Preaching: Glorious Ruin deals with the issue of suffering, and is rooted in the biblical Book of Job. How did you come to this subject for a book?

Tchividjian: I had just emerged out of a season of suffering, probably the most difficult season of my life. It was the year the church I had planted, New City Church, merged with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. That story is relatively well-known in terms of the difficulty that came out of that merger.

Then it was also the year my father died. He was 70 years old and had liver transplant surgery that he never quite recovered from, and so he spent the last five months of his life in intensive care and passed away. He was not only one of my best friends, but one of my chief advisors and counselors and just a good therapist really. He was a psychologist by trade, and he psychologized me very well.

So it was a really painful year of my life, and as I was going through that year I was reading through the Book of Job—which was just in God’s good providence—and I was ministered to greatly by Job. It’s amazing how many times I’ve read that book, but when you’re actually going through the ringer yourself and you feel as if you’re at the end of your rope, you see things you hadn’t seen before, and you feel things you hadn’t felt before and understand things at a deeper level.

So I decided to preach through the Book of Job. I took 11 weeks to preach through the Book of Job in the fall of 2010, and it became the most listened to and downloaded sermon series I’ve ever preached. I mean, we were hearing from people all over the world about how this particular series was helping them and changing them and that sort of thing. So it got me thinking it may not be a bad idea to take some of these insights and formulate a book.

I took about a year or so to work on this book. I don’t like books that are taken from sermon series that read like sermon series. So even though all the sermons were transcribed and we had something to work with, I wanted to make sure it read like a good book. I say in the introduction that while this book was birthed out of a series of sermons, the book is not just the sermons. It’s much expanded, much more developed than the sermons were. Plus I learned a lot; from the time I finished preaching the sermon series to the time I actually started writing the book—and in the process of writing the book—I learned a ton! My understanding of the cross was deepened; my understanding of the gospel was deepened; my understanding of my own sin and my own idolatry was deepened. So it started off as a series of sermons that was birthed out of a season of suffering in my own life, and then widely expanded into the book form that it is today.

Preaching: While most books on this issue seem try to address the why of suffering, you note that you’re addressing the who of suffering. What does that mean, and why is that important?

Tchividjian: When I started looking at all of the Christian books that were written on the topic of suffering, I noticed two things that were fascinating to me. One, a lot of books address the why question: “Why does God allow suffering? If God is good and in control of all things, why is there evil in this world?” They deal with the deep philosophical issues that revolve around suffering. The technical word for it is theodicy, addressing the problem of evil. So I found a lot of books on why.

Then I discovered there were a lot of books on the what of suffering or the how of suffering, which basically meant suffering is primarily God’s way of making us better people. So how do we approach suffering, or what can we expect suffering to turn us into? As helpful as both of those questions are, what I discovered was there was a huge lack of Christian books written on the who of suffering; namely, God being present with us in our suffering, the Bible presenting a God who suffers with us and for us.

So this becomes a cross-centered approach to the subject of suffering. I talk about these two very, very important categories that seem so old, but they’re very much with us today. Martin Luther developed these categories: the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. All of us naturally tend toward a theology of glory, which is God is present in strength, not weakness. God is present in power and victory, but He’s not present in defeat. In contrast to that, Luther talked about what it means to embrace a theology of the cross, which is the very counterintuitive idea that God is ever-present in our weakness, that God is present in our humility; God is present in our smallness.

I started to think through these things. I realized that so often inside the church our approach to suffering actually perpetuates pain, because what we discover—at least inside the church—is a lot of moralistic approaches to suffering. This is Job’s friends. Job’s friends basically said, “Good people get good stuff, and bad people get bad stuff. Job, you’re clearly getting bad stuff; so what did you do wrong?” The disciples, walking along the road with Jesus, and coming up to a man born blind had the same approach. “Jesus, who sinned: this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In other words, “This guy’s clearly being punished for some sin he or his parents committed; so who was it, him or his parents?”

So there are a lot of moralistic approaches to suffering inside the church, and we do it all the time. If we see rebellious teenagers in church, or not inside church services, but if we know Christian parents inside the church who have rebellious teenagers, there’s that deep-down sense inside us—we may not actually say it—but there’s a sense inside of us which concludes, “Hmm, I wonder what the parents did wrong in their parenting approach? Were they too legalistic? Were they too free in their parenting?” In other words, we always want to pass the buck; we want to place blame. We want to say suffering is directly and explicitly connected to bad behavior, that it’s a form of punishment God uses when we’ve done something wrong.

One of the things I develop in the book is, whether we would ever say this or not, all of us believe in karma. We believe in a Christianized version of it, which is, “If I’m suffering, it’s because I’m being punished. Good things come to good people, and bad things happen to bad people,” that sort of thing. What I discovered inside the church is there is not only a moralizing tendency, but there is a minimizing tendency where we throw out trite biblical phrases such as, “Hey, listen. God is working all things out for your good and His glory, so God’s doing great things. He’s going to make you tougher.” Or, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and blah, blah, blah. We try to minimize the pain and convey to the sufferer that it’s just a matter of perspective. If you would simply change your perspective, then you would suffer less.

I dive into much more detail on those two ways, and I give numerous illustrations of ways we do that inside the church. Then show how God’s purpose in suffering is much more mysterious, much more unexplainable; that suffering really is God’s way of setting us free. One of the points I make in the book is that suffering cannot rob us of joy, only idolatry can. What I mean by that is so often our suffering has less to do with our circumstances and it has more to do with the fact that I am clinging to something to invest my life with worth and value and significance and security, and I’m losing that something. So, in a sense, my idol is being taken away; my object of worship is being taken away; this thing I’m depending on to make me feel as if I matter is being taken away.

I discovered this when I was going through that painful transition at Coral Ridge. I mean, my circumstances were very difficult, and I initially thought, “I know what the problem is: It’s these people who were being mean to me. That’s the cause of my suffering.” As I thought about it some more I said, “No, it’s not so much that what these people are saying or doing is causing my suffering; it’s the fact that for far too long I have depended on what other people think of me to make me feel important. I’ve idolized human approval, acceptance and human affection.” So when that was taken away, I felt as if the flesh was being ripped off my bones. My idols were being crushed.

So the main thrust of the book is that suffering really is God’s tool to set us free, and we see that supremely in the cross of Christ.

Preaching: Many pastors struggle with the issue of preaching on suffering. As you went through the series on Job, are there any things you learned or any experiences that might be helpful to other pastors as they deal with this topic?

Tchividjian: Number one, be very transparent about your own suffering. I needed to show our people that I was a fellow sufferer. Often when we think about suffering, we think about what I call in the book “The Deadly D’s: Death, Disease, Divorce, Depression.” We also can think of suffering in terms of little things such as frustration; unmet expectations that cause us to feel cheated; the lack of respect I might get from my wife or my colleagues; the fact that I wanted my life by the time I was 40 to look a certain way, and it doesn’t look the way I had always dreamed; I wish my kids would turn out a certain way, and they haven’t turned out exactly the way I had hoped; those sorts of things. All of those things are suffering. Every time I feel misunderstood, every time I feel maligned, every time I feel as if this person owes me something I’m not getting, all of that can be considered suffering, too.

The point I make throughout the book—and I think this is really important because if we don’t see suffering in these ways, then we’ll tend to relegate suffering to the big things—we need to understand that because of sin nothing in this world is as it is supposed to be, everything in this world is broken. That means from my birth date to my death day, I have never, ever, ever experienced an entirely pain-free moment, not one. Not even for a millisecond. So when you put it that way, you start realizing, “Wow, I am a sufferer. Yes, when you start defining suffering that way, I realize I am a sufferer.”

So as I preached this in order to make that point, I had to be pretty transparent and pretty open about the various ways I had suffered that week. Maybe it was my son talking back to me and me feeling, “If I don’t get respect from my son, I’m not a successful father.” So I need to extract respect from my son so I can feel good about myself.” When we don’t get it, that’s a form of suffering. Or I was late to a meeting for a good reason, and when I walked into the meeting the people looked at me as if I was some young, irresponsible young kid who doesn’t really care about time or other peoples’ time. Little detailed things such as those I used each week to explain how we suffer each and every day, even in these small ways. So I had to be very transparent.

One of the things I try to do throughout the book is strongly exhort Christian people to listen more than they talk. John Stott said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we talk,” and I think when you’re dealing with people who are in pain, that’s a very, very wise thing to consider. Job’s friends, you might remember, when they first saw him from a distance, they wept. When they got to him and saw his condition, they sat on the ground with him for seven days, didn’t say a word and simply wept with him. One of the points I make in the book is that Job’s friends were great counselors until they opened their mouths.

You know, God does not allow suffering into our lives so Christian people will try to fix us. Fixing never solves the problem. When I try to fix my wife, or you try to fix your wife, or we try to fix our kids or fix other people, we know how they react. We know how they respond. Nobody wants to be fixed by another person. So often we can minimize a person’s pain when we think, “OK, this is an objectified problem that needs to be fixed, and I have a solution for you.” In that sense, you’re not delving into the deep, painful mystery of suffering with that person, weeping with those who weep, simply empathizing with those who are suffering. Not trying to fix them, not trying to come up with a solution so his or her problem will be solved—just listening, weeping and acknowledging how difficult and painful it is.

Let’s not sweep it under the rug, let’s not pretend things are better than they actually are. This is a broken world; and we’re broken people living with other broken people, and life is hard. There’s not a moment in life that’s not hard. Let’s just acknowledge the hardness of life. Often, that is the kind of counsel people need the most.

Preaching: What are some of the issues or series you are going to be dealing with as you preach during the next few months?

Tchividjian: I currently am preaching through the Book of Genesis, which is something I’ve never done. I’m doing it in 12 weeks, so of course I’m not going to be able to go word for word, but I’m hitting the main themes. I’m hitting the main stories and the main figures, and the title of the sermon series is “In the Beginning, Grace.”

The whole point of the sermon series is to show that the Christian life is not so much our movement toward God as it is God’s movement toward us. We see that not only in creation, but in God’s initiative. We see that in God’s approach to Noah; we see that in his initiating approach to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. It’s always God coming to us. So one of the points I want to make is that God’s amazing grace was there in the beginning; it’s there in the middle; and it’ll be there at the end. What God starts, God finishes. Once God saves us, He doesn’t move us beyond His grace; but He moves us more deeply into His grace. We never ever outgrow our need for God’s daily distributions of grace.

I’m having a lot of fun. In fact, I told a friend of mine Scotty Smith, who’s another preacher, “I’m having so much fun. I don’t want it to end. I wish I could preach through Genesis the rest of my life.” You take all of these very familiar stories the way a lot of preachers preach through Genesis, it becomes a catalog of moral heroes that we’re called to emulate. Be like Abraham, be like Noah. Don’t be like Cain, be like Abel. What often happens is that Jesus gets missed.

Instead of all these failed heroes—and all of them are failures when you start reading the book of Genesis carefully—all of these failed heroes whet our appetite for a hero who will come from above, the hero who was promised in Genesis 3:15—the seed of the woman who would come and crush the head of the serpent. So I make it very clear the Book of Genesis is not a book of great people doing great things for God; it’s a book of sinners whom God saves. It’s a book that records a catalog of sinners whom God saves. So I’m having a real good time preaching through that now.

Preaching: What do you find to be the greatest challenge in your preaching ministry these days?

Tchividjian: I think being committed, as I am, to preaching the gospel; and when I say that, what I mean is not to preach a sermon about how to have a good marriage and then end the sermon with an appeal to non-Christians—that’s not what I mean—an evangelistic appeal to non-Christians. I mean, if we take seriously what Jesus said in Luke 24 to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, all of Scripture points to Him; and I think preachers need to be committed to preaching Christ from every text, preaching the gospel from every text.

Sinners need the gospel, and that means because Christians and non-Christians are sinners, Christians and non-Christians need the gospel. The challenge is learning how to exegete the text in such a way as to see how this text, if it’s an Old Testament text for example, how it foreshadows the need for Christ. What sin or idol does this text illuminate in my own life? How does Jesus specifically meet that need? How does Jesus save that sin? It’s a challenge.

When I used to preach moralistic sermons, I’d preach a sermon about David and say, “Be like David. That’s relatively easy to do. However, to try and find what Bryan Chapell calls the “Fallen Condition Focus,” of the passage and show how Christ alone can save us from our desperation, I think, is just an ongoing weekly challenge. It actually takes more work to do that, and the only way I have found to be able to help me in that regard is not only to exegete my own heart on a regular basis but really get honest about my own sin and come to terms with my own daily need to preach the gospel to myself and take that into the pulpit with me.

Also, just listening to preachers who do this sort of thing: A number of people come to mind—Tim Keller comes to mind, and of course Bryan Chapell comes to mind—people such as that who really focus their attention on preaching Christ from every text. So that’s not only my challenge these days, but that will probably be my challenge until the day I die.

Preaching: What do you enjoy most about preaching?

Tchividjian: I guess feeling used. You know, preachers are probably the only people who can understand it when I say something such as this, but when you are doing what you were created by God to do, it just feels…even on bad Sundays, when you don’t think you’ve preached a good sermon, there’s still this deep sense you’re doing what you’ve been fundamentally wired by God to do. Without believing your own press and thinking, “I’m the one who’s actually affecting change in peoples’ lives,” I’m just the tool God uses. God is the One who affects change in peoples’ lives. It’s God who brings hope to the hopeless. It’s God who brings comfort to the afflicted. It’s God who brings encouragement to the discouraged. It’s not me, but I love to be used in that regard.

I think after you’ve been doing it—I’ve been preaching for 17 years—after you do it for a while, and you start to accumulate a body of work, you realize God is using that work to help people. There are very few things in life that are more satisfying than that, to me anyway.

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