Can Faithful Living Exempt Me From Suffering?

JohnPiperBy John Piper

Originally posted on July 23, 2002. The following is an edited transcript of the audio.

 

Can faithful living exempt me from suffering?

No. God’s grace through Christ on the cross has obtained for us a pass on eternal suffering. And if we get a pass on any suffering in this life, he has done that for us as well. But our faithfulness is a response to that kind of provision for us; and if we have to walk through suffering because of being faithful then we know that he has bought for us everlasting peace and joy.

So, no. We can’t live our way out of suffering.

In fact, the people that I’ve known who have been the best people have often suffered most. We know that is true for the Apostle Paul and for Jesus Christ. The two best people in the Bible—the Apostle Paul and Jesus—suffered most. So there is no correlation between my virtue or my faithfulness and my freedom from suffering.

Do you think the effect that suffering has on us is lessened the more we view this world as not our home?

It’s good to be careful about that, because even people who love heaven and love Christ suffer much. But I still want to agree with you and say that, if we didn’t feel like we were losing the most important thing when we got a terminal illness, we could bear it much better.

The Apostle Paul, when he knew that he was going to be dying, said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). And if dying is gain then we will have tremendous help in losing the retirement, or marriage, or grandchildren, or standing in the community that we thought we were going to have, or some church we thought we were going to pastor, which is all gone now as we’re ready to die with this cancer.

But if death is gain—if we gain Christ, if we’ve cultivated a relationship to Christ where he is all and in all—then O how much pain will be spared us psychologically.

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Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

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Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” c. 1661
“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to  one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Luke 15:11-24, ESV

Two hundred and eighty-nine words– these describe the life of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. These 289 words reveal to us a God who loves far too much, way too easy— and maybe far too extravagantly for human beings to understand. Perhaps we sort of expect that he will ‘appropriately’ punish his son– at least put him on probation at least. It only makes sense. But we find that is legalism talking.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Many of us have lived in prodigality, and some of us for a very long time. We have spent our inheritance like ‘drunken sailors’ and have nothing at all to show for it. The prodigal, completely destitute, takes the only work he can find. (Imagine a good Jewish boy feeding hogs.) He is so far gone that he starts inspecting the filthy slop buckets for something to eat.

Many of us will understand his despair. Often there comes to us a crystalline moment of broken wisdom. The prodigal, sin-crusted and impoverished, still has a lingering memory of the Father’s house. The servants there had far more than him right now. Sometimes I wonder if in our captivity, we instinctively want to go home, if only in our minds, to be a servant there.

The Father has dreamed of this precise moment. The parable says, “He saw him–felt compassion–ran out to him–embraced him–and kissed him.” The Father is a whirlwind of agape love. In moments we see a swirl of servants who completely overwhelm an already overwhelmed son. I’ve read the Parable of the Prodigal Son a hundred times or more. It never loses its punch. I simply want to bring some observations: 
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  • We see that his father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture.
  • The son’s head is downy, almost like a newborn’s. We must enter the kingdom like little children. 
  • The Prodigal Son seems to be protected by his father. He snuggles near the Father’s breast. It’s love that holds him there.
  • Consider his sandals. It has taken a long time for him to come home. 
  • Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in stoic judgment; we read in the parable that he objects to the father’s compassion for his brother.
  • We see his mother in the background in the painting, and a seated steward or counselor. One stands in profound joy, the other in sits in stunned perplexity.

Rembrandt had painted the Prodigal once before, when he was considerably younger. And it is a very good painting. The prodigal is happy and gay; there is absolutely no indication of the consequences of sin. He is a charming young man at the height of his popularity, and we see him at a happy party. He is spending the inheritance of his father.

But Rembrandt chooses at the end of his life to re-paint it to reflect reality. This is one of the last paintings he will do, and it is the Prodigal Son–destitute and repenting. I can only imagine; the years have taken a toll and he doesn’t really feel his first painting is enough. He wants to paint what is true. He is painting now the spiritual condition.

We are given a work that some critics call as the greatest painting ever completed. The painting is now in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is seldom seen by visitors. It is a clear echo of the grace of God for fallen men and women. Like the father in the painting, He’s ready to forgive every sin saturated son and daughter.

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Without a Wound? [True Ministry]

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The subject of “the pool at Bethesda” alludes to the following excerpt from the Thorton Wilder play, “The Angel that Troubled the Waters.” The play is based on the biblical verses of John 5:1-4, but it changes the end of the parable. I first encountered this excerpt within the book “Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging,” by Brennan Manning.

The play tells of a physician who comes periodically to the pool of Bethesda, hoping to to see the stir and then be the first in the water and healed of his melancholy. The angel appears and troubles the water. Everybody at the pool hopes to be the first in the pool and thereby be healed of his disability.

An angel appears and blocks the physician at the very moment he is ready to step into the pool and be healed.

Angel: “Draw back, physician, this moment is not for you.”angel1

Physician: “Angelic visitor, I pray thee, listen to my prayer.

Angel: “This healing is not for you.”

Physician: “Surely, surely, the angels are wise. Surely, O Prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught; the sin into which all my endeavors sink half-performed cannot be concealed from you.”

Angel: “I know.”

……………Interlude………………

Physician: “Oh, in such an hour was I born, and doubly fearful to me is the flaw in my heart. Must I drag my shame, Prince and Singer, all my days more bowed than my neighbor?”

Angel: Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very sadness that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.”

Later, the person who enters the pool first and was healed rejoices in his good fortune then turns to the physician before leaving and said:

“But come with me first, an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I — I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood.”

“Only an hour… my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us but she will listen to you.”

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For me, the play pierces with the ‘bullet-message’ of this wonderful line— “Without your wound where would your power be?“ This is like a slow percolating of Paul’s teaching, mainly that it’s through my weaknesses that I can truly minister to others like Jesus. It’s the Apostle Paul declaring it’s the weak things that work to create something solid and true in us. And I hope in the many lives that this ministry, brokenbelievers.com reaches.

I hope so anyway. Pray for me.

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