I've been preaching a series of sermons through the book of Job entitled "The Gospel of Suffering." These sermons are changing my life. I'm learning so much about the gospel, idolatry, the long-term blessings of God-appointed trials, and so on.
A few weeks back I was expounding on Job's sweeping losses and his response to those losses in chapters 1 and 2. What we learned together was stunning.
Job's maintained his joy and perspective in a season of suffering because he held onto a robust theology of grace. Job knew that he was not entitled to anything he had-God held the title to everything. He knew that everything he had was on loan from God-his money, his relationships, his place in society, his family. Because he understood that he was an owner of nothing and a steward of everything he was able to say, "I came with nothing from the womb; I go with nothing to the tomb. God gave me children freely then, He took them to himself again. At last I taste the bitter rod, my wise and ever blessed God" (John Piper). While he loved his health and children and reputation and role and wealth, he didn't locate his identity in those things.
This clearly shows that if the foundation of your identity is your things-the thing that makes me who I am is this position, these relationships, having this name, having this money, and so on-then suffering will be pulling you away from the uttermost foundations of your joy–and that will make you mad, bitter, and sad. But if your identity is anchored in Christ, so that you are able to say, "Everything I need I already possess in Him", then suffering drives you deeper into your source of joy. Suffering, in other words, shows us where we are locating our identity. Our response to suffering reveals what we're building our life on and what we're depending on to make life worth living.
This means that suffering itself does not rob you of joy-idolatry does. If you're suffering and you're angry, bitter, and joyless it means you've idolized–and felt entitled to–whatever it is you're losing. Entitlement and self-pity stem from our belief that we deserve more than what we're getting–love, attention, respect, approval. The gospel, however, frees us to revel in our expendability! The gospel alone provides us with the foundation to maintain radical joy in remarkable loss. Joylessness and bitterness in the crucible of pain happens when we lose something (or think we deserve something) that we've held onto more tightly than God.
As Paul Tripp so probingly asks, "How is your present disappointment, discouragement, or grief a window on what has actually captured your heart?" When we depend on anything smaller than God to provide us with the security, significance, meaning, and value that we long for, God will love us enough to take it away. Much of our anger and bitterness, therefore, is God prying open our hands and taking away something we've held onto more tightly than him.
With this in mind, I find this fictional story from Elisabeth Elliot (taken from her book These Strange Ashes) to be refreshingly rebuking to my own soul–and therefore, remarkably liberating:
One day Jesus said to his disciples: "I'd like you to carry a stone for me." He didn't give any explanation. So the disciples looked around for a stone to carry, and Peter, being the practical sort, sought out the smallest stone he could possibly find. After all, Jesus didn't give any regulation for weight and size! So he put it in his pocket. Jesus then said: "Follow Me." He led them on a journey. About noontime Jesus had everyone sit down. He waved his hands and all the stones turned to bread. He said, "Now it's time for lunch." In a few seconds, Peter's lunch was over. When lunch was done Jesus told them to stand up. He said again, "I'd like you to carry a stone for me." This time Peter said, "Aha! Now I get it!" So he looked around and saw a small boulder. He hoisted it on his back and it was painful, it made him stagger. But he said, "I can't wait for supper." Jesus then said: "Follow Me." He led them on a journey, with Peter barely being able to keep up. Around supper time Jesus led them to the side of a river. He said, "Now everyone throw your stones into the water." They did. Then he said, "Follow Me," and began to walk. Peter and the others looked at him dumbfounded. Jesus sighed and said, "Don't you remember what I asked you to do? Who were you carrying the stone for?"