The Path to Greatness: Suffering
Ever heard of NPD? Probably not. It’s “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” That’s right! There’s actually a psychological condition describing many American’s fascination with themselves. By the way, it’s a problem which isn’t just growing, it’s exploding! According to Jean Twenge, the psychologist who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic, one out of every ten Americans in their twenties have suffered some symptoms of NPD. Want some examples?
• On a reality TV show, a girl planning her sixteenth birthday party wants a major road blocked off so a marching band can precede her grand entrance on a red carpet.
• A book called “My Beautiful Mommy” explains plastic surgery to young children whose mothers are going under the knife for the trendy “Mommy Makeover.”
• It is now possible to hire fake paparazzi to follow you around snapping your photograph when you go out at night — you can even take home a faux celebrity magazine cover featuring the pictures.
• A popular song declares, with no apparent sarcasm, "I believe that the world should revolve around me!"
• People buy expensive homes with loans far beyond their ability to pay — or at least they did until the mortgage market collapsed as a result.
• Babies wear bibs embroidered with "Supermodel" or "Chick Magnet" and suck on "Bling" pacifiers while theirparents read modernized nursery rhymes from This Little Piggy Went to Prada. People strive to create a "personal brand" (also called "self-branding"), packaging themselves like a product to be sold.
Although these seem like a random collection of current trends, all are rooted in a single underlying shift in the American psychology: the relentless rise of narcissism in our culture. Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking. Standards have shifted, sucking otherwise humble people into the vortex of granite countertops, tricked-out MySpace pages, and plastic surgery. A popular dance track repeats the words "money, success, fame, glamour" over and over, declaring that all other values have "either been discredited or destroyed."
The tragedy is that this trend has worked its way into the church. When Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, the Italian author Riccardo Zucconi opted to skip the movie with its gory crucifixion and show his children The Gospel According to Matthew instead. His choice, however, was not as interesting as his reason. He reportedly said, “The Gospel of Matthew is very deep and (listen) you don’t see a drop of blood.”
That reaction says a lot about the contemporary response to the crucifixion. People want the spirit of Jesus, without the Incarnation; the death without the pain; the sacrifice without the blood. But without the body, the pain, and the blood, the Crucifixion is meaningless. Sacrifice cannot be sanitized. Sacrifice has always been bloody. That's the point!
I sometimes think that we have many “Riccardos” in our American Churches. We want Christianity, but we don’t want sacrifice. We want Jesus if He’s all cleaned up and smiling at the little children, but we run from the blood-sweating Savior in the garden or the blood-shedding Savior on the cross.
It carries over into our lives. We love to embrace the Jesus who said “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” but we aren’t so excited about the Jesus who said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Sacrifice is unpopular; suffering is to be avoided at all costs.
That’s why Paul’s writing in Chapter 3 of Philippians is so poignant, and I might add, counter-cultural. He says in v 10: That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Now I want to focus in on these two verses today and explain what I believe Paul meant by this, and I really want you to listen. I know some of you are here today and you’re going through what you would call the worst time of your life. You’re looking for relief and, more than that, you’re looking for answers. You want to know why this person died, or that family member is sick, or why you lost your job. I believe the God may just want to speak to you this morning.
Others of us are here in church, but our hearts are angry with the very God we’re worshiping. We are frustrated because we think God has forgotten us or laid something on us that’s unfair. There’s only one problem: Our anger has stolen our joy and God seems a million miles away. I want you to listen. You may discover some truth that will change your perspective on your trouble and restore that relationship with God that you’ve been missing.
You see, when I read those verses Paul wrote, I am struck by what he says about suffering, especially the suffering that comes as a result of following Christ. He says, that knowing Christ and experiencing the power of His resurrection comes with, what seems to us narcissists at least, to be a very peculiar companion. He says I want to know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings. In other words, He is saying that you and I need to do a double-take on our trouble. We need to look again at our suffering and realize that it is not something to be avoided, but something to be embraced.
Now that’s really hard for narcissists to swallow. Embrace suffering? Why should I? Why should you? Why should we respect our suffering? Well, let me give you three answers to that question this morning. First we can respect our trouble because of:
DIVISION 1: THE FELLOWSHIP IT PROMISES
You see, fellowship and suffering cannot be separated. In fact, the study I have done indicates that these two items are inseparable in the text. Paul worte it that way on purpose. He was saying that the power of Christ’s resurrection is inextricably linked to the participation in His sufferings, and the two, taken together, lead to a relationship that is unbelievably deep. One commentator wrote:
In Paul’s sentence the two (suffering and resurrection) go together hand-in-glove. Paul knows nothing of the rather gloomy stoicism that is so often exhibited in historic Christianity, where the lot of the believer is basically that of “slugging it out in the trenches,” with little or no sense of Christ’s presence and power. On the contrary, the power of Christ’s resurrection was the greater reality for him. So certain was Paul (of the resurrection)that he could throw himself into the present with a kind of holy abandon, full of rejoicing and thanksgiving; and that not because he enjoyed suffering, but because Christ’s resurrection had given him a unique perspective on present suffering as well as an empowering presence whereby the suffering was transformed into intimate fellowship with Christ himself. Hence, “knowing Christ” for Paul involves “participation in his sufferings”—and is a cause for constant joy, not because suffering is enjoyable, but because it is certain evidence of his intimate relationship with his Lord.
You see, if you are genuinely saved, there is inside of you a strong desire to really develop a close relationship with Christ. Every truly born-again believer wants that. Paul is saying that the only way for you to really have that is to suffer. But that suffering is not something you grit your teeth and endure in your own strength. O no! You have an amazing resource: You have the power of His resurrection working in you that enables you to go through anything and come out on the other side. No wonder Paul says over in chapter 4 of this book, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” The relationship you want with Jesus lies on the other side of the very suffering you may be trying to avoid.
Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland in the early nineteenth century. He escaped and became one of the century's leading abolitionists, who fought to end slavery forever. He writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave about being torn away from his mother's love
My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about 12 miles from my home.
Nonetheless, young Frederick's mother several times found ways to see her son:
She made her journeys to see me in the night, traveling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work. She was a field hand, and a whipping was the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise…. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.
That’s pretty amazing! Douglass’s mother worked all day long in the scorching heat of the tobacco fields, and then, when her body was crying for rest, she walked 12 miles in the dark to see her son. After comforting him and holding him as he fell asleep, she had to walk another 12 miles back. She gave up a night's sleep. She risked getting a severe whipping if she were discovered, or if she got home late. But nothing could keep this mother from her son. Why not? Because she loved him, and she knew if she was going to have a relationship with him, it would cost her something.
Now if you’re here today and you’ve never given your life to Christ, you might be tempted to shake your head and say, “Well, that’s not very appealing! Become a Christian and your life falls apart. Hey, Rusty, I need someone to help me put my life back together, not promise me more suffering. Thanks, but no thanks!”
Well, I understand what you’re saying, but don’t be so quick to write Christ off. You see, if you just focus on the suffering part, you miss the other part of the equation. Before Paul talks about the fellowship of sufferings, he mentions the power of the resurrection. It is that power that you need. It is that power that makes you able to stand in the middle of trouble, and it is that power that brings the very presence of Christ into your life and infuses you with the ability to stand when before you would have fallen.
And, if you are a believer here this morning, I have a question for you: Isn’t it time for us as the church of God to become counter-cultural? As those around us seek their own pleasure, could it be that the way we will best reach this world for Christ is to enter into its suffering?
Back in October, James Forlines came and spoke in our Missions Conference. We went out for coffee on Saturday night and he was talking to me about his family. He mentioned that one of his children and their spouse had made an interesting decision. They had moved to Memphis and, instead of moving to the suburbs where they would feel safe and everything would be familiar, they moved to the inner city. It wasn’t a financial decision, it was a strategic one. They said that, if they were going to reach people for Christ, they needed to go where the needs were. They entered into the suffering of inner city Memphis in order to have an impact for Christ.
For too long the church has sat in its fancy buildings with its chic programs and wondered why it has so little impact. The power comes when we enter the fellowship of His sufferings. That’s why we respect our trouble. It’s because of the fellowship it promises. But notice as well that we should respect our trouble because of:
DIV 2: THE FRUIT IT PRODUCES.
A well-worn cliche says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You’ve probably had that one used on you when you were going through some difficulty. You just lost your job and some well-meaning friend puts their arm around you and says. “Buck up, buddy, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To which you respond, “O wow! I never thought of that before. I feel so much better!” (Not!)
So at the risk of sounding like your well meaning friend, can I just give you a few scriptural principles about suffering? In fact, did you know that the Bible does teach that suffering brings about some very real fruit in our lives? That’s right! It does! We don’t have time to look at them all, but I just want to run you through five things that come into our lives through suffering. Now, in order to do this, we’ve got to look up a few verses, so if you want to follow along in your Bibles, get ready to turn. Otherwise, just look up here on the screen.
The first thing that suffering teaches us is confidence. 1 Peter 4:12 says:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
Now what you have to understand is the biblical concept of joy. Biblical joy doesn’t have to do with being happy. It has to do with being confident. As Karl Barth said, Joy is God’s “whatever” to life. In other words, having joy is being confident that no matter what happens, I’m going to be ok because God is in control. And here’s the deal: as I go through suffering and see God deliver me and get to know Him better and better, I get to the place that it doesn’t matter what happens to me in this life, I know it’s going to be ok.
I got that from Herbie Ellis. He just passed away a couple of weeks ago and whenever I went to see him, he had joy. O he wasn’t ecstatically happy that he had cancer, but he was absolutely confident in God that he was going to be ok, no matter what happened. Suffering teaches us confidence.
Then, suffering teaches us obedience. In Heb 5:8 it says, “Though He (that is, Christ), was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” I will be the first to tell you that I do not completely understand that verse, but this much I do know: Learning to obey God is a result of the suffering in our lives. Think of the times when you’ve been brought closer to the Lord. Usually its in some crisis in your life: Your marriage is ending, your health is failing, your business is faltering, and you are driven to your knees. Suffering teaches us obedience.
Then it teaches us focus. Heb 12:3 says, For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. The writer of Hebrews wrote this to believers who were flirting with a turn from their faith. In order to help them stand firm in the middle of their suffering he asks them to “consider” Jesus and all the things He endured. You see, if you and I make it through the difficult passages of life, it will only because we firmly focus on Jesus with everything that we have. Suffering teaches us focus.
And it also teaches us endurance. Heb 12 goes on to say, You have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. The way to overcoming is to endure and not quit, to resist to the point of blood, in order to follow Jesus. That’s what suffering teaches you.
But there’s one more, and I may like this one best, though some of you may find it hard to believe. You see, not only does suffering teach us confidence, obedience, focus, and endurance. It teaches us how much God loves us. It teaches us God’s love. I know that may be a little hard to swallow, but its right there in Heb 12:5. It says:
And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.”
You see, God has a plan in your life. He’s using the circumstances and the twists and turns of my life and your life to make you into that person He wants you to be. That is, in fact, the way He shows you that you belong to Him and that He loves you. Listen! Undisciplined children are unloved children. When parents really love their kids, they will sometimes do things that their children may not even understand in order to protect and help them.
John White tells of this very thing in a story about his son Scott. He says that when his son Scott was just learning to walk, he fell on a cement driveway and split the area below his chin so deeply that the floor of his mouth was exposed. Hospitals and doctors were 250 kilometers away over tortuous mountain roads. John had no surgical instruments handy. A quick catalog of his resources turned up a less-than-impressive array of one darning needle, coarse thread, one pair of rather blunt scissors, and a pair of eyebrow tweezers. Infection in children develops rapidly and infection in the floor of the mouth can have fatal complications. They also had a little sulfonamide powder. There was no local anesthetic. Rightly or wrongly, John says, he decided to trim and stitch the wound with what we had.
He sterilized "the instruments." He says he could not help but look at the affair from Scott's point of view. He did his best to explain, but what can a one-year-old understand? He placed one year old Scott on the dining room table and suffering descended on him. Cruel adults seized his limbs and his head so that movement was impossible. Then the father he had trusted became a fearful monster inflicting unbelievable pain on him. John said he wished he could have explained what was going on to his son, but the truth is an infection could have killed him. Inflicting terrible pain on his son was the only way to possibly save his life.
If it is possible for a one-year-old to think such thoughts, I’m sure his son was saying just what you and I may say in the middle of our suffering, “If you really were my dad and you loved me, you wouldn’t hurt me.”
I’m sure he was saying just what we say in our suffering, “If you really cared about me, you’d find another way to do this.”
I’m sure he was saying, “If you have to hurt me so badly, at least explain to me what you’re doing.” But how could John explain infection to a one-year-old?
You see, suffering is something that happens in our lives that we are often trying to avoid, and which we often question God about. We run from it as if it were our worst enemy, but, have you noticed? There’s a good bit of it we can’t get away from. Why not? Because God loves us too much to let us escape. He knows that the only way that the only way we will learn real confidence, obedience, focus and endurance is to go through suffering. He won’t let us escape because He knows of the fellowship it promises and the fruit it produces. But there’s one more reason you can respect your suffering. It’s because of
DIV 3: THE FUTURE IT PREDICTS
Look at those verses in chapter 3 one more time. Paul writes: That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, 11 if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
The idea is that, as I get to know Christ and the power of His resurrection that gets activated as I go through suffering, that I will be crucified with Him, become conformed to His death and then I will attain to the resurrection from the dead. That resurrection speaks of that great and final day when all believers will be called from the grave to meet the Lord in the air and ever be with the Lord. In other words, as I, throught he power that His resurrection brings into my life, go through suffering and become conformed to His death, I am guaranteed that one day there will be a resurrection and I’ll be a part of it. My future is certain.
Well, at least almost certain. Why does the Apostle Paul throw in that little phrase, “if, by any means”. It’s almost like he’s saying “I hope this happens somehow. I hope when everything’s over that I will somehow, though I can’t really say how right now, that I’ll somehow make it to heaven.” Now, at first glance, that may seem to be the meaning. There’s only one problem with that interpretation. It doesn’t quite harmonize with what the Apostle says in other places. For instance, in Romans 8:28
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Doesn’t sound like he had any doubts about it here, so why the seeming conflict? Well, I believe that Paul, in v 11, isn’t doubting his eternity. He knows where he’s going. He’s just not quite sure how or when it’s going to happen. Now you know this from looking at ch. 1 of Philippians. There he says in v 20
according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.
Paul wrote this letter from prison and he didn’t know if he was going to end up being put to death or be able to continue his ministry. When he says, “If by any means,” he’s saying “I don’t know what I’m going to have to suffer. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be imprisoned. I don’t know if I’ll still be wearing my head tomorrow, but I am going through this suffering, whatever it is, because I know what waits on the other side of it. I’m going to a resurrection!
Isn’t it that way with us? It isn’t sometimes the pain of suffering that’s the hardest, it’s the “if by any means part.” It’s the dark, murky unknown that causes us to be afraid and want to turn back. If we just knew what was going to happen, we could deal with it. But it’s the not knowing that gets us. You know, I think God keeps the “if by any means” in our lives for a reason. Listen, He’s not just keeping your suffering relative alive to torture you, there’s a reason. He’s not just allowed you to lose your job to devastate you, there’s a reason. He’s not just allowed you to suffer that illness to torment you, there’s a reason. You might say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Rusty, but if there’s a reason, what is it?”
Well, if you’re asking why you are going through some specific thing in your life, I don’t have that answer, but I can tell you the spiritual reason for it. He wants you to learn to trust Him. He wants you to learn what it’s like to live with no props so you can know the intimacy that happens when He holds you in the palm of His hand. He wants to produce fruit in you that can come in no other way.
Can I just draw this down to three specific questions for us this morning. When it comes to this whole suffering thing, what is it that you are running from? I must tell you that part of the reason I ran from the ministry for the first decade of my life was that I did not want to have to go through the parts of the ministry that were difficult. I didn’t want to suffer the heart-crushing disappointment when people whom you have poured your life into walk away from God, or even turn on you. I was afraid to trust the Lord and, as a result, my relationship with Him was stunted. So what are you running from this morning: A call to ministry? Maybe you’re like I was and you’re afraid. What are you running from? An education at a Christian college many miles away from home? Could you be running from a career move that threatens your livelihood? Could you be running from a Sunday in the Nursery? You need to know that as long as you run from the suffering of ministry, you will not experience the power of his resurrection or reap the fruit God wants to pour into your life. What are you running from?
And then, what are you learning from? God uses our suffering to put things into us we can’t get any other way. I still remember being in college and being married and having to be a janitor. Every morning at 4 am, I had to get up, get ready, and be at work in Nashville at 6:00 a.m. I hated it, and even resented it. Other guys in school had jobs teaching or working in churches and here I had to get up and go clean commodes. I sometimes wondered why God was putting me through this. But I will have to tell you that I learned more about discpline, management and leadership in overseeing a clean up crew in that department store than I did in all the years that I have gone to college or seminary. There are things that God can only pour into your life when you suffer. What are you learning from?
And last of all, what are you angry over? Is there some hurt that you’re demanding an explanation for? Is there some circumstance that you’re demanding that God change? Now you really need to be honest with yourself here. It’s so easy to stuff down resentment at God and that bitterness becomes battery acid on your soul. Could it be that you are like John White’s son. You’re stretched out on the table of life in absolute torture at the hands of a heavenly father you do not understand? Isn’t it time to just surrender that anger to Him?
Many of you have heard of Gordon MacDonald. He’s pretty famous in the Christian world. I know him as the writer of the book, Ordering your Private World. He tells of his own trouble which he didn’t understand.
He was approached by a Christian Organization to send in a resume to be its president. He didn’t think it would happen, but then they sent someone to interview him. Afterwards he was called to fly to another city and interview with the board. By that time, the choice had been narrowed down to two candidates. The interview went well and the board all but told him he had the job. In fact, on the flight home, his wife, who never would normally say anything like this, said, “They’re going to ask you to be the president.” He was excited.
The board was supposed to call him on Sunday afternoon to tell him the news. Anticipating the opportunity, he asked his staff to meet him at his home after the evening service to break the news. He waited and waited all afternoon, but the phone never rang. He went to the evening service and then his staff gathered at his home. Still no call. So, not knowing what to do, he told them that he needed to share with them a story that, so far, had no ending. For twenty-five minutes he told them what had happened and what he planned to do. As soon as he was finished, the phone rang and to his shock, he discovered that he had not been selected. In his own words, this is what happened next:
I stumbled into the living room to tell the staff the news. I said stoically, "You've been with Gail and me on many occasions when God has said yes. Now you'll get to see how we handle things when God says no."
After the staff left, I canceled the church elders meeting I had scheduled for the next morning (I had planned to resign), canceled my plane reservations to meet with what I thought would be my new board, and went to bed. The next morning, I was back at work at 8:00 a.m., as if nothing happened.
Ten days later the full force of what happened crushed me. I submarined into the depths of disillusionment. At a subterranean level, I told God, "You've made a perfect fool out of me. You drew me to the finish line and said, 'I'm sorry.' I no longer know your language. You speak a different language than I've been trained to understand." I was questioning God, something I had never really done. I doubted whether it was possible to hear God speak.
During this period, I resigned from Grace Chapel out of exhaustion, disillusionment, and bewilderment. By candidating for that position, I had lost trust with the leaders of Grace Chapel. That was 1984. My world had fallen apart.
I can say this only now, with more than a decade of distance from those dark moments, but I had to surrender to a much deeper and more mysterious God than I had known up to that moment. I had to surrender all of my prejudices and preconditions of knowing God. That takes time. God wasn't in a hurry with Moses (I often wonder what was on his mind for forty years in the desert), and God certainly wasn't in a hurry with me.
In retrospect, I can say that if the board of that organization had picked me, I would have failed. I wasn't mature enough. The job required characteristics I don't have. Even so, there's a memory of those days that has stayed with me: Don't expect everything to be cozy with God, for he is a big God and his ways are beyond us.
Our problems and difficulties laid a track for our future.
Perhaps the darkest moment taught me that even my worst moment had latent within it the hope of liberation. I'd been given a fresh opportunity to reframe my faith in Christ, to renew my marriage, and to discover my real friends.
When I add up all the dark moments of my life, I see in every one that God had a message for me. I can now say as Pilgrim did as he crossed the river: "I've touched the bottom, and it is sound."
Listen to me, believer! God is up to something in your life! I know you find that hard to believe, but its really true. His goal for you is so much bigger than your goal for you! He wants you to experience the power of His resurrection released in your suffering. He wants you to reap the fruit He’s trying to pour into your life through all you’re going through. He wants you to learn to appreciate the future He’s got for you, and most of all, more than anything else, He longs for you do get to know Him in the kind of relationship that only flows out of your trouble.
So today you and I have a choice. We can go on in our struggle to be comfortable, or we can let God do what He wants to do in our lives.