Suffering and the glory of God

One of the uncomfortable truths of the Christian life is that it’s often in our suffering that God is most glorified in our lives. John Piper captures this well in this full-throated assault on the so-called “prosperity gospel”:

God wants us to know, even in moments of the deepest agony our hearts could ever conceive, that he is enough for us.  He wants us to be able to affirm, even through tears and pain, that he is good and he will take care of us.  As Piper says, it is that more than anything else that makes God look glorious “not as giver of cars or safety or health” but as God, because that shows his real power in our lives.  The gods of this world can give us prosperity, though they are hard and demanding and fickle and can take it away again just as quickly.  They cannot sustain us in times of pain.  Only God can do that, and so only our times of suffering fully show the reality of our faith to a skeptical world.  As Howard Vanderwell of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship put it in discussing 1 Peter 1:1-9, “God had in mind to use [our trials] as an exhibit of genuine faith.  The exhibit of such genuine faith lifts others, defeats the schemes of Satan, and brings glory to Christ.”

This is a strange thought to us, that God would want to be glorified in our suffering.  That idea doesn’t fit the world’s idea of glory. For God to be glorified means that he is seen and recognized for who he is in his true nature and character.  This is why the Bible says Christ was glorified on the cross.  Only the cross showed the depths of his love for us, because only the cross showed us how far he was willing to go and how much he was willing to endure for our sake.  It’s in his death on the cross that we see most clearly the nature and character of our God.

Similarly, what shows God’s power and character and love most clearly in our lives?  It isn’t the good times, because most people have good times, and they come for a lot of different reasons.  It isn’t the times that nothing bad happens, because we think of that as “normal life.”  We don’t see the times God’s hand steers us away from disaster.  We don’t see the times that we don’t get into a nasty traffic accident because some other driver called in sick with a bad cold instead of trying to fight it off and go to work, and so we don’t give God credit for those times.  We don’t see God’s power and character and love clearly in our successes, because we usually take them for our own.  We may thank God for them, but most of the time we really believe that we made them happen ourselves, and so does everyone else.  In all these things and all these times, there is nothing to distinguish the people of God from those who are not his people.  As the Scriptures tell us, the rain that gives life to the crops falls on the just and the unjust alike.

We are distinguished from those who do not walk with Christ is in the hard times in our lives.  We see the power of God and the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives most clearly in our times of loss and suffering and struggle.  We see his character most clearly when all else is dark, because in the darkness we can see that his goodness to us goes beyond giving us things.  When we’re angry at God for allowing us to suffer, we can see that he doesn’t return anger for anger and blame for blame.  We find out that he doesn’t want us to lie to him and tell him things are fine when he knows as well as we do that they aren’t.  Instead, he takes all our rage and grief and pain, and in return he gives us peace and love and hope.  He cares for us and supports us, both directly, by his Spirit, and indirectly, through his people.  He reminds us that there is a better future coming, when “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich wrote. He enables us to sing songs of praise at funerals, because we know by his faithfulness that pain and death and grief and loss do not have the last word, for there is a resurrection.  He gives us the strength to keep walking and not faint.  As we journey through the valley of the shadow of death, he comforts us with the promise that we will emerge at last on the other side.

(Excerpted, edited, from “To the Glory of God”)


Photo:  Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross.  © 2009 Damian Gadal.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Religion and theology.

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