This post is adapted from a sermon entitled “Praise You in the Pain,” shared by Taylor Burgess at Tidal Creek Fellowship in January 2016.
If there is a special place in heaven for every parent who has had to endure getting stuck for several hours in a car with a screaming child, then Emily and I have earned a private, 5-star luxury resort right off of the streets of gold with a waterfront view of the crystal sea. While I could recount these occurrences ad infinitum, the epic debacle simply known in our family as “black Saturday” tops them all.
Last year, after a few days visiting family for Thanksgiving, we got up early, loaded the car, and made it about 2 hours into a 4-hour return trip home without any sort of delay. But then—because I am a total genius—I had to say those cursed words: “Man, we’re making great time. At this rate, we’ll be home before lunch!” I no more than got the words out of my mouth before we ran into standstill traffic. As soon as the traffic came to a halt, Nolan, our youngest son, who was about 8 months old at the time, woke up from a deep sleep and immediately shifted into a full-on nuclear meltdown.
Several hours later, as we finally neared home, we were all hungry, exhausted, and mad at each other. Nolan was mostly a trooper, but the poor kid had taken all he could take. Emily, desperate for some relief from the screaming and crying, was trying to make him smile, and started clapping her hands and saying, “Yay, Nolan!” With big tears in his eyes and a pitiful, exhausted cry, he started clapping his hands. Emily, completely exasperated, sighed, “That’s it, baby. Clap through it.”
Clap through it.
It’s been said by a number of different people in a number of different ways that Christians are like tea. When you place us in hot water, our true colors come out.
While it is probably the litmus test that most of us use, Sunday morning can be a poor measure of the strength of our faith. Think about it. Put us in a well-lit, air-conditioned room with a flawlessly produced worship experience, professional musicians, and a charismatic speaker, and it’s easy to say: “We could really feel the presence of God in that place.”
But back in the real world where we actually spend our lives, if you throw us into a trial that tests our faith and raises all of our deepest questions, doubts, and fears to the surface, we begin to convince ourselves, “There’s no way God is in this.”
But it’s how we respond to chaos, not comfort, that is the true measure of our faith.
The Apostle Paul is one of the most fascinating characters in all of Scripture, because, by virtually every measurable objective, his conversion to Christianity makes absolutely zero sense. Paul had nothing to gain and everything to lose by becoming a Christian. And as a devout, Jewish religious leader who was so zealous for his tradition that he persecuted those who followed Christ, no one knew the dangerous consequences of becoming a Christ follower more than Paul.
But his life was miraculously transformed after he encountered the resurrected Christ, and God’s will for his life is revealed to a man named Ananias in Acts 9: “He is a chosen instrument of mine…I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” It did not take long for God’s plan to come full circle for Paul, and this reality is clearly reflected in his letter to the church at Philippi, a letter that he wrote from a prison cell.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (Phil. 1:12-13)
This is remarkable. Paul, who used to imprison Christians, is in prison because of his commitment to the Gospel. But what does he tell his fellow followers of Christ as he sits in chains? Does he tell them to send a petition to the government? To march in protest? To start a social media campaign? To even pray for his safety and release? Demand his rights? Panic? No. Not even close.
“…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:20-21)
This is not a man living in fear for his own safety. This is not a man living in regret of his calling. This is a man who stared an empire in the face and said, “You want to let me live? Great! I’m going to throw my entire life into the proclamation of the Gospel, even if it lands me in prison.” OR, “You’re going to kill me? That’s even better! Because then I can depart and be with Christ!”
Paul was bulletproof. There was nothing he could be threatened with. There was nothing he wasn’t willing to lose—even his own life. This is why, with full integrity, Paul could close out his letter with this bold exhortation: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
I’ll never forget the whirlwind of emotions that filled my mind when Emily took that first pregnancy test and I received the news that I was going to be a dad. The first doctor's appointment didn’t go as planned. Our fears were confirmed as we learned that she had experienced a very early term miscarriage. Since we had not shared the news with anyone, we grieved this tragedy alone. We were shocked, confused, angry, hurt, and devastated.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Our sorrow had turned to joy, and one healthy pregnancy, baby boy, and a move to a new city later, we once again felt the Lord leading us to grow our family. While the pain of the first miscarriage still loomed, the blow had been softened by the strong, beautiful, healthy little boy who now lived in our home. But once again, our worst fears were re-imagined, and we miscarried again. This one hurt really badly. We were almost out of the first trimester, and we had shared the news with family and friends. We had even bought Gideon, our oldest, a “Best Bro Ever” t-shirt. This sent us both into a spiral of depression and anxiety that we weren’t sure we could overcome.
But during this time, Greyson Johnston, our close friend and worship pastor, wrote a song in light of our tragedy called Your Love Is All We Need. The bridge will always resonate in my soul:
“You lift my head up! You shield me in the cover of Your wings
You have sustained me! Even through these trials, I can sing.”
The words echo the powerful declaration of David in Psalm 32: “You are a hiding place for me. You preserve me from trouble. You surround me with shouts of deliverance.”
This song was the tangible grace of God to us in a moment of brokenness and desperation. But even then, we had no idea how much we needed these words. Because, just a few short months later, it happened again. Were there tears? Yes. Anger, frustration, confusion, and pain? All of the above. Doubt and fear? Absolutely. But this time was different. There was sorrow, but this time we had a song. We clapped through it.
There are no easy answers when it comes to the agony of sin, death, and suffering. Which is why, when it comes to our suffering, God does not just offer us a principle. He offers us a Person. He offers us Himself. The God who weeps with His children and has felt their pain. A God not just of sympathy, but of empathy. A God who knows what it’s like to lose a child.
Even at the death of Christ, the worst moment in human history, the tragedy of the crucifixion was followed by the triumph of the resurrection. Such is the legacy of Christ followers. The church of Jesus Christ has historically thrived in the midst of suffering. We are a people who endure trial, tragedy, and loss with peace, hope, and joy. A people whose faith is undeterred in the face of annihilation. A people who are steadfast at the threat of persecution. A people who rejoice always. A people who clap through it.
We hear it in the words of Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” who ministered through a lifetime of physical ailments, when he audaciously declared: “I have learned to kiss the wave that strikes me against the rock of ages.”
I see it in the middle east, as Christians who have lost their homes, their parents, and their children at the brutal hands of ISIS cling to the great hope of their salvation; and pray for and forgive their enemies and cling to their salvation in the face of execution.
We see it in the life of Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
We are not a people without suffering. We are a people who suffer well. We will cry tears of sorrow, but only as we sing harmony to the shout of victory:
The good news of the Gospel is that when we were at our worst, God gave us His best. And the world will see God at His best when we can praise Him at our worst.