MEMBERS: Joy in Suffering: A Conversation in Light of COVID-19 (Transcript)

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Jimmy Buehler: Welcome to the members podcast. We’re continuing our conversation from the book of James and even more broadly just on the theme of suffering. Thank you for your support of our ministry. It’s because of your giving and your listening that we are able to have these charitable and reasonable conversations as we seek to rest in Christ.

As we think about just this whole theme of suffering, I think one of the things that I want to go at a little bit is, and this goes beyond the current season of COVID-19 and what we’re all collectively facing, but it’s just this mindset that the general disposition of the Christian should be happy and positive. And it’s the general Christian radio mindset. I can’t listen to Christian radio. I feel like it just hurts my ears in so many different ways. I don’t know if you guys want to discuss that a little bit as we think about the disposition of the everyday Christian life and what’s normative.

What does it even mean to be happy? My wife may listen to this and roll her eyes because she says I’m a glass half empty kind of person. I like to say I’m realistic, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, you guys want to jump in on that?

Jon Moffitt: I think social media is amazing. And I think that it creates a lot of Law on people. I think it’s amazing cause I have laughed more during COVID-19 than I have at any other time because of all the toilet paper memes.

Jimmy Buehler: There are some good ones out there. The best one that I’ve seen lately is a, “What if the federal government on April 1st said, ‘We’re just kidding, everybody! April fools!’

Jon Moffitt: Oh man, that’s horrible. The one I laughed at the hardest was we found the cure for COVID-19 it’s in Chuck Norris’ tears. Bad news is he’s never cried.

But the same time I’ve seen memes where people are like, “God’s taken your phone. He’s taken your job. You can’t go outside. Now will you talk to me?” There’s just so much. Then the other thing is a total non-spiritual; I’m going to just riff for a second. I don’t think anybody has ever gone from fear to comfort because you told them to stop being an idiot and stop being afraid, like, “What are you all freaking out about?” I’m like, “You know, you’re right. I shouldn’t be afraid because you told me I was an idiot.” Sorry, I just can’t handle that. People need to be comforted and cared for. They don’t need to be slapped and told they’re an idiot. So that’s just my own personal preference.

Justin Perdue: There are a number of thoughts here. Jimmy, to your point about pessimism, I also would call myself realistic. I’m happy to say that I’m a pessimist, almost like Solomon in Ecclesiastes – I’m a pessimist but I believe that God and truth remain and try to wrestle with life accordingly.

Jimmy Buehler: There’s a difference between a healthy level of pessimism and being jaded. I don’t think we’re jaded at all but just realistic.

Jon Moffitt: You guys definitely keep me on the realistic road because there are times I come in and I’m like, “Hey, what about this?” And you both are like, “I don’t know, Jon, I don’t think that’s realistic.”

Justin Perdue: A couple of things here. In terms of unhelpful stuff that’s being thrown out there by Christians right now, one is this whole faith versus fear paradox where you can either live by fear or you can live by faith. This is an interesting premise here that if you have faith in Christ, you apparently never experienced fear. If we were fully sanctified, true. But the reality is that we all struggle with doubt and fears of various kinds.

That’s an unhelpful thought that if you just have appropriate levels of faith, then you would not fear anything. I think what we would say back to that is that no, you will continue to wrestle with fear and struggle, but what you’re doing is you’re looking to Christ in the promises of God in the midst of that fear.

Jon Moffitt: JP, just to interject: do you walk into your child’s room and say stop being afraid of the dark?

Justin Perdue: No.

Jon Moffitt: I just wanted to butt in and say you don’t treat your child that way; why do we treat people on the internet that way?

Justin Perdue: Another thought is the whole anxiety thing. This is going to sound absurd, but this is how we act in the church about a lot of stuff. People are afraid and they’re anxious about their circumstances for good reason: because there’s a lot of uncertainty going on, there’s a lot of instability, and there’s a pandemic on our hands. And we just look at people and quote the Bible and say, “Jesus says, don’t be anxious.” As though that has solved the problem. It’s like looking at a depressed person and saying, “Be joyful always.” Thank you for that. I want to be joyful or I don’t want to be anxious, but you’ve got to give me more than that because I am anxious. What do you have for me?

It’s like the refrigerator platitude nonsense. It’s the Romans 8:28 reality where we slap that verse on the refrigerator and we think that we’ve dealt with the problem of pain. It’s crazy town. Jimmy, it’s exactly Christian radio positivity stuff: if you just think good thoughts, you have enough positive vibes, and you have faith, then you’re going to be doing swell in the midst of all this.

Things are falling apart in the Purdue house. We’re like a bunch of caged animals. It’s just not good.

Jon Moffitt: Don’t be admitting that on a podcast now. Come on. You don’t do that.

Jimmy Buehler: You’re a pastor.

Jon Moffitt: Do you understand your priestly duties?

Jimmy Buehler: The theological word here that we’re looking for is called a theodicy: it’s developing a theology about the problem of evil and pain and suffering. All sorts of theodicy are being thrown out on Facebook right now.

I think one of the issues is that when we, as churches, fail to talk about God’s goodness in the midst of suffering in the norm. When the suffering actually comes, what do we resort to? We resort to microwave level of theodicy where we throw up the meme, the gif, and the Bible verse and are just like, “Don’t be afraid.”

When you’ve plastered people for the majority of your church ministry with these steps to have this kind of marriage and those steps to have this kind of victorious Christian life, when the crap hits the fan, you know, throwing Romans 8:28 out there is not going to do anything.

It’s like giving somebody a plain Pop-tart when they’re starving and saying, “It’s food.” Sure, it’s food, but it’s not what they need right now. They need a steady diet. In coaching, pastoring, and shepherding people through suffering, we have to think less of it as little bits and bobs here and there, but it needs to be a steady gaze onto the goodness of God as he’s given to us in Christ Jesus over the long haul. So that when suffering does come, as the Psalmists give us in their laments, they look back on God’s faithfulness, they look back on the salvation that’s been provided for them.

Jon Moffitt: To add to that, Jimmy, I think that you can’t try and move people out of their suffering because sometimes it doesn’t work like that; especially if someone’s suffering with cancer or the death of a loved one. I think that’s why the New Testament tells us to weep with those who are weeping, because sometimes the only thing you can do is to get down there in the dirt with them to get dirty and just say, “I love you. This hurts but I’m here.” And you just hold them because it’s hard and they don’t need you to say anything. They just need to know that they don’t have to go through this alone. What you’re providing for them is the reality of Christ with them. “I’m your brother and I’m going to love you just as Christ loves you right now. And that’s all you need to know. You’re not alone; he is sympathetic to your pain. I’m here and I’m sympathetic to your pain and I’m going to cry with you because Jesus cried when Lazarus died.” How real is that? “Well, he knew he was raising him from the dead.” It didn’t mean that the pain was not realistic.

“Well, we’re all going to go to heaven one day.” That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt. It hurts. If one of my loved ones die or one of you guys die, it’s going to wreck me. Because I love you and you mean so much to me that that’s going to be a scar. When my dad died, it hurts. To still think about him being gone hurts. When someone comes up and just says, “But you know, he’s in heaven,” I am sanctified enough not to punch you right now, but this is what I want to do. I want him here. I love him. Anyways, I need to get off this for I say something I regret.

Justin Perdue: It’s absolutely true, Jon. We’ve got to acknowledge the hardness of the heart. I guess this is maybe a silly way to say it, but to act like hard things are not hard is not what the New Testament or the entire Scripture is saying. What we actually can do in Christ Jesus is stare difficult things in the face and call them what they are – and that includes death.

I officiated and preached at the funeral of a young person from our congregation not long ago. These realities were very much at the front of my mind and on my heart that, my goodness, there is nothing about this that’s good. This is terrible. The only good in this at all is that this woman, who has died of cancer, is not suffering anymore and she’s with the Lord. But as far as we are concerned, for those who are left behind, this sucks.

To try to trivialize or normalize death or suffering is not what we need to do. We can acknowledge that it’s bad and hard, and yet point people to God and his faithfulness, and ultimately point people to Christ, the suffering Messiah who has saved all of us.

I’m thinking about something you said, Jimmy, about churches and what they normally do in terms of the ethos and the thrust of their ministry. If all you’re generally doing for people is earthbound in that it’s all about this life – if it’s how to have a better marriage or relationships or finances and it’s earthbound in that way. Honestly, you don’t need Jesus for any of that stuff because Jesus didn’t come for you to have a better marriage. Jesus didn’t come for you to have a better handle on your finances. Jesus came to save you. He came to save you from sin, death, and hell so that you might live with God forever as God intended.

This is punchy, but I’m going to say it: if your ministry is filled with earthbound stuff that you don’t need Jesus for, then the only thing you can give people when it hits the fan is a bunch of positive thinking and platitudes. That’s all you got. And any thoughtful, sane human being listens to that and thinks that is a joke; there has got to be more to it than this. At least that would be my reaction. I don’t even know what you’re spewing at me right now, but you need to figure it out and talk honestly like a reasonable human being.

Jimmy Buehler: I was going to say a few things, but I don’t really feel like I need to anymore.

To bring this to a close, I think one of the things that we just want to give people the freedom to do is to lament and to recognize the difficulty that we are all currently facing. I’m sure there are people listening to this podcast right now that are actually very concerned about the future of their financial situation. I am sure that there are people listening to our podcast right now that are very concerned about what they’re going to do for their children. I’m sure there are people listening to the podcast right now that are very concerned about their health, and every time someone comes to the door or a package gets delivered or something like that, they’re curious about who touched it. “How did this get handled? Am I going to get sick from this?”

At this point, I think what we want to give people the freedom to do is to lament. Pray to the Lord, ask God for His sustaining grace in these difficult times. There is not going to be one verse or one passage or one tip or one trick that’s going to bring that immediate comfort.

But ultimately what we long for is we long for the return of Christ who makes all things right, who takes the powers of sin and death and vanquishes them forever. JP, you were talking about that funeral; what does a funeral point us to more than a wedding? A wedding of the great Bridegroom coming back for His Bride. That is what we long for.

As we close this, let us just say as three pastors that you’re loved, that God is good, that His goodness is displayed. As Romans 5:8 tells us, His love is demonstrated for us, that Christ has died for sinners. Turn your eyes to that, turn your gaze to that in this time.

Again, thank you to our members for tuning in, listening, and supporting our ministry. Know that we are so grateful for your love and support during these difficult times. We hope this conversation was helpful and we look forward to bringing more content like this to you in the near future.

Thanks again.

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