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Did you know God is working behind the scenes to undermine any remaining self-reliance in you so that you will be able to trust Him more effectively? Exhibit A for this kind of teaching is the Apostle Paul. He had a God-ordained difficult life.He endured many hardships.
Quite simply because he knew Christ. It is important for you to understand how knowing Christ does not give you the option to forego suffering (Luke 14:26–27). Knowing Christ ensures personal suffering. To know Jesus is a call to die (Luke 9:23). For Paul, suffering was not a lifestyle to spurn but a means God used to push him to true greatness.
“For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9a).
Paul’s understanding of the mysteries of suffering gives you a couple of serious questions to ponder: What animates your innermost thoughts? What drives your greatest desires?
“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Knowing Christ and being able to tell others about Christ was the purpose of Paul’s life. This singular animating passion did not coexist with a desire to overcome his problems. He knew better. He perceived the point of his problems, which were to enable him to put Christ on display more effectively.
Suffering in Paul’s life was like a magnifying glass. It allowed him to magnify Christ to his sphere of influence (Psalm 34:3). Suffering is one of those mysteries God gives to us so that we can understand Him more clearly.
Equipped with this kind of understanding, you will be enabled to enjoy a deeper life with Him. It is a maturity that does not make suffering disappear. It is the suffering that fuels and sustains Christlike maturity.
One of the unintended consequences of the biblical counseling movement is that some people believe counseling is a means to make their problems go away. And some counselors succumb to this expectation by “feeling pressure” to help counselees resolve the problems in their lives according to how they want them fixed.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9a).
Imagine if the great apostle Paul came to you with a thorn in his flesh. Imagine also that you knew he was a deeply spiritual man who loved God with his whole heart and was doggedly determined to tell others about Christ. He was a mature Christian, not a nominal one.
Furthermore, he told you about his problem and how he had committed it to prayer, asking God to remove the thorn in his flesh. Now he has come to you because he wants your help to eliminate the thorn. Here is a key piece of information: God is not, will not, cannot, and should not remove this thorn from Paul’s life. Paul will live the rest of his life with a thorn in his flesh. That is God’s irrevocable will for your counselee, Paul.
“But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind” (Job 23:13–14).
God did not write the Bible so that we can celebrate recovery. For Paul, he never recovered. The celebration you see in the Scriptures is a Savior who transforms you through the power of the gospel, which happens at times by not removing the thorns in your life. He did not come to give you a great marriage, disease-free body, and financial freedom.
Though there are present tense and earthly benefits to living godly while humbly applying the truths of the Word of God to your life, the problem-free priorities and expectations that most people in our culture consider a right are not promises.
Our culture is trying to figure out how to overcome through therapy. The God-centered Christian has found a better way, which comes through celebrating the transformation that shapes a person into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And so often this kind of change happens because of suffering.
The biblical realist knows he cannot escape suffering. The realist also knows that suffering and the good life are not always hostile to each other. Disciplers, pastors, and counselors must be clear on this matter. They must not make problem removal their number one goal. There are two reasons for this:
Your primary goal should be to put Jesus on display in your life regardless of how God chooses to accomplish it. This idea leads to an all-important question: what do you want to define your life?
The promise of the therapeutic culture is to get rid of your problems. The promise of God is to find strength through your problems.
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b–10).
A beautiful relationship, a great job, and financial security are remarkable outcomes for anyone, but Christ did not come to give you those things. Jesus came to die on a cross so that you could have an example to follow. You must walk in His steps to find a better life.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
When sin came into the world, violence, disease, and corruption came along with it. Every person became a bad person (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10–12). And bad things happen to bad people. Christ did not come to die to change violence, disease, or corruption. He came to change lives.
Though the death and resurrection of the Savior have slowed down the onslaught of sin, it was not the point of the gospel. His point was to give you His life so that you could be in Him while looking forward to a better world to come (Hebrews 11:10). You find your strength, glory, hope, and praise in God rather than in a perfect relationship or a healthy body. It’s a person’s unwillingness to embrace this kind of theology of suffering that opens the door to discouragement and depression.
The longer it takes a person to find strength in suffering, the more susceptible they will be to discouragement. Our therapeutic culture is opposed to this kind of teaching because they are beholden to an anti-suffering message. Part of the American dream is to remove all suffering from everyone, which is untenable teaching that does not factor in the doctrine of fallenness.
If your goal is to rid yourself of your problems, but you cannot get to that utopian place, you may be set up for unresolvable disappointment. If medications do not work or if a divorce does not give you a better life, you will not be far from depression.
You can measure how you think about these questions by examining how you respond to the difficult challenges that are in your life. If you have peace, hope, and rest in the midst of your deepest trials, you have not been ensnared by the culture’s suffering-free promise.
If you’re going to walk with God, it is not your strength that God is going to use. He can’t. He won’t. He will not compete with you. He puts His treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). God works through weakness and brokenness, not personal might or high intellect (Zechariah 4:6). It is your weakness that will release His strength to be perfected in you.
If your primary purpose in life is to be healthy and wealthy, you will be working counter to the purposes of God, and your frustrations will mount. Resisting God’s suffering-centric plans for you will send you into a black hole of hopelessness. The way up is most assuredly down. The gospel narrative always cuts against the grain of the world’s narrative (1 Corinthians 1:25).
The counter-intuitive gospel does not mean being sick, poor, and having dysfunctional relationships are the only ways to be strengthened by God. The idea in view here is not celebrating sin or suffering but celebrating Christ regardless of your circumstances. The only way you can be strong is by living in God’s strength, not your own. The only way you can actually overcome is by celebrating God’s strength through your weakness, brokenness, sickness, and poverty.
Let me reiterate: I am not saying you should contract HIV to be strong. I’m not saying you should intentionally become bankrupt to unleash God’s power in your life. I’m saying that your circumstances, whatever they are, become a means to find God’s strength, hope, peace, and contentment.
It could be that God will choose to “raise you from negative circumstances,” but, again, that cannot be your first or most important prayer request. Your first and greatest desire must be to die in Christ, which does unleash God’s perfected power in your life (John 12:24).
The beginning of this process of embracing Christ’s death as your soul-sustaining strength is prayer. Ask the Father to help you walk through the incremental, systematic, and purposeful death of Christ (Galatians 2:20). The Lord will help you die to yourself (Isaiah 53:10).
You will have to let go of your strength to hold on to His strength. Perhaps this sample prayer from the Valley of Vision prayer book may guide you in grasping some of these deeper truths.
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine; let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley.
Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).