Already – Not Yet

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

The longer you live the more you come face to face with the enormity of pain and tragedy in this world. There is suffering and heartbreak at every turn. As a follower of Jesus, the only way to navigate the brokenness of the world is to have both a theology of healing and a theology of suffering. One without the other will be insufficient and will lead to despair.

A theology of suffering without a theology of healing leads us to believe we can’t have victory over sin, disease, or spiritual darkness this side of heaven. It leaves us trudging through this world of pain in a perpetual state of gloom and doom. It neglects our calling to bring heaven to earth. It never fully embraces all that Jesus accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection. It will likely lead to cynicism and attempts to escape this world rather than transform it. In Ephesians 4:11 terms, it tries to be pastoral without being apostolic.

Likewise, a theology of healing without a theology of suffering has a difficult time facing tragedy and pain. It tends to avoid the reality of suffering. It doesn’t allow for people to be in process or in grief. It neglects the important disciplines of being joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in enduring prayer. It struggles to be down in the muck walking with people. In Ephesians 4:11 terms, it tries to be apostolic without being pastoral.

A healthy and robust Kingdom theology makes room for both healing and suffering. When Jesus arrived in the flesh, He inaugurated the Kingdom of God on the earth. “Inaugurated” is a term that speaks to the reality that the Kingdom is already here, breaking out among us, but not yet here in all of its fullness and glory. Scholars call this the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom.

We now live in the in-between. This means that our reality will bear witness to both the “already” of the Kingdom and the “not yet” of the Kingdom. Our theology of healing expresses the already of the Kingdom. Our theology of suffering expresses the not yet of the Kingdom.

We must hold the already and not yet in tension with each other. Leaning too far in one direction or the other causes problems. For instance, when it comes to physical healing, we must admit these two truths: 1) God wants to heal and 2) not everyone is healed this side of heaven. Likewise, we must admit these two truths about salvation: 1) God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, and 2) not all will be saved.

There are a number of variables that prevent the Kingdom of God from expressing its fullness. Sin has caused a general brokenness in all of creation. It’s the background noise of brokenness that seems to infect every part of the world. Not only that, but sin has caused a break down in the way people treat each other. It has also caused a break in the way we relate to ourselves and to God. Add to all of this a real enemy, Satan, who is actively employing the kingdom of darkness to work against God’s purposes in the world, and you can begin to get a picture of the real mess we are in.

So while God’s Kingdom has come and is breaking out out among us–seeking to restore, redeem, and renew–there are many factors that are pressing against the advancement of God’s Kingdom in the world. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) gives us a picture of this reality. God’s Kingdom is growing in the world, but so is the kingdom of darkness.

A healthy theology of healing acknowledges things like our victory in Christ, that sin and death have been defeated, that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, and that all things have been placed under His feet. A healthy theology of healing declares that God wants to heal in the same way that God wants all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4), that healing is a mandate given to the Church by Christ, and that there is no sickness in heaven. This is why we pray expecting healing when we pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We have been given supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we are expected to use them to the glory of God. We aren’t waiting to get to heaven to experience the Kingdom of God. We are called to partner with God now in ushering in His Kingdom in increasing measure.

Likewise, a healthy theology of suffering acknowledges that, this side of heaven, not everyone will be miraculously healed, that God’s will is not always done on earth as it is in heaven, and that pain is a part of this broken world. A healthy theology of suffering acknowledges that in this world we will have trouble and that the enemy doesn’t play fair but is out to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). A healthy theology of suffering will not blame God as the author of suffering, but will acknowledge that sin has stained all aspects of life and that we wade through a sea of brokenness as we live in this world. We are called to come alongside people and walk with people through their suffering. We are called to love others in the same way that Jesus loves us.

In the end, God is with us through it all. Sometimes we’ll be healed. Sometimes we won’t. Some aspects of God’s Kingdom are already here, and some have not yet arrived. But what is always available to us is the peace of Christ that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). His comfort and Presence are always available to us. He will never leave us nor forsake us. His love for us is our unending source of strength even in the midst of brokenness. And we can take comfort in the fact that we serve a God of resurrection. He specializes in bringing new life out of death. We confess that whether in healing or in suffering, Christ is all in all. For we have died with Christ and our life is now hidden in Him.

Fruit of Faithfulness

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Both James and Paul experienced the same process in the Christian life–they saw the same pattern emerge–and then wrote about it. Life brings us trials and suffering. If we let them, they produce in us a kind of perseverance, a relentlessness, an endurance. And, over time, this establishes maturity in our character. Those who are mature in their character never seem to run out of hope.

What is happening when we have been long-suffering in our faithfulness and still aren’t seeing fruit from it?

When ongoing faithfulness doesn’t produce outward fruit, it is producing inner formation

If you aren’t seeing the fruit of your faithfulness outwardly, it might be because it is growing on the inside. Babies develop on the inside first before they are introduced to the world. Maybe what God is birthing in you has to start on the inside first.

If One Part Suffers

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:24-27

One of the interesting things about being a pastor of a church is that even when things are going great in your own life, you know at least a dozen situations in other people’s lives that are going horribly. Even when your marriage is in a great place, you know a number of marriages that are falling apart. When your family is doing well, you know many that aren’t. Even when you have one of those days that are full of life, joy, and purpose, in the back of your mind is the awareness of a number of people you care about who are having a terrible day. Now multiply this when your own life is struggling.

This is true of many of the helping professions. The main difference is that, in the helping professions, they are taught to keep a professional emotional distance from those they are helping. There is a wall of professionalism that allows the doctor or therapist to help in a way that doesn’t get too personally involved. Pastors don’t get to do this. Those we are helping are our good friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ that we’ve known personally for years.

Paul said of the church, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). In order to do this well, without being buried under the pile of pain the church is experiencing collectively, it requires the discipline to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn“(Romans 12:15). This discipline is impossible if we base our rejoicing off of circumstances.

We can’t wait for our life and everyone else’s life to be good before we are able to rejoice. It won’t happen. We have to be able to rejoice in the Lord. Rejoicing in the Lord will give us access to joy at all times. Even when we know ten people going through hard things, we’ll be able to rejoice with the person in front of us because the source of our joy is the Lord Himself.

This is true for mourning as well. Our mourning can’t be based entirely on situations in our life or the life of others. It has to come from the compassion of Christ. If the person in front of us is hurting, we can mourn with them because of the compassion of Christ, even when we know there are others who are celebrating moments of victory.

Our life circumstances and the life circumstances of people in our church community are like waves in the seas. They are constantly going up and down; they will constantly change. Our emotional state will be chaotic if our hearts churn with the waves. Instead, our hearts need to be anchored in Christ–in His joy and His compassion.

The call to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn is not a call to react to the situation in front of us. Instead, it is a call to respond to the heart of Jesus for the situation in front of us. And that difference makes all the difference. It is an invitation to tap into the joy of the Lord and the compassion of the Lord for the sake of our friend.

Power Problems

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

Imagine a person came to you and said, “I want to know the power of God.” Many people in the church would give that person a strange look and wonder what was wrong with them. But this is exactly what the apostle Paul wrote here to the church in Philippi, and he wasn’t ashamed to say it. He knew that to know Christ more deeply he’d have to know His power. And we know that Paul not only pursued the power of the Holy Spirit but actually demonstrated it through signs, wonders, miracles and the proclamation of the gospel.

To the Romans, Paul wrote:

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. 

Romans 15:18-19

Why was Paul so comfortable pursuing and exercising the power of the Holy Spirit while so many in the church today get squeamish with any talk or mention of the power of God?

I believe the squeamishness about power and avoidance of the pursuit of the power of God stems from a misunderstanding of power in the Kingdom of God. People are applying their understanding of power in the world and assuming it works the same way in the Kingdom (Hint: it doesn’t).

Americans are skeptical of those in power and anyone who would pursue power. There is a distrust of anyone who would want more power because of all the abuses of power that we’ve seen. We are inundated with stories of those in power misusing and abusing their power for their own selfish agenda. Americans have resisted those in power, rightly or not, since we broke away from the King of England in the Revolutionary War. The whole idea of a government with a “balance of powers” came from this deep distrust of those in power.

So when someone starts pursuing the power of God, all of those assumptions get launched at that person. Skepticism rises, distrust abounds, and questions about agendas get asked. But behind all of this is a profound misunderstanding of the power of God in the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom, and God’s power through the Holy Spirit, does not work like power in the world.

God’s Kingdom is upside-down compared to the world. The first will be last and the last will be first (Mark 10:31). Whoever wants to become great must become a servant (Mark 10:43). The ones listed as the top leaders of the church, the apostles and prophets (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11), are actually at the very bottom as the foundation (Ephesians 2:20).

Some people take this upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God to mean we shouldn’t pursue greatness, but that is not the case. God wants us to become great; He just wants us to know that greatness is a journey downward into servanthood and humility not a climb up an organizational chart. God enjoys exalting His sons and daughters like any good Father would, but He’s called us to humble ourselves first (James 4:10).

This same principle is at work in the power of God. Jesus walked with tremendous power. The evidence of that power was all the healings, deliverances, signs, wonders, and the power with which He spoke. Scripture is clear that our journey in the Christian life is a pursuit of becoming more like Jesus. If we are going to become more like Jesus, one aspect of that journey will include a pursuit of the power of God flowing in our lives like it flowed in His.

The apostle Paul was unapologetic about wanting to know the power of His resurrection. He was unapologetic about operating in the power of the Spirit. The reason he was unapologetic about it was because he knew that identifying with the power of Jesus also meant identifying with His sufferings. The power of the Spirit and the suffering of Christ go hand and hand. To identify with one is to identify with the other. The same is true of God’s love. His love and His power go hand in hand. They are inseparable. So to pursue His power is to pursue His love. Many people don’t understand this because they’ve been too squeamish about power to find out for themselves.

Pursuing the power of the Spirit is like someone saying they are going to run a marathon. When someone says they are going to run a marathon, those who are insecure and those who don’t really know the sacrifice involved in training for a marathon might react by thinking, “Oh yeah? Who do you think you are?” They might assume the person is running for their own personal glory and recognition.

But people who are emotionally secure and people who know the tremendous sacrifice of time and effort it takes to train for a marathon react differently. In other words, they understand that the sacrifice of training for a marathon is GREATER than the personal glory of the finish line. They know that training for a marathon takes so much “dying to self” that the danger of self-glorification is itself usually nullified by the training it takes to finish the race. So their response will be something more like, “Oh wow! That’s amazing! Way to go!”

This is the same with the pursuit of the power of God. The pursuit of the power of the Holy Spirit is a journey downward into humility. It is a pursuit that will demand that you go low and stay low. It is not only identification with the resurrection of Christ but also with His sufferings. It is a million occasions of “dying to self.” The journey itself requires so much sacrifice that it usually nullifies any danger of self-glorification. It is a pursuit of becoming more and more like Jesus every day. The pursuit of the power of Spirit is also the pursuit of the love of the Father and surrender to Jesus.

I have found that in my own personal pursuit of the power of the Spirit, the power comes much later in the process. What God does first is have you encounter His love and, in turn, calls you to love others. Then you get humbled, over and over again. Often in this process is the reality of getting misunderstood and ridiculed. In other words, identification with the sufferings of Christ comes before identification with the power of His resurrection. And because of this, many people do not stay on the journey. It requires too much dying to self.

Pursuing the power of God is nothing like pursuing power in this world. It is an upside-down journey of becoming the last and the lowest. Anyone who doesn’t understand this truth has likely never taken the risk of pursuing the power of the Spirit. It’s much easier to stand at a distance with arms crossed and self-righteously declare their disinterest in power, as if that is some badge of humility. It is much easer to never attempt to be like Christ in His power and therefore to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes with it.

Voluntary & Involuntary Suffering

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings…

Philippians 3:10

If we want to know the power of the resurrection of Christ then we must chose to participate in His sufferings. This means that to the extent that we are willing to voluntarily suffer, is the extent to which we’ll operate in power and authority in that area of our life. This is a Kingdom principle.

When we empathize with and serve people, we will often find ourselves suffering with them in different ways. This is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we fast and contend in prayer for a breakthrough, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we sacrifice for others, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we stand for truth in the face of people mocking and slandering us, this is a kind of voluntary suffering. When we participate in the sufferings of Christ in this way, we will find that our ministry and our prayers will carry more resurrection power with them.

It’s not that we are “paying the price” for greater power. It’s that Jesus already paid the price on the cross so that sons and daughters of the Kingdom would be able to operate in greater resurrection power. Romans 8:11 says, “…the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you…” Jesus already paid the price, so our job is to identify with Him in His sufferings. The result is resurrection power.

Voluntary suffering is different than involuntary suffering. In this world full of sin and brokenness, we will automatically face involuntary suffering (accidents, illnesses, financial issues, relational issues, hardship, etc). Involuntary suffering is useful too but just in a different way. While voluntary suffering produces power, involuntary suffering produces perseverance, character, and hope. Romans 5:3-4 says, “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

James put the same idea this way:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 

James 1:2-4

So one way to look at it is that while voluntary suffering empowers the gifts of the Spirit, involuntary suffering (handled well) empowers the fruit of the Spirit. Voluntary suffering God uses to make us more effective. Involuntary suffering God uses to make us more solid.

Comfort and Mystery

“I, even I, am he who comforts you.
    Who are you that you fear mere mortals,
    human beings who are but grass,
that you forget the Lord your Maker,
    who stretches out the heavens
    and who lays the foundations of the earth…

Isaiah 51:12-13

So often we comfort ourselves by using the tool of “comparison.” We feel like we are struggling financially and so we compare ourselves to someone with less and say, “At least I’m not that poor.” We feel like our career has stalled and so we compare ourselves to someone who got fired and say, “At least I have a job.” This is often how we comfort ourselves when we are facing a hard time.

But using comparison to bring comfort has an ugly side to it. When you are the one completely broke, when you are the one who lost their job, when you are the one with a terminal illness, comparison only leads to more despair. Far from bringing comfort, comparison brings feelings of deep pain and hopelessness.

God makes it clear that He alone is our comforter. We need to take our pain to Him and let His presence exchange our sorrow with joy. Psalm 16:11 says, “…you will fill me with joy in your presence…” It’s in the presence of “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles“(2 Corinthians 1:3-4) where we find comfort and a lasting joy that can’t be taken from us by hard circumstances. Comparison can never do this!

The Lord recently revealed something to me in regard to mystery. We humans tend to be hypocrites when it comes to what mystery we’re comfortable accepting. We ask questions regarding the mysteries of pain and suffering but never ask the same questions about our blessing and provision. We don’t wrestle through why we were born into a country with freedoms, a strong economy, job opportunities, clean water and sanitation. We know it is a mystery as to why we were born here and others were born into countries with none of these things. Yet, we accept this mystery often without a second thought.

However, we love to ask “why me” when we get an illness, or have a financial crisis, or troubled relationships. We embrace the mystery of blessing just fine but can’t bear to embrace the mystery of suffering. If the answer to the question “why was I born into a middle-class family in the one of the greatest countries in the world” is above my pay grade, then certainly why my friend got cancer is above my pay grade. Both are mysteries and both are beyond my understanding. To accept one as mystery and demand answers for the other is hypocrisy.

The healthy response to suffering in our life is to take our grief and our pain to the Lord. We take it to Him and allow Him to comfort us. When we think we have to make sense of it and figure it all out, we step out of our role as trusting sons and daughters of the Father. Embracing mystery and trusting the Lord with things that are beyond our understanding is a part of living in a broken and fallen world.

What mystery in your own life is the Lord asking you to trust Him with?

What do you need to take to the Lord to receive His comfort?

Faith Testing

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1: 2-4

There is something that happens to us when we face trials. If we don’t give up, we get stronger. It is a testing of our faith to pray for something or someone over and over and not see the answer we want. Our faith is being tested. We know that this testing will build in us a perseverance–an endurance–that will make us mature and complete. When we feel like nothing is happening visibly, we can be sure something is happening in us. God is giving us gifts that we can’t see yet, but they are there.

It’s like training for a marathon. Someone could come back from run after run and be discouraged because they feel so badly. Their legs are sore and their body feels weak. If they didn’t realize that this is the natural process of a body getting stronger, if they didn’t realize this is how runners build endurance, then it could be discouraging.

But if they don’t give up, they will find that they’re able to run longer and longer distances. The thing that feels painful and discouraging actually becomes the source of strength. It is the training runs, day after day, that are the foundation of running a complete race on race day. The painful training runs are what ensures that a person lacks nothing on race day.

The testing of our faith does the same thing. But the testing can’t do its work–it can’t accomplish its intended goal–if we give up. If after a few runs a person stops running, the pain never accomplishes the goal of giving them endurance. If we quit after a little testing of our faith, we don’t allow the testing to give us the gift of persevering faith. We don’t allow it to increase our maturity.

Scripture says of Jesus, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…”(Hebrews 12:2). And so when we find joy in our trials, we are imitating Jesus. We are identifying with His suffering. And the apostle Paul talks about our participation in the sufferings of Christ. He said:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

When we face trials of many kinds it is a way we participate in the sufferings of Jesus. And when we participate in His sufferings, we make available to us the opportunity to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

Suffering for the Lord?

The apostle Paul embodies what it means to suffer for Christ. He’s the one who wrote, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). He also wrote, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17). And also, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Is there any doubt that part of the Christian life involves suffering? It’s one of the main ways that we identify with Christ. It was Jesus Himself who said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul even encourages his protege Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

A few different times Paul gives his churches his resume of suffering to show that he is a worthy apostle to follow. To the Corinthians he wrote:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”

(2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

What is conspicuously absent in this list of suffering is physical illness. Paul seems to be physically worn down from persecution, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, physical danger and travel. But if Paul listed so many different forms of suffering for Christ, one would think he would list at least one physical sickness or illness. But we don’t see a single one. Not that Paul never got sick, but Paul doesn’t seem to believe that sickness is a way to “suffer for the Lord.”

Sickness, in other words, is not from God but from the enemy. While it may honor God for us to endure persecution, it does not bring him honor for us to suffer from sickness. The way we handle ourselves while sick will definitely bring him honor, but sickness itself does not.

This is in line with what we see in Jesus. Jesus was the perfect representation of what the Father is like. “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus suffered in many ways while on the earth. Yet, we have no indication or record of Him ever being sick. This reaffirms the truth that sickness is not from God but is a product of a broken world and sometimes the result of a direct assault from the enemy.

In other words, sickness is not God’s will. It is not what God wants for us. If Jesus is the perfect picture of the will of God, and not only did He never get sick but healed every person who came to Him for healing, then we have in Jesus a pretty clear idea of how God feels about sickness.

As followers of Jesus we have to stop saying things like, “I’m not sure why God gave me this illness, but…” Friend, God did not give you that sickness. That sickness is a result of the brokenness of our world. Or, it may be that your illness is a direct attack on your life from the enemy. But that illness you are going through is not from God. Do not receive it as such! Believe, instead, that God wants you free from it! Do not passively receive it as the will of God. It’s not! Persevere in your fight against it!