One of the most popular Christian writers of last century was C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book with the title that I’m using for this article. Pain is a problem. It is a problem physically to be sure, but it is a bigger problem emotionally and spiritually. It can fill up our hearts and lives. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, was a survivor of the Holocaust. Once, after he had told his life story to a group, particularly regarding the Holocaust and the pain he endured, a woman in the audience came up to him with an understandable response. Emotionally distraught, she shared that after hearing about his suffering, she felt guilty for feeling her own pain so deeply, because it was so much less than what he had gone through.
His reply is an oft-quoted one. “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
If one were to know the precise number of times they had been hurt by someone else, the number would be staggering. If that same person knew the precise number of times they had hurt others, that number would also be staggering. The human race is a fallen race, and but for the grace of God, the whole lot of us would have been annihilated long ago. The real issue is which side of that equation we focus on the most – the “victim of hurts” side, or the “perpetrator of hurts” side. By focus on, I refer to that side which occupies our minds most. It is easy enough to feel that we have been hurt by others more than we have inflicted hurt on others. So what – even if true? Do you think that erases your sins, or somehow makes you better than someone who may have sinned more than you?
Many years ago, I was involved in the cleanup phase of the aftermath left by a harsh leader in the church. As I worked with other leaders under his influence, all but one had a similar reaction. They immediately thought about how this leader had hurt them. The one exception listened to me describing the negative impact of this leader, and then he broke into tears and just wept. I asked him what he was feeling, to which he replied, “I’m afraid I’ve used the same leadership style and hurt those under my leadership.” He was a rare bird. Most folks think first of how they have been hurt rather than how they may have hurt others. Not good.
What is God’s Perspective?
The only real issue is God’s perspective on the matter, not yours or mine. Everything that comes into any of our lives comes because God either directly causes it or indirectly allows it. Nothing has happened to you that God has not at least allowed. But why does God allow pain in our lives, especially devastating pain? That’s a question that we are prone to ask very quickly, at least in our minds, when hard times strike.
I think God must feel his own pain when we ask that one so quickly and yet do not ask nearly as quickly why he allows us to hurt others. We are very aware of our pain but not nearly so aware of the pain we cause. That is why Jesus said that the first requisite of following him is to deny self. There are scores of hyphenated words in the dictionary that begin with “self” for a good reason. We humans are selfish to the core. But if the Bible is true, then the only two options available regarding our suffering are that he causes or allows it, both our pain and the pain of others.
Is God in Control or Not?
Any number of verses could be quoted to prove that point, but it is so obvious that we will only include a couple here before going further.
Isaiah 45:7 — I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Lamentations 3:37-38 — Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”
The most important question is why God allows pain and suffering. Agnostics and atheists often rest their case on this very question, believing that there is no logical answer. The agnostics would frame their concerns more in this manner: “If God wills evil, he is not good. If God does not will evil, but it occurs anyway, then he is not all-powerful. Therefore, since evil exists, God must be deficient either in goodness or in power.” The atheists would state their case even more strongly: “A good, all-powerful Being would eliminate evil completely. But, evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist!” Sadly, many believers struggle mightily with faith in God to the point that they never comprehend the God described in Scripture. That is indeed sad, but oh so true.
Do We Believe the Bible?
Our problem starts with a failure to accept the fact that God is in control of everything in the universe, including each of our lives. We may never figure out in this life why something we deem as bad has happened, why he has caused or allowed it, but he has nonetheless. Our problem continues with a failure to accept the very clear statements about how God wants to use suffering in our lives. We are so quick to blame other humans for our pain, not being willing to accept what God says about that pain. If we can’t get enough satisfaction blaming others, then we likely will turn to blaming God and questioning his direction in our lives. Do we really believe what the New Testament says about the purposes of God in allowing or causing our suffering? Do you believe it? Not unless you are able to work through it and surrender your heart and attitudes to him. Look at the key verses that should be determining your thoughts and attitudes when suffering:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Again, Do We Believe the Bible?
Do we believe the Bible regarding the purposes of suffering? A more sobering question is whether we believe what it says about being forgiven? Those who feel justified in nursing their hurts on a long term basis, rather than working through them and surrendering them to God in a reasonable time frame, may be in for a very big surprise when they meet God. Look at the following passages very, very carefully and prayerfully.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ 14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
When I was just a young minister, I heard an older minister preach a sermon based on the above passages. He essentially said that even though we may not be able to completely forgive, that God was well beyond us in his ability to forgive and would still forgive us even if we didn’t forgive others. I related that puzzling sermon to my mentor, who was older than the one who delivered that sermon, and he simply replied, “So, his God is a liar then!” Well said – you either believe all that the Bible says, or you might as well throw it out the window. At least that would be an honest response.
Have You Forgiven? Really Forgiven?
How do you know if you have forgiven or not? If you want to keep hashing and rehashing your hurts over an extended period of time, you have not forgiven. A decade ago, I went through one of the most painful times of my ministry career (which is saying quite a lot, by the way). I knew myself well enough to know that I hadn’t forgiven some of those who had dished out the most pain. I also knew that God did not want me to waste the pain, based on the Scriptures quoted above. I went to a friend’s remote lake house and spent three or four days alone, praying, reading, listening to spiritual music, and crying. I re-read the book “Exquisite Agony” by Gene Edwards. I believe the current title is “Crucified by Christians.”
Thankfully, I had forgotten the punch line of the book (and is it a powerhouse!). It had been some years prior since I had read it. When it hit me afresh, I was staggered. It took my breath away. I nearly fainted. When I then went out into the woods and cried out to God, I ended up thanking him for the intense pain he had allowed in my life and for the privilege of being crucified in pain as was my Savior. As Edwards pointed out, our “Gethsemanes” usually come after our crucifixion instead of before it like Jesus. I felt so one with Jesus and so one with the Father. Words cannot describe the joyful exultation in my heart as it soared beyond my imagination. It was truly an out-of-body experience, and it left me at peace with God and with the world, including those who had in my mind crucified me.
Am I motivated to tell the stories of those painful days before my surrender? Of course not. They are long past and God used them to bless my life, just like Romans 5, Hebrews 12 and James 1 promised. But they only work if we surrender and trust God. Of course, I retained some of the lessons learned through that time of suffering, but I don’t have any inclination to dig up the details of the experience and I don’t have any emotions connected with them now. Having our emotions aroused when thinking about past painful experiences is a dead giveaway. It shouts out, “Unfinished Business!” I surrendered and God blessed me through the whole process. Isn’t that what he calls us to do in his Word?
Do Our Attitudes Demonstrate Faith?
The proper attitudes to maintain as we face human suffering are based on the possible purposes behind the suffering. As we consider the several alternatives which God may be trying to accomplish in our lives, we learn the appropriate responses of faith. One, God may chasten his children in order to mold them, in which case we humbly submit. Two, we may suffer persecution because we are sons and daughters of God, in which case we rejoice. Three, we may not be able to understand just why we are suffering, in which case we trust. In all things, we look to the cross of Christ and see that God shared in our suffering, experienced it to the full degree and in so doing, showed us the greatest love possible. Now he calls us to follow him, trusting that our eternal rewards will far outweigh the temporary struggles. Once we are able to remove the obstacles to faith produced by the problem of pain and suffering, we are in a much better position to see God more clearly.
Two Books Worth Reading
Some of the thoughts expressed in the preceding material came from other materials I have written, whether articles, books or outlines for oral teaching and preaching. The following material comes from the last section of a chapter in one of my books – chapter 4 in Dynamic Leadership. I’ve written 15 books, starting in 1995. Many of the older ones are in the second or third editions by now, and a number of them have been translated into other languages. Dynamic Leadership is one of the newer ones, being published in 2012.
People sometimes ask which of my books is the most popular or which one I like best. The crowd favorite has been The Victory of Surrender, and it is probably my favorite as well. I would put Dynamic Leadership right up there with the book on surrender, believing these two to be the most important I have ever written in terms of the impact they have had or could have. When Wyndham Shaw was writing the Foreword to Dynamic Leadership, (a Foreword well worth reading), he told me that he thought it was the most important book I had ever written. Given the fact the he and I co-authored Golden Rule Leadership, his comments were striking.
As I close out this article, please read the following paragraphs very carefully, prayerfully and personally. Look at your own heart. Don’t think about others whom you think need the lessons contained therein. Fittingly, the following material comes in a chapter entitled “Leadership Styles.” Please continue…
Bitterness Destroys; Grace Heals and Strengthens
No matter what you’ve been through, maintaining a victim mentality will indeed destroy your righteousness. The first Bible Talk I ever attended (as an observer) was on a university campus, led by a single college student whose spirituality was most impressive to me as an older minister. He had a sincere, gentle spirit about him, but courageously laid out the biblical message in an admirable way. Experiences like that one drew me like a magnet into the discipling movement (as I called it then), although it took me a few years. After his graduation, he married a wonderful young disciple, whose spirit was just as refreshing as his. They had what seemed to be the ideal marriage. On a recent trip to their home state, I was told that they are now divorced. Hearing that news shocked and depressed me. We had started a friendship back in that campus Bible Talk that meant something special to me. His influence on me was profound, even though our times together were few and far between over the years. What happened? I don’t really know, but what I do know is that he was a frequent contributor to a certain website where bitterness was fertilized incessantly by former church members who refused to handle hard times and hurts God’s way. Bottom line, bitterness may enter our hearts through different avenues, but once inside, it is only a matter of time before it destroys our own hearts. I have watched this process over and over in the past few years. Satan must be rejoicing.
You might be thinking, “Wait just a minute, Ferguson! You don’t understand my situation. I’ve been hurt, and hurt badly!” I am moved quickly to respond to statements like that by saying, “I’m truly sorry, I really am.” But I am also moved to follow that statement up by saying, “Join the club—the human club, and then the Jesus club.” The human club is a large one indeed, because we have all experienced hurts at the hands of others, but the Jesus club is a very small club, comprised only of people who have chosen to respond as Jesus did (and does, by the way). Am I critical of the military model of leadership described in this chapter? Yes. But do I also understand the environment that produced it and the good that occurred all over the world in spite of many types of sins by the leadership? Yes. If I could redo those years, would I do things a lot differently? Yes. If I could just remove those years from my life, would I do that? Absolutely not! God has always worked his will through sinners. He has no other choice.
What does he expect of us sinners? That we do the best we know, and keep striving to learn and become better in every way; in other words, to be disciples of Jesus: followers and learners. Will we make mistakes and hurt people? Let’s get real here. The person I have hurt most in this life is the one I love most: my wife. But she will tell you that I came from a very dysfunctional home and did the best I knew in our earlier days of marriage, and that over the years I have also kept striving to learn and become better in every way. And by her grace and God’s grace in my life, I have come a long, long way. Yes, I still have a long way to go, but I’ve come a long way. As the old saying puts it: “I’m not what I ought to be, but thank the Lord I’m not what I used to be.”
Some years ago, I was walking around my basement praying. The week before had been a bad one for me (for reasons I no longer remember). As I prayed, I confessed that I had been a mess the week before, and I promised to work really hard in the new week and make up for the bad week. I remember exactly where I was in the room when I said that, because I stopped in my tracks and said aloud, “That’s really bad theology, Ferguson.” No one can make up for anything in the past. Even if that new week I was entering went really well, it still would have contained quite enough of its own sin. That’s the “reality show” that we all live in every day, every week, every month, every year, for our whole life.
What shall we do with our bad days, weeks or months? I discovered an approach to prayer that day in my basement that I think is not only practical, but also biblical. I started most of my prayer times long after that day with this approach: “Lord, here is what happened yesterday—the good and the bad. For the good, I thank you so much. For the bad, all I know to do is confess and repent and then learn from it. So, my plan for today is to learn from both the good and the bad of yesterday, shut the door on yesterday and set out on my journey with you today determined to make this the best day I can, by your grace.” If you are unable to process your past like that, you are in a heap of trouble.
Is not Paul saying basically the same thing in Philippians 3:15–16 that I said in my prayer? After describing some lofty goals in his own life, he then gets practical with these words: “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” I’m not as good a leader today as I will be next year, but it’s not next year yet. What I am today, I am, and I have to be content with living up to what I have attained at this point. And guess what? The people under my leadership are going to have to be content with that as well—it’s the best I have to offer. Can you follow that principle, for your leaders’ sake? Can you follow that same principle, for your own sake? Can you give others grace and can you give yourself grace? If not, you are cooked—no way out. If you cannot accept mercy and if you cannot give mercy, I pity you. We are all a bunch of sinners, trying to get to heaven and help each other get to heaven, and that’s going to require enormous amounts of grace from God and from one another.
Nineteen Reasons—Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?
In this chapter, I listed nineteen evidences of our military model of leadership in the past. For you and for me, that list contains either nineteen reasons to be bitter or nineteen reasons to learn and grow spiritually and not make those same mistakes in the future. It is not what happens to us that ultimately matters; it is how we process what happens to us that matters. We need to learn from our mistakes, but what then? We will make some new ones! We are sinful human beings. This life is not heaven, nor will it ever be. The challenges of life, including all sins you commit and that others commit against you, will either be stumbling blocks or stepping stones. The old bumper sticker said, “Life is tough—and then you die.” That’s true, isn’t it? The real issue is how you handle life when it’s tough. Will it be Satan’s way or God’s way? Those are the only two choices we have, and we have to make that choice on a daily basis, usually many times a day. Jesus said that there are two paths: The narrow path is difficult in the short run, but is the only choice in the long run; the wide one seems deceptively easy in the short run, but is deadly in the long run. If we hang in with God, no matter what happens to us in this life, the long run will be unimaginably wonderful and wonderfully long.
The evolution I wrote about in the Introduction has occurred once again, hasn’t it? In talking about a bad style of leadership, we have ended up at the cross once again. It’s interesting how that will keep happening over and over, if we allow it to happen. The Latin word for cross is crux. The crux of the matter is not man’s leadership style, although I deem it important enough to write a chapter with the title. The real crux of the matter is the cross—God’s leadership style. That is the style I want to employ in my own leadership and to experience as I follow others, but no matter what people may do, God is still my leader, and yours. Whatever he causes or allows in my life, he already has my permission. Otherwise, life will make me bitter. But if God really is the architect of my life, I can handle whatever design he develops in my life. You can too—but the question is: Will we?