You and I are not facing the same kinds of persecution the Apostle John was when Jesus appeared to him in a prison cell on the island of Patmos. In many parts of the world, of course, this kind of overt physical persecution is still common. Compared to the average believer in Afghanistan or Libya or China, our lives are pretty easy.
And yet, we have more in common with John than we’d like. Most of us are facing powers we believe vastly overwhelm our own. We can see storm clouds rising on the horizon of our lives.
And if we don’t see those storm clouds now, it’s only a matter of time.
Your storm may come in the form of a chronic illness. You may be walking through divorce. Maybe you’re fighting a losing battle to addiction. Or you are having problems with your kids. Or maybe there’s just a dark cloud of mental anguish—anxiety or depression—that colors everything in your life.
Whatever your storm, you feel like you’re long past hope. You’re ready to give up.
If that’s you, I can guess what you’d like me to tell you. It’s the same thing I want to hear when I’m suffering: “Don’t worry! God is going to end all your problems.”
But the tough truth is that—at least in the short run—suffering may last a little longer. God’s victory promises that suffering won’t last forever, but it may last far longer than we’d like. In fact, it may last an entire lifetime.
You may think you want a theology that promises that if you’re a good person, then God will remove all the problems of your life.
But here’s the rub: You’ll never come to know Jesus that way. He didn’t come to give good people a little pep talk so they could overcome their problems. He didn’t come as a life coach promising good advice.
He came as a doctor to the sick and dying. He came as a comforter to the crushed and broken.
If you’re suffering, pressing in to Jesus might not mean your suffering goes away. It might just mean you get more of Jesus in the midst of your suffering.
I know you don’t want to hear that. You are reading this thinking, “I don’t receive that. I stand against that in the name of Jesus.” And I know I could make people feel better if I promised that all their problems would go away—if they have enough faith, that is.
But, you see, it is through these problems that God makes you stronger. Isaiah says that God wants to turn us into oaks of righteousness. I read recently that oaks in storm-rich areas are the strongest because winds force the roots to go deeper.
You don’t get stronger sitting on a beach. You get stronger going through the storm.
Your problems are real, and they have the potential to take you out. Cancer is real and can take you out. Divorce can take you out. A spouse abandoning you can take you out. Addiction can take you out. Abuse can take you out. Losing a child can take you out.
I want you to know that Jesus is real, too. And he’s bigger than your problem, whatever it is.
Christian counselor Larry Crabb says, “On the island of Patmos, Jesus did not give John relief from dire circumstances. Instead he gave him an unforgettable vision of the Son of God.”
I’m not trying to put a little, one-size-fits-all Band-Aid on anyone’s problem. Some problems are complex, severe and persistent. They aren’t resolved in a day with a (metaphorical) theological pill. For many of us, we need to take the courageous step of seeking professional help in our healing process, letting those with expertise minister the gospel to our unique situation.
But whether we’re seeking professional help or not, we’ve got to see our problems the way Jesus does. We’ve got to join John on Patmos and see Jesus as he did. In our pain, we must say, with John, “These problems are big. Bigger than even I realize. But you, Jesus, are bigger. These storms may hurt, but you are better.”
This is what many of us need. We need to choose to worship in our tribulation, to say to ourselves in the midst of pain and overwhelming despair—even and especially when we don’t feel like it:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
‘It is well. It is well with my soul.’”
J.D. Greear is the pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and is currently serving as the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of several books, including Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems