Archive | Suffering and Pain

Making Sense of All Suffering – What is the Telos of Pain?

What’s the point of all the suffering Christians go through? What is God trying to accomplish? What’s the goal? The Bible talks a lot about this using the Greek word “telos”.

The Meaning (Telos) for Suffering

Telos (τέλος) Origin Greek[1]:

  1. A point of time marking the end of a duration.
  2. The last part of a process.
  3. The goal toward which a movement is being directed.
  4. Last in a series.
  5. Revenue obligation.

Telos Examples from Scripture

1st Peter 1:9 obtaining the outcome (telos) of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end (telos) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (ESV)

James 5:11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose (telos) of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

Revelation 22:13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (telos).” All of these scriptural quotations are taken from the ESV.

Of course, the book of Job probably says more about pain and suffering than any single other book of the Bible.

Clearly, telos is a very flexible word. However, in this article we’re focusing on the “goal” aspect of it’s usage.

Telos in Conversation at the Credo House

While working behind the bar of the Credo House the other day (yes, I do make coffees!), a man came to talk to me about something that had been weighing on his heart. “Michael,” he said, “how do you know what God is trying to accomplish through the suffering that we go through? What is his end, purpose or goal.” Continue Reading →

Will God Protect My Children?


Will God Protect My Children?

My friend was not a Christian, but he was seriously considering it. He was one of my wild friends from my younger, crazier days. We used to drive from bar-to-bar looking for nothing but trouble.

We often talked about Jesus. I was one of those dichotomous Christians who did what he could to evangelize while neck deep in the clutches of carnality (now I am just dichotomized in other ways!).

He was an atheist and pretty determined to stand his ground. Initially, our reconnect involved uncomfortable re-telling’s of our former days of sin along with some (compromising?) laughter about such.

But we spent the next year talking about Christ Here we were a decade later having the same types of conversations during a different stage of life. He’s married with kids. I’m married with kids. He’s thinking about bigger, more profound things. I’m teaching about bigger and more profound things.

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Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death:
John Calvin (1509-1564)

calvinThe first post in this series consisted of quotes from Charles Spurgeon. The second from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. John Calvin probably did more (outside of God and His Word) to help drag me through the Valley of the Shadow of Death than any other person.

Calvin lived 500 years ago but God saw fit to have me read his majestic Institutes of the Christian Religion throughout 2013. I know, the Institutes sounds incredibly boring, but it is the most devotional work I have ever read. Spending time with Calvin is like spending time close to someone burning white hot for Jesus. I’ve written about the life of John Calvin here if you’d like to learn more about him.

Calvin spends Book 3 Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 focused primarily on the subject of living through painful circumstances. These words have been water to a thirsty soul on many occasions. I pray the Lord would allow you to get through these dense selected sentences and drink deeply of the goodness of Jesus in the midst of the valley:

But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matt. 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children. For even though that Son was beloved above the rest, and in him the Father’s mind was well pleased [Matt. 3:17], yet we see that far from being treated indulgently or softly, to speak the truth, while he dwelt on earth he was not only tried by a perpetual cross but his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross. The apostle notes the reason: that it behooved him to “learn obedience through what he suffered” [Heb. 5:8]

Therefore, he afflicts us either with disgrace or poverty, or bereavement, or disease, or other calamities. Utterly unequal to bearing these, in so far as they touch us, we soon succumb to them. Thus humbled, we learn to call upon his power which alone makes us stand fast under the weight of afflictions. But even the most holy persons, however much they may recognize that they stand not through their own strength but through God’s grace, are too sure of their own fortitude and constancy unless by the testing of the cross he bring them into a deeper knowledge of himself.

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Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

bonhoefferThe first post in this series consisted of quotes from Charles Spurgeon. The second person who helped, in profound ways, get my family through an especially terrible year is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has been on the radar of many Christians since the popular biography by Eric Metaxes hit the shelves three years ago.

Two years ago The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer came out through Fortress Press. I absorbed these sermons through every pore while suffering in the valley of the shadow of death.

The following sermon moved me most deeply and was a sermon I returned to time and again throughout 2013. Whenever I return to this sermon it feels like I am returning to a wise friend sure to strengthen my resolve in our Jesus. Bonhoeffer scholar Isabel Best states of his preaching:

“Bonhoeffer understood his sermons both as a way of confessing faith and as a prophetic means to call his church and his students to withstand the ideological spirit of the times…when read in the immediate historical context of when they were preached they gain an added power and depth, for only then can we begin to understand how Dietrich Bonhoeffer was actively engaging the issues of his times and his church through his preaching.”

Following is Bonhoeffer’s brilliant sermon entitled Overcoming Fear. It was preached a mere 15 days before Hitler came to power. His church was struggling with intense fear. I pray Bonhoeffer’s sermon to his small church will make a big difference in your life today as fear and anxiety may seek to destroy you (emphasis added is mine):

Matthew 8:23-27 : And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

The overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here. The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.

Now fear leers that person in the face, saying: Here we are all by our­selves, you and I, now I’m showing you my true face. And anyone who has seen naked fear revealed, who has been its victim in terrifying loneliness— fear of an important decision; fear of a heavy stroke of fate, losing one’s job, an illness; fear of a vice that one can no longer resist, to which one is enslaved; fear of disgrace; fear of another person; fear of dying—that per­son knows that fear is only one of the faces of evil itself, one form by which the world, at enmity with God, grasps for someone. Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives as this loneliness, this helplessness, this fog spreading over everything, this sense that there is no way out, and this raving impulse to get oneself out of this hell of hopelessness.

Have you ever seen someone in the grip of fear? It’s dreadful in a child, but even more dreadful in an adult: the staring eyes, the shivering like an animal, the pleading attempt to defend oneself. Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like—this per­son belongs to the devil, this enslaved, broken-down, sick creature.

But the human being doesn’t have to be afraid; we should not be afraid! That is what makes humans different from all other creatures. In the midst of every situation where there is no way out, where nothing is clear, where it is our fault, we know that there is hope, and this hope is called: Thy will be done, yes, thy will is being done. “This world must fall, God stands above all, his thoughts unswayed, his Word unstayed, his will forever our ground and hope.” Do you ask: How do you know? Then we name the name of the One who makes the evil inside us recoil, who makes fear and anxiety themselves tremble with fear and puts them to flight. We name the One who overcame fear and led it captive in the victory proces­sion, who nailed it to the cross and committed it to oblivion; we name the One who is the shout of victory of humankind redeemed from the fear of death—Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Living One. He alone is Lord over fear; it knows him as its master; it gives way to him alone. So look to Christ when you are afraid, think of Christ, keep him before your eyes, call upon Christ and pray to him, believe that he is with you now, helping you…Then fear will grow pale and fade away, and you will be free, through your faith in our strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let’s say there is a ship on the high sea, having a fierce struggle with the waves. The storm wind is blowing harder by the minute. The boat is small, tossed about like a toy; the sky is dark; the sailors’ strength is failing. Then one of them is gripped by…whom? what?…he cannot tell him­self. But someone is there in the boat who wasn’t there before. Someone comes close to him and lays cold hands on his arms as he pulls wildly on his oar. He feels his muscles freeze, feels the strength go out of them. Then the unknown one reaches into his heart and mind and magically brings forth the strangest pictures. He sees his family, his children crying. What will become of them if he is no more? Then he seems to be back where he once was when he followed evil ways, in long years of bondage to evil, and he sees the faces of his companions in that bondage. He sees a neighbor whom he wounded, only yesterday, with an angry word. Suddenly he can no longer see or hear anything, can no longer row, a wave overwhelms him, and in final desperation he shrieks: Stranger in this boat, who are you? And the other answers, I am Fear. Now the cry goes up from the whole crew; Fear is in the boat; all arms are frozen and drop their oars; all hope is lost, Fear is in the boat.
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Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death:
Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)

spurgeonMy wife and I went through an especially intense period of suffering in 2013. I’m planning to pull back the curtain of our story, Lord willing, and turn it into a book with the hope it will help others to survive unsurvivable seasons. I am surprised, as I look back at that tough year, that we survived. How did we survive? I’m not sure.

I do know we did not suffer alone. The Lord raised up many verses, people, places, ideas and hopes to drag us through that ragged season. There are a few dead people whom God used in a very powerful way to give me a clear path to crawl on during that season.

This post will kick-off a small series of quotes from these folks used most powerfully in my life throughout 2013. Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death. My hope is if you find yourself in a season of crushing this series will give you hope, strength and patient endurance. As long as Jesus is alive there is always hope.

Charles Spurgeon would probably win the “most popular preacher of all time” award if you only allowed pastors from the last 150 years to do the voting. He is known as the prince of preachers and before microphones existed would regularly preach to more than 5,000 people at a time. Spurgeon published more than 150 books and was able to speak about Jesus more eloquently than most people.

Spurgeon was a full-time preacher for more than 40 years but his health was incredibly poor and he suffered greatly from depression. Spurgeon, on average, missed 1 out of every 3 Sundays. Can you believe that? Over the course of 40 years there was consistently a 30% chance your pastor wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on any given Sunday. He spent a lot of time walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Here are just a few of Spurgeon’s quotes from the Valley (statements in bold were especially moving to me):

The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. There maybe here and there men of iron, to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows, and makes them to know, that they are but dust. Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon, that younger men might not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them when they became for a season possessed by melancholy; and that sadder men might know that one upon whom the sun has shone right joyously did not always walk in the light.”

My witness is, that those who are honoured of their Lord in public, have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil. How constantly the Lord calls Ezekiel “Son of man”! Amid his soarings into the superlative splendours, just when with eye undimmed he is strengthened to gaze into the excellent glory, the word “Son of man” falls on his ears, sobering the heart which else might have been intoxicated with the honour conferred upon it. Such humbling but salutary messages our depressions whisper in our ears; they tell us in a manner not to be mistaken that we are but men, frail, feeble, apt to faint.”

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Hurting for Oklahoma: On Bearing the Pains of Those We Don’t Know


I have been watching the television all night. Though my heart is being torn out and the miserable “Why God?” thoughts run through my mind over and over again, I cannot quit watching. The number of children (twenty-four, at last count) who have lost their lives to something as fearful, tragic, and theologically uncompromising as a tornado is enough to make one lose their faith. As I get to the point of simply banging on Christ’s door, shouting, “Why? Why?!” I am strangely comforted by Christ’s words which suggest that he allows even the elect to come to a breaking point of faith through deception and suffering (Matt. 24:12, 22, 24).  I get there sometimes. If you are honest and thoughtful, so do you.

So far the death toll is up to 51. The destruction is like nothing we have ever seen (even in ’99, when the same area was hit by an F-5). The word is, this may go down in history as the worst tornado recorded history has ever seen in terms of its power and destructiveness. I am humbled by the fact that I had to put on my brakes to miss it. But I cannot say the same for some people I know. Andrew Burkhart, a good friend and pastor of Love and Justice Church in Moore, lost his home . . . No brakes to stop this loss. It is completely gone. I don’t know about his church yet and, although I have yet to talk to him, I hear that he and his family are okay. But the tragic stories will continue to surface and it is not going to get any better. The questions of blame are interesting with tornadoes. The insurance companies, unfortunately, calls these “Acts of God.” I say this is unfortunate because the insurance companies make it sound as if God is hands-off in all other tragedies except those that fall from the sky or rise up from the ground. But that (blame) is not in my thoughts right now. . .

But what about you who are far away, not living in Oklahoma? If you are watching this, you probably feel a deep sense of helplessness. You don’t know what to do. The stress that overcomes your spirit, mind, and body is tremendous. I know. Here I am just a few miles from weeping and pain, and there is little I can do. But when your thoughts turn to “Why God?” my stress increases. We all want to lift the burdens from the shoulders of those in pain, but we know there is no way to do so outside of divine intervention. But here is the problem (and I have said this before): you (those of you who are far distant from this event) are not responsible for this tragedy. I know you know that, but let me put it another way: you have no obligation – much less ability – to carry the spiritual stress of this event. It is not yours to bear. It is ours. This is our community, not yours.

Now, this may be coming off odd, so let me explain what I mean. Continue Reading →

The Asphyxiation of Hope: Matthew Warren (1986-2013)

I got the news on the road to Florida. My family and I, along with my mother, are in Florida for the Gospel Coalition conference. After this, we will head directly to Dallas, where I will participate in the Christian Renaissance conference. News like this breaks me more than anything else. I fell completely apart. I probably should not be writing. I wept for a bit. We were already having so many other issues on the drive, and this nearly put me over the top.  I just wanted to turn around. The Gospel Coalition and Christian Renaissance conferences are incredible and so valuable . . . for a certain type of person. But for those who have a broken mind and broken spirit, where do they go? What conference is there for Christians who can’t find any peace? What conference is there for those who have all the right doctrine and beliefs, but find no healing from them? What conference is there for those whose hope has been asphyxiated?

As I typed “2013 minus 27” in my calculator to figure out when Matthew was born (1986), I realized I was too hurt to think deeply about that right now. How cold. For some reason, coming up with those numbers put me too close, so a distant calculator was better. But what good would these words be, if I selfishly let Matthew turn into just a set of numbers?  1986-2013. Let those numbers sink in.

I did not know Matthew Warren. I don’t know his father, Rick Warren (at least not personally).  I am very familiar with his ministry. Unfortunately, most of the time I hear about Rick Warren is when someone tries to throw his life and ministry under the bus just to drum up some controversy. I have never joined this crowd in the slightest. Rick Warren’s focus and heart are amazing. What he has done for so many to increase the glory of Christ is beyond measure. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is a wonderful book that lit a fire in the hearts of many stagnant Christians.

Yesterday, as I continued to drive after hearing the news, here is where my thoughts went.  Pastor Warren led millions to find their purpose in life.  Yet the one closest to him, the one for whom he undoubtedly felt the most responsible, the one whom he loved the most, could not find that same purpose to drive his life. I also bowed my head as I thought of critics, whose minds might be so poisoned as to make them want to turn the blame back on Rick Warren. I have not read or heard of any who have, but God help those who do. Continue Reading →

The Reason Darwin Left the Faith


A few years ago I was diagnosed with “severe degenerative disc disease.” This is a lower back issue. For the last six years, the pain has often been tremendous, keeping me from doing many things. Last year, I thought God had healed it, but if he did, he did not do so for long. Last week the pain was so bad I could not walk for days. I am back on my feet today, but residual pain has kept me from doing some things I really need to get done. I take care of my mother full-time, lifting her, changing her, and moving her from place to place. We have had to make some adjustments with her care for now. When the pain comes on, there is a constant pain that goes down into my left hip from a nerve that is being affected. “Severe degenerative disc disease” sounds much worse than it actually is, but it feels as bad as it sounds. The outlook is good. Essentially, it will end up taking care of itself as my spine fuses on its own in my fifties (just a little over ten years to go!).

I was thinking about the pain and its severity the other day. You see, I have been prevented from exercise to some degree, and I love to work out. I love the way it makes me feel. I can always assess how good my workout was by taking account of my pain level the next day. When I can hardly move my arms, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction that my workout was not in vain. We call this being “sore.” If you are not sore the next day (at least to some degree), the workout was a failure, as the lack of soreness is a sign that you did not challenge your muscles enough to tear them down. In this sense, working out intentionally injures our muscles. Sometimes, the soreness is so severe that I cannot straighten my arms. Other times, I walk funny because my legs hurt so badly from the “hip sled.”

But here is the issue: I can deal with the soreness from a good workout all day long. The more pain, the better. Often, when I think about it, the pain from a good workout can just as severe as that from my “degenerative disc decease.” But from one of them, I get a sense of victorious satisfaction. From the other, I feel debilitating defeat.

Why? Why does the same severity of pain bring about such contrasting attitudes?

Charles Darwin began his journey, according to his testimony, as a Christian. In fact, there was the possibility of him going into ministry before his ride on the Beagle. However, there were some things that changed his mind. No, it was not his “discovery” of evolution that changed him. In fact, it was something else that pushed him into this evolutionary paradigm: meaninglessness. More precisely, meaningless suffering. In his book Saving Darwin, Karl Giberson gives three primary observations in nature that contributed to Darwin’s eventual rejection of God. The first was a species of rhea. They were flightless birds. “Why would God create a bird with so much unused aerodynamic paraphernalia?” A bird with wings that could not fly, according to Darwin, made the wings meaningless and sad (p. 33). The second was a goose that, though it had webbed feet, never went into the water. “If this was the handiwork of God, it was a cruel joke” to make him try to walk on meaninglessly webbed feet (ibid). Finally, there was the Ichneumonidae wasp. The mother wasp introduces a paralyzing chemical into a caterpillar and then lays its eggs inside. The hatched wasps have instincts that cause them to eat the host caterpillar in such a way that keeps the caterpillar alive as long as possible. From Darwin’s perspective, God could not be responsible for such a horrific and painful process. Continue Reading →