Suffering


Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Matthew 16:24

These are hard words to hear for those of us who live in middle class, suburban America. I don’t mean the words are hard to take. I mean it’s difficult for us to even process these words of Jesus and imagine they are directed at us. The words enter one ear, search for purchase and, finding no soil, they exit the other ear. We claim to be followers of Christ. Yet what aspects of our lives seem to correspond to this command to take up the cross?

The words of our Lord are typically stark, unrelenting, and global. He does not propose taking up the cross as one way to follow him. Cross-bearing is the only way to be a disciple. Jesus calls every believer without exception to take up that cross.

To put it another way, the Christian life is a matter of sacrificing our lives for our brothers and sisters, of showing love to those who hate (or claim to be indifferent toward) us, and of being persecuted for our faith. Discipleship is costly. When we proclaim the Gospel we must make this clear. Our hearers must be allowed to consider the cost. As Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

But if we aren’t suffering ourselves, we may feel foolish delivering such a message. “Come to Jesus and suffer!” we cry from our comfortable homes. “We lack nothing, but on behalf of Christ, we call you to give up your lives!” I suppose we could point to the minute and barely perceptible ways in which we do suffer. If we are believers at all, there must be some suffering to point to. But if our suffering isn’t obvious, it seems foolish and petty to draw attention to it.

Our lack of suffering–and our lack of willingness to suffer–makes it almost impossible to bring the Gospel to certain segments of society.

Take the poor. How do we call them to discipleship if we won’t sacrifice our luxuries, comforts, and even necessities for their sake? Shall we call them to take up the cross on Christ’s behalf when we won’t take up the cross on theirs? The response of the church to this dilemma is depressingly predictable. When was the last time your denomination or your congregation tried to plant a church in the inner city or any poor area? Even if we give lip service to such “projects,” how much are we willing to sacrifice to make them happen? Are we willing to become as poor as they if somehow we might make them them rich in Christ? To take some of Paul’s words out of context, “I am talking like a madman!”

Or what about calling people from other religious traditions? A Muslim who converts, a Buddhist, a Mormon, even a Catholic will face immediate rejection and persecution by their former coreligionists.

Or take homosexuals.

This is the worst situation of all. We don’t suffer, yet we call gays to a lifetime of suffering. And we behave as though we, unlike they, don’t need to suffer. We’ve redefined discipleship so it isn’t about bearing the cross, it’s about family. Now the Christian life is centered around a husband and father who’s the head of his house, a wife who submits, and children who obey. It’s hard enough for straight singles to latch onto this paradigm. But at least singles have hopes. One day they too may enter the ranks of full-fledged Christians by becoming a loving husband or a submissive wife with children in tow.

But what about gays? We call them to become eunuchs for the kingdom while we live comfortable lives. Or perhaps we tease them with the enticement that God will “cure” their homosexuality if only they have faith. That’s even less kind than telling cancer patients they’ll be healed if they convert.

As gay marriages and civil unions become more common, that call to costly discipleship gets even tougher. We’re calling them to abandon the family they have (or at least to complicate that family life rather severely). And for what? So they can come to a place where they’re not allowed to have a family. When we define the Christian life in family-focused terms, that essentially means we’re calling gays to be second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. Come to Christ! You can sit in the back of the bus. The call is snobbish and condescending if, indeed, we bother to make it at all.

But if we define the Christian life as bearing the cross, suddenly we’re calling gays to be among the greatest in the kingdom. To make that call, we have to be bearing the cross ourselves. We need credibility. Otherwise the call will still seem snobbish.

But wait. It gets worse.

The problem is more than calling gays to suffer when we don’t suffer ourselves. The problem is that Reformed and evangelical Christians have been the cause of much suffering among the gays. Sure, we say we hate the sin and love the sinner; but do our words and our actions really reflect that? How many gays would look at the evangelical church and say “Those Christians sure do love us”?

Why don’t they see our love for them? Is it perhaps because the love isn’t there? Or is it that the love is unexpressed? At the very least we’ve got a serious communication breakdown, don’t we?

So here’s a partial answer to that ridiculous question I posed in an earlier post: How do we start suffering? Let us begin to love gay people as we ought to have loved them all along–deeply, sacrificially, and without condescension.

This will probably involve finding ways to make our repentance for past failures to love them. It will mean standing apart from those who hope to restrain gays with the sword of the State and conquer them via culture war. (The way the Spirit subdues us to himself is sweeter and far different.) The likelihood is that others who claim to follow Christ will misunderstand, misrepresent, ridicule, and despise us for this stance. Very good! When our own discipleship is costly, perhaps we will gain the beginnings of credibility with those we hope to call.

Let us have gays into our homes and into our lives. Let us introduce them to our children, to our neighbors, to our churches–not as some sort of project or as evidence that we deserve a medal for going “above and beyond”–but as our friends whom we love.

I’ll want to talk more about the subject of homosexuality as the days go by. Conservative Christians need to do a lot of thinking and a lot of repenting on this score. (This post constitutes a little bit of both on my part.)

Meanwhile, let me direct you to the web site and the blog of my good friend Misty. She’s done a lot more thinking and acting on this subject than I have. Further, Misty has some of that credibility I’ve been talking about. The Lord has been gracious enough to allow her to suffer for the sake of these friends whom she loves. Thus, Misty is uniquely situated to help you work through the issues involved using Scripture and the love to which Christ calls us all.

And finally, as you seek to have your heart affected concerning this subject, remember the other things I’ve mentioned. Remember the poor and seek to suffer with and for them. And remember those whose culture or religion would make it particularly costly for them to hear the call of Christ. Let us seek to serve them as well.

The world is filled with opportunities to bear the cross if only we aren’t afraid to find them.

Meredith Kline was the professor at Westminster Seminary in California who helped and shaped my thinking more than any other. Here’s an example of his hands-on approach to instruction.

Meredith Kline Teaches on Suffering

Since we’ll be talking a lot about suffering in this blog, I thought I should mention how helpful Kline is on this subject. A picture is worth a thousand words and those rings around my neck will last a lifetime.

In 1997 I was preaching through 1 Peter when an elder made an interesting comment. Before the service, he flipped through his Bible to check out that morning’s passage. After skimming it, he said in mock exasperation, “Oh no! Not suffering again!”

Despite the light tone, there was a serious undercurrent to his complaint. He was tired of the theme of suffering. He wanted a change of pace.

His concern continued to fester. More than a year later he gathered together a revolt of the most “successful” (and therefore least suffering) men in the church. They wanted to see changes in my ministry. My overemphasis on suffering was one of the concerns.

But back on that morning in 1997, this elder was not yet aware how deeply he detested the message. He had so far been responding with joy as I preached the Gospel with a clarity he had not previously heard. His lament–“not suffering again!”–was an early sign that all was not well. The Gospel seed had fallen among thorns. Unless those thorns were uprooted, they would strangle his joy with earthly cares.

Meanwhile, notice how he arrived at his protest. It was not a response to the content of my sermon. I hadn’t preached it yet. But he’d read the text and he knew that I would preach what the text said. His unhappiness was occasioned by the Word itself. This elder opened his Bible and saw that Peter had, yet again, chosen to harp on suffering. He was starting to get fed up.

Sometimes we want the minister to “make the Bible relevant” to our lives. We want the Scriptures to meet us “where we are”. We want “application” (which becomes a code word for our desire to talk about our own concerns rather than those of the Word). The Scriptures do not need to be made relevant. They already are relevant. It is our lives that become irrelevant to the Scriptures. When this happens we often perversely demand that the Scriptures should change.

We don’t put it that way of course. It’s the minister’s fault, not the Bible’s. The minister is the one who fails to tailor the message to our circumstances, to shape the Gospel to fit our self-defined “needs”.

Yet it is often the Spirit’s design, working through the Word, to redefine our needs and to alter our circumstances and the way we perceive them. For this to happen, we have to submit to the Scriptures. We can’t force them to submit to us.

The elder’s life had become irrelevant to the Word. He wasn’t suffering for Christ and he didn’t want to be called to do so. Yet the Bible is shot through with this message of suffering. How could it not be? The message of suffering is the message of the cross and of our conformity to that cross. That’s the message this elder and his eventual cohorts rejected.

Let us rather seek to embrace this message. Let us have our lives defined–if necessary redefined–by it. This quest may cause us to ask first an uncomfortable question and then a seemingly ridiculous one. Why aren’t we suffering? And how can we start?

I’ll take up those questions in a later post.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to a nice sermon on suffering from 1 Peter 4:12,13.

So why did I choose the name bettercovenant for this blog? There’s a simple if unsatisfying answer. I have a web site with the name bettercovenant.org. I wanted my blog to have the same name as my web site. But that just pushes the question back a step. Why did I choose the name bettercovenant for my web site?

I’ll offer another simple answer. I chose the name bettercovenant because all the other names I wanted were taken. That’s an important thing to understand. You look at the name of a blog or web site and you expect it to reflect something basic, something that points to a central purpose or an organizing theme. Bettercovenant does that just fine. But there are other names I could have used if someone else hadn’t gotten there first.

Of all the names I considered, I loved outsidethecamp most. But it was taken. At least outsidethecamp.org and outsidethecamp.com were taken. I could have gone with outsidethecamp.info, I suppose. I might even have found some happy irony in having a site with such a name relegated to a lesser domain. But I decided it would be easier for people to remember if the site had a .org or a .com at the end.

Nevertheless, outsidethecamp hits the sweet spot of all the themes I want to discuss here. It comes from this passage in Hebrews:

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

Hebrews 13:10-14 (ESV)

That quote’s got it all. The cross, suffering, and the cost of discipleship. The inferiority and insufficiency of the Law of Moses. Identifying with Christ in his suffering and rejection while waiting for the coming kingdom and identifying with his glory. Walking by faith, not sight. Our identity as pilgrims in this world while waiting for the world to come.

It’s the book of Hebrews in a nutshell, the whole Gospel in miniature. And that’s what this site is about. It’s an exploration of those themes I listed and a consideration of contrary theologies that are proposed in the Church.

With outsidethecamp not available, I considered other possibilities. I thought about bearinghisreproach, but that seemed too in your face. I also checked out crossofchrist, pilgrim, and sojourner as possible names. All were taken. Sojournercitizen was available but seemed a mouthful (though bettercovenant is scarcely shorter). I don’t recall what other names I checked on or what else was available.

But one way or another, I settled on bettercovenant. So let’s talk about that.

Years ago, reading Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics, I found a recurring phrase that irritated me. He would constantly refer to the “Older Testament”. Once or twice wouldn’t have been so bad, but he did this constantly. The effect was cumulative. It was like your kid brother flicking you in the back of the head every time Mom looked the other way.

Now, there’s no denyingthat the Old Testament is older than the New Testament. But the phrase “Older Testament” implies far more. It implies that the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ’s blood are essentially the same. They differ in chronology, but not in substance. That’s hogwash.

This blog exists to combat that hogwash because such nonsense isn’t confined to Bahnsen or to Theonomy. You’ll find it in every arm of the Christian Church today. And if you trace it back through previous eras, you’ll find an unbroken line, all the way back to the Judaizers and the Pharisees.

The new covenant isn’t just an updated version of what God said to Israel. It isn’t Moses 2.0. It’s new. Utterly new. And it’s infinitely superior.

The old covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation. The new covenant is a ministry of justification and eternal life (2 Cor 3:7-9) . The Law brought wrath; the new covenant brought peace with God (Rom 4:15, 5:1). The Law does not rest on faith but on the principle “The one who does these things shall live” (i.e. the principle of works). But our righteousness comes through faith in Christ (Gal 3:11,12). The Law cannot give us the heavenly inheritance; but Christ has become the mediator of a new covenant by which that eternal inheritance is received (Gal 3:18, Heb 9:15).

There is more to say on this subject. And this blog is here to say as much as possible. For now, let’s sum it up with the passage from Hebrews that inspired the name bettercovenant:

Jesus has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

Hebrews 8:6,7

But how can we discern the superiority of this new covenant? Can humans eyes see the things of which we speak? Who looks more glorious—Solomon in royal robes, exalted over all of Israel, or Jesus in a crown of thorns, rejected by Israel, lifted up on a cross? What seems like a better deal—long life and material prosperity in the promised land or suffering, persecution, ridicule, and sorrow?

Our faith grasps what human eyes are blind to and what human reason cannot discern. Christ on the cross is more glorious than Solomon. And our life as suffering pilgrims, in conformity to Christ, is more wonderful than any material blessing. It is a life of triumph and we are more than conquerors (Rom 8:35-39).

And now, Jesus is more glorious even than when he was on the cross. He is ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God. All things are in subjection to him (1 Cor 15:27). But we do not now see all things in subjection to him (Heb 2:8). The superiority of this “better covenant” is something we know by faith alone. Thus we wait patiently for the day when our faith will be vindicated, our tears wiped away, and our glorious salvation revealed.

That’s what I want to talk about.