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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Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth 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.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.

 

 

 

 

Simple Church: The Importance of Designing a Straightforward Disciple-Making Process

In the Great Commission, Jesus instructs his followers: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19). This is the job description of every Christian and every church, to make more and better disciples of Jesus. This is the church’s raison d’etre.

The most important thing a church does is design a process for making more and better disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything we have and everything we do in the church is intended to be a tool for accomplishing this mission.

In the book, Simple Church, by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, we learn that leaders in the church are called to be designers, not programmers. If church leaders take this call seriously, then they are charged with a very important responsibility: To design a simple, step-by step process that moves people through various stages of spiritual growth. This sequential process is implemented in every area of the church, including all age-level ministries, and the staff, leaders, and members are taught to fully understand the process and work together as a unified body to move people through the steps. Anything that does not directly support the disciple-making process is abandoned.

Such a process has some distinctive characteristics. It is:

  • Intentionally designed, not carelessly thrown together.
  • Straightforward and simple. (And the simplicity is fiercely protected; we don’t lengthen it, add to it, or otherwise complicate it.)
  • Strategic insofar as (1) it is tied to the mission and vision of the church, and (2) it is structured by clearly defined, sequential steps.
  • Aimed at transforming people into the image of Christ.

 

Steps in Creating a Simple Church: Process

Clarity → Movement → Alignment → Focus[1]  

 

Clarity: The ability of the process to be communicated and understood by people. Clarity eliminates confusion. Remember, understanding always precedes commitment, so if we want people to commit to our church by investing their time, talent, treasure, and witness, they need clarity about who we are, what we are trying to do, and how we intend to do it. Without clarity it’s difficult to get buy-in, and without buy-in people usually don’t give, especially if it requires sacrifice. So, the staff and leaders not only need to fully understand the process, but they must also teach it to everyone they serve.  

 

Movement: The sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Movement is what causes someone to go to the next step. It’s what happens in between programs.

This means that we do not evaluate the success of our ministries as isolated units but according to how people are moving through our discipleship process. For example, we don’t say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase and nobody is complaining about the music or sermon.” Rather, we say, “Worship is going great because we had a 10% increase in people moving from worship into a Bible study where they are growing more deeply in their faith.” We don’t focus on the number of people who attend a program, but the number of people moving from step one, to step-two, to step-three in the process that leads them to greater maturity and commitment to Christ. Hence, “hand-offs” from one step to the next are very important. Unfortunately, the church often fails to execute (or even pay attention to) hand-offs because leaders often focus on isolated programs and work in silos. Pastors need to train their leaders to pay as much attention to handoffs as the programs themselves, because programs are only valuable insofar as they move people through a discipleship process that transforms them into the image of Christ. Therefore, every program/event/ministry must fit somewhere in the sequential process, which brings us to alignment.

 

Alignment: the way that all ministry departments embrace, submit, and attach themselves to the same overarching process. “Alignment ensures the entire church body is moving in the same direction, and in the same manner” to accomplish the same mission. Everyone is operating from the same ministry blueprint, and replicates the process in their respective areas. Without alignment, the church is not a unified body but a tangled bunch of various sub-ministries that work in silos and compete for space, money, volunteers, and time on the calendar. Leaders not only fail to work cooperatively to accomplish a single mission, but they often (even if inadvertently) work at cross purposes. Achieving and maintaining alignment is painful, but failing to address misalignment is more painful and costly in the long run. (Think about your car being out of alignment. It is cheaper to get an alignment than buy new tires. It is safer to get an alignment than to risk a blow-out and possibly suffer a car accident.)

 

Focus: the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of the simple ministry process. We only say “yes” to the best things that help us accomplish our mission by working our process. We say “no” to things that do not directly move the process forward or that are “good” but not “the best,” knowing that extra programs will compete with and pull people away from our primary strategy for making disciples.

Focus is the most difficult element to implement. It takes deep convictions and guts. “Focus does not make church leaders popular.” As you say “no” to things that the church has always done, or “no” to new ideas that don’t directly move the process forward, people will get mad at you. Despite our best efforts to explain the importance of the simple church model and how it will lead to more fruitful ministry, staff will quit, leaders will resign, and members will leave the church as we execute focus. Leaders survive this turbulent time by focusing on being faithful to Christ, being totally committed to his mission, and having faith that God will reward our obedience by sending us the people we need, regardless of who leaves. If we can’t muster the commitment and resolve needed to execute focus, then all the work described above (clarity, movement, and alignment) will be for nothing. The process will quickly get buried in clutter and soon be forgotten.

So leaders must be careful to “count the cost” before they decide to embrace the simple church model and start designing a discipleship process. Jesus says in Luke 14:

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ 31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

While moving toward a simple church model will lead to growth (both deep and wide), it requires leaders to make difficult decisions that will upset people. We have to be aware of this from the beginning so that we don’t do all the work and then fail because we don’t have the resolve to see it through.

[1] This blog post is a summary of Simple Church, chapter 3.

Stand By Me: We Need Good Friends

We need good friends and role models to break free from self-destructive patterns and discover God’s dream for our life. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The promise in this passage is clear. If we surround ourselves with people who remind us of our deepest values and inspire us to live accordingly, then we find the power necessary to break free from mindsets and behaviors that hinder spiritual growth and undermine human flourishing. In contrast, if we live in isolation and try to overcome constraints by the force of our own willpower, then we wrestle with failure, discouragement and despair. Even worse, if we give ourselves to people who call forth our fear, suspicion, lust, greed, anger, hatred, and self-righteousness, then one day we will catch a shameful glimpse of ourselves in the mirror and wonder, “What kind of person have I become?”

In many ways, we become a reflection of the people with whom we associate. They can either call forth our best self or our worst self. In light of this truth, be intentional about investing time and energy in genuine communities of love. Give yourself to friends that will inspire and empower you to grow spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. This is how we find the courage, strength, and hope to live a principled life that will honor our soul and be a blessing to others.