Suffering – The Theology of Suffering

By / Jun 1

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN AMERICA

GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2008

“The Theology of Suffering”

Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas

Well, thank you for coming along today to this seminar. The title of the seminar is “The Theology of Suffering.” And I have a number of things I want to say by way of theological summary of what the Bible teaches on suffering, but before I do that, I thought I’d begin by telling you of a story of a young woman, a girl. She was in her middle to late twenties. She had contracted cancer exactly one year before, and for twelve months or so her family, and especially her mother, kept a blog online at the Caring Bridge Center with daily — sometimes twice or three times daily — entries. Many, many people followed these blogs and were moved in ways that go beyond explanation by the faith, the courage, the adventure of the highs, the lows of watching her 27-year-old daughter die of cancer. At the funeral service I preached on Romans 8:28. I sometimes say we ought to have a moratorium in using Romans 8:28 in a way that is sometimes inappropriate and trite, but it seemed on this occasion to be the exact words for this circumstance: that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him; that there isn’t a circumstance, there isn’t a set of contingencies in which God isn’t in absolute and total control.

It was, I suppose, a no-holds-barred Presbyterian predestinarian sermon reflecting on the issue of suffering and providence. And then a few days later, unbeknown to me, I was informed that in a local paper in a neighboring town, The Greenwood Commonwealth, the editor of the newspaper writes an article, “Is Suffering Part of God’s Doing or Not?” in which for a couple of pages or so he enters into a diatribe of this event. He was a friend (a so-called friend) of the family, and took issue with

“…the Presbyterian minister at the memorial service who made an interesting and scripturally grounded case suggesting that there really is no randomness in our lives; that God’s hand is in everything good, bad, and all in between. ‘He weaves,’ the preacher said, ‘not only the fabric that produces joy and righteousness, but also that which produces agony and evil. Both strands in the tapestry eventually will lead us to glorify God even if we don’t quite understand how or why He sometimes chooses a path that involves so much pain.’”

Well, that’s true enough. That’s exactly what I said! [Laughter]

And then he went on to say,

“Maybe a person has to believe in predestination to fully grasp the concept, but I cannot quite get my mind around the idea that God’s hand is in everything I do or that is done to me. If I choose to order catfish instead of chicken for lunch one Sunday at the Crystal Grill, is that God’s will at work? I would think He is too busy to worry or intervene with such inconsequential matters.”

And so little by little he attempts to undo the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in suffering, and actually engages in quite unhelpful remarks about the family’s faith and trust in God…and he tries to do so as a friend. It was one of the most blatant…non-Calvinistic, but non-biblical attempts in public that I’d seen for many a year.

So the issue that I want us to talk about this morning is
a biblical view of suffering.

How can I possibly do this in less than an hour? I’ve got about 45-50 minutes or so to weave now a tapestry of biblical evidence and biblical theology to try and put together something that’s coherent about a doctrine of suffering.

David Hume, the famous philosophical skeptic, put it in a way that’s been cited and quoted and re-quoted and regurgitated in many different forms, but it appeared first of all in his Concerning Natural Religion:

“If God is willing to prevent evil, is He willing to prevent evil but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

And that is the conundrum (at least, the philosophical conundrum) with regard to suffering. The Bible doesn’t even begin to attempt to answer that particular question directly, simply to assert that God is in absolute and total control.

I want to outline five different things that I want to do in the next hour. Some I’m going to spend much more time on than others.

First of all, I want just to reflect very briefly on what is sometimes called “the problem of evil,” and not so much from a philosophical point of view, rather from a pastoral point of view that there is a problem of evil, a problem of suffering. Why do the righteous suffer? Why does God take away the life of this beautiful, intelligent, 27-year-old girl and leave now the family with a thousand questions in their attempt to recover from this particular providence? The problem of evil.

And secondly, I want us to look at various responses to evil, and again I want to do that in the generic form. Then I want at least to try and attempt a biblical theology of suffering and to look at all the various ways (at least, as many as we can) in which the Bible actually addresses the issue of suffering. I want to then move on to try and highlight seven particular forms of suffering. We can speak about suffering, but suffering is a generic term. I want to try and identify seven different forms of suffering. And then, fifthly, to look at twelve responses to suffering. So that’s the plan, that’s the trajectory down which I want us to go in the next 45 minutes or so.

I. The problem of evil.

Let’s begin by addressing something of what theologians and philosophers sometimes euphemistically call the problem of evil. And when we speak of the problem of evil, we sometimes address it in at least two different ways — natural evil and moral evil. By natural evil we mean evil that isn’t of particular human volition or action. So we can think of hurricanes or floods, as was on the news this morning, or tornadoes; or perhaps even cancer, although sometimes cancer is a direct consequence of human action, to be sure; or, something like cystic fibrosis, perhaps.

Then, secondly, moral evil in which there is particular human volition or human action involved…and I have in mind all kinds of crimes and war, of course, and all forms of cruelty and discrimination, and slavery and injustices, and so on. The number of moral evil categories are legion.

II. Our response to evil.

What is our response to evil?

Either natural or moral evil? We need to appreciate that we can be the victims of suffering that is a direct consequence of something that we do or something that we think, or some action on our part, or some volition on our part; but we can also equally be victims of suffering through no particular action or no particular volition of our own. We simply live in a world that is out of joint, as Shakespeare says. We’re in a world that has fallen. We’re in a world that is “groaning and travailing in birth, waiting for the regeneration of all things,” to use Paul’s language in Romans 8.

An intellectual response. And our response to the problem of evil…let me outline first of all…one possible response is an intellectual response. And it’s a valid form of study, and we could think of the study of apologetics, for example, as it relates to the whole issue of suffering and evil. I think, for example, of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Not an unreserved…it would be a somewhat qualified response that I would give to C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain

To abandon God’s omnipotence. One particular response would be to abandon omnipotence: that the problem of pain and suffering can be resolved simply by saying that God isn’t in control. I venture to suggest that’s probably what this reporter was suggesting — that there are things that God simply isn’t in control of…trivial things…and perhaps for moral reasons to obviate the problem of God’s involvement in pain and suffering, that God is less than sovereign. One possible avenue, of course, is the avenue of dualism: that evil and good are equally ultimate, and that we live in a dualistic world. Zoroastrianism, for example… Manichaeism. In church history both have advocated various variations on that theme. The abandonment of sovereignty.

To abandon God’s control of the future. Another is to abandon God’s control of the future; that God is sovereign to an extent, but there are things particularly in regard to the future that God doesn’t have control of. That sometimes is an avenue that is adopted in order to maintain and secure human freedom. It is, for example, what open theism has been advocating in the last five or ten years. One thinks about the writings of Clarke Pinnock and others…Saunders and others…suggesting that in order to maintain human freedom and human choice (and the validity of human freedom and choice in every context and every sphere) that God isn’t in control of the future. I have always failed from a pastoral point of view to see how that can be even remotely comforting. Even if it does solve something intellectually for some and seems to cross an “i” or dot a “t” in one’s intellectual trajectory with relation to the suffering of evil, I can’t imagine that these folk are really involved in trying to be a comfort to people that you say you can turn a corner, you can get on an interstate outside this hotel complex (and we’re looking down at the traffic that seems to go on night and day and keep you awake) and imagine that two miles out of Dallas, all of a sudden God isn’t in control and it’s all up to you…and probably up to the guy in the car who’s weaving left and right beside you. I just fail to see how that is even remotely comforting.

To abandon God’s omnipotence. Another response (one is the abandonment of omnipotence, and another is the abandonment of God’s control of the future).

To modify God’s goodness. And another is to modify God’s goodness. There are arguments to suggest, for example, that Islam modified the goodness of God. I think if you hold to a deterministic view of the future then you have to in some way modify God’s goodness.

To reject evil and suffering. Another possible response — and I don’t want to spend any great deal of time on these responses. We could spend an hour trying to undo all of these responses, but I’m just suggesting some of them. Another, of course, is the Tom Cruise response, and that is to reject evil and suffering altogether: it’s just a figment of your imagination. And Christian Science and probably Spinoza, the philosopher that lies behind all of that.

III. A pastoral response to evil.

Well, pastorally, from another trajectory altogether, what can be our response to suffering? Let me suggest at least two books that ought to be on everybody’s bookshelf, and I make no apologies for advocating books from the seventeenth century and the Puritan period. The Puritans, if they were strong in anything at all, were strong on the issue of suffering. They were good pastors. They were Biblicists in the sense that everything must come to the touchstone of sola Scriptura, including the conundrums of suffering.

I’m thinking especially of Thomas Boston (and I’m putting him as a Puritan…his theology is Puritan)…Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot, and Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence. I think those are two books that ought to be on everyone’s bookshelf. They were written of course for ordinary folk. I don’t mean that in any other sense but the way I say it. They were meant for the likes of you and me. Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, and Thomas Boston’s Crook in the Lot. I wouldn’t recommend trying to read in a hurry anything by Alvin Plantinga, only because it’s not easy reading. Some of his books I’ve read several times and I’m still wondering exactly what he’s saying! But he is right, I think, in this when he says in God, Freedom, and Evil that a person for whom some specific evil is presenting itself as a religious problem, what they need, I think, is pastoral care more than a course on philosophical apologetics. And for all the books out there trying to solve the philosophical apologetical question — and certainly seminarians need to understand the trajectory down which some of those issues are solved — on a pastoral level, this is an issue that affects us all.

There are particular areas, I think, where this issue manifests itself more than others. I think in modern America, perhaps more so than, I think, in Europe, on the issue of bad health. That seems to be a particular pastoral issue for modern American Christians. I sometimes think when I attend our prayer meetings that they have become, as I sometimes call them, “organ recitals”…[Laughter]…kidneys and liver and heart and lungs and so on, and we rarely pray for anything else unless we are specifically cajoled into doing so. But the default of most prayer meetings that I attend is that we pray for health. And it has become a significant pastoral issue, more so I think than if you’d lived in any other century when death was much more prevalent, and death at a young age. Particularly, the death of children was a very particular phenomenon, and I think for us the issue of bad health and the expectation of good health. Sometimes we think of it as a right, one of our human rights, to have good health, and we get angry with God when bad health seems to come to us.

Physical health vs Mental Health.

The issue needs further explication I think, and a differentiation, I think, between physical health or ill health and mental or emotional health, or bad health. And it seems to me…let me say something about the latter: that as Christians, and particularly as pastors and elders, we need to see the way in which the Bible actually addresses the latter. I don’t want to touch on the whole issue of counseling and biblical counseling, but it does seem to me that the Bible does have something to say about mental health and about emotional health. I think that one of the things, for example, that the church has lost is a grasp of the canon of the Psalter. And I think the fact that we don’t sing the Psalms and read the Psalms in the same way that previous generations sung and read the Psalms means that we have lost something of significant value in the Psalms. The Psalms complain a lot. The Psalms are sometimes down in the dumps a lot.

When I was younger, my daughter was…I don’t know…she was ten or eleven or so. She did a little cross-stitch. It was one of the first cross-stitches (whatever the word is) that she ever did. And it was of Eyore, because I think my daughter saw something in me of a reflection of the character of Eyore! And Eyore is saying to his friends, “Have a nice day…if it is a nice day…which I doubt.” And it’s in my study and I look at it every day. It reminds me of my daughter, but it also reminds me of something about myself and about how others sometimes see me. It’s my Celtic genes that tend, I think, to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. But I take refuge in the fact that there are many, many Psalms that do exactly the same. And I think my point here is simply to say that unless we are familiar with the Psalms, the language of lament and the language of complaint will be a feature of our lives…that when we find ourselves doing it, we will be somewhat out of joint. And I think that reading the Psalms and immersing ourselves in the Psalms helps us to see that in the language of worship there is room for the genre of lament and complaint.

I don’t know if Psalm 88 is familiar to you; if you tell me it’s your favorite Psalm, you are in need of counseling, big time! It’s a Psalm…it’s the darkest Psalm in the Psalter. I doubt that you or I would put it in a hymnbook. If we were on a committee saying, you know, which hymns deserve to be sung in the church. We want happy hymns, we want clappy hymns, and we want to feel good. We want to go out from a service feeling affirmed. Well, Psalm 88 ends (at least in one translation), “Darkness is my only friend.” That’s pretty dark. I don’t know when you last said…and maybe somebody in this room this morning, and maybe that’s why you came. You were drawn like a bee to honey [maybe the metaphor needs to be changed now], but you were drawn to go to a seminar on suffering because in your current experience darkness is your only friend.

Well, the language of Job 3, cursing the day in which he was born, wishing that he had died in his mother’s womb so that his mother’s womb would forever be his grave; the language of Jeremiah 20. By the way, the Jeremiah who’d been in the stocks the night before is now in chapter 20 repeating what looks like the very language of Job 3. What had been his personal devotions in the stocks the night before? It looks as though it was Job 3. But if that kind of complaint, if that kind of lament isn’t part of the fabric of your Christian experience, then you don’t have the resources, the biblical resources, to address on a personal level the issue of suffering.

If your expectation is that life is always going to be wonderful, that suffering and pain have no right to manifest themselves in your life, that when they come, they come as a total shock and surprise, then you don’t have all of the armor that you need to face evil and suffering.

And the Bible has given you full armor here to address the issue of suffering. At the very least it’s saying you are not alone; you are with the likes of…is it Ethan the Ezrahite, or Nathan the Ezrahite? Or is it Ezra the…? Whoever wrote Psalm 88 — his name has gone from my mind, but you’re with him. [Somebody will tell me in a minute!] But you’re with him, and you’re with Job, and you’re with Jeremiah. That’s pretty good company to be with if you’re down in the dumps. Some of the greatest men of all (and who wouldn’t put Jeremiah and Job, for example, up there with some of the greatest saints that have ever walked the face of the earth?), but they have been down in the dumps, saying things like “I wish I’d never been born. I wish this thing had never come my way.”

Afterwards, if you want to ask me, I’ve found the writings of Dyess Davis in the area of emotional and mental health to be of particular help to me. Of all the books on counseling that I know, from a sensible but biblically committed point of view I have found the writings of Dyess Davis to be incredibly helpful.

Now the problems here are many. Let me just suggest some of them…and I don’t have time now to go into all of them. I just want to suggest them for the fullness of this seminar on a biblical theology of suffering.

 

Our understanding of suffering, particularly when it comes to ill health, and particularly physical and mental ill health, is somewhat complicated by, I think, a continuing attempt in the church not to fully understand the relationship between body and mind — the psychosomatic relationship that we are body and mind. What I sometimes think is more of a platonic concept of the body rather than a biblical concept of the body. We are, I think, to look forward to a new heavens and a new earth, in which we will exist in bodily and mental and emotional forms, and all of that has to come into a picture of the biblical understanding of suffering.

All illness is punishment by God.

Sometimes I think that we resort too quickly to illness as punishment, illness as a message of some kind from God Almighty. It is the default, for example, of Job’s friends. Eliphaz, for example, in his opening speech [and with friends like this, of course, who needs enemies?]…Eliphaz says to Job, ‘You reap what you sow. You get out of life exactly what you put into it, no more and no less.’ Well, that is of course partly true. We do reap what we sow. If you live a profligate lifestyle and contract AIDS as a result of it, you are to blame. You cannot point the finger at anybody else. You have reaped what you have sown. But you can equally contract AIDS through bad blood transfusion through no fault of your own. So taking half a truth and making it the whole truth, it becomes an untruth. And that’s precisely what Eliphaz and his friends are doing in the book of Job.

You can be a skeptic. You can be a skeptic about God’s role in healing, and from a biblical point of view we need to understand, for example, the importance of James 5 and the prayers of the elders. We’re not denying the role of doctors and nurses and medicine and so on, and counselors. But equally we look to the sovereignty of God and that God answers prayer, and that God especially hears the prayers of His people.

There was a short period in my life where I was affected a little bit by the so-called “by faith” formula; that the reason why you are not well is because you haven’t exercised faith. I remember all too vividly visiting a woman. She was dying of cancer. She was in fact just two days away from death, as it turned out. She had teenage girls, three of them, and her husband. I was visiting the hospice. I was just walking in the door to where she was, and a man was exiting. I had a vague recollection that I had seen him or I knew him from somewhere, and eventually I realized he was a minister that I had met before of an independent, somewhat charismatic church. As I walked through the door…I said hello to him and he left, and I went up to the lady, and she was in tears. I said, “What’s wrong?” and she said, “Well, Pastor So-and-so…” (and then I realized who it was that had just left) “…Pastor So-and-so said if I had enough faith, God would heal me.” She was two days away from dying of cancer. What that man had done was one of the cruelest things I’ve seen. She died in a state of complete torment, emotionally. She had no peace. She was second-guessing for the rest of that day; I went back several times during the course of the day, and was never able to lift her out of that state of depression into which she sank. The casualties of “by faith” formulas.

The secular idol of physical health and beauty.

The secular idol of physical health and beauty, as what I call the negation of ugliness, weakness, and death, and I don’t elaborate too much on that, but I think that we have made health and beauty an idol, and I think we are dangerously close to that in the modern church in a way that the church has never done before in its entire history, I think. And it’s a considerable problem, the sense of “right” that we now feel to not just health, but youthfulness and beauty.

And then, another issue that I’ve already touched on, the disregard of the psychosomatic links.

Now let me go quickly towards the theology of suffering and suggest here some perspectival principles:

III. Perspectives on Suffering

All suffering, including illness, is a consequence of Adamic sin.

Firstly, that all suffering including illness is a consequence of Adamic sin. That seems to me to be a place where we need to begin, that all suffering is the result of sin in some form…not personal sin on our part, but certainly sin in the world.

We live in a fallen world. We are the results of the covenant of works. We are the result of the corruption and fallenness of Adam, and the federal nature of Adam’s representation of the rest of humanity, “as in Adam, all died.” Every single individual in this world is a consequence in some form of another of Adamic sin. The biblical theology of suffering in this world, in this existence, in the tension between the now and the not yet…in that eschatological tension between what this world now is and what it one day will be, all sin and all suffering is the result of Adamic sin. Now that’s very different from saying that all [suffering] is the result of my personal sin or personal failure.

All circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God

Secondly, I would say that all circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God for furthering the good of final salvation in heaven, and are occasions for practicing faith and hope and love, and the disciplines that constitute and ripen the fruit of the Spirit. It’s Romans 8:28…that everything that happens to us, all our circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God for furthering the good of final salvation. And that good that all things work together for good in Romans 8:28 is not necessarily the good of tomorrow, or the good of the next day. It is the final good, it’s God’s ultimate good; that having begun a good work, He will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.

The context of course of Romans 8 is that “those whom God hath predestined, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, He also glorified.” And the good of Romans 8 is the good of glorification: that everything that happens to us furthers our glorification. They further our promotion towards our glorification, and are instruments by which the fruits of the Spirit…of faith, hope, and love and the fruits of the Spirit can manifest themselves.

Illness may have a prospective disciplinary sanctifying purpose without bearing any relation to past sins

And, thirdly, I would suggest that illness may have a prospective disciplinary sanctifying purpose without bearing any relation to past sins. I think that’s particularly what the book of Job is about, that some suffering happens not because of something that we do.

It was Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz’s contention that Job had sinned — either a big sin or a little sin, a sin in his past, a sin in his youth that he can’t even remember and recollect anymore; that all that he needs to do is confess his sin and he would see God coming and restoring him again. That is of course a play on “health and wealth”–that God doesn’t intend for you illness or sickness or suffering in any shape or form. God wants you to thrive. God wants you to be healthy and strong.

It seems to me that the three friends of Job…and to some extent Elihu…you may have your own interpretation of Elihu. I think Elihu begins well but ends badly. I think he begins adding a particular concept that suffering can be educative; it can teach us something and instruct us something. But I think in the latter part of Elihu’s chapters, I think that Elihu just steps back again into the theology of Job’s three friends, a theology that I would call instant retribution: that you get out of life exactly what you deserve; that sin and suffering is always a concomitant of personal sin; that suffering is always the concomitant of personal sin on our part.

Well, illness may have a disciplinary sanctifying purpose without necessarily bearing any relation to past sins. God may bring suffering into our lives as He did into the life of Job, not because of anything that he had done, but because of what God wanted to do in the life of Job: teach him; instruct him; bring him low in order that he might exalt the sovereignty of God; that he might put his hand upon his mouth — a phrase, by the way, that Paul picks up when he’s expounding on sin in Romans 2 and 3 — “that every mouth may be stopped.” And that’s what God did in the life of Job.

Sickness, healing, and health.

On sickness in particular, let me say a couple of things: that good physical health, and spiritual triumph while continuing ill, and recovery (whether through physicians’ counsel, medication and/or surgery or through some form of deliberate prayer, or both together) are all God’s gracious gifts every time. And that I think is self-explanatory, that God uses not just medicine but uses our prayers as well.

It doesn’t follow that since God is able to heal miraculously that He is willing or intends to do it every time, nor does the healing that is in the atonement (and I’m thinking especially of Isaiah 53, that “He bore our sicknesses”) mean that bodily healing here is what we can expect rather than glory hereafter. I think into a biblical theology of suffering we need to add the uniqueness of signs of the kingdom in apostolic age, and what II Corinthians 12:12 refers to as “signs of the Apostles.” So there were things that happened under the ministry of the Apostles in terms of healing and so on that aren’t necessarily things that are to be seen throughout the eventual age from the resurrection of Jesus to His Second Coming.

The Christian way to be ill is always to give glory to God and self-searching. “Is God telling me something?” is I think something that we ought always to do when we find ourselves ill. What is God teaching me? What can I learn from this particular sickness?

A readiness to leave this world.

And then finally in this section, a readiness to leave the world is a discipline to be practiced at all times. I think in a biblical theology of suffering we need to adopt what Puritans called living life sub specie eternitatisliving life in the light of eternity, with our bags packed and ready to go. I think that’s the way we should live our lives, and I think that in modern America — modern North America in particular — we tend not to live our lives that way. We live our lives with the expectation and sometimes a feeling of right that we will live to 80 or 90 or 100 or 110, or 120. [And frankly I don’t want to live till I’m 120, with all of the consequences that that probably will bring.]

 

Let me move on to eight forms of suffering and address these now fairly quickly.

IV. Forms of Suffering.

Satanic.

First of all, one form of suffering is satanic. We must never rule that out, and certainly there is the involvement of Satan in the suffering of Job. It was of course something that Job himself was thoroughly unaware of, but the opening prologue, the first two chapters of Job are meant to instruct us that a theology of suffering must involve the malevolence, the constant malevolence, of the evil one. We live in an age where Satan prowls about, seeking whom he may devour, and we must never lose sight of that.

Suffering is the consequence of sin.

Secondly,that just suffering — on the issue of just suffering — that sometimes suffering is the consequence of sin. When Ananias and Sapphira are judged, it is instant retribution. However difficult it may be for us to understand the extent of the retribution for what is, you might suggest, a white lie about the price of a piece of real estate that the church had no business knowing anyway…you might attempt, though I don’t advise it, to philosophize on Ananias and Sapphira in that way. The fact is that Scripture presents their judgment as a consequence of their sin. So instant retribution is sometimes correct.

Some suffering is meant to be educational or disciplinary

Thirdly, thatsome suffering is meant to be educational or disciplinary, and I think that you could argue that in some sense all suffering is meant to be educative. It’s meant to teach us something. It’s meant to instruct us in the way of righteousness. It’s meant to instruct us, and the language of Hebrews 12 in particular is suggesting that God uses suffering to teach us how to be disciples in a fallen world.

Empathetic suffering

Fourthly, that empathetic suffering where one person’s grief affects another…and sometimes we do suffer because we are sympathizing with another…I think in very personal family circumstances we enter into the suffering of another in order to empathize, in order to help, in order to encourage. And I think the Bible does speak of empathetic suffering.

Innocent suffering.

Fifthly, innocent suffering. I think I’ve spoken about Job. I think of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. You remember the question of the disciples. It’s the instant default retribution question: Who sinned? Was it him, or was it his parents? And the fact is it was neither, but rather that the works of God might be made manifest through him, Jesus says. And God in the person of Christ heals him, and through his healing he ministers to others. God brings suffering into the lives of some people that they might be vehicles to minister to us.

I will never forget the death of Catherine Hutton. I’ll never forget some of the conversations I had with her in the hospital. I’ll never forget the last day I saw her just a few days before she died in her home, in which she spoke so matter-of-factly about being in heaven. It was a surreal conversation that we were having, but it was almost as though she was there. I’ll never ever forget that, and she ministered to me. And at least part of the reason why she was allowed to suffer in God’s providence was that she might be a vehicle to minister to thousands of people through that Caring Bridge blog that people read. [And I notice that David is here, too, and he ministered to Catherine more than I did in the last number of days. David, I’ve just seen you.]

Suffering is a part of the universe forever

Sixthly, eternal suffering must be a part of a theology of suffering: that suffering is a part of the universe forever.We believe in a day of judgment, and afterwards the just punishment of sinners in hell forever. And there is, I think, in a theology of suffering the reality that in the universe there will always be suffering. There will forever be suffering in a part of the universe that God has created.

Suffering that is a substitution

And seventhly, suffering that is a substitution. An issue of course that’s under great stress and even denial today in certain evangelical quarters is ‘How can somebody suffer on the part of or in the place of, or as a substitute for another?’ That seems to some to be inherently unjust.

Of course it’s at the heart of the atonement that Jesus suffered in our place, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. One thinks of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Do you remember the movie? — the man looking for those shovels, and the Japanese guard screaming and suggesting that somebody’s going to be shot unless the man who has hidden the shovel comes forward, and this soldier steps forward. You remember? And he’s shot in the head. And then they recount the shovels, and there’s none missing. What did he do? He suffered on behalf of others in order to prevent somebody else dying; he gave himself.

Suffering as discipleship, or suffering for the sake of Christ

And then, eighthly, suffering as discipleship, or suffering for the sake of Christ, as when the believer has the privilege of enduring rejection and trials and persecution out of loyalty for Jesus Christ. I noticed the other day a statement of John Bunyan in which he said,

“A man when he suffereth for Christ is set upon a hill, upon a stage as in a theater, to play a part for God in the world.”

He’s set in a theater to play a part for God in the world.

Well, twelve responses now to suffering — Let me try and get through these as quickly as I can…twelve responses to suffering.

V. Responses to suffering.

Christianity is an invitation to trust God’s love at all times and in all situations because of the cross

First, that Christianity is an invitation to trust God’s love at all times and in all situations because of the cross. And, I’m putting it that way because at first glance the cross is an instrument of pain and suffering and calls on us to think of God in an entirely different way apart from the way that faith would have us think.

Because of God’s love for us in the cross, we’re to trust Him in every circumstance, no matter how difficult, no matter how hard. We can never doubt God’s love for us, who gave himself for us in Jesus Christ, to die the accursed death of the cross. And Christianity from beginning to end is an invitation to trust God in every circumstance. At the end of the day the problem of suffering is not the problem of suffering, it’s the problem of faith. It’s the problem of believing. It’s the problem of trusting God even when the lights go out.

You know, that’s in the end the conclusion of the book of Job. You remember He shows him Behemoth and Leviathan. And that’s just for the sake of argument. We don’t have time now to go into all the ins and outs of it, but let’s just for the sake of argument say that Behemoth is an elephant or a hippopotamus, and Leviathan is a crocodile. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that.

My understanding of the universe, or of God, or of theodicy would not be bent out of shape if there were no crocodiles in the world. I don’t like them. I don’t want to be anywhere near them. I watch Animal Planet, and I think people who play about with alligators and crocodiles are nuts! [Laughter] I think they’re completely off their rocker. And if there were no more alligators — and all of you green folk now can get all aerated — but if there were no more alligators in the world, I wouldn’t shed a tear! [Laughter] Why did God make alligators and crocodiles? I have no idea whatsoever. And what does God say to Job? “Have you ever considered Behemoth? Have you ever considered Leviathan?” Have you ever asked yourself the question, ‘Why did God make a crocodile?’ Well, why did God make a crocodile? And the answer is….I don’t know. Actually there’s a better answer…the catechism answer: “For His own glory.” Now I don’t understand that. I really don’t understand that. But God made a crocodile for His own glory, and that’s the only answer that Job was given. That’s the only answer he was given. It was for His glory. I can’t answer all of the questions. I can’t resolve all the conundrums. But I do know the bottom line is, “for His own glory.”

Blessing is not automatically derived from suffering

Secondly, blessing is not automatically derived from suffering. Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, does not in itself sanctify because chastening can be met with disdain and contempt. It’s part of what Hebrews 12 is trying to avoid. Now let’s be clear here. Even Jesus was tempted by suffering. And the problem is that suffering can produce bitterness. We’ve met folk — maybe we are the folk — I’ve met folk in church [not First Pres…we have First Pres folk here now!]…but I have met people who are still angry about something that happened thirty or forty years ago. They’ve lived thirty or forty years in anger and resentment. Suffering doesn’t automatically sanctify. Of the three crosses on Calvary, one was atoning and the other was sanctifying, but quite as certainly the third was hardening.

Immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of Christian maturity.
Thirdly
, immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of Christian maturity. Even Paul prayed three times that the thorn in the flesh be removed. No, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane…His immediate response to the onset of the fullness of suffering was to pray, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” Now I know He went on to say, “Not My will, but Thy will be done,” but the fact that Jesus himself in His immediate response to suffering asked, ‘Lord, is there some other way?’ teaches us, I think, a profound lesson that immediate acquiescence to suffering is not necessarily a sign of maturity, and I think that that has enormous pastoral implications.

Suffering tests our faith in God’s love.

Fourthly, suffering…our own suffering and those whom we love…is a test and challenge to our faith in God’s love, and it tests it to the utmost. Nothing tests our love for God more than suffering and trials, and the death of someone we love, or the illness of someone we love more than anyone else in this world, apart from Jesus.

Physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering

Fifthly, physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering…I want to address something about that issue, the physical evils of sickness and pain and unproductive suffering. That’s a very considerable issue that if we don’t see suffering and trial as something that must produce in us more praise for God, more yielding to His sovereignty…. I think the issue of unproductive suffering, suffering that hasn’t yet produced that fruit of the Spirit, is a pastoral issue.

This life is not the only one

Sixthly, this life is not the only one and I think that’s something that suffering needs to bring out in considerable force…that we are here only for a time…that our life is three-score years and ten, and if by reason of strength, maybe four-score years. They are weariness and toil. Our life is a vapor that appears for a moment and then is gone…that we live for an eternal city…that we mustn’t set down our roots in this world too deep, but that we must live our lives as those who are packed up and ready to go. The response to suffering, then, is seeing this life as not the only life there is.

Christianity was from the first announced as the way of the cross

Seventhly, that Christianity was from the first announced as the way of the cross. Do you remember the first lesson Paul learnt on his first missionary journey? When he comes back and gives his report of his first missionary journey, what does he say? “It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God.” That’s his philosophy of the Christian life. That’s his philosophy of Christian work. That’s his philosophy of Christian ministry: “It is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God.” You know, when you realize that, you won’t be taken by surprise when tribulations come.

God sanctifies through the experience of suffering

Eighthly, God sanctifies through the experience of suffering.

Freedom from suffering is no indication of a right relationship with God

Ninth, freedom from suffering is no indication of a right relationship with God. “Why do the unrighteous prosper?” Again, if you feel bad about asking that question, it’s a question that of course the psalmist asks. Why do the unrighteous prosper?

We must glory in suffering

Ten, we must glory in suffering. We must, in the language of Paul in II Corinthians 12, “take pleasure in infirmities” not because we are masochists, but we must move beyond the point of mere acquiescence. We must move beyond the point of submitting ourselves to the sovereignty of God. We must actually come to the point where we glory in tribulation, seeing it as the vehicle through which God sanctifies, seeing it as the vehicle through which God will be given all the glory.

We must look to Jesus in our suffering.

Eleven, we must look to Jesus in our suffering.Of course I’m thinking of Hebrews 12:

 

“…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith… [the founder and protector of our faith], who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the majesty on high.”

Looking unto Jesus as the pioneer, as the one who blazes a trail before us.

I like sometimes to use the illustration of a man who’s in a cave somewhere deep down in the ground where there’s no light whatsoever…not a ray of light. And he puts on… [I was going to say a torch, but you Americans think of that as something else]…a flashlight. And in the ground, in the sandy surface of the ground in that cave there are footprints, and they are the footprints of Jesus. There isn’t a circumstance, there isn’t a set of contingencies where our Savior hasn’t gone before…in every trial, in every difficulty.

We have no good reason to be discouraged

And, twelve (and this is the end), we have no good reason to be discouraged. Spiritual depression is linked with theological ineptitude. We become weary and we faint in our minds because we fail to consider the bearing of Christ’s suffering on our own experience. We are rebuked for forgetting the exhortation which speaks with us. This exhortation is specifically identified as a passage of Scripture in Hebrews 12. To possess the Scriptures, to read the Scriptures, to hear the Scriptures, there are no substitutes. The Bible yields its comfort only to thought. We are to consider Christ, to think through the significance of His advent and His work. We are not to forget the exhortation, the argument, the case by which Scripture speaks. It discourses, it reasons, it uses logic. It is at this point that we expose ourselves to the charge of Hebrews. We know the truth, but we do not know how to apply it. We are unskilled in the word of righteousness, inept in applying its great doctrines to the anxieties of life.

The Bible has so much, then, to say to us about suffering.

Well, I trust that that will be of some help to you. Let me close in prayer. If you want to stay and ask questions, you may do so, but some of you need to go. Let’s pray together.

Father, we are in awe at Your majesty and sovereignty. We thank You for our Savior, who has been tempted in every point like as we are, yet without sin. We pray as we are pilgrims in this world, as we make our way towards the Celestial City, that You would be our teacher and instructor. Help us in every circumstance, O Lord, to give You glory. And help us by Your Spirit to bring us to the point whereby we may glory in tribulations also, and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that thereby You are glorified and Your kingdom is further advanced. Hear us, O Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.



Suffering – Him, Too?

By / Jan 31

Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?

Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification

Winter Luncheon Series

 

“Him Too?”

The Quandary and Questions of Suffering

January 31, 2008

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Friends, I want to welcome you to the fourth and final of our series of luncheons dealing with the issue of suffering. You are the few and the faithful today! You have persevered till the end, and certainly for you there is a crown of gold stored up!

Let me remind us a little bit about where we’ve come from over the course of our weeks together. We wanted to ask four questions to give us some sort of structure and guidance: Why Me? What For? How So? and, Him, Too?

“Why me?” so that we could allow the cry of the heart to be lifted up to the Lord just like it so often is in the Bible, and ask some questions — ‘Lord, what in the world are You doing in the middle of my suffering? What’s all this about? I don’t understand.’

When you feel that way, be encouraged; you’re not alone. Over and over the greatest saints in the Bible asked the same question, and God is so kind to let them ask that question. They don’t ask that question unbelievingly, they don’t ask that question in a way in which they disparage or disrespect the Almighty. They ask that question because they turn to Him: and He’s the only one they can turn to when they are absolutely at the limit of their own wits. They don’t know where to go. They go to Him, and they say, ‘Lord, why?’ And He’s so kind to let them ask Him that question. He’s not offended by that question. He’s not intimidated by that question. He’s not bowled over by that question. He knows the answer to that question. He does not ever tell them all of the answer to that question in this world, but He does always redirect them in the course of answering, however far He goes in answering that question “why.” He always redirects them in some measure to the question, “Who?” so that in their “why” they are pointed to Him as the answer to the question “who,” so that they understand that God is in the midst of their suffering.

What For? After having asked “why me?” we asked the question, “What for?” What are the purposes of God? What are the good purposes of God in suffering? And we tried to give some sort of a summarization of the Bible’s teaching on that glorious question. There are many purposes of suffering which are recorded explicitly in the Bible.

And then we asked the question, “How so?” How do you go about benefiting from suffering? Because all of us in this room know that we have seen dear friends (different dear friends) undergo almost precisely the same trial, and we’ve seen some of those dear friends undergo that trial and become sweeter, more loving, more mature, more believing, more faithful, more godly Christians; and we’ve seen other friends become bitter and disillusioned, and more despairing of life than ever before. And so we have learned from that that it is not the trial itself that brings grace; it is God who brings grace in the trial, and makes that trial in His children be an instrument of His good purposes for them. Because the same thing can happen to two different people, and one can become sweeter and more godly, and the other less godly and bitter. And so we wanted to spend some time last time we were together asking, ‘OK, Lord, how do you do this? How are we supposed to respond when we find ourselves in suffering in such a way that we can benefit from what You are doing?’

How So? Just this past week, we received copies of Margaret Clarkson’s Grace Grows Best in Winter. Margaret Clarkson, who many of you will know from the Urbana missions movement, who wrote beautiful hymns, wrote a couple of hymns that we love to sing…O Father, You are Sovereign, which has that amazing line in it: “O Father, You are sovereign, the Lord of human pain”…she is a woman who knew a lot about pain, and she addresses the issue of how the Christian goes about responding in trials in such a way as to grow and to become more tender and more sweet, and more trusting, and more loving, and more godly in this book, Grace Grows Best in Winter. She’s addressing that issue “how so?” as well, in that book, Grace Grows Best in Winter.

Today we want to ask the question, “Him, too?” Did Jesus have to suffer, too?

That is, did Jesus have to suffer, too? And in fact, not only suffer, but experience the ultimate human suffering: that is, that the human being who experienced suffering par excellence, beyond the experience of any other human being, is in fact the only human being who never sinned…Jesus Christ.

It’s mind-boggling just to say that, isn’t it? But it’s something that is testified to us literally from Genesis to Revelation. Have you ever thought about that? That God starts talking about Jesus’ sufferings in the book of Genesis? Jesus’ sufferings were recorded in Scripture 1500 years before He was born. One of the most beautiful and elaborate and detailed and explicit descriptions of His life and the sufferings that it entailed was written over 600 years before He was born, by the prophet Isaiah. And the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament recount in detail the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, and His response to it. And in fact, if you peek at some of the verses toward the end of the sheet that I gave you today, you’ll notice that in the New Testament, we as Christians are explicitly asked to look at Jesus’ sufferings and learn some things about our own suffering. So this is what we’re going to do today.

I’ve given you a number of Bible verses on the sheet today. We will not reference all of them, but all of them are worth your reading and meditating on in relation to this general theme. We will reference many of them as we work through the outline today.

The outline today comes in four parts. Let me tell you what it is ahead of time.

First, we want to establish that the Bible from the very beginning speaks to us about Jesus’ suffering.

Secondly, in light of that we want to show why it is that Jesus was said to be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

Third, we want to learn that because He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, He is able to sympathize with you in everything. And it’s so important that we drive that deep, deep home, because here’s what happens. We believe that generically–and then we get into the hardest points of our lives, and we think, ‘Yes, He sympathizes, but not this far, not this much, not in that area. He couldn’t possibly get into this crack and crevice of my life, because it’s so painful and it’s so unique, and I’m so embarrassed about it, and nobody else knows in the world about this, and He couldn’t possibly be my sympathetic High Priest in this area.’ Wrong! And you’ve got to convince yourself that you’re wrong about that before you start talking to yourself like that. And so we’re going to spend a little time on that third point today, making sure that you’ve got that worked deep down into your heart and bones: that He is able to sympathize with you in everything.

And we’re going to argue, when we get to that point… Want some sub-points for our outline? Three sub-points: the reason He is able to sympathize with you in everything is because He suffered with you; He suffered without you; and He suffered for you. And I’ll explain what I mean by each of those things. Each of those things is a powerful balm of comfort if we’ll just take them in.

And then, fourth and finally, today what we want to do is say, ‘In light of looking at Jesus’ sufferings, the New Testament — and especially those words that are given to us in I Peter that I’ve recorded from I Peter 2:4, 5 in your outline — the New Testament, and especially these words in I Peter, tell us that we’re supposed to look at Jesus’ sufferings and learn something from them for ourselves about our own suffering, and so we’re going to try and do that. And when we try and do that, we’re going to talk about how we are supposed to draw lines in our suffering, and we’re going to draw four of them. We could draw more, but I’m going to point you to four of them.

So there we are! A four-point outline, three sub-points under No. 3, four sub-points under No. 4.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this time together. Make it profitable, we pray, by Your Holy Spirit. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Take your sheets out and look at Genesis 3. If you have your Bibles with you, you’re welcome to turn along and read in your own translation, your own favorite study Bible, these verses and passages. I’ve just given you these passages in the English Standard Version, but any good translation of the Bible that you’re working out of will give you an excellent rendering of these as well. It’s just for ease of reference I’ve given them to you on this sheet.

I. The Bible from the very beginning speaks to us about Jesus’ suffering.

Genesis 3:15. Have you ever stopped to think (and let me just confess, I had not stopped to think about this until the last 36 hours)…have you ever stopped to think about what the first thing the Bible tells us about Jesus is? Well, It comes in Genesis 3:15. Ironically, in Genesis 3:15, who is God speaking to? The devil. And so the devil is administered the first explicit word from God about Jesus. Have you ever thought about that? God preached to the devil about Jesus in Genesis 3:15, and here’s the first thing that He said about Jesus: “He shall bruise your head.” So the very first thing that God says about Jesus, the coming Messiah…because we know that this verse is the first giving of the gospel, what the theologians call the protoevangelium, the first giving of the gospel. It points forward to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah into this world, who, the Apostle Paul says at the end of Romans, is going to allow us to crush Satan under our feet, even as He crushed the head of the serpent under His foot in His finished work on the cross. The first thing that God says about Jesus the Messiah in the Bible is He’s going to win. He is going to destroy Satan and all his works. That’s the first thing He says about Jesus.

But do you know what the second thing He says about Jesus is? That He’s going to suffer. And He is going to suffer at the hands of the very one that He is going to crush; that even as He is going to have victory over that serpent, He is going to suffer by the fangs of that serpent. That serpent is going to bruise Him in the heel–the point being that though Jesus is going to have ultimate victory, He is not going to be bruised on the head; the serpent is going to be bruised on the head. (How do you kill a snake? Well, if you don’t cut its head off, you at least crush its head.) Jesus is going to be the one who has the victory over Satan, over the devil and over all his works and will and power. But the serpent is going to grievously wound Him. So the first thing that is said about Jesus by God in the Bible is that He’s going to win, but the second thing is that He is going to suffer.

Now believe it or not, that’s my first point. The first thing in the Bible about Jesus: He wins; second thing: He’s going to suffer.

 

II. Why is that Jesus was said to be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

It’s not surprising then, is it…it’s not surprising then [turn forward to Isaiah 53, and you can look at that whole section from verse 1 to 12]…it’s not surprising then that 800 years or so, give or take a few, after Moses wrote down those words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…maybe somewhere out in the desert of Sinai…somewhere around 1440, when Israel had come out of Egypt and the canon of Scripture began to be put in print surrounding the Ten Commandments which God had written with His own finger, by Moses, the prophet who spoke with the Lord face to face…about 800 years after that happened, another prophet came along named Isaiah, and he wrote this prophecy that we’re about to read in Isaiah 53:1-12.

You say to me, “How do you know this is about Jesus? Jesus’ name isn’t mentioned anywhere here.” I know that because in Acts 8 there was an Ethiopian royal official in his chariot reading this passage, and he happened upon — “happened upon!” — Philip the evangelist. And he said to him, ‘Sir, I need some help. I need an interpreter. I need somebody that understands the Bible, because I am absolutely bamboozled by this passage. Who is this passage talking about?’ And Luke, the dear friend and medical doctor of the Apostle Paul, records that Philip said to him, ‘I am so glad you asked that question! Because this passage is about Jesus.’

Now listen to what Isaiah says about Jesus:

“Who has believed what [they] heard from us?

and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

He had no form of majesty that we should look at him,

and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

And as one from whom men hide their faces

He was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;

Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgression;

He was crushed for our iniquities;

Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned — every one — to his own way;

And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

So he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

That he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death,

Although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

“Yet it was…”

[Listen closely!]

“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;

He has put him to grief;

When his soul makes an offering for sin,

He shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

Because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

Yet he bore the sin of many,

and make intercession for the transgressors.”

No wonder that Ethiopian royal official was mind-boggled by that passage, because even Christians (who know the right answer as to who this passage is about) are boggled when we hear this description about the servant of the Lord, about the Messiah. This is not what we’re expecting of God’s own Son, His anointed one sent into the world for salvation of our sins. And yet the answer is Jesus.

We need to take that in for a few minutes.

Just this morning, I was re-reading an article that I’d probably read for the first time 20 or 25 years ago. It was written by a brilliant scholar and teacher named B.B. Warfield, who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a great defender of the inspiration and inerrancy and authority of Scripture, a great defender of the deity of Christ, of the cardinal doctrines of Christianity. And he once wrote an article called “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.” It is about sixty pages of dense reflection on what the New Testament teaches us about the emotional state of our Lord Jesus Christ in His earthly walk. And he says this, having surveyed–and if you’ve ever read anything by Warfield, “surveyed” is not the right word. There is no nook or cranny left unexposed. There’s no rock left unturned. He goes everywhere. His notes have five hundred Scripture references in them. He’s gone everywhere, and he’s looked everywhere he could find it. At the end of this survey, he says this:

“Of the lighter, pleasurable emotions that flit across the mind in response to the appropriate incitements that arise occasionally in the course of our lives, we hear little of these of Jesus. It is not once recorded that He laughed. We do not even hear that He smiled. Only once are we told that He was glad, and then it is a rather sober gratification than an exuberant delight which is spoken of in connection with Him. We hear little of His passing sorrows, but with reference to the supreme sacrifice of His death, His mental sufferings are emphasized.”

I say that not to try and paint for you a picture of a grim, morose, brooding Lord Jesus, because after all, what does He say to His disciples in the very wake of His death? “I have come so that your joy might be made full.” But in light of Isaiah 53, it doesn’t surprise us, does it, that He in fact, in His emotional states, is described by the Gospel writers as a man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief?

 

III. And because He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, He is able to sympathize with you in everything

So, what do we make of that? What do we make of the fact that He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief? Well, let me take you to Hebrews 4:14-16. Here’s what we make of it: Because Jesus was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, He is able to sympathize with us in all that we endure and experience in this fallen world. That is explicitly what the author of Hebrews says. Allow your eyes to glance at Hebrews 2:18, on the way to Hebrews 4:14:

“Because He himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.”

And then, in Hebrews 4:14:

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

What we are being told there by the author of Hebrews is because of what Jesus has endured by way of temptation and suffering, He is able to sympathize with us.

Now this is huge. There are some people in this world who are so intimidated by the thought of approaching Jesus directly that they feel that they need to go to someone else, and get that someone else to approach Jesus for them, because how could they ever possibly approach the Almighty, sinless, Son of God on their own? And here’s the author of Hebrews saying that He’s the best high priest who ever lived because, whereas the earthly high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins, Jesus didn’t, because He was perfect.

And, Jesus is able to sympathize with you better than the earthly high priest, who is a sinner as well as you.

Now that’s a mind-boggling statement, isn’t it? That Jesus, who never sinned, is better able to sympathize with you in your trials, in your temptations, and in your sufferings, than even a sinful human high priest like yourself. It’s mind-boggling.

Now in light of that, I’m reading this morning in Warfield’s article, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” and listen to what he says about the Lord Jesus. After he has summarized all of the teaching of the New Testament about His emotional state, he says…here’s what Warfield says:

“The thing that the Gospels emphasize most about our Lord Jesus’ emotional state is… [surprise, surprise]…His compassion. Everywhere He turns, He is filled with compassion.”

Isn’t that exactly what we should expect, if Hebrews 4:14-16 is true? That He is compassionate? And in fact, that is exactly what the Gospels reveal to us: a man who looks out upon a self-centered, hungry multitude…I mean, Jesus’ cousin John has just had his head taken with the assistance of an immoral young woman and a lecherous old king. But the crowds that He’s ministering to are hungry, and they don’t know anything that’s going on in Jesus’ life. And what do the Gospel authors tell us about Jesus at that moment? “He looked on them, and He had compassion.”

Or, Jesus is up on a hillside and He’s looking down on Jerusalem — a Jerusalem that has for centuries killed the prophets that God in His love and grace and mercy had sent to them in order to save them from their sins and turn them from certain destruction — Jesus looks down on them and He says, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How I have wanted to gather you under My arms like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings!” He had compassion on sinners!

Or, He looks at Mary and Martha at Bethany, weeping over Lazarus, and He weeps in compassion.

Over and over the Gospels drive home how compassion…His suffering…dare we say it this way? …His suffering worked in Him and manifested compassion, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now I want to meditate on that with you for just a few minutes, because it’s extraordinary what’s being told to us here in Hebrews 4:14-16.

The passage is emphasizing the greatness of Christ, and at the same time emphasizing His sympathy, that we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses. And the juxtaposition of the greatness of Christ and the sympathy of Christ is actually jarring.

It’s the divine Son who is sympathetic to us. Think of it. Who is it who is better able to sympathize with you in your sufferings than your mother or your father, or your husband or your wife, or your son or your daughter, or your dearest friend in life? Or those friends who are going through the same thing that you are going through right now? Who is it that turns out to be more sympathetic to you than all of them put together and rolled up into one? The One who is the heir of all things! The One who made the world! The One who is the radiance of God’s glory! The One who is the exact representation of His nature. The One who upholds all things by the word of His power. The One who is a high priest according to the order of Melchizadek, who has passed through the heavens. The One who lived in sinless perfection, perfection beyond the holy angels. The One who had endured suffering although He was the very Son of God. That person is the person who sympathizes with you more and better than anyone and everybody else in the world. It’s amazing. It really ought to blow your mind.

Perhaps that’s why the author of Hebrews states Jesus’ sympathy in the form of a denial. Notice he doesn’t say that He’s able to…he doesn’t just come out and say that He’s able to sympathize with you. He says He’s “not unable” to sympathize with you. Because humanly speaking, you might be tempted to think that He is not able to sympathize with you, and so he says it that way. No, no! Don’t even think that He’s not able to sympathize with you.

Our divine Priest is not only capable of sympathy, He is capable of the greatest sympathy. We have a Mediator who understands our problems.

But even more impressively, it is argued by the author of Hebrews in this passage that the range of our Savior’s temptation and suffering is universal. Listen to what it says:

“We have one who has been tempted in all things as we are.”

Now that is a mind-blowing statement, so let’s stop and analyze it.

That phrase, “tempted in all things as we are,” answers the questions ‘How is it exactly that Jesus the divine Son is able to sympathize with me? How could it be that one so holy, so perfect, could sympathize with a poor, wretched, inconsistent sinner like me? How can Christ, the glorious, obedient high priest, sympathize with your weaknesses and my weaknesses? How can He possibly know my struggles with sin? How can He possibly know how I feel in my temptation and trial and suffering? How can He possibly know these things?’ Hebrews gives the answer: because He was tempted in all things as you are.

Now that does not mean that Christ has experienced every specific temptation that every specific believer faces. Christ, for instance, never gave birth to a child. And I am told that there are some discomforts associated with that particular activity. You can tell me about that afterwards!

Nevertheless, His experience of trial, testing, temptation, and suffering is actually broader than yours. Even if He has not been tested identically to every situation that you have experienced, His experience is actually broader than your experience of suffering in this world.

Now we could enumerate many parallels between His experience and ours, but the emphasis of Hebrews here is on the temptation which He endured in His suffering. Remember what we read from Hebrews 2:18? “He was tempted in that which He suffered.” And in Hebrews 5:18, we’ll be told again, “He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” That is, His obedience was not an easy obedience; His obedience and temptation cost Him dear.

So I want you to think with me real briefly about three points, three aspects, of His suffering, for just a moment. Remember I told you those aspects: He suffered with us; He suffered without us; and He suffered for us. Let’s think about these.

 

First of all, He suffered with us.

Can I put it this way, believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? He suffered with you. Whatever you’re suffering right now, He has been there in that with you.

We could think of the likeness of His temptation and ours, and there are so many points of contact. For instance, are you getting to that age where your feet are never warm? He knew what it meant to be cold, and burning with heat. Have you ever been hungry? Really hungry? I’m not sure I have. He, however, knew both hunger and thirst. Have you ever lost your home? Had your house taken away from you in embarrassing and humiliating and depressing circumstances? He never owned a home, and in fact told His disciples that He did not even have a place of His own to lay His head. Have you ever been anguished deep in your soul, beside yourself, not having the slightest idea where to turn? John tells us that on the eve of His crucifixion that His soul was “deeply troubled,” that His grief was even to the point of death. Have you ever been afraid? Or so sad that you thought you would never ever smile again? He knew fear and sorrow. Have you ever been afraid of death? He dreaded the cup that He had agreed to drink from the foundation of the world.

And you can think through the escalating extremity of His temptation. He began His career of suffering for us in the manger, and it continued in His ministry, and it continued to Gethsemane, and then to Golgotha and the darkness of the cross.

In all these ways — and if we had hours, we couldn’t exhaust these — His sufferings have so many points of contact with your sufferings, so that you can say in your sufferings, ‘You know, the Bible says that Jesus suffered like this, too. He literally understands what I’m going through here in this place. He’s felt the same emotion that I’m feeling right now. My Savior, my God, knows what it is like to be inside my skin, inside my head, inside my heart, and feel the way that I am feeling right now, in almost the identical situation that I’m in right now. It’s a mind-blowing thought, because He suffered with you.

Second, but even more mind-blowing is that He suffered without you.

He suffered with you; and secondly, He suffered without you. You see, some of us may be tempted to think that Christ cannot understand our particular situation. At least in our case we think, no, there’s some point of discontinuity between my experience and His experience that makes it impossible for Him to really sympathize with me. But here’s the glorious news that I have for you, friend. It is precisely because there is a discontinuity between your experience and Jesus’ experience that He is able to sympathize with you in all things, because the fact of the matter is Jesus has experienced something that you have never and will, by God’s grace, never experience.

I mean, think of it, my friends. It’s a marvelous mystery, isn’t it, that when you get to heaven you could spend a million-million years there, in that blessed place, and you would never meet another person who had experienced being utterly forsaken by God. Except one. Jesus. He’s the only person in heaven who knows what it is to have the Father turn His back on Him and leave Him all alone. He’s the only person in heaven who knows what it is to look down into the white-hot volcano of the wrath of God and survive. And you will never know what that was like. And precisely because He experienced something that you will by God’s grace never experience, He is able to sympathize with you in everything.

In fact, the question is not whether He can sympathize with you in everything; the question is can you sympathize with Him in everything? And I can give you a quick answer to that. No, you can’t. You’ll spend eternity in heaven, and you will never know what it was like for your Savior to do what He did for you. You will never know what it was like. The cross will just get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, all eternity long. And you’ll love Him more and more and more, because you’ll go deeper and deeper and deeper into what He has done for you, and you’ll never get to the bottom! Because you can’t enter into His experience, because He suffered without you. You weren’t there. The answer to the question that the old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is “No! I was not. He was absolutely alone. Everyone left Him. Everyone. They all abandoned Him. He was alone. No! No! I wasn’t there when they crucified my Lord. He did that without me.”

Third, He suffered for us.

And that leads us to the third thing: He suffered with us; He suffered without us; but He suffered for us.

Understand that Jesus didn’t come into this world so that He could empathize with you. Jesus is not like the person who comes along on the side of the road…you know, your car’s broken down, you’ve got the hood up, your hands are covered with oil. (You have no idea how a car engine works, but you’re tinkering with it!) He is not like the person who comes along and says, “Hmm? Problem with your car? Oh, so sorry about that. Oh, that must be really frustrating to have a problem with your car. And it’s raining, to boot! I’ll bet you’re soaking wet, aren’t you?” (And they’re standing under an umbrella talking to you!) “Bet you’re soaking wet, aren’t you? Bet you’re cold. Hmm. Oh, really…look. I feel your pain, you know? Really do. Look, I’m late for appointment — gotta go.”

Jesus did not come to empathize with you in your suffering. Jesus came to bear your suffering for you. Get this, my friends. Get this if you don’t get anything else. Jesus came to bear a punishment that would have destroyed you.

And He didn’t do it by coming alongside you and experiencing that with you. He came and He pushed you behind His back, and He said, ‘Father, I’ll take this for them. Send it now.’ So that you don’t know what it’s like, what He endured for you, because He took it for you.

I love the way one Christian puts this: “In Jesus’ suffering for you, your debt was not cancelled. It was liquidated.” It’s not like the heavenly Father looks down on what Jesus is doing on the cross and says, ‘OK, OK. Look. I’m just going to forget that they owed Me. We’re just going to call that off. No more debt owed. I’m just going to pretend like they never incurred that debt…just forgive it.’ No, what Jesus did was He paid your debt to the last drop, and said, ‘Father, I have bought them with My blood. Now they belong to Me, and no one in the world can take them from My hands, because these hands have been pierced for them.’

Do you see why Christians cannot conceive of standing before God at the end of time and saying, ‘Look, Jesus is just fine. Love Him. Great teaching. Sweet, dear man…loved people. But, look, I’ve tried to live a good life and I’d like to come into this place. Don’t need Jesus. He’s nice. Learned a lot from Him. I’ve tried to live a good life. I can come in here on my own.’ You see why Christians can’t do that about Jesus? Because they know that what Jesus did was to pay to the last drop, their sin. All that He suffered, He suffered in their place. All alone.

And that means that in our suffering in this world, you understand, that we never ever experience all that we ought to.

When it is as bad as it can possibly be, it is never as bad as it ought to be.

Because He has suffered for us, and that means that in the hardest places of our lives, in the deepest suffering and the darkest hours and the blackest nights, in times when sorrow and tribulation overwhelm your very souls, and you feel as if the Lord cannot hear your cry, you are never ever standing where Jesus was, because He stood there, not with you, but for you, in your place; and you can never stand where He stood, and you can never understand what He bore–never ever–because He not only shared with us in suffering, He has endured suffering and tribulation for us, on our behalf, in our room and stead, in our place.

And because of this, the author of Hebrews says, He is a great high priest who is able to sympathize with us and have compassion with us.

 

IV. So what are we supposed to learn from this?

What are we supposed to learn from this? Well, we’re supposed to look at Jesus’ sufferings and learn something, that’s what Peter says. Take a look at I Peter 2:21 —

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you may follow in His steps.”

And so you’re supposed to learn something from Jesus’ suffering, and you’re supposed to learn something from Jesus’ suffering about your suffering. Look at I Peter 4:1-3 —

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passion but for the will of God. The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”

And then, in I Peter 5:10, 11 —

“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

So Peter tells us that we’re supposed to look at His sufferings and learn something.

Well, what are we supposed to learn? A lot of things. I only have time to mention four. In our suffering… (you remember we said the very first week)…in our suffering we need to learn to draw lines.

The first line that we learn to draw in our suffering is a line from misery back to sin, because one of God’s purposes in suffering as we look at the death of Christ is that we would learn to hate sin like we hate suffering.

I was talking to a friend this week who remembers the first time that she saw some friends with their Down’s syndrome child, who had just fallen on the sidewalk. She remembers thinking to herself that they were facing a life of caring for a sweet child who was never going to be able to fully reach her human potential and care for herself in the way that other adults are able to care for themselves. And her heart was overwhelmed with sorrow at that thought, thinking of what that little child would endure…a child that would have been so, so beautiful, like her mother (though she was beautiful in her own way, and still is), thinking of parents who were going to spend years wondering, “What’s going to happen to my child after I’m gone?” And God wants us to look at suffering in this world to draw a line back to sin and hate the sin like we hate the suffering. As you look at that incident and you just hate the suffering that a person is having to endure, do you hate sin like you hate that suffering? I don’t know if you’re like me, but I don’t. For sure, I hate suffering more than I hate sin. But I want to learn to hate sin like God hates sin. And if I’ll draw a line from suffering and misery back to sin, I’ll grow in learning how to hate sin. So in suffering all of us ought to draw the line: “Lord God, how much You must hate sin, because I hate this.”

Secondly, we need to draw a line from our suffering back to Jesus.

We need to draw a line from our suffering back to Jesus, so that we’re saying things like this: “Lord, this suffering is beyond anything that I’ve ever endured, and it boggles my mind to think that Jesus’ suffering was far worse than this for me.” So that we come to do what? We come to treasure Jesus’ suffering. We come to esteem Jesus’ suffering. We come to respect Jesus’ suffering. We come to give Jesus’ suffering the due that it deserves. And that causes us to do what? To treasure Christ more, and to put our suffering in perspective: “Lord, if I’m wondering if I can put one foot in front of another in this situation, how must my Lord Jesus have felt, who lived every moment of His life with the conscious knowledge of what was coming for Him, and He did it willingly for me. This is hard enough for me, and I didn’t know it was coming.” So we draw a line from our suffering back to Jesus, and it enables us to treasure Jesus’ sufferings more and to put our suffering in perspective.

Not to belittle our suffering! I want to emphasize that the way that we cope with our suffering is not so much that we say ‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ because sometimes it is so bad. The way to cope with our suffering is not to minimize our suffering, but to maximize Jesus’ sufferings, to look ourselves in the mirror in the morning and say, ‘Yep, it is that bad.’ Not, ‘It’s not so bad.’ Yep, it is so bad; but Jesus’ sufferings were greater. Not to minimize our sufferings, but to maximize Jesus’ sufferings. So we draw a line from our suffering back to Jesus, so that we treasure Christ and have our sufferings put in perspective.

Thirdly we draw a line from our suffering to the body of Jesus.

Now, by “body of Jesus” of course I mean the church, His household, His family, His people. We draw a line from our suffering to the body of Jesus, and we remember that the Apostle Paul tells us that his suffering was for the building up of the body. And we realize in a moment of reverence that if we are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ that our suffering is meant to be edifying for our family, with whom we will share blissful, joyful eternity, but with whom we now walk through a fallen world filled with deep pain and great distress and suffering. And so my suffering is at least in part for the welfare and good and edification of my brothers and sisters in Christ. God not only does not plan to waste your suffering on you (that is, He intends for His children to grow in grace in suffering), but He does not intend to waste your suffering on His other children (that is, He intends you to be edified by their suffering, and for them to be edified by your suffering).

Have you ever read a missionary biography and just paused to think what another Christian had done and sacrificed so that others might know Christ? And then you started not only to be edified by the sacrifice and loss that they had experienced, but then you began to reflect on how you had been brought to Christ through the sacrifice and loss of others. And isn’t that the way? The Lord just sends us out there to die, and die, and die, and die. And what does He bring from it? Life! And then so He shows His power in our weakness.

And fourth, we draw a line from our suffering to its goals, or purposes.

We draw a line from our suffering to its goals and purposes. Now we’ve talked about some of them today, but I want to come back to what our friend B.B. Warfield said about Jesus.

What is the emotion ascribed to Jesus more than any other in the gospels? Compassion.

Now, if He was a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief, and He was a man of compassion, what ought our suffering to create in us? Compassion! If Jesus in His suffering displayed His compassion, ought not our suffering achieve its goal in us of making us not only God-loving, Christ-treasuring, gospel-believing, godliness-pursuing Christians, but compassionate Christians? Those who, because we have gone through the valley of suffering, have been made tender and forgiving and caring, and who long to live and forgive as Christ forgave, and who long to care as Christ cared? Surely we’ll draw a line from our suffering to its goal in us, and one of those goals will be that we will become more compassionate.

And isn’t that exceedingly important for us, especially those of us who are the best-taught in the Scriptures? Because how are we tempted by our knowledge? The apostle tells us: by our knowledge we are tempted to be puffed up. And what do they say about us? “The frozen chosen.” Let your suffering melt those icebergs and let them say, “Good grief, those Presbyterians are a compassionate lot, aren’t they?”

Let’s pray.

Lord God, we sense that we are on holy ground when we think of Jesus’ suffering, and we are. In Your word, You tell us that there are things that we are to learn from that, so grant that we would go to Jesus’ suffering often and always, and draw lines of grace back into our lives, no matter how deep or how painful the suffering is. And then, O God, we ask that by Your Spirit You would grant us grace in our suffering, and make us to be what You intend us to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.



Suffering – How So?

By / Jan 24

Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?

Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification

Winter Luncheon Series

 

“HOW SO?”

The Quandary and Questions of Suffering

January 24, 2008

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Thank you, Donna, and thank you, Ashley, and all the others who have worked to put this Thursday luncheon series together.

I want to welcome you all to the third of four Thursday luncheons at First Presbyterian Church on the subject of “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? — Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification.”

Review

As we begin, I want to remind us of where we’ve been so far. We said a couple of weeks ago when we started out that we wanted to try and cover four things over the course of our four weeks together.

First we wanted to ask the question, “Why Me?” The question “why me?” is a question that is often asked in Scripture. God gives us permission to ask that question. I think sometimes Christians believe they shouldn’t ever ask that question. God inspires writers of Scripture to ask that question on numerous occasions, thus sending a huge sign to suffering believers that He’s ready to hear our deepest cries of anguish and woe. He’s able to bear that because He loves us and He cares for us. And so we wanted to ask in that first week some things about the quandary of suffering.

Then, last time we were together, we wanted to look at the purposes of suffering — “What For?” What is suffering for? What does God purpose to use suffering for in the life of believers?

Today we want to ask the question (given that we have come to understand that God does have a purpose for His children in suffering), “OK, how do I go about learning to suffer so that the purposes of God come to fruition in my life? What is the way that I learn to gain from and in suffering?” That’s the question that we will tackle this week.

Next week, we will look at the suffering of the Son of God. We find in Scripture repeatedly believers pointed to His suffering as a means of their instruction, as a means of their encouragement, in times of trial. But today we’ll focus on the question of “How?” How do we go about gaining from and in suffering?

A. What we need to learn in this study.

We said all along that there are a number of things that we need to learn in the course of this study. I want to repeat four of them for you this afternoon.

1. The first is to say again that suffering is a constant in this fallen world. Suffering is; suffering happens; suffering is to be expected; suffering is a consequence of the entrance of sin into this world. All of the misery of this world owes its ultimate origin to the entrance of sin in the first rebellion of Adam and Eve, and so suffering is a norm in the fallen world. It should never ever catch us by surprise.

2. God is sovereign even and especially in our suffering. Secondly, we said it’s important for us to recognize that suffering is not only a constant in this fallen world, but that God is sovereign even and especially in our suffering. The suffering of believers is never merely an accident. The believer is never merely a victim in this fallen world. You are never merely at the whim of evil persons, much less impersonal fate. God is sovereign, even and especially in our suffering. He’s not indifferent to our suffering, He is not unconcerned about our suffering, and He is not uninvolved in our suffering. He cares greatly about the suffering of His children, and He is determined not to waste one drop of the suffering of His children.

3. Third, God’s purpose in the suffering of His children is our sanctification and His glory. That’s what we meditated upon last week. God has good purposes in view, even and especially in our suffering. He is in it for our growth, He is in it for our joy, and He is in it for His everlasting glory.

4. How to suffer. And that leads us to the fourth thing that we need to learn: that is, we need to learn how to suffer. We need to learn how to suffer in hope, we need to learn how to suffer with rejoicing, we need to learn to suffer by faith, we need to learn to suffer dependent upon God’s grace, and we need to learn how to suffer in Christ in a realization of what it means to be in union with Christ. We need to learn to suffer by the Book…we need to know what the Bible teaches us to do in suffering, and we need to learn to suffer for God’s glory. “Learn to suffer” is good biblical counsel. We want to know how Christians are to suffer in such a way as to gain from and in our suffering.

God’s purposes in suffering.

Now, last week, as we looked at God’s purposes in suffering, we mentioned that there could be many biblical answers given to the question of what are God’s purposes in suffering, but we zeroed in on four.

1. One, that God purposes that our suffering will, by His Spirit, through His work of grace, and by our response of faith, God purposes that our suffering will result in godliness. He wants us to grow up to be more like Jesus.

2. Secondly, He purposes that our suffering will cause us to prize Christ more than this world.

3. Third, He purposes that our suffering will contribute to the maturity of the whole body; that is, a believer’s suffering is never merely his or her private aspect of sanctification. It is for the wellbeing of the whole body

4. And, fourth, God purposes that our suffering will prepare us for glory. So the question that we wrestle with today is the question of how to suffer so as to profit most, by God’s grace, unto God’s purposes for suffering. And that’s the question that we’re going to tackle today. I’m going to give seven general answers to that, and then we’re going to dig down deep and look at seven states of the heart that will help us prosper most in suffering.

 

Let’s pray before we begin.

Heavenly Father, thank You for You word. We need it even more than we need food, for man does not live by bread alone. We are as dependent upon every word that comes out of Your mouth as we are on air or water, or the light of the sun. And we feel that especially when we are grappling with trials and suffering, when we are so much out of our depth that we can’t catch our breath, and we don’t know which way to turn. So turn our eyes upon Jesus; turn our eyes to the Scripture; turn our eyes and ears to Yourself, and grant that we would hear Your answer for us from Your word, to the everlasting good of our souls and to Your everlasting glory. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

B. How do Christians suffer so as to profit most, by God’s grace, unto the purposes of God in our suffering?

Well, let me just say this is one of those frustrating talks to have to give, because people have written three-, four-, and five-hundred page books — good books! — and not exhausted the Bible’s answer to that question. That’s why it’s so good to be reading meaty, truth-y books that point us to the Scriptures and fill us with an understanding of what God has to say to us in our own circumstances of suffering. So I am not pretending to be exhaustive in any way…perhaps to be suggestive of the places in God’s word that you can go for help in this area. But let me point you to seven things that we can do as believers so as to suffer in a way that we profit most unto God’s purposes in suffering.

I. By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering

The first thing is this: By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering. Let me say that one more time: By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:3-5, says,

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Sprit who has been given to us.”

Now the Apostle Paul affirms at least two things in that passage. The first thing that he affirms is that God has a good purpose in his suffering. The trials he is enduring are designed to produce endurance and character and hope. But he also affirms his ability to rejoice in suffering; not necessarily because of suffering…it’s not that he’s enjoying the suffering, although you will find Paul later in the book of Acts confessing that he rejoices that he had had the privilege to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Paul is reminding us here that believers, in our suffering, are to believe that God has a good purpose in our trials, and to determine to rejoice even in our suffering…even if we’re not rejoicing because of our suffering.

 

II. Secondly, we suffer so as to profit most, by God’s grace, unto God’s purposes in suffering when, by prayer and meditation, in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering

Secondly, we suffer so as to profit most, by God’s grace, unto God’s purposes in suffering when, by prayer and meditation, in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering. We prepare ourselves to suffer so as to profit most in our suffering if by prayer and meditation in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering.

Don’t you love what Paul says in II Timothy 1:8, 9? He says to Timothy,

“Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord….”

…that is, the testimony that Jesus has been crucified. That was a humiliating thing, and Timothy had currently encountered people with whom he was sharing the gospel, and as he told them about the crucified Savior, they mocked him and his message and said, ‘You’re trying to sell me a crucified Savior? That’s ridiculous! That’s shameful!’ And Timothy is shaken up by this, and the Apostle Paul is saying don’t be ashamed about serving and loving a crucified Lord. And then he goes on to say,

“…And don’t be ashamed of me, His prisoner…’

Again somebody must have been saying, ‘Hey, your God must be really powerful. Your best guy’s in jail.’ And then this is what Paul says:

“…But share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God….”

In other words, Paul is encouraging Timothy to rely on the power of God — not a clever answer, not his own wit, but on the power of God in the face of weakness, in the face of persecution, in the face of rejection, in the face of suffering. Rely on the power of God.

Are you like me? The minute that you find yourself in a corner, is the very first thing that you’re doing trying to figure out how you’re going to get yourself out of that corner? Rather than saying, “Lord God, by the grace of Your Son, Jesus Christ, I’m Your child. You care more about me than I care about me; and You care better when You care for me than I care for me. Help me. Guard my heart. Make sure that I don’t try and figure a way out of this mess that makes the mess worse than it was in the first place, because I know I can trust You.”

Paul’s telling us to (when we face suffering) rely on the power of God. That’s the second thing. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to believe that God has a good purpose in our trials, know that we can rejoice in that suffering; the second thing that we’re going to do is we’re going to rely on the power of God.

III. We’re going to approach suffering like a good soldier.

But the third thing we’re going to do is we’re going to approach suffering like a good soldier. If we want to suffer in such a way as to profit most by God’s grace unto God’s purposes for our suffering, then by prayer and meditation we will approach our suffering as would a good soldier in approaching war.

What do I mean by that? A good soldier who has trained, and trained, and trained (for what? — war) is not surprised when he finds himself in…war! That’s what he was trained for! So also consider it your job — not a surprise, not an interruption, not an accident, not the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but what you have been trained for — to suffer.

Boy, that puts a whole different cast on Sunday morning, doesn’t it? Your gathering with God’s people Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day to train as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, so that when your time of trial and testing and suffering comes, you’re ready. That’s what you’re training for. So if we’re going to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace unto God’s purposes in our suffering, then by prayer and meditation we will approach our suffering as would a good soldier in approaching war, and consider it our job — not a surprise, not an interruption, but what we have been trained for. I haven’t given you a Scripture verse for that yet, but I’m going to give you one now. Look at

II Timothy 2:3. What does Paul say?

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

I wasn’t making up that instruction. It comes straight from the mouth of the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That’s how He wants us to think of ourselves. We’re soldiers getting ready for a war, and that war will for all of us, in some measure and different ways, entail suffering. So approach it like a soldier: I’m being prepared for war; I’m not going to be surprised when the war comes. I’m being prepared for suffering; I’m not going to be surprised when the suffering comes.

IV. We will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.

Fourth, if we are going to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace unto God’s purposes in suffering, then we will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.

We will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.

This, by the way, is one reason why we’re going to spend a week on the suffering of Christ. Because if we are by grace through faith part of the body of Christ, then we (according to the Apostle Paul) share in the sufferings of Christ. Not in His sufferings which purchased us redemption; not in His sufferings by which we were accepted freely in the beloved, justified, and adopted as children of the living God; but we share in the sufferings of His body because we are His body. Thus, when the Apostle Paul was persecuting “Christians” — not Jesus, who had ascended years before — when he was persecuting Christians, on the way to Damascus to persecute some more Christians, Jesus met him and said, ‘Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting…[them?]’ That’s not what He said.

“Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?”

Why did Jesus say that? Because their sufferings were His sufferings, because they — and you, if you’re trusting in Jesus Christ — are Jesus’ body, and to touch Jesus’ body is to touch Jesus. And so when you suffer, you are participating in the sufferings of Christ, and so it is vital for us to understand what was going on in His suffering.

And the author of Hebrews contemplates this in Hebrews 2:10:

“It was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Now, those are three words that you could meditate on for the rest of your life: Jesus, made “perfect through suffering.” How do you make perfect…perfect-er? But that’s what the author of Hebrews says. Consider when you suffer, believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, that you are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ, for He himself was perfected in suffering.

V. Consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of the saints.

Fifth, if you are going to profit most in your suffering by God’s grace, toward those purposes that God has for you in suffering, then consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of the saints.

James, in James 5, is addressing Christians who are enduring suffering. And in James 5:10, he says,

“As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

James is saying to these Christians — Jewish Christians somewhere in Palestine, suffering because of their faith — ‘Brothers, look at the example of the prophets who suffered for their loyalty to the Lord, who suffered for their faith. You are part of their same company. You’re not suffering alone. You’re part of a company of suffering believers.’

Or, consider what Peter says in I Peter 5:9, 10, to a whole different group of Christians in Asia Minor. He says,

“Resist [the devil], firm in you faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by you brotherhood throughout the world.”

You’re not alone in your suffering. In fact, sometimes when you begin to contemplate the suffering that’s being endured by your brotherhood not just in times past, but right now, it kind of humbles you when you’re estimating your suffering…especially those of us who live in a relatively peaceful and affluent country like the United States. For today in Turkey the trial has begun of the Muslims who cruelly tortured for three hours and then slit the throats of three missionaries in Turkey who were distributing Bibles and Christian literature. Those are your brothers. Their wives and children are still alive, bearing the pain of the loss of their husbands and fathers. And whatever suffering you’re enduring today, you are enduring that suffering in solidarity with your brothers and sisters worldwide who are enduring enormous suffering. Consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of saints. It’s a humbling thought, actually. There are not many experiences of suffering that won’t be humbled in your heart in comparison to the suffering of the rest of the brotherhood and sisterhood of believers around the world.

VI. Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.

Sixth, if you want to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace, towards God’s purposes for your suffering, do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you. Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.

James, in James 5:13, gives us very simple, very terse, very clear direction:

“Is anyone among you suffering?”

Anybody know what the next three words are?

“Let him pray.”

That’s James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” Because suffering will be lost on us if it doesn’t do what? Drive us into the arms of Jesus. Drive us towards our heavenly Father. Suffering will be lost on us if we’re separated from the one who ought to be the delight and desire of our soul. And so, “Is anyone among you suffering?” James says run to your heavenly Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Run to the Triune God! Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.

VII. Learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.

And seventh…(You’re going to wonder ‘Where do you get a verse for this one?’ but hang with me for a second!) Seventh, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering. If you want to learn to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace to God’s purposes in your suffering, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.

The Apostle Paul is speaking to the Colossians. He says something similar to the Ephesians, but he’s speaking to the Colossians in Colossians 3:16, and he says this:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.”

And then he says,

“Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

So that the very act of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is conceived of by the Apostle Paul as a way of mutually encouraging one another to allow the word of Christ to dwell in you richly. And so, because we have so many wonderful songs, starting all the way back with the Psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs (that address what subject? Suffering.)…if you want to learn to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace to God’s purposes in suffering, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.

I’ve got a number of them on my mind. Commit Now All Your Griefs is probably not a hymn that you’re super-familiar with. The words are incredibly powerful. Whate’er My God Ordains is Right is pretty well known around here at First Pres, but not in very many places. But it’s a great hymn to help you in times of trouble. Though Troubles Assail Us, the Lord Will Provide is another great hymn to meditate upon. It Is Well With My Soul; Be Still, My Soul…or one in an entirely different vein, Am I a Soldier of the Cross? Or, a really new song that we all sang together last Sunday night, When Trials Come, by Keith and Kristen Getty. Learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.

Let me just demonstrate how helpful this can be. I’ve copied for you No. 670, If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee. Now I’d like you to walk through the text of this great hymn.

You may be encouraged to know that the author of this hymn was not a dry-land sailor. That is, when he wrote about suffering, he understood it a little bit. It was composed in 1641, with the heading “A song of comfort. God will care for and help everyone in His own time.” The author was robbed by highwaymen near Magdeburg in Germany as a student, and he was left destitute with no prospect of earning a living. He had been given his money to go off to university, and he set out with a group of travelers on the way to that university. Robbers waylaid the whole party of travelers in a valley, and took everything that he had. So he didn’t have any money to enroll in university, he had been physically assaulted, and he had no means or connections for making a living. And his whole life was changed by that one moment. He could have spent the rest of his life in bitterness, but he didn’t. The Lord was kind to him, and he writes this song.

Let’s look at the text of the song together and see how the Lord encourages us in this song. It’s written in the form of a testimonial, like so many of the Psalms, but it’s utterly God-centered.

“If thou but suffer God to guide thee…”

[In English, that’s ‘If you will only trust God to guide you.’]

And hope in Him through all thy ways,

[And hope in Him in every circumstance…]

He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,

[He’ll give you strength no matter what happens.]

And bear thee through the evil days:

[He’ll carry you through the bad, hard times.]

Who trusts in God’s unchanging love

[The person who trusts in God’s unchanging love…]

Builds on the Rock that naught can move.”

[Builds on the one Rock that no one and nothing can move.]

“What can these anxious cares avail thee,

[In other words, what good can your anxiety and worry do?]

These never-ceasing moans and sighs?

[What good is constant moaning and sighing?]

What can it help, if thou bewail thee

[What help is it if you simply regret your situation?]

O’er each dark moment as it flies?

[Or bemoan every hard thing that comes along your way?]

Our cross and trials do but press

The heavier for our bitterness.”

[In other words, our crosses and trials, our sufferings, our hard providences only get heavier if we’re only bitter about them.]

“Be patient, and wait His leisure

[Be patient and await His timing, he’s saying]

In cheerful hope, with heart content

To take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure

[In other words, with cheerful hope and contented heart, take whatever your Father pleases to do.]

…Take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure

and His discerning love hath sent;

[Whatever His wise love has sent to you…]

Nor doubt our inmost wants are known

To Him who chose us for His own.”

So notice three encouragements there: take whatever your Father pleases to do, whatever His wise love has sent to you, and do not doubt that your deepest needs are known to the God who chose you for His own child.

Then, two verses that aren’t in your hymnal:

“God knows full well when time of gladness

Shall be the needful thing for thee.

[In other words, God knows when gladness is what you need.]

When He has tried thy soul with sadness,

And from all guile has found thee free,

[When He has tested and tried your soul with sadness, and found you purged free from deceitfulness and sin.]

He comes to thee all unaware,

And makes thee own His loving care.”

[In other words, you will find that He comes to you unexpectedly and makes you experience and acknowledge His loving care.]

And then another stanza that you don’t have in the hymnal:

“Nor think amid the fiery trial

That God hath cast thee off unheard;

[Don’t think in the middle of burning trials that God has cast you off and He doesn’t hear your cries.]

That He whose hopes meet no denial

Must surely be of God preferred.

[Don’t think that the person whose hopes and prayers seem to have been answered is being given preference by God over you.]

Time passes, and much change doth bring,

And set a bound to everything.”

[In other words, time tells, and change comes, and new boundaries are set.]

Now back to the hymn in front of you:

“All are alike before the Highest;

‘Tis easy for our God, we know,

To raise thee up though low thou liest,

To make the rich man poor and low;

[In other words, indeed everyone is alike before Most High God. We all know that it is easy for our God to raise up those who lie low, and to bring down the rich man to poverty and lowliness.]

True wonders still by Him are wrought

Who setteth up and brings to naught.”

[In other words, God still works true wonders, and He sets up and He brings to nothing.]

Then, finally:

“Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,

Perform thy duties faithfully,

And trust His Word–though undeserving,

Thou yet shall find it true for thee;

God never yet forsook in need

The soul that trusted Him indeed.”

So his final counsel to you is sing, pray, and keep God’s ways without deviating. Do your duties faithfully. Trust God’s word, and though you are undeserving, you will find God’s word true for you, because God has never ever forsaken in time of need anyone who trusted Him.

Now that’s just one example of one song which the Lord has given to His church to sing in time of suffering. And meditating upon the great hymns of suffering will remind you that the very same struggles that you’re going through now have been experienced by believing saints before, and you’ll get help from their wrestling and from their answers.

So, those seven things in general.

 

C. How should our hearts be ordered to get the most out of suffering?

But now, what state of the heart ought we to aim for in order to get the most out of suffering? So as to profit most by God’s grace, to God’s purposes in suffering?

Well, here’s the grand direction: We must humble ourselves before the Lord.

Peter says in I Peter 5:6, 7:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.”

So how do we humble ourselves before the Lord, casting our worries on Him because He cares for us, waiting for Him to exalt us? Well, we do it in these seven ways.

1. We want our hearts to be in a state in which we are assured that there is no circumstance so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in us through it.

There is no circumstance so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace through it. So, we want to pray and meditate, and read the Scripture, until by faith we are assured that there are no circumstances that are so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in our hearts through those circumstances.

Consider these exhortations:

I Corinthians 10:13 —

“No temptation [no trial, no tribulation] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Hang on to that verse; hang on to that truth. Or, II Corinthians 12:9 — [It’s the Apostle Paul talking about the thorn in the flesh, and he says…]

“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Or, Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Pray, meditate, read, and believe until you are assured that there are no circumstances that are so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in your heart in and through those circumstances.

2. Secondly, pray, meditate, read and believe until you believe that whatever hand is in your suffering, that God is your help, and that you do not forget God for the battle that you are in.

Pray, meditate, read and believe until you believe in your heart that whatever hand is in your suffering, God is your help, and that you do not forget God for the battle that you are in.

Do you remember Micah, in Micah 6:9, is talking about the voice of the Lord crying in the city? And that voice which cries says, “Hear of the rod and of Him who appointed it!” In other words, Israel is going to be under the rod of discipline. But Micah doesn’t want the people of God to only see the rod and not see the one who appointed it. He wants them to have their eyes fixed on God. Even if that rod is coming from a pagan enemy invader, ultimately God is in charge, so he doesn’t want them to lose sight of God because they’re looking at the trial. And he doesn’t want them to forget that God is their help, no matter where the suffering is coming from. So, whatever has caused the suffering — your sin, someone else’s sin; whether the suffering is just or unjust; whether it’s because of natural acts or supernatural acts; wherever the suffering has come from, take God for your help, and don’t lose God in the middle of the battle! Keep your eyes on Him! Take Him for your help and your party. Don’t lose sight of Him in the storm.

3. Pray and meditate and read and believe until we are convinced of God’s infinite greatness.

Third, if our hearts would be right, and if we would suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace to God’s purposes, we’ll pray and meditate and read and believe until we are convinced of God’s infinite greatness.

In suffering, our suffering is pulled so close to us that no matter how great that suffering is or isn’t, it seems greater than anything else in our experience. And precisely at that moment, what are we tempted to do? We’re tempted to see our circumstances as bigger than God. Just like pulling something very close to your eyes, some object, makes it look disproportionately large in comparison to other objects in the room which are actually larger than it, focusing on the greatness of our suffering causes us to lose sight of the fact that our God is bigger than that suffering. And so it is important in suffering to pray and to meditate and to read until we believe and are convinced that God is bigger than our suffering.

Think of Isaiah, in Isaiah 6, that passage that I’ll bet you’ve heard read a hundred times over the course of your life by youth ministers and preachers, and pastors, and evangelists. But Isaiah is talking about a time of national crisis. The great king Uzziah has died. But in the year of Uzziah’s death, he says in Isaiah 6:1, that he saw the Lord

“…upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. And above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings; with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, with two he flew, and one called to his brother and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the foundation of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

It’s a scene which puts everything else in the world to shame by comparison to it. It’s a scene in which Isaiah is acknowledging that God is infinitely greater than anything in anybody’s reality. (And by the way, the Apostle John tells you in John 12, that it was Jesus who was sitting on that throne.)

Now, until you are utterly convinced of God’s infinite greatness, your trial will look bigger than Him, when it is not remotely comparable to Him. So in order to suffer so as to profit most by God’s grace in your sufferings, you need to read and pray and meditate until you are utterly convinced of God’s infinite greatness.

4. Determine to remember the mystery of God’s providence towards you.

Fourth, you need to determine to remember the mystery of God’s providence towards you. You need to determine to remember the mystery of God’s providence towards you.

In our suffering, we are always desirous of getting answers to our question “why?” We’ve already said God knows that we’re prone to that; that’s why He lets those questions be asked in the Bible, and that’s why He gives general answers to those questions. But in our suffering we all know that there are always questions to which we cannot get an answer, as much as we would like it. And therefore it is vital for us to remember the mystery of God’s providence towards us. That is, that we do not always know what God is up to. We do not know, always, what God is up to. That is what Paul is saying in Romans 11:33-36:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,

Or who has been His counselor?’

‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things….”

In other words, Paul’s acknowledging that you can’t always comprehend the judgments of God, and you can’t always see the purposes of God, and you don’t always have the answers to all your questions “why?” And so it’s important for us to remember that.

Job is never given even the answers that we have been given when we read the book of Job! It’s so important for you to remember that Job did not read the book of Job! He didn’t read it! He didn’t read Job, chapters 1 and 2. He didn’t read Job 42. He didn’t know the background of what was going on in his trial and testing; he didn’t know the final conclusion of it. He didn’t know it! All he had to do was trust God, who “moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; who plants His footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

And it’s so important for us to remember the mystery of God’s providence towards us in suffering, because this will move us from “why?” to “You.” That is, we want to get comfort in our suffering by getting the answer to our question why, whereas God wants us to get our comfort in our suffering by getting the answer to the question “who?” The question “who?” we know the answer to: You, O Lord. You are what it is all about. You are who I am made for. Nothing can separate me from You in Christ Jesus. Not tribulation, not death, not famine, not nakedness, not peril nor sword, nor powers nor principalities, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing can separate me from You! The answer that I can always give a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to the question who: and the answer is the loving, powerful, sovereign, kind, wise, perfect Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — who has made me for Himself. And so God wants us to move from why to who, so that we’re moving from finding our peace in the answers to the question why — which we may not ever have here — to the answer to the question who, which is You, O Lord. What You want me to get from this trial is You. That’s what You want me to get.

5. We will take account of our own sinfulness.

Fifth, if we’re going to profit most in our suffering by God’s grace, we will take account of our own sinfulness. Isn’t it interesting that Isaiah, when he sees this vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6:1-4, responds in verse 5 saying this:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

He is conscious, in other words, of his own sinfulness.

That is so important to acknowledge in our lives, first, so that Satan doesn’t use it against us; and, second, so that we can realistically own the problems that we’re causing ourselves. Sometimes we are the cause of our suffering, or sometimes we are part of our suffering because of our sinful attitudes in response to suffering that we haven’t caused. But our sin gets mixed up in there. It’s important for us to recognize that.

A few years ago, at a pastor’s conference, two veteran ministers of our denomination were asked to answer the question, “How do you deal, pastors…how do you deal with criticism in your church?” And two veteran pastors stood up and they exhorted the men to just soldier on and not be discouraged by the kinds of criticisms that people brought against them, and just keep on going, and trust in the Lord, and know that He will vindicate you. And a third pastor was asked to comment on this as well, and he got up and he said, “Well, I think that one thing you might want to do if you’re criticized is you might want to consider that it might be right!” Very wise advice.

So also in suffering, sometimes our own sin has brought on our suffering, or sometimes our own sin makes suffering that we haven’t brought on ourselves worse than it would be. So it’s good for us to consider our sinfulness, even in our suffering which we haven’t caused.

6. Sixth, settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose in your suffering.

Settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose in your suffering. I Peter 1:6, 7 — Peter says this:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

You see what Peter is saying: that the testing that you experience now, believer, is going to be proven on the Last Day at the revelation of the coming of Jesus Christ, and what that suffering is going to produce in you, by God’s grace, by God’s Spirit, in your response of faith, is going to be something that is worth far more than gold, and it’s going to last forever. Settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose for your suffering.

7. Believe in God’s kind providence towards you.

And, seventh, believe in God’s kind providence towards you. Believe in God’s kind providence towards you! Revelation 3:19 — what does God say?

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline….”

Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline. You know that same phrase from the book of Hebrews: “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.” Believe in God’s kind providence towards you in suffering. His purposes are for your good, from His love.

Now, I wanted today to look at 21 ways that we can encourage those in suffering! But I didn’t get there, did I? So let me give you a suggestion. Take a look at www.desiringgod.org. That’s the ministry of John Piper. Desiring God…it’s those two words just rolled into one, desiringgod.org, and then just look up the article “How Shall We Minister to People After the World Trade Tower Terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001?” And in that article he gives 21 suggestions on how to minister to people that are suffering. Now in that article, it’s situation-specific to that particular incident, but there will be general principles there that will help you immensely in ministering to people who are suffering.

Let’s pray together.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this time to consider a standing reality in all of our lives — suffering. Grant that we would suffer in such a way as to profit most from Your good and kind and wise purposes in our suffering. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.



Suffering – What For?

By / Jan 17

Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?

Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification

Winter Luncheon Series

“Why For?

The Quandary and Questions of Suffering”

January 17, 2008

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Good afternoon, folks! Please continue to eat and drink and I will get started, to honor and respect your time. Thanks for being here with us in this series of talks on “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification.

I do want to mention some books. We’ve got a few books today that we didn’t have last time that I want to draw your attention to. One is Edith Schaeffer’s book on affliction, Affliction – A Compassionate Look at the Reality of Pain and Suffering. It’s published by Baker, and we have a number of copies on the table in the back. Also, Dan McCartney’s new book…Dan McCartney teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary, and his book is called Why Does It Have to Hurt? — The Meaning of Christian Suffering. It’s published by P&R, and we’ve got it back on the table.

I didn’t mention last time, I don’t think, the volume that John Piper and Justin Taylor edited from the “Desiring God” national conference a couple of years ago on the subject of suffering and the sovereignty of God. John’s material has been some of the most helpful material to me personally on this. In fact, I’m going to recommend another John Piper piece while I’m with you today, but Suffering and the Sovereignty of God are the papers, or the addresses, that were given at that conference, and there were some really amazing addresses.

In the Appendix to this book is John Piper’s little…it was really just a very short paper called Don’t Waste Your Cancer. It’s a play on words. He wrote a book a couple of years ago called Don’t Waste Your Life. And then, many of you may know that John Piper was diagnosed with cancer about 18 months ago and had to undergo surgery and treatment. In the leading up to his cancer surgery and treatment, he went back through his own book and said, “OK, now John. You’ve got cancer. You’ve been giving people advice on how they’re supposed to trust in God in the trials and tribulations of life. How are you going to take your own medicine?” And so he wrote the paper to himself, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. And then of course when people saw it, they said, “John, you’ve really got to share that with other people.” The Appendix is in the back…Don’t Waste Your Cancer.

By the way, David Powlison, who many of you know, with the Christian Counseling Educational Foundation, an outstanding counselor and a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, has written his own addition to Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Cancer. And if you or someone you know are struggling with cancer, that would be a great piece to meditate on. It won’t take you long to read, but you’d be able to meditate on it for the rest of your life and you wouldn’t exhaust the significance of it.

Let me just give you a little taste of the kind of counsel that John Piper gives:

“You will waste your cancer if you do not believe that it is designed for you by God.

You will waste your cancer if you believe that it is a curse, and not a gift.

You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.

You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.

You will waste your cancer if you think that beating cancer means staying alive, rather than cherishing Christ.

You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.

You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.

You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.

You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.

And, you will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.”

Now if that whets your appetite, go read what he says about each of those. Those are just his categories…those are just the headings. And then he begins to meditate on each of those points. But the book is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, and John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Cancer is appended to the back with David Paulison’s comments.

Then, John Piper’s book When the Darkness Will Not Lift…and I love the subtitle: Doing what we can while we wait for God and joy….Doing what we can while we wait for God and joy….When the Darkness Will Not Lift. And again, he addresses here not just suffering in general, but especially the kinds of spiritual depressions that result either because of Satan’s assaults or because of very difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in, or even hereditary and physical issues that result in depression. He addresses that here…very helpful books I want to commend to you.

Now! Last week…and we’ve got a lot of visitors here today, and last week I didn’t have an outline, but this week I do…for last week! And you’ve got last week’s outline in front of you. On one page front and back, you’ve got the outline. And next week, I’ll give you this week’s outline. And then…I don’t know that I’m going to do the fourth week! I guess I’ve got to give them both to you then, huh? But I’ll give you this week’s outline. Last week’s outline was fairly complex, this week it’s easy — four points, OK? Four points…that’s unusual for me…Just four points, OK? But it’s easy this week, and I will give it to you next week. But this will, I hope, help you catch up. Last weeks message is already transcribed. You can read it in its entirety on the website. If you go to “Resources” and “Sermon Archives,” you’ll see it there. And you can listen to is, as well. It’s very helpful.

Now let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this time that we have together. Bless us as we study this very deep but very practical subject. No one could possibly approach such a subject as this without trembling. We’ve been in the room when friends have held the lifeless body of a child. We’ve been in the room when the diagnosis came from the surgeon, “It’s terminal.” We’ve been in the room when a friend found out that his or her spouse was unfaithful. We’ve been in the room when the phone call came, and the word was their child was dead. We’ve been there, Lord, and so how could we but approach this subject with solemnity and reverence? But Lord, we also approach it because we want to fight for joy, because we know that our Lord Jesus Christ came and suffered and lived and died so that our joy would be made complete. And so we want our motto — the one emblazoned on our hearts and flying over our heads like a banner…we want our motto to be “Suffering, but rejoicing.” And we know that only the Spirit can do this. And so we ask You to help us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Review:

I. Suffering is a constant in this fallen world.

Last week we said that suffering is a constant in a fallen world. Sin brought misery into this world, and until sin is expunged from this world there will be misery. God will not get rid of misery until He gets rid of sin completely. And so as long as we are in a fallen world where there is sin, it should not surprise us that there is misery and suffering, because though Satan said to Adam and Eve, ‘Disobey God and you will be like Him’, in fact their disobedience brought on them only misery…and misery and suffering into this world. And until God has eradicated the very last parcels of that sin, misery will still be with us. So suffering is a constant in this fallen world, and therefore we need to learn at least two things.

First, we need to learn how not to be surprised by suffering. Because even though we know in our heads that this is a fallen world and even though we know in our heads that this is a world filled with suffering, it seems that even Christians, even believers, get surprised by suffering. It takes us by surprise. We get caught off guard. It rounds the corner on us, and we weren’t expecting it. And we think, “Oh, no! something’s not happening right here! This isn’t supposed to be happening to me.” Now, at one level of course we understand why that reaction is, but at another level we ought to be expecting these challenges rather than being surprised by these challenges in life. And so one of the things that we said that we wanted to learn is that suffering is…suffering happens. Suffering is to be expected. It’s the norm in a fallen world. We don’t want to be surprised by it.

That doesn’t mean that we want to cultivate a generation of Christians who are brooding pessimists just waiting for the other shoe to drop: “Well, I just made a million bucks today, but I’ll probably lose it tomorrow.” That’s not what we’re talking about, OK? That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about joyful, hopeful, energetic, consecrated Christians serving the Lord, loving their neighbors, caring for their families, ministering in the church, going about their business, but who will not be caught flat-footed when suffering comes into their lives. That’s what we’re talking about.

The second thing we want to do is we want to learn how to suffer. That’s really going to be the focus of this week and next. You remember when I gave you the outline, I said we were first going to ask the question, “Why Me?”–you know, wrestle with the quandary and the questions of suffering. Then we were going to ask the question, “What For?” In other words, what are the divine and good purposes for suffering in our life? What is God trying to get for us out of our suffering? And then, having thought about what the divine and good purposes of suffering are, we want to ask, OK, “How So?” How is it that that kind of good can come out of the kind of suffering that I’m experiencing? How do I get there? How do I need to respond to this? What do I need to know in order that I would be able to rejoice in suffering, that I would learn to gain not only from suffering, but even in suffering. So that’s what we’re going to do this week and the next. We’re going to look today at the purposes, and then next week we’re going to look at how we gain from and in suffering. And then we’re going to look at the ultimate suffering in the last week, because ultimate suffering has something to say to us.

Well, we said last week, as we looked together at the Bible, that the Bible gives a lot of attention to the issue of suffering. If I could just point you to one passage…if you have your Bibles or if you have the outline that I gave you, you can turn to II Timothy 2:3. I think it’s on the flip side of the outline…II Timothy 2:3. There in the midst of a bunch of verses (and we could have added a lot more)…there in the midst of a bunch of verses, here the Apostle Paul gives this exhortation to Timothy:
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ….”

There Paul is preparing Timothy at the outset of his ministry to suffer. Timothy, don’t be surprised by this; Timothy, expect this; Timothy, prepare to share in suffering; get ready for this, embrace this. This is going to be a part of being a soldier of Christ.

Brad Mercer was telling me about a scene at the processing center as Harrison was getting ready to be shipped out to Fort Benning. And he said that the military personnel made a line, and the young men that were walking out and heading up and hopping on the bus to go off to their various bases for training, the military men stood in these long lines on either side of them and applauded them and encouraged them and cheered them as they went out their way. But he said he noticed a Marine, and as the young guy was heading off to get on the bus to head to Marine training, the Marine just leaned forward and said, “Next stop, Parris Island!” [Laughter] …Just like a Marine! And he was preparing him for suffering! He was just letting him know, ‘Just get ready, buddy, it’s coming! It’s coming!’ That’s what Paul’s doing to Timothy. He’s saying, ‘Timothy, don’t be surprised by this. This is coming.’ Paul is assuming it as a norm not just of Christian ministry, but of Christian experience, that we’re going to suffer.

So the Bible gives a lot of attention to suffering, but that ought to encourage us, because suffering is a part of all of our lives. Wouldn’t it be terrible if God’s own word didn’t speak to us in that? Isn’t it wonderful that God spends so much time in His word speaking to us about something which is such an important and constant part of our experience, an experience that we need help in? Because we get in the middle of it, and the harder it is and the longer it lasts, the more confused we get. And we need the clarity of God’s word speaking into our lives and hearts to help us out.

II. There are different causes of suffering.

Now, last week we also said that there are different causes of suffering.

Our sin. We acknowledged that our sin causes suffering. Now that doesn’t mean–it’s so important for you to understand this–it doesn’t mean that you can build this equation: I’m suffering [therefore] God is punishing me for a sin that I committed. That may be true, but it is not always true, and God in the Bible wants us to look more than at just isolated things that we do as the causes of suffering. Yes, it is true that human sin brought suffering into this world in Genesis 3. God tells Eve because of her sin she will experience pain in bringing children into the world, and He tells Adam because of his sin that he will experience toil and frustration as he attempts to farm the earth. And so God makes it clear that the toil, the pain, the misery, the suffering of life that man and woman will now experience in a fallen world is because of Adam and Eve’s sin. They brought that into the world. It wouldn’t have been there had they not been unfaithful to God.

Can you imagine what life would have been like for Adam? He lived to be nine hundred and something years old, you know. And everybody…literally, everybody… you walk down the street every day, and everybody could have pointed at him and said, ‘You know what? All of this is his fault!’ They could have said it for 900 years, everywhere he went: “You know this is your fault!” A flood comes and wipes out some crops — “This is your fault, Adam!” It’s true. It was. But it’s not just that Adam has sinned so that all of us in this world are inclined to sin; it is that we sin, too. And our sin sometimes brings suffering on us.

Take your outline out and look at the passage in I Peter 2:19. Peter is encouraging Christians to endure suffering, but he says, ‘Look, endure unjust suffering.’ Don’t have to endure just suffering…. In other words, ‘Brothers and sisters, I want you to endure suffering when it’s wrong. I don’t want you to have to endure suffering that you ought to endure. If you do something wrong, you ought to suffer. There’s no honor in that’, he says. ‘I want you to endure suffering when it’s wrong, when you’re being treated unjustly rather than being punished for what you ought to be punished for.’ What does he say in verse 20?

“For what credit is it if, when you sin you are beaten for it, and you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, that is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

So sometimes what we do brings suffering on ourselves.

The sins of others. Other times, of course, our suffering is the direct result not of our own sin, but the sins of others. Many of you in this room will know what it is to carry around certain hurts and pains and unfulfilled desires and heartbreaks because of something that you experienced as a child, perhaps with your own parents. So, suffering is not necessarily the result of our sin, it may very well be the results of the sins of others.

Of course, suffering is oftentimes the result of satanic activity, as it was in the day of Job. Satan was behind the sufferings that Job was experiencing. It was not that Job had sinned, therefore God was punishing him; it was that Satan desired to sift Job like wheat, and so he caused Job to suffer.

But then of course ultimately we have emphasized that suffering is under the sovereign God. And we said last week some people don’t want to think that God is involved in their suffering, because their suffering is so painful that they cannot conceive a good and loving God having anything to do with it. And so what they want to do in an ironic way, in order to protect God, is they want to push Him as far away as they can from their suffering. But think about it, my friends: if that is the case, and He is that far away from our suffering…think about it!…our suffering is some of the most significant experience that we ever have in this life, and that would mean that in those significant experiences God has nothing to do with them. In the end that is not a very encouraging thought. I want God right down in the middle of my suffering. And of course it’s not just a matter of what I want, it’s what the Bible says: God is sovereign even in suffering.

Why For? Why do I suffer?

And God tells us what He is up to in suffering in the Bible, and so what I want to do with you today is look at four things that God says that He purposes to do with your suffering…four things that God says that He purposes to do with your suffering.

Let me just give you the outline ahead of time so that you can follow along more easily. First, God purposes to work godliness in you by suffering (Romans 5:3-5)…God purposes to work godliness in you by suffering.

Secondly, God purposes that you would prize Christ more than this world by your suffering…God purposes that you would prize Christ more than this world by your suffering (Philippians 3:8-11).

Third, God purposes to serve the maturity of the whole body of believers through your suffering (Colossians 1:24-29).

And then, God purposes to prepare you for glory through your suffering (II Corinthians 4:7-18).

Now there’s your outline. You’ve got it. Let’s look at these.

I. What do we suffer for?

First, what do we suffer for? What are the divine and good purposes of suffering? Number one, God tells us in His word that He purposes to work godliness in us by our suffering. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 5:3-5:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Now that’s a mouthful, and there’s no way that we can exhaust the riches of its meaning. But let me in one sentence try and sum up what Paul is saying there for you, as an anchoring truth for your suffering. Here it is. Here’s my sentence:

“God ordains that by the Spirit [the Holy Spirit] and by faith, your suffering will produce endurance, character, and hope.”

Paul is saying that God ordains that by the Holy Spirit, by the work of the Holy Spirit in you and by your faith, by your response of believing trust in Christ and the promises of the living God, that your suffering will produce in you endurance, character, and hope. In other words, suffering is an instrument in the hands of God’s Holy Spirit to build up believers in Christ in godliness. That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying.

We rejoice in our sufferings — why? Because we’re sadomasochists? No! No! We don’t like this… “Do that to me one more time, right there!”…No! Why do we rejoice in suffering? Because we know that God the Holy Spirit at work in us in accordance with God’s sovereign plan is purposing to use this suffering to build something in me that I would not have otherwise, and which I must have in order to go to glory. I’ve got to persevere to the end. I’ve got to walk with Christ to the end. How is God by Christ going to work that in me, even in my suffering? By the Holy Sprit He is going to work in me an endurance so that I walk with Him to the end. And that is going to produce in me character, which is going to produce in me hope. God is telling us that He uses suffering to build godliness in us. God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith our suffering will produce endurance, character, and hope.

Haven’t you seen this in your friends who have suffered most? Who trust in Christ? And suffering has not made them bitter, it’s made them sweeter. And they’re not just sweeter, they’re stronger. And you can throw anything that you want at them, and they have already looked death in the face and they have not flinched. And just to be around them, you see what God is doing to their character.

On the other hand, have you not seen your friends who do not have that faith in Christ, who do not have that hope of glory, meet the same suffering that your believing friends have met, and it has made them smaller and more brittle and bitter? You see, it’s not the suffering that produces the result; it’s the Spirit in you using the suffering to produce the result. That’s why the same suffering bears entirely different fruit in those who by faith trust in Christ and those who do not. God’s purpose in our suffering is by His Spirit through our response of faith to (by the suffering) produce endurance, character, and hope in us. That’s the first purpose of the suffering, the Apostle Paul says.(But there’s another one. Turn with me to Philippians 3:8-11.) Godliness in us… God’s purpose in suffering.

II. To prize Christ more than this world.

A second one…prizing Christ more than this world… prizing Christ more than this world. That is God’s purpose in our suffering, and the Apostle Paul explains this in Philippians 3:8-11. And by the way, isn’t it interesting? Ever since you were in Sunday School you’ve been told that the letter to the Philippians was “the letter of joy.” And I want to tell you, you’ve been told right. It is. It’s the letter of joy. I don’t know a smaller book in the New Testament that talks more about suffering than Philippians, and yet it’s right — it is the letter of joy. Do you see that those two things are not a contradiction? Rejoicing in suffering is not a contradiction in Christian grammar. That may be a contradiction in the eyes of the world, but for the believer rejoicing and suffering can go in the same sentence without fear of contradiction. And it’s just so glorious that we would turn over and over again to the book of Philippians, that book of joy, to learn about suffering.

Well, here’s what Paul says in Philippians 3:8-11:

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but hat which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Let me summarize at least one thing that Paul was saying to us in that passage. Here’s my sentence:

“God ordains that by the Spirit [by the Holy Sprit] and by faith, our suffering will produce in us the right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world, and an eternal knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Let me give that to you again: “God ordains that by the Spirit [by the Holy Sprit] and by faith, our suffering will produce in us a right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world….” [They’re passing; they’re not going to last. No matter how good they are, no matter how great they are to experience, they are not going to last. Suffering gives us a right estimate of the fact that they are passing away. The day before we were suffering, we were enjoying them. In our suffering we cease to enjoy them. We suddenly realized they’re not going to last. This is not what’s going to give me joy.] “…And, it produces in us a right estimate of the eternal knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Paul, in Philippians 3:8-11, is saying, ‘Look, here’s what happened with me. I was a worldwide, respected religious leader in Judaism. I was an up and comer. I was on my way to leadership in the Sanhedrin, unchallenged by anyone. I was seen as a future leader of my people, a moral leader of my people over against the pagan influences of Rome. And one day I was on my way to Damascus to persecute some heretics, and I met Jesus and I lost everything. Praise God!’ That’s what he’s saying. He’s saying, ‘Everything that I had that I thought was valuable in this world…I met Jesus and I lost it, all of it…to the point that I’ve been beaten by the Romans and there’s a death warrant out on my head from my own people, and I’ve been ostracized, and I’ve lost my family, and I’ve lost all of my friends. And you know, I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s the best deal I ever made. Because knowing Christ is so valuable to me that everything else that I have lost in this world does not matter.’

And the Apostle Paul is saying to us that God ordains by His Holy Spirit and by faith that our suffering will produce in us a right estimate of the ephemeral treasures of this world, and of the surpassing greatness of the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. That’s why my friend, Margaret, when she was holding her two-year-old child as his life slipped away at University Medical Center…he had drowned in the family pool…. She was working at the hospital and they medevaced him to Jackson. He clung to life for two days and didn’t make it. That’s why, holding her child in her arms, she could look up to me and say, “Ligon, could we sing The Doxology now?” Because as precious as that little life was to her that had been taken from her, and as precious as the hope that she had in her heart that he would not return to her, but she would go to him, as precious as the hope of heaven was…surpassing all of that was her knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. And so she wanted to sing The Doxology to her Creator as the very last breath of her child slipped away. Because she prized Christ. And the Holy Spirit, by faith worked that deeper into her in the crucible of suffering.

God purposes to use our suffering so that we come out of it treasuring the passing things of this world less, and treasuring the eternal friendship that we will have with Jesus Christ more than all things combined. That’s why John Piper says, ‘You know, if you come through cancer, and you make it, what a waste if you don’t come through saying ‘Whether I live or die, I am in Christ, and Christ is mine, and I am His. And if I’m here, praise God, I work for Christ. And if I’m there, praise God, I’m with Christ. But who cares either way, as long as I have Christ?’’

III. Maturity of the whole body.

Thirdly, the maturity of the whole body. It’s quite extraordinary that our suffering is not only designed to work in us godliness and to work in us more prizing of Christ, but our suffering individually is designed for the whole body of believers to work in it maturity.

Turn with me to Colossians 1:24. It’s an extraordinary passage. If Paul had not said this and I just stood up and started talking about this, you’d accuse me of heresy. But listen to what Paul says — Colossians 1:24:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”

[Hello?]

“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and…”

[This is what’s so shocking…here’s what Paul says:]

“…and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body, that is, the church….”

Listen to that again:

“In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

Well, that’s a mouthful. Here’s just one thing that Paul is teaching us about suffering in that passage, about how suffering is God’s instrument for the maturity of the whole body. Here’s my one sentence:

“God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ’s body, will bring about in His body the purposes, the aims, of Christ’s affliction.”

In other words, friends, God appoints His children to suffer, sometimes so that the whole body will be matured in Him.

These afflictions which are lacking, the lacking of Christ’s afflictions that Paul is speaking about, are not afflictions that indicate that Christ’s suffering was insufficient for our salvation. It’s simply this recognition: When you’re saved, when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, when you trust on Him for salvation, what do you become a part of? You become a part of His body. And what does He say? That because you are part of His body, your sufferings are His sufferings. So, what sufferings are lacking in Christ’s affliction? The ones that haven’t been experienced yet by His body; the ones that will continue being experienced by His body until He comes again and makes an end of all suffering.

And the Apostle Paul is telling you something amazing. He’s telling you that the purposes of God in the body of Christ experiencing those afflictions is so that everyone in Christ will be built up and experience the truth of Christ in you; that everyone in the body of Christ will be made mature in Christ.

That is, God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith our suffering will bring about in the body the purposes, the aims, of Christian affliction, which are: Christ in you, the hope of glory; and, every one of you being made mature in Jesus Christ.

Anne and I a few years ago had the privilege of going to Vienna, Austria, to work with Overseas Missionary Fellowship missionaries who were serving mostly in Eastern Europe, but they would come to Vienna for missionary training. A number of them were taking courses with Reformed Theological Seminary [this is while I was still at the seminary] and I was in the classroom teaching the doctrine of God to about seven veteran missionaries. One of them was named Dave Babcock. On the second day of class (eight hours a day, grueling class), during the lunch break we started talking about what some of these guys did. And it turned out that Dave Babcock was a colleague of somebody that you may have heard of. Ever heard of Brother Andrew? OK. Well, Dave is the guy that did most of the things in the book, God’s Smuggler. But they couldn’t say who Dave was because of fear of Communist bloc persecution. Dave had been arrested, imprisoned, and beaten in Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, China…and I’ve forgotten all of the other places. And he was very reticent to talk about any of this. I was dragging this out of him. But as I was dragging this out of him, two things were crossing my mind simultaneously: “This twenty-nine-year-old nincompoop is standing in a class talking to Dave Babcock about how to believe about God and Jesus and serve the Lord? Dave, come up here, brother, and teach the class! I’m sitting down from now on!” There’s nothing that will reduce you more quickly than somebody that has served the Lord so faithfully.

Anne and I got to the home late (whatever night it was that we arrived there), and they started handing out the food. Very simple, and very little food. And of course they served Anne and me first. And they put what I thought were pretty chintzy little portions on the plate, you know, and I’m thinking on the inside, ‘You know, I’ve been traveling all day, and I’m kind of hungry here, you know! And it’s kind of like a biscuit and some old milk or something like this.’ Until they got around the room and I realized that two of their children weren’t eating. And they weren’t eating because their portion had been given to Anne and me, and there wasn’t any other food in the house. The one thing that happened is…I just….!!!…just like one of those little cartoons where the guy shrinks. What am I doing teaching these guys about God and the Bible?

But you know, the other thing that happened was I was built up and strengthened. I just wanted to be around that man, to have the privilege of talking with that guy who had loved his Savior like that through beatings and persecution and humiliation, and had taken Bible after Bible after Bible into the Communist bloc and had shared Christ, was giving the whole of his life, was living in poverty for the sake of the gospel. It was like food just to be around him. I’ve never forgotten that week. I’ll never forget that week. I may never get to fellowship with Dave Babcock again in his life or mine, but I will never forget him and the gift that he gave me through his suffering. Who knows how God will use it in my life?

And, my friends, your suffering doesn’t just belong to you. Just like Dave Babcock’s suffering belongs to me because we are members of the same body, your suffering belongs to your fellow believers. It’s there for their maturing. It’s there for them to be built up. It’s there for them to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trial. Your suffering doesn’t just belong to you. It belongs to the body, because one of God’s purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole body.

IV. To prepare us for glory.

Fourth, and finally [and here I am most out of my depth, and so I just have to say it, and here it is]: God’s purpose in our suffering is preparing us for glory.

II Corinthians 4:7-18 —

“But we have this treasure…” [the treasure of being indwelt by God the Holy Spirit]

“…We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison….”

Now here’s my one sentence. What’s Paul saying? Paul is saying that God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering shows us God’s power in our weakness in such a way that we could not have seen it without seeing and experiencing our weakness and suffering. God ordains that by the Spirit and by faith, our suffering shows us God’s power in our weakness, and is in preparation for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. The only way I know to even begin to scratch the surface of what that means is to say this one sentence, and here’s my sentence:

“Paul is saying that you couldn’t bear the glory that God has in store for you unless you had been held up by God in your affliction now.”

I think if I say anything else more than that, I’m probably off in heresy somewhere. Listen to it again:

“You couldn’t bear the glory that God is preparing you for, if you hadn’t been held up by Him in your affliction now.”

The Apostle Paul is telling you that your suffering here is not just for now. It’s not just for maturity in Christ — though it is; it’s not just for godliness — though it is; it’s not just so that you’ll prize Christ now — though it is; it’s not just for the edification of the body — though it is. It is to prepare you for a glory that you can’t even comprehend. And if you hadn’t been held up by God in your affliction now, you couldn’t bear the glory that He’s going to give you then, so great is the glory that He has in store for you.

And that takes us right back to Romans 5, doesn’t it? There’s a hope that can’t be taken from believers in suffering, because God is up to something bigger than us; but we are going to participate in such a way that we describe our fellowship with Him as joy inexpressible and full of glory. And that awaits all those who trust in Christ, no matter how much or how long they have suffered in this world.

Let’s pray.

Lord God, Your purposes in suffering both boggle our minds and comfort our hearts, because they are obvious and practical; and yet, O God, they are profound and beyond our fully comprehending. And yet we see clearly in Your word that You do not plan to waste one drop of our suffering. Help us to believe that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Suffering – Why Me?

By / Jan 10

Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?

Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification

Winter Luncheon Series

“Why Me?

The Quandary and Questions of Suffering”

January 10, 2008

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Welcome to our Thursday luncheon series in the midst of January on the subject of “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?” That’s a question that we’ve actually borrowed from a marvelous book title, a book that’s not been generally available. Many of you are familiar with the wonderful Canadian author, Margaret Clarkson, who for so many years was associated with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and with the Urbana Missions Conference, and who has written so many beautiful hymns that have been used…modern hymns that she wrote in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s that were known well to people that went to Urbana Missions Conference. But Margaret Clarkson suffered with a great deal of pain, and so she reflected a lot on pain and on suffering in the course of her thinking and in her writing, and she wrote a book called Grace Grows Best in Winter. And that book has not been generally available for about fifteen years, but we hope some before our Thursday luncheon series is over so you will be able to have access to this excellent book; I commend it to you.

There is another book by a lady named Faith Cook. It’s almost the same title. It’s simply called Grace in Winter. Margaret Clarkson’s book is called Grace Grows Best in Winter, and Faith Cook’s book is Grace in Winter. And what Faith Cook has done is give you some hors d’oeuvres, some beautiful selections from a much larger volume, a volume that’s so big that most people never ever read through it. It’s a volume of letters written by a Scottish pastor in the seventeenth century called The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, and she goes through those letters and she excerpts some of the choicest morsels of Rutherford’s letters to congregation members who were going through enormous trials. She records some of Rutherford’s letters to women in his congregation who had either suffered miscarriages or who had lost young children to an untimely death, and they are beautiful. Someone had said in the nineteenth century that Rutherford’s letters, the prose in his letters, was so poetic that it wouldn’t take much to turn his letters into poetry. And Faith Cook, having read all of his letters, agreed with that, and what she does is she tells you the story, gives you the excerpt, and then she turns that letter into a poem. And if you’re looking for something to meditate on over and over that would comfort you in a time of trial and tribulation, that little book by Faith Cook, Grace in Winter — it’s a small book, it’s less than a hundred pages…a beautiful hardback… a very helpful book.

I do want to mention two other books that we do have over on the table today. Many of you know the name of Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot, who lost his life along with three other missionaries going into the Amazon Basin to witness to dangerous tribes there. She’s told that story in another book. There was recently a movie about that story, The End of the Spear, which some of you may have seen. Well, Elisabeth Elliot is again a woman who has known something about suffering in her life, and she has written a book called A Path Through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship Between God’s Mercy and Our Pain, and this, too, would be a very helpful book to study if you are looking for something edifying to read on the issue of suffering. We have copies of it right over there on the table.

And then many of you know John Currid, who was Professor of Old Testament here at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. He was the teaching pastor at the Providence Presbyterian Church in Clinton with John Reeves, and Dr. Currid is now Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Just before he left Jackson to go to Charlotte, he completed and had published a book on the subject of suffering and the sovereignty of God, and the book is simply called Why Do I Suffer? And again, it’s a short book. It won’t take you long to read. It’s 160 pages or so, and published by Christian Focus Publications, and we have copies over on the table — Why Do I Suffer? by John Currid.

One thing we want to do throughout these lunches is give you resources that may scratch your particular itch. All of us who are wrestling with the question of suffering have a slightly different angle on it because we’re experiencing different things. Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, and so, for instance, there are some books that address the issue of depression. That often entails a chronic kind of suffering that has to be dealt with over a long course of time. Others of us are dealing with a suffering which is entailed in the grief of a lost loved one, and the intensity of that, though it abates over time, is very powerful for a short period of time, and it’s a slightly different kind of issue that you’re grappling with, as opposed to dealing with something that’s going to last in the same way in the same state for forty years as opposed to something which is going to be more intense over a period of time, and then gradually abate. But suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. We’ll try and provide literature that we think is sound and helpful and will address many of these different things.

Our subject, “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?” is designed to address the issue of suffering from the standpoint of the sovereignty of God, believing that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.

And we intend to ask the question “How does God intend suffering to work for the growth in grace of His children, of those who love and trust Him?”

God doesn’t waste the suffering of His children, so how does He use suffering? In what ways do we grow in suffering? How do we respond to suffering? These are the kinds of things that we’re going to tackle together. And of course today we have the privilege of addressing the question of the quandary of suffering–why is there suffering in this world in the first place?

Before we begin, let’s pause for prayer and ask for God’s help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we love You and we praise You for who You are. We thank You that You not only know everything, but that You are in charge of all things. This is a great comfort to us, but it also causes us quandaries sometimes when we, like Job, know that You’re in charge, and yet our world is filled with pain and disappointment and suffering. Our human spirit deep within us cries out, ‘Why?’ We thank You, Lord, that You love us so much that over and over in the Psalms You not only allow but You command and inspire the psalmists to lift up a “why?” for us. And now as we reverently tackle that question today, we pray that we would be guided by Your word, helped by Your Spirit, that You would get glory in this, and that we would get help for the living of these days. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A world of suffering.

We live in a world of suffering. Suffering is a constant in this fallen world. If you and I were able to know for a split second, for a single instant, the experience of all the suffering that exists in this world at one time, it would kill us. Only God can know all the suffering that exists at any given time in this world and not go insane.

Think of it, friends. Today three thousand little children will die of malaria, most of them in Africa. Somewhere there will be a husband or a wife, or a mother or a father, who will be bereft of their own child because of malaria. Think of the suffering that will attend in those situations. This year thirty million people will die in Africa alone because of AIDS. Fifty million people die every year, most of them young…most of them in agony. One hundred people have died since I began speaking to you a few seconds ago. Think of the pain attended by those families in the wake of those deaths.

And then if we think more locally and in this room, people are suffering because of family issues. Perhaps there’s been a lifelong estrangement from a parent that has haunted you all your life; the longing, the desire just once for a father or for a mother to say “I love you; I’m proud of you; you’re my child; you bring me great joy and delight’…and it’s never ever come. Perhaps there’s a parent, deeply, deeply loving and caring for his or her child or grandchild, and yet that child or grandchild is making self-destructive choices that are having a disastrous effect on their future, and you’re having to stand there and watch. You’re doing the best you can; you’re helping and counseling as best as you can, but there is nothing that you can do. And you are old enough and wise enough to see the consequences of that choice.

Maybe it’s in your own marriage — a godly Christian husband or wife. The last thing in the world that he or she would have dreamt of would have been the breakup of the marriage, and yet it’s come. Sometimes it’s come for reasons which are justified and others when they’re not, but either way the heartbreak is almost unbearable.

And we could go on and on and on. And again, if we could just know for an instant the pain of the suffering that exists in this room, we would go insane. The only one who can know this suffering and survive it is God, and He does, and He cares. And that’s why we’re going to be here for the next four weeks looking at what He says to us about our suffering, in our suffering.

Now let me tell you where we’re going to try and go in the course of our time together.

Four questions.

I want to tackle four basic questions. We’ll only scratch the surface; that’s why we’re going to be constantly pushing you to good literature where you can follow up, and we’re going to entertain your questions, to be as helpful as we possibly can. But I want to tackle four questions: “Why me? What for? How so?” and, “Him, too?” Those are the four questions we want to tackle together in the next four weeks: “Why me? What for? How so?”; “Him, too?” Let me tell you what I mean by those.

“Why me?” I want to ask some questions today about the quandary of suffering. Why does suffering happen in this world? What are the roots? What are the causes of suffering in this world? It’s very important for us to be clear in our minds about that, else all sorts of problems will result in our response to suffering. Let me just give you one example. There are many people who claim to be Christians, many great teachers and preachers who claim to be Christians who will tell you, and they’ll tell their people, and they’ll write books, and they’ll speak on television, and they’ll say this: “God does not want you to suffer. Therefore, if you are suffering, you are out of the will of God, and you are out of the will of God because you lack faith.”

Now, they say that, I think, because they want to be kind. But I can’t imagine a crueler thing to say, or a wrong-er thing to say, because that is just not what the Bible teaches. From beginning to end, the Bible entertains the fact that the godliest, most loving, most consecrated people will experience deep suffering in this world, not because they have not believed in God enough, but for other reasons. And therefore it’s important for us to understand what those reasons are, what those causes are of suffering, lest we respond to that suffering in the wrong way. That’s what we want to try and do today.

Next week we want to ask the question, “What for?” moving from the causes for suffering to the purposes of suffering. What is it that God uses suffering to do in His children? What are the divine and good purposes in suffering for believers? It’s very important for us to understand what God aims to produce in our experience of trial and tribulation. Again, our knowledge of that will color the way we respond to suffering in our own personal experience.

Thirdly, I want to ask the question, “How so?” In other words, how then, knowing the divine and good purposes of suffering, how then do we learn to gain from suffering, to grow in our experience of suffering? It’s not enough to know just what God’s purposes are; we need to know how we are to respond to His purposes so as to grow in grace, and that’s what we’ll attempt to ask and answer the third time we’re together.

And then, finally, we will culminate in the ultimate experience of suffering in this world: that is, the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, “Him, too?” It should not be lost on us that the person who knows most about suffering in the history of humanity is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. That is something that you could meditate upon from now until the end of your life, and you wouldn’t have exhausted the riches of the implications that flow from that. The person who knows most about suffering is the One who didn’t deserve any of it; the One who was perfect, who came for our salvation, He is the most experienced sufferer in the history of humanity. And so we will ask “What are we to learn from the ultimate suffering of the Son of God, Jesus Christ?” because as we’ll see even today, the Apostle Paul will point us to Jesus’ sufferings as an example and as an encouragement to us as we face suffering in the Christian life. So that’s where we’re going to try and go together over the next four weeks.

Our objective in this study.

Now, let me say what I’d like us to begin to learn in this study. Let me frontload my application by telling you where I’m going to try and go. Fundamentally, I want us to learn two things over the course of this study. It’s really that simple. I want us to learn that suffering is That’s really what we want to do together. I want us to learn that suffering is, and I want us to learn to suffer. Let me tell you what I mean by that.

First, I want us to learn that suffering is. That is, suffering happens. Or more specifically, that suffering is to be expected; that suffering is the norm in this fallen world — again, because there are many claiming to be Christian teachers who will tell you that suffering should not be happening in this world. And I want to come back with a big, bold, biblical contradiction of that and say suffering is in this fallen world; suffering happens in this fallen world; suffering is the norm in this fallen world. Not, of course, in the world which God originally created; not the world in which God created a garden and put a man and a woman without sin or shame in that garden to enjoy. That world had no suffering in it, but our world does because something happened between that world and our world, and we’ll talk about that today.

But in our world, suffering is. This is so important, not only because there are some who tell us that we shouldn’t expect suffering, or that suffering ought not to be a part of the Christian experience, but because we have by and large, even in the midst of the struggles and trials of our lives, experienced lives that have had less of certain kinds of suffering in them than the lives of many or most of the other people who have ever lived in this world. I mean, most of us in this room have never really lived through a famine. Most of the rest of the people who have ever lived in history up until 1900 not only would once upon a time have lived through a famine, but many times in their lives would have lived through famine. Most of us have never lived through a drought. Our friends in Georgia and parts of Alabama, and parts of Tennessee, and parts of South Carolina right now are experiencing the worst drought in recent memory, and yet it does not compare in any way to the effect of common drought that would have occurred prior to the 1900’s.

So precisely because we have lived in a time and in a framework in which the sufferings of this world have been to some extent mitigated for us, we are lulled into sleep sometimes and surprised by suffering, so that when suffering comes into our experience our initial reaction is, “Oh, this shouldn’t be happening!” Whereas, if what I am saying is true (that suffering is, that suffering happens, that suffering is the norm for this fallen world), none of us should ever be surprised by suffering. Instead, when suffering walks into our room, we ought to be saying, “I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been preparing for you. I knew you were coming, because this fallen world is filled with the likes of you. And what I’ve been doing before you came was to prepare as best I could, by God’s grace and by God’s word, so that I might glorify God as I experience you, and so that I might be comforted as I wrestle with you.” And so it’s so important over the course of this series that we ingrain into our minds that suffering is an essential part of Christian existence. You will suffer.

So the only question is will you suffer in a way to honor Christ, or will you not? The question is not will you suffer or will you not, but will you suffer in such a way to honor Christ, or will you not? Will you suffer in such a way that you are able to be comforted by God’s word and grace and truth, or will you lack the comfort that you ought to have?

Suffering is; suffering happens; suffering is to be expected; suffering is the norm in this fallen world. It’s an essential part of Christian experience. That’s thing No. 1 that I really want us to be convinced of; and not just convinced of, but to understand the implications of in our Christian life.

The second thing that I want us to do is to learn to suffer. What I mean by that is to learn how to suffer, to learn how a Christian suffers, to learn what the Bible tells us that a Christian ought to do in the midst of suffering.

The Viscount of Camperdown, who was a great sea admiral with Admiral Nelson and the British navy during the Napoleonic wars…you remember Admiral Nelson was the one who won the great Battle of Trafalgar against the French, and Trafalgar Square in London is named after him. Well, the Viscount of Camperdown was one of his admirals in the British navy, and he too won great battles during that period of time. His family crest had a ship with full sails on it–not surprising for a seafaring man–but his family motto has always fascinated me. His family motto consisted of two little Latin words: Disce pati — “Learn to suffer.” That was his family motto — “Learn to suffer.” That’s exactly what Peter and Paul and Job and Moses and Jesus would say to you and me as believers in this fallen world — that we need to learn to suffer.

Why we need to learn about suffering.

Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me put some feet on that by saying five things in particular that I want us to learn with regard to learning to suffer in the course of our study.

First of all, I want over the next four weeks for us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus is magnified in our sufferings…I want us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus is magnified in our sufferings. If we do not approach our suffering with a desire for Jesus to be magnified, then we will encounter some sufferings in this world which will overwhelm us completely, because those sufferings are that big…but nothing is bigger than the glory of Jesus. When you are facing a suffering of intensity and duration, you need something bigger than that suffering to fight it back, and there is nothing bigger than the glory of Jesus. And so your desire to see Jesus magnified is one of your great weapons in the great warfare against suffering, and I want you to learn how to suffer in such a way that Christ will be great in your eyes and in the eyes of all who see you suffer.

Secondly, I want us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus becomes more precious to us than before we suffered…I want you to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus becomes more precious to you than before you suffered. If you go through your suffering and Jesus is not more precious to you on the other side of that suffering than He was before you started, your suffering has not yet come to full fruition. Because there is nothing in this world that we are to experience or endure that isn’t designed by our loving heavenly Father to cause us to prize Christ more.

Third, I want us…I want you…to learn to suffer in absolute confidence that God is for you. Now I’m going to have to immediately qualify that.

If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you are trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, I want you to endure the suffering that you endure in absolute — not 93.7, not 99.9, but in 100 percent — confidence that God is for you. And I’m saying that on the authority of God’s word. I’ll get to the passage in just a moment, but I expect that some of you know where to start in the Bible on that theological truth. I want you to learn to suffer, confident that God is for you; to know and believe that nothing can happen to you apart from God’s will.

Jesus made this a special point to His disciples in His Sermon on the Mount. Paul made this as a special point to suffering Christians in Romans 8. Peter makes this a special point to the Christians that were getting ready to experience the greatest (at that point) empire-wide persecution in the history of the church. I want you to believe that at the worst of times, He is still 100 percent for you; He is not against you; if you are in Christ, He is not 99.9 percent for you, He is 100 percent for you; and that you have everything that you need in Him, in Christ.

That is easier to say than it is to believe, and it is easier to believe than it is to feel when you’re in the midst of suffering. But I want us to begin a journey towards your embracing that existentially for you, so that it’s not a theorem in your mind, so that it’s not a majestic ideal, but that it’s a practical reality when you face suffering.

Fourth, I want you to know that your suffering is not the way that you’re accepted by God. We want to learn to suffer knowing that we are accepted by God by grace through faith, and apart from anything that we do either before or after we’re saved, and apart from anything that we do either before or after we suffer. Because there are some people who, for a variety of reasons, seem to think that if they just endure the suffering enough, maybe God will love them. And you will not endure suffering as you are meant to endure suffering if you think that that suffering is making your heavenly Father love you. No. He has loved us with an everlasting love, and the way we are accepted by Him is not by our deeds, and it’s not by our suffering. It’s because of Christ because of what He has done; it’s because of His grace to us in Christ; it’s received by faith and faith alone, and nothing that we do before or after we are saved, or before or after we suffer, causes us to be accepted by God. It’s so important for us to understand that in our suffering, because in suffering, especially of an intensity and duration, the mind becomes numb and it begins to think all sorts of crazy things. And if there is any crack of a shadow of doubt in the back of your mind about why you stand accepted with God, Satan will certainly use that doubt to undermine your comfort and confidence in the midst of suffering.

And, fifth…oh, I’m scared to even say this…I want us to learn to embrace a life of suffering.

You know how Paul describes himself to the Corinthians in II Corinthians 6:10? “Sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” And, my friends, if we were a band of brothers and sisters over whom the banner was unfurled and flowing which said “Suffering, yet rejoicing” there is no telling the gospel witness, the gospel effect that that would have on the world around us. Talk about shaking the world out of its slumber! A band of brothers and sisters in Christ dying, yet living; suffering, yet rejoicing; sorrowful, yet full of inexpressible joy…what a comfort it would be to us, what a glory it would be to God, what a witness it would be to the world.

And so I’m asking you to be prepared to embrace a life of suffering.

These are two things that I’d like us to learn: Suffering is; and, to learn to suffer. I’m just telling you for the sake of full disclosure where we’re going in the course of this application.

The Bible teaching on suffering.

Now, the good news for you who are suffering today is the Bible says so much about suffering!

I’ve had the privilege — and I really mean privilege when I say that word — I’ve had the privilege of talking to many people in this room who have suffered and are suffering things that I have never suffered myself. And that means that if all I had to say as a person to persons who were enduring suffering that I had not experienced myself…if all I had to say to them, if all I had to offer was my own wisdom either learned from books or from smart people, or from my meager experience…well, you know, it would be kind of like sitting down with the mother of those four children that were dumped over a bridge in Alabama just a few days ago and saying, “You know, I had a pet hamster once, and he died.” I can’t think of a better way to describe to you how little value anything that I would have to say to you would be, if you compared what I’ve experienced with what some of you have experienced.

But thank the Lord you don’t have to rely on my wisdom or common sense or experience. You’ve got the word of God waiting for you, and the God who is not only the God of wisdom and grace, but who is the God of your pain and suffering has said so much in His word to you about your suffering that I have the inestimable privilege of opening up His word and saying, “Friend! Look at the feast of help that God has prepared for you in His word. It does not come from me! It does not come from my experience; it does not come from my wisdom: it comes from God! Eat! Drink! Be filled! Be helped!”

Let me just give you an hors d’oeuvre of how much God says in His word about suffering. There are the words of Nehemiah…if you have Bibles you can turn there, Nehemiah 9:27:

“And in the time of their suffering, they cried out to You and You heard them from heaven, and according to Your great mercies You gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.”

Nehemiah, pausing to remind us of the suffering of the people of God, and how they cried out to God in prayer, and how God heard and answered their prayers in the midst of their suffering. This is a book about suffering.

Or, there’s Job 2:13, where that author, the author of that great book, tells us that

“Job’s friends sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Or, there are Paul’s words in Romans 5:3-5:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Paul unveils this mind-boggling truth that believers are able to rejoice in their sufferings!

And in Ephesians 3:13, he says to those dear Christians who loved him in Ephesus,

“So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering.”

Now, if you know that verse, you know that I left off two words:

“I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering…for you.”

And, my friends, I want to tell you, I think that from that passage I could not only prove to you that the suffering of the servants of Christ, those whom He has appointed as the ministers of the word, is intended for the benefit of God’s people, but I think I could prove to you from that verse and others like it that all of your sufferings collectively are meant for the benefit of one another, so that your suffering, friend in Christ, is meant for the strengthening of my faith as well as for yours. And that means we really don’t want to miss a thing that God intends for us all together to gain in our suffering.

You know, I’ve had so many people at this church remark to me about the testimony services that we’ve had in the last year. Derek Thomas organized a testimony service last New Year’s Eve 2006, and then Jeremy Smith organized a testimony service for Thanksgiving 2007 in which members of this congregation gave testimony as to how God had helped them in difficult times. And I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and just expressed their thanksgiving for those testimonies that were given by the people of God. Why? Well, let me tell you why. Because Ephesians 3:13 is true! It’s an enormous blessing to have the blessing of hearing and sharing in the experience of suffering and seeing the hand of God’s grace at work in a fellow believer’s suffering. God doesn’t waste that suffering, so we shouldn’t.

And there’s II Timothy. Boy! That book has all sorts of stuff in it about suffering, doesn’t it? There’s II Timothy 1:8-9 —

“Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me, His prisoner.”

Paul is saying, ‘Look, when somebody says ‘Your Savior died on a cross! Your apostolic hero is in prison. That, therefore, disproves your religion,’ Paul says, ‘Don’t be discouraged; don’t be ashamed when you tell them that you worship a crucified Savior, and that your minister that you support to share the gospel is chained up to a Roman guard.’

“But…” [he goes on to say] “…share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”

Oh! “Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”

He’ll say it again in II Timothy 2:3 —

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

He’ll say it again in II Timothy 4:5 —

“As for you, always be sober minded. Endure suffering.”

Or there’s the author of Hebrews, maybe a convert and a disciple of the Apostle Paul…[he sure does speak in Pauline theological categories, but he’s a lot flowery-er than Paul], and in Hebrews 2:10, he writes,

“For it was fitting that He [Jesus] for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

…Jesus made perfect through suffering — that’s a mind-boggling thought, that the heavenly Father has appointed the captain of our salvation to be made perfect through suffering.

Or James 5:10 —

“As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

Or James 5:13 —

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.”

Or I Peter 2:19-21 —

“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if when you sin and are beaten for it you endure? But when you do good and suffer for it, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in His steps.”

 

Or I Peter 5:9-10 —

“Resist him [resist the devil], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Now that’s just a little hors d’oeuvre, that’s just a little sample of how much this book, this Bible, this very word of God written, given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, how much it has to say about suffering. Isn’t that comforting to you? Because we live in a world of constant suffering.

You know, I think one of the proofs that this is God’s word is that it says so much to us about suffering. Because the Lord cares about His children, and He wants them to know the truth, and He wants them to be comforted.

Why Me?

Well, finally then, we get to our subject for today: Why me? What are the causes of suffering? Fortunately I can sum it up in three words: Sin, Satan, and God. Is that provocative enough for you? Sin, Satan, and God.

If we were to construct four grand categories to explain why suffering is experienced in this world, I think I could make a case for these to be those four grand categories:

  • our sin;

  • the sins of others;

  • Satan’s activity;

  • and the sovereign God.

Our sin, the sins of others, Satan’s activity, and the sovereign God. And very often more than one of these things is lumped in together with another, explaining what’s going on with suffering in this world.

Two examples come immediately to mind.

David. Let me ask you to turn with me in your Bibles to what you may think is an obscure passage in the Old Testament. Turn with me to I Chronicles 21. This is the instance in which David, the great and godly king of Israel, ordered a census to be taken of the people. Now you might not think that’s much of a big deal, because we have one done every ten years in the United States. But if you will remember, God had explicitly told the kings of Israel not to take a census. Why? Because God wanted to make a point that Israel’s security was not based on the number of fighting aged males that they had to protect them, that Israel’s security was based on God protecting them. And, therefore, He did not want the king taking a census for the purpose of determining the potential size of his military force, because He wanted the king and He wanted all the people to trust in Him. But David breaks God’s law and he takes a census. And it has dramatic, drastic consequences for the people of God. Thousands will die. Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands will suffer because of David’s choice here. And we read in I Chronicles 21:1 —

“Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.”

Now isn’t it interesting…the author of Chronicles, the chronicler, tells you that Satan was behind this temptation. So in the suffering that was experienced in Israel because of the result of David’s sin, we see both David’s sin and Satanic activity as a part of the suffering that they would experience.

But somebody turn to II Samuel 24 for me! II Samuel 24… read verse 1:

“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’

Huh? Wait a minute! Satan’s the one who tempted David to take that census…but

II Samuel says God was angry with Israel and incited David to take the census. What’s going on there? God is sovereign. Satan is active. Man is sinful. David does exactly what he wants to do. Satan does exactly what he wants to do. God sovereignly appoints all things according to His own will. All of these things are a part of the suffering that will be experienced in Israel.

Now it’s not fair to just sort of throw that out there and not unpack it, is it? That’s why we’ve got to come back to this!

Job. Let me give you one other example of this. The classic example is of course in Job 1. Turn with me to Job 1. If you’ll remember, in Job 1:6 we read

“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.”

Now your head is already baffled by that, and you’re scratching it…what’s up with Satan appearing before the Lord along with the sons of God? Then it gets worse.

(Verse 7) — “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘From where do you come?’ And Satan said, ‘From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.’”

And then it gets even worse…

(Verse 8) — “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’”

[Well, thanks a lot, Lord!]

So in this passage it’s not Satan who comes to God and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to take out Job at the knees.’ It’s God who says, ‘I see you’ve been roaming the earth. Let Me mention somebody to you, somebody that I love, somebody who loves Me. His name’s Job. Have you thought about him much, Satan?’ And Satan says, ‘Well, come to think of it, I haven’t, but now that You mention it, I believe if he were ever afflicted and all the blessings that You’ve given him were taken away, he’d curse You to Your face, because You’re not worth living for.’ And God says to Satan, ‘No, he won’t.’ And the rest is literally history.

In that great book we’re told that Job’s sins had absolutely nothing to do with this trial. Oh, yes, he’d struggle with sin and unbelief during the trial, but Job’s sin had absolutely nothing to do with the causing of this trial. But Satan was active in it, and God was sovereign over it.

And so when we think about the causes of suffering in this world, we first have to think about sin. There would be no suffering in this world apart from sin. Genesis 3 tells us when God speaks in verses 15-17 to Eve and then to Adam, that pain and toil will come into this world because of Adam’s sin. There would be no suffering in this world were it not for sin. That’s one of the great lessons of suffering, isn’t it? Always to draw a line back from suffering to sin, not necessarily saying my suffering is happening because of something that I’ve done that I’m being punished for, but to learn to hate our sin like we hate the suffering, because there would be no suffering in this world had Adam not sinned.

But then of course suffering in this world so often results from our sin.I think the suffering that I experience, relatively insignificant as it is, is so often because of my own sin. And we know that. There are sometimes things that we do that cause us grief, and then sometimes we’re the victims of others’ sins. And sometimes Satan is behind the activity, as in I Chronicles 21:1 and in Job 1:6ff. But over it all, God is always sovereign.

It’s very important for us to understand that when it comes to our suffering God doesn’t take a step back and say, ‘You’re on your own. This is outside the sphere of My ability, of My competence, of My sovereignty.’ Because if that’s true — and so many people think that — if that’s true, then in the very place where you need God most, He’s not there. Oh, no! Better to be left with those questions in the night — ‘What in the world are You doing, Lord?’ — than to think, ‘You know, I can’t ask the Lord what He’s doing, because He’s not in this. I’m on my own.’ Oh, I’d rather be asking that question in the night, ‘What in the world are You doing, Lord?than to think God can’t do anything about this because He is not in it.

And you know, it’s interesting to me that nowhere in the book of Job does Job ever ask that latter question — ‘Lord, couldn’t You help me here…but I know You can’t.’ He never ever says that. His question is always ‘Lord, I know You’re in control. Why are You doing this?’ And Job asks that question because God’s in charge of everything, and that means that when we’re experiencing suffering we have someone that we can turn to, that we can really talk to and learn from, who really knows what we’re going through. And as much comfort as we may get from friends in this world — and we need all the comfort we can get — there’s no one who knows our suffering like God. And so we’re going to learn what He has to say to us in the weeks to come.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this time together today. And we ask that as we cry out in anguish of our own brokenness, “Why?” that we would do so in faith and in hope. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thanks for coming.