Beholding and Rejecting the Suffering Splendor of the Savior

John Piper, Plenary Session Three

Isaiah 6 reveals the splendor of the Majestic King.

Isaiah 53 reveals the suffering of the Sacrificial Servant.

Both are rejected by a mankind who seeks the glory of one another more than the glory of God. Our sinful nature desires neither picture of God, and Jesus was BOTH.

Be Still, My Soul

Such rich theology, comfort and knowledge can be found in old hymns. I had a sweet time of fellowship around a piano last night with two dear friends. They were preparing for an upcoming retreat where they are leading the worship, and they allowed me to sit in on their planning and rehearsing.

While they were going through songs, we had a great conversation about old hymns and new songs, but the thought occurred to me that, while newer songs tend to bring much comfort and encouragement and are upbeat and about the love of our Savior, there is much comfort and strength in the face of suffering that can be found in the old hymns.

I wonder if it is not because much inspiration can come from much suffering. This is one of my favorite “soul comforting” hymns. A friend shared the lyrics on her blog a week or so ago, but I wanted to share them as well.

If you are in a tough time, if you are desperately seeking Truth and seeking after the face and comfort of the Lord, spend some time meditating on the words of this song.

Be Still, My Soul
By: Katharina A. von Schlegel

1. Be still, my soul:
the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently
the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God
to order and provide;
In every change,
He faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul:
thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways
leads to a joyful end.

2. Be still, my soul:
thy God doth undertake
To guide the future,
as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence
let nothing shake;
All now mysterious
shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul:
the waves and winds
still know His voice
Who ruled them
while He dwelt below.

3. Be still, my soul:
when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened
in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know
His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe
thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul:
thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness
all He takes away.

4. Be still, my soul:
the hour is hastening on
When we shall be
forever with the Lord.
When disappointment,
grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot,
love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul:
when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed
we shall meet at last.

5. Be still, my soul:
begin the song of praise
On earth, believing,
to thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him
in all thy works and ways,
So shall He view
thee with a well-pleased eye.
Be still, my soul:
the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds
shall but more brightly shine.

What encouragement do I find in these five verses?

1. Things in this world will cause my heart to stir, be grieve, to break. Pain and suffering are a part of life in this fallen world.

2. God knows this better than I do, and He is ready and prepared to comfort in those times.

3. People fail one another. But God is all knowing and is faithful to replace that which leaves with a blessing beyond imagination. There is no true loss with the Father; only great gain of something better.

4. One day, there will be no more pain, suffering, betrayal, struggle. Jesus has promised he is going to prepare a place for us and we will join him there.

5. We cannot wait until that time to begin living in that reality. We need to still our souls in the here and now, preparing ourselves for that time.

How do you still your soul in times of trouble?

Can Pain Ever Be Good?

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 1 Peter 4:12-16

While I was at the Exodus Freedom Conference last month, I attended a workshop for ministry leaders led by Jeff Buchanan. The workshop was entitled Moving Forward into a Culture of Discipleship, and Jeff’s purpose was to equip ministry leaders in the work of growing grace-saturated disciples of Christ within both our ministries and the Church at large. Part of what he taught has particularly stuck with me the last couple of weeks and I wanted to share a few points that I have been able to put into immediate practice both in ministry and in my own life.

Jeff stressed the fact that, as believers, we must learn about and embrace a theology of suffering. So many today seek a life of comfort and ease and happiness. Televangelists preach a prosperity gospel that is anything but biblical. Some teach that if we do God’s will, then God will bless us with material prosperity and physical well-being. I find that thought interesting considering that even the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. If Jesus was homeless and suffered horrendously on our behalf, the idea of comfort and ease should be foreign to his followers as well.

But what do we do with the equally true concepts that God loves us and desires what’s best for us but also allows suffering and tremendous pain in our lives? To 21st Century Americans, pain and hardship do not equal good. All pain is bad pain and personal happiness is the ultimate goal. The passage at the beginning of this post flies in the face of American entitlement and once again shows that, sometimes, pursuing the American Dream requires us to pursue the exact opposite of the Christian life.

Peter addresses two types of suffering in 1 Peter 4: suffering brought upon ourselves by our own poor decisions, and suffering on behalf of Christ and his Gospel. How do we know the difference? There can be two types of physical pain: destructive pain like the pain that is caused by illness and injury, and growth pain caused by exercise and rehabilitation. Pain caused by illness or injury can be destructive for the rest of your life if you do not also experience the temporary pain of physical rehabilitation. Growth pain usually alleviates destructive pain, at least partially if not completely.

In this workshop, Jeff included two very helpful bullet pointed lists that help us determine what pain is good, growth oriented pain, and what pain is destructive in our lives.

The Pain in your Life is Growth Pain if you are:
• Becoming more vulnerable in your relationships with God and with other people
• Humbly recognizing your own character flaws and are allowing God to correct them
• Taking relational risks; stepping out, learning to trust, revealing your true self to people
• Relearning healthy and godly relational skills and boundaries
• Dealing with the emotional wounds and trauma of your past
• Overcoming passivity and learning how to stand up for Truth and righteousness
• Overcoming destructive patterns that you have become dependent upon and are learning to depend on God
• Dealing with grief and loss in an expressive and productive way.

The Pain in Your Life is Destructive Pain if you are:
• Refusing to face character issues
• Choosing wrong relationships and unsafe people
• Repeating destructive patterns and not assuming responsibility
• Harboring unforgiveness
• Living with a false perception or romanticized ideals
• Living in a state of self-pity

So what causes pain in your life? Are you suffering because of the sinful choices of others and your suffering is beyond your control? Are you suffering because you stood up for what is right and are now experiencing persecution for it? Or are you suffering because of your own choices? There is good news for each situation!

If you are suffering due to the sins of others, God is clear in Scripture that He is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) and deals justly with the sinner (Romans 12:19). If you are suffering on behalf of Christ, Scripture tells us to take joy in sharing in his suffering because we will also share in His glory! And if you are suffering because of your own foolish choices, there is repentance and forgiveness in the cross and the time spent in destructive pain can be redeemed through growth pain.

Whatever kind of suffering you may be currently experiencing, don’t waste it! Allow God to use it for your good and his glory. Cling to him. Grow in your faith. Share what you’ve learned with others. Be a testimony of his grace to a suffering world. When you suffer for the right reasons, don’t deny the pain, but make sure you acknowledge the accompanying grace and peace and joy of Christ. If you’ve lived your life in destructive pain and are now experience growth pain, don’t give up on the healing process. See the difference in the two types of pain and take comfort in the fact that this season of growth pain will prevent you from experiencing a lifetime of destructive pain. Keep your eternal perspective.

Creativity and Suffering

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.
Orson Welles

What is it about adversity that causes mankind to reach the heights of greatness? As Welles so humorously pointed out above, some of the most stunning pieces of art, some of the most famous stories and songs, some of the most incredible sculptures and photographs and poetry were created in response to times of great pain and struggle and heartache.

What is it about suffering that inspires creativity? Is it our inherent need to be known? Are we desperate to have a community with whom we can share our troubles, but feel we must first create a community by expressing our suffering? Is it a cry out to know that we are not alone in our suffering? Is it just a need to get it out before our own hearts explode from the pressure? Why do people shine the brightest in moments of deepest darkness?

This creativity in adversity is part of our nature; it is a part of the image of God imprinted on the soul of every person. God’s greatest work in Scripture occurred in the midst of some of the darkest moments in human history. Creation occurred in literally the darkest moment. When the Creator made time, He began his work with nothing. The word used to describe the work God did when he fashioned Eve from the side of Adam is the same word used later in the Old Testament to describe the artistic handiwork of the craftsmen commissioned to build the Temple. God is an artist. And He used the darkest moment in human history to serve the greatest purpose in divine sovereignty.

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our LORD Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our LORD Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5)

Did you catch that? At the end of suffering, there is hope. There is hope in spite of suffering because of the work of Christ on the cross. The most incredible creativity in adversity is born in the minds of those who, in the midst of suffering in this fallen, sinful and broken world, continue to long for a better country (Hebrews 11:6). Those who suffer without hope see no point to suffering, and their work reflects their hopelessness.

Some of the most beautiful passages of Scripture were written in the depths of pain and sorrow. And the beauty in them comes in the fact that, in spite of the desperate expression of pain, there is always an equally desperate acknowledgment of the love and sovereignty of a God who loves us deeply and knows our pain and is there with us in the midst of it.

Creativity in the face of adversity is the human soul testifying to the fact that there must be something more to this life! When life is peaceful and prosperous, our longing for a better country subsides and we become, in the words of CS Lewis, “far too easily pleased” with the pleasures of this world. But when we are faced with adversity beyond our control, we are also reminded that we are ultimately not in control of our own lives. There is something greater than us, there is a place greater than this one, and we long for it.

How do you respond to adversity? Does is cripple you, draining you of your faith and balance, causing you to shake a fist at God or the Universe or whatever other being you worship? Or does it increase your longing for a better country, forcing you to join all of creation in its groans for redemption? Does it put you in a paralyzed state or does it spur you to move to action in a desperate search for truth and understanding in a seemingly pointless situation? Do you think, “Why me?” or “What can I learn from this?”

When you face suffering, do you crash and burn or soar and create? Is your inspiration found somewhere within the transient and fallen creation, which is sure to fail and disappoint us, or have you found the Creator, the life source that “does not disappoint”?

Depression and Psalm 102

in Bible study last week I taught on Psalm 102, and our conversation drifted quickly to the struggle of depression and suffering. The following is an article I wrote to follow up our conversation. I hope it may be a helpful reminder and encouragement to those who suffer from times of depression.

First of all, there are many causes for seasons of depression. Whenever I experience a time of isolation or depression I ask myself four questions to evaluate it.

These are four reasons for suffering in the life of a believer (and I would qualify extended periods of depression as a form of suffering):

  1. Is this caused by sin in my own life? Is there something God wants me to do that I am not doing? Is there something God wants me to quit doing and I refuse? Is my depression caused by unrepentance and I am just far from God? Maybe you are depressed because life if not working out according to your plan. Maybe you are suffering because of poor choices you have made. If the cause of your circumstance is something you’ve done, is there anything you can do to improve the situation or do you just need to humbly accept the consequences of your choices and adjust your life accordingly?
  2. Is this caused by the sin of someone else? Am I suffering because of the actions of another? If so, what do I need to do to prevent resentment and bitterness from leading to sustained depression? Examples would be suffering abuse at the hand of someone else, suffering the consequences of someone else’s bad choice, like a spouse that chooses to leave the family or financial hardship brought about by poor decisions of another person.
  3. Is this caused by the presence of sin in this fallen world (natural disaster, disease)? If so, what can I do to lessen the suffering brought on by this situation? Maybe you experience seasonal depression that is triggered by a traumatic event in your life, or the death of a loved one or some other event. If you begin to recognize a pattern to your times of depression, talk with someone who may be able to help you identify a trigger and help you set up some preventative measures to lessen or end your times of depression.
  4. Is this a time of suffering with an unknown cause? If so, am I living in the truth that God is sovereign even when I don’t understand? Many times we overlook the things we can do to help improve our situations and our emotions; we have more control over our minds and our emotions than I think we realize sometimes. But when we take an honest look at our lives and we can find no reason or “trigger”, it may be that God is allowing a time of depression and suffering to prepare us for a time later down the road or maybe it’s to teach us something about Him or about ourselves. Or maybe we could be like Job and our suffering isn’t actually about us at all.

Second, I hope that no one thinks this post is intended to offer a quick fix to depression or other forms of suffering we experience. The truth is that there is no 3 step program to end suffering; sometimes we do all of the “right things” and we continue to suffer. Ultimately, we are to turn to God and worship Him because He is worthy to be worshiped and praised— whether we are freed from our suffering or not. This Psalm is not about how to end depression; the point of Psalm 102 is that we should focus our thoughts and our worship on God in spite of our depression. Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.” If anyone had a reason to be depressed, it was Job! And depressed he was; he sat in his underwear, outside, in an ash heap, covered in boils, grieving the death of all of his children and the loss of all of his possessions. Yet through all of that he still praised God.

In his commentary on this Psalm, Spurgeon gives two lists for us to keep in mind.

First is the relationship between the afflicted man and prayer (Spurgeon’s words are in bold):

  1. Afflicted men may pray. Being in a time of depression does not somehow disqualify us from praying.
  2. Afflicted men should pray even when overwhelmed. In fact, I can’t think of a time when we need to pray more!
  3. Afflicted men can pray—for what is wanted is a pouring out of their complaint, not an oratorical display. God knows your heart, but He still desires you share it with Him!
  4. Afflicted men are accepted in prayer—for this prayer is on record. If God did not want us to pray in times of depression, He would not have recorded a lesson in how to pray when we are depressed.  

Second is a reminder of the things “unbelieving sorrow” makes us forget. Unbelieving sorrow describes those times of depression that are brought about (or sustained longer than they need be) by unrepentant sin in our own lives:

  1. We forget the promises of God.
  2. We forget the past and its experiences. Sometimes we are so focused on the present suffering we forget the healing and saving work God has done in our lives in the past.
  3. We forget the Lord Jesus, our life.
  4. We forget the everlasting love of God. This leads to weakness, faintness, etc., and is to be avoided.

Sometimes we have legitimate reasons to be depressed for a time: grief, chemical imbalances, trauma, stress. But by not working to combat the depression, we stay in it longer that we need to. Sometimes depression becomes our identity and then it becomes an idol. To prevent this from happening, we must continue to remember the things listed above so that the times of depression we cannot control to not last longer than they should.

The point of this post is to remind us (remind me) that we are to continue to praise God through our times of suffering just like we praise Him in our times of joy. Sometimes, the truest worship comes in the times of sorrow and pain and depression. It’s easy for people to worship in the good times; even Judas Iscariot appeared to worship Jesus when the money bags were full and the multitudes crowded around to see and hear Him. But to worship in the bad times, to praise Him in the midst of the storms of life, is to show the depth of your devotion and love for Him. And sometimes, just keeping the focus off of us and on Him, the times of depression just may not be as bad as they could have been. 

I hope this clears some questions people may have concerning depression. I have been known to overclarify things in the past, but I just want to make sure that everyone knows that I do not discount depression or the experience of depression. The Lord created us capable of having the emotional experience of depression which means we must learn how to use it for our growth and for His glory, and I hope conversations like the ones this hopefully begins will allow us to learn how to do that better!