I think we’ve got it all wrong when we believe that if we force ourselves into a little more suffering, then we’ll be close to God. Over the last few months, I’ve heard this idea taught at more than one Christian event and I honestly believe it’s anti-Gospel! So, I just want to set the record straight.
At one retreat, I heard the speaker say that his son needed a little more suffering in his life, ultimately so his son could grasp what really mattered, as though this father was hoping for his son to suffer. At another retreat, I heard someone share that she felt impressed to pursue the very last things that she would ever want to do, the things that she despised so that she could be close to Jesus. I have, of course, ranted to my husband about these incorrect teachings, but only in the last few days has it begun to sink in why these teachings sound like nails on a chalkboard to my soul.
The truth of the Gospel is that no human being can work himself or herself into relationship with God. There is nothing you, nor I, can do to reach to God on our own. Our works and are efforts to become pleasing to God on our own are detestable (Isaiah 64:6). When we follow Jesus, He makes us pleasing to God. It is through the rescue and restorative work of Jesus that we are acceptable to God. It is not through anything we do that we become acceptable to God.
So when we think that if we just force ourselves into a bit more suffering in order to get to God, we are completely backward in our thinking. Jesus already suffered so that we could be connected to God. Purposefully creating suffering does not get me closer to God. Thinking that if I just make myself miserable, then I’ll know God better is anti-Gospel. My efforts to get close to God without His help get me nowhere.
The truth is that suffering and struggle are already the reality. Struggle is part of the human experience because we live in a world that is broken due to sin (Genesis 3, Romans 8:20-23). Beyond that, God said that if we follow Him there will be suffering. If you follow Jesus, you will probably experience some kind of suffering at some point (John 15:20, 1 Peter 5:8-11). The truth is that we are going to struggle in life. But creating suffering in your life just for suffering sake or trying to use it as a catalyst to attain to God is not what God is talking about.
The example that we do see, though, is Jesus’ life of willing sacrifice. Jesus talks about us giving up all kinds of things as a response to the reality and grace of God. If you have given your life to following Jesus, you have a freedom to give up (or sacrifice) all kinds of things because you know that those things are not ultimate. The only thing that is ultimate is knowing and following Jesus. If I have given my life to following Him, then I know that I am connected to God, that my eternity is secure, and that my life on earth is His. Because of these greater realities, I am free to sacrifice. I am free to give my time, energy, money, gifts, abilities, intelligence, and creativity because my agenda, my plans, my life are no longer ultimate…Christ is.
Sacrifice is not easy, but there is a freedom in it when it is done in response to Jesus’ rescue of you. I have watch friends sacrifice all kinds of things because they understand that God loves them, they have a role to play in His work on earth, and that they are free to give things up now because the they already have security in the things that ultimately matter. One friend of mine volunteered at a church for an extended period of time, living on a smaller income because she knew she could give up money for the sake of furthering God’s work. Another friend and her husband are active in foster care, opening their home and their hearts, because they know that they can sacrifice what others might perceive as “the perfect family” in order to share God’s love with children who need a family. I have another friend who gave up her career so she could stay home with her four children, knowing that she could sacrifice “success” and the opinions of others so that she could devote herself to shepherding her children in following Jesus. And yet another friend took drastic steps in her life to deal with God deeply in her soul so that she could be healed from major hurts; she did this because she knew that she could sacrifice looking like she had it together for the sake of becoming whole through Jesus, so that she could love God and love people more fully.
Willing sacrifice is a doctrine of response. Self-imposed suffering is a religious work. A doctrine of response is simply the idea that I respond to God’s love and rescue of me. Because He gave His Son to bring me back to Him, I respond to this love. In response to God’s love, I give of myself to God, to His work on earth, to the people He created. Because He loved me, I am able to love (1 John 4:19). Trying to suffer so that I can get close to God is simply trying to earn my way to God. It is a religious act that does nothing other than makes me miserable. God is about rescue, redemption, reconciliation, and restoration; He is not about religion. Any method of trying to attain to God, other than receiving Gospel grace, is simply religion. All my religious acts mean nothing if they are not done out of love in response to God’s love for me (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
So, why do you do what you do? Because you are trying to earn God’s approval? Because you are so completely consumed with Christ that you cannot help but respond? Stop. Think. Pray. If you are trying to earn God’s approval, you may want to stop and re-center yourself on Jesus, preach the Gospel to yourself again, and ask to be overwhelmed again by God’s rescue of you. Only from that place will you find the incredible desire to willingly sacrifice.