How Christian Suffering Is Different

My current preaching series in Romans 8 has led me to examine the theme of Christians and their suffering. Suffering for a believer is radically different than the suffering of those who are not “in Christ,” and we see this difference in three important ways:

  1. When believers suffer, they suffer “with Christ” (Romans 8:17). This doesn’t mean only that Christ is present in our suffering: it means also that Christ transforms our suffering into something meaningful and full of purpose.
  2. When believers suffer, they suffer temporarily. The transitory nature of our suffering finds expression here in the words “this present time” (8:18) as well as in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (“this momentary light affliction”). Our fleeting suffering stands in contrast with the tragic suffering of those who persist in unbelief, whose suffering will be forever.
  3. When believers suffer, their suffering is the path to glory. This is the theme that Paul takes up in 8:18-30, in which he weighs “the suffering of this present time” against the eternal weight of glory—a glory so immense that the creation, the Spirit, and we ourselves groan for it to be consummated. In light of this magnificent glory, we may, with Paul, “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18).

As I study and preach through this section of Scripture, I marvel at how timely and relevant God’s Word is—not only for my church but also for me personally. Whether intense or mild, our suffering can prompt us to wonder, “Is this really worth it? Why would God allow this?” This passage is like a bugle call to hope and assurance.

Yes, God lovingly orchestrates our suffering for our good!

Yes, it is so “worth it” that present suffering doesn’t even register on the scales.

Yes, infinite, pain-eclipsing joy awaits us when we are finally conformed to the image of his Son.

That’s glory.

You can find a recording of the sermon I preached on this passage here.

Five Attitudes You Need When Reading the Bible

We need God’s Word to teach, correct, and train us. But simply reading the Bible does not guarantee that we will enjoy its benefits. We must read the Bible . . .

. . .  in faith

“For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2).

. . . with humility

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19-21)

. . . with self-discipline

. . .to still the noise, both inside and outside ourselves.

“Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21),

. . . to establish consistency.

“On his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2)

. . . with delight

“[The blessed man’s] delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

. . . in fellowship

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

Singing the Seven “I Am” Sayings of Christ


Last month, I had the opportunity to preach at a Christian camp. Since the campers’ ages ranged from 7 to 12 years old, I wanted my sermons to be simple, memorable, and foundational. So I chose to preach on the seven “I Am” sayings of Christ in the book of John.

As I prepared my sermons, the truths of these seven sayings began to deeply impact me. I wanted them to stick with the campers long after the week of camp. Then I had a thought: Turning these sayings into a song might help the kids remember these truths. So I went to work, putting these sayings into rhyming verse, and my wife Christa put it to this beautiful tune. As it turned out, this exercise pushed me to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying, and the significance it has for our lives.

The final product was a simple four-verse poem and chorus. I’ve provided the text below, with some comments on its context in the Gospel of John.


To hungry souls, Christ is the Bread
Who fills and satisfies.
To darkened hearts, He is the Light
Who opens blinded eyes.

John 6 tells us that Jesus had miraculously fed a monstrous crowd numbering over 5,000 people. When these people with full tummies followed Jesus hoping for more handouts, Jesus told them that their real need wasn’t for physical bread. After all, not even manna—bread that fell from the sky—could keep their ancestors alive. The only thing that would ultimately satisfy them was the Bread that came straight from Heaven—in other words, the Son of God who would die and rise again on their behalf. To “eat” this Bread means to believe in Jesus. Whoever does, Jesus assures us, “will live forever” (John 6:58).

In John 8:12, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The very next chapter dramatizes this claim. Jesus restores vision to a man with congenital blindness. However, this man still needed another kind of sight—faith in Jesus. When he later came to Jesus and believed in him, the formerly blind man could finally “see.” He understood that he was a sinner in need of Jesus. The proud Pharisees, however, ironically remained blind, since they refused to believe. To them, Jesus said, “Your guilt remains” (9:41). When we come to Christ as the light, we simultaneously see our sinfulness and Christ’s perfection. We no longer try to deceive ourselves into thinking that our sin is hidden to God. Instead, we confess our sin, taking refuge in His perfect Son.


To wandering sheep, Christ is the Door
Who loves and lets them in.
No better Shepherd can they know
Than He who died for them.

Many people cherish the idea that there many paths to God. Christ’s teaching, however, is quite clear: access to the “fold” is only through Him. But the invitation is free: “I am the door,” Christ proclaims, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).

Not only is Jesus the door of the sheepfold, he is the Shepherd of the sheep. In contrast to false shepherds, those self-seeking “hired hands,” Jesus proves his love by his sacrificial death: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (10:11). Let no one think that Christ’s death betrayed his weakness, for “no one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18). Neither should anyone think that his death was permanent, for “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (10:17). Can we find any better Shepherd than Christ?


Like branches, we can bear no fruit
Except through Christ the Vine.
He is the only Way to God,
The Truth, the Life Divine.

The third verse echoes John 15, which teaches that fruitfulness comes only through a relationship with Christ: “I am the vine,” he explains, “you are the branches. whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The second part of this verse reflects the familiar words of John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”


Those dead in sin will come alive
At Jesus’ mighty cry.
For all who trust in Christ the Life
Will live and never die.

The phrase “those dead in sin” calls on Ephesians 2:1 to explain our deadness without Christ. I hoped the words “Jesus’ mighty cry” would evoke the scene of our Lord standing at the gaping mouth of the tomb shouting, “Lazarus, come forth,” which is the context in which he tells grieving Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

I saved this saying for the final verse, even though it comes earlier in the book of John. It serves as a fitting climax since the theme of eternal life runs throughout John’s gospel from beginning to end. In 1:4, John tells us that “in him was life.” And near the close of this book, when explaining why he wrote, John says, “These [signs] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).


Come to this Feast, behold this Light,
Pass through this open Door.
Be led by Him and loved by Him,
And live forevermore.

With the chorus, the verbal mood changes from declarative to imperative. These sayings of Jesus are not intended as interesting facts to ponder. They present us with a Person to whom we must respond. That is why I wanted the chorus to be an exhortation, a direct call to action, just as the Apostle John intended for the readers of his gospel. I tried to incorporate at least a hint of each of most of the seven sayings. The “Feast” reminds us of Jesus as the Bread. The “Light” and “Door” are stated explicitly, and the words “pass through” reflect Jesus’ being the “Way” to the Father.  The exhortation to “be led by Him” urges the proper response to Christ as the Good Shepherd. Finally, the invitation to “live forevermore” is evocative of Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.

David’s Sins in David’s Sons

Is it hard to lead others when we lack integrity ourselves? You bet it is. We see this in the life of King David.

In 2 Samuel 14, we start to see David’s kingdom unraveling—and it all started with the loose thread of his sexual lust. His unbridled passions are copied by his son Amnon, who rapes his step-sister Tamar. In revenge, Tamar’s full brother Absalom murders Amnon. Now two of David’s sins—adultery and murder—get replicated in two of his sons.

So what does David do?

Here is where David fails yet again: he does nothing. He leaves his smooth but murderous son in self-imposed exile, refusing to either properly punish or fully forgive. And when David finally brings him back, it is only at the connivance of his general Joab.

Absalom must have known that others in the kingdom were also aggravated by David’s moral indecision. When he surreptitiously campaigned for kingship, he enflamed this aggravation with a treacherous sigh. “Oh, that I were judge in the land!” Absalom would exclaim, “Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” Absalom felt—more deeply than anyone else, perhaps—the frustration of having a father and king whose moral failures made him morally indecisive.

Unfortunately, we also can succumb to this kind of moral ambiguity. When we lack integrity, or when we let past failures define us, we fail to make decisions with integrity. What a contrast to the righteous decisiveness of Christ, of whom it is said, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Hebrews 1:8-9)!

Here are two takeaways:

1) This makes me want to avoid sin, if only for the reason that sin disrupts my ability to make right decisions.

2) This makes me love Christ more, as the new and better David—I want his perfect kingdom to take over every part of my heart, as well as every corner of the globe.

The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes

Seeing Christ in the Old Testament is like looking at a stereogram. When you stare at the picture just the right way, the 3D image pops up. You realize that 3D image was there all along. It was put there on purpose. It is the true subject of the picture. Likewise, Christ is the true subject of the Old Testament, including the book of Ecclesiastes.

So how does Ecclesiastes reveal Christ? We don’t find the name of Jesus in Ecclesiastes. However, we will see that Ecclesiastes reveals Christ by exposing needs that only Christ can fulfill and anticipating Christ’s perfect fulfillment of those needs.

We see this need-anticipation-fulfillment pattern in three central themes in Ecclesiastes: Life under the sun (“vanity of vanities”), humans, and God.

1. Life under the sun: “Vanity of vanities”

  • Need. We need assurance that this world is being ordered toward a satisfying fulfillment, instead of spiraling toward futility (2:15; 4:13-16; 9:13-16; 4:1-3; 3:16).
  • Anticipation. Ecclesiastes anticipates the fulfillment of this need by affirming that one day God will make everything right (as the sovereign, omniscient Judge) and beautiful (3:11; 12:14; 9:1; 11:9; 3:15).
  • Fulfillment. Christ’s resurrection from the dead provides the assurance that this world is being ordered toward a satisfying fulfillment, instead of spiraling toward futility (Acts 17:30-31; Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 15:20).

2. Humans: Fallen, finite, and frustrated

  • Need. We need freedom from sin, death, and misery. We have a longing to live forever (3:11; 7:20).
  • Anticipation. The command to fear God and keep his commandments implies that, at least for someone, overcoming the effects of the fall—sin and death—is both possible and necessary (12:14).
  • Fulfillment. Christ entered into our miserable condition (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17; Hebrews 4:15), by becoming a human (Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4). Yet, unlike any other human before him, he fulfilled the “whole duty of man”: living sinlessly, fearing God perfectly, and keeping his commandments constantly (Matthew 5:17; John 8:29; Philippians 2:5-8). Also unlike any other human before him, his sinless life was validated by his resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:24; Romans 1:4).

3. God: Sovereign and Inscrutable Judge

  • Need. We need someone who will reveal God’s saving ways to us and bring final judgment to the injustices of life.
  • Anticipation. Ecclesiastes anticipates the time when God will reveal himself as Judge and Savior (12:14).
  • Fulfillment. Christ reveals God as both the Judge and Savior.
    • Christ is the perfect revelation of God, showing us that God is both righteous and merciful (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:18, 14).
    • God condemned our sin in the death of Christ (Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:25), showing himself to be the righteous Judge.
    • Christ did die for our sins, showing himself to be the perfect Savior (1 Peter 3:18).

Fallen Kings

Mathematician and Christian apologist Blaise Pascal compares the human condition to the misery of a fallen king. If he had never been a king, he would not think that his now-humble life is miserable. (For a helpful explanation of this idea, see Douglas Groothuis’s article here).

This analogy resonates with the Bible’s teaching that 1) God intended humans to have a relationship with him and to have dominion over the cosmos, but that 2) we have fallen into sin. As sinners, we do not enjoy the relationship God intended us to have with him. Further, sin has brought other consequences: our world is a perplexing alloy of kindness and cruelty; our minds become confused; our bodies grow old and die.

So why do we not simply embrace these consequences as a neutral fact of life? Why do we arm ourselves against these frustrations with the flimsy defenses of politics, education, medicine, and entertainment?  In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us the answer: we are not in the condition for which God made us. As he puts it, God made humans upright, but we have sought out “many schemes.” We cannot silence the voice that cries for something eternally fulfilling, for “he has put eternity in our hearts.”

Only one human has overcome this fallenness, finiteness, and frustration: the God-man Jesus Christ. Though he is fully God, he submerged himself into our experiences as fully man. But he overcame them by living a sinless life, dying a substitutionary death, and being raised from the dead. For those who believe in Christ, this fallenness (sin) and finiteness (death) will be completely defeated when they dwell with him in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Absurdity or Purpose?

Albert Camus (1913-1960), author, journalist, and philosopher wrote:

“Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity. And maybe that’s what gives us our joy for living, because the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity.”

These words come close to expressing the theme we read in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” (In some cases the word translated “vanity” carries the meaning “absurdity.”)

Both Solomon and Camus (and many other people before and afterto them) have thought long and hard about the absurdity, senselessness, or “vanity” of life. Camus concludes that we can overcome absurdity simply by knowing about and embracing it (“the only thing that can defeat absurdity is lucidity”). Bertrand Russell, an atheistic philosopher, agrees with Camus: in light of the tyranny of randomness, the best people can do is

“to worship the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life.”

Solomon, in stark contrast, concludes that man’s final and whole duty is to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

So how do people looking at the same data—the apparent pointlessness of life—walk away with such different conclusions? How should we as Christians process the declaration that all is vanity, yet continue to live lives of worth and meaning?

Solomon’s mantra that all is vanity is his reflection on the devastating effects of the fall (7:29, 30; 3:20). A world originally perfect, infused with beauty and meaning, where humans enjoyed the presence of God, is now a twisted wreck of what it once was—a perplexing alloy of beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, meaning and pointlessness. By relentlessly emphasizing that nothing in life will yield certain meaning or ultimate satisfaction (“all is vanity”), Ecclesiastes forces us to see our need to engage in something that transcends this world—that is, fearing and obeying God. With the final reminder that “God will bring every deed into judgment,” we realize that everything is not ultimately pointless to God. He will evaluate some things and say, “That’s good!” He will evaluate other things and say, “That’s bad!” It is only life “under the sun” that does not contain the key to its own meaning. Meaning enters only with God.

In contrast to the pointless death spiral of life “under the sun,” Christ’s death and resurrection have brought about something genuinely new (compare Ecclesiastes 1:10 with 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:4 and Revelation 21:5).

See previous posts in this series:

God Will Bring Everything Into Judgment

The aim of Solomon’s quest—to find that comprehensive, personally-satisfying, perspective from which life will make complete sense—could never be achieved. And because eternity is “in our heart,” we can’t stop searching. This is why Solomon calls this search a “sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith” (1:13; also 3:10). This is also why he warned that “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12). The perplexing human predicament will provide an endless supply of material for philosophers. Because life “under the sun” will never yield any ultimate answers, thinkers will never run out of arguments and counter-arguments, but they will always be the old questions wearing modern garb.

But there is an aspect of this quest’s aim that Solomon did discover. It is this surprising twist in Solomon’s search that gives us the firm bedrock for joyful, godly living under the sun: In the end, God will bring everything into judgment.

In other words, the fact that God’s ways ultimately exceed our comprehension is no excuse for us to live as we please (“I’ll never figure everything out, so I’m going to just pursue my pleasures”); for God is still the Judge. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the perplexities of life so frustrate us so much that we can’t find pleasure in God’s good gifts. The need for this balance is the reason behind Solomon’s exhortation to young people: “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (11:9).

See the first post in this series, “Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes.”

Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes

The journey toward completing my dissertation on the apologetic approach of Blaise Pascal has often reminded me of the book of Ecclesiastes. There are so many similarities between Pascal’s apologetics and Solomon’s reflection on the vanity of life without God. Both reflect on our bewildering sinful human nature. Both compellingly urge us to turn to God alone.

In a series of posts, I’ll be sharing a series of lessons I taught on the book of Ecclesiastes. For me, this series was thrilling, not only because it deepened my understanding of this book, but also because it helped me see that all the Old Testament, including Ecclesiastes, points unmistakably to Christ, the center of all Scripture.

Reading Ecclesiastes is like dipping into a powerful river. Although at times it appears to be meandering or erratically veering here and there, we feel its constant and irresistible currents pulling us toward the destination. Similarly, the author of Ecclesiastes moves us toward his conclusion by injecting into this book currents of varying speeds and strengths. He muses on the apparent meaninglessness of life, cries in despair over the frustration of an unfulfilling career, weeps with the comfortless oppressed, shakes his head at fools, smiles at the simple pleasures in life, and finally invites us to bow in reverence before the Creator and Judge of all. No matter which of these currents we dip into, we find ourselves unmistakably moving toward the final conclusion: Fear God since he is the Judge of all.