The Discipline of Suffering
On today's broadcast, author Gary Thomas, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, helps us sharpen our view of suffering.
About the Guest
On today's broadcast, author Gary Thomas, a professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, helps us sharpen our view of suffering.
Gary Thomas helps us sharpen our view of suffering.
The Discipline of Suffering
Bob: Which are you more committed to – your happiness or God's purposes for your life? Here is author Gary Thomas.
Gary: How do I face sufferings and difficulties? It's "Thy will be done" in whatever situation. So whether I'm well or sick isn't as important as God's will being done; whether I'm employed or unemployed; whether I have good kids or difficult kids; all of that doesn't matter as much as the fact that I am called to live out Jesus's prayer, "Thy will be done."
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 12th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. And it's okay to pray as Jesus did in the garden, "Lord, help," as long as we add, "Thy will be done."
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. You've quote, many times, as we talk about marriage, you've talked about Matthew, chapter 7, where Jesus talks about the house that's built on the rock versus the house that's built on the sand. Both of them have to endure the storm, and one of them stands, and the other one falls.
I came across a quote from Jonathan Edwards that makes a similar point. He said, "If you want to know whether a building is going to stand strong, you look at it when the wind is blowing hard. Similarly, we can list the reality of a man's Christian practice when he is under the trials of God's providence." It's easy to be a Christian when the boss gives you a raise, and people are clamoring for your spiritual counsel, and your wife thinks that you're the greatest guy who ever lived, and your children adore you. I mean, anybody can be that kind of Christian, right?
Bob: But when life is throwing hardballs and curves, that's when our faith is really put to the test.
Dennis: And I think, for a lot of us, we think suffering is one of the optional courses. You know, when you go to high school or college, there are certain courses that are required courses. Well, trials, troubles, difficulties, are all a part of, I think, the main course of following Christ. And if you try to get out from under it, you're running from real life.
Gary Thomas has written about this, and I'm glad he joins us here again on FamilyLife Today. Gary, welcome back.
Gary: Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis: He has written a book called "Authentic Faith, the Power of a Fire-Tested Faith," and so if you sense the radio getting a little warm as you listen to it, or your computer as you listen online to FamilyLife Today, there's a reason for that. We're dipping into the fire of that which tests our faith. Gary and his wife have three children. He has written a number of books, but this one, I think is – well, Gary, frankly, I think this may be one of your most important works, because you're dealing with the basics of the Christian faith. How do you live the Christian life?
I want to ask you a basic question. As Christians, how should we view suffering?
Gary: Inevitable and helpful – those are two things. Jesus says in John 16:33, "In this world you will have trouble." Now, that's as close to an absolute promise as you can get. But then the apostles followed that up in the Book of Acts. They said, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." They lived with the sense that not only were some problems going to arise, but they would have many problems. Accepting it as inevitable, I believe, helped them to see a value in suffering that we tend to deny today. Some people think that faith means you never face troubles. When I think biblical faith says "Faith is displayed through troubles on how you receive them and surrender to God's work in your soul." As you said, it doesn't take a lot of faith to figure out how you're going to spend $2 million. It does take faith to pray and figure out how you can spend – when you think you don't have enough money to cover your current needs.
Bob: There is a verse in the great hymn, "How Firm a Foundation," that's all about suffering. It says, "When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, thy grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not harm thee, I only design the dross to consume and the gold to refine." The reason the heat gets turned up in our life is because it has a purifying, a refining, effect on us, doesn't it?
Gary: Absolutely it does, and sometimes the effect is more subtle, and we use that as an excuse that we don't really need it. I think most Christians know there are certain scandalous sins that are not appropriate for a believer. We certainly shouldn't be using certain type of language in front of our children, we shouldn't be gambling away the mortgage money. We know that. But sometimes we think that that's where it stops, and we forget that seemingly little things like petulance and impatience and harshness, and those character qualities that can so poison FamilyLife and relationships and a church, in general, we think those aren't as crucial, and yet those are often the things that God wants to burn up through difficult times, because He knows how destructive they can be.
Dennis: I'm picturing a mom right now, maybe she's gotten some bad news about a child; perhaps a businessman, there are challenges at work, maybe big-time challenges in his marriage or at home; and, certainly, as the sparks fly upwards from the fire, we are born to have trouble. Okay, we've established that. Help me in dealing with my trouble today, Dennis. I want to know how should I view it? How should I respond to it? And one of the ways that the Apostle Paul exhorted us to deal with it was through rejoicing, giving praise, giving thanks in all things. That's not a natural response to trials.
Gary: The verse you're referring to, I believe, would be Romans, chapter 5, verse 3 through 4 that Paul says we rejoice in our suffering because of what suffering produces. It leads to perseverance, which leads to proven character, and Paul didn't look at just what suffering did in the immediate moment. He looked ahead. It gives me the chance to develop perseverance, and when you think about it, perseverance assumes you want something to stop. It means that something unpleasant is going on – no for a little time. That's the thing – a lot of us want to put up with a little time. Perseverance assumes it's ongoing, and then proven character comes from that. So what that tells me is that proven character, the type that shapes me and that forms me, assumes there is an ongoing discomfort in my life.
And what I've noticed, and you may have noticed this, too – don't trials usually come in bundles? I think of my pastor – very godly man who, in one year – it was incredible what he had to face – the death of his father, which is a huge passage of life that just knocks the wind out of you. He was close with his dad. Then he faced kidney stones, which, for a guy, is about the most painful thing you could imagine. After that, it wasn't long before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which, you know, it's a humiliating experience to be treated with that and to go through that. And then in his church, there was a person on staff who had to be dismissed for moral failure and some other issues that were going on. And I was thinking, he faced a decade's worth of troubles in about 18 months.
And it often happens that way. It's not just that a child rebels. A child rebels when you're going through a medical problem, when your marriage is going through a difficult time, when there's some financial pressure, and I think one of the reasons for that is perseverance isn't just facing one little annoyance. Perseverance comes when God puts us in a place where there is literally more than we can handle so that we have to get to the point where we say, "Lord, I give up. I'm not strong enough to endure all this."
Dennis: And, you know, in Romans, chapter 5, that passage you quoted, I think there's a couple of things God's trying to get our attention about here. He is letting us know there is a process. The process is tribulation brings about perseverance, perseverance brings about proven character, and then proven character results in hope.
But knowing that process is there is a form of comfort.
Dennis: But it doesn't sustain us, it really doesn't. I've been there. It is our relationship with Christ, where we keep on going to Him and saying, "Okay, God, you must walk with me through this period. Lead me, guide me," and what He's done is, He's given us the Scripture to guide us. We should be careful of never betraying the truth of Scripture as we go through a time of suffering.
But, secondly, he has not just left us with the cerebral knowledge of the Bible. He has spoken to the needs of our soul in a profoundly personal way by giving us the person of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, if we are a follower of Christ. He is the third person of the Trinity. He manifests God to us and through us; comes to comfort us; He comes to teach us; He comes to guide us; to direct us; to give us wisdom. And when I couple these two together, the process that I know is at stake in my soul where something good is going to emerge out of this time I'm going through but then, secondly, I know that I am riveted to Him – getting to know Him through the Scriptures and then, secondly, experiencing Him through the Holy Spirit. Then at that point, you know what? Suffering becomes very purposeful. It's not some random thing happening in your life.
I've remarked many times, I wonder how someone who doesn't follow Christ – how do they interpret life? I mean, it's one thing to have a flat tire and go, "Well, that was bad luck that I ran over a nail." But when a kid gets leukemia; when a wife finds a lump; or a husband gets fired; or a child gets off in the ditch as an adult; how do you handle that? How do you piece that together? How do you make sense out of that? I think Christianity is the only way a person can sanely embrace life and come out on the other side a better person.
Bob: Gary, when the Bible talks about knowing Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, that's a phrase that sounds really strange to us – the fellowship of sufferings sounds like a contradiction in terms.
Gary: But it's a precious spiritual reality. I think it's most displayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The prayer of Jesus has changed my life, it's so simple – "Thy will be done." How do I face sufferings and difficulties? It's surrendering to God saying, "Thy will be done. Thy kingdom come," you know, basically, to go into The Lord's Prayer from there, but basically whether I am sick or in good health, my desire is that I learn to be a surrendered Christian, whether that's with children who love me and appreciate me or whether it's children who rebel against me; whether I am in a delightful marriage or a distant marriage; whether I am respectably employed; whether I am frustratingly unemployed, the prayer of my life is "God, Your will be done." What does it mean to love You and serve You in whatever situation? And, for me, what that means is the biggest question of my life has been answered – what is my purpose here on earth? To do God's will.
So whether I'm well or sick isn't as important as God's will being done. Whether I am employed or unemployed; whether I have good kids or difficult kids, all of that doesn't matter as much as the fact that I am called to pray and to live out Jesus's prayer – "Thy will be done."
Bob: John Piper made the statement at one point – he said, "The world is not going to look at us in prosperity and say, 'Gee, I want to be a Christian because when good things happen, they say praise the Lord.'" He said, "But instead, when they see us go through suffering and maintain a faith and a peace and a hope," he said, "That's when the world is confounded. That's when they scratch their head, that's when they say 'what is it about you? What's different about you?'" So it may be that God moves us through a season of suffering for the refinement of our own character, but God may also be moving us through a season of suffering so that, around us, people will look and go, "There's something different about the way he handles that."
Dennis: Bob, you're illustrating someone who handles suffering right, the way God wants us to handle suffering. But, Gary, sometimes people refuse to suffer. They detach from it. I think it was D.L. Moody who said, "Suffer? I don't want to embrace suffering. When I see trouble coming, I want to turn around and run away as fast as I can."
Bob: That's my natural tendency. You get a letter one day from the IRS, okay, and it says …
Dennis: Now, this didn't really happen?
Bob: This happened to me – a letter from the IRS, and it says, "We've been looking over your taxes, and a tax return from three years ago, you made a miscalculation, you owe us $800." I think it was $400 for the original tax plus interest now on the money, because you haven't paid it for three years. I remember opening that envelope and looking at it and going, "There must be something wrong here." You know, I just put the envelope down and walked away and thought, "They'll write me in a couple of days and say, 'Oh, we made a mistake about our mistake. You're okay.'" See, I will move quickly to denial as kind of my default mechanism.
And some people, Gary, move to denial and then call it faith. You know, they say, "Well, whatever," but they're not really embracing suffering, they're not walking into it, they're not reaping the benefit that comes from those trials, because they're just kind of pretending it away.
Gary: We do, and I think one of the main motivations behind the reason for that is that we assume that we've arrived. I'm amazed at my pride. I'm going through a difficult time, and what helps me is to remind myself, "You know, Gary, obviously, God sees you have some issues that need to be burned off that you're not seeing." And why do I think I'm finished? Why do I think I don't have those things? And God has to turn up the heat, and it's just learning, for me, it's just this decision to surrender and say, you know what? I'm not there. God's working on me. He's got this issue, and I've got to face this instead of run.
Bob: So when we get the diagnosis of a disease or when we get the letter from the IRS, and we take a financial hit, or when we walk into a valley, and we go, "Woops, I’m in the valley of suffering. I took a wrong turn here." Should we, at that point, become introspective? Is it right to say, "Lord, why do you have me here? What are you trying to teach me?" Is that where we ought to go when we're there?
Gary: Well, instead of why, I think the right question is what? I have a wonderful friend, a godly man named Darrell Smith [ph]. He grew up as a weightlifter. Now, for those of you who lift weights, he used to bench press 450 pounds, which is about 400 pounds more than I can do. I mean, it's incredible even for a bodybuilder, and his greatest fear was always that he would lose the use of his legs. He married a woman who had had a difficult background, and he wanted to be her hero. He wanted to lift her up, but within two years of being married, he was diagnosed with MS. Today he does go around on a scooter. He's lost most of the use of his legs. He has to walk very slowly with a cane.
And he talked to me about how, when he was going through this in the early days, every day after the diagnosis, he's praying, "Lord, please deliver me from this. Please heal me." He was involved in full-time ministry with youth, he wanted to do this, he wanted to do that, and finally he felt like the Lord getting through to him saying, "Darrell, you're acting like MS is the biggest issue in your life." He said, "Well, yeah." And he said God said, "It's not. There are other things I want to build into your soul." And he said from that day on, instead of saying, "Lord, why?" He started praying, "Lord, what? What is it that you want me to learn? What is it that I need to know? What is it that isn't complete in my soul that You're trying to complete, that You're trying to do?"
And Darrell just has this powerful ministry. He calls it "The Ministry of Sitting Around." Because of his situation, he'll just go, and he'll sit outside of Starbuck's. They bring the orders to him because they know what he wants, and they know him well enough, and it's amazing the people that God brings to him, because he's just there waiting to be used by God. And in one real sense, his weakness has become a tremendous strength. I say that with some embarrassment, because knowing what he faces with MS on a daily basis, I don't want to minimize the daily trials and the troubles that he has. But God is using it and, I tell you, the testimony that he has is amazing.
Dennis: We all know of a businessman who is written about in the Bible. He lost his children, lost his business, lost his health – the story of the temptations last for 41 chapters in the Book of Job. And then at the end of the book, there is this pronouncement – Job answers the Lord, and he declares to Him, he says, "I know that you can do all things." He has found God to be sufficient and that "No purpose of Yours will be thwarted."
And he goes on to kind of muse – you can almost hear him say, "You know, I used to talk about You in the third person. I now know You, hear You, and see You because I walk with you through desperate moments." And I think when you boil it all down and after God's through with our character, what He is interested in doing in our lives is He is interested in us getting to know Him, because He is going to be the One we spend eternity with. And He is introducing Himself to us through life's little interruptions and through life's big distractions, and He wants us, in the process, to know Him so that we'll trust Him.
I know I'm not through suffering, I'm not through learning the lessons I've got to learn, but that through the suffering that Barbara and I have been through, and it's minor compared to what others have gone through by comparison, but I do know God in a way I would not have known Him any other way, and you can introduce others to Him. Paul said in 2 Corinthians, chapter 1, "comfort others with the comfort with which you've been comforted." And, I promise you, the way you'll do that is by introducing them to the God you've gotten to know.
Bob: You know, I was looking at the way that you expressed this on the back of the book, Gary. You say, "Authentic faith is about something other than a smooth ride through a fallen world. Rather, authentic faith is shaped and tempered and purified in the flames of struggle, and that will help you rise above the shallow attachments to fix our hearts on something that is of eternal worth." And that ought to be the goal and the desire of our lives – not to love this world or the things in the world, as the Scriptures teach us. Although the world keeps trying to seduce us every day, and the only antidote for that is the renewing of our minds with the Word of God.
I want to encourage our listeners to consider contacting us to get a copy of the book, "Authentic Faith," by Gary Thomas. We've got it in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and we'd be happy to get a copy out to you. Go to our website, FamilyLife.com, click the red button that says "Go" on our home page, and that will take you right to the area where you can get more information about Gary's book. There are other resources that we list there that you may find helpful including a small book by our friend, Elisabeth Elliott, called "Faith That Does Not Falter." And if you're interested in getting Gary's book and Elisabeth's book together, we'll send you at no additional cost the CD that includes our conversation this week with Gary Thomas on these subjects.
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Well, tomorrow we are going to hear part one of a message from our friend, C.J. Mahaney, on "The Power of the Gospel." And if you have thought that the Gospel was simply the message that non-Christians need to hear so that they can become Christians, I want you to tune in tomorrow and find out why you need to hear the Gospel over and over again.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
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