My family has been blessed mightily in the last six months or so. My dear wife Denise and I have suffered through two miscarriages. (And three more in the years before that.) Our daughter Shannon, who is mentally retarded, began developing more serious seizures than the ones she used to have. (Those started a year ago.) And then there is the breast cancer my wife is trying to beat. The diagnosis came last New Year’s Eve. And this is just on the bodily health front. We have lost loved ones, some to death and some to broken relationships. Some friendships floundered on the rocks of grievous sin, and others simply because I made people mad with the things that I’ve taught. We have taken assorted financial hits, and my chickens won’t lay. As great as all this news is, better still is that God is patient with me.
There are many errors that are too common within the evangelical church, wrong-headed ideas that are blemishes and wrinkles on the Bride. Some are understandable, and others just plain silly. Few skate closer to the edge of blasphemy than this nugget drawn from the pages of gestalt therapy. God, we are told, is far more interested in our honesty than our decorum. If you are angry at God, God will get angry at you if you don’t let Him know, in no uncertain terms, that you are angry at Him. God, we are told, is a big boy, and He can take it. Better still, that’s what He actually wants from you. So, if you’re having a bad day, a bad week, or a bad six months, shake your fist at the sky until you and God both feel better. This sounds reasonable enough, if you have already accepted the premise that God’s chief end is to glorify man and ensure His joy forever.
When the Bible tells us that God will not be mocked, such is a two-edged sword. It does indeed remind us that if you are mad at God, you won’t be able to pull the wool over His eyes by smiling real sweet. If your goal is to flatter your way past Him, there is no point in hiding from Him your anger, disappointment, impatience, and rage. If, however, your goal is to avoid provoking His anger, disappointment, impatience and rage, there is a point in not parading your anger in front of Him. In fact, the beginning of our call to be “patient” with God is to repent of our impatience with God. Yes, do admit your anger, and then plead that He would forgive you of it, and cleanse you from it. In short, neither honesty nor dishonesty will cover your anger at God. Only Christ and His blood can do that.
But we still have far to go. Too many of us define patience, in virtually any circumstance, as the ability to hold one’s breath for great expanses of time. We confuse it with marathon grudge holding. That is, we avoid getting angry with God by repeating to ourselves over and over, “I can wait this out … I can wait this out … I can wait this out.” The gestalt theory drives a hole into the bubbling pressure cooker, and scalding steam wreaks all manner of destruction. The more pious theory is simply to batten the hatches down all the more tightly, until of course the pressure gets too great and we have not only hot steam to contend with, but an exploding pressure cooker.
The biblical solution is surprisingly elegant — you simply turn off the heat. You cannot get to peace by screaming your rage. Neither can you get there by clenching your teeth and warring it into existence. All you can do is believe God, to rest in His grace, even when it isn’t exactly your idea of grace. All you can do is to learn to recognize the eagle’s wings on which you rest, the light burden that you carry, the eternal weight of glory toward which you are being taken. The solution is always the same, no matter what the problem — believe the Gospel.
I have been, as you might imagine, preaching this gospel with great fervor these past few months. Since Denise was diagnosed, I have been repeating over and over many of the mini-classics in our home. “Now is the time,” I remind my precious bride, “that we must believe what we have always believed.” Of course we always believe what we are to believe. Now it’s just a little harder, and more important. What are those things we believe?
First, we remember the answers to the three most important questions to our peace: What are we due, what do we have, and what have we been promised? If you read through once again the trials that my family has faced these past few months, you will note a rather startling absence. We have not experienced the full wrath and fury of God our Father that is due for our sins. This despite the fact that listing our sins would take me rather past my word count for this article. We don’t need to have patience with God; we need to remember His patience with us. Which brings us to our second question. What do we have? We have each other, a family that loves one another. We have a home in which we live comfortably together. We have plenty of food on our table. We have a local church body that is the corporate embodiment of that proverbial blessing on a single bride: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Prov. 31:29). We have a broader church body that upholds us. Thousands upon thousands of families are praying for us. We have a great deal of medical hope that things will turn out well. Greater than all this, we have Jesus. He is our Shepherd, and we do not want. All this, and still we haven’t gotten to patience. We have enough, no, more than enough. In the here and now, in the midst of our “suffering,” our cups runneth over.
Of course, we do now see through a glass darkly. We will never, however, pierce that darkness while gazing at our navels. No, we must keep our eyes on the prize, the Author and Finisher of our faith, which brings us to the third question: What have we been promised? The church at large would not be puzzled by suffering if it were receiving a steady diet of preaching not on the sovereignty of God but on the glory of the new heavens and the new earth. The seizures that wrack my little girl’s body will disappear. We have been promised. I will tell her again and again that I love her, and this time she will be able to reply. The cancer in my wife’s body will be cast into the outer darkness, never to return. We will dance with those within the kingdom with whom we now feud, because our sins will have been washed away. And we will dance that those outside the kingdom are outside the kingdom. No reunion, however, will be sweeter than with those children of ours who have gone before us. The Sproul Junior family will be together, as it was meant to be.
I have long held, however, that the greatest joy of heaven is in this: We will sin no more. The rest into which we enter is the end of the warfare, the battle between the old and new man. No more shame. Which simply highlights once again the great irony of the work of God. For not only are we promised — and called to believe — that what we now suffer cannot be compared to the eternal weight of glory, but we are promised that all these sufferings bring us closer to that glory. That is, our suffering sanctifies us, moves us closer to the new heaven on earth, helps us labor that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The purification of our souls that comes through trials actually pulls down high heaven upon us.
But there is yet more irony. Our suffering feeds our impatience, which in turn feeds our patience. Our thoughts only turn to eternity when we find the here and now less than to our liking. And as we gaze at what awaits us, we find again that we can wait. When we rejoice it what lies ahead of us, then we rejoice in what lies before us. Now our waiting is suffused with a holy impatience, as we cry with the Spirit, “Maranatha, Lord Jesus,” as we cry out for the return of the King.