Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?
Winter Luncheon Series
The Quandary and Questions of Suffering
January 24, 2008
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Thank you, Donna, and thank you, Ashley, and all the others who have worked to put this Thursday luncheon series together.
I want to welcome you all to the third of four Thursday luncheons at First Presbyterian Church on the subject of “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter? — Suffering…Sovereignty…and Sanctification.”
As we begin, I want to remind us of where we've been so far. We said a couple of weeks ago when we started out that we wanted to try and cover four things over the course of our four weeks together.
First we wanted to ask the question, “Why Me?” The question “why me?” is a question that is often asked in Scripture. God gives us permission to ask that question. I think sometimes Christians believe they shouldn't ever ask that question. God inspires writers of Scripture to ask that question on numerous occasions, thus sending a huge sign to suffering believers that He's ready to hear our deepest cries of anguish and woe. He's able to bear that because He loves us and He cares for us. And so we wanted to ask in that first week some things about the quandary of suffering.
Then, last time we were together, we wanted to look at the purposes of suffering — “What For?” What is suffering for? What does God purpose to use suffering for in the life of believers?
Today we want to ask the question (given that we have come to understand that God does have a purpose for His children in suffering), “OK, how do I go about learning to suffer so that the purposes of God come to fruition in my life? What is the way that I learn to gain from and in suffering?” That's the question that we will tackle this week.
Next week, we will look at the suffering of the Son of God. We find in Scripture repeatedly believers pointed to His suffering as a means of their instruction, as a means of their encouragement, in times of trial. But today we’ll focus on the question of “How?” How do we go about gaining from and in suffering?
A. What we need to learn in this study.
We said all along that there are a number of things that we need to learn in the course of this study. I want to repeat four of them for you this afternoon.
1. The first is to say again that suffering is a constant in this fallen world. Suffering is; suffering happens; suffering is to be expected; suffering is a consequence of the entrance of sin into this world. All of the misery of this world owes its ultimate origin to the entrance of sin in the first rebellion of Adam and Eve, and so suffering is a norm in the fallen world. It should never ever catch us by surprise.
2. God is sovereign even and especially in our suffering. Secondly, we said it's important for us to recognize that suffering is not only a constant in this fallen world, but that God is sovereign even and especially in our suffering. The suffering of believers is never merely an accident. The believer is never merely a victim in this fallen world. You are never merely at the whim of evil persons, much less impersonal fate. God is sovereign, even and especially in our suffering. He's not indifferent to our suffering, He is not unconcerned about our suffering, and He is not uninvolved in our suffering. He cares greatly about the suffering of His children, and He is determined not to waste one drop of the suffering of His children.
3. Third, God's purpose in the suffering of His children is our sanctification and His glory. That's what we meditated upon last week. God has good purposes in view, even and especially in our suffering. He is in it for our growth, He is in it for our joy, and He is in it for His everlasting glory.
4. How to suffer. And that leads us to the fourth thing that we need to learn: that is, we need to learn how to suffer. We need to learn how to suffer in hope, we need to learn how to suffer with rejoicing, we need to learn to suffer by faith, we need to learn to suffer dependent upon God's grace, and we need to learn how to suffer in Christ in a realization of what it means to be in union with Christ. We need to learn to suffer by the Book…we need to know what the Bible teaches us to do in suffering, and we need to learn to suffer for God's glory. “Learn to suffer” is good biblical counsel. We want to know how Christians are to suffer in such a way as to gain from and in our suffering.
God's purposes in suffering.
Now, last week, as we looked at God's purposes in suffering, we mentioned that there could be many biblical answers given to the question of what are God's purposes in suffering, but we zeroed in on four.
1. One, that God purposes that our suffering will, by His Spirit, through His work of grace, and by our response of faith, God purposes that our suffering will result in godliness. He wants us to grow up to be more like Jesus.
2. Secondly, He purposes that our suffering will cause us to prize Christ more than this world.
3. Third, He purposes that our suffering will contribute to the maturity of the whole body; that is, a believer's suffering is never merely his or her private aspect of sanctification. It is for the wellbeing of the whole body
4. And, fourth, God purposes that our suffering will prepare us for glory. So the question that we wrestle with today is the question of how to suffer so as to profit most, by God's grace, unto God's purposes for suffering. And that's the question that we're going to tackle today. I'm going to give seven general answers to that, and then we're going to dig down deep and look at seven states of the heart that will help us prosper most in suffering.
Let's pray before we begin.
Heavenly Father, thank You for You word. We need it even more than we need food, for man does not live by bread alone. We are as dependent upon every word that comes out of Your mouth as we are on air or water, or the light of the sun. And we feel that especially when we are grappling with trials and suffering, when we are so much out of our depth that we can't catch our breath, and we don't know which way to turn. So turn our eyes upon Jesus; turn our eyes to the Scripture; turn our eyes and ears to Yourself, and grant that we would hear Your answer for us from Your word, to the everlasting good of our souls and to Your everlasting glory. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
B. How do Christians suffer so as to profit most, by God's grace, unto the purposes of God in our suffering?
Well, let me just say this is one of those frustrating talks to have to give, because people have written three-, four-, and five-hundred page books — good books! — and not exhausted the Bible's answer to that question. That's why it's so good to be reading meaty, truth-y books that point us to the Scriptures and fill us with an understanding of what God has to say to us in our own circumstances of suffering. So I am not pretending to be exhaustive in any way…perhaps to be suggestive of the places in God's word that you can go for help in this area. But let me point you to seven things that we can do as believers so as to suffer in a way that we profit most unto God's purposes in suffering.
I. By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering
The first thing is this: By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering. Let me say that one more time: By prayer and meditation in our suffering, we must believe that God has a good purpose in our every trial, and so determine to rejoice in — not necessarily because of — our suffering.
The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:3-5, says,
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Sprit who has been given to us.”
Now the Apostle Paul affirms at least two things in that passage. The first thing that he affirms is that God has a good purpose in his suffering. The trials he is enduring are designed to produce endurance and character and hope. But he also affirms his ability to rejoice in suffering; not necessarily because of suffering…it's not that he's enjoying the suffering, although you will find Paul later in the book of Acts confessing that he rejoices that he had had the privilege to suffer for the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Paul is reminding us here that believers, in our suffering, are to believe that God has a good purpose in our trials, and to determine to rejoice even in our suffering…even if we're not rejoicing because of our suffering.
II. Secondly, we suffer so as to profit most, by God's grace, unto God's purposes in suffering when, by prayer and meditation, in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering
Secondly, we suffer so as to profit most, by God's grace, unto God's purposes in suffering when, by prayer and meditation, in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering. We prepare ourselves to suffer so as to profit most in our suffering if by prayer and meditation in our suffering we rely on the power of God and not on our own strength to face our suffering.
Don't you love what Paul says in II Timothy 1:8, 9? He says to Timothy,
“Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord….”
…that is, the testimony that Jesus has been crucified. That was a humiliating thing, and Timothy had currently encountered people with whom he was sharing the gospel, and as he told them about the crucified Savior, they mocked him and his message and said, ‘You’re trying to sell me a crucified Savior? That's ridiculous! That's shameful!’ And Timothy is shaken up by this, and the Apostle Paul is saying don't be ashamed about serving and loving a crucified Lord. And then he goes on to say,
“…And don't be ashamed of me, His prisoner…’
Again somebody must have been saying, ‘Hey, your God must be really powerful. Your best guy's in jail.’ And then this is what Paul says:
“…But share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God….”
In other words, Paul is encouraging Timothy to rely on the power of God — not a clever answer, not his own wit, but on the power of God in the face of weakness, in the face of persecution, in the face of rejection, in the face of suffering. Rely on the power of God.
Are you like me? The minute that you find yourself in a corner, is the very first thing that you’re doing trying to figure out how you’re going to get yourself out of that corner? Rather than saying, “Lord God, by the grace of Your Son, Jesus Christ, I'm Your child. You care more about me than I care about me; and You care better when You care for me than I care for me. Help me. Guard my heart. Make sure that I don't try and figure a way out of this mess that makes the mess worse than it was in the first place, because I know I can trust You.”
Paul's telling us to (when we face suffering) rely on the power of God. That's the second thing. The first thing we're going to do is we're going to believe that God has a good purpose in our trials, know that we can rejoice in that suffering; the second thing that we're going to do is we're going to rely on the power of God.
III. We’re going to approach suffering like a good soldier.
But the third thing we're going to do is we're going to approach suffering like a good soldier. If we want to suffer in such a way as to profit most by God's grace unto God's purposes for our suffering, then by prayer and meditation we will approach our suffering as would a good soldier in approaching war.
What do I mean by that? A good soldier who has trained, and trained, and trained (for what? — war) is not surprised when he finds himself in…war! That's what he was trained for! So also consider it your job — not a surprise, not an interruption, not an accident, not the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but what you have been trained for — to suffer.
Boy, that puts a whole different cast on Sunday morning, doesn't it? Your gathering with God's people Lord's Day after Lord's Day to train as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, so that when your time of trial and testing and suffering comes, you’re ready. That's what you’re training for. So if we're going to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace unto God's purposes in our suffering, then by prayer and meditation we will approach our suffering as would a good soldier in approaching war, and consider it our job — not a surprise, not an interruption, but what we have been trained for. I haven't given you a Scripture verse for that yet, but I'm going to give you one now. Look at
II Timothy 2:3. What does Paul say?
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
I wasn't making up that instruction. It comes straight from the mouth of the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That's how He wants us to think of ourselves. We’re soldiers getting ready for a war, and that war will for all of us, in some measure and different ways, entail suffering. So approach it like a soldier: I'm being prepared for war; I'm not going to be surprised when the war comes. I'm being prepared for suffering; I'm not going to be surprised when the suffering comes.
IV. We will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.
Fourth, if we are going to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace unto God's purposes in suffering, then we will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.
We will consider that we are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ when we suffer, for He himself was perfected in suffering.
This, by the way, is one reason why we're going to spend a week on the suffering of Christ. Because if we are by grace through faith part of the body of Christ, then we (according to the Apostle Paul) share in the sufferings of Christ. Not in His sufferings which purchased us redemption; not in His sufferings by which we were accepted freely in the beloved, justified, and adopted as children of the living God; but we share in the sufferings of His body because we are His body. Thus, when the Apostle Paul was persecuting “Christians” — not Jesus, who had ascended years before — when he was persecuting Christians, on the way to Damascus to persecute some more Christians, Jesus met him and said, ‘Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting…[them?]’ That's not what He said.
“Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?”
Why did Jesus say that? Because their sufferings were His sufferings, because they — and you, if you’re trusting in Jesus Christ — are Jesus’ body, and to touch Jesus’ body is to touch Jesus. And so when you suffer, you are participating in the sufferings of Christ, and so it is vital for us to understand what was going on in His suffering.
And the author of Hebrews contemplates this in Hebrews 2:10:
“It was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
Now, those are three words that you could meditate on for the rest of your life: Jesus, made “perfect through suffering.” How do you make perfect…perfect-er? But that's what the author of Hebrews says. Consider when you suffer, believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, that you are being drawn into the experience of Jesus Christ, for He himself was perfected in suffering.
V. Consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of the saints.
Fifth, if you are going to profit most in your suffering by God's grace, toward those purposes that God has for you in suffering, then consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of the saints.
James, in James 5, is addressing Christians who are enduring suffering. And in James 5:10, he says,
“As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
James is saying to these Christians — Jewish Christians somewhere in Palestine, suffering because of their faith — ‘Brothers, look at the example of the prophets who suffered for their loyalty to the Lord, who suffered for their faith. You are part of their same company. You’re not suffering alone. You’re part of a company of suffering believers.’
Or, consider what Peter says in I Peter 5:9, 10, to a whole different group of Christians in Asia Minor. He says,
“Resist [the devil], firm in you faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by you brotherhood throughout the world.”
You’re not alone in your suffering. In fact, sometimes when you begin to contemplate the suffering that's being endured by your brotherhood not just in times past, but right now, it kind of humbles you when you’re estimating your suffering…especially those of us who live in a relatively peaceful and affluent country like the United States. For today in Turkey the trial has begun of the Muslims who cruelly tortured for three hours and then slit the throats of three missionaries in Turkey who were distributing Bibles and Christian literature. Those are your brothers. Their wives and children are still alive, bearing the pain of the loss of their husbands and fathers. And whatever suffering you’re enduring today, you are enduring that suffering in solidarity with your brothers and sisters worldwide who are enduring enormous suffering. Consider that you are not alone in your suffering, but you are in the company of the greatest of saints. It's a humbling thought, actually. There are not many experiences of suffering that won't be humbled in your heart in comparison to the suffering of the rest of the brotherhood and sisterhood of believers around the world.
VI. Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.
Sixth, if you want to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace, towards God's purposes for your suffering, do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you. Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.
James, in James 5:13, gives us very simple, very terse, very clear direction:
“Is anyone among you suffering?”
Anybody know what the next three words are?
“Let him pray.”
That's James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” Because suffering will be lost on us if it doesn't do what? Drive us into the arms of Jesus. Drive us towards our heavenly Father. Suffering will be lost on us if we're separated from the one who ought to be the delight and desire of our soul. And so, “Is anyone among you suffering?” James says run to your heavenly Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. Run to the Triune God! Do not cease or fail to pray in your suffering, or it will go wrong on you.
VII. Learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.
And seventh…(You’re going to wonder ‘Where do you get a verse for this one?’ but hang with me for a second!) Seventh, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering. If you want to learn to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace to God's purposes in your suffering, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.
The Apostle Paul is speaking to the Colossians. He says something similar to the Ephesians, but he's speaking to the Colossians in Colossians 3:16, and he says this:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.”
And then he says,
“Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
So that the very act of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is conceived of by the Apostle Paul as a way of mutually encouraging one another to allow the word of Christ to dwell in you richly. And so, because we have so many wonderful songs, starting all the way back with the Psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs (that address what subject? Suffering.)…if you want to learn to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace to God's purposes in suffering, learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.
I've got a number of them on my mind. Commit Now All Your Griefs is probably not a hymn that you’re super-familiar with. The words are incredibly powerful. Whate’er My God Ordains is Right is pretty well known around here at First Pres, but not in very many places. But it's a great hymn to help you in times of trouble. Though Troubles Assail Us, the Lord Will Provide is another great hymn to meditate upon. It Is Well With My Soul; Be Still, My Soul…or one in an entirely different vein, Am I a Soldier of the Cross? Or, a really new song that we all sang together last Sunday night, When Trials Come, by Keith and Kristen Getty. Learn and sing the great hymns of suffering.
Let me just demonstrate how helpful this can be. I've copied for you No. 670, If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee. Now I'd like you to walk through the text of this great hymn.
You may be encouraged to know that the author of this hymn was not a dry-land sailor. That is, when he wrote about suffering, he understood it a little bit. It was composed in 1641, with the heading “A song of comfort. God will care for and help everyone in His own time.” The author was robbed by highwaymen near Magdeburg in Germany as a student, and he was left destitute with no prospect of earning a living. He had been given his money to go off to university, and he set out with a group of travelers on the way to that university. Robbers waylaid the whole party of travelers in a valley, and took everything that he had. So he didn't have any money to enroll in university, he had been physically assaulted, and he had no means or connections for making a living. And his whole life was changed by that one moment. He could have spent the rest of his life in bitterness, but he didn't. The Lord was kind to him, and he writes this song.
Let's look at the text of the song together and see how the Lord encourages us in this song. It's written in the form of a testimonial, like so many of the Psalms, but it's utterly God-centered.
“If thou but suffer God to guide thee…”
[In English, that's ‘If you will only trust God to guide you.’]
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
[And hope in Him in every circumstance…]
He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
[He’ll give you strength no matter what happens.]
And bear thee through the evil days:
[He’ll carry you through the bad, hard times.]
Who trusts in God's unchanging love
[The person who trusts in God's unchanging love…]
Builds on the Rock that naught can move.”
[Builds on the one Rock that no one and nothing can move.]
“What can these anxious cares avail thee,
[In other words, what good can your anxiety and worry do?]
These never-ceasing moans and sighs?
[What good is constant moaning and sighing?]
What can it help, if thou bewail thee
[What help is it if you simply regret your situation?]
O’er each dark moment as it flies?
[Or bemoan every hard thing that comes along your way?]
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.”
[In other words, our crosses and trials, our sufferings, our hard providences only get heavier if we're only bitter about them.]
“Be patient, and wait His leisure
[Be patient and await His timing, he's saying]
In cheerful hope, with heart content
To take whate’er thy Father's pleasure
[In other words, with cheerful hope and contented heart, take whatever your Father pleases to do.]
…Take whate’er thy Father's pleasure
and His discerning love hath sent;
[Whatever His wise love has sent to you…]
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
To Him who chose us for His own.”
So notice three encouragements there: take whatever your Father pleases to do, whatever His wise love has sent to you, and do not doubt that your deepest needs are known to the God who chose you for His own child.
Then, two verses that aren't in your hymnal:
“God knows full well when time of gladness
Shall be the needful thing for thee.
[In other words, God knows when gladness is what you need.]
When He has tried thy soul with sadness,
And from all guile has found thee free,
[When He has tested and tried your soul with sadness, and found you purged free from deceitfulness and sin.]
He comes to thee all unaware,
And makes thee own His loving care.”
[In other words, you will find that He comes to you unexpectedly and makes you experience and acknowledge His loving care.]
And then another stanza that you don't have in the hymnal:
“Nor think amid the fiery trial
That God hath cast thee off unheard;
[Don't think in the middle of burning trials that God has cast you off and He doesn't hear your cries.]
That He whose hopes meet no denial
Must surely be of God preferred.
[Don't think that the person whose hopes and prayers seem to have been answered is being given preference by God over you.]
Time passes, and much change doth bring,
And set a bound to everything.”
[In other words, time tells, and change comes, and new boundaries are set.]
Now back to the hymn in front of you:
“All are alike before the Highest;
‘Tis easy for our God, we know,
To raise thee up though low thou liest,
To make the rich man poor and low;
[In other words, indeed everyone is alike before Most High God. We all know that it is easy for our God to raise up those who lie low, and to bring down the rich man to poverty and lowliness.]
True wonders still by Him are wrought
Who setteth up and brings to naught.”
[In other words, God still works true wonders, and He sets up and He brings to nothing.]
“Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
Perform thy duties faithfully,
And trust His Word–though undeserving,
Thou yet shall find it true for thee;
God never yet forsook in need
The soul that trusted Him indeed.”
So his final counsel to you is sing, pray, and keep God's ways without deviating. Do your duties faithfully. Trust God's word, and though you are undeserving, you will find God's word true for you, because God has never ever forsaken in time of need anyone who trusted Him.
Now that's just one example of one song which the Lord has given to His church to sing in time of suffering. And meditating upon the great hymns of suffering will remind you that the very same struggles that you’re going through now have been experienced by believing saints before, and you’ll get help from their wrestling and from their answers.
So, those seven things in general.
C. How should our hearts be ordered to get the most out of suffering?
But now, what state of the heart ought we to aim for in order to get the most out of suffering? So as to profit most by God's grace, to God's purposes in suffering?
Well, here's the grand direction: We must humble ourselves before the Lord.
Peter says in I Peter 5:6, 7:
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.”
So how do we humble ourselves before the Lord, casting our worries on Him because He cares for us, waiting for Him to exalt us? Well, we do it in these seven ways.
1. We want our hearts to be in a state in which we are assured that there is no circumstance so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in us through it.
There is no circumstance so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace through it. So, we want to pray and meditate, and read the Scripture, until by faith we are assured that there are no circumstances that are so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in our hearts through those circumstances.
Consider these exhortations:
I Corinthians 10:13 —
“No temptation [no trial, no tribulation] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Hang on to that verse; hang on to that truth. Or, II Corinthians 12:9 — [It's the Apostle Paul talking about the thorn in the flesh, and he says…]
“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Or, Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Pray, meditate, read, and believe until you are assured that there are no circumstances that are so overwhelming that God will not do a work of grace in your heart in and through those circumstances.
2. Secondly, pray, meditate, read and believe until you believe that whatever hand is in your suffering, that God is your help, and that you do not forget God for the battle that you are in.
Pray, meditate, read and believe until you believe in your heart that whatever hand is in your suffering, God is your help, and that you do not forget God for the battle that you are in.
Do you remember Micah, in Micah 6:9, is talking about the voice of the Lord crying in the city? And that voice which cries says, “Hear of the rod and of Him who appointed it!” In other words, Israel is going to be under the rod of discipline. But Micah doesn't want the people of God to only see the rod and not see the one who appointed it. He wants them to have their eyes fixed on God. Even if that rod is coming from a pagan enemy invader, ultimately God is in charge, so he doesn't want them to lose sight of God because they’re looking at the trial. And he doesn't want them to forget that God is their help, no matter where the suffering is coming from. So, whatever has caused the suffering — your sin, someone else's sin; whether the suffering is just or unjust; whether it's because of natural acts or supernatural acts; wherever the suffering has come from, take God for your help, and don't lose God in the middle of the battle! Keep your eyes on Him! Take Him for your help and your party. Don't lose sight of Him in the storm.
3. Pray and meditate and read and believe until we are convinced of God's infinite greatness.
Third, if our hearts would be right, and if we would suffer so as to profit most by God's grace to God's purposes, we’ll pray and meditate and read and believe until we are convinced of God's infinite greatness.
In suffering, our suffering is pulled so close to us that no matter how great that suffering is or isn't, it seems greater than anything else in our experience. And precisely at that moment, what are we tempted to do? We’re tempted to see our circumstances as bigger than God. Just like pulling something very close to your eyes, some object, makes it look disproportionately large in comparison to other objects in the room which are actually larger than it, focusing on the greatness of our suffering causes us to lose sight of the fact that our God is bigger than that suffering. And so it is important in suffering to pray and to meditate and to read until we believe and are convinced that God is bigger than our suffering.
Think of Isaiah, in Isaiah 6, that passage that I’ll bet you've heard read a hundred times over the course of your life by youth ministers and preachers, and pastors, and evangelists. But Isaiah is talking about a time of national crisis. The great king Uzziah has died. But in the year of Uzziah's death, he says in Isaiah 6:1, that he saw the Lord
“…upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. And above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings; with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, with two he flew, and one called to his brother and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the foundation of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”
It's a scene which puts everything else in the world to shame by comparison to it. It's a scene in which Isaiah is acknowledging that God is infinitely greater than anything in anybody's reality. (And by the way, the Apostle John tells you in John 12, that it was Jesus who was sitting on that throne.)
Now, until you are utterly convinced of God's infinite greatness, your trial will look bigger than Him, when it is not remotely comparable to Him. So in order to suffer so as to profit most by God's grace in your sufferings, you need to read and pray and meditate until you are utterly convinced of God's infinite greatness.
4. Determine to remember the mystery of God's providence towards you.
Fourth, you need to determine to remember the mystery of God's providence towards you. You need to determine to remember the mystery of God's providence towards you.
In our suffering, we are always desirous of getting answers to our question “why?” We've already said God knows that we're prone to that; that's why He lets those questions be asked in the Bible, and that's why He gives general answers to those questions. But in our suffering we all know that there are always questions to which we cannot get an answer, as much as we would like it. And therefore it is vital for us to remember the mystery of God's providence towards us. That is, that we do not always know what God is up to. We do not know, always, what God is up to. That is what Paul is saying in Romans 11:33-36:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
Or who has been His counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things….”
In other words, Paul's acknowledging that you can't always comprehend the judgments of God, and you can't always see the purposes of God, and you don't always have the answers to all your questions “why?” And so it's important for us to remember that.
Job is never given even the answers that we have been given when we read the book of Job! It's so important for you to remember that Job did not read the book of Job! He didn't read it! He didn't read Job, chapters 1 and 2. He didn't read Job 42. He didn't know the background of what was going on in his trial and testing; he didn't know the final conclusion of it. He didn't know it! All he had to do was trust God, who “moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; who plants His footsteps on the sea, and rides upon the storm.”
And it's so important for us to remember the mystery of God's providence towards us in suffering, because this will move us from “why?” to “You.” That is, we want to get comfort in our suffering by getting the answer to our question why, whereas God wants us to get our comfort in our suffering by getting the answer to the question “who?” The question “who?” we know the answer to: You, O Lord. You are what it is all about. You are who I am made for. Nothing can separate me from You in Christ Jesus. Not tribulation, not death, not famine, not nakedness, not peril nor sword, nor powers nor principalities, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing can separate me from You! The answer that I can always give a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to the question who: and the answer is the loving, powerful, sovereign, kind, wise, perfect Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — who has made me for Himself. And so God wants us to move from why to who, so that we're moving from finding our peace in the answers to the question why — which we may not ever have here — to the answer to the question who, which is You, O Lord. What You want me to get from this trial is You. That's what You want me to get.
5. We will take account of our own sinfulness.
Fifth, if we're going to profit most in our suffering by God's grace, we will take account of our own sinfulness. Isn't it interesting that Isaiah, when he sees this vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6:1-4, responds in verse 5 saying this:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
He is conscious, in other words, of his own sinfulness.
That is so important to acknowledge in our lives, first, so that Satan doesn't use it against us; and, second, so that we can realistically own the problems that we're causing ourselves. Sometimes we are the cause of our suffering, or sometimes we are part of our suffering because of our sinful attitudes in response to suffering that we haven't caused. But our sin gets mixed up in there. It's important for us to recognize that.
A few years ago, at a pastor's conference, two veteran ministers of our denomination were asked to answer the question, “How do you deal, pastors…how do you deal with criticism in your church?” And two veteran pastors stood up and they exhorted the men to just soldier on and not be discouraged by the kinds of criticisms that people brought against them, and just keep on going, and trust in the Lord, and know that He will vindicate you. And a third pastor was asked to comment on this as well, and he got up and he said, “Well, I think that one thing you might want to do if you’re criticized is you might want to consider that it might be right!” Very wise advice.
So also in suffering, sometimes our own sin has brought on our suffering, or sometimes our own sin makes suffering that we haven't brought on ourselves worse than it would be. So it's good for us to consider our sinfulness, even in our suffering which we haven't caused.
6. Sixth, settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose in your suffering.
Settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose in your suffering. I Peter 1:6, 7 — Peter says this:
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
You see what Peter is saying: that the testing that you experience now, believer, is going to be proven on the Last Day at the revelation of the coming of Jesus Christ, and what that suffering is going to produce in you, by God's grace, by God's Spirit, in your response of faith, is going to be something that is worth far more than gold, and it's going to last forever. Settle it in your heart that there is both a need and a purpose for your suffering.
7. Believe in God's kind providence towards you.
And, seventh, believe in God's kind providence towards you. Believe in God's kind providence towards you! Revelation 3:19 — what does God say?
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline….”
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline. You know that same phrase from the book of Hebrews: “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.” Believe in God's kind providence towards you in suffering. His purposes are for your good, from His love.
Now, I wanted today to look at 21 ways that we can encourage those in suffering! But I didn't get there, did I? So let me give you a suggestion. Take a look at www.desiringgod.org. That's the ministry of John Piper. Desiring God…it's those two words just rolled into one, desiringgod.org, and then just look up the article “How Shall We Minister to People After the World Trade Tower Terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001?” And in that article he gives 21 suggestions on how to minister to people that are suffering. Now in that article, it's situation-specific to that particular incident, but there will be general principles there that will help you immensely in ministering to people who are suffering.
Let's pray together.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this time to consider a standing reality in all of our lives — suffering. Grant that we would suffer in such a way as to profit most from Your good and kind and wise purposes in our suffering. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.