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How You Can Survive the Agony of 10 Painful Words

Ten words that I would prefer not to experience personally have impacted recently the lives of friends and ministry colleagues.

Oncologist. Hospice. Bankruptcy. Betrayal. Depression. Suicide. Divorce. Termination. Conflict. Jail.

Unfortunately, over the past 14 days, 10 different people that I care about have become personally acquainted with one or more of these words.

Of course, they learned more than the words; they learned the harsh reality that these words represent.

The details are not pretty. In every case, there has been heartbreak and pain. Tears have been shed, lives have been altered and “normal” has been redefined.

In some cases, harsh and hurtful things were said. Relationships were broken and pain was inflicted. Some of the stories are stories of division, bitterness and brokenness.

In others, thoughtful and compassionate words were offered. Healing took place amid hardship. Some of the stories contain elements of grace and tenderness.

For the most part, however, these words represent realities in life that we would prefer to avoid. And so we do.

We are masters at avoidance. We have made sidestepping an art form.

We fear that saying the word or acknowledging the feeling will somehow make things worse or make them come to life. So we dodge the word or ignore the feeling and end up in that harsh land of denial.

Some of the most life-changing conversations I have ever experienced came when denial and avoidance no longer sufficed. They usually started with a phrase like, “We need to have a talk.”

Interestingly, over these last two weeks, as friends, family and colleagues were experiencing these realities, I also found myself in a parallel series of conversations with churches and clergy that were remarkable for their honesty and authenticity.

Rather than avoid hard truths, I found these brave believers willing to admit their fears and lean into a very uncertain future with hopeful imaginations.

Some are awakening to the changing landscape of congregational life and realizing that things will never be like they were. The only path forward is a journey through and to a land they do not know.

Despite the challenge of that truth, these men and women were willing to admit their shortcomings and ask God to intervene and guide them toward a new and very different future.

I was stunned and amazed at their resilience and faithfulness. I came away from three different congregational gatherings with a renewed sense of hope for the Church and its place in our culture’s future.

Some were clergy who were wrestling with their evolving sense of God’s call upon their lives.

Admitting that they were unclear about their future was the beginning point for an honest conversation about their call, their sense of self, their prevailing understanding of God and a multitude of other rich topics.

Another round of conversations related to job opportunities or challenges. Some were exciting and invigorating; others were threatening and frightening.

Once again, honesty about motives, hidden agendas, hope, conflict, anxiety and security led to fresh insights and a release of pent-up concerns that had been previously unexpressed.

I’ve come away from these days with a conviction that the Bible remains our very best source of wisdom for living in highly anxious and uncertain times.

I want to hear less and less about politicians, celebrities and sports heroes, and more about the women and men of Scripture. That’s because the stories of our biblical heroes are our stories.

Abram launching out on a journey toward an uncertain future, Joseph enduring unfair torture and mistreatment, Caleb losing the vote to cross into the Promised Land or untold numbers of saints dying early and unfairly.

David grieving his own folly and his wayward son, Elijah depressed and alone, Jesus’ disciples arguing about who was the greatest, or Peter betraying the one he had just pledged his life to.

Paul and Timothy stomping away from one another in anger, or Peter asserting that pain and trials are to be expected.

The Bible paints an incredibly honest and sobering view of life.

I’ve yet to find a struggle in my life or those around me that cannot be found in the pages of this remarkable book. The circumstances may change, but the core issues remain the same.

And yet it is a book and a gospel filled with hope and not despair. In the end, it declares that these 10 words, and all the other words like them, will not win.

Instead, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is evidence that there is another set of words that will triumph: life, love, joy, peace, faith, hope, fellowship, endurance, grace and goodness are real and will be vindicated.

I choose these 10 words to balance my other 10 words. Somehow that works for me.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow him on Twitter @BillWilson1028 and the center @ChurchHealthy.