The Care and Feeding of the Heart: An Apologetic on Suffering—An Interlude on Comfort… and Pain Avoidance
Grab a seat, race-runners (Hebrews 12:1). We’re taking a brief side trip from the 10-part series that we began 6 parts ago: Creation, The Fall, Redemption, Consummation, Freefalls, and Foundations.
Take Heed Marathoners: No Pain, No Gain!
It was between the years 1978 and ’86 or so: I have very fond memories of regularly gathering with a few other trail-running crazies like me in the lower level of The Ute Mountaineer of Aspen [the store I managed and co-owned for a time].
We would pull up captain chairs and sit in front of a large wall of inter-connected topographic maps of the White River National Forest covering the walls. “If we ran up the New York Creek drainage from town we could run along the ridge to the head of Castle Creek and back to town from there…”, I outlined on the map. “That could be around 40 miles…” said Jim Hearns. Skip agreed and smiled. “Cool…!” There was no distance or terrain that would dissuade us from our trail running adventures in the mountains…
I absolutely loved trail running… to a fault.
I never realized until well after my body broke down from so much abuse—and my heart’s idol structure was revealed to me—that sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally—inherently, dangerously, insidiously, addictively—making good things into ultimate things.
Please repeat that last line to yourself and another person or five in your life. “…sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally—inherently, dangerously, insidiously, addictively—making good things into ultimate things.” [If at any point in life we’re remotely interested in changing behavior in specific ways—E.g., sinning less and less—it’s essential we know what motivates, drives the behavior, right? God and Satan certainly do.]
At the time, I didn’t know that the origins of my sin was based on building my life and meaning on anything, even a good thing, more than on God. After all, running, being fit, lean, mean, admired, blah, blah, blah… was surely a good thing, right?
But for many years—as I averaged between 40-70 miles a week—a good thing crept, invisibly to me… mile-by-mile, record-by-record, adulation-by-adulation… into God’s throne in my heart… and became an ONLY thing… until my body broke. God got my undivided attention in the spiritual and idol realms of my life and I was forced to consider a change of heart, or perish from dilapidation and/or despair.
It was my personal journey of a universal truism: Whatever foundation we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry of anything we place in God’s rightful place. Due to the nature of the heart for God that HE created within each one of us, when WE place things in the center of our heart they will demand just as much of our love as God does—devoid of the mercy and patience of God when we fail to worship whatever we’ve placed there!
Our idols… our ONLY things… are taskmasters like none other.
Fitness/athleticism is good—fitness/athleticism as a god is not. Money is good—money as a god is not. Things are good—things as a god is not. Sex is good—sex as a god is not. Proficiency at anything is good—proficiency as a god is not. Children are good—children as a god is not. Work is good—work as god is not. Food is good—food as god is not. Wine is good—wine as a god is not. Good looks are good—good looks as a god is not. Comfort is good—comfort as a god is not. Pain killers are good—pain killers as a god is not.
In the case of how the Bible treats these truisms [above] about good things God made and our idolatrous heart, “not” = separation from God, and death. It’s no small thing… God made and loves our heart; He has said as much as He needs to in order for His fallen and redeemed Image Bearers to know how to care for it.
And whether we believe it or not—as we have chewed on many times during this series and other meals at The Training table—THIS is the default system, the core problem of our spiritual inheritance: We are born into Sin (Genesis 3), and we are wired to habitually sin (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8-20), until—by God’s electing grace, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit’s regenerating effect in our heart, and [finally] our choice to repent as humbly beseech Jesus to be our Savior and Lord—we are born again. (Ephesians 1:4-5; Hebrews 9:12; Titus 3:5; John 3:1-8)
My personal story is the universal plight and pleasure of all humankind. “For God so loved the world [universal], that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him [personal] should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16—parenthesis, emphasis added).
Take Heed: Don’t Make Your Good Comforts… An Only Thing!
Since we’re in a series based on, “An Apologetic on Suffering” by means of my book, I wanted to remind you that the book’s target audience is described as, “Christians living in a culture of comfort”.
One of the main reasons so many in the world and in the church are so confused, disheartened, and hard-hearted about the question at hand, “Why does an all-loving and all-powerful God allow such awful suffering in the world?!” is that we have made our many spiritual, material, emotional, intellectual, etc. comforts an ONLY THING. Comfort is a very good thing—made an ONLY thing is desperately dangerous.
This particular form of idolatry [loving comfort, hating pain… Ergo: fundamentally denying reality] is multi-faceted, multi-layered, deeply ingrained, and mostly invisible to us.
The mixed blessing of our many comforts… as a god…
[Quoted from my book]
- Promotes humanism, a humanity-centered (vs. Christ-centered) view of the universe, of laws and other governmental regulations; a culture of comfort also creates habits of the heart to match that view.
- Welcomes widespread secularism (e.g., “This world is all that exists”) with its corresponding rejection of a godly perspective on human behavior (i.e., no shame, no toleration for religion, no ultimate accountability to a supernatural authority).
- Encourages rampant pluralism which is often quickly followed by its philosophical cousin—full-blown relativism and the denial of absolute truth.
- Justifies, in one’s heart and society-wide, privatization with its implication that one’s private life has no bearing on one’s public life.
- Deceives us into devising simplistic solutions for healing the world’s deepest problems. These solutions are ultimately unworkable and fruitless (e.g., education will prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS; family values will reduce the prison population; democracy all around the world will end all wars; redistributing the world’s wealth will eliminate poverty). All this conspires to keep us from seeing that the only answer to humanity’s plight is Jesus Christ.
- Encourages us to deny the reality of death—hiding it away, creating all sorts of false beliefs to suppress the truth of God, life and death, while being completely unprepared for it when [not if] it comes.
- Harms children by undermining Biblical parenting, replacing it with a view of parents and children as “best pals”. The parent’s God-given responsibilities are made subservient to their needs.
- Promotes people into positions of power before they have faced their emotionally wounded hearts and spirits. These broken leaders then create and /or enable similar wounds in the organizations they try to lead.
- Encourages young people to choose a career based on an idealized identity or on the allure of consumerism and materialism, rather than urging them to create a lifestyle intentionally designed to “suffer well”, develop character, and capitalize on the potential for glorifying God.
- Leads to a degradation of the role of fatherhood, because when a father refuses to face the pain of self-examination, he leaves his children’s hearts hiding and hardened to the role of Leader and Defender that fathers are created by God to fulfill.
- Endangers the most innocent and vulnerable members of society when “choice” trumps the emotionally challenging but Scripturally mandated need to choose LIFE, from conception to natural death, as the Bible defines it. [i]
- Engenders a pathological and cultural narcissism that treats any threat, large or small, to one’s agenda, life, ego, or predetermined comfort zone as a murderous attack on their identity and dreams.
- Supports entire industries that thrive on the creation and distribution of medications that have the potential to suppress a more holistic understanding of the root causes of conditions like depression, attention deficit disorder, anger management issues, and passive-aggressive tendencies.
- Fosters the creation of “seeker-friendly churches” in which leaders and members alike often avoid the painful but necessary process of speaking the truth in love.
- Encourages heart-hardening remorse (fear and shame for the consequences) after committing a sin, rather than repentance (confessing sin to the Holy Spirit, another believer in Christ, and being accountable for turning from the sin).
- Entices Jesus’ disciples to embrace only half the Gospel, either legalism (which focuses on the disciple becoming outwardly pious, while encouraging judgmentalism, law-centeredness, and works-based attempts to merit God’s favor) or liberalism (which focuses on the love of Christ while numbing the heart to the seriousness of sin, denying the truths of Scripture, and counting on God to forgive anyway.)
- Creates a kind of amnesia by which Christians forget our unique status as “resident-aliens” in this universe who do not belong here but are called to “redeem here”. And one day Christ will call us home.
- Tempts even God’s people to avoid the kind of long-term relationships that require heart transparency, emotional vulnerability, and sacrifice over time. Creates instead a preference for “hooking-up”-surface relationships that are anonymous, disposable, and “safe” [E.g., avoid pain], but never deepen beyond what’s comfortable.
- Deceives Christians into believing that salvation is the end, rather than the means, which God is using to create and renew communities of faith in anticipation of the New Heavens and New Earth. Such faith communities call for a self-sacrificial commitment of time, talent, and treasure and are thus, almost by definition, emotionally discomforting. Disciples of Christ are saved, sent, and promised suffering in the process!
- Promotes a preference even in Christian hearts for convenience over commitment, calm over productive conflict, shallowness over self-knowledge, selfishness over stewardship, and self-protection over self-disclosure.
- Lulls us into spiritual drowsiness that downplays the damage sin has done in our hearts, encouraging us to deny our personal need for confession and repentance. Repentance, of course, is decidedly uncomfortable.
- Leaves us little choice but to avoid being hot or cold about much of anything in life let alone our faith. By avoiding any and all extremes, we become lukewarm in our faith (Revelation 3:16—a very stern warning).
- Provides fertile soil for Satan’s various and deceptive schemes to flourish in the human heart, the most problematic of which is at the “core” (E.g., the apple Eve ate despite God’s loving command) of the fallen heart: “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:16—when Satan planted the seed of doubting God in Eve’s heart which flourished in all idolatrous, self-centered hearts thereafter).
[End quote from my book]
Beloved in Christ, I offer this lengthy and wide array of direct and indirect repercussions of living in—and being potentially addicted to—a culture of comfort because it’s one thing to accept the fact of unbelievers living in this way, but it’s an entirely different thing to see God’s Church doing the exact same thing in many, many ways.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are stewards of Biblical and personal theodicy: We are called to be able to explain biblically the reasons for and stories about suffering; AND we are called to be able to explain how our own personal lives reflect God’s redemptive plan for suffering. Our namesake Jesus Christ’s entire life was made up mostly of suffering… And we can tend to avoid—knowingly and unknowingly—it like the plague.
May the foundations of God’s love for you in Christ free you, compel you, ingratiate you, impassion you… to not AVOID trials or pain or suffering of any kind, but rather run towards the chaos of this fallen world to be God’s co-redeemer with Christ and His Church… in an insufferably free-falling, hurting, and confused world.