Mark Batterson - The Genius of Suffering
Around the turn of the 20th century, a psychologist named Alfred Adler coined something called the theory of compensation. Adler believed that what we perceive to be disadvantages often proved to be incognito advantages, because they forced us to cultivate attitudes and abilities that would've lay dormant or gone undiscovered otherwise. It's as we compensate for these perceived disadvantages that we discover what Adler called compensatory skills, and it's those compensatory skills that often prove to be our greatest gift to the world. 70% of the art students Adler surveyed had optical anomalies, which seems like a disadvantage, but those optical anomalies forced them to see the world from an artistic angle. Some of history's greatest composers, Mozart and Beethoven among them, lost their hearing, which seems to be a disadvantage, but it forced them to find their inner voice. Adler argued that the success they experienced was not in spite of those disadvantages, but because of them. They learned to leverage their weakness by cultivating compensatory skills.
Let me make it personal. Speaking is not a natural gifting for me. Now, I don't get as nervous as I used to 'cause I've been doing this for 30 years, but can I make a confession? I had some butterflies last Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial Easter Sunrise service, okay. And when my notes blew off the pulpit, the butterflies turned into birds, because I need notes. When I took homiletics in college, I had some friends who could just jot down a few words and wing it. I had to write a word-for-word manuscript in what I perceived to be a disadvantage. My inability to speak extemporaneously was a blessing in disguise. Without me even knowing it, God was cultivating a compensatory skill called writing. Stick with me.
A few years ago, a fascinating study found that 35% of small business owners self-identify as dyslexic. Academically, dyslexia is a disadvantage, no doubt. It makes it harder to read, but it forced these entrepreneurs to cultivate compensatory skills. Researchers found that those with dyslexia tend to be more creative, more intuitive, and better at solving three-dimensional problems. They cultivated speaking skills and social skills. They may have had a hard time reading a book, but they learn how to read a room. They had to work harder. And please hear this. It was that work ethic applied to business that made them successful.
In the words of serial entrepreneur, Richard Branson, "Dyslexia got me to where I am today". Why? He not only cultivated his entrepreneurial instincts, but I love this, Branson said that dyslexia taught him how to delegate things he wasn't good at. Can I get in our business a little bit this weekend? I feel like my job as a pastor is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And the reality is many of our prayers revolve around our personal comfort. And the problem with that is this: you tell me the last time you were uncomfortable, and I'll tell you the last time you grew. You can use your perceived disadvantages in one of two ways. You can use it as an excuse, or you can use it as a motivation.
If you are looking for an excuse, you will always find one. If you are looking for an opportunity, you will always find one. Show me your strong hand. Let me see your strong hand. For 90% of us, it's that right hand. And I think that right-hand strong hand represents the gift that God has given us. But let me see the weak hand, your weak hand. Now, here's the thing. You can't even write your name with your weak hand. You can't brush your teeth. You can't tie your... You can't do much with that weak hand. But the last time I checked, you can't clap with one hand. God wants to use your strong hand, no doubt, but he also wants to use your weak hand. Why? Because the last time I checked, His power is made perfect in weakness. I absolutely empathize with your disadvantages. And those disadvantages, let's put it on the table, they range from injustice to inopportunity, from poverty to injury, from divorce to a difficult diagnosis.
Bad things happen to good people. Life is unfair, and then we die. But there is a God. Who works all things together for good, to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I'm not calling those good things. They're bad things. But there's a God who can redeem and recycle. And maybe, just maybe, God is cultivating a compensatory skill in you. And maybe, just maybe, that is your greatest gift to the world. Whether you're in-person, online, right-handed or left-handed, welcome to National Community Church. Shout out to our campuses: Nova, Lincoln Theatre, Capital Turnaround. Shout out to those online, our extended family, all across the country, all around the world.
We started a new series called "Genius," and here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna explore seven kinds of genius, and we're gonna do it through biblical biography. When you study someone like King David or Queen Esther, someone like Moses, or his sister, Miriam, it's sort of like looking through a window. The Bible is a book about real people with real problems in real time and real genius. And so what we get to do is get a glimpse of what made them tick and what ticked them off. You get to hack their habits. You get to reverse engineer their failures and their successes. And so biography is a window, but it's almost like a window that has a little bit of a reflective quality in it because you get to see yourself. And so the goal of this series is pretty simple, to help you discover and develop and deploy your unique genius, and do it for the common good.
Albert Einstein said this: "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid". All of us are bad at something. Am I in the right room? Can we have a little bit of fun here online? Put it in the chat. What are you bad at? Now, just for the sake of time, I'll mention I can't draw a stick figure. I'm rhythmically challenged. I drove our minivan in the wrong gear for seven years. It's true. I am good at grilling, well done. And our family affectionately refers to me as un-handyman. That's me. If we judge ourselves by our weakness, all of us are a fish that can't climb a tree. And so I think, all too often, we judge each other by our weaknesses. But some good news.
We think that it's our weaknesses. We think that it's our mistakes that disqualify us from ministry. No, your mistakes are your ministry, 'cause that's where God wants to heal and grace, and use you to help other people. And so give someone nearby a high-five with your weak hand. Can you do that? Just try it, see it, work it. There you go. Good job. Well done. Well done. All right, well, let me backdrop this series with a Venn diagram, and it'll give us a framework for this series. Genius is who you are when you are the best version of yourself. Genius is your unique contribution to the common good. Genius is your X factor and it's four-dimensional. So let me break it down. Gifts are manifestations of the Spirit. But there is a difference, come on, between natural abilities and spiritual gifts. We're in a season called Eastertide, where we point towards Pentecost. Can I just say, I'm believing for the infilling and overflowing of God's Spirit in our lives. And when that happens, what it does is it produces fruit and it activates gifts.
Now, there are motivational gifts, like hospitality and generosity, like leadership and mercy. In Romans 12, there are miraculous gifts, like healing and prophecy, words of wisdom, words of knowledge, 1 Corinthians 14. Either way, those gifts are what enable us to, come on, live beyond our experience, beyond our education, beyond our expertise. It's the ability to live beyond our ability, which is awesome. Then, you've got passions, this second circle. I had a professor in grad school who asked a question. What makes you cry or pound your fist on the table? In other words, what makes you mad or sad? And I would add glad. What puts a smile on your face? Those emotions, neurologically, a function of the amygdala, right, this almond-shaped cluster of cells in the medial temporal lobe.
According to Cambridge professor, Simon Baron-Cohen, we experience 412 distinct emotions. And that range of emotions, I believe, is part of the image of God. And like everything else, they have to be sanctified. Those emotions are cues and clues that reveal God's purposes. They almost function like compass needles. And just so we're on the same page, Jesus got sad. He wept over the City of Jerusalem. Jesus got mad. He turned over some tables in the temple. Jesus got glad. "For the joy that was set before him He endured the cross..."
Now, those gifts and passions, what we do best and love most, get filtered through our unique history and personality. Now, history is where you've been, and no one has walked the road that you walked. It's the places you've lived, it's the things you've done, it's the people who, as Dick Foth says, "Have left their fingerprints on your soul". It's the defining moments that make you who you are. And then, personality. It's how you're wired. It's your Enneagram number. It's your combination of letters on the Meyers Briggs, or DiSC profile, or pick your favorite assessment. It's your love languages. It's your spiritual temperament, how you experience God. It's "All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections," to quote John Legend.
Personality is all of the idiosyncrasies that make you you. And so here's the bottom line: there never has been and never will be anyone like you. But that's not a testament to you. It's a testament to the God who created you. And the significance of that is this. No one can love like you, no one can lead like you, no one can sing like you, no one can serve like you. You have a unique genius and we wanna help you discover it, develop it, deploy it. And so if you have a Bible, you can meet me at Genesis 37. When you trace the genealogy of genius... I hate to say it. Should I say it? I hate to say it, but I better say it. Not gonna pull punches. No way to sugarcoat this. When you trace the genealogy of genius, the genesis usually involves some pain and suffering. "Where a man's wound is," said Robert Bly, "That is where his genius will be".
I love the way Pastor Joel said this few months ago. He said, "If you succeed without suffering, someone else did. If you suffer without succeeding, someone else will". A genius is not born of comfort. Genius is born from and born for adversity. Suffering is the seedbed of genius. And Joseph is exhibit A. So let me set the scene. For better or for worse, all of us are born into someone else's story. We don't pick our parents. Now, some of us have amazing parents. We rise up and call them blessed, right, Proverbs 31:28. And then, some of us have that father wound, that mother wound. But one way or the other family of origin is this crucible where character and genius is formed.
Now, when I was in grad school, I was introduced to the genogram. It's a visual representation of family structure. If you study family systems, psychology, counseling, you're familiar with it. It's a way of identifying hereditary patterns of behavior. If you genogram Joseph, he's the youngest of 12 brothers, and that birth order is not insignificant. His father, Jacob, also a youngest son. Two observations. One, I find it fascinating that Jacob showed favoritism toward Joseph, evidenced by a coat of many colors. And the problem with that is, it perpetuated this dysfunctional dynamic that fueled this unhealthy sibling rivalry. And two, Jacob deceives his father, right, and then steals the blessing from his older brother, Esau. Our actions, for better or for worse, have an epigenetic effect on our family tree.
You know why we need to break some habits? You know why we need to break some generational curses? Not just for us, but for the third and fourth generation. All of that to say this, you and I are shaped by our family of origin in a thousand ways, consciously and subconsciously. Okay, how we gain attention, how we resolve conflict, how we treat other ethnicities, how we treat the opposite gender, how we express emotion, how we process pain. Yes? These adaptive strategies, these defense mechanisms, these coping mechanisms, they're first deployed in our family of origin.
Carl Young said, "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate". If you don't own the pain and suffering, then pain and suffering will own you. How do we own it, Pastor Mark? Well, that's where the good news of the Gospel comes into play. I think you grieve it, you reconcile it, you heal it, you redeem it, you forgive it with the Holy Spirit's help. Now, there's no way to unpack an entire personality in one message. Let me talk about a couple of defining moments. We'll connect the dots, and here we go. "There's always one moment in childhood," said the novelist, Graham Greene, "When the door opens and lets the future in". I love that.
By the way, maybe a little bit of homework... When did the door open and let the future in in your history? Joseph has a dream at 17, and this is when the door opens and it lets the future in. Genesis 37:5, "Joseph dreamed a dream". If only it stopped there... And he told it to his brothers, and they hated him even more. See, the ability to dream was part of his genius, no doubt. I would suggest that dreaming was his strong hand, his strong hand. But there's also a weak hand. And evidently, Joseph missed the class in inside thoughts. Because I'm gonna tell you right now, anybody with siblings, you know, if you tell your brothers about a dream where they bow down to you, you're gonna take a trip to Busch Gardens. Do you know what this is? You're walking by the bushes. They are gonna push you in. Okay, just making sure, making sure.
Now, one observation right here, be careful who you share your dreams with, especially in the early stages. Because in my experience, there are dream catchers, dream catchers, and there are dream killers. News flash, not everyone's gonna get excited about your dream. Why? Because it's convicting. Why? 'Cause it disrupts the status quo. Joseph has a dream. And as is the case with many dreams, it turns into a nightmare. Anybody have a dream that turned into a nightmare before it maybe turned back into a dream? His brothers fake his death, sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. And then, it goes from bad to worse for 13 years, right? Falsely accused, found guilty of a crime he didn't commit. Spends his 20s, his 20s, in an Egyptian dungeon. That is a lot of trauma.
Now, I don't have time to deep dive trauma, but I will say this. Trauma has one of two effects. It can cause post-traumatic stress syndrome, right? The body keeps score, and it can be something that paralyzes us, immobilizes us. What I find interesting is that studies suggest that about 80% of trauma actually results in post-traumatic growth. Now, I'm not making light of the disadvantages, the poverty, lack of opportunity, the injustice. Nothing makes it less painful, less traumatic, less wrong, less unjust, but there is a way to grow through it. Fast forward 13 years, Genesis 39:21, "But the Lord was with Joseph and granted him favor with the prison warden".
If you're taking notes, I want you to jot this down. If you're online, NCC App, Message Notes, you'll find it there. Here it is. Favor is the it factor. Emotional intelligence is the X factor. Favor, it's the difference between the best you can do and the best God can do. I pray for favor all the time, and I make no apologies for it. I pray Luke 2:52 thousands of times over my kids. "May you grow in wisdom and stature and in favor," favor, "With God and with man". Can we pronounce favor on our families of origin? And I pray Deuteronomy 33:16. It's one of my favorite promises, favorite favors to pray. I pray the favor of Him who dwells in the burning bush. Can I just pronounce that on our lives right now? Every promise God has made is yes and amen in Christ. And so may we operate in the favor of God. Favor is the it factor. You can't take that out of the equation, can you? But there's an X factor, and it's called emotional intelligence.
Now, according to Daniel Goleman, only about 20% of the factors that lead to success have to do with intelligence quotient. The other 80% is related to emotional intelligence, and he defines it this way. The ability to identify, assess, and can control one's own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups. Now, several years ago, I was speaking at a leadership conference in the UK, and I was slotted right after the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is a little intimidating. And then, he gets up, and there's one of these mic-drop moments where he says this: "Emotional intelligence is a wonderful adjunct faculty to the gifts of the Spirit".
Now, it took me a second. Like, "One, what does that even mean"? Sounded amazing. But it's true. Like, "Oh, God. Oh, God, I'm believing. God activate your gifts in us". Yes, I'm believing for new gifts in each and every one of us that God wants to activate those motivation gifts, those miraculous gifts. But you have to operate with some emotional intelligence, otherwise you end up with the church at Corinth, right, with kind of this dysfunctional, spiritual family of origin, right? We're gonna go fast, Genesis 41, just touching on a couple of defining moments. There are so many subplots in this story, but let's look at this one. "And it came to pass, the cupbearer and baker offended their master, the king of Egypt. Pharaoh became angry with these two officials, and he put them in prison in where Joseph was". Reminder, God's in the business of strategically positioning us in the right place at the right time with the right people.
Now, here's the catch. Often, it seems like the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. This is the last place Joseph wants to be. And the circumstances that put him there are absolutely unjust, but this is when and where and how some divine appointments happen. All of us want a miracle. None of us wanna be in a situation that necessitates one, but you can't have one without the other. And so look at what happens, verse 4. "The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph". Huh, isn't that interesting? Do you think God had anything to do with that? "Each of the two men had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own. When Joseph saw them the next morning," here it is, "He noticed..." He what? "He noticed that they both looked depressed".
Wait, wait, wait. Is this the same guy who took a trip to Busch Gardens? 'Cause he had no emotional intelligence. And now, he's noticing a slight shift in facial expression. Well, what happened to this guy? I'll tell you what happened. A little suffering will produce a lot of empathy. It's been 13 years since Joseph dreamed a dream. And look at where that got him, right? And so there's part of me that's thinking, "I don't even wanna operate with my strong hand anymore, 'cause that did not turn now very well". So it takes some courage for Joseph to get back on the horse and use his strong hand and interpret the dream. But I want you to notice that weak hand. Because over the course of 13 years, I would suggest that God was cultivating a compensatory skill that would save two nations from famine.
This is the moment. If he misses this moment... I love counterfactual theory. Favorite branch of history. It asks the what-if question. What if Joseph misses this moment? Well, then he doesn't interpret the dream. Pharaoh never knows about him, and he spends his 30s and 40s, and however long he lives, in that Egyptian dungeon. But no, Joseph, who is self-absorbed at 17, Joseph who has very little emotional intelligence. It's almost like he now has this Peter Parker spidey sense. He notices a dejected look on the face of his fellow inmate. And you can read right over this. This is the tipping point. This is the turning point. This is the day when decades happen. One act of emotional intelligence saves two nations from extinction.
In their book, "Geeks and Geezers," great title, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write about a common denominator that they find amongst successful leaders, and they call them first-class noticers. Leaders who succeed again and again are geniuses at grasping context. This is one of those characteristics, like taste, that's difficult to break down into its component parts, but the ability to weigh a welter of factors, some as subtle as how different groups of people will interpret a gesture, is one of the hallmarks of a true leader. If Joseph doesn't discern this look, mm. The history of two nations hinge on his emotional intelligence. And don't tell me this is not relevant, when you look at what's happening with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Emotional intelligence, lack thereof, puts nations at war.
Two years later, Pharaoh has a dream, short version, right? That's when the Butler remembers. Joseph interprets the dream. The next thing you know, he's second in command, and two nations are saved. Favor is the it factor. Emotional intelligence is the X factor. And it's a compensatory skill that God cultivates. How? I hate to say it, but again, pain and suffering. Let me cut to the chase, 'cause I think this is where... Quit looking through the window and look in the mirror. Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection". Okay, and that just gets me fired up. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in me. And now, I'm ready to take on the world. But the verse doesn't end there. It doesn't end there. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering".
Wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm not sure that this is what I signed up for. What makes us think that we can become like Jesus without being tempted by the devil, criticized by Pharisees, betrayed by Judas, mocked by the mob, and crucified by Roman soldiers. You don't have to go looking for suffering. It will find you soon enough. The question is, what do we do with it? And this is where you gotta learn the lesson, cultivate the character, curate the change. Let me close with this, Genesis 50:20. "You intended to harm me," Joseph says to his brothers, all the pain in that statement. You cut me. You hurt me. Do do you know that... I don't have time to talk about the gift of tears. I'm convinced it's another spiritual gift. Someone on our staff pointed it out in me. I said, "One, I don't know if it's a gift. Two, I'm not sure that's the one I want".
But I see Nehemiah crying before he rebuilds that wall. I see the weeping prophet Jeremiah. Eight times in the text, Joseph is brought to tears. What are tears? That's what we do when we run out of words, when we don't know what to say. And God gave you tear ducts, family. What a gift. And do you know, oh, man, I geek out on the science, that it actually increases a neurotransmitter that's a pain killer. Unbelievable. Let use those tears, and let's use it for God's glory. Amen? You intended to harm me, but God... But God. But God. Intended it for good to accomplish what it is now being done 13 years later, the saving of many lives.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, all of us have what he calls an explanatory style. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. A little bit of tough love right here. Your explanations are more important than your experiences. Little more tough love. Most of our prayers ask God to change our circumstances, the very same circumstances that sometimes God is using to change us. We gotta fight injustice. We gotta right wrong. We gotta put the orphans in families. We gotta care. I'm not saying that we don't... These are things that this church is all about. I'm just saying that you gotta figure out how you're gonna explain. This is Joseph's explanatory style. Without this, it's revenge, it's getting... Anger eats him alive. Oh, forget that. I'm gonna sleep with... What's the use of my integrity at this point? But no, no. 'Cause he has an explanatory style, and it's the difference between bitter and better.
It will make us or break us. It's a fancy phrase in psychology called cognitive reappraisal. It's telling yourself a different story. If you wanna change your life, you have to change your story. This is the story Joseph is telling himself. See, three times, Apostle Paul says, "Take away the thorn and the flesh, Lord". Remember that? And this is what we do. We bargain with God. "God, if you do this, I'll do that. If you would take away that thorn, if you would take away that weakness..." Now, you can use me. Now, I can make a difference. And God says, "No, no, no, no. My power is made perfect in your weakness". 'Cause what I wanna do is beyond your natural ability. It's through your brokenness that I'm gonna exercise, as a manifestation of my Spirit, these gifts so that you can't take credit for it.
The theory of compensation is as old as the Apostle Paul. This is where you discover your genius, in your weaknesses, your pain and suffering, your headaches, your heartbreaks, your disadvantages. Suffering is the seedbed of genius. Can we look in the mirror one more time? When Laura was diagnosed with cancer the first time... We've gone through two bouts, I always need to say she's doing great in case you're just checking in, okay. But I'll tell you this when you get the... Thank you. And that's a testament to God, and it's a testament to my wife. Mm, when you get a diagnosis like that, it's a sucker punch. When you get the second diagnosis, drop you to your knees. And it's all the feels. Can I just acknowledge that? You get mad. You get sad. But then, with the Holy Spirit's help, there's a little part of you that says, "With God's help, I'm gonna fight".
When Laura got that first diagnosis, she read a poem that posed the question, and you know this question has changed our lives And the question was this: what have you come to teach us? No, no, I just want out of it. See, some of us are so focused on getting out of difficult situations that we never get anything out of difficult situations, and then we wonder why we find ourselves right back in those same difficult situations. You gotta learn the lesson, you gotta cultivate the character, you gotta curate the change. I wanna say one more thing. When we're going through a tough time, I think sometimes we have a tendency to isolate, and that's exactly what the enemy wants. That's when we need community. Can I exhort you? Get into a small group. We have a May term coming up. Maybe, this is a chance to dip your toe in the water.
Some amazing groups. We've got portfolio, a group designed to help you discover skills, passions. And then, we've got basic training for the prophetic, if you wanna activate that prophetic. We've got overcome academy. I think a piece of that is how we deal with trauma, ncc.re/groups. We've also got something called Dream Innovate coming up on May 17. Listen, nothing neat and clean about pain and suffering. We have to do better at suffering. And by that, I don't mean sidestepping it, I don't mean avoiding it. I mean, ha, what did you come to teach me? I don't have time, so I'm just gonna throw these seven things out like that. One, don't play the victim when things go bad. Two, don't play God when things go good. Three, don't use suffering as an excuse. Use it as motivation. Four, don't lose faith in the end of the story. Five, cultivate a growth mindset. Six, dig deep and give God the sacrifice of praise. And seven, this too shall pass.
In his autobiography, "I'm Done with This," former heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman, shares a story about an elderly woman who was asked her favorite verse of scripture, and she responded with this little phrase. We just read it in chapter 40:1 "And it came to pass," 463 times in the King James' version of the Bible. Here's what she said. "Whenever a trial comes, it doesn't come to stay. It comes to pass". And while it's passing, maybe, just maybe, God is cultivating a compensatory skill in you. And maybe, just maybe, that is your greatest gift to the world. In Jesus' name, amen.