This excerpt written by Emily Chadwell is from our Lifeway Women Advent Bible study: Advent: The Weary World Rejoices.
Several years ago, my family traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for Christmas. One of the highlights of our trip was snowmobiling through Yellowstone National Park.
During a stop on our excursion, our tour guide said something that has stuck with me. He was telling us about the fire in Yellowstone in 1988, which covered 1.2 million acres. People were terrified that one of America’s greatest national parks had been permanently damaged. But then our guide said something remarkable—while most people were panicking, experts in the field knew that fire was a necessary part of the park’s growth. They knew that in order for Yellowstone to continue to produce life, it first had to die. And that’s exactly what happened.
When I heard this, Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel came to mind: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit” (12:24). Jesus was talking about more than gardening, of course. He was shedding light on the upside-down nature of His kingdom, where life comes out of death and joy comes out of suffering.
We live in a culture that wrongfully believes God helps those who help themselves. We think that if we do the right thing, we’ll earn a life of comfort; but if we do the wrong thing, we’ll earn a life of suffering. In the upside-down way of the kingdom, though, suffering isn’t merely a form of punishment reserved for the disobedient. In fact, Scripture is clear that the obedient will suffer, and that their suffering is actually a sign of their status as children of God.
Even as Christians we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that our obedience entitles us to pain-free life. Too often we’re like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), who thought his perfect record entitled him to certain privileges. He was furious when, upon his reckless and disobedient younger brother’s homecoming, his father threw a massive party. His father had never thrown him a party, and he had done everything right!
Jesus shatters any notion that a perfect life exempts us from suffering. He was without sin, and yet He suffered far more than any other.
Being God’s Son didn’t disqualify Jesus from suffering. In fact, His suffering qualified Him to be our High Priest, who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” because He was tempted in every way that we are and yet He never sinned (Heb. 4:15).
We also see from this passage the clear connection between obedience and suffering—as we suffer, we learn to obey God just as Jesus did. However, when the author of Hebrews wrote about Jesus learning obedience, he didn’t mean Jesus had to overcome disobedience like we do. Rather, by saying that Jesus learned obedience he means Jesus continually said yes to God’s will every day, culminating with the crucifixion.1
This is important to take notice of. The life of faith is a daily walk of obedience and trust. Christians do ourselves a disservice when we wait until our lives are falling apart to finally get serious about our faith. Spiritual disciplines (prayer, reading the Word, Christian fellowship, and so forth) aren’t meant to act as an emergency surgery—an immediate and necessary reaction in crisis to prevent the worst possible scenario. Rather, they are daily practices we engage in to prepare us for what’s ahead.
Jesus modeled a life of daily faith as, every day, in a million ways, He submitted Himself to the will of the Father. When He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39b), that wasn’t the first time He laid down His will. Each daily act of obedience leading up to that prepared Him for obedience at the cross.
Thankfully, the obedient aren’t called to suffer just for suffering’s sake. God’s end goal is our joy.
In the upside-down kingdom of God, obedience goes hand-in-hand with suffering, and suffering goes hand-in-hand with joy. Jesus’ obedience led Him to the cross, and Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him—being in the presence of God.2 The good news for us is, because Jesus came to the earth and offered His life as a sacrifice for us, we have access to the Father here and now, in whose “presence is abundant joy” (Ps. 16:11). What’s more, we have the Spirit of Christ in us, who causes the fruit of joy to overflow in us as we walk in step with Him (Gal. 5:22).
In the article “The Joy We Know Only in Suffering,” Marshall Segal wrote, “God can build a blazing and refreshing sanctuary in the wilderness. He turns our deserts into places for us to explore and express greater depths of delight in him. Instead of being a threat to real joy, he often makes our suffering a means to even more.”3
It can be tempting to base our joy on our circumstances, but the apostle Paul wrote from a prison cell, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
Always. That means when things are going better than planned or worse than imagined, we’re to have joy in the Lord. How? In the wise words of Elisabeth Elliot, “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”4
Experience the Christmas season anew this year with this 5-session study on Advent, why we celebrate it, and how it fuels our worship of Jesus. Understand the anticipation and waiting the Old Testament world endured. And experience the joy of new life signaled by the coming of Christ, and the way Advent points to the glory of God still to come. First released in 2019, this study is expanded with tools for Scripture memory to help you savor this Advent season.
1.George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 195.
2. Ibid, Guthrie, 399.
3. Marshall Segal, “The Joy We Know Only in Suffering,” Desiring God. October 18, 2018. Available online at www.desiringgod.org.
4. Elisabeth Elliot, Keep a Quiet Heart (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1995), 4.