Learning to be authentic in the midst of hardship

Far from being a path to disaster, ministry struggles can be the platform to victory.

James Alan Laneis lead pastor at New Life Assembly of God in Landisburg, Pennsylvania, United States.

Sometimes life just is not fair. We do everything right we know to do, and bad things still happen. This can be frustrating and overwhelming, especially for those trying to minister to others. Investing so much energy and effort into other people while having your life sucked dry by difficult situations can lead to burnout.

Have you felt that way? I have, and it is very hard. That being said, there is hope.

Several months before my daughter’s eighth birthday she began exhibiting some unusual behavior, including seizures, which my wife, Julie, and I had never before noticed. After thorough testing by the family doctor, Rachel was referred to a neurologist. After the initial neurological exam the doctor scheduled her for additional testing, including an MRI of her brain. The morning following the MRI, Julie and I received a call that no parent is ever prepared to take. The neurologist suggested we sit down, as she began to explain what they found on the MRI. Her words will forever be etched in my memory. She said softly yet definitively, “Your daughter has a brain tumor.” In an effort to understand what was happening to our little girl, Julie and I asked every question we could think of while we had the doctor on the phone. After hearing the click of the phone hanging up, Julie and I stared at each other, neither of us wanting to say anything. The silence was broken by weeping that would last for hours.

We were devastated. How could this have happened? These types of hard- ships happen to other people—but not us. At the time, I was serving in full-time ministry as the Family Life and Youth pastor at our home church, and things were going extremely well. Prior to this, we had served for years as volunteers in our local church. I wondered how something like this could happen to a family working so hard for the Lord. This was not fair! And most of all, it was not fair to our precious Rachel. What had she done to deserve this situation? I was angry. I was frustrated. I was sad.

Our precious little girl would soon begin a difficult journey that challenged the fabric of our faith and family. Over the next four months we saw Rachel go through various medications to control the seizures; they had limited positive impact. One of the medications almost cost Rachel her life due to an allergic reaction. Seeing the medications were not working as the medical team had hoped, the doctors decided the best treatment would be brain surgery. This would be a surgery that would see Rachel lose the entire left temporal lobe of her brain in order to remove the benign tumor.

Keeping my distance

Doctors appointments, long trips to the hospital, medical exams, tests, and procedures began to take a toll on the family. Rachel went from being diagnosed with seizures to having brain surgery in a period of just over six months. Our world was turned upside down at home. Meanwhile, at church, my goal was to be the best leader I could be while dealing with Rachel’s issue separate from my ministry. I appreciated the congregants’ prayers and offers of support—but only from a distance.

Leading up to the surgery, a dear friend approached me during our Sunday night worship service. When he asked how I was doing, the response was generic as always: “Doing fine,” I said. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he replied, “You don't have to be strong all of the time. It’s OK to be real about what’s going on. That’s why we are all here.” He embraced me and said a simple prayer asking God to provide strength, peace, and comfort for our family. After the simple, yet heartfelt prayer, he turned and walked away.

Little did he know his words of encouragement would change my entire approach to ministry. Even though the surgery was still weeks away, the healing process began for our family that night. No longer did I feel the need to put on a fake smile. No longer did I need to pretend to have it all together when it was very clear that was not the case.

Julie and I soon began to open up about Rachel’s situation with the people in our church, who then realized that we were not the stereotypical ministry family that had everything together. It was now OK to be real with the congregation about our struggle. Our daughter was having brain surgery to remove a tumor, and that was OK. It was just part of life—real life. Learning to be vulnerable changed my life and my ministry.

Delight in weakness

By coming out from behind the facade of “I have it all together,” the opportunities for authentic ministry began showing up in more ways than I could have ever imagined. Relationships with others grew to deeper levels and provided support that I had never before experienced in ministry. Not only was ministry more authentic but it became more effective as well. How so? People began to see the struggles, but they also saw that when we relied on the strength of the Lord, He provided the peace, comfort, and strength we so desperately needed. When we became focused on being real in ministry, God was glorified because He was our strength in our time of weakness. Instead of being discouraged by the situation, we became renewed with passion for loving others. God was going to use this situation to impact people.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10, NIV). I believe I have learned the true meaning of this principle through our journey with Rachel. We should not hide our difficulties from the people we serve. Rather, we should minister out of the difficulties and weaknesses we face, because that is when we are made strong through Jesus Christ. If we’re strong on our own, there would be absolutely no need to rely on Jesus. By pretending everything is great through hardships, we may be robbing God of an opportunity to be glorified in our lives.

God works all things for good

I was reminded of a passage in Romans that God has allowed me to use in effective discipleship since this journey began. Paul wrote to the Roman church “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NIV). You see, there was a traumatic event that triggered Rachel’s seizures. This was an unfortunate experience at a youth ministry outing. Due to some extenuating circumstances, one of the teens became verbally and physically aggressive with their leadership. Rachel was there with us during the event and watched as the teen attempted to attack me before being redirected by another adult. Those few moments of verbal assault and attempted physical assault proved to have an incredible impact on Rachel. Having seen this aggressive behavior toward her father, Rachel became afraid for my safety and started having nightmares that same night. The disturbing nightmares continued for weeks and led to severe sleep deprivation. According to the doctors, the lack of sleep triggered the seizures.

I remember the intense anger I had in my heart toward the situation that led to my daughter’s nightmares, to the point of not wanting to go to youth activities or other church functions. However, looking back on the situation I am eternally grateful for the events that ultimately led to the diagnosis of the seizures, which in turn led to the removal of Rachel’s brain tumor. What seemed extremely challenging at the time paved the way for the treatment of a brain tumor that we were not even aware Rachel had prior to these events. This gives me hope that no matter how difficult a situation may seem, God always works things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Ministering through the difficulty

While God is working difficulties together for good, I have learned to minister through them, not in spite of them. While hardships are challenging, I now relish those moments because God has the opportunity to shine through my struggles and be glorified. Now, when I am facing a difficulty, my prayer on a daily basis is to discover ways to build relationships with others through the situation. The best, most effective ministry and discipleship is achieved through established relationships. Jesus modeled this with His disciples throughout His earthly ministry. Not only did the disciples see Jesus when He was healing the sick and walking on water, but Jesus also allowed them to “live life” with Him in His greatest struggles.

When facing His betrayal and impending death, Jesus took the disciples with Him to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Perhaps He wanted the disciples there because it was important for them to see Him struggle. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus went a little further in the Garden to spend time with the Lord privately— but not to the extent of separating His struggle from His ministry or from His relationship with the disciples. Jesus taught the disciples that God’s will is paramount to ours, regardless of how difficult the situation may seem. What they learned from Jesus, coupled with the leading of the Holy Spirit, would help them minister through their own hardships in their future ministries.

Embrace the hardships

As our family continues to walk through the recovery process with Rachel, we now look for opportunities to encourage others as never before in our ministry. Rachel’s surgery was three and a half years ago and was a complete success. Rachel, no longer on any seizure medication, has been released from the care of all of the neurological doctors. If you did not know Rachel had surgery, you would never know what she had been through, except for the scar above her left ear. But that scar will forever be a reminder to her of God’s grace and healing. God has, indeed, worked all of this for His good. Julie and I are so much more passionate about helping others in need than we could have ever been prior to this situation. We are learning the importance of delighting in our hardships and being authentic in serving others.

Embrace the hardships you are currently facing and the ones to come. If you love God, then thank Him that He works out all things for good. Be real with others through the hardships, and minister through your difficulties so that God is glorified through your situation.

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James Alan Laneis lead pastor at New Life Assembly of God in Landisburg, Pennsylvania, United States.

January 2018

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