Christianity 201

December 16, 2014

The Gospel Speaks to Suffering

Gospel Centered CounselingThis is the second of two Zondervan book excerpts we’re doing here. This one is from Robert W. Kellemen’s new book, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives

Applying the Gospel to Suffering
by Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives

The Gospel of Christ’s grace deals thoroughly both with the sins we have committed and with the evils we have suffered. Somewhere along the way, some of us may have gained the mistaken notion that to address suffering means minimizing sin and capitulating to a secular psychology perspective on victimization. While I understand that concern, biblically it is unwarranted.

In fact, biblical counseling that deals only with the sins we have committed is half-biblical counseling. This means that it is also “half-gospel-centered” counseling. Unlike the Bible, we sometimes tend to make Christ’s victory over sin predominantly individual and personal, rather than also corporate and cosmic. Christ died to dethrone sin and defeat every vestige of sin. Christ died to obliterate every effect of sin — individual, personal, corporate, and cosmic — including death and suffering, tears and sorrows, mourning, crying, and pain.

That’s why twice in Revelation, John sees the culmination of the Gospel narrative as the end of suffering and sorrow:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. – Revelation 21:4

Question 52 in the New City Catechism asks, “What hope does everlasting life hold for us?” John in Revelation answers, “All our greatest sorrows will be swallowed up!” Christ died to defeat every enemy, every evil, including the Devil, who holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15), and the last enemy — suffering and death (1 Corinthians 15:25; Isaiah 53:4).

Certainly the Gospel is about payment for and forgiveness of personal sin. Equally certain is the Gospel’s eternal overthrow of the curse of sin — including suffering. That overthrow has already begun! Christ invites us to share with one another his healing hope in the midst of suffering today.

It is only through the hope of the Gospel that we can truly face suffering and find hope in suffering.

Kevin Vanhoozer, in pondering the drama of redemption, explains that tragedies deal with catastrophes. The Gospel, while never denying the catastrophe of sin, deals with what he calls eucatastrophe — Christ has accomplished something extraordinarily amazing out of something horribly evil.

This insight helps us to develop a biblical sufferology — a Gospel-centered theology of suffering.

We’ll see that the Gospel way to address suffering follows the twin paths of brutal honesty — it’s normal to hurt; and radical reliance — it is possible to hope.

The Pathway to Hope Straddles the Precipice of Despair

Olaudah Equiano, a Christian and an enslaved African American, began his life story with these words, “I acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.” His words might sound trite until we realize that they introduce the narrative of his harrowing kidnapping and enslavement.

Equiano was born a free man in 1745 in the kingdom of Benin on the coast of Africa. The youngest of seven children, his loving parents gave him the name Olaudah, signifying favored one. Indeed, he lived a favored life in his idyllic upbringing in a simple and quiet village, where his father served as the “chief man” who decided disputes, and where his mother adored him.

At age ten, it all came crashing down:

One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest woods: and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.

His kidnappers then unbound Equiano and his sister. Overpowered by fatigue and grief, they had just one source of relief. “The only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears.”

Equiano and his sister were soon deprived of even this comfort of weeping together:

The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms; it was in vain that we besought them not to part us: she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth.

It was during these evil circumstances, and many more to come, that Equiano acknowledged his heavenly Father’s good heart and Christ’s merciful providence in every occurrence of his life.

In his autobiography he makes the sweeping affirmation that even in the face of human evil, God is friendly and benevolent, able and willing to turn into good ends whatever may occur.

Equiano believed that God squeezes from evil itself a literal blessing:

I early accustomed myself to look at the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God!”

Olaudah Equiano moved beyond the suffering. He faced his suffering candidly, reminding us that it’s normal to hurt. He suffered face-to-face with God, recognizing that it’s possible to hope. His story reminds us of Paul’s story in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

Like Equiano and Paul, we’ve all endured hurt that has driven us to the precipice of despair. Unfortunately, we’ve likely been sent subtle messages:

“Christians don’t hurt.” “Spiritual Christians don’t talk about their struggles.”

Paul, inspired by God, tells us that’s a lie.

In fact, he shows us that when we deny our hurt, we deny our need for God.

And he demonstrates that the pathway to hope often straddles the precipice of despair.

Moving beyond the suffering first requires moving into the suffering.

Excerpted from Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives by Robert W. Kellemen, copyright Zondervan 2014

January 14, 2014

Count Suffering as Joy

James 1:

My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  (CEB)

2-3 When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. (Phillips)

2-4 Don’t run from tests and hardships, brothers and sisters. As difficult as they are, you will ultimately find joy in them; if you embrace them, your faith will blossom under pressure and teach you true patience as you endure. And true patience brought on by endurance will equip you to complete the long journey and cross the finish line—mature, complete, and wanting nothing. (The Voice)

This weekend our sermon was about the book of James, a book which famously says that we should rejoice when we encounter trials and testing. The pastor said out loud what some people say internally, “James, you’re an idiot.” Before you lash out at the choice of words, which one of us would naturally choose suffering? It’s generally not the default human response.

In doing an unrelated search, I came upon the last thing posted at the blog Mercy 4 Broken Hearts in November, 2013. The blog’s tag line is: Hope and Help for the Rough Passages of Life. Maybe that’s where you find yourself today. If so click through and look around other parts of the blog.  The author is Penny Fregeau. The article was titled The Fuel of Suffering.

price is rightImagine if you will that we are in the studio audience for a game show.   Now look on stage at the three doors you and I could choose – consider this:

  1. Behind door number one – an extreme makeover for your house – your dream home right here.  It could be in the most wonderful, as they say in real estate, location, location, location.  It comes complete with choice of style, the most amazing appliances in a dream kitchen, a garage-workshop lined with the best power tools, and curb appeal to impress any and all guests.
  2. Behind door number two is the perfect family.  Everyone is on their best behavior, everyone gets along and they are your pride and joy.  Enough said.
  3. And behind door number three is a simple sign that says, “Suffering that you might grow closer to Christ.”

Our human natures wouldn’t let us to choose and open that third door.  We wouldn’t.  As much as we would like to think we would, none of us wants to suffer.

As difficult as it is to consider, here are some positive things suffering can do:

  • Suffering establishes a common denominator with others who suffer in different ways.  It might be health issues, an aggressive cancer, a financial reversal, a job loss, the loss of someone close to us through death, the end of a treasured relationship, the list goes on….but when we accept suffering, unjust as it may be, we “get” the suffering of others and can give and receive sympathy on a whole new level.
  • Suffering can make us more tender-hearted and compassionate and use the fueled energy for something good.  Many powerful society-changing movements are birthed out of suffering.  We are seldom moved to sacrificial action when life is easy.  It takes those circumstances that tear us apart inside to give us the courage, determination and energy to make a difference. 
  • Suffering saves us from living a superficial mediocre life. 
  • Suffering helps us understand what is important, and what is not.
  • Suffering shines the light on what position God holds in our lives.
  • Suffering helps us to identify with Christ with the realization that He suffered more and so He understands on a level of no one else.  What Jesus willingly took on in submitting to a crucifixion is described as excruciating mentally, physically and spiritually.  Jesus “gets” our suffering.
  • Suffering can increase our thirst to know Christ more intimately.
  • Suffering refines us.  It is a tough process, but suffering is able to burn away things like pride, a self-sufficient attitude, a tendency toward resentment and a host of other things that can cause war within our souls.
  • Suffering enlarges our ability to trust in God alone for our future.
  • Suffering makes us long for heaven.  Suffering helps us understand it’s not all here and now and that some day in His timing, God will have the final word on everything.

We would never in a million years choose suffering.  But when it chooses us we can purpose ourselves and encourage each other to search out those silver linings to the dark clouds on our horizons.  How grateful I am for the kind words, selfless work and encouragements given to me.  They have made many days endurable, comforting and even hopeful.  Maybe our suffering will be used – somehow in someway – to make a brighter day for someone else.   Just perhaps something significant will grow out of the unlikely soil of anguish.  That gives a sense of hope when we are deep in hurt.  We all want something that outlasts us and our suffering, painful though it is, is an oft-used vehicle for powerful positive change.

August 3, 2013

Two Things Jesus Never Says to the Suffering

This appeared last month at Reason for Change, the blog of Jayson Bradley; click through to read at source and check out other material there:

When I look at Jesus, I am seeing the exact representation of God’s character. Jesus, as Paul says, is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). And Christ himself makes a connection between knowing him and knowing the Father (Jn 14:7).

It’s important for me to understand that not only is Jesus the perfect revelation of what it means to be fully human, his behavior also reveals so much to me about the character and concerns of God. That’s why it’s always interesting to me to think about, not only what Jesus says, but what he doesn’t say.

Scripture records Jesus healing a lot of people. On top of that, Jesus sets many demonically oppressed individuals free. When you stop and contrast the way we interact with afflicted individuals with the way Jesus did, you see some amazing discrepancies.

Here’s two huge things Jesus never says to the suffering:

1. You’re to blame

When I think through the innumerable examples of the sick and demonized Jesus healed, I can not come up with one example where he lays blame at the feet of the afflicted. More often than not, he treats those suffering various maladies as victims.

When Jesus stands up in the synagogue and kicks off his ministry, he does so with the following words from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk 4:18–19)

Jesus came to lead a revolt against enemy forces who hold the world hostage. These forces have have subjected all of creation to the slavery of corruption. This corruption runs deep. Some of Jesus’ healings were about bringing order to that corruption, and some (exorcisms) were in direct confrontation with the enemy forces responsible for that corruption.

It does me good to see that Jesus never makes the demonized or afflicted carry the weight of guilt for their condition. He doesn’t accuse them of being punished or disciplined. Rather, he simply confronts their oppressor and sets them free.

2. It’s part of God’s plan

Maybe even more surprising is that Jesus never attributes the suffering of others to the mysterious will of God. As I said in the previous section, Jesus challenges each illness and act of demonic oppression as if their presence is a direct affront to God’s will. There is no moment where Jesus looks to the distressed and indicates that they suffer as part of God’s greater plan.

When Peter sums up Jesus ministry, he says this, “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil. . .” (Acts 10:38) And John sums up the works of Jesus as being “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” Oppression and sickness were always treated as malevolent manifestations of a demonic kingdom.

The significance of what Christ didn’t say about the healings he performed is staggering. And although he ultimately destroyed the works of Satan on the cross, we still live in occupied territory. We are still routing the enemy, and dealing with a creation that is under slavery to corruption.

As we partner with Christ in redeeming all of creation to himself, our prayer matters. We are at work confronting the enemy in his strongholds, where he is at work killing, stealing, and destroying (Jn 10:10). We cannot afford to be attributing the oppression of the enemy to the mysterious work of the Lord.

In Luke Jesus says sums up his confrontation with evil this way, “When a strong manfully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder (Lk 11:21–22).”

The strong man is Satan, and creation is the house he’s guarding. Jesus came, confronted him throughout his ministry, and overpowered him at the cross. But we are still at work because the enemy is at work with great wrath because he knows his time is short (Rev. 12:12).

Let’s attribute his nefarious work to the right source, and continue to confront him. Soon . . . soon we will be dividing up the spoils of victory.

February 22, 2011

Joy in the Journey

With the day slipping away and realizing I still hadn’t posted a devotion here, I realized that I would not have sufficient time to write something.  So this time, I spun the magic WordPress wheel on the topic of “spiritual formation” and was introduced to A Long Strange Trip, the blog of Doug Walker from Farmington Hills, MI where this first appeared under the title Consider It Pure Joy.

In the past few months, a number of folks in our church family have experienced suffering in one form or another. Illness, death, job loss, and a myriad of other struggles have made for a difficult winter, and many of us are ready for some relief – for God in his goodness to take notice of us and ease our pain.

That’s what our kind Father in heaven does, right? Heals our diseases, binds up our broken hearts, satisfies our desires (at least that’s what Psalm 103 says). So what do I do when the suffering lingers, or even intensifies? Am I not praying right? Am I out of God’s will?

In the latest edition of Leadership magazine, pastor John Ortberg says this:

I once was part of a survey on spiritual formation. Thousands of people were asked when they grew most spiritually, and what contributed to their growth. The number one contributor to spiritual growth was not transformational teaching. It was not being in a small group. It was not reading deep books. It was not energetic worship experiences. It was not finding meaningful ways to serve. It was suffering. People said they grew more during seasons of loss, pain, and crisis than they did at any other time.

Anyone who has suffered knows this, but we don’t like to admit it. Maybe because we think that by confessing the fact we actually benefited from suffering would somehow give God an open door to send more. Sort of like repeating the old military training response, “thank you sir, may I have another,” which, of course, has never really been the desire of any young recruit.

But suffering CAN produce some very positive things in the life of a Christian. Romans 5 lists a few; perseverance, godly character, and hope. James 1 adds that trials can lead to maturity and fulfillment, and that we should actually rejoice when we face suffering.

I’m not saying we should pursue trouble in our lives so that we can grow and mature as Christians, but I am saying we should be more attentive to God when we face inevitable trials and difficulty. This can be tricky though, because we often view suffering as an opportunity to “learn” something so that we can “help” someone else who experiences a similar trial at a later time. There’s nothing wrong with learning from our difficulties and passing that lesson along to others, but if that’s all you’re interested in, you’re missing an important part of suffering – your spiritual formation.

Instead of asking, “What can I learn from this trial?” Maybe ask, “How will this experience make me more dependent on Christ?” And remember, suffering is never meaningless or accidental – God always has a purpose – and it’s usually further-reaching and more redemptive than we ever thought possible.

Rev. Doug Walker