Charles Stanley recounts lessons God taught during marital crisis
"There's not a pill in a bottle that will do for you when it comes to contentment, and relieving pressure, and bringing you a sense of quietness of spirit like stretching out before God in his Word, reading a passage, talking to him, being quiet and saying, 'Lord speak to my heart,'" Stanley told an overflow crowd March 31 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
During an emotionally charged hour-long sermon, Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, for nearly 30 years, said his reliance on God's sovereignty has helped him persevere through marital problems and church schisms that have rocked his personal life and world-reaching ministry.
Two years ago, Stanley found himself in a mounting controversy from a divorce suit filed nearly three years earlier by his wife, Anna. Some church members, including his son, Andy, who served on staff at the church, thought Stanley should step down as senior pastor of the church until Stanley had reconciled his marriage. Andy resigned from his staff position in August 1995 in disagreement over his father continuing to serve as senior pastor during the ordeal.
Stanley, a former Southern Baptist Convention president whose sermons are televised throughout the world through his broadcast ministry called In Touch Ministries, vowed to step down only if the divorce became final. Anna dropped her divorce suit in March 1996 announcing that the couple were reconciling their differences.
"The most difficult painful years of my life have been the past five, but they have been the most profitable, the most productive in every single way," Stanley said. "I thought what would have appeared to have caused people to walk away from me, drew them by the hoards."
After 40 years in the ministry, Stanley's appeal seemed as strong as ever during his visit to Southeastern. Church vans and carloads of people began arriving on the Wake Forest, N.C., campus about an hour-and-a-half before the 10 a.m. service in the 1,400-seat Binkley Chapel. An overflow crowd assembled in two classrooms to watch the service on closed-circuit television. Students arriving minutes before the scheduled service were turned away because of lack of space. Stanley was again in great demand later in the afternoon when he hosted a book signing at the Baptist Book Store on campus.
"God broke me in areas of my own life that he knew I needed to be broken and crushed, because I wept for eight months every single day," Stanley said in his chapel address. "What was God doing? Just getting me fit for some people to be able to listen to me who could not hear me before then."
Stanley, 65, said another lesson he learned through his ordeals is to "let God fight your battles."
"You fight your battles on your knees in your closet, and God will give you his victory in public," he said.
Stanley testified of the peace he had in August 1995 when he attended a three-hour business meeting with 5,300 church members who were considering firing him. "I just sat there with the most perfect peace and quietness in my heart because, you see, I had already fought that battle. They were fighting it in public. I had fought it back in the prayer room. The battle was over as far as I was concerned."
A vote showed 85 percent of the members supported Stanley remaining as pastor while he and Anna worked on their marital problems. The next month, Stanley retreated to the North Carolina mountains to further prayerfully seek God's will. When he returned home, he told church members God wanted him to continue his ministry at First Baptist.
Stanley said his personal trials have made him more credible in the eyes of other hurting people. "People get drawn to someone in whom they know God is working," he said.
"They cannot handle somebody who has it all together. None of us have it all together. ... You and I live in a world of needy people, and when you and I start meeting people's needs where they're living, they're coming to hear what you have to say."
The author of nearly 20 books, several of which address how to deal with painful emotions, Stanley said learning to wait upon God is "one of the most valuable principles" a minister can practice.
"It's in the pain and hurt and suffering that God builds character," Stanley said. "God doesn't build character on ease, comfort and pleasure. God builds character on pain, suffering, heartache, misunderstandings, tribulations and trials."
To be used by God, Stanley said, one must bleed. "When you suffer, God does something in your life to make you acceptable in the eyes of people as to what you are saying because they know it's been tried and tested in your life."
Stanley said he found rest in the sovereignty of God while it seemed at times his ministry was unraveling around him. "If I can accept the sovereignty of God, I can face any situation, any circumstance, no matter what, no matter how painful, and walk through it absolutely victorious because I know only that which God allows can happen," he said.
Citing the Apostle Paul's admonition in 2 Corinthians 3 to operate out of one's inadequacy, Stanley said he learned anew how to depend on God for everything. "If we learn to operate out of weakness, we don't have to defend our image," he said. "We don't have to try to impress anybody. We don't have to do any of that. All we have to do is do what God tells us to do."
Intimacy with God, Stanley said, is the greatest safeguard against spiritual warfare. "It is the place where the power of God will surge in your life and through your life as no other way. It is the place where you bring your heartaches, your burdens, your problems, your difficulties, your misunderstandings, your anger, all the things that happen in a person's life."
Stanley said he is looking forward to many more years of fruitful ministry. "Most men are retiring at my age," he said. "I have never been more excited in my whole life about the ministry than I am today."