3 Steps for Choosing Obedience When You Suffer
When I contemplate human suffering, two words come to mind: lamb stew. One winter evening I joined a friend in her home for dinner. I looked forward to it as her cultured culinary skills always made our shared suppers delightful and delicious. We sat down to an elegant table setting. She served the main course.
As I looked down at my steaming bowl, she asked a question which haunts me to this day: “Have you ever tried lamb?”
My bowl was brimming with lamb stew. Yes…Mary’s little lamb had met its untimely end and now sat before me in a savory rosemary broth. Never having tried this delicacy, I kept an open mind. “It couldn’t be that bad,” I thought. As I put the first bite into my mouth my positive self-talk hit a wall as I realized, “Yes. Yes it could be that bad.”
I had a few choices in that moment…
1) Pray for God’s miraculous intervention. Perhaps fire could fall from heaven and He could consume the stew.
2) Refuse to eat it and hurt my friend’s feelings.
3) Eat the stew.
When God refused number one, I decided to go with the third option. I ate the stew. Bite by labored bite, I pushed through until the bottom of the white china bowl was exposed at last. I had made it through.
Looking back, I learned some important lessons from this. Notably that God clearly intended sheep to provide clothing and not meat. More important was this truth:
Choosing obedience in suffering provides a pathway through it.
John Piper once exclaimed that suffering “in the path of obedience” is not meaningless. This is true. In fact, obedience not only gives your suffering meaning but is the vehicle by which you progress to the other side.
I wish lamb stew was the hardest life experience that had yielded this knowledge.
A few years ago, I endured a terrible loss. It was debilitating. Even breathing required effort. Gently, God began to unfold this truth about obedience in suffering. I realized that putting one foot in front of the other for the sake of His glory would be my lifeline. This is easier said than done when you are crippled by grief. I found three ways to choose obedience in my suffering.
#1 – Accepting
In hardship we naturally want to rebel against the sovereignty of God. There were plenty of nights when I cracked open a pint of Rocky Road ice-cream and sang, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” While mourning is appropriate, a subtle line can be crossed where grieving turns to defiance. We reject God’s decision. We distrust that this was the right thing for us. The book of Job illustrates this sentiment.
My work with young women often puts me in the disciplinarian role. A consequence is given. They are sent to their room. After allowing time alone for them to process, I often visit their quarters. I can tell immediately by the girl’s facial expression if she has accepted her consequence. A calm, repentant gaze tells me she has acknowledged my good intentions in imposing the discipline. A sour face tells me she is still rebelling against my sovereign decision.
Obedience in suffering is to accept God’s goodness and His sovereignty over the situation.
It means believing that the circumstances are not beyond His control and are for your good. While Job at first appeared to accept the hand God dealt, he wavered in and out of fully believing God’s goodness. In the end, he repented, accepting God’s sovereignty and supreme knowledge.
Obedience not only gives your suffering meaning but is the vehicle by which you progress to the other side.
#2 – Remembering
Sojourning in the wasteland, I began to forget who I was before all of this occurred and who God was. My “pathless” wandering blurred everything that had come before. I remember lying in bed one night drowning in tears.
Then I heard a once familiar voice say to me, “Remember.”
He nudged me to recount all the things He had done for me. I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the strength. I wasn’t feeling it. He persisted. Reluctantly I began. I replayed in my head countless scenes of His faithfulness to me over the years. By the end, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: joy. He would ask me to do this many times over on my journey.
I periodically met with a friend who pointed towards remembrance as well. Only she kept prompting me to remember, not just God’s faithfulness in the past, but God’s promises for the future. This friend who had suffered greatly herself, including life-threatening persecution for the Gospel, said to me many times, “Think of the crown, my friend. Think of the crown.” James reminds us,
“Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).
#3 – Doing
Like a fateful ocean iceberg, grief had brought the USS Julia to a grinding halt. My life stopped. Being around people was excruciating. God graciously allowed some time for healing to begin, but then let me know it was time to get back out there. I needed to serve, to minister, to encourage, to love. To put it mildly, I was not up for that.
I realized though, God knew best and that obeying His call to get “doing” again was the best choice.
I remember one summer evening my church was having a work night to prepare for Vacation Bible School. I knew in my heart I should go but I couldn’t imagine getting through it without breaking down. After some wrestling, I found myself in the car driving over.
I don’t know how to explain what I experienced that night. We didn’t talk about anything special. We sat and painted popsicle sticks. But when I left there my spirit was soaring. I drove home marveling at the power of fellowship and the wisdom of God.
Eat the Stew
Seasons of suffering come and go, but the implications of what we do with it are eternal.
We are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who chose obedience in their suffering. Abraham never reached his destination. Moses never entered the land. David hid in caves for years awaiting his kingdom. Jesus Himself was denied glory, honor, respect, comfort, security, ease, and yet He kept on obeying.
Obedience in suffering was the vehicle which transported each of these to their great and glorious reward.
Three words can adequately summarize: Eat the stew.