This Might Be Making You Miserable

I am currently preaching through the book of Romans. It is the second time that I have preached through it and I can say that it is definitely one of my favorite books in the bible. The gospel is on full display in every passage. This week I will be covering one of the most well known verses in all of Scripture:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. -Romans 8:28

As I previously stated, it is one of the most well known verses in the Bible, but I must add, it is also one of the least understood verses as well. The reason why I believe this verse is so misunderstood is because we fail to look at it in context. In verse 29 we read this:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. -Romans 8:29

In verse 29 I believe that Paul is describing what “good” means in verse 28. When Paul writes that “all things work together for the good” he is talking about the fact that God is at work in our lives for the specific purpose of conforming us into the image of Jesus Christ.

So, how is it possible that a promise like this can actually end up making us miserable? Let me explain. Many times we will associate God being good to us when he makes our circumstances in life better. For example:

I got the promotion, God is good.

I ‘m no longer sick, God is good.

I got into the college of my dreams, God is good.

I’m getting married, God is good.

My kids are doing well in school, God is good.

My depression and anxiety have eased up, God is good.

Paul’s point in Romans 8:28-29 is that God’s primary way of revealing his goodness to us is not by making life more pleasant but by using the good and bad stuff of everyday life to make us more like Jesus. When we fail to understand this important biblical truth we become angry, cynical, depressed, impatient and distant towards God because he is not doing what we want him to do. We need to be reminded that God is not aiming for our comfort, he is aiming for our heart. God wants to change us more than he wants to change our circumstances.

One final thought. Having our circumstances improve can only, at best, make us temporarily happy. As Augustine pointed out a long time ago, the stuff of this world can not fill up the gaping hole in our heart. God is working to make us more like Christ and he knows that this is also the pathway to our deepest satisfaction, contentment and joy.

Interview with Aubrey Sampson, Author of “The Louder Song” (NEW POST)

I believe one of the most important things we can have as believers is a biblical theology of suffering. No matter who we are we are going to experience pain, trials, and difficulties in this life. This is the reason why I was delighted to interview Aubrey Sampson. She recently wrote a great book called “The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament.” I hope you enjoy the interview…

Hi Aubrey! Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?

Aubrey SampsonMy husband, Kevin, and I are church planters in the Chicagoland area. We have three hilarious sons, ages 12, 9, and 7. We love our city, our neighborhood, and love praying through what it means to “gospel” in our city. I am a graduate student at Wheaton College and an author/speaker- so we are usually balancing a lot. But we are so grateful for the opportunities.

In your book you mention how you are struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. How are you feeling these days?

Thank you for asking. I am feeling very good and I am praising God for that, as it’s been a very difficult last three years. Although, as most people with autoimmune diseases experience, I still have daily pain and sometimes odd issues now and again (sometimes I randomly can’t open a door because turning a doorknob is too painful). But overall, my disease is at bay. As one of my friends said, “I am in the process of experiencing healing.” I’ll take it.

I loved the story in chapter one of going to a concert and how you discovered the power of a louder song. Would you mind explaining what happened at the concert and how God was using it to teach you a valuable lesson about suffering?

That is actually my favorite story in the book! I won’t explain too much because it will spoil the book. But here is a little peek:

During a very difficult few years which I write about in The Louder Song, my gnawing questions about suffering and God’s goodness became too much to handle. My usual spiritual disciplines were no longer helping me to feel connected to God. And honestly, for the first time in 30 years as a Christian I began to wonder if I was praying to the ceiling fan…is God even real? Does God even hear me? I asked the questions we all ask in times of crisis, right?

I know God is not the author of evil but I couldn’t’ make sense of God not stopping evil form hitting my life and the lives of those I loved. My relationship with God—which was at once thriving, and beautiful and lovely, became this small, unrecognizable thing. Ultimately God no longer fit into the box I had designated for him and I had no idea what to do about it. What I didn’t realize is that God was about to blow the box wide open and reveal more of himself to me.

One night, in God’s perfect timing, a friend invited me to a concert—and I needed a night out, so I went with her….to this little theater in the round….we walked in, grabbed our seats, the lights dimmed and a screen descended from the ceiling with a trigger warning—the screen began to show disturbing images of pain, starvation, poverty, oppression. And I was thinking, “What is happening? Why are we here?” Then this choir in dark robes walked on stage and started singing this ancient funeral dirge–low, slow, and depressing. And as you can image, the mood- in the audience shifted. We were initially excited for the concert to start, but this moment kind of took the wind from our sails. I turned to my friend- and was about to suggest we leave–this was just too much emotion for me to handle at the time.

What I didn’t realize was that another choir was actually planted in the audience, surrounding the entire theater, posing as audience members. Suddenly they stood up and started singing over us this hopeful, joyful, triumphant song. It was startling but not scary; they sang over us like they were performing life saving surgery. The dirge was still being sung. The suffering images still being displayed. But the hopeful song was growing louder….and that song began to overpower the dark heavy song in front of us…and suddenly, from within the deep places of my soul that had been so grieving, so hurt, feeling so betrayed by God, avoiding hiding…, I felt God say, “Aubrey, this is what I do. I don’t pretend like evil and pain and suffering don’t exist and you don’t have to either. But I sing a louder song over them – a song of hope and joy and renewal and restoration and healing.”

I sat there and bawled like a baby–finally releasing my fears and worries and sadness to God.What I didn’t realize at the time is that concert was a LAMENT concert and it was the first time I was exposed to the spiritual discipline and biblical language of lament. And from that night on- for the next three years, really, lament became the language, the disciple, the experience that God used to move my heavy heart back to a place of hope.

And now- three years later- I don’t have many clear cut answers- but I understand that there is a mystery to suffering- that if we allow it, can actually draw us deeper into intimacy with our God.

In your book you talk about the tendency we have to act as if everything is OK and hide what is really going on in our hearts. What can churches do to create a safe environment where people know it is OK to admit that they don’t have it all together?

That’s such a great question. I think, especially in the west, we tend to want to see the VICTORY! The MOUNTAIN TOP! The TRIUMPH, The SERMON APPLICATION! We want to get to Easter and skip over Good Friday. And of course, it’s a good instinct to live into our hope in Christ. But sometimes we do this at the expense of acknowledging and honoring our pain and the world’s pain. I’m totally guilty of wanting to slap a Band Aid on and pretending like everything is okay. For real transformation and healing to take place, church leaders need to model vulnerability. We certainly don’t have to share our whole messes with the whole world, but we can practice authentic vulnerability in the midst of struggle, so that our folks can learn what it means to endure in the messy middle—not just on the other side.

I also think it’s important not to try to “balance the scales” for people’s suffering. What I mean by that is, sometimes we want to say to our people, “Yes, you’re suffering this incredible thing, BUT, look at all of the wonderful things that will happen because of it. Look at the testimony it will be! Look at how many people will be encouraged!” I think that is a super kindhearted instinct, but when folks are truly grieving, it’s often more loving to simply sit with them on their mourning benches, or climb down into the pit with them and grieve with them. We have to be less awkward around other people’s pain—we can declare hope without invalidating or “fixing.”

You point out that in the bible there are more lament songs than there are praise songs. Why do you think it is so important that Christians learn the power of lament in everyday life?

When Christians lament, we do so to a God who lets us. Our cries—even our cries of doubt and despair—fall on his loving, listening ears. In fact, what’s remarkable about Christianity is that we have a King who is also a steadfast, loving Husband and Friend. He not only permits lament; he gives us the language of lament. We have a God who desires and deserves our wholehearted praise. But he is also a God who wants an authentic, meaningful, intimate love relationship with us. We have a groom who gives his bride a voice.

I actually believe lament is a powerful evangelistic tool- because even if our lament is impolite, raw, or bitter, even if we express sorrow or verbalize anger, even if we make demands, as we lament, we actually preach to the world (and to ourselves) that it is possible to have a fearless, deeply intimate relationship with God. A God who not only is worthy of our thanksgiving and our joyful worship but also wants every part of us—not just our “pretty” selves, but our sharp edges, our sin struggles, our suffering, and our sadness.

On top of that, if we never acknowledge our pain to God, we will never truly know what it means to praise him on the other side of suffering. It is in our honest crying out to God about our pain that our worship of God grows more authentic. It is in this kind of relationship, this kind of honesty with God that our walks with him become real. Lament is part of the rhythm of a deepening relationship with him.

Lastly, lament, especially communal lament, helps open our eyes to the sufferers around the world. We have brothers and sisters experiencing persecution and oppression everyday. We can and should be lamenting with and for them.

In chapter 11 you talk about “the end of all laments.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

For this question, I’ll leave you with a direct quote from the book, if you don’t mind:

“Here’s the hope of all laments: Generations after the events of Lamentations, Jesus left the comfort of heaven and entered Jerusalem’s long years of suffering. He willingly, voluntarily became both the object and subject of lament. In taking upon himself the consequences for all of our sin, the penalty for the world’s idolatry, the power of death—and in taking on the principalities and forces of darkness—Jesus didn’t hesitate to expose himself to the worst any person could face. Instead, he willingly bore the full weight of it all on the cross. After years of longing, after generations of lament—through the suffering of their very own King—the Israelites were, as we are, healed.

5 Mistakes We Make When Going Through Difficult Times

What if instead of trying to quickly getting through the trial that may be experiencing we stopped and considered that God is trying to do something in our lives? What if instead of running or escaping the pain we stopped and listened to what God was trying to communicate to us?

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” -C.S. Lewis

Recently God has been challenging me through his Word to consider how he is trying to speak to me, grow me, and reveal his love to me through the trials of life. So can I share with you a few of my thoughts regarding the role of trials in our lives?

  1. We forget that God wants to use our trials to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. I would NOT choose suffering or trials as the instrument whereby I become more like Christ. Instead, I would choose reading the Bible while drinking coffee. I try to shield myself from pain in every conceivable way. Usually it is to my spiritual detriment. Yet if I am going to be honest with what I read in Scripture I must conclude that God uses my pain for redemptive purposes.  For they (earthly fathers) disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he (heavenly Father) disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. -Hebrews 12:10
  2. We think our joy and happiness depends on our circumstances getting better. Are we merely waiting for the hard times to pass before we think we can experience joy again? The story of the apostle Paul teaches us that our contentment and joy does not need to be rooted in how well life is turning out for us. “I rejoiced greatly that you have revived your concern for me and that you were concerned, but you had no opportunity. Not that I speak of being in need. For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound in any and every circumstance. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” -Philippians 4:10-13
  3. We miss out on how we can be a blessing to others because we become focused in like a laser on our circumstances. Don’t get me wrong. There is a time to grieve. There is a time to slow down and allow God to minister to us. But if we always wait for life to go the way that we want before we love and serve others we will find that life has passed us by and we have missed far too many ministry opportunities. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” -2 Corinthians 1:3–5
  4. We lose sight of the truth that trials are one of the ways that God is revealing his love and affection for us. This is the one point that probably stands out to me most at this time in my life. I am tempted to give into discouragement when I am dealing with my spiritual and emotional battles. They seem to be never-ending. But the writer of Hebrews tells us something shocking, God is revealing his love for us when he causes us to walk through a difficult season. He is pruning us. He is molding us. Instead of the trial being a sign of God’s indifference or harshness it is an indication that he loves us enough to seek our growth and transformation. “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” -Hebrews 12:5-6
  5. We isolate ourselves from others in the church. Too often, I believe, we end up making life harder because we disengage and distance ourselves from others when we are struggling. Trust me, I get why people do this! It feels so right to draw back and seek a safe place to lick our wounds. The problem is that God has perfectly designed the body of Jesus Christ (the church) to walk with us and help carry our burdens. As Christians we were never meant to try to get through life on our own. Whether we recognize it or not we desperately need the relationships that are found in the church.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” -1 Corinthians 12:21

A Theology of Suffering

We can’t escape suffering. The Bible is filled with men and women who suffered. The cross reminds us that our God is a suffering God. All of this makes me wonder why we are so shocked when it comes our way?

Most of us live a pretty comfy American life. We want (understandably so) to do whatever it takes to remove any and all pain out of our lives. Which is why these words from Paul should blow our mind…

“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10

Paul is, get ready for it, praying that he might be able to suffer.

Before you even try, it’s not going to help you if you look up the verse in Greek or use a different translation.

Paul has a solid theology of suffering that most of us simply do not have. Paul did not want to suffer merely for the sake of experiencing pain and hardship.  Paul understood that suffering was not meaningless. It was not intended to destroy him. No, Paul knew that as he suffered it would cause him to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s greatest desire; to know and become more like his Savior.

The prosperity gospel is a reprehensible false teaching. We may mock the prosperity gospel but are we sure there aren’t some traces of it in our hearts and minds?

Have you said or thought these words before?

If God loved me then he would not…

I have been pretty good so why did God…

If this is how God treats me then…

I’ve had these thoughts run through my head before and there is a good chance I have even muttered a few of these phrases while going through a difficult season of life. But we need to face the truth. Difficult times have the power to reveal what we truly believe about God. Trials also reveal what we love, what we treasure. I must confess that all too often I treasure my health, life, reputation, and comfort more than I do the pursuit of becoming like Christ.

My prayer for myself, my family, my brothers and sisters at New Life church is that instead of running from the hard times, which are sure to come, that we will allow God to use them to liberate us from our besetting sins and transform us into the image of Christ.