Suffering for the Gospel Q & A

reFocus Canada | Burnaby, British Columbia

John, I wonder whether or not some of the things that you’ve shared are new thoughts. And I wonder whether the place to begin to discuss what you’ve talked about is the issue of what motivates God. Because I wonder whether or not many of us need to be reintroduced to the God of the Bible having believed that what motivates God ultimately is our wellbeing as we perceive it to be. But I think you already alluded to something quite different than that.

Yes, “as we perceive it to be” is the problem with saying it that way. The thing that I have been devoting the last 30 or 35 years to understanding, I hope, is that two things that are plain in the Bible, and one of them plain in my soul, are not at odds. One is God manifestly, throughout the Bible, is driven by the impulse to display his own glory. Ephesians 1:6 is where I camped tonight, but it’s all over the Bible. Back in Psalm 23, just to pick a random text:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (Psalm 23:1–3).

Really? You see, those are all over the Bible. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He does that. Or what about, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1)? How did that get set up? Who set up the heavens that way? God did. So God is totally into God.

Now, that’s one side of the story and it offends people, it discourages people. It makes them feel like God is not loving, or that he’s a megalomaniac or an egomaniac. The other side of the story is that he loves us, and you have to interpret his love in view of the whole thing. Like you said, we can’t say, “His love must mean that he gives me what I feel like I need.” Well, that may not be what you need. Little children don’t know what they need. Loving parents don’t give little children what they think they need. They give them what they need, not what they think they need. That’s the way God is. And what we need is God, right? We don’t think we need God. Nobody on the streets in Vancouver, apart from new birth, thinks he or she needs God more than anything.

So you have to be taught to wake up that what you need is God. You were designed to be satisfied by God, by a fellowship with God, and enjoyment of his beauty and admiration of God, and being transformed by God. When we see him, we will be like him for we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). And I want to be different, I don’t like the old John Piper. I really don’t like myself. Do you like you? I just get so sick of myself. I am so eager for that day, and progressively we’re on our way, and God loves us enough to hammer on us until we wake up to the fact we’re made for God. And then when we find our treasure in him, then our delight in him and his being glorified in us become one. And that’s what I’ve been trying to say for all these years. Every message I preach says the same thing. My answer to your question is what motivates God to make much of himself, especially through our exquisite and enjoyment of him.

Because you connected this with the suffering in the world and put the cross at the center of God making much of himself, if I said that the reason I pastored this church is because I wanted to make much of myself, that would be blasphemous. So why is it terrible for me to do that, but why is it so great for God to do it?

Because if you succeed, you ruin everybody. In other words, if I came to make much of myself here, or you got up on Sunday and said, “Now my goal in this sermon is to make sure that every one of you leaves this room praising me, being thrilled maximally with John Neufeld’s qualities.” If you succeeded at that, you would destroy them. If God succeeds at that, he brings them infinite joy that nobody can take away. Only one person can have this motive — God. If anybody else has the motive to make much of himself, they are cruel. If God has any other motive he’s cruel, because God is the infinite satisfaction of the human soul. If God diminishes God, if God downplays God, if God commends something better than God, then God would be cruel to you. But if you commend anything but God, you’re cruel. In other words, when Satan came to Adam and Eve in the garden and said, “Look, don’t you realize that you could be like God?” They were tempted to do what you suggest you might do on Sunday morning.

The temptation was, “You can get this for yourself. You don’t need to be dependent like a little child or like a mirror. You can get it for yourself. You can shine, you don’t have to reflect.” And they bought it, and destroyed themselves and everybody else in the process. They should have said, “I’m already like God in all the ways I should be, namely, I’m a reflector of God. I reflect back on his glory by enjoying my Father, my Friend. He’s all I need. I don’t need you and I don’t need independence, I have God.” God is not a megalomaniac when he makes much of himself, but we would be megalomaniacs if we made much of ourselves because we would be unloving, and that’s what is infinitely loving for God to do. Because when he draws your attention to himself, it’s like inviting you to a fountain, to a feast, to an art display. He is the ultimately satisfying reality in the universe.

John, I’m sure that when we finally, in whatever way, can begin to grasp that truth, the ground shifts at that point in time. I think it’s only then that we’re ready to see that God puts suffering into the world to display his glory in the cross. Because I’m sure that until we see that, we will always find ourselves fighting against suffering.

Right, that’s so true. There is a deep subterranean, tectonic soul plate that moves. That has to happen in a human being before what I said tonight can go home. And the fundamental difference is, how precious to you is the supremacy of God in all things? How precious to you is the absolute greatness, authority, sovereignty, holiness, and beauty of God? Absolute. Everything else is subordinate, along with all human beings. What does Isaiah say? He says, “The nations are like a drop in a bucket” (Isaiah 40:15). The question is, does that offend you? Here’s God in the scales and here’s all the nations. The weight goes down on the side of God. It’s like dust on the scales when God weighs on us with that kind of right, authority, and majesty. I mean, you may say to yourselves over and over again that all the galaxies in the universe are God’s handiwork, his finger work. They’re just finger work. He could put them out of existence just like that and he would do them no wrong. No wrong. Why is it that even Christians get in God’s face about their suffering? I’m going to offend so many people.

We don’t have a right to get in God’s face for anything. God can do you no wrong. If he tortures you every day for the rest of eternity, he does you no wrong. So you’re having a good day right now because you’re not in hell, and that’s absolutely true. It’s just absolutely true. You’re so right that until God just assumes, in the constellation of our affections and our minds, a massive place that puts everything else infinitely low (I use that word carefully), probably lots of the Bible is just going to make no sense at all.

I think the controversial thing that you’ve said is about how God causes suffering. Sometimes I know that Reformed theologians talk about a will of decree and a will of command.

Yes, that’s helpful.

I think maybe we need some help with that because I think for anyone who’s working their way through this for the first time, the idea that God would cause even the sin in the world so that he could exalt himself from the cross is difficult. We’re slowly getting there, but just when I think I’ve got that idea, I find myself straight up against God decreeing that which he despises.

Right. I’ll say again what I said earlier. Sometimes Reformed folks are criticized for being systematizers or being logic-driven. And the other groups — I won’t even put a name on it — are not. I’m 64 years old, and I’ve never fully read Calvin’s Institutes. I keep trying, and I find them really not nearly as good as Edwards, so I give up. I came to my theology through Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, not through systematic theology. My experience is that the Bible Reformed people are not the systematizers; they’re the ones who believe all the verses and just try to figure out a way to say it. And it’s those who insist on the philosophical presupposition of autonomy, or free will, that go other directions. If you define free will as “ultimate self-determination,” which is the technical meaning, there isn’t any such a thing in the Bible. You can’t find one verse that teaches ultimate self-determination. All you can find are verses that seem to imply that if you bring that assumption. People quote, “Whosoever will may come,” and think, “Isn’t that free will?” No. Why do they will to come? Why?

So that’s the foundation. I don’t give a rip what name you put on my theology, I just want to believe all the verses, and think long enough about them so that I’m faithful to them and say them. I have some people in some sermons say, “Hey, you’re going to get in trouble with that Arminian theology.” And others will hear sermons and say, “You’re going to get in trouble with that Calvinistic theology,” or whatever. I say, “Okay, that’s fine. Whatever.” I just want to say what’s in the text. I want to be faithful, properly understood.

Now when you move up a level, as you try to put verses together — because I don’t think God is a God of confusion — it can be more complex. One verse will say, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s the will of command. And another verse says, “The Lord killed the child” (1 Samuel 15:3). That’s David’s baby. The Lord killed him. Or it says in Exodus 4:11, “Who makes man seeing, or blind, or deaf,” or whatever. The Lord does all that. The Lord gives life, and the Lord puts to death.

So God is killing and he says, “Thou shalt not kill.” And God ordains that Joshua move in and clean house on all the Canaanites. So he’s commanding that they kill. He is ordaining a killing, so “Thou shalt not kill,” can’t be taken to make this a sin in God. And even if you define it as, “Thou shalt not murder,” God ordained the murder of the Son of God. Acts 4:27–28 says:

Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [were gathered] to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

So every driving of the nail was God’s will, and it was sin. See if this helps. I mean, it won’t help, it’ll just trap you. I personally believe that if you reject the sovereignty of God over sin — in other words, if you don’t have a category in your mind that God can will what he hates — you are going to eventually reject the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. Isaiah 53:10 says, “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him,” and he bruised him in one way only, through the sins of bruisers. So God willed Judas. He willed Pilate. He willed Herod. He willed the soldiers. He willed, “Crucify him. Crucify him.” He willed the thorns. He willed the stripes. He willed the nails. He willed it all for you. And if you say, “God can’t will that kind of sin,” then there goes the cross as an act of God-ordained love for you and a substitution for your sin. So we invent these terms “will of command” (like “thou shalt not murder”) and “will of decree” (like “my Son shall be murdered”). Do you get that? He used those terms, and I’m happy with them. Jonathan Edwards used them. Theologians come up with terms, just like the word trinity, or others. Do you want to clarify that?

No, I’m happy with what you’ve said and I think everyone else is too. I really do.

I doubt that.

Okay, but I want to take it to the next level and that is to say, let’s take it on a personal level because pastorally, we talk about the sufferings that God inflicted on Christ. And then from that, I extrapolate that God also inflicts sufferings willingly on me and on you, and on all the God’s people. I think I’ve heard you say, “We need to tell them that they will suffer.” And I find that when some individuals are suffering and you tell them that this was indeed the decree of God, it sets them free. They just begin to rejoice. They say, “It’s not random after all. The God who loves me has brought me through this because he’s fulfilling the designs of his glory and my long-term good.” They get that. And another person hears the very same thing, John, and it fills them with rage. They say, “If that’s how it’s going to be, I want nothing to do with this God.” Can you talk about that? Why is that?

Well, it’s true, that’s for sure. Timing is part of it. Pastorally, timing is part of it. You don’t walk into a hospital room and say the hardest things to broken people who’ve just experienced something horrible. There’s an ashen, dead husband on the table. You don’t say anything hard. You just hug and cry. That’s what you do, right? Everybody knows that. I mean, I hope you know this. The reason it’s wonderful to be a pastor is that you get to teach them long before that moment so that you don’t need to say anything. They know what you think. You don’t need to say it. They may have lots of questions, and they know the time will come when you’ll sit down and help them answer the questions, but right now, we’re just crying. So the first thing is that timing is really important, and human feelings are very, very important.

The second thing is the issue of how central God is in our world, and there are people for whom they’re not there yet. And frankly, none of us is totally there. None of us is totally where we need to be in our worship of the supreme God, and therefore, in all of us it takes different forms. For me, it does not take the form of rebellion against God, like, “Where are you, and why don’t you come through?” It’s more like pouting that a situation went wrong, and if you get to the bottom of this pouting, it’s unbelief in the goodness of God, in his sovereignty over my life. It has all kinds of forms and none of us is where we need to be.

I think pastors should, over time, just constantly help people see that though there are problems that come with the sovereignty of God over disability, or over disease, or over calamity. Take those three. If you surrender the sovereignty of God, and opt for an alternative like God not being in charge, or God dropping the ball, or God not being wise, or God’s not good, the problems are so much worse. You take out from under the people the very thing they need to stand on for the next 10 years of adjustment to the loss they just experienced.

They think in order to rescue God from his guilt in taking the husband or the child, they have to take away his sovereignty, and in taking away his sovereignty, they take away the very rock that they’re going to stand on when the waves keep breaking over them in the days to come when they need something to hold onto. And my experience is exactly yours, that over time, more and more people at Bethlehem say to me in suffering, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t taught us about the sovereignty of God in what we’re going through.”

I’ll just give you a little advertisement here that has nothing to do with my books or anything. There’s a woman in our church, I think in her early 20s now, and her name is Krista Horning. You can go to our website to see her story. And she has a book called Just The Way I Am, Krista has a syndrome, and if you see her picture, I think she has no elbows and her face was distorted. She’s been through what? 50 surgeries, and she’s just golden.

She’s just a golden young saint that has been through horror, as you know people like this. She’s publishing a book, in the middle of April, in about a week or two, and it’s all built around children with disabilities in our church. There are pictures and there are testimonies everywhere, all built on the principle of God’s absolute sovereignty over disability. The key text is Exodus 4:11, “Who made man’s mouth? Who made him blind, or deaf, or seeing? Is it not I, the Lord?” In other words, there’s a whole band of people at my church who live lives of tremendous heaviness and brokenness.

I think of the Lockers, who wheel Michael in, dressed to the T. We call him “the President.” I think he’s 10 now, and Michael can’t talk. He has the mind of a six-month-old, I suppose, and he has continuous seizures. He’s sitting at the back during worship. Sometimes he calls out, and our church is all over this, right? Just like you are here, as we were talking about it. We’re just all over this.

He’s good. He’s wise. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s going to make those people completely able to relate to him in every way someday. That’s good news. At least to that amazing group of people, that’s good news. You’re right, it will not be good news to everyone, but let’s give them time. Everybody is in process. Do this with teaching, patience, and love.

Very good. Now I’m going to take questions in just a second here. I need to ask one more so that we bring this to a close, because this is a pastor’s conference. And I’m going to ask you, is it true that for pastors there is a measure of suffering that has been appointed simply as proclaimers of the gospel? If that’s true, why is it that God has demanded that those proclaim the gospel also bear a measure of suffering that goes with that proclamation?

I think it’s true. I would base it on 2 Corinthians 1:3–7, where the comfort with which we have received we’re going to use to comfort those who are in any difficulty. That’s true for everybody, but it’s especially true for pastors.

I want to be careful because I don’t want to give the impression that somehow people think, “Wow, I’m a pastor, I bear this heavy load, and woe is me.”

I think it’s by God’s design that wounded shepherds learn suffering so that they may be better shepherds. They are better shepherds in the seminary of suffering. Luther said that one of the best hermeneutical helps to him was suffering, according to Psalm 119:71. It says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep your precepts.”

I think the answer is yes, that God designs it. Satan hates us. If we drop the tray, more plates break. And so his opposition toward pastors, I think, is probably intensified. I think more demons are assigned toward us and more arrows fly toward us, and therefore, we must fight more vigilantly. And when the arrows land, or when there is attack or suffering, we should always think, “This is going to be for the good of my people. This is going to be for the good of my people.” At least that’s been my experience.

Well, I’m now going to start with some questions that have come in. Here’s a question that says, “In the context of extending the ministry of the suffering of Christ, how do you know, like Paul, when to flee in a basket or when to go ahead to Jerusalem knowing what awaits you?” I don’t. And that’s a very practical and urgent question, especially for missionaries in difficult places right now. It’s a tough question for mission executives who have to make a call about whether to pull people out of Yemen, say, or Syria. What we have in the Bible is both. And maybe the best thing I could do is to commend a book by John Bunyan, because Bunyan chose to be in jail for 12 years. He could have gotten out any time he wanted by signing a statement that said, “I won’t preach.” He had four children, and one of them was blind, little Mary’s, and he chose to stay in jail. I don’t know if he made the right decision, that’s a tough call, right? He had a wife, and he had kids. One of them was blind, and he was choosing to sit in jail when he could have gotten out if he just didn’t preach. But he said, “I can’t do it,” and he stayed.

He wrote a book called Advice to Sufferers, and there’s a section in it precisely on when to flee and when to stand. He just reflects biblically on all the places where they stood and all the places where they fled, because there’s nothing that says in the Bible that says, “You must lose your life the first time it’s threatened.” That’s not in the Bible, but many Christians have chosen to lose their life rather than flee, or lose their life rather than deny the Lord. So I do not know the answer to that. I hope that when I’m faced with something like that, I will be given supernatural strength and supernatural discernment to know what’s best, all things considered.

I think the question sometimes also takes root when we bring it to our own context. And many pastors are being severely criticized, and they’re struggling with the question of, “Is it time for me to stay or is it time for me to go?” Many times I’ll speak with pastors that will be in that dilemma, not knowing how to make that choice of wisdom.

Here’s a story. My dad was an evangelist, and spoke in a thousand churches across North America until he passed away. He was a little mini Billy Graham. He had 500 person crusades instead of 50,000 people crusades. And he said to me one time, “There’s so many discouraged pastors, and I find that so many of them leave just before the revival would’ve happened.” I don’t know how he knew that, but his impression was that God might have been on the brink of something, and the pastor just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m sure not going to criticize pastors who get beat up and decide to go to a pastor where they’re a little more appreciated. Because I’ve only been in one church in my life, and I’ve been so loved at that church that I’ve not walked through so many of the battles that brothers go through.

I do think as well, some of the things that you’ve been sharing to be the case. When a pastor goes through these things, he should not somehow believe that something strange or unusual is happening to him. I know when I left seminary, nobody told me that. I know I read that in the Scripture, but somehow I had not yet internalized that. And it is, I think, something that we ought to keep in mind. I have another question: “How can pastors prepare the churches for suffering for Christ in the future?

The short answer is to teach about suffering, just biblically. You just alluded to the text in 1 Peter. First Peter would be a great place to start. Teach through 1 Peter, do an exposition of 1 Peter. And you get to 1 Peter 4:13 and say, “Think it not strange brothers, when the fiery ordeal comes upon you.” Teach your people suffering is normal. It’s not strange. To suffer is not strange for a Christian in the first century. So teach them.

The only other thing I think I would say is, make the supreme value of Jesus prominent in your preaching. Because Paul said that whether by life or by death, Christ will be magnified (Philippians 1:20). So clearly, what was supreme to Paul was not staying alive and not dying, but rather Christ being magnified. And the only way that makes sense is if Christ is supremely valuable. So I would say a stream that should be running through all your preaching is that he is supremely valuable.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matthew 13:44).

That’s what everybody should feel about Jesus. We should think, “I’m going to sell everything I have, if I have to, to have this field. If I lose everything and I get the treasure, I’ve got everything.” Here’s an illustration of that. It’s a quick story. This is great. It’s about John Newton. He said, “A person who complains is like a man on his way to New York to inherit a million dollars.” Now, this is 200 years ago. The man is on his way in a carriage. I don’t know why I use New York, he’s British. He’s on his way to New York, and one mile outside of New York, the carriage breaks down and the wheel falls off. And he has to walk a whole mile to go get a million dollars for his inheritance. And the man, all the way to New York says, “My carriage is broken, my carriage is broken, my carriage is broken.” He said, “That’s the Christian walking to heaven.” I was very convicted by that story.

We’ll take one more question: “How can we as a congregation offer practical support for our pastors?” This obviously is a congregation member. They say, “How can I or our congregation offer practical support to our pastors as they are suffering?” That’s a great question.

That is a great question.

Would that we all had parishioners who asked those questions, praise God.

The simple and general answer is, pray for them. Let’s be more specific. Know your pastor, and I don’t mean everybody can know them that well. But there should be a core of elders, or friends, or whoever is around this man. Maybe there are half a dozen guys especially, but also couples who know the couple and they know them well, really well. There are no secrets. It doesn’t have to be many, but some. The women know Noël deeply. They know her deeply, in all of her pain and all of her happiness, she’s there. And they know me. They know every temptation, they know everything. They just know. That’s really essential because how do you serve? How do you care if you don’t know? If you suffer in utter loneliness, nobody knows the phone calls I get. Nobody knows the emails I get. Nobody knows what we’re going through as a couple. Nobody knows. That’s horrible. So over time, cultivate that. Don’t be afraid of that. Some guys really are afraid of vulnerability like that.

I have found that at Bethlehem, a culture of transparency in the church, especially in the leadership, a culture of trust and transparency takes a while. I mean, it may take a long time if you come into a very distrustful, suspicious, unhelpful, uncaring, and dysfunctional church. You may have to build for 10 or 15 years before there is such a thing. But the goal is to be known. And then in that being known, to have people around you with the courage to tell you what you need and to give you what you need. So I think that would be the core thing. Have people surround you with a lot of grace and a lot of mercy, and care for you. That’s the way I’m being cared for in my church right now. My schedule just got so out of hand that I’ve asked the church for an eight month leave of absence. This is a true confession because what do I have to lose? I’ve asked the church for an eight month leave of absence starting in May, and this is one of my last hurrahs.

There will be no Twitter, no blogging, no speaking, no preaching, no traveling, no book writing, no essays, no reports, no committees, nothing, so that I can devote all of my attention to my soul and my wife. And my elders, when they heard me yearn and ache, said, “Whoa, that sounds serious.” And we took two months back and forth, and a little committee was formed to meet with Noël and me. We met with each other and met with a counselor to just talk that through. And then I preached on it two Sundays ago. You can go listen to the 14-minute excerpt from the sermon from two weeks ago, about how I laid that before the church and how I tried to keep them from panicking, thinking, “Oh, he’s about to get a divorce,” or something like that. I would worry about that if I were them, I think, if my pastor started saying, “I need to reconnect with my wife for eight months.”

What I’m illustrating in answer to the question is, my elders got on that big time. They didn’t just roll over and play dead. They didn’t just say, “Of course.” They didn’t just say, “No way.” They really dug in. We’ve been really, really candid with each other, and they have plans and they worked it through. I personally think it’ll be very good for the church, though it’s shaky and threatening to be away for eight months. But they loved us and cared for us. It would’ve been really terrible, I think, if there had not been a core group of guys who knew this was coming, they knew it was coming. We were talking, they were close. David and Karen Livingston, if you’re watching, thank you. They know everything. There is nothing in our lives that they don’t know. And then it moves out to another core of about four couples, and then out to about 35 elders, and then out now to the congregation, and each knows a little more. And that’s the safe way to do it.

When you’ve been at a place for 30 years, you have enough friends and enough capital of affection that you feel safe. I really did. I felt very, very safe. I didn’t feel threatened. So to the people who ask that question, work with your pastor to cultivate a really sweet culture of transparency and trust in the church, along with a lot of grace. Grace is deeper still.

I hate to add anything, that seems like a note to end on. But I feel, as a result of what’s been said, to say also to pastors who have a longing in their heart to have what you have, and they don’t have it. Perhaps they don’t have elders and work in a church council, and that council gets elected and reelected, and the thing just washes over, and there never gets to be that kind of a relationship they garner. As the years go by, they feel more deeply lonely. I was speaking to one person today who said, “I asked for a sabbatical, and they basically laughed.” They said, “We don’t get one, why should you have one?” There’s a longing in their souls, and there are going to be some of the brothers here who preach, who would long to have even one or two men they could walk with that way, but they don’t have it today. I think you and I would probably join together and say, even in that, God is sovereign in the middle of even that suffering.

They wish they had a board like John Piper had, but they don’t. And they can content themselves, as David said and encouraged himself in the Lord when they talked about stoning him, to find courage even in that.

And I wish I could walk you through 30 years. It wasn’t always like this. There were 300 gray-haired people in this church in 1980, and no young people at all. All of them were suspicious of me, except maybe five. They were thinking this young rascal is here using this church as a stepping stone to seminary. There wasn’t a lot of trust, and we’ve been through horrific things together. There were 230 people who left the church in 1993 when one of the staff members committed adultery, and almost got myself fired because I preached a sermon called Missions and Masturbation. That’s really sensitive. I mean, it hasn’t always been this way.

I can understand why not.

But do hang in there. We are pastors of large churches, but I still go to meetings where I give talks to 30 people, and it is so good. You walk into a room and you’re hoping maybe several hundred, and there’s 30 or 40 people, and you just say to yourself, “This is so right, this is so good. If I don’t love these people and give my best for these people, I’m just a jerk feeding off the fame of thousands. That’s just so godless if I can’t love this little flock here.” So God is good to us. He gives us what we need, the hard times and the good times. And frankly, I expect more hard times. I don’t know what the future holds. Getting old won’t be easy.