Suffering as a Grace
As 2015 comes to an unexpected close, I am struck by how quickly this year passed and also thinking about how much the church has grown through our study of Romans and also now moving through our call to pray and pray through psalms.
As I write this, I am enjoying some time with the family as we ventured into the city for a staycation. Nico and Noah are filled with wonder and I see a very big turning in the life of our sons that they are beginning to be spiritually formed. I look at them and my initial and default mode is to to go into full gear to provide for them the most that they can experience in this lifetime. So we take them to museums and teach them about the wonders of God’s creation, we take them upstate to see the fall foliage, we teach them to ride their bikes and scooters. Nico is learning to play piano and Noah is learning to play air guitar.
I also want to protect them from some of life’s difficulties liking getting wet in the rain, remedies when they are ill or hurt. But there are emotional pain too, when their stuff gets taken from other kids or them getting picked on. I remember one time at a church Christmas party, this bigger boy try to bully Nico; Nico stood up to him, I was so proud but also worried that there will be days that he will not be able to protect himself. But in more sinister world, I want to protect our boys from real evil that is out there.
But as I prayed and reflected on the Psalms, and also on the larger Biblical narrative, it is latent with God’s people suffering. They are not insulated from the real evils of treachery and evil as they are sinned against and also their rebellion has lead to dire judgment from God. Yet, I see that in those dark moments in lives of the God’s people, there is a turning; a realization once again of God’s mercy and grace to them.
I thought about that as two article this week helped me consider how important suffering is. One is a great article from my friend Cameron Cole called” There Is No Crown Without a Cross for Your Kids” and a discussion with Tim Keller, D.A. Carson and John Piper on “Thousand Sorrows Teaches a Man to Preach.” Each of these articles reminds me of how precious sorrow could be in shaping our gospel character. We often try to avoid suffering and insulate ourselves from any threat of pain but when we look at scripture, is really the most cogent way the gospel engages and moves us from the cognitive affirmation of the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace to a deep experience of God’s goodness in the midst of some of the darkest encounters with sin.
So, I think back on the years God has brought me through unbelief, betrayal, loss, despair, desperation and moments of wanting to walk away from ministry and faith altogether, it was then that God exposed me for who I was. A man grasping for my own ownership and throneship. I wanted to be God and yet, there was this rich experience of joy that it was a grace to me to go through it so there is a greater confidence of the depth that the Gospel is renewing and bringing me closer to promise of the King who is making all things new again.
This year has not been an easy one for me as God confronted a lot of my pride and my exquisite ways I have navigated through my public life with little reflection on my private discipleship of obedience towards the cross. But as God would have it, He loved me so much He wrecked my health and my effectiveness in ministry. So, I paused, and in a moment of despair, I repented and in that moment of clarity, I saw that all this mess was a grace to me. So the story is not over and God is still forming this stubborn heart towards a deeper understanding of His word and His Spirit to lead me to a deeper prayer towards the Father. So, now I see so clearly that God brings these sorrows as a way to grow us and in that we can lean upon Christ and the cross. I learned to see that God is moving so that I can thank, and love him not simply as a doctrine but as my redeemer. Sorrow and suffering has brought me to God and this faith to endure and mature. It goes beyond just thinking but it moved me from my mind on the eternal truths revealed in the biblical story to the person of Christ and his work on the cross for humanity. Suffering has made it possible—and helpful—to think about the biblical truths that make our suffering exposes to our convictions to these truths. By His mercy it moves me to reorder my loves and relocate my glory, turning my affections and attention to the One who brings meaning by bending suffering to his glory and to draw me into intimacy with God as reflected in His nature. God chose the way of love in through the Cross; and we can bring our crosses to Him because He has shown how he can relate and also overcome the darkest moments.
One pastor told me, “everyone agrees and affirms the theology of Paul and Jesus but nobody wants to emulate their suffering.” I agree that we should not pursue suffering but rather we should not create such a buffer of comfort that we can’t grow in our dependence when we have despaired and cried…it is in these moments that the light and balm of the gospel runs deeply. That is what marks Christians is not how moral they are but rather how joyful they are in the deepest sorrows. Even when the grave is upon us, We cry but we do not cry without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Also when we go through suffering, we have such a tremendous empathy for those who go through suffering, we don’t just spout out Christian platitudes because we know that they are very cold comfort, rather we empathize, we weep and we can see that their pain is so very real.
So I prayed that this is our reflection as we close out the year…that we find praise for the good, the bad and the ugly for God is working. Do you have any regrets? God is working. Any anxiety about this past year, God is working. Any uncertainty upon the future? God is working. But not only is He working but He is close. His sovereignty is always intimate and always good. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He is Lord. He is Love.
At the right time Jesus will return and to make things news. He will come to establish his kingdom on earth, restoring comprehensively all things and wiping away every tear. The end result will be so overwhelmingly good and perfect that even the worst suffering we’ve endured will seem beautiful and perfectly holy in light of God’s final act of redemption.
That is true hope that is given to us through the word and the person of Christ.
Prayer Prompt (taken from the Worship Sourcebook)
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
God of the ages, we praise you for all your servants,
who have done justice, loved mercy,
and walked humbly with their God.
For apostles and martyrs and saints of every time and place, who in life and death have witnessed to your truth,
we praise you, O God.
For all your servants who have faithfully served you, witnessed bravely, and died in faith,
who are still shining lights in the world,
we praise you, O God.
For those we have known and loved,
for teachers and colleagues and friends,
for parents and grandparents, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, for all who by their faithful obedience and steadfast hope
have shown the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
we praise you, O God.
Keep us grateful for their witness, and, like them,
eager to follow in the way of Christ.
Then at last, bring us together
to share in the inheritance of the saints in light,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
"I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation,
from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Thank you for joining us in praying where you are today and I hope to see you soon as we worship each Sunday as a body of Christ serving our Flushing community.
Remaining in Him,