Max Lucado is known as "America's pastor." In his 20 years of writing, he's sold 82 million books in 41 languages. He's appeared on USA Today, Larry King Live, and NBC Nightly News, and has spoken at the National Prayer Breakfast. Hallmark even has a line of greeting cards based on his writings (they've sold over 1 million cards so far).
Yet despite his national renown, he's a pastor at heart. Gentle, gracious, and filled with concern for his congregation, for over 25 years he's counseled his flock at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio through countless painful experiences—the marriage that's fallen apart, the 5-year-old who died in a car accident, the war vet burned from head to toe in Afghanistan. These experiences led to his latest book, You'll Get Through This: Hope and Help For Your Turbulent Times, an extended reflection on suffering, pain, and hope based on Joseph's story in Genesis. Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, spoke with Lucado on living through tragedy, a theology of suffering, and the hopefulness that flows from trusting in God's sovereignty.
Why did you choose Joseph's story in Genesis as a basis for your book?
Well, I've been pastoring for a long time—over 30 years—and I've found myself wanting to give people a real hope-filled message that they can consider during tough times of their lives. And Joseph's story has always attracted me. Here's a guy who was sold into slavery, abandoned by his family, unlawfully imprisoned—yet he never gave up, he never gave in. Bitterness never took over. The way he survived made him the perfect illustration of my point in the book.
How does this book flow out of your decades of pastoral ministry?
Through the years, I've realized that one in every five people I see on a regular basis—on a Sunday—is passing through some kind of struggle. "My mother died last week," or "I just got laid off." So what do you say to somebody? Through the years, I developed this little mantra: "You're gonna get through this. It's not gonna be quick or painless, but you gotta believe God can use this mess for something good. So don't do anything foolish, but don't despair either." It's just something I've turned to over and over, like a favorite baseball glove, or a handy tool. And so I picked that theme for the book.
So what do you tell people when they don't get through it—when your wife dies, you lose your home, or an addiction hangs on? What do you say then?
I say don't give up. From a Christian perspective, we do get through it, even if the "getting through" is not until heaven. We do get through things. Sometimes we have setbacks; sometimes we have push downs. But what I'm waging a war against in this book is despair. Despair—that feeling of hopelessness—is the enemy. It is when we despair that we make decisions that only make matters worse. We create addictions that only cause more trouble. The challenge is to give people enough hope so that they don't give up.
Does God promise to "get us through this" only when it's innocent suffering? How about when suffering comes as a result of your own sin?
Those are the two sources of suffering: things that we've brought on ourselves, and things done to us. God's message through Scripture is that he gets us through both types. Joseph is not a great example of things we do to ourselves because, quite honestly, the guy didn't make very many bad decisions. But there are plenty of others in the Bible who did. David, when he commits adultery; Peter, when he denies Jesus; Thomas, when he doubts Jesus. God gets them through those things even though they brought it on themselves. That's just his character. He could no more leave a life un-encouraged than he could leave a child's tear untouched.
Now, learning to trust him during those tough times—that's the challenge. But he doesn't differentiate between those who suffer at their own hands and those who suffer at the hands of others.
Do you think suffering and pain are necessary for God to grow us in our spiritual lives? What about when there's no crisis?
Suffering sure seems to be his choice of a spiritual boot camp. Is it necessary? Could there be another way? I don't know, in a fallen world, what the other choice would have been. In heaven I don't think he'll use struggles to change us. But he chooses to do so now.
The truth of the matter is, through the struggles we grow. Remove the struggle and we don't grow. Joseph was a better man because of his struggles. So, it's through struggles that God develops his people. And it's in part through the struggles of his people that God also accomplishes his larger plans.
How do you think Joseph's story departs from the volumes of Christian self-help books that see God as the great fixer of my personal problems?
There are two levels. Number one, the reason Joseph survived was because God was with him. In the second chapter of the Joseph story, after he's sold into slavery, five times in that narrative we read, "God was with him. God was with him. God was with him." The narrator wants to make the point that Joseph is doing well, not because Joseph is good, but because God is. So there's the first departure from self-help books. Self-help books say, "Look inside yourself; you have the resources to get through it." But Joseph says, "Look up. God will help you."
Secondly, and I think equally important, is the theology of suffering Joseph had. His theology of suffering is revealed in Genesis 50:20 when he said to his brothers, "You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good." It's a concise, powerful statement that says, "Yes, there's evil in the world. But there's still a God, even though there's evil, and God can take that evil and turn it into something good." Joseph had a personal theology of suffering to help him understand how he had gotten through the evil episodes in his life. But many people just don't have that. They don't have a clue that there's even a possibility that God is sovereign and he can use the suffering for good.
You'll Get Through This releases just before the anniversary of 9/11. What do you think Joseph can teach a country that annually mourns this national tragedy?
What Joseph can teach us is: Don't waste the sorrow. Don't waste the tragedy. There's something in here that's good. There's something in here that's redemptive. What can we learn?
Don't think for a second that there's not something in here worth redeeming. The Bible never says that those acts in and of themselves are good. There's nothing good about 9/11 and the attack. But in God's providence, he can use them for something good collectively.
You've spoken publicly about immigration reform. Has hearing the turbulent stories of immigrants in Texas influenced your view of this issue? Or have your convictions come more from reading the immigrant stories of biblical figures like Joseph?
Joseph, yes, is an immigrant, and I have thought of him—and not just Joseph, but all the Bible characters that God took across borders in order to do his work.
Living in San Antonio, in our church the immigration issue is very relevant. It can also be a very personal issue. I'm thinking of one lady in particular who was brought across the border by her parents as a baby and has grown up undocumented here in San Antonio, and then graduated as valedictorian from her class and went on to college. It shows how ignorant I was—when I first met her, I asked, "How is that possible?" She got pulled over for speeding, and, for a time there, we thought she was going to be deported. Even though she had grown up here and was living such a wonderful life.
A story like that is one reason I've been sympathetic with the struggles of undocumented immigrants. I don't really get down in the weeds, in the policy—there are people far smarter than I on that. But whenever I have a chance, I say, "Can we not find a solution that both honors the law and respects the dignity of these people?" Maybe we will.
You're known as "America's pastor." Through your writings you've touched literally millions of lives. What would be the single most important thing you'd say to those who are suffering?
I keep coming back to the same thing: Don't despair. There's a purpose in this suffering somewhere.
Here's the problem. When we suffer, our sufferings become worse when we think there is no end to them, and no purpose for them. As long as we have this mindset, those tough times are going to defeat us. But once you believe that God is sovereign, and that God doesn't create evil—but that he can use evil for your good and for his larger purposes—that transforms your view of suffering.