“You will Have Tribulation” (by Dr. David P. Craig)
I think that only in “good times” can anything that resembles a so-called “prosperity gospel” develop. Dr. Ron Carlson made a very important point in a lecture twenty plus years ago that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “If the gospel can’t be preached in the same way to every person in every tribe, country, and people group on the face of the earth – then it’s not the Gospel.” He was making reference to the teaching of Robert Schuller, whose “prosperity gospel” was failing miserably at the time in Russia in the 1980’s. People in Russia who had been under communist rule for so many years couldn’t relate to “health, wealth, and prosperity.” It was as abstract to them as living on Mars would be to us earthlings.
Over my 25 years in the ministry I’ve learned a few lessons about life. One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is in the furnace of suffering: emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually. Life is tough and it seems to be getting tougher all the time. I am convinced that one of the most important ways a pastor can love his church is by preparing her with a deep and robust Biblical theology of suffering. A theology of suffering should be biblical, systematic (what the whole Bible teaches about suffering – not just isolated passages), deal with the problems of sin and evil, be Christo-centric, and be holistic (involving the promises and plans of God; practical ramifications; grapple with the emotions and pain of suffering, and so forth). A sound theology of suffering must ultimately lead to the peace, hope, and even joy that is to be found only in the Gospel.
Should we be surprised, shocked, or indignant when we suffer?
In the 20th century more Christians were persecuted than in all of history combined. Conservative estimates place the martyrs at between 40-50 million. In the 21st century the martyrs are piling up and look like that number will double to over 100 million! Here is just a sampling of some Scriptures having to do with the “normal” Christian life – a life full of trials, tribulations, pain, and death:
Joseph as an elderly man who endured torture, exile, abandonment, and years spent in prison for crimes he did not commit said to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Job – who was the original “poster boy for suffering” said, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15).
Peter tells the “elect exiles” scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, “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” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Paul writes to the believers at Philippi, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).
James issues this declaration to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Jesus told his disciples after telling them that they would be scattered and persecuted for their faith after His crucifixion, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Pain, agony, trials, and tribulation – these are synonymous with the Gospel and the Christian life. There would be no Christians without the gospel. And there would be gospel without suffering. The testimony of the Bible is not “if” but “when” we will suffer. Evil, suffering, and death are tackled head-on by the triune God in bringing about our salvation. Look closely at the following Scriptures as they clearly reveal the Father, Son, and Spirit’s own travail and suffering in brining about our own deliverance from suffering and death:
“Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:1-10).
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:6-11).
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:18-39).
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:18-21).
How does a pastor prepare a church for suffering? (by Tony Reinke)
This was one question addressed at the recent T4G conference in Louisville. Jointly, C.J. and Matt Chandler provided answers to this often-neglected pastoral topic.
C.J. opened the session with a brief explanation of why this topic is critical in the life of the local church. He then invited Matt to share the story of the Thanksgiving Day seizure that led to his hospitalization, the discovery of a mass in his brain, and his surgery eight days later to remove a portion of his right frontal lobe. Before the 7,000 attendees Chandler recounted this unexpected and frightening time of his life and looked back at God’s grace in the midst of his recent suffering.
What sustained me through it all? Where did I find my feet landing over and over again? In the doctrines, in the theology, and in the beauty and magnificence of Christ and his salvation. There my feet could rest and there I had the ability to put my confidence in him and him alone. This has had ripple effects in the Village Church, which has had ripple effects in the evangelical community at large, where men and women who have not theologically lined up with necessarily where I am and where my heart is, all of the sudden are drawn in and want to have discussions around the beauty of God’s sovereign will.
Matt’s testimony and example were moving. Later, when reflecting on Matt’s role at the conference, C.J. said, “God’s grace is evident in Matt’s life in a profound way. His personal example of trusting God in the midst of severe suffering is compelling. I experienced this with Matt in private conversation at the conference and I think everyone experienced it as he shared publicly. His time with us was unforgettable and it will serve conference participants in an enduring way, long after the other conference messages are only a distant memory.”
C.J. followed Matt’s segment, briefly addressing an important question: How do pastors provide this foundation for their people before suffering arrives? In the remaining time allotted for the session, C.J. encouraged pastors to consider five points:
(1) Prepare your church for suffering through the preaching diet. For the task C.J. commended the books of Job, Habakkuk, and 1 Peter.
(2) Draw your church’s attention to living illustrations of people suffering well in the church.
(3) Develop a curriculum of supplemental books, chapters, articles, and audio messages on the topic. C.J. recommended:
- D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil
- John Piper’s sermon series “Treasuring Christ and the Call to Suffer” (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, Q/A)
- Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty
- Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts
- David Powlison, “God’s Grace and Your Sufferings,” a chapter in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
- C.H. Spurgeon, Beside Still Waters: Words of Comfort for Your Soul
(4) Point your church to the suffering Savior in the gospel. C.J.: “The great mystery is not why do I suffer? The great mystery is why would the sinless Son of God suffer as my substitute on the cross for my sins, receiving the wrath that I deserve, so that I might be forgiven and declared righteous?”
(5) When suffering arrives, be at their side. C.J.: “By God’s grace, when we care for people in the midst of suffering, they will never forget the difference we make. Their gratefulness will be deep and it will be profound and it will be unending.”
Part of the article above was adapted from C.J. Mahaney’s “View from the Cheap Seats” blog: http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/blogs/cj-mahaney/post/2010/04/23/cj-mahaney-matt-chandler-t4g-Prepare-Your-Church-for-Suffering.aspx (David P. Craig, Tony Reinke, C.J. Mahaney, and Matt Chandler – April 23, 2010).
About the Authors:
Matt Chandler: Matt serves as Lead Pastor of Teaching at The Village Church in the Dallas Fort Worth area. He has served in that role since December 2002 and describes his tenure at The Village as a re-planting effort where he was involved in changing the theological and philosophical culture of the congregation. The church has witnessed a tremendous response growing from 160 people to over 11,000 with campuses in Flower Mound, Dallas and Denton. Alongside his current role as lead pastor, Matt is involved in church planting efforts both locally and internationally through The Village and various strategic partnerships. Prior to accepting the pastorate at The Village, Matt had a vibrant itinerant ministry for over 10 years where he spoke to thousands of people in America and abroad about the glory of God and beauty of Jesus. His greatest joy outside of Jesus is being married to Lauren and being a dad to their three children, Audrey, Reid and Norah. Recently, Matt was named president of Acts 29, a worldwide church-planting organization.Over the last 10 years, Acts 29 has emerged from a small band of brothers to over 400 churches in the United States and networks of churches in multiple countries. Matt speaks at conferences throughout the world and has written a couple of books, The Explicit Gospel, published in April 2012, and Creature of the Word, coming out in October 2012. Matt has been a tremendous example to countless thousands in his hope in the Gospel in his own struggle with cancer (currently in remission – thanks to the miraculous working of God).
David P Craig: is a Pastoral Life Coach residing in Tustin, CA. He specializes in helping young pastors and leaders with personal and organizational balance by focusing on the Gospel at the center of all of life. He has a special heart for those dealing with emotional and physical pain, and is currently trusting in the God of the Gospel in his own battle with cancer. He has been married to his best friend and lover for twenty years and has five fantastic children and two grand sons.
C.J. Mahaney: C.J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries in its mission to establish and support local churches. After 27 years of pastoring Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, C.J. handed the senior pastor role to Joshua Harris on September 18, 2004, allowing C.J. to devote his full attention to Sovereign Grace. He serves on the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and on the board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is author of The Cross Centered Life; Christ Our Mediator; Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know; Humility: True Greatness; Living the Cross Centered Life and Don’t Waste Your Sports. He is the editor of Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World. He also contributed to Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, and to two additional volumes in the Foundations for the Family Series (Crossway). He has also edited or co-authored four books in the Pursuit of Godliness book series, published by Sovereign Grace Ministries: Why Small Groups?, This Great Salvation, How Can I Change?, and Disciplines for Life. C.J. and his wife Carolyn have three married daughters and one son. They make their home in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Tony Reinke: is a former journalist now serving as a theological researcher, writer, and blogger. He lives in Maryland with his wife and three children. He is the author of the fantastic book: Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.