While talking with a friend this morning about Pastor’s recent sermons in Philippians, I suddenly realized that there’s an interesting parallel in Paul’s writings to something Jesus said. Take a look:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)
3 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:3–4)
The more I consider it, the more I think that this can’t be a coincidence. Perhaps Paul’s statement that his fellow workers’ names are written in the book of life jogged his memory of one of Jesus’ sayings. Jesus said this was a cause for rejoicing, so Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice. There shouldn’t be a paragraph break between verses 3 and 4; they’re part of the same thought.
Paul draws the battle lines between conflict and joy. Euodia and Syntyche are in conflict; they’re not considering the fact that their names are both written in the book of life together. They are both “in the Lord,” made one with Christ. If they realized this fact, they would stop fighting and instead rejoice “in the Lord,” knowing that “the Lord is near” (verse 5).
When counseling believers in conflict with one another, I’ve pointed out that they have no choice but to spend eternity with each another. The fact is that we are called to a gospel partnership, so we must be at peace; we don’t have room for conflict. Instead, we need to “think about” and “practice” the excellent, praiseworthy things that have to do with our union with Christ (verses 8–9). Then, and only then, “the God of peace will be with you” (verse 9). So then we can rejoice.
Suffering is a strong word, isn’t it? Where do I get off describing the single life as “a season of suffering”? Isn’t suffering something for an underground church pastor in a foreign country who gets his arms and legs broken for preaching the gospel? Or perhaps for a woman whose husband leaves her because he can’t handle the stress of her terminal cancer?
Well, yes it is, obviously. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that there are degrees of suffering. The suffering some people have to face goes beyond what language can describe, even language at its most poetic. However, I want to broaden our understanding of what suffering is—not to water it down, but to convince you of the love of God. He has provided his Word to help you in every difficulty you may face, no matter how minor. And suffering is simply hardship that challenges our faith. In his book Desiring God, John Piper offers these words:
All experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.
Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With Him in the sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with Him by faith and in the sense that it is endured in the strength He supplies through His sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For Him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to His goodness and power and in the sense that it reveals His worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize. (p. 257)
We cannot dodge suffering forever. We can try to medicate or entertain it away, but even in the Disneyland of Western culture, it finds us. Following the above quotation, Piper adds that suffering is “intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith.” Wherever on earth we go, Satan will try to destroy us, but God will be there to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us (1 Peter 5:8–11).
Now, here’s what I find so wonderful about this understanding of suffering. God’s Word helps us here! In the Psalms, which deal extensively with suffering, we learn how to come to God with whatever pain we are experiencing, whether physical or emotional. We see in Jesus and in his followers—especially the apostle Paul—the joy that suffering can bring. We begin to realize that there is no sorrowful or melancholy thought that the Holy Spirit cannot console through the Word, and that we truly can rejoice in any circumstance.
When it comes to being single, there is suffering. There must be. A thread of suffering runs through every stage of life. If you are single, you will suffer. If you are married, you will suffer. If you are a child, you will suffer. If you are an adult, you will suffer. If you are a man, you will suffer. If you are a woman, you will suffer. In each situation, there is a different quality to the suffering. In this post, I want to focus particularly on the suffering that a single person faces, because in doing so, you and I can then turn to God’s Word and learn how to respond to this thread of suffering in our lives or in the lives of others.
Perhaps you are single, and as you consider your life, you do not sense any sort of suffering in the way that I am about to describe. Wonderful! Perhaps this is an indication that you are spiritually gifted to remain single, faithfully serving the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:7–8). However, not all people suffer to the same degree; some have a strong desire for marriage, and this desire is not wrong (at least, not unless it becomes one’s identity, a consuming need for marriage which is nothing short of idolatry). Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that there is something wrong with you if you want to be married. After all, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). Yet many with this desire only experience a “hope deferred”; they know what that sickness of heart feels like (Proverbs 13:12). It may not be a consuming pain, but the suffering is still there. I can think of at least six ways in which the single life may bring suffering, ranging from the almost absurdly minor to the more difficult and painful:
- Awkwardness. You are often questioned about your relationship status. Well-meaning people try to set you up with someone you’re not interested in. You have to take great care how friendly you are toward single people of the opposite sex so as not to arouse unwanted interest.
- Loneliness. There is no one to go home to, no one to climb into bed with, no one to hold, no one to rejoice in as you share a life as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
- Rejection. A person whom you have been dating for over a year ends the relationship. A young woman turns you down when you ask her out. You go for years without any interest from the young men you know. You really like someone and long for him or her to return your affection, but he or she shows no interest in you.
- Alienation. In many churches, you are treated as not-quite-an-adult. When your good friends marry, they withdraw from you because they’re convinced you can’t understand their new life together. The pastor’s sermons always seem to be addressed toward marriage and family life and never to your struggles. (Thankfully, none of these are the case at my church!)
- Despair. Weeks turn to months turn to years. And still, there is no one. Nor does there seem to be any chance that things will change. Once again, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
- Unfulfilled sexual desire. Martin Luther once observed, “To bear and to overcome [sexual desires] until the age of forty is truly a grievous and great burden.” For you, these words ring true—sexual temptation is absolutely relentless. Pornography is unbelievably easy to access; immodest dress is the norm among friends, classmates, and coworkers; and your mind eagerly rushes toward sexual fantasy.
Whether rejection or despair or unfulfilled sexual desire, perhaps you find yourself asking, “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13:1). What good could possibly come from suffering?
Here’s the good news: this suffering is not futile. There is a purpose to it, and this purpose—to glorify God—is found in the Word of God. The apostle Paul offers at least three ways in which you can glorify God through suffering:
- Sanctification. In Romans, Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:3–5). Suffering is a means by which God makes you more holy, conforming you to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). Paul (and James, 1:2–3) is saying to the single person, “Take joy in this hardship you face! It is refining your character and making you into the humble, persevering servant that can demonstrate the supreme character of Christ.”
- Integrity. A proper response to suffering validates our integrity as his messengers. The world offers ways to cope with or fix these sufferings. Whether it’s lowering your standards and marrying an ungodly person, turning to pornography or masturbation as a sexual release, or always needing to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, there are ways of (temporary and ultimately destructive) escape. If you persevere through suffering and seek the will of God, even if it means self-denial, your willingness to undergo pain for the sake of Christ will stand out to others (1 Corinthians 5:9). When they see your commitment to your Lord, this will draw their attention from you to him. Though you are weak and weary, they will see in you the treasure of the gospel, and they will know that the surpassing power that keeps you on your feet belongs to God and not to you (2 Corinthians 4:7), and that his power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering advances the gospel and proves the sufficiency of your Savior. So take joy in it! Don’t try to hide it but rather boast in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).”
- Consolation. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “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.” Paul and Timothy view their suffering as a means by which the Corinthians can be comforted. As God their Father has comforted them when they suffer, now they can turn and comfort the Corinthians as well. Perhaps there is a unique element to this because of Paul’s role as an apostle. However, when you go through suffering, you too are able to comfort others because your experiences give you an understanding of suffering and of the comfort available in Christ. Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering is the means by which others will be comforted when they suffer. So take joy in it, because it is a tool for loving ministry that God has placed in your hand!”
If you are single and suffering, I encourage you to consider how your suffering can be a source of joy rather than gloominess, self-pity, and depression. I know it’s hard; I’ve been on more emotional roller-coasters than I’d care to admit! For the single Christian, it may be difficult to understand why God is allowing this suffering. But it is also a great opportunity to honor, glorify, and please God. Don’t try to bury the pain or hide it from others, but be willing to share it with a small group of trustworthy believers who can support you with prayer and encouragement. (Please note that I said small and trustworthy.)
If you are married, I encourage you to carefully consider this perspective of the single life as a form of suffering. Do you envy single people for their freedom? This freedom often comes at a price! Do you view them as miserable and pitiable? They are not, because they too have “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Do you view them solely as “projects” to be fixed—either by finding them a spouse on the one hand or by berating them for their desire for marriage on the other? Please don’t do that! They will withdraw from you and hide their suffering from you, and you will lose the opportunity to minister to them. True love leads with compassion, seeking to understand and encourage before offering advice.
If you’re a young man here in America, you’ve probably got a Peter Pan problem. In the first post in this series on Thursday, we looked at a list of symptoms that might indicate how even a Christian young man can struggle with a failure to grow up and take responsibility for the things that God wants him to take responsibility for. Then, in the second post, we looked at the heart issue behind this failure: we insist on maintaining the illusion of adequacy, and thus we only do the things that we are good at (e.g. watching TV, surfing the Internet, or even homework or sports). We aren’t willing to take on things that we’re bad at because it would wound our pride and force us to cry out to God for help.
We were not saved to be mediocre. God did not choose us in Jesus Christ “before the foundation of the world” to merely do the things for which we are adequate but “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). So often, we settle for legalism. We say and do enough to look like we’re obeying God’s law—enough to assuage our consciences and look good in front of other people. But we’re living a life devoid of faith. We aren’t willing to take risks for God; we’d rather trust in our own flesh than trust in God.
I don’t suppose you want to keep living like that. Here’s God’s way to live:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.
“The man who trusts in man” (v. 5) lives in a wasteland. But the one who trusts in the Lord—he grows and flourishes, bears fruit and stays green even in times of drought.
When we humble ourselves and begin to trust in the Lord rather than in our own adequacy, God’s Word comes alive. When you start doing what God calls you to do, you will quickly find your own wisdom and your own strength to be inadequate. You will find your own sin to be overwhelming. You will find yourself in prayer, often and at length, crying out for help. You will find yourself turning to the Bible for wisdom, guidance, and encouragement—and its words will no longer be boring but will crackle with energy. You will find yourself turning to mature believers for advice, instead of keeping your problems bottled up inside of you.
If you’re waiting for God to flip some switch inside of you to give you the faith to do all of those things…sorry, it doesn’t usually work that way. Here’s the advice that the apostle Paul gives: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). First, remember that God is at work in you. He isn’t watching lazily from heaven, waiting for you to make the first move, turning a deaf ear to your prayers. He is on your side. He is with you in this! He wants to see you grow and serve him faithfully, and he will exercise all of his might to make sure you do. Second, you have to get to work. You’re simply going to have to say a prayer, suck it up, and go out and take care of your responsibilities. It will be hard. You will be hurt. But you will finally know what it means to be “happy in Jesus.”
It’s a simple truth, and we tend to dismiss simple truths because we think we’re beyond them. But the fact is that we need to learn to trust and obey, like the hymn says:
When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.
Yesterday, I admitted to being Peter Pan, and I incriminated a whole bunch of other young men in the process. Peter Pan won’t grow up; he’d rather not take responsibility for things that grown-ups are supposed to do. Peter Pan lives in a fantasy world which substitutes for the real world and its real problems, its real imperfections, and its real responsibilities.
Now that I’ve laid out a ridiculously long laundry list of unmanly habits and ways of thinking, I’d like to examine what the root is behind this problem. Why is it so hard for us to grow up? Why do we stay so childish for so long?
Well, if you read the first post carefully, you may already have an idea where this is going to go. I made a number of comments to the effect that if we just do things that we’re comfortable with or good at, we don’t need to depend on God. I want to explore that a little more, because this is a dangerous tendency that is most pronounced in guys—because they are called as men to lead and to initiate—but affects everyone to some degree.
There’s a sentence in the Bible that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind these last couple of weeks. It’s the second half of 2 Corinthians 2:16: “Who is sufficient for these things?” In context, of course, Paul is writing about the preaching of God’s word and its effect “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (v. 15). However, this question certainly applies to all forms of obedience. We cannot obey the Lord without his Spirit at work within us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). We are not sufficient—or adequate, as some translations put it—to do what is right with motives that are pleasing to God. We are not adequate to display Christ in our actions, our attitudes, and our words.
Here’s what we are adequate for. You and I are totally adequate to sit on the couch for hours and watch TV. We are totally adequate to stay up until one in the morning surfing the Internet. We are totally adequate to lock ourselves away in our rooms and do homework. We are totally adequate not to tell our friends and family the good news of Jesus Christ. We are totally adequate to wimp out on asking out young women we like. We are totally adequate to confine ourselves to our circle of friends, people just like us, from our age group, around whom we’re comfortable. We are totally adequate to do all these things that are easy and natural.
What a tragedy of adequacy! We want to do only those things for which we are able to trust in our own strength. Take a look at what God says about this lifestyle:
Thus says the LORD:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.”
I have lived in that uninhabited salt land for years. Perhaps you have, too. You’re miserable, aren’t you? You haven’t seen any good come. Your life is parched; you are depressed and discouraged. Friends and movies and video games and sports can make you happy for a little while, but before long you are back in the desert. The Bible seems dead, boring, and dry; your prayers are limp and ineffective.
You have trusted in man. You have made flesh your strength. Often, we put our trust in other people—in the President or sports icons or parents or friends; they will always disappoint us. Yet a much more sinister form of trusting in man is when we trust in ourselves. That’s why we only do the things we’re adequate to do. You and I—we don’t want to do anything that would require us to trust in God. We’d rather do what we’re capable of doing on our own. It doesn’t take any faith whatsoever to watch TV or play video games or sports (if you’re athletic) or do homework (if you’re intelligent). It takes faith to actually step out and obey God.
Of course, if we were to obey God, we’d quickly realize that we can’t do it on our own strength, and then we’d have to cry out for help. That’s a blow to the ego. And you and I have invested far too much effort into polishing our pride and propping up our reputations; we certainly can’t get down on our knees, weeping, crying out for help from the God who is the only one who can help. “The arm of flesh will fail you; ye dare not trust your own.”
That’s why we’re Peter Pans. We are self-reliant. We are proud. We are arrogant. And we don’t want to have to act out of faith in God. We don’t want to depend on him.
Of course, this lifestyle doesn’t work. I know it doesn’t. But often, I’d rather be miserable and govern my own life—with God as a Tinkerbell perched on my shoulder—than recognize and submit to his Lordship and experience the joy he has to offer. More on that joy in the third and final post.
I really enjoyed my time in the Word today as I studied God’s four-chapter monologue at the end of the book of Job.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Very poetic and beautiful as well as sarcastic. Verse 7 stood out the most. For some reason, I was struck by the creation’s response when God formed the earth. His angels as well as the “morning stars” (which may be a poetic way of referring to the angels) rejoiced over His work. It reminded me of how wonderful God’s creation is — that even His angels are awestruck and then overjoyed at what He has done. We too should take joy in our Father’s world.
Maybe I should take some time this week to get out of my office and go visit Hort Park or something. I know that it’s much easier to be an atheist when you’re cooped up in an office all day.