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A Cruel Sort of Christianity

A Cruel Sort of Christianity
By Jeremy Linneman • Issue #8 • View online
Nutrients for your spiritual life. An essay newsletter on spiritual formation, community, and culture.

In a recent issue of GOOD SOIL, I described what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the “wish-dream.” 
The wish-dream is the ideal of life as we think it should be, a life of happiness and meaning and satisfaction. It’s a life without pain, without setbacks, without conflict, without suffering. 
In this week’s shovel-full of spiritual nutrients, I want to think about Bonhoeffer’s wish-dream in terms of how we face trials, hardship, and suffering
We can go through life with this wish-dream, demanding that God and others play along and help us bring its idealistic vision to fruition. We might lay this wish-dream of the Christian life on others, unable to understand why they are struggling in their spiritual lives. And thus, when we do face hardship, we will be shocked—we’ll seek to blame others, make demands of God, or “spin” why it’s not so bad. 
Thankfully, God continually shatters our wish-dream, in order that he might rebuild us around reality. In his grace (and it is sheer grace), God enables us to embrace the way of Jesus in a broken world. 
These Inward Trials
When I was going through a particularly hard season several years ago, my friend Kevin pointed me to J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. I had read it before, but Kevin encouraged me to re-read a chapter late in the book called “These Inward Trials.” That evening, I opened Packer’s classic book, found this chapter, and began to read. That very night, my whole mindset toward pain and suffering began to change. 
Packer opens his chapter with this statement:
“A certain type of ministry of the gospel is cruel. It doesn’t mean to be, but it is.”
What is this cruel sort of ministry Packer had in mind?
The cruel teaching is that becoming a Christian makes your life easier, decreases your sinning, and means less overall suffering.
The lopsided impression that the Christian life becomes generally free from suffering, and “which pictures the normal Christian life as trouble-free,” Packer writes, “is bound to lead sooner or later to bitter disillusionment.” 
If there’s a phrase that encapsulates the spiritual condition of twenty and thirty-somethings that I’ve ministered among for the past decade-and-a-half, it’s bitter disillusionment
We’ve been lied to our entire lives. I’m thinking mostly of us millennials and Gen Z’ers, raised in middle-class America: We were raised on a steady diet of self-esteem; we’ve been graded on a generous curve; we’ve been told that if we pursue our dreams, anything is possible. “You are going to change the world.” 
And then we become adults and discover that life is pretty hard, we are not all that special, and this world is a darned vicious place. Indeed, it is cruel ministry to call believers back to their wish-dream and suggest that Jesus and the Church will make it all possible after all. Christ does change everything, but it’s certainly not that simple. 
Packer continues: 
“God doesn’t make our circumstances notably easier [when we become Christians]; rather the reverse. Dissatisfaction recurs over wife, or husband, or parents, or in-laws, or children, or colleagues or neighbors. Temptations and bad habits which their conversion experience seemed to have banished for good reappear.” 
We are living in a broken world. It’s important to know what God has promised and what he hasn’t. And God hasn’t promised freedom from suffering in this life.
So what, then, is the purpose of these inward trials?
Good News for Broken Souls
In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller uses illustration of fire—it’s all-consuming, it can burn down a building or it could kill a person within moments. But when used in a controlled and wise way, fire shapes, refines, prepares, purifies, and beautifies. Fire matures things. 
Suffering, in the same way, feels like death; yet if faced with faith and endured in the presence of God:
Suffering shapes us, refines us, prepares us, purifies us, and beautifies us. Suffering matures people. 
This is God’s grace to us: Through suffering in a broken world (broken by us, not by God), he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to serve and help others. His strength is revealed in our weakness. Packer writes: 
“How does God in grace accomplish this purpose [of maturing us]? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances… but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, he drives us to cling to him more closely. The Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak to home to us that we are weak, [and must learn] to wait on the Lord.” 
As CS Lewis famously wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain.” 
This has been my experience. Other than perhaps daily time with the Lord in reading and prayer, nothing has changed me more than suffering. Nothing has brought me to the end of myself, and rooted out self-confidence, like suffering. It’s by suffering that we learn patience, endurance, trust, and hope. These are virtues that are impossible to discover apart from pain and suffering. 
As I wrote earlier, we need to know what God has promised and what he hasn’t. What’s not promised is this: A life free from pain and suffering. But what is promised? 
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them… He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”(Rev. 21:1-5)
As it’s written in Ecclesiastes, we have eternity set on our hearts, yet we we don’t understand what God is doing from beginning to end (3:11). In other words, we were made for an eternal life without pain and suffering; that’s why it’s so foreign to us here.
We were made for a world without pain and suffering, and one day it will be ours—and these inward trials, so critical to our formation now, will be no more.
Pastoral Reflections on Place
There is space and then there is Place. Space is all around us, but Place is space infused with meaning; it’s sacred space, holy ground.
I have been thinking about Place for the past ten years: Why do some places matter more than others? Why do we feel a draw back toward home? Could it be that “upward mobility” is one of the most damaging things we could pursue?
This week, The Gospel Coalition published an essay of mine originally written five years ago—on a theology of Place, why it matters, and how I think about it pastorally. TGC only published a portion of the new essay, and you can find that here.
And then I posted the full-length essay (still only 2500 words, so I’d call it short) on my own website here.
*Emergency* Fidelity Sports: Saint Patrick's Kneecap
I had planned to write about something else here; I wasn’t going to write about my beloved Chiefs until the midway point in the season, but then all hell broke loose over two weeks, and so over the last few days, I wrote a section called “Chiefs Panic Meter,” wherein I placed our offense at a panic meter of 4 out of 10, and our defense at an eleven.
But then tonight (Thursday) happened.
Patrick Mahomes the Second was injured, and folks, it’s bad. His kneecap was dislocated, and a cart was pulled onto the field. The medical staff put his kneecap back where it was before (!), and then was able to hobble off the field with some help.
As of right now—and you may know more by the time you read this—we don’t know the condition of St. Patrick’s right knee. Perhaps it’s a bad sprain, and he’ll be out for two weeks. Or, more likely, there’s significant ligament tearage, and his season is done, and so are the Chiefs hopes, and so are my dreams.
As we discovered with his recent ankle injury, our entire offense relies on Mahomes, and on Mahomes’ scrambling.
Our run game is below-average: Damien Williams is averaging less than two yards per carry, and to put that into perspective, if you fall down, you’ve just gained two yards.
Our defense is currently sacking Joe Flacco every time he doesn’t hand off, and it looks like we’ll finish with more sacks (9) than points allowed (6). But I’m not sure it means all that much, because, well, it’s the Broncos, and they haven’t beaten the Chiefs since (checks fake notes, ruffles some legal paper) 1948.
It’s bad, people.
If Mahomes is out for anything less than the whole season, we should be able to fight our way into the playoffs (especially with a 5-2 start in the AFC West), wherethen Master P can get us right there with the Pats and whoever decides to be good in the NFC. But if PM is out for the season, what difference does it make whether we lose in the playoffs or tank like the Dolphins, finish 5-11, and use the top-10 draft pick on a decent offensive lineman?
This is sports, but it’s so much more. It’s not just a game. It’s human drama; it’s a place to belong; this is our team; this is our quarterback’s kneecap we’re talking about!
Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise, and like a soon-to-be dad waiting on the great moment of childbirth (yes, that’s the analogy I’m choosing here), we’ll nervously await images of our QB’s knee.
This is life in a broken world: These Inward Trials, am I right?
Benediction: A Blessing for the Road
Based on Psalm 37: 
Trust in the Lord and do good.
Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
For this is true: The meek will inherit the land, and the Lord will make firm their steps—though they stumble, they will not fall
Thanks for reading GOOD SOIL. See you again in two weeks.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Jeremy Linneman

Nutrients for your spiritual life. An essay newsletter on spiritual formation, community, and culture.

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