Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Trials Lead to The Greening of the Soul: A Chat with Christy-nominated Novelist Stephanie Grace Whitson

Stephanie Grace Whitson and I were mere acquaintances many moons ago when her husband contracted an incurable cancer. A few months later, when facing the shock and loss of losing our daughter, I reached out to Steph and we supported each other in cyberspace and also on our knees. She is the author of numerous historical fiction novels and in 2005 authored How to Help a Grieving Friend: A Candid Guide for Those Who Care. It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce you to award-winning novelist Stephanie Grace Whitson.

STEPHANIE: Thank you, Patty!

PATTY: Steph, what’s your earliest inkling that faith was going to be your forever lifeline?

STEPHANIE: My personal faith in a sovereign God has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember. I honestly don't know when I became a believer. I do know that when I was baptized at age nine, I understood as well as any nine-year-old can the basics of the gospel message.

PATTY: Parents can help so much.

STEPHANIE: Beyond saving faith, I've been privileged to be part of a wonderful teaching ministry for years, so when 1996 arrived, I had a lot of head knowledge about what the Bible says. But 1996 left me feeling like a grain of sand at the mercy of hurricane-sized waves. My best friend died of breast cancer. Both my parents died within six weeks of each other. My oldest daughter and I were in a terrible car accident. My youngest daughter went through a prolonged and terrifying illness. And my husband was diagnosed with an incurable form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer thrusts uncertainty about the future into our lives along with chemotherapy and medical visits and second opinions and, finally, a bone marrow transplant. Because Bob was an elder in our large church we had an ever-present sense that people were watching to see how we would we cope, and we had a strong desire to be found faithful. But we were terrified.

PATTY: We understand the aquarium and how people expect you to “behave” in a storm. But happy affirmations certainly fail you through devastating loss, don’t they?

STEPHANIE: More than once during the next few years I remember lying face down--literally face down on the floor--crying out to God for help. I didn't doubt his love for me. I didn't doubt His sovereignty. And yet, knowing these things and claiming the promise of Romans 8:28 didn't spare me the pain of the process. The fierceness of that emotional pain caught me off guard. I was a believer. I was well taught in the things of Scripture. Shouldn't I hurt less? Fear less?

PATTY: I compare it to being lashed to a ship’s mast in a hurricane. We tend to question our resolve and courage right about the time those virtues are hitting the cellar.

STEPHANIE: One of the most profound things I learned during that time was that faith doesn't protect the faithful from pain or fear. That's not what faith is for. Faith is what enables us to endure the pain and the fear while we cling to the truths presented in God's Word about who He is and what He is doing this side of heaven.

PATTY: I’d like to add, if Steph and I sound courageous today, we have the luxury of time and the healing process between us and the loss now. We’re speaking from a perspective that’s been earned while hanging from our fingernails. Steph, you did buckle, didn’t you?

STEPHANIE: Realizing that Bob was going to die drove me to my knees. I was living the worst thing I could ever imagine happening and I was powerless to change it. It was devastating. And yet I never doubted it was part of God's plan for me, because the God of the Bible is sovereign over the affairs of men. That is simple to say. Hard to live.

PATTY: I was probably a greater wreck as for many months I couldn’t vocalize God’s sovereignty to a friend who asked me to try. I had a lapse of spiritual vocabulary.

STEPHANIE: Bob used to say that wherever cancer took us was a place to share our faith. After he died, I had to come to a place where I could say "wherever widowhood takes me is a place to share my faith." The process was difficult, but God eventually took me to the place of peace where I could say "yes" to being alone. Widowhood was not my choosing, but I could be content in that place for as long as God asked me to remain there.

PATTY: It’s that moment where you found your Shelter in the emotional onslaught.

STEPHANIE: In human terms there were moments during those years that were horrible. Moments that still make me shudder when I think of them. But I can honestly say that because of cancer and widowhood, the sufficiency of God isn't some vague theological concept to me. It is real. I knew things intellectually before 1996 that I have now experienced. My faith is stronger.

PATTY: Yes, it was easy to “be good” and quote scriptures to others suffering pain when my own life was cheesecake. Everything shifts, doesn’t it?

STEPHANIE: Yes, one thing that has changed profoundly is the way I pray. I was struck not long ago with the realization that in their darkest moments, many of the giants of the faith didn't ask for deliverance. They requested perseverance and endurance.

PATTY: A few did, yes.

STEPHANIE: When I pray for others now, I pray less for the removal of trials and more for the endurance. Why? Because so often it's the trial that provides incredible opportunity for us to shine the light of Jesus into places we never would have gone without that trial. I think God wants me to spend less time begging for escape and more time praying for endurance.

PATTY: You become galvanized in a new skin. That doesn’t mean you’re pain proof, but have the endurance to weather difficulties with greater ease. I understand we have a mutual friend.

STEPHANIE: My brother in Christ Randy Alcorn was one of many prayer warriors who helped encourage Bob and me through our valley. Randy consistently challenges people to "invest in eternity," and that phrase has truly changed the way I look at trials.

PATTY: Randy is so faithful like that. When Jessi died, Randy was right there keeping vigil over my Randy and I. He’s like a spiritual medi-vac for God. He reminded me of the friends in the gospel who couldn’t get to Jesus, so they cut a hole in the roof and lowered the lame friend down through the ceiling. He knows who to go to on our behalf—his “eternal perspective” comes in handy when grenades are being thrown at you.

STEPHANIE: With fear and trembling I try to look beyond this "momentary light affliction" and forward to the "eternal weight of glory." Now, I emphasize again that I do these things "with fear and trembling" because I am human and weak and I just plain do not LIKE having to go through trials. But Bob's cancer and subsequent death were the catalyst for a major shift in the way I think about trials.

PATTY: The big debate among fellow sufferers who are also believers is how they come out of it trusting or not trusting in God's sovereignty--Has your view of God's sovereignty been redefined? OR would you like to share an example of how the process of suffering has helped reshape the way you explain God's often misunderstood nature?

STEPHANIE: There is always some tension in the life of faith. In the area of suffering I sometimes picture this: on one hand you have suffering and on the other is God's sovereignty. It is impossible for what I call my "pea-brain" to put the palms of those two hands together and lace the fingers. It's as if those two hands are opposing poles of a magnet and the more forcefully I try to bring them together, the more forcefully they are held apart. The life of faith takes place in that space between those two seemingly opposing forces.

PATTY: Beautiful example, Steph.

STEPHANIE: To me, faith is deciding to willingly remain in that place and consciously accept that not all my questions are going to be answered this side of the grave. I'm talking about a deliberate choice here, not fatalism.

PATTY: Yes, unfortunately in this post-Christian age, everything has to be explained.

STEPHANIE: The Scriptures tell us that "the secret things belong to God." I find great comfort in that phrase. One of the reasons that Job is my favorite book in the Bible is that the only answer Job was given for the awful things that happened to him was, "I am."

PATTY: We ask out of our smallness and God answers out of His bigness.

STEPHANIE: Job finally got to the place where he stopped questioning and said, "I place my hand over my mouth."

PATTY: I’m still working on that one.

STEPHANIE: I don't know that Job ever knew about God giving Satan permission to do what he did. But I think Job will be rewarded throughout eternity because of the generations upon generations of people like me who have learned from Job and been encouraged to endure their own tough times. If Job had a chance to go back and relive his life and have it be great, I think he'd choose to go back and have it be exactly as it was. Because now Job SEES what God was doing and he's being rewarded for it and he realizes that, in light of eternity those trials were "momentary light affliction." But while Job was on the earth, "the secret things belonged to God." They belong to God. And so do I.

PATTY: Stephanie, for those of you who don’t know, is a professional quilter. Notice how beautifully God has sewn together the patchwork of pain in her life and made it a thing of beauty. God finishes us and continues to finish us when we surrender to that work, no matter how painful.

STEPHANIE: Even as I share this, I want to make it very clear that while I believe them with all my heart, I don't always apply them consistently. Since Bob died I've remarried. When my new husband went through a situation that involved words like "suspicious tumor" and "surgery" and when I had the "cancer" word applied to me a couple of years ago (I'm fine), I had to go back again to the same reminders.

PATTY: And he’s a man of faith too, isn’t he?

STEPHANIE: When asked once how he could endure the illness and death of his first wife, my husband Dan said, "Life is a multiple choice test. A: God's in control. B: He's not. I choose 'A'." I've learned that that choice has to be made over and over again through life, sometimes about big things like cancer, sometimes about smaller things I don't understand. By God's grace, I choose 'A'.

PATTY: Steph, we’re so honored to have you share your story on Words to Go, and how pain and endurance contributed to the Greening of your beautiful soul. Thanks for stopping by.

STEPHANIE: Thanks for inviting me, Patty.

If you are going through your own dark night of the soul, we hope you found encouragement here today. I have a copy right off the presses of Stephanie’s newest novel A Claim of Her Own plus Steph is going to give away autographed copies of her novel Jacob's List and her How to Help a Grieving Friend book! I’m going to put them all in Saturday’s book give. So leave feedback and your name goes in the Big Straw Hat for the drawing. Tomorrow novelist Patti Hill shares her own story of how her soul grew in the valley of darkness and uncertainty.