Suffering and Worship

Several months ago, I started a new series of messages in my church on worship. As I looked at Scriptures and all the books on worship, I thought maybe I would speak on how to give thanks to God, how to worship God, how to love him, how to praise him, how to sing, how to pray, how to wait upon him—all the different elements of worship. But I sensed that the Lord wanted me to speak first on the connection between suffering and worship.

Usually, when we reflect on worship, when we think about worship, we do not put suffering and worship together. Some of us have a certain idea about worship. We think that it is so esthetic, that it is a very deep spiritual experience with God. And so it is. But I believe that if we are to understand what worship is all about, if we are to be moved by the Spirit of God deeper into the very core and heart of God himself, we have to understand that, as fallen human beings, we live in a fallen, sinful world.

We all know theologically that the Kingdom has come—but that it is not fully come as yet. We have glimpses of heaven to come, but heaven has not fully come on earth yet. We long for heaven to come. We long for that day when we shall see the Lord face to face. Then there shall be no more pain, no more sorrow, no more tears, no more suffering. But until then, we are living in a fallen world.

We Christians too, even if we are redeemed, are fallen people. So in order to understand and to know God in a deeper way, in order to worship him, we need to understand the place of suffering in our lives.

I have only one main point today. (The homileticians will say that this is not good homiletics, I know.) The one point I want to share with you from our text in First Peter is this: Jesus himself suffered in the flesh, not in terms of the sinful nature, but in the body (see the NIV translation). He suffered in human suffering when he was on earth. And First Peter tells us we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude toward suffering. We are to understand that there is a special place for suffering in our lives that enables us to move deeper into worship of God. If we are open to the place of suffering in our lives, our suffering will enable us to cease more and more from sin and to obey more and more the will of God. Then, ultimately, we will come to know him the way that he wants us to know him. Than we will find our deepest satisfaction in God.

John Piper wrote that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him. As human beings, we derive our deepest satisfaction and fulfillment in God himself. We are to have no other gods, no other idols, no other substitutes before us.

So my point is this: We must learn to embrace suffering, whether allowed—or even appointed by God. Whether we understand that such suffering is sent by God, or allowed by God, we are to yield to God and embrace our suffering and cooperate with the Holy Spirit's work in our school of life. Then our suffering will enable us to become more purified, more purged from sin, and we will be able to live more within the will of God. Then we can be driven (in a good sense of the word) deeper into the very heart of God and his love—into deeper worship of God.

As a psychologist, of course I would be one of the last people on earth to try to glorify suffering. We must not misunderstand the text and the point I am trying to share with you. If we know anything about pain in human hearts and human beings, we know that we do not want to wish suffering on anyone. I am not trying to glorify suffering.

We know that there is some suffering that needs to be healed. And there is some suffering that God will give us grace to overcome. Our text, however, is talking about suffering that comes after we have chosen to follow Jesus—and then suffering happens. Trials and tribulations. The ups and downs of life. Suffering that is there, given, allowed, or appointed by God. What do we do about such suffering? Is there a place for suffering in our lives? Can suffering help us in our worship of God?

In chapter 1 of the book of James, in verses 2 to 4, we read: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

In the school of life, this is not an elective course. Chuck Swindoll pointed out one time that "suffering is a required course." And we will move from suffering 101 to 201 to 301 and beyond. As long as we are on earth, suffering will exist. But there is something about suffering that can purify us and drive us deeper into the very heart of God that nothing else can do.

As I visit with people (especially the terminally ill) and as you face illness in your own life, or as I face illness in my own life, or my family's life, or in other people's lives—there is something about suffering from physical disability or illness or infirmity that reminds us that life is frail, that life is fragile, that life is not going to last forever on this side of the Kingdom.

There's something about physical suffering that enables us to realize that we are 100 percent dependent upon God. And all the things that we hold so dearly, all the things in life that can become idols, that can become false gods in our lives, will tend to fade into mere insignificance. For example, the idols of money, sex, pleasure, or power oftentime become gods in our lives. Only a certain amount of suffering in our lives can help us let go of those false gods and idols in our lives. Suffering will make us realize that those things are not what ultimately satisfy us. And suffering will enable us, as we respond appropriately to God, to be driven deeper into the heart of God, into deeper worship of him.

I want to share just a few thoughts that John Piper has written in Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. In chapter 3 he says:

"We need to make the call even more clear. Peter says, 'Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought' (1 Peter 4:1). The suffering of Christ is a call for a certain mindset towards suffering. Namely, that it is normal and that the path of love will often require it. Thus Peter says, 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you' (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering with Christ is not strange. It is your calling, your vocation. It is the 'same experience of suffering required of your brotherhood throughout the world' (1 Peter 5:9). This is the 'thought' that we need to put on like armor, lest we be vulnerable to suffering as something strange."

This is why suffering is so central to the mission of the church. The goal of our mission is that people from all the nations worship the true God. But worship means cherishing the preciousness of God above all else, including life itself. It will be very hard to bring the nations to love God from a lifestyle that communicates a love of things. Therefore, God ordains in the lives of his messengers that suffering will sever our bondage to the world. When joy and love survive this severing, then we are fit to say to the nations with authenticity and power: Hope in God.

I believe that these words are powerful and true. And based on First Peter, and on James, and many other passages in Scripture, we know that the Bible does teach us that there is a place for appropriate suffering and trials in our lives from time to time. Because God knows that there is no other way to prune us, to purge us, to purify us to the point where we love God for who he is, and not just for the gifts that he gives us.

Roger Helland, senior pastor of a New Life Vineyard Fellowship in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, wrote in The Revived Church:

"The key to pure spiritual power is humility. As Jim Cymbala declares: 'God is attracted to weakness. He can't resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately they need him.' The Bible says, 'Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life' (Proverbs 22:4). As in Saul's case, we can be filled with the Spirit and still be no good. We can look for God's power, but not his presence. We can seek his hand, but not his face. God doesn't build revived churches with powerful people. He builds them with pure people. Again, Gene Edwards says: 'What does this world need? Gifted men [and women] outwardly empowered? Or broken men [and women] inwardly transformed?'"

And so suffering and worship are connected. Because suffering, if we cooperate with God in the process, enables us to become purer people—and humbler people. It is the pure and humble who have truly learned to love God for who he is and to worship him most deeply.

I want to share with you a true story, published in Leadership Magazine recently, in an article titled, "Taking Care of Busyness" (Fall, 1998). It is about a friend of mine that many of you know. He is on our Board of Trustees at Fuller Seminary—Dr. John Ortberg. He is also a graduate from our School of Psychology. Dr. Ortberg is a pastor. A few years ago, he and I wrote a couple of books together on depression. And shortly after we finished one manuscript, he accepted a call from Bill Hybels to become an associate pastor at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. Every Wednesday night he teaches the Bible to thousands of people. That's lot of people to minister to! So, one day, John called one of his spiritual mentors long distance, and this is what he asked his spiritual mentor:

"What do I need to do to be spiritually healthy?" There was a long pause. This very wise mentor told John, "You must ruthlessly eliminate hurriedness from your life." John then asked, "What else should I do?" There was another long pause. And then this very wise spiritual man said to John, "There is nothing else that you should do. You must only ruthlessly eliminate hurriedness from your life."

John Piper emphasized that missions is not ultimate—worship is ultimate. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Once we are all worshipers, missions will be over, and we will be in heaven worshiping God forever. But in order to learn to worship like that, we must have time and solitude to be with God. We therefore need to ruthlessly eliminate hurriedness from our lives.

I'm going to close with two "S's" for us to consider. The first S refers to the spiritual discipline of solitude--to take time, long periods of time, to just bask in the presence of God, to be in the wilderness alone with him. There's no other way to really know God and worship him except to practice the discipline of solitude. So we need to make time for God, and ruthlessly eliminate hurriedness from our lives.

Solitude alone, however, is not going to cut it. The second "S" is the S of suffering. Embrace it. Thank God for the trials and tribulations that come from time to time. And thank God that they do not come all the time. God is gracious; God is merciful. But go through that suffering. Let us ask the Spirit of God to help us become better people, not bitter people, through all of our suffering, with a deeper and more purified worship of God himself.

We tend to have two other S's in our church life here in America. We tend to go after self-esteem, and satisfaction. But God is calling us to embrace solitude and suffering, so we can come to know him and worship him more deeply, Then satisfaction and appropriate self-esteem will come to us as side effects.

May God bless us and help us, by his Spirit, to learn to grow in redemptive suffering and worship of him.


SIANG-YANG TAN, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in Fuller's School of Psychology and senior pastor of the First Evangelical Church in Glendale, California. Also a long-time clinical psychologist, he is the current president of Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) of the American Psychological Association. He is also the associate editor of the Joumal of Psychology and Christianity. His recent books include: Understanding Depression and Coping with Depression, with John Ortberg (Baker, 1995); Managing Chronic Pain (InterVarsity, 1996); and Disciplines of the Holy Spirit, with Douglas Gregg (Zondervan, 1997).

Reprinted from Theology, News and Notes, October 1999. Copyright 1999 Fuller Theological Seminary.

Siang-Yang Tan
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