Of all the sufferers in the Bible, Paul would have to be among those who suffered most. Laboring and toiling without sleep, constantly moving, experiencing cold and nakedness, hunger and thirst, three times beaten with rods, stoned once, three times shipwrecked including an entire night and day on the open sea, and five times flogged with 39 lashes. How did he handle it all?
He told the Corinthians that we learn not to rely on ourselves, but on God. He told the Phillipians not to be anxious, to present God with our requests with thanksgiving, to think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable, and that he learned to be content whatever the circumstances. In these the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. What is this peace? First, it is an inner calm and equilibrium that does not come naturally, but which we must learn. Next, it is not an absence of fear, but the presence of God. Today, in order to overcome anxiety or fear, the purveyors of peace talk about controlling your thoughts and removing negative ones. But that is really only refusing to face the facts and will not provide lasting peace. When things are not all right, it is not positive thinking or willpower that carries us, it is the assurance of the solid foundation that ultimately, everything will be alright. So how does one learn how to find this peace?
Experiencing the peace that passes understanding begins with the discipline of thinking. When Paul says to think about what is true, noble, right, etc., he is not referring to relaxation, visualization or thought-control techniques such as can be found in any bookstore or self-help website. These will never deal with the big questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What should I be doing? Where am I going? But why don’t today’s resources tell you to think deeply about life? Because Western secular society operates without any answers to these questions. So the only answer that they can provide is to not think about everything, but to relax and find experiences that give you pleasure. Think about it! Christian peace comes not from thinking less, but from thinking more. Paul uses the word logizdomai, which means “to reckon”, to tell us to reckon our present sufferings as not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed.
Think about doctrine. But how will that help? Think. Is Jesus the only Son of God? Did he come to earth, die, rise and go to the right hand of God? Did he suffer so one day you won’t have to? If these are true, then that is all the comfort you need. If not, then the only happiness you will ever know is what you can get in the 70 or so years you may have. If you lose your happiness to some trouble, it is gone forever. So either this is as good as it gets or Jesus is on the throne ruling all things. So if you need peace, start thinking. Think about who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ and the future he has prepared for you. Count it, add it up and let the glory of gospel salvation sink in. Your bad things will turn out for good, your good things cannot be taken away, and the best is yet to come.
Next, Dr. Keller describes the discipline of thanking. Paul says to make our requests to God with thanksgiving. Notice he does not say to ask God, then after you receive what you’ve asked for to give thanks. We thank God ahead of time because Paul is calling us to trust God. We will never be content until we acknowledge that our lives are in his control and that he is wiser than we are. God says to us, “[When] a child of mine makes a request, I always give that person what he or she would have asked for if they knew everything I know.” Do you believe that? To the degree you believe that, you are going to have peace. And if you don’t believe it, you won’t have the peace you could otherwise have. Make your requests known with thanksgiving.
Third is the discipline of loving. We are not only to think the right things, we are also to love the right things. Augustine was familiar with the problem of Greek philosophy. It was: how can you live a life of contentment? For the Stoics, the problem was because we love things too much. If you love success, even when you achieve it, you will be anxious. If you love your family, you will worry about it. You will always worry and be anxious about what you love, and if something goes wrong, it will devastate you. The problem is loving things you cannot control. (Does this sound a little bit like Buddhism?) The answer was to love what you can control – your own virtue. The only thing that can make you content is the knowledge that you are being the person you choose to be and want to be. (Does this sound a little bit like what our current society says?) But can you control even your own virtue? You are human, frail, complex. Your own virtue can let you down just as easily as anything else. Augustine’s answer was that “only love of the immutable can bring tranquility.” And the only thing that is immutable is God. The problem is not that we love things too much, it is that we love God too little. So the solution is to reorder our lives beginning by loving God supremely.
“When something is taken from us, our suffering is real and valid. But often, inside, we are disproportionately cast down because the suffering is shaking out of our grasp something that we allowed to become more than just a good thing to us.” We may say, “Jesus is Lord”, but functionally, we have gotten our self-worth from something else. The answer to placing God at the pinnacle of our love is to rediscover the gospel of free grace. Our hearts will tell us that God will not save us because we are unworthy, but we must remember that salvation is for the humble, those who admit they are not worthy.
When we suffer, we should examine our lives to see if the suffering is unnecessarily intensified by anything we have set our hearts and hopes upon too much. We must reorder our lives. Suffering often reveals that things we thought we could not live without we really can live without when we trust God. When we cultivate an existential grasp of his love for us, then, though suffering will hurt, and often hurt deeply, it won’t devastate us because it cannot touch our main thing – God, his love and salvation.
“How can we bring ourselves to love God more? “God” can be just an abstraction, even if you believe in him. How can we feel more love for God? Don’t try to work directly on your emotions. That won’t work. Instead, let your emotions flow naturally from what you are looking at.” Horatio Spafford lost all four of his daughters when their ship sank in the Atlantic as they were travelling to England with their mother. On his way across the Atlantic to bring his wife home he wrote a hymn – It Is Well with My Soul. “Here is what I want you to think about: why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God – the peace like a river – spend the entire hymn on Jesus and his work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:
My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything! Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! . . . Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! . . . In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking, and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances. It will work for you.”
Next time Chapter Sixteen: Hoping
Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,
To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.
Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9