How Must a Pastor Die, Part 1

Desiring God 2006 Conference for Pastors

How Must a Pastor Die? The Cost of Caring Like Jesus

I must say that I cannot tell you what a privilege it is for me to be ministering here. But while it is a privilege, it’s also some source of sorrow because I have benefited so much from the ministry of John, mainly through his writings. It has been my desire for many years to come for this conference, not to speak, but to get blessed and then John spoils my plans by asking me to speak. But thank you very much for inviting me, and please pray that what I say will minister to you.

If I was to go from this passage that I’m using for our three talks, I suppose a title that I would give would be something like The Pastor’s Call to Joy and Pain, and the passage that we are going to look at is Colossians 1:24–29. And during the next two days, I hope to unravel some of the wonderful truths that I found in this beautiful passage of Paul. I’m reading from the ESV. Paul says:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Suffering and Blessing

Today we are going to look at that first statement, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . .” (Colossians 1:24). Suffering and the blessings of suffering are always put together in the Bible. In fact, when the Bible talks about the necessity, the essential-ness of suffering as a part of discipleship, you always find both the suffering and the blessing. So I think it’s very dangerous for us to talk about one without talking about the other.

And the particular blessing that is often talked about is joy. It says, “We rejoice in suffering.” I was able to find in the New Testament 18 different places where suffering and joy are put at the same time. They’re connected. There’s a connection between suffering and joy. That’s found in the Gospels, in Acts, in the Epistles. Joy, of course, we all know is a basic part of Christianity, and so is suffering. And these two, according to the Bible, can coexist.

Joy makes the cross worthwhile, so we don’t talk about suffering unless we also, along with it, talk about the joy of suffering. So that is the basic affirmation that we are going to explore today, how we can rejoice in the midst of suffering.

In the Search for Pseudo Joy

Now, in order to understand that, I think we need to understand the loss of joy in today’s culture, in today’s world. For years I have felt that one of the great attractions of Christianity is the joy that Christianity gives to people. Now I realize that people may not be wanting joy that much. It seems as if they have lost the taste of joy and they would rather have success in sport or in their career, or through sexual conquest, or through material prosperity, or revenge. In Sri Lanka, this is one of the huge challenges we have in trying to disciple people who have come to Christ from other faiths, because revenge is almost a part of the culture.

You are supposed to restore your family honor if it has been insulted by someone else. And so people would rather fight for the satisfaction of revenge, of taking revenge, and sacrifice their joy in the process. We see this in the church too. Very often you’ll find leaders who press so hard to show that they were right and the church was wrong in the decision that they made. And they will work so hard to prove that they were right, that in the process they will sacrifice their joy.

You find people slandering those who hurt them. They can’t resist the temptation to have the satisfaction of having hit back. And in the process they will lose their joy. Of course, the first form of loss of joy through satisfaction is addiction where, for a shallow kick, people will sacrifice so much. So, we are talking about the satisfaction of getting what they want being more important than being happy, in many people’s lives.

And why is that so? It is so because the world does not know what a wonderful thing joy is. They haven’t tasted it. People are too easily satisfied.

The Joy of the Lord

Let us then look at what our joy is. Let’s call it the joy of the Lord. It is our response to some great truths that undergird our lives. We believe in God, we believe that he loves us and that he gave us his Son and made us his children and looks after us, and he’s for us so that no one can be against us. He lives in us, banishing loneliness. He turns the bad things that happen to us into good things. He loves us more than the unkindness that we experience in life. He’s able to comfort and heal us when we are wounded. These wonderful truths open the way for our love relationship with God.

And love is the happiest word in our vocabulary, and the basis of this love relationship are these wonderful truths that I mentioned and many, many other truths. These are objective truths that we hold to. We can cling to them when everything around us seems gloomy. My closest friend died about seven months ago and the last time he went to the hospital, he was in great pain. He was very gradually slipping into a semi-conscious state. One of the last things he told me was, “I heard that someone had said, ‘I have hit rock bottom, and I find that the rock is solid.’”

We base our life on these truths and those truths open for us, a relationship with God, a relationship of love, which brings us great joy. Jesus and his grace colors our approach to life. We become joyous people. We are living in a world, in this post-modern generation, where people don’t want to be bound by objective truths. They say that objective truth tyrannizes us and takes away our freedom. We say that the truth makes us free, and when the Son makes us free, we are free indeed (John 8:32).

C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms has a beautiful section on the whole question of the psalmists delighting in the law. In my ESV Bible, there are 12 times where the psalmists say that they delight in the law or in the word of God. And Lewis says, “You can imagine people fearing the law or respecting the law, but how can you delight in the law?”

And Lewis says that it is like the pedestrian’s delight in finding dry ground and a road after a false shortcut has taken him into muddy swamps. Do you understand what he’s talking about? Here he is in an uncertain world, in muddy swamps, not knowing where he’s going, and then he comes upon hard ground, to the secure ground of a road. The delight of finding that is the delight of the psalmist over the truth of God. Deuteronomy 33:27 says:

The eternal God is your dwelling place,
     and underneath are the everlasting arms.

With such security, with such confidence, we are freed to enjoy life to the fullest. We know that even the problems are turned into something good, that they are a gateway to joy. Oh we may be weeping inside, we may be hurting from the bruises we have received, but deep down we know that God is with us and God is our source of joy. The happiest people in the world are not those who don’t have problems; they are those who are not afraid of problems.

The Hollow Ring of Worldly Joy

The world doesn’t know such joy. So it has settled for a shallow kick called pleasure or satisfaction, but this is not real satisfaction or pleasure. C. S. Lewis says that all pleasure is a substitute for joy. He says that even sex can be a substitute for joy. The problem with us is that we are too easily satisfied.

Now, I don’t say that there is not a place for these bursts of pleasure. In the Christian life, I think in God’s rhythm of life, he left a place for us to have moments of ecstasy, and we all have that capacity for ecstasy. God made us with that. Sometimes that ecstasy comes through sexual relations. In the Bible, often it comes through the festival where you celebrate what is true every day in life. A festival is a time where you get together with the people and have a special celebration so that you can exult in what is true every day. And that is what God provides us.

Festivals don’t create joy, they give expression to a joy that is already there. Ecstasy is a supplement to joy, not a substitute for joy. In India, we had a great Christian leader called Sadhu Sundar Singh. He was Sikh and as a young man, he would go into the mountains and meditate and he would experience ecstasy through Eastern spiritual disciplines, through Hindu and Sikh disciplines. He would have these moments of tremendous ecstasy, but then he would return to the world and when he came back to the world that is gone, and in place of that there is deep depression and frustration.

He opposed Christianity vehemently. He trampled bibles and threw mud at the homes of missionaries. But one day, just before he was trying to commit suicide, he had a vision of Christ and he met Christ. And of course, he became one of the great evangelists and also became a master of the Christian disciplines. Sadhu Sundar Singh once said, “Without Christ I’m like a fish out of water; with Christ, I swim in an ocean of love.”

That’s what Christ has done to us. He has come and given us, deep down, a desire and a joy that wells out of our spirits and sometimes it expresses itself in moments of ecstasy. We in Youth for Christ are committed to giving youth a fun time. I say that we are serious about fun in Youth for Christ. And it comes out of a theology of fun, but it is not the shallow kick that goes away after the experience is over.

I think the best example of this shallow kick is in the sexual area today in our world. In Christianity, sex is the summit of physical, emotional, and spiritual oneness. It gets deeper and more enjoyable with time because of that. Today, to many people, sex has become a biological necessity. Some people say that the purest form of sex is when the two people do not know each other and do not even care to know each other’s names. They say it’s when they have this supposedly sublime experience and they go their separate ways. But we are made for committed love. That’s where deep fulfillment is.

Without that sex has a hollow ring to it. Without the joy of the Lord, all pleasure has a hollow ring to it. It leaves you soon. So we need to show today to people the joy of joy. We need to show how joyful joy is and show the freedom that comes from submission to permanent committed relationships with God and with a spouse. So there is a loss of joy in today’s world.

Pain in the Night, Joy in the Morning

Now let me say before I go any further that before we rejoice, we will often mourn and lament. We don’t deny pain, as Christians. We are not afraid of pain because we know that on the other side of pain is joy. Therefore, we have the strength to face up to pain. Pain, sorrow, and discouragement are real. In Romans 8:22–25, Paul talks about the word having been subjected to futility or frustration.

Because of that, Paul says that the whole creation is groaning and we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are also groaning. And one of the ways in which the groaning expresses itself in the Bible is in the laments. One third of the Psalms, about 50 to 60 of the 150 Psalms, have been classified as laments. We have a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations. A lament is when a righteous person is going through a difficult time and the person is saying, “Lord, I’m hurting. I’ve been faithful. They have been unfaithful. You haven’t helped me, but they are successful. They are laughing at me. How long will this last?” That is a summary of a lot of the laments that we get. We mourn, we weep, we question, and we argue with God.

But we lament to God and to his people. But when we do that, we are going to the one who is the God of all comfort. When we lament with our broken hearts and open those hearts to God, we give an opportunity for God to comfort us. In 2 Corinthians 1:3, Paul talks about God being the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” God delights to minister to us. Discomfort deepens that most precious thing in our life, which is our love relationship with God. We are people who are in love. We relish those things that deepen our love and they help increase our joy, and comfort is one of those things.

About two years ago I had a bit of a devastating meeting with our leadership team. I was very hurt. I came home totally discouraged. I went to my bed, and I lay down and suddenly I started crying. I was weeping. And my son walked into the room and he saw his father weeping. He was 20 years old at that time, and he saw his father weeping for the first time in his 20 years and he was shocked. So he went and asked my wife, “What’s wrong? Why is he crying?” And my wife said, “Oh, he’s having problems in the ministry and he’s hurt, so he’s crying.”

So my son went to my computer, opened it, and he went into my email address book and he got the closest friends that I have. He knows my closest friends, and he wrote them a letter. And he said, “My father is going through a lot of stress. Please pray for him. He needs your prayers.” When I found out that my son had done that, I was so thrilled.

The pain of that painful experience is gradually leaving me, but I will never forget the joy of that email. God has a way of giving us comfort that is greater than the pain that has been inflicted to us. So even our problems cannot take away this joy. We can call this joy, “pure joy” or “all joy”, as James 1:2 puts it. It’s unalloyed joy, and nothing can destroy this joy. So James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter trials of various types” (James 1:2). So sometimes we have to mourn to express our pain before God can minister his joy to us.

God’s Delight

Of course, to do this, we must believe God. James 1:2 says, “Consider it (count it), all joy . . .” We have to consider. We have to believe that God is going to do that. Many people come to Christ having been hurt by the world. They didn’t see commitment from people to them when they needed it most, and therefore they can’t believe that even God will look after them. So when problems come, it is not an occasion for joy. It is on occasion for the loss of joy. They would say, “See, I told you nothing works for me. It works for other people, but nothing works for me. Even God doesn’t seem to be looking after me.”

In fact, I think one of our great challenges in the ministry is helping people believe that God will look after them. I’ve had some people who are very close to me, who I’ve worked with for a long time, that have come to Christ with deep scars. It has been a huge challenge to get them to accept that God does care for them, that God does love them, that God will look after their welfare, that they are people loved by God.

Delight is one of the most beautiful words in the Bible to me, and we don’t delight only in the Bible, in the word of God, as I said a little earlier. There’s a beautiful fact that God delights in us. Seven times I found in the Bible it’s saying that God delights or takes pleasure in us. Three times we are told that God delights in loving and blessing us. Once we are told that God delights in our welfare, that God delights to look after us.

So there are 11 references that suggest that we bring delight to God Almighty. People who have been rejected all their life will find it difficult to accept this truth. So we need to work with them until they can believe what the Bible says. And sometimes it happens through an experience which validates the Scriptures so that what is in the head goes down to the heart. And we learn to submit to Scripture and believe it, that all things work together for good.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know . . .” Now, that “we know” is in the perfect tense. Something happened. There was a time when I came to this conviction. It may be an experience I had that validated Scripture. It may be a decision where I said, “I’m going to believe God no matter what happens.” But something happened in the past which applies today, and which I have come to believe. That’s the sense of the use of the perfect tense here. Something happened in the past that influences us now. I have come to accept this as true to my life.

Romans 8:38 is the same thing. He says, “I am sure,” or, “I am persuaded.” Again this is the perfect tense. He is saying, “I have been persuaded. I have come to this conviction. I read it in the word and I took it as a belief and it has proved to be true.” So when something terrible happens, we may weep, we may groan, we may be angry, but deep down we say, “It’ll be okay, God will see us through.”

It Will Turn Out for My Good

There was a preacher in England who was preaching the gospel during the time that those who preached the gospel were persecuted and were killed by Queen Mary. This was Bernard Gilpin, and Bernard Gilpin was arrested and he was being taken to London to be tried and then probably to be killed. And while he was going towards London, he kept saying, “I have no doubt but that this will turn out for the good.” He just kept saying this and the soldiers of course were laughing at him. And then he fell off his horse and he hurt his foot very badly. He was in a lot of pain. The soldiers, of course, were laughing even more. And Bernard Gilpin said, “I have no doubt that even this painful accident will turn out for good.” Well, they were finally able to, after a few days break because of the pain that he had, start on their journey again.

As they were nearing London, the church bells were peeling. So the people asked, “Why is everyone so happy? What has happened?” And they said, “Haven’t you heard? Queen Mary has died and there’s no more persecution for the evangelicals.” And Bernard Gilpin turned to the soldiers and said, “Didn’t I tell you that it will work out for the good?” Because of his injury, he was delayed, and through the delay his life was saved.

A question was asked Charles Spurgeon, “Of what persuasion are you?” I suppose they were talking about one of the controversies, like the downgrade controversy or something, which Charles Spurgeon was involved in at that time. They said, “Of what persuasion are you?” Spurgeon’s response was, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the greatest thing about us and we must always keep it uppermost in our life. We are loved by God.

George Müller, in a New Year address, once said:

The welfare of our families, the prosperity of our businesses, and our work and service for the Lord may be considered the most important matters to attend to. But according to my judgment, the most important thing to be attended to is this: above all things to see that your souls are happy in the Lord.

He goes on to say:

Other things may press upon you. The Lord’s work even may have urgent claims upon your attention, but this pursuit of joy is of supreme and paramount importance. Day by day, seek to make this the most important business of your life.

Why Are You Downcast, O My Soul?

When our faith grows weak, when we panic and lose our joy, we preach to ourselves, just like Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 does. A lot of people sing that song, which says, “As the deer pants after the water brooks, so my soul longs after you.” They forget that psalm was written at a time when God seemed to be far away and things were very bleak. Everything was dark all around him. But three times in those two Psalms, Psalm 42 and 43, you get the same refrain. And Korah is speaking to himself, saying:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
     and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
     my salvation and my God.

This is preaching to ourselves. I think all of us need to develop disciplines like this when things are going wrong. When problems come and we are suffering and our mood is down, we all need to develop some discipline whereby we can preach to ourselves the truth of God’s word, whereby what is in the head will come down to the heart. I find singing hymns to be the best, along with reading the Bible, to be the best way of doing this. I spend time in the presence of God where I don’t have words to praise God. So I use the words of somebody else, and if they have been put into music, into tunes, then it even helps because music is the language of the heart.

Above Earth’s Lamentation

In 1989, it was a very bad year. Sri Lanka has been going through a war for the last 20 some years. But in 1988 and 1989 we also had a revolution on top of the war. And that one year, 1989, we must have had about 50 to 60,000 people who died. These were young people, people from the army, and people among the revolutionaries and other innocent people. There was a river beside our city. If you went to that river, there would never be a time when there wasn’t a body floating down that river. It was all the time.

As a youth worker, I was so discouraged. Our schools were closed. Many people who lived in the country were saying that they especially need to look after their children and the children who have no education. They thought, “We better go from this place.” My wife and I felt that God had called us to live and die in Sri Lanka and we are not going to leave, but we had to think about our children. So we decided that the greatest heritage we could give our children was a happy home. But I would be so discouraged that my moods were not helping having a happy home. One day my wife told the children, so that their father would hear (our wives do that once in a while), “Father is in a bad mood. Let’s hope he goes and reads his Bible.”

She knew that when I spend time in the Word, I go to another world — a world that is longer lasting than this temporary world that I find very difficult to understand. Everything around us may be gloomy, but we are marching in the army that will one day rule the world. We are children of the King of kings and servants of the Lord of Lords. So we preach to ourselves and remind ourselves of the truths that are greater than the temporary experiences that are making life difficult for us.

Wise as Serpents, Gentle as Doves

Now let me say that we are not gluttons for punishment. We don’t go after suffering. If something unjust has happened, we may need to protest. Paul did this in Philippi. After he was released, he said, “Oh no, don’t just release me. You all have hit me, you all have done all these things. I can’t just go like that” (Acts 16:37).

Because the gospel was at stake and he wanted to make a statement on behalf of the gospel. Much of Acts is a defense of Christianity, to defend the gospel against opposition as the opposition grew. And as opposition to the gospel grows in this country and in mine, we need much wisdom to know when we should turn the other cheek and when we should stand up for our rights to practice Christianity. In Sri Lanka this is a very crucial issue, and Christians are not always sure of the best way to respond. There’s a lot of persecution against Christians at the moment and each situation calls for prayer and guidance. Let me tell you two examples where the two different reactions were appropriate.

When to Endure and When to Fight

Sadhu Sundar Singh, about whom I was speaking, was once preaching the gospel on the banks of the Ganges where holy men were washing themselves and he was preaching. And someone got very angry that he was preaching, and he took some mud and threw it into his face. The mud went into his eyes and he was in some pain. So he went to wash his face, and the others who saw this happening realized Sadhu Sundar Singh is a religious man, and that’s not the way you treat a religious man.

So they took this person who attacked Sundar Singh by force, and they were taking him to the police. When Sundar Singh had washed his face and saw what was happening, he pleaded with those people and said, “Let him go. It’s all right, let him go.” And this young man saw what Sundar Singh had done and was so impressed that he became a follower. He followed Sundar Singh in his journeys, and I believe finally became a Christian. So there was an occasion where he turned the other cheek.

Last year in Sri Lanka, a Christian who had been a Buddhist and from a Buddhist village died, and they had the funeral to look into. And the people in the village said, “You have given up your faith. You cannot use the public burial ground.” Now that particular situation, the pastors there felt, “This is a matter of the gospel. We have to stand up for the gospel.” We are not going to take this sitting. Let’s go to the highest authorities and agitate so that we will get permission to bury this person there so that other Christians will also be able to bury their dead in the village burial ground.” And they did that and they won that right and it was necessary at that time. But whatever reaction we are going to have deep down in the midst of it all, we know that God will turn it to good. This suffering will be a blessing.

Blessing Comes Through Sacrifice

Do you know the word blessing comes from old English word blēdsian? The word blēd means blood, and it comes from the use of blood for sacrifice, to consecrate for a blood sacrifice. Blessing comes through sacrifice, and for a Christian, it is a privilege to be able to encounter such sacrifice.

In Philippians 1:29, Paul says:

It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake . . .

Now that word granted, is the word charizomai, which means “to give graciously”. In other words, God has given you the gracious privilege of suffering for Jesus. Lightfoot, in his commentary, says, “God has granted to you the high privilege of suffering for Christ. This is the surest sign that he looks upon you with favor.” In Acts 5:41, we are told, “Then they (the apostles) left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

It’s a pleasure, it’s a privilege to suffer like this. C. T. Studd is a hero to many of us in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a cricket-crazy country. And C. T. Studd played cricket for the All England cricket team. And then of course he became a missionary. He went to China and then finally to Africa where he started the Heart of Africa Mission, which became WEC international. Today, it is one of the large mission groups. He lived deep in the jungle and his mail would come only once in two weeks. And opening the mail was quite a ritual.

C. T. Studd made it into quite a ritual. All the people would stand around and they would open the mail. One time, a lot of money came in the mail, and C. T. Studd said, “Bless God forever. He knows what a bunch of grumblers we are. He sent enough to keep us quiet.” Another time, a small amount came, and when the small amount came, C. T. Studd said, “Hallelujah, we must be growing in grace. He thinks we are learning to trust him.”

Another time, no money came. He said, “Hallelujah. Praise God forever. We are in the kingdom already. For in the kingdom there is neither eating nor drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” This was said by Norman Grubb, his son-in-law who also wrote his biography. Of course there’s a tinge of humor here, but don’t miss the unflinching belief in the sovereignty of God. God knows what is good for us, and he will not give us anything that will not ultimately turn to good.

Theological Blind Spots

Now I ask the question, is this a theological blind spot in the church today? I think we in the East have some major theological blind spots. We don’t seem to have a theology of God which helps Christians to stop lying and dishonesty and things like that, and that’s one of our huge problems. We have to work hard at finding a theology that will sustain a holy life. And sometimes I feel that perhaps in the West, the blind spot is a defective theology of suffering.

When you have a defective theology of suffering, you suffer much more pain than you should when you’re suffering or when you’re encountering frustration, because you are not prepared for it. You feel that something is wrong. People think that you are doing something wrong, which is sometimes even worse. People think that you’re doing something wrong and therefore we can get disillusioned with God, with the church, and with the ministry. You can’t, of course, have joy when you’re disillusioned.

And worse still, we can move away from the tough call that God has asked us to follow, and go into something easier. And ultimately, we will be much less effective from eternity’s standpoint. I think there’s a lot of therapy for suffering today about how to escape suffering and how to cope with suffering, but there is very little theology of suffering. Why can we rejoice in the midst of suffering?

Rejoicing in Suffering

Paul rejoices in suffering. Now let me just for a short time talk to you about the next point, the second part of the verse. In Colossians 1:24, Paul says:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,

He says he’s filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s affliction, a curious statement. Of course, there are all sorts of translations and interpretations of this. But obviously, Paul is not saying that Christ’s sufferings are incomplete. Then what is he saying? Let me just share with you two lines in which a lot of scholars have gone, and I’ll tell you which one I prefer. One line is that there is a quota of suffering that is needed if the gospel is to go out completely. In other words, Christ has suffered, but if the message of the cross is to go out, people will have to suffer and Paul wants to complete that quota of suffering so that the gospel will go out.

Another related interpretation is that there is a quota of suffering that is needed for the messianic wars to be completed before the end of the world. And so Paul says, “I want to go through that so that the end will come.” Now there’s a strong case for this view, and esteemed New Testament scholars hold this view. Personally, I prefer the other view which is held by people like David Garland. Calvin also has something very close to this understanding of what is meant by completing the sufferings of Christ. What Paul is saying here, I believe, is that he wants to fill up what is lacking in his experience of Christ’s suffering. He wants to fill up what is lacking in his experience. In other words, this is going to help him to be more Christ-like. Christ is a suffering Savior, and if we are to follow him, if we are to be like him, we must suffer like him. Paul talks about this design in Philippians 3:10, where he says:

That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

The Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering

Peter O’Brien, in his brilliant commentary on Philippians, says, “Experience in the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of suffering, in this case, is an aspect of knowing God.” So to know God deeper, we experience the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. That word used there is koinōnian. So it’s the fellowship of his sufferings. There is a depth of oneness that we can experience only through suffering because Christ is a suffering Savior, if we are to be conformed to his image.

The word there in Philippines 3:10 “becoming like him” is the word that means “to grant” or “invest the same form”. It’s the word symmorphizõ, which means “to take the same form as”. If you have to become closer to Jesus, if you have to become like Jesus, we need to suffer as he did. Paul discovered this, of course, on the road to Damascus when Jesus talked to him and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

Paul was hitting the church, but guess who was feeling the pain? Jesus. The church and Jesus had become so close in the fellowship of the sufferings that Paul was actually hurting Jesus at this time. In Romans 8:17, Paul says:

[We are] fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. We have to suffer with him so that we can be glorified with him. In John 12:23, that great passage which is John’s Gethsemane experience of Jesus, he says:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

And then he says, in John 12:24:

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone . . .

And you know in that passage he’s talking about his death. Then, in John 12:25, he applies it to us:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Then in John 12:26, he says:

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.

He is saying, “Go to the ground and die like a seed. And what happens is then you will be following me because you will find that there, where I am, there the servant will also be.” To serve Christ, we must follow him to death. As he died, we, his servants also must die. So when you think of a person being Christlike, let’s include suffering in that description of being Christlike.

Desiring Unity with Christ Above Everything

Now our greatest desire in life is to be close to Jesus or at least one of our greatest desires. We desire unity with Christ, and if that is our great desire, then if suffering helps achieve our ambition, we will be happy with it. It’s like training for the Olympics. You suffer in order to get this gold medal, but you are happy because it’s going to help you to get the gold medal.

There was a Christian evangelist and social reformer in Japan called Toyohiko Kagawa. He was told that he was growing blind and when he found that out — he actually didn’t go blind, but he was told that he would go blind because of an eye problem — this is what he said, “The darkness. The darkness. In the darkness. I meet God face to face.” He was saying, “It brings me closer to God.”

There was a Chinese evangelist who, after spending many years in prison, said, “If you accept suffering for your faith as a privilege, it becomes your friend and brings you closer to God.” Dennis Kinlaw, in his book This Day with the Master, which is a devotional book, talks about a pastor’s wife. Very strangely, this pastor’s wife became a committed Christian only after the pastor died. Don’t ask me why that happened.

But when she became a Christian, she became a passionate Christian and a soul winner. Well, Dennis Kinlaw heard that she was losing her sight, and so he went to visit her and this lady told Dennis Kinlaw, “Dennis, you came to comfort me, didn’t you?” And she said it in sort of an accusatory tone, and Dennis Kinlaw said, “Yes I did.” And then the lady said, “Would you deprive me of the privilege of walking with Christ in the dark? There are secrets that I can learn in the dark that I could never learn in the light.”

Do you remember John and Betty Stam? It’s a wonderful story. They were two missionaries who, in 1934, were killed by the communists in China when they were 27 and 28 years old. John Stam once said, “Take away everything I have, but do not take away the sweetness of walking and talking with the king of glory.” That’s the most important thing in our life.

Christians Are Like Nails

Sadhu Sundar Singh was once preaching close to his home. His brothers poisoned him and left him to die, and the Lord healed him and he became a preacher. And then after many years he was preaching close to his home. So he thought he would go and see his father whom he loved deeply. And the father loved the son deeply. And when he went to his father’s house, the father didn’t welcome him. The father rejected him, and said, “What are you doing here?” And he didn’t show any happiness at seeing his son. The son asked for some water and the father wouldn’t give a family cup for him to drink because now he was an outcast. So he brought a jug of water, asked him to keep his hands out, and from a distance, he poured the water onto his hands.

And when this was happening, he thought, “This is the father who loved me so dearly.” He had hoped that he could sleep the night in his house, but he was not even taken inside beyond the veranda. That night he slept in the garden, in the yard of his house under a tree. And in that time of deep sorrow, suddenly God met him and he realized that the love of God is deeper than the love of a father. And his heart was filled with joy as he began to contemplate the love of God. He had entered into the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

There was a Romanian pastor who suffered under communist rule and he said, “Christians are like nails. The harder you hit them, the deeper they go.” That’s the Christian life. We go deeper into a relationship with Jesus. So suffering helps us to come closer to Jesus and one of the ways it does that is by purifying our motives.

Purifying Our Motives

It brings us near to Christ by purifying our motives. Suffering has an amazing way of doing this. You remember James 1:2–3 where James says:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

Now, that word “testing” is the word used for the testing of metals. And when metals are tested, two things happen. First, their genuineness is shown and they are also purified of impurities because at a certain temperature the impurities leave. And so, the testing purifies us. It purifies our motives. Without the trappings of success, we learn to make Christ our one passion because when we have nothing else to cling to, we can cling to the Lord Jesus.

The greatest hymn writer of the Salvation Army was a man called Albert Orsborn. When he was a young officer, God used him powerfully in London and there was a revival in the area where he was leading. And God was blessing him. One of his officers came up to him and told him that they were planning to divide his district. And the officer said, “Don’t let it happen. God is blessing you so much. If they divide this district, it’ll hinder your work. I think you ought to fight it.”

Orsborn of course said, “Oh no, I want to do the will of God and I respect my superiors. I will not do that.” Well, after some time he was told that they’re going to divide his district and he’s going to have a smaller district, and he began to argue. He developed an attitude of argumentation. Later he said that he was arguing because he was getting less power and prestige. That’s what made him argue. It was not for the sake of the kingdom. He says, “Unwittingly I had begun to fight not for the kingdom, but for my position in the kingdom, and the Holy Spirit was grieved.” And then he says, “When the Spirit grieves, the Spirit leaves.” And he went through the motions of his ministry, but there was a distance between him and God.

Maybe others wouldn’t have seen it, but he knew that a deadness had come in and there was an emptiness inside of him. And then he had a car crash and he took a long time to recover. He had to be in hospital for several weeks. One day when he was in the hospital, he heard some singing in the room next to his room. And he says, “I heard them sing of the glories of God and my heart began to yearn once again for that kind of intimacy with God.” And he says, “I wept my heart out in repentance and God forgave me, and the Spirit came and filled my heart afresh.” I hope it won’t take an accident for the Lord to do that to our lives, but sometimes through things like this our motives are purified.

Bearing Shame for the Name

Now, part of this whole experience which we find very difficult is the whole thing of bearing shame for Christ, but that is also part of being like Christ.

Hebrews 13:12–13 says:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.

It is shameful to suffer because you look like a failure. They feel sorry for you. Some people might even despise you. In that cartoon strip, Doonesbury, many years ago there was a statement that went like this:

We live in a world where people prefer to be envied rather than to be esteemed.

You see people envy others because of their earthly success. You esteem people for character, but today people prefer to be envied than to be esteemed. I think even here, some of you are going to experience this. People might ask, “How many people are there in your church?” And you wonder, “My goodness, they have so many people. I have only 50 or 30 people in my church.” And you wonder, “Am I a failure?” Take heart. The apostle Paul was never a popular figure.

When he went to Rome at the climax of his life and his court case that should have been one of the crowning awards for his life. There was no one with him. The church was ashamed of him. They didn’t want to associate with him. Yet the Bible reminds us of a different set of values. Remember that passage I quoted from John 12. After talking about his death, which he described as being glorified, he talked about the grain of wheat dying and bearing much fruit. In John 12:26, he says:

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

Honor will come in God’s time. The doctrine of judgment is one of the things that frees us from bitterness. That’s one of the things I learned from John Piper’s book, Future Grace. Because we believe in the doctrine of judgment, we are not going to be bitter that others have glory and we don’t have the glory because God has called us to a work where the final assessment of our service is going to be made when we get to heaven.

Heaven Makes It Worth It All

Hebrews 12:2 says:

Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

There was a person who worked in a village among a tribe in Asia. And Asians have been traditionally very difficult to reach with the gospel until quite recently. This person was a godly man of God, and he served there all his life and there wasn’t a single convert after all those years of service. And he died. And then, after he died, a young, raw missionary went, preached the gospel, and the whole village turned to Christ. And this young fellow was amazed. He asked them, “What is this? You had this great man among you and you didn’t accept his message. And now I come and preach and you accept it.” Well, the villagers said, “This old man told us that if you are a Christian, you don’t have to be afraid of death. And we waited until he died to see whether it’s true. And we saw the way he died and it is true, so we became Christians when you preached the gospel.”

Second Corinthians 4:17 says:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison . . .

Heaven makes it worth it all. Amy Carmichael said, “We have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only a few hours before sunset to win them.” So we look forward in anticipation for the glory.

Refreshed as We Look at Jesus

Now here is one more point: solidarity with Christ gives us strength. Because Jesus is with us, we have the strength to go through. It’s a very interesting thing with the Christian life. Suffering brings us closer to Christ, and because we are closer to Christ we are able to go through suffering. So it’s a symbiotic relationship between these two factors of the Christian life.

You know David Livingstone. His hand was maimed because he was bitten by a lion. His wife died on the field. He was often alone. His house was burnt during the Boer War. His body was often racked with dysentery and fever. And someone once asked him, “How were you able to go on?” Actually once somebody told him, “You must have sacrificed a lot for the kingdom.” And Livingstone got angry when that person said that. He said, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.”

And somebody asked him, “What kept you going?” And he said, “There was always in my mind the words of Jesus: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of this world.’” That word gave him strength to go on. Livingstone one said, “Without Christ, not one step; with him, anywhere.” God said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

There’s a wonderful biography of Chrysostom, the great expositor of the early church, written by J.N.D Kelly.

But I read this in another book about Chrysostom, how the emperor told him that he was going to put him in prison for his preaching. And Chrysostom responded, “The Lord would go with him to prison.” The emperor said, “I will take away all your possessions.” And Chrysostom said, “There is no way for you to take away my possessions because my treasures are in heaven and you cannot reach that far.” Then the emperor said, “Well, I will banish you to the remotest corner of the kingdom,” which is what he did finally. And Chrysostom said, “The remotest spot in the world is part of the Savior’s kingdom, and his my Lord would be there too.” So as we face bitterness, as we face the hypocrisy of Christians, as we face selfishness in this world, we refresh ourselves by looking at Jesus.

Psalm 27 was a psalm that was written while David was going through a lot of problems. In Psalm 27:4, he says:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
     that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
     all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
     and to inquire in his temple.

As we are faced with the ugliness of this world, we gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and we see that that beauty is greater than the ugliness of this world.

Your Tenderness Melting Our Bitterness

I experienced this about 15 years ago when a huge crisis hit our ministry. There was a person whom my wife and I had ministered to along with his wife. We kept him in our home. There had been stories said about him and we carried out an inquiry and found that the stories were not true.

So we ministered to him, sent him back to work, and then the real truth came out. Terrible things had happened in the Ministry of Youth for Christ. Things I wouldn’t have dreamt would’ve ever happened. And when the news came, I got it through a phone call on a Sunday evening. I went to sleep and I couldn’t sleep, struggling. I thought, “I will never trust anybody again. Don’t invest in people. This is what happens when you pay too much attention to people, they betray you.” And all those thoughts were going through my mind.

And because I couldn’t sleep, around 2:00 a.m. I thought, “I might as well study.” So I went to my desk, and at my desk there was a fax message from the planners of the Urbana Missions Conference. And the fax said, “We have changed the passage that you are going to do. We want you to do John 10, about the Good Shepherd.” So I thought, “Well, why don’t I read that passage?”

And I was reading expositions on John by Leon Morris. It’s a lovely book of expositions published by Baker Book House. I was reading that. And Leon Morris said, “The word used for the good shepherd is not the word that means good as opposed to bad. It is the word kalos, which has the idea of beautiful as opposed to ugly. And the idea is that Jesus, through his death, showed himself to be the beautiful shepherd.” There was a display of love that was beautiful to behold. God touched me that day. I think the pain of that incident will remain with me until the day I die. But the bitterness is gone.

I couldn’t play the piano and sing while my family was asleep, but after my wife got up, I went to the piano and I sang the song Fairest, Lord Jesus. There’s nothing in this world as beautiful as Jesus. Graham Kendrick has written a song called “O Lord Your Tenderness,” which says:

O Lord your tenderness Melting all my bitterness O Lord I receive your love O Lord your loveliness Changing all my ugliness O Lord I receive your love

Seeking God First in Crisis

So when we encounter problems, we will glance at them and gaze at Jesus. There’s a lovely story that comes from the life of Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom. Betsie was very sick. They were in the concentration camp in Ravensbrück and she was very sick, dying, but they had to work 11 hours shoveling dirt. At one time she was coughing blood and she was so weak she just couldn’t work anymore. So she stopped working and the guard asked her, “Why aren’t you working?”

And she gave an answer and the guard thought that she was being insolent. So he took his whip and he whipped her. And the skin on her neck broke and she was bleeding. And Corrie saw this. Corrie saw her elder sister bleeding and she took her shovel and went to hit the guard. But Betsie cried out to Corrie, “Don’t look, Corrie. Look only at Jesus.” You see, when we see Jesus, we see one who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross. When Corrie and Betsie were tempted to be bitter, they would say to themselves, “Thank God for Romans 5:5. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

So when problems come, without running around like insecure people trying to solve our problems and rushing from place to place, let us first seek God. That’s what I learned during a crisis we had in our ministry about 12 years ago when there was a big, big problem in the ministry. And when problems come, usually it’s the leader who gets blamed. I didn’t know how to respond to these people.

During that conflict, the lesson I learned more than any other lesson was that in a conflict situation before meeting people meet God. Why? Because our ministry is never primarily a reaction to people’s attacks on us. Our ministry is a response to the call of God to us. So in a time of crisis, we seek the face of God and we behold his beauty and the love is deepened and the crisis becomes another means by which we can fulfill the great desire in our hearts to be closer to Jesus.

is the teaching director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He served as the ministry’s national director for 35 years. He is the author of eighteen books, including Discipling in a Multicultural World, and lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with his wife. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.