Preaching and the Suffering of the People

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

We turn now to the suffering of our people and how our suffering affects our preaching for them. Again I say it is one of my assumptions that suffering will come to them. It must come. It is part of their calling. I gave some textual foundation for this assumption in my first message. But I did not mention Philippians 1:29, where Paul tells the entire church in Philippi, “To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake.”

This is a gift from God to all believers. We are appointed to suffer. “You yourselves know that we have been destined for this (eis touto keimetha)” (1 Thessalonians 3:3). We are preaching to disciples of Jesus, not disciples of Hugh Hefner. “Can we wish, if it were possible, to walk in a path strewed with flowers when his was strewed with thorns” (The Works of John Newton,, Vol. 1, 230)?

Rejoice in Suffering

I also assume that, for the glory of God to be manifest in our people’s lives, they must rejoice in suffering rather than murmur and complain. This is why the Bible tells them again and again, “Blessed are you when men revile you . . . rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:11–12). “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). “Count it all joy . . . when you meet various trials” (James 1:2). “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property” (Hebrews 10:34). “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

And I assume that our people are not prepared or able to rejoice in suffering unless they experience a massive biblical revolution of how they think and feel about the meaning of life. Human nature and American culture make it impossible to rejoice in suffering. This is a miracle in the human soul wrought by God through his word. It is the aim of preaching to be the agent of God in bringing about that miracle through the word.

Jesus said to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, “‘When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.’ Now this he said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (John 21:18–19). In other words, God appoints a kind suffering and death by which each of us is called to glorify God. And, since the great aim of preaching is the glory of God, we must preach to prepare a people to suffer and die like that.

How Suffering Affects Preaching

So, what I want to do in this final message is draw out how our own suffering as preachers affects our preaching for the sake of our suffering people.

1. God has ordained that our preaching become deeper and more winsome as we are broken and humbled and made low and desperately dependent on grace by the trials of our lives.

Jesus said it about his own ministry like this: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29 RSV). People will come and learn from us how to suffer if we are “gentle and lowly in heart.” And that is what our sufferings are designed to make us. “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself . . . [so that we would] rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9 RSV). God aims to break us of all pretenses to self-sufficiency and make us lowly and childlike in our dependence on God. This is the kind of preacher to whom the suffering come. John Newton wrote to a fellow pastor and said,

It belongs to your calling of God as a minister, that you should have a taste of the various spiritual trials which are incident to the Lord’s people, that thereby you may . . . know how to speak a word in season to them that are weary; and it is likewise needful to keep you perpetually attentive to that important admonition, “Without me ye can do nothing.” (The Works of John Newton, Vol. 1, 255)

It is true that we must be bold in the pulpit and afraid of no man but courageous as we contend for the truth. But it is just as true that our boldness must be brokenhearted boldness, and our courage must be a contrite and lowly courage, and that we must be tender contenders for the truth. If we are brash and harsh and cocky and clever, we may win a hearing with angry and pugnacious people, but we will drive away those who suffer. Paul makes it so clear that we are laid low and given comfort “so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Does it feel to your people like you are utterly dependent in your life on the merciful comfort of God to make it through your days?

2. God has ordained that when we preach from weakness and suffering sustained by joy in Christ, the people see that Christ is treasured and they are loved.

Right here we are up against a huge obstacle in American culture. The twentieth century was the century of the self. Almost all virtues, especially love, were reinterpreted to put the self at the center. This means that almost all our people are saturated and shaped with the conviction that the essence of being loved as a human is being treasured or esteemed. That is, you love me to the degree that your act of treasuring terminates on me.

But I say that God ordains our suffering as preachers to show the all-surpassing worth of Jesus because we treasure Christ as we preach to our people. And if they ask, “Do you treasure me or do you treasure Christ?” I answer, “I treasure Christ, and, desiring to treasure him more, I treasure your treasuring Christ.” Without the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit removing self from the center, this will not satisfy American people. They are so saturated with self-oriented love that they can scarcely conceive what true Christian love is.

True Christian love is not my making much of them, but my helping them to enjoy making much of God. This is love. If my treasuring terminates on them, I play right into the hands of the devil and their own self-centered destruction. But if my treasuring terminates on God and their treasuring God, then I direct them to the one source of all joy. And that act of directing them to God, who is their hope and life and joy, is what love is.

Our aim in preaching is not to help our people feel treasured, but to help them treasure God. We must aim to preach in such a way that we breed a kind of people who feel loved not when they are made much of, but when they are patiently helped to enjoy making much of God, even when they themselves are slandered and ridiculed and persecuted and killed. This, as I have said, is impossible with man. But with God all things are possible. When the Holy Spirit comes in power on our preaching people see that Christ is treasured and they are loved — and that those two things are one. And God has ordained that one way they see Christ treasured in us is how we are sustained by him in suffering.

3. The suffering of the preacher helps him see from the Scripture what he must say to his suffering people.

Martin Luther makes the point powerfully. And he makes it straight out of the Bible, not just from experience. He cites Psalm 119:67 and 71: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. . . . It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” Here, Luther found an indispensable key for the preacher in unlocking texts. “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I may learn your statutes.” There are things to see in the word of God that your eyes can only see through the lens of tears.

Here is the way Luther said it: “I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself. . . . Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and run thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (Prayer, meditation, tribulation)” (What Luther Says, 1359). And tribulation (Anfechtungen) he called the “touchstone.” “[They] teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme” (What Luther Says, 1360). He proved the value of suffering over and over again in his own experience

For as soon as God’s word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you, will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s word. For I myself . . . owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached. (What Luther Says, 1360)

Luther calls it theology. I call it preaching. In other words, Psalm 119:71 teaches us that the suffering of the preacher opens to him the Scriptures in a way that he would not otherwise know them and so shows him in the Scriptures what to say to his people, mingled with how to say it.

We Must Suffer

The first thing you will learn to say to your people is that they must suffer. You will make it a theme running through all your messages: They will get sick, they will be persecuted, and they will die. They must be reminded of these things again and again, because almost all forces in the culture are pushing them away from these realities and trying to get them not to think about it and therefore not to be ready for it, and certainly not to value it when it comes.

When suffering teaches you the meaning of Scripture you will learn and preach that all suffering is of one piece that that saints will taste all of it — sickness, persecution and death.

We Will Get Sick

You will show them from Romans 8:23 that they will get sick. “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.” Yes, you will teach them to pray for their healing. But you will also teach them that the full and final blood-bought healing of Christ is for the age to come when all crying and pain and tears will be no more (Revelation 21:4). In this age we groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. Here the outer nature is wasting away while our inner nature is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). We will preach this and give our people a theology of sickness.

We Will Face Persecution

And we will preach that persecution, whether small or large, must come. Second Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” You will balance with warning the caution that they not seek to provoke offense. The gospel and the path of sacrifice and the cause of truth are the offense, not the cranky personalities of the saints. The aim is to treasure Christ above all things, and to love people with the truth no matter the cost. That will bring the trouble. We must preach to motivate them and prepare them.

We Will All Die

And we will preach that they must all die, and we will bend every effort to help them say, when the time comes, “To die is gain.” If we can help them value Christ above all that death will take away, they will be the freest and most radical, sacrificial people in life.

But not only must you preach that they will all get sick and be persecuted and die, but also that God is sovereign and designs all their suffering for their everlasting good. John Newton again is right, I think, when he says that one of Satan’s main devices against God’s people is “to hide from them the Lord’s designs in permitting him thus to rage” (The Works of John Newton,, Vol. 1, 230). Preaching should not hide these designs, but reveal them. That is how we will establish our people and give them hope and joy in suffering. They must know and cherish the truth that their adversaries (natural and supernatural) meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20).

Suffering Is No Accident

I know some of you, and some of your people, will stumble over the word “designs” — that God actually plans the suffering of his people and therefore has good designs in it. I know William Barclay, an old-fashioned liberal from a generation ago, represents many when he says, “I believe that pain and suffering are never the will of God for his children” (William Barclay, A Spiritual Autobiography, 44). I call Barclay an “old-fashioned liberal” because his views are similar to those who summed up Christianity as the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love. He was a universalist, and the cross of Christ was essentially a demonstration of God’s love, not a substitutionary penal atonement demanded by the righteousness of God. With regard to the specifics of doctrine, like Christology, his motto was: “Hold fast to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted” (A Spiritual Autobiography, 97).

And there are open theists today who will try to teach your people, “God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil” (The God Who Risks, 262). Or, as another says, “When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for ‘the purpose of God’ in the event. . . . I know Christians frequently speak about ‘the purpose of God’ in the midst of a tragedy caused by someone else. . . . But this I regard to simply to be a piously confused way of thinking” (Letters from a Skeptic, 46).

But I hope you will not preach that to your people, and undermine their biblical hope. Their hope is this — and you will see it most clearly and say it most sweetly when you have experienced it most deeply — that all their suffering is the discipline of their Father for their good (Hebrews 12:11); it’s the refining fire of faith (1 Peter 1:7); it’s the crucible of perseverance and character and hope (Romans 5:3–4); it’s the preparation of an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17). And if they will believe and rejoice, it is the display of the supreme value of Christ, when your people say, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).

Progress in the Hard Times

It is not by accident but by design that all wise people confess with Malcolm Muggeridge, at the end of his life, “Looking over my 90 years, I realize I have never made any progress in good times. I only progressed in the hard times” (Quoted in Fred Smith, “Mentored by the Prince of Preachers,” Leadership, Summer Quarter 1992, 54). When we experience this, we are more alert to it in Scripture, and when we see it, then we preach it for our suffering people.

There is one last connection I would point out between the preacher’s suffering and the suffering of his people, namely, that his suffering will show him that the timing of teaching and touching is crucial. “There is a time for everything . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; . . . a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4–7). Preaching involves timing. Preach the whole truth about suffering and the sovereign goodness of God while it is day, and when the night comes, and you stand beside the suicide victim’s pool of blood, or the ice cold, ivory body of a one year old boy, you won’t have to say anything. This will be a time for embracing. And at this point the suffering saints will be glad that your suffering has taught you to preach the hard things and then, at the right time, to be silent.

When you walk through your own valley of darkness you learn these things. This is your lifelong seminary. And if you are called to preach, I entreat you, do not begrudge the seminary of suffering.