How Do I Find God While Suffering?
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Joe RigneyJoe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He oversees the Theology and Letters program, an undergraduate major that focuses on the Great Books and the Greatest Book. He is the author of three books: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013), The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Crossway, 2015), and Strangely Bright (Crossway, 2020). Joe...more
How do you appreciate God’s gifts through loss and pain? Author Joe Rigney urges listeners to press into the pain while suffering to obtain a deeper connection to the Lord and realize their true gifts..
How Do I Find God While Suffering?
Suffering is the way how we determine whether we really treasure God above everything or whether that’s just words we sang. Whatever we say about this subject has to be able to face the fact that every good thing that you have will one day be lost; it will be lost. How do you think about that? How do you orient towards that reality? Suffering does press on those deep places of our soul, because it shows how precious the things of earth can be to us.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: One of the places I’ve experienced God the most is not on the mountaintop; it’s in the valley. True for you?
Ann: Absolutely. I have felt—
Dave: Why did you pause?
Ann: I was wondering what that valley would be for you. But I think that’s when we have needed Him the most and when I have felt Him the most.
Dave: I remember, in college, going in for my second knee surgery. After the first one, I said, “I’m quitting football if this ever happens again,”—I’m on a scholarship; it’s my life at the time—laying there in Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, Indiana, mad at God, not understanding what’s going on.
I look back now and realize it was one of my deepest worship moments with God. It didn’t feel like it at the time; but I experienced Him in a way I probably never had before, and it was through suffering.
You’ve experienced that as well.
Ann: Yes; I think, when my sister passed away—and she was in her 40s, leaving her
4 sons—I mean, there was a part of me that couldn’t understand. But there was another part of me that needed God so desperately that I had to draw so close, because I had nowhere else to go.
Dave: Yes, we’re going to talk a little bit about: “Where do you find God in your life?” Suffering is one of those places; it’s sort of the place you don’t always expect to find Him.
We’ve got Joe Rigney back in the studio. Joe, welcome back.
Joe: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Dave: You’re much more than a pastor in Minneapolis—president of Bethlehem College and Seminary—you sort of like to plug that a little bit.
Joe: I do; l love talking about the school. It’s a great privilege to be president and professor there. We seek to offer an education in serious joy, which is related to what you just brought up there about life is hard.
Ann: You’re a dad.
Joe: I’m a dad.
Ann: You’re a husband.
Joe: I’m a husband.
Dave: —baseball coach.
Joe: —baseball coach. I wear a lot of different hats.
Joe: I have to kind of keep them straight sometimes.
Dave: I don’t know anybody else that’s tackled what you’ve tackled. But in your book, Strangely Bright: Can You Love God and Enjoy This World?, you go after that tension between living for the supremacy of Christ in our life and loving things of this world. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a tension that we can actually balance.
Joe: When we talk about this whole topic of: “How do we love the world/love the things of this earth in a way that honors God?”—on the one hand—“We want to enjoy God in everything and everything in God.” I talk about that as the integrated approach—they’re together; you don’t have to choose—“You love football for God’s sake”; “You love baseball for God’s sake”; “You love your food for God’s sake/for the glory of God.”
Then there’s this comparative approach, where you separate the gifts and the Giver. It’s kind of a gut check moment: “If you had to choose between all of the gifts or God Himself, which one do you want?” We do this in worship when we sing All I Have Is Christ—that song—we love singing that song at my church: “All I have is Christ.” “Do you mean that?—“All”—that’s a big word. Or when David [said] “There’s nothing I desire beside you [Psalm 73:25]”; “I count everything as rubbish compared to knowing Jesus [Philippians 3:8],”—those kind of passages—we want to sing those.
Suffering is when God makes us put our money where our mouth is: “You say that, but what if I take your leg? Is it still true? —that song you sang at church—does that/did you mean it?” Suffering is the involuntary way—we don’t choose it—but it’s the way that we test: “Do you love God more than…”—fill in the blank.
Ann: Some people just heard that and thought, “Does God take our legs out? Is that God?”
Joe: He absolutely does.
Joe: —because He loves us, and He want us to have more of Him. There are things that He does in our souls in loss that He does not do anywhere else. All through the Bible, whether you run from a story like Joseph—all the evil that happened to Joseph; the brothers selling him; Potiphar’s wife lying about him, getting thrown in prison—at the end of his life, he says, “You meant evil against me; God meant if for good. God sent me here. God had purposes in this [Genesis 50:20].”
Job—same thing—right? Satan—sure, Satan’s doing it—and all of these people are robbing him and everything else—but who was ultimately behind all of that? God was. Why?—because God loved Job; He wanted to show him more of Himself.
Suffering is the way how we determine whether we really treasure God above everything or whether that’s just words we say.
When I was writing this book, there’s a funny story when I was first getting into this project. I don’t know how much your listeners are familiar with the ministry of John Piper. John’s a friend and a mentor; he’s the chancellor of our school and has been one of the main influences on my life. I was working on this book. At the time, it was a sermon. I was excited about it, so I was telling him about it: “We enjoy God in everything; we enjoy everything in God,” and all this kind of stuff. He’s listening to me very patiently and, then, he looks at me; he says, “…until you die.” [Laughter]
Dave: That’s what he said?
Joe: That’s what he said. He just looked at me—
Ann: That sounds like John. [Laughter]
Joe: It does; it’s a very Piper thing to say. It is true; like that’s actually true. Yes, all of these things are good; and you’re going to die, and you’re going to lose them; you’re going to lose them.
Whatever we say about this subject has to be able to face the fact that: every good thing that you have will, one day, be lost. It will be lost: “How do you think about that? How do you orient towards that reality?” Suffering does press on those deep places of our soul, because it shows how precious the things of earth can be to us.
I don’t mean just like in idolatrous ways—like somebody breaks into my house and steals my stuff—and “Oh, that’s sad.” We should/the Bible talks about rejoicing when your property is plundered, because you have hope in God; that’s a good thing. But I’m talking about the ones like, when a baby dies, or the family breaks up—just the hard, whether it’s from sin or just natural suffering, any of those sort of situations—
Ann: —or the brokenness of the world.
Joe: —the brokenness of the world.
When that lands on us—we live in a broken and cursed world—when that comes crashing down upon us—the cancer returns; and you have to go, “What is God wanting?”—and it’s God is trying to take you deeper through the pain.
Ann: Have you experienced that?
Joe: One hundred percent/all the time—both in my personal life but then, also, I’m a pastor: I shepherd students—and just this stuff that comes in just wave after wave after wave—that’s how it feels sometimes—just wave after wave after wave. At some point, you actually start to laugh; because you’re like, “I am absolutely wrecked.”
Last week, we had our pastors’ conference. One of the pastors, who was speaking, was Kenny Stokes; he’s the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. His message was on: “My Grace Is Sufficient for You; My Power Is Made Perfect in Weakness [2 Corinthians 12:9].” It was just: “Here’s the passage; and here’s story, after story, after story, after story of the way that God just wrecks us and then His grace is sufficient. It’s just underneath there.”
Yes, I’ve got all kinds of pain.
Ann: We all do.
Joe: We all do.
Dave: You know, as you said—as a pastor or just as a fellow human, walking this planet—we hear stories on both sides of suffering. You hear/I always used to say: “Trials will make you better or bitter; the choice is yours.” We have a choice in that: some become better and closer to Christ and experience the goodness of God, even in the evilness of a suffering moment; and others walk away.
What determines/how do you experience what you’ve been describing: “Hard times but a good God”? Some people don’t experience that.
Joe: That’s right; it does present us with a choice.
When we think about this—as pastors/our pastoral team is—part of our calling is to try to prepare people for the moment when they need it. I don’t want to be trying to manufacture the big God theology in the moment of suffering; that’s not the time. I want to lay deep roots in the Bible about: “God works all things together for good
[Romans 8:28]” and “He’s for you; He’s not against you,” and “This is ultimately for your joy.” I want—“Living is Christ; dying is gain [Philippians 1:21]”—I want that to be the flavor and the ballast that they have; so that, when the storm comes, they have it.
Part of it is, sometimes, people don’t have it. Their theology is so superficial; it’s so trivial—it’s all sunshine, and roses, and lollipops—and they have no category for deep suffering and God’s purposes in it. As a pastor, part of my goal is to preach the Bible/teach the Bible in such a way that there is a depth of faith and grounding in the grace of God that is stabilizing: “God is my very present help in times of trouble. I will not fear though the earth give way and though the water roar and foam; the mountains be thrown into the heart of the sea. I won’t fear, because He’s my very present help [Psalm 46:1-2],”—I want that before the storm comes.
Ann: I remember hearing Tony Evans on the radio, probably 30 years ago, talk about: “You don’t see the cement guys pouring the foundation in the storm/in the rain.”
Dave: —in the tornado.
Joe: That’s right.
Ann: He said, “They’re pouring it on that day that’s sunny.” I remember going home, thinking—I mean, I was young—and I thought, “I better start pouring my foundation when the times are good, and I can go deep and lay those great foundations.” It’s kind of like the building your house on the sand or the rock in Matthew 7. That made me think, “I need to be in the Word every day.
Joe: That’s right.
Ann: “I need to be in fellowship every day.”
So when we’re faced with that trial—my sister’s death—I told Dave, “I have enough foundation; it’s rocking, and the storm is just pummeling me.” You have all kinds of questions going through your head, like, “Why? What is the purpose? I don’t see any point to this. Yet, I know, because I’ve been in the Word, God, You are good; You have a purpose. You love me, and I can trust You.”
Joe: That’s right.
Ann: But you’re right. If we don’t have that foundation poured, it gets rocky.
Joe: One of the texts that we quote a lot—this is homework—I’m a professor; I can give homework. [Laughter] In Habakkuk, Chapter 3 [verses17-18], he says:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Now here’s the homework: you should, at some point, take an inventory and go: “What’s your fig tree, and fruit, and olive, and flocks? Put your things in place of his [Habakkuk], because you probably don’t have fig trees or flocks.” If you say, “There’s no herds in the stalls,”—you say—“That’s just Tuesday; that’s just a normal—I never have herds in the stalls.” [Laughter]
Ann: What are yours, Joe?—like if you had to go through, what would you say?
Joe: It would be things like: “Though my kids die in a car wreck,”—that’s what it would be. “Though my wife get cancer,”—right?—it would be that sort of thing. “Though my father gets dementia and Parkinson’s,”—like he did.
It’s preparing the soul for that moment and saying, “If that happens, what am I going to do?” I want to say, “I want to be like Habakkuk; “I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” That’s what I want.
That’s—when we talk at Bethlehem College and Seminary about education in serious joy—that’s what we mean. Because that joy is not light, and trivial, and worthless; it’s substantive. It’s a kind of thing that storms beat on—use that image from Matthew 7—the storms beat on it, but it’s a rock. I want to build that into my life and into the lives of those around me, because that’s coming for all of us.
Dave: I’m guessing there’s a listener, right now, they’re in it.
Dave: If we could even look at their life, the storm is raging—their walls have been beat down—they’re listening and feeling like, “I don’t think I can muster up rejoicing in this. What do I do?”
Joe: “What does love look like when the object of love is being taken?” You’ve got someone, who is dying of an illness or something. What it looks like is—tears; it looks like grief; it looks like weeping and wailing, and saying, “Why?”—that’s what it looks like.
One of the quotes I came across when my dad was: “It hurts just as much as it’s worth,” “It hurts as much as…” In other words, “Pain—the pain/how much it hurts—“is a measure of the value that you place on whatever it is.” It’s like: “Well, my dad was really valuable to me; that’s why it hurts so bad.”
On the one hand, you don’t run from the pain; that’s part of it.
Joe: You lament; you grieve. I think this is where, again, the Bible is such an encouragement; you should grieve like Bible people grieve—
Joe: —which is like tear your clothes, pour ashes on you head, and cry for seven days—that’s what you do; that’s biblical grief. You’ve got the Psalms that are: “Where are You; why aren’t You here?” That’s what faith does in those kind of circumstances. You don’t have to just stoically shove it down and act like it doesn’t hurt as much as it does. That’s just a lie.
I think this happens—I know it happens in our circles; I don’t know how widespread it is around in other churches and other communities—when God is taking something precious, you can feel like, “I feel guilty, because of how much it hurts.” You feel that guilt; because “If I really loved God, I wouldn’t grieve this way.”
I just want to say, “No, no, no; if you really loved God, and you love His gifts—and you’re saying, ‘Thank You,’ for the gifts when they are there—when they get taken, you’re going to grieve.” Think about Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. He didn’t go, because He loved them [John 11:5-6]; so He didn’t go heal him. And when He shows up, and they’re like, “If You’d have been here…”
Ann: “Where were You?”
Joe: “If you’d have been….” Both of them come, and they say the same—it’s the same question—“If You would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died [John 11:21,32].” What do you think they had been talking about for four days?
Joe: What had been the conversation in that room? It was just that question: “If He’d have been here…” “If He’d have been here…”
Then what does Jesus do? He’s troubled in spirit, and He weeps. He weeps with them five minutes before He brings Lazarus out. He didn’t just kind of stroll in there, with a smile on His face; “I got this.” He says, “I know it hurts; death is awful. It’s awful; I hate it. I’m about to conquer it. I’m the resurrection and the life [John 11:25].”
To the person, who feels the loss right now, I want to say: “God does have purposes here. He’s not distant from this. He’s in this, and you’re only going to find Him if you press into the pain; and go down and you meet Jesus, who is the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief [Isaiah 53:3].”
Ann: Would you say that’s the same for the person longing for something that maybe will never happen, like a child?
Joe: Yes, absolutely; I mean, there’s different kinds of suffering; right?
- You have the suffering of loss—my dad died—I had him, and I lost him.
- Then you’ve got the suffering of longing: “I want to have a husband or a wife.” A couple who wants to have children: “I’m longing for those things, and God’s not giving what I want Him to give. It hurts as much as it’s worth.
Go to Him with it and pray, and let Him be your ultimate comfort. He’s “the God of all comfort [2 Corinthians 1:3].” That’s one of His names in the Bible. It’s a great name; He’s the God of all comfort. “He comforts us in our affliction so that we can comfort those in any affliction with the comfort that we have received from Christ
[2 Corinthians 1:4].”
Dave: It’s interesting how you’ve processed that, because it’s so healthy. I think, often, we’ve been taught, or we think, “If I lament about the loss of a relationship, or a thing, or a certain future,”—or like Ann said—“I lament that I’m not going to be able to get what I hope for,”—a child, a marriage, whatever—“that means I value that thing or that person too much, because I’m lamenting it.”
You’re saying, “No, no, no, no; that’s actually healthy. It’s okay; it’s actually the process to making sure Christ is supreme in your life.”
Joe: That’s right. It’s: “Bring the heartache to God; cast the burden on Him
[1 Peter 5:7].” That’s what it tells us to do—with that pain, and that suffering, and that loss and that longing—is to bring it to God and lay it before His feet. God’s not threatened by His gifts. He’s not threatened by His gifts, which means He’s not threatened when you really want them—and it hurts because you lost them, or it hurts because you’re not getting them—He’s not threatened by that.
The danger comes—you can commit idolatry—you think about Job’s wife. What was the problem? She experienced the same loss—horrible loss: ten children gone; all the stuff gone—and Job says, “The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord [Job 1:21].” He worships through tears; and she says, “Curse God and die
[Job 2:9].” You can sin in grief.
This is a thing in the modern world, where people think pain and grief and loss is an excuse. It’s not an excuse; but it’s rightly channeling all of that pain and bringing it to Him, and saying, “God, this is too much for me; I need Your grace to be sufficient; I need Your grace to be sufficient in my weakness and my affliction now.”
Dave: And I would add: “Don’t lament alone.”
Joe: That’s right.
Dave: Even the biblical examples, they’re always with community. If the community rejects you, because you’re lamenting; it’s the wrong community. They should be wrapping their arms and saying, “I feel your pain, dude; let me walk with you and point you back as long as it takes. But let’s go on that journey together.”
Ann: You’ve talked about losing your dad. Did you guys have this common bond of baseball too?
Joe: Yes, we did. You know, my dad died in 2013 after seven or eight years of Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s—awful—it’s just a horrible way to die and to watch someone you love whither. As hard as it was on me, I know it was harder on my mom; she lost her best friend.
I think I say this in the book: “I miss him most on the baseball field. He’s my coach.” That was something that we bonded—my brothers and I/we all played baseball—he coached us; that was like a bonding thing. Now, here I am, with kids of my own, and he’s not present to be there. It is a thing that I feel the loss about March, April, May most, even though he died in November.
Ann: It’s so funny; because some people say, “That’s shallow: baseball?”
Joe: It was the place where the relationship was forged and formed. So baseball was valuable, because my dad’s valuable. Baseball’s valuable to him, because I’m valuable. He loved me; I loved him. This was one of the places, not the only, but one of the places where that happened. It’s the same thing that’s happened with me and my boys.
Ann: Will you be playing baseball in heaven with your dad?
Joe: I have this thing—I do talk about this in the book—about how it’s a mental imagination thing. I need to explain it carefully, because some people think it’s kind of odd. There’s a thing I don’t get to have right now, which is Dad cheering while I’m coaching and a son is playing. I think that would be a really sweet thing of earth—that would be really bright—it would be a happy thing.
My father-in-law, my wife’s dad, he does that; and it’s so glorious. I’m so glad that he steps in there to be present.
Dave: I mean, you’re whole book’s about that; but I literally went back to a moment of her dad, who’s the biggest Cleveland Browns fan in the world, sitting in Cleveland stadium. I’m on the sideline with the Detroit Lions; we’re playing a preseason game there, and my son’s playing for the Lions; so there it is.
Joe: Yes, sweet!
Dave: It was like the sweetest moment ever—who cares what happened in the game—it was like this thing that we share. So you’ve got that with baseball and a dad who’s passed.
Joe: That’s right. Then I go, “In heaven, I imagine my dad watching the game that my son’s playing and I’m coaching. I imagine the joy I don’t get now there.”
“You don’t know that’s going to happen; you don’t know that’s going to be.” You’re right; I don’t, but it’s a deep longing. What the Bible does tell me is: “Eye has not seen; ear has not heard, nor has the mind of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9].” I’m just trying to give God a workout. [Laughter] I’m saying, “I think this would be a glorious moment. So Lord, it needs to be either that good or better; and I am happy with better.”
The goodness and greatness of God—whatever the new heavens and new earth is like/whatever we’re going to be doing—is going to far surpass our greatest joys here and our greatest longings here. No one is going to be disappointed. Part of what I’m doing there is to say, “This is a deep pain; and therefore, it’s a deep longing. Therefore, I expect, Lord, You promised You are going to meet it either that way or probably better.”
Dave: That image that you just described, which you end the book with, is so well- written; it is such a great picture of what matters. Because the things that we enjoy on this earth are the relationships that matter.
I would just say to the dad—and I know there’s a mom listening, too; or the husband or the wife—“Don’t miss an opportunity today to pour into the relationships that matter most to you.” I’m an older dad; now, I am a grandfather. I can say, [snapping sound] “Like that, they’re out of your house.”
I can say this to you, Joe. Your sons are sitting over there—they’re young boys, becoming men—your window is closing. If I could go back and do it again, I would seize more moments. I would just say, “Man, don’t miss that moment. These relationships matter. Go after them hard, because God is smiling on those moments.”
Joe: That’s right.
Shelby: That was Dave and Ann Wilson, talking with Joe Rigney on FamilyLife Today. If you’d like a copy of Joe’s book, Strangely Bright, you can grab it online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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