Faith Molded by Adversity (Lessons from the life of Joseph Willis)

It’s difficult to describe the pain of unexpectedly losing someone close to you. I’ve had three very close friends die in freak accidents. Each one of the deaths produced deep hurt in my heart, but they also caused a cumulative impact on my emotions. I never realized how deep the hurt ran until I landed in the hospital after the death of former professional football player Billy Hobbs – the third close friend.

I had no idea that painful emotions could cause such an effect upon the human body. I lost all strength and couldn’t control bodily functions. It took time for my body to heal, and my mind continued to be influenced by the emotional pain. I perceived myself as a loser. Even though I knew my thinking was wrong, I didn’t want to develop other close friendships because I felt like a jinx.

Over time, I experienced the healing ointment of God’s grace applied to my heart. I entered into a depth of love for Jesus I had never known. Although I have loved Jesus since I experienced His forgiveness in 1965, I was brought to a new level of love for Him through my suffering. I can truly say I’m thankful for having known my friends and for having gone through the agony that accompanied losing those friendships.

As I scoured documents on the life of Joseph Willis, I was taken aback with the suffering he experienced. It was much more than the injustice foisted upon him by an uncle who refused to execute his father’s will. Not only was he illegally kept in slavery, but he also was denied the fortune left by his father.

That’s when his deepest suffering began. Joseph wed a girl who put all her dreams aside to marry him while he was still a slave. Once he received his freedom, they set their sights on serving God. She died after their third child was born. He later married an Irish girl, who died about the time they headed to Mississippi to preach the gospel. His third wife died after his ministry in Louisiana was established.

As I looked at these events, several truths grabbed my heart. Joseph must have hurt deeply because he had loved deeply. The pain may have knocked him down, but it couldn’t keep him there. It was probably his suffering that led to his greatness. Those who have experienced the greatest wounds are often those who develop the most extraordinary love for Jesus.

When someone experiences injustice and later beholds the Just One, they love with an unexplainable love. When a person watches a loved one die, they fall at the feet to worship the One who is the resurrection and life. It seems contradictory, but sorrow places a follower of Jesus on a path to joy unspeakable.

Probably the most notable truth I gleaned from Joseph Willis was to see how suffering produced strength. He went where no one else would go. He preached what no one else had the courage to say. He ministered to people no one else cared about. Why? He had come to the cross of Christ. He beheld the suffering of the Savior. In His weakness, He found strength at the cross.

What I learned from Joseph Willis is this: When you hurt, run as fast as you can to the cross. Healing flows from the cross. Live by the cross. Carry the cross. Worship the Lamb who was slain on the cross.

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