Tim Keller calls Paul one of the Bible’s most prominent sufferers. Paul catalogues his sufferings in Romans 8:35; 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Corinthians 4:8,9; 6:4,5; 11:23-39; and12:10. How did he cope with it all?
THE PEACE THAT PASSES UNDERSTANDING
We learned how Paul coped by reading how he comforted others. First, Philippians 4:4-12 . . .
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me– put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Keller defines peace as “an inner calm and equilibrium” which Paul says he learned (p. 296). Second, this peace isn’t the absence of turmoil but the presence of God–“a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face ” affliction. God’s presence is “a sense that no matter what happens, everything will ultimately be all right” (p. 297).
How does one learn this?
THE DISCIPLINE OF THINKING
“Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is pure . . . think about such things” (Philippians 4:8,9). Keller explains that Paul is not urging us “to general loftiness of mind . . . [but to] think hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible . . . about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature, and God’s plan for the world” (p. 298).
How different is that from self-help books that typically offer techniques for relaxing. That, Keller argues, is because our society “operates without any answers to the big questions” (p. 299). But Paul calls us to think about that very thing.
In Romans 8:18 he writes, “I reckon that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us.” So, Keller counsels, “Think about the glory coming until the joy begins to break in on you . . . Think big and high. Realize who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ, where history is (p. 299,300).
THE DISCIPLINE OF THANKING
In Philippians 4:6, Paul puts thanking over against worrying–“Don’t be anxious; but make requests to God with thanksgiving.” Thank him before you know his response! “Paul is essentially calling on us to trust God’s sovereign rule of history and of our lives. He is telling us that we will never be content unless, as we make our heartfelt request, we also acknowledge we are in his hands, and he is wiser than we are” (Keller, p. 301).
In Romans 8:28 Paul tells us that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” Keller insists this doesn’t mean every bad thing has a “silver lining.” Rather “all things–even bad things–will ultimately together be overruled in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs–a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass” (p. 301). This, of course provides dynamic ground for giving thanks.
THE DISCIPLINE OF REORDERING OUR LIVES
In Philippians 4:8 (“whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things”) Keller argues Paul is calling us not only to think about right things, but to love them. And, to aid in suffering, what we love must be immutable. That brings us to God and his love. The only way to find contentment and peace is to love God supremely.
RELOCATING YOUR GLORY
In Psalm 3 David’s situation is so hopeless that his own people are whispering that God has deserted him. David writes . . .
“But you, Lord are a shield around me, my glory and the One who lifts my head high” (3:3). To walk with “head high” is to walk with confidence. The Lord as “my glory” implies the “comparative unimportance of earthly esteem” (Keller quoting commentator Derek Kidner, p. 306).
Often in suffering something we consider too important is taken from us. David “recommitted himself to finding God as his only glory–something that can be done only in prayer, through repentance and adoration” (Keller, p. 306).
Jesus is the fulfillment of the Lord as a “shield”. A shield protects us by taking the blows that would have battered us. That’s what Jesus did on the cross.
Therefore, suffering can’t touch what Keller calls “our Main Thing–God, his love and his salvation” (p. 307).
THE HORRIBLE, BEAUTIFUL PROCESS
Suffering often identifies and calls us to cast away those things on which we have placed too much importance. Suffering, then, functions like a furnace, burning those things from us. John Newton’s hymn, “These Inward Trials” captures that process. Here’s just one verse . . .
These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou mayest seek thine all in me.
THE SECRET OF PEACE
Keller asks, “How can we bring ourselves to love God more?” (p. 310). His answer: God can’t be an abstraction; we have to look at Jesus.
Horatio Spafford lost all he had in the Chicago fire of 1871. Two years later, he sent his wife and four daughters on a ship from America to England. Their ship collided with another and sank. Their four daughters were lost. Spafford penned the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” Here’s one verse . . .
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
What’s the point? Keller says that when things go wrong, we might think we’re being punished. But look at the cross! And hear God say “I have lost a child too, but not involuntarily–voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family” (Keller, p. 312).
What hit me–hard–is the realization that I’ve loved my health–especially the ordinary ability to walk–more than God. Hence my discontent, frustration, and even anger at times with God. He sent or allowed the “furnace” that took away walking on the beach with Lois, walking to our back pasture to feed Stormy (horse), even walking to take the garbage out!
I’ve got to repent of loving walking more than God. But that, by itself, isn’t enough. God must change my heart . . .
“Father, my disappointment and anger with You shows that I love my health–my ability to walk and live without physical limitations–more than I love You. I repent. But naming my sin and determining to turn from it won’t produce a heart-change. Only You can do that. I pray You will, so I will love You more than being able to walk. Doesn’t that sound lame on my part! I love walking more than You, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, such are the idols of my heart. Change my heart, O God!”