Preaching and the Problem of Suffering

Preachers, Do Not Begrudge the Seminary of Suffering | Rom Lectures | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School | Deerfield, Illinois

I begin with five assumptions. Each of them would take a lecture series to unfold and defend. But I will only mention them and point to the kind of support I would develop if there were time. Without them what I have to say about preaching and suffering would not stand.

Assumption #1: Preaching is expository exultation.

That was the burden of the Rom Lectures of 1994. Preaching is not merely exposition. And preaching is not merely exultation. It is expository exultation.

It is the exposition of Scripture and the simultaneous exultation over the truth and beauty and preciousness of the reality in the text. It is the rising together of clear reflection and deep affection over God’s inspired word. It is both clear-headed explanation and heart-felt celebration. One without the other is not preaching. It is the heralding of God’s word with a manifest sense of wonder and gratitude that we have been granted to see it and taste it.

Assumption #2: Preaching is a normative event in the gathered church.

I mean preaching as distinct from mere teaching. I mean the difference between didaskō over kērussō. Heralding the word of God — not just explaining it — is normative in the regular meetings of the gathered church. The roots of this claim are in the Old Testament (Nehemiah 8:6–8), and in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 15:21), and in the ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:17; 9:35), and the ministry of the apostles (Mark 6:12; Acts 10:42).

But the key text is 2 Timothy 4:2, where Paul commands the younger overseer of the church in Ephesus, “Preach the word” (kēruxon ton logon). And beneath this textual warrant for preaching in our worship services, I would argue that the very nature of our subject matter is of such a unique weight and magnitude and worth that no ordinary form of human communication is proper to carry it. Preaching is necessary, and therefore normative.

Assumption #3: The aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ.

All preaching should be God-centered and Christ-exalting. God himself should be the explicit focus of the sermon or the manifest air the sermon breathes. If any other topic or issue or problem is taken up, it should be taken all the way up — through Christ into the presence of God, so that the people see what this issue has to do with the glory of God.

God created us for his glory (Isaiah 43:7). He chose us and predestined us for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:6,12, 14). The universe and the church are radically and absolutely God-centered. Everything — every thought, every feeling, every act, every object — gets its true meaning in relation to God, and preaching is to make that plain. The aim of preaching is a God-besotted people — a people who, whether they eat or drink or whatever they do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Assumption #4: God is most glorified in our people when our people are most satisfied in him.

Begrudging submission to a ruler does not honor him so much as glad submission. The glory of a king shines in the gladness of his people. This is why God commands us in Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” And he says in Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” Delight in God displays his excellence. God gets only half his glory from souls that know him but don’t enjoy him.

This assumption is so important in my understanding of God and ministry and preaching that I linger a bit longer over it by letting the greatest American theologian express it. Jonathan Edwards put it like this:

God glorifies Himself toward the creatures . . . in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself . . . God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

In other words, as it relates to the preacher who aims to glorify God through Jesus Christ, God is most glorified in our people when our people are most satisfied in him.

Assumption # 5: Suffering is a universal human experience, designed by God for his glory, but endangering every Christian’s faith.

Everyone you will ever preach to will suffer. Sooner or later the curse on creation will come around to every creature. Where did global suffering come from? The Bible answers: ultimately it came from God, because of sin. Romans 5:18: “Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men.” The condemnation spoken of here is not a natural consequence, but a judicial one. God did this. And the consequence is death.

In Romans 8:18, Paul talks about “the sufferings of this present time.” And then explains in verse 20, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.” That can only be God. The futility of all things is owing to one who subjected creation to it “in hope.” Satan did not do it “in hope.” Adam did not do it “in hope.” Only God could do it “in hope.” The futility of all creation is a judicial act designed by God for “the hope of glory” (Romans 8:17–18; 5:2).

This is what Paul means in Romans 8:21–23,

that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

God’s design in all our suffering is the hope of glory. But oh, how different is the design of Satan! He would sift us like wheat and chew us up like a roaring lion, until no faith in the goodness of God remains (Luke 22:31–32; 1 Peter 5:8). But even here, the design of God is evident. Because with one word the Lord of glory could dispatch the devil and all his demons to hell at any time.

He will do this one day, and he could do it now (Revelation 20:10). But he does not do it, though they are irredeemable and destined for darkness and judgment (Matthew 8:29; 25:41; Jude 6). Why? Because suffering and trial are designed for God’s glory.

Satisfied, Even in Suffering

Those are my assumptions. Now here is the inference I draw and the main point of my messages: If the aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ, and if God is most glorified in our people when they are most satisfied in him, and if the universal human experience of suffering threatens to undermine their faith in the goodness of God, and thus their satisfaction in his glory, then preaching must aim, week in and week out, to help our people be satisfied in God while suffering. Indeed, we must help them count suffering as part of why they should be satisfied in God.

We must build into their minds and hearts a vision of God and his ways that help them see suffering not merely as a threat to their satisfaction in God (which it is), but also as a means to their satisfaction in God (which it is). We must preach so as to make suffering seem normal in this fallen age and purposeful and not surprising.

The forces of American culture are almost all designed to build the opposite worldview into our people’s minds. Maximize comfort, ease, security. Avoid all choices that might bring discomfort, trouble, difficulty, pain, suffering. Add this cultural force to our natural desire for immediate gratification and fleeting pleasures, and the combined power to undermine the superior satisfaction of the soul in the glory of God through suffering is huge.

If we would see God honored in the lives of our people as the supreme value and highest treasure and deepest satisfaction of their lives, then we must strive with all our might to show the meaning of suffering and help them see the wisdom and power and goodness of God behind it — ordaining, above it, governing, beneath it, sustaining, and before it, preparing. This is the hardest work in the world — to change the minds and hearts of fallen human beings and make God so precious to them that they count it all joy when trials come, and exult in their afflictions, and rejoice in the plundering of their property, and say in the end, “To die is gain” (Philippians 1:21)

This is why preaching is not mere communication. And why “communication theory” and getting scholarly degrees in “communication” are so far from the essence of what preaching is about. Preaching is about doing the impossible: making the rich young ruler fall out of love with his comfortable lifestyle and into love with the King of kings so that he “joyfully” sells all that he has to gain that treasure (Matthew 13:44). Jesus said very simply, “With man this is impossible” (Matthew 19:26). The aim of preaching is impossible. No techniques will make it succeed. “But with God all things are possible.”

When Preaching Confronts Suffering

No place does this become more clear than when preaching confronts suffering. How shall we accomplish the great end of preaching in the face of suffering? I think it would help at this point to ask, Why did I choose to address this theme in these Rom lectures? It stems from the conviction that coming to Christ means more suffering, not less suffering, in this world. It comes from the persuasion that suffering is normal and not exceptional. It comes from the certainty that we all will suffer, must suffer, and that most American Christians are not prepared in mind or heart to believe this or to experience this.

And therefore the glory of God and the honor of Christ and the stability of the church and the strength of commitment to world missions are at stake. If preaching does not help our people be satisfied in God through suffering, then God will not be glorified and Christ will not be honored and the church will be a weakling in an escapist world of ease and the completion of the great commission with its demand for martyrdom will fail.

Consider the certainty of suffering that will come to your people, if they embrace the Savior.

  • “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Really? “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:19–20)

  • “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” (Psalm 34:19)

  • “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20).

  • “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:25)

  • “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)

  • “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)

  • “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14: 22)

  • “[Let no one] be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.” (1 Thessalonians 3:3)

  • “[We are] fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:17–18)

  • “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)

  • “I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31 RSV).

  • “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19 RSV).

Suffering Is Certain

Your people are going to suffer. That is certain. And when this life of necessary suffering is at an end, there remains the last enemy, death. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). For God’s loved ones, dying will be the final suffering. For most of us it will be a terrible thing. In my twenty years in the pastorate, I have walked with many saints through the last months and days and hours of dying. And very few have been easy. Everybody you preach to is going to die, if Christ delays his coming. All of them. They must all suffer and they must all die.

Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream, like grass. . . . In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. . . The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. . . . So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom ( Psalm 90:5–12).

So I ask all you future preachers, What does a pastoral heart of wisdom do when it discovers that death is sure and life is short and suffering is inevitable and necessary?

Satisfy Us, O God

The answer is given two verses later in Psalm 90. It’s a prayer. “Have pity on thy servants! Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:13–14 RSV). In the face of toil and trouble and suffering and death, the wise preacher cries out with the psalmist, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” He prays this both for himself and for his people: “O God, grant that we would be satisfied with your steadfast love always, and need nothing else.” And then he preaches to that end.

Why? Because if you leave your people where they are, seeking satisfaction in family and job and leisure and toys and sex and money and food and power and esteem, what will they do when suffering and death strip it all away? They will be embittered and angry and depressed. And the worth and beauty and goodness power and wisdom of God — the glory of God — will vanish in the cloud of murmuring and complaining and cursing.

But if you have prayed well (that God would satisfy them with himself), and if you have preached well (showing them that they must suffer but that God is more to be desired than comfort and “the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” [Psalm 63:3]), and if you have lived well (rejoicing to suffer for their sake), and if you have lingered long enough in one place of ministry, then many of your people will suffer well and die well counting it gain because they are satisfied in God alone.

And God will therefore be mightily glorified. And the great end of preaching will be achieved.