Seminary of Suffering

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The Chinese church has an interesting ministry training model that is birthed out of their intense persecution. Without formal education, they have decided that a person is qualified to be a pastor if they have been imprisoned for their faith. It is here that they learn how to be ministers–suffering is their seminary. In contrast, in the States being trained for ministry involves several years and several thousands of dollars at a formal seminary. Here students learn Greek, correct hermeneutics, and how to dissect a Scripture passage. Seminary gives very valuable knowledge about doctrine, but it does not prepare the heart and soul for ministry in the way that suffering does for the Chinese believers.

Paul David Tripp in his book Dangerous Calling identifies the weaknesses of Western seminary. He notes that theological knowledge can be confused with spiritual maturity when in reality “maturity is about how you live your life. It is possible to be theologically astute and be very immature. It is possible to be biblically literate and be in need of significant spiritual growth.”

Turning Head Knowledge into Heart Knowledge

We tend to look at ministry preparation and discipleship in terms of knowledge only.  While this is extremely important, it cannot be the only area in which we focus. It is only when we apply the truths we have learned to the difficulties of life that we truly grow.

In suffering the head knowledge of faith can become heart knowledge. When we suffer, we cry out to God to know he is real and that he cares about us as individuals. We need an understanding, not just of lofty principles of his greatness, but of the nearness of his love and concern. It is when this becomes a reality that we are equipped to walk through the rigors of life.  

We All Need to Be Trained

All of us are called to be ministers.  We may not all stand in front of a literal pulpit before a congregation delivering a carefully crafted message. However, we all have a figurative pulpit and congregation through the different arenas of our lives–home, work, etc. We, too, need to be equipped to deliver sound doctrine to those in our lives. We learn this good doctrine at church. However, we learn to apply this doctrine through the difficulties of our lives.

Related Post: Why Avoiding Suffering Is Killing Us

One of the clearest examples of this in my life is motherhood. I am a very selfish person. However, motherhood forces me to think first about three little beings who are dependent on me. I did not want to get up in the middle of the night when I heard crying, but I did because I was needed. I did not want to listen to my kids, each in their turn, struggle through reading as I taught them for hours on end. None of these things, and countless other parental experiences, are easy, but they teach me humility, love, self-sacrifice, and mercy.

These are the real fruits of God’s work in us. We are tempted many times to think that right doctrine is the path to true spirituality, but Paul clearly dismisses this in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 ESV.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Paul’s chapter on love comes after speaking about spiritual gifts, warning believers not to get puffed up or focused on these gifts. Instead, “I will show you a more excellent way”–the way of love (1 Corinthians 12:31). To ensure they don’t misunderstand, he goes on to explain the characteristics of love–patience, forgiveness, faithfulness, and hope. These are all possible only with humility. When we suffer, we develop this humility as we quickly learn that we cannot do things alone. We lose faith in our ability to pull ourselves out of whatever difficulty we have found ourselves in.

Jesus Went to the Seminary of Suffering

Jesus did not sit at the feet of learned rabbis like Gamaliel. Instead, Hebrews 5:8 tells us, “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” John Owens, a theologian, explains this verse:

One special kind of obedience is intended here, namely a submission to great, hard, and terrible things, accompanied by patience and quiet endurance, and faith for deliverance from them. This Christ could not have experience of, except by suffering the things he had to pass through, exercising God’s grace in them all.

What suffering did Christ endure? Of course, it is clear that he experienced the suffering of the Cross, but this is at the end of his ministry.  Could it be that a lifetime of living in a family that misunderstood him and in a community that judged him was part of the winnowing of his soul? We tend to think of suffering in big events, but it can often be the everyday struggles of lack of connection and familial responsibilities that are the hardest to bear because there seems to be no end in sight.

Lessons from Those Who Have Suffered

We can learn though from those who have experienced extreme trials. The book The Insanity of God is a compilation of the experiences of many Christians all over the world who have suffered for their faith. In particular, one man named Dimitri explains what he did to survive the torture, the isolation, and imprisonment.  He had two disciplines, taught to him by his father, that enabled him to survive:

For seventeen years in prison, every morning at daybreak, Dmitri would stand at attention by his bed. As was his custom, he would face the east, raise his arms in praise to God, and then he would sing a HeartSong to Jesus. The reaction of the other prisoners was predictable. Dimitri recounted the laughter, the cursing, the jeers…There was another discipline too, another custom that Dmitri told me about. Whenever he found a scrap of paper in the prison, he would sneak it back to his cell. There he would pull out a stub of a pencil or a tiny piece of charcoal that he had saved, and he would write on that scrap of paper, as tiny as he could, all the Bible verses and scriptural stories or songs that he could remember.

Later, however, these same jeering prisoners sing his song back to him as he is dragged out of his cell–the reward of his faithfulness.

When we clasp Christ’s hand, we too will be pierced by the nails that pierced him. We walk with him in suffering and see his love even more clearly because he is one who has suffered himself, in the everyday trials and in the earth-shattering trials too. When we walk through dark times we learn that every day we will have to preach the gospel to ourselves. It can be like Dimitri through a song so precious we call it our HeartSong or through the recitation of Scripture and it’s promises. It is in this seminary of suffering faith that we can learn the width and depth and breadth of the gospel, girding ourselves with the truth of His grace. It is then we will be ready to deliver this embodied faith to a world that is all too acquainted with suffering, and we will finally be equipped as ministers of the Gospel.

The Lover of Prodigals

Not too long ago, President Donald Trump referred to the MS-13 gangs plaguing the United States and most of central America as animals. At least in my feed, I heard a great deal of righteous indignation with his use of the term, especially because he is referring to those who, while marred, are still created in the image of God. At the time, I had no clue who MS-13 was. That was until The Gospel Coalition shared a basic article titled “9 Things You Should Know about MS-13.”  I’ll admit the bare bones of MS-13’s actions were horrifying and repulsive to me. I felt almost sympathetic to Trump’s derogatory term.

Ironically, as God would have it, I then came across the book The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. This is the true story of how David Wilkerson started the Teen Challenge ministry back in the 1960s. This ministry focuses on teens similar to these MS-13 gang members. The opening paragraphs of this book hooked me right away.

Read the rest here on the Redbud Post.

Loving Those with Mental Illness: A Lesson from Vincent Van Gogh’s Life

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I was on the receiving end of mental illness during my formative years. My beautiful, brilliant mother was also bipolar and paranoid. She thought people were chasing her which resulted in us living in hotels and her buying a gun. I woke up one morning to the sound of her shooting a hole in the hotel wall because the people in the next room wouldn’t turn the TV down. Life after that got simpler in a way–she was arrested and later institutionalized and my sister and I put in foster care and then under the guardianship of my grandparents.

They loved us, but they had their own disorders, namely an undercurrent of bitterness from a failed marriage and a son who was an alcoholic. These experiences shaped me as a child, making me fear mental illness. I’m not afraid of having it–I’m afraid of being at the mercy of a person who does have it. This fear has moved me to be highly cautious in my social interactions.  Any hint of weirdness, and I run. I find the possibility of out-of-control responses terrifying.

I’ve lived my whole life like this, and it has protected me well.  However, the love of Christ pushes against this self-preservation. Jesus reminds me that love is for everyone and not just the ones who have it all together. The Gospel is for the addict, the depressed, the emotionally needy person, and the mentally ill.

A New Perspective

Recently I read an ALA award-winning book about Vincent Van Gogh called Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman. Many of us are familiar with his artistic genius in well-known paintings such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers (a print of which I had in my college dorm room). Even more infamous is his self-mutilation of his ear and suicide. When I picked up this book in order to write a review for a Christian journal, I was not prepared for the emotional connection I would make. More than likely, Vincent had bipolar disorder from the descriptions of his mania and severe depression. What many don’t know about him, though, was that his brother was the one steady person in his life, enabling him to create the masterpieces that he did.

In fact, the narrative radiates from the hub of one moment in their lives. Two young brothers becoming men go on a walk and make promises to one another. Heiligman describes it like this:

But now, on the walk, it’s only Vincent and Theo. The brothers arrive at a polder windmill in Rijiswijk just as the rain stops. They see a sign in the window of the mill: milk for sale, one cent a glass, and also fried eels. Vincent and Theo each buy a glass of milk. No eels. They drink their milk and make a pledge to each other. They promise to always be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate. They will always walk together. They will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art. Together they will achieve lives filed with a purpose. And they will, when needed, carry each other’s parcels.

Vincent paints this scene and later sends it to Theo as a reminder of this eventful day.

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Heiligman describes the two men in the painting:

The men are in workers’ clothes, not fancy establishment garb. One of the men is thinner than the other, of a slighter stature. He stands straight and neat. The other man is bigger and maybe taller, but he is slouching, so he looks shorter. He’s messier, and he is leaning into the other man, his right knee bent toward the other man’s leg, his right foot forward, touching, or almost touching, the other man’s left foot. It makes sense to see the men as Vincent and Theo. Vincent leaning into Theo.

Vincent does lean into Theo, but Vincent repays with love and commitment. Though Vincent is passionate and sporadic, he pours himself into his art and his genius emerges. This genius would have never been possible except for the patient love and understanding of his younger brother, Theo. When Vincent shoots himself, he does not die immediately. There is time for Theo to come to him. Then, laying side by side like they did as children, Vincent dies in Theo’s arms. A year later, Theo himself dies from advanced stages of syphilis.

A Reciprocal Love

It would be easy to say that Theo was the one who gave to Vincent, but the author of this biography makes it clear that the respect and connection were mutual. Theo needed Vincent as much as Vincent needed Theo. I was not prepared for how emotional I would feel upon the conclusion of this book. For one, the author helps you see, through his letters, Vincent’s heart. He knew that there was something wrong, and he couldn’t fix it.  He could only do his best and pour his energy into loving his family and doing what he was gifted to do.

Not Solutions, Love

This relationship humbled me because I see so much of God’s love in this.  This fierce commitment to the beloved, not because they perform well, but because they are family.

In a New York Times article titled “The Problem with How We Treat Bipolar Disorder”, the author Linda Logan describes her own bout with mental illness. She is institutionalized several times and even experiences hallucinations and loss of identity. Her story sounds much like Vincent’s ups and downs. When discussing this with her father who also struggles with bipolar disorder, he helped her see things differently.

One day, about eight years ago, it struck me that bipolar disorder was the hand I was dealt. I remembered what my father said to me when I moved from Boston: “Don’t look at what your disorder has taken away from you, try to find what it has given you.”

We want solutions to problems while some things, like mental illness, cannot be completely solved. We have to live in the midst of brokenness that cannot be healed on this side. The hope though is that our God who is good and gives good gifts has not arbitrarily allowed us to struggle. There is a gift within the struggle if we can hold on long enough to receive it. For Vincent and Theo, it was a rare genius that impacted culture for decades. For Logan, it was the ability to reach out to others in the same situation and help them process the grief caused by losing yourself in mental illness. For those who struggle with these things, they need to know that they still have something valuable to give the world.  The church can help those who struggle to find their gift to give.

In this way, it is not the needy leaning into the church, but it will be a mutual bond where the church grows and learns from those who are weakest. When we do this, we will finally be operating in the philosophy of the kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the parts that seem most dishonored will be the ones most needed. This is the power of the Gospel that our world so riddled with fear and isolation so desperately needs to hear. 

Being Made Needy by Wealth

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Wealth can be a blessing, but it can also be a cross to bear.  This is because wealth makes us needy.

For example, as I walk around my house, I am quick to observe any items out of place.  The picture on the wall in the bathroom is off kilter. I notice my hands as I adjust it and my fingernails need to be clipped.  I sit in my ergonomic chair with my screen eye level and a footrest for my feet. I open my fridge packed with healthy, and not so healthy, food for me to eat.  But it’s not enough…I still need more.

It’s Not Enough

I need my house to be the perfect temperature, a package to be on route (and on time), my clothes to fit in just the right way, and for there to be no miscommunications or difficulties in my day. When these don’t occur in just the right way, I am perturbed, unsettled, and irritable.  I caught myself today wondering why these small things can so easily disrupt my happiness. I have realized that wealth has made me needy.

Having comfort and ease at my fingertips has not really made me enjoy my life more–instead, it has set the bar of happiness so high that it seems even more impossible to reach than it did before.  I didn’t do this on purpose, and I certainly didn’t see it coming, though I should have seen the signs.

Read the rest here on Daily PS.

God’s Will for Being

Just a few nights ago, my preteen daughter and I grappled with the theological snares that threaten us all. Lying on her twin-sized bed, she revealed that she was afraid. She was afraid, first, of the things that go bump in the night, but she was also afraid of the real-life horrors plastered on our news. Our snare that night focused on this difficult topic—God does allow horrible things to happen. I could not lie to my daughter and promise her that God would never let those things happen to her. I could only offer her the promises that he himself gives—no matter what happens, he will be with us.

This promise is only helpful if we trust him, and this trust can only develop as we get to know him. In her new book In His Image, Jen Wilkin describes who God is with ten important adjectives: holy, loving, just, good, merciful, gracious, faithful, truthful, patient, and wise.

Click here for more. (Published in Fathom Magazine)