Treasuring Christ and the Call to Suffer

Part 1

Wheaton College | Wheaton, Illinois

The following is a lightly edited transcript

There are at least seven aims that I have for you. I’ll mention them briefly, and you can pray with me toward these goals that God might be pleased to achieve them in these times together.

1. Suffering is Essential

I would like to persuade you that your suffering is essential.

It’s an essential part of the Christian existence. You must suffer and you will suffer. Acts 14:22 says:

…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

2. Suffering for Christ

I hope to be able to help you suffer in a way that will make Christ look great.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

So there is a way to suffer that makes Christ look great and there’s a way to suffer that makes him look inadequate for you.

3. Taste and See Christ

I hope to help you taste and see that Christ is more precious than everything else in the universe, including life.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:25).

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8).

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you (Psalm 63:3).

So one of my goals is that you would spiritually taste Christ as supremely valuable, more than anything else in your life.

4. For You

I want to help you believe that nothing will happen to you apart from God’s will in your life, and that in the worst of times he is 100% for you and not against you if you are in Christ.

Let me say that again. I would like to help you believe that nothing will befall you apart from his good, sovereign will for your life. And he is, in all of that, even in the worst of times, 100 percent for you. Not 99.9 percent, but totally for you and not against you, even in the worst of times, if you are in Christ.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:28–31).

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32).

Yes, he will. Everything you need is yours in Christ.

5. In Christ, By Faith

I would like to persuade you that you are in Christ by faith alone, apart from any works that you do before or after your conversion.

…I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:8–9).

If being in Christ is the place where everything works together for our good, how you get there really matters. And it is not by works of any kind at all, before or after your conversion, but by faith alone. What a place to be.

6. Suffering, Hardship, and Risk

I would like to motivate you and empower you to embrace suffering, to embrace hardship, and to embrace risk and danger for the relief of human suffering, especially eternal suffering.

May Wheaton not be one of those ludicrous places where it is thought loving to relieve human suffering only to prepare people for hell. Let it not be taught here, believed here, that you have to choose between those.

I pray, oh God, that there would be martyrs here, ready to embrace the hard places like we just heard in the prayer; places like Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or Algeria. Places where nobody wants you to come and they’re all hell-bound. And love will go. Love will embrace it. Love will choose it. Love will leave these glorious places. So my sixth aim is to motivate and empower hundreds of you to embrace the hardest places and the hardest tasks in the world at your life’s peril.

…If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:34–35).

7. Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing

I am praying that God will use these talks to introduce you into, or just confirm you in, a mysterious way of life, summed up in a little phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10 that we wave over our church over and over again. And the phrase is this: sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. You’re young. You’ve hardly tasted that. Some of you do not know what I’m talking about and some of you do. But you will, God pleasing. That’s the paradox of the Christian life.

Maybe I could try to explain why by some testimony. In July, I got a phone call that one of my co-pastors had received word that his dad killed his step-mom and then killed himself. Three weeks ago, a young grandmother in our church got word that her seven year old, Zach, was killed by a pit bull in his basement. That little boy goes to my daughter’s school. He was in first grade, and she’s in fifth. They started school yesterday and Zach was a big deal.

Two weeks ago, one of our women had her brother swept away in the floods in Southern Minnesota. They found him a few days later, dead. This past Friday, as many of you know, I did a funeral. I think perhaps the biggest funeral we’ve ever had at Bethlehem, for a Wheaton graduate who was 24 years old. He took his own life Monday a week ago. His dad and I graduated from Wheaton together, so this was a very deep moment for us.

And yesterday, I called our pastor for counseling to see how his new grandbaby was doing. And he said, “If he lives the night, there might be a chance.” He’s still alive, but now he says, “If he lives the week, he could be one of those beautiful, sweet Down Syndrome kids.”

Now, our church is not unique. There’s nothing about what I just documented that’s unique. Three thousand children a day die of malaria. Our missionaries get malaria like people get headaches. Thirty million people have died of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fifty million people die every year in the world, six thousand die every hour, and one hundred die every minute; and most of them don’t die in ripe old age, sleeping away on their couch. Most of those fifty million a year die young, and most of them die in agony. So while we’re talking here, one hundred a minute are dying, and if you could hear, there would be so many screams you would go insane.

Only one person in the universe can know everything without going insane, and that’s God. If you were just surrounded by a fraction, visibly and sensibly, of the suffering that’s happening right now in the world, you would tear your flesh off. You could not stand it. God parcels out our awareness in small doses, lest we go under.

So how can you live in a world like that as a loving person and obey the command, “Rejoice in the Lord; and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:8)? He wrote that from prison. And the answer is by learning the mystery of 2 Corinthians 6:10 — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. And if that feels like an emotional impossibility for you, ask the Lord to perform the miracle. Because the Bible says, “Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). And guess what? You always know somebody in both circumstances. If you plan to go into the ministry, you will know hundreds of people, always, at every hour, in both circumstances, so that life becomes absolutely unlivable unless you can be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

The reason I mentioned the experiences of our church is simply to stress that in what you will hear, God willing, in the times that we have together is simply not theoretical. I love theology. To me, all theology is pastoral theology. I have no choice. All theology is missionary theology. All pastoral work is theological. It relates to God one way or the other, and I better know which way. I have to talk to people. I don’t have a choice just to discuss these matters. A sermon has to be ready every Sunday after every tragedy. And I love it that way.

People came up to me knowing that this funeral was coming last week, and they said, “We’re praying for you. We’re praying for you.” I said, “Thank you very much.” They said, “We know this is hard.” And I said, “It is hard, but there is no place on the planet I would rather be than behind that pulpit in front of my friends.” Because we are not speechless. We have a great revelation. We have news that is absolutely spectacular about this world. Woe to us if we are silent and do that mumbo-jumbo as if to say, “Well, there’s just nothing to say here in the face of this awful suffering.” There is something to say. God has not spoken in vain.

If you hope to survive your own suffering with faith and joy, and be of use to others in their suffering, you must have a theology of suffering. It’s not optional. You must think about God, Christ, death, life, and cancer, and put it all together and speak biblically. And I hope that I can help you do that.

The Necessity of Christian Suffering

So let me take the few minutes that are left and underline one of the things I have already said; namely, suffering is an essential part of your Christian existence. And I take the word essential really seriously. It’s chosen very carefully. It is of the essence of the Christian walk in this fallen age that you suffer.

Now, let me support that with a few passages of scripture. I already referred to the first one from Acts 14:22. Do you remember Paul in his first missionary journey up through Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium? He came back a few months later, pausing in each of the churches and strengthening them. And what did he say? His discipleship 101 is summed up by Luke with these words:

[He came] strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

It does not say may, but must; and it does not say few tribulations, but many. So if you’re into evangelism and discipleship, get that on the plate quick, like Paul did. If you’re a new believer, count on it. Tomorrow, it will go bad for you. Be ready. Stand strong. Christ is King. You’re a warrior. Don’t fall. Put the shield up. Take the sword out. It’s going to go bad. That’s Christianity.

Another verse is 1 Thessalonians 3:3. Paul had just planted the church in Thessalonica. He had gone away, and he wrote a letter back, sending Timothy. He sent Timothy back to establish and exhort them in their faith, so that:

no one would be moved by these afflictions, for you yourselves know we are destined for this.

This is your destiny — suffering. It is our appointment. It is of the essence. Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you (1 Pet 4:12).

Second Timothy 3:12 says:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

We have domesticated the word godliness to the point where that makes no sense, but it made sense then, and it should make sense now.

Romans 8:16 says:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

There is one God appointed path to glorification: suffering. There is no other one. If you are making it your life’s ambition to avoid suffering, you will forever have suffering. If you make it your life’s ambition to avoid suffering, you will perish and suffer forever. It is our appointment. It is of the essence. And all of that Pauline talk is based on Jesus's talk, is it not? That’s where you would go, wouldn’t you?

  • If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household (Matthew 10:25).

  • If they persecuted me, how much more will they persecute you? (John 15:20).

  • Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did of the false prophets (Luke 6:36).

  • Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).

  • …any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33).

We were having devotions as a family the other night, and I have an 11 year old daughter still at home. We read that verse and I said, “Talitha, what do you think it means for you that you can’t be a disciple of Jesus if you don’t renounce everything you have?” And she just shook her head. Those words were too big. And I said, “It means this: every doll in your bedroom, all your friends at Hope Academy, your mommy and your daddy, your four brothers and their wives and their children that you love so much, must be less precious to you than Jesus. So that if they’re all taken away in death and only Jesus remains, you’re okay. That’s what it means.”

The Nature of Christian Suffering

I have one last question. You have heard me do something that may not be exegetically careful. I have lumped together pit bulls, floods, suicide, murder, and persecution all in one big affliction pot, and then I used it everywhere I saw suffering in the New Testament. And those of you who are careful might ask, “Are you sure you want to do that? Do you think when Paul said ‘through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom’ he meant cancer”? Or did he mean persecution? Do you think when Paul said, ‘If we suffer with him, we will be glorified with him,’ he meant sickness? Or did he just mean when people treat you badly because you’re a Christian?”

I did not accidentally lump those in one pot. I have them in one pot because I think the Bible has them in one pot. And I’ll try to explain why as I close. The reason this is so important is that in all the rest of our talk, two times tomorrow and the next day and then tomorrow night, I’m just going to talk about suffering. I’m not going to talk about little pieces of suffering, as if to say, “Oh, this is the kind you get when you’re persecuted, and this is the kind you get when your mom is dying of cancer; and this other type of suffering you have to go through, I don’t have anything to say about.” That’s not the way I’m thinking. I’m thinking about these big, awful, miserable realities that you don’t want to happen and they happen, of whatever kind.

So here’s my first reason for dumping them all in one pot. Paul lists his sufferings at least twice. In 2 Corinthians 12:10 he says:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Now, analyze all those words. I circled insults and persecution. Those are for sure coming at him because he’s a Christian, but the others — weaknesses (same word as diseases), hardships, and calamities — are not as clear. He also lists his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28, talking about his own imprisonments, beatings, and stonings. Then he lists “dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers…toil, hardship, and cold.” None of those last ones are necessarily owing to his being a Christian. Rivers don’t get on you because you’re a Christian. Cold is cold, whether you’re a Christian or not.

My second reason for lumping them all together, besides the fact that Paul seems to, is that when I try to distinguish them, it doesn’t work. So Paul said, “Five times, my back was lacerated 39 times” (2 Corinthians 11:24). It’s inconceivable to me what his back must have looked like after five times of 39 lashes over several years. Now, you have to believe, like Walter Wangerin stated in his novel, this back was hard to live with. Probably, not knowing anything about germs in those days, it got infected. Infections bring fevers, and fevers bring all kinds of things. How far out does the causality get before you say, “This is disease, not just persecution. This fever that comes a month later because of that remaining infection is just fever”?

And my third reason for lumping them all together, besides the fact that Paul seems to and I can’t distinguish them carefully, is that all affliction of whatever kind in your life has the same potential to destroy your faith or make Christ look great. If you have cancer or you have conflict because of your Christianity at work, it’s the same issue. Will Christ be enough? Will he be enough when my health is failing and enough when my friends are failing? Will he be enough? And if he’s enough, he’s going to look great.

And so, the issue of treasuring Christ and magnifying Christ is the same issue, whether it’s cancer or whether it’s persecution. So my main point as I close today is that suffering is an essential part of your Christian life. You will suffer. You must suffer. And my prayer is that in our times together, you and I would become better at it. And not only better at it when it comes, but so good at it in Christ that we will walk right into it the way Jesus did.