Larry preached the gospel to me that day and it made all the difference.
If you don’t go to your grave confused, you don’t go to your grave trusting. Painful as it is, this situation gives you an opportunity to show them grace, to love them in their brokenness in a new way. This is precisely what Jesus has done for you and continues to do for you.
Larry’s life-changing words were given in the midst of one of Tullian’s most painful realizations. His parents were divorcing. Tullian valued his upbringing and the faith of his parents. He would say this was a “total curveball.” Tullian was very confused. As an adult, husband and father, Tullian went to his friend Larry Crabb for help.
Larry gave Tullian the assurance that God was not waiting for Tullian to fix or figure out his parents’ problems. Rather, to process why this was so devastating to Tullian. This realization eventually led him to this declaration:
“The truth is, suffering does not rob us of joy; idolatry does.”
Tullian discovered that a big part of the deep pain he felt was the devastating blow to his personal identity as their son. The family name gave Tullian a sense of significance and security. But more than that, Tullian had made it into an idol. He would say he worshiped the good reputation he had by virtue of being their child (Billy Graham’s daughter Gigi Graham and Stephan Tchividjian).
Tim Keller says, “Sin isn’t only doing bad things; it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God.”
This was Tullian’s reality. Soon after, he found God dismantling another idol during the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL transition. Eventually he found himself moving deeper into a place of dependence on God, where admittedly God was seeking him all along.
Tullian would say today that it is the idolatry that sapped his joy in the midst of admittedly painful experiences. That realization has led him to focus on the who rather than the why of suffering.
There are many stories in the Bible of people who suffered and didn’t clearly understand the why. Hebrews 11 is a classic listing of such experiences. That chapter ends, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them receive what had been promised. God had planned something better …” Their lives exhibited a focus on the who rather than the why of their suffering.
Merriam Webster defines idolatry as “The worship of a physical object as a god; immoderate attachment or devotion or veneration to something.”
Do you ever wonder if Job—clearly a very wealthy man–had been told ahead of time, “If you would just hang in there during the suffering that is about to come then you will be rewarded by receiving a double-portion of all you have,” would he have decided to endure for Job’s sake—for what Job would have gotten out of it? Would his veneration of family, flocks and prestige in the community have taken a higher priority than his relationship with God? If so, Job would have succumbed to idolatry.
One of the beautiful things of Job’s story is Job’s cry and deep longing for God to “show up” in the midst of his pain. When seemingly everything Job had, including his reputation, was taken away, we see who he really is. His focus was on the who. God. The text gives no indication Job ever knew the why of his suffering. Yet, his desire for God remained strong, a priority.
What is that thing in your life that if God were to take it away, you’d feel life was not worth living?
Family, friends, health, finances, job, ambition, mission, dreams for the future, security, or ?? This is a penetrating question for me. Do I have an “immoderate attachment or devotion or veneration to something?” I clearly have an attachment and even devotion to people I love, to experiences and even places we share. Yet, do I venerate these?
Suffering can strip any or all of these away. Suffering can bring us to the end of ourselves and to a place of honesty. What am I counting on more than God in my life? Especially when things don’t go my way—or the way I’d planned.
As a 7th grader I could not imagine life going on if my Dad were to die. He had an enlarged heart and the effects of that condition became more prominent. Eventually he had open heart surgery and one of the first valve-replacements inserted. This was a very scary time for me. It was a time of wrestling. I dearly loved, respected highly and honestly venerated my Dad. He was a godly example to me and many others. Why would God take him away?
At that point in my life, suffering propelled me to occupy that place of the unanswerable why, rather than crying out to the who is with me in this pain.
God gave us six more years with my Dad before calling him home to heaven. My temptation to live in why was very compelling, but God’s Spirit in dear friends around me invited me to visit the who regularly. It took time…a lot of time. But what a treasure emerged!
I love growing into a savory depth of the who—my Abba’s love.