(Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes)
Not long ago, I was part of a weekly men’s group. Although it’s common to find women-only small groups in the church, a men-only small group is an anomaly. Everyone desires a psychologically safe place to discuss sensitive matters, but many men are less aware of this need.
The group numbered anywhere between ten to thirty on a Sunday morning. Starting with a chapter from an assigned book (often drawn from a currently fashionable Christian author), the discussion would veer into various challenges currently experienced by the men. Observing men sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other remains one of the best experiences from my life.
Some grew tremendously during our time together, while others stagnated. Those growing would move on to wherever the Lord took them next. The remainder stayed behind, stuck on the same individual challenges that brought them to the group in the first place. Eventually, the group stagnated, from a “men-only” group, to a “dead-men-only” group. The difference was most often seen in their respective prayers.
You see the same dynamic in most church gatherings. The leader asks for prayer requests, followed by various members chiming in with a currently experienced stressor, either for themselves or someone they know. The stressors are often related to health or finances, ranging from the mundane to the serious. When the requests are finished, the leader invokes a corporate prayer in two parts.
The first part is an expression of thanksgiving. I am often struck by how “thanksgiving”, albeit a great and necessary thing, is often used as flattery for the next part: a vague desire for God to do something regarding the prayer request.
Sometimes, the something desired is implicitly couched in expressions of God’s sovereignty and wisdom. Other times, the ignorance over the something is explicitly stated. “Lord, we don’t know what this (brother/sister) needs, but we know you know, so we just lift up (insert name) to you…” followed by the vague request for God to do something, whatever that is.
It doesn’t take a lot of participation before you realize that the desired something is for Daddy to take away the boo-boo.
The evidence is when the results come in. The “praise reports” are almost always something “miraculous”, in which the petitioner was healed from some sickness, received a windfall of money, or obtained some other blessing which prevented or removed the unwanted suffering.
What you almost never hear is when the boo-boo is not removed, even if it leads to something infinitely more precious.
Reaping the Harvest
Let’s start with Scripture for this one. First read Psalm 107 (I’ll wait here).
Got it? Notice the theme throughout this Psalm. In each stanza, the story of the redeemed is first a story of suffering (and not the kind that requires a Band-Aid for a boo-boo). Each tale of woe and misery culminates in a cry “to the Lord in their trouble,” a cry which we can be assured was not a feeble grunt. Each cry from the depths of a soul was met with a rescue, not just from the calamity, but towards a place of safety. Each finished with praising God for “his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.”
For many in the world today, suffering is the beginning and end of the tale. For these poor souls, the suffering continues, seemingly without end. What does the Lord see when He looks upon the suffering in the world?
We already know:
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Mt 9:36-38)
What is His harvest field? The world. What is the harvest? A willingness to seek God combined with repentance, all brought about by suffering with no recourse. Where does the harvest come from? The manure of the world, where each of us is planted. Why is there suffering in the world? Because flowers need fertilizer.
Nevertheless, why are the workers so few? One reason is because they haven’t suffered enough to earn the honor. Avoiding suffering is an insular and foolproof way towards immaturity. It lends credit to the atheist contention that God is Santa Claus, only here to give out gifts. As a philosophy professor of mine once said, it’s the Jesus-as-Aspirin approach to life: take two Jesus-pills and call the pastor in the morning.
I become tone-deaf when I hear these requests because the requestor is only looking for bonuses and perks. I prefer to use the terms “bonuses and perks” because, if discipleship were a job, many of the employees continually beseech God (the CEO) for more bonuses and perks (sometimes without working in the field). Many get their blessings (“His rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked” – Mt 5:45) while wondering why they don’t grow spiritually.
I mean, I get it: on the surface, it seemed Jesus was all about bonuses and perks, granting miracles to those who dared to approach him in faith. It’s easy to reason that this was His primary goal: to heal physical illness and circumnavigate calamity through prayer.
But what is often not understood is that these miracles were done for the benefit of onlookers more than the receiver of the miracle. His miracles were often a prelude to a deeper understanding: of His ministry, the kingdom of heaven, the nature and meaning of discipleship, and so much more.
Proof is found in what happened to the disciples after the Crucifixion. The disciples didn’t experience a life of bonuses and perks. In fact, many of them experienced quite the opposite (2 Cor 1:8), just as Jesus said they would (Mt 5:11), and as all the saints and disciples have experienced throughout history.
Why does God give bonuses and perks to all who ask? Because, in the consumer mindset of many Christians, if He didn’t give incentives, they might quit. Talk about an unfailing love! Regardless, many lose faith when God stops giving bonuses and perks (often because He’s trying to get their attention). They quit Him like they quit a job they no longer like, seeking better pay, bonuses and perks elsewhere.
This is why I can’t agree with prayers for bonuses and perks (unless I amend them with “Thy will be done”). How can I? What if the purpose of the petitioner’s suffering is not to be “rescued” from something causing discomfort, but to receive a greater blessing that can only be obtained through suffering, a blessing which will transform that person into a worker in the field?
This is precisely what the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah :
“Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore He rises to show you compassion, for the LORD is a just God. Blessed are all who wait for Him. O people in Zion who dwell in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. He will surely be gracious when you cry for help; when He hears, He will answer you. The Lord will give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, but your Teacher will no longer hide Himself – with your own eyes you will see Him. And whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear this command behind you: “This is the way. Walk in it.” – Is 30:18-21
Want a NT teaching? Try Paul:
“…we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” – Rom 5:2-5
Since many glance over this passage without giving it much thought (for reasons discussed another day), let’s work backwards through these words for illustration:
- God’s love is experienced when hope is validated, like the breaking of the dawn.
- Hope comes through a character oriented towards the thing hoped for.
- Character is formed through deliberate perseverance.
- Perseverance, by definition, is something done in spite of the difficulty.
- What’s another word for difficulty? Suffering.
Why is the church so weak? Because too many are only looking for bonuses and perks in correlation with a consumer culture.
And you do know that God’s love means it’s not just about you, right?
Workers in the Harvest
You can always distinguish those who are being discipled through their suffering by the love they show.
You know the kind of people I speak of. In every church I have attended, I have always found at least one, often an elderly grandma oozing love to the observation of all. She’s the one person who not only speaks with gentleness, peace, patience, understanding and more, but also makes your heart lighter just by being in her presence.
If you took the time to listen to her story, you would be surprised to hear a personal tale of extreme suffering, a suffering that may include losing children or grandchildren to untimely deaths, intense physical ailments or diseases, loss of home and/or possessions, among many other examples. They know what it’s like to be estranged from those they love, what it’s like to struggle with hope, and what it’s like to feel faithless in a cold and dark night, also among many other examples
They love because of their suffering, not in spite of it. To love others requires the ability to relate to others – otherwise, how would you be able to address another person’s needs? To relate to others includes an understanding of the sufferings of others, an understanding only gained through personal suffering. Gotta know what a heartache feels like to empathize with others in heartache.
The heavy lifting of love requires someone well acquainted with many kinds of suffering – in fact, your ability to love others is directly proportional to the amount of suffering you’ve experienced in life. These experiences are the filling up of Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church (Col 1:24).
“If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which accomplishes in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we experience. And our hope for you is sure, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you will share in our comfort.” – 2 Cor 1:6-7
In contrast, you won’t gain understanding when you deliberately avoid suffering, instead praying to God to make you happy for your own self-fulfillment. How are you going to encounter, experience, and travail that suffering (all for the formation of perseverance, character, hope, and love) if you are always looking for a “miracle” to get you out of said suffering? Not only will you not be a servant in the harvest, but you’ll stunt your own growth, perhaps even unto death (something the rich man discovered; see Lk 16:19-31)
Are you lacking growth in your spiritual life? Don’t ask to be removed from the storm. Instead, ask for the grace and strength to weather the storm while tuning into that still, small voice.
“This is the Way. Walk in it.” On that day, I won’t have to agree with you for bonuses and perks.
You’ll already have them.