Suffering - in Light of the Gospel

Two years after my whitewater rafting accident, my physical therapist dropped a bombshell in the form of a simple question: “Stephanie, have your doctors ever talked to you about MS?”

Little did he or I realize that less than a year later, my supposedly accident-related symptoms would take a dive, and suddenly all my doctors would be talking to me about multiple sclerosis.

Today, nearly nine years after my accident, I’m drafting this post in a Starbucks far from home. This morning I met with a neuromuscular specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. Again, MS was discussed—but only in passing. It’s been ruled out too many times to be a serious possibility anymore. The doctor and I talked about the pain, weakness, numbness, and other symptoms that have plagued me the last several years. Despite tests and treatments at some of the best facilities in the country, to date there’s been no firm diagnosis.

The doctor and I discussed my physical quality of life—how it has waxed and waned over the years, and how I try to live as normal a life as possible. But a subject we didn’t broach is something actually much more pertinent to how I keep going day by day: my inner, spiritual quality of life. It, too, has changed a lot since my accident: a waxing and waning faith, a growing and healing that no physician could ever attempt, a deeper experience of the person and character of God—all rooted in a deeper understanding of the gospel.

 

Encountering the gospel all over again

A year or two before my accident, someone offered me his frank opinion of my church: “All they ever preach is the gospel. They don’t preach anything practical.” Later, I happened to mention that criticism to my pastor. I’ll never forget his response: his bushy eyebrows drew tightly together, and his eyes flashed as he said, “Stephanie, the gospel is the most practical thing I could ever preach.”

I remember thinking, “I’m sure he’s probably right, but I don’t really understand that.” As thickheaded as I am, perhaps God knew it would take a whitewater rafting accident and years of aftermath to slowly help me understand what my pastor meant.

When my doctors began warning me that I would never run again and that pain would always be a part of my life, I was only in my mid-20s. I had read about and known many people who had been in accidents and lived with chronic conditions, but I’d never dreamed that would be me. I was filled with thoughts like, “Why me?” “How could God do this to me?” and “People my age deserve to be able to do whatever they want.”

I remember one morning, as I was lying in bed reading my Bible, I was struck with the reality of what people my age deserve—what I deserve: Hell.

That gracious awakening was just what I needed—a call to remember who I am, who God is, and all I have that I don’t deserve. I often mark that day as the beginning of my journey towards understanding of the practicality of the gospel.

The marriage of the gospel and suffering

Romans 8:28 has become a Christian platitude, often misunderstood and misused. But the more I’ve looked at this verse and other verses about suffering, the more I’ve discovered that all of them are based on gospel theology, and many of them sit smack in the middle of expositions of the gospel. While many of these verses stand on their own as beautiful promises and reassurances, when they’re understood in light of the gospel, they take on a whole new depth and meaning.

Over the last number of years, Romans 8 has come to be my favorite chapter in all of Scripture. I know I’m not alone here; this chapter is often considered the crown jewel of Paul’s expositions of the gospel. But have you ever noticed in this chapter how Paul marries gospel theology to suffering?

In Romans 8:15-17, Paul expounds the doctrine of adoption, but his point isn’t about how our adoption makes us feel warm and fuzzy, loved and accepted. Instead, his point is that understanding our adoption gives us the ability to suffer well. In verse 17, he shows suffering as a natural outgrowth of adoption: “If children, heirs also…if indeed we suffer with [Christ]” (NASB). All in the same breath, he links our adoption, our suffering, and the sufferings of Christ.

In verses 18 and following, Paul launches into a discussion of the fall (the impetus of the gospel story) and the broken and fallen world that we inhabit (the middle of the gospel story), while always keeping in view the glory that awaits (the culmination of the gospel). He talks about how “knowing”—understanding the fall and the culmination of the gospel—gives us hope in our suffering.

Only after building that gospel foundation does Paul pen Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” And who are those who love God? What is His purpose? The answers are all found in the next couple of verses that outline great chain of gospel theology: those who love God are those who were foreloved, predestined, and called by Him, those who were and are being sanctified, those who are justified, and those who will be glorified.

So, how does the suffering side of “all things” work “for good”? What is that good? What is the purpose we’ve been called to? It’s our sanctification. But it’s more than that. Paul is careful to point out in verse 29 that sanctification’s ultimate purpose isn’t all about us. All of the gospel, all of our suffering, all of our sanctification is for the ultimate purpose “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” It’s all about the glory of Christ—the One who suffered for us.

And Paul doesn’t end there. You can almost feel his rhetorical fervor building in verses 31 and following as he asks his audience in light of the gospel, how will they respond to life? He asks them what event of life could possibly separate them from the love of God as shown in the gospel? And then he lists out many different forms of suffering (most of which, according to II Corinthians 11:23-28 Paul has undergone himself), and he concludes that no matter what suffering we face, the love of God in Christ (i.e., the gospel he has just expounded) is our stability. In short, Paul is saying that knowing, believing, and resting in the gospel is the key to suffering well.

In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller takes an honest look at the question of how a good God could allow suffering. He astutely points to the crisis point of the gospel story—the cross—and notes that God himself took on human suffering to redeem us. Keller says, “If we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel—God with us—even in our worst sufferings” (p. 31).

The divorce of the gospel and practicality

I fear that many Christians have relegated the gospel to tract distribution, evangelistic services, and “salvation messages.” In our self-dependence and self-righteousness, we tend to desire “practical,” topical preaching that includes lists of dos and don’ts, rather than expositions of gospel theology. However, if we exist on a verse-for-the-day, surface approach to Scripture, what will anchor us when the sea of life churns?

Fundamentalism by definition is all about defending the gospel. Unfortunately, however, I’ve often found that many who grew up in fundamental, Bible-believing churches can’t explain much at all about adoption, foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, sanctification, or glorification. But that theological chain from Romans 8 is the gospel. If we don’t understand these concepts, how can we possibly defend the gospel, much less live in light of it?

I see a glimmer of hope among a small but strong group of (mostly) young fundamentalist preachers who are striving to live in light of the gospel and to expound its glories and practicalities. I’m also encouraged to see some fundamentalist laymen thirsting for a deeper knowledge of the gospel. I’m hopeful when I see forums like Sharper Iron, where fundamentalists are discussing issues such as what the gospel is and how to rightly defend it. I hope that this recent wave of “gospel lingo” is not just a fad, but that it’s the beginning of a revival at the heart level—a revival that will impact individuals, churches, and American Christianity more broadly. But any revival of gospel truth must start with individuals—with you and with me.

The here and now…and the glory that awaits

I know I still have a lot to learn. I’ve only begun to skim the depths of the gospel and understand just how practical it really is. But when waves of physical suffering come, when doctors are grim or uncertain, and when life is just plain hard, the only way to face it well is to think gospel theology. I have to purposefully remind myself that suffering is part of living in a broken and fallen world, that I’m headed to a far better place, that I have a Savior who has suffered more than I ever will and who walks beside me, that I am being sanctified, and that it’s not all about me—it’s all about the glory of Christ.

I’m certainly not masochistic. You’ll often find me praying for relief. And I fully realize that my story pales in comparison to that of countless others. I’m also quite aware that the effects of the curse take many forms—including depths of heartache and anguish that no physician or medicine could ever address. However, it’s only in the truths of the gospel that there is true hope, peace, and even joy.

I often long for Heaven—where tears and suffering will be forever gone, where there will be no more need for doctors, and where I’ll be embraced by nail-pierced hands. But until then, grasping the great truths of the gospel is essential to walking well through the here and now. And in the hereafter, even when all our suffering is gone, I’m convinced we’ll still be marveling at the glory and practicality of the gospel.

[node:bio/steph-l body]

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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for sharing your story. And your gospel perspective is encouraging!

About the preaching the gospel part: my impression is that there are a couple of extremes out there. One is to neglect the gospel (and sound doctrine in general) in favor of what is superficially "practical." The other is to preach only the gospel from just about every text. The former slowly starves Christian living of it's soul and reason for being. The latter fails to give people the whole counsel of God.
Ultimately, even the gospel is about the glory of God and there are many passages that aim at that ultimate purpose without specifically referencing or expressing the gospel. We need to preach those, too--in a way that relates them to the gospel but without neglecting the truth that is their focus.
(Several analogies come to mind. One is a good novel. The novel maybe be about the hero's triumph over some evil, but the third chapter may be about another character's struggle with a different--though related--problem. In the end, chapter 3 is about the hero's triumph as well, but that doesn't stop it from also being about the other character's struggle.)

jball's picture

Thanks for this article Steph.

My wife has struggled with an undiagnosed health issue since she was 10 or so. So we understand the frustration and battles. Thankfully, after 23 years of tests, trial and error treatments and skepticism from people, we just had a specialist diagnose it, so now we have something. And it's something we can deal with. Stay encouraged. Even if no one ever finds out what it is, you are right. God is still with us.

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

A cross-less life is a Christless life. Because of Christ, the recipients of His Gospel have power to take up their cross daily and follow Him. They are able to love and serve Christ even if it includes suffering. They are able to love and serve others for Christ even if it includes suffering.

Thank you for an amazing testimony.

Steph L's picture

Thank you all for your kind comments. I live a much more normal life than I used to, and several top doctors in the country think they're close to an encouraging diagnosis for me. Even if things weren't looking so "up" at the moment, God would still be good, and there would still be much to rejoice in.

Aaron you make a great point. Besides the people that focus on "practical" messages, there are those that find "salvation messages" hiding in every verse or drop large doctrinal words throughout their sermons or over-focus on soteriology; all are imbalanced.

I like to think of all of Scripture as one big, interwoven story (though not fictional) about the gospel. Genesis contains the "introduction" (creation) and the "inciting moment" (the fall); the Old Testament is the "rising action"; the "climax" is the cross; the "falling action" is the New Testament and the side of the gospel we live in now; and the "conclusion" will be the return of Christ and our eternity with Him in the new heavens and new earth.(I suppose you could also re-work the analogy to have the return of Christ be the climax.)

Obviously, not every verse includes doctrinal terms; Scripture is filled with vignettes. But all of it is gospel-based and gospel-driven, and when preached in context, all of it is edifying. So, I fully agree--it's important to preach the "whole counsel of God," regardless of whether you include explicit gospel theology. But I always find it most helpful when a preacher somewhere in his sermon connects the dots and reminds me of how his text relates to the gospel. To use the old cliche, it helps when a preacher doesn't lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Stephanie L

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
I like to think of all of Scripture as one big, interwoven story (though not fictional) about the gospel.

Sounds like we're pretty much on the same page... to sort of bend the analogy a bit.

nbanuchi's picture

Hi Steph,

In this very enlightening eaasy, you say, "You’ll often find me praying for relief."

There is all kinds of suffering - to one degree or another, one kind or another - a sin imposed suffering here, a natural disaster there, a tragic accident elsewhere, a persecuted brother, sister, family in the hidden and not so hidden corners of fallen earth. Some experience much of it, others (like me) very little, and maybe others, if it's possible, none at all.

The thing I am finding out and being more and more convinced of each day is that, this is not the way it's supposed to be. And that's why we cry for relief...it's natural to do so; it's God's will that we be free from this fallen place or else, why promise and build Heaven? Why pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven"? Why would the psalmist cry out, "I am weak, O Lord, heal me!"

Jesus entered into that place of suffering. In a war, that's what's expected. No one who enters a war should carry with him the real possibility that he'll return alive, let alone in one piece.

We often forget, the Gospel is good news of salvation, but it is a message given to couriers to pass on through the front lines of battle, but not the front lines of our allies but to the front lines of the enemy, to those whose intention it is to kill us, to those who follow an invisible yet powerful, ancient prince. We offer our enemies life while they promise to give us to death.

On day a young woman, 23 years of age, asked me why her mother died of pneumonia when she was 3 years old and her mother was only 40. I said, "In a war, there are casualties; that cannot be avoided. Your Mom entered into a war when she became a Christian." And I reminded her, "Regardless of how it hurts - and it may continue to hurt - just remember, we have already read the last chapter of the book and it says we win!."

Come, Lord Jesus! Come!

Steph L's picture

Quote:
"this is not the way it's supposed to be."
I couldn't agree more. As Romans 8 says, we and the creation both groan, waiting for our redemption--that restoration of how God originally created things to be.

Yet, in His infinite wisdom, God has allowed sin and evil in the world. And so, in a way, things are supposed to be this way for now--because God has allowed it, He is sovereign, He knows best.

Your response really pokes at the age-old philosophical problem of why there's evil. And I don't claim to know the answer. But, as I learned in a study of Job this year, the "why" of all suffering can't be simply explained by the broken and fallen world we live in. Even we, who know the behind-the-scenes interplay between God and Satan, don't find complete intellectual satisfaction in knowing that Job suffered as a result of a "contest" between God and Satan. Why would God almost "pick" that fight and then allow the suffering to be endured by Job? Does the explanation we're given at the beginning of Job "justify" 10 children dying and Job's extended agony?

Job himself asked "why," but God never directly answers his question. Instead, God comes and says--rather eloquently--I AM GOD. And Job bows and acknowledges that this answer is enough. It almost sounds callous, but I have discovered it to be true. When I look at the character of God and meditate on who He is, I need no other explanation: He is God, and that is enough. It really is. I need no other answer to my "why?" There is great peace and satisfaction in simply who He is.

And so, I caution you to be very careful how you answer anyone who asks "why" about their suffering. I have had too many people try to explain to me "why" I'm suffering, and most of their comments come across as insensitive, if not judgmental. Most often, we don't know--at least not fully--why we suffer. And it's not our responsibility to figure out why others are suffering. Until eternity, we may never know.

But, there are many things we do know--check out all the references to "know" and "do not know" in Romans 8. Even if we can't answer all the "whys," we have in the gospel what we need to live and glorify God in our suffering.

Stephanie L

nbanuchi's picture

Steph wrote:
Your response really pokes at the age-old philosophical problem of why there's evil...And so, I caution you to be very careful how you answer anyone who asks "why" about their suffering. I have had too many people try to explain to me "why" I'm suffering, and most of their comments come across as insensitive, if not judgmental. Most often, we don't know--at least not fully--why we suffer. And it's not our responsibility to figure out why others are suffering. Until eternity, we may never know.
Yes, I agree; it is the ancient question. It is probably the question upon which most people hinge there belief or unbelief on God and Christ, therefore, I agree, one must be very careful in their answer. However, although we may not know the specifics this one suffers (and not that one), I think we can formulate a general answer that applies to all from an overall view of the Bible and our experiences as followers of the Lamb slain; for example:
  • Where does suffering come from? The answer, from sin.
  • Where does sin come from? The answer, from Satan: "you were perfect until sin was found in you."

It seems most answers given not only come across as insensitive and judgmental but most, unconsciously, place God in a bad light and ourselves as pawns in a game that's been settled before it's begun.

Personally, I've come to see that the "why" of suffering in terms more specific than above is unanswerable in rational terms. Moral evil and suffering is, to me, chaos and, as such, there is no rational reason for its existence or occurrence. Satan rebelled against God. Was he being rational? Maybe he was not insane but neither did it make sense for him to come up against God whom he must assuredly knew was the more powerful...or, did he come to a place where he did not believe that anymore? As such, it is said of those who no longer believe God that they are fools with darkened hearts (Rom 1:21; Psa 14:1 - I remember someone told me that the words, "There is", is not in the Hebrew text. Literally, it reads, "The fool says in his heart, "No! God." It emphasizes not unbelief but rebellion. Although I am not a scholar and cannot confirm his assertion with regard to the text, it is an interesting observation). Plainly, moral evil and suffering make no sense whatsoever. In a fiction novel by Koontz, he has a character say, "The mystery of evil is too deep to be illuminated by the light of reason."

Many believers attempt to attribute sin, evil, and suffering to God as necessarily decreed or predestined events in order to "display" His glory. I find this answer unsatisfactory and damning to the divine character as if the rape of children in New York City all the way to the starving children in Somalia can ever demonstrate the holiness and justice of God's person. There is no denying that God, in His wisdom can overcome sin and suffering, but they are not necessary for demonstrating His glory; God does not need evil to display the fulness of His holy love and perfections.

I know everyone may have there different takes on Job but, to me, it a perfect example of the war that exists between good and evil, God and Satan and a bad example to take for suffering in general. Here, the suffering endured is specific. It was:

  • Persecution against a righteous man for his beliefs and accompanying actions.
  • Instigated by Satan's challenge as a means to defame Job and God's character.
  • A cosmic contest allowed by God in order to prove the genuiness of Job's loyalty and the divine goodness.

I don't think it was intended as an apologetic argument in defense of God in the midst of evil.

As a book granting comfort, the account of Job is directed primarily to those undergoing persecution for Christ as demonstrating the surety of the reward of the righteous and the trustworthiness of God's gracious character to reward the righteous (Heb 11:6). However, I don't see it as a universal example applicable to suffering in general, although that does not mean that those undergoing general sufferings cannot derive any comfort from it.

Job does accentuate the hostility between Satan and his evil forces on the one side and God and His people on the other. To the daughter whose mother has entered the fray by committing her life to Christ, although she did not die by persecution, nevertheless, she has died as in human warfare where soldiers seem to die indiscrimently and for no observable reason except that they were in front of a bullit or stepped on a mine and where civilians on both sides are caught in the crossfire.

I have come to know that:

  • All Creation experiences pain (Rom 8:22).
  • God will obtain a good end for believers (8:28).

I would never impose my views on another and I pray that in every instance where the question is asked, we all have the wisdom to take your caution to heart and pick our words carefully yet speak truth boldy in order that the hope residing in us may fall on him who has lost all hope, being burdened under the weight of suffering and pain.

Thank you for the reminder to be careful...

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