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. rodneycolma

    this is very similar to the way I discovered Satan. Can I please have a place on your wall for my blog, cnn?

    Just kidding. I'm not an atheist, satanist, buddhist, muslim or christian. But I am shocked that this message has a place here on cnn. It's not news. There are sites devoted to spreading christian messages. That's where this belongs.


    February 13, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  2. aginghippy

    Well, if you can't make it as a musician, I suppose you can lie to people for a living. It was only when I stopped waiting for God to make my life better, took complete responsibility for my destiny, and, most importantly, gave up the notion that bad fortune was coming from God as some form of punishment or life lesson, that my life took a turn for the better. Are we to believe that God wanted this man to contract viral meningitis? How utterly ridiculous.

    February 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  3. AsayaYeahyas


    February 13, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  4. mamav

    Wow, I thought the Muslim countries were intolerant! Can't we all read and article and either agree or disagree without having to tear down the person who expresses their opinion. Wow! Lighten up!

    February 13, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Anonymous

      Good observation!

      February 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Heather Jeane

      "Tolerance" is the pride of our country but it has a different definition than you would find in a dictionary. Here, "tolerance" means, "I'm open-minded so long as you agree with me."

      February 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • rodneycolma

      no, this is not the place for stories (emphasize that word please) like this. I'm not an unspiritual person, but feel strongly that christian messages should not be showing up featured in such places. I find the message from this "pastor" quite self-serving, and consider it bizarre that cnn would feature it on their wall among so few stories. I'll be watching to see if cnn posts a similar story by an atheist, a jew, a muslim, a buddhist and a hindu. (not going to hold my breath for the satanist.) If they don't they can't call them selves impartial journalists. They will officially be tinted with the scent of popular christianity.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  5. Rose

    As someone who had her whole life planned out, and then got hit with massive health issues that rewrote all those plans, this article resonated with me completely. It takes something very difficult to rouse people from the hustle and bustle that they throw themselves into every day, to make them look around at their lives and reevaluate their place in the universe. Frame that in the context of becoming a pastor or just choosing a better lifestyle, or improving their life in general without a religious path, most people will not do so unless they are shaken from their comfort zone and sometimes? Pain is the best revealer of the wool we've pulled over our own eyes. People are just so good at avoided pain and grief, so scared of it, that they're often so busy blaming God for why they're suffering that they don't realize that sometimes pain has its silver lining too in the form of personal revelation, if you let it.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  6. Mitch

    I have watched Rob's DVD series called Nooma. I like the way he takes the real world and spins Christianity around it. He makes me see things in a way I never thought of before. i had a turning point in my life that was one of those "Now what?" moments-my 9 year old son died in a automobile accident in which I was driving. I sat in the front seat of the car and watched the paramedics trying to revive him, only to realize that it wasn't happening. After the usual "Why me?" and "What now?" moments I rediscovered my faith. I really enjoy Rob's take on things.
    @BroG....you used to have to stay in the hospital for diseases like this. Modern medicine is different than it was 19 years ago.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  7. BroG

    Yes, many years ago. Viral Meningitis...swelling of the meninges from infection. I know you want loopholes, but your missing the point. Maybe drop the histrionics. It was meaningful to him, not necessarily meaningful for anyone else. Take what you want from it.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:40 am |
    • alwayslearning

      Perhaps we can just say that one person's viral meningitis is not the same as another. While you may have recovered quickly, he may not have and had to be hospitalized. Even two years ago when my son contracted viral meningitis, he stayed in the hospital for two days. He had double vision, balance issues, and memory problems due to the swelling. Now, his hospitalization may have been due to age (8) or seriousness or the swelling. The point is, not every case of viral meningitis is the same. Don't jump to the conclusion that histrionics is involved.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  8. fineart

    Everyone should take the inner journey through meditation. When these crisis happen in your life, (and they will) you'll be prepared. Listen and beleive, meditation is the answer.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  9. Alvinoid

    Does this mean he believes the Earth is only 6000 years old?

    February 13, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Anonymous

      As much as I hate to feed trolls, I'd just like to point out that "Young Earth Creationism"–along with many other beliefs that are ridiculed by the general public–are not universal to all Christians. There are plenty of Christians who find that scientific theories on the creation (or perhaps "development" would be more appropriate) of the universe poses no threat to their beliefs. The traditions that hold the Young Earth model to be true are generally–but not always–those traditions which hold all Scripture to be literally infallible, as opposed to a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the Bible.

      It's always a funny and frustrating experience to see "Christians" painted with such broad brushes in the comments section on CNN and elsewhere. There's actually a very broad range of Christian beliefs that can be considered orthodox. Using caricatures to attack an entire faith is not only ridiculous, it's offensive as well; not because of the disagreement, but because of the position of ignorance the disagreement is stated out of.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • NL

      Actually, this guy gets lots of criticism from the conservatives for being too liberal and tolerant of other faiths. Just another indication that the younger generation are rejecting the narrow view for a more open, accepting one.

      February 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  10. Frank

    Very inspiring. Thank you.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  11. repose

    Something good – a nice change to the usual death, destruction, and raunchy news that comes out of most news outlets. I'm glad I checked out CNN before Fox News. You made my day!

    February 13, 2011 at 7:24 am |
  12. BroG

    I too have had viral meningitis. After a spinal tap to confirm the diagnosis, the pain went away because the pressure was relieved. I went home because my doctor suggested that the hospital would only offer an opportunity for infection and I didn't need nursing care. I was prescribed an IV antibiotic for several days, but I returned to work the second day. I don't question your conversion story; that's personal and like most of these accounts, meaningful to you. I do question the care you received for your viral meningitis. It appears that you treatment left you in a state of suffering that should have been avoided. Is that you God, or just poor medicine?

    February 13, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • derk

      did you have meningitis 19 years ago?

      February 13, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • paintpaintpaint

      OR his case was a little different from yours.... right?

      February 13, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  13. Joe

    true... true..

    February 13, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  14. ReasonPlease

    Isn't it so sad that god recruits people by giving them grief and pain.

    February 13, 2011 at 7:10 am |
    • Anonymous

      Alternatively, couldn't you say, "Isn't it wonderful that God can take something as terrible as our most intense suffering and use it to bring the hope of a new future into view?"

      February 13, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Cisco

      Perhaps its life's most challenging situations that shake off all of that which is not important to reveal the truth that the fullest life is found walking with God.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  15. baldman

    How refreshing to see a CNN posting that presents Christianity in a more positive light than the ususal bashing it receives! Like Bell, my faith was born in crisis and catastrophe. Would my faith be that I would insist others believe in? Unequivocally, not at all! However, my simple observation is that scoffers and cynics seem at times to be those who remain angry and bitter over any of those negative life events that Bell lists . Further when I listen to the arguments opposed to any of the prophetic religions, I have yet to see a better alternative. Go Rob!!!

    February 13, 2011 at 6:22 am |
    • NL

      You may like what he said in his book Velvet Elvis about the absolute truth of Christianity:

      "If the gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the "un" and "non", they work against Jesus' teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, "God shows no favoritism." So we don't either."

      And the literal following of the Bible:

      "[The Bible] has to be interpreted. And if it isn’t interpreted, then it can’t be put into action. So if we are serious about following God, then we have to interpret the Bible. It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people."

      Hmm... I think I like his message more than that of many other pastor's I've heard lately.

      February 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  16. yep

    nope, it's just truth pressing against your conscience....It's like gravity too. Either face Him now or later. One day you'll be face down before God and ashamed of your former defiance and pride. The pride of life will have gone out and all you'll have is rust and ashes...and no relationship with the God who gave you life.

    February 13, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • electricgrendel

      It's your all-knowing sanctimony that makes me hope that when you die you're standing in front of Horus with your heart on a scale crapping your spectral pants.

      February 13, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • bigbadbedwetter

      electricgrendel, lol, I concur. 🙂

      February 13, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • Will

      Yep: Don't be discouraged by those who mock you. They are too frightened to look deep inside themselves and so they make jokes instead.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Don

      And yet there is no god.

      February 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • NL

      What joke? Have you any evidence to suggest that God is more likely to judge you after death than Horus, or any other god? All gods are supported by the exact same amount of evidence. That is the atheist position, and why we don't play favorites like Christians, Muslims, and Jews do. All gods are the same.

      February 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  17. Michael

    Rob Bell is great. I podcast his sermons every week.

    February 13, 2011 at 5:57 am |
  18. doctore0

    Still fluid pressing against the skull eh

    February 13, 2011 at 5:46 am |
  19. gees

    a whole lot about nothing.

    February 13, 2011 at 5:30 am |
  20. Barry

    this is true

    February 13, 2011 at 5:27 am |
    • AsayaYeahyas

      I thought Drew Carey was an atheist.

      February 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
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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.