Craig Smith - The Privilege of Pain
Well, welcome to Mission Hills, so glad to have you with us today. If you’re just joining us, I’m gonna you caught up real quick. We are in the midst of our Boundless Series. We’re working our way through the Book of Philippians in order to uncover the secret to living bigger than our circumstances because we all have circumstances that feel like they’re putting a lid on us, right? They feel like they’re limiting us, They’re holding us down, they’re keeping us back, and yet, the Apostle Paul, who wrote the Book of Philippians, said that he’s learned the secret to being content in any and every situation. In other words, that our circumstances actually aren’t the limiting factor that we think that they are.
And he should know something about that because he’s not speaking out of theory, he’s speaking out of practice. He was in some really difficult situations when he wrote that. We know that Paul had this dream of going to Rome, and Rome would become the launching point for preaching the Gospel and the rest of the world, so he’s so excited to come to Rome as a preacher. And he wanted to go to Rome.
He prayed about going to Rome. He worked hard at getting to Rome, and yet, he wasn’t getting to Rome. There’s just obstacle after obstacle. There’s closed door after closed door. It seemed like it wasn’t gonna happen, and then all of a sudden, he’s in Rome, but not the way he wanted to be. He was in Rome, not as a preacher. He’s in Rome as a prisoner. He didn’t go to Rome, he was taken to Rome, and he’s under 24/7 arrest in a Roman prison, being guarded and watched over. And so when he said that he’s learned the secret to being content in every situation, he’s in a difficult situation.
Last week, my friend Larry preached a really powerful message about how do we respond when the assignment we get isn’t the assignment that we wanted. I hope you heard that. If you didn’t, I really encourage you to check that out. You can do it on the Mission Hills website or on the app or wherever you get podcast because that’s a really powerful and very important teaching, how do we respond when the assignment we get isn’t the assignment that we wanted.
What we’re gonna talk about today is how to think about the suffering that comes when the assignment we get isn’t the assignment we wanted. Because the problem is that when we find ourselves in these circumstances that aren’t what we were looking for, there’s pain involved in that. There’s suffering involved. There’s hurt involved in that.
And what we’re gonna talk about today is how do we think about our suffering. Paul knew a lot about that. He was suffering, right? His circumstances weren’t pleasant. As Larry shared last week, Roman prisons made American prisons look like Club Med, right? That was an unpleasant place to be. His future was uncertain. He didn’t know if he was gonna live or die. He thought he might live. We saw that last week, but he didn’t know that for sure. He felt like his dream was being derailed. And those aren’t just like external things, like internally, he was in some pain. He was in some suffering. He was hurting in the midst of that. Maybe that resonates with you. Maybe you’re in that place where there’s pain in your life. There’s suffering in your life. Maybe it’s physical, it’s emotional, spiritual, it’s relational, but you’re hurting.
And what we’re gonna talk about today is how do we think about that suffering, how do we think about pain, because here’s what you need to understand. How we think about our suffering determines what it will accomplish in our lives, really important thing to understand. How we think about suffering determines what it accomplishes in our lives.
Let me speak two truths over you. The first truth I wish I didn’t have to say, and I probably don’t because you already know it, but we need to make sure we’re on the same page. Here’s the first truth, church. Suffering is certain. It’s inevitable. It’s gonna happen, like I really wish that weren’t true, but is anybody shocked? Okay. I didn’t burst anybody’s bubble. That’s good.
I mean, Jesus himself…Jesus didn’t say, “In this life, you might have some trouble.” Jesus said, “In this life, it’s possible that there’s an outside chance that you might on occasion experience…” somebody said. Jesus said, “In this life, you will have trouble.” Suffering is certain. It’s not the world that we were meant for. It’s the world that we made with our sin. But in a world that’s broken by our sin, suffering is certain. It’s gonna happen.
Second truth you need to understand, though, is this, is that suffering changes us. Suffering changes us. It does something in us. It impacts us. It transforms us. And it can go in two different directions. Suffering can build us up, but it can also break us down. And the question of what makes the difference, what makes suffering either build us up or break us down really is how we think about it. How we think about our suffering determines what it will accomplish in our lives.
What we’re gonna see today is that Paul thought about suffering in a way that’s very counterintuitive. In fact, it’s gonna feel…it’s gonna feel foreign. It’s gonna feel strange. It’s gonna feel hard to get a handle on, and yet I believe that the way he saw suffering is what enabled him to say, “I know how to be content in any and every situation.”
And understanding what Paul has come to understand about suffering has caused me to ask this question. I wanna ask you to ask yourself this question as we begin today. This is the question. “What would happen if I started, if I began to see pain as a privilege? What would happen if I began to see pain as a privilege, as a blessing, as something that I get to experience rather than something that I have to? How would that change my experience and how would that change what actually is accomplished in me through the suffering that I go through?”
Why don’t you go and grab your Bibles, start making your way to Philippians 1:27. Paul begins this way. He says, “Whatever happens.” And he’s, in part, talking about himself because he’s just told them, “I don’t know if I’m gonna live or die. I don’t know if I’m gonna get free or bail to come to see you or not. I don’t know.” But he’s also pitching forward to them.
He says, “It’s not just about me. Now it’s about you. Whatever happens in your lives, whatever happens in your city, in the city of Philippi, whatever happens, this’s what I want,” he says “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Whatever happens to me or to you, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
Now, the word conduct is interesting. You might even underline it. The original Greek, it literally means something like act like a citizen. It’s a very specific technical word. He says act like a citizen. And that was a word they were very familiar with because, in the city of Philippi, they were very proud of the fact that they were citizens of Rome. That wasn’t true of most of the other people in the cities around Philippi.
Most of the other people in the other cities, they were Roman property, but they weren’t Roman citizens. 42 BC, about 100 years before Paul wrote this, an interesting thing happened. A Roman general named Octavius had fought an important battle against two of his rivals on the plains outside the city of Philippi.
Well, the city of Philippi helped Octavius, and because of that, he won his battle and eventually went on to become the Roman Emperor. And when he did become the Roman Emperor, what he did was he rewarded the city of Philippi by making them all citizens of Rome. They were the only ones in the area that actually had citizenship, and they were immensely proud of that fact.
They talked about it all the time, and they worked really hard at living up to that privilege. They worked really hard to act like citizens, that word. And Paul uses a word now that they’re familiar with, that they use all the time, but he uses it with a little bit of a twist, right? He says, “No matter what happens, I want you to act like citizens.” But he’s not saying act like citizens of Rome. He’s saying act like citizens of heaven, right? Because that’s what the Gospel does. It makes us citizens of heaven.
The Gospel, the Good News, that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us for our sins that he rose from the dead and by faith in him we’re forgiven of our sins and we’re brought into the family of God also means that we become citizens of heaven. We’re strangers in a strange land. We’re an outpost of heaven in the rest of the world, very much like Philippi was an outpost of Rome in this other territory.
And what Paul says is, “Hey, you know, I know that you live in a city that’s immensely proud of their citizenship, and they’re always saying, ‘Hey, act like a citizen.’ Well, I’m telling you to act like a citizen but of a very different kingdom.” And what he wants them to do is he wants them to make their citizenship in heaven matter more than their citizenship in Rome.
And here’s an interesting thing. Here’s what we begin to see one of the privileges of pain, one of the positive things that comes from a suffering, and it’s this, that suffering forces us to make choices. And here’s the thing. Difficult circumstances allow us to cast a vote for who we want to be. Difficult circumstances allow us to cast a vote for who we want to be.
See, here’s the thing. As followers of Jesus, we would all love to think that our citizenship in heaven matters more than our citizenship in any other earthly thing, right? We would love to say that being a citizen of heaven matters more than I’m a citizen of America. We’d love to say that being a citizen in heaven matters more than my citizenship in a family or in a corporation or a career or Colorado, right? I mean, we love being citizens of Colorado, don’t we?
For those of you watching online, for other parts of the world, I’m sorry. I feel that, like sometimes when I’m in Kansas, I find myself thinking, “These poor people.” And then when I cross the border and welcome to beautiful, I’m like, “Huh, amongst my people, my tribe,” right? We can take immense pride in that kind of thing.
And so we all have these earthly kingdoms that we’re citizens of, and we can take a lot of pride and pleasure in that. And Paul’s not saying that that’s a bad thing, but he’s saying, “Hey, your citizenship in heaven needs to matter a lot more than your citizenship in these other things.” And we’d all love to think that that’s how we live.
But the reality is that we only actually are the people whose citizenship in heaven matters most when we choose to act like that. And it’s often in the midst of difficult circumstances that we’re given the choice. And so when we’re making that choice, we’re casting votes for the kind of person that we really wanna be.
I just finished reading an interesting book called “Atomic Habits.” It’s a practical book on how do you build good habits and break bad ones. It was a helpful book. There’s one part early in the book that really caught my attention, and the author said, he said, “Every time we make a choice, we cast a vote for the kind of person we’re gonna be.” Every choice is a casting of a vote for the kind of person we’re gonna be.
And if you think about it, I get in the middle of the night, and I go into the kitchen, and I open up the refrigerator, I’m about to make a vote. Right? Depending on what I choose to eat, like, you know, if I eat celery, which is never gonna happen, let’s just be clear about that, but if I choose to eat celery, I’m casting a vote for being a healthy person.
On the other hand, when I choose to eat fried chicken…and fried chicken at 1:00 a.m. is just magic, alright? When I choose fried chicken, I’m casting a vote for not being a healthy person, right?
When I decide I’m gonna go by the gym on the way home, or I decide, “No, I’m gonna go straight home,” I’m casting a vote for being a person who’s in shape or a person who’s not in shape. When I have a conflict with my wife, I have a choice. I’m casting a vote either for being a person who brings peace into relationships or who adds to the conflict. I’m a trouble stirrer upper, if that’s the word, right? That’s not who I wanna be.
But it’s in the moment when I have to make a choice. When I’m in a difficult situation, that’s when I cast a vote for who I’m really gonna be. And so he says to the church in Philippi, “I know that things are getting hard. Rome is paying attention to you. The other people around you, they’re starting to pay attention to you. They’re getting upset with you,” because here’s what was happening.
People in Philippi, they’re so proud of being Roman citizens. They worked hard at acting like citizens. And one of the ways they did that was they would say frequently in public gatherings, “Caesar is lord,” and the Christians are like, “Not really sure he is. I think Jesus is Lord. I don’t know that I can say that.” And the people in Philippi are going, “What are you doing? What are you doing? Do you know how much trouble this is gonna cause us? Say it.” “I don’t know that I can…”
And so they were forced in this place where they’re in a difficult painful, a suffering circumstance and yet, what it provided them was an opportunity to cast votes for who they’re gonna be. Are you gonna be the people, I mean, whom your citizenship in heaven matters more than anything else? Are you not gonna be those people? That’s the privilege that comes in this difficult circumstance. He says, “I know what I want you to be.”
Now he says, “Let me tell you how you cast the votes for that person that I know you want to be.” He says this. He says, “Then, when you’re conducting yourself in manner worthy, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that three things are true.” These are three ways that they’re casting votes.
He says, “I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the Gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” But he gives us there basically three ways that we cast votes for being the kind of people whose citizenship in heaven matters more than anything else. Three ways that he says you cast the votes.
The first one he says, “You cast votes by standing firm in the one Spirit.” The one Spirit here would be the Holy Spirit. When we say yes to Jesus, not only are we forgiven of our sins, adopted in the family of God, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, comes into us, takes up residence in us, and begins to transform us from the inside out. And all followers of Jesus have that same Spirit, all of us, no matter how many other differences we might have.
And a couple weeks ago, we talked about diversity in the Church and all kinds of differences in the Church, right? You know, we’ve got…we got black Christians, we got white Christians. We got Republican Christians and Democrat Christians. We got Calvinists Christians and Arminian Christians, and a whole bunch of people have no idea what that means, and that’s okay. We got charismatic Christians and non-charismatic. We got all kinds of Christians, but all kinds of Christians have one kind of Spirit. In fact, only one Spirit, the Holy Spirit.
And we have a choice as a church that is we can pay a lot of attention to all those differences, and well, you are over there because you’re that kind, and I’m over here because I’m that kind, and you’re over there because you’re that kind, and what happens at that point is there’s division and there’s a lack of unity, or we can say, “No, no, we’re gonna stand firm in the one Spirit that is common to all of us.”
And so how do we cast votes for being the kind of person whose citizenship in heaven matters most? We choose to pay more attention to what we have in common with each other than what we don’t. It’s the first way we cast votes. We choose to pay more attention to what we have in common than what we don’t. Yeah. We can talk about those other things. We can debate some of these other things. We’re not saying they don’t matter at all, but we’re saying they don’t matter as much as the fact that we all share in the same Spirit. And we’re gonna stand firm in that. We’re gonna do it. We’re gonna cast the vote by paying more attention to what we have in common than what we don’t.
The second thing is he says, “You cast votes by striving together as one for the faith of the Gospel.” In other words, he says you cast vote for being the kind of person whose citizenship in heaven matters most by choosing to live on mission, by choosing to live on mission. We choose to live on mission. That’s how we cast that vote. We choose to live on mission.
Well, how do we live on mission? We advance the Gospel. We extend God’s influence in the world. Every time we bring a light into a dark place in the name of Jesus, we’re extending God’s influence in the world and we’re living on mission. Every time we bring hope where there is despair, we are extending God’s influence in the world. Every time we bring healing where there’s hurt in the name of Jesus, we’re extending God’s influence. Well, every time we bring righteousness into a place where sin is running rampant, we’re bringing God’s influence further out into the world. Every time we look for an opportunity and take the opportunity to speak of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. Every time we share the hope, every time we share that Gospel, that Good News, we’re extending God’s influence. We’re living in mission.
Every time we even do simple things. It can be as simple as going, “You know, I’ve built a relationship with somebody, and my next step is I’m gonna invite them to come to church with me next weekend.” Just say to them, “Hey, we’re going through a series that I think might be powerful in your life, and, well, why don’t we go together?” Even something as simple as that is choosing to live on mission. And when we choose to live on mission, we are casting a vote for the kind of person we wanna be. We’re casting a vote for being the kind of person whose citizenship in heaven matters most.
The third one he says is this, “Without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” That’s the third way we cast the vote, without being frightened. Actually, the word he uses for frightened is interesting. It was a word that was often used in Greek of when a horse would get spooked.
And I think that’s really interesting because like horses are these massive creatures, right? But they can get spooked by really small things. I know this because I’ve spent a fair amount of time around horses. I’m gonna be honest with you. I don’t actually like horses all that much. I feel like they’re just kind of sketchy as a mode of transportation.
But my wife loves horses, and I love my wife. So I’ve spent a lot more time around horses than I would have otherwise chosen to. A couple years ago, we were in Ouray, we were on a ride over the Dallas Divide, and we were walking along this path that had this huge drop-off on the side. And I was on a horse that I thought was especially sketchy. And I was like, “You know, he could buck me off down that thing and I could die.” And it was about that moment as I was thinking about that that a chipmunk ran across the trail in front of us. And I’m not gonna exaggerate. Okay.
So it wasn’t that big a deal, but the horse spooked. He kind of like jerked back and shook, and I was like, “Yeah. I’m gonna die. This is it. It’s because of a chipmunk.” And there was a part of me that was just really mad at the horses. It’s like, “Do you know how big you are? Like, you are massive. And it’s that tiny. You could step on it. It wouldn’t even make you aware of its presence at that moment. You’d step on it squish it flat, and keep going and be like, “I just got something sticky on my foot.’ That’s all that would happen. That is all that would happen and yet, you’re about to kill me because you’re so scared of this thing. Stop.”‘ And it’s interesting. That’s the word that he uses here.
He says don’t be frightened. He says don’t be skittish. Don’t be spooked. And what he’s really saying is this. He says, “Yeah. I know that the people around you that are bringing pressure on you, they seem like a big deal, but they’re not as a big deal as your God. And, yeah, I know that they’re pointing to the power of Rome. And Rome seems like a really big deal, but I want you to understand. Rome’s not that big compared to your God either.
And so he says, “Don’t get spooked. Basically, he says, “Here’s how you cast the vote for being somebody who is more invested in their citizenship in heaven than anything else.” He says, “We choose not to live in fear of things that are smaller than our God. And do you know how many things are smaller than our God? All of them, all of the things, all of the things. No matter how big it might seem in your life, compared to God, it is insignificantly small. So don’t get spooked by it. So that’s the third way we cast our votes for the kind of people we wanna be, the kind of people whose citizenship in heaven matters most, we choose not to live in fear of things that are smaller than our God.
He says this. He says, “This is a sign. It’s a sign to them, those who would oppose you that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved, and that by God.” He says, “When you live this way, when you cast these votes…” And by the way, here’s the interesting thing. When we’re casting votes for becoming the people, we wanna be, you don’t have to win by a landslide. To become the kind of person you wanna be, you only have to win by a simple majority. You only have to cast more votes for the kind of person you want to be than the kind of person you don’t. And so you can mess up. You can make mistakes along the way. You go, “Oh, I cast the vote wrong there.” That’s okay.
All you have to do is cast more votes for who you wanna be, for the person whose citizenship is in heaven. And he says, “And when you do that, when you’re casting more votes in that direction, it’s gonna be a sign to everybody around you that they’re being destroyed.” Now, don’t take that as a threat. It’s not intended that way.
What he’s saying is that when you live as citizens of heaven first, they’re gonna recognize there’s something that you have that I don’t have. I’m putting my hope and my faith in this tribe, in this kingdom, in this citizenship, but honestly, I don’t have the stability, I don’t have the confidence, I don’t have the peace that come from where your citizenship resides. And it’s gonna reveal the inadequacies of their citizenships in these earthly things. They’re gonna recognize, “These things are falling apart, and I’m gonna be destroyed with them.” And so it’s gonna draw attention back to God, back to Jesus.
And then he says what is probably the most difficult part of this passage and maybe of the entire Book of Philippians. He says, “For it has been granted to you.” And you might underline that word, granted, if you’re able. He says, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you’re going through the same struggle you saw I had, and you now hear that I still have.” He says, “Good news, Church. We’re all in this together. You’ve seen that I’ve suffered with the Gospel. I’ve been in pain for the Gospel. Well, now you’re in pain. Now you’re suffering. Good news, we’re in this together.”
And then there’s this other little bit. What did he say, church? For it has been what? Let’s say it together. For it has been granted. Not it has happened. Not it inevitably comes to pass. No, no, he says, “It has been granted to you.” Do you know what that word means? It means a gift. It’s been gifted to you. In fact, actually in the original Greek…and I apologize, we’re spending a little bit more time talking about Greek words than we normally do, but I think it’s important you understand that the Greek word he uses for granted here is actually rooted in the Greek word for grace. You know what grace is, right? Grace is an undeserved gift.
Mercy is when God doesn’t give us the punishment that we deserve for our sin. That’s mercy. When we don’t get something bad we deserve, that’s mercy. Grace is mercy on steroids. Grace is when we get something good that we don’t deserve. This word that he uses for granted is a grace word. And so let’s be very clear. He says suffering is an undeserved gift from God. Not a lot of Amens on that one. Not a lot of people excited about that one, but that’s what Paul says.
He says, “You’ve been given an undeserved gift of not only believing in Jesus but also suffering.” Suffering is an undeserved gift. How on earth can you say that? I wanna explain to you why I believe Paul says that. I wanna talk about some of the privileges that come from pain if only we can see them.
And understand that the suffering Paul is talking about on one level is suffering for the sake of our faith. It’s suffering for the name of Jesus because of our faith, right? But on the other hand, I honestly believe that the principles that allow him to say that about suffering for our faith also hold true for every other kind of suffering that we face, every other kind of pain we experience in life.
And part of the reason I say that is because Paul wrote these words to the Church in Rome. Romans 8:28. He says, “And we know.” Not we guess, not we hope, not we think might be, but we know that in all things, not in some things, but in all things in your suffering for your faith also in your suffering just because the world is broken and hard things come into our lives, but in all things God works for the…what’s that word, church? For the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose. In all things, God works for good. So, not just suffering for our faith, but in all suffering, God works for good. Okay. So how is it then that suffering can be an undeserved gift. Let me give you six things.
The first one is just this. Suffering opens doors. Suffering opens doors that weren’t open before. We’ve seen this in the Book of Philippians. You know, Paul ended up in jail, and it seemed like a closed door to preaching the Gospel. But then he came to the recognition that for him to be, you know, a prisoner for 24/7, people had to be keeping him prisoner. People had to be watching him. Yeah. He might be a captive, but that meant that his prison guards were a captive audience.
And so he started preaching to them. He had access to the elite Roman guards, and through them, he was able to exert influence and to share the Gospel within the rest of the palace with the highest, most influential people in all of the Roman Empire he had access to because of his imprisonment and because of those guards that were watching him.
That was an opportunity he’d never had before. Suffering opened doors. Maybe you’ve seen the same kind of thing in your life. I’ve shared that my family and my youngest daughter’s been struggling with abdominal pain, chronic pain for the last two years. And that’s been a really frustrating process, and yet in the midst of it, we’ve met a whole lot of people we wouldn’t have met otherwise.
We’ve met doctors, and they’ve been able to see something about how our faith sustains us in this and this faith that my daughter has and the strength that she has because of her faith in the midst of all of this. And we’ve been able to speak that into the lives of a lot of medical professionals we would otherwise have never met.
People have come to us and said, “Hey, you know, I have a daughter,” or a granddaughter or somebody, “who’s struggling through some similar things.” And they’ve been able to speak some encouragement into my life, but I’ve been able to do the same to some of them as well. That’s an opportunity for ministry that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Suffering opens doors, and that’s a privilege.
The second one is that suffering creates platforms. It doesn’t just open opportunities. It gives us some credibility to speak into those situations. When we first had our girls, I discovered there was an entire class of people that I didn’t know existed, and they were what I would call parenting experts. People who were gonna tell you, “Here’s how you raise godly kids. Here’s what you do with all kinds of issues,” right? And I learned some stuff from them. Don’t get me wrong. I did learn from them.
But there was a subgroup inside the larger category of parenting experts that baffled me, and they were the people that were probably most emphatic, like, “We know how to do this. You need to read this book. You need to do this. You need to implement this practice.”
And when I would ask questions like, “Well, how many kids do you have?” Well, we don’t actually have kids yet. What? Sorry, conversation’s over. You go get some kids and then tell me how well your theories work out, right? Because it’s hard to speak into somebody’s life about a situation that you’ve never experienced, right?
By the way, I wanna be really clear here. I am not saying that having kids is suffering. I mean, it is, but that’s just not my point, okay? But it is. Honestly, it is because when you have kids, you suffer. You lay awake at night and you worry about them, and you worry about how badly you’re messing them up, right? You realize early on they’re not like an Etch-A-Sketch. The damage you do during the day, you can’t just shake them overnight, like, “We’re starting fresh tomorrow” and like, “Yeah. I caused some real damage.” And you’re like, “How badly is this gonna mess them up as adults,” right? That’s suffering. It’s painful.
But it also gives you the platform to speak into other people who have kids and are going through similar kinds of issues, right? If you’ve had some kind of chronic pain, you can speak into the lives of people who are struggling with chronic pain in a way that some of us who haven’t experienced can’t, right? Suffering creates platforms.
The third thing is this. Suffering provides perspective. Suffering provides…it changes the way we think about certain things, right, and how big a deal we think those things are. This past Friday, I was working in my garage and I injured myself. I’m gonna show you the injury. It’s right here, I don’t know if the cameras can get, a little red line. It’s a paper cut.
And I know you’re like, “Oh, come on, really? You cut yourself?” It was sandpaper. Oh, come on. That’s way worse. I got one aw. All right. Sandpaper paper cuts really painful. I felt I was pretty proud of myself because like there were some things that like were collecting on the back of my tongue, some words, small words, but they did not come out. I felt really good about that.
But I was like, “I can’t believe how bad this hurts. This is terrible.” And then I dropped a hammer on my foot. And I know people are like, “You should probably stay out of the garage.” I’ve heard that this weekend, okay? But here’s the thing. Dropping the hammer off changed the way I thought about this. And then I got another paper cut, and that second paper cut didn’t bother me much because the experience of the hammer falling on my foot changed my perspective on that pain, right?
Suffering creates perspective, and this is really important, because here’s the thing. If you think that a pain that you are experiencing or that you might experience even, if you think that it’s overwhelming, guess what it’s gonna do? It’s gonna overwhelm you. If you think that it’s overwhelming, it will overwhelm you.
But pain, suffering creates a perspective on stuff that allows us to go, “That’s not overwhelming. That’s not as big a deal as I once thought it was. That doesn’t need to undo me. That doesn’t need to undermine me. That doesn’t need to take me off mission.” That’s not fun, but it’s not that big a deal. That’s a privilege to be able to do that because it allows us to face additional things in life with a lot more grace and faith. That’s a privilege. It’s a privilege to be given that perspective.
The fourth one is that suffering builds strength. Suffering builds strength. It makes us stronger, like I wish that we didn’t grow more through pain than we do from pleasure. But I’ve never met anybody who’s like, “Yeah. Life’s been awesome, and I’m so strong.” It just doesn’t work that way.
My first job in ministry, I worked for a church, and in my office, I had this little courtyard in front of it. And there was a willow tree in the courtyard, and I could see the willow tree from my desk, but I could also see over the roof to a hill that went up behind the church to the local high school, and there was a willow tree up there too. And it’s interesting. When storms would blow into Cincinnati, you could see the impact of the wind on these two trees. And the one up on the hill would like wave wildly back and forth. It would sometimes get pushed almost down to the ground. The one in the courtyard, just the top would wiggle a little bit because it was protected on all four sides.
The week before I left, two things happened, remarkable things. The first one is they started an expansion on the high school, and so they had to dig that willow tree up out of the ground. And it took them all day. They started the process, and I watched them as the bulldozer wider and wider and wider. And it became clear why. That’s because this willow tree that had been bent over the ground, it had built these roots that there were so thick and they went out so far, they had to dig basically a 75-foot circle around this tree to get to all the roots to get them out so that they could begin the construction.
The day before I left that church to move out to Colorado, I watched a little old lady in the courtyard. She was 85 pounds soaking wet. And at a certain point, she stood up. It’s kind of wiped around. She leaned against that little willow tree, and both of them fell down. The roots of the willow tree just all ripped up. They were just these tiny spindly thin little things. They weren’t even deep. They were just barely under the cobblestones.
What was the difference? One of them faced storms, and one of them grew very strong, and one of them didn’t. We’re built the same way. Suffering builds strength, which allows us to face more. Not just to face more but to face it better, to face it more faithfully, to face it with more grace, to face it with a more missional mindset, and actually see incredible things happen because of the way we face that. Suffering builds strength. And that is a privilege.
The fifth one is this. Suffering refines value. Suffering refines value. Suffering forces us to recognize what is really important and what’s not, right? I’ve never heard anybody get a diagnosis of cancer and then say, “This has really brought home to me the importance of my possessions.” I’ve never seen that happen. It doesn’t work that way. Suffering brings us face to face with what’s really important.
In that church that I was describing, I thought things were going great. The first two years, things were going great. The youth group had tripled in size. Kids were saying yes to Jesus. They were taking steps of faith to live to be on mission, reach their unchurched friends. I thought things were going great, and then one day, I was walking into Sunday school, and one of my high school leaders came up, and he kind of looked around, and then he leaned in, and he said, “Hey, I just want you to know, no matter what happens, I’m with you.” Who’s not with me?
And what turns out was there were some parents that were really upset, and they were having meetings. There were multiple meetings that were happening trying to figure out what should we do about Craig. I wasn’t aware of those meetings. I wasn’t invited into them. I wasn’t allowed to speak about them. After I became aware of them, I still wasn’t allowed. They were like, “No, we’ll figure it out. We’ll let you know.”
Several weeks went by, and they were painful weeks. There were weeks where there was some significant suffering going on in my life. Am I about to lose my job? What’s gonna happen? Eventually, I got like a three-paged document with here’s all of the bullet points, three pages of bullet point. Here’s what you’ve done wrong. And I wanna be honest with you. Some of them were absolutely things I had done wrong. I was a young leader, kind of stupid in some ways. I’d made some significant mistakes. I needed to learn. I needed to grow. I needed to change. But there were also a bunch of items on that list that I thought a little bit differently about.
After the pain of the last few weeks before I saw the list some things had been clarified and some of the items on the list basically boiled down to there’s way too many unchurched kids coming to youth group. And I’m not kidding. I’ve shared this one before, but one of the complaints that was reiterated here was, “You got all these kids coming down from the high school. Their families don’t go here, but they’re coming here on the afternoons after school, and they’re wearing out the carpet to your office.” That was an actual complaint.
And their parents don’t care. They’re just a bunch of unchurched kids coming to our church, and that’s a problem. And I went, “No, it’s not.” Yeah. I need to own that and that and that. And I messed that up, and I need to learn. I need to grow here. But that stuff here, this unreached kid, this being on mission to reach the lost, “No, no, I’m not apologizing for that. And, in fact, if that’s what you want, if you want a youth group that’s not on mission with Jesus to reach the lost, then I will save you the trouble of firing me because that is too important to me.”
And you’ve heard me say, I mean, my heartbeat in ministry is to help people become like Jesus and join him on mission, right? Because I don’t believe that mission is something that the Church does. It’s not a program that the Church does. It’s not one of the things that we do. It’s the central purpose for which the Church exists. We’re here to reach the lost. We’re here to help people become like Jesus and join him on a mission.
The Church is not a building we come to. It’s a mission that we choose to be part of. That conviction was developed in those two weeks of suffering and pain and uncertainty. Suffering refines values. It tells us what’s important. I consider that two-week period, which is one of the most painful of my life, I consider it a privilege.
And the last one is this. Suffering is a vote of confidence from God. Do you know that, church? When you suffer, you’re actually being given a vote of confidence from your God. Here’s the reason I say that. 1 Corinthians 10, “No temptation, the temptation to sin but also the temptation to give up in the midst of pain and suffering, to abandon faith and to look to other things rather than God, to put stock in a citizenship other than our citizenship in heaven, no temptation has ever overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted or tested beyond what you can bear. But when you’re tempted or tested, he will provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Do you understand what that’s saying? It’s saying that any pain you experience, any suffering that comes into your life, two things are true.
Number one, it means you don’t experience it, you don’t face it alone. God faces it with you. But secondly, it means that it’s been allowed into your life because God knows you can handle it. If you couldn’t handle it, he wouldn’t have allowed it to come. Anything that we experience in life is a vote of confidence from God because he looks at it and goes, “Yeah. That’s gonna be hard, but I know she’s up to it. Yeah. That’s not gonna be fun, but I know he can take it.” Maybe that person over there or the person next to you, I mean, don’t look at them, but maybe whatever you’re facing right now, you’re facing because you can take it. But the person sitting right to your left or your right couldn’t, but God knows you can.
Suffering is a vote of confidence from God that with his help, you can handle this. He limits suffering to what is within our limits, which means that the bigger the suffering that you experience in life, the bigger the vote of confidence from God. He knows that with his help, you can handle it. You’re up to it. That’s a privilege, to be given that vote of confidence, if we could only see it that way. And so Paul says, yeah, suffering is an undeserved gift from God.
Let me give you two things to do this week. The first is just this. I want you to fill this blank in. I am most in danger of allowing my citizenship in blank to be more important than my citizenship in heaven. What’s the place where you struggle with that? Because I think we all have a thing that we belong to, a nation, a state, a corporation, a family, a community, a group of friends, something, that we have some group that our citizenship in that group is in danger being more important than our citizenship in heaven. And we need to be aware of it because it’s only when we’re aware of it that we can recognize the opportunities that we have to cast a vote for the kind of person we wanna be. So, my citizenship in blank. Fill that in.
The second is this. In my current pain, I see this privilege. We just talked about six privileges that come from pain. I’d encourage you to think about the pain that you’re facing right now and answer that question. In my current pain, I can see this privilege. I can see one of those six or maybe more than one of those six, because it’s in recognizing the privilege that comes in that because of what God does in the midst of all of that that allows us to face it with a completely different perspective because how we think about suffering determines what it will accomplish in our lives. So think of that pain and identify that privilege. Suffering, as hard as this is to wrap our brains around, suffering is an undeserved gift from our good God. Would you pray with me?
God. This is a hard truth. We’re not capable on our own of making that shift in our thinking. We hear that suffering is a gift, and we think, “Well, I’d like to return this one. I’d like to not accept this one.” Is exchanging a possibility? And yet we know in our hearts that you are good and that you know better than we do and that your servant Paul is right. But we can’t make that shift and thinking in our own, and so we thank you for the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers. And, Holy Spirit, we invite you to do the transforming work that’s necessary so that we might make this shift in our thinking about suffering and pain.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, would you just begin praying for the people listening to this that aren’t believers, that aren’t followers of Jesus, that don’t have a relationship with this good God that we know and that we have experience with, even in the midst of difficult things? Would you begin praying for those that don’t have that relationship? Because if that’s you, I wanna speak to you for just a moment. I need you to understand this, that God is not ambivalent about your suffering. He’s not ambivalent about your pain. This is how much he loves you.
He sent his own Son to experience pain on your behalf. Jesus Christ came. He lived a perfect life. He voluntarily went to the cross. He experienced pain like you and I can’t even begin to imagine. He was betrayed. He was scorned, He was beaten, and ultimately, He was nailed to a cross, and he died. He experienced pain like we can’t even wrap our heads around, but he did that for you. He did it because of how much he loves you. That is our God, and that is the God who invites you into a relationship with him. That is the God who when you give him the entrance into your life when you put your faith in him, he comes in, not only to your life, but he comes into the midst of your suffering and your pain, and he begins to transform it, and he begins to bring good out of it, but you need that relationship.
But if you don’t have that relationship, I wanna tell you how you can get it. Right here, right now you can begin that relationship. This is what you do. You just have this conversation with God. Wherever you are right now, say to him:
God, I have messed up. I’ve done wrong, and I’ve made a mess of things. I’m really sorry. Jesus, thank you for paying for all the wrong I’ve done. Thank you for paying my debt. I believe you rose from the dead, and I understand that you are offering me new life and forgiveness. I’m ready to say yes. Jesus, I’m saying yes to a relationship with you. Come into my life. I’m yours for now and forever. Amen.