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.
“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.