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Prioritizing Compassion in Christian Higher Education

What does it mean to flourish through adversity?

Prioritizing Compassion in Christian Higher Education

What does it mean to flourish through adversity?

When Mike Rakes’ daughter, Whitney, was diagnosed with cancer, Mike says he didn’t “entertain any doubt” that God would heal her. Mike; his wife and co-pastor, Darla; their son, Brayden; and Whitney trusted that their obedience to God would result in Whitney’s earthly healing.

But then, after a four-year battle, Whitney passed away. On top of excruciating grief, Mike and Darla were left to wonder what had gone wrong.

“I was disappointed with the Lord,” Mike says. “I felt like God had let me down.”

Mike couldn’t understand why God hadn’t healed Whitney when verses in Scripture seemed to promise long life to children who honored their parents and trusted the Lord. Whitney had demonstrated tremendous faith in her suffering. A songwriter who loved leading their congregation in worship, Whitney had exemplified a Spirit-empowered life. Mike couldn’t reconcile these facts with the grim reality of his daughter’s excruciating suffering and death.

Mike is far from the only one who has struggled with such dissonance. Questions like “Where is God when evil happens?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” are among the most common points of curiosity, skepticism, and anger for Christians and non-Christians alike. Part theological exploration and part personal catharsis, Mike set out to understand the relationship between faith and suffering by writing a book. In doing so, he discovered key truths that now shape the way he leads in Christian higher education—truths he wants to pass along to fellow ministers.

Humanity’s Shared Bond

Ministers are often the first call when life goes awry as they understand the unique nature of adversity. But when tragedy struck for Mike and his family, he needed a richer framework for understanding the relationship between God, faith, and pain.

Mike realized that suffering is something all people experience, Christian or not. While he hoped that his faith would be the thing that spared him from suffering, it turned out to be the thing that, ultimately, brought him closer to God. And now that he understands pain as a common equalizer, Mike sees suffering as an opportunity to bring God’s compassion into the lives of unbelievers who are hurting.

Faith Is Not a Magic Trick

In his book, Mike writes that suffering often tempts us to view God as “the magic fountain of miracles.” Desperate for reprieve, we try to find the perfect words or ideal actions that will conjure the response from God that we want. But as Mike has learned, “Faith is not what you use to get what you want. Faith is what you have to have when you don't get what you want.”

This perspective is affirmed in the Book of Psalms, where roughly one-third of the chapters are laments. The psalmists pour out their complaints to God. The goal of the lament is not to utter an incantation that will nudge God to change our circumstances. Instead, honest complaints to a God who always listens keep us aware of his closeness and conscious of how much he cares for us in the midst of our pain.

The Need for a Comforter

In John 14:16, Jesus tells the disciples that he will pray to the Father, “and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever” (v. 16, 1599 Geneva Bible). The term Comforter can also be translated as advocate, intercessor, helper, and counselor. In other words, one who comes alongside us when we are in need of support and care.

“Why would Jesus send his Spirit if he didn’t think we were going to need a special empowerment to get through the trouble in this world?” says Mike. “I believe God sometimes does miracles, but God also allows us to suffer just like Jesus did when he walk this earth.” God not only knows that we will suffer, but we can be confident that he cares for us in our suffering. The Bible tells us that the Spirit “intercedes for us [in prayer] through wordless groans” (Rom. 8:26) and “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others” (2 Cor. 1:3, NLT).

As we embrace these truths—that suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition unrelated to what we do or don’t do for God and that the Holy Spirit longs to comfort us in our distress—we can better process our grief. We also become better equipped to comfort others in their moments of crisis and despair.

Authentic Conversations About Pain

Now the president of Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, Mike is dedicated to reaching the next generation through open and honest conversations about the shared experience of suffering. He wants to prepare Spirit-empowered young people for those times when their faith is challenged by teaching them that God will never leave them or forsake them.

Ninety-two percent of Gen Z report that authenticity is extremely or very important, a challenge to leaders in Christian higher education who wish to earn the trust of this next generation. For Mike, this looks like a whole-person, spiritual formation approach to education that shapes those he calls “compassionate innovators” on campus.

Mike says that compassionate innovation is the act of “translating the hope of God into everyday language,” and suffering provides an empathetic pathway for connection to God’s love. And that’s the work that Mike and the Evangel faculty want to prepare their students to engage throughout their lives. Their work with students is a direct partnership with the church in forming young adults who will soon fill our workplaces and communities.

What might God do with a generation of people who are ready to pray for miracles but also embrace suffering when they don’t get a miracle as part of their spiritual stories, and who can invite others into meaningful relationships and deeper understanding of God through authentic community in painful seasons?

Evangel also works to partner with pastors, ministry leaders, and churches by offering resources on navigating suffering. “WIT–The Truth About God, Suffering, & Faith” is an easy-to-use, content-rich discussion guide that explores both the depths of grief and the glory of God who comforts us in it.