Tag Archives: Suffering

What if Your 20s Weren't What You Expected?

In the past couple of months, I've had a number of heavy conversations with friends about the realities of life. We've talked about the heartaches of infertility, questions about parenting, devastating breakups, marriage conflicts, unwanted singleness, and struggles with sexuality. A few friends have been abruptly fired from ministry positions, and others have left overseas posts because of difficulties with leadership. More than one dream job has turned out to be not so dreamy after all.

From a distance, it seems like everything has fallen into place for these highly educated people, mostly raised in middle-class church families. Much has gone well for them, and many are leaders in their communities. Without knowing their stories, you wouldn't know their 20s weren't all they thought they were going to be. Throughout our conversations, a consistent theme has emerged: we didn't expect these years to be so hard. Most of us realize we that we believed big problems weren't supposed to come so early in life, and real troubles were for an older crowd. Whether we knew it or not, we imagined our 20s to be carefree and blissfully happy, with the track of "We Are Young" playing during a video montage of road trips, pub nights, and crazy adventures. How were we so wrong?

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To Change the World

Somewhere between elementary school self-esteem talks, Jesus Freaks youth group lessons, and "you can single-handedly evangelize the 10/40 window" college mission conferences, we were pumped up and ready to change the world. We anticipated picture-perfect marriages and families after we signed our commitments at True Love Waits and kissed dating good-bye. What could go wrong when we had the prayer of Jabez on our side and enough Christian T-shirts to win the world to Jesus? We were doing our part with sponsored children, the 30-Hour Famine, and prayer vigils for the persecuted church. God would certainly give us the good life with all of that sacrifice, wouldn't he?

Although we consistently asked what would Jesus do, no one told us how important it was to learn how he dealt with suffering. While we may have escaped much of the suffering of the world and generations past, we weren't equipped to deal with the realities of life. We had categories for the American dream and grand ministry experiences, but many of us didn't have a framework to endure deaths of siblings, financial hardship, cancer, or family conflict. Here we are, 10 years later, trying to deal with hard things and coming to terms with our own sin, and the harsh fact that suffering isn't ageist after all.

It's not my intent to blame-shift, which is another thing we do so well, to play the victim and rage against the machine when we don't get what we want. We need to take responsibility for our role in our delusions, buying into pop Christian culture instead of the Bible, believing the larger cultural claims that youth is the highest good. This isn't an excuse for our poor responses to hardship or for not listening when someone tried to tell us truth. We must own our cynicism and bitterness against the church, even if we have accurately identified some real ways it contributed to the illusion that life would fall into perfectly into place for us.

Grieve Shattered Dreams

Instead, I'm calling us to suffer well, to realize we are not in ultimate control, although many of us have vast amounts of freedom and choices. We need to learn to grieve our shattered dreams, to understand and absorb sadness, to sit with unanswered questions and learn about trusting God in this space without sugar-coating the truth. Although we may not be thinking about knee replacements right now, we need to know that we live in a broken world, and soon enough our bodies will break down too. We need to put to death our expectations of a perfect life, prepare for things to be hard, and realize the fall has affected every part of the world. We need to learn that there is nowhere we can escape from sin, because we can't escape from ourselves. We need to learn to bring our regrets to Jesus, that he can meet us in our shame if we have wasted years of our lives.

But we also need to grow new expectations, ones that wait for God to show up in ways we couldn't imagine, to expect seasons of joy and grace in the midst of difficulties. We need courage to find new dreams when our old ones aren't happening. When I think about these conversations with friends puzzling over our lives, the best parts have been talking about the ways our hard circumstances have brought new life, how the severe mercy of God has forced us to wrestle with the deep truths of Scripture, and how we long for heaven more than we ever would have if life had gone as we wished.

We've also talked about how we need to hear from the older generations, how they have faced hard things and fought for faith. We need their perspective, their wisdom, their words spoken into our lives. We want to hear more from our pastors and leaders about how they move though struggles. We wish the church were more honest, that we didn't feel alone there in our addictions and sin and heartbreak, that we could walk in and be real. Most of us don't care all that much about the music style and building aesthetics. We long for transparent relationships with people who are willing to enter our mess and point us to Jesus. This is how we most want the church to be relevant.

Many of us are investing in the next generation in some way, hoping to show them a real and true picture of life, to teach them that even the "best" years of their lives will include heartache and pain. We want them to have all the excitable idealism of being young, but we want that enthusiasm to be met with wisdom and tempered with reality. Most of all, we want to tell them of all the good we found along the way, how we learned to live again, and how we look to our next decades with hope that God is making something new out of our crushed expectations.

Struggling to Love in the Face of Evil

Even when life is "easy" it is hard to show mercy to our fellow sinners. When enjoying order, safety, and congeniality, serving others can still be a challenge. But when you are drowning in poverty, murder, violence, lawlessness, sickness, injustice, pain, and desperation, showing mercy to sinners amplifies the sin in yourself. As a sinner, it is difficult to love someone who doesn't return your love. So how do you respond when the one you hope to serve desires to kill you?

Our full-time team of a dozen missionaries serves in Honduras. This country is incredibly hard to live in, let alone minister to. For five years running Honduras has been the most murderous country in the world. Its people are the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The average first birth occurs at 15 years of age. Hospitals are closed, police are outgunned, pastors are driven from the country, babies starve, treatable illnesses lead to death, and indifference and apathy are endemic.

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Our fences have barbed wire, our windows have bars, our yards have attack dogs. The ladies on our team are not allowed exercise outdoors or live alone. Our kids can't walk to the corner store or carry mobile phones. Missionaries on our team have suffered burglaries, armed robberies, and had guns put to our heads. Ministry is not easy in Honduras.

Better than Fleeting Comfort

How on earth are we supposed to love a culture that refuses to love itself? And, more importantly to our sin nature, how are we supposed to show mercy to a people who want to harm us? Our mission team has been studying Acts, that ghastly book that tells about missionaries like Paul and Peter and Barnabas, who get chased out of town, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and continue to plant churches, preach the gospel, and show mercy to those who disparage them. The same book points out my sins and provides examples of a good missionary to whom I will never measure up.

The great theologians understood Christians are called to experience pain, and to endure it, because God is worth so much more than our fleeting comfort and pleasure. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II martyr for Christ, described a Christian as "someone who shares the sufferings of God in the world." Augustine taught, "It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr." Hudson Taylor, the pioneering 19th-century missionary to China, proclaimed, "For our Master's sake, may he make us willing to do or suffer all his will." And John Calvin explained, "You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy."

Suffering is not a new concept; it is just new to us. Scripture addressed these issues long ago. God is by no means unaware of our pain (Ex. 3:7), and he calls us to endure our sufferings and continue in our service to him (2 Tim. 4:5). We know God will not give us more than we can endure (1 Cor. 10:13), and we understand the Lord prepares his servants for battle (Ps. 144:1). God knows we can endure more than we think we can in his strength. We, on the other hand, have our doubts. Some days the battle just wears us down, and even if we think we can endure another day, we just don't want to.

Not Absolved

Our doubt, pain, and discomfort do not absolve Christians of our responsibility to spread the saving grace of Christ and show his mercy to the needy. Tim Keller stated, "If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God's grace." We were never promised lack of pain or suffering, only the unwavering knowledge that the Creator of the universe loves us.

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When we struggle with safety and security and still get out of bed every morning to toil in the name of Christ, he receives an extra measure of glory from our labors. How fortunate to experience suffering that results in God's glory, pain that expands God's name, and persecution that points towards heaven! John Piper said, "This is God's universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment in God and less satisfaction in the world." Indeed, our bodies and souls belong to the Lord. Our worship of Christ includes offering our entire life to God. Our joy comes in service when we obey his commands.

Be it money, comfort, family, or friends, mission work entails sacrifice. God calls us to be willing to give all we have. As with all other Christians, missionaries must die to self, forego personal gain, and submit to Christ. No matter the cost we are called to serve the Lord. "They gave our Master a crown of thorns," Martin Luther wrote. "Why do we hope for a crown of roses?"

When God's Sovereignty Scares You

As I listened to my husband preach on Sunday, I attempted to hold back the flood of mixed emotions rushing over the internal dam I'd thrown up. I was stunned, reeling from self-reflection. I came to the conclusion, doubtless with the help of the Spirit, that I'd been scared, frightened, terrified of God.

Suffering and affliction are no strangers to my life. Most of us will suffer to varying degrees in this broken world. Being in ministry as a pastor's wife, and in counseling for many of those years, I've experienced plenty of circumstances that have led to my own suffering or crises of faith.

Past Pain, Future Fears

About 10 years ago, I endured what some call a "dark night of the soul." Throughout that ominous year I was under a dark cloud that wouldn't lift. The lack of an obvious circumstance to which I could attach my emotions made it all the more confusing.

I did everything I knew to do to change my heart. I read Scripture voraciously. I searched my heart thoroughly for "hidden sins" that may have brought this on. The hardest part about that year was that I daily, desperately cried out for God to come to my aid and lift me out of the pit. I felt like I was asking for bread and getting stones, though my faith and my Bible told me otherwise (Luke 11:11).

I knew enough about life and the Lord to know there was nowhere else to go, and no one else to turn to, but him. I worshiped Sunday after Sunday—in faith. I prayed day after day—in faith. Slowly, over time, the darkness lifted, but the affliction changed me forever. My wrestling with God left me with a limp.

I can now look back and see God's wisdom in allowing such a difficult season. It produced changes in me that were indispensable, as I'd later be called to walk through dark days with others. But then, every day felt like a battle to keep moving forward. The possibility of walking through a season like this again terrifies me.

Presently my family and I are facing something dreadful. My brother has a life-threatening disease. We've had the privilege of walking through this with him since his diagnosis five years ago at 31 years old. It's been a brutal—and beautiful—journey together. Last month, a doctor's appointment revealed that we have reached the frightful place we've been preparing for. I find myself feeling panicky and terrified about what may lie ahead.

God's Sovereignty Over Suffering

Scripture doesn't hide the fact that bad things sometimes happen to God's people by God's design. Job stands in blazing contradiction to the myth that if you do good, only good will result (or if you do bad, only bad will ensue). Such was the faulty "wisdom" of Job's "miserable comforters" (Job 16:2). The Bible doesn't promote karma. Job was a good guy, and bad things happened to him. In fact, Jesus was the best of the good guys, and the worst of the bad things happened to him. Scripture unflinchingly affirms that in God's sovereign wisdom he may purposely ordain the things we most fear.

To be sure, there are always good purposes in trials for those who belong to him. Yes, suffering produces in his saints endurance, godly character, and hope (Rom. 5:3). God causes all things to work together for good for those who love him (Rom. 8:28). I heartily affirm these precious, anchoring truths. But if I'm honest, the things God might use to bring about this promised good can sometimes frighten me. Will he give me another dark year to sanctify me? Part of my current situation feels frighteningly familiar. Could he take someone from me I love fiercely? I have to admit I've been deeply afraid of what he might allow.

Facing my Heart

So with past reflections and future fears swirling streams of confusion in my heart that Sunday morning, I wrestled with thoughts about God's goodness and love. My clandestine fears had apparently given way to cruel doubts concerning his character. The words about Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia began ringing in my ears:

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

It took some time to come to terms with the fact I'd been living in (the wrong sort of) fear of God. I wanted to justify it, excuse it, deny it. I felt exposed, embarrassed, and ashamed of my unbelief. But though this revelation was difficult to admit, my honest confession to God that Sunday morning left me feeling liberated, lightened, and loved.

The sermon ended with the gospel, as it always should. The stabilizing good news brought clarity and peace to my chaotic heart.

Suffering Sovereign

Scripture reveals God as the loving King who ordains and oversees all suffering. If he were only portrayed as sovereign, we might be tempted to shrink back from him in fear. But because he's also shown to be our suffering God, who willingly stepped into unthinkable affliction on our behalf, we can be assured of his goodness and move toward him in love.

Our God understands suffering and loss. At great cost to himself, Jesus volunteered to empty himself of heavenly glory to become a humble servant (Phil. 2:6-8). Out of love for us he died the death we deserved. On the cross, Jesus lost his Father's tender intimacy in exchange for the fury of his fierce wrath. Jesus was afflicted and forsaken by his Father to ensure that we'd never be alone or forsaken in our afflictions.

Likewise, the Father didn't spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom. 8:32). He endured the ache of turning away from the Son he'd eternally loved so he'd never have to turn away from us. Though they both felt otherworldly grief, they chose this death and loss in order to ultimately defeat the suffering that comes from sin, death, and loss for us. What love! When we feel like God is distant, indifferent, or uncaring toward us in our suffering, the cross stands as compelling evidence that he's not.

Yes, our sovereign God may wisely allow what we most fear, but our suffering God convinces us of his deep love as we face these things. The powerful hands that uphold all things are the hands that were pierced for us. Freshly seeing God as God—the suffering, sovereign One—is freeing me from fear to trust again.

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I Lost My Dad in a Plane Crash, Too

Today, with new satellite imagery from the Brits, officials are nearly certain that Malaysia Flight #370 crashed into the Indian Ocean. Over the next few days officials will probably be able to find some type of debris in the ocean that confirms this new satellite data. As someone who served as a Marine Air Traffic Control officer and who lost a relative in a plane crash (my father's body was never recovered in the Atlantic Ocean), I've been closely following the search and rescue efforts. I was deeply saddened when I heard about the initial loss of the aircraft, and have been perplexed by the strange, known movements of the aircraft that have been disclosed on the news networks. I know the family members are distraught with this new information, since they were clinging onto the hope that somehow the aircraft might have landed somewhere on the possible northern route into Asia.

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Perhaps one of the most difficult things the grievers face is the lack of a body. An airplane crash makes it even more dramatic, too, since the loved one is seen by friends and family one moment only to take off on a plane the next and never be seen again. A body provides closure. A vast ocean with fathomless depths fills the mind with ungraspable questions. Did my loved one suffer? Was it traumatic? Did they have time for any last thoughts? Did they survive the crash only to die in the open ocean? Is their body sitting in the plane at the bottom of the ocean? Or is it floating on the surface? Then there are the deeper questions. Why did this happen to them? What if they'd taken an earlier or later flight? If only. The "what if" scenarios can play out in your mind forever.

This Could Have Been Any of Us

Then there's the question some may be thinking but probably not voicing: Were these people worse than others who arrived safely in Beijing on different flights that day? One idea prevalent in many world religions, including much of the modern West, is karma—good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If we obey God and help others, in other words, God is obligated to give us longevity of life, nice possessions, healthy relationships, and good health. But if we're selfish and harm others, we're doomed to a terrible existence and possibly tragic death.

The reality according to the Bible, however, is that "good people" don't exist. We are all sinners deserving death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Paul puts it like this: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:11-12). Even Christians, he later says, are still subject to pain and even tragic death: "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:22-23).

So the answer to the question is that these people who perished were no worse than you and me. They were all sinners in need of grace. Perhaps some were even Christians. Considering the large Christian population in China, and that most of the passengers were Chinese, this is quite likely. But because of sin, we are all subject to death, perhaps even a tragic death like this one. And I think that's what's captivated so many about MH370. We've all played the scenario out in our minds. What if this were my parents, my wife, my husband, my children? What if I were on that jet?

Tragic Death Reminds Us to Flee to Christ

When I was a boy, God used my father's tragic death (he was a Christian) to open my eyes to the sudden reality and finality of death and judgment. He used it as a beacon to lead me to Jesus.

And that is Christ's intent for we who are following the search for this missing jet.

Some people once asked Jesus about a tragedy in which some Jews, who'd been worshiping in Galilee, had been slaughtered by Pontius Pilate. Jesus replied, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2-3).

Jesus' point is that every one of us is a sinner deserving death and that death often comes unexpectedly, bringing us before the judgment of God. People who experience tragedy are no more deserving than we are. The suddenness of death reminds us to repent of sin and flee to Christ Jesus, so that we can escape eternal death in hell. That's what Jesus is talking about. He continues: "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:4-5). (For a helpful theological explanation of this passage, see R. C. Sproul's article "When Towers Fall.")

What does Jesus mean by using the word repent? He's talking about more than a guilty conscience or convicted feeling regarding something we've done wrong. He's referring to a change of heart about who we are as people (sinners before God) and who Christ is (our righteous sin-bearer). As John MacArthur explains, "[Repentance] is a spiritual turning, a total about-face. In the context of the new birth [it] means turning from sin to the Savior."

How We Should Respond to Malaysian Flight #370?

So how do we respond to this new information that MH370 crashed in the ocean?

  • We should pray for those grieving that they'll find out as much as possible about the last moments of their loved ones' lives, and perhaps even find their loved one's body.
  • We should remind ourselves that we too are still subject to death, and in fact will all die, unless Christ returns. We must continually look to our Savior, then, who has conquered death for us.
  • We should look for opportunities to share the hope of Christ Jesus, since everyone we know will also face death and ultimately stand before God in judgment.
  • We should thank God that those in Christ will experience a resurrection of life. Paul declares: "For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'" (1 Cor. 15:52-55). And this resurrection unto life includes the bodies of saints that have been lost at sea.

I would love to hear your thoughts about how God has used tragedy in your life to bring you or others to deeper (or perhaps saving) faith in Christ.

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3 Ways to Think About God and Pain

A pastor quickly learns that if he stays at a church for even a short while, he'll consistently walk with people through pain. Suffering is never far away from a pastor. Through trial and error, he learns (some of us slowly) what to say and what not say. There are no pat answers. Formulas generally work only on paper, not on people.

tumblr_lydzi2Z3B81qextc1I have learned that shepherding people through suffering and pain takes more love than pastoral expertise, and often love comes with time. Many times I've been ready with an answer for a question someone didn't have. That's not love. Without speaking for other pastor-flunkies, that impulse usually comes from wanting to be the Savior of the their pain, rather than the one who shares in their pain.

But often the tough questions finally do come. Usually it's not when they first approach me. It's typically after I've been slow to speak, and they can sense my heart is broken with them. From my experience, when people come to pastors concerning their suffering and pain, they're coming with questions. However, those usually come after folks know their pastor loves them; he's slow to speak and quick to mourn with the mourning.

When the questions come, it's clear that not everyone goes through pain the same way. There's not one good answer for questions about God and suffering. People are complex, and so are God's ways. Our answers should reflect that reality.

Nevertheless, I have found three categories of thinking about God and pain that have been helpful as I talk with different people in my church who have been fired from work, learned of their wife's affair, lost their spouse, or endured infertility. These three different ways help us wrap our minds around Romans 8, which teaches that somehow God works all things—whether pain or joy, sword or comfort—for our good.

I say "category" because, again, there are no easy answers to pain. Each instance of pain is different, and each person faces it differently. So use these categories flexibly and with as much love and tenderness as possible.

The 'Jazz' Answer

One of my favorite jazz artists is Dave Brubeck, and one of my favorite of his songs is "Blue Rondo a la Turk" with its forceful rhythms with improvisations. For the most part, the improvisations of Dave Brubeck's piano and Paul Desmond's alto sax are anticipated. But later on in the song, the improvisations become less and less predictable. The changes are abrupt, and the mood shifts at a faster pace as the song nears the end. What is pleasant at the beginning can be painful near the close. It's painful because you don't quite know how to listen; the song puts you on your heals; you can't just relax like you could at the beginning. Your discomfort is all you can think about.

That kind of pain is common until you get to know the artist, not only the song. And when you begin to know the artist, you can begin to see that when an artist is doing something you don't expect, he's trying to get your attention. When you begin to know the artist, you can lift your head from your discomfort to see what he's doing.

Similarly, God's creation often follows a general rhythm: if you obey the wisdom of Proverbs, you will receive the fruit of faithful living. If you are slow to speak, you will turn away wrath. If you humble yourself, you will be exalted. If you work hard, your barns will be full. If you raise your children up in the knowledge of the Lord, they will not wander from it. There are improvisations, but they can be anticipated.

However, some improvisations are less predictable. The godly get swallowed up, and stock markets collapse on the just and unjust alike. These changes put us on our heals, and we can only think about our discomfort.

The pain consumes us until we get to know God. We begin to see that when God does something painfully unexpected, he's showing us something. The more you get to know God and his ways, the more we begin to lift our head from our discomfort to focus on what he's doing. He's changing us. He's making us more like Jesus: meek and humble. And usually on the thousandth time he's brought us into some measure of pain, we can begin to say with the apostle Paul, "His grace is sufficient."

The 'Father' Answer

We live in an older New York City apartment, and when the temperature dips to a certain degree, they turn on the heat. You cannot adjust the heat to fit your comfort; it's just on. It can be 20 degrees outside and we'll have the windows open, because the heat is blazing.

That heat plays tricks on our youngest daughter's mind. She seems to think, If I'm sweating inside, then I don't need a coat when I go outside in the 20-degree weather. Fortunately, I have a bit more experience and wisdom than our 4-year-old, and she always leaves with her coat.

If it's true that I have greater wisdom than my 4-year-old daughter, is it not possible that God, who knows all things perfectly and completely, might have greater wisdom concerning what might be good for me, even if it seems bad from my perspective? I am limited in my scope of knowledge and understanding in all things. God is not.

Not only does God surpass me in knowledge, but he's also good. He's a better Father than I am to my daughter (see Luke 11). He's all knowing, all good, and all powerful. I don't remember who said it first, but if you knew everything God knows, you'd ask for everything he gives you.

So when pain comes, it comes from a Father who knows the outcome of the pain. He has shaped the trial for your good. And he has, as John Newton said, drunk the cup of unmixed wrath for us so that every bad thing in this world will turn out for our good.

The 'Love' Answer

At the time Paul was writing to Christians in Rome and Philippi about his suffering and theirs, many assumed that if you suffer, the gods must be mad at you. But in our day, if we go through pain and suffering, many assume the gods don't care.

For Christians, neither answer tells the truth. God is not aloof from your pain. The modern hymn "Satisfied in You (Psalm 42)" puts it perfectly:

 Youʼre the one who made the waves
And your Son went out to suffer in my place
And to show me that Iʼm safe

God created the wake and sent his Son to be consumed by it so that the wake can never overtake us. As, again, John Newton says, "It is best to believe that a daily portion of comfort and crosses, each one the most totable to our case, is adjusted and appointed by the hand which was once nailed to the cross for us." God's participation in our pain rules out anger and aloofness.

None of these answers gives us reasons for our pain. Job never learned of the celestial conversation between God and Satan that brought on his pain, and rarely do we ever learn how one particular pain leads to our ultimate good. But Jesus promises us they do, and he bled so we can believe all his promises.

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What Not to Say to Someone Who's Suffering

"Job's friends were great counselors," Tullian Tchividjian observes, "until they opened their mouth."

Tchividjian sat down with Paul Tripp and Dave Furman to discuss things you shouldn't to say to a person in pain—many of which they've learned the hard way.

"I've made the mistake of comparing one person's pain to someone else's," recalls Furman, pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Though perhaps well intentioned, this approach diminishes the real struggle before your eyes and leaves the person to conclude you "have no idea what I'm going through." Along similar lines, Tripp adds that it's remarkably unhelpful to tell someone, "You will never suffer as much as Jesus did." To the person who suffers this comment sounds like Jesus set the bar so high that no one else's pain matters.

"The mandatory happiness we require inside the church often perpetuates the pain people feel," says Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "But we have a faith that actually embraces suffering, that looks it square in the face and is realistic about it. The idea that God suffers for us and with us is what sets Christianity apart."

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these pastors discuss blunders they've made, comforting their kids, awkward silence, and more.

Loss from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

How the Church Makes the Trial of Infertility Better (or Worse)

Five years ago, my wife Andrea and I sat in our church's Sunday evening prayer service, listening as another couple talked about their struggles with infertility and asked the church to pray for them as they endured surgeries, tests, and the misery of fertility drugs. It didn't occur to us, at the time, that we might go through the same trial.

Three years later, we found ourselves in the same place, offering up the same prayer requests. We felt left behind by the constant stream of pregnancy and birth announcements in the church, and felt an acute sting when members would jokingly speculate that "there must be something in the water!" For us, infertility was a painful reality.

You will most likely know someone affected by infertility, and you'll be better prepared to love and minister to them if you know a bit more about what it's like to go through this trial.

Bigger Problem than You Think

The statistical data on infertility can be difficult to understand. A recent CDC study suggests infertility rates in women have fallen over the last 30 years, to around 6 percent of women, but that doesn't account for the whole picture, including men who are infertile, unexplained infertility, and women who have difficulty carrying a pregnancy to term. One source estimates that one in eight couples (12.5 percent) are affected by infertility; the Mayo Clinic suggests it may be as high as one in six (17 percent).

Infertility is a private issue, fraught with embarrassment and shame. Because fertility is so bound up with issues of intimacy and sex (taboo topics in their own right), people are reluctant to talk about it publicly, especially in the church. When baby-making machinery doesn't work correctly, we're even less inclined to talk about it—after all, the ability of men to father children and of women to carry them is a cultural touchstone of manhood and womanhood. We're afraid that admitting something is wrong will reflect on us negatively. He's afraid a low sperm count makes him less of a man. She's afraid her inability to become a mother means she won't be able to fulfill what the church often implies is her highest calling.

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Infertility can wreak havoc on our relationships, too. What's wrong with me? can, all too easily, lead to Does he wish he'd married a woman who could give him children? Is she disappointed in me as a husband? Two women who have been friends for years can find their friendship suddenly strained when one gets pregnant, has her baby, and enters the Mom Club while the other is left on the outside, struggling with feelings of discontentment, jealousy, and grief.

My wife and I attend a church full of young families where people seem to have children all the time. Not only does such a church remind infertile couples of their infertility with painful regularity, it can also leave them feeling isolated and alone, out of step with everyone else their age in a different stage of life.

And then there's the whole world of assisted reproduction and infertility treatments, which can be at times as much a curse as a blessing. Sometimes God uses those treatments to end a couple's struggle with infertility. Often he doesn't. And the longer would-be parents pursue them, the more easily they can get wrapped up in the endless cycle of hope and despair recently noted in a New York Times op-ed.

Infertile People Need the Church's Love

I'm painting a bleak picture of infertility here, I know. There is no way to ignore how painful it is. It's certainly the biggest trial my wife and I have ever faced, individually or together. But God has used this trial to grow us spiritually and demonstrate his love for us in ways we couldn't have anticipated. And the church—that network of loving, supportive, prayerful relationships we have in Christ's body—has been used by God to comfort and sustain us and others like us.

That's not to say relationships in the church are easy when you're struggling with infertility. Those aforementioned feelings of isolation and alienation are real. Friends in the church have seemed thoughtless at times, not considering how things they say might be hurtful; at other times they've been awkward, aware of our struggles but at a loss for what to say. Often the strain has been entirely our own fault—we've promised in our church covenant to "rejoice at each other's happiness and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other's burdens and sorrows," but sometimes jealousy and bitterness sap our motivation to do any rejoicing or accept any comfort.

Nonetheless, our church family has been a major pillar of support and source of comfort to us through this journey of infertility. Sometimes that comfort has come through friends asking us how we're doing with it, and telling us they've been praying for us. Sometimes the comfort comes through talking with others who have experienced infertility, too, reminding us that others know what we're going through. But far more often, God has simply used the regular preaching of the Word and ordinary fellowship with the saints to keep us connected to himself and remind us that he's with us and loves us.

If you know people in your church who are dealing with infertility, be prepared to sympathize when the topic comes up, but you can do so much to encourage them simply by being a friend. Make a point of getting to know them, spending time with them, and encouraging them spiritually in the ordinary course of life. Sometimes when infertile couples are in the throes of feeling isolated and desperate to be normal, they just need you to be a friend, to remind them that they are normal, that you like them, and that you want to live the Christian life side-by-side with them.

Infertile People Need the Church's Accountability

In his book Adopted for Life, Russell Moore points out that the grief and pain that come with infertility can put infertile people in a spiritually dangerous position. While a godly friend might confront someone who's struggling with anger or lust, few people with an ounce of compassion would dare to confront a fellow Christian over the sins infertility can give rise to—anger, discontent, jealousy, bitterness, and idolatry among them.

If you have a friend in the church struggling with infertility, the best thing you can do in this regard isn't to confront them at the first sign of a sinful response. When someone is hurting, it's extremely difficult to untangle the angry cry of a heart that's bitter toward God from the anguished cry of a child who wants his Father to make things right.

Instead, cultivate the kind of open, honest relationship that makes your friendship a safe space for them to vent their pain, confess their sins, and ask for accountability and prayer. Take the lead by being willing to confess your own sins and make yourself vulnerable. When sin has grown so malignant that it's poisoning everything around an infertile person, there may come time for gentle, loving, humble confrontation and correction. But most of the time, just being a willing confidant and confessor will be enough for God to use you to encourage and protect your friend.

If you're a pastor or church leader, make your church's teaching and worship as scripturally and confessionally robust as possible. God intends to use them as guardrails to keep hurting people in your church from sin, and as signposts pointing toward our hope in Christ.

Following Him through the Valley

Infertility is a terrible plague, a legacy of the fall we're forced to confront all too often in the church. But if God has put infertile people in the pews next to you—and he almost certainly has—he's given you a tremendous opportunity to sympathize with them, to love them by being a friend, and to encourage them. Be thoughtful, take note of the hurting people around you, and show yourself ready to be a friend.

In my own walk through the trial of infertility, God has made the preaching, reading of Scripture, prayers, confessions, and singing of the church come alive with hope, comfort, and encouragement. My wife and I have been reminded from the pulpit of God's sovereignty and care for his sheep, and we've come to a new understanding of how he intends even this trial for our good. We've recited the creeds and remembered the saints who have confessed them for thousands of years despite suffering far more than we have. We've sung lines from old hymns about following Christ wherever he leads and realized that, for us, that means following him through the valley of the shadow of infertility.

Editors' note: This article is available in Issue #14 of the Christ and Pop Culture MagazineFor more features like this, download the Christ and Pop Culture Magazine app for iPad and iPhone from Apple's App StoreAfter a one-week free trial, monthly and yearly subscriptions are available for $2.99 and $29.99 respectively. New issues are available every other week. More information here.

Scowling at the Angel

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." —Galatians 5:22-23

SunlightWe sat together, just the two of us. The sun would be coming up any minute. We didn't say much. We couldn't. We were on the verge of bursting into tears, but neither did. What we did say was mostly of a lighthearted nature.

It was our 18th anniversary.

"In sickness and health," I joked.

"Yeah, well," she said, "it's only fair. You stuck with me through four labors and deliveries. It's the least I can do."

A man wearing black scrubs and carrying a clipboard entered the waiting area and barked, "Ramsey. Ramsey."

Together we stood and made our way to the shouting man who led us to the elevator.

"I'll be right out here," my wife said. "I'll see you just as soon as they're done."

I squeezed her hand, gave her a kiss, handed her my wedding ring, and then stepped into the elevator as it closed and carried me up and away.

The man in black said, "If you have any modesty issues, now is the time to get over them."

He spoke as though I'd done something wrong and was about get my comeuppance. I don't know why he did this.

He continued, "I'm taking you to the pre-op ward. The first thing they're going to have you do is strip down to nothing."

What he lacked in bedside manner he made up for in accuracy. A nurse met us at the door and led me to a room filled with beds separated only by curtains. He gave me a hand towel and told me to strip down so he could shave me.

"Um, what?" I asked.

"I need to shave you from your neck to your toes. Standard procedure for open heart surgery," he said. "I'll be right here on the other side of the curtain. Go ahead and lie down on the bed when you're done. You can cover yourself with that towel. Holler at me when you're ready."

With no option but to comply, I played my only card: "You're going to bring me a sedative soon, right?"

He said, "Just as soon as I'm finished your surgical team will pay you a visit and set you up with an IV. They'll give you something then to help you relax."

I did as instructed, and after he at last clicked off the electric shaver, my nurse draped a white cotton blanket over me, and then a second one, tucking them in tightly under my legs and sides, as if to say, "Sorry, friend. Here's a little of that modesty back."

I hadn't been that vulnerable since the day I was born.

As I waited I thought about my wife down in the lobby. Never in 18 years of marriage would we have imagined I'd be lying in this bed, not at my age anyway. I thought about how strong she'd been in the weeks leading up to this day, and how she'd carried so much with such grace. Though we'd kept the mood light in the waiting room, I knew, in a way only a husband of two decades could, a bit of the sorrow she now sat with. And I loved her for it.

The Puritans used to say you got married in order to fall in love. They reasoned: How can a man and woman possibly hope to know the wonder, joy, and depth of real love—the kind where you are truly known and truly loved at the same time—without making those two lives into one thing?

The qualities I love most about my wife were largely unknown to me when we married. We'd known each other for a few years, but we both brought oceans of deep, unexplored waters to that altar. We promised to stay together in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, but neither of us knew what those words would cost or where they would take us. How could we? We were kids. Yet there we stood, she in her shimmering ivory and me in my rented tux—the angel and the penguin—promising, like a couple of immortals, to sound those depths together until one of us died.

But I couldn't have known how she would pour her love into our kids; how she would build them up and guard their hearts. When we moved them away from their friends in one city to a place they didn't know, I watched this woman join them in a sorrow they were too young to name. I watched her grieve their heartache and risk new relationships to help them begin again.

I couldn't have known how she would lay down her life to support God's call on mine, or how she would count that as God's will for her as well without complaint, resentment, or doubt.

I couldn't know how she would fight for me to return to her when I'd withdraw into myself out of fear, or how she would comfort me with gracious words when I felt lost and alone, or how she would confront me with a loving rebuke when I needed someone to break anxiety's spell.

I couldn't have known the home she would make for us—practical, happy, and beautiful. Or how she would remember her friends' joys and sorrows throughout the years—always ready to celebrate with real joy or to mourn with genuine tearful sadness.

Now here we were, 18 years later. With four cities, four kids, and probably four dozen W-2's between us, I marveled at the woman in the lobby making good yet again on her promise to stay. The penguin had no idea.

Soon my surgical team began their rounds. No fewer than a dozen people passed through my curtain, each armed with a medical device or a clipboard full of forms. After they'd asked every question they needed to hear me answer—Did I know where I was? Did I know why I was there? Did I know my name and birthday?—they injected a warm liquid into my IV that left me awake but set me free from all of life's carking cares.

And so I went off to surgery in much the same way I came into this world—completely vulnerable and swaddled in warm hospital cotton, watching the tiles overhead pass as they delivered me from my familiar warmth into the cold air and bright lights of the operating room.

The last thought to pass through my mind before they took me completely under was that I would either wake up in recovery or in glory.

I first opened my eyes to a blurry figure in white standing at the foot of my bed, shining so bright I had to squint. Was this the angel dressed in lightning who sat atop Jesus' empty tomb that first Easter morning, coming to tell me I'd risen to newness of life (Matt. 28:1-10)? Or had Abraham's visitor by the Oaks of Mamre appeared to tell me to hang on just a little longer (Gen. 18:1-15)? As I adjusted to the light I realized the vision in white was my wife in the sweater she put on that morning. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen—my friend, my heart, my love. Her glory flooded into the fog of my waking and I came to.

My nurses were determined to get me up on my feet as soon as possible, but due to the stroke I suffered during surgery, I had lost the use of my left foot. I couldn't stand. This detail was irrelevant to my caretakers. They hoisted me and my lifeless leg to the standing position and forced me to walk by pushing and pulling one leg in front of the other. Eight feet from the bed to the window and eight feet back.

Every step was an exercise in defeat. I couldn't do it. I sulked. When I was young I used to walk wherever I wanted. But now I stretched out my hands and others carried me where I did not want to go (John 21:18). I tried to object, but the stroke had also shut down a significant part of my ability to speak, so I couldn't express my frustration. As they carried me across the room and back, my wife stayed where I could see her, encouraging me. She said she was proud of me. She told me she believed I could do this and that she loved me.

I lifted my eyes to the vision in white—the wife of my youth—and focused all my confusion, pleading, anger, and frustration into a single venomous glare that said to her, "You leave me the hell alone."

Anesthesia is a strange monster. Anyone who has been through something even as simple as having their wisdom teeth removed has likely provided at least a few minutes of entertainment for their loved ones. It's one of those rare times when a man gets a free pass for whatever comes out of his mouth. But it's also true that traumatic situations don't create a person's character so much as they expose what's already there. Silence a man's inner dialog and take away the filter through which he runs what he chooses to say and what he keeps inside, and what comes out of him will likely fall closer to the truth than to fiction. If this is true, then it is in me to belittle kindness and glare at beauty. It is in me to tell the ones who love me most to go away. It is in me to reject the advances of grace. And it is true. I know it is.

I remember the first time I saw my wife. We were freshmen in college, less than a month in. I was sitting in the lounge outside the library when she passed through. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. She was the most beautiful girl I'd seen in my short but attentive life. I had to do a double take just to confirm my eyes weren't playing a trick on me. Could someone really be that pretty? I resolved to find ways to put myself in her path in the hope that our roads might eventually converge into one.

Over the next four years we danced a dance that led us to this hospital room. She remained so radiant that when I woke from surgery I mistook her for an angel, or at the very least someone draped in the splendor Moses brought down from the mountain to a fearful people (Exod. 34:29-30). But as it went with Moses and the children of Israel, my eyes grew accustomed to her glory and I quickly moved from wonder to a familiarity that bred in me a heavily medicated yet nevertheless contemptible scowl. She took it without a word, dissolving my wrath with the soft answer of a smile (Prov. 15:1). She pulled her chair up next to my bed and lay her head down by my side.

After I'd been home for a couple weeks, I asked her if she ever noticed that I gave her a few dirty looks. I remembered doing this, but never knew if she'd noticed. She told me I glared at her many times those first few days.

"Did it ever get to you?" I asked.

She told me she knew they came out of frustration. I was hurting and medicated, exposed and weak. I couldn't take myself to the bathroom or pour a drink of water. Often I couldn't even find the words to ask for help. Like a baby on his back, I made my needs known through tears and protest.

"Still, I'm sorry," I said. "What did you do when I scowled at you?"

"I cried," she said. "But never so you could see. I'd step out into the hall or into the bathroom, cry my tears, and pull myself together before coming back."

"I made you leave?" I said.

"No," she said. "Most of the time I would wait for you to fall asleep and then I'd scoot my chair up next to the bed so that I could lay my head by your side and cry there."

I had no idea. All I remembered was that she was the picture of grace—steady and ever-present, deflecting my misdirected frustration with a gentleness that won my heart. Hers was the voice of wisdom; all she spoke were words of kindness (Prov. 31:26). She lavished me with goodness and mercy. She filled the room with love, joy, and peace. She put my ring back on my finger, just as she'd done 18 years before, to say to me, "I still choose you." Against such things there is no law (Gal. 5:23).

There in my brokenness I had so little to give. But grace, she never left. She met me in all my frailty, raw and wrathful, as exposed and defenseless as the day I was born. There she stayed, tending to me with kindness and mercy, weeping both for her sorrow and mine while I slept, in a chair scooted up next to my bed so that she could lay her head by my side because she loved me.

Editors' note: The last in a five-part series titled "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," this article originally appeared at The Rabbit Room.

Piper, Platt, and Chandler on God's Goodness in Your Pain

So long as this broken world endures, suffering will remain a painfully relevant subject. It's not far from any of us. As Christians we know we're supposed to lean on God, but what kind of God is he? In light of all the heartache and sadness that plague our lives, is he really worth our trust?

"One of the biggest mercies of God took place long before my suffering arrived," recalls Chandler, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009. For a while he had been working to prepare his young congregation for suffering. Little did he know, however, that all along God was preparing him.

Contrary to popular belief, Piper observes, awareness of the bigness and majesty and sovereignty of God practically helps when we're in the throes of perplexity and pain. Though it may sound comforting at first, the idea that "God didn't have anything to do with this" is actually horrible news, since it means he's not in control after all and thus cannot ensure your trials will be used for good (Rom. 8:28).

"We have a loving Father who gives us only what will work together for our good," Platt remarks. "God uses sorrowful tragedy to set the stage for surprising triumph—whether in this life or the life to come."

Watch the full nine-minute video to hear about the Platts' struggle with infertility, when Piper's mom died, a 10,000-year perspective, and more.

God's Goodness in Your Pain from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

The Glory in Your Pain

It's as counterintuitive as it is true: affliction is often the tool of liberation that God uses to usher us into the freedom for which we were made.

In a new video, Paul Tripp, Tullian Tchividjian, and Dave Furman explore the dimensions of divine grace available only in the crucibles of human suffering. "There's nothing like suffering to reveal how small and needy you are," observes Tchividjian, author of Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free [interview]. "Pain has the remarkable capacity to reveal the weakness of the things you're leaning on to make life worth living."

Furman, pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, shares from experience how a degenerative disease in his arms profoundly affects even the smallest parts of his life. As Tripp notes, God's design in our pain enables us to look back and say: "He loves me enough to take me where I would have never wanted to go in order to produce in me what I never could have achieved on my own."

Watch the full eight-minute video to hear these pastors discuss the violence of grace, theologians of glory, wimpy Westerners, and more.

The Glory in Your Pain from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.