Gospel-Driven Suffering: Lessons From The Cross at Ground Zero, Part 1

The Cross at Ground Zero

From the very beginning of this weblog, I have wanted to write a series on suffering. The reason why is because suffering explains the major reason for the establishment of this weblog. The Lord graciously brought me to a greater understanding of the gospel through suffering. Everything that I have written thus far on this site is the result of 6 1/2 years of hardship. So, on the anniversary of 9/11, I thought it would be fitting to begin writing on the subject of gospel-driven suffering.

Six years ago, I was asked by Salem Communications Corporation to write a response to 9/11 to help aid their talk show hosts in responding to their callers. Obviously, such a task is daunting to say the least. But, there was another reason why this task was particularly difficult for me.

Eleven months prior to 9/11, I had experienced my own personal 9/11, which left me confused, broken and grasping for answers to seemingly unanswerable questions. Having begun a career in broadcasting as a daily radio talk show host and Bible teacher, I thought my future ministry and life’s work were set.

I will never forget the first week of October 2000. Prior to leaving to preach in the first nationwide pastors conference in Cambodia, I began having vocal difficulties. I thought that a few days rest would cure the problem. So, all the way to Phnom Penh, I tried to limit the use of my voice. However, after returning from Cambodia, I could no longer speak. Far from being an acute case of laryngitis (as I hoped), three otolaryngologists at the Wake Forest Medical Center informed me that I had an incurable, irreparable, neurological vocal disorder called spasmodic dysphonia.

Needless to say, those were dark and difficult days. I went from sitting behind a radio microphone to sitting in very small cubicle in a far back corner of a radio station learning how to become a bookkeeper. In a very short period of time I went from living passionately and purposefully to feeling like I had lost my way in life.

I was haunted by the prospect that I would never again be able to read a Bible story to my children or after tucking them in their beds at night pray even a simple prayer (up until this past December, none of my children had ever heard me speak to them in a normal voice). I had to whistle and clap in order to let my wife and children know that I needed something (guys I don’t recommend that you get into a habit of doing that with your wife!). I remember the first Christmas service at my church without a voice. I remember the sorrow of sitting in the service having a desire to sing the Christmas carols with my family and friends, yet I was unable to vocalize even a single syllable. Joy to the World just didn’t seem to fit at the time.

I could no longer go out to eat because I couldn’t order in a restaurant (a drive thru was the worst, “My I take your order?” Nothing. Silence!). I couldn’t visit around the table with family or friends. I quit taking phone calls. I didn’t use a cell phone for almost 6 1/2 years. I did just about everything I could to avoid people, especially those who had not seen me for a while, because of embarrasment.

Church and social settings were drudgery. I could no longer teach and preach. Getting out of bed became a major chore. I hated my job. I was bored, unfulfilled, angry and confused. Seemingly sentenced to a life of quiet despair, I soon felt like a ship without a rudder lost at sea. I entered into the boxing ring of life and “Life” pounded me and left me senseless and directionless. The clear purpose for my life (at least I thought at the time) was gone and my passion for life dissipated. I felt like the character, Fantine, in Les Miserables, who, while dying, reflects on her life and utters the words, “Life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

To some degree, all of us can relate to her story as we recall those aching moments in life that have left us stunned, confused and desperate, grasping for something that will seem to bring some measure of sense to it all.

It was in this context, that I first wrote a response to 9/11 for Salem Communications, which I entitled, Lessons from the Cross at Ground Zero. Lessons from the Cross at Ground Zero was nothing more than a reflection of my own desperate search for answers to my personal 9/11.

Some of you may recall that after the collapse of the World Trade Center, two steel beams perfectly formed into a cross remained standing in the center of the massive pile of rubble. I put this picture on the front cover of my response (the picture posted above). It was a fitting and powerful reminder to all, that in the midst of unspeakable destruction and grief, there is hope. God in His sovereignty erected a Cross as a gracious reminder to the world that even in the midst of great suffering there is an answer to man’s suffering.

When I lost the ability to speak 6 1/2 years ago, I desperately began searching for a framework from which to view this unexpected event in my life.

Practical, relevant sermons, moral exhortations and platitudes soon became very impractical, irrelevant, insufficient and trite.

If I was to have any hope in the midst of this trial, learn from it and grow in my faith and not be defeated, embittered or overcome by despair, it was essential for me to possess a proper perspective on suffering.

What was this perspective? Listen to John Stott,

“We have to learn to climb the hill called Calvary, and from that vantage-ground survey all life’s tragedies. The cross does not solve the problem of suffering, but it supplies the essential perspective from which to look at it,” (The Cross of Christ, p. 329).

The day I first read these words nearly seven years ago was the day the Lord began to graciously and patiently open my eyes and teach me His gospel and His perspective that I so desperately needed.

It was essential for me (and it is essential for every believer) to begin to understand the relationship between the Cross and suffering.

It was essential for me to begin taking my eyes off of myself and to start seeing Christ alone as given to me in the gospel!

Martin Luther described Christian theology as a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory. He stressed that God reveals His wisdom through the foolishness of preaching, His power through suffering, and the secret of meaningful life through Christ’s death on the cross. The inevitability of suffering is a constant theme in Scripture. Weakness is the normal, not substandard, condition of every believer in this life (cf., Rom. 8:26; 1 Cor. 1; 15:43; 2 Cor. 12:9).

Indeed, the reality of pain and suffering raises many troubling questions, which seem to defy any real answers. Erwin Lutzer, in his book, Ten Lies About God, writes,

    “Jews want to know where God was during the Holocaust; Christians want to know where He was in the massacre of the Armenians; the Kosovars want to know where He was during their bloody civil war. In fact, there is not a person reading this who has not asked that question in the face of tragedy…”

In the midst of hardships, our first question is to think or ask:

    Why? How could God allow this to happen to me?

This was David’s question during a time of great affliction in his life. In Psalm 22:1, David cries out,

    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”

This Psalm finds its fulfillment in the words of Christ as He hung dying on the Cross. Here, we see Christ in His humanity, fully demonstrating that He was not exempt from suffering.

Others question the love, goodness and power of God. We have all heard the critics:

    If God is all-loving, good and all-powerful, how can He allow such untold and unexplained suffering to exist?

    Is God incapable of doing anything about the problems humans face and thus not all-powerful?

    Is God really not loving and thus indifferent to human suffering?

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain, says, “this apparent dilemma is the problem of pain in its simplest form.”

We must not search for answers to our suffering in God’s hidden providence.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. We must not search for answers to our suffering in God’s hidden providence because if we do we will drive ourselves mad. We will become embittered like Job’s wife who said, “Curse God and die!”

Thus, it is critical to understand how the Bible presents the relationship between the Cross (gospel) and human suffering. The gospel alone provides a proper framework (i.e., Christian worldview) for one to begin thinking correctly about the problem of pain and suffering.

This past December, God in His mercy and sovereign grace, began restoring my voice. For this, words cannot express my thanks. Having had my voice restored, I have often thought about Nebuchadnezzar, who after his humiliation when the Lord restored His reason to him, proclaimed,

    34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever,

    for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
 and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, 
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven 
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
 and none can stay his hand
 or say to him, “What have you done?”

    …37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

I am always hesitant to share this other half of the story because I do not want to give people who are suffering false hope. I do not want people to think that if they begin focusing on the gospel, everything will be ok. I do not want to turn the gospel into a law like so many misguided pastors and Bible teachers do today.

We have all heard the prognosticators (they all came out of the wood work in my case!), “By His stripes you are healed, you just need to walk in it. Claim it by faith and receive your healing!” This is cruel beyond words for those who are suffering and for their family members and friends who are watching their loved ones suffer. Such a view of the Cross and Gospel turns the Good News into really bad news!

When the Lord began restoring my voice, I can assure you, it was not because I had great faith, claimed a promise, confessed and repented of all my sins, fasted and prayed for 40 days and nights, came against the enemy who stole my voice in order to reclaim stolen territory, renounced spells and curses that had been in my family for generations, called on the elders to be anointed with holy oil, prayed to receive the Spirit and tongues, or any such thing (Note: all of these things were presented to me as the solution for my healing during the past 6 ½ years).

I didn’t merit the healing of my voice any more than I chose to be born!

My voice was restored solely because of God’s sovereign, gracious, unexpected, undeserved act, period. To God alone be the glory!

Gospel-driven suffering not legal-driven suffering is the answer!

To be sure, you may never know the answer to the question why. But, the gospel will give you hope to persevere in your trials rather than be overcome by them. You will struggle but the Good News is that you will as Calvin says, “emerge!” How do you know you will emerge when at the moment you seem to have been submerged forever? The answer is the gospel. Regardless of how weak and failing you may be right now in your pain, confusion and misery, you will not be defeated. You will not be defeated!

In Romans 8:32, Paul writes,

    “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Yes, you will struggle. But, you will emerge! Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39)!

The gospel will also enable you to offer hope to a desperate and hurting world. In a therapeutic church culture, countless believers have been given false hope. They have been deceived into thinking the gospel gives them health, wealth and prosperity. But, when the health, wealth and prosperity do not come and heartache, pain and suffering does, many become disillusioned, angry and defeated because they built their faith on a foundation of sinking sand. Their false expectations of God were not met because their perspective was skewed.

Massaged Christians in a therapeutic church culture desperately need the perspective of the Cross in relation to suffering.

We all need to be reminded again and again how the gospel alone provides a proper framework (i.e., Christian worldview) for thinking correctly about the problem of pain and suffering.

How then does the Cross speak to us in times of pain and suffering?

To be continued…

11 Responses to Gospel-Driven Suffering: Lessons From The Cross at Ground Zero, Part 1

  1. Gus says:

    John,

    Thanks so much for the post. I remember reading your paper 6 years ago and thinking it was great. Having gone through some important trials in the last 1 1/2, Luther’s idea of a Theology of the Cross have made much sense to me.

    I miss you brother,

  2. Richard says:

    Another great post, John, thank you. Luther’s theology of the Cross vs. what we see from TV preachers–a theology of glory–has been of benefit to me also. An excellent work on this is Gerhard Forde’s “On Being a Theologian of the Cross.” What has spoken to my wife and me as the Lord walks us through cancer has been Mike Horton’s book, “Too Good to be True.” I can also recommend a series of lectures he gave (available on-line) at the Santee, CA, URC he attends.

    The day I brought my wife home from cancer surgery, I turned Joel Osteen on TV (I thought, for laughs). He recounted the story of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer and who “thought away” his cancer through positive thoughts (imagining the cancer cells dying). I so wanted to put my shoe through our TV. This is the poison some are peddling in our churches.

    Can you share your paper with us?

  3. This, John, is great encouragement to continue pondering how it is that the Cross emerges above all the madness (inward and out), and how we are to remain fixed upon His humble humiliation and subsequent triumph.

    Eager to here the rest of the story!

  4. Steve Walker says:

    John,
    Thank you for starting this blog. It brings more encouragement to me than you can imagine.

  5. [...] John Stott: “We have to learn to climb the hill called Calvary, and from that vantage-ground survey all [...]

  6. Josh Parker says:

    Yes. I have a similiar circumstance. I have celiac disease. You should read my article, “It is impossible to cast out one’s flesh” at http://www.mikeratliff.wordpress.com

    True victory comes through suffering. Enduring the unfavorable and the uncomforable is what we are called to do. This is called long-suffering. Long-suffering produces patience, humility, greatfulness, and discipline. Our troubles refine us (our character). They bring us to the point to where we realize how weak we really are and that we depend on God.

    Good to see someone who has endured the sancification part. God often allows circumstances which we wish he wouldn’t. The crown of glory wasn’t free was it?

  7. [...] One of my favorite quotes concerning the cross and suffering comes from John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ. Stott’s words served as a huge source of healing grace for me at a time in my life when all I sensed was heartache and bewilderment. [...]

  8. Gertrude Maduro says:

    Thanks for touch the hearts of your readers. The cross indeed is a symbol of strength in times of trails whether you are a Christian or not. It also symbolizes the price that Jesus paid for us when we didn’t even know ourselves. What an awesome God that show up just in time and always on time.

    Gertrude

  9. [...] video and book are particularly meaningful for me in light of the “Job-like” experience I suffered for nearly seven years of being practically mute. Be sure to check it [...]

  10. [...] suffered for nearly seven years with a debilitating, vocal disorder (for which I was unable to continue pursuing my radio broadcasting career, preaching/teaching [...]

  11. [...] I lost my voice, I was unfit for ministry. Though I thought I was fit for ministry, I wasn’t. Even after nine [...]

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