By Dr. R.C. Sproul
I once visited with a woman who was dying from uterine cancer. She was greatly distressed, but not only from her physical ailment. She explained to me that she had had an abortion when she was a young woman, and she was convinced that her disease was a direct consequence of that. In short, she believed cancer was the judgment of God on her.
The usual pastoral response to such an agonizing question from someone in the throes of death is to say the affliction is not a judgment of God for sin. But I had to be honest, so I told her that I did not know. Perhaps it was God’s judgment, but perhaps it was not. I cannot fathom the secret counsel of God or read the invisible hand of His providence, so I did not know why she was suffering. I did know, however, that whatever the reason for it, there was an answer for her guilt. We talked about the mercy of Christ and of the cross, and she died in faith.
The question that woman raised is asked every day by people who are suffering affliction. It is addressed in one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. In John 9, we read: “As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (vv. 1–3).
Why did Jesus’ disciples suppose that the root cause of this man’s blindness was his sin or his parents’ sin? They certainly had some basis for this assumption, for the Scriptures, from the account of the fall onward, make it clear that the reason suffering, disease, and death exist in this world is sin. The disciples were correct that somehow sin was involved in this man’s affliction. Also, there are examples in the Bible of God causing affliction because of specific sins. In ancient Israel, God afflicted Moses’ sister, Miriam, with leprosy because she questioned Moses’ role as God’s spokesman (Num. 12:1–10). Likewise, God took the life of the child born to Bathsheba as a result of David’s sin (2 Sam. 12:14–18). The child was punished, not because of anything the child did, but as a direct result of God’s judgment on David.
However, the disciples made the mistake of particularizing the general relationship between sin and suffering. They assumed there was a direct correspondence between the blind man’s sin and his affliction. Had they not read the book of Job, which deals with a man who was innocent and yet was severely afflicted by God? The disciples erred in reducing the options to two when there was another alternative. They posed their question to Jesus in an either/or fashion, committing the logical fallacy of the false dilemma, assuming that the sin of the man or the sin of the man’s parents was the cause of his blindness.
The disciples also seem to have assumed that anyone who has an affliction suffers in direct proportion to the sin that has been committed. Again, the book of Job dashes that conclusion, for the degree of suffering Job was called to bear was astronomical compared with the suffering and afflictions of others far more guilty than he was.
We must never jump to the conclusion that a particular incidence of suffering is a direct response or in direct correspondence to a person’s particular sin. The story of the man born blind makes this point.
Our Lord answered the disciples’ question by correcting their false assumption that the man’s blindness was a direct consequence of his or his parents’ sin. He assured them that the man was born blind not because God was punishing the man or the man’s parents. There was another reason. And because there was another reason in this case, there might always be another reason for the afflictions God calls us to endure.
Jesus answered His disciples by saying, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). What did He mean? Simply put, Jesus said that the man was born blind so that Jesus might heal him at the appointed time, as a testimony to Jesus’ power and divinity. Our Lord displayed His identity as the Savior and the Son of God in this healing.
When we suffer, we must trust that God knows what He is doing, and that He works in and through the pain and afflictions of His people for His glory and for their sanctification. It is hard to endure lengthy suffering, but the difficulty is greatly alleviated when we hear our Lord explaining the mystery in the case of the man born blind, whom God called to many years of pain for Jesus’ glory.
Source: www.ligonier.org (February 1, 1013)
Because we live in a fallen world, going through difficult times is inevitable:
JOB 5:7 – but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.
JOHN 16:33 – 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.
ROMANS 8:18-23 – 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.
1 PETER 4:12 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
4 Purposes for Suffering
(1) It makes our faith stronger.
1 PETER 1:6-7 – In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
(2) It helps us grow into the kind of person that God wants me to be.
JOB 23:8-10 – Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
PHILIPPIANS 3:7-8 – 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.
JAMES 1:2-4 – 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.
(3) It causes us to think more about eternity in Heaven.
2 CORINTHIANS 4:16-18 – So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
(4) It disciplines us for our sins.
HEBREWS 12:10-13 – For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all disciplines seem painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
PROVERBS 3:11-12 – My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
How Should We Respond To Suffering?
(1) Recognize that God’s grace is sufficient for me.
PSALM 55:22 – Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
2 CORINTHIANS 12:9 – But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my own weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(2) Remember that God is sovereign over our adversities.
PSALM 33:13-15 – The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks at the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.
PSALM 71:20-21 – You have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.
ISAIAH 43:1-2 – But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
(3) Know that God is always there to listen and respond to you.
PSALM 3:4 – I cried aloud to the LORD and he answered me from his holy hill.
PSALM 9:9-10 – The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.
PSALM 31:9-10 – Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.
PSALM 61:2 – from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
PSALM 86:3 – Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O lOrd, do I lift up my soul.
(4) Use the help God gives you to help others.
2 CORINTHIANS 1:3-4 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
(5) Know that adversity results in God’s reward.
JAMES 1:12 – Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
1 PETER 5:10 – After you have suffered awhile, the God of all grace, who has called you to eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
Biblical illustrations – Job – whole book; Joseph – Genesis 37-50; Stephen – Acts 7; Paul and Silas – Acts 16.
SOURCE: Adapted from the Quick Reference For Counseling. Grand Rapids, Baker, 2006, 217-219.
Into The Furnace and Out Like Gold
Book Review By David P. Craig
As someone who has experienced a tremendous amount of loss, grief, pain, and suffering I was excited for Tim’s book on suffering to arrive. Tim Keller has also suffered much, and thus speaks with credibility as a fellow sufferer in the journey of life where there are many hills and valleys along the way.
Keller divides the book into three parts based on the biblical metaphor where suffering is described as a “fiery furnace.” Fire is an image used throughout the Bible as an image describing the torment and pain of suffering. The Bible speaks frequently of troubles and trials as “walking through the fire,” a “fiery ordeal”, and a “fiery furnace.”
Therefore, Keller builds his themes around this image. In Part One Keller considers the furnace from the outside of us. He tackles “the phenomenon of human suffering, as well as the various ways that different cultures, religions, and eras in history have sought to help people face and get through it [suffering].”
In part two Keller moves away from the theoretical realm and begins to hone in on the personal and character issues that are developed when we suffer. He seeks to demonstrate that the common ways we handle suffering via avoidance, denial, and despair are essentially to waste our suffering. On the other hand, the Bible presents a balanced view in how to handle suffering in a step by step fashion. Biblical truth is always balanced and faces hardships head-on because these are the fires that God uses in our lives to mold our character and make us more like Christ.
Part three is the most practical part of the book. Suffering is actually designed by God to “refine us, not destroy us.” Keller explains in this final section how we can can properly orient ourselves toward God in the midst of our suffering so that we walk as Jesus walked in His great suffering.
The best time to read a book on suffering is before you are in the midst of the furnace. Keller recommends that you read sections two and three if you are already in the midst of great suffering. However, the best time to prepare for suffering is before it occurs. Therefore, it would be wise to read this book in the calm before the storm. Christians need to be prepared and develop a theological foundation of suffering before we enter the hot furnaces of life.
Americans seem to suffer more due to the fact that they are even suffering – than because of the suffering in and of itself. Keller wisely shows that suffering is a normal part of living in a fallen world. Life is full of various kinds of sufferings and we will always find ourselves coming into, or coming out of the fires of the furnace. God’s promise is that when you “pass through the waters…when you walk through the fire…I will be with you.” Jesus faced the ultimate suffering and furnace [the cross] and came through unscathed on our behalf. He was victorious over all the fires that we faced so that we too can be victorious as we face the fires that will come in Him, and with Him by our side.
I highly recommend this book as a wonderful resource that takes seriously the problems and complexities of suffering without watering them down. It is a resource that takes a multidimensional approach to suffering – tackling the internal and external realities – and takes us deep theologically and practically. It is good spiritual food for the mind and soul. Keller also weaves many personal stories of men and women along the way in this journey of suffering that will help you connect to the truths that he is communicating – not just for information, but for transformation.
I believe that God will use this book to powerfully help Christians realize that God has a plan and purpose to bring good out of all of our suffering. Out of each furnace that we enter – though difficult and painful – we will be refined by the fire and come out like gold. We will come out shining like the Son if we learn to trust and depend on His grace before, during, and in the aftermath of our trials. As Keller writes, “In Jesus Christ we see that God actually experiences the pain of the fire as we do. He is truly God with us, in love and understanding, in our anguish. He plunged himself into our furnace so that, when we find ourselves in the fire, we can turn to him and know we will not be consumed but will be made into people great and beautiful.”
Michael Wilkins has defined a disciple of Jesus as one who “has come to Jesus for eternal life, has claimed Jesus as Savior and God, and has embarked upon the life of following Jesus.” His very presence in my life and his promise to never leave nor forsake me, encourages me to daily follow Him. At the heart of following Him is this undeserved relationship I have with Him.
2. Discipleship is enabled and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the image of Christ.
The Holy Spirit indwells and fills believers (Eph. 5:18), guides us into all truth (John 16:13), brings forth fruit in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23) and empowers us for ministry in the church and in the world. The Spirit is God’s presence in us (Rom. 8:11) to confirm that we are indeed children of God (Rom. 8:16) and to convict us of sin for the continuing process of conforming us into the image of Christ. Understanding the role of the Holy Spirit encourages the response of submission to His sanctifying work.
3. Discipleship is grounded and guided by the Word of God
The Bible is our authority in all areas of life. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). Consistent nourishment is a vital component of one’s spiritual growth (Psalm 1, John 15).
4. Discipleship is nurtured in community
Community with other believers is a vital part of our growth as disciples. We were made to be in fellowship with one another. Thus the imagery of the body of Christ portrays how vitally linked we are to one another. In such community we are able to fulfill the command of loving one another and with this community then to love the world.
5. Discipleship is a continuing process of being transformed from the inside-out
“The ultimate goal of the believer’s life is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Ro 8:29).” Jesus described a radical way of life in the sermon on the mount. In a world in which righteousness was very much regarded by one’s outward actions, Jesus emphasized the transformation of the heart.
6. Discipleship produces spiritual fruit
As the Holy Spirit works to transform the individual and change is made from the inside-out, the characteristics of God become evident in the believer’s life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
7. Disciples of Christ who are in the process of inward transformation, yield to the Spirit’s leading in service and mission.
Spiritual formation is both about the inward change of heart and the outward manifestation of that changed heart. Christ modeled the life of service for His disciples and commands us to serve in humility and love while proclaiming His truth in a lost world.
8. Disciples are called to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings
As we live in a sin-cursed world, we bear the effects of sin on a daily basis. With the presence of Christ and the promise of future hope with Him, we are able to endure the pain and even be transformed in the process. Paul writes of this truth in 2 Cor. 4:17: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” God invites us to suffer for His sake, for living to honor Christ in a world that is hostile toward Him. In this, we share in his sufferings and bring glory to Him.
9. Disciples Must Count the Cost
Following Christ as His disciple means letting go of one’s own will and seeking the will of God in all things (Luke 9:23). Nothing must take the place of Jesus as the “focus of allegiance,” as Wilkins explains.
10. Discipleship is a Life-long Journey
In my own life, describing my faith and discipleship in terms of the journey metaphor has been vitally important on many different levels. As I come to different forks in the road, or experience difficult trials, knowing that Jesus is my trustworthy Master and Leader, is my sole comfort and motivation to continue in this journey of faith. We must continue to realize and endeavor to endure the trials of faith that come with renewed commitment to following Christ on a daily basis.
 Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 40.
 Michael Glerup, “The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Formation,” in The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation, ed. Alan Andrews (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), 251.
 Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 133.
 Michael J. Wilkins, An Outline Study Guide to “Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship,” 69.
*Article above adapted from http://www.thetwocities.com/practical-theology/discipleship-2/discipleship-principles/ Posted by Jeannette Hagen – February 25, 2013
About the Author:
Jeanette Hagan is currently a PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of Durham. Studying under John M.G. Barclay, she is writing her thesis on the relationship between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and the continuing participation a believer experiences in the death, resurrection and life of Christ. Previously, she studied English literature for her B.A. at Biola University while being in the first graduating class of the Torrey Honors Institute. In 2011 she completed her M.A. in New Testament at Talbot School of Theology. Her passion is training and equipping disciples to follow the Lord wholeheartedly. She has served in a variety of ministry capacities. Highlights include: organizing summer camps and humanitarian efforts for orphans in Ukraine and Russia, traveling 5 continents sharing the Gospel, helping to facilitate for theological and practical ministry training for believers around the world, and serving in a church plant in Whittier, CA. In her free time she enjoys reading, being outdoors in a variety of recreational capacities, playing piano, and mostly just spending quality time with family and friends.
Tabletalk (The Monthly Magazine of R.C. Sproul’s – Ligonier Ministries) And Matt Chandler on His Battle with Brain Cancer
Tabletalk: By way of offering a brief introduction of yourself and your family, when was God’s call to serve His people confirmed for you (Matt, cancer free, recently pictured above with his wife Lauren and their three children)?
Matt Chandler: I think my story is a bit strange in that my awareness of God’s call on my life to serve His people was a bit lost in me serving His people. I’ll try and explain that. I was very frustrated with my church experiences heading into college. I loved sharing the gospel and loved the God of the Bible, but it appeared to me (probably my immaturity) that my church and I were seeing different things in the Scriptures. I saw atonement and the fear of the Lord, and at church they were teaching us not to drink beer and not to have sex. To be truthful, I wasn’t drinking beer or having sex, and could see that drunkenness was sinful and that God had a plan for sex in marriage. Yet it appeared to me that those were secondary issues that should be addressed after the atoning work of Christ was communicated and understood. I started teaching at an ecumenical gathering while I was in college and assumed I would finish school, become a good lawyer, and teach Sunday school at the local Baptist church wherever I settled (I was hoping for the West Coast). The Bible study blew up numerically, and we were running around one thousand to fifteen hundred students every week. A young woman from that study asked me when I received the “call of ministry.” I was honestly confused by her question. I thought she was asking if the Baptists had literally called me on the phone and let me teach the Bible study. She clarified her question, and it sent all my dreams and plans into another direction altogether. It was at this time that I came to understand that I wouldn’t be spending my life doing law and teaching Sunday school but rather teaching and leading God’s people into maturity by the Spirit’s power and by the proclamation of the Word.
TT: What counsel would you give to a believer on the day he or she is diagnosed with cancer? How about six months after the diagnosis?
MC: One of God’s big mercies in all of this has been allowing me to pastor a young church. I have done multiple funerals every year I have been here, and only one has been for a person over the age of fifty. I learned very early that people need to have a good grasp of God’s goodness and God’s sovereignty. On the day that a person is diagnosed, I try to encourage them in God’s knowledge — that this hasn’t surprised Him or caught Him off guard. I want to remind them that this isn’t punitive, but rather that God is on the move and He can be trusted. Six months after the diagnosis is harder to answer because cancer can go one of two ways. If the man or woman is still in a real fight, I want to draw his or her attention to Hebrews 11 or the story of Abraham being promised a son or even David being anointed king and then running from Saul for all those years before sitting on the throne. I think it’s important to remind people after the initial shock of diagnosis wears off and the wear and tear of treatment settles in that victory for those who are children of God is guaranteed, although difficulty, pain, and waiting might all be very present.
TT: In what ways has your cancer sanctified you?
MC: It’s made me look long and hard at my motives and has drawn me deeply into God in prayer. I am an excellent studier and researcher, and before all this began, I would say a decent man of prayer; but I learned after they told me I only had two to three years left that I knew much more about God than I actually knew Him. The bulk of my sanctification through this ordeal has been the birth of a deep desire for intimacy with our great God and King.
TT: How do you counsel Christians to face death and disease (both those who are personally facing such crises and those who are currently enjoying robust health)?
MC: I simply have tried to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised by death and disease because the Bible is filled with it. As I stated above, an understanding of God’s goodness and His sovereign power are necessary to cope with life in a fallen world. I want to teach people that life is extremely fragile and that there isn’t a person in our sanctuary or listening to a podcast who can’t have his or her whole world change with a phone call or, as in my case, getting up one morning and getting a cup of coffee. Those are heavy truths, and I know they don’t make for feel-good sermons, but it’s better to know these truths than to pretend it’s not reality.
TT: You’ve written that if you had not heard John Piper’s answer to the question “For whom did Christ die?” at the 1997 Passion conference, you would not have had ground to stand on years later when you heard the words “brain cancer.” How did your understanding of the atonement help you deal with such a devastating diagnosis?
MC: Actually, I think my wife, Lauren, said that in a blog she wrote after my prognosis was given to us. That sermon was significant for both of us because up until that point, I’m not sure we grasped the size and holiness of God. That sermon changed the trajectory of both our lives in that it shifted how we saw God and understood Him.
TT: You’ve also written that there were moments last year when you felt you were “punched in the soul” but that you were reminded nevertheless that the disease with which you’re dealing “isn’t punitive but somehow redemptive.” Could you unpack that a little?
MC: I have been very blessed by God in my life. My cancer has honestly been one of the more difficult things to deal with. Lauren and I have tried to trust the Lord in everything, and when we’ve stepped out in faith He has been beyond gracious to us. People come to hear; they give generously to the church, and almost every “idea” we’ve had God has blessed and grown. I can honestly say that ministry and life were pretty easy for us up until Thanksgiving 2009. After I had the seizure and they found the tumor, I thought it would be like everything else had been — easy and would end well. When I first met my neurosurgeon on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I was ignorantly and maybe even arrogantly thinking that nothing would come of it and that we would just need to watch this thing and see.
I was caught completely off guard when Dr. Barnett told me that it didn’t look good and that we needed to do surgery immediately. That was one of the first times in my life, if not the first time, that things went “worst-case scenario” on me. The Holy Spirit was quick to remind me of great passages on God’s sovereignty and goodness in difficulty. I thought of Romans 8, Hebrews 11, and several others. I wasn’t being punished with brain cancer because I didn’t tell that guy at the gym about Jesus or because I hadn’t read Piper’s latest book, but rather God was at work. He was doing something, and I could be sure that He loved me and in the end I would have increased joy and He would be glorified. Here we are over a year later and that’s exactly what’s happened.
TT: How has dealing with your disease affected your view of God’s sovereignty (or, how has your view of God’s sovereignty affected how you view your disease)?
MC: (Pictured above Matt on a video update to his church after chemo treatment – having lost his hair – which has since grown back) I believe the Scriptures teach that God is aware of every act at every level of the universe. From a star exploding to the rate at which our planet spins to a cell dividing, He knows. I don’t believe in the end that God gave me cancer, but He certainly could have stopped it and didn’t. So I have to believe like Joseph, John the Baptist, and Paul had to believe when they were in prison — that God is working, and what the enemy means for evil, He will turn to good. There have been multiple occasions when God has used this tremendously. The Associated Press let me preach the gospel in an article that ran worldwide. The story has caught the imagination of the media here in Dallas, and we’ve been able to talk about the atoning work of Christ on TV as well as in newspaper articles. That has led to a ton of men and women surrendering their lives to Christ after wanting to talk with me through their own sufferings. If my life gets “cut short” but we get to see new births in the kingdom, then I don’t feel slighted or robbed in the least.
TT: In the late summer/early fall of 2010, you went to Sudan. How did that trip impact your life?
MC: I was deeply moved by my trip to Sudan. I’ve traveled quite a bit internationally but have never seen anything like it. It isn’t even a Third World country. That’s what they want to be. We are connected with some extremely godly men there, and the opportunities for the advancement of a Christ-centered, biblically-strong faith growing in southern Sudan are very real. On a side note, if I had not been diagnosed with cancer, I would not have been able to make the trip. The original diagnosis had us clear my external speaking schedule and opened that time frame for us to go.
From: Tabletalk Magazine – From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343. Interview published on July 1st, 2011.
About Matt Chandler:
Matt Chandler serves as lead pastor of the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. He has become a leader in the evangelical world through his ministry at the Village Church, the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, and his teaching at multiple conferences. Matt is known to a wider audience most recently through his faithful witness to Jesus Christ while battling a malignant brain tumor. Chandler is also the author of the teaching series Philippians: To Live Is Christ & to Die Is Gain; and his excellent first book published by Crossway, entitled: The Explicit Gospel.
“Through The Furnace of Pain”
Nearly two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend Mrs. Cosway, and in it he said, “The art of life is the avoiding of pain.” Thomas Jefferson was a great man and a brilliant thinker, but I disagree. When we first hear that statement, it appears to be true. None of us deliberately looks for pain as we go about our daily activities. When it comes time for our six-month’s dental checkup or our annual visit to the doctor, we really wish we didn’t have to go. After all, the dentist might have to fill a cavity, or the doctor might order an operation or a diet! Generally speaking, all of us do our best to avoid pain.
But when you take a deeper look at the statement, you see that it fails to live up to the facts of history. Thomas Jefferson himself paid a price to help bring the American independence! Many of the patriots of that day lost their names, their homes, their fortunes, and some their lives, in order to win liberty. Our liberty was purchased by pain and death; and our liberty has been protected by pain and death. History itself shows us that human progress can only be made when somebody suffers for that which is true and right.
Even apart from history, our own personal experience teaches us the folly of this statement. The deepest pains are not physical; they are emotional and spiritual. All of us have suffered pain during our pilgrimage of life. We could have avoided the pain, but we have learned that the most important things in life usually involve suffering. If people lived to avoid pain, they would never want to grow up. But just think of what they would miss!
Take the matter of human birth. To be sure, we have modern scientific methods to protect mothers, but there is still a certain amount of pain. Jesus Himself used this as an illustration of His own suffering when He said, “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:2 1).
Think, too, of the pain and sorrow that the mother and father experience as they seek to raise that child. The old proverb says, “When they are little, children step on your feet; but when they are older, they step on your heart.” Often this is true. In my ministry I have met dedicated Christian parents whose hearts have been broken because of wayward children who failed to heed their instruction and example. If everybody really lived to avoid pain, nobody would get married and raise a family; yet people do it all the time.
We must never think that pain is something sinful. Some suffering comes because of disobedience; but not all pain is the result of sin. If Adam in the Garden of Eden had tripped over a rock, he would have felt it. To be sure, the pain of sickness and physical decline is ultimately caused by sin; but even the pain of sickness can have a good result. If you and I never felt pain when something was wrong in our bodies, we would die from neglect. A pain somewhere in the body is a danger signal, and we ought to be thankful for it. But for the Christian believer, pain has much higher ministries. I often hear people say that Christians suffer more than other people do, but I’m not so sure this can be proved. As I visit hospitals and nursing homes, I meet many unsaved people who are suffering. In fact, I believe that the dedicated Christian probably avoids a lot of the physical suffering that comes to a person who defiles and destroys his body through sin and selfishness.
What are the higher ministries of pain? Well, for one thing, pain can have a purifying power. The apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:1, “For he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.” One of the modern translations puts it, “You must realize then that to be dead to sin inevitably means pain.” I once went through intense physical suffering, and it very definitely had a purifying effect on my heart and mind. It made me see spiritual things a lot more clearly. My priorities were rearranged. Granted, pain by itself can never accomplish this; but when we yield to Christ and ask for His help, pain can purify us.
A secondary ministry of pain is that of fellowship with Christ. In Philippians 3:10 Paul writes about “the fellowship of his [Christ’s] sufferings.” Some people turn against God when they go through suffering, but this need not be so. You and I can be drawn closer to God by faith when we are going through the furnace of pain. None of us has ever experienced all that Jesus experienced on the cross. The unsaved person has no idea of the wonderful joy and peace the believer experiences in his heart even in the midst of constant pain.
A third ministry of pain is bringing glory to God. This doesn’t mean that God deliberately makes us suffer just so He can receive glory. But it does mean that God can use our suffering to glorify His name. When Jesus faced the hour of His death, He said, “Father, glorify thy name.” And God was glorified in the suffering and death of His Son, and God honored Christ and raised Him from the dead in great glory. I have visited Christians in hospitals and homes whose lives were glorifying God even in their suffering.
Pain purifies. Pain draws the Christian closer to Christ. Pain glorifies God. But we must also remember that pain today means glory and honor tomorrow. Paul wrote, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). God doesn’t always settle His accounts in this life. In fact, no Christian should expect to receive much reward in this world. Jesus said, “In the world you shall have tribulation.” A man said to me one day, “I don’t believe in hell or heaven. You have your hell or heaven here on earth.” That man was wrong. The unsaved person had better enjoy this world all he can, because it’s the only heaven he will ever see! “It is appointed unto men once to die but after this the judgment.”
But the Christian is looking forward to the glory of heaven. Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries of Ecuador, wrote in his journal: “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” If we suffer with Christ today, it only means glory with Christ tomorrow. For the Christian, the best is yet to come.
Have you surrendered your pain to Christ and asked Him to use it for your good and His glory? I suggest that you do so by faith. God doesn’t promise to remove our pain, or even to relieve our pain; but He does promise to transform it and use it for His eternal purposes.
The great apostle Paul was in pain. He had a thorn in the flesh, given to him by God to help keep him humble and useful. Paul did what any Christian would have done-he prayed for the pain to be removed. God did not answer his prayer, but He did meet his need. He gave Paul all the grace he needed to transform that weakness into strength, that suffering into glory. And God will give grace to you and me if only we will yield our all to Him.
About the Author:
Warren W. Wiersbe is the Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, and is the author of more than 100 books. Billy Graham calls him “one of the greatest Bible expositors of our generation.” Interestingly, Warren’s earliest works had nothing to do with scriptural interpretation. His interest was in magic, and his first published title was Action with Cards (1944).
“It was sort of imbecilic for a fifteen-year-old amateur magician to have the audacity to write a book and send it to one of the nation’s leading magic houses,” Warren says. But having a total of three books published by the L.L. Ireland Magic Company—before the age of 20—gave him a surge of confidence. In later years, he applied his confidence and writing talent to the Youth for Christ (YFC) ministry.
Warren wrote many articles and guidebooks for YFC over a three-year period, but not all his manuscripts were seen by the public eye. One effort in particular, The Life I Now Live, based on Galatians 2:20, was never published. The reason, Warren explains with his characteristic humor, is simple: it was “a terrible book…Whenever I want to aggravate my wife, all I have to say is, ‘I think I’ll get out that Galatians 2:20 manuscript and work on it.’” Fortunately, Warren’s good manuscripts far outnumbered the “terrible” ones, and he was eventually hired by Moody Press to write three books.
The much-sought-after author then moved on to writing books for Calvary Baptist Church. It was during his ten years at Calvary that Expository Outlines on the New Testament and Expository Outlines on the Old Testament took shape. These two works later became the foundation of Warren’s widely popular Bible studies known as the Be series, featuring such titles as Be Loyal (a study on Matthew) and Be Delivered (a study on Exodus). Several of these books have been translated into Spanish.
His next avenue of ministry was Chicago’s Moody Memorial Church, where he served for seven years. He wrote nearly 20 books at Moody before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he and his wife, Betty, now live. Prior to relocating, he had been the senior pastor of Moody Church, a teacher at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a producer of the Back to the Bible radio program.
During all these years of ministry, Warren held many more posts and took part in other projects too numerous to mention. His accomplishments are extensive, and his catalog of biblical works is indeed impressive and far-reaching (many of his books have been translated into other languages). But Warren has no intention of slowing down any time soon, as he readily explains: “I don’t like it when people ask me how I’m enjoying my ‘retirement,’ because I’m still a very busy person who is not yet living on Social Security or a pension. Since my leaving Back to the Bible, at least a dozen books have been published, and the Lord willing, more are on the way.”
Wiersbe’s recent books include Your Next Miracle, The 20 Essential Qualities of a Child of God, Classic Sermons on the Fruit of the Spirit, Classic Sermons on Jesus the Shepherd, Key Words of the Christian Life, Lonely People, A Gallery of Grace, Real Peace: Freedom and Conscience in the Christian Life, and On Being a Leader for God.
The article above was adapted from Warren W. Wiersbe’s classic encouraging devotional: The Bumps Are What You Climb On: Encouragement For Difficult Days. Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1996.