The Pastoral Heart and Inevitability of Suffering
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 our preaching must aim, week in and week out, 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 their 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 and purposeful, and not surprising in this fallen age.
The forces of American culture are almost all designed to build the opposite worldview into our people’s minds. Maximize comfort, ease, and security. Avoid all choices that might bring discomfort, trouble, difficulty, pain, or 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, highest treasure, 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.”
This is why preaching is not mere communication, and why “communication theory” and getting scholarly degrees in “communication” are so far from the essence of what preaching is about. 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 (Matt. 13:44). Jesus said very simply, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). The aim of preaching is impossible; no human techniques will make it succeed. But God can work through it.
In no place does this become more clear than when preaching confronts suffering. How shall we accomplish the great end of preaching in the face of suffering?
Coming to Christ means more suffering, not less, in this world. For starters, I am persuaded that suffering is normal and not exceptional. We all will suffer; we all must suffer; and 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, then God will not be glorified, Christ will not be honored, 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.
There is a certainty of suffering that will come to people if they embrace the Savior. “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Really? “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matt. 8:19–20). “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19a); “‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20); “If they have called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more will they malign the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:25); “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21); “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12); “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22); “Let no one be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this” (1 Thess. 3:3); We are “fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:17–18); “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12); “I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” (1 Cor. 15:31, RSV); and “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19, RSV). People are going to suffer—that is certain.
And when this life of necessary suffering is at an end, there remains the last enemy, death. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). For God’s loved ones, dying will be the final suffering. For most of us it will be a terrible thing. In more than twenty-eight years in the pastorate, I have walked with many saints through the last months and days and hours of dying. And very few have been easy. Everyone I preach to is going to die if Christ delays His coming. All must suffer and all must die.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass …. In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away …. So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:5–12, ESV).
What does a pastoral heart of wisdom do when it discovers that death is sure, that life is short, and that suffering is inevitable and necessary? The answer is given two verses later in Psalm 90. It is a prayer: “Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (vv. 13b–14, ESV). In the face of toil, trouble, 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 a preacher leaves his people where they are, seeking satisfaction in family and job and leisure and toys and sex and money and food and power and esteem, when suffering and death strip it all away they will be embittered and angry and depressed. And the worth and beauty and goodness and power and wisdom of God, the glory of God, will vanish in the cloud of murmuring, complaining, and cursing.
But if the preacher has prayed well (that God would satisfy them with Himself); if the preacher has preached well (showing them that they must suffer, but that God is more to be desired than comfort and the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Ps. 63:3); if the preacher has lived well (rejoicing to suffer for their sakes); and if the preacher has lingered long enough in one place of ministry, then many of the people will suffer well and die well, counting it gain because they are satisfied in God alone. God will therefore be mightily glorified, and the great end of preaching will be achieved.
This excerpt is adapted from John Piper’s contribution to Feed My Sheep.