Dr. Connor Bales, pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, has recently his brand new book Counted Worthy: A Father's Perspective On The Theology of Suffering. In the book, Connor Bales shares the unique calling he and his wife, Mary, have been counted worthy of stewarding in raising two children with a rare genetic disorder. From the initial confusion and questions of "why"-to the practical exhaustion resulting from endless tests, treatments, and visits to the emergency room-to the emotional, physical and spiritual toll they've experienced as a family, Bales leaves nothing off the table.
But, standing tall above the brokenness, disappointment, and hurt, Counted Worthy illuminates a practical theology promising hope, supernatural comfort, and a closeness to God that Connor and Mary have experienced first-hand. Readers will grow close to the Bales family, but more importantly, they will draw closer to their Savior through their life's story.
Q: Dr. Bales, thank you for doing this interview with us. Let's start with yourself: tell us a little about yourself and your current ministry.
My wife Mary and I have been married 21 years and we have been blessed with 5 children. Our oldest daughter (Kathryn) is a 17-year-old senior in high school, our son (Coleman) is a 15-year-old freshman. Our third child (Libby) is 13 years old. Our fourth child (Hannah) is 10 years old, and our youngest child (Campbell) is age 8. I currently serve as the Pastor for the North Campus of Prestonwood Baptist Church, here in the DFW metroplex.
Q: You have just released a new book where you did talk about your struggles with a rare genetic disorder. Tell us about this disorder and the sufferings associated with it.
My two middle daughters, Libby and Hannah, both have a very rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 16p. The girls have significant developmental and cognitive disabilities. Although their ages are 13 and 10, both girls are developmentally about 9 months of age. They are both non-verbal and non-ambulatory (meaning that they do not walk or talk), and they have very significant medical complications that makes them very severely special needs.
Because my oldest two children were both born healthy and without any abnormalities or complications, when we received Libby's diagnosis, we were shocked and devastated. In addition to that, given the rarity of Libby's condition, we were told when we found out we were pregnant with Hannah that it would be a mathematical impossibility to have another child with the same disorder...and yet, Hannah is a genetic twin on paper and has the exact same abnormality as her older sister.
As you might expect, once we learned of Hannah's diagnosis being the same as her sister Libby's, we were devasted all over again. Our life was turned upside down 13 years ago and then repeated 3 years after that. Life with our girls is very tough. They require round the clock care and are entirely dependent. Today however, by God's grace, both girls are doing well, and they have far exceeded any medical prognosis and expectations.
God has used their disability to forever change our lives and shape our family, and while none of what we endure is easy, God's grace makes it possible to experience each day with a promise of hope. Our girls have a very challenging life, and our family navigates the challenges of suffering that go along with it every day. But we've discovered the goodness of God in the midst of the badness that sometimes comes with life.
Q: What were some of the questions you struggle with in your sufferings?
Almost all of my questions came in the form of "Why." I would ask God things like, "Why Libby? She's innocent. Why us? What have we done wrong? Why me? I'm surrendered to ministry." But one morning, a year or two after Libby's birth, as Mary and I were getting into a groove of what has become a 'new normal' for our family, God showed me something significant in his word. In John chapter 9, the disciples ask Jesus about the "why" behind a man born with the condition of blindness. And the answer Jesus gave forever changed how I understood the sovereignty of God in the suffering of men. Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him." Now, what stood out to me that day was not only that God would work through suffering, but that the work of God was declared before the healing ever took place. And so I discovered that regardless of whether or not things change physically, emotionally, or circumstantially for my girls now or not until they are in heaven with Jesus, God will use their suffering for his workmanship in their life and ours. I think that perspective on suffering helped me to see the privilege in what God has called us to with the life of our girls entrusted to us.
Q: How did you go about searching for resolutions to these problems?
Fortunately, the Bible is NOT silent on the subject of suffering. And so, I have leaned into God's word heavily to grow in my understanding of his goodness despite life's bad. I take comfort knowing God's word speaks to suffering and God himself knows what it means to suffer. In fact, the cross is the greatest form of suffering in all of history and therefore our God is empathetic toward what we endure in a world so broken it would take the work of that cross to redeem it.
Q: What about your children? How do you talk about suffering in front of kids?
While I wouldn't wish suffering on anyone, the fact is that it is common to everyone. And so, as parents we can either choose to train our children on how God works through suffering or they will be left with questions and disappointments and the potential for the doubt of faith, when inevitably suffering shows up. I can tell you firsthand my three 'typical' children (Kathryn, Coleman, and Campbell) have seen and dealt with some really difficult realities because of the hardship their sisters endure. But I can also tell you that God has shaped each one of them with a more sensitive heart toward and mindful awareness of others around them who are often marginalized or ignored or suffering. In fact, in chapter 10 of my book, I had all three of my kids write on their perspective of life with Libby and Hannah and what they have learned about suffering and how God has shown his goodness in it.
Q: What is the role of God in the midst of suffering?
We must either believe that God is sovereign over all things all the time, or we must deny that he is God. And the Scriptures are clear about the sovereignty of God. So, we must embrace that his sovereignty includes his awareness of and working in human suffering. And while suffering is at times lonely and isolating, I have never been alone. (Psalm 34:18-19) I've long appreciated Psalm 34:18-19 because of the nearness and goodness of God, despite the acknowledged badness and hardness (at times) of life.
Christians know the gospel is the greatest hope for suffering and for the sufferer. The good news of the gospel of Jesus is that God suffered for us, so that we could be forgiven and have life forever with him - and there will be a day when suffering is no more. (Revelation 21:1-7) And so we know that God is near to the sufferer, as one who has navigated great suffering.
Q: How can your new book help those of us who are suffering?
My book was written to encourage people. Because suffering is common to all, and no one is immune, then I wrote from a very honest place about how God has grown my understanding of his goodness despite life's bad. I pull the curtain back, offering my own testimony without minimizing the ongoing daily challenges that life with our girls still brings, in hopes that through our story others might be strengthened to endure by faith, whatever story God has entrusted to them.
Q: I like the title of the book. But it needs a little unpacking, why do you entitle the book "Counted Worthy"?
After we received Hannah's diagnosis from our pediatrician, and we learned that her condition defied all probabilities as she had the exact same abnormality as her older sister, we were devasted all over again. It took Mary and I a long time to gather our composure enough to leave the doctor's office as we had all been crying while he went over the laboratory test results with us. When Mary and I got to our car, before I turned the ignition on so we could leave, I felt God speak into my spirit - "Connor, I have counted you worthy to get to do this twice." I turned to Mary to tell her what I felt God had said and after I shared, Mary replied, "I know...I feel it too."
And that was it, God had counted our family worthy to steward these incredible little girls. And while being counted worthy has never minimized the hardship of our suffering, it has completely redeemed it. In fact, I believe everyone has been 'Counted Worthy' of something, and I believe it is a closeness to God and an absolute trust of his goodness and grace, which allows us to learn how to steward and treasure whatever that happens to be.