Last weekend, as I was relaxing with my family and preparing to preach on Sunday, I received the news that my 91-year-old grandfather had passed away. It just so happened that I was preparing to preach from Philippians 4:4-9, which begins with this command: "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, 'Rejoice!'"
The juxtaposition of grief and joy shaped my sermon in some significant ways. Living with the tension between loss and hope, between death and new life, sharpened my thinking about what it looks like to be joyful in the midst of our fallen world. I thought I would share the sermon with my readers this week, as it expresses what I've been thinking about lately. In this case, I think the spoken message communicates my thoughts more clearly than would a long blog post.
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In the past semester I've written about how to handle anxiety and what to do with life's little disappointments. Sometimes we worry unnecessarily -- either our fears never come to pass, or we worry about things that don't really matter.
Occasionally, though, our worst fears are realized. Not every problem is small or easily fixed. None of us completely escapes the real trials of life. I'm not an old man, but I've seen my peers face issues like chronic illness, loss of a child, financial ruin, divorce, and infertility. Even college students aren't immune -- for some, the challenges of a bad economy become very personal when they struggle for months or years to find employment. Others face personal and family crises that are hard for me to fathom.
What then? How do you respond when your world seems to have fallen out from under your feet? I'm always hesitant to give generalized advice, since everybody's situation is a bit different. I also shy away from making blanket pronouncements like, "Everything will be OK." The truth is that I don't know what's going to happen. Neither do you. We can't predict the future.
What I can do is remember (and remind others of) the character of God and of His Son. For one thing, He's with us in the midst of severe pain and disappointment. "The nearness of God is my good" (Psalm 73:28). That means we never go unnoticed. We're never alone. Second, Jesus sympathizes with us. He's been there. He suffered deeply, He faced trials and tribulations and pain and rejection while trusting God completely (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:21-24). He cares about us and loves us in the midst of our suffering because He knows what it's like. Third, He has a plan that is ultimately good (Romans 8:28). That doesn't mean that everything will be OK in the sense that my problems will disappear right now or in the near future. It doesn't even mean that God will protect me in the future from sickness or suffering or death or pain. Instead, it means that the end result of God's plan for me and for His world is good. One day the pain will cease and the suffering will end and the tears will go away because of what Jesus did (Revelation 21:1-5). If we know God's character, we can trust His promises.
When our pain is deep, we have a choice. We can respond with bitterness, despair, and unbelief, on the one hand. We can wallow in misery and shake our fist at God and drive wedges between us and those close to us. On the other hand, we can choose to trust Him and His character. We can allow the suffering to transform us into the image and character of Jesus Christ. "We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Romans 5:3-5). Who we become one day is largely a result of how we respond today to God's Spirit in the midst of pain and trials, large and small.
I've generally been blessed. I'm healthy and so is my family. We have clothes on our backs and food in the fridge. We've never faced serious illness or bankruptcy or starvation. Yet we have faced significant trials in small doses -- perhaps not larger ones because we're not yet prepared for them. Each trial, though, presents a new challenge and a new opportunity, a choice to move closer to Jesus or further away. A choice to believe His Word and find comfort in His Spirit or to reject those voices and choose the path of bitterness and mistrust.
By the grace of God and through His Spirit, I want to choose to trust Him and His promises.
What will you choose? If you're facing suffering right now, what path are you choosing?
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Many years ago, while I was at a Rich Mullins concert, he made a comment that stuck with me for some reason. He had just released his album Songs, which was a greatest hits collection with one or two new tunes thrown in for good measure. One of the new songs was called We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are. Rich explained that he wrote the song about a romantic break-up. It was a beautiful ballad about human frailty and the grace it requires to navigate relationships well. In the process of talking about the song, he made this comment: "I decided that Christian radio needs a few more good break-up songs, so I wrote one for them." The audience chuckled at what was clearly a tongue-in-cheek comment. In retrospect, though, I think there is a deeper truth behind his comment that merits exploring.
Why does Christian music need break-up songs (and songs about other personal disasters, big and small)?
First, Christians are not immune to the slings and arrows of everyday life. And I think our art -- music, literature, movies, etc. -- ought to reflect this. Relational awkwardness and pain invaded the lives of men like Paul, David, and Moses. Why should we be immune? In fact, the Scripture even promises persecution and suffering to those who follow Christ (2 Tim 3:12). Christian art has the potential to reflect the realities of life in a sinful and broken world and to provide a biblical and redemptive perspective on those realities.
It just so happened that when I first heard the song I had recently experienced a difficult break-up of my own. I felt relieved and even vindicated to know that my favorite musician understood my pain and could offer me some encouragement. I'm not saying that Christian artists should be Debbie Downers who sing angry and bitter songs all day. But neither should they pretend that the Christian life is a constant barrel of laughs. The Christian life is joyful because we have Jesus, not because we never experience pain. That's a critical distinction to make.
Second, we need artists who consider suffering from a counter-cultural perspective. We live in a culture that values pleasure over character. Instead of growing through our pain, we run away from it. Entire theological systems are built around the idea that Christians should be healthy, happy, and rich. Thoughtful Christian artists can speak the truth in a way that impacts the mind and the heart. Specifically, they can remind us that both our culture and prosperity theology are wrong in their understanding of suffering.
Finally, suffering is transformative if we view it biblically. See, for example, Hebrews 12:4-13 and James 1:2-4. We certainly learn God's character through praise songs, happy songs, and love songs. But we learn a great deal about Jesus when we suffer. And artists who write biblical songs about suffering do the church a great service. In fact, music and art can be tools God uses in the process of making us more like Jesus.
When I listened to Mullins's song, I was reminded how necessary it was for me to rely upon God's grace and kindness in a difficult time in my own life. I was challenged to practice humility and forgiveness as well. Those disciplines have continued to serve me well in suffering as an adult, and I think a well-written song at the right time helped begin the process of growth for me.
So if you're an artist, consider writing songs that express the full range of human emotion and experience, not simply the happy ones.
If you're a civilian like me, consider listening to music that challenges you rather than music that simply entertains you. (On a related note, the song "Blessings" by Laura Story is one of the better treatments of suffering that I've heard on Christian radio).