October 27, 2020

Spiritual Formation: The Plain, Hard Truth

By Chaplain Mike

And now for the bad news . . .

In the final analysis, there is only one thing that enables us to grow in Christ.

Few are willing to put it that starkly. In fact, I think there is so much false advertising out there about what actually enables people to change, develop personally, and become mature followers of Jesus, that we have become utterly confused and in some ways unable to talk honestly about it. We have replaced the plain, hard truth with hype and ineffective programs. The church’s teaching about the matter rarely hits the mark. Living in a “can-do” culture that has a technological answer for everything, we seek to apply that mentality and approach to spiritual formation, and guess what? It doesn’t work. It can’t.

We have talked about spiritual practices as “training exercises” which enable us to live a life “with Jesus,” developing our capacity to receive God’s gifts. While I believe it is essential to take a “train, not try” approach for reasons that have been spelled out in previous posts, even this is not enough to facilitate a genuine growth that will move us toward maturity. No, there is only one thing that will do that. And, surprise! you won’t find it listed on the purpose, vision, or strategy statement of any church I know about. You won’t find it incorporated into their program or materials. In fact, in many segments of the church, you won’t hear much about this at all. If I could summarize it one word, I would use the term . . .

Suffering. It’s the one thing that will enable you and me to grow.

Kudos if your church has a program for that!

I’m serious. The Bible is replete with examples and teachings that verify this. Read the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis. What deepened their faith? What energized their obedience? What brought change and transformation to their lives so that they became for us the fathers and mothers of our faith? They grew through the sufferings and challenges that met them in the course of their lives. The patriarchal narratives are stories of conflict, struggle, pain, betrayal, disappointment, opposition, sins and their consequences, grief and loss, unfulfilled hopes, and seemingly impossible situations. And a God who guides them through all this mess. And people who learn to trust him in the midst of it all.

It is suffering by which we grow.

If you’d rather have a more propositional statement of this fact, we might look at Romans 5:1-7 (ESV):

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Verses 1-2 describe the glorious benefits of our salvation in Christ.

  • Reckoned righteous by God through faith, our sins are forgiven, and we are reconciled to him through Christ. We are at peace with God; our former position of enmity and separation has been transformed into a filial relationship with God as our Father.
  • Furthermore, we have been transferred into a new realm—the kingdom in which grace reigns—and here we stand, free from condemnation, with all the resources of grace at our disposal.
  • Finally, we now have hope. Our future is secured in Christ. We shall see and share God’s glory forever.

Verses 3-5 then describe the course of our life as justified, grace-dwelling, hope-filled Christians.

  • We rejoice in our sufferings.
  • These sufferings are used by God to produce deeper endurance, character, and hope in us.
  • This hope is not a vain wish-dream that shall ultimately disappoint, for it is the Spirit that gives us assurance of God’s love.

Between salvation and glory lies…suffering and what it produces in our lives.

This text parallels what Paul says in Romans 8, which likewise speaks of “no condemnation” in Christ, the hope of glory, “the sufferings of this present time,” and the work of the Spirit in leading and assuring us of God’s love.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17)

What I want you to see that Paul’s entire description of the Christian’s life in this world is wrapped up in one word—suffering—or we might say, in the phrase in 8:17—“we suffer with him.” As we live in this world, at peace with God, availing ourselves of his grace, longing for the fulfillment of our hope, the course of our life is marked mainly by this: “we suffer with him.” As ch. 5 tells us, this suffering ultimately benefits us, for as we suffer with Christ, we grow. Endurance, proven character, and a stronger assurance of God’s promised glory emerge out of the fires of testing.

Does not the natural world teach us this same truth? Organisms in our world develop through evolutionary processes. (You may not like the word, but don’t write me about it.) That is, they adapt to the challenges of their environment by mutating, changing so that they can survive and thrive. Of course, they need the “ordinary” means of growth—food, water, light, proper temperature, etc.—but the world does not always (ever!) accommodate them with a perfect environment. There are constant challenges and threats to their well being. Life-forms that adapt make it. Those that can’t don’t. It is only in the context of the actual natural world, with its “sufferings,” that organisms find ways of growing and flourishing.

Likewise, you and I can pray all we want, fast all we can, and study the Bible all the way through, and these spiritual disciplines will “fill our tanks” with resources. But it is only in the course of leaving our prayer closets, closing our Bibles, and going out the door to face the challenges of the day in real life contexts, among our neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers that we encounter the “hard things” that force us to adapt, change, develop, and grow. And many times, when things get extra hard, when we really “suffer” and come to the end of our resources, that’s when we have opportunity to grow the most.

So, if your church advertises a curriculum or program which promises spiritual growth, realize that they can’t deliver.

In Martin Luther’s lecture on Genesis 45, he reflects on the occasion when Joseph, who had hidden his identity from his brothers and treated them harshly, broke down in tears, sent the Egyptian officials out of the room, and made himself known to the ones who had so mistreated him in his younger years. “I am Joseph!” he cried, and they were stunned.

Luther takes this as…

…a very beautiful example of how God deals with us. For when He afflicts the godly and conceals the fact that He is our God and Father and rather conducts Himself as a tyrant and judge who wants to torture and destroy us, He says at last in His own time and at a suitable hour: “I am the Lord your God. Hitherto I have treated you just as if I wanted to cast you off and hurl you into hell. But this is a game I am wont to play with My saints; for if I had not wished you well from My heart, I would never have played with you in this manner.”

Luther stresses that God cares for us and is concerned for us even when it appears that he is hiding his face and his favor from us; perhaps especially when he is hiding from us. God purposes through our trials and testings to humble us, purge us of sin and enable us to overcome “the laziness and sluggishness of our flesh.” However, Luther stresses, God is not only the One who “kills” but who also “makes alive,” and his “glory will undoubtedly follow the misfortunes and vexations which we endure in this world.”

Marva Dawn is a marvelous writer, whose profound insights grow not only out of her impressive intellect, but from a life of dealing with debilitating disabilities. She is convinced that the entire Bible sets forth a “theology of weakness” that should guide us and our churches as we live in the world. She builds upon Luther’s teaching, with its emphasis on “the theology of the cross.”

In her book, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, Dawn analyzes a key verse from 2Corinthians 12, and suggests that it should be understood like this:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for [your] power is brought to its end in weakness. All the more gladly, then, will I boast in my weaknesses that the power of Christ [not mine!] may tabernacle upon me. Therefore, I take delight in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2Cor 12:9-10).

She points out that “God has more need of our weakness than of our strength,” for in our weakness, God shows the world that he dwells with “the humble and contrite of heart” and not with those who “have their act together.”

We only learn our weakness when we confront the plain, hard truth that life in this fallen world is difficult and challenging, that it puts obstacles to grace in our way with every step along our journey, and that pain and loss must be experienced, felt, and processed by every human being. If we can do so “with Christ,” in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” then perhaps we shall begin to understand and experience genuine, lasting spiritual growth.

Neither the accumulated wisdom of all the earth and the skies, nor languages, the Church Fathers, and daily reading of the Holy Scriptures, nor immense learning and eloquence make a good theologian or pastor if the cross is not added. Through the cross God purifies, cleanses, strengthens, and perfects the light of His true knowledge, of true faith in Christ, of true understanding of the divine promises, proper prayer, hope, humility, and all the virtues which He has first planted in the heart through the Word.

• David Chytraeus (1531-1600), “A Meditation on the Cross”


  1. And, reading your article, I realized the solution to evangelism’s problems. Require every pastor to spend 5-10 years as a chaplain before starting a church or serving as senior pastor.

  2. This introduction by John in Rev 1:9 always strikes me when I read it.

    “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos…..”

  3. great post chaplain mike … you’re sounding more and more lutheran everyday!

    • 😀

      I think Chaplin Mike is sounding more Orthodox with this nice post on “podvig” (spiritual suffering: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me (Matt. 16:24) ). But that’s prolly just me…

    • Yes, he is definitely sounding very Russian Orthodox. But, also very Lutheran, ” our helper he amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

  4. Prodigal Daughter says


  5. Chaplain Mike,

    If we didn’t know God’s Word, we wouldn’t be able to be in a place to suffer for Christ. It would be difficult for me to put anything ahead of reading His Word.

    However, I appreciate the following statement:

    “But it is only in the course of leaving our prayer closets, closing our Bibles, and going out the door to face the challenges of the day in real life contexts, among our neighbors, coworkers, friends, and strangers that we encounter the “hard things” that force us to adapt, change, develop, and grow.”

    Are we walking the talk? It’s a question i ask the guy in the mirror quite often.

  6. Amen, Chaplain. In my own readings, devotion and slow but gradual growth, I have come to the same conclusion about suffering being an indispensable element but because it’s so foreign to everything one hears on the airwaves today, I often have felt that I was “out in left field.” But reading your clear and direct exposition of the idea gives me a great sense of personal peace—someone else confirming what I thought I had picked up as lessons from the writings of many past and recent saints.

    It’s in the darkest night of the soul that God is actually closest to us and accomplishing His greatest work in us.


  7. david carlson says

    and thus the greatest lie of the prosperity gospel is laid out

  8. I was reminded of the old KJV of 1 Cor 13, “Love (Charity) suffereth long”…
    I confess, I want a convenient gospel. I want to grow in Christ but I want to have veto power on how he calls me to live and love. If I’m going to suffer, I want to choose the time, place, conditions and degree of it. But such a gospel, a spirituality, a life of love is illusory and hollow at best.

  9. This has been such a helpful and insightful series, and this makes a great “clincher” to the whole. Thanks for the posts.

  10. Mike, Great post.

    I met and heard Marva Dawn at Duke Div.’s Convocation four years ago. She’s the real deal. Her books are fantastic. What a wonderful servant of God!

  11. Great stuff. And how timely. I love how the Holy Spirit works to provide a message to me. I’ve been going to mass irregularly recently along with our other church. Today’s reading was Amos 6:1a, 4-7 & from Luke 16:19-31. In both, God point straight at the avoidance of suffering as something that can separate us from Him. He states that we can even end up in Hell, thinking all was well, thinking we lived an upstanding life, but all along in our pursuit of comfort and avoidance of suffering…we managed to also avoid real relationship with Him.

    I need to change this about myself…


  12. Chaplain Mike,
    Thanks so much for this post. We are in the process of moving to the inner city in a sort of missional community. We sold our home, moved to an apartment, and will be in our new home by the weekend. It’s been an exciting process as we’ve seen God lead and provide, but tough as well. My 2 year old daughter had some major issues when we transitioned out of our home to a temporary apartment and even my 8 month old had sleep issues once we made the first transition. The neighborhood is much different than what we are used to and at times I’ve wanted to forget the whole thing and go back to my comfortable life. When I read this post, it just confirmed once more that this whole process is Christ doing a work in my family’s life. My husband has actually shared with me this thought that we are sharing in Christ’s suffering when we suffer for His sake, but somehow seeing it in print was just another confirmation. All this to say, we are just scratching the surface of what it means to suffer for Christ’s sake. I know there are hundreds, thousands, of others who are experiencing major suffering for the sake of Christ. Thanks again for this post.

    • yeah, careful with that: Self-induced suffering is probably not what they have in mind, or else cutting yourself would glorify God. Similarly, I realize this isn’t what you intend, but you’re citing your children’s suffering as part of your illustration, and I don’t think that’s what they mean, either.

      • I feel compelled to respond to this, though I’m sincerely trying to go against my grain and not be argumentative, lol.

        I see your point regarding self-induced suffering, Kozac, but don’t be so quick to assume that the suffering of their children isn’t illustrative of their own suffering (i hurt when my kids hurt, even more so if I could have–rightly or wrongly–prevented it) or that it is self-induced. If they answer God’s call, and the result is the loss of comforts to which they and their kiddos have been accustomed, I wouldn’t call that self-induced, chosen maybe, but not self-induced.

        When we choose to pick up the Cross, is the resulting suffering self-induced?

        • Couldn’t agree more with ya Sebb…..and to Kozak I’d agree to disagree: the parents choice of living out the values of the Kingdom impacts upon the kid’s comfort, or lack thereof. The kids are getting some OJT while growing up. This is for the King and HIS Kingdom’s sake. Not self-flagellation, but suffering for a purpose. Better for the kids to learn this NOW, than later. This is better than a flannel-gram bible study on “suffering” at Sunday School, IMO.

          Nice work, Chap Mike: this is one of those series that I”ll print out and distribute

  13. Some say you’re lucky
    If nothing shatters it.

    But then you wouldn’t
    Understand poems or songs.
    You’d never know
    Beauty comes from loss.

    It’s deep inside every person:
    A tear tinier
    Than a pearl or thorn.

    It’s one of the places
    Where the beloved is born.

    ~ Gregory Orr ~
    Hat Tip: Panhala

  14. Chaplain Mike, I recall Reynolds Price (the English literature professor from Duke who had spinal cancer in his 20s and debilitating pain thereafter) being asked by Charlie Rose about suffering in an interview. Suffering, he said, “seems to be the only way we hound dogs can be brought to heel.”

    There are so many implications of this truth. Thanks for posting about a hard topic in a culture that will take any pill, avoid any person or situation, pass any judgment regardless of consequences to others, all in the pursuit of avoidance of suffering. Our avoidance of the truths and lessons of suffering is really tragic.

  15. I have been battling depression for some time now due to the death of my younger sister. When I read this post, I realized that when I am at the point of utmost despair, I run straight to the cross confessing how weak I am. I am normally a person who thinks she has it all together, but after this tragedy in my life, I don’t feel so together anymore. I don’t know that I am suffering for Christ in this instance, but I do know that I want to take my weakness and hide in him.

  16. Thanks, Chaplain, for a classic, powerful, straight-to-the-heart piece of writing. I hope this is linked and re-posted everywhere.

  17. This all sounds good but I’m not sure I buy it. If suffering is so great then why will there be none in heaven? Why was there none in the garden before the fall? Why do we do so much to get relief from it, (painkillers, antidepressents, alcohol, or whatever you can find)? Is God so limited that only by making (allowing) people to hurt and grieve can he make them better? Suffering may be able to make you, but it can also break you. I know unbelievers suffer right along with the Christians, over mostly the same things, so I’m not sure that Christians are “suffering for Christ” 95% of the time- and that seems to be the only kind of suffering mentioned in the Bible that is lauded.

    • One way of thinking I’ve found helpful is that before the fall (and again in heaven), everything was in the proper balance. Specifically, our bodies were properly in subjection to our minds/spirits and our minds/spirits were properly in subjection to the spirit of God. After the fall, our minds/spirits were no longer properly yielding to the loving authority of God and our bodies (our flesh) asserted themselves and now overwhelm (rather than live in proper subjection to) our bodies.

      I don’t know if you’ve ever watched “The Dog Whisperer” but over and over again on that program, when a human doesn’t exercise proper authority over a dog (when the human isn’t acting as the “pack leader”), the dog will assume control, usually leading to behavorial problems and all sorts of difficulties for the human. In the same way, when we lost the proper balance between God/human mind/human body, it’s as if our bodies are trying to become the “pack leader” and creating havoc as a result.

      Suffering is a way of bringing the body back into subjection to the mind/spirit and simultaneously of bringing our mind/spirit back into subjection to God. Just like when the Dog Whisperer has to come in and sometimes provide “harsh love” (i.e. “suffering” in some sense) to the dog in order to restore proper relationships, so we must experience “suffering” to restore our proper relationships.

  18. CM, in light of some of the remarks, may I suggest a post or “gangsta” interview on a theology of suffering.

  19. I think I agree with the basic premise of this post – that growth comes through suffering. Michael Gorman uses the word “cruciform” to describe what our lives as Christians should look like. They should look like us dying to ourselves.

    I think, though, I do see and feel the tension that Tim mentioned a few comments above. I think we have to be careful in calling suffering in and of itself a good thing. It is possible to suffer, to go through horrible events, and not grow. There are people who come out the other side of these events simply broken and angry at God. Perhaps it’s a matter of us simply learning to trust God will be true to His promise despite our circumstances. I guess what I am leery of is an asceticism that tries to force suffering on people. That’s really the equal but opposite error of the prosperity gospel.

    I also think that we have to be careful that we don’t spiritualize suffering to the extent that it numbs us from wanting to lift people out of it. After all, Jesus began His ministry that He was sent to, “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    • Your last paragraph points to Mother Teresa’s error. She so glorified suffering that she went out of her way not to alleviate it.

      • Kozak writes, “Your last paragraph points to Mother Teresa’s error. She so glorified suffering that she went out of her way not to alleviate it.”

        I can’t agree with that, Kozak. I have not read the books about Mother Teresa, so you may know some details that I don’t know, but I know she was caring for the sick and dying, and trying to bring them some love and comfort. I can’t see how she would have gone out of her way to not alleviate suffering.

  20. I wonder if all this talk about suffering in positive terms isn’t just an attempt at theodicy. I think it’s possible that suffering just plain sucks, and we’re trying to feel better about it.

  21. The whole “We don’t know why God allows bad things to happen, we just know He cries with us” thing is very unsatisfying. If God gives babies cancer, I would think a just God would have a better explanation than well, Eve took a bite out of an apple.

    Which begs the question of why we look to God to help us grow with our suffering when He’s the one who is causing it in the first place. Or maybe that makes perfect sense.

    • Maybe this is why God doesn’t want everyone to have health care, now that I think about it. Health care really gets in the way of suffering.

    • I have a problem with saying God causes suffering (for the most part), but I don’t have an issue with the idea that He can create something good from it. I actually think most suffering that happens on earth is random and ambiguous – meaning I don’t think that bad things happen with a purpose the vast majority of the time. There are any number of factors that cause them to happen, but I get irritated when I hear Christians try to “connect the dots” too much.

    • @Fish: While I appreciate your heart for not wanting babies (or anyone for that matter) to suffer, a universe where babies simply cannot have cancer is also a universe where people cannot love in the christian sense of the word. I’m sure you’ve thought on this. God is able to endure, as only HE can, the suffering of this world, so as to have real LOVE, while waiting with us for the New Heavens and New Earth, where all sickness and suffering are banished forever.

      I know this types out as cliches, but if we dont’ have GOD’s resouces and impartial answers, we are left with our own. That, to me, is sadder still.

      GREG R

  22. Suffering is not good in and of itself, but it is an opportunity. I think that CM’s point is that it is an important opportunity. I believe the Lutherans list it among the spiritual gifts!

    In suffering, idols get their masks torn off. A lot of them were lurking, looking harmless in the corner, but in the face of suffering they can’t hide. Pride is especially this way, it masquerades until it is confronted. It is shown that your financial security, high reputation amongst your peers, really amazing skill at X, avoidance of harmful thing Y, good lifestyle choices, those are good things, but they form a weak and cruddy basis for your identity and no true hope for your future outlook.

    But suffering is just an opportunity, and what happens next depends on our response. So when those idols are unmasked, we don’t have to turn to God. Instead, we can choose to erect new idols, or even remask the old ones, etc. I’ve played this game… I made my identity for years out of “chippy martyr”, pride at how tough I was in the face of pain, etc.

    But oh, oh, when we do turn to God, that gain is better than all the false hope we have lost! And when you look upon Jesus in the manner of Heb 12, the significance of the suffering itself pales in comparison with his. Withough Jesus, without redemption, suffering is pointless and bad, but through his redemption, it can free us of lies, free us of delusions, and point us to the great truth and love of God’s existence, character, and care for us.

  23. Well said Tokah. Without fail you lift me up.

  24. Thought provoking stuff.
    The suffering in the texts used, must, surely, not be, not getting a car park, stubbing your toe or having a disease. It can only be the suffering of forcing yourself out of the state that you’re in (and comfortable with) to move to where God is calling you. And that in a spiritual world sense.
    The moslem word jihad means much the same thing “.. at war with yourself.”