Originally Posted on February 13, 2006
I don’t know how to introduce this man. He has been a mentor and a model for me as well as the best father-in-law a guy could ask for. He has been a pastor nearly all of his life and has been pastoring the folks at Whitworth Memorial Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee for over ten years. In the fall of 2005, he was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkins Lymphoma and is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments. I asked him to consider writing a series of articles for SI about the spiritual lessons learned with a thorn in the flesh like cancer. Today, you have the first in his series. -JPJ
I was relatively healthy for a sixty-year-old, so the diagnosis of Lymphoma cancer surprised me. This trial has accentuated God’s gracious work in me. He has taught me some new things, but primarily has italicized others I have known and preached for years. Those are the things I’ll be writing about.
Learning Things I’ve Preached
I have preached many truths that I have known (oida) but not personally experienced (ginosko). But this disease has hurled me into an unknown room, initially scary, but now comfortable. To my surprise I have discovered wonderful company, several possible purposes, and an awesome “finisher of our faith” dressed differently. Through another window I can preach from a different perspective now. Some things I have preached for years, I now know from experience.
I’m not saying that you young preachers need to experience things before you can preach about them. We preach the Word; not our experiences with Biblical texts. If the Lord can save a few in spite of unbiblical ecumenical evangelism, certainly the Word faithfully preached with the anointing of the HS “shall accomplish that which I please.” Inexperience is not a determining factor with our God. Worldly success has never impressed Him anyway. The anointing of the Holy Spirit can render inexperience irrelevant every time. Besides, I am still growing. I review sermons I preached but a few years ago during which I hope my people were sleeping! And the Lord is still teaching me things I have preached a long time.
For years my heart has reached out to a lady in our church with MS, even though to date I have not been where she is. The Christ in us Who has suffered empathizes. We may feel awkward in sharing our compassion, but are compelled by a need to help “lift up the hands which hang down.”
But now that I am joining her perspective, I am learning how it feels to receive that compassion. “How do you feel?” may be a bothersome question to some, but I choose to believe they do care and want to express their concern in an awkward situation. They don’t need all the details, but they deserve the truth with grace.
Having been colored by an inferiority complex as a child, I have thought it odd that others should love me. My identity in Christ has overcome this, but it has recently gripped me more that the Christ in you touches the Christ in me better during trials. If Christianity works best in the worst of circumstances, it should work fine now! And it has.
The genuine love of my family in Christ is refreshing. We should not need a crisis to give and receive the greatest of “faith, hope, and love.” There are those in our church who physically and emotionally hurt more daily than I will on my worst day. So, let’s make the most of it to others with different types of tests as well as with those whose water might not be as deep. I’m learning more of the reality of compassion.
There is a solidarity among sufferers that is not on the spiritual plane. Support groups do humanly help many. But among believers there is a unique camaraderie among those who have suffered physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. Almost all believers have suffered loss. Many, however, choose to hide it, supposing that there should be none of that in a successful Christian’s life. But in spite of our complaints, the Lord is willing to sacrifice the physical for the spiritual. He chastens and tests us for revealed and undeclared purposes. So, this is a larger club than we may first imagine.
We may have suffered differently or feel we have endured little comparatively. Christ has “suffered for us in the flesh,” and we are to “arm [ourselves] likewise with the same mind” (I Peter 4:1). The mindset that is purposed not to “live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God” (v. 2), is already in the club. We who have suffered less can legitimately dry the crocodile tears in favor of offering real comfort (II Cor. 1:3-7). In the genuine assembly suffering is shared by all (I Cor. 12:26).
There is a larger dynamic here. In the margin of my Bible near John 13:34 is written Oswald Chambers’ thought, “To be a disciple means that we deliberately identify ourselves with God’s interests in other people.” We can only love others as we identify with the Lord’s interest in them. This becomes obvious in loving the unlovely. Every believer loves, because the God Who is love is in us ( I John 4:7-21). He is the source and the means of love. That is, we love “God’s interests in other people.”
We respond more to the Lord’s involvement with people, saved or unsaved, than to the people themselves. Similarly we react not to circumstances, but to Him Who superintends every one that touches us (Ephesians 1:11). Suffering for the believer is particularly associated with Christ’s suffering. Somehow we were actually with Christ when He died (Romans 6:1-11). We are to assume Christ’s mindset that led Him from God’s presence to “the form of a servant,” down to humility and obedience, yet further “unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). It is expected that every believer will suffer as we reject the world, when we are chastened, and during “the trying of your faith.” When God judges sin around us, there is collateral damage to believers. The saved Jews were also conquered by the Babylonians and taken into bondage. So, suffering is to be expected. In spite of some Evangelicals’ and many Charismatics’ attempts to redefine what success in the Christian life looks like. This is a veil of tears. We are satisfied to live by the principle of delayed gratifications until we see Jesus.
So, we are in good company when we or those around us suffer. If Christ “learned obedience by the things which he suffered” ( Heb. 5:8), I’m sure there are things we can only learn thereby. Part of identifying with believers in their suffering is to celebrate God’s purposes. Apparently He doesn’t think it necessary to telegraph his intentions. But He has already revealed several purposes. Suffering may result from sin to be confessed. Sometimes the consequences of our own stupid decisions cause pain. He may be preparing us to “comfort them which are in an trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” We all need the endurance from trials that works maturity and completeness. Maybe His intentions are “that the works of God should be made manifest.” Or, best of all, this may be our chariot to heaven. This is certainly not a comprehensive list. But, no matter, being identified with Him is the crown; the robe will fit.
Jesus alone gives value to suffering. We benefit from whatever purpose the Lord has for our distress. But there is one consolation that we all need. Some believers don’t qualify for the Lord’s best lesson taught only in the furnace. Mediocrity traps most in a dull life of things they see and statistics they believe. Paul feared that he might “have bestowed upon [some] labor in vain” (Gal. 4:11). Many are offended “when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake” (Mark 4:17). They have another model of Christianity in mind.
But those believers who love the Lord in obedience will experience His presence (John 14:23), even in suffering. That’s valuable! This is the best consolation. The Lord’s manifest presence is the best benefit He offers. I believe that abiding in Christ, walking “in the Spirit” or “after the Spirit,” being “filled with the Spirit,” the “rest” of Heb. 3&4, and “fellowship with him” are synonymous in essence. Daily fellowship with the Lord in the Word is the most important thing for the believer. This is to be distinguished from walking “after the flesh.” There is no middle ground. Discipleship is the difference between mediocrity and significance.
There is a progression in our spiritual walk with Him. Suffering is a pop-up that gives us the opportunity to step it up. The true worth of God’s special dealings with us is somewhere in Paul’s unfathomed statements:
“that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will…
In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:
That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ…
That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”
Pete Darnell lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Pat. They have three children and 11 of the cutest grandkids you ever want to see. He would appreciate your prayers as he continues his treatments.