In Parts 1 & 2 I’ve been talking about the “suffer-well” versus the “get-well” options for the Jesus follower who is going through difficult times. The conundrum is – am I supposed to endure this pain or escape it? It’s near blasphemy to some people to think that God would purposely leave any of his beloved in their pain and ask them to suffer with faith and courage. Others have a theological presupposition that precludes the expectation of pretty much any supernatural intervention to alleviate our suffering. Denominations have begun over such a debate, and I have no aspiration to settle the argument. My purpose here is to challenge those who languish in-between those two options in a place I call the “Mediocre Middle.”
Since we’re talking about “mediocre,” I want to say that mediocre is never good, especially when referring to the faith and life of a follower of Jesus. It’s definitely not something to be proud of, and is not the kind of Christianity that will change the world for the better. I’ll be brazen enough to say that we already have enough of that kind of Christian. The quota of such a sort, at least here in the West, has been met many times over now. So please don’t be mediocre! OK, I can be a little harsh sometimes.
The sufferer’s testimony…
The other day a friend asked me if during my time of great difficulty (divorce, neck surgery, cancer diagnosis and treatment, etc.) I had any doubts about the reality of God. I answered candidly that though I didn’t question his existence, I did have my doubts about his “good judgment.” Basically, I wondered if he knew what he was doing! That didn’t last very long, and I’ve come a long way since then, but for me, believing in the reality of God is easy; what’s a little more challenging to hold onto is confidence in his personality. Satan didn’t tempt Adam to doubt that there is a God, but that the God who is is a God who is good. I took that bait and swam with it awhile. Fortunately God’s mercy was ample as always and the hook didn’t completely set in my jaw.
Gary has suffered all his life with a debilitating and painful congenital condition has now (in his mid-thirties) had to begin using a wheelchair, and unless God intervenes, he’ll be consigned to it for the rest of his life. This good friend of mine is an avid Spirit-filled follower of Jesus, and in my book he’s always been a model sufferer. We talked on the phone the other day about how being wheelchair-bound is a terribly unwelcomed challenge for him, but because of his faith in Jesus, though it’s uncomfortable, awkward, and terribly inconvenient – he’s up for the challenge! I told you he was a model sufferer!
In our conversation we came around to the topic of his witness for Christ. We agreed that he might have the opportunity to bring an even more profound testimony than the winning Super Bowl quarterback who gives thanks to God in front of 100 million viewers. To me, even though admirable, the witness of the superstar is 3000 miles wide and about a 1/4 inch deep. Kids and other football fans (maybe only the fans of his team!) will hear his words and possibly even remember them the next day. But my friend, born with frayed spinal cord nerves, rolling around in his wheelchair with his palpable peace and infectious joy will testify to a much more limited sphere (maybe a 1000 or so friends and acquaintances over his lifetime) but have, I believe, a greater influence than the celebrity. One may impress the masses while Gary will impact relatively few toward the goodness of God. (I’ll take impact over impression any day, especially when it’s not clear with whom the impressed are impressed!) The celebrity’s impression goes out immediately farther, but it’s shallow by comparison to the mile-deep impact of Gary’s testimony. My point is that sometimes the suffering well testimony has a more relatable and consequently more profound affect than the get well one – or the “I’m-always-well” one!
Another friend of mine said to me recently that he thought if we were to raise the dead like they did in the book of Acts, people would beat down the doors of the church building to get in. I responded with something like, “Well, yeah, that would be good, and I’m sure there would be a number of people who would want to come to Jesus if we did more miracles of that magnitude… But, umm, I’m not so sure that it would make that much difference on a deeper level or in the long term.” Off the top of my head I could think of two men in the Bible who were raised right in front of people who just went on their merry way after seeing such a miracle – Lazarus for one. In fact, though there were a number of people who believed in Jesus as a result of his “resuscitation,” there were others, who, though they admitted that Lazarus had actually been raised, plotted to kill him because his testimony was winning followers for Jesus! They didn’t doubt that it had actually happened. They believed the story, but basically didn’t want to follow the One who had raised him. It’s interesting that in one of his parables, Jesus told about another “Lazarus” who died and went to heaven (Luke 16). A rich man also died, and because of his torment in hell, pled for Lazarus to be raised and sent back to earth in order to warn the rich man’s family about the consequences of living without God. He was told, “They won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
The other one raised from the dead – a little more obvious than the first – was Jesus himself. While his resurrection was for many, a life transforming reality, for others, who were actually there, it was something to suppress (both in the conscience and in the “media” of the day). The soldiers who witnessed the empty tomb first hand and were terrified to paralysis by the “tomb angels,” and instead of turning to God, they made up a lie about his disciples stealing his dead body! People being raised from the dead don’t always bring people to God.
I’m not arguing against the contemporary availability of miracles nor against their effect in aiding people’s journey toward becoming Jesus followers. I’m just saying that sometimes the miracle of the joyful sufferer can be even more effective.
“We are hard pressed on every side but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair… All this is for your benefit so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” 2 Corinthians 4
I’m not ashamed…
“That is why I am suffering as I am,” wrote Paul from his jail cell, “but I’m not ashamed because I know whom I’ve believed and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1)
Some believers are ashamed that they’re suffering. I know that when suffering entered my life, at first I felt ashamed that maybe if I’d lived a better life or had more faith I wouldn’t be in this situation. I was embarrassed in front of my Christian friends who might think I that I wasn’t as spiritual as they’d thought. And then before my non-christian friends and family I was ashamed, because as a Christian, I was supposed to be the one who could keep a marriage together and be at least moderately well in soul and body. Eventually my humiliation turned into humility, and shame to trust.
“I know whom I’ve believed,” that is, I’m getting to know my Father better an my faith is becoming more and more rooted in his character rather than in certain outcomes to my prayers. I’ve “entrusted (my life) to him until that day” and I try to remember to leave the outcomes to him. If I “get well,” I’ll thank him and tell everyone I can about what he can do. If I don’t get well, but he gives me strength to “suffer well,” I’ll still try to be grateful, and tell them about what he’s like! I can live with the tension of the two “wells” (get well or suffer well) and will do all I can stay out of the “Mediocre Middle.” I hope you will too.