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Notes & Transcripts

The Radically Normal Christian:

Part IX: Joy and Suffering

November 13, 2011


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Scripture reading: Rom 8:18-21


I went to the doctor last week for a rather embarrassing problem. No it’s not that, whatever you were thinking. It’s gout. Do you know what gout is?

We all have uric acid in our blood, but a person with gout has more than the blood can hold. Have you put a string in a cup of water over-saturated with sugar, and it develops crystals?

Imagine that happening, but in your joints. It is just as pleasant as it sounds. It’s like someone shoving a knife in your foot and having to walk on that.

* It’s kind of embarrassing because we associate it with old fat guys, and I am only one of those.

The good news is that it turns out that there is some treatment I didn’t know about (the internet let me down), and I should be able to avoid flare-ups.

Thinking about pain

But the flare-ups have given me a chance to think a lot about pain. What does this pain have to do with everything I have been saying about God wanting to enjoy this life as much as possible?

It is one thing to be here in church and talk about joy, it is another to be out in the world and see the immense suffering:

* Children starving in Ethiopia, or abused in this city.

* People losing family members to cancer.

* Suffering with physical pain worse than mine.

* People suffering intense agony in their relationships.

Q Doesn’t all this pain, suffering, and sorrow show up everything I have said about happiness as hollow and thin?

Long view

My goal isn’t to ask “why do bad things happen?” That’s answered elsewhere. Suffering is not simple; some is good, some is bad. Some is self-inflicted; some is inflicted on the innocent. I am assuming that somehow God in his goodness allows suffering.

* Instead, I want to ask “what now?”

The most important, yet most misused passage about suffering is in Romans 8. It starts by saying:

Romans 8:18, 28-30 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us...

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

* Misused, because this is quoted to people in the middle of suffering; I know because I have done it.

It is also misused to say that everything is good. No, a lot of bad things happen, they are not good. Rather God is able to work these things for a good purpose.

* He is a master weaver, working both the bright and dark threads together to make an amazing picture.

That is why Paul, a man who knew great suffering, bases his whole statement on the long view. The idea is not “suffering is good” but “God can redeem your suffering.”

* I want to understand how to make sure God gets the best possible use of my suffering; I don’t want it wasted.

So that means finding a way to even redeem my gout flare-ups, when it hurts so badly to walk that I want to say unpleasant words with every step. With every step, I want to see how God can use it to his glory and my joy, eventually.

Songs to a heavy heart

Speaking about suffering is a tricky subject. In this room there are people who are doing great and who are absolutely miserable, and everything in between. There are those who have had a reasonably good life and those who have face great hardships.

* I speak as someone who suffered less than many of you, but hasn’t had an easy life either.

I also talk as someone who has watched, who thinks deeply about what he has seen and experienced and tries to make sense of it.

If you are in the midst of suffering, I really don’t know how useful this sermon will be. There is a proverb that says:

Proverbs 25:20 NIV Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

One of those times of misery for me was when my grandmother passed away unexpectedly. At the reception, one slightly hyper-spiritual lady was trying to comfort my uncle by leading a little worship time in the corner.

* My thought towards her were un-pastoral to say the least.

Grandma’s death was a painful, awful mess; that was all there was to it at that time. Later there would be time for healing and trust, and all that, but that was the time for mourning.

All that to say, if you are in the midst of suffering, I am truly sorry if this feels like singing to a heavy heart. You may not be able to listen now; tuck it away for latter.

* My goal is to help all of us (who have, are, or will suffer) make the best use of our suffering.


To frame it under the “Normal/Radical/Radically Normal” framework:

1. It is normal to avoid and numb suffering at all costs.

Which makes sense. Who wants to suffer? When I have a gout flare, it’s not like I decide it’s time run a couple of miles. No, I take painkillers, walk as little as possible, and try to get as much sympathy as I can!

* But if we are too quick to numb it, we can end up hurting even worse, as we will see.

There is a Christian variation on this pain avoidance – the Health and Wealth Theology, which basically says that if you are righteous you will never suffer, which is deeply unbiblical.

2. It is radical to seek suffering.

This used to be a thing – like the albino in “The Di Vinci Code,” wearing hair-shirts, becoming an ascetic and avoiding happiness to stay focused on God.

This doesn’t really happen anymore, but instead there is a tendency to glamorize suffering, as if suffering alone gives you moral superiority.

3. But is it racially normal to view suffering as one of God’s tool for brining joy.

Suffering brings joy? No, but God can use suffering to bring joy. There are things God can only do through suffering, lessons that only be learned in trials.

When preached on Ecclesiastes, I was puzzled by one passage:

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 2 It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

This passage seems to be out of step with the rest of the Bible, which emphasizes joy. Was this just the ramblings of a crank?

But then I had this backed up by personal experience. I wish could remember the specifics, because I am sure it was an amusing act of stupidity on my part. But what I clearly remember was that I learned something from it that I couldn’t else wise.

Q When have you grown the most, when have you learned the most about yourself? Was it in good times or bad?

Suffering is not the whole story, but it is part of the story. God uses it to do things that he cannot do through happiness:

1. Suffering brings us perspective that smooth sailing cannot.

Earlier this year I read “Onward,” written by Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO of Starbucks. One of his big points is that success hides the crack.

They were expanding too fast, 100’s of stores were losing money, the supply chain was bloated and wasteful. Millions upon millions were being wasted, but no one noticed because in the prerecession days, they were making so much money.

But once the recession hit, they either had to get healthy or risk being bought off, so they made sweeping changes and continued to be successful.

* Could they have made these changes during their success? Theoretically, yes, but practically, no.

When you are in smooth sailing, you just don’t notice the cracks. It is in the pain that you find out what you are made of, and what you are not made of!

Key Questions

Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when you are suffering:

a. Why am I suffering?

* A lot of suffering is symptom, not the problem.

The doctor explained to me that dealing with gout is a two part thing – the symptoms of the flare ups and the underlying high uric acid problem. Some people want to deal with the symptoms but not the problem.

* Our pain receptacles are not God’s idea of a cruel hoax. They keep us safe.

Track through this, figure out what (if anything) you did to bring this suffering. Focus more on the problem than the symptoms.

* Did you get burned by trusting someone you shouldn’t have?

* No friends: Self-centered?

* Poor: Lazy or careless spender?

This goes back to the “God’s rules are for our joy” thing.

At my community group, we talked about the “Consequence Inverter” and someone said it is easier to do that for others than themselves.

Q What do those who know me best say?

This is where mutual mentoring groups are invaluable because most people blame everyone else. It is good to have people who know you well enough to know the truth and love us enough to tell it to us.

b. What can I learn?

Your suffering may not be your fault. Never assume that it is. But regardless of who is to blame for your suffering, you can still learn from it.

Q How can you help others avoid your suffering?

Q Does this help me understand others who’ve been through this?

Q How can I comfort and help them?

c. Is this suffering healthy?

Not all suffering happens because you have done something wrong. The pain of exercise is not something you can get around. If you put on roller skates before you get on the treadmill don’t complain if you don’t get good results!

* Some pain is therapeutic, a necessary part of getting better, and avoiding that pain brings more unhealthy pain.

For instance, let’s say you have been in a long-term relationship and it gets broken off. You will be in pain. What is the best way to deal with that:

Q Focus on becoming healthy, leaning to be whole as a single persons?

Q Or jumping into another relationship (and into another bed) immediately?

* There is no easy way around that pain; when we avoid therapeutic suffering, we prolong destructive suffering.

But, the normal thing is to take another drink, jump into the next relationship, turn on the TV, anything to avoid the pain without dealing with the problem.

2. We can grow closer to God in pain.

In times of suffering, we will either run to God or from him. I have seen both happen. But those who run to him find comfort and strength that can only be found

* Until God is all you have, you don’t realize he is enough.

God can be something to those who have suffered and run to him that he simply can’t be to those who haven’t. It isn’t the same.

* I am not speaking hypothetically; I learned this when we were dealing with a situation with a family member.

God met me there in a way I have never known. The sweetness of his presences and his comfort were so great it almost made it worth it. Almost.

I would never seek that out, but having gone through that and knowing how he was with me makes me fear other trials less, knowing he will be there again.

Q Have you ever had an experience like that?

3. Draw closer to one another

Community is one of the biggest ways God is there for us. One of the benefits of community is that we are there for each other:

Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

In suffering, we drop the illusion we don’t need each other. It has a power to bring us together in a way that nothing does.

* Do you remember how Americans were after 9/11? It was very interesting for me as a pastor to watch how we drew together.

In my guys’ group, it has been when one of us has suffered that we have grown the closest (though not without work).

* The trick is that you have to develop these relationships before suffering hits.

You need to put money in the bank before you can draw it, but we are so used to living on credit.

Q: Who are the people you will call in crisis?

4. We are reminded this is not our home.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, because I have already talked about it, but suffering simply reminds us that this world is not our home.

This world is broken. In that passage in Romans, Paul says that all of creation is groaning. This is not how things are meant to be and whenever we feel too at home here, something happens to remind us that our home is in heaven.


To sum all of this up: I am not pretending the suffering is fun. But it is unavoidable. What will you do with it?

We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world. -Helen Keller

Here is my encouragement: Next time you suffer, spend less time worrying about “Why me?” and more on “What now?”

Q & A

Communication Card/Application


But there are a couple of problems with avoiding pain at all costs:

1. A lot of suffering is symptom, not the problem.

The doctor explained to me that dealing with gout is a two part thing – the symptoms of the flare ups and the underlying high uric acid problem. Some people want to deal with the symptoms but not the problem.

4. Our pain receptacles are not God’s idea of a cruel hoax. They keep us safe.

In the same way, it is fine to numb the pain so long as the problem is being taken care of at the same time.

For me to take painkillers even as a pound beer would be a really bad idea. Yet

Promised pain

Pain is part of life, and being a Christian is not a way to avoid that.

John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

As I said, “You will grieve” and “you will have trouble” are some of the less “claimed” promises of the Bible. Jesus promises trouble, he tried to dissuade people from following.

5. If things are going well, be happy, but beware the false teaching that that is what we are promised.

When we evangelize we need to be careful not to give the impression that “Jesus will make it all better.” Come to Jesus for Jesus, follow God because he is God.

6. He may not save your marriage, but he will walk with you. You may still die of cancer, but he will be with you.

Interview with Steve Taylor: Christian films tend to use “deus ex machina,” meaning God makes everything better. But in reality God promises struggles as part of the faith.

Contrast that with this teaching, from Kenneth Copland’s website:

One of the major deceptions Satan is sowing in the Church today is that our problems, our trials and our temptations are sent to teach and develop us spiritually, physically and in other ways....The basic principle of the Christian life is to know that Jesus bore our sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief and poverty at Calvary.

In the same way, it is fine to numb the pain so long as the problem is being taken care of at the same time.

For me to take painkillers even as a pound beer would be a really bad idea. Yet

A crisis will surface the truth about the fortitude of the leaders. It surfaces what is important and what is not. It quickly reveals what you really believe – and it reveals the strength of your faith. A crisis lets you know what’s working and what isn’t. It reveals the cracks. It’s not always a direct connect to the actual situation, but the weakness is never far away from the break. You will always know more about whom you are when you face a crisis. If you learn from that, you will be stronger and better able to lead through whatever comes your way.

I’m not suggesting by “surfacing the truth” that anything is currently hidden. But it is true that when you are in “business as usual” mode, you don’t always see that which is in plain sight.

Facing loneliness

We can respond to this loneliness in one of two ways:

1. We can believe that is means that there is something wrong with us, something that can be fixed.

We try to medicate with our drug of choice. Some are ungodly: Porn, immorality, drunkenness, drugs.

Q How many sinful, painful things have you done to fill a void that cannot be filled?

* You are trying to satisfy a hunger that cannot be filled.

Many of them are fine: TV, music, books, friendship. Some are even spiritual: quiet times, prayer, reading the Bible.

* Many people think their homesickness means they aren’t close enough to God, that if they worked harder is would go away.

But none of the truly remove the loneliness; if we expect it to we will be disappointed, because the problem isn’t in us.

2. We can realize that our loneliness means there is something wrong with the world we live in.

* Fasting reminds us that it is okay to be hungry,

It is okay to not have everything, it’s okay to be lonely. In fact, it’s to be expected. So long as we are apart from our savior, we will be hungry, we’ll be lonely, we will be restless.

* Said another way, fasting reveals our homesickness.


There is a song on the Christian radio now that I really appreciate:

We pray for blessings

We pray for peace

Comfort for family, protection while we sleep

We pray for healing, for prosperity

We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering

All the while, You hear each spoken need

Yet love is way too much to give us lesser things

‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops

What if Your healing comes through tears

What if a thousand sleepless nights

Are what it takes to know You’re near

What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

“Blessings” Laura Story

* I am not speaking hypothetically; the most miserable I have ever been was when Laura ran away.

Looking back, we can see the pressures and pain that caused her to do that, but at the time it felt like supreme betrayal, not knowing where she was, what she was doing, if she was safe.

Preaching that Sunday was incredibly hard, but I made it through. Then I asked Peter to close the service, went up to the balcony, prayed, worshiped, and cried.

God met me there in a way I have never known. The sweetness of his presences and his comfort were so great it almost made it worth it. Almost.


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