One common stumbling block in the sanctification of today’s Christian is a poor theology of suffering. Our independent, “can-do” attitude in America creates a self-sufficient context to life, leading many to seek God, “looking for pleasant results rather than deeper realities.” As a result, life disappointments can shake our faith.
- We hurt.
- We question why.
- We long for justice.
- We become angry.
This response is natural. As image bearers of a righteous God, we are wired to see good triumph (Romans 1:18-19). However, there is another power at work. Internally, sin has corrupted our hearts leaving us with desires contrary to God’s ways (Romans 7:15). We can find ourselves double-minded (James 4:8), and living in a state of internal conflict (Galatians 5:17).
How does this impact the way we suffer and respond? Let’s examine two case studies from Scripture.
Jonah was charged to evangelize the people of Nineveh. After a rough start, Jonah spoke, Nineveh repented, and God was merciful to the 120,000 inhabitants of the city. God’s attributes of grace, compassion, slow to anger, and abounding in love were on display to all, but Jonah was not happy. In fact, he was suffering to the point of wanting to die (Jonah 4:2-3). His suffering was real, but man-centered.
In another evangelistic moment, Stephen preached to the members of the Sanhedrin, urging them to repent, but was rejected, dragged away and stoned. With eyes fixed on Christ, his last desire was to ask God to forgive their sins (Acts 7:59). Stephen’s suffering was real, but God-centered.
Why the stark difference in responses between these men of God? How do our responses to life events compare?
Before we can address life’s disappointments like a Christian, the wayward tendencies of our hearts must force us to examine our motives. If we are double-minded we will hinder God’s redemptive work in our response.
Understanding our worship structure
To understand why we respond the way we do, we must start with our worship structure.
Human beings were created by God to be worshipers. You can’t divide people into two groups, as if there are some who worship and others who don’t. Every person, regardless of religious profession, has worshiped their way through every day of their existence. I would even argue that everything you say and everything you do is an act of worship. – Paul Tripp
We suffer and respond in anger when we believe the objects of our worship are threatened. This can occur even if the event is loving. For example, an individual caught in the sin of alcoholism will view his wife’s actions as evil if she pours his whiskey down the drain. He will experience suffering and respond in anger, but I think we would all agree his suffering is man-centered and his anger unrighteous.
Despite the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, Christians must acknowledge the divided worship nature of our hearts. Sanctification is progressive, and our hearts are still prone to worship both God and our little gods (Romans 1:25). In biblical times, these little gods were carved idols. Today these little gods are often good desires that have morphed into demanding needs.
As a result, the suffering experienced and the fuel for our anger may have more to do with our little gods than God. Our response can contain both righteous and unrighteous indignation.
Divided worship results in a duality of suffering; we will suffer as God’s image bearers and suffer as fallen creatures, as shown in the mind map below.
The upper path: Sin is an assault on God (Psalm 51:4), against His character, His creation of marriage and family (Genesis 2:24), and against the souls of His image bearers (Genesis 1:26). Thus, when we are sinned against, we will experience Godly sorrow, God-centered suffering and eventually righteous anger.
If we are pure in heart, our response will work with God as He gently and patiently works in the situation, leading the individual to repentance (Romans 2:4). We have the opportunity to cooperate with Christ as His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) and peacemakers (Matthew 5:12).
This path describes Stephen’s behavior. His words and actions were a righteous blend of defending God while desiring the unbelieving Jews to repent of their self-reliant ways.
The lower path: Since we are all works in progress, the events of the world often attack our little gods. When this happens, the suffering and sorrow experienced is real, but man-centered. As a result, our anger is unrighteous and our actions are fixated on self, often leading to bitterness and un-forgiveness.
This was the case for Jonah. His citizenship in the nation of Israel had captured his heart and mind. He placed his hope and trust in the security of his nation instead of God. Thus, when God mercifully withheld His wrath from Nineveh, Jonah suffered, since his idol, the nation of Israel, was still threatened.
We can be quick to look down on our friend Jonah, but I suggest we are more like him than we care to admit. I will demonstrate this by taking a look at two fictional counseling cases.
Counseling case study examples
Example one – Mary was devastated to learn of her husband’s frequent use of pornography. When confronted, he confessed, repented, agreed to attend counseling, and to meet with an accountability partner. After a few weeks, he confessed continual failures and struggles in this area.
She felt deceived and was tempted to give up on the marriage, stating, “I did not sign up for this.” She questioned his salvation and started to look for ways to separate from him (Matthew 5:32).
Example two – Sam’s world was turned upside down when he learned of his wife’s adultery and her plans to divorce. He requested a meeting with the pastor and elder board, urging them to convince his wife to quickly repent and come back under his leadership (Ephesians 5:22).
In these examples, sexual immorality and adultery are evils against God. All Christians are called to wage war against evil (Ephesians 6:12), our flesh (Galatians 5:17), and the world (James 4:4).
At first glance, we can identify with Mary and Sam’s actions, but what is going on underneath the surface? What god is defended?
After growing up with an alcoholic and disapproving father, Mary desired a stable and loving husband. Her husband’s recent behaviors resurfaced the past shame she experienced as a teenager. She found herself questioning her worthiness as a person. “Why isn’t my husband pleased with me?
Her identity was a mixture of being a good wife (i.e. a desired wife) and a child of God. Her allegiance was two-fold. She knew his actions were sinful, but they were also a threat to her little god of marriage. She wanted the pain to end.
As a foster child, Sam’s chaotic childhood left him longing for stability. His wife’s love made life feel normal, but he was unable to see how his love was self-centered. The thought of divorce horrified him.
His allegiances to his little god of stability bled into his Christianity. His focus was on himself and he was using doctrine to regain control of the situation.
Unfortunately, Mary and Sam’s responses to evil were more man-centered than God-centered. Their desire for justice and restoration was clouded by their allegiance to their little gods.
I do not intend to minimize the pain and suffering experienced by God’s image bearers from sin. We all experience suffering while living in a post-Adam world and sometimes the suffering is great. When trials come our way, we all mourn (Romans 12:15) and are in need of tender soul care (2 Corinthians 1:4).
However, we must maintain a Gospel perspective. Christ’s work on the cross redeems our earthly story and God is a perfect loving Father using all things for the eternal good of His children (Romans 8:28-29). This should compel us to help hurting individuals explore how God is working in their situation (1 Peter 1:6-7, Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
To rightly respond to life’s events, we must address both the external actions of others and the internal actions of our hearts. Full restoration cannot be achieved unless sanctification is taking place in all parties.
Gospel application in the midst of hurt
If you find yourself holding on to bitterness and unforgiveness or if you feel yourself slipping into cynicism while suffering, I would encourage you to examine your worship structure.
The Gospel reminds us of God’s goodness and our heart’s tendency to pursue broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:17). God will mercifully allow evil to enter our lives to test and sanctify our faith (James 1:2-4). There is mystery in this process (Deuteronomy 29:29), but we must remember God wants to give us living water (John 4:14).
In my own life, the pain of a broken marriage revealed my little gods of marriage and sex. At first, I felt like a small ship tossed about a raging sea, hopeless and lost. My focus was on my hurt and my anger was at God and my wife.
As God’s Spirit worked in my heart, He revealed how my true allegiance was to my little gods and not to Him. This is when the Gospel started to serve as a rudder for my little boat. The storm was not over, but I now had a direction.
Mary and Sam have a similar opportunity. They can choose to focus on their little story or to pursue the Gospel and join God’s big story of redemption. If they choose Christ, pain will come as they become untethered from their little gods – the pain associated with the death of their flesh.
Turning from idols is scary (Matthew 16:24), because they are typically longstanding self-reliant attempts to deal with the uncomfortableness of life due to our separation from God. Despite being false lovers, they were lovers nonetheless. They will need soul care from a mature brother or sister in Christ.
Hopefully, their eyes will open and they will come to see how their little gods could never satisfy and were preventing them from experiencing God’s love (Jonah 2:8).
The Internal kingdom
I trust this article has provided some insight into the Christian’s internal wrestling in the midst of external conflict. Because of the Gospel, there is a redeemed internal kingdom working in the midst of a fallen and cursed world, a kingdom alive and working in the hearts of God’s children.
Physical restoration can and does takes place, but not before the Spirit has accomplished His internal work. Despite the delay or lack of change in our physical world, we are never without hope (Philippians 3:20).
Yet, our flesh is weak, our enemy is crafty, and the world is enticing. We can find ourselves looking for complete physical and spiritual restoration in our earthly lives, forgetting that Christ did not come to rescue us from society ills.
The good news of the kingdom is not freedom from hardship, suffering, and loss. It is the news of a Redeemer who has come to rescue me from myself. His rescue produces change that fundamentally alters my response to these inescapable realities.
The Redeemer turns rebels into disciples, fools into humble listeners. He makes cripples walk again. In him we can face life and respond with faith, love, and hope. And as he changes us, he allows us to be a part of what he is doing in the lives of others. As you respond to the Redeemer’s work in your life, you can learn to be an instrument in his hands.” – Paul David Tripp
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