The Preface to My Book, Suffering Well

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On April 8, 1988, it all went wrong. I would later call that day the “beginning of woes.” After a full day at work, I walked into our home shortly past 5 o’clock and noticed the missing piano in our living room. I immediately knew what Had happened. My wife of nine years decided she had enough: it was time to leave. A simple note was left on the kitchen table. It read, “You’re right; we can’t go on like this. I’ll call you later.” I had shared those sad sentiments about our marriage impasse a few weeks earlier, not knowing how those words would haunt me for years to come.

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The Worst Day

We had been having on-again, off-again arguments for over three years. I don’t have any valid reason for why we were arguing except to say we both were selfish, young, and ignorant. Somehow, in some way, we went off the tracks. It was happening gradually, and when you’re in the heat of the battle, you never have a clear awareness of your bearings, and for reasons that I didn’t fully understand, we could never make it right.

We had moved to Greenville, South Carolina, two years earlier so I could attend a small Bible college. I thought God wanted me to go into full-time Christian ministry, eventually becoming a pastor. My wife was happy about this decision and helped me make it. Our church was also supportive and encouraged us to go. They graciously paid for my tuition. It seemed to be the right thing to do and looking back on it, I believe this was God’s pleasure and direction for our lives.

In the Beginning

Before marriage, we were not Christians. In 1979, we eloped. We bought a small mobile home and placed it on 3.42 acres that we had paid off before eloping. Five years later, the Father mercifully came into my life to regenerate me. Though we were not “bad” people, salvation was an essential new beginning for me. We were your typical, countrified Southern family. We went to the local fish camp on Friday night, worked in the yard all day on Saturday, and attended our church meetings twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday evening. We had two children: a girl born in 1981 and a boy born in 1983. We were living the all-American dream.

After arriving in Greenville in May 1986, we set up camp and began our brand-new college experience in August. We were both twenty-six years old. I was working full-time during the day at a local recycling factory while going to school full-time, Monday through Friday, during the evenings. Our pastor in Greenville taught us, “You take care of God’s business, and He will take care of yours.” I believed him, so I poured everything into taking care of the Lord’s business, working full-time, taking a full load of classes, preaching in the nursing home on Sundays, and passing out Bible tracts downtown Greenville during my spare time.

Two years later, I learned that God did not take care of my business as I sat in an empty house, wondering where it all went wrong. One of the things the Father taught me in the years to come was taking care of His business meant taking care of my family, too. I had bought into a one-sided notion that ministry was exclusively outside of the family. I became a blind, spiritualized, sanctified ministry addict who needed a wake-up call.

Mounting Trouble

Other than our continual low-grade arguing, things were going well. Ironically, the disagreements were rarely significant, blinding me to the essentialness of dealing with them biblically. As I learned the hard way, the accrual effect of unresolved conflict can develop into a torrent of trouble that can destroy a family. A contributing factor to the demise of our family was in June of 1987, a year after we arrived in Greenville. I received one of those dreadful phone calls that no one wants to accept. My mother called to tell me that someone murdered my older brother in an argument. He went to prison when he was seventeen years old and had been in and out of prison from that time until he was murdered fifteen years later. He had gotten into a scuffle and was shot twice in the head with a double-barrel shotgun.

The assailant took hold of the gun’s barrel and used it as a sledgehammer to crush my brother’s skull. My brother had just gotten out of prison in January for the third time, but per his usual, he would not avoid trouble. He was an “institutionalized convict.” He had been in so long that he had a hard time living on the outside. He would do things that would get him locked up. The last time I saw him alive was on Easter Sunday in April 1987. He came to our local church meeting. Toward the end of the meeting, I noticed that he was noticeably shaken as he was processing the message from Exodus. It was one of those rare moments for a convict who had learned how to “be all things to all people.” This time, he could not hide his fears. I went to him and asked if he wanted to become a Christian. I told him how it was apparent that God was working in his life, and he needed to trust Him.

I asked if he understood what the preacher was saying. He said he did, but he could not be saved today because there were “some things he needed to do.” That was that, and the last time I saw him alive. We returned to Greenville. It took me a while to process his murder. My wife said it had changed me. She was right. It was a hard summer, our second year in Greenville. It was also during the summer of 1987 when she began seeing another man. She told me about it the following summer, a few months after she left. They worked together. He was married. I’m not sure how long that relationship lasted. By the time April 1988 rolled around, my ministry-centered lifestyle, my brother’s murder, our arguing, and her adultery were too much: she had decided to move out and take our children with her.

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The Will of God

There was a moment when I could have taken the children and filed for legal custody during the separation, but I was scared to hit the nuclear option, knowing “God hated divorce,” and there was no way it would happen to me. Besides, if I attempted to take the children, it would incite her and ensure a divorce. Regrettably, I wish I had gotten the kids and filed for legal custody. I chose not to press the issue until our problems were solved, which I knew God would come through for me. When we finally went to court two years later, the judge awarded the kids to their mother for two reasons. The children had been with their mother for the past two years, and he did not want to uproot them again.

He said their lives were complicated enough, and since they had been with her, he did not want to disrupt their situation. Though it sounded like sound wisdom on the face of it, I disagreed. As the years have shown, it was an unwise decision. The judge also said he did not see a Christian upbringing as a positive, as he recited a newspaper article that touted secular upbringing as being on par with what a Christian could do. A significant point of my argument in the child custody battle was the merits of a Christian family versus a non-Christian one. He was not convinced, as he was pre-determined to award our children to my newly legalized ex-wife.

It was a sunny day.

I remember stepping out on the courthouse steps in Greenville, South Carolina, looking up into the bright, beautiful, blue sky, and weeping. It was final. I lost my wife and two children on that lovely fall day. God hates divorce, and my hatred for it grew by the minute. I was stunned. I could not believe what had just happened. Why would God permit something so obviously against His will? The judge silenced two years of praying, asking, working, begging, and pleading when he slammed his gavel on the bench. I learned on that day how truth and a court of law do not necessarily coexist. For the record, he asked me what I wanted to do before he made his decision. I told him I wanted to reconcile with my wife. He asked if I understood her position: she wanted a divorce. I told him I was aware of her perspective, but I wanted it as a matter of court record: I disagreed that our marriage could not change, and regardless of the court’s opinion, I was against the divorce. He made it a matter of court record.

I was divorced.

But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind (Job 23:13-14).

Back to the Beginning

When I walked into the living room of my home on April 8, I immediately went running through the house, looking for my family. I knew what had happened when I saw the missing piano in the living room. I cannot explain to you what exactly happened in my mind on that day other than to say that I lost it. Upon seeing the piano missing, I sprinted toward the bedrooms, looking in the corners and closets for my wife and kids. She did not take everything—only personal belongings, beds, furniture, and personal items. The kids’ bedrooms were empty. I went on a frantic search for my family. I remember going into the kitchen, looking through the cupboards and drawers, but to no avail. Yes, the drawers, too. My family was not in the house. They were gone, and I knew they would not return anytime soon. I ran into the hallway from the kitchen and fell prostrate on the floor.

I panicked.

I could hardly breathe.

I was trying to catch my breath, huffing from the depths of my soul. It was more like a gasp, bellow, or some sad, hollow sound. I could not cry. I later called it “beyond tears.” The agony and terror transcended my fruitless efforts to call up tears. Oddly enough, I was stoic before my wife left, rarely showing emotion. It was part of my coolness; I learned not to let my feelings be known to others long ago because weakness was unacceptable. I had mastered the skill of self-reliance as I carefully edited a public version of myself that kept the real me tucked and hidden from scrutiny. On April 8, 1988, God broke my self-reliant, masquerading heart. I have cried regularly since that dreadful day.

The last thing I remember from my first Friday alone was sitting on the floor of my living room around 10 p.m. I opened my huge King James Bible to Psalm 51, not because of the point of the Psalm, David’s adultery with Bathsheba, but because I knew the first two words that led to David’s broken and contrite spirit. I wanted to read those two words. I wanted to look at them with red, burry, softened eyes. I wanted those first two words to soak deep into my soul. I needed healing, and those words were perfect for me, so I opened my Bible to that blessed Psalm and uttered those first two words.

Have mercy.

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Beginning of Woes

I fell over on the floor, the last thing I remembered from that night. When I awoke the following day, I was in my bed. I have no idea how that happened. I went to work that Saturday morning. My routine was to weigh myself on the floor scales in our recycling plant. When I left the plant at 5 p.m. on Friday, I weighed 168 pounds. Fifteen hours later, just before 8 a.m. on Saturday, I weighed 158 pounds. True story. This was the “beginning of woes.” The separation and the soon-to-be divorce started the Lord’s merciful “divine deconstruction,” and the troubles kept rolling in. For example, I belonged to a slice of Christianity called “Fundamentalism.” This legalistic demographic has a “one strike, you’re out policy” as it pertains to a divorced person being in ministry. (It’s in the fine print.) They told me that I could tell people about Jesus, but I could no longer preach to anyone about Jesus. They disqualified me from Christian ministry.

During this time, the company I worked for started phasing out their plants around the country. Our plant was on their list. They shut down our office. There was no notice. I was the plant manager. The District Manager came, and we were out of the plant in less than two hours. Within four years, I lost my wife, children, and job. We also had to liquidate the property we had held in North Carolina after we moved to Greenville. I was broke and no longer able to afford our rental in Greenville. The possibility of being a pastor was out the window too. A college friend told me about a lady who owned a dilapidated mobile home along a tree line in a pasture that I could rent for $125 per month. He had just moved back home to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Without a place to stay and no job or income, I took it and spent the next four years in that trailer. I began picking up aluminum cans to sell to make some change to buy food.

Let’s Take a Walk

I had to leave my trailer in the woods eventually. I could not find a job or enough aluminum cans to turn in for money. I packed my belongings in my Buick and moved back to North Carolina to live in the backroom of my 90-year-old grandmother’s home. It was added irony: I left home as an angry fifteen-year-old to move in with my grandmother. Now, I’m back, less than fifteen years later. God will go to terrible lengths to get His child’s attention. He was creatively working in me to shape my “theology of suffering worldview” (Philippians 2:12-13). I learned that He had to change me fundamentally before He could use me optimally.

  • How could I serve Him well in His world without walking in the steps of Jesus?
  • How would I walk in the steps of Jesus without suffering?

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

I did not understand these things then, but I see them now. Job talked about the need to gain sovereign clarity about his troubles. In this context, I embarked on a four-year experiential study in the Book of Job. The Lord took away everything dear to me. I was single, fatherless, and destitute, with no future hope of restoration on any front or even a future that would be any different from my present darkness. The pain was so profound that I could feel it. A “normal darkness” can come over you, and a darkness of the soul can be felt deeply (Exodus 10:21). This latter darkness transcends words. Sublunary language never reaches the height or the depth of that darkness. You feel it though you can’t articulate it. It’s deeper than deep (Psalm 42:7), with only one cure. You must die (Matthew 16:24).

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

But If It Dies

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him (1 John 3:1).

What I could not see, was afraid to see, and refused to see was how the Lord was in my suffering. I did not want to perceive Him. To look at God in the crucible of suffering was to stare into my death (Luke 22:42). As clarity began to break through, it dawned on me what He was up to in my life. I had an epiphany: The Lord had a Son, and it was His pleasure to crush Him. “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10).” Now I’m one of His sons. Why should I consider it strange (1 Peter 4:12) for my Father to make me walk in the steps of His beloved Son (1 Peter 2:21)?

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness (Mark 1:11-12).

As I began to ascertain God’s love for me as a son, I asked Him to forgive me for my stubborn, self-righteous anger that demanded He would see and do things my way. He forgave me, albeit nothing changed. Nothing, practically speaking. However, there was something ever-so-slightly stirring in my heart. It was as though a sprinkle of hope was coming like a small cloud forming in the sky about the size of a man’s hand (1 Kings 18:43-44). Eventually, the rain came, and when it did, the Lord reaffirmed that He would complete what He started when I first saw the light (Philippians 1:6). In His mysterious timing, He started equipping me to release me to serve others. This book is the fruit of what He taught me during those dark days.

I asked Him not to let me forget, and someday, I would share these things with others. I want you to know what He birthed in the crucible of suffering. I want to explain the best I can what He did, how it hurt, and the “turning of my captivity” that came as I journeyed through the Book of Job (Job 42:10). Thank you for reading Suffering Well. As you read, remind yourself that omniscient God had you in mind when He called me on April 8, 1988, to walk in the suffering steps of Jesus.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

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