Assurance of Our Adoption 5: Relying on God with Hope in our Transformation

Assurance of Our Adoption 5

Relying on God with Hope in our Transformation

Text: Rom. 8:18-22; Phil. 4:4-12

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  • I recently listened to a man who has mentored ministers for many years.
    • He spoke of two lead pastors in two churches.
    • Both needed specific work to mature.
    • He provided feedback to both men.
      • One heard the feedback, recognized it as valuable, and agreed that he needed to work on that issue. Immediately, he began to work with his mentor and gradually made progress.
      • The other heard the feedback with hurt feelings; his anger flared as he became defensive; immediately he began to withdraw from his mentor.
  • Paul writes that the Spirit testifies to us that in Christ we are adopted as children of the Father.
    • Does my Father see me as a child eager to grow up?
    • Does my Father see me as a child stubbornly refusing to grow up?

Explore the Text

The Framework: Growing Up with Hope in a Fallen World (Rom. 8:18-22)

  • The creation suffers with us in the hope of our future in Christ.
  • We already have the first fruits of the Spirit (Eph 1:11-14), but in hope, we also wait for the final revelation of our glory. 8:18-19
    • 5:1-5 shows this pattern of a secure relationship in Christ that, leads through suffering to the transformation of our character.
  • Our hope is an intense & expectant longing for what we are becoming.
    • A Groaning Hope: The creation groans (22); we groan (23); the Spirit groans with us (26-27).
    • We groan as we eagerly await the completion of what God has already begun in us.
    • We groan as we see the complexity of God working all things together for good for those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.
    • We groan as God works to conform us to the image of his Son.
      • That means putting some things to death and forming a new life in me. (Eph. 4:11-5:20; Col. 3:1-17; 2 Pet. 2:3-11)

The Means: Spiritual Disciplines Form Us & Prepare Us for Trials. Phil. 4:4-13

  • In Phil 3:7-16, Paul described himself as a man who gladly shares in the sufferings of Christ & longing to become more like Jesus and to share in his resurrection.
    • In Phil. 4:4-13, he calls us, even in our suffering, to know joy & peace with God that is not dictated by our situation.
  • Training in the Gymnasium of life with Jesus as our Coach
    • Believing this is really possible! We see in Scripture & in the lives of great saints, men & women, like us, who suffered and had joy and peace (1 Pet. 4:12-19)
    • Jesus and the Spirit work with those who desire to mature.
      • You would not hire a coach/trainer just to listen to words!
      • Receiving honest feedback that provides needed insight.
      • Two personal reactions to hearing what I need to hear:
        • Acceptance & action.
        • Denial & resistance.

The Path: Begin with hope and patiently do the small things that eventually develop the strength and skill to do greater things.

  • Practice in the small areas of your daily life, then apply your new strength and skill in more demanding situations.
  • I practice so that my body will assist me when I am under greater conditions of suffering.
    • The body of a mature driver of a car reacts in practiced ways when things get challenging and allow the mind to focus on what is happening.

The Focus: Begin with the Essential Aspects of Who You Are.

  • Transforming the Mind: Rethinking what is the ultimate reality and what a life well lived is like. (Phil. 4:8-13)
    • What is the focus of your mind?
    • Learning to discipline the direction and content of your thinking:
      • How do you learn best?
      • Patience with small steps ahead.
      • Refuse to give up when you encounter a steep learning curve.
    • Some Key Disciplines: Study, meditation, and memorization.
    • The Goal: Learning to trust and rely upon the great Biblical truths.
      • Do not conform to the patterns of this world. Rom. 12:2
      • Taking every thought captive for Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5)
  • Transforming the Heart: Growing in My Relational Knowledge of God
    • Connecting the biblical truths to the lived experience of my life.
      • Keller: The Bible says a great deal about suffering, but it is one thing to have these things stored in the “warehouse of the mind.” It is quite another to know how to apply them to your own heart, life, and experience in such a way that they produce wisdom, endurance, joy, self-knowledge, courage, and humility. It is one thing to believe in God but it is quite another thing to trust God. It is one thing to have an intellectual explanation for why God allows suffering; it is another thing to actually find a path through suffering so that, instead of becoming more bitter, cynical, despondent, and broken, you become more wise, grounded, humble, strong, and even content.[1]
    • Some Key Disciplines:
      • Prayer with Thanksgiving Phil 4:6-7
      • Fasting, Solitude & Silence.
      • Developing your will through hearing, trusting, and obeying.
    • The Goal: Opening your heart to receive God’s love & growing in your capacity to love others as the fruit of the Spirit ripens in your heart.

The Result: My character begins to change.

  • Paul connects such focused work as the key to finding joy and peace.
  • These changes will form beautiful and good behaviors in my relationships.

Conclusion: It is possible to become a Person who trusts God as Jesus did.

  • Keller tells a true story: I share this story, not as a description of how all of us would have handled this crisis, but to help us see the possibility of what we might become as we live in the presence of Christ in a fallen world groaning with hope for our promised future.
    • Horatio Spafford was an American lawyer who lost everything he had in the Chicago fire of 1871.
    • Only two years later, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The ship hit another ship and began to sink. As it was sinking, Anna got the four little girls together and prayed. The ship went under the water, and they all were scattered into the waves, and all four little girls drowned. Anna was found floating unconscious in the water by a rescue ship.
    • They took her to England, and she cabled Horatio Spafford just two words: “saved alone.”
    • When Spafford was on the ship on his way to England to bring his wife home, he began to write a hymn—“It is well with my soul … When peace, like a river …” Those are the words he wrote.
    • Why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God—the peace like a river—spend the entire hymn on Jesus and his work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:

My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

  • What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything! Do you know why?
  • When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus.
  • Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross!The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily—voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”
  • In that hymn, you can watch a man thinking, thanking, and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances. It will work for you.[2]


I am including chapter 15 from Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering because I think the book is a valuable resource us to read, study and talk about as followers of Jesus. In reading this chapter, you can see some of Keller’s influence in my thinking and preparing for today’s sermon.


Thinking, Thanking, Loving

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.

—George Macdonald, Unspoken Sermons, First Series

If we were to make a list of the most prominent sufferers of the Bible, Paul would have to be among them. When Paul was called to the ministry, God said of him, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles.… I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15–16). Not long afterward, we hear Paul preaching that it is only “through many tribulations that we may enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Six times in his letters, Paul gives us catalogues of his afflictions (Rom 8:35; 1 Cor 4:9–13; 2 Cor 4:8–9; 6:4–5; 11:23–29; 12:10). Put together, they cover an enormous range of physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships, including hunger, imprisonment, and betrayals. Five times he was given the brutalizing punishment of flogging, the “forty lashes minus one” (2 Cor 11:24). Then he goes on with a list:

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? (2 Cor 11:25–29).

The Peace That Passes Understanding

How did Paul handle it all? In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul writes about a recent severe trial. “The troubles we experienced,” he said, were a “great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” But “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8–9). In the same chapter, he observes that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor 1:4). That means that if we want to discover how Paul himself faced all his adversity, we need only look at how he comforted others in trials and afflictions within his letters.

One of the places where Paul conveys a comfort to others that he received from God is in Philippians 4.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (Phil 4:4–12).

What is this “peace of God”? There are two things Paul tells us about it. First, it is an inner calm and equilibrium. In verses 11–12 he says, “I have learned how to be content in whatever circumstance; I have learned the secret of being content in every situation,” which is to say he is the same in one situation as in another. Realize how strong a claim this is. Remember Paul’s circumstances. We all want inner peace, but you and I are trying to get inner peace to face what? Our bills, competition at work, a difficult boss, our big date or a lack of dates. But Paul was facing torture and death. He is in prison even as he writes, and yet he is saying, “I have learned the secret of being able to smile at that.”

And look carefully. Does Paul say, “I can smile in the face of torture and death because I am just that kind of guy, I am tough”? No. That would be a peace that was just a natural kind of steely temperament. It would be a talent—and talent is something that you are born with or you aren’t. It is like artistic or athletic talent—either you have it or you do not. But Paul does not say that. He says, “I have learned this.” It means it is not natural to him. And the particular kind of inner peace of which he speaks is not natural to any of the rest of us either. He is saying, “I have learned it, so that I have this equilibrium in any situation.”

The second thing Paul tells us is that this peace is not merely an absence—it is a presence. It is not just an absence of fear. It is a sense of being protected. That does not come out as well in the English translation. It says in verse 7, “the peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds.” The Greek word translated as “guard” means to completely surround and fortify a building or a city to protect it from invasion. If you have an army all around you protecting you, then you can sleep really well—that’s the idea. And this is getting at something very important. Today, when you read books or websites on overcoming anxiety and handling fear, they usually talk about removing thoughts. They say: Do not think about that; do not think those negative thoughts. Control your thoughts, expel the negative ones. But here we see the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself. “The God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9).

Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself—by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be a short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them.

Many believers have experienced this peace of God. It is not just positive thinking or willpower. It is a sense that no matter what happens, everything will ultimately be all right, even though it may not be at all right at the moment. In my experience, people usually break through to this kind of peace only in tragic situations, often in the valley of the shadow of death. Here is a metaphor for it. If you have ever been on a coast in a storm and seen the waves come in and hit the rocks, sometimes the waves are so large that they cover a particular rock, and you think, “That is the end of that rock.” But when the waves recede, there it is still. It hasn’t budged an inch. A person who feels the “peace that passes understanding” is like that. No matter what is thrown at you, you know it will not make you lose your footing. Paul of course is the classic example. He is beaten; he is stoned; he is flogged; he is shipwrecked; he is betrayed; his enemies are trying to kill him. There is wave after wave, and yet—there he is still. “I have found a way to be completely poised under any and all circumstances,” he said. All the waves of life could not break him. And he says it isn’t a natural talent of his—you and I can learn this.

That is the character of Christian peace. It is an inner calm and equilibrium but also a sense of God’s presence and an almost reason-transcending sense of his protection.

If it is not natural—if it is something you learn—then how does one learn or find this? What are the disciplines by which you can develop this peace? Paul gives a lot of advice in this passage on how you can learn it. That doesn’t mean he is giving us “four steps to guaranteed inner peace.” The peace of God is not something that can be manipulated by technique. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of three sorts of disciplines in which to engage. Those who do these things more often find God’s peace along the way. I will call these disciplines: a kind of thinking, of thanking, and of loving.

The Discipline of Thinking

In Philippians 4:8–9, Paul says, “Brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure … think about such things.… And the God of peace will be with you.” Now, when we hear terms like “noble” and “right” we might think that Paul is merely recommending high and inspirational thoughts in general. But scholars of Pauline literature tell us that is not the case. He is not referring to general loftiness of mind but rather to the specific teaching of the Bible about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature, and God’s plans for the world—the plan of salvation. And Paul also uses the word logizdomai to describe how we are to think about these things. That is an accounting word, sometimes translated “to reckon” or “to count up.” Paul is saying if you want peace, think hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible.

This is so completely different from what you will find if you walk into any bookstore and go to the section on anxiety, worry, and dealing with stress. Here is what you will never see: None of the books will ever say, “Are you stressed, unhappy, or anxious? Let’s start dealing with that by asking the big questions: What is the meaning of life? What are you really here for? What is life all about? Where have you come from, and where are you going? What should human beings spend their time doing?” Never! Contemporary books go right to relaxation techniques and to the work-rest balance. For example, they will say that every so often you should go sit on a beach, look at the surf, and just bracket out worrying and thinking about things. Or they will give you thought-control techniques about dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, guilt thoughts, and so forth.

Why don’t contemporary books on stress and anxiety tell you to respond to it by doing deep thinking about life? It is because our Western secular culture is perhaps the first society that operates without any answers to the big questions. If there is no God, we are here essentially by accident, and when we die, we are only remembered for a while. Eventually, in this view, the sun will die and all that has ever been done by human beings will come to nothing. If that is the nature of things, then it is no wonder that secular books for people under stress never ask them to think about questions such as “What are we here for?” Instead, they advise you to not think so hard about everything but to relax and to find experiences that give you pleasure.

Paul is saying Christian peace operates in almost exactly the opposite way. Christian peace comes not from thinking less but from thinking more, and more intensely, about the big issues of life. Paul gives a specific example of this in Romans 8:18, where he uses the same word, logizdomai, and speaks directly to sufferers. He says, “I reckon that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us.” To “reckon” is to count up accurately, not to whistle in the dark. It is not to get peace by jogging or shopping. It means “Think it out! Think about the glory coming until the joy begins to break in on you.”

Someone reading this might say, “You are talking about doctrine but what I really need is comfort.” But think! Is Jesus really the Son of God? Did he really come to earth, die for you, rise again, and pass through the heavens to the right hand of God? Did he endure infinite suffering for you, so that someday he could take you to himself and wipe away every tear from your eyes? If so, then there is all the comfort in the world. If not—if none of these things are true—then we may be stuck here living for seventy or eighty years until we perish, and the only happiness we will ever know is in this life. And if some trouble or suffering takes that happiness away, you have lost it forever. Either Jesus is on the throne ruling all things for you or this is as good as it gets.

See what Paul is doing? He is saying that if you are a Christian today and you have little or no peace, it may be because you are not thinking. Peace comes from a disciplined thinking out of the implications of what you believe. It comes from an intentional occupation of a vantage point. There is nothing more thrilling than climbing up to some high point on a mountain and then turning around and viewing from there all the terrain you have just traversed. Suddenly, you see the relationships—you see the creek you crossed, the foothills, the town from which you have journeyed. Your high vantage point gives you perspective, clarity, and a sense of beauty. Now this is what Paul is calling us to do. Think big and high. Realize who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ, where history is going. Put your troubles in perspective by remembering Christ’s troubles on your behalf, and all his promises to you, and what he is accomplishing.

Let me put it another way. There is a “stupid peace” and then there is a “smart peace.” The stupid peace comes from refusing to think about your overall situation. If you go that way, you can pop a cork, sit under a tree or on the beach, and try not to think about the grand scheme of things. But Paul is saying that if you are a Christian, you can think about the big picture, and as you do, you are going to find peace. And if you are a Christian, and you have no peace at all, it may be that you are simply not thinking.

The early American theologian Jonathan Edwards was a Congregationalist preacher. The earliest extant sermon manuscript we have from him, composed at age eighteen, is entitled “Christian Happiness.” Despite the youth of the author, its basic outline is striking. His simple point was that a Christian should be happy, “whatever his outward circumstances are.” Then he makes his case in three propositions, which I paraphrase. For Christians:

Their “bad things” will work out for good (Rom 8:28).

Their “good things”—adoption into God’s family, justification in his sight, union with him—cannot be taken away (Rom 8:1).

Their best things—life in heaven, new heavens and the new earth, resurrection—are yet to come (Rev 22:1ff).

This sermon is simply an example of one young man doing what Paul is talking about. He is “reckoning,” counting it all and adding it up and letting the glory of the gospel salvation sink in. Our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken away, and the best is yet to come. “Think about such things” (Phil 4:8).

The Discipline of Thanking

If you first learn the discipline of thinking, then, second, there is the discipline of thanking. In Philippians 4:6, Paul says, “Don’t be anxious, but make requests to God with thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving is put over against anxiety. But look carefully—it is a little counterintuitive, isn’t it? We would expect Paul to say first you make your requests to God and then, if you get your requests, you thank him for his answers. But that is not what Paul says. He says you thank him as you ask, before you know the response to your requests.

Why should I thank God ahead of time, as it were? It doesn’t at first make sense. But if we think about it, we can see what Paul is getting at. Paul is essentially calling on us to trust God’s sovereign rule of history and of our lives. He is telling us that we will never be content unless, as we make our heartfelt request, we also acknowledge that our lives are in his hands, and that he is wiser than we are. That is what you are doing when you thank him for whatever he is going to do with your request. This is of course the essence of those two crucial verses, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20) and “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). Romans 8 must not be read in a saccharine way. It does not say that every bad thing has a “silver lining” or that every terrible thing that can happen is somehow “actually a good thing if you learn to look at it properly.” No, Paul says in Romans 8:28 that all things—even bad things—will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs—a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Only God now has that eternal perspective and vantage point from which he can see all things working together for our good and for his glory—but eventually we will occupy that place and will see it too.

Now, we have covered this basic biblical teaching in a previous chapter. Because God is sovereign we are to trust him. But here Paul goes one step further. Because God is sovereign we are to thank him—we are to live thankfully because we know he is like this. We are to thank him beforehand, even as we make our requests. We are to thank him for whatever he sends to us, even if we don’t understand it.

A vivid example of this for me was when, in my early twenties, I prayed for an entire year about a girl I was dating and wanted to marry, but she wanted out of the relationship. All year I prayed, “Lord, don’t let her break up with me.” Of course, in hindsight, it was the wrong girl. I actually did what I could to help God with the prayer, because one summer, near the end of the relationship, I got in a location that made it easier to see her. I was saying, “Lord, I am making this as easy as possible for you. I have asked you for this, and I have even taken the geographical distance away.” But as I look back, God was saying, “Son, when a child of mine makes a request, I always give that person what he or she would have asked for if they knew everything I know.”

Do you believe that? To the degree you believe that, you are going to have peace. And if you don’t believe it, you won’t have the peace you could otherwise have. Make your requests known with thanksgiving.

The Discipline of Reordering Our Loves

There is thinking, there is thanking, and, third, there is loving. In Philippians 4:8 Paul tells his readers to think first of “whatever is true, noble, right, and pure.” These things are more traditional theological virtues that have to do with the mind and the will. But then he moves on and asks them to ponder “whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” By definition, anything that is “lovely” is something that is not merely true but also attractive. Here, I believe Paul is urging his readers not just to order the thoughts of their mind but to engage the affections of the heart. Paul is explaining how to get a spiritual ballast to keep you afloat in rough seas, how to keep your equilibrium in troubles and difficulties. And he says that in those times, it is not enough just to think the right things. It is also important to love the right things.

Here we must turn to St. Augustine, the great Christian thinker who lived in the third and fourth centuries. He was profoundly aware of the problem in Greek philosophy. In fact, Paul is referring to it. The great problem is: how can you live a life of contentment? The Greek word for that was autarkeia, and that is the very word Paul uses in verse 11. He says, “I have learned it, I have got the autarkeia.” It meant to be independent of circumstances. It meant to always have this poise, this power, and not to be upset, devastated, melting down over anything.

The philosophers who worked hard on this—as we have seen in previous chapters—were the Stoics. The Stoics taught that the reason most people are not able to live contented, poised lives is that they love things too much. You should not love success too much, because even if you get it, you will always be anxious. You will never have peace because you will be afraid of losing it. Also, you shouldn’t set your heart primarily on your family, because even if you get a good family, you will always be worried about it. You will always be anxious that something will go wrong with them. And if something does go wrong, you will be devastated.

The philosophers said the problem comes from loving things that you are not in control of. If you love something and something happens to it, you are lost. So therefore, they said, don’t truly love anything but your own virtue. Why? Because your character is something you can control. You can’t keep yourself successful. You can’t keep your family alive forever. You can’t control anything outside of your own heart. So set your heart only on your own virtue—you can determine to be courageous, have integrity, and be honest. The only thing that should and can make you content is the knowledge that you are being the person you choose to be and want to be. That is under your control, and nothing else is. So only if you make your own inner choices and character your happiness will you know tranquility.

But the Stoics were quite wrong, and particularly in their fundamental premise. It is wrong to think your virtue is under your control. Yes, if you set your heart on career success, you may be bitterly disappointed, but if instead you set your heart on being a noble, self-controlled person who always lives according to your principles, that is every bit as uncertain. You do not have control over that. You are a human being. You are frail. You are complex—an intricate combination of mind, will, heart, soul, and body. Your virtue can let you down just as much as anything else can. And if you fail, then—again—you have nothing. You are devastated.

Augustine rejected the Stoics approach as untenable. He argued instead that “only love of the immutable can bring tranquility.” The immutable is that which cannot change. Your virtue can and will change, as will your career, your family, your fortunes. The reason we don’t have peace is we are loving mutable things, things that circumstances can take away from us.

But there is one thing that is immutable. It is God, his presence and his love. The only love that won’t disappoint you is one that can’t change, that can’t be lost, that is not based on the ups and downs of life or of how well you live. It is something that not even death can take away from you. God’s love is the only thing like that. Not only can your poor performance not block it, but even the worst possible circumstances in this life—sudden death—can only give you more of it! What is so certain and solid that even death can’t make the slightest dent in it but only enhance it? The love and presence of God. The beauty of God. The face of God.

That is why Augustine could say this. In his Confessions, he says, “[God alone] is the place of peace that cannot be disturbed, and he will not hold himself from your love unless you withhold your love from him.”

Now, it is natural to respond to all this with a question. It goes like this: “Wait a minute. You are saying I have to love God. But I love a lot of things: I love material comforts; I love people; I love romance. Are you saying I have to love God and not these things?” No, you must reorder your loves. Your problem is not so much that you love your career or family too much, but that you love God too little in proportion to them. C. S. Lewis, following Augustine, writes:

It is probably impossible to love any human being simply “too much.” We may love him too much in proportion to our love for God; but it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the many, that constitutes the inordinacy.

That is the final way to get the calm, the tranquility, the peace. It is to love him supremely.

Relocating Your Glory

In Psalm 3, King David describes a dire situation in which he is surrounded by enemies. Things look so bad that his own people are whispering that God has abandoned him. How does David handle his loss of reputation among the people and the threat of his foes? David writes:

Lord, how many are my foes!

How many rise up against me!

Many are saying of me,

“God will not deliver him.”

But you, Lord, are a shield around me,

my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

I call out to the Lord,

and he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep;

I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.

I will not fear though tens of thousands

assail me on every side (Psalm 3:1–6).

How does David get such peace that he can sleep peacefully with enemies massing on his borders? Verse 3 tells us. To lift up the head—to walk with “head held high”—even today is a metaphor for healthy pride, a clear conscience, and confidence. Despite his people’s whispering about him, he is not weighed down by it. David says that God “lifts up his head,” but how? The verse says, “But you, Lord, are … my glory.” Derek Kidner writes: “ ‘My glory’ is an expression to ponder: it indicates … the comparative unimportance of earthly esteem.” David realizes that he has tended to let his people’s approval and praise be the cause of his self-esteem. He walked with “head held high” because of his acclaim and popularity. Now he asserts the theological truth that God is his only glory.

This is enormously important for learning how to process our suffering. When something is taken from us, our suffering is real and valid. But often, inside, we are disproportionately cast down because the suffering is shaking out of our grasp something that we allowed to become more than just a good thing to us. It had become too important spiritually and emotionally. We looked at it as our honor and glory—the reason we could walk with our head up. We may have said to others, “Jesus is my savior. His approval, and his opinion of me, and his service is all that matters.” But functionally, we got our self-worth from something else. In suffering, these “something elses” get shaken. In David’s case, most of his suffering was perfectly valid. To lose the love of your son and your people, and to be falsely accused, was searing pain. But he also realized that he had let popular opinion and “earthly esteem” become too important to him. He recommitted himself to finding God as his only glory—something that can be done only in prayer, through repentance and adoration. He reasserts that God’s friendship and presence with him are the only things that really matter. And as he does this, we see him growing into buoyancy and courage.

It is possible to read verse 3 as a kind of adoration-based repentance. David is saying, “But you are a shield around me, O Lord—not any other thing! And you are my glory and the lifter of my head—not these others! Not my record nor political power nor even my son’s love or my people’s acclaim—only you!” That is praise, but it is grounded in repentance—and it is also repentance grounded in praise.

How does God actually become our glory? The only answer is: through a rediscovery of the gospel of free grace. If we hear the accusation in our heart: “God will not save you; you are unworthy!” the only answer is that God’s salvation is not for the worthy but for the humble—those who admit they are not worthy. This is directly stated in verse 8—“From the Lord comes deliverance (salvation).” This is identical to the famous declaration of Jonah: “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). We do not save ourselves—it is unmerited.

David had an intuitive grasp that he was saved by grace, but we have a far greater assurance than he had. If we read verse 3 in light of the cross, we can see it. In Christ, the Lord became very literally “our shield.” A shield protects us by taking the blows that would have fallen upon us and destroyed us. It protects us through substitution. Jesus, of course, stood in our place and took the punishment we deserved. We know God won’t forsake us, because he forsook Jesus for our sin. We know that in Christ we are “holy and blameless in his sight” (Col. 1:22), despite our spotty record. Christians, then, know that Christ is literally our glory and honor before the Father (1 John 2:1–2). If we have that, then we are not overthrown by accusation.

Here, then, is what we must do when we suffer. We should look around our lives to see if our suffering has not been unnecessarily intensified because there are some things that we have set our hearts and hopes upon too much. We must relocate our glory and reorder our loves. Suffering almost always shows you that some things you thought you couldn’t live without, you can live without if you lean on God. And that brings freedom. This doesn’t mean that if we loved God perfectly, we wouldn’t suffer. No—because those who love God well do and should love all sorts of other good things in this life too. Jesus loved God perfectly but he was a Man of Sorrows, largely because he loved us so much. We should not take the Stoics’ advice that we detach our hearts from things. We must love many things—and when these good things are taken away, it will hurt. And yet, if we cultivate within ourselves a deep rest in God, an existential grasp of his love for us, then we will find that suffering can sting and cause pain, but it can’t uproot us, overthrow us. Because suffering can’t touch our Main Thing—God, his love and his salvation.

Some years ago, I remember two young men at Redeemer who were actors. They both auditioned for the same role, and it was the biggest one for which they’d ever been considered. Both were professing Christians, but one, I believe, put all his emotional and spiritual hopes into having a successful acting career. He believed in Jesus, but it was clear that he could only enjoy life and feel good about himself if his career was going well. The other man was also a professing Christian, but after some disappointments, he had come to the place where he wanted as his main goal in life to please and honor the God who had saved him. He thought he could do that by being an actor.

They were both turned down—neither got the part. The first man was devastated, going into a time of depression and drug abuse. The other felt terrible at first, and wept. But not long afterward, he was fine, and saying, “I guess I was wrong. Looks like I can please and honor God better in some other career.” See the difference? The second man held his acting career as a means to an end; the first man had made acting an end in itself. The circumstances of life couldn’t touch the second man’s main treasure in life, but it was able to sweep away the first man’s treasure, and it was terrible for him. To be loved by God, to be known by God, is the ultimate treasure. And if you make it your ultimate treasure, then no “thief can break in and steal” it (Matt 6:19).

The Horrible, Beautiful Process

We have said suffering is like a furnace—like painful, searing heat that creates purity and beauty. And now we can see one of the ways it does this. Suffering puts its fingers on good things that have become too important to us. We must respond to suffering not ordinarily by jettisoning those loved things but by turning to God and loving him more, and by putting our roots down deeper into him. You will never really understand your heart when things are going well. It is only when things go badly that you can see it truly. And that’s because it is only when suffering comes that you realize who is the true God and what are the false gods of your lives. Only the true God can go with you through that furnace and out to the other side. The other gods will abandon you in the furnace.

One hymn that expresses this process in a vivid way is one of John Newton’s Olney Hymns often entitled “These Inward Trials.” In it, Newton speaks of “gourds,” a reference to the gourd or plant that gave Jonah so much pleasure in Jonah 4, but which God blasted in order to show Jonah his misplaced priorities. In the hymn, they symbolize things that give us joy and pleasure but which are removed by trials to our grief. The hymn needs no comment—it speaks for itself.

I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow

In faith, and love, and ev’ry grace,

Might more of his salvation know,

And seek more earnestly his face.

I hop’d that in some favour’d hour,

At once he’d answer my request:

And by his love’s constraining pow’r,

Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this he made me feel

The hidden evils of my heart;

And let the angry pow’rs of hell

Assault my soul in ev’ry part.

Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d

Intent to aggravate my woe;

Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d,

Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,

Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?

“’Tis in this way,” the Lord reply’d,

“I answer pray’r for grace and faith.

“These inward trials I employ,

“From self and pride to set thee free;

“And break thy schemes of earthly joy,

“That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

The Secret of Peace

Let’s return to Philippians 4. How can we bring ourselves to love God more? “God” can be just an abstraction, even if you believe in him. How can we feel more love for God? Don’t try to work directly on your emotions. That won’t work. Instead, let your emotions flow naturally from what you are looking at. Notice what Paul says: The peace of God keeps your hearts and your minds not just in God but in Christ Jesus (v. 7). There it is. You can’t just go home and try to love God in the abstract. You have to look at Jesus—at who he is and what he has done for you. It is not by gazing at God in general, but at the person and work of Christ in particular, that you will come to love the immutable and find tranquility. Look at what Jesus did for you—that is how to find God irresistibly beautiful.

There is a place in Isaiah 57 where it says, “The wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’ ” (v. 20–21). At first sight, that looks like just another of those Old Testament statements: God will smite the evildoers. But look again; this is talking about natural consequences. The Stoics had it right. If you live for and love anything more than God then your life is always going to be like a tossing sea. You will be restless, without peace. If you love anything more than God, you are always going to be in anxiety about it. God is saying, “The natural consequence of turning away from me—the natural consequence of not centering your whole life on me—is deep restlessness.”

That is what we deserve. But 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made Jesus sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” That can’t mean that God made Jesus actually sinful. It means that on the cross, he was treated as a sinner. He got what we deserve—and this is one of those things, this terrible loss of peace. Can’t you see it? Do you see Jesus Christ walking to the crucifixion, saying, “I am just keeping my mind centered on God. I am content in whatever circumstance I am in”? No! Jesus didn’t say that because he wasn’t!

Jesus lost all of his peace. He cries out from the cross. In fact, we are told that he died with a cry. William Lane, commentator on the book of Mark, says,

The cry of dereliction, that scream—crucified criminals ordinarily suffered complete exhaustion and for long periods were unconscious before they died. The stark realism of Mark’s account describes a sudden, violent death. The cry of dereliction expresses unfathomable pain.

On the cross Jesus got what we deserve, including this cosmic, profound pain and restlessness. He got what we deserve, 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, so we can get what he deserves. Jesus lost all of his peace so that you and I could have eternal peace. And looking at what he did and how he did it for you—that will get you through. That is what will make God lovely to you.

Let me show you how this works. Horatio Spafford was an American lawyer who lost everything he had in the Chicago fire of 1871. Only two years later, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The ship hit another ship and began to sink. As it was sinking, Anna got the four little girls together and prayed. The ship went under the water, and they all were scattered into the waves, and all four little girls drowned. Anna was found floating unconscious in the water by a rescue ship. They took her to England, and she cabled Horatio Spafford just two words: “saved alone.”

When Spafford was on the ship on his way to England to bring his wife home, he began to write a hymn—“It is well with my soul … When peace, like a river …” Those are the words he wrote. Here is what I want you to think about: why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God—the peace like a river—spend the entire hymn on Jesus and his work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:

My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything! Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily—voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”

In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking, and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances. It will work for you.[3]

[1] Keller, T. (2013). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (pp. 201–202). Dutton.

[2] Keller, T. (2013). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (pp. 311–312). Dutton.

[3] Keller, T. (2013). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (pp. 294–313). Dutton.

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