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.

Originally published May 2005.