During this Christmas season, our campus pastors are preaching out of Isaiah 9 while Pastor Mark is out of the pulpit. In the meantime, we're putting out a small Best of Mars Hill sermons mini-series on the podcasts. This week, we re-released "Joy in Suffering," from The Rebel's Guide to Joy series. The following is excerpted from that sermon, preached by Pastor Mark in October 2007.
There are enumerable examples of bad teaching. I’ll give you ten ways in which the doctrine of suffering is mistaught, thereby corrupting your instinct to use it for a witness.
1. "Suffering is avoided by you having a lot of faith."
There is something called faith teaching, which is actually faithless teaching. It is unfaithful teaching which says, "If you have enough faith, you won’t get sick and you won’t be broke. You’ll be healthy and wealthy." The logical conclusion is that if someone is suffering as a Christian, we should not comfort them. We should rebuke them because they are sin and if they had enough faith, they would be rich and healthy; yet, we see in Scripture there are people who have great faith in God, like Job, Paul and Jesus Christ who is God himself, and they suffer. They also experience poverty, hardship, loneliness, and they weep.
The sickest example I can give you from my own experience was a pastor that I knew of who taught, "If you have enough faith, you will not get sick and you will be healthy", until his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was left with a dilemma. "Should I change my theology, which is wrong and comfort my wife or will I hold to my erroneous theology and rebuke her for her cancer?" And I grievously report to you that that man publically rebuked his own wife for not having enough faith to beat cancer as she was dying. That is demonic.
2. "Suffering automatically makes you a victim."
My fear is when I teach on suffering, all who have or are suffering will simply declare, "I am suffering. Therefore, I’m like Jesus." No, you’re not. Jesus was without sin. You and I, we have tons of sin. And, sometimes, we suffer because of our sin, right? If you disrespect your boss, you will suffer unemployment. Right? If you are cruel to your spouse, you will suffer a divorce. If you eat and drink too much, you will suffer physical ailment. And in those moments, you can’t say, "I’m like Jesus." You can’t. You must say, "I’ve sinned and I’ve reaped what I’ve sewn.
3. "Suffering is a punishment for a sin."
God can discipline his people and punish non-Christians for sin, but there is not always a correlation between suffering and a sin. There is an example in the Bible where a man is born blind and some followers of Jesus ask him, "Is he blind because of his parent’s sin or his sin?" Jesus says, "Neither. He’s blind that the glory of God might be revealed in him." God is doing something altogether different with that man, and his suffering is purposeful, not purposeless, but it’s not the consequence of anyone’s sin.
4. "Suffering is to be pursued."
The early church had some erroneous teaching where probably well meaning Christians realize, "Suffering purifies us and identifies us with Jesus"; therefore, they tried to suffer. They pursued suffering. Some of you do. You deny yourself Godly pleasure. You deny yourself any sort of fun or joy. When there is a conflict or a difficulty, you insert yourself that you might have something that is painful so that you might use it to be sanctified. And while it looks holy, it’s unholy. It’s pride which says, "I do not trust God to bring into my life his divine appointments of suffering. Therefore, I will help him by pursuing my own."
We would not encourage anyone to pursue suffering. What we are saying is when it comes, either from the hand of God or through the hand of God, when it comes, suffer well. Suffer well.
5. "Suffering is to be avoided at all cost."
Some of you make your decisions based upon, "What will be the path of least resistance? What will cause the least conflict, least pain, least friction, least hardship, least suffering? Then that’s what I’ll do." And, sometimes, God calls us to hardship. Sometimes, God calls us to pain. Sometimes, God calls us to suffering. And had Jesus chosen the path without suffering, we would be dead in our sins and he would not have left the comforts of Heaven to come into the suffering of the earth.
One author says it well. He says, "I would rather have a bumpy ride to Heaven than a smooth ride to hell." And I think he’s right.
6. "Suffering is excused because God uses it."
I hear some Christians who are unrepentant. They will sin and then God uses it for something good and they say, "Well, I know it wasn’t that great, but God used it so it must be okay with God."
I’ll give you one example. I was having a terse dialogue with a father who, literally, growing up, beat his sons. And he said, "Well, they grew up to be good boys, and they’re strong, and they’re masculine, and they have dignity, and they have courage, and they have toughness, so, you know, the beating wasn’t a bad thing." I said, "That is a testimony to the goodness of God the Father, not to you as their father. That you are a wicked, evil, sinful man who did an atrocious thing in beating his sons. And if you don’t repent of that, you will go to hell because unrepentant people go to hell and you are a man who’s living an unrepentant life of all of your sin, and you keep making stupid theological arguments like, "Well, God used it, so he must think it was fine." Just because God uses something, that doesn’t justify the sin. That means that God is good, even when we are bad, but that does not justify our evil.
7. "Suffering is an excuse to passively allow injustice and evil."
I have heard some people say, "I know they’re doing wrong and I know they’re doing evil, but God is using it to teach me good things, so I praise God for it." No, you must also resist evil, pursue justice.
I had this conversation with a wife whose husband was beating her. I said, "What in the world are you doing remaining with a man who beats you and your children?" She said, "But, God is teaching me so much through this and I’m growing in my relationship with Jesus." I said, "Well, praise be to God and be sanctified, but call the police. Have him arrested and thrown in jail. He, too, needs to be sanctified, not just you."
We cannot allow people to continually sin in the name of our sanctification. We also must confront them and rebuke them and, when necessary, take legal recourse.
8. "Suffering is, for us, an act of atonement, not an act of sanctification."
God is not making us pay him back for our sin. When we sin, God is not making us come good on our debt. And some of you, I fear when you suffer, you think, "Okay, God is beating me now because I have sinned, and that’s okay. If God beats me enough, maybe he will then love me." No. Jesus died for your sin. He’s been punished in your place. God is not making you pay him back. We don’t believe in karma. We don’t believe in penance. We don’t believe in purgatory. We believe in Jesus.
9. "Suffering can be fully understood in this life."
I have read a large stack of books on suffering and evil over the years, philosophical and theological in nature, and what I will tell you is this. There are many aspects of suffering and particular illustrations of human beings’ lives that encountered much suffering that I simply will not answer because I have no answer, other than to say God is good and I trust him. And when the Bible says that we, "Know in part and we see in part", that’s true. And that, "When we see Jesus, it’ll all make sense." That’s true. When Paul asks elsewhere his rhetorical question, "Who has known the mind of the Lord?", he’s not expecting any of us to raise our hand, but to simply say, "Not I." There are things that you will not understand regarding even your personal suffering until you see the face of Jesus.
10. "Suffering is beyond the goodness of a sovereign God."
Suffering is not beyond the goodness of a sovereign God. That God, ultimately, uses everything. That God, ultimately, works through everything. That God takes even that which is horrendous and eventually, because of his goodness and sovereign power, uses it for beauty. We believe that, and if we cease to believe that, we lose all hope. Romans 8:28, Paul says it this way. "We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose." In all things, God eventually works it out for his redemptive good. There’s an illustration of this in Genesis 50:20 where Joseph, looking at his brothers who sought to destroy him, said, "What you intended for me was evil, but God used it for good and the saving of many lives."
The same thing happened with Jesus. Judas betrayed him. False witnesses came forward to falsely accuse him, and the greatest tragedy, injustice and evil in the history of the world was created and God used it for much good and the saving of many lives, including my own. And, occasionally, that ultimate redemptive good that will be fully unveiled in the Kingdom breaks forth into the earth so that you and I would have moments of hope and clarity that God is not done. That God will, ultimately, right all wrongs and straighten all that has been made crooked, and bring justice in the end.
As a coda to this sermon and others in the series, there was a video that told the remarkable story of Charlotte Elliott, which we posted yesterday.For more, check out "God's Hand in Our Suffering," from the Redeeming Ruth series, and "Suffering to Worship," from the Trial series on 1 and 2 Peter.
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