Take a Step Back in Suffering

by | Aug 20, 2017 | The Sovereignty of God: How Suffering and Justice Meet, Featured

The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is to be the single greatest controlling influence in our lives.

I confess that it is easy to talk about glorifying God and enjoying Him when things are going well and life is pleasant. I never have to tell my children to have a good attitude when we are eating ice cream together! It almost seems natural. For the Christian, it is natural to glorify God when things are going well. It is quite harder, though, when things are difficult—when, as the Puritans used to say, “dark providence descends” or “God’s frowning providence” comes upon us. And yet the Westminster Assembly was correct when it said that our chief end is—not just when things are going well or when life is pleasant and easy—to glorify God.

Paul sets a wonderful example for the Christian in this regard. For instance, think about the context of his writing the book of Philippians. He is sitting in prison, yet he gives no hint of self-pity. He doesn’t even want the Philippians focusing upon him or worrying about his circumstances. He wants them to see all of his personal suffering, as he sees all of his personal suffering, in light of the glory of God. That is our challenge. His glory is to be the lens by which we see all the circumstances of our lives.

How did Paul do that? It is one of the most helpful practices when you are personally suffering as a Christian: Paul simply takes a step back. Have you ever looked at one of Monet’s water lily paintings? If you look at it up close in a gallery, it appears to be simple splotches of paint. It looks disorganized and chaotic. The colors are bright and the strokes are evident, but the purpose of those colors and the benefits of those strokes are lost. If you then take a few steps back and gaze at the entire picture from the vantage point of the center of the room, a different reality sets in. A masterpiece is revealed. The colors are more muted; they aren’t as harsh. The strokes disappear and they don’t seem quite as disconnected. It actually becomes quite beautiful. Beautiful enough that museums and collectors will pay millions for it.

How do you glorify God in the midst of personal suffering? One of the best ways is by taking a step back and seeking to view your personal suffering in light of the glory of God. It isn’t easy to do, I grant you that. But I do not think it was necessarily easier for Paul than it is for us. He was fallen as we are fallen. He was tempted by self-interest as we are tempted. But he learned to take a step back to see the grander purpose in view. He moved his focus from self to God’s glory.

As he wrote in Ephesians 1, he knew that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will”. All things! Oh, if we could see the secret plans of God! That His purpose and His will are working out our very salvation—and not only ours, but that of all the elect. With such a perspective, we would rejoice that He has appointed this affliction, this sorrow, this loss, because it is bringing about this glorious conclusion.

I realize you can’t always see what He is doing and that can make it hard. But I also have found that He often grants us glimmers of His purposes—little things here and there—which give us perspective. Look for them. Look for the person who shows love to you in a way they haven’t expressed before your trial, a conversation opened up with a person at work about Christ because they witnessed your suffering, the boldness it has given to your spouse to speak of the gospel, the neighbor who now approaches you with her struggles, the empathy you now have for others. Train yourself to look for how God might be using your personal suffering, your loss, your trial for the benefit of others for His glory. It can look like a mess from below, like looking at the back of stitch work. But if you can just angle to see a glimmer of the view from on high, you can begin to see that even these dark threads are creating an overall beautiful picture. And it allows one to rejoice in the midst of trial even as Paul did to the glory of God.

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