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
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
C.J. Mahaney: This quote I have used numerous times in preaching. I don’t think I have ever used this quote without it affecting me. And I would anticipate this would happen even this moment. I think once readers hear the contents of this quote they will understand why:
When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to himself. We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son! We cannot measure such love by any other standard. He is saying to us: I love you this much. The cross is the heart of the gospel. It makes the gospel good news: Christ died for us. He has stood in our place before God’s judgment seat. He has borne our sins. God has done something on the cross we could never do for ourselves. But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross. He persuades us that he loves us.
And this is the phrase that I find just affects me every time: “We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son.” Please, the origin of that quote. And please elaborate for us.
Sinclair Ferguson: Well, there are probably several origins when I begin to think about the different parts of that quote. I think actually the statement that most affects you was stimulated by something that Spurgeon says somewhere—“We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son.” I can’t remember exactly where the quote originates, but I do remember Spurgeon is somewhere there in the stimulus. And that was because he had such a tremendous sense in his preaching about the love of God in Christ.
It is one thing to say love, isn’t it? It is another thing to exude that in preaching. We were talking about Dr. Lloyd-Jones earlier, and I think he says somewhere in his book on preaching that looking back, the one thing that he feels was missing was pathos. I don’t know that it was more missing in him than others. I think I can understand why he felt it was missing, because he was so committed to this notion of preaching being logic on fire. I can see, knowing what he knew about preachers in the past, he realized that there was something that they would have called an “affecting character” that maybe was more than just logic on fire. And Spurgeon certainly had this pathos in his preaching.
When you do look at the cross, there is something full of pathos, not because of sentiment (the poor man is dying on the cross), but because of theology. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And the connectedness between John 3 and Romans 8:32: If he who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?
Capturing that truth in a world of the unloved—I can’t work myself up to that truth. That truth has got to break into my heart with its pathos: that he has given his own Son. And that is not just a theological construction. Therefore the heart of the atonement actually takes place not wholly outside of God but within. This is his own Son who is our Savior.
And then the logic we now have is that “if I have given my Son for you, I will stop short of nothing else for you.” Couple that with what Paul said earlier in Romans 5:8--"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (NASB).
The cross should never be expounded simply as a demonstration of the love of God in a sense of being overwhelmed with his love, like it doesn’t matter if anything else was accomplished on the cross as long as we are overwhelmed by his love and swept along into fellowship with him, and that is the atonement. No. But while wrath is satisfied and Christ dies for our sins, it would be erroneous for us to reduce this to the kind of mathematical formulation of “this is how God has merely dealt with our sins.” No, this is also how God actually proves to us he really loves us!
So it is both the effecting of the atonement and the persuading of his love. And that really takes us back to what we were talking about earlier on, in Eden. The situation with the fall of Adam, it seems to me—among the dimensions that need to be dealt with, there is the satanic dimension: the one who has now taken over the universe needs to be crushed, and in Genesis 3:15 his head will be crushed. But in that there also needs to be an atonement for guilt, but with that atonement for guilt we need to be persuaded of what was originally true, that Satan sought to destroy. This issue of being persuaded of God’s love, not in a facile way, but through the work of the cross, goes very much along with how is it that God is going to deal with the natural legalism of my heart that says, “He will only begin to love me when I do things to please him.”
Also, I think this is a powerful reality in difficult providences. There are times when I bump into somebody unexpectedly that I will say, “This is a happy providence.” And then I will stop and think, “Would it have been an unhappy providence if I hadn’t bumped into you?” We have this tendency—especially if you are inclined to this legalism—to measure how God’s love is doing for you these days by the providences that surround your life. Our ability to read providences are a very inaccurate measure of God’s love for us.
So again, it’s back to the cross. This is where God demonstrates his love. I don’t know that Christ loves me because I am in the boat with him and the seas are calm. And therefore I don’t know that Christ doesn’t love me because I am in the boat with him and the seas are not calm. I know my heart will say to him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
But with the cross I know he is saying to me, “The reason I am in the boat and the reason I am going to the cross is because I care. So my love is demonstrated towards you in this way.”
CJM: Well, I only wish everyone could be here in this room right now. I hope that what is taking place in this room is transferred to people’s hearts and that God’s love, as so eloquently just expressed by Sinclair, in and through the cross, would transform people’s hearts and make an immediate and dramatic difference. I pray that everyone reading would be persuaded that he loves us because of what took place upon the cross.
The Ferguson quote at the top is taken from Grow in Grace (Banner of Truth, 1989), pp. 56, 58.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
Recently, I spoke to a pastor walking through a prolonged and difficult season in his church. As he was informing me about the specifics, I had a mixture of emotions. I care deeply about this friend and pastor. And as he communicated his diverse challenges, I grieved with him and sought to counsel him wisely.
After listening thoroughly to his situation I communicated my care and sadness and then sought to draw his attention away from the immediate circumstances to evidences of God’s grace in his life and the church (which are easy to ignore or overlook in trials). Also, I drew attention to issues of his heart now being revealed by these circumstances so that he could apply the gospel to his heart.
But most importantly in that conversation, I attempted to strengthen my friend by reminding him of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and grace. God is working through these difficulties to accomplish his good purposes. God is at work in the adversity to sanctify his heart. God is at work using the trials to draw my friend into a deeper relationship with himself.
Rejoice in the Lord
And I drew my friend’s attention to one particular passage: Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (ESV). There was nothing new or unique in what I said. I was only applying counsel I have learned from others and—by God’s grace—applied to my own soul.
I find this verse easy to ignore in the midst of adversity. But I must not ignore this verse or assume that this passage doesn’t apply to me. It does. God has given this verse to us for the good of our soul and, ultimately, for his glory.
Permit me to put this story on pause in order to explain why I normally draw attention to just one verse when I have the privilege of caring for someone.
This approach of focusing on one specific passage in counseling settings is one I learned from my friend David Powlison, articulated in his article “Think Globally, Act Locally.” He writes,
In a nutshell, connect one bit of Scripture to one bit of life. In other words, always ask two questions for yourself and others: What is your current struggle? What about God in Christ connects to this? … Apply one relevant thing from our Redeemer to one significant scene in this person’s story. Bring one bit of Bible to one bit of life. You can’t say it all at once. (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2003, p. 3)
Well, you cannot and should not say it all at once, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying in the past! My impulse is to help others by downloading as much information as possible. But I’ve learned this is not wise and really unhelpful. Those we counsel can contemplate and apply a limited amount of information, so in caring for their souls—and especially in the immediate situation—I want to provide counsel they can easily consider and remember. And that’s where David’s wisdom proves so valuable.
In these situations, we must restrain the impulse to bury others under vast amounts of theological information.
Back to the Story
Now, back to my friend. I reminded him of Philippians 4:4 and passed along D.A. Carson’s comments on the verse from his book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996):
The ultimate ground of our rejoicing can never be our circumstances, even though we as Christians recognize that our circumstances are providentially arranged. If our joy derives primarily from our circumstances, then when our circumstances change, we will be miserable. Our delight must be in the Lord himself. That is what enables us to live with joy above our circumstances. As Nehemiah puts it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Lord sometimes allows miserable circumstances to lash us—that we may learn this lesson.…Whatever the mysteries of evil and sorrow, they do have the salutary effect of helping believers to shift the ground of their joy from created things to the Creator, from the temporary to the eternal, from jingoism to Jesus, from consumption to God. (p. 106)
How about you? Are you personally experiencing a season of adversity with no end in sight? If so, rather than peering into the future trying to predict the concluding date of the trial, I recommend you look down
and then up
and realize a transition is under way to shift the ground of your joy “from created things to the Creator.” Then look up
and delight in the Lord himself. Contemplate his changeless character and the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then—dependent upon God’s grace—obey this command given for our good and his glory. Rejoice as you realize afresh you are doing much better than you deserve.
This will not alter the severity of your trial, but it will transform your perspective and strengthen your soul for the trial.