We remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Before Bonhoeffer was martyred for standing against the brutal Nazi regime, he penned that famous line to remind us that sacrifice and suffering are part of the Christian life. The way of the cross was the way of Jesus, and it will be our way too. There is no other way for the true follower of Christ.
But we forget that. Whether we acknowledge it openly or not, we all fall into the trap of thinking that real suffering is for believers in other parts of the world. Not here. And, before you know it, we’re attempting to line up our understanding of Christianity with our American experience, instead of lining up our thinking with the Bible. If we had kept God’s Word front and center, we would have remembered our Lord’s clear teaching (Matthew 16:24-26): “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?”
Perhaps, friend, you’re suffering right now, and trying to make sense of it. You are not alone, and you likely know that, but that knowledge doesn’t make everything better all at once. Suffering is hard. So hard! And we’re never really prepared for it. There seems always to be an element of shock that comes with a new round of suffering: “Why me?” “Why now?” “Why this?”
My purpose in sharing today’s blog posting is to help you fly higher over your life, even if for only a moment, so that you can see your circumstances just a little more clearly. I need that vantage point, for myself, on a regular basis. Sometimes I have to ask a trusted sister or brother in Christ to speak into my ears the grace and truth of a bigger gospel story. When I’m suffering alone, and disconnected from other believers, it’s next to impossible for me to see the bigger and wonderful story which God is writing in and through my life. And He’s using my suffering, among many other tools, in order to accomplish that work of eternal value.
When you feel like you’re in the FIRE of suffering, I want to share with you a little acrostic that I’ve worked up that may bring some understanding, acceptance, and peace. I hope you find it helpful. But, before we go any further, I want you to read slowly Romans 5:1-4. (I purposefully won’t include that text here, so that you’ll open the Scriptures for yourself. That’s super important today.)
In this great passage, Paul is helping us understand what it means that we have been “justified” in Christ. Notice that our justification is all the work of Christ. And notice that Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf is the only reason we have peace with God. But why did Christ have to die for us? Because our world is spiritually broken. I’m emphasizing our “fallen” nature because I want you to wrap your heart around the condition of the entire human race, as well as the condition of every world philosophy, system, and government. It’s all broken. Sometimes you and I suffer simply because this world is not functioning the way it was designed to function. It’s as simple as that. Coming to terms with the general fallenness of humankind might be the first step toward embracing our present suffering.
Let’s face the facts. Everybody we know is a sinner in thought, word, and deed. And so are we. All of us have made more than our share of absolutely terrible choices. We continue to make poor and destructive choices, at least on occasion. When we make sinful and selfish decisions, we suffer, and others suffer directly or indirectly. What I’m saying is that you and I contribute to some of the circumstances which result in our suffering. (Not all, but some. It’s important to remember that detail.) Here’s my point: though personal suffering tempts us to employ the “blame game” indiscriminately, we should seek to avoid that. Ask the Lord to search your heart. Paul says that we have “access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” If and when we need forgiveness, it is ours for the asking. Perhaps we’ll even find ourselves, like Jesus, praying for our enemies to be forgiven.
Sometimes our suffering is God’s discipline. We rarely even speak of this, perhaps because we’re so afraid to connect those dots. But that just goes to show that you and I don’t understand God’s discipline: His discipline is love (Hebrews 12:5-11). All His ways are love. God wants nothing but the very best for us! Consider again Paul’s words to the Romans: Christ is pouring His amazing grace into our thirsty souls over and over again! The Holy Spirit is ours, and we are His, and His great work in us is all of grace. This is true even in seasons of chastisement. It is all for our good, and for His glory.
We can’t get away from this beautiful passage without noticing God’s highest plans for us, in and through the fiery trials we face: endurance, character, and hope. These become realities in us only through our sufferings. What I’m saying is that, though you and I want to avoid suffering, God wants to redeem suffering! His ways are not our ways, but His ways can be trusted. Next to Jesus, I think Tim Keller says it best: “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”
So, heads up, my beloved church family! We’re almost home!