Summary: In light of the shootings this week at Virgina Tech, Pastor Dave discusses the mystery of suffering.
Stuff Jesus Changed, part 4: Suffering
Wildwind Community Church
David K. Flowers
April 29, 2007
This has been a terrible week for America, first in receiving the news about the deaths of those students and professors in Virginia, and then as we get information about the shooter and what a sick person he was, and how he went about doing the terrible thing he did.
Can I just be real honest with you for a minute? When something terrible happens in our country, my first thought is always how terrible it is. My next thought, without fail, is always, “What am I going to say to my congregation?” After all, some might ask me, “Dave, why would a loving God let this happen?” To which I would have to answer, “I do not know.” Some might say to me, “Dave, I don’t know if I can keep believing in a God who doesn’t stop things like this when he has the power to do so.” To which I could only say, “I can understand that. I have times when I’m not sure I can keep believing either.” Some might say, “Where was God when this was happening? I think maybe I might have some idea how to answer this one. We’re going to look at that particular question more next week when we examine loneliness. But today I want to talk to you about suffering.
Many of you are aware that at this moment, a former ministry colleague of mine, a 36 year old husband and father of two young girls, is receiving hospice care for a rare type of lung cancer. I was praying for Mark and his family the other day, when suddenly I stopped. And I began praying in a different way, and what I said really shocked me. I prayed, “God, I’m sick of apologizing for you when you don’t keep your promises. Your Word says in James that if someone in the church is sick, they should call on the leaders of the church to lay hands on them and pray for them and they will be healed. Yet time after time people get sick, they receive prayer from their leaders and sometimes hundreds of others, and they die anyway. And then in order for us to live comfortably with the contradiction, we make up a bunch of excuses for you, God. Like, “Well, he received his healing in heaven.” “I’m sure she’s happy and whole with God now.” Both of those things are true, but that’s clearly not what the text meant, and I’m tired of having to take that passage so metaphorically that it comes to have no practical meaning whatsoever.”
I tell you this because it’s important to me that you know that I do not preach lightly about suffering today. Personally I am in the throws of some anger and frustration toward God caused by suffering, some of which isn’t even my own – both Mark’s and that of the families in Virginia this week. God is just not acting the way I think he should act. Ever have times like that? I don’t tell you this simply for therapy – merely to vomit my stuff all over you. Heaven knows we all have enough stuff of our own, but some of the stuff we have is about what to do in times of suffering, and the doubt it sometimes causes in us, and the unique kind of suffering that doubt brings into our lives. I want to remind you this morning that we are all on a journey together. I have been angry with God lately, really struggling, and I think not only is that okay, but it’s okay to say it out loud. Maybe in doing that, some of you can admit to anger and frustration you may be having, and we can take another step in our journey toward being an authentic community of Christ-followers, who aren’t always sure how to follow, but who try to follow anyway.
There is an old fable that says the gold objected to the heat of the furnace and asked how long it should be expected to endure such heat. The answer was, "As soon as the refiner’s purpose is accomplished." "And when will that be?" asked the gold. The answer was, "When the refiner can see his own face in you." (Robert C. Shannon, 1000 Windows, Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997).
Galatians 4:19 (MSG)
19 Do you know how I feel right now, and will feel until Christ’s life becomes visible in your lives? Like a mother in the pain of childbirth.
Galatians 4:19 (KJV)
19 …until Christ be formed in you…
Biblically, to live well is to live in such a way that Christ is increasingly formed in us – that his attitudes, character, and behaviors become our own. To suffer well, Biblically speaking, then, is to suffer in such a way that Christ is increasingly formed in us, to endure the fire of suffering until the refiner eventually can see his face in us. Makes sense, right? For if Christ is to be formed in us, and if Christ must be formed in us while we live, and if suffering is part of life, then Christ must be formed in us while we suffer. We cannot exempt ourselves from spiritual formation during times of suffering. In fact, if we exempt ourselves during this time, we miss our greatest opportunity for Christ to be formed in us. William Wordsworth once said, “A deep distress has humanized my soul.” I have to believe that is what Jesus wants for us – he wants to humanize our souls. He wants us to learn humility and grace and compassion and gentleness, and so many of those things are learned best in the fire of suffering. Folks, hear me here. I’m not saying God takes away our loved ones so we learn these lessons, or that God sends diseases to our bodies for that purpose – only that, whatever happens in this life, Christ is to be formed in us through it. That is the overarching purpose of our lives – for Christ to be formed in us.