During our congregational prayer gathering last night my beautiful-in-every-sense-of-the-word wife thanked God for affliction. It’s one thing to read Piper on suffering or digest Brainerd from afar. But it’s of a another other order when I am driven to God’s throne to celebrate the pain he builds into my life. Oh, what grace there is in congregational prayer! A thousand sermons on suffering having nothing on hearing a sister thank God for affliction. A library of books on prayer cannot hold a candle to the growth provided by being with God’s people in prayer. Do you want to grow in the depth, effects, and joy of your prayer life? Get around Christians who pray deeply, biblically and painfully. Listen to their vocabulary and long for their heart. When we listen to brothers and sisters pray we’re not eavesdropping on a conversation. We’re part of it.
Please allow a momentary detour. In commanding our (plural) devotion to prayer, Paul immediately commands alert thanksgiving (Col 4.2; cf. Eph 6.18). He’d heard the story about Peter and the boys catnapping while Jesus sweat bloody bullets for them. He didn’t want that happening on his watch and therefore he commanded us the same attention to prayer Jesus did them (Mt 26.41). Does “alert” describe how we listen to prayer? Are we joining in our brother’s invocation with alert thanksgiving? Are we shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-t0-heart with him before our God? Are we paying attention to both what our sister prays and how she prays it? Are we like a sentinel, keeping a careful watch on the flanks so that Satan doesn’t sneak in with stealth temptation? Are we guarding our brother with gratitude that God hears us when we pray? Do we pepper our sister’s prayer with the “amen” of our heart . . . so let it be? Do we join them in their inner room so that our Secret Father will grant them a hearty reward (Mt 6.6)?
Or, are we strangely sleepy when the heads bow? Do we get uncomfortable and twitchy? Do we find ourselves thinking of anything else but what is being spread out before God’s face? Are we antsy when “so-and-so” prays because we know it’s going to be a while? Do we get bored (i.e. unalert) and resentful (i.e. ungrateful)? Do we get impatient so that a few minutes in prayer seems like a few hours? Given a thousand days at Disneyland (or Daytona or Pebble Beach or Macy’s) or a day in God’s courts with God’s people, which one would we instinctly choose? Do we want the church praying for us but find it hard to join the church in praying for others? Indeed, Lord, teach us to pray (Lk 11.1).
As I was saying . . .
Through my wife’s prayer I was driven to God’s throne to thank him for the pain he builds in my life. God should be absolutely, regularly and joyfully thanked for the result that he works in our lives through pain and affliction. But this doesn’t go far enough. It’s easy to thank God for the ends, even if we’re not grateful for the means to those ends. We can love what God does but hate how he does it. Our heart’s prayer (because we’d never say it out loud!) might sound something like: “God, I’m grateful that you’ve produced new joy in my life, but I am not no sure you had to drag me through what you did to do so. Next time please use other means.” We strangely exalt God while we’re begrudging him.
We don’t merely thank God for the product of pain, but for the very pain itself which is the only means by which the godly product comes. There is no glory in Christ that is not forged by the cross of Christ (Phil 3.10f; 1 Pt 4.13). So we don’t glory in merely being conformed to Jesus, but in everthing that goes into conforming us. We don’t thank God for the resurrection even if he happened to choose the cross (as opposed to other options) to get there. We thank God for the cross so that there would be a resurrection. We thank God for death so there can be new life.
Through my wife’s prayer I’m compelled to consider the following:
“But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6.10).
Not only do we exult in the hope of the glory of God, but “we also exult in our tribulations” (Rom 5.3). We don’t simply exult in the hope that our tribulations produce (v5), but in the tribulations themselves which are the only means by producing the never-disappointing hope.
“Therefore I am well content with my weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.10). We’re not content only when Christ’s power is made perfect (v9), but we’re well content in the purposeful difficulties themselves.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas 1.2). We don’t reserve joy until the perfect product emerges (v4), but rejoice when painful the process begins!
“. . . to the degree that you share in the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exaltation” (1 Pt 4.13). Our future enjoyment of Christ has a direct (not inverse) relationship to the degree we joyfully suffer now (see also 1 Pt 1.6-9; cf. 2 Cor 4.17-18).
We’re to be neither sadistic (as though we enjoy affliction in itself) nor stoic (as if affliction is not really painful). But insofar as God builds pain in our life we’re to be thankful for it because God has made it useful. We don’t reserve praise until we know God has worked affliction for our good, but we praise him for any and all means that will lead to that good.
So thank you, my dear wife-who-is-also-my-sister, for thanking God for affliction. Today is far better for it.