n November 28, 1965, the fighter plane of Howard Rutledge exploded under enemy fire. He parachuted into the hands of the North Vietnamese Army and was promptly placed in the “heartbreak Hotel,” one of the prisons in Hanoi.
When the door slammed and the key turned in that rusty, iron lock, a feeling of utter loneliness swept over me. I lay down on that cold cement slab in my 6-by-6 prison. The smell of human excrement burned my nostrils. A rat, large as a small cat, scampered across the slab beside me. The walls and floors and ceilings were caked with filth. Bars covered a tiny window high above the door. I was cold and hungry; my body ached from the swollen joints and sprained muscles…. It’s hard to describe what solitary confinement can do to unnerve and defeat a man. You quickly tire of standing up or sitting down, sleeping or being awake. There are no books, no paper or pencils, no magazines or newspapers. The only colors you see are drab gray and dirty brown. Months or years may go by when you don’t see the sunrise or the moon, green grass or flowers. You are locked in alone and silent in your filthy little cell breathing stale, rotten air and trying to keep your sanity (In the Presence of Mine Enemies).
Few of us will ever face the austere conditions of a POW camp. Yet to one degree or another, we all spend time behind bars.
- • My email today contains a prayer request for a young mother just diagnosed with lupus. Incarcerated by bad health.
• I had coffee yesterday with a man whose wife battles depression. He feels stuck (chain number one) and guilty for feeling stuck (chain number two).
• After half a century of marriage, a friend’s wife began to lose her memory. He had to take away her car keys so she wouldn’t drive. He has to stay near so she won’t fall. They had hopes of growing old together. They still may, but only one of them will know the day of the week.
Each of these individuals wonders, Where is heaven in this story? Why would God permit such imprisonment? Does this struggle serve any purpose?
As long as Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8 NIV), he will wreak havoc among God’s people. He will lock preachers, like Paul, in prisons. He will exile pastors, like John, on remote islands. He will afflict the friends of Jesus, like Lazarus, with diseases. But his strategies always backfire. The imprisoned Paul wrote epistles. The banished John saw heaven. The cemetery of Lazarus became a stage upon which Christ performed one of His greatest miracles.
Intended evil becomes ultimate good.
As I reread that promise, it sounds formulaic, catchy, as if destined for a bumper sticker. I don’t mean for it to. There is nothing trite about your wheelchair, empty pantry, or aching heart. These are uphill, into-the-wind challenges you are facing. They are not easy.
But neither are they random. God is not sometimes sovereign. He is not occasionally victorious. He does not occupy the throne one day and vacate it the next. “The Lord shall not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the thoughts and intents of His mind” (Jer. 30:24 Amp.). This season in which you find yourself may puzzle you, but it does not bewilder God. He can and will use it for His purpose.
Rather than say, “God, why?” ask, “God, what?” What can I learn from this experience? “Remember today what you have learned about the Lord through your experiences with him” (Deut. 11:2 TEV). Rather than ask God to change your circumstances, ask Him to use your circumstances to change you. Life is a required course. Might as well do your best to pass it.
God is at work in each of us whether we know it or not, whether we want it or not. “He takes no pleasure in making life hard, in throwing roadblocks in the way” (Lam. 3:33 TM). He does not relish our sufferings, but He delights in our development. “God began doing a good work in you, and I am sure he will continue it until it is finished when Jesus Christ comes again” (Phil. 1:6 NCV). He will not fail. He cannot fail. He will “work in us what is
pleasing to him” (Heb. 13:21 NIV). Every challenge, large or small, can equip you for a future opportunity.
Howard Rutledge came to appreciate his time as a POW in Vietnam. He wrote:
During those long periods of enforced reflection, it became so much easier to separate the important from the trivial, the worthwhile from the waste. . . .
My hunger for spiritual food soon outdid my hunger for a steak. . . . I wanted to know about the part of me that will never die. . . . I wanted to talk about God and Christ and the church. . . . It took prison to show me how empty life is without God. . . .
On August 31, after 28 days of torture, I could remember I had children but not how many. I said Phyllis’ name over and over again so I would not forget. I prayed for strength. It was on that twenty-eighth night I made God a promise. If I survived this ordeal, the first Sunday back in freedom I would take Phyllis and my family to their church and . . . confess my faith in Christ and join the church. This wasn’t a deal with God to get me through that last miserable night. It was a promise made after months of thought. It took prison and hours of painful reflection to realize how much I needed God and the community of believers. After I made God that promise, again I prayed for strength to make it through the night.
When the morning dawned through the crack in the bottom of that solid prison door, I thanked God for His mercy.
Don’t see your struggle as an interruption to life but as preparation for life. No one said the road would be easy or painless. But God will use this mess for something good. “This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. . . . God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God’s holy best” (Heb. 12:8, 10 TM).