Inter­view with James Bryan Smith and William Vaswig
In the rebuild­ing of their lives, Ren­o­varé team mem­bers James Bryan Smith and William Vaswig describe their respec­tive expe­ri­ences of suf­fer­ing, phys­i­cal help­less­ness, grief, dis­ap­point­ment, lone­li­ness, and way­ward­ness. We asked both of them about suf­fer­ing, and their respons­es reflect the expe­ri­ence of grief and hurt that many of us have felt and con­tin­ue to feel over the loss of those close to us.

Ren­o­varé: In fol­low­ing our Chris­t­ian respon­si­bil­i­ty of being light” to the world, how did you share your faith dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time?

James Bryan Smith: With­in a short span of time I lost one of my clos­est friends, Rich Mullins, our daugh­ter Made­line (2 yrs. old), and my moth­er. Dur­ing those times I nev­er thought about being a light” unto any­one. I was just try­ing to man­age, to keep believ­ing that God is good, and that in the end all will be well. I don’t think we should even try to be … any­thing oth­er than what we are. If we are liv­ing in the king­dom of God our lives will nat­u­ral­ly look dif­fer­ent. Many peo­ple said to my wife and I lat­er on that our faith was an inspi­ra­tion to them. That was nice to hear, but frankly, we were not try­ing to be an inspi­ra­tion. We were just liv­ing in the king­dom, and in the king­dom we grieve dif­fer­ent­ly, we grieve with hope. And that usu­al­ly pro­vides all the light a dark­ened world needs.

William Vaswig: A psy­chi­a­trist friend of mine told me to talk about my wife Marcine to any­one who would lis­ten after she died. I did, and it helped the griev­ing process. I lec­tured to a group of pas­tors and talked with indi­vid­u­als about the dying process. Wit­ness­ing through it was auto­mat­ic in a way.

R: React­ing to faith is char­ac­ter­ized by focus­ing on the Lord. How were you able to keep focused?

JBS: In times of tri­al every­thing that sup­ports you gets test­ed, and much of it does not make it through the cru­cible of suf­fer­ing. Most of these are beliefs, such as life will go on like this for­ev­er.” We assume that our loved ones will nev­er get sick, and that our world will be per­fect. Then it all shat­ters with a phone call, or in the hos­pi­tal room or the funer­al home. In times like these every­thing crum­bles — except one: I will nev­er leave you or for­sake you,” Jesus said. I nev­er tried to focus on Jesus because Jesus was all I had.

WV: The real­i­ty of his pres­ence increased immense­ly when I knew Marcine was only in the oth­er room (heav­en). I still reach out to her phys­i­cal­ly some­times when I wake up at night, for­get­ting that she is gone.

R: Fol­low­ing your suf­fer­ing, did you feel ener­gized in your Chris­t­ian walk with the Lord?

JBS: Not at all. I was sim­ply rebuild­ing my faith, because much of it had been torn down. Many of my core nar­ra­tives (sto­ries about real­i­ty that we have adopt­ed through the years) were shak­en and shat­tered. The king­dom core nar­ra­tive is this: the suf­fer­ings of this present age are prepar­ing us for an eter­nal weight of glo­ry” (2 Cor. 4:16 – 18). I was not ener­gized fol­low­ing my time of suf­fer­ing, but I did emerge from it with a stronger, more real faith.

WV: Not very. I griev­ed very much for five years. It has been eight years now and I have accept­ed it. The whole thing decked” me. I almost quit pray­ing for peo­ple. It de-ener­gized me.

R: What are the ben­e­fits that come from suf­fer­ing that will not come in any oth­er way?

JBS: When things go well in our lives we are sel­dom reflec­tive about life and its mean­ing. Also, we rarely lean on God in times of suc­cess. When we suf­fer, as I said before, all of our props fall down, and we are forced to ask what life is real­ly all about, and to trust in God in the midst of the darkness.

WV: Both my heart surg­eries, stents, heart attacks, stroke, and carotid-arter­ies caused me to lose con­fi­dence in myself and put much more con­fi­dence in God. That’s what hap­pened to Paul, which he speaks of in 2 Cor. 1:8 – 10, and that helped me get on my feet.

R: Can spir­i­tu­al growth take place through suffering?

JBS: Absolute­ly. James 1 and Romans 5 tell us that suf­fer­ing pro­duces a whole host of virtues: patience, per­se­ver­ance, hope, etc. But it is cru­cial that we be liv­ing in the king­dom of God and under the guid­ance of the Holy Spirit.

WV: It is one of the best ways to learn to walk with the Lord that there is. It is hard but it brings with it spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty if one sees it all in his light. Suf­fer­ing pro­duces endurance” – 1 Pet. 4:1 – 2. There is a strange word here which some of us dare to face. Who­ev­er has suf­fered in the flesh has fin­ished with sin.” Suf­fer­ing can enable us to live less and less accord­ing to human desire, and more and more accord­ing to God’s will.

R: Can non-Chris­tians prof­it from suffering?

JBS: I have known sev­er­al non-Chris­tians who have gone through seri­ous suf­fer­ings such as the death of a child. When you take the king­dom of God out of the equa­tion, it makes suf­fer­ing very dif­fer­ent. There is no real rea­son for hope. Most of the non­be­liev­ers I know sim­ply have to divert their atten­tion because to think about their loss is too painful. So they gar­den or throw them­selves into their work. Their suf­fer­ing nev­er gets redeemed, just ignored. But that being said, suf­fer­ing forces all of us to fig­ure out what life is about, and quite often that will lead us back to things like lov­ing one anoth­er, enjoy­ing the moments of life, help­ing out peo­ple in need. Chris­t­ian or not, suf­fer­ing shat­ters the illu­sion that hap­pi­ness comes from out­ward things (mon­ey, fame, phys­i­cal beau­ty, etc.) and forces us to look to some­thing deeper.

WV: By all means. Many mil­lions of peo­ple have come to know God through suffering.

R: Can unnec­es­sary types of suf­fer­ing be profitable?

JBS: One of the things we do in times of suf­fer­ing is to search for the mean­ing. When our daugh­ter died a lot of peo­ple tried to offer com­fort by say­ing, God cer­tain­ly must have had a plan in all of this.” And if you look hard you can see some mean­ing. She only lived two years, but 500 peo­ple came to her funer­al, and sev­er­al doc­tors and nurs­es came, and told us about how her life had impact­ed theirs. I am grate­ful for that. But I can also hon­est­ly say, Hey, God, this was unnec­es­sary! She could have been born healthy and done even more good.” We search for mean­ing because of our innate sense of jus­tice. But I have come to believe that the only jus­tice is heav­en. There is not jus­tice in this life. But heav­en is the greater restor­er of jus­tice. My daugh­ter nev­er got a chance to dance and sing in this life, but she is danc­ing and singing in heav­en. I can com­plain about only hav­ing her for two years, but she will reign eter­nal­ly in heav­en. I am guess­ing she and I will have 100,000 years or so together.

WV: I doubt whether suf­fer­ing for a Chris­t­ian is ever unprof­itable. God, of course, does not cause suf­fer­ing most of the time. It is part of our fal­l­eness. But he does allow suf­fer­ing to take place. It seems to me that life for each of us as God’s chil­dren is a three-act play, so to speak, which God has writ­ten for us. It is his plan for our lives. But he gives us free­dom to choose not to fol­low his plan exact­ly, and in order to accom­mo­date our way­ward­ness he rewrites the play. When we are in Act I he is rewrit­ing Act II, and so on. As a result it will come out where he wants, even though we go our own way half (or even most) of the time. He is so gra­cious to use all our suf­fer­ing, whether it is will­ful on our part or not, to arrive at the place he choos­es. Our very last breath in this life can be a will­ful rejec­tion of him, but he will try his best to end it in a good way.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ren­o­varé Per­spec­tives in 2005.

Text First Published April 2005

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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