Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 03/04/2001
Trying to answer the question, "What would I preach if I had only two more sermons to give you," I fell back on my tongue-in-cheek explanation of why I am in the ministry at all (paraphrasing C. S. Lewis): "I couldn't get anyone else to preach the sermons I needed to hear, so I had to do it myself." So this is one thing I guarantee we will all need to hear at some point.
Our topic today is one in which we all ought to be experts. Every life in this room has experienced, and will experience, a measure of pain, suffering tragedy, and affliction. Our culture pictures life as an endless series of Stroh-Light Nights culminating in Weekends Made for Michelob, but deep in our hearts we know it is not so. The happiest and most successful of us knows from experience the meaning of words like loneliness, fear, disappointment, rejection, failure. If we live long enough, we will add to that list the death of loved ones, betrayal, ill health, the feeling of uselessness. You cannot avoid suffering. You can muddle thought it blindly; you can make it worse by rebelling against it futilely; or you can understand it biblically and bear it redemptively. Some men suffer bitterly; some pitifully; some grievously; some needlesly; all inevitably. One of Paul's concerns in 2 Timothy is that the Christian experience the joy and privilege of suffering for the Gospel. To do this, we must understand the biblical view of suffering in the Christian life, which has at least three elements:
We would prefer to think there isn't any. Our favorite verses are all about abundant life and joy unspeakable, understandably so. But the view they give of the Christian life is not so much false as incomplete. A biblical view must also include 2 Tim. 1:8 and 3:12. Instead, the theology of success and prosperity, health and wealth ("Name it and claim it"--or, perhaps more accurately, "Blab it and grab it") continues to grow in popularity and, in subtle and less blatant forms, to infect even those who think they reject it. While God does sometimes reward his faithful with material wealth, there is no blanket promise of this; there are many biblical examples who run counter to it; and there is, as we shall see, explicit teaching that contradicts it. We do have joy unspeakable and full of glory, a foretaste or earnest of heaven--but we are not going to be in heaven until we get there. To deny the biblical place of suffering is simply to make the real suffering that does come harder to bear.
Let me share then three ways of saying the same thing about the place of suffering in the Christian life.
All these saints suffered for a higher purpose; not all of them knew what it was. So this raises the question of why God allows suffering as part of his plan for his people. And that leads us to the next element.
Suffering in God's plan is always for a purpose. But while the particular purpose is often not revealed for individuals, a number of general principles are revealed, purposes which suffering can always be made to serve whatever its ultimate rationale.
This leads to the third element:
The point needs only to be made to be understood. There is no more irrefutable, undeniable, un-ignorable testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the reality of God than the Christian who bears suffering and affliction joyfully, without bitterness, with love. For only God could produce this kind of spiritual reality, and without suffering it could never be seen.
History is replete with examples which illustrate this point. Think of Paul and Silas singing in the Philippian jail, leading to the conversion of the jailer. Think of Corrie and Betsy ten Boom in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, being asked, "Why has your alleged God of Love put you HERE?", and Betsy replying quietly, "To obey him." Think of Elizabeth Eliot and Rachel Saint returning with love and forgiveness and the Gospel to the Auca Indians who had savagely murdered their husbands . Think of Joni Eareckson Tada, the quadraplegic, sitting in her wheelchair with a paintbrush clenched between her teeth, bringing beauty out of her pain and signing it "PTL"--"Praise the Lord."
Bring the most hardened and sophisticated atheist in the world into the presence of such redemptive suffering, let him experience firsthand such faith, and I defy him to deny the reality of the God whose Son suffered for sin with any conviction in his voice. Redemptive suffering is powerful.
Why does preaching lack power today? Why does revival tarry? Why is the American Evangelical church, in spite of its numbers, so impotent to make any real impact on our society? Because by and large God's people are not willing to suffer for the Gospel. We prefer the theology of prosperity and success, even if it is in the milder and more subtle forms that do not so loudly betray their heretical origins. We prefer to think that God's love for us involves his intention of pampering us with and endless and uninterrupted series of successes, blessings, and victories for which no price has to be paid. But is this not an open invitation, tempting the Devil to accuse us as he did Job (1:9-11)? And why should God exempt us from the task of proving Satan wrong, any more than he exempted his servant Job?
I pray that God will grant us continued peace and prosperity as a nation. I pray that He will protect you from all unnecessary suffering. But I also pray He will help us to accept the affliction He does send us, understand it biblically, and bear it redemptively.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams