What is Suffering?

A friend asked me recently how I would define suffering. I panicked for a moment. I just published a book on suffering, but I didn’t seem to have a quick definition for it in my head. How had I allowed such an oversight?! But it didn’t take me long to find succinct words. Deep down, I know exactly what suffering is and what is its cause.

All suffering, at its most basic level, is our groaning under the weight of the effects of the Fall.

I have found it deeply helpful to ground my understanding of my own personal suffering in terms of the Fall. God did not intend husbands and wives for divorce. There was no cancer in Eden. And in terms of the communal crises facing us today, there was no disease in Eden. There was no racial bias.

Every ounce of suffering in your world, whether from your sin, another’s sin against you, sickness, death, job loss, relational crisis, or any other cause, stems initially from brokenness that came to our world as a result of the Fall of Man. The good news, in the midst of such widespread groaning, is found singularly in Jesus. No one has groaned under this weight more than Christ. He stood up under that weight for His years on earth, clearly troubled over and over again by what He witnessed. He felt compassion, in other words, suffering with those He saw suffering. And then He suffered FOR all of us on the cross. In our place. Bearing the heaviest weight of the Fall, a weight that would have crushed us.

As you bear up under the effects of the Fall on your own life, and on our world as a whole, know that Jesus understands. He more than understands. He carries this weight WITH you. And He carried the heaviest weight of it all FOR you on the cross in your place.

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Companions in Suffering is now available on Amazon. I also have two free copies of the audio book from Audible. If you are willing to share this post on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, comment below where you shared it, and I will enter you into a drawing for the free audio books. Winners will be announced on Wednesday June 24.

Practical Help for Sufferers

Suffering plays with our body, and suffering plays with our mind. As I was going through the worst parts of my personal struggles, particularly around my cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgeries, my mind was affected every bit as much as my body. Many people find praise and worship music helpful. I’ve particularly enjoyed Latasha Morrison’s music. But I also found unexpected help to settle my mind when a friend in my inner circle sent me a coloring book of Bible verses. I had not colored in decades, but this coloring book became a dear friend in the days of waiting for doctors’ appointments, test results, and surgery dates.

So. Much. Waiting.

Waiting on test results was the worst. I couldn’t plan on the next thing until we knew exactly what we were dealing with medically. So I colored. One picture a day was all I could handle. But one picture a day gave me a tactile thing to do with my hands that stimulated me visually and gave me some minor sense of accomplishment when the picture was finished.

I am not an artist, so the coloring books that worked well for me were fairly simple to color. Others may have different tastes. Now, when a friend receives a troubling medical diagnosis, a coloring book and colors are one thing I like to share (though I make it clear I am not offended if it doesn’t really work for them). And, to go with the release of Companions in Suffering, my publisher made up some coloring cards with verses and quotes that we can give out with it. Here are a few of my favorite coloring books and some reasonably priced sets of pencils.

Inspiring Words Coloring Book

Favorite Bible Verses Coloring Book

Bible Blessings and Promises Coloring Art

Crayola Adult Coloring Pencils 50 count

Crayola Dual-ended Coloring Pencils 36 count

Coloring isn’t for everyone, but if you or a loved one needs help settling your mind, the simplicity of coloring a Bible verse may be helpful. It definitely was for me.

Comfort in Communal Suffering

When I wrote Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness, I could not foresee the suffering that would be thrust upon the world just a few months after I turned in the final manuscript. I, and many others, had experienced solitary suffering, the kind of suffering that seems to alienate us from the masses. Now, the world, and the church in the world, are experiencing communal suffering on top of our own individual struggles. We are both together and separate—suffering together in our counties, states, and nations. But our circumstances also force us to isolate, with little face to face conversation and virtually no physical contact. In the United States at least, this type of crisis is unprecedented in our lifetime. We are all in new territory.

But this is not new territory for the Church.

As I was researching the history of hospitals and the Church, I cried as I read the introductory paragraph on Wikipedia’s article on the history of hospitals.

“… no civilian hospital existed in the Roman empire until the Christian period. Towards the end of the 4th century, the ‘second medical revolution’ took place with the founding of the first Christian hospital in the eastern Byzantine Empire by Basil of Caesarea, and within a few decades, such hospitals had become ubiquitous in Byzantine society. The hospital would undergo development and progress throughout Byzantine, medieval European and Islamic societies, until the early modern era where care and healing would transition into a secular affair.”

An article at The Gospel Coalition argues that it was the very type of medical crisis that we are experiencing today that caused the Church to flourish in its early history. Believers stepped into such crises with a totally different mindset than secular authorities of the day. The humane care of the critically ill we see in hospitals today is entirely tied to the Christian ethic of the value of human life. When the rest of the world discarded human life, we believed that human life was valuable because we are made in the image of God. Our historical practice was to step into medical crises, not run away from them. And, now, this Christian influence has leavened the whole lump, in you will. Instead of Christians adopting a secular view of life, secular medical professionals have in many ways adopted a Christian one.

Today, our hospitals and health care workers are the soldiers on the front lines, battling this epidemic. Though many are believers, we have a largely secular infrastructure in our modern health care system treating the critically ill. And, in a weird contrast to pandemics in history, most Christians can best help today by staying away from the sick. My own dad was in the hospital in March with a medical emergency unrelated to Covid-19. I felt strongly that I should be with him, helping him, easing pressure on his nurses. But instead, the hospital insisted I stay home. I could best help by talking to him on the phone, not helping him in person.

Perhaps you are a health care worker (or someone working in another essential industry) called to step up, exposing yourself in care of others as Christians have throughout history. Maybe you have been called on to quarantine at home, carrying a different, though still very stressful, set of weights on yourself. Whatever your current circumstances, remember that you are not alone in history. You are not alone in the Body of Christ. Each of us is carrying new weights on themselves these days. And it is normal for these weights to seem more than you can bear on your own. If Scripture teaches us anything, it is that we do indeed carry weights we can not bear without the community of Christ. But, Jesus’s striking words from John 14:18 are still true today. He has not left us as orphans to navigate these dark times alone.

Who walks with us in these dark days? Who sits with us in our quiet home offices? Who holds up the arms of the believing nurse at the end of her ability to cope? Who holds our hand as we sit on the sofa stunned at announcements on the evening news? Who waits with us and guides us when we are sick with a fever but confused about what to do? The community of Christ that accompanies us first includes Christ Himself. He is the Head of the Body. He is the keystone, the rock strategically placed in an arch to hold all of the others in place. He is the cornerstone, the large foundation stone on which the others can be built, bearing the weight of all the floors built on Him. If ever there was a time for believers to believe in Him, abide in Him, and keep our minds stayed on Him, it is these stays. Apart from Him, we can do nothing. But, in Him, we can do all things—things impossible to do or endure on our own.

“… apart from Me, you can do nothing.” John 15:5 NASB

The community of Christ also includes our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are the hands and feet of Jesus’s Body. We need our living brothers and sisters in Christ. I am thankful that I spend these days of social distancing still in contact with my pastor and church family by way of Sunday services and Zoom Wednesday night bible studies. But the Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11-12 include our dead brothers and sisters in Christ as well – dead on earth, but quite alive in heaven.

When I was going through the hardest, most alienating days of my own individual suffering recounted in Companions in Suffering, I found great comfort in the Cloud of Witnesses that the author of Hebrews speaks about in Hebrews 11 and 12. I found great encouragement from the biographies of modern day saints as well, including Elisabeth Elliott and Amy Carmichael. In these new days of communal suffering around the Covid-19 pandemic, I am rethinking the encouragement these witnesses offer us. Joseph experienced the communal suffering caused by a famine that affected all of Egypt and beyond. He bore the pressure of preparing an entire nation for that famine and distributing supplies throughout the land for years, not months. Moses experienced the communal suffering of an entire nation enslaved by an oppressive pharaoh. But their cries did not fall on deaf ears. God heard their cries as well as Moses’s fears as God called him to lead them.

The author of Hebrews writes of these witnesses to believers experiencing great hardship and persecution. His Hebrew audience had been dispersed, pushed from their homeland because of increasing persecution. They had lost the land they had lived for generations and with it their livelihoods and any sense of stability. But God had not left them as orphans to figure out their unstable future on their own. The author and finisher of their faith was there with them, holding them securely. And the Cloud of Witnesses, who had endured their own communal suffering and national instability, gave testimony to them that God was faithful during societal upheaval as much as individual ones. They testify to us today as well.

13 These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11

Medical and financial hardship has fallen on the world. It has fallen on my community. But we have witnesses testifying to us today of God’s faithfulness in such times. This world is not our ultimate home, they remind us. We are moving toward something better. So abide in Christ, believing in Him, meditating on Him, hoping in Him. He will not default on His promises to us. You can count on these things as you endure suffering with your community now.

“I will not leave you as orphans.” John 14:18

Why does the reformed view of sanctification change when we start talking about SSA?

A recent article highlighted by the Aquila Report concerning discussions in the PCA about same-sex (homosexual) attraction included a few sentences which have me deep in thought.

The Lord does not save people in sin but from it, reaching into the depths of a sinner’s heart. In every person who has trusted in Jesus Christ, the Spirit tackles sin of every kind. The Savior so reorients the heart that it is impossible for a converted sinner to live and think as he once did.

And

For a “Christian homosexual” to announce a never changing sinful desire is to place himself outside the covenant of grace.

If you read the article, I will point out that the author’s representation of how Revoice speakers have talked about homosexual lust is not consistent with what I have heard. I think he misrepresents them quite a bit. I have heard much discussion of repentance at Revoice, and I have heard much humble praise of the God who has already forgiven participants for their sins, who has paid the full penalty of their sins upon the cross, who has made a way for participants to no longer be defined by their sin internally or externally, but to be defined by their forgiveness in Christ and His robe of righteousness that they now wear. I often think critics don’t actually listen to Revoice sessions. Here’s a good one if you want to know some of what is taught/believed.

Bekah Mason’s testimony starts around the 30 minute mark (a discussion of hope after the previous night’s theme of lament over sin).

But rather than advocating for folks to accurately reflect what Revoice does and does not believe, I am more curious (and concerned) about an emerging understanding of sanctification in my reformed circles that does not accurately reflect the reformed understanding of sanctification that I learned when I moved away from Independent Baptist Fundamentalism into Reformed/Calvinistic churches.

Are those who claim Christ but continue to struggle with homosexual temptation outside of the Covenant of Grace?

As a baseline for a succinct, Reformed view of sanctification, I am going to refer to the one in my Reformation Study Bible, edited by the formidable R. C. Sproul. I LOVE my Reformation Study Bible. I strongly agree with this entire article. You can read the entire entry here.

Here are a few excerpts.

Regeneration is a momentary act, bringing a person from spiritual death to life. It is exclusively God’s work. Sanctification is an ongoing process, dependent on God’s continuing action in the believer, and consisting of the believer’s continuous struggle against sin. …

Believers find within themselves contrary urgings. The Spirit sustains their regenerate desires and purposes, but their fallen instincts (the “flesh”) obstruct their path and drag them back. The conflict of these two is sharp. Paul says he is unable to do what is right, and unable to restrain himself from doing what is wrong (Rom. 7:14–25). This conflict and frustration will be with Christians as long as they are in the body. Yet by watching and praying against temptation, and cultivating opposite virtues, they may through the Spirit’s help “put to death” particular bad habits (Rom. 8:13Col. 3:5). They will experience many particular deliverances and victories in their battle with sin, while not being exposed to temptations that are impossible to resist (1 Cor. 10:13).

The thing I take home from the article highlighted at the Aquila Report (which is consistent with the main thrust of the criticisms I’ve heard against Revoice from the conservative end of the spectrum) is simply that you should not, in Christ, still be struggling with same sex attraction, and if you are, you most certainly should not be vocal about it. You should not praise God He has forgiven you. You should not find encouragement from others who are enduring against that temptation.

But our reformed view of sanctification is that believers will indeed “find within themselves contrary urgings.” Though the Spirit sustains those who experience same-sex attraction, their fallen instincts may very well “obstruct their path and drag them back.” And “the conflict of these two is sharp.”

“This conflict and frustration will be with Christians as long as they are in the body.”

Y’all, that’s R. C. Sproul, the editor of The Reformation Study Bible. We all still struggle against sin after we are in the Covenant of Grace. WE ALL STILL DO. To say otherwise is to reflect a false belief more like Paula White than the Apostle Paul. Around my area, that is a Pentecostal Holiness view, not a reformed one.

If you find help to endure against temptation toward pornography from other believers who are enduring against that temptation, then get encouragement to persevere through them. If you are a young mom struggling to love your children and endure against the temptation to anger or despair and you find help with other moms who are similarly enduring, loving their children faithfully even when their feelings don’t match it, then do! Are you a glutton? A thief? Do you have an ongoing anger problem that could lead to physical violence? I have a dear believing friend, a faithful lover of Christ and His word, struggling against this ongoing sin. Good grief, if you can find encouragement against ongoing temptation with other believers who regularly experience it, then DO. Why don’t tools we regularly use against other sins apply here?

If folks in our circles teach that believers struggling against ongoing homosexual desire are outside the Covenant of Grace, then we’ve got a big problem. This is going to be a big debate, one that I hope refines us, not destroys us, as there are crucial doctrinal issues involved around the nature of justification and sanctification. For my part, I don’t understand why a reformed understanding of sanctification doesn’t apply to homosexual believers with ongoing same-sex attraction?

Can someone explain it to me?

RHE and Women who Question

For many, the shock of Rachel Held Evan’s death has begun to wear off. Yet, it still remains something I have a hard time getting my head around. She was larger than life in the evangelical Twitter community, willing to stay engaged in conversations unlike many evangelical celebrities. It reminds me of the death of Princess Diana. She died around the same age as Rachel, and it was hard to get my head around that death as well.

I am processing Rachel’s life and death in this post purely in terms of how she affected and influenced me and possibly those of you who read this blog. I only met her once in person and communicated with her some on Twitter. So I want to be clear what this post IS and IS NOT. I pray for her family who is experiencing a wholly different set of feelings than mine, who knew her in an entirely different way. I can’t imagine their gut wrenching pain, and I pray for supernatural comfort that is beyond human understanding. My experience with Rachel, of course, is much different, and I want to reflect on that here.

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I remember well the day it dawned on me that challenging questions were not received fondly when they came from young girls. I was in 4th grade at my private school. My teacher returned a matching test she had graded. She had marked wrong the problem in which I had chosen option “h” because I had written my “h” too much like an “n”. I brought my test up to her to show her that all of the options were used only once, and my “n” was clearly marked in another place as correct. So by process of elimination, this answer must be the “h”. I would have a 100 on the test then. I was a fairly smart kid, and my grades were important to me. The logic was clear in my 4th grade head. And I was right.

I’ll never forget the essence of her reply to me. “You are always arguing about something.”

My logic was correct on this test. I had evidence on the test itself to back me up. But, in her eyes, I was just an impetuous child always looking for something to argue about. I’d argue with a power pole, at least that was the sentiment reflected back to me when I showed my teacher my test.

So many young women in my generation, particularly in the south, were taught to keep quiet with our questions. If the authority figure does something wrong, males who question seem viewed as future leaders. Females who question are troublemakers.

I was both a young female who questioned things who also HATED to make people uncomfortable. This created a running background of mental friction in my head for most of my life. This struggle followed me into adulthood, particularly after writing my post on the New Wave of Complementarians that got the conversation started on realigning with Scripture against patriarchy in conservative circles. One denominational leader actually called me on the phone. He had the character to figure out if I really was a troublemaker or not. We had a great conversation, and I have continued respect for him today. But other leaders questioned my motives. I was likely a troublemaker, in their eyes, seeking to sow dissension. I have felt the weight of the label, too sensitive to wear it proudly, but too innately questioning to be able to free myself of it.

Rachel Held Evans came to my attention when I was internally questioning things at Mars Hill without the courage to verbalize it. Mark Driscoll had a low bar for labeling a questioning woman as contentious. And I didn’t have the emotional confidence to bear up under such a label. If he had labeled me contentious in the early years (as he later did), I would have believed him.

Rachel began pointing out problems with Mark Driscoll’s language, and not that he “cussed” (which has always been a ridiculous distraction for those who don’t realize how much they are like Mark in his misogyny and malice toward others). Rachel pointed out Mark’s sinful misogyny long before the folks that propped him up did. She was the young boy in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the one with the courage to first say, “He’s not wearing any clothes.” As a questioner without the courage to verbalize my concerns, I will forever be grateful to RHE for leading the way. Like a Coastguard ice-breaker, she cut a path that made the way for others who followed.

But as Rachel began pointing out legitimate problems with the Neo-Reformed figurehead that was Mark Driscoll at the time, she used these problems to justify questioning the authority of Scripture. Because so many folks misused Scripture, and other well meaning folks disagreed on how to live it out in practice, the bottom line must be simply to love God and love your neighbor. Instead of other laws and instructions in Scripture hanging on that foundation, laws and instructions in Rachel’s paradigm lost their binding quality. In particular, explicit instructions concerning biological sex and sex in marriage were not binding today if they did not seem “loving” by a modern definition of love, one that often doesn’t involve self sacrifice. While Rachel gave me courage to voice my questions and concerns, she also inadvertently gave me clarity that the answer to these concerns was IN Scripture, not opposed to it. The answer was found by BETTER understanding how Scripture presents its Laws and instructions, not by writing them off as no longer relevant.

I wrote Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture specifically because of Rachel Held Evans. Rachel asked the questions that needed answering. She was right to question. I am in her debt that she led the way. But her answers (or lack of answers) taught many that Scripture was unknowable, without clear or binding instructions. And I remain deeply troubled by that outcome of her ministry.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

The Reformed Church is always reforming. I have loved that saying since the day I first heard it. It speaks deeply to my soul. I am a questioner. And hopefully my questions help myself and those around me realign ourselves back to Scripture. We should all be examining ourselves and the groups with whom we identify denominationally. We should be sharpening each other. We should be questioning each other, and we should be examining Scripture when the questions don’t have easy answers. This is inherent to reformed theology.

Such questioning and self-examination have long felt unsafe for reformed women.

Those of us who are a part of the reformed resurgence owe Rachel a debt of gratitude. When Mark Driscoll and James McDonald were the celebrity leaders in our movement and major figures at The Gospel Coalition, she pushed us to see our own problems and reform. We may disagree with her theological conclusions, but she was right to ask the questions she asked. I am grateful. Our movement is now stronger because she was willing to point out its flaws.


Theology for the Rest of Us

I don’t get to post much here any more. This guest post at the PCA’s enCourage blog gives some insight why.

“I no longer have time or mental energy to research the types of commentaries or online theological discussions I used to find intriguing and informative. Yet, my need to live in light of the deep truths of the Word of God is as strong as ever. Now more than ever, I need to use the Scriptures accurately and understand correct theology. My lack of margin for reading and deeper study of the Scriptures has done nothing to eliminate my need of them.”

Read more here.

I also had the privilege of sitting down with Karen Hodge for the enCourage podcast, where I was able to talk about my first love–teaching theology to women in accessible ways. You can listen here.