adoption in prayer. We labored through countless hours of paperwork. We made major financial sacrifices to make that adoption possible. We had no other motive but wanting to love and serve two needy children.
Even though we did everything “right” from a spiritual and practical standpoint, that adoption process turned out to be a traumatic nightmare. Simply by saying, “Yes, we’d like to help,” we walked into a situation that led to extreme pain, extreme loss, extreme circumstances, and the encountering of extreme evil.
At one point during the process, Leslie couldn’t eat or sleep for an entire week because the trauma and stress were so overwhelming.
We stepped into a world of helpless children — a world where evil has the upper hand. And what did we find? We found that evil is . . . evil. Still to this day, Leslie and I have been unable to fully express what we went through during that time.
Our two youngest, our precious Lily and Rees, came into our family through that dark corridor. One of the most beautiful things in our life emerged out of the ashes of that season where we encountered evil face-to-face.
God brings beauty out of ashes. (See Isaiah 61:3.)
We walked through a season of anguish in adopting Lily and Rees. We encountered tremendous difficulties along the way; circumstances completely beyond our control. We ran squarely into the buzzsaw of evil. And yet, those negative experiences do not diminish, even in the slightest, God’s unchanging facts: He is still a Father to the fatherless. He sets the solitary in families. Helping vulnerable children is a glorious work of which God is the Chief Promoter.
The presence of evil and the presence of unexpected trials in no way is a diminishment of Truth. In fact, Truth itself declares that there is a great enemy of our souls seeking to devour us.
The presence of evil and the presence of unexpected trials also doesn’t diminish the fact that God does all things well. His ways are perfect. And He is perfectly faithful.
But Is God’s Way Really Perfect?
Psalm 18:30 declares that the way of God is perfect.
During our traumatic adoption process, there were times when we were tempted to question that principle. God led us to say yes to two children in need. We obeyed. We followed His pattern for diligent prayer, sacrificial giving, unconditional love, and willing endurance every step of the way.
And yet, we didn’t end up with an “adoption fairy tale.” God’s way didn’t seem very perfect when we received so much pain and turmoil in return for our faithfulness.
When it comes to romantic relationships, there are many who are struggling with the very same issue.
“God, I followed Your pattern for purity, honor, and faithfulness and got only heartache and pain in return. Why? Was it all just pointless?“
Amidst the countless Christians who followed God’s pattern for relationships and experienced a beautiful, Christ-centered love story (we have received hundreds of these testimonies over the years), there are also those who followed the same pattern but didn’t get the same result.
Is God’s way really perfect? Does His pattern work for some and not others?
We struggled with similar questions during our adoption experience. There was a temptation to become frustrated with God for allowing it to happen, frustrated with those who had encouraged us to adopt, and frustrated with the whole idea of adoption in the first place.
God brings beauty out of ashes. (See Isaiah 61:3.)
We took the ashes of our pain and disappointment to the nail-scarred feet of Jesus. And we experienced something beyond an “adoption fairy tale.” We experienced the powerful, astounding work of God’s redemption. He created beauty out of ashes. Not the kind of blissful beauty that comes when everything is right as rain. A deeper kind of beauty — the beauty that comes when He takes what was meant for evil and turns it to good; the beauty that comes when He makes all things new. (See Genesis 50:20; Revelation 21:5.)
There is a new-fangled idea that has emerged out of Joshua Harris’ Apology Tour. It’s the concept of a “purity prosperity gospel” — an accusation that those who championed the message of purity somehow promised that following God’s ways would automatically guarantee a happily ever after love story. And many who did not experience the happily ever love story they hoped for are jumping on this bandwagon of disgruntled cynicism — whether it’s cynicism towards God or towards those who promoted the message of purity.
In this blog post I’d like to tackle the issue of pain and disappointment in romantic relationships; to speak to the heart of the Christian who is saying, “I followed God’s way, but I didn’t get the results I was expecting.” (Which, by the way, is exactly what Leslie and I had to grapple with during our difficult adoption experience, as well as other “unexplained” traumas that we’ve faced over the past twenty-five years.)
But first, I need to briefly address the concept of the so-called “purity prosperity gospel.” Just like the term “purity culture,” this is a notion that seems to have only recently surfaced. Even when the purity movement was at its peak, I don’t remember the whole “purity guarantees you a perfect fairy tale” idea ever being taught or promoted.
Maybe this idea was taught (by Joshua Harris or others) and I just missed it somehow. But to me this has the smell of a “straw man” argument all over it; a revising of reality that is purposely being employed to enflame and embitter those who are struggling with very real pain in this area of their lives.
Leslie and I have continually proclaimed the unmatched beauty of God’s ways. We believe that God is the One who created romance and put the desire for love and companionship within our hearts. And we believe that there is no better way to find the pattern for real and lasting love than to look to the One who came up with the idea in the first place. But our core message has always been one of surrender — being willing to lay all our dreams at Christ’s feet and declare, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” True purity isn’t a bargain with God. (i.e. I’ll live this way as long as You give me the fairy tale I’m dreaming of.) Rather, true purity is an act of love toward the One who gave up everything to redeem us — a heart that longs to honor and serve Him even if we never receive any benefit from doing so.
One of the reasons that young people would often be on their faces or kneeling at the end of our relationships messages is because they were being challenged to lay all their dreams at Jesus’ feet — to give up their own plans and expectations and follow Him no matter the cost. It wasn’t a message about getting everything you want; it was a message about giving up everything you are — to the One who is worthy of all.
And that is where true fulfillment and happiness really comes from.
If you are dealing with pain and disappointment over the way your relational life has unfolded, I encourage you not to jump on the cynicism-and-bitterness bandwagon or use a straw-man argument as an excuse to throw God’s standards out the window.
There is a better way to deal with your pain…
God brings beauty out of ashes.
That one singular thing has led to the ruin of so many amongst us. Experiencing pain, especially in the very place where we most expected happiness, is a slippery slope for the human soul.
The voice of Amy Carmichael, the great missionary to India from generations ago, comes down to us through the ages, asking, “Can we accept the unexplained, the loss, the crushing agony, and hold on still?”
Leslie and I look at each other often and repeat Amy’s words, “Can we accept the unexplained things?”
We were diligent in our adoption to do everything right. We turned in our paperwork almost as quickly as we received it, we paid everything as soon as we received the bill, we prayed with fervor and constancy, we sought to live lives above reproach and with excellence. And yet, what did we get in return?
We received trauma, pain, difficulty, and anguish.
If we stopped right there and went no further, what would become of us?
We would fold up in the fetal position and give way to self-pitying grief. Our souls would break down under the strain. Our faith would melt away. We would cynically declare, “Adoption ruined us!” just like those who are bitterly declaring, “Purity ruined me!”
But, God commands us in Scripture to not stop there and forsake our faith, but instead to remember that He, our Savior, is uniquely able to bring beauty to us out of such ashes.
So, what happened when Leslie and I took steps forward in faith through this trauma?
We received His grace, His comfort, His power, His closeness, His mercy, His intimate warmth, His courage, and His abundant Life.
Hold on, that’s not all. We also received the living proof within our souls that God indeed turns all things for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose — and that what was meant for evil against us, God intended for good.
And like a really irritating corny infomercial, I’m going to say it . . .
But, wait, there is more!
He also gave us two precious children to love, supernaturally brought them to us through impossible circumstances, and supplied us with the enabling grace to lovingly shepherd them both through good times and times of struggle.
Amy Carmichael didn’t just ask us the question, “Eric and Leslie, can you accept the unexplained things?” But she also taught us that there is always something to be happy about if we look for it. She said, “Two men looked through prison bars,* the one saw mud, the other stars.”
*prison bars as referenced here represent unexplained suffering or pain
If you have experienced unexplained pain in your life, I’d like to ask you a question:
Are you seeing mud or stars?
God’s Word declares to us that there will be “mud” in our lives, but that in each situation we must turn our gaze away from the mud upward to see His starry glory shining brightly.
The Unexplained Things
For some, it is the difficult, painful “unexplained” things that become their undoing.
How are you handling the unexplained things in your life? Can God walk you through difficulty, pain, and loss without losing your loyalty? Or is your loyalty solely based on things turning out as you think they should?
Remember Job’s quote in the midst of his most challenging hour: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
When you hear the words, “Pick up your cross and follow Me,” do you interpret Jesus to be promising you a life free from difficulty? Do you accept the fact that you are in hostile territory and that to live out Truth means to snub your nose at the Devil and his hoards? Are you happy on God’s terms or only on your terms? Are you only going to be satisfied if everything goes as planned, everything is easy, and everything is comfortable?
If you require ease, you will miss the triumph of Calvary.
If you stake claim to a pain-free Gospel, then you have a false gospel.
And if you try to make a “purity bargain” with God, you will become frustrated and disillusioned.
God’s way is perfect. His way is beautiful. His way is exquisite. His way is breathtaking.
Just as when I talk about the preciousness of my kids, I often choke up trying to express the preciousness of God’s way.
But though God’s way is perfect, that does not mean that it is absent of difficulty, struggle, trial, and trauma.
God says, “My way is through the waters.”*
*Remember Israel at the Red Sea?
We could reasonably respond, “But, Lord, there are a lot better routes than through the waters.”
God says, “My way is through the fire.”*
*remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?
We could reasonably respond, “But, Lord, there are a lot better routes than through the fire.”
But, even if you don’t yet fully understand the grand mystery of how God leads His people into full maturity and strength, there is one thing you should understand. His way is perfect.
The Christian simply says, “Where He leads, I will follow.”
When you find yourself in a narrow place — be it backed up to a Red Sea or facing a fiery furnace — you need to remember that God’s ways are through the water and through the fire. He’s not intimidated by this dangerous route. He is very good at converting impossible situations into glorious pictures of His grace.
From your unique vantage point, whether that be at the desperate shores of the Red Sea or in the midst of a Fiery Furnace, don’t stare at the mud — stare at the stars.
In the Midst of all This Nonsense
There is a tactical move of the kingdom of darkness right now to undermine the beauty, the glory, the power, and the loveliness of God’s way.
His pattern for purity is under siege. There is an outcry that proclaims, “Purity promises a beauty it can’t deliver!”
His pattern for marriage is under attack. There is an accusation that says, “A godly marriage is no more stable than a godless marriage!”
In the midst of all this nonsense, I’m going to say something:
God’s way is perfect.
God’s way is the way of life, the way of power, the way of hope, and the way of victory.His way for a single person is timeless. In this season, the Holy Spirit…
- restrains self-passion
- empowers the individual to wait for His perfect timing
- harnesses the thought life to think on things above
- directs steps in wisdom and Truth
- restrains self-focus
- empowers the couple to love and serve one another
- harnesses attitudes and actions to reflect those of Christ
- directs steps in wisdom and Truth
In either season — single or married — God’s way is THE way.
I recognize that there is a lot of mud out there for us to stare at. And I don’t want to detract from the fact that it IS real mud. But, I want to encourage the Body of Christ right now to look up and see the stars.
Defining the Ultimate Love Story
There are a handful of love stories that Leslie and I consider our favorites. And, remarkably, each of these stories has a common theme.
Out of extreme difficulty came forth extreme beauty.
In each of these stories, beauty was formed out of ashes. The terrible wounds they each endured as a couple were converted into the most glorious, most romantic visage of heavenly love. Though evil attempted to destroy, God converted the enemy’s manure into exquisite fertilizer.
A great love story of this kind is merely a reflection of the Cross. For out of extreme difficulty, extreme suffering, extreme loss came forth the salvation of the world. And God Himself refers to the marriage union that flows out of all this anguish as “heaven-come-to-earth” (Rev 21:2).
God’s love stories are amazing. The fact that He isn’t afraid to write sufferings, difficulties, and trials into the script is often their secret ingredient.
The Love Story of Russel and Darlene Deibler
A young newly married couple — very much in love, not just with each other but with Jesus Christ — head out as missionaries to the islands of Irian Jaya (modern day Indonesia). Harrowing story after harrowing story unfolds as they seek to love this godless people with the love of Jesus. World War II suddenly begins and everything in their lives changes as the Japanese occupy the islands of Irian Jaya. Russel and Darlene are separated never to see each other again. Sufferings of untold measure unfold for each of them as they endure imprisonment, starvation, and torture. Russel dies before the end of war. Married only four years, the two are unable to say goodbye to each other. Every memory, memento, and picture of their life together is destroyed. And yet, instead of staring at the mud, Darlene stares at the stars.
Leslie and I heard an old recording of Darlene sharing her story about forty years after these events unfolded. The tenderness, the beauty, and loveliness of their story is deeply moving. As she spoke of Russel, Darlene often choked back tears, not of sorrow but of gratitude at remembering God’s faithfulness to her, and how He created beauty out of ashes in her life.
The Love Story of Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand
Being of Jewish descent, the Wurmbrands suffered under Hitler’s Nazi regime and then, when Stalin’s soviet machine overwhelmed the Germans, they suffered for years in prison under the communists because of their Christian witness. Their entire love story was pockmarked with the hovering cloud of evil resistance and for much of their married life they were separated due to this persecution. However, Richard and Sabina’s love for Christ and for one another never faded, but instead, grew stronger and stronger. Once Richard was able to write Sabina from prison. He only was allowed to write fifteen words. The words he chose were, “Time and distance make a small love grow weak, but a great love grow stronger.” Though they faced extreme difficulties, they also knew the depths of great love. What romance they found in the midst of trauma!
The Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot
Leslie and I were greatly impacted by Jim and Elisabeth Elliot in our understanding of sexual purity and in how to live out our single season with integrity. Their love story is truly remarkable and profoundly beautiful. But, it must also be noted that it was a way of difficulty that they both chose. It was a way of sacrifice. They gave themselves to the mission field and to seek and save unreached tribes in the jungles of Ecuador. And in and amidst this beautiful and profound givenness to Christ, Jim was speared to death by the native tribe he was seeking to reach. And yet, out of this difficulty, this sacrifice, emerged such a luster, such a loveliness. The story that unfolded in Elisabeth’s life is so startling and moving, that it ranks as one of the great missionary tales of all time. It was great romance and great beauty, all amidst the most extreme pain, the most extreme sacrifice, the most extreme difficulties.
The Mud or the Stars
Do you remember Amy Carmichael’s words?
Two men looked through prison bars, The one saw mud, the other stars.
There are two different ways that we can view the difficulties, the disappointments, and the sorrows that we endure.
If you choose to stare at the mud you are choosing to be weakened by your challenges rather than strengthened.
If you choose to stare at the stars, you are choosing to give God the opportunity to show you light in the midst of darkness, beauty out of ashes, and triumph out of trial.
I am a supremely happy person with a delightfully beautiful marriage and a precious family stocked full of joy. But that is not because my life is a pain-free fairy tale. It’s because God is present, near, and dear. And I have watched Him turn every challenge Leslie and I have faced together into a wonderful picture of His triumph and grace.
I’m seeing beautiful stars.
This whole Joshua Harris debacle has brought a lot of wounds, pains, and bitterness to the surface in the Christian community. There are a lot of people focused on what the devil has done instead of focusing on what Christ has done. There are a lot of people staring at the mud.
I invite you to allow the Holy Spirit to lift your chin and turn your gaze heavenward.
Let’s all as Christians stare at the stars right now. Let’s freshly enjoy the fact that God works all things for good for those that love Him and are called according to His purpose.
Don’t let the mud get you down. Our Lord Jesus has triumphed over the mud!
Other blogs in this series:
August 9 – Blog #1 – What’s a Father to Do? (A Christian father’s response to Joshua Harris’ recent renouncements of purity, his marriage, and his Christian faith)
August 12 – Blog #2 – There are Always Two (How to choose the real and lasting version of purity)
August 13 – Blog #3 –The Apology Tour (How to live unashamed of God’s Truth in our morally declining culture)
August 15 – Blog #4 – The Marriage War (What causes Christian marriages to fail?)
August 20 – Blog #5 – The Mud and the Stars (Does purity lead to beauty or heartache?)
Honorable Manhood Program:
8-week online program for men of all ages, March 1 – April 19.
Ellerslie Discipleship Training:
Be discipled by Eric, Leslie and their team in Colorado for 1 week, 5 weeks, or a season!
Books referenced in this post:
Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose
The Pastor’s Wife by Sabina Wurmbrand
Passion & Purity by Elisabeth Elliot
A BOOK TO READ:
I wrote the book, Barracks 28, for Leslie as a celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary nearly five years ago. This has always been available only as a limited-edition release. If you are interested in getting a copy of this unique behind-the-scenes peek into our love story, we are making it available right now for a limited time. Click here to learn more.