A wise man once said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The “many,” “tribulations,” and “must” combine to make life really, really hard at times. Pain seems to crash upon its victims with inhumane force. It comes in all forms—physical, spiritual, relational, some excruciating combination. There are times when it just seems impossible to continue another moment.
Thankfully however, we have a loving God who is sovereign over suffering. He’s not pushing buttons from a distance, but intimately walking through it with us. What a great thing it is to have the Lord as our shepherd. He cares for us, not by always sparing us from sorrow, but leading us through it. He binds us up through various means; the word of God, prayer, corporate worship.
But, what about when a trial reaches a new level of difficulty? What about when the spiritual and emotional pain seems too crippling to be at church? Certainly there are situations like this. What should we do?
Beth Moore, a highly influential evangelical, said this on mother’s day:
If you feel like sobbing, do. If you feel like going to church on Mother’s Day would crush your heart, don’t. You won’t lose your salvation because you don’t want to go to church on Mother’s Day. Grab pen and paper and get alone with God and pour out your heart to Him in full…
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) May 13, 2018
On the one hand, the advice is understandable. In some seasons of suffering, it seems impossible to do anything. There are certain things which feel as if doing them would only plunge the knife deeper.
But on the other hand, this kind of thinking backfires. It’s hazardous. It can create damage and propagate error. I assume that the intention of the advice was to help and a bless. But the stay-home suggestion can communicate several consequential errors. Here are a few for consideration:
- God’s means of grace are insufficient for certain struggles.
The corporate gathering is to be a time of worship to the glory of God. As we worship together with gifted saints, we are fed, strengthened, transformed, encouraged, and equipped. That’s why the gathering exists. As the word of God is read, sang, prayed, pondered, and preached, God administers his care. So, to suggest avoiding the gathering because of a trial is counter-productive. Corporate worship is intended to bring care in suffering. It might feel impossible to gather; too painful. But our God knows. And he desires to care for us precisely throughcorporate worship. So, to avoid church due to the pain of a trial is akin to avoiding eating due to the pain of hunger.
To suggest sidestepping corporate worship in a trial is to suggest that God’s means of grace are insufficient in suffering.
- Certain struggles permit disobedience.
Hebrews 10:25 teaches, “[N]ot forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Again, God greatly desires to care for his people. That’s one reason why gathering is a command. He knows what he is doing.
The context of this command in Hebrews is insightful. The letter was written a few years into the Neronian persecution. History records that Nero was ruthless in his approach to Christians. So, the original recipients of the letter were suffering. Pressure to deny the faith was cranking up. Some had already lost their homes and lands simply for confessing Christ (Heb. 10:34). Others endured reproach and affliction (Heb. 10:33). Shedding of blood was imminent. Even so, the writer of Hebrews, carried by the loving Holy Spirit, says, in effect, “I still want you to gather corporately for worship. I know it is so hard. But avoid the temptation to stay home.”
To advise avoiding corporate worship in suffering is to suggest that disobedience to God is permissible when life gets hard.
- The body of Christ is unhelpful for trials.
One thing I love about corporate worship is that it is the time of the week where the entire body of Christ is present together. God has ordained that it be so. That’s one reason it is so important to him. He gets glory and delight when all of the body parts are present under the headship of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22-23).
Part of the reason God desires that we gather together—especially in seasons of suffering—is because he made the body of Christ for such times. Edification-care is precisely why God makes, gifts, and gathers the body of Christ.
“But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
The Holy Spirit has outfitted every member of the body with capacities to do good for one another. Sundays are a key time to experience the Spirit’s good through the body.
“God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:24–25).
With the entire local body present, the corporate gathering is the foremost time to receive God’s unifying care for one another.
“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
When it comes to the pain of suffering, the body is God’s means to care for us. So, there is a sufficiency built into the New Testament kind of local church; a God-given sufficiency to minister to suffering through the gifted body.
To suggest forsaking the gathering in suffering is to suggest that the body of Christ is unhelpful in our trials.
- Our emotions in suffering should govern our actions.
Emotions are a tricky thing. We have them. They exist. They can do good. But, because of our fallenness, emotions are not infallible guides to what is. That can be especially true in seasons of suffering.
If we make decisions based on emotional pain, we can lead ourselves away from God’s goodness. To put emotions over the word of God is to put ourselves over it.
To advise avoiding corporate worship due to the pain of suffering could be to suggest following emotions over Scripture.
Those are a few ways that the stay-home counsel can, if inadvertently, propagate error. But we might need to think a tad more about why advice like that from a highly influential evangelical would be so praised.
- Are church leaders facilitating gatherings with suffering in mind?
As church leaders, we ought to approach the worship gathering with the spectrum of human experience in mind. Besides living life, things like the psalms tell us that. There are psalms of thanksgiving and praise, imprecation, ascent and celebration, and lament. On any given Sunday, a church of thirty people could include those who have just lost their job, are enslaved to sexual sin, are experiencing rejection from family and friends, have experienced a death in the family, are happily and newly married, are battling illness, have just landed their dream job, battling a wayward child, and more. How will this reality influence our approach to leading worship?
Even more, are we as pastors mindful that most often, people are battling some level of discouragement? Recall, there are about 45 lament psalms. That’s almost a third of the psalter. We should keep that in mind as we read, pray, sing, and exposit the sufficient Scriptures.
Further, have we equipped the members of the local church to care for others who suffer? If there is anything that should be included in a pastor’s mandate of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry, it should be that. Do the people in our church know what doctrines and verses to bring to the suffering? Do they know how to be generous, compassionate, giving, nurturing, and use their giftedness to other church members in trials? If not, perhaps that is part of the reason that staying home from the gathering in seasons of suffering would resonate with many.
- Are church leaders keeping Scripture central in worship gatherings?
What are we doing as we approach the preeminent time of God’s week? When we sit with our leadership teams, what governs what we will do during the Sunday gathering?
Further, why might Beth Moore say things like that? And why might thousands praise her for it? This kind of counsel is not unique to her. If we look at the current landscape of American evangelicalism, it’s understandable why her counsel is adored.
Many, many people go to church and are simply not fed. Pastors are “unhitching” their teaching from the Old Testament. Twenty-minute platitudes are lobbed into pews. The Sunday morning table is set with goofy, tear-jerking stories sprinkled with a dash of Bible. Under the immense pressure to be liked, pastors scratch superficial itches. Pulpits center on caring for emotions and flattering feelings. Songs are sung which exalt our glands and personal, lamentable experiences with our emotions in the name of Christ.
Is it any wonder, then, that those suffering might tap out when life has wrecked them? They are being starved. Sure, the aforementioned superficial approaches to Sunday morning might work during the many moments of smooth-sailing life, with a light struggle here and there. But when the inevitable trials hit and the ground flies out from underneath, it makes sense that people suggest staying home from church. All this time we’ve given people a Bible-lite, feelings-centered Christianity that stokes the emotions and flatters the ego, but does little to promote real sanctification. We’ve reaped what we’ve sown. The mother’s day tweet was a tiny step in the direction we’ve been traveling for decades.
Of course we’ll suggest staying home from church. Where will I go when life is really, really hard? Not church. But I’ll “hang out” with God alone instead, because certainly that will be more fulfilling than what I get each Sunday at First Church of Stoked-Feelings. I’ve never been shepherded in the colossal, soul-building truths of God’s sovereignty; of the doctrines of sovereign grace; of providence and humility.
The way to ensure that the sheep are being sufficiently cared for at church is by keeping Scripture central. Perhaps people are tempted to withdraw from corporate worship while suffering because they do not associate church gatherings with feeding-care. Are we tending the Lord’s sheep? Whether a Sunday worship gathering or a small group, Scripture is to be central because God is to be central.
“Well, you don’t know what I’m going through.” True. I can’t imagine the pain for some of you. I would not wish that upon anyone. But the God of Scripture and the Scriptures of God are sufficient. God is so compassionate. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. He knows, loves, and cares. He is with us always, even until the end of the age. The Lord Jesus Christ was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Suffering is not a thing merely observed for him. It’s something endured. And endured all the way to and through the cross, where he carried our sins, under the righteous wrath of God. Then, he rose victorious from suffering and death. And he lives, having conquered death. He watches us. He tends us. And he will one day bring us to his everlasting sinless, painless, deathless, suffering-less presence for his glory. In the meantime, he is sovereign over our suffering, just like he’s sovereign over evil, heaven, hell, and who goes there. God’s word is sufficient for suffering. And to suggest tapping out of the word-filled gathering because life is too hard, is a functional declaration of the insufficiency of Scripture.
And if the word of Almighty God ministered at the sacred corporate gathering is insufficient for certain suffering, then we have a problem of insurmountable magnitude.
Finally, stay-home type of advice is also the fruit of an erroneous message about church and life. I don’t think that this type of counsel would exist if we kept a central theme of Scripture in mind: church is about God. If you have struggled like I have, perhaps you have been tempted to think that going to church is about me and my comforts. Whatever I do, whether I eat or drink or go to church, I do all for the glory of me. But church, pain, and life are about God. I understand that some would say, “Well, I’m not saying avoid God in the trial. Just avoid church.” But that line of thinking risks the idea that, “I’m going to do God stuff, but just in my way, according to my wants.” Perhaps, we are morphing God to the glory of us.
The local church, worship, our pain, and all things are for God and his glory. And that is not detrimental, but essential to strength for suffering.
God cares for his people. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). Pain is just utterly painful sometimes. For many of us, suffering is laid end-to-end in our lives. We are entering, enduring, and exiting trials simultaneously. And yet, in it all, God is with us. God gives us all things we need. He gives us himself.
One of the chief ways he cares for us is through the ordinary corporate gathering. When life crashes, sometimes it seems too hard to gather; to move. But, if we let our feelings lead in such times, we risk missing out on the thing our soul needs most.
The first few days after major open heart surgery are interesting. Doctors stroll up to your bed and ask you to do things that seem impossible. While still in the cardiac ICU, they have the audacity to ask you to stand up and walk. You can’t even move your arms, yet they will push you to take a few steps. It gets worse. They will then tell you to cough and hack up lung junk. How inhumane can they get?! But, if you will not do those things, your condition can get worse and fast. On the front end, it seems impossible to do those things. But, doctors know what they are doing. Taking a step of faith in the doctors accordingly, and enduring great discomfort, goes a long way in the recovery process.
I wonder if suffering and the local church might be similar. It seems impossible and too painful to gather corporately for some who are suffering. Like doctors approaching the cardiac patient telling them to walk and cough, the request seems audacious. But, like the cardiac physicians, our Great Physician knows what he is doing in our pain. We can trust him by gathering corporately with God’s people.
“These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps. 42:4).
Source: Eric Davis | The Cripplegate