Responding to the Struggles of Life

Have you ever thought that when you are in the midst of a major life struggle that maybe God, in His sovereignty, is using it to make a spiritual breakthrough in your life?

One of the most powerful essays I have ever read on this issue was written by Doug Webster, a professor at Beeson Divinity School. It had such an impact on me, I included it (with his permission) in my book The True Measure of a Man. I thought I would include it in this week’s blog, along with a few of my remarks.

Webster presents us with a brilliant example by way of counterpoint, comparing two well-known classics of lost souls on deserted islands – Castaway, the movie starring Tom Hanks, and Robinson Crusoe, the novel by Daniel DeFoe. In the essay, Webster shows how each character’s distinctive responses, although facing similar circumstances, present a radically different approach on how to deal with the struggles in life:

Castaway - Tom Hanks

“In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks plays Chuck Nolan, an efficiency expert for FedEx. His life consists of work, and a relationship with a girlfriend. Just before he boards a FedEx flight to the South Pacific he proposes to her. He kisses her goodbye and assures her he’ll be back in a week, but his plane goes down in a terrible storm and he washes up on a deserted island. He is the lone survivor and a modern day version of Robinson Crusoe. The differences between the movie Castaway and Daniel DeFoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe illustrates the gap between survival and salvation, between a Christian life of faith and a modern [secular] view of life.

It is fitting that Castaway is a movie that looks at Chuck Nolan’s struggle to survive, while Robinson Crusoe is a novel that explores the mind and soul of Crusoe. The medium itself says something about the modern person. That is not to say that novels don’t depict modern persona, but in the case of Robinson Crusoe, the novel captures his soul better than a movie could. In Castaway, we watch a familiar movie star act out a part. We comment to ourselves that Hanks looks heavy in the first half of the movie and about fifty pounds lighter in the second half of the movie. We make a mental note of his bleached hair and beard. From the odd assortment of FedEx packages that wash up on shore we question the value of our materialism. We watch him try to build a fire out of rubbing sticks and extract a tooth with the tip of an ice skate. The only real clues as to what was on his mind [are] his habit of looking at his girlfriend’s picture and his attempts to draw her likeness on the wall of a cave. When the body of the pilot washes up on the shore, Nolan digs a shallow grave and buries the body. We see him standing before the mound, but instead of prayer, he comments, “That’s that.” The portrayal is entirely one-dimensional. It is a tale of survival. The greatest hint that Nolan is a relational being comes in the humor and pathos of his conversations with Wilson, conceived when Nolan’s bloody hand print left a crude imprint of a face on a volleyball. The dialogue with Wilson is what the secular mind thinks of prayer: prayer is not real communion between God and the human person but a dialogue with one’s own thoughts and feelings.

As the years drag on, Nolan contemplates suicide and becomes more like a caveman than a FedEx efficiency expert. He just barely clings to survival. Eventually, Nolan builds a raft and sails out to sea, to an almost certain death if it were not for the lucky break of being spotted by a tanker. He arrives home four years later to find his fiancée married. He has survived, but he cannot redeem the lost years and the lost relationships. The movie closes with Nolan standing at a four corner crossroads on the Texas panhandle as lost and directionless as he was on his deserted South Pacific island.

The contrast between Castaway and Robinson Crusoe could not be greater. In Defoe’s novel, Crusoe emerges from his nearly three decades of isolation a much stronger person in the end than he was at the beginning. His experience on the isolated island proved invaluable. In the providence of God, his solitary life led him to examine himself. Suffering opened his heart and mind to God. Stripped of everything worldly, he saw himself as he really was, “without desire of good or conscience of evil.” He began to lament his “stupidity of soul” and his ingratitude to God. Illness led him to pray for the first time in years, “Lord be my help, for I am in great distress.” When he began to ask, “Why has God done this to me? What have I done to deserve this?” his conscience checked him.

“Wretch! Ask what you have done! Look back upon a dreadful misspent life and ask what you have done. Ask why you have not been destroyed long before this!”

Robinson Crusoe is much more than a story about survival. It is a story about salvation. Like the prodigal son, who ran off to the far country, squandered his inheritance, but came to his senses, Crusoe became deeply convinced and convicted of his wickedness. When he earnestly sought the Lord’s help in repenting of his sins, he providentially came to the words in the Bible, “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31). He describes his reaction, “I threw down the book, and with all my heart as well as my hands lifted up to the Heaven, in a kind of ecstasy of joy, I cried aloud, ‘Jesus, Thou Son of David, Jesus, Thou exalted Prince and Savior, give me repentance!’ ” Instead of praying for physical deliverance he prayed for the forgiveness of his sins. Deliverance from sin was “a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.”

He [Robinson Crusoe] came to the sober conclusion that the transformation of his soul meant far more to him than his deliverance from captivity. “I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to the place.” Instead of a slow and fearful descent into despair, Crusoe experienced God’s rhythms of grace. He read his Bible and prayed daily. He planted crops, made furniture, baked bread, built a canoe, and established an orderly, disciplined life. He lived a life of mercy, not sorrow, and his singular goal was to “make my sense of God’s mercy to me.”

The message of Castaway is that life is a solitary struggle for survival fueled by the human spirit and the existential self. Love, particularly romantic love, can be a great motivator, but relationships are often disappointing and not enduring. Loneliness and isolation expose the myths of modern life, and in the end we are directionless. The message of Robinson Crusoe is that life is a struggle in our soul between self-rule and God’s will, and it can only come to resolution by the grace and mercy of God. Apart from the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ there is no hope, but with Christ we can experience an abundant life even in the affliction and suffering.
(Doug Webster, Beeson Divinity School)

Once I get through this, then my life will be good again, and then I will be happy

I find that many people approach the painful circumstances in their lives as events they need to survive. Our attitude is generally, “Once I get through this, then my life will be good again, and then I will be happy.” In the process we live out our days, allowing the unpredictable circumstance of life to dictate our sense of well-being. For most of us, it becomes a stressful, exhausting roller coaster ride. So we just keep going, never really getting it, disconnected from the truth of life.

However, this is never what God intended for us. Like Robinson Crusoe, God is trying to make a breakthrough in each of us through the painful struggles of life. As Tim Keller has observed, many people meet God only through a wilderness experience. We find ourselves in the wilderness (or being washed up on a deserted island), and we recognize that we are absolutely alone in a severely harsh environment.

Being in the wilderness can be one of the great blessings of life…

It is through this wilderness experience that we finally wake up to the fact that what we have always looked to as our ultimate hope, the thing that has driven and motivated us, that one thing that makes us feel really successful has deserted us. It has let us down; it can no longer be relied upon as our source of significance and security. However, being in the wilderness can be one of the great blessings of life because it is just in such a wilderness that we can finally discern what is true, what is real, what is authentic human existence.

As Robinson Crusoe eventually came to recognize with great clarity, his coming to know Jesus Christ personally meant far more to him than being delivered from the island. For in Christ he found a life of harmony and contentment – it was the life he had always been searching for, and he found it in the wilderness.


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