How do we stir up a radical passion for God’s will and people in the world? Suffering and how we respond to it could be our answer.
Fiery passion for God’s work is born out of compassion, if you think about it. God sent Christ to die for sinners. Biblically, his glory and judgment go hand-in-hand with his love for us as his image-bearers and grief over sin.
When we discuss the ‘fire in the bones’ that the prophet Jeremiah talked about and all the prophecies of judgment over the nation of Israel, it’s easy to forget that Jeremiah was speaking about his home, his nation and probably a lot of his own family. This wasn’t impersonal like when Jonah proclaimed doom over Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want God to save the Ninevites. They were the Israelites’ historic enemies. Jeremiah wasn’t in that situation; he was talking to his neighbors and country’s rulers. We have good cause from scripture to believe that he suffered from a great deal of grief and depression as a result of the message God gave him.
Nevertheless, he wrote, “His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9, NIV). Pastoring a church is incredibly difficult because we are asked to care for the hurting and reach out to our neighbors and nation’s leaders who may very likely reject our message. Becoming overwhelmed or exhausted is so easy in this position, yet we’re called to mimic Christ as a shepherd protecting his flock, and a key part of that protectiveness is having compassion on those we proclaim scripture to.
So the big question is how do church leaders not become overwhelmed. How do we maintain that compassion and passion of God for his people? Perhaps we’ve lost it and need to find it again.
A Proper Theology of Pain
Martin Luther wrote that we live either from a theology of the cross or a theology of glory. Now, the latter sounds good at first because we might associate it with the glory of God, but Luther was talking about self-glorification. Essentially, he was saying our theology springs from our beliefs about suffering and self-sacrifice or self-glorification and self-preservation.
Those two theologies, if you will, are as old as fallen humanity, and they are prevalent in many churches and Christian families today. Self-glorification often shows up as a desire for comfort and ease, rejecting the cross and suffering that we’re called to partake in as followers of Christ. Some Christians, even leaders, want to say things along the lines of “Well, Jesus took on all of our sin and suffering upon the cross, so we don’t have to experience that anymore.” That line of thinking is a perversion of 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” because it ignores the other half of the sentence "that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
Christ himself very clearly told his followers, ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25, ESV).
There’s no room for seeking our own glory and comfort when we’re picking up a daily cross. The source of compassion is underneath that cross. When we’re suffering and dying to ourselves, we won’t have any space in our hearts for self-preservation that seeks to avoid other people’s problems or the pride that makes us look down on other people for their suffering. A Christ-like compassion is expressed through the polar opposites of self-preservation and pride: humility and passion for God’s glory. This is the fuel for that Holy Spirit fire that believers absolutely must have in order to make a difference in our culture. It’s the fire that church leaders must have in order to help believers heal and grow in Christ.
The Loving and Protective Father
Inevitably, though, when we talk about suffering, the question comes up of consequences for sin. Some people reap in suffering what they sow in sin, whether it’s in personal health problems or damaged relationships. The Bible is full of examples of this. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden; Cain murdered his brother and fled to escape punishment; Noah watched everyone he knew outside of his own small family drown. Scripture is full of tragic stories of the consequences of sin and how life deals people some terrible blows either as a result of their own sin or as the result of someone else’s sin. How do we respond to this? How does this fit into a correct theology of suffering and therefore passion for God and compassion for others?
We can easily get bogged down in questions of “Does this person ‘deserve’ what they’re going through? Do I ‘deserve’ this pain?” It tempts us to avoid God or try to deal with our pain on our own or sidestep really engaging others in their pain.
If we look at scripture, though, God draws close to his children and engages with them very gently. In Genesis, he doesn’t burst in on Adam and Eve and start scolding them. He walks through the garden and asks, “Where are you?” He asks questions and invites them to engage with him, to acknowledge their sin but then also to look at what he’s going to do to redeem them (see Genesis 3:1-15).
We see a different kind of suffering in Elijah’s story when he runs into the wilderness to hide from Jezebel. He goes up onto Mount Horeb, and he sees signs of God’s power, but God himself comes and sits beside Elijah in his quietness. Again, he engages with his children with a question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). It’s the act of a loving father with a child who has disobeyed or is struggling.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis observed, “It is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him.” God reveals the true nature of sin and our own desperate need for him through pain and suffering; then he displays his gentle strength, his all-encompassing love in how he meets us in such moments.
The Power of Compassion
When we read scripture, when we pray, when we preach a sermon or lead a Bible study, we must remember that this is the God of all creation we’re talking about or representing to others. This is the God who spoke everything into existence. There he is in scripture giving Elijah food or clothing Adam and Eve, and here he is caring for us. The almighty God of the universe stoops down to meet us right where we’re at and invite us into a conversation, a loving relationship.
If we don’t hold this theology of the ugliness of sin, the reality of hardship, the command to pick up our crosses and follow Christ, the necessity of going through pain so we recognize how much we need God — if we don’t have a real theology of suffering, we will not minister rightly to those in need.
Pain goes then into the category of Satan. We fall into a “I’m going to rebuke it, and it will just go away” kind of thinking. In that mindset, we typically go one of two ways. We could deny suffering with pithy advice like “Here’s the 10-step program, and here’s your prayer script, and all the hardship will go away.” The alternative is to blame the victim for their hardship like Job’s friends. “Clearly, you’ve brought this on yourself somehow. Now it’s time to eat the bitter fruits of your actions.” That denial or defensive posture will quickly make our hearts grow cold because if we do this to others, we assume God does it to us. God because the angry parent who enters a room and yells, “How dare you make this mess?”
A proper view of God and therefore suffering will allow us to be like him as we engage with a hurting world. We will sit down and ask questions and truly care about the person we’re talking to as we share the truth but also compassion for them. Healing very rarely involves just making the pain go alway. Far more often, God is interested in taking a story of suffering, putting the sins that caused it on the cross, and then resurrecting our hearts and minds. The ‘old man’ in us must die beneath the cross, but like with baptism, God is supporting our head and holding our hand as we go under. He will raise us up again.
As we come to more biblical understanding of suffering and as we more fully understand God’s compassion for the lost and for his own hurting children, we will be filled with a fire in our bones to minister to them. This is how we obey Paul’s command, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:14-16).
As we learn to live this out, we will be filled with compassion for the hurting our churches and suffering of the lost. We will cry out with the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me!”
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