I’m steeping in suffering, reading sociological, psychological, historical, and theological research and writings on the subject. Tim Keller, my favorite contemporary author, wrote a whole book last year, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, where he views the subject of suffering from different vantage points and offers sound advice about how to deal with it in ways that bring us through “the furnace” of life stronger and more beautiful. Keller’s framework of fire in his discussion of suffering has spawned some thoughts of my own—and many praises.
With what do you struggle today? With what will you wrestle? What little demon might come up behind you, trying to steal your peace? We should expect some sort of struggle, be it small or large. The world is full of it.
Suffering is a given in our lives and it comes to us in all sorts of ways, some from outside us, some from inside us. Today, I write about the inner source of suffering and the purpose of life, in my opinion, which only paraphrases the words of Jesus:
The purpose of life is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
I believe that the closer we get to this ideal, this greatest “commandment” of Christ, the better we become at letting all suffering have a holy effect on us. Nothing will eliminate suffering this side of heaven. So wouldn’t it behoove us to deal with suffering in life-enhancing rather than life-diminishing ways, both for us and our “neighbors”? Wouldn’t dealing with our own suffering and the suffering of others make us more godly? Wouldn’t dealing with our own suffering and the suffering of others help us identify more with Christ, the Suffering Savior?
We are being made ready for Jesus and the place He has prepared for us. We are being grown to give, right here on earth. Self-will in opposition to God’s will is our greatest enemy, personally and corporately.
Johannes Eckhart (1260-1327), a German Dominican philosopher wrote:
“ . . . of all things that exist, nothing is forbidden or contrary to God, except one thing only. That one thing is self-will, or to will otherwise than as the eternal Will would have it.”
I read it slow. I read it again, slower, and meditate on the gravity of this truth. I feel the weight of my Self.
The original sin from which all other sins flow. The flaw that runs so deep we cannot comprehend on our own. We cannot free ourselves of ourselves on our own.
And this truth about self-will is why we need fire.
We need fire to turn up the heat on ourselves. We need fire to flame off our self-will and our complacency. We need fire to bring us back to God where “holiness and happiness are one” (Robert Murray McCheyne).
But being in the midst of our fires is a frightening experience, if we stand alone.
We need Someone stronger to keep us standing and bring us through tongues of flame and billowing smoke unscathed.
There is only One.
And we need human encouragers, cheerleaders, soul-holders who know personally of fearsome fires.
But first, the One who is always in our fires—the One who completely understands. He was in the greatest fire every known, alone, and lives to help us through lesser. Lesser, because we are never alone.
There is only One who laid alone in the firefight of Hell when he laid upon that cross. The Father turned and left him there, alone. Because the Father who must judge everything unholy had to turn His holy face away from the One who took all our unholiness—all our brokenness—upon Himself to win victory and freedom and joy for all who will come to him and take hold of his hand.
And the One who hung on the cross did so willingly, alone. He agonized, not as much from the physical pain caused by leather straps studded with stone shards, ripping his flesh to the bone, or metal spikes pounded through hands and feet, or suffocation because his human lungs could no longer fill with air, or side-spearing spilling of bodily fluids. He agonized most when he was abandoned by the Father, even briefly, as he bore every sin, every sorrow upon himself on the cross, becoming the cursed, the judged, for us. He willingly went to the one place where he knew he would be left alone . . . so we would never be left alone in our sufferings.
Who can completely comprehend a love so great?
He struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane because we chose not to struggle in the Garden of Eden.
He struggled because He knew what was coming the next day and his spirit was sorely troubled. He prayed that the Father would choose another way, if possible. Three times, Jesus prayed the same prayer asking for another way but ending with, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Self-will. God’s will.
Jesus knows our smallest irritations and our most grievous struggles.
Every second of every day, we get to choose.
Self-will? God’s will?
When God’s will is for us to enter into fires, even if they be conflagrant, we are never in them alone as Jesus was on the cross. The One who overcame the cross overcame the fires of Hell and He alone is able to take us by the hand and guide us through with not one tongue of flame searing anything but that which does not belong. God has us in mind in the midst of our fires. He has in mind His masterpiece in the making . . .
I stood in Florence, Italy and saw him as I entered the corridor. Michelangelo’s “David”. I had seen him in art books. But there, I saw him face-to-face, pure white, illuminated by a sky-light, standing mammoth on a pedestal.
I stepped forward through the hall with him at the end, slowly, surely, unable to break my gaze.
Michelangelo’s words were with me. He said that his method for sculpturing “David” out of a marble block he purposefully chose, though he knew it was flawed was to chisel away everything that didn’t belong. He had a vision, a purpose, a method.
We are flawed stones, masterpieces in the making by a holy hand with a holy vision and purpose.
So it is with fire.
The only thing that does not belong in us is self-will.
Fires and chisels are effective means of making masterpieces. But will we perish in the heat or crack under the pressure? Surely not, if we move beyond ourselves to the One standing beside us saying, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.”
One and One only, can say such a thing—the One and only Messiah—Jesus, who came through the fire, who survived the chiseling of stone-laden straps, who came down from the cross, and walked out of the grave for ONE reason–to grab hold of you and me in the midst of all life’s trials permitted only to purify us from Self and bring us through without even the smell of smoke, refined and polished, whole and holy-filled.
Be blessed by awe.
Why would we choose such a cross, such a crucible, such a chisel of body and soul? Most often, I don’t. I don’t choose the cross. I choose the easy path, the pleasurable path, the least painful path. But there’s no getting around the cross if want to find True Love, True Peace, True Joy, True Life. There’s no getting over the cross. The cross will do its work in us, one way or another.
The wisest of us are those who do not turn away from holy suffering God allows in us. The most loving of us stays with those in pain, holding hope for them when they can’t hold it themselves, helping them see God when tears cloud their eyes. Only those softened and molded and made more like the image of Christ coming through the fire, out of the marble rock, can live and love as Christ.
For further reading, see Daniel 3:16-30