The Holiday Season can sometimes spotlight the wintry and hard things in our lives. For instance, a widow may more acutely feel the loss of a beloved spouse during the Holidays than at any other time of the year. Also, the financial pressures of the Holidays can cast a glaring, white-hot spotlight on those of us currently in the midst of intense financial storms.
The last few Christmases have been kind of difficult for the family because of our prolonged financial travails. They have been especially difficult for my amazing wife, Jean. In order to cope with our elongated financial drought, she would often tell herself that “next Christmas” things would be different. “Next Christmas,” she would say to herself, “things will be different. Steve’s big project will finally hit and the family will be delivered from financial bondage.” My wife’s fond hope for financial deliverance by “next Christmas” would help her get through the immediate Christmas Season, but it also set her up for a large dose of disappointment if our financial deliverance did not occur by “next Christmas.”
Well, my big project never hit. Our much anticipated and fervently prayed for financial deliverance has yet to occur.
When “next Christmas” actually rolled around the inescapable fact that we were still smack dab in the middle of our financial storms would slap my wife (and me) in the face. Unfortunately, some crises don’t find a solution by “next Christmas.” Dashed hopes for financial deliverance can lead to disappointment, disappointment can deliver up heaping servings of discouragement; and a steady diet of discouragement can lead to despair and bitterness. The Land of Despair and Bitterness is a not a destination resort you want to spend any time visiting.
Admiral James Bond Stockdale was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy. He was awarded 26 personal combat decorations including the Congressional Medal of Honor and 4 Silver Stars. In 1965 while returning from a bombing run his fighter plane was disabled by anti-aircraft fire. He became a prisoner of war, the highest ranked Naval officer POW in the Viet Nam War.
After ejecting from his downed fighter plane Stockdale suffered a broken back and other injuries. On the ground he was nearly beaten to death by local villagers until he was taken into custody. Stockdale spent over seven years in the Hoa Lo Prison—the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was kept in solitary confinement, in total darkness, for 4 years and chained in leg irons for 2 years. He was the inspirational leader of all the other POWs at the Hanoi Hilton.
Upon his return in 1973 he was recognized for his extraordinary bravery and leadership. He continued his career in the Navy and he retired from the Navy as an admiral. He was a true American hero.
In his bestselling book, Good to Great, James C. Collins, interviewed Stockdale about his experiences and coping strategies as a POW. Collins was curious why Stockdale was able to survive the hellish living conditions and the near continuous physical and mental torture that the Hanoi Hilton offered and others did not. Collins asked Stockdale what kind of POWs didn’t survive the rigors of the Hanoi Hilton. Stockdale’s response surprised Collins.
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
I would have thought that the optimists would have done well during their stay at the Hanoi Hilton. However, optimism has its limitations. Stockdale believed that optimism must be firmly planted in the nitty-gritty reality of the present, no matter how awful that nitty-gritty present may be.
My sweet wife is tough as nails. She would have quickly learned how to adapt to the Hanoi Hilton if she had been a POW. However, she would eventually have to jettison her “next Christmas” line of thinking.
The overly optimistic hope of “next Christmas” would not work at the Hanoi Hilton. It won’t work with some of our really dicey problems. Some of our complicated problems may not be problems that can even be solved. Perhaps some of the hard “stuff” we deal with, all the enigmas-wrapped-in-a-mystery sort of challenges we have in our lives might be facts that we simply have to cope with rather than solve.
If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact not to be solved but to be coped with over time. (Shimon Peres)
How did Stockdale manage to survive the fact of his stay at the Hanoi Hilton? How can people like you and I survive our extended stays at our personal Hanoi Hiltons? Stockdale eloquently explained to Collins how he was able to endure the unspeakably difficult and unrelenting reality of his POW experience:
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
Candidly, I am a bit surprised that we have not yet been delivered from financial bondage. We have offered up countless sincere prayers. I have worked diligently on projects that offered great hope of financial deliverance. Why hasn’t our much anticipated financial deliverance arrived on the scene? I think a lot of people who know us well are also surprised (and frustrated) that we have not yet checked out from the “Financial Hanoi Hilton.”
Nonetheless, can you explain to me why I currently find myself so full of faith and hope in the midst of our financial afflictions? Medications? Nope. Mental illness? You be the judge. Like Stockdale, I have not “lost faith in the end of the story.” My wife and family have not “lost faith in the end of the story.” We still have hope for deliverance. We believe that things will eventually work out, and in the meantime, we are learning lots of unbelievably cool things—the hard way. I have been forced to take the long view of this fine financial fix we find ourselves in. God has some very important things to teach us through these financial travails of ours and I need to listen and learn very carefully.
In a sane moment, when I get back off the ledge, sit down, take a couple of deep breaths and thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect upon all the things that have happened to us during our extended stay at the “Financial Hanoi Hilton,” I am amazed at both what we have learned and what we have endured as a family. I’d give high marks, especially to my wife, for our individual and collective family performances under some very trying financial circumstances.
Let me share with you a stunning insight I have been blessed with during our financial struggles. The blessings of God do not always come in the form of dramatic deliverance from our trials and tribulations. Even Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were not saved from the fiery furnace, but were saved in the fiery furnace. (Daniel 3) God does not often dramatically deliver us from our thorny problems, more often than not He chooses to bless us in our afflictions. I have been greatly blessed in my financial troubles.
Looking back, the flames of the fiery financial furnace have almost magically magnified my ability to handle the heat of the fiery furnace. I never realized that that I could handle the heat I now routinely handle. At the risk of sounding like I am patting myself on the back, I have come to recognize that I am much more skilled at handling adversity and that my financial burdens have been divinely eased and lightened.
And I will also ease the burdens which are put on your shoulders, that you cannot feel them upon your backs, even when you are in bondage; and this I will do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.
And now it came to pass that the burdens…were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord. (Mosiah 24:14-15)
I am a witness that God does, in fact, ease the burdens that are placed on our shoulders. My burdens, in the midst of our fiery financial furnace have been made light. The Lord has blessed and strengthened me to bear my burdens. Don’t get me wrong; I would absolutely love to be delivered from my fiery financial furnace in the same miraculous manner that Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were delivered from King Nebuchadnezzar’s mega hot fiery furnace, but if that kind of deliverance, in the wisdom of God, is not to be, I am thrilled and grateful that God will at least ease and lighten my burdens in the fiery furnaces of my life.
However, I must admit to you, that I sometimes struggle with submitting cheerfully and patiently to God’s plans for me in this fiery financial furnace of mine. That might take a while.