20 September 2008

On Suffering

Over the last few months I’ve spent some considerable time studying suffering. We all go through it, some more, some less, and if we haven’t really suffered yet, we will. We experience it in many forms such as a losing a job, struggling with a spouse, disobedient children, a serious or even terminal illness. Our first inclination is escape. “Lord, I don’t want to go through this. Please take away the pain of ________.” We then spend time watching TV or delving into hobbies or anything that will distract us from the suffering. In one short post I cannot answer in detail what we should do when we suffer and how we should accomplish it but let me offer a few suggestions and some resources on this difficult issue.

First we should expect suffering to come our way. What does Scripture say? Let’s take a look: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”(Romans 5:3-4). Notice that sufferings here are assumed here. We can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” as Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 6:10. Moreover we find that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). But we must also remember that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). No doubt this is a difficult concept, John Piper accurately describes it as a paradox. We need to stop running from pain and suffering. Piper elaborates it this way, This design for the Christian life is so crucial that we should open our eyes to see how extensively the Bible speaks about it. Untold numbers of professing Christians waste their lives trying to escape the cost of love. They do not see that it is always worth it. There is more of God’s glory to be seen and savored through suffering than through self-serving escape. Paul puts it like this: “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” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). “Momentary” refers to a lifetime in comparison with eternity. “Slight” refers to suffering and death compared to the weight of everlasting joy in the presence of God. This is what we gain if hold fast to Christ. This is what we waste if we don’t. God designs that tribulations intensify our hope for the glory of God. Paul says in Romans 5:2 that we have access by faith into grace and “rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Then he tells us in the next two verses how that hope is preserved and sweetened: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (verses 3-4). This hope that grows and deepens and satisfies through suffering is the hope of verse 2, the “hope of the glory of God.” We were made to see and savor this glory. And God, in love, will use whatever trials are necessary to intensify our savoring of his glory. (Don’t Waste Your Life pgs 73-74.)

We are missing something God wants for us when we run from trials rather than stand and face them with Him. Therefore, we need to give thought to our trials. We need to embrace them knowing that our Lord has these things planned for us. We may never understand why on this side of glory we encounter the trials we do but faith kicks in to carry us ahead rather than running. I often recall a famous preacher/theologian who got terminal cancer. In his last sermon to his congregation he asked that if we really could change God’s plans, would we? That was a powerful statement that continues to echo in my mind.

So where do we start to get our heads around this? I suggest Don Carson’s book, How Long O Lord?. Carson directs us to start now developing a “theology of suffering” before serious suffering comes our way. His book is an excellent work but not for someone who may already be in the midst of suffering. For those already experiencing suffering I would suggest Piper’s book, When Darkness Will Not Lift? This work was written simply and one does not have to have a degree in theology to grasp the truth it contains. It will help those suffering profoundly. Another book from Desiring God is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, Justin Taylor and John Piper Editors. A fine work from several contributors who have suffered and write as “fellow soldiers in the battle.” This also is not an academic work and can easily be absorbed and applied by the suffering believer. Don’t Waste Your Life has a chapter titled, Magnifying Christ Through Pain and Death that is extremely helpful. All of these can be downloaded for free from Desiring God.
You can also listen to John Piper’s address at this year’s Together for the Gospel convention. He spoke powerfully about suffering and going out of the camp, in other words, taking risks that can lead to suffering. Follow that up with the mp3 of the panel discussion where he elaborates further. I would argue, too, that we should read the Puritans. These guys knew suffering, the suffering that leads to joy. Don’t neglect them. Lastly, listen to great music. The folks at Sovereign Grace Music have a great CD for those suffering, titled Come Weary Saints.
As always, I’d like to your input.

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