What human being ever wants to suffer?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve known a few people in my life who actually welcome it when pain wounds them–mostly because they wisely realize suffering is normal–one of the primary ways we know we are human beings in a sin-filled, earthquake-shattered world. It’s not like they’re masochists–looking for pain to feel alive (although this kind of damaging thinking and behavior is more and more common these days–especially with young people).
As we enter into the fourth week of Lent, I don’t know if you even have the stomach to read my new post today–it certainly won’t be pleasant. But I do hope it makes you uncomfortable. Communication theorists call this cognitive dissonance: this post might actually help you to recognize what you believe about suffering’s purpose in your life and then grow and change as a result of thinking about where you would like to be…
I’m moved by the fact that Jesus had the incredible courage to press forward as a Sent One in completing his Father’s mission–even though he knew the intimate, grueling details of his coming death on the cross for probably most of the days of his thirty-three-year-life: during his childhood, along those dusty roads of Galilee, healing the sick, keeping calm (most of the time) with his clueless and overwhelmed disciples.
Knowing what he did, I wouldn’t have been in the mood to turn water to wine at a wedding party at the inauguration of his earthly ministry (I probably would have been hiding in the closet–withdrawing myself from relationships with people I loved…) Because I can certainly tell you if I knew ahead of time that, in my thirty-ninth year, I would battle brain cancer, a seven hour surgery, two months in the hospital getting poked and prodded, four months of rehab (and I didn’t even die!)–my thirties would have been full of anxiety and dread. I probably would have stopped laughing and pulled away from people altogether as the day of my initial seizure on Father’s Day grew closer.
Even Jesus, in all of his beautiful humanity, wept bitterly over the callousness of Jerusalem to his redeeming mission, as those very people hailed him as King the week before his gruesome crucifixion.
I’m puzzled as to why we humans so desperately try to remove ourselves from suffering–especially those of us who are Christians. Obviously, it’s logical to avoid pain; but it’s impossible, as well. Instead, we often rail against God for not protecting us or treating us more kindly as His children.
You could even argue that I did this when I left Cambodia after being a missionary there for four years, so please understand that my own track record in dealing with suffering isn’t stellar. I avoid people who hurt me all the time. I think Christ calls me by his example to, instead, “lean in and take the punch” from these pain-inducing people sometimes. I’ve recently been reminded of this powerful quote from John Stott’s The Cross of Christ this past week when I re-read one of my old grad school papers on suffering…
The place of suffering in service and of passion in mission is hardly ever taught today. But the greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. It may be a death to popularity (by faithfully preaching the unpopular biblical gospel), or to pride (by use of modest methods in reliance on the Holy Spirit), or to racial and national prejudice (by identification with another culture), or to material comfort (by adopting a simple lifestyle), and the seed must die if it is to multiply. (emphasis mine) [i]
Death to Popularity
The longing to be well-liked has been one of my greatest weaknesses in life. I often obsess in my own mind about the stories I think other people have about me; and, too often, it affects my judgment in decision making as a pastor. I “soft sell” the gospel in order to maintain a relationship with somebody so as not to offend. Ironically, most of us are so passionate about not offending in the Church anymore, we have become the very definition of offensiveness to our surrounding culture, with, as Francis Chan teaches in chapter four of Crazy Love, our deadly brand of “Lukewarm Christianity”.
Henri Nouwen once wrote in his In the Name of Jesus that one of the three greatest temptations to Christian leaders is “to be spectacular”. I want to preach and think brilliantly on my feet like Skye Jethani. But I’ll never be him. I am who I am in Christ–and, modestly, with full heart and effort, that has to be enough. As campus pastor for Blanchard Warrenville, I selfishly want our worship services to inspire and capture the divine imagination of our attendees every week–creatively, musically, doctrinally, you name it…
Stott reminds me that this dangerous mindset is both presumptive and arrogant. “Modest methods”, including a churchwide commitment to intentional discipling relationships, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, are more than enough to transform people into devoted followers of Jesus. Moreover, is the presence of the triune God inhabiting the praises of His people not spectacular enough every Sunday?
That’s what has led me to call us to begin praying regularly on Saturday evenings at 7pm at Blanchard Warrenville. Yes, it is a program, but, I can assure you, it’s nothing fancy. I’d love to see Blanchard Alliance Church revived and transformed by the very modest, painful, inconvenient but powerfully effective means of regularly praying together as a body of believers. Believing, in faith, that God answers us when we pray–not developing a huge planning team to pull off these gatherings–but focusing more on having spiritually gifted prayer teams positioned to pray for those who need healing, anointing, etc. as well as seeing individual families and our children (like the Lowes did last week) lead God’s people in prayer as well.
Furthermore, we’ve had a very difficult time birthing an impactful youth ministry at Blanchard Warrenville. First of all, we didn’t really have a plan–or at least one that worked (or youth!)–when we started five years ago. But we do now (upward of 20 6-9th graders next fall…) So, remembering Stott’s urging to keep things modest, what does a modest youth ministry infused with the Holy Spirit look like?
As Jason and Sarah Redelman, our primary youth ministry leadership team transition out this summer, leaving as sent ones to teach at an international school in Honduras, James Grout and I have been spending a lot of time talking about the future of our youth ministry lately. We agree that the “whiz-bang, entertainment-heavy, big show” approach has not historically been effective in forming students to become devoted lifetime followers of Jesus. So, while staying deeply committed to forming a safe, theologically rigorous, student-led community, how can we better equip parents to be a part of making the home the very center of life-long spiritual formation in our students? Good research suggests the best predictor of whether our children will become devoted followers of Jesus is their parents’ example! (read Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenager is Telling the American Church for all the data and more…)
The “seed must die if it is to multiply”, Stott said. Whether it’s a renewed commitment to unpopular preaching, more modest worship services, prayer gatherings and parent-led student ministries–all of this is going to hurt and be costly at Blanchard Alliance Church–let alone the painful cost of being transparent Christ-followers with our neighbors. But, painful though it may be, I’m inspired to deal with it–and even be joyful in the middle of it–because of the beautiful, eternal consequences…
[i] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press , 1986), p. 322.