Finding Faith to Carry You through Disaster
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23: 4
In the past month, we've watched the international community endure one calamity after another. First, a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Now earthquakes in Japan and Chile. We've seen images of great suffering and heard stories of great faith and triumph. With each heart wrenching update, we wonder how we would cope if the places were switched. Could we endure the shock of having everything - and everyone - we loved gone in a matter of moments? Would we maintain hope and faith? Would we be generous to others?
Award-winning journalist Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club, began asking these questions long before recent quakes crumbled the infrastructure of countries across the globe. After years of interviewing people who survived incredible catastrophes for human interest stories, he began to wonder: What enables these ordinary people to endure what most could not? Are there certain characteristics that set survivors apart from victims? And if so, can we learn how to become survivors?
Sherwood set out on a quest to find answers. He interviewed countless members of "the survivors club." He met with Brian Udell, the only pilot to live through an emergency ejection from a jet going faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1) at sea level. He interviewed Stan Praimnath, the only survivor from the 81st floor of the World Trade Center's South Tower. He spoke with petite Anne Hjelle, a mountain biker who survived a vicious mountain lion attack on the trail. He interviewed survivors of shipwrecks, plane crashes, the Holocaust, and those who beat difficult medical diagnoses.
Sherwood didn't just interview these remarkable men and women. He put himself through the wringer. He visited the Aviation Survival Training Center at the U.S. Marine Corp air station where he allowed trainers to subject him to military survival tests, including a frightening simulation of a helicopter crashing underwater (to his teachers' surprise, he passed all the tests). He also underwent emergency FAA training with airline professionals. Along the way, he spoke with the experts. Experts in medicine, military training, aviation, and psychology.
His findings? There's actually quite a bit you and I can do to join the survivors club when life gets rough.
So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5: 6). The first factor in becoming a survivor is acknowledging a very biblical truth: At some point life's going to go wrong. As much as we don't want to admit it, the brokenness of this world will seep into our tranquil lives. In his introduction, Sherwood writes, "Almost everyone I know has faced - or is coping with - some kind of serious challenge or adversity." Part of what differentiates the victims from the survivors is a person's willingness to accept adversity and prepare before it ever becomes a reality.
Did you know that 96% of passengers in airplane accidents survive? Sherwood shares that the survivors who might otherwise have perished in plane crashes were passengers who kept their shoes on during flight, made note of the exits before take-off, and abstained from the alcoholic beverages on the food cart. In other words - these passengers were prepared.
Other survival factors read like a litany of statistics (including the reality that young, thin, strong men tend to have the best survival rates). But amid all the scientific insights and eye-opening stats, Sherwood identifies one profound characteristic of those who belong to "the survivors club." When he asked survival guru Ray Smith at the Naval Survival Training Institute for the secret of survival, Smith gave a startlingly simple answer: "Faith in God... it's a major factor in all survival scenarios."
Brian Udell couldn't agree more. He believes it was divine intervention that pushed him up onto the life-saving raft after he miraculously survived his high-speed ejection. Stan Praimnath never misses his morning prayers after September 11, 2001. And Anne Hjelle feels like a walking example of 2 Tim 4: 17 ("I was delivered from the lion's mouth").
Sherwood was skeptical of the "divine factor" at first, but expert after expert confirmed the powerful role faith plays in those who beat all odds. In fact, not only does faith carry survivors through extraordinary crises but studies reveal it helps with ordinary crises too. Those who attend church at least once a week live an average of 7 years longer than those who don't.
But what kind of faith is this? Is this a naive, blind optimism that carries survivors through unbelievable circumstances?
No, quite the opposite. Famously dubbed "The Stockdale Paradox," Sherwood explains that Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking POW in Vietnam, responded to the question, "Which American prisoners perished?" with this surprising declaration: "Oh that's easy. The optimists."
Why? Hope is vital, but optimism often drains emotional resources by fueling unrealistic expectations. "We'll be out by Christmas!" a cheery POW might exclaim. When Christmas comes and goes, depression ensues. In fact, naïve believers who erroneously think God will shield them from all adversity tend to lose their vital faith when crisis hits. It's the mature, hopeful realist who believes God uses his adversity for a greater good that comes out the other side of a crisis thriving. Furthermore, studies show the more integrated a person's faith is in his day-to-day life, the more likely he is to weather life's most violent storms.
Where does this leave us? I definitely recommend The Survivors Club. You'll learn some potentially life-saving information and read some fascinating stories. But for me, this information does more than impress the importance of hitting the gym and booking airplane seats within five rows of an exit. It leaves me in awe.
Awe that a journalist's quest for scientific answers to survival led him and his readers straight to God and the power of prayer. Awe that even in the worst of catastrophes, faith is sustained. Awe that God not only answers prayers (how many times have I questioned his silence?) -- but we depend on it.
It also leaves me with a dose of reality: earth isn't heaven. While we can't expect to dodge the bad stuff in life, we can have faith that God never leaves us. He walks with us through the valleys, using every experience for the good of those who love him. Just ask Brian Udell, Stan Praimnath, and Anne Hjelle.
How would you describe your faith? Is it more immature or mature? Do you pray daily and lean into God's grace or rely on your own strengths? Do you think God will shield you from adversity or guide you through it? Take inventory and make the necessary changes.
Original publication date: March 1, 2010
Be a blessing and be blessed,