When the World Shakes
Suffering reveals the impotence of our idols
From our cabin in Wisconsin there’s a long, sweet swim to a raft anchored a few football fields’ length out. It belongs to the Reeves, dear generational friends who are like family. Their men do all the work of hauling the raft out and in each summer, of rescuing, repairing, and returning it to the depths when storms on Green Bay overpower it. Those four-foot waves can break the heavy chain to the anchor as if it were a string, carrying the six-hundred-pound raft to shore and tossing it up on the rocks as if it were a child’s plastic inner tube. Sometimes we stand inside the safety of our cabins and watch, in awe of the storm, in awe of the power of God.
When God shakes the world of a believer, it is no longer judgment, but mercy. We have stones in our hearts, and shaking can loosen those stones so that they may be removed. God’s purpose is healing.
Recently, dear friends of mine began walking through the wilderness. Ed was a pastor with a great deal of warmth who elevated Scripture, but when I visited his church and listened to him preach, his sermon seemed man-centered instead of gospel-centered. Man-centered sermons tend to focus on what we can do instead of on the glory and the power of God. Though this may not be the pastor’s intention, the effect is that individuals listening then try to change themselves mechanically instead of concentrating on intimacy with God. And basically—it doesn’t work. Unless Christ is continually exalted, our hearts remain cold, and we do not long to abide in Him, so we do not bear lasting fruit.
I thought about telling Ed about a wonderful series on gospel-centered preaching I had listened to. But since most pastors do not welcome unsolicited suggestions on how to be a better preacher, I held back. However, when the church gave Ed a sabbatical, I emailed him, telling him my own speaking had improved dramatically since listening to seventeen messages from Ed Clowney and Tim Keller on how to preach to the heart. I gave him the iTunes link in case he was interested in listening during his sabbatical.
He was. He listened to every message and took dozens of pages of notes. He went through a time of personal revival. He was convicted that his preaching was not truly gospel-centered. He returned to the church after the sabbatical, excited, telling the elders that he wanted to lead the church in gospel-centered preaching through Romans. But to my great surprise, the elders did not agree with that direction, and Ed felt, before God, that he had to resign.
He preached three more Sundays, then he was without a job. His wife, Cynthia, who had thrown herself into being a pastor’s wife, was stripped of all her ministries. She assumed her husband would find another pastorate by the next year, so she also did not sign her teaching contract with a Christian classical school for the next year.
But it has been a year and no door has opened. Ed is driving a bus to put food on the table. Cynthia is tutoring where she can. They have sold their home and are temporarily living with friends. As Cynthia puts it, “We are homeless!”
Recently, Cynthia and I took a prayer walk together along the icy Missouri River. It was so cold we could see our breath as the words tumbled out of our mouths, our hearts fervent about being delivered from idolatry.
Cynthia said, “You know how in Jeremiah 2 God says we are adulteresses—that we have spread our legs for other lovers?”
As Cynthia spoke, I was wondering where she could be going, for to me, she was a woman passionate for God. She was an energetic and creative teacher—the students almost unanimously say she was the best teacher they had at that school. Likewise, when Cynthia was behind a retreat, a ministry, or a
Sunday school class, it was always amazing.
“My idol, my false lover, was—is—achievement! I always felt I was special and that others were blessed to know me. I thought, I’m a competent person, and they would want a competent person to do this.”
She paused, tears coming to her eyes. “I was worshiping myself and my achievement. It was my identity, it was works righteousness, it was my lover. Having my status taken from me has been a good thing. God is breaking up my heart idol. It is a severe mercy.”
As I listened to her, I thought, This is how someone who trusts Christ responds to suffering. She presses in. She asks for His light to shine into her darkness. When we back away from God in the midst of suffering, we are not only blanketing His light, we are also cutting off our only lifeline. He is the one, and the only one, who can help us when real trouble comes. And he will. After all, He is the great I am.
Satan loves it when we cling to our idols instead of to God, but when Satan is allowed to shake our world, it reveals the impotence of our idols. Not only that, but suffering can cause us to have an intimate experience with Jesus that we might not otherwise have had. As one of my friends said, “Dee, the fact that suffering leads to intimacy is stunning to me.”
We are six-year-olds when it comes to understanding the mystery of suffering. We cannot know the reason God allows it, but we can know what the reason is not. When Jesus hung on the cross for us, giving up His last breath, “the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51). Truly God’s judgment shook the world. So when you suffer now as a believer, it is not because God is angry with you, because Jesus took God’s anger that day on the cross.
Excerpted from Idol Lies: Facing the Truth about Our Deepest Desires by Dee Brestin, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. Used by permission. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: #IdolLies @WorthyPub.