Christian Fellowship Church Men's
Friday, July 1, 2005
I have some quick recommendations before we begin. This is a little
book called "The Acceptable Sacrifice" by that great English Puritan
John Bunyan, whom you know because of Pilgrim's Progress. Most people
don't realize that he wrote over fifty other books, mostly one- or
two-hundred page expositions on a single verse of Scripture. This one
is about the excellency of a broken heart from Psalm 51. Anything by
Bunyan is amazing. No one is as saturated with the Word as Bunyan. He
spent twelve years in prison with basically nothing to do but study the
Bible, and it shows in a tremendous way, and this is a marvelous little
This one is called "The Sovereignty of God" by A. W. Pink, who was a
Baptist minister of the first half of the twentieth century. This is an
unbelievably thorough book for its size on a topic of such massive
import. He begins like this: "Who is regulating affairs on this earth
today - God, or the Devil?" So he's quite passionate, wields the Word
like a hammer - wonderful book.
This is "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God", perhaps a rather
curious title by D. A. Carson, who is one of the richest and deepest of
today's Christian authors. Beautifully thought and beautifully written.
These 84 pages will feed and vex your brain for weeks. Get it.
I'd like to begin with a confession. I have a disease, and it's called
Mars Hill Syndrome. In Acts 17 I read about the philosophers of Athens
who spend their days on Mars Hill to do nothing else but to tell or to
hear some new thing (Acts 17.21). Sometimes I get that way about the
truths of Scripture. 'Ok. Christ Crucified? Got it. What's next? What's
next? An encounter with the Holy Spirit? Ok. I'm there. What's next?
The doctrine of sin? Done. Come on. Come on. What's next? What's new?'
And I become something of a garbage disposal of truth. It goes in. BAM.
It's gone. I'm ready for the next new exciting thing. Now, I'm on a
mission to ruin that tendency in myself, and I ask that you join me in
that effort tonight in this way: I'm going to talk about suffering, and
if this is old news to you, I ask that you still listen and consider
and savor, even if it's for the second or third or one hundred and
seventh time. And on the other hand if any of this is new to you, I
suggest you do not accept it quickly or lightly, but meditate on it and
weigh it carefully and search the Scriptures for yourself.
Now, why suffering? Why do I want to talk about this? I have two
reasons. For one, I don't believe many Christians think about it much
or even know about it at all. I attend a Christian college, and one
time I was sitting in the cafeteria with a few friends when some topic
of conversation came up wherein I just casually mentioned by the way
that all Christians suffer. Everyone at the table gasped and jaws
dropped as though I had just spouted some unthinkable obscenity. They
were shocked that I would even conceive of uttering something so
uncomfortable, so pessimistic, so counter-intuitive. They were
thinking, 'Of course we good Christian kids won't have to suffer. We
live in America. We're nice people. We just say NO to suffering.' They
were shocked, and I was shocked to hear such unbiblical thinking from
people who were raised in the church. They really had no idea. I want
to see that kind of thinking change. I want to see a church saturated
in the Word and grounded in what it says about this most difficult of
topics and indeed about every other uncomfortable, counter-intuitive,
Secondly, I am moved to speak on suffering because of my struggle. You
know, there are times when God comes to you and says, 'Take your
precious son, whom you love, and make him a burnt offering for Me.' But
other times, you wake up one morning and Isaac is gone without a
trace.... Perhaps some of you know that I played the oboe for several
years. It was a huge part of my life. It took me to Boston for school.
It took me touring to France and different places. I won't go into
details here, but last year in a very short period of time, I developed
an undiagnosed condition of the larynx that forced me to quit playing
for good. This love of mine into which I had invested thousands of
dollars and thousands of hours and every ounce of passion disappeared
like a vapor. In the blink of an eye, it was totally gone. This is
something I still have to deal with every day. Physically speaking, it
hurts to speak, sing, whistle, whisper, yell, swallow - you name it, it
hurts. Also, I've had to totally rework my major and my career path.
And of course there is tremendous inner pain when something you love so
much is ripped away and extinguished without warning or explanation or
recourse. Now, I'm not telling you all of this to aggrandize my short
life and my little struggles, and although this is the least of my
afflictions, I suppose were all of them stacked one upon another it
could scarcely stand next to some of the things all of you in this room
have lived through and fought through. So I am not trying to make of
myself some sort of prime specimen, but I give you a glimpse into my
struggle simply so that you will know that I speak from the heart what
I know. This is not theory or philosophizing. This is no abstract
theology. This is not, 'I read it in a book once, and now I want to
spit it up on you.' No, this is where I live right now, today. And
these are tested words. "The words of the LORD are pure words, like
silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Ps 12.6).
These words have staid with me through the fire. I have preached them
to myself day after day, and they have always proven to be sustaining
and life-giving and satisfying and savory.
Let's go to God before we get into this, shall we? God, I am humbled
and terrified because there are men in this room who have known You and
loved You longer than I've been alive, and I'm humbled and terrified
because I'm about to talk about You. Help me. Give us ears to hear and
eyes to see. If these men forget about me and find themselves listening
to You and gazing on You, I will be satisfied. Draw near to us, Jesus.
Walk with us. Make our hearts burn on this road. Break Your bread to
us. Feed us. We love You. Amen.
First let me say that suffering is inevitable. What really turned my
friends' stomachs sitting around in the cafeteria was not simply the
notion of suffering, but it was the idea that suffering is not
optional. They were horrified by such a thought. Let me buzz through a
handful of texts that teach us point blank that all Christians in all
times and all places will suffer. I realize that I'm pulling these
verses somewhat out of context, but not so far out that the meaning is
-In the world you will have tribulation (John 16.33).
-Whoever desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer
persecution (2 Tim 3.22).
-Many are the afflictions of the righteous (Ps 34.19).
-For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to
believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (Phil 1.29).
-We are appointed to affliction (1 Thess 3.3). This is strong language.
Scripture teaches that we are appointed to salvation, and here it says
that we are also appointed to affliction.
-We are called to suffering (1 Pet 2.21; 3.9). Same thing here: just as
we are called into the kingdom, so we are called to suffer.
-We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts
14.22). And lastly...
-Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is
to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you (1 Pet 4.12).
Now, I won't linger here because the Word speaks for itself, and the
message is quite clear: suffering is inevitable.
Now, let's consider the sovereignty of God in suffering. Not only is
suffering not optional; it is not accidental either. We consider three
Turn with me to Job 1. You all know this story: Job is a righteous man,
and Satan gets permission from God to attack him. That's fairly
compelling right there: Satan has to ask God if he can be an agent of
suffering, and God says, 'Yes.' Look at verse 21. After Job finds out
that he has lost everything, this is his response: "Naked I came from
my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and
the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." 'Whoa, whoa,
and whoa. Job, you're upset. Pull yourself together, man. You've just
suffered a lot of grief, but honestly, your theology has gone down the
drain. Job, I just finished reading the chapter, and I know that it was
not God who took everything away. Satan did it.' Yet the Word reads my
mind (and I thought I was the one reading it) and like a dagger cuts
through my objections in verse 22: "In all this Job did not sin nor
charge God with wrong." Job was right, says the narrator, says the
Spirit. We all agree that it was God who gave the good gifts - that's
easy - but can we with equal unction affirm that God was also
sovereignly responsible for taking the same away? Satan gets no credit
Again in 2.10 Job says, "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and
shall we not accept adversity?" 'What? God gives adversity? I thought
God is like Santa Claus; He just gives us nice little things because He
loves us. Right?' And once again the narrator confirms Job's theology,
lest we be tempted to explain him away: "In all this Job did not sin
with his lips." All our arguments are silenced with the reality that
God is sovereign even (and most especially) over suffering and
adversity. All of it is completely and always in His hands. Satan
doesn't even get the time of day. You see, Job looks at everything -
the good and the bad, the prosperity and the suffering, the abundance
and the emptiness - through a God-lens.
Now turn to Genesis 45 and we'll look at Joseph. In Genesis 45.5-8,
Joseph illuminates the true nature of his own trying times (speaking to
his brothers): "But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with
yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to
preserve life," and skipping to verse 7, "God sent me before you to
preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a
great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God."
What bold paradox. Did the brothers do the deed? Yes. Was it sin? Yes.
Were they guilty? Yes. But was God still sovereign? Yes. Did He have
His own purposes in mind? Yes. Was His secret will flawlessly
accomplished? Yes, as always. For indeed He "works all things according
to the counsel of His will" (Eph 1.11).
Flip ahead to 50.20 where we read, "You meant evil against me; but God
meant it for good," that is, God meant their evil for good, "in order
to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive." Here
Joseph explains to his brothers that their evil deeds were wielded like
a weapon of goodness and mercy and wisdom and provision in the
sovereign hand of God. I have found no greater comfort in suffering
than the reality that God is not a helpless victim when it comes to
evil and adversity and sickness and pain and death. He never wrings His
hands. His brow never gets worried and wrinkly. God is not up in heaven
pacing the throne room just hoping that things will work out. And He
isn't like the janitor on the graveyard shift coming along after
Satan's attacks trying to figure out, 'Now how on earth am I going to
make this work out for good?' No, He is fully sovereign over suffering
in every way, from beginning to end working His own good purposes. It
is He who stands with divine and matchless authority in back of all our
trials and tribulations. He is no clean-up crew, no big bystander, no
people-watcher. He is sovereign. He gives, and He takes away. He adds
blessing, and He adds adversity.
One more saint....Let's look at 2 Corinthians 12. Here Paul discusses a
personal affliction of his starting in verse 7: "And lest I should be
exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in
the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be
exalted above measure." Now, Paul is pretty preoccupied with this
certain phrase - he says it twice in the same verse: "lest I be exalted
above measure." Think with me...would Satan ever in a million years do
anything to prevent a saint from excessive self-exaltation? Would Satan
ever design or set out to foster humility in a saint? Of course not.
Yet the text makes it quite clear that, while the buffeting messenger
was from Satan, the ultimate purpose was humility, and that is God's
work. God ordained this affliction to nurture humility in Paul. The
hand and purpose of God were what Paul clearly saw in back of
everything else. He's got the God-lens as well. The 'postmen,' if you
will, though evil, were again good and wise and sovereign and
purposeful tools in God's hands for the shaping of Paul's character.
Bottom line from Job, Joseph, and Paul: suffering is no accident nor is
it the doing of man, Satan, fate, ill fortune, or what-have-you; but
God, who is overflowing with wise and good purposes for His saints, is
sovereign over suffering.
I want to briefly highlight just one broad reason for suffering. God
brings us into suffering because He values His graces in us. In John
Bunyan's words, "These acts of our graces are of that worth and esteem
with God, also he so much delighteth in them, that occasion through his
righteous judgment, must be ministered for them to show their
beauty..." (Advice to Sufferers, p. 4-5). Now this is the old Puritan
way of talking about our graces, which are those 'contagious'
attributes of God. That is to say, while we are never meant to be
omnipotent or omnipresent, we are to shine in adversity just like
Christ because He has made us little wells of faith that endures, hope
that triumphs, love that never fails and cannot be quenched,
steadfastness that defies the blackest of storms. You cannot know these
things second-hand. You cannot experience the inward grace of endurance
by reading a book about it. You can't listen to this series of sermons
about joy in trials and say, 'OK. I've got it. I haven't suffered a
wink, but I've got it. Great. On to the next thing.' No, no, no, that's
Mars Hill all over again. It doesn't work that way. Christ did not
spill His precious blood to purchase us a fair-weather faith to be read
about in books and experienced in idle comfort. No, He died to birth in
us something as unshakable as God Himself, to make us partakers of His
very own divine, unchanging, and rock-solid nature (2 Pet 1.4), and to
give us the kind of innards that made Christ able to endure the
unthinkable at the cross.
I came across an ad for luxury homes that said something like, 'Your
passport to living a vacation lifestyle.' Oh, how often do we crave a
vacation lifestyle, when we know there are graces in this ore that only
shine in their full glory during suffering, and when God has fitted us
with a salvation tailor-made to grow and flourish during seasons of
trial. 2 Corinthians 1.6: Our salvation is effective for enduring
suffering even unto the death. When God saved us, He saved us with a
persevering salvation, a faith to survive all shaking. Oh, and how
honored He is and how glorious He appears in us when the world crumbles
and there are His saints standing fast because He hasn't budged an
inch. When His little outposts called our graces shine during sickness,
shine in the dark night of the soul, shine looking death eye to eye,
God is glorified in us.
This is what Spurgeon says: "I daresay the greatest earthly blessing
that God can give to any of us is health...with the exception of
sickness. I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my
comfortable and easy times and happy hours might almost lie on a penny,
but the good that I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs
is altogether incalculable."
Our first response to suffering must be worship. Look back to Job
chapter 1. "Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he
fell to the ground and worshiped" (Job 1.20). Notice also the words
with which Job worships God in the next verse: "Blessed be the name of
the LORD." We are not under oath to just up and 'be happy' when things
begin to crumble. There is indeed a time for weeping, and I believe He
joins us in tears as well as in laughter as Christ demonstrated over
and over while He was on the earth, weeping over Lazarus, weeping over
Jerusalem. Job does not and cannot fully understand God's working and
His purposes, and he certainly is not a chipper fellow at this point in
the narrative, but he knows one thing to do. He blesses the name of the
LORD. Now, take note of the word LORD in your translation: it should be
in small caps. Whenever you see the word LORD or GOD typeset in small
caps, that is the translators' indication that the Hebrew word is
Yahweh, God's personal name. Just like I'm Michael, He is Yahweh, which
basically means "I AM." This particular name of God comes to prominence
in Exodus chapter 6. Moses just had his first encounter with Pharaoh
and apparently failed. The burden on the Hebrew slaves was increased
and they cry out against Moses, and Moses cries out to God. God's
response to Moses is very interesting. He proceeds to confirm the
covenant that He established with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and He
punctuations this passage over and over by saying, "I am the LORD," I
am Yahweh. Thus He links this divine name with His covenant
faithfulness. This phrase "I am Yahweh" occurs hundreds of times in the
Old Testament, especially in the Law. The Ten Commandments start off,
"I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out
of the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before Me." He
repeats it over and over to remind His people, 'I AM THAT I AM, and I
will do what I have promised. I am a faithful God, a covenant-keeping
God.' Look through a book like Leviticus or Ezekiel sometime and see
how many dozens of times he says, "I am the LORD," I am Yahweh. So to
summarize, this name that Job is blessing is Yahweh, the unchanging I
AM, the faithful God, the covenant-keeping God. Therefore, we say, 'He
was faithful to Abraham, He was faithful to Moses, He was even faithful
to Job, and I believe He is faithful to me today. I cannot understand
the sufferings, but I will cling to the faithful God and bless His
Now, as I close, our second response to suffering is hope. "Many are
the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them
all" (Ps 34.19). As those who are called righteous, we have a
three-tiered hope of deliverance. He may deliver us from our suffering
by physical healing, by breaking in miraculously and showing His power
in clearly visible ways. If He chooses not to heal, He will always be
near to us and give us strength to endure. "Yea, though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are
with me....You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies"
(Ps 23.4-5). "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you"
(Isa 43.2). And our ultimate hope is heaven, where "He will swallow up
death for all of time" (Isaiah 25.8). "And God will wipe away every
tear from our eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor
crying. There shall be no more pain.... These words are faithful and
true" (Rev 21.4, 5). You will never sin again. You will never be
tempted to sin again. Just imagine in that one moment, in that
twinkling of an eye, you will be changed forever (1 Cor 15.52), and the
burden will be lifted. Your body will not fatigue in worship. Your
brain will not distract you. Your week will not hang over your head
like a dark cloud. You know, we have to take this hope of heaven as our
own by looking to it in light of our specific struggles. When I think
of heaven, I imagine speaking His name and whispering to Him and
singing and shouting at the top of my lungs and playing the music that
I love once again with no pain. What is this hope for you? Maybe for
you it's taking off those thick glasses and seeing the colors like
never before. Maybe it's being able to hear the words and the music
perfectly. Maybe it's standing tall all day long without your bones
aching. Maybe it's hopping out of that wheelchair and dancing with all
your might. Maybe it's being able to focus your brain and your
undivided attention on One Thing without endless distractions, without
the voices and the clamor in your head. Maybe it's when that lust that
gnaws at your soul will dissolve and vanish away as a holy fascination
comes over you, more pure and passionate and full of ecstasy than
you've ever dreamed.
Jesus, thank You for the hope of heaven. O Lord, we have loved Your
appearing (2 Tim 4.8), and we long for the day (1 Cor 1.7; Phil 3.20).
We long for You to come. We know You might break in at any moment and
heal and change us, and we know You will sustain us every hour that You
tarry, but still we cry out, O Lord come quickly. Receive us to
Yourself that we might be where You are (John 14.3). We long to see You
as You are and be changed (1 John 3.2). Oh, we long for You, O Lord. We
long for the day. We long for the day....