A recurring theme in the lives of those whom God has used in exceptional ways is exceptional suffering. Often, the Lord has used deep disappointment to direct His servants away from their own plans and to propel them into strategic ministries:
- David Brainerd‘s expulsion from Yale released him from normal ministry in Connecticut (which became impossible without his degree) and prepared the way for him to take the gospel to the unreached Indians of modern-day New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
- J. C. Ryle was planning on a lifetime in Parliament, where he surely would have thrived. However, a financial collapse took his father’s considerable fortune (to which he was heir) in one crushing day. It forced him into the ministry, the only profession for which he was qualified.
- Nate Saint had an inflammation of the osteomyelitis in his leg on the very night before he was to report for special military training that would have prepared him to use his flying skills in combat. That door closed, choking him with grief, but preparing him for his ministry in Ecuador with Missionary Aviation Fellowship.
For those of us who know “the rest of the story,” these life-changing blows are simply steps to greater usefulness. But for these men, they were devastating, both when they happened and for years afterwards. Ryle said his father’s bankruptcy came to his mind every day, even 30 years later:
“I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered and I had never been ruined, my life, of course, would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament very soon and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul. I should have formed very different connections, and moved in an entirely different circle. I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or book. Perhaps I might have made shipwreck of spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was. All I mean to say is that I was deeply wounded by my reverses, suffered deeply under them, and I do not think I have recovered in body and mind from the effect of them.” (Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, pp. 37-38)
Of course, many choose to pursue the Christian ministry despite other compelling opportunities. C. T. Studd left a career in professional cricket to take the gospel to China, India, and Africa. William Borden left his family fortune to take the gospel to China. There are many similar examples. But the Lord has sometimes used personal tragedy to “shoehorn” people into ministries they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, exercising the gracious prerogative described in Proverbs 16:9:
“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
Feel free to chime in with other examples from church history. It’s healthy to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and sovereignty, especially in the midst of personal disappointments. Let these examples encourage you and build your faith! Grace.