Preparing People to Suffer
Preparing People to Suffer
What expectations do our sermons create?
If the aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ, and if God is most glorified in our people when they are most satisfied in him, and if the universal human experience of suffering threatens to undermine their faith in the goodness of God and thus their satisfaction in his glory, then preaching must aim to help our people be satisfied in God while suffering. Indeed, we must help them count suffering as part of why they should be satisfied in God.
We must build into our people's minds and hearts a vision of God and his ways that helps them see suffering not merely as a threat to their satisfaction in God (which it is), but also as a means to their satisfaction in God (which it is). We must preach so as to make suffering seem normal in this fallen age, purposeful, and not surprising.
The forces of American culture are almost all designed to build the opposite world view: Maximize comfort, ease, and security. Avoid all choices that might bring discomfort, trouble, difficulty, pain, and suffering. Add this cultural force to our natural desire for immediate gratification and fleeting pleasures, and the combined power to undermine the superior satisfaction of the soul in the glory of God through suffering is huge.
If we would see God honored in the lives of our people as the supreme value and deepest satisfaction of their lives, then we must strive with all our might to show the meaning of suffering and help them see the wisdom and power and goodness of God behind it, ordaining; above it, governing; beneath it, sustaining; and before it, preparing. This is the hardest work in the world — to change the minds and hearts of fallen human beings and make God so precious to them that they count it all joy when trials come, and exult in their afflictions, and rejoice in the plundering of their property, and say in the end, " To die is gain. "
Preaching is about doing the impossible: making the rich young ruler fall out of love with his comfortable lifestyle and into love with the King of kings so that he joyfully sells all that he has to gain that treasure (Matthew 13:44). Jesus said, " With man this is impossible " (Matthew 19:26). The aim of preaching is impossible. No techniques will make it succeed. " But with God all things are possible. "
We must preach to prepare our people for suffering because coming to Christ means more suffering, not less. Suffering is normal, not exceptional. Suffering is certain. Most American Christians are not prepared in mind or heart to believe or experience this. Therefore the glory of God, the honor of Christ, the stability of the church, and the strength of commitment to world missions are at stake. If preaching does not help our people be satisfied in God through suffering, the church will be a weakling in an escapist world of ease, and the completion of the Great Commission, with its demand for martyrdom, will fail.
Consider the certainty of suffering that will come to your people if they embrace the Savior:
What does a pastoral heart of wisdom do when it discovers that death is sure and life is short and suffering is inevitable and necessary? The answer is given in Psalm 90; it's a prayer: " Have pity on thy servants! Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days " (Psalm 90:13-14). In the face of toil and trouble and suffering and death, the wise preacher cries out with the psalmist, " Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love. " He prays this both for himself and for his people: " O God, grant that we would be satisfied with your steadfast love always, and need nothing else. " And then he preaches to that end.
Why? Because if you leave your people where they are, seeking satisfaction in family and job and leisure and toys and sex and money and food and power and esteem, what will they do when suffering and death strip it all away? They will be embittered and angry and depressed. And the worth, beauty, goodness, power, and wisdom of God, that is the glory of God, will vanish in the cloud of murmuring, complaining, cursing.
Preaching involves timing. Preach the whole truth about suffering and the sovereign goodness of God while it is day, and when the night comes and you stand beside the suicide victim's pool of blood, or the ice cold, ivory body of a one-year-old boy, you won't have to say anything. This will be a time for embracing. And at this point the suffering saints will be glad that your suffering has taught you to preach the hard things and then, at the right time, to be silent.
From a sermon by John Piper, edited by Zach Kincaid for TEDS Bridge, a publication of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.