"There is a cost that leaders must pay if they are to lead in the way of Christ. Suffering and sacrifice are not an anomaly. They are not a sign of failure. They are not early tests which you outgrow and move past. Sacrifice and suffering are the warp and woof of Christian leadership." Brian Rice, Invitations.Christian leaders necessarily suffer. But we don't like that, so we turn to preachers like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer who drive their big cars and promise that God wants to bless us, too. As if blessing = freedom from hardship. And somewhere, deep down, we desperately want to believe that if we do this Christian life well, God will bless us. If we serve and give and pray and go to church, surely God will notice how good we are and toss us some heavenly cookies. We pray prayers of safety and protection, telling ourselves that God's good, pleasing, and perfect will could not possible include sorrow and suffering.
But what if God not only allows suffering in my life, what if he wills it? What if he wants to use it to shape who I am and how I lead?
"What kind of God would will for his children suffer?" I audaciously ask this question as if I am somehow more loving or kind than the God who voluntarily suffered for my sins. As if I would never be so cruel if I were God.
And yet, as a parent there were many times that I ordained suffering for my boys. The painful prick of a polio vaccine, the sting of a wooden spoon wielded by my own hand, the denial of a much wanted treasure that I had the means to provide, a transcontinental move during adolescence. I willed such suffering into their lives, and I dare say that I did so in love--in heart-wrenching, tear-spilling, hope-cherishing love. Yes, I am the kind of parent that willing allowed such suffering in the lives of my boys.
Some would prefer to attribute all suffering to Satan. And while I would agree that the enemy works overtime to bring harm to God's children, he cannot do anything to us that has not been approved by God. Consider Paul's thorn:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”It appears that the suffering (or thorn) was inflicted by Satan, yet God allowed it to remain. And rather than grouse about it, Paul learned to delight in it, seeing the power of God's grace in the midst of his suffering.
As I lead in life and ministry, suffering is my promised companion. The question is, will I continually try to shirk it, resisting its work in my life, or will I learn to embrace it?
This week I was studying Paul's suffering as he describes it in 2 Corinthians when I got a text message from the renter of our house in Spangle. Due to the sudden thawing of massive amounts of snow, the ground floor of our house had a foot of standing water in it. This is our third flood in less than 8 years. Paul's words ran through my mind. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul mentions:
sleepless nights...(I claim this as my own personal thorn, since I have sleepless nights even during the best of times!)
Suffering sucks. I guess you could say that I felt like I had paid my "natural disaster"dues. A third flood? Really? I can't like it. And here we are trying our best to serve the Lord in France! Could he not have held back the waters? I want my heavenly cookies!
It turns out I'm much better at discussing suffering theoretically. I detest it practically. Apparently God does not consider book-knowledge on the subject to be sufficient. So he's taking me on a field trip. I had a completely human response to this third invasion of my home. Shock. Then denial. I sent my parents an email, and the subject line said, "Our house flooded again." The body read, "I don't want to talk about it."
That was the state I was in when I headed out the door yesterday to do my weekly grocery shopping. Weird things happen to your thinking in crises like these. I found myself wondering if we could afford "extras" like popcorn when we have no way of paying our mortgage next month. As I was debating whether or not canned peaches (for a Valentine's dessert) could make the budgetary cut, a woman from our community choir stopped to say, "Hello."
I don't even know this woman's name, to tell you the truth, but as she asked all of the perfunctory questions, such as "How are you?" I felt compelled to mention the flooding of our house in the States--a sure sign that I was coming out of my state of denial. After hearing my sad tale, she asked, "Why does God allow suffering?" She is a self-admitted skeptic who knows that I work at the Protestant church in town, but her question seemed sincere. So there between the jellies and canned fruits, I shared the Gospel. She teared up at one point, but quickly pulled it together. Questions loomed in her eyes.
"Would you like to get together to read the Bible sometime?" I offered. She said she would think about it, and I believe she really will.
We don't always see the reasons for our suffering. Like the prick of a vaccine on a baby's chubby thigh, we feel the pain but have no understanding of it's purpose. Yet every now and then God gives us a glimpse of where he's working, weaving beauty from ashes. If my suffering means that someone will hear the Gospel for the first time, might I more gladly bear the burden? How many floods would I willing endure if they led to her salvation?
My friend at the grocery store saw my hurt and disappointment, but she also heard the reason for the hope that I have. God called me out of the darkness of denial to bring his light into a different darkness--one with eternal consequences. My suffering was no longer a personal matter--and this is key--because leaders rarely have the privilege of private pain.
As suffering does its work in my life, it changes how I lead. The temptation is to let suffering turn me inward, but Christian leaders are called out in their suffering. God wants my pain to become a conduit for his grace to pour into a lost and desperate world. If I let it, suffering teaches patience, compassion, and faith. It fertilizes my prayer life, refines my theology, and creates a space for greater intimacy with the Lord.
And when I lead out of that kind of brokenness, I lead humbly, I lead gently, I lead like Jesus.