18 inches is the average distance from our brain to our heart.
But it’s the distance many of us need to travel in order to endure our greatest suffering.
Many of us, in good heart and intention, misuse Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” We tell people that everything happens for a good reason, that their suffering serves a purpose, and they will come out on the other side stronger than they were before.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” right?
We laugh at that saying, but we actually do believe it.
But that’s just not entirely true.
In Tim Keller’s book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, he says, “So suffering does not automatically or naturally lead to growth and good outcomes. It must be handled or faced patiently and faithfully.”
We cannot keep spreading the lie that all suffering will automatically yield the sweetest fruit. It is a painful lie we have perpetuated that has left people sitting in the excruciating pain of immense suffering, waiting for the beauty to show up at their doorstep.
Great suffering requires great endurance. If you play any sport or you work out, you know that endurance is a slow work that takes time to build. There are no short cuts to achieving better endurance and building it is a painful process.
How do we build spiritual endurance? We get to know about God and we get to know God.
A Matter of the Mind
As Tim Keller further writes, we see that preparing our minds is something we need to do now: “I have often sat beside people who were going through terrible troubles and silently wished they had taken the time to learn more about their faith before the tidal wave of trouble had engulfed them.”
We need to spend our energies growing in our theology. This means “developing a deep knowledge of the Bible and a strong vital enough prayer life that you will neither be surprised by nor overthrown by affliction.”
We get to know God by reading, engaging in, and studying the Bible. And we get to know God by praying continually and honestly.
The Bible is a living power: Romans 1:16 and Hebrews 4:12
It brings transformation: 1 Peter 1:23
It is something to be delighted in and stored in our hearts: Psalm 119
Many of us have given the Bible a cursory chance, but we’ve never truly committed ourselves to the study of it. Those of us who have given it a cursory chance have probably seen very little fruit and dropped it back onto a shelf to collect dust. Others who have committed to the love and study of the Word can attest to the transformative fruit it has bloomed in their lives.
Don’t know how to read the Bible?
Ask someone who has been transformed by it.
Read books that help you study it.
Do whatever you can to get your hands on a Bible and get alone with God. Read. Pray. Be silent. Contemplate what you read. And see what God does in you.
Then, when suffering comes (and it will), you will be guarded by the truth of God’s word. You will be guarded against the senseless—but believable—lies that flood into our minds and threaten to take over our lives.
“Suffering will be like a river that sweeps us into despair. However, if our understanding and experience of God’s love was strong to begin with, they can serve as anchors that keep us from being sucked into the whirlpool.”
It is in God’s word that we can learn about a faithful, loving, constant, powerful, suffering, infinite, intimate God who is for us—even in the midst of trouble.
From the Head to the Heart
The problem with many of us is that we stay in the head. These days in America, it doesn’t take much effort to learn about God.
Many of us don’t even need to pick up the Bible for ourselves because we can listen to sermons, go to church and attend Bible studies to learn from other people who know the Bible.
While this is not wrong and can serve as a great way to get to know God, it keeps God at a distance if this is all we do. We can’t experience God intimately, for ourselves, if we are always going to other people to learn about God.
We can grow up in church, knowing all of the Sunday School answers, but when tragedy hits, we are swept off our feet. The knowledge just isn’t enough to keep us upright so that we can endure. The knowledge isn’t enough to create something beautiful on the other side of suffering.
We must move down 18 inches.
As many of us teachers would say, we know students have learned something when they start to use it on their own without any kind of prompting or guidance. In the same way, we can know that God’s truth has penetrated our hearts when we start to use those truths in our lives. Tim Keller reveals the important difference between staying in the head and moving to the heart:
The Bible says a great deal about suffering, but it is one thing to have these things stored in the ‘warehouse of the mind.’ It is quite another to know how to apply them to your own heart, life and experience in such a way that they produce wisdom, endurance, joy, self-knowledge, courage, and humility. It is one thing to believe in God but it is quite another thing to trust God. It is one thing to have an intellectual explanation for why God allows suffering; it is another thing to actually find a path through suffering so that, instead of becoming more bitter, cynical, despondent, and broken, you become more wise, grounded, humble, strong, and even content.
Suffering will inevitably raise theological questions: “Why would the God I have gotten to know allow this in my life?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “Does God really love me?” “Is God really good?”
Learning God’s truth and filling the mind with theological answers can give us responses to these questions, but that alone won’t satisfy us or strengthen our weaknesses when they are exposed in trials.
Once those questions are answered with sure truth, we have to then allow ourselves to live in that truth.
We live in the goodness of God. We live in the sovereignty of God. We live in the love of God. We trust God and what he is doing in our lives.
And we move forward.
Hebrews 12:11 says: “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” And this word “trained” here is gymnazdo in Greek. It refers to exercise aimed to strengthen weak areas of the body.
When we combine head knowledge with a heart that knows God, we can endure suffering as we would endure an exercise program. We allow the suffering to strengthen the weak areas of our faith.
Anyone who has attempted to exercise can attest to the pain and hardship. Our weaknesses are exposed and growth is slow. But at the end, if we persist, we are stronger as we come out the other side.
As we train in the knowledge and love of God, though our weaknesses are exposed and we grit our teeth in pain, we can stand.
This is not something that happens automatically just because we attend church or know a few things about God. Walking in the truth of who God is takes intentionality and perseverance.
A Suffering God
We aren’t promised it will be easy. In fact, enduring hardship is much more difficult than ignoring hardship. But, we can rest in the fact that the God we are drawing nearer to has endured the greatest suffering in our place.
If we can’t understand God in the midst of our suffering, at least we cannot question his love for us. God, himself, endured a lifetime of suffering as he entered the world as Jesus. From king of the Universe to the lowest of all servants, he made himself nothing by dying on the cross. Through the course of his excruciating suffering, he did not utter one complaint or cry of anger towards God.
Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:24) Not because he was confused or angry with God, but because he was truly separated from God. He no longer felt his presence, no longer lived in his love.
He was alone.
He was hopeless.
This is the God who is with us in suffering. A God who endured the greatest suffering of all in our place, so that he may offer the greatest gift of all: new life.
May the cross be not only sweet to your weary mind, but healing to your wounded heart.
Excerpts taken from Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. Published by the Penguin Group
Click here to see or buy the book.