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We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rob for an informal conversation about the book, the experiences he wrote about, and a sermon series he’ll be bringing this fall that will center around these same themes.
You just completed writing your first book—a huge commitment of time and effort. Why did you do it?
Because I felt like God was calling me to. It was a sense that God had spoken to me one day during a devotional time. I had a distinct impression that God wanted me to tell the story.
Did you see personal value in going through that experience of writing? Did it crystallize or clarify anything for you?
Yes, because it forced me to kind of think through some of the things I’d been preaching and kind of bring it together in more of a synthesis. That was really valuable. But frankly, reliving some of those experiences was pretty painful.
Did you have a particular kind of reader in mind when you were writing?
Yes. The reader, like myself, who has been really hammered and beaten up and who was trying to find some light in the darkness.
Talk a little bit about the title, When the Bottom Drops Out.
The title comes from a line in my book. Early in the writing process, as I was struggling with the title, I was thinking of something like “Dealing with Disappointment” or “A Biblical Response to Life’s Disappointments” and other things that tended to be more vanilla and generic. The publishers were saying, “No, we need something better.” As Rhonda, my wife, was proofing some of it, she lifted that line out and said, “Hey, Rob, here it is.” And we all responded real positively to it. So I credit Rhonda with finding that.
If you had to capsulize what the book is about, what would that be?
I would say it is a book about how we as Christ followers are privileged to deal with pain—God’s assignment of pain in our lives—in a way that honors Him. It’s about dealing with pain, recognizing that pain is part of God’s plan for our life, and how to respond to it.
A lot of the psalms get very “real,” sometimes raw, as the psalmist cries out to God. Did you have those moments—those psalm-like experiences?
Yes. And for me they would occur at one or two in the morning when I couldn’t sleep. When you’re going through something like that or you go through loss, certainly after Carol died, the nights are the hardest. And there were nights when I couldn’t sleep, and I just remember being in the middle of the night down on my face just crying out to God. Give me grace. Give me insight. Be merciful to me. And you are also in those moments lamenting . . . your pain.
What was it that helped you to make peace with those kinds of why questions?
The Word. There were certain passages that just were very, very helpful. One example, the book of Job. If you study the book of Job, as I have over the years, you realize that the book of Job doesn’t answer the why question. It answers the how question. How does a believer in God respond? And the answer is at the end of the book of Job, and the answer is we submit.
We see that again in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus says, “Not My will but Thy will be done.” It’s an issue of submission. So we have this throughout the Scriptures; we have this call to discipleship, and inherent in discipleship is submission. And submission—we see this in Abraham’s life, both in the book of Genesis and then in the book of Hebrews as it’s retold in chapter 11—submission even when you don’t have your questions answered. And part of life, part of discipleship, is being willing to live with unanswered questions. As Job said, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.”
Were there any other bedrock sorts of truths that you were holding on to?
Yes, the sovereignty of God. That God has a plan for my life, and it includes pain. And the fact that suffering is part of discipleship. And so I was able kind of from the get-go to accept this as an assignment from God. I would talk about this with my kids. “This is God’s assignment for us. We don’t like it. It’s awful. But somehow this is part of God’s assignment for us. And we’re not the first people that have gone through this, so we’ve got to face into the wind and take this as of the Lord.”
On the one hand, we don’t deny the pain, but on the other hand, we don’t deny the sovereignty of God, and we live with that tension. And that’s really kind of what I’m getting at in my book. For me, the key to navigating these turbulent waters was recognizing that on the one hand, this is awful, and it’s really bad, and it creates all sorts of emotions and all sorts of complications for my kids and for the Williams family; but on the other hand, it’s God’s assignment. And we aren’t going to get all our questions answered, but God has a plan in this. Pain doesn’t mean, and suffering doesn’t mean, that God’s abandoned us.
Was there a point when you felt as if you got back to some kind of normal? Or was it a new normal?
At one fundamental level, you never go back to normal. But at another level, you go through the grieving process. You go through the acute sense of loss, and that begins to diminish the grief and the loss and the pain and just the feeling of being off center.
Rhonda used to talk about “living under a cloud.” And eventually that cloud begins to dissipate. And Rhonda talks about how that cloud began to lift about eighteen months after. For me it began to lift more like three or four months afterward, when I said to myself, Okay, I’ve got to step into work and going back to work. And I’m still a parent, and my kids are still great. And life still goes on.
I also had the advantage of watching my mother kind of go through this after my dad’s death, and she was super strong. And I was just determined that by God’s grace I could do this.
Do you have a different perspective on heaven?
I would say I don’t have a different perspective but a richer perspective. The painful reality of what I’ve been through creates an awareness for me that life is very short and life is very fragile—we just don’t know how long we’re here. You can be really healthy one day, and you can be dying the next. Or, as we’ve seen over and over in the church, if it’s a heart attack or something like that, you can be gone.
In your writing, you mentioned how meaningful Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven was to you, both in dealing with Tom’s death and later in helping you absorb the dawning reality that you would lose Carol to her cancer. In those days, and since, are there any other books that were particularly helpful to you?
Yes. A number of them. Joni Eareckson Tada’s book When God Weeps is a gold mine. James Means’s book, A Tearful Celebration. He’s a seminary professor and talks about the death of his wife to cancer. Some of Don Carson’s theological stuff on the sovereignty of God, and some of the works he has done. The writings of John Piper on suffering, and some of the character stories he has done in his series on different saints who have handled different issues well. J. I. Packer’s works. I went back to some of his older writings, like Knowing God. That was really helpful.
Many people in the church, who watched you as you went through all that was part of Carol’s illness and her death, have talked about how going through all of this made you a different kind of pastor. Would you agree? How did it change you relationally in dealing with people in the church, interacting?
Absolutely. The truth is, nobody in my family would say I have oodles and oodles of patience or compassion. I am still impatient, five years out. But I’m much more patient, and I have a whole lot more empathy and compassion for people who have experienced loss. Because of my role as a senior pastor, I sort of became the “poster boy” for suffering and tragedy, and so on these last five or six years I’ve just counseled a whole lot of people. And I’m sort of the go-to person. So a couple of hours after Barry Trowbridge [an active leader in WBC’s Men’s Ministry who also served on our Worship Team] died suddenly, I was in the hospital with Cindy, his wife. And I’m not just this pastor who can’t relate and who’s fishing for platitudes. But because of what I’ve been through, I was able to say, “Okay, Cindy, here’s what I’ve learned. Let’s just take one moment, one hour, one day at a time. You can get through this.”
You’re also a teaching pastor who stands in the pulpit and leads the congregation. In what ways has your message changed, content, the intensity, the focus, the direction, any of that?
I’m more interested in spiritual depth. I’m more interested in calling people to a radical Christlikeness—because they don’t know what’s around the corner. None of us do. And I want people to be able to honor Christ in their suffering. And the only way you’re going to do that is through the Matthew 16:24 commitment to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ.” And so I have a greater intensity, a greater urgency, a greater sense that, man, I want to see people shine in dark moments. So preparing for that starts today. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ.”
We talk about how the church needs to be the church. Were there ways you experienced the church being the church to you?
Oh yes. The church was unbelievable. My close friends in the church, leaders in the church, prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. And then we had this prayer meeting. A thousand people came for Carol when things were going bad, and people held us up. There were e-mails from missionaries and other people in different parts of the world that are connected with Wheaton Bible Church. The prayer support was unbelievable. And then just the practical reality of my friend Steve cutting my grass, my friend Dan taking care of our cars, Brian making all our airplane arrangements and working on collecting up “frequent flyer” miles we could use. Then there were all the ways people helped me manage a home as I continued working and trying to be a single parent and stuff. The body of Christ really, really made a difference.
I have this image of people who were to me what Aaron and Hur were to Moses in Exodus 17. As long as they were holding up Moses’ arms, Joshua was victorious in the valley. And people were holding my arms up, and continue to do so. It’s part of God’s plan, and it’s a loving part of God’s plan.
This fall you’re going to preach a sermon series on some of these same issues. What are some of the central themes you’ll address during those messages?
One is that suffering shouldn’t surprise us. It’s part of God’s plan, and it’s a loving part of God’s plan. So we don’t need to panic; we need to prepare. And that’s a discipleship issue. So I’m going to talk a lot about discipleship in this series. What does it mean to be a disciple? But I’m going to talk about it in the context of dealing with suffering and loss and adversity—something that all of us are wrestling with at a variety of different times in our lives to a variety of different degrees. And there’s always pain. There’s always disappointment.
I’m going to talk about the sovereignty of God. I’m going to talk about what grief looks like. I’m going to talk about how to handle change. I’m going to talk about developing kind of a baseline understanding of certain passages in the Bible that can really help us develop a theology of suffering. I want to lay out a theology of suffering for people to build into their lives for when the hard times come.
When we talk about suffering, we think of people in our church and in our community who are facing foreclosures, who feel irrelevant because their job skills don’t fit what’s out there—people facing more kinds of crises than we can even imagine. Who are the people who are going to get something really practical to take away?
I begin the book talking about the suffering and the loss that are results of the economic downturn of the last couple of years. And there is a spectrum—a continuum—of disappointment. At one end are minor annoyances and irritations. At the other end is devastating loss. And most of us regularly live in the middle and sometimes go to one end or the other, depending on what God is doing in our lives or allows to come into our lives. It can be finances, it can be kid issues, it can be marriage issues, it can be job issues, it can be health issues, it can be emotional issues, relationship issues, school issues, just anything. What does it mean to be a follower of Christ when we’re facing disappointment?
Who should people be thinking about bringing in, inviting on those Sundays?
I think that’s a good question, and I think that’s how we as followers of Christ ought to think. And obviously people who are going through difficulty, people who are experiencing adversity, people who may experience a financial setback or have a family member going through a health problem. Or if there’s marital stress or kid issues. What I want to try to do is help those people think about what does it mean to follow Christ and honor Christ in that moment? And I want to give them hope, because it’s really easy to lose hope when you feel as if the lights are going out. Help those people think about what does it mean to follow Christ and honor Christ in that moment?
The message series we’ve been through this year have left their mark on us as a church. Most recently, there was Ephesians, and then the Present Help messages. Is there a desired outcome in your mind, a direction that this series could take us?
At the thirty-thousand foot level, this will be a series of messages about spiritual formation and how God uses adversity to form us. It’s James 1:2: “Count it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” And so what I would hope—and this is impossible to measure—is that people would develop more of a spiritual spinal column, so that when the wind is blowing, when the ground is shaking, when they’re facing agonizing questions, they can stand, and they can be content in their aloneness, at peace in their pain.
Pastor Rob Bugh will be preaching on Sundays starting September 11 about this topic. Read more about the series on www.whenthebottomdropsout.com.