the All Our Minds project | On Suffering

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the All Our Minds project | On Suffering

Every morning, I wake up next to the man I love in a home I love. 

I drag my feet over to a closet full of clothes and spend too much time debating over what to wear. I take a hot shower and whine if the water gets too cold before I’m done. I grab my lunch from the fridge, snag my keys, kiss my husband goodbye and drive my car to work. I ride the elevator up to the sixth floor of an office building in my favorite city in LA—and then I spend the day reading and writing stories about people around the world who are suffering.

As a writer for non-profit organizations, I’m often overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that is being endured around the world at any given moment. Just this last week, I did four interviews with four different people across the US who had all struggled to stay alive while living on the streets. Then, there are the stories of children around the world who have lost their parents to riots or violence in their villages. Or maybe they’ve lost siblings to malnutrition or malaria. 

The stories are overwhelming. Every day, children suffer. Loved ones battle cancer. Parents lose their jobs. Families sleep in their cars. And the cycle continues. 

More often than not, I find myself wondering how I ended up on this side of suffering. Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned office drinking a soy hazelnut latte while the person in the story I’m working on is sitting in a refugee camp with her four hungry children, wondering if her husband is still alive?

Today’s question hits home for me. Here it is...

Some people’s lives are very easy and others’ are very difficult and painful. Where is God in all this? Why is it that some suffer while others don’t?

I’m just going to call this out from the very start: as somebody who has had a relatively easy life, I feel pretty uncomfortable responding to this question. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of struggles, challenges, doubts and letdowns. I’ve gone through seasons of feeling far from God. But I’ve also written enough of these stories and heard enough news reports to know that I’ve got it pretty good. 

So this is me getting a conversation started on a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I hope we can work together to discover God’s Truth on the matter. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. 

1. God is our Comforter in suffering, not our enemy

This seems like an important starting point. Questions like “Does God cause suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” come up often in both Christian and non-Christian circles alike. When bad fortune falls upon us or the people we love, our knee jerk reaction is to find someone to pin it on. Someone to blame. Someone to throw all of our anger and sadness at. And when we can’t find that person, we shake our fists at the heavens and convince ourselves that God is the cause of it all. 

Then, we remember that sickness, sorrow and pain have never been part of God’s ultimate plan for us. That they’re the by-products of a fallen world that exists outside of the perfection that He desires and intends for us. The perfection that Adam and Eve traded for a sweet piece of fruit. The perfection that God sent Jesus Christ to restore. By sacrificing His only son for our sake, God makes it clear that He is for us, not against us. He’s the reconciler, not the divider. “In this world you will have trouble,” says Jesus,  “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In the depths of any suffering, remember this: Your pain is real AND God is not your enemy. My mind goes straight to Psalm 23, where David talks about God being with him in the green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness, valley of death, and presence of his enemies. When we look at the different verbs that David uses to describe what God is doing in each of these places, we see only verbs of comfort and peace. We see Him “lead,” “restore,” “comfort,” “prepare,” “anoint.” Through the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death, He will be our good shepherd.

When we choose to make God our enemy because nobody else fits the bill, we miss out on the peace, comfort and strength that can only be found in Him. 

2. Suffering isn’t something we earn or don’t earn. It just is

In trying to understand why some people experience more suffering than others, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that suffering is not a consequence of personal sin. What better example is there of this than Jesus? Jesus led a sinless and blameless life and yet He suffered more than anybody else ever will. Along with Jesus, many of the most righteous people in the Bible are the people who experienced the most extreme suffering. God Himself described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil,” and yet Job lost everything. All twelve of Christ’s disciples faced many trials and were ultimately martyred for their faith. 

On the flip side, we live in a cut-throat world filled with a fair share of people who lie, steal and cheat their way to the top. Many of these people seem to avoid suffering and find “success” by the world’s standards. With that being the case, thinking of suffering as something that is either deserved or not deserved just doesn’t add up. 

During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Whether you are evil or good, righteous or unrighteous, we all experience some form of suffering. It just is

3. Your experience of suffering is shaped by your cultural context

My dad has been a pastor for over thirty years, so sometimes I call him to talk through the questions I receive for this project. This is one thing he mentioned on this topic that really stuck out to me. The idea that suffering is interpreted differently in different parts of the world. For instance, many of us who were born and raised in the states have the mentality that nothing bad should happen to us. The tiniest inconvenience will be photographed, instagrammed, and captioned with angry face emojis. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of this response. Why do I complain about having too many clothes or whine when my shower water gets cold too fast? Because culture has given me a superficial understanding of what suffering is. 

I have a vivid memory of a pastor from the Middle East speaking at my church years ago. He was giving the congregation an update on the state of his church, his community and the many trials his country was facing. Towards the end of his message, he said something that gave me pause. He said “I often receive word that churches in the states are praying that our suffering will end, and I want you all to know that we pray for your faith to remain strong and vibrant in the absence of suffering.” Wow. If that’s not a punch to the gut, I don’t know what is. 

This pastor’s view of suffering has been shaped by his circumstances, but more importantly, it has been shaped by God’s Word. In his first letter to Christians in the Roman Empire, Peter wrote, “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).

4. God doesn’t cause our suffering, but He sanctifies us through it

Some people experience more suffering than others, yes. There’s no denying that. And even if God is not the cause of that suffering, it can be difficult at times to understand why a loving God would even allow that suffering to exist. This is why. It’s because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5). 

Instead of quoting C.S. Lewis this time, I’m going to quote a scene from the movie Shadowlands… which is about the life of C.S. Lewis. Here’s a monologue about suffering that screenwriter William Nicholson wrote and Anthony Hopkins performed for the on-screen character of C.S. Lewis:

Does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is ‘yes’? You see, I don’t think that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. 
You see, we are like children who think that our toys bring us all the happiness there is, and that our nursery is the whole wide world. But something has to drive us out into the world of others, and that thing is suffering. Put simply, pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world. 
We're like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action. For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial, is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.

Once we finally strip away all of these false perceptions that we have about suffering—that it’s caused by God, that it’s somehow deserved or undeserved—we can begin to see His redemptive plan for it. We can begin to see that neither suffering nor comfort are ever the end in themselves. That the pain of the chisel is what forms us into works of art. 

It’s only in the light of that realization that we can live out the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, knowing that, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” 

So now what?
As a living, breathing human being in this fallen world, there’s probably something in your life that’s not going your way right now. Regardless of how big or small you think your suffering is, look to God for comfort, guidance and peace. Let Him be the hope you find in the messy middle of your refining fire. 

Writing this response has made me realize that there’s really no sense in wondering why I have the life that I have. All I know is that God has a purpose for me here and that His love implores me to live whatever life I have for Him and Him alone. 

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). If you’ve been given much, consider how you can bring light and hope into the suffering of others. Pray that God would break your heart for what breaks His—and that He would fill you with the conviction and strength to do something about it. 

When your cup is full, turn to your neighbor and pour into his. Commit to stewarding all that you have and are for the glory of God the Father, for He “will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).

References:
https://www.biblegateway.com/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSxp30wExEs

 

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the All Our Minds project | On Disagreeing Well

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the All Our Minds project | On Disagreeing Well

A few weeks ago, I went to see the new Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. I went with my husband, who had already seen it once...less than 24 hours prior. Clearly, he was a fan. And it didn’t take long for me to understand why.  

Confession: I actually have no memory of ever watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kid, but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority. From what I can tell, most people who grew up in America any time between the late 60s to the early 2000s remember this show with fondness.

After watching the documentary, it’s obvious to me why so many people have been impacted by this man’s work. It’s because he genuinely loved his neighbors—and he did it with courage, compassion and kindness.

“You know, I think everybody longs to be loved,” he said, “and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And, consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

As an ordained minister working in television, Rogers was constantly interacting with people who thought and acted different than he did. Many of his Christian values were likely challenged on a regular basis. But instead of insulating himself from opposing viewpoints and hiding in a Christian bubble, he held tightly to Truth and brought love into the messy middle.

Here’s today’s question...

Is it possible to love someone like Jesus loved while still disagreeing with something that's a huge part of who that person is? If so, what does that look like?

Mr. Rogers would say yes, and so would I. I absolutely believe that it’s both possible and crucial for us to love in this way… but that doesn’t make it easy. As fond as I’ve grown towards Mr. Rogers over these past few weeks, I know a guy who sets an even better example of Christ-like love. A perfect example, if you will. Enter Jesus.

Our perfect example of loving people we disagree with

The only way that we’re going to get a good pulse on how to love like Jesus loved is by looking to His example. Literally every person who Jesus crossed paths with during His time on this earth had something in their life that He disagreed with. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our sin is offensive to Him and it’s the reason why He suffered so intensely on the cross. But despite all of that—despite the anguish and sorrow that only He knew that He would suffer—He still chose to love unconditionally.  

In one of the most widely quoted Bible passages of all time—second only to John 3:16—Paul tells us what love is and what it isn’t. I’m talking about 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Jesus’ greatest commandment tells us to follow His example of love in our own lives: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). Let’s take a look at how Jesus lived this out in His ministry on earth, despite disagreeing with the choices and lifestyles of the people around Him.

He broke bread with them

Some times, I think about why God created us to need food. Our bodies literally can’t survive without it. We have this regular cycle of hunger and satiation that repeats itself from the day we’re born until the day we die. But why? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I believe that one of them is because our hunger for food is a need that creates fellowship. It gives us one more reason, one more opportunity, to step outside of ourselves and interact with the communities around us.  

Jesus was notorious for eating meals with people who were thought of as unclean. Lepers. Adulterers. Liars. Cheaters. Tax collectors. The Pharisees were pretty confused by the company He kept. “They asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:11-12).

Jesus’ fellowship with sinners—aka all of us—is an act of love. By gathering and conversing with people whose lifestyles He disagreed with, He broke down the barriers and excuses pushing sinners away from His unconditional love. This is what His mission was all about. Eliminating the barriers that keep us away from God.

He spoke the truth in love

In thinking about this question, one story that immediately came to mind was that of the Samaritan woman in John 4. She comes to the well to get water during the hottest time of day because she is ashamed of her many sins, and Jesus meets here there to begin a conversation with her. He reminds her of all she’s done and tells her exactly who He is: the Messiah who can redeem her from it all. Through their brief, honest and raw exchange, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony” (4.39).

This type of grace-filled truth speaking gives us an example to aspire to. Often, we let our own judgments get in the way of loving others the way Christ does. In a previous post, I wrote that when we speak the truth without love, it reads as judgment—and none of us are in any position to judge anybody. That same idea is relevant to this conversation. It’s not our job to punish people for disobeying God. Our job is to love Him, to love our neighbors like ourselves, and to proclaim His Gospel {of love} with our words and deeds.

Following His example of unconditional love today

So now that we’ve taken a glimpse at how Jesus showed love to people He disagreed with, let’s think through how we can apply His example in our own lives. This quote by Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian theologian {and friend of Mr. Rogers}, takes us to a good starting point.  

He writes: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”

It might seem like a no-brainer but it’s worth saying: To love somebody, you need to see them. Take the time to learn how they became who they are. Listen before opening your mouth. Replace judgment with empathy. And speak the Truth in love by remaining humble in the knowledge that the Gospel covers your sins just as much as it covers theirs.  

When Jesus prayed for His disciples the night before His crucifixion, he said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). With this simple prayer, Jesus made it clear that His followers are not called to insulate themselves from a world of people who think and act differently than they do. On the contrary, His entire earthly ministry was a living example of standing firm in Truth in the midst of opposition.

We’ve all heard it said before: good communication plays a significant role in healthy relationships. And I believe that it’s particularly critical in relationships with people who think differently than you. Love finds its strength in understanding, and you can’t understand somebody without first seeing and hearing them.

In my own efforts to understand people who lead lifestyles that don’t align with God’s Word, I often ask myself this question: Why would that person care that they aren’t living by God’s standards if they don’t believe in God? I definitely wouldn’t. This goes back to the motivation for obeying God’s law that we talked about a few weeks ago. Instead of approaching these conversations with judgment and condemnation, consider the heart of the matter. Introduce them to the living God of hope, redemption, love and new life. Once a person truly knows Him, the Holy Spirit begins the work of sanctification.

There are a lot of ways to show love to somebody. Some times, it means speaking a hard truth. Other times, it means offering a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. But if the love you give to somebody leaves them feeling hopeless, there's something missing. Let your love be hope-filled, Truth-filled and grace-filled, just like the love of our Savior.  

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the All Our Minds project | On Obeying God's Law

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the All Our Minds project | On Obeying God's Law

I have a love-hate relationship with check marks. 

If I’m not careful, those little asymmetrical Vs can have the sneakiest way of measuring my worth—or lack of it—on a given day. I’ve got my running tally of to-dos. Go to work. Buy groceries. Make dinner. Do my devo. Write. Swing by Target. Go to the gym. Call this person. Email that person. Sleep? 

At the end of a long day, I’ll take inventory, weighing out the success of my day based on how many check marks I see. If I started out with ten tasks on my list and only completed six of them, the six that I accomplished don’t matter nearly as much as the four that I didn’t because those undone tasks register as failure. Maybe you can relate. 
 
But here’s what I’ve realized. Operating under this work-equals-worth mindset will lead me down a very slippery slope. And the only things that wait at the bottom of it are self-doubt, disappointment, emptiness, exhaustion and separation from God.

Today’s question challenged me to think through this mindset even further. Here it is: What motivates you to obey the rules in the Bible? What do you gain from following them?

The list-writing perfectionist in me would say to obey God's rules because you’re supposed to or because you’ll get more check marks if you do. She’s wrong, so I try not to listen to her much, but I can’t deny that she’s constantly nudging at a little corner of my heart. Because let’s be honest: making detailed lists with check marks is much easier than doing the work to truly discover the heartbeat of God and make it your own. 

In Christian circles, we’re constantly talking about “the heart.” It’s all about the heart, we tell each other. Where was your heart at when you made that decision? or I need to check my heart in this area. This is basically a Chistianese way of saying that motivation matters. Your reasons for choosing to honor God are an important aspect of your faith. And those motivations flow from your heart.

So what is it that motivates us to obey God’s law?

The free gift of salvation in Christ
Jesus is where our freedom from sin begins and is therefore where my response to this question begins. Romans 3:23-25 reads: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”

A speaker at the local Bible study that I attend summarized the message of this passage in a way that made perfect sense to me: “God requires 100 percent righteousness, which can only be achieved through the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus.”

Salvation in Jesus is the free gift that atones for every moment of sin in our lives. Every shortcoming, evil thought and poor decision is covered by the blood of Jesus. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Through Jesus, we are fully reconciled to God. His perfection pays the price for our imperfection. That is the great exchange.

Gratitude for that free gift
When we truly accept this reality, our posture toward God shifts.

In attempting to follow His law, we’re no longer grabbing at straws to prove our own worth or earn our salvation through good deeds. On the contrary, we are humbled by the certain facts of both our own insufficiency and Jesus’ total sufficiency.

Out of this humility comes an earnest desire to lead lives that honor the selfless sacrifice of Jesus. Our actions become an outpouring of our gratitude for His saving grace, which both frees us from the debt of our sin and binds us in perfect unity with God.

Our desire to be sanctified
To truly reconcile the biblical imperative to follow God’s law with the assurance that salvation is by faith alone, we need to understand sanctification.

It’s a process that begins the moment we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and continues for the rest of our lives on this earth. Sanctification is a product of our salvation, not a means of achieving it. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes, “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (2:12-13). 

Accepting Christ as our Savior constitutes a core change in our identity. We are no longer slaves to sin, so why would we still act like we are? (Romans 6: 1-2). There’s no doubt that we will make mistakes and fall short of God’s commandments—that’s the whole reason Jesus had to come in the first place. If we could be perfect in our own right, Jesus wouldn’t be our Savior because we wouldn’t need saving. But through the strength of the Holy Spirit, our active decision to resist our sinful nature is a testament to the power of Jesus in our lives.

What do we gain from following His law?
In Mere Christianity—I know, I cite that one often—Lewis writes, “But the truth is that the right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help build the internal quality or character called ’virtue,’ and it is this quality of character that really matters.” He then goes on to say, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas He really wants people of a particular sort,” (Lewis 80).

That sounds a lot like the process of sanctification that we looked at a moment ago. This idea that through the work of the Holy Spirit, our lifetime of actions—the good and the bad—will actually form us into people who embody the kind of virtue that pleases God. 

Let’s take it one step further. In Romans 16:25-27, Paul writes about “the obedience that comes from faith.” And in an exegesis of this passage, John Piper shares his commentary on the connection between faith and obedience. He says, “The gospel strengthens us in faith so that we will live obedient lives. This is called ‘the obedience of faith.’ The gospel is the means to obedience because it is the means to faith and obedience comes from faith,” (Piper, par. 9).

Faith gives us the strength to be obedient. And that obedience helps us draw closer to God which in turn makes our faith stronger. The second we start to think of our actions as the end in themselves, we’ve missed the point entirely.

Today, I challenge you to truly reflect on what drives you to obey God’s rules. Is it the desire to be “good” or “right”? Maybe you do it because it's how you were raised. Or maybe you just love lists and check marks.

And be honest with yourself. Our motivations tell us what we value. Once we identify them, we can begin the work of aligning them with the heart of God. 

Resources:
www.biblegateway.com
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
www.desiringgod.org/messages/command-of-god
 

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