I had been a follower of Jesus for two years when my father passed away while I was a college student. I was a leader in my campus ministry, and I knew exactly what I needed to do—be strong in order to be a good witness of the Lord’s power and goodness. My dad had given his heart over to Jesus in the midst of his illness and that was my rationale for the show of strength. “Dad’s in heaven with Jesus and for that I am thankful and full of joy.” My peers were so impressed with my faith; they praised me and thanked me for being such a strong witness. There was just one problem; I was dying inside from grief.
My dad and I had a tumultuous relationship during my adolescent years. One time on Christmas morning, I screamed at him, “I hate you!” I don’t even remember why I was so mad, but I have always remembered those three cutting words. When I decided to follow Jesus, I made the decision to express my love for him and my mom. In letters home, I always closed with “I love you.” When I left after a weekend at home, I always hugged my mom and shook hands with my dad (He was not the hugging type.) and told them I loved them. Little by little, the relationship with dad improved. When he retired from the factory job he held for more than 45 years, he asked this (at the time) photojournalism major to come shoot pictures of his work party. Less than a year later, I received a call from my mom that my dad had had a heart attack and was in bad shape. I drove from campus at way above the speed limit to get to the big city hospital where he had been taken. When I arrived, the doctors told us he actually had an aortic aneurysm that had burst. The good news was he had actually survived long enough to make it to the hospital (at the time, only 25% did), but he was far from out of danger. Only 25% of those who make it to a hospital, survived the surgery to repair it.
I had brought my Bible with me and so began to read during the long hours of waiting while my dad was in surgery. I can still remember reading John 11—the story of Lazarus. Having just started reading the chapter, these words jumped off the page: “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’” It was as if the Lord spoke directly to me with those words. My dad was not going to die! And he didn’t. He survived the surgery, but he was in the hospital for many weeks with a staph infection, which gave me the opportunity to drive from campus to see him three times a week. It was during these times that our relationship began to improve dramatically, and during which I shared with him the Gospel. One afternoon, he expressed an interest in professing his commitment to Jesus and I prayed with him. God had saved his life so that he might attain eternal life.
The day of his surgery from which he never recovered, he called me to sit on his hospital bed and he took my hand. I sat there for a time and he didn’t release it until the orderlies came to take him to surgery. He survived the operation and seemed to do well for the first 24 hours, but then suddenly his vitals went south and not long afterward, he crossed the threshold from this life to the next.
After his death, under the façade of spiritual strength, lay a shattered glass of grief for what could have been. However, I didn’t think I could show it or should. I wanted to bring God glory; how would a show of weakness do that? So I put on the mask of spiritual strength and soldiered on through the visitation and the funeral. I returned to campus with the mask firmly in place. I fooled all of my peers, to the point that once they expressed their condolences and admiration, they moved on. It was understandable, because they thought I was fine; I told them I was fine.
It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later that I realized I wasn’t fine at all. I was angry at those around me because they bought what I had sold them. They believed I was strong, but I knew just how weak I was. One day, I voiced my complaint to the secretary of our ministry, who was like a second mom to many of us. I will never forget her words. “Jim, we’re not mind readers. You have to tell us if something is wrong.”
It was a monumental mistake and many of us make it. I was determined not to make it again, and it wasn’t long before I was tested. Just over a year after my father passed away, my mother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She was given, with treatment, two years to live. As the shock wore off and reality set in, I remember sitting at my desk at school and reading II Corinthians 12. Paul is sharing with the church about a particular ailment he has, a “thorn in the flesh,” he called it. He is frustrated by it and pleads three times for the Lord to take it away. But the Lord refused. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (verse 9)As happened in that hospital waiting room two years earlier, the words leapt off the page and into my heart. It was okay with God that I am weak; I don’t need to be strong. Knock down the façades and be real, then he will fill me with his strength when I feel weak.
Those lessons from my college years have served me repeatedly throughout my life, through a very tough first marriage and divorce, through being asked to resign (as a result of my divorce) from a ministry where I served for more than 20 years, and, more recently, through some turbulent times in my current ministry. I have felt so weak, so overwhelmed, but I’ve always resisted the temptation of trying to be strong in myself. I know that my strength is not enough to carry me; thus, I need to let God take over and fill me with his.
All of this came to mind over the weekend. Even with all of our outreach on campus during the first week of classes, we had only one new student show up at our first campus meeting and none for a Saturday hike. We did the hike anyway with five of our seven leaders. I was certain they were discouraged, but none of them indicated that. So when we reached our destination, I asked them to be honest: Were they discouraged? All of them admitted they were. They felt like they were part of something small and weak, compared to other ministries on campus that were drawing hundreds or at least several dozen. I encouraged them by telling them that my wife and I believe God is going to do something special with our ministry, and will use it in significant ways in the lives of students on our campus. Far from being discouraged, I told them that we are encouraged because we know we are small and weak. We don’t have the crowds; we don’t have the multi-instrument praise band; we don’t have name recognition like some of the ministries. Yet, we know when we are weak, then God can make us strong. We know despite all of our shortcomings, the Lord can and will do great things in us and through us if we will only trust him and wait on him.
Just as Paul was tested and I was tested, so now these student leaders are facing a test. Will they rely on themselves or on God? Will they trust him, acknowledge their weakness, and let him be their strength, or will they soldier on trying to be strong in and of themselves, devising strategies to bring students in, and doing it all on their own?
I was about their age when I experienced my first test in this. I am praying they will do better than I did. I think they will. If they do, the lesson of strength in weakness can serve them for a lifetime.
© Jim Musser 2019