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John Sullivan cites ‘but God’ as antidote to hopelessness

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“How can I make it through another day?”

That question, according to John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, is not only one of the three most critical questions unchurched people ask but also one asked by ministers and church members in the hundreds of churches he visits each year.

“I have never seen a day like this,” Sullivan said in a chapel service March 4 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“I find brokenness in the lives of God’s ministers about as much as I find it in the lives of the laity,” he said as he discussed pressures faced by families today and the responsibility ministers have to prepare church members to cope with feelings of hopelessness.

“Life has a way of breaking us,” he said. “In my nearly 42 years of ministry, I’ve never seen it like this, all of the pressure, all of the satanic attack, all of the fleshly things that come down to tempt us.”

Sullivan said factors contributing to a sense of despair for many ministers and church members include feelings of failure, confusion in the search for solutions and unmet expectations, as well as personal, financial and spiritual problems.

Both daily concerns and severe problems cause people to lose a bit of the joy of their salvation every day, he said, and leave them burdened with depression.

But the solution to the struggle against despair can be found in two words, “but God,” he said, referring to Ephesians 2:1-10 written by the apostle Paul.

“No two words will change your life like Paul’s two words ‘but God,’ when they become the core and focus of who you are and what your ministry is all about.”

In contrast, he said, people without Christ in their lives have no hope.

“I guarantee that if you live long enough and minister long enough, you will come to the time where those two words, ‘no hope,’ will impact your life to a degree which today you cannot imagine,” he said, as he began to share his own personal experiences of hopelessness.

“Mom had been in the hospital every year at least once while I was growing up,” he said, telling the story of his mother’s death at age 36, when he was 16 years old.

“It seemed like an eternity until Dr. Rogers finally came out of the operating room, walked up to my father, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Frank, for Louise there is no hope.’

“That was a hard day for me,” Sullivan said, “but I watched what it did to my dad. My dad was a coal miner all of his life and he lived in the day when you did coal mining with a pick and shovel. His hands were knotted and gnarled and rough.

“I’d never seen my dad cry until that day. When he heard those two words, ‘no hope,’ those knotted, gnarled, rough hands went to his face and he started crying like a little boy, saying over and over again, ‘What will I do? What will I do? What will I do?'”

Sullivan said his father “could neither read nor write, and every decision and every signature in our home was my mother’s signature.”

“The impact on my dad’s life was so significant that I am personally convinced that when he died at 47 years of age, he still had not gotten over that singular experience of no hope.

“It seems that all of my ministry and all of my life I have been immersed in death,” Sullivan said. “I know something about life and I know something about death; and I do know that death is the absence of life. I am convinced that Paul is saying here, ‘until you find Christ in your life, you are not living.’

“I can still feel all of the emotion of the day my mother died, but I want you to know I have only one brother who is lost, … and the saddest day of my life will be if I or someone else cannot win him to faith in Jesus Christ before death comes,” Sullivan said.

“My mother had no physical hope in this life, but she lives eternally in the other life. But my brother has no hope in either life.

“In the midst of (Paul’s description of the lost) he says, ‘but God.’ All that I know in Christ is because of his grace. All of my salvation is in Christ because of his grace, and every day that I get up is a grace gift of God to my life.”

Sullivan stressed the responsibility ministers have to prepare their congregations to face life’s trials and stresses.

At a recent visit to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Shreveport, La., where he was a pastor 14 years, Sullivan said he felt God asking him, “Did you teach (your church members) how to dig wells in the Valley of Baca (Psalm 84)? Did you teach them how to make it through another day?”

“If you are going to be a minister for God in this generation in which we live, remember, don’t kick the generation,” he said.

“Learn to live in the generation and learn how to dig wells in the valley and how to teach others to dig wells in the valley of their disappointment and discouragement.

“There will be some days when you get up and your feet hit the floor that you will start thinking, ‘Where is God?’
“How are you going to make it through another day? You can’t. God can see you through another day. Your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

“If this world is ever going to be changed,” he said, “it will be changed by those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of our life and have the courage to share it wherever we are. As a result of that, we have hope.”

    About the Author

  • Linda Joyce Zygiel