The Answer to Our Suffering

Suffering. Who wants to talk about it? Yet who doesn’t want an answer to their own suffering? The surprise of the New Testament is that no final, explicit answer is given for our own individual pains and tragedies. The answer presented instead is something unexpected: the suffering Jesus. 

Crucifixion is probably the cruelest way to die ever invented by man. Even the word cross was seldom uttered in public at that time because of the horror and shame associated with it. Death came by slow exhaustion and eventually suffocation as there was no longer any strength to pull up one’s body on the nails to breathe. Added to the unimaginable physical suffering of Jesus was the emotional suffering of mockery and ridicule from the watching crowd. 

But the worst part of His suffering was spiritual. This is given a cosmic context as darkness came over the land from noon to 3 PM (Mark 15:33). Darkness is spoken of by the prophets as accompanying the all-important Day of the Lord. But perhaps more significant is that the plague of darkness came right before the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. It signified God’s cursing of the land and consigning it to judgment. This is what Jesus felt now, the curse of the Father on Him as the unique Son of God, for the sins of humanity. For the first time in creation, the bond between the Father and Son was torn asunder. The love Jesus had always known to sustain and comfort Him, even that was now gone. He drank the cup of God’s wrath for us down to the bitter dregs.  

But the question still remains: how does any of this help us understand the suffering in our own lives?

My mother died from suffering a rare form stomach cancer. Her last two months were especially brutal as we watched her slowly waste away from starvation. So many friends came to her visitation to tell us how much they loved our mother and how sorry they were. But I will never forget one person, who proceeded to stop and give me a five-minute theological dissertation on why God had allowed this suffering in my mother’s life. It came off as not only inappropriate but insensitive. I remember feeling bothered and then angered by such a monologue.

My reaction triggers an insight. Perhaps we really don’t want an answer to our sufferings as much as we think. Perhaps what we need and ache for is presence, the presence of others, their comfort and love, and that’s just the kind of answer we get with Jesus. He doesn’t usually give us individual answers to our suffering in this life. If anything, He said that following Him would increase our suffering here. Remember that Job also never got a final answer to his suffering, but he got something else, something better: he got to be in God’s presence and hear His voice. With Jesus, we get this and more. He came to take on all of the suffering we will ever know and then more that we will never have to experience. The God of the universe took on human flesh to come and share in our suffering, to be with us, to comfort us, and to tell us of His love. Then He sent His Spirit so that we could know and feel His presence in our hearts. This is what we most long for. 

When Jesus asks us to follow Him, it’s an invitation to be with Him in all of our sufferings, both from this fallen world and from our association with Him. This is not a ticket to despair, but an opening doorway into joy. All the saints throughout the ages can testify to this truth.

Let us make every effort to enter that door with our own suffering so that we can know that joy.

 

The Beautiful Defeat

When I read the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-36), I feel like taking my shoes off. I am standing on holy ground. Here we see Jesus beginning to feel the weight of His impending crucifixion as it bears down on Him. The terrible physical suffering lay ahead, but that did not hold the most dread for Him; it was separation from His Father. By bearing our sin, He would be cut off from the One in whom He had lived His whole life. Jesus went to pray in that garden to find comfort from His Father, but instead found the bowels of hell opening up.

In that anguished moment, He cried out, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (v.36). The cup refers to God’s judgment, a metaphor used by the prophets to speak of drinking the cup of His wrath as a cup of wine. Jesus knew that His Father’s will was to go to the cross, and He was determined to surrender to it, yet even in that agonizing surrender, He addressed God as Abba, the Aramaic term for Daddy. There is no record of any Jewish prayer at that time ever using this term, one that implies such intimacy and love. It would have been considered disrespectful to address God this way. Yet for Jesus, it was the way He felt about His Father. 

He learned in the garden to surrender to that will because He had already surrendered to that love. 

How does this connect to our own stories? We are all enslaved to our wills, determined to find the life we long for in our own way. Yet in doing so, we all repeat the fall of Adam and Eve. They were seduced into thinking that God was holding out the best and giving them the leftovers. The doubt the serpent put into their minds still reverberates in ours: Is God really good? He’s really holding out on you. If you want anything good out of life, you will have to go out and get it yourself. God can’t be trusted. And so begins the attempt to be gods of our lives. So also begins the tragedy of our lives. Our best attempts become our worst nightmares. We make a mess of everything. But the call of the gospel is a call to surrender back to that will, to the Father whose goodness is utterly delightful. What does that surrender look like?

First, we learn to surrender our wills each and every day. When we do, we begin to discover the terrible lie of the enemy. God is not holding out on us. His will is not something that will make us miserable. He is the Father who longs to give good gifts lavishly to His children. Paul describes that will as “good, pleasing, and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). We find that what He desires for us is what we have deeply longed for anyway. 

But the harder surrender is still come—surprisingly, it is the surrender to His love. In all of our lives, there are shameful places we don’t want others to see and patterns of sin that seems impervious to change. It is in these very places that God wants to meet us, not with His plans for improvement but with His very love. Yet He must often sneak up on us when our defenses are down. 

Just such a moment happened over Christmas vacation as I was reading a book that contained written prayers based on various personality types. One of the prayers I turned to felt like someone had read my journal and knew of my deepest struggles. At one point, it mentioned the sadness of feeling love toward others much more when they are not present than when they are—something that has troubled me for years but has resisted all attempts to change. In that moment I felt utterly exposed before God and yet paradoxically loved by Him as well. There was no call to be better, just a call to receive the love of a Father for a son unable to heal himself. The tears surged forth, not over my lack of love but over the torrent of love I felt from Him. In that moment I was able to surrender to that love.

For all of us, surrendering to the Father's will and then to His love will be at times a terrible battle, but in the end it can be a beautiful defeat.

This is how we enter the story that He wants to tell with our lives.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Why We Are Like The Phantom

There is something about the Phantom of the Opera that has always spoken deeply to me. If you remember the story, the Phantom lives in the bowels of the Paris Opera House, fated to live alone because of the hideous face he was born with. He is a musical genius, yet he longs for love and finds the possibility of it in Christine, a young woman whose voice he has trained. As the musical proceeds, he becomes more and more consumed with demanding love from Christine, even to the point of kidnapping her and taking her down to his hideout, threatening to keep her there forever. But Raoul, Christine’s other lover, comes to rescue her from the Phantom’s clutches. As the musical ends, we find that Raoul and Christine were married, but the Phantom remained alone for the rest of his life.

I think the Phantom is such a good picture of fallen humanity. He experiences shame and hides behind a mask (doesn’t that sound familiar?). He lives alone and yet longs to be loved. Ironically, it is the very mask he hides behind that keeps him from true love and union. He demands love from Christine and manipulates her through fear to get it, failing in the end.

There is so much of my own story parallel to the Phantom. As a musician, I too have known the power of music and song. As someone bound by shame over both my body and soul, I too hid myself, wearing masks to hide behind. As someone who longed for love, I found it in a young woman when I was 15, but I too was caught in a love triangle, as she was already dating another young man. But instead of responding like the Phantom with anger and threats, I did what became characteristic of me for years: I simply capitulated and let her go. To desire love and have it denied stung me so badly that I decided it was better not to desire love any more. So I chose the route of locking my heart in a vault and trying not to need anyone. I became disciplined, dutiful...and dead. 

Now I know that my story is in some ways the story of every human heart. The longing for love and union is the deepest ache we all have, yet it hurts too much to keep the longing alive when rejected or denied. So we all to one degree or another bury the ache. But this maneuver doesn't just affect our relationships with others; tragically, it affects our relationship with God as well. How can you answer His call to be loved by Him when you have locked your true heart away? This is the dilemma we all find ourselves in, for how we solve our longing for love becomes the emotional template for how we come to God. If we have chosen to perform for love, this is how we approach God. If we try to manipulate and demand love, this is how we approach Him also. If we lock our heart away, we approach Him rationally or ritualistically. 

But Jesus said something striking about our core longing at the Last Supper: “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). The cup of wine that He is referring to is the fourth cup of the Passover, done at the end of the meal. It was the cup of consummation, referring to the pledge that God would come and take us to be His people. It is strikingly similar to what a man does with a woman as they pledge themselves to be married. The consummation would then be the wedding followed by sexual union. But here in this verse, Jesus pledges to come and take us to be with Him forever. 

What if we could see the Last Supper as His way of continually approaching us, inviting us into deeper union with Himself? What if He is trying to speak to us like this each time we take that meal in church? What would it look like to hear His voice telling us of His love for us, His desire to be with us, and His commitment to see that happen forever? What would happen if we knew He desired our company, not just corporately, but each one of us individually? To begin to answer these questions is to enter the story of the Bible, the story of a Hero who came to rescue His beloved. It is the story of being so treasured and so sought after that He bled and died to prove that love. 

But this story is no musical on Broadway; it's sober history. 

It’s a story worth entering.

The Secret of True Greatness

I need to admit something embarrassing: I’ve always wanted to be famous—to be great in the eyes of others. Despite the fact that I know many famous people live miserable lives, the longing has never gone away. It first erupted in my early 20’s when I wanted to be a recording star. Being born and raised in Nashville, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I wrote songs, recorded them, and got a well-known producer to mix the tracks, but it didn’t go anywhere. You can’t find me today in the iTunes store! Yet the ache to be famous still remained. It next surfaced in the ministry when I daydreamed of hundreds listening to me preach. Then it came out again in my work as a high school Bible teacher—wanting to be known as "The Teacher" by my students. Finally as an author, I succumbed to the notion that having my books read by thousands was the greatest of all goods in life. I suspect all of us have our own stories of dreaming about fame and greatness.

I always knew this desire was at some level wrong, yet trying to push it down or ignore it never worked either. Then one day I read these words from Jesus: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:33-34). Here’s the background: The disciples have been incensed over the request of James and John to sit at seats of honor next to Jesus. They all believed He would ascend to be the new King of a restored Israel, and they wanted a share of the greatness and power. Imagine being close friends with a political leader or a famous movie star, and you can feel the pull yourself. What is so instructive is that Jesus doesn’t squelch the idea of greatness. He just points out a new route to it: by serving those around you. The desire to be first, to be great, is not criticized or suppressed. He just points out a different way—by taking the lowest position and lifting everyone else up. 

In each of us there is a seed of greatness, for we are made in the image of a great God, Whose very presence is impact, Whose very being is great. This is what the Bible calls glory, and the Hebrew word for glory means heavy or weighty. It’s the glory we were meant to bathe in, but in our fallen state, we have lost that glory and now live in shame. Yet the longing for glory still remains in us—aching to matter, to make an impact, to be great. We all wonder, Does my life matter? Is there anything worthwhile noticing about me? Am I really significant or just invisible in the larger scheme of things? Without an answer from the true Source of glory, the longing quickly mutates into an obsession with fame and status, a compulsion for rank and power, and a demand to be noticed. 

But Jesus here gives us the true answer to our longing: we become great by honoring the greatness in everyone else.

Here there is such rest in the humble service of others, no longer jockeying for power, obsessing over our reputation, and constantly comparing ourselves with others. Augustine once noted that in going down through humility, we find ourselves going up into glory. We also become more like Jesus, for His unsearchable greatness lies precisely here: He honored the greatness in all of us by going down, all the way to the cross and dying for us. We are worth that much to Him.

How do we start this journey? We start by letting Jesus serve us as we allow ourselves to be quiet before Him. Here we will begin to feel noticed and affirmed by Him, even great in His eyes. We will feel glory again, so we don’t have to go around scavenging for it. Instead, we can now turn our hearts to quietly serve others and make them feel great.

This is the secret of true greatness.