Making Bad Experiences a Ministry

Jesus answered and said, "Neither has this man sinned nor his parents but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:3).

There are many differences in the way that atheistic belief and Christian belief affect the way a person deals with extreme struggles in life. As a person who changed from an atheist to a Christian, I have had to make this adjustment and for me, that adjustment was forced quickly due to life experiences. Some Christians live a very long time before they are challenged to deal with a severe problem and some Christians never realize the importance of the statement Jesus made or understand how to apply it.

John 9 is the story of a man who was born blind. When the followers of Jesus saw this man, they concluded that someone's sin must have caused the man's blindness and they wanted to know whose it was. Jesus answered their question by saying that sin was not the source of the man's blindness. The Bible is full of stories and teachings that let us know that problems in life are not always a product of sin. In the book of Job we see Job's friends insisting that his sin was the cause of his problems, and we are shown that Job's struggles were rooted in a far greater conflict--the battle between good and evil. Ephesians 6:12 further describes this struggle and Ephesians 3:9-13 indicates that the church is an integral part of God's plan to face this battle.

Atheists will frequently suggest that if God is good then He would not allow bad things in life to happen, but such an assertion assumes that there is no purpose to life except what happens in this life. Anything that is not perfect is viewed as a failure on God's part. This is a selfish and shallow view of life and is rooted in the atheist faith. It is also a shallow view of reality. How can someone rationally suggest that if a person jumps off a cliff that God should somehow prevent him from hitting the bottom? How can a person survive in the physical world if he has no way to know he has been hurt or to tell something is sharp or hot? Such atheist arguments would have God turn man into a robot or puppet which would be incapable of love or passion or any of the other characteristics that make us human.

The question is not whether man will have pain, tragedy, trauma, or loss in this world but rather how the system that man lives by equips him to deal with the reality of life. Most religions and philosophies teach that man is to endure the problems of life and the best help they offer is the hope of relief or reward in another life. The Christian system goes beyond that and gives man a view and method that is unique to the Christian system. Those who understand and apply this aspect of the Christian system not only find ways of dealing with their own personal pain and loss, but actually find good things coming from the tragedy that they have endured. This is concisely stated in Romans 8:28, "All things work for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (NIV).

In the case of the blind man in John 9, Jesus enables the blind man not only to come to a knowledge of God and of Christ as His Son, but He also brings the blind man into a role of being an apologist and working for positive change in the corrupt religious leaders of the day (see John 9:18-34). Paul repeatedly used his past as a part of his ministry. Look at the list of things Paul refers to as things he had endured or been a part of.

1 Timothy 1:15: Chief of sinners--dealing with feelings of worth.

Romans 7:14-8:1: Battling to do right and not doing it, seeming to fight a losing battle.

2 Corinthians 12:7: Having a thorn in the flesh--having a painful problem that you ask God to remove and He does not do it.

Galatians 2:11: Having to oppose bigotry in a religious leader.

2 Timothy 4:10: Being forsaken by everyone who should stand with you.

Philippians 4:2-3: Having two women you care about at each other's throats.

Acts 16:23, Acts 14:19: Being stoned, even to the point of death.

Acts 7:57, Acts 8:3: Persecuting people to the point of getting them killed and finding out you were wrong--guilt.

You and I are not like Paul. We have relatively few things forced upon us that bring enormous pain, suffering, and frustration. Those things we do endure, however, need to be looked at and handled as we see Christians dealing with their problems and struggles. As Paul got to the end of his life his writings ooze an aura of satisfaction, hope, and fulfillment. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished the course" shows no remorse, fear, or frustration with life as it ends.

The other part of this picture is the approach Jesus tells us to have to life. One of the most beautiful stories in the life of Jesus is in John 13:3-17, where Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. When He finishes the act, considered an act reserved for the lowest people in the social structure of the society in which He lived, He said "Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."

The key to life which Jesus gives in this incident is service. Christians are to have service and giving to others as the basis of all they do. The leaders of the church are portrayed in the Bible as shepherds. The word deacon means to minister or to serve and the first deacons were appointed to take care of widows (Acts 6:1-7). Over and over, the first century Christians were encouraged to engage in lives of giving, caring, and service to each other. See Romans 6:15-23, 12:11-13, Galatians 5:13, and Philippians 2:22.

All of this translates into successful living. Marriage, friends, sex, recreation, children, parents are all radically impacted in a positive way when we have learned what Jesus taught us to do.

The problem for most of us is that we do not know where to start to do the things we have listed above. If we are motivated to turn a bad experience into a ministry, the next problem is how to do it. For the nearly forty years that we have been involved in the Does God Exist? work, we have been in helping people to build ministries. We would like to make some suggestions we hope will be useful.

Communicate Your Availability. In our life we have had to deal with some pretty major problems. There was never anyone we knew well enough to go to who had been through what we were experiencing. When our son was born with multiple birth defects, all of our friends were sympathetic, but all of them also had children with no congenital problems so they were totally unable to relate to our pain. There were many people in the church who let us know that we and our different son really were not welcome. When we got involved with medical and social service people, we encountered legalistic systems that followed rules and procedures but did not even address our personal struggles and pain. Eventually, we came in contact with other parents who did understand these things, but they too were at a loss for support and help.

 After over 20 years, we came to a point where we felt strong enough in our personal struggles to try and reach out to others. This began by visiting friends and acquaintances who had children with birth defects. Finding common ground strengthened us and increased our resolve to aggressively go out and seek those who had a problem we could relate to. I remember one young mother we were trying to help commenting that for the first time since the birth of her multiply-handicapped daughter she felt like she was accepted and really belonged.

 All of this led us to start working with others who had bad experiences of a different sort. We came in contact with a lady named Judy Hines who was a mature Christian and had weathered repeated bouts with cancer. She was seeking out people with cancer and ministering to them, and had developed a book to give them--something they could study and read on their own. We had written and published a book on our experiences in dealing with a multiple- handicapped child, so we printed Judy's book and have made it available to people involved in cancer related problems. Judy has made a difference in the lives of many many people as her availability becomes known to people battling cancer or people who have loved ones fighting this problem. Recently we printed another book written by a man named Ralph Scott who fought a debilitating illness (polio) that confined him to a wheelchair for over 50 years. Ralph's ministry to people who have battled a paralyzing injury or disease has made a difference to not only people just beginning to face a life-long physical struggle, but also to their families. Our most recent book has been on diabetes and living successfully with insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes, through not only the disease, but through its complications. This book is written by Phyllis Clayton who has had insulin-dependent diabetes for over 57 years.

 All of these ministries are positive attempts to help and support people struggling with major challenges in life. Once people in the community know help is available, they will search it out. Support groups exist on most of these problems, and in many cases there are national groups which have been formed to bring answers to people. Finding stable, supportive, informed, experienced workers is a major issue for these groups. In all of the cases listed above, we have found tremendous interest and many opportunities available in working with these groups.

Use Available Resources. There are many ways to carry on a ministry. Once you are known to be a responsible source of help to people, you will find people coming to you in great numbers. In some cases support groups may already exist in the community which you can get involved with. In most communities there are groups already working with alcoholism, abuse of all kinds, divorce, and mental retardation. United Way offices are usually willing to tell you if a group is functioning in your community.

One of the most effective ways of developing a ministry is to operate through the local congregation. Any leadership that is sound will welcome the opportunity to support a ministry to help others. Support group programs can meet in a church classroom. Announcements can be made to enlist the help of others in making contacts with people who need the help you have to offer. For nearly forty years, the Does God Exist? ministry has worked with the Donmoyer Avenue Church of Christ, using a garage on the back of the property which has been turned into our printing, shipping, and storage facility. In addition, the church has allowed us to use their legal status to manage our funding and tax situation. This has not been a cost to the congregation as we have paid our way, but it has given us a vital base to operate from.

There are other ways to have this kind of help. We have seen ministries carried on through Scouts, homeless shelters, women's abuse centers, 4-H Fair facilities, schools--both private and public, camps, civic groups, and even malls. Be creative and you will find that the Lord will lead you to a way to do things.

Be Sure Your Ministry Leads Somewhere. It is one thing to help people find answers to a problem which has come into their life. It is another thing to give them something that enables them to live and advance through the tragedy. In our ministry of helping people believe in God, it was pretty obvious that it could not just stop with helping someone see that there is a God and that the Bible is His Word. Faith involves a life change and a values rearrangement, and that requires a community to help the individual find a new life. In abuse ministries there is not just the issue of getting away from the abuse source, but also the issue of psychologically dealing with the wounds to one's self esteem and confidence so he can begin a new life. Alcoholism, drug addiction, homosexuality, gambling, and other problems like these all require major life changes that intersect every fabric of one's being.

If you have gone through one of these and are considering a ministry to help others, you know what it took to get you back on your feet and operating in society again. Be sure that your ministry leads to other resources and outlets for people to use. One way to do this is to attend conferences or meetings related to what you are doing. We have seen people with marvelous prison ministries get a real boost by going to conferences of prison ministry workers. Homeschool workers who have built ministries get together periodically to share experiences and resources. The web provides great ways to find these resources and to use them.

Our purpose in this essay has been to share some ideas and hopefully some motivation to people to take what has happened in their life and do something with it. You may never be glad you had the experience that you have had, but you can rejoice in the good that can come out of bad. I will never be happy that I had a son born with multiple birth defects, but I have learned so much about life, and the very fabric of my personal makeup has been shaped positively by my experience. I can honestly say that I have seen that "all things work to the good of them that love the Lord" (Romans 8:28).

--John N. Clayton


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