There are just as many sinners in pristine, gated communities as there are in the slums. In fact, I’ve found the Gospel to be more opposed in the land of manicured lawns and picket fences than in the inner cities.
Do we realize the nice, clean, “safe” suburban neighborhoods need the Gospel as much as any other area in the world? Or do we pay less attention to the souls in subdivisions because we’re so quick to move onto other areas of ministry with “more pressing” needs?
Matthew Spandler-Davison, executive director of 20schemes and pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Ky., has lived and labored in both poor and wealthy societies and has noticed some striking contrasts.
“In poor communities, people know they’re sinners,” he said. “You don’t need to convince people in poor communities that they’re a sinner. That’s not offensive to them. They know that. They make fun of it.”
I mean, everyone is a “Christian” here. People are nice and polite and mostly genuine, but life in more polished societies is just that—polished. But regardless of how much you shine and wax the outside of a grave, the inside is still filled with dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27-28). So while our images might appear squeaky clean on the outside, the core is rotting with the same poisonous sin that taints us all.
Subdivision Pharisees often cling to a sense of pride and dignity, desiring to protect reputation rather than admit brokenness. Matthew continued to say the mindset in wealthy or middle class communities is all about maintaining respectability and reputation.
“My reputation is everything,” he said of the common belief system. “It’s what I do, it’s how I raise my kids, it’s where I live, it’s what car I drive, it’s what job I have. I’m trying to build this sense of reputation amongst my peers and friends.
“That’s a very difficult area to do ministry because people rarely acknowledge their need. They don’t acknowledge their need for a Savior, their need for a God, their need for somebody to come alongside them and help them journey through this life. It’s a very hard place to do ministry. I think it’s harder to do ministry in a more middle class, wealthier context than it is in a poorer part of the world because people are not real with themselves or their own sense of need.”
In light of that, how do we take the Gospel to the dead bones of suburbia?
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” -Mark 10:18
Behind “safe” streets, privacy fences, and security systems, we find broken people in need of rescuing grace. The thing is, brokenness in the suburbs is typically masked with self-appointed goodness and tainted with a touch of Pharisee.
While suburban life might not seem “hard” at first glance, the reality is that sometimes hearts are harder there than in the most unreached places of the world.
In his book Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy, Mez McConnell writes,
When I listen to pastors battling away around Europe and the States in well-off areas, I break out in a cold sweat. How do you evangelize in an area where everybody has a decent paying job, a nice place to live, and possibly a car (or two) in the driveway? How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers? How do you witness in an area where the average house price is more than $400,000? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism? How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law-abiding citizens, who don’t cheat on their wives, beat their kids, and spend their evenings stoned on a sofa watching reality television? Now that’s hard.
Pharisees need the Gospel too. And such was I (1 Corinthians 6:11). A Pharisee of the Pharisees, my heart was stubbornly clinging to my filthy rags of good works when the Lord met me in my deepest need. I needed someone to come to me in my supposed righteousness and confront me about my illusion of self-sufficiency and expose what my flesh never wanted to admit was true: I needed a Savior because I couldn’t be good enough to rescue myself.
No one offers good enough “good” works to convince God to grant us pardon. If you haven’t been transformed by redeeming grace, it doesn’t matter what street you live on, your address is in the kingdom of darkness.
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the hardness of self-inflated hearts, our stubborn dependence on our own intelligence, the compulsion to compare ourselves to anyone other than God’s standard—Jesus. But it doesn’t leave us there. The Gospel gives glorious hope to “good” people as it boldly declares that despite (and in spite of) our shameful best efforts to appear presentable and earn eternal favor, God in flesh has come to us to bear our curse and rob us of our sin and shame. Jesus, the wealthy Son of heaven, became poor to give us true riches. And that’s better than anything a gated community or white-picket-fence society could ever offer.
On that day many will say to Me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.” -Matthew 7:22-23
While subdivisions may boast of full refrigerators, full closets, and full schedules, they sometimes contain empty and fragile hearts. In our excessively fast-paced western world, it’s become easy to hide behind busyness, striving to maintaining a certain persona of having it all together and accomplishing so much when really it’s just a mask that covers exhaustion, feelings of inadequacy, and a deep desire to feel important and needed.
Stop the glorification of busy. –Tim Keller
Even if it’s filled with good things, over-packed schedules can be distractions that keep the voice of the Lord quieted and our need for Him squashed.
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the constantly-on-the-move heart with the life-giving reassurance that we do not have to look a certain way, play a certain part, or live according to a certain culturally-formatted system to fit in, find fulfillment, or have peace. The Gospel tells the most exhausted heart that holiness, satisfaction, and acceptance is not found in the fast-paced life but in the face of Jesus Christ. In Him alone do we find rest for our weary, over-busy souls.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another, for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” -Galatians 5:13-14
Sometimes behind the façade of goodness or busyness resides a deep loneliness that masks itself as confidence, security, or even arrogance.
We are wired for deep relationships but it’s hard to live up to our desired image when confessing hurt, pain, and need. Be a friend. Be willing to go beyond superficial platitudes to share your story and sit with people in theirs. And remember what is true about the “good” person beside you (as well as the one you find in the mirror): they are in desperate need of redemption.
Residents of the suburbs need to see God and, if you are a believer, He is living in and through you. We are, as Matthew Spandler-Davison said, to put Jesus on display wherever He sends.
Our presence, our attention, our care, our making space, all point to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He drew near. He understands our hearts and hurts. He speaks to our deep needs. Listening demonstrates the Gospel implications. And, if we really listen, we will discern the deep longings of the heart that the Gospel truly speaks to. I have found that if I truly listen, it is not difficult to speak the Gospel to someone in a way that really does sound like good news to them. –Jeff Vanderstelt
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the need for community and belonging in every person by exposing their need then providing them with the answer to it. The Gospel gives its recipients a family, a community, and an eternal home all because Jesus left His throne to ransom rebels and change their address to the kingdom of light.
Regardless of your location, the mission is the same: make disciples of all nations (which includes the suburbs, the slums, the cities, the villages, and the uttermost parts of the world).
We have the Gospel. We have our mission. What’s stopping us?
A product of a Christian upbringing, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, was the first in his family to attend college.
And the culture shock was real.
“It was a Christian college and the professors, for the most part, believed the Bible, but they didn’t believe the Bible quite the same way I had been taught to believe the Bible,” Timothy said with a smile. “For us it was King James Version only and all these extraneous things, but in college I started learning about the New Testament text and all these things I never knew about and I found myself questioning my faith.”
Enter the library job.
One night, as he shelved books returned that day, he looked down to find Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay Why I Am Not A Christian.
“I was questioning my faith in a lot of ways, I was struggling with certain things, and so I just thought, ‘Huh, this is interesting. Why I Am Not A Christian.’”
After reading Russell’s essay, Timothy continued to run into conspiracy theories about Jesus and, as a result, the next several months were spent poring over every skeptical and atheistic work he could get his hands on.
“My faith just began to fracture and crack beneath the weight of all I was reading,” he said. “I was simply not prepared to answer any of the questions that I was being faced with.
“I had never heard about apologetics, I didn’t know what apologetics was. It wasn’t anything I was familiar with at all; I was just reading all this stuff that was attacking the faith in so many different ways.”
Due to Lewis’s books being banned at his Christian grade school, Timothy’s interest was piqued.
“I began to read and see there is a reasonable case to be made for trusting in Christ,” he said. “But more than that, what really got me was [Lewis’s] sensibility. He wasn’t panicking as if the faith was under attack and he had to angrily respond in attack or anything like that. It was simply, calmly, saying and showing there is a reason to believe in Jesus Christ.”
Maybe it was that calm, winsome way of communicating that did it, or maybe it was Lewis’s prudent way of making sense of the world in a way that told a bigger and better story than he had heard before, but Timothy was hooked.
Over a brief course of time, he was introduced to other writings from F. F. Bruce, R. C. Sproul, and others that took his curiosity from questions to conviction. Conviction about Scripture, reasons for the Christian faith, and, most importantly, the bigness of God.
Timothy, who has authored or contributed to more than a dozen books, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biblical literature before getting his master of divinity in church history and New Testament studies and a doctorate of philosophy with an emphasis on the psychology of faith.
He also teaches courses in applied apologetics and serves as a pastor at the Midtown congregation of Sojourn Community Church.
Fueled by his own internal struggle to find good reasons for what he thought true about the Bible, Timothy landed in teaching and writing on apologetics in effort to prevent others from struggling the same way he did.
Family ministry, though not his primary focus in research and writing, was his focus as a pastor, minister, husband, and father.
So how do those two fields connect?
“When I teach my class here, for example, on apologetics and the local church, a lot of what I’m doing is talking about what are the factors that contribute to college students losing their faith?” he said. “What are children’s natural inclinations about God and how do we correct false views of God in a way that makes a faith that is more resilient for the future? That’s a lot of what we do, which is the nexus, it’s that point where family ministry and apologetics do interconnect with one another because both are about developing resilient faith that will last into the upcoming and forthcoming generations.”
“Some of the most important apologists in the world are going to be mothers because they are going to hear the questions a long time before the rest of us,” he said. “We need to train our young women to be apologists. We need to train our young single women to be able to mentor young girls and try to help them unpack the issues they are facing in the challenges to their faith. That’s part of what we ought to be doing because 1 Peter 3 is not given to one particular class within the church, this is given to the whole church.”
Timothy and his wife Rayann have been married for 23 years and have four daughters, Hannah, Skylar, Kylinn, and Katrisha. They reside in Louisville.
Burdened for the people of Scotland to know and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Matthew Spandler-Davison left his job in Scottish Parliament in 2002 to participate in a ministry internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
The next year, Matthew moved to Louisville, Ky., to pursue a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with every intention of returning home to Scotland and planting a church.
“When I came to seminary here, I came with a strong conviction that I was not going to be that guy that doesn’t go back to Scotland,” he said. “The struggle we have is that in places like the UK, we lose our best because they get trained up and they don’t go back. I didn’t want to be that guy.”
But God had other plans.
“Most of them have considerably less than 100 people in those churches,” he said. “For me to come [to the States] and see so many churches and so many good churches and faithful churches, and to be in a seminary that is literally pumping out thousands of ministers every year, was such a culture shock for me and it just increased my burden for Scotland.”
Matthew’s home church in Scotland, where he was converted as a teenager, does not have a pastor nor can they afford one. Even if they could, Matthew said there are no men to hire.
“I know churches in Scotland that have been sitting without a minister for years and have been desperate for a minister to come but there’s no one applying,” he said. “There are churches around here where, if a job opens up, you get hundreds of resumes. A job opens up in a church in the UK and you may spend three, four, or five years before you get your first resume from somebody interested in that position.”
With that kind of weighty information, Matthew was plagued with the question: How can I be here and yet see such a need there?
Yet, in 2004, God called Matthew and his wife Tracy to plant a church in Bardstown, Ky.
“There were many churches but not healthy Gospel-preaching churches in the area so we were convicted to plant a church and start a small group Bible study in our house,” he said. “It was a Tuesday night meeting that became over time a church, not necessarily by design, but it developed into a church. But from the very beginning, the first year of our church, we had a mission trip to Scotland. From the very beginning we were thinking through, ‘How can this church really be used by God to see a church established and planted in Scotland?’”
Mez, the pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, grew up in a scheme, served time in prison, and was himself caught up in addiction.
When released from prison, Mez was converted. He moved to Brazil and started a church among street kids before experiencing the same convicted as Matthew.
“He was surrounded by all these missionaries and he thought, ‘Who is sharing the Gospel back home? Who is starting churches back home?’” Matthew said. “So he felt led to go back to the United Kingdom and went to this little community on the edge of Edinburgh called Niddrie.”
A community known for poverty and violence, Niddrie was a place people typically avoided. And it was just the place Mez planted a church in 2007.
“I was fascinated by a number of things,” Matthew said of meeting Mez in 2011. “One, his own story. Second, the fact that he is seeing a church growing in Scotland. That is unusual to see a church grow in Scotland. I’m used to seeing struggling churches but he’s seeing a church thrive. He’s seeing people come to faith. He’s seeing a church grow through conversions.
“And the fact that it’s in a scheme, that we’re seeing someone come from heroin addiction be converted and now being trained for ministry in this little church right there in Niddrie, Edinburgh, a church of 60 or 70 people, I was just so excited.”
“I want to see churches like this established right across the schemes of Scotland,” Mez told him. And right then and there in the backyard of Mez’s house, the pair started mapping out what would become 20schemes.
“Let’s do it,” Matthew told Mez. “Let’s come together as two churches where we can watch this ministry and let’s recruit workers. Let’s get other churches to partner with us. Let’s raise some money and plant some churches right across Scotland.”
Matthew smiled. “That’s how the Lord in His providence and wisdom uses a little church in central Kentucky to do the very thing I felt like I was called to do: plant churches right across Scotland.”
“It is incredibly exciting to see what the Lord is doing, to see His church built right across the most unlikely parts of Scotland in the schemes,” Matthew said. “As you reach the poor then other churches across the city will take note. You cannot deny Gospel transformation in the poorest parts of your city. When you see a community that has been transformed by a Gospel-preaching church, when you see someone converted from heroin addiction to life in Christ Jesus, when the government has been pumping money into these communities to try to deal with the drug culture and the decay and the urban blight, and yet you see a church started and all of the sudden families are transformed because of the Gospel—people will take note of that. I don’t think that will just affect the schemes but the whole of Scotland for the sake of the Gospel.”
“That’s what Jesus does, right? That’s where He went first. He went first to what seems foolish to the world. He went first to the most unlikely of places and yet the leaders took note. The Pharisees took note, the governor took note, the tax collectors took note, because they saw a transformation happening in the most unlikely of places, and I think that’s what’s going to take place in the schemes of Scotland.”
The country, which is home to almost 5.5 million, is not the poorest nor the least reached nation in the world, but there is a great need for the Gospel and a great opportunity to meet it.
“There’s a wide open door right now, there’s a great opportunity to come and be a part of this ministry,” Matthew said. “Ministry is actually pretty easy there. You’re not trying to create ministry opportunities, it’s everywhere. In fact, people are very open to having spiritual conversations.
“Jesus is worthy to be worshipped in the schemes of Scotland. We’re convinced of that. There are parts of Scotland where He is not being worshipped today and so our motivation is that Jesus be worshipped amid the poor of Scotland where He deserves to be worshipped and across the poorest of Scotland. Who will go? Who will join us?”
It has forever lived in a hostile environment. It was born in the dragon’s lair where the hot breath of the beast is always felt. Its infancy was bloody; antagonists surrounded it and adversaries attacked it, and nothing has changed in two millennia. The world hates the church because it hates its Founder, Jesus Christ. The world and the church are on opposite courses. They represent two different kingdoms, two diverse realms. So, the church has always existed in a hard place.
But hardness is not necessarily bad for the people of God. By the amount of adversity God allows His church to endure, it must have some positive effect. The church’s finest hours seem to be when she stands bravely in stark contrast to the wicked world while feeling the fury of the beast against her. It is then the people of God, though tried by fire, have sung their best song. They have shown a watching world the beauty of their King, who also suffered the Serpent’s bruise.
The western church’s difficulty is not the heavy hand of persecution but the easy hand of prosperity. It is when we court the politician’s favor, the academia’s admiration, and the media’s approval that we suffer both morally and spiritually. We are like Samson in Delilah’s tent; we are flirting with captivity and begging to have our eyes put out. This is the hardest place for any church. When it wants success and stature in a world that is destined for destruction, it can’t end well for either church or world.
How many are comfortable with the world? Ease in Zion is not a good sign. Comfort always precedes collapse. But it’s when the church is in the hard place that it advances and the gates of hell cannot prevail.
It has always been that way. God’s people are not strangers to pressure or peril. When the children of Israel stood before the Red Sea, they experienced a hard place. With a vengeful Pharaoh and his well-equipped army in battle formation behind the former slaves, it looked hopeless. But the man of God lifted his rod and the Lord performed a miracle of deliverance by creating a highway through the sea.
Gideon suffered a 450-to-1 deficit. The enemies of Israel were the undefeatable Midianites. They had a 135,000-manned military, while Gideon didn’t have an army. It was more like a small battalion of 300 men. And their weapons were unconventional. Each man had a lit torch, a pitcher, and a trumpet. That was their entire weaponry. But as it played out, they needed no swords because God brought confusion upon the Midianites who turned on themselves and slaughtered each other until hardly a man was left standing.
King Jehoshaphat experienced something similar, only his army sang their way to victory, and God turned an ambush into a bonanza of loot. When the dust settled, the enemy army lay dead before Jehoshaphat and his praise team; all they had to do was pick up the treasure trove. The plunder was so much; it took them three days to collect it all.
A brother sold by his jealous brothers to foreigners and winded up ruling over the foreigners. A shepherd boy against a warrior giant, three young men who wouldn’t bend or bow, but also wouldn’t burn when thrown into the fiery furnace. A praying old man thrown into a lions’ den slept comfortably among the ferocious felines, while the king who threw him into that hard place tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep in his palatial bed. Yes, all of these and more were in hard places, places no one, including the men and women who were there, would have chosen to visit or occupy. But in the hard place, God wrought deliverance and made them all unlikely heroes of the faith.
But not all the stories end up with a “slam-bang finish.” Some hard places end with tears, pain, and suffering. Some end in death, but that doesn’t mean the hard places were a defeat. When Jesus stood before His enemies all alone, there was no miraculous deliverance. He may have been able to call for twelve legions of angels, but He didn’t. He chose Calvary. The cross was His weapon, but it brought no deliverance from death; it became the instrument of His death.
Jesus did not come down from the cross by divine power. He came down by two men pulling the nails out of His lifeless body, removing Him from the cross timbers and burying Him in a tomb.
For Jesus’ weak and cowardly followers there could be no harder place. Their Messiah dead and gone. Their sorrow compounded by the guilt of forsaking Him in His hour of need. How bitter was this place of hardness! But out of the jaws of defeat God secured His victory. The weakness of God was still more powerful than all of hell’s might. Satan bruised His heel, but nipping at someone’s heels puts your head in a vulnerable position. Jesus crushed His enemy’s head, and the blow was fatal. And in so doing, God proved that the hard place does not have to end in miraculous deliverance for Him to bring about His good purposes. He doesn’t need to display His power to win; He can win by demonstrating weakness, humility, and infirmity. Over and over this has been the weaponry of God: allowing His church to suffer hardship and through weakness win.
The men, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian were endeavoring to take the Gospel to the Waodani people, whose tribal rivals called them “Aucas,” meaning savages. Why did they have to die? Why did their blood stain the river beach and their speared bodies get cast into the river’s current? Days later only four of them were found and then buried in a common grave on the spot where they died. Why such a waste of youth and missionary zeal? What a hard place for the wives and children of the martyred.
But the mystery of the hard place once again proved that God’s weakness is stronger than anyone or anything. Within days, volunteers came forward to resume the outreach to the Waodani. As news of the tragedy spread throughout the western world, thousands of young people were emboldened to respond to the call to foreign missions. Within two years, Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot, along with their daughter, Valerie and Nate Saint’s sister, Rachel Saint, entered the Waodani encampment extending forgiveness to the very men who had killed their loved ones. They lived among them for years administering the Gospel and medical care.
The Indians saw the love of God lived out before their eyes; the Gospel came alive to them. They heard and saw the Gospel and conviction had its perfect work. Many of them were converted, and today the church of the Waodani prospers in Ecuador.
But many who profess the name of Jesus find themselves responding very differently to adversity. You see, the hard place is a gift from God to bring us to the end of ourselves. It is His love that leads us to the position of desperation to free us from the self-reliance that so often keeps us from trusting Him. Desperation is designed to lead us to dependency. That is God’s purpose, but Satan perverts the hard place in the mind of the Christian. Instead of desperation leading to dependency, it leads to despondency. And despondency leads to unbelief, a distrust of God and His hard places.
Everyone faces difficult times. Hard times are no respecter of persons. But it is the severe places in life that proves who you really trust. They expose what we truly rely upon. The principle of sin still remains in the Christian and, if allowed, it will work in us a self-reliance that is both stubborn and tough to detect. It is the hard place that drives self-reliance out of hiding and makes us see that it must be absolutely abandoned so we may totally trust in God.
If we are going to live a supernatural life, (the only kind of life a Christian is to live), we must believe God’s will is best and that the hard place is necessary for us. It is not a matter of learning to adapt to difficulty or adopting a tougher mindset. No, it is believing that your God is a Father who so loves you that He will never abandon you in your hour of need. You must have faith that He has brought you to the place of need to see your real need, not deliverance from the circumstantial problem, but deliverance from a self-will that determines a plan different from God’s agenda for you.
Too many Christians are trying to overcome by becoming better, better at faith, better at making wiser choices, better at being more sanctified. This is only asking for more trials by fire. The whole purpose of the hard place is not to show how strong a Christian you are, but how God’s weakness is greater than any power. It is to display through your inabilities that God is the One who brings us through. God is not looking for strong believers; He is looking for impotent instruments to demonstrate His great power. Some of us need our sanctification sanctified.
The church was born in the environment of adversity, and it is in that climate the lungs of the church are best suited to breathe. As the eagle is made to navigate the thinner air of the higher atmosphere, so is the church built to soar on the absence of human strength. It was made to fly in the power of God only. So, celebrate the hard place because it is there God manifests His glory. It the glory of God revealed that makes us rejoice. The less visible our human glory, the more of His glory will we see and so will others.
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Renewal of the Man of God is a free one-day event for pastors and church leaders to refresh and recharge their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Too often, pastors and leaders give of themselves and have nothing in reserve for their own souls. Ministry then becomes routine and mechanical and, as a result of going through the motions of ministering to others, their own spiritual vitality can be lost.
This event is hosted by Real Truth Matters and Solid Rock Baptist Church to give church leaders a day to focus on their own spiritual needs and relearn how to maintain fellowship with God. How do you walk with God and keep ministry operating out of the overflow of your relationship with Christ? That is what this conference is about.
RTM Director Michael Durham will teach five sessions on keeping the heart before the Lord and experiencing Him as a constant, present reality. Time will also be given to extended prayer.
Breakfast and lunch will be provided and wives are welcome to attend. Make it a day for you both to meet with the Lord and other leaders in a day dedicated to renewal.
For more information, call: 270.898.8496
Please register by February 26, 2018 to attend.
At a time when other Americans were throwing rocks in first grader Afshin Ziafat’s childhood home and kicking him off the soccer team, there was an American lady who loved him.
What Afshin didn’t realize at the time was that her acts of love would one day connect him to the Source of love.
When he was 2, Afshin and his family moved from Houston to his parents’ home country of Iran.
Four years later, the Islamic Revolution hit the country and the Ziafats returned to Houston.
“I was in the middle of first grade,” Afshin said. “I didn’t speak English and God in His incredible providence gave me a tutor who taught me English by reading me books.”
But that’s not all she did for him.
“In the second grade, she said, ‘Afshin, I’ve been reading you all these books but now I’m going to give you the most important book you’ll ever get in your life,’ and she handed me a small New Testament. She said, ‘You’re not going to understand this book today, but promise me you’ll hold onto it and read it later in your life.’”
And a seed was planted.
A doctor and prominent Muslim in the Houston community, Afshin’s father taught his children the five pillars of the Islamic faith and that Jesus was merely a prophet. Despite that, as a senior in high school, Afshin became curious about the person of Christ.
“God, in His amazing plan, had this guy on a basketball court say to me after I said ‘Jesus’ in vain, ‘Hey, that Jesus is my God.’”
Afshin thought the guy was crazy, but one thought led to another until he went looking for the Bible his tutor had given him. Years after she gave him the book that had the power to change his life, Afshin found it at the bottom of his closet.
With the covers pulled over his head, he began reading the Bible every night by flashlight, afraid of what would happen if his family discovered him.
But then Afshin discovered something worth immeasurably more than his security.
“I got to the book of Romans and read about a righteousness that comes apart from the law but comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” he said. “That day was a turning point for me and a couple of weeks after that I was invited to an evangelistic event where I gave my life to follow Christ.”
Not fully understanding the commitment or call of Christ to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, Afshin drove home from the evangelistic event wondering what he would tell his family, especially his father. Instead of telling them anything, he hid his faith from his family, intercepted mail from the church he snuck out to attend, and continued to hide his Bible.
Eventually, however, his father found out and presented him with an ultimatum: Christ or him.
By God’s strength, Afshin chose Christ.
“You’re no longer my son,” was the response he received.
In what he now sees as a definitive moment in his life, Afshin went upstairs and cried, “God, how could You do this to me?”
The Lord, full of compassion, led him to Matthew 10 where he read,
So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father…
“I’m reading that going, ‘That just happened to me,’” Afshin recalled.
…and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. –Matthew 10:32-38
“That’s when I really understood what it means to be a follower, not just to believe the right things, but to be willing to lose your dad, your family to follow Christ.”
As detailed in Scripture, our lives intersect with other lives and weave together in affliction, suffering, and comfort, ultimately displaying the faithfulness of God for the glory of God.
Afshin’s story is no different. Though persecution came and his family disowned him, Afshin learned to embrace the God who is sovereign over suffering and with us in the midst of it.
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. -1 Peter 4:19
“Normal human experience would be to shake your fist at God because suffering is coming,” Afshin said. “But if you’re suffering, I believe you have an opportunity to say to the world, ‘He’s faithful. Even in my suffering, He’s faithful and He’s got a purpose for this.’ I think that’s a huge opportunity.”
This, along with Jesus’ high priestly prayer, directly counters the comfort-driven lives of the Western world.
“In John 17, Jesus prays for His disciples and He says that the world hates them and they don’t belong to the world,” Afshin said. “We would probably say, okay, if the world hates me and I don’t belong to the world then Jesus is going to say, ‘God, keep them separate from the world, protect them from the world and they’ll become monks in the mountains somewhere away from the world.’ But that’s not what He said.”
As You have sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. … I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word… –John 17:18, 20
“Leveraging our life for eternity means I understand that the days I have here are limited and God has not left me here to pursue comfort and the American dream,” Afshin said. “He’s left us here for mission.”
“I wish the church in America would wake up to our calling to love and serve the least of these and to spread the Gospel to a spiritually dark world and not be fixated on our protection and our comfort and our safety,” he said. “You’re not here for you. You’re here to be on mission. That’s why God has left you here.”
That mission does not cease during trials but, through the lens of the Gospel, we see the opportunity to magnify God actually expands during suffering.
“Why would you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus? Why would you hate your father and mother and your wife and children to follow Jesus? Why would you forsake all you have in order to be His disciple? There’s no way you would do that unless you understand what you’re getting in the Gospel.”
After completing high school, Afshin graduated from The University of Texas in 1996 with a Bachelors of Arts in History then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2000 with a Masters of Divinity with Biblical Languages. He and his wife Meredith now live in Frisco, Texas, with their two daughters, Elyse and Ansley, where he serves as lead pastor of Providence Church. Afshin also works with Elam Ministries to train Iranian men and women called into ministry to go back into Iran to preach, teach, and plant underground churches.
The smallest tasks overwhelmed me. I could barely focus through the fog to take care of my children. My whole world had been rocked, but I still had to function. I still had to do the next thing. And I had to do it all while hiding the pain in my heart, because no one else knew that anything was wrong.
Sometimes our suffering is out in the open and our pain is no secret. A car wreck. The death of a friend or family member, spouse or child. A battle with cancer. A house fire. A divorce. We suffer greatly through these times, and everyone knows and sees how we respond. Our church family and other believers can encircle us with prayer and love, and lend us their strength to continue walking down the path.
Other times, and maybe even more often, our suffering is done in the secret places. Maybe someone hurt us deeply and they don’t even realize it. Maybe a wrong was done to us, but we choose not to make it public. Maybe it’s an unrealized dream that is breaking our hearts—infertility, another baby that died before we could even announce we were expecting, singleness when we long for marriage, another job or promotion that went to someone else. Maybe it’s a marriage that looks completely different at home than it does in public, a struggle with depression or anxiety, or even a private battle against our own sin.
Sometimes we suffer in silence unnecessarily. We are too embarrassed or ashamed or prideful to admit what’s really going on. We shudder to think about anyone finding out, afraid they’ll reject us if they know, so we refuse to tell the truth and instead put on a mask and pretend everything is fine. We rob ourselves of the comfort and strength that can come from sharing our pain in a safe place by hiding behind sinful pride, when we could be helped greatly from the humble vulnerability that says, “Everything is not ok, and I need you to pray for me.”
Sometimes, we must stay silent out of respect for someone else. When I was hurting privately, it was because it wasn’t just my story, and to share my pain would be to betray someone’s trust. Sometimes, we just aren’t far enough down the road to share. Maybe we can tell others later what was going on, but in the midst of the pain it is too private and personal. For whatever reason, there will be times when your heart is broken and you cannot let anyone see.
These times can be particularly excruciating in this Instagram world in which we live. On the surface, everyone is so happy. Everyone has it all together. Everything is perfectly arranged for the picture and the effect is beautiful. All we see is perfection, and all we feel is complete brokenness. It appears we are the only one struggling, the only one whose picture is distorted. The only one suffering.
Now, most of us know that no life is as perfect as it appears on social media. And this isn’t an article that’s going to tell you to spill everything in public, to be completely real and post equal parts ugly and beautiful.
Instead, I’d simply like to give you some solid truths to cling to when your life isn’t picture perfect and you have a sorrow that really can’t be publicized.
Isaiah 53 is a bedrock of hope for the suffering Christian, particularly one suffering in private.
This chapter is one of the most beautiful, agonizing descriptions of the suffering of Christ. We focus on the fact that He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our sin and that His suffering was because God laid our iniquities on Him, as well we should. But sometimes we miss the simple fact that He suffered, and what that means for our suffering. He was well acquainted with grief. He was a Man of Sorrows. And right after this description, nestled among all the descriptions of what He suffered for us, we read these words: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4). Whatever else this may mean theologically, we can know that it at least means this: Jesus knows your suffering, and He understands it. And not only that, He carries it with you. No matter how great your pain, no matter what the source, even if it’s a result of your own sin, Jesus loves you with a compassion for your suffering in a way no one else can. When you feel like you cannot share your sufferings with anyone else, pour them out on Him. He is already well-acquainted with your grief, and is ready to comfort you and help you.
Sometimes it can be easy for us to see a purpose in our suffering.
Other times, it appears senseless. We know the verse that says that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) but we cannot see any way that good could come from our pain. This is where the rubber of our faith meets the road of life. God has promised to work all things for our good. He has promised to redeem all pain and right all wrongs. He has promised that He has a plan for the world and a plan for us, and that nothing can thwart that plan. When we suffer and can make no sense of it, these are the promises to which we must cling and upon which we must stake all our hope. I can’t begin to suggest here what His purpose may be in your pain, I can just promise you there is one and point you to the cross, where your Savior demonstrated His love for you while you were still dead in your sin. Trust Him. Suffer with faith in Him. Preach His promises to yourself over and over, as often as necessary to help you trust and not despair. And suffer with the end in view—the glorious end of all suffering for all eternity.
When we are hurting badly, it is often a huge temptation to do anything we can to feel better, even if it’s all just pretense.
Don’t do this. Don’t mask the pain, don’t pretend everything is fine, and don’t drown it in temporary “fixes” that often leave you in more trouble than when you started. If it’s true that God has a purpose in your pain—and it is—then you will only fulfill His purpose by experiencing the suffering. Romans 5:3-5 gives us an overall view of God’s purpose in every pain:
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
We have a hope that will not put us to shame, because God’s promises are guaranteed to be true. In the midst of our deepest pain, when we cannot share it with anyone else, God promises that through the suffering He is producing a good work in us. He is conforming us to the image of His Son who suffered (Romans 8:29). For us to be like Jesus, we must suffer, but our suffering is never arbitrary. If we submit to the loving hands of our Father, even in the midst of our suffering, He will refine us as gold in the fire.
In a culture that publishes everything from what we had for dinner to who we voted for in the last election, it’s important to remember that it is okay to keep your pain private from the masses.
With social media being so prevalent in so many of our lives, it can begin to feel like we must keep our followers updated on what’s going on with us. However, the deepest suffering often brings the deepest growth, and this most often happens in the quiet, secret places. Instead of making your pain public, find one or two trusted believers that can help you walk through the fire. Find friends who will remind you of the truth in your darkest moments, hold your arms up when your strength is gone, cry with you, fight the battle with you, and lift you before the throne of God when you have no words to pray for yourself. This kind of sharing happens person to person, not over social media updates. Your pain does not always need to remain absolutely private, but neither does it need to be public often.
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? I must perform my vows to You, O God; I will render thank offerings to You. For You have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life. –Psalm 56:8-13
You might not see the light when your suffering is darkest, but God sees your tossing and your tears, and He is for you. You can trust Him. Though darkness be all around you, You need not be afraid because God has delivered your soul from death and your feet from falling. You can even render thank offerings to Him through the pain, because His promise is true. And even when no one else in this very public world knows your private pain or your victory over it, He sees. He sees, He cares, He helps. And you may walk before Him in the light of life that is abundant in spite of the pain.
From the cradle to the grave, the human experience is one of almost continual suffering. Therefore, it is indispensable that we correctly view suffering. Most of us suffer our suffering and don’t know how to use it for our good and God’s glory. We must have a view of suffering shaped by the Bible rather than a view shaped by personal feelings or, even worse, given to us by the world.
It may not have crossed your mind that the Bible presents a doctrine of suffering, but it does. The statements of Scripture on the topic, when examined separately and then correctly synthesized, produce a comprehensive teaching.
One text of Scripture stands out in this grand doctrine of suffering. It is Psalm 119:71, 75:
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes . . . I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.
Not only is suffering a huge part of life but it is a great perplexity. Why must we suffer? But even more difficult—why must we suffer by the hand of a good God? We could feel more confident tackling the question why suffering by the hand of a bad devil. But David did not say suffering came to him by way of Satan, but by way of the Lord. In His faithfulness to us, God afflicts us. In other words, in His goodness to us, He makes us suffer.
How do we account that a holy, loving, compassionate, and good God can permit it? The problems this presents are many, and I do not pretend that we can understand all these questions and their complexities. However, I do believe that the Bible can bring clarity to these issues, which will help us to suffer well.
It is a random journaling of his grief after the death of his wife Joy, and in it he spoke of a good God afflicting His children.
The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably [relentlessly] he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.
Then Lewis asks—“But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us?” Lewis answers with a profound depth of wisdom.
Take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
Either way, we’re [in] for it.
Finally, Lewis asks an insightful question that demonstrates our own inconsistency when thinking or talking about the goodness of God,
What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?” Have they never even been to a dentist?
For most people, if it hurts it isn’t good. But the Bible differs with that opinion and shows that one of the most loving acts of God is the introduction of pain into the life of one of His children. But our attitude of entitlement stands in the way of receiving the good delivered to us by the errand boy of pain. The moment bad news comes to us, we immediately question God’s goodness, thinking we surely don’t deserve the ill because we have been good. In our minds, it’s all a matter of rewards and punishment. If I have been a faithful servant of God, then He owes me blessing; if I have performed less than I should or badly, then I deserve suffering. Thankfully, God is not on the quid pro quo system.
It is an evidential fact that although Christians are redeemed they are not yet perfected. Martin Luther, the German reformer, called the believer a simultaneous saint and sinner. I prefer to say that the Christian is a saint who still can sin and unfortunately does. Our depravity remains, although not totally. And it is this remaining corruption that suffering aims at removing, as the furnace removes the dross. The flames cause the impurities of the precious metal to rise to the surface and the gold or silversmith extracts it.
Wouldn’t that solve the problem and eliminate suffering altogether? Wouldn’t that be good? At least it would be easier than the kind of goodness David and C. S. Lewis is talking about.
Well, it might make our philosophical problem with suffering go away but, in the end, it would not help us. Help for us is not making us to have heaven but making us suitable for heaven. In the wisdom of God, it is better to put us through a process of conformity rather than instantaneous conformity to Christ. Certainly, God can do anything within the confines of His character. He could suddenly transform us. But even if He perfected His children in a moment, which He will at the resurrection, perfection in heaven does not mean there is no room for growth. Our perfection doesn’t mean we become deity. We will not know everything there is to know, nor will we be all-powerful. We will forever be depending upon the Almighty.
So the saint’s perfection in heaven will be for the most part—the removal of remaining corruption, both spiritual and physical, and the removal of the ability to sin. This perfection will not eliminate the need for development. Christians will continually be expanding, growing, maturing, and learning in heaven.
Therefore, before glorification, to help us grow in our love of Christ, we need to be better aware of how gracious our Lord is to us. The point of Jesus’ parable to Simon the Pharisee was that the more a person understands his or her sinfulness, the more he or she will love the person who forgave them of their sins. Simon was as evil as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and poured out perfume on Jesus’ feet. The Pharisee just didn’t know it, but the woman knew how much sin was forgiven.
When converted, we think we are terrible sinners. But it isn’t until we have been walking with God for a while do we begin to see how terrible sin is and how deeply it runs through our natures. The more we learn of our utter weakness, the more dependent upon God and His amazing grace we become. In the end, we love more because of the process.
I get concerned when I hear professing believers quip that sometimes they wish they had lived more sinful lives before being saved so that they could appreciate God’s grace more.
Which do you think grieves the Father’s heart more, the sins of a rebel and outcast who hates the King or the rebellion of the King’s child?
“Well,” says one, “can’t God make us know all that the moment we are saved? Isn’t that the whole point of the conviction of sin that we underwent before being saved?” Yes, it is the point of conviction of sin, but to be made to understand and experience grace is not enough to make us absolutely dependent upon grace. When converted, we are saved by grace, but we’re far from living by grace alone.
Which would bring God more glory—saving a sinner and instantaneously perfecting the sinner that he or she will never sin again? Or saving a sinner and allowing him or her to still be able to sin, but with time, change them, so they do not want to sin and instead become more and more like Jesus?
If He saves sinners but leaves their corrupt flesh to remain, then they will, again and again, prove that they did not deserve salvation. The Lord will glorify His grace over and over again that He is a God that mercifully, kindly, tenderly, and patiently forbears with sinners until they enter into a state of perfection.
It is this struggle that reminds us of our sin and teaches our continual need for God’s grace. This is what brings immense glory to the Lord and proves to other sinners that they too could be recipients of such lovingkindness.
Therefore, we too can say with David that it is “good for me that I have been afflicted. . . and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.”