The Cross is the Only Attraction, further thoughts

I want to ask a sharp question. Is it OK for a pastor to grow a ministry? Is it faithfulness to God for elders to figure out how to grow a church?  is it OK to figure out how to get people in the door and to stay?

I am asking this because I am preaching through Mark’s Gospel.  We have come to the place were Jesus could never be accused of being attractional. The attractional part is over (Chapters 1-8), now we are walking with Jesus on his death march.

So what about being attractional? Let’s explore.  Let me start with what this could mean.

  • It means thinking attractionally, finding what people want and aiming at it.
  • It means thinking attractionally about programs and sunday worship and sermons.
  • It means planning your staff and budget with an attractional purpose.
  • It means working hard at getting people in the door and keeping them there.

Well, any pastor, any planter, does some thinking about being attractional.  We want our new churches to grow with new believers and even to serve existing believers.  To do that, we need to think about how to serve them, to make the church relevant to their needs.  We have greeters at the door, make our vision clear, ensure our messages are clear, and apply the truth to real issues in people’s lives.

But I think there needs to be some more thinking on this.  I think that because there is another set of questions that must be asked.  For example:

  • In my efforts to make the Gospel understandable, am I leaving out parts that are necessary but harder to accept?  Am I minimizing the weighty stuff, like eternity and wrath, and sticking to relate-able ideas like freedom and love?
  • In my efforts to attract and retain people, am I willing to have them come and stay for the wrong reasons, and never challenge that?
  • Am I hiding the hook with the bait, and will I inevitably have to surprise them with the whole story?
  • In my efforts to attract, am I playing the Holy Spirit?

On that last point let me carry on a bit.  Spurgeon used to quote the phrase, “a sinner is a precious thing, the Holy Ghost has made him so.”  What he meant by that is simple: where the Holy Spirit is at work, people are hungry for the Gospel.  Where he is not at work, people have no interest. Let’s think about that a minute. His work is what makes the Gospel attractive.  Period.

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India, working in the darkest corners of pagan religion, held to a simple principle: the cross is the only attraction.  She believed that, because like Paul, she believed that the word of the cross was the power of God to save.  If the Holy Spirit was at work, the message was the power of God.  and if he was not at work, it was foolishness.

And she knew that the message of the cross, in itself, was not attractive.  It was repulsive.  To a first century resident in the Roman Empire, a message about the cross was revolting, shaming, demeaning.  To associate a Savior with crucifixion was ridiculous. Again, only the Holy Spirit can make that attractive.

So, let me press the question further. Is there anything we can do or any program we can devise which will make the message of the crucified Savior attractive to moderns? I think not.  And if we trim out the ugliness of the cross, and turn it into a piece of jewelry — if we make the message of the cross something other than offensive and foolish, we are likely attracting people to the wrong thing. And then what?

I do not mean that we should not seek to be clear, to make the Gospel understandable.  I do mean that perhaps, in our effort to be attractional, we trim the hard edges off the cross. In doing so we minimize the work of the Spirit and his ability to awaken the dead and give sight to the blind.  .

There are many today who advocate being attractional. They insist we have to strip the message of the Gospel down to simple phrases or people will not understand it.  We certainly want to be simple and clear, but if we obscure the message of the cross, to what are they being attracted? and what will we tell them when they find out that following Jesus is following the crucified, and they too, must take up a cross?

So, some questions for starters:

  • when you plan your ministries, and pursue excellence, how will you make sure that the good program will not be the only point of attraction?
  • when you plan your preaching, how will you be sure to include the word of the cross which is foolishness?
  • in your telling of the Gospel, how will you be sure to speak the whole message and not just the parts that are appealing?



Grace upon grace

Grace Church members know that for a few weeks I have started each message with the NT blessing, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I do so for a simple reason.  For those in Christ, this reflects the disposition of God toward us.  He is for us.  He holds no condemnation over us.  He offers us grace and he speaks peace over our lives. We need reminders.

I have been relishing this.  As I wake, as I lie down.  All day.

No matter what my week has been, no matter where I err or sin, no matter whether I have been victorious or not — God, in Christ, speaks peace over me.

This week I came across a reinforcing comment on the phrase “He gives more grace” (James 4:4-5).  Alec Motyer is one of my favorites.  I think he nails it, once again, here:

What comfort there is in this verse! It tells us that God is tirelessly on our side. He never falters in respect of our needs; he always has more grace at hand for us. He is never less than sufficient, he always has more and yet more to give. Whatever we may forfeit when we put self first, we cannot forfeit our salvation, for there is always more grace. No matter what we do to him, he is never beaten. We may play false to the grace of election, contradict the grace of reconciliation, overlook the grace of indwelling—but he gives more grace. Even if we were to turn to him and say, “What I have received so far is much less than enough,” he would reply, “Well, you may have more.” His resources are never at an end, his patience is never exhausted, his initiative never stops, his generosity knows no limit: he gives more grace. Quoted in Poirier, Alfred J. (2006-08-01). Peacemaking Pastor, The: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (p. 65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

God is tirelessly on our side!  Do you believe that for yourself?  for your friends? for your wife?  husband?  kids? people with whom you are in conflict?

It is true and better news than we could ever have imagined.  Drink it up.  Drink deeply.


Expecting what God sees as we gather

We live in a media culture. Media both informs and stimulates. It is entertaining. It amuses us. Quality of production matters in a competitive world.

Our culture shapes our expectations, and demands. We walk into life as critics, evaluating what comes before us, demanding stimulus and innovation. “Did you see the new iPhone? Can you imagine the compromises they made to put out the 5C?” “I watched the presentation. Certainly not the flair of Steve Jobs.”

But culture should not shape our expectations of the gathering of the local congregation in worship. Local congregants shape their expectations of the Sunday gathering by faith, by believing what God sees and says about the congregation. We considered that here.

The congregation is first of all not about you. It is about God. It is not about our presence, but His presence. God is among his people when they gather. When a local congregation comes together, we are his dwelling place.

We do not gather for amusement, entertainment, or stimulation. We gather as the people of God in whom God dwells.

. . . In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:22 ESV)

Now how do we bring this to bear in our lives? We cultivate a faith built imagination.

God has given us the capability to see in our minds, to imagine.God has given us his word, to reveal what he sees.When we believe what God sees, it shapes our imagination.

Annie Dillard spoke to this issue of imagination in these words. Here she asks whether the congregation imagines its gathering as God does, or has diminished its vision by unbelief:

It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

The focus on being well dressed, says Dillard, is entirely a reflection of the imagined purpose of the gathering. But it is wrong. The gathering is about the Living God, and that would change our dress code worries considerably.

God calls us to shape our imagination of weekly Sunday worship by faith

Let’s look at one Psalm as an example. Psalm 84 is an example of an imagination shaped by faith.

Verses 1-4 tell us what the Psalmist saw as he looked at the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. He saw the dwelling of God, the place where the Living God was present. He had great desire for it.

Perhaps it has not occurred to you, but this was seeing by faith. Because what he saw with his eyes and perceived with his five senses were quite different:

  • He saw a building in a court with a wall around it.
  • He smelled and saw blood, lots of it.He smelled burning flesh.
  • This was not a BBQ odor. It was not just cooked meat, but skin and hair and internal organs.
  • He heard animal noises, bleating and mooing and cooing.
  • He heard talking and shouting and crackling flames.
  • In short, it was a gory, smelly, noisy, repulsive sight.

That is clearly not what Ps 84:1-4 sees. No, his imagination is shaped by faith in God’s word. He shaped his sight by believing what God saw.

This is what God saw:

  • This is my dwelling place,I have placed my name here.
  • My glory dwells in the inner chamber of that tent, that building.
  • Here I reveal that I am your God and you are my people.I want to meet with you, to walk among you.
  • All this shedding of blood is because I am holy and you are sinful.
  • No one may traipse before me, or come casually. You may not come to me any way you choose.
  • I have given you these sacrifices so you may see that sin must be judged.
  • When I see the sacrifice of blood, I am at peace. Sin is removed and judged.
  • I can dwell with you, and bless you.

He believes what God says and not what he sees. His imagination is shaped by believing God. This means He did not trusting his eyes, or his feelings. He resisted the wrong conclusions his eyes or feelings may reach: “Doesn’t look to me like God is here” “I don’t feel his presence”

So what does this have to do with us?

God calls us each week to gather. As we gather, he tells us what he sees. He sees his blood bought people. He sees a dwelling place in his gathered people. His focus is not on the building but on the people.

He says that the power of Jesus is present. The Holy Spirit is present. God is actively present.

That is what he sees, but what to we see?

We see our friends, a facility, places to sit, décor, carpets, lighting, a band. We hear OK music, voices almost in tune, PA either too loud or not loud enough. We listen to a sermon from a preacher, which is certainly not worthy of being published. Sometimes it is clear, sometimes it is not. We hear announcements.

The “real world” of our senses shouts to us. Our feelings and media saturated culture shout to us. Our felt needs shout to us. Their shouting shapes our hopes and expectations. We desire to leave the meeting having connected with friends, returned that saucepan, and been inspired and refreshed for another week. If the music is off key or the sermon too long or the décor unpleasant, we may be disappointed.

God does not shout. God’s Word whispers. It tells us what the true God sees and what he desires to accomplish. He is there to give himself to us as our God, to take us again as his people. It is a loving rendez-vous between God and his redeemed people. He is present.

Which will you believe? Which will shape your imagination? The whisper of God’s Word is true. The shouts of what we see and hear are half-truths at best.

God invites us to trust him, to walk by faith, not by feeling – to walk by faith, not felt needs – to walk by faith, not sight.

He promises that those who walk by faith will find in him an unfailing and invisible source of life.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jer 17:5-8 ESV)

We do not base our lives on what we see, on what we feel, on what seems right to us. That is calling God unreliable.

We are not to come to public worship with our imagination shaped by our sight. Rather, we believe what God sees and says, and shape our expectations with that.

God wants us to shape our imagination of our Sunday gathering by believing Him. What he says is true, not what we see, not what we feel, not what the culture says.

When we gather, we are his dwelling placeWhen we gather we draw near to God through the blood of Christ

Fellowship follows worship.

Worship follows expectation.

Expectation follows faith-shaped imagination.

How do we shape our imagination? We shape it by habits of reminding ourselves of what God says.

We have Sunday habits, but maybe we need to ad one?

We add a new thing to our get out the door checklist on Sunday:

“I am going to church . . . need my bible, the diaper bag, that pot to return to my friend. I hope to catch up with Mary or Bill. I want to finalize that babysitting exchange with Sue. Oh yes, I am going to be part of the dwelling of God. Jesus died to bring us to God. He will be there. The Holy Spirit will be there. I expect his presence for us all, and for me.”

It is so simple: remind of what God says and believe God.

Pause in the car to pray, with family. Pause as you get out of car.

Heart habits remind and build faith.

Faith in God’s Word shapes the imagination.

A faith shaped imagination affects how we prioritize, prepare, enter, pray, and expect.


The Presence of God in the Gathered Church

How does God’s word shape your expectation of the Sunday gathering of the church?  How are you seeing by faith what God sees as you walk in the doors of the room?

New post:


Suffering and the Love of God

The first sin of our first parents began with suspicion of God. Ever since, the gravity of the human heart is to question God’s goodness.

Few things make this more apparent than suffering, in any form.

We live in a day, as any day, when people think they are more loving than God, or at least more loving then the God of the Bible. They question his motives, hold him in suspicion. They ask:

  • How can God be love and allow malnutrition and war?
  • How can God be love and take my children away in an accident?
  • How can God be love and cause me to lose my job?
  • How can God be love and not accept my sexual orientation?
  • How can God be love and send people to eternal separation from him?

In short, all the critiques of God that arise here and there in the church and the culture are from people who believe they are more loving than God.  They have a better idea of love.

Some of them actually reinterpret the Bible.  Not because there is new linguistic evidence or fresh historical background information. No, it is simply because they will read their definition of love into the Bible and wrest texts of their meaning. Some have gone so far as to say that the clear meaning of words that describe Jesus as a substitute for us imply divine child abuse.

It is understandable that I would question the love of God because of suffering, my own or others, whether it is the suffering of saying no to sinful desires or the suffering of painful loss of health, comfort, or friends.  The problem is not that God does not love, but that we assume we know what love is.  To be quite blunt: Our understanding of love is cheap and tawdry, lame and tame.

Just today, after almost a whole summer of meditating on the love of God, I was overcome by God’s unmanageable, unpredictable, holy love. God’s love is fierce and fiery.

I wrote out these thoughts:

  1. If God is love, if before the worlds were made he was love in the communion of the Trinity, 3 infinite persons in one God, existing in unfathomable glory and delight in each other — then his love is dreadful, awe-inspiring, other worldly, larger than I can grasp.
  2. It causes dread because it is absolute, beyond my questioning and evaluation.  It is the love of the infinite Triune God within himself.
  3. If God is love, eternal love, then all that he does, allows, and orders is done in love.  No malice or cruelty ever enters into the mind or actions or purposes of God.
  4. Love is unmanageable.  I would rather focus on God’s righteousness.  That can be reduced to principles.  But love?  It is unknowable.  It cannot be circumscribed.
  5. God has proven the deep intensity and purity of his love in one act: herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and gave his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.  This ends all question about any mixed motives in God.  It ends all questions about whether his love has limits. It defines the intentions of his holy love and the price he would pay to lavish his love upon sinners.
  6. This means that no matter what the suffering, I am called to trust him.  Though he slay me, says Job, I will trust him.  Though he asks that I go to the cross and suffer for sin, says Jesus, I will trust his love and obey him.  Though he take away health and love and family and wealth and reputation, I know he has loved me and given himself to me.

When I experience some form of suffering or deprivation, when God frustrates my sinful desires, I am tempted to look up to him and say, “Lord, if you loved me you would do this for me.”

His answer is always the same, “I have loved you and done that for you.”  The “that” is the giving of his Son for us, when we were sinners.

It is all a matter of where I look, even when I am suffering.


Sufferings and the Conflict of the Ages

I have discovered that one of the most helpful books in Scripture for gaining perspective on suffering is . . . .  no, not the Psalms (though it is an immensely helpful prayer book) . . .  it’s the book of Revelation.

It has not always been so for me.  Trained in a model of the end times thinking that led me to look in Revelation for helicopters, Chinese armies, and vulture counts over Armageddon, it has taken me decades to read this book differently (and I think more profitably).

I do not think God gave us this book to provide a lens on contemporary events, assuming we live at the end of the age.  No, it was written to provide perspective to the people of God, suffering as Christians in a hostile world.  It provides perspective by pulling back the curtain on the life the church has lived in every century.

It is filled with conflict:

And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, (Rev 11:7 ESV)

Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (Rev 12:17 ESV)

Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, (Rev 13:7 ESV)

The point, I think, is simple: Revelation pulls back the veil of the apparent and shows us the real.  The real is a conflict, the opposition of Satan to God.  God has given him permission to wage war.  Blood is shed.  Martyrs will die.  The hatred he bears for God and the saints is intense. That is why there is Christian suffering in the world.

The exhortation to the church is endurance and conquest. Fifteen (15) times there is a description of conquest, enduring to the end.  That victory is not by human power or weapons of war.  It is by Christ:

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. (Rev 12:11 ESV)

I find the book to be a bracing word to expect conflict and suffering in this age, to be ready for opposition, to endure in the power of God, and to view present warfare as precedent to future glory.  The promise of rewards is staggering, beginning with the end of each of the letters to the 7 churches.

Christian: expect suffering, look to future glory, endure to the end.


Christian Suffering

Having considered the broad causes of suffering, I want to weigh in on the issue of suffering that is distinctively Christian. But before I do that let me say again that suffering is in the world because of Adam’s sin which is the root of our sin, a broken creation, and the sins of others.  And sin bring suffering because sin cuts us off from the God who is the source of all goodness.  Behind the reality of suffering is the generous goodness of God.  Behind the reality of suffering is the heinousness of sin which demands independence from God and then rails at God for giving us what we want, the first taste of existence without his goodness permeating all things.

Lewis put its so clearly:

“It is not simply that God has arbitrarily made us such that He is our only good. Rather God is the only good of all creatures: and by necessity, each must find its good in that kind and degree of the fruition of God which is proper to its nature. The kind and degree may vary with the creature’s nature: but that there ever could be any other good, is an atheistic dream. . . . That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.”  — from The Problem of Pain

Ok, on to Christian suffering.  I find that we tend to lump everything painful into one file folder, suffering.  What I said in a previous post is that there is a file called suffering, and it has sub folders. And it is a sub folder of the file named sin.

God: Man: Sin: Suffering: Suffering because of X.

X is creation’s disorder, X is the sins of others, X is my own sin.  And X is Christian suffering, what is unique to those who belong to Jesus. All suffering is under the rule of God.  All suffering is in the world due to Adam’s sin.  But some suffering is unique to those who follow Christ.  Let me explain.

Jesus said that those who follow him must deny themselves, must take up their cross daily, must lose their lives for him and the Gospel, must deny the gain of this world to save their souls, must confess Christ before men now so he will not deny them before the Father later (see Luke 9:23-26 and parallel passages in Mark 8 and Matthew 16). Those are all forms of suffering.

Paul and the rest of the NT warn Christians that they will enter the kingdom of God through afflictions (Acts 14:22 and passages in letters by every NT writer).

They are addressing suffering that is distinctive to Christians.  Everyone faces the suffering from a world that is topsy-turvy, from disease, from the foolish and selfish and proud acts of others.  Everyone faces self inflicted suffering.  But the call of people to follow Christ involves suffering unique to his own.  Facing cancer is not bearing the cross.  Dealing with a difficult spouse is not losing our lives for him.

Let me see if I can specify what sufferings Jesus is addressing here.

1. There is the obvious of suffering of owning Christ in a world that hates him.  This is what it means to take up one’s cross.  The cross was an instrument of malevolence and torture.  The cross is what the world thinks Jesus deserved.

When Christians are treated with prejudice, hostility, injustice, are slandered and insulted — that is a form of suffering not common to the rest of human kind.  Peter speaks of it in 1 Peter 4.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.  But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1Pe 4:12-16 ESV)

But there are other forms of suffering as Christians that are less dramatic.

2. There is suffering by voluntarily rejecting the comforts and gains of this world. Those who are rich in this present world seek to be generous, not to set their hope in riches (1 Tim 6:17-19).  They sow generously in care for others (2 Cor 9:6-9).

While seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness does not appear to be suffering, there is real sacrifice.  To choose to give of time and money to serve brothers and sisters in a local congregation, to care for the poor, or to advance the Gospel is a form of suffering.  We would spend that money on other things or use that time in more selfish ways.  We would but the bigger house or drive the fancier car or have a fuller closet of clothes.  But in following Christ we reject the gain of this world to seek heavenly treasures.

Of course, everyone who gives generously experiences the same, so motive is what matters here.  God sees we do it because of Christ.

3.There is suffering by setting aside personal ambitions and reputation. This is similar.  Following Christ can place us at certain crossroads, between ambitions and faithfulness to God.  To walk in a way that is pleasing to God involves many responsibilities. Those responsibilities cannot be ignored.  They take time.  But ambitions take time as well.  Being a husband, a father, a faithful friend to others in my church, a servant in ministry — these take time away from career and advancement.  It may mean others pass us on the climb up the ladder.  That is a form of suffering.

4. There is suffering by walking in godliness in the midst of great trial. Under duress, there are many roads to walk.  Some of them are righteous and some are sinful.  Yielding to anger can lead someone to slander, malicious actions, being vindictive or seeking to punish someone who has harmed us. Yielding to impatience can lead us to moral compromises as a way out of the distress.  Under trial, there is a path that short cuts the suffering and there is a path that does not.  The latter is the path of courageous and patient faith, a tongue controlled by a commitment to speak words that build up, a commitment to moral purity and integrity, to forgive those who have harmed us and even to do them good.

5. There is suffering in battling desires for sin rather than yielding to them.  Because of Adam’s sin we are all born with perverse desires.  They vary some from person to person, and certain ones may be drawn to the surface due to our circumstances.  Being born a certain way, for the Christian, is not a justification for our desires.  That is because we are born fallen.  But being united to Christ, we have a desire to please God, and so deny those sinful desires which war against our souls.

I am not saying Christians are better or different than anyone else.  But I am saying there is suffering that is distinctive to a Christian. And it is more than martyrdom.

There is a simple question to ask: If I were not owned by Christ, how would I respond?  What other options would open up to me?  Thinking about this helps me see what suffering is common to humanity and what suffering is about being in Christ.

Please understand, I am not advocating the cultivation of a martyr’s complex, but I am saying that there are many ways we suffer because we are Christians, far more than being jailed or killed.  Ordinary Christians in their daily lives suffer for Jesus when they walk by faith in him.

I am also not advocating becoming preoccupied with evaluating our sufferings.  Romans 8:18 seems to show that preoccupation with our suffering is giving too much weight to them in light of the weight of glory that awaits us.

I am advocating that we be careful in how we categorize suffering.  My difficult child is the a cross I bear, nor is the dead-end job.  I experience a great deal of suffering in life that is common with everyone else in the human race.

Finally, let me conclude with this: suffering is temporary.  It is temporary because the Son of God came, suffered many things including his death as a substitute for us, and by his death and resurrection has put an end to sin and death.  We are now in the labor and delivery era of the new creation.  He is at God’s right hand until all his enemies are made his footstool.


Suffering in a broken world

The last two posts have been summaries.  I wanted to state the principles by which we can interpret suffering.  But I did not have time to drive them into the details.  And it is in the details where they do their work.

One of the roles of a pastor is to walk with members into their many forms of suffering.  At the 30 plus year mark, I can only say that the forms of suffering seem almost innumerable.

On the severe end, I have walked with people who were disowned for their faith in Christ, grieved at the discovery of sexual abuse of their child by a relative, torn by the loss of infidelity and divorce, victimized by a violent spouse, arrested for criminal activity, subject to chemotherapy and or the slow erosion of health, in anguish for wave upon wave of visits to the cemetery.  We all know suffering in some degree.

How people respond varies widely.  I have observed people who walk into pain with uncanny confidence in Christ, others who trusted God but seemed often overwhelmed by fear. Some people bounced back quickly; others lived under the cloud for years.  Some retreat into a private world; still others are public with their sorrow. People ask hard questions in their sufferings.  They shout and rage in their pain.

I have learned from Job’s counselors.  Presence is far more significant than counsel, and glib counsel rubs salt in the wounds (“I am sure it will all work out for the best”). Trying to figure it out can be least helpful especially when we are overly simplistic.

I want to offer a few posts to fill in the full picture of how we interpret suffering.

First, I want to address the nature of God and suffering.

Every time I hear someone raise the problem of suffering in the face of God, I want to ask, “What do you expect?”

Most people who object to suffering imagine we live in a world of innocents, well meaning but occasionally misguided folks who are subject to suffering by an obviously cruel and harsh God.  There is no doctrine of the original sin or really sin of any kind.  This means God made this cruel and painful world as his original.  Then, of course, he is to blame.

That is not our world.  This is not the original.  Adam’s sin brought wreck and ruin to the whole fabric of human life and creation. That leads to suffering.  How else can it be?

Sin cuts us off from the good and glorious God who is the life of all things.  To be cut off from God is to suffer.  It has to do with who God is.  You cannot remove yourself from the One who is good and experience goodness.

We want a different God and a different world.  We want to be able to do as we please and experience no consequences.  To turn out the light and still be able to see.  To do violence to others and still have their trust. To distance ourselves from God and still enjoy his goodness.  God did not make up rules.  They describe who he is.  He would have to deny himself to remove suffering from a world of sin.

Second, in this world where death reigns, there are the many causes of suffering.

Not all suffering is the result of one person’s misdeeds, not even my misdeeds.  Adam’s sin brought many forms of suffering. And how we classify suffering makes a huge difference in how we respond to it.

I noted in the previous post that suffering came into the world with the sin of Adam.  Through his sin death became king (Rom 5:12-14).  Through his sin, the whole world was subject to corruption and vanity (Rom 8:19-23).  Earthquakes and hurricanes are likely the fruit of corruption.

Through Adam’s sin we also all became twisted, malevolent, hateful, and self-destructive (Rom 3:13-18; Tit 3:1-2).  Or, another way I say it, we became crazy.  Sin is insanity.  We trade the momentary pleasures of sin for the eternal misery of separation from God. We often bear the brunt of the sin of others. Or reap the fruit of our own sins.

This way of thinking helps me interpret suffering.  It tells me that it is helpful to classify my suffering. It helps me serve others when they are burdened by false guilt. Let me illustrate.

Cancer (or any terminal illness) is not primarily the fruit of my sin or my failure to eat organic; it is the fruit of Adam’s sin.  The sin of the first man unleashed disease unto death into the world.  I am not to blame.  I can do nothing to stop the rule of death.  I can eat organic and exercise regularly all my life, but I will grow old and die.  As the one comedian put so well, “What are all the health food fanatics going to do when someday they are in the hospital dying of nothing?”

Blame has very little place when we face the fruit of Adam’s sin (I say little, since our behavior may have knowingly put us at risk).  When someone gets the news they have cancer or another form of death on the move, I am not to blame them nor am I to give lame explanations.  Death is king until Christ returns.  It is the fruit of Adam’s sin.

Granted, sometimes it is not so simple.  Parents bring sinners into the world.  When children act out their sin, it is because of Adam’s sin.  I am not to blame for my kids being sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. But I may sin as a parent.  All parents do.  And almost all parents blame themselves for the sins of their kids.  “If only I had been more diligent!  If only I had prayed more!”

There may be some truth in that, but I do not start there.  I start with the sin of Adam, and the reign of death.  False views of Adam’s sin breed false hopes of our power to change our kids and that leads to false guilt for our failures.

Often sometimes our suffering is from the sins of others.  We were conned and lost it all.  We did our homework and got ripped off.  The texting driver runs into our car.  The dictator sends his armies into our country.  The unbeliever hates the Gospel and slanders us.  Our employer fires us because we refuse to join him in his dishonesty.  1 Peter is filled with help for Christians suffering as Christians . . .  that is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Again, blaming ourselves is not appropriate.

Sometimes, though, it is.  Sometimes the suffering we endure is the fruit of our own hands.  The marriage that ends in divorce is often the reaping of years of selfishness.  The bankruptcy may be from a life of foolish decisions. That is hard, but must be faced.  But in a fallen world, it is rarely that simple.

Third, suffering is to be expected in this life and it is not ultimate.

I hear people surprised at suffering.  I observe that we exaggerate our suffering, speak of how suffering has permanently marked us, declare it was wounded us forever, note that we will never get over it. That is to make suffering ultimate.  It is not.  It is temporary.

God has acted to end the ruin of Adam’s sin.  He suffered for us and with us in the Incarnate Son, and at the cross.  God took his own medicine. And Jesus rose from death.  His resurrection marked the beginning of the end of sin and suffering. Suffering is not ultimate, Christ is ultimate.

He has told us when he will put an end of all suffering.  Meanwhile, we live is the last chapter of history under the reign of death. Now when Christians suffer, they see their suffering as temporary, as part of life in this fallen world, until we are revealed with Christ in his glory.

Listen to this from the Anglican book of prayer.  Compare it to your expectations:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us through this vale of misery, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our lives: That, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of thy church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favor with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I mean, really, when was the last time you thought about the shortness and uncertainty of life, and this world being a valley of misery? Is that what you teach your children?  It may not be sexy to speak in those terms, it may not draw a crowd, but it is true to Scripture (see Psalm 39 and 90; James 4).

We do not expect tranquility of life now.  We live in a time of birth pains, leading to the fullness of the new creation.  We groan, says Paul, as the whole creation groans (Rom 8:19-25).  Someday the glory will come and all the sufferings in Adam’s sin will be swallowed up in the sin bearing suffering and resurrection of the Christ for his own. As we consider the glory to come, we will find that our present sufferings do not even rise to level of being worthy of comparison.  Our faith and hope will be renewed, not by a positive mental attitude, but by the certain hope of the resurrection of the dead at the coming of Christ.

And that means we rejoice in our suffering . . .  Romans 5:3


Jesus, the Cross, and our Suffering

Our church is walking through the Gospel of Mark, and have come to the midpoint.  Better yet, we have come to the hinge of the Gospel.  Chapters 1-8 answer one question: Who is Jesus?  The rest of the Gospel is about WHY Jesus came.

Jesus turns the corner sharply.  No sooner does Peter see for the first time (You are the Christ, 8:29) then Jesus begins to speak clearly about how he must suffer.

Suffering is as offensive now as it was then.  Peter is so troubled he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.

But Jesus’ reply is strong.  He does not mince words.  He rebukes Peter sharply, and calls him Satan.  This means one thing: How we see and interpret suffering is no small matter. 

Last week we considered the source of suffering, and why Jesus must suffer.  This week we turn to our suffering with him.  We follow that order because that is his order.  He must suffer (8:31) and all who follow him must suffer as well (8:34).

I think that Jesus is doing two things in verses 34-38. He is expanding on the nature of his suffering, as well as calling us to join him.  He is telling us what sort of a Savior he is, and what it is like to hand close to him.

Jesus is a self-denying, cross-bearing, self-losing, gain-renouncing Savior.  Those who follow him will be shaped by him.

This is an urgent matter for us.  Most of church history has been dominated by people on the inside of great suffering.  That still is the majority report in the world today.  Witness reports from Iran, Sudan, India, Afghanistan.  God’s people are aliens and sojourners on this earth.

But for those on the outside of significant suffering for Jesus, there is a temptation to think that victory, triumph, and deliverance are about this life and not about the life to come.  Health and wealth gospels, better steps to a better you, a feel-good Jesus, Jesus as masseuse — these are hot sellers in the world of the affluent. And they are lies.

It is critical to see the time in which we live in God’s story of redemption, which shapes what we can expect here and now, and where our hope rests.  It is critical to shape our understanding of suffering with our understanding of redemption.

The message we are given to proclaim is not that God has come to make our lives better, more interesting, more influential, more virtuous, or more successful, but to bury us and make us truly alive.  – Michael Horton, A Place for Weakness

With that quote in mind, before we walk into this, let me recommend a few resources.  Michael Horton has written a very personal book about suffering, A Place for Weakness.  I found it helpful.  He places suffering into the timeline of redemptive history.  D. A. Carson’s, How Long, O Lord?, is broad and deals with many issues in the usual Carson clarity. And finally, for clarity of thought, though not for theological precision, is C S Lewis’, The Problem of Pain.  His understanding of God’s love and how that relates to suffering is worth multiple reads.

Back to Mark 8.  Jesus describes how he suffered and tells us that those who follow will be shaped by him.  There is no other way.

Four points:

  1. Jesus denied himself for us
  2. Jesus took up his cross for us
  3. Jesus lost his life to save us
  4. Jesus renounced the gain of this world for us

He denied himself for us.  That does not mean he gave up chocolate for lent.  It means he renounced selfishness, renounced self determination.  He came as a servant, owned by the Father.  His food was to do the Father’s will and to finish his work.  The price paid, the suffering endured, the inconveniences were not weighed in the balances of obedience.  All who follow him will be called upon to deny themselves in the same way.

He took up his cross for us.  He suffered in our place on the cross.  Into that suffering we cannot enter.  But the cross was also the mark of the world’s evaluation of Jesus. he was not the Son of God.  He was no better than the worst criminal, worthy of the most shameful and humiliating death.  All who follow him will be hated by the world as he was hated. If we will not own him before men, he will not own us before the Father (v. 38).

He lost his life to save us. He was the grain of wheat that died to bear fruit.  He did not grasp and cling to his life and his rights, but laid them down.  He did so to save us.  All who follow him will lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel.  We cannot cling to our rights, our family, our comforts, our fulfillment and serve Jesus too.

He renounced the gain of this world for us. Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor.  He had no place to lay his head, though he created and owned all things. His gain was the ransom of his people from sin and death, and for this he spent all. All who follow him will renounce the gain of this world, will define success by the measure of Jesus life and death.

There you have it . . . and the rest of the New Testament affirms that those who follow Jesus suffer with Jesus.

  • But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings. (1Pe 4:13 ESV)
  • We share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings (2Co 1:5 ESV)
  • Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, (Col 1:24 ESV)
  • For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, (Phi 1:29 ESV)

But notice, the focus in those passages is not on our suffering only.  It is on our joy.  That last passage says it is an honor to suffer for him.

That is not how I view suffering for him, voluntary suffering because I name his Name. But it is how God sees it — the honor of being identified with the One the Father loves above all, and the One who will be heir of all things.

Let the world despise and leave me, they have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me; Thou art not, like them, untrue.
And while Thou shalt smile upon me, God of wisdom, love and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me, show Thy face and all is bright.

But the New Testament also locates the sufferings we know with Christ in this age.  Paul explicitly says we have sufferings in this present age and will share in glory in the age to come (Romans 8:17-18).  We are saved in hope.  This means that we have not yet received the completeness of our inheritance.  We are groaning in the meanwhile (Rom 8:19-25).

This sets expectations.  I do not think Jesus intends, for the most part, to give his people his victory over sufferings, but his victory through sufferings.  We are more than conquerors in the midst of suffering, not out of suffering (Romans 8:37).

Suffering is a call to take the hope of glory and press it deeply into our souls.  Suffering is momentary and light compared to the weight of glory which shall be ours in Christ when he returns.  Now, for a little while, we are put to grief through various trials . . . but then we shall inherit what cannot be corrupted or lost (1 Peter 1:3-8).

So we rejoice.  We rejoice because the worst the world can do to us is kill us.  They cannot take away our eternal treasure, nor our communion with Jesus who is our joy.


Jesus, the Cross, and Suffering

Immediately after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes the conversation.  He does not announce his victory.  He announces his death.

He says, The Son of Man must suffer many things . . .

Peter takes offense, such offense that he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him.

Jesus turns to Peter and says his viewpoint is Satanic.

Here we have a conflict of interpretations.  Is suffering good or bad?  Is it possible for the Messiah to suffer, be rejected, and killed?

Peter says it is not.  Jesus says that viewpoint is devilish.

Today, in this message, we considered the subject of suffering.  It is a delicate subject.  But it is necessary.  It is necessary because how we interpret suffering makes all the difference in the world.

We looked at three things:

  1. Where did suffering come from?
  2. Why must Jesus suffer?
  3. How does his suffering affect us?

Where did suffering come from?

We cannot see the meaning of all small part of the picture, unless we see the whole.  We cannot know the meaning of the chapter we are in unless we know the story of the whole book.

We cannot know the meaning of suffering unless we look at it in the storyline of the Bible.  The storyline of the Bible, in simplest terms, is Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.

  1. Creation: The way God made things
  2. Fall: The way sin ruined things
  3. Redemption: The way God reclaims things
  4. Consummation: The time God restores all things

Where does suffering fit into this?

Genesis 1:31 says that suffering had no place in the creation.  It was very good.  That does not mean that kids would not skin their knees while learning to walk.  It means that tragic suffering was not there.

Revelation 21:4 says that suffering will have no place in the consummation.

That means suffering must have come with the Fall.  By the Fall the Bible means the sin of Adam, in Genesis 3.  The sin of Adam sent shock-waves through the entire cosmos.  The BIble calls the ruin of Adam’s sin death.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned– (Rom 5:12 ESV)

Before Adam’s sin, before the Fall, there was no suffering.  Afterwards, the world was filled with suffering.

But the Fall brings about many causes of suffering.

Suffering is the fruit of Adam’s sin, the sins of others, and our own sins.

1.Adam’s sin brought it all, but I am referring to one particular effect of his sin. I am referring to the corruption of the entire cosmos.  Paul says in Romans 8:19-23 that the whole creation is in the pains of birth, that it is subject to vanity.  When Adam sinned, he threw the balance of creation into imbalance.

This means that cancer and viruses and earthquakes are the fruit of Adam’s sin. And they are a cause of suffering.

2. The sins of others are the fruit of Adam’s sin. They are also a cause of much suffering.  People texting while driving kill others.  Dictators set their armies to war.  Angry parents abuse their children.  Hateful people speak words that harm.

3. Finally, our own sin brings suffering. Our words, our adulteries, our lies, our laziness bring painful consequences to our selves.

This is important.  Not all suffering is caused by us.  But we tend to be quick to think we have done something that has brought it upon us.  We blame ourselves.  We think it is our fault.  Not that we cannot bring suffering on ourselves or others, but a great deal of suffering is not God’s response to our sins.  It is God’s response to Adam’s sin.

It is also important because we tend to blame God.  Modern man has made God the defendant against charges of cruel and thoughtless leadership. But the Bible makes clear that God hates sin and suffering.  God has acted in Christ to end sin and suffering.

That brings us to the next question; Why MUST Jesus suffer?

Why must Jesus suffer?

I think the Bible views this in three ways.  He must suffer for us, with us, for love of us, to end all sin and suffering forever.

He suffers for us, for our sins.  Isaiah 53 is clear, that the Messiah will suffer for the sins of his people.  He is the substitute.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– every one– to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (53:5-6)

He suffers with us too.  What the Bible means by that is that Jesus experienced the whole range of human suffering in the days of his flesh.

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Heb 2:10 ESV)

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things,  . . . . For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb 2:14-18)

Jesus must suffer to become a Savior who is sympathetic. He is not merely a Savior from sin, He is a Savior who walks with his children on their path of suffering, and provides the help we need to persevere.

This means God got his hands dirty in saving us. That makes Jesus unique in a world of religions.

Dorothy Sayers put it this way:

Whatever game he is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself.  He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain, humiliation, defeat, despair, and death

There was no way he could save us, redeem us from the world of sin and death, without being one of us – and in being one of us, suffer as we suffer.

He suffers for love of us.

The Bible makes it clear that his motive was love.  For God so loved the world . . . he proves his love for us . . . herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as a propitiation for our sins.

His love means he came among us, was not remote.  He did not save us from a distance.

C S Lewis speaks of human love as vulnerability, and human selfishness as safety from hurt.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

It seems that for God to love us, he became vulnerable. He opened his chest to us and allowed us to strike him, slander him, accuse him, abuse him, and then murder him.

God is love.  The fellowship of Father-Son-Spirit is a circle of pure and infinite love. The God who is love set his love upon us, to rid us and the world of sin and suffering. Because he is love, he could not save from a distance.

If I were God, I would not have bothered. I would either never have created, or would have wiped the slate clean and started all over again – but that is because I am selfish.

He is love, and with nothing to gain from us, he made himself vulnerable to us, so he might rescue us from sin. And more than that, rescue the whole creation from sin and suffering.

Jesus sees suffering differently.  He sees the suffering of the world differently.  He sees his own suffering differently. Why is he angry with Peter?  Why does he call him Satan?  Because Peter would stop him from ending all sin and suffering.

This brings us to the last question:

How does his suffering affect us?

It changes everything.

1. We can see our present suffering in light of his suffering for us, and with us, out of love to us.

We can trust his love for us when we suffer.  Into the arms of such love we have fallen.  Though I do not know his reasons, I know his love, seen at the cross.  Nothing can separate us from his love.

2. We can see our present sufferings in light of the end of all suffering and sin.

That is what Paul says: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18 ESV)

Are you reviewing your suffering, licking your wounds, studying your suffering, wondering what God was thinking when he caused your suffering?

Are you living in your suffering, thinking your life is permanently marked and harmed by your suffering?

Paul says — not so.  Suffering is not the last word.  Jesus glory is the last word.  The glory that awaits us will transform our sufferings into glory (2 Cor 4:17).  The glory that awaits us will not merely compensate for suffering, so that at some point we fell like a divine hug makes it better.  It will work backwards, swallow up the suffering, and change it into glory.

And our suffering is not a subject for brooding, for studying, for doubts.  It is not even worth comparing withe future glory.

This is not escape from reality.  This is escape to reality.

We cannot understand our suffering until we understand Jesus suffering.  Jesus came into the world because he must suffer for us, with us, out of love to us — so that he might put an end to all suffering and bring us to glory with him.


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