Monday, May 24, 2010

Triumphing Over Damaging Circumstances

I am in the thick of reading Manchester's incredible biography of Winston Churchill. There are many life lessons in the book, not the least of which is the power of the human will to triumph over devastating circumstances.

It is hard to imagine a more difficult home life than that endured by young Churchill. His father, Randolph, was descended from nobility, and one of the most famous statesmen of his day. As a young man, he was drugged at a party, and awakened in the bed of a syphilitic prostitute. In that day, there were few treatments and no cure for that horrendous disease. Syphilis gnaws at the body, and then at the mind. It claimed Randolph's life at a young age, but not before it brought about his almost total public disgrace.

Not only was Randolph a somewhat pathetic public figure, he was as an awful father, who did little to disguise his open dislike for his son, even from his earliest days.

Many children with one antagonistic parent can take refuge in the arms of the other, but this too was denied young Winston. Winston's mother, Jennie, was a New York socialite, with a wanton sexual appetite. Even in Victorian England, there was open sexual promiscuity among the nobility, and Jennie made no pretense about hiding her numerous paramours from her husband, children, or society at large.

Neither Randolph nor Jennie had much interest in their son, and, even if they had, the norm for young gentlemen was miserable boarding school. Winston's plaintive letters home are pleas for visits and affections, neither of which he got.

Yet, as children in such families often do, he lionized his father, and worshipped his mother. It is a mark of the implantation of the divine on us that, even when we have no model for what family life ought to be like, there is something innate in us that recognizes when it is horribly wrong.

It would be foolish to argue that Winston was unaffected by his parents. In fact, the evidence shows quite the opposite. He was a worthless and pig-headed student, perennially in trouble with whatever schoolmaster or marm was in charge of him. And, the deep melancholy of his adulthood perhaps could be blamed on the relational frigidity of his upbringing.

But, this is Churchill we are talking about --one of the greatest men of history, the man of indomitable courage, the square-jawed opponent of Hitler, the one man whose eloquence and spirit could raise the weary heads of the beleaguered Brits during the blitz. We might say he transcended his upbringing --and doubtless there is truth to that. We might also say that his upbringing was inescapably part of him, that it actually helped to forge his character.

We often tend to treat people as if they are damaged goods --simply the victims of forces beyond their control, helpless, and incurably wounded by what they have done, and what has been done to them. I am not at all calloused to the wounds of others, but what I am saying is that God will not only help us transcend circumstances, but, in his sovereign control over every painful circumstance, he redeems the pain, to make us even more useful people.

David's young life was fraught with pain, but God redeemed his circumstances to build him into a man after God's own heart. Joseph, too. Jacob knew hurtful rejection by one parent. And, above all, Christ was rejected by his own Father on our behalf.

So, take a lesson from old Winnie. Chin up, good man. You are not the product of your experiences, but the child of the living God, and he will strengthen you to make you useful to him --the highest call of all.


  1. Great post. But it really takes living by faith and not sight, which is no easy task when pastoring damaged people. But we have to believe that who they are in Christ is the real reality. And believe it for ourselves as well. What else do we have to preach?

    P.S. There is a great account of Churchill's leadership in Wm. Shire's "The Collapse of the Third Republic," about the fall of France.

  2. "God will not use a man greatly until He has wounded him severely."
    It seems the most gifted leaders in God's kingdom are the ones most aware of their own depravity. Interestingly enough, those blessed with the gift of encouragement are usually those who received no encouragement as children, only aware of the blessed assurance of their own salvation.

  3. Anyone who quotes Tozer is a friend of mine! Thanks, anon.