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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Quarantined, for His Purposes

 

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Quarantines are a real possibility, even in this day. A quarantine is imposed when disease is contagious enough that it would harm a society: Measles, Smallpox, and the recent Ebola Virus  are just a few physical diseases where strict isolation must be imposed. It can be severe— an epidemic, with desperate consequences if not adhered to; in some rare cases, the use of deadly force have been authorized to maintain a quarantine until the disease is no longer communicable.

This may surprise you, but there are examples of ‘quarantines’ in the Bible. The term ‘unclean’ was used for ‘leprosy.’ Those afflicted must isolate themselves; they had to ‘announce’ their presence when in contact with society. Lepers lived in groups away from the general populace, as a result of their disease.

In Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian he addresses another kind of ‘quarantine.’ The situation was dire; the church had advocated a Christian living with his father’s wife.

“I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”

1 Corinthians 5:3-5, NLT

Understanding the Principal of Usefulness

20 “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.”

2 Timothy 2:20, NASB

Found in God’s pantry is full of pots and pans of various uses.  Paul writes Timothy about the ‘large house’ which is the Church inclusive. Look around Timothy, there are gold ones, and there are silver ones. They have a noble purpose fitting for such a great house. These are the ones the guests will use; they befit the significance of the Lord himself. These vessels have great value for they are made of precious metals.

There are vessels of a different category. These are the ones made of wood, and of clay. These are part of the household, make no mistake about it. But their use is one of function, they’re utilized in common and ignoble ways. (A clay ‘bed-pan’ perhaps?!)

21 “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”

2 Timothy 2:21

Paul, the author of New Testament doctrine of grace emphasizes the place of personal holiness. We are to ‘cleanse’ ourselves to become a vessel of honor. There is good news here:

  • All are vessels in the Father’s house. Each of us belong to Him. He alone determines their use.
  • Things are not yet in their final state. Change in status can be experienced. In God’s economy, clay pots can become ‘golden.’ Silver can become ‘wood.’

Some sin is contagious. It affects other believers and the Church becomes compromised by my sin. And then sometimes we are quarantined by the Holy Spirit until the contagion passes. This spiritual disease must not be permitted.

I have experienced this several times in my own discipleship. These are not pleasant times but there is no condemnation. I’m still His servant, His love for me stays outrageously constant. He has never turned away a sinning child who repents of their sin.

“Yes, I am His servant, but I must wait out in the hall. I haven’t been faithful. So I sit in His waiting room, waiting for His call. This is for my good. And my Father knows what is best.” 

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“But I Do It Anyway”

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Once a church, abandoned and now left to rot
“And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t.  I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.”

Romans 7:18-20, NLT

I hesitate to tell you this, but I have not found any hidden secrets to becoming a holy person.

To be sure, I wish I had figured this out sooner. I would very much like to come to you with the secret formula. I would easily latch on to this idea of a “magic wand” for every hurt. I think it would be good; and then again, maybe not. I’m certain it would be too much power for me to wield.

But the authentic Christian life is hardly formulaic. It seems to defy any attempt to explain, and then guide anyone else into that special place of true obedience or holiness. I’m supposing that you are just like me. I truly want to be right. I would love to be holy. But it ain’t happening. I always seem to end up back in the place I started from. Always, defeat and failure. (Rats!) Romans 7 is not an excuse to sin, but it seems to be an observation of our present condition.

I’ve always been mystified by the conundrum that is Romans 7. You see, I really want chapter 8, but I’ll settle for 6, and 5 would be good. But poor Romans 7 never gets considered. It’s been in limbo, I don’t really know what to do with it. (I honestly avoid it, after all chapter 8 is so good!) But way deep down, I have a strong sense I’m missing something vital and important.

I suppose it might be compared to making a really good ‘discipleship smoothie.’ Of course we must add to our blender Rom. 8. (Bananas.) And I suppose many would add Romans. 6. (Strawberries.) However, a lot of us would hesitate to include Rom. 7, we’re not really sure why. (Cauliflower?) Quite a few commentaries also hesitate.

Many good teachers and preachers regard chapter 7 as parenthetical. They suggest that Paul is describing his life before coming to Christ, and certainly not in a ‘present-tense’ discipleship. (Definitely a brain-twister.)

When I look at the Gospels, I see, across the board that those– the healed, forgiven, cleansed and made whole were always the most desperate. They have nothing, they bring nothing– they meet no requirement, but stepping out into pure poverty. They are the “zeroes.” (What about their smoothies, or don’t they get one?)

I don’t believe, at this point anyway, that there is a singular doctrine of sanctification. Perhaps we can truly do nothing in precise alignment. There is no such thing as a microwavable discipleship, and no instant breakfasts to be had. We truly come with a desperate faith– and we will end up with just a desperate faith.

This should be incredibly humbling to us all. It seems it takes some real repetitive lessons to learn humility as we meander (tra-la-la-la) down the way of God’s road of discipleship.

“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am!”

Romans 7:21-24, NLT

Please (someone?– anyone?!) challenge me on this. I tell you, chapter 7 chafes, and then disrupts my comfortable life. Will I always be so misaligned? Or am I just a lousy excuse for a Christian disciple? If I’m out of line and screwed up– please let me know. “Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:68.)  This happens to be my cry at this present moment.

“The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws. The Church is not made up of whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.”

–Mike Yaconelli

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(Lord, have mercy on me.)

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