February 13th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

My Faith: Suffering my way to a new tomorrow

Editor's Note: Rob Bell is the Founding Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His latest book and DVD are called Drops Like Stars.

By Rob Bell, Special to CNN

One Friday evening in the fall of my senior year of college I got a headache.

I took some aspirin, laid on the couch, and waited for it to go away. But it didn't; it got worse. By midnight I was in agony, and by 3 a.m. I was wondering if I was going to die.

As the sun rose, my roommate drove me to the hospital where I learned that I had viral meningitis. A neurologist explained to me that the fluid around my brain had become infected and was essentially squeezing my brain against the walls of my skull.

So that's what that was.

The doctor informed me that it would take a number of weeks in bed to recover.

This didn't fit with my plan.

I was in a band at the time. We'd been playing shows in the Chicago area for a while and had just landed our biggest club dates yet in the city - all of them scheduled over the next several weeks.

We had to cancel all of them.

As this reality hit me, laying there in that hospital bed miles from home with a brain infection, I distinctly remember asking no one in particular "Now what?"

I was devastated. This was not how it was supposed to go. The band was my life, my future, my singular focus. We had just canceled our biggest gigs ever. Eventually I recovered enough to return to school but things weren't the same. Whatever had been driving us in the band wasn't there like it had been before and so we came to the mutual conclusion that it had been great while it lasted and now it was time for the band to come to an end.

I don't think I'd ever felt more lost. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had all this energy and passion and I wanted desperately to give myself to something that mattered, but I had no plan.

I would walk around campus in a daze, muttering the same prayer over and over, which took the form of "Now what?"

Do you know that feeling when you're playing soccer and you lunge for the ball but you aren't fast enough and the player on the other team has already kicked it quite hard and the ball travels with ferocious velocity and force into your groin region and you keel over, gasping for breath, your voice several octaves higher?

It was like the existential version of that.

And then, things took a strange, beautiful turn.

In the days and weeks following the band's breakup, people I barely knew would stop me out of the blue and say things like, "Have you thought about being a pastor?" Friends I hadn't talked to in months would contact me and say, "For some reason I think you're going to be a pastor."

Me, a pastor? Seriously?

The idea began to get a hold of me and it wouldn't let go. A calling welled up within me, a direction, something I could give myself to.

I tell you this story about what happened to me 19 years ago because I assume you're like me - really good at making plans and plotting and scheming and devising just how to make your life go how it's "supposed" to go.

We are masters of this. We know exactly how things are supposed to turn out.

And then we suffer. There's a disruption - death, disease, job loss, heartbreak, betrayal or  bankruptcy.

The tomorrow we were expecting disappears. And we have no other plan.

Suffering is traumatic and awful and we get angry and we shake our fists at the heavens and we vent and rage and weep. But in the process we discover a new tomorrow, one we never would have imagined otherwise.

I have interacted with countless people over the years who, when asked to identify key moments, turning points, and milestones in their lives, usually talk about terribly difficult, painful things. And they usually say something along the lines of "I never would have imagined that would happen to me."

Imagined is a significant word here. Suffering, it turns out, demands profound imagination. A new future has to be conjured up because the old future isn't there anymore.

Now I realize that what happened to me - the fluid around my brain swelling up and squeezing it against the walls of my skull - is nothing compared to the pain and tragedy many people live with every day.

But that experience irrevocably altered my life. Nothing was ever the same again. My plans fell apart, which opened me up to entirely new future.

This truth, about the latent seeds of creativity being planted in the midst of suffering, takes us deep into the heart of the Christian faith. We are invited to trust that in the moments when we are most inclined to despair, when all appears lost and we can't imagine any way forward - that it is precisely in those moments when something new may be about to be birthed.

Jesus hangs naked and bloody on a cross, alone and abandoned by his students, scorned by the crowd, and yet defiant, confident, insistent that God is present in his agony, bringing about a whole new world, right here in the midst of this one.

This is a mystery, and one we are wise to reflect on it, because of the countless disruptions we experience all the time.

God is in those moments, grieving with us, shedding tears with us, feeling that pain and turmoil with us, and then inviting to trust that something good can come from even this.

So keep your eyes and your heart open.  Be quick to listen and slow to make rash judgments about how it's "all going to turn out," because you never know when you'll find yourself miles from home, laying in a hospital bed with a bad case of brain squeeze, all of your plans crashing down around you, wondering how it all went wrong, only to discover that a whole new life is just beginning.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rob Bell.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Journeys • Opinion

soundoff (242 Responses)
  1. JJ Jukebox

    I've got to ask, and I know this is veering away from the point of the article, but I wonder what kind of life style this pastor is living from the proceeds of his books and DVD's. I truly feel men of religion ought to live a life of servitude and humility. I feel an obligation to question any pator/reverand/priest/monk, who sells books and DVD's, TV show's, big congregation churchs. Listen, I know I'm getting negitive here but please, this is an occuring theme in our culture. Rich religious guys who "sell" the answers to the masses. The day I come across the man or women who preach and live like Christ did, then I'll listen.

    February 24, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Jean

      Don't be too quick to judge his lifestyle? He actually gives much of his proceeds to charity.

      July 11, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Jean

      Sorry, that should have been a period, not question mark...

      July 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  2. letsgomets2011(and 2012!)

    Pastor Bell's story almost reminds me of the backstory regarding how Bruce Jenner and Doris Day got into showbiz.:)

    What about those of us who don't have a story like this to tell? What happens then?

    December 26, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • nickwags3

      1 corinthians 1:26-31

      July 7, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  3. Nina

    Thank you so much for this article.

    October 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  4. John in Neptune Beach

    Sometimes the greatest gifts come wrapped in barbed wire...as a recovering alcoholic, I found Rob Bell's book "Love Wins" to be beautifully descriptive and exactly right when it comes to the mystery of God's grace and redemptive power. Many, many thanks from many of us "in the rooms" who have sensed acutely the saving power of a Christ who chooses to be present, but anonymously. "He comes to us as one unknown, without a name he comes to us..." God bless you, Rob Bell!!!!

    June 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  5. luciana

    rob bell, I love u!

    May 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  6. Benjamin

    Rob Bell is a false teacher and a heretic. Do not let your experiences dictate your theology. Your theology should dictate your experiences. Shout out to Rob Bell on that one!

    May 3, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Greg

      Amen! his theology is whack!

      May 3, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • Joe

      So a fundamental Christian loses his mother to cancer- this is an experience. You say that "theology should dictate experiences". So would you tell my friend (because this scenario actually happened) what you just said in your comment?? If you did, I would find you and beat your ass, after he beats your ass: )

      June 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • Debbie

      Isn't it sad that Christians can't listen to each others point of view with becoming angry and hateful. What are we showing the world with such anger and hate? I loved Love Wins because it stretched my thinking and had some wonderful ideas. I have many of the same questions that Rob has. When we are gentle and respect each other, we can learn so much. We are commanded to love each. Where is your love for Rob Bell?

      July 23, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • letsgomets2011(and 2012!)

      So what are you trying to prove here, Benjamin?

      Tell me.

      December 26, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Casey

      @Benjamin- What exactly do you know about Rob Bell's theology? Look into it.


      January 19, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  7. brad

    But you may be living in a delusional world anyway. If you only believe what your intellect offers you, you'd better hope that your intellect is fully formed, that it is up to the job of acccurately and fully understanding all that your senses take in, that the information offered to you by the scientific community is free from error, emotion, and arrogance, then you might be free of delusion. If any of the above conditions are faulty, you may have been duped. You might also want to hope that nothing exists beyons what your intellect shows you. The criteria you use to reject religon can turn on you.

    March 14, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  8. MS

    Perhaps the appeal of being a pastor was driven by the same deep-seated motivations that drove you to being in a band... there's something meaningful you get out of performing, sharing with others something you appreciate. And I've no doubt you're quite good at it. That said, as a "preacher gone atheist" myself, I can certainly appreciate the message of this "sermon." Thanks!

    March 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • NRL

      "preacher gone atheist" .. how come?

      March 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  9. Carisa

    Wow. Thank you for this article. It's exactly what I needed to read today. It's nice to see some positive stuff posted on a site filled with a lot of negative news.

    March 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  10. John

    Thanks for the article. I've been going through a bunch of painful stuffy, and that really helped me.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  11. My Dark Spiral

    I find it interesting that it is sometimes difficult to tell if the person attacking Rob Bell is a non-believer or an ultra-funamentalist. I would encourage anyone to examine Rob Bell's full body of work with an open mind. If you must judge, judge the fruit of Rob's work. If you can honestly say that Rob's work has not made the world, this world, the world of the here and now a better place than cast the first stone. If you must assume that Rob is talking about a dogmatic or fundamentalist view of God, I would encourage you to watch his films Everything is Spiritual and The Gods Aren't Angry. Rob inspires me and others to take action and for that I am thankful!

    February 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Alex Green

      Good points.

      Also listen to the Mars Hill podcast, you will find you will develop a much more rounded picture of Rob and a lot of the criticism that has been directed at him comes from an incomplete view.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  12. Tim Carson

    I haven't had that kind of brain squeeze but I have had my brain squeezed! And there is a strange relationship between suffering and evil that is intentionally committed; the evil act often brings squeezing and then, unbeknownst to the perpetrator, god creates something new out of the ashes. So suffering, yes, but also that intended for evil transformed into the new, the good, the sacred.

    February 18, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  13. Sarah R

    I'm wondering about those who "suffering their way to a new tomorrow". What is someone likes to suffer just for the sympathy is brings? What is someone has a life long goal of being a victim to get that sympathy? I realize that Jesus suffered for us all, but for an individual to claim he or she is "suffering" to gain self esteem is a bit far reaching for me.

    Living a life dependent on others, seeking charity and support from with no personal responsibility or effort is not what I believe Jesus would have us do. How much blame and hatred can be placed on those he or she has come into contact with?

    February 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Reality

      For added thought, here is what Professor JD Crossan has to say about atonement theology: (from his book, "Who is Jesus" co-authored with Richard Watts)

      "Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us."

      "Traditionally, Christians have said, 'See how Christ's passion was foretold by the prophets." Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

      "In terms of divine consistency, I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life."

      February 16, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • renee altson

      the good news is that it is not for us to judge.

      those who "suffer for the sympathy that it brings" - something is wrong with that person if for that reason only. as far as i'm concerned, you never (ever!) judge anyone else's pain or sorrow. don't place the blame and hatred on anyone. do what you can. live the best you can.

      you said:
      Living a life dependent on others, seeking charity and support from with no personal responsibility or effort is not what I believe Jesus would have us do.

      my opinion is that Jesus would see the need, and meet it. he would not stop caring for people regardless of whether or not he thought they "deserved" it.

      February 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  14. maddian

    All belief systems/worldviews require faith at some level. Unless you are willing to accept that there exists a level of terminal knowledge...i.e. there is nothing more to learn...we all rest on faith. Even the most stringent scientific discipline requires faith at some point (you know that whole concept of theory). Christianity (and many other traditional faith systems) is no different. I am willing to accept that I might be wrong (it wouldnt be faith if I didnt) if those in the atheistic/agnostic camp are willing to do the same. If we decide to even the playing field and work from the same list of definitions than it comes down to personal experience. My personal experience with Christian faith has been (and continues to be) life changing. So where to now? If I am wrong than I return to dust like everyone else. My life has no purpose beyond self fullfillment for a handful of decades (if I am lucky). If you are wrong.....WELL?! For me...my life is being transformed by a man; transcendent of life & death, recorded by secular historians to have walked the earth some 2000 years ago, named Jesus.

    February 15, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • NL

      "All belief systems/worldviews require faith at some level."

      Faith as in a strong confidence in someone or something, sure, but faith as in religious faith, no. We all have a strong confidence that we don't have to fear actual werewolves for instance even though they are as undeniable as God is. If we experienced what we thought was a real werewolf then we'd believe in them, and have to face the skeptics who lack our individual experience. Science is only certain of that which can be experimented and reproduced, basically what can be 'experienced' by all. To do that we need evidence and proof. If God were 'proven' then the religions that surround God will fall away.

      “Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.” Oscar Wilde

      February 15, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Rhonda

      Well spoken.

      July 21, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  15. Amy

    wonderful post.
    You are seeing the wisdom of redemptive suffering that the world would rather avoid. Praise God!


    February 15, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  16. Heather

    NL,....being good just cause we are human. Well I think that's great. And you know what, here's a thought – what is everyone is right. What if there is no right or wrong about religon. Sure frees up alot of energy to do good and kind things when you aren't wasting time arguing or worrying about saving everyone to your belief system.

    February 15, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • NL

      "what is everyone is right. What if there is no right or wrong about religon."
      In order to do that everyone would have to abandon the notion that gods and all things supernatural were actually real and the presumed source of religious beliefs. Without a belief in real gods all religions would stand on equal footing. We would still have differing belief systems, but not the condition of trying to please an outside force that could punish us for disobedience. You could still see some religious ideas and practices as 'wrong', but that would be more like the cultural differences we already tolerate, right? That's the only way I can see that working at a practical level and, if you're serious about trying to achieve it, why not add your voice to the rest of us who are trying to reason people out of believing that gods are real? It would, as you suggest, probably make the world a far better place.

      February 15, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  17. alvinoid

    Oh, and the museums I went to as a kid didn't have cave people riding dinosaurs ... like the museums in Kansas do currently. Laughable!

    February 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • delerium

      You have issues, and are free to express them in a public forum. However, what you've missed, is that he's not trying to push is views on you. If you want to live your life without hope that's fine! He's talking to people this will "speak to." You don't have to read, you don't have to watch. Though I will tell you, whatever argument you have against his views, he is more than happy to listen, and talk, and listen, and talk. It is obvious that you do not have that kind of inner peace, patience, or wisdom...so who is the unhappy one here?

      February 16, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  18. alvinoid

    @ Junebug – Thankfully, I was not indoctrinated in religion during my youth. My parents took me to museums on weekends, and to the lake, and skiing and all sort of wonderful secular activities. Thank you mom and dad. As to the idea that I am delusional and that my beliefs are 'shaped by christianity' ... well, I believe that there is no god, at least not in the Abrahamic sense. Also, I believe that evolution is true, provable and a simple, elegant way to look at how we've arrived here. (not the creationist/intelligent design bs). I believe that we are made from the remains of stars, and that we are essentially animals that have attained self awareness. Also, the Golden rule (treat others as you would have yourself treated), a lot older than old hey-zeuz. Christians have this amazing way of trying to take credit for many ideas that were here long before their ideology arrived. There are many stories (Noah, Abraham, Jesus, Moses) that are essentially mirrors of stories that are much more ancient than these versions. The history is not that hard to find, outside of the bible. I do not live in a delusional world, you know, where mystical creatures, that no one can prove exist, control every event, act, future or past, forever and into eternity. Who is really living the illusion/delusion? It's not me.

    February 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Reality


      To reinforce your views:

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument."

      February 15, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • ibis

      the cool thing about God is that even though you don't believe in him, he adores you. Loves you madly, in fact.

      March 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  19. Job Mendes

    It`s incredible read something like that, cause i`m suffering about the journey of my life, I'm uprown in up without a mother, she moved up to USA when I was 11 years old, and my dad here in my country (Brazil) is a policeman, so he`s work made it up him, and he needs spend many days e nights work on. I pass that time in a book store in mall, after school, reading a many and many books that I can to spend that time, and on night go to school again and start the administration course. Sleeping on 1:30 am and wake up on 5:30 to go to the school again, and spend the afternoon with books, in many areas, psychology, philosophy, administration, computer science, technology, human behavior. I found this way to keep mind in peace against see the life that I'm forced to live, without mother and father sometimes or many times. Then All my friends and teachers looked to me and they think "this guy, god have mercy him, it was became a trafficker or a robber, he not have education and parents home to build a good person". It really sad all this, but always I have the hands of god over me. So I'm now with 23 years old and bachelor's degree in computer science, part of theater ministry on church that I belong and try figure out more and more about god, reading many books of HIM now, the bible also, and someday with hope, see my mother again. The life, world, people really can frustrate you, tell things that hurt you, many situations in world can mess up you, but GOD really promises stay with you. All time anywhere. I'm not being in a English course, so sorry about my English. God Bless all you. Job Mendes.

    February 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Suzie Sue

      NO problem with your English. Apparently Pastor Bell has trouble with it, too (laying in bed?)?!

      February 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Claire

      What a wonderful, hard working person you are. Well done! May God keep you safe and bless you. And when the time is right, may God bless you with a wonderful life and wonderful children and much happiness ahead.

      March 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  20. Me

    hey Nl any advice on how a man who calims to be a pastor divorces his his Faithful wife of 31 years to hook up again with his first teenage love and plans to marry the woman . has been heard to say that he will never want or need for anything again as long as he is with this woman while before the divorce became final he gave the wife thru text messages that he was sorry for everything got closer to God and wanted to show her how much he truly loved her for the rest of his life and now he is avoiding her . she has no money no job and he is living in the lap of luxury claims he will help her but won't give her alimony cause he says that is enabling her to not look for work when she has been desparately seeking work. any advice for this woman who trusted God to restore her marriage .

    February 14, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • NL

      I think you need Dr. Phil for that one, but skip talking to his wife.

      February 14, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Me Too


      I survived (and even thrived after) a very similar situation - 54 year-old, stay-at-home mom, with 2 teenagers still there. I know it hurts, and it is real difficult, but you can make it too. Get a lawyer and get yourself together as best as you can. "God" will do nothing, as usual. Best wishes to you.

      February 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Juel

      Don't let him take God from you too. Get a good lawyer, and don't sign anything that doesnt feel right. Jesus himself was not submissive to the unjust or irrational use of authority. He set a very different example. He often publicly pointed out injustice or hypocrisy, and frequently irritated or even enraged “the powers that be.” Gods love doesn't mean He keeps us yoked to a$&holes. He will protect you. You have spent your life giving, now it's your turn, to shine that light, fly with those wings. Hold Christ's hand, yell at God it's ok He gets it, and wrap the sweet Holy spirit around.

      February 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • Jace

      I follow Jesus. Maybe you won't find the answer here on this board. I believe you'll find it in your home, speaking to a wiser, older man. That's what I believe the Spirit is saying to you in this moment.

      February 22, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Anna

      Dear Me,
      My heart goes out to you. I can think of nothing to say that would offer the comfort that would even begin to heal such a wound. However, I can share with you that I have just emerged from the darkest and most dreadful years of my life. I lost everything – my home, my marriage, my children, my health (I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease), and I had some kind of a breakdown. I didn't understand how God could let these things happen to me, since I had served Him and loved Him so many years. I didn't know who I was any more. I began to pray that God would let me die. He ever so gently brought me back around, providing for me, and never leaving me. He has plucked me from the darkness and set me in the light. I have hope again. I still don't understand why God allowed me to go through all these things, but my love for Him has deepened and I have learned that I can live without any of those things once precious to me. I can live without anything except for Jesus. Take heart – you are precious to Him.

      March 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.