Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.