Almost ten years ago now, John Piper published his very personal and powerful testimony of what God could accomplish through crisis, entitled Don’t Waste Your Cancer. The title was slightly shocking, definitely thought-provoking, but it turns out that a long time ago a Fisherman-turned-preacher was writing the same kinds of things: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6) Perhaps more shocking to our modern mindset is Peter’s idea that this experience was everyday normal. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” (1 Peter 4:12). Somehow we cling to the notion that suffering and disappointments are not normal to life…or at least have the idea that they are interruptions to real life, and we should do whatever it takes to resolve them quickly, with as little damage as possible, so we can go back to the pursuit of happiness we are surely entitled to. It sounds as irrational as it is, when you write it out like that. Even more strange is the blithe assumption that bad things are more likely to happen to other people. Really? Odd that we fail to see the illogic in this almost universal misdirection.
And it’s like we have this picture with a number of the puzzle pieces missing, so that the entire image is still a mystery. All we know for sure is that if we have to suffer pain, we want it be meaningful in some way– we don’t want our ordeal to be wasted. Peter says the meaning is found in the promises of God that assure us of who we are and where we are going. He writes to the early believers: “In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” (1 Peter 1:3-4) God’s promises give us forward-looking perspective on whatever we are facing here along the way, and the point from both these good preachers stands like a beacon: when we find ourselves in the fire, clearly there is more to see than only flames.
Peter says the main purpose of trials is to re-shape our hearts, and goodness knows, mine needs a new shape. Sometimes it seems like my transformation into Jesus’ likeness moves at a snail’s pace, so maybe I should welcome the rough patches, see them for what they are: a crucible, where the circumstances of life combine and interact to create something new in me. I do understand that, how pain and grief make us wrestle with what we actually believe, examine our flawed ideas about who God is. I recognize that stripping away of what Pastor Tim Keller refers to as functional idols— the things we depend on in our everyday life instead of God. I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly easy to grab onto any solid thing that offers to ease the stress I feel, distract from the hard things I don’t want to face….often without thought for how well it can actually save me. And it’s a tragic irony that so many of the lifelines I can cling to are only holding me stuck where I am– just one more thing to burn. Better to let go, hold out empty hands and fall into the arms of the Savior who stands next to me in the fiery furnace. It is a severe mercy that takes away the things that separate us from the One who loves us more than life.That kind of loss only makes us stronger.
And right there I discover the more personal value of pain. The author of Hebrews encourages his readers with these words: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”(Hebrews 4:15) He has walked the path of suffering Himself, and when we are content to follow Him there, we come to know Him better, understand His heart. When everything else burns away, we can see Him face to face; as we pour out our hearts to Him, we begin to understand that it is His own love that is the consuming fire, for He will not tolerate anything but the best for us. As a wise sister said recently: “Prayer is the weapon we wield that makes everything else we do survive fire.” (Ann VosKamp) And I can hear the Musician-King singing, “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11) I believe this with my mind, but in following Him through suffering my heart gets to learn to sing along through the tears.
The way to waste pain is to miss the point of it– refuse to let God use it for His good plans. And all of me can get in the way of what He is accomplishing. My pride, my self-sufficiency, my fear and anger and refusal to listen, my running away to anything other than Him. If I can remember that trials are just part of life, and tools in God’s powerful hands, there is not a moment that will be wasted. Lord, give me eyes to see You, ears to hear Your voice, and a teachable heart that does not fear the fire.
These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.1 Peter 1:7
There’s nowhere I’d rather be,
When You’re singing over me–
I just wanna be here with You.
I’m lost in Your mystery;
I’m found in Your love for me–
I just wanna be here with You
So let all that I am
Be consumed with who You are,
All the glory of Your presence–
What more could I ask for?
With You, Elevation Worship