How does a pastor prepare a church for suffering?
This was one question addressed at the recent T4G conference in Louisville. Jointly, C.J. and Matt Chandler provided answers to this often-neglected pastoral topic.
C.J. opened the session with a brief explanation of why this topic is critical in the life of the local church. He then invited Matt to share the story of the Thanksgiving Day seizure that led to his hospitalization, the discovery of a mass in his brain, and his surgery eight days later to remove a portion of his right frontal lobe. Before the 7,000 attendees Chandler recounted this unexpected and frightening time of his life and looked back at God's grace in the midst of his recent suffering.
What sustained me through it all? Where did I find my feet landing over and over again? In the doctrines, in the theology, and in the beauty and magnificence of Christ and his salvation. There my feet could rest and there I had the ability to put my confidence in him and him alone. This has had ripple effects in the Village Church, which has had ripple effects in the evangelical community at large, where men and women who have not theologically lined up with necessarily where I am and where my heart is, all of the sudden are drawn in and want to have discussions around the beauty of God’s sovereign will.
Matt's testimony and example were moving. Later, when reflecting on Matt's role at the conference, C.J. said, "God's grace is evident in Matt's life in a profound way. His personal example of trusting God in the midst of severe suffering is compelling. I experienced this with Matt in private conversation at the conference and I think everyone experienced it as he shared publicly. His time with us was unforgettable and it will serve conference participants in an enduring way, long after the other conference messages are only a distant memory."
C.J. followed Matt's segment, briefly addressing an important question: How do pastors provide this foundation for their people before suffering arrives? In the remaining time allotted for the session, C.J. encouraged pastors to consider five points:
- Prepare your church for suffering through the preaching diet. For the task C.J. commended the books of Job, Habakkuk, and 1 Peter.
- Draw your church's attention to living illustrations of people suffering well in the church.
- Develop a curriculum of supplemental books, chapters, articles, and audio messages on the topic. C.J. recommended:
- D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil
- John Piper’s sermon series “Treasuring Christ and the Call to Suffer” (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, Q/A)
- Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty
- Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts
- David Powlison, “God’s Grace and Your Sufferings,” a chapter in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
- C.H. Spurgeon, Beside Still Waters: Words of Comfort for Your Soul
- Point your church to the suffering Savior in the gospel. C.J.: “The great mystery is not why do I suffer? The great mystery is why would the sinless Son of God suffer as my substitute on the cross for my sins, receiving the wrath that I deserve, so that I might be forgiven and declared righteous?”
- When suffering arrives, be at their side. C.J.: "By God’s grace, when we care for people in the midst of suffering, they will never forget the difference we make. Their gratefulness will be deep and it will be profound and it will be unending."
The 50-minute session is available as an mp3 download and a video on Vimeo. You can watch the entire session here:
October 22, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Interviews | Suffering | Trials
What constitutes suffering for the name of Christ? Often we recall the most severe examples of suffering—Stephen crying out to the Lord as enraged Jewish leaders hurled rocks at his body; Paul and Silas with feet shackled to a Philippian prison, still feeling the pain of their earlier beating; Jim Elliot and his four missionary friends rushed by armed Huaorani Indians. These are all graphic examples of Christians enduring great sacrifices for the advance of the gospel.
Scripture teaches (even promises) that all Christians will suffer, but these graphic examples are not the norm for faithful Christians in the West today. So what does suffering for the name of Christ look like in twenty-first century America?
During one panel discussion at the Together for the Gospel conference, Ligon Duncan and I interviewed our friend John Piper on this issue.
Ligon Duncan: John, you have done a pretty extended exposition on kinds of suffering, available on the Desiring God website. You have done it in different forms. You are addressing this very question that, that suffering just means taking a bullet or getting your head hacked off. You make a great point in that message about how any kind of suffering can become suffering for Christ if you will embrace it that way.
John Piper: If you pick a text on suffering and you try to apply it to cancer, when it is dealing with persecution, a lot of people will say, “I don’t think that applies to me, because that is really applying to getting suffering from somebody hurting you or saying something evil.” So I have developed an argument: All suffering that a Christian endures in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ (though not in the same way).
And there are a couple of reasons for that.
One is that in suffering, the temptation is the same whether it is coming from cancer or slander. And the temptation is to say, “God is not good and it is not worth serving him, and escaping from this suffering in some sinful way is to be preferred.” Those are the same. And so the real battle is the same, whether it is coming from a physical thing or another.
Secondly, I don’t think historically you can draw a line between suffering from persecution and physical suffering. Just try to imagine a particular kind of Pauline persecution, like being whipped 39 lashes, five times (2 Corinthians 11:24). Well, let’s just take the third time. You can imagine what his back must have looked like—39 times five is a lot—and it healed five times. So the third time his back is turned into jelly again.
Now they don’t know anything about antibiotics. When they are done with him, they throw him on the floor and his back is now covered with dirt. What happens when your back is lacerated and it is covered with dirt? I’ll tell you what happens: infection happens. What happens when you get an infection? Fever happens.
Now which is the physical suffering here and which is the persecution suffering? Where are you going to draw that line between the fever and the lashes? Which is why I say that any fever experienced in the path of obedience—getting my sermon ready, making hard calls, staying up late with the suicide situation, and not enough rest and I have got this awful sore throat—tell me these are not the same suffering as being criticized for your ministry. It is the same essential suffering.
And so I think I can develop textual and thoughtful arguments for why almost all texts on suffering can help our people, whether their pain is coming from a difficult marriage, coming from slander, coming from cancer, or coming from wherever.
The issue is in all suffering, when we trust him and keep trusting him, we will find some evidences of his sovereign mercy toward me. And the source of it is a very minor part when it comes to the real battle down here of “Will I trust him? Will I hold on to him or not?”
C.J. Mahaney: Knowing you, John, and knowing your church, you have devoted much time to addressing the topic of suffering and to preparing your church for suffering. Why and how would you recommend that local pastors here do the same?
JP: Well, the why is because the Bible promises, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, ESV). It is a given that to come to Jesus is to compound your suffering, not minimize your suffering. Certain kinds of sufferings get minimized. The suffering that comes from drunkenness will probably go down. So don’t hear me saying nothing changes or is beneficial. That is not true. There are amazing releases for conscience. A lot of psychological things will improve, but others will get worse.
So, if you are now in a marriage where one of you is a believer and one is not, that is this sort of thing. They will suffer.
And the second is because you see it out there. You see the little Down-syndrome kids, and you see the people in the wheelchair, and you see the painful marriages that are out there. You see it, and you either are going to just ignore it, or you are going to give them something to help.
Third, I don’t think Christ is glorified anywhere more than when suffering people rejoice in him as their treasure. If everything is going rosy for all my people, the possibilities of us making a name for Jesus in the city is smaller than if things are going hard for our folks. Then the possibility of making a name for Jesus is greater. What the world wants to see is not for you to tell them, “Jesus makes things go well for me.” Things are going well for them, too, probably better than for you, and it is money and doctors that are doing it for them. So that argument has teeny-weeny effectiveness.
Rather, when neighbors know that the baby in your womb has a liver outside his body, no spinal column, and you have carried this baby to the end and they watch you, the possibilities of making much of Jesus are staggering.
Not many people see life that way. My job as a preacher is to help that mom, way before the pregnancy, get ready for it so that she has some resources. And one of the most satisfying things in ministry, guys, is to do this long enough so that you get a steady stream of testimonies that come to you at funerals and in hospitals and other places where a mom or a son or a relative just takes you by the hand and says, “So glad we have been at Bethlehem. We would be insane if we didn’t have a big God, if we didn’t have a strong God, if we didn’t have a sovereign God, if we didn’t have a holy God.”
I love those testimonies and I get a lot of mileage of late-night work out of testimonies like that, and they are pretty common stream.
We have got a lot of strong women at our church. They bear a lot of things. They endure pain through marriages and through kids that are disabled…Strong women are magnificent testimonies to Christ because, if they are complementarian, they are combining things the world can’t explain. They are combining a sweet, tender, kind, loving, submissive, feminine beauty with this massive steel in their backs and theology in their brains.
Listen to the T4G panel discussion here.
September 11, 2001 was, for me, memorable. It marked the first morning of a very special trip with my wife to the quaint town of Chatham on Cape Cod. Carolyn and I had just finished breakfast at the Wayside Inn and were eager to begin this relaxing and romantic day together. And the day could not have been more inviting.
But while preparing to pay for breakfast, I noticed a gathering of people in the adjoining bar area, studying a television screen. Curious, I took a place among them and learned what they already knew: Two jet airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, both the apparent attacks of terrorists.
We made our way back to our hotel room stunned and perplexed by the images we had briefly viewed. Just yesterday we had flown into Logan International Airport in Boston, now the airport of origin for the two flights that slammed into the towers.
I had no category for what had taken place. Like the rest of the world, we stared in disbelief at the television, immediately aware that our trip would not end as planned. I called home to talk with the pastors to begin altering the message for the Sunday meeting and assembling the church that evening for the purpose of prayer. It was important to return home to serve the church with a message providing biblical perspective to the events. I was one of countless pastors whose plans were altered that week by the crisis.
Years ago I came across an article with the title “When the News Intrudes: What Do You Say from the Pulpit about National Crises and Tragedies?”. Though I would give the article a mixed review, I like the title and the idea behind it. Pastors have a unique responsibility and opportunity during a national or local crisis. How are pastors to effectively serve and lead those they care for “when the news intrudes”?
Hopefully nothing like 9/11 will ever happen again. But events that capture the attention of the world and broadly affect the world will happen again. So how should a pastor serve and lead the church during these times?
I’m no expert on this topic, but the following is what I learned in leading Covenant Life Church through experiences like 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Beltway sniper attacks....
[Download the full article, titled “9/11, Crisis, and the Pastor,” as a PDF document here.]
June 17, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Joy | Suffering | Trials
Rejoicing in the Lord is a lesson often best learned in trials. In this excerpt from the upcoming Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series podcast (“The Pastor + Joy”), C.J. describes a trial that God used to shift the ground of his joy.
Joshua Harris: C.J., I am wondering if there is a personal story in your own life where you experienced—whether it is a trial or a difficulty—a shift where God was helping you realize your joy wasn’t grounded enough in the work that he had done for you?
C.J. Mahaney: Many stories come to mind (and the lessons continue to this day). I wouldn’t want anybody to perceive me as some kind of compelling model of joyfulness on a daily basis. It is a fight I seek to wage on a daily basis. And I can certainly look back and discern instances, circumstances, and periods of time where there was a transfer underway in my life, helping me to shift the ground of my joy from created things to the Creator, a shift from temporary to the eternal.
A pronounced one for me was a ten-year period where I contracted a particular virus that had a debilitating effect on my body and mind on a daily basis. I am reluctant to speak of this and rarely do speak of this, because I don’t want to be misunderstood as I make reference to this period. Though it was challenging, there was nothing life-threatening about this, and I don’t even consider this experience to be suffering, per se. I know people who have suffered. I know people who presently are genuinely, severely suffering.
But for me it was prolonged. It was chronic. It was wearying. It was challenging. And it did remove any sense of happiness or joy, as derived from circumstances, from my life on a daily basis over those years.
So the fight was a particular challenge during that ten-year period. From the wonderful care I have received from my friends and fellow pastors, from the wonderful books that I have read in relation to suffering, from the wonderful examples that I have observed in and throughout Covenant Life Church over the years, and primarily from the clear teaching of Scripture, I was able to see, early on, the many ways God was working. This was intended to be a sanctifying work in my soul.
So one aspect of my sanctification was to be weaned from emotional dependence and weaned from any dependence on circumstances.
Throughout those numerous years, by God’s grace I was able to experience this transition from the ground of my joy being in any way a personality, emotion, or circumstantial, to an appreciation for the person and work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. And I would argue the trial left a purer form of joy.
The audio recording of C.J.'s first message delivered at the New Attitude conference is now online.
The Troubled Soul: God's Word and Our Feelings
Sunday, May 25, 2008
WAKE FOREST, NC--Last Friday night, more than 800 college students from the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, Campbell College, Appalachian State, Clemson, and Duke all gathered for the Missio Dei
conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The students were treated to messages from C.J., seminary president Dr. Daniel Akin, and several of the most strategic missions leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board.
On Friday night the conference kicked off with C.J.’s sermon “The Cup,” a message centered on the narrative of the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:22–28, 32–42
Throughout the gospel of Mark, the Savior has been forgiving sin, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, walking on water, calming storms, feeding thousands with a few loaves and fish, was briefly transfigured, amazing all with his teaching, boldly confronting the religious authorities; he was compassionate, authoritative, fearless. But in the Garden of Gethsemane everything changes. Something dramatic takes place in this garden. Here we encounter a Savior we are unfamiliar with. Here we discover what it meant to him, the Holy One, to bear away our sin. Here in this garden, he contemplates God’s wrath and resolves to endure God’s righteous wrath through the experience of human weakness.
The experience of human weakness involved:
1. Relational abandonment
(vv. 27, 50 with 15:33-34). “This crucible of human weakness would involve relational abandonment.”
2. Distress of soul
(vv. 33-34). “During the Last Supper, Christ was giving thanks and leading his disciples in the singing of a hymn. There was no indication of deep distress or shuddering terror. But once he enters this garden, he is deeply distressed and deeply troubled and overwhelmed with sorrow even to death. Why? In this garden, the Savior begins to experience a foretaste of what it means to be the sin bearer. Here in this garden, the Savior contemplates the cup and its contents. The cup dominates the heart and mind of the Savior while he’s praying in Gethsemane. Isaiah tells us the cup is the furious and righteous wrath of God against sin. This prospect of being the object of God’s righteous wrath is so horrific to the Savior that he prays, ‘If possible, take this cup from me.’… The Savior staggers—he does not sin—but he staggers as he contemplates the weight of this horrific prospect. In the garden he is not contemplating the physical pain of crucifixion; he is contemplating the fierceness of God’s wrath poured out upon him for our sin.”
1. Recognize his love for you in his darkest hour.
“He resolved to drink the cup of wrath dry on our behalf and leave not a drop so that we—by grace—may drink the cup of salvation. Just a few moments before he contemplated this cup, he took another cup representing his blood and the New Covenant and his finished work on the cross, and he placed that cup in the hands of the disciples (who were both undeserving and ill-deserving). Then he went to Gethsemane and took in his hands the cup we deserved.”
2. Receive his care for you in your darkest hour.
“It’s important that we make distinction between his suffering and our suffering.…I don’t want to minimize your suffering in any way. But I want to protect and preserve the uniqueness of his suffering, because if I do, you can be comforted in your suffering. Having endured this suffering, he is uniquely qualified to comfort us in the midst of our suffering. He uniquely understands our darkest hour (Heb 4:14–16
After the message, Dr. Akin summarized the message’s impact with these words:
I was listening very carefully when C.J. preached. Sometimes at a conference like this people are very enthusiastic and demonstrative in their response to the preaching. But tonight as C.J. preached, there was a holy silence in this room. There was not much stirring because we were standing on holy ground. I’ll never, ever look at the Garden of Gethsemane the same again.
Listen to the complete address here
(see Fri., Feb. 1).