This is a rather long blog post. It is actually chapter 10 from the book, The Provocative God. Yesterday I attended my high school graduating class 40th reunion. One of the more memorable parts of the event was a memorial video to the classmates we have lost over the years. One of those was one of my dearest friends. This chapter from the book was a way for me to honor him. The idea to post it in the blog was to most easily share his story with fellow classmates. But even if you did not graduate with us, you are welcome to read it.
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” — Philippians 1:29
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
— Philippians 3:10
“We rejoice in our sufferings knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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.” — Romans 5:3-5
We met the first week of sixth grade. I was the new kid in the class, and as it turned out we lived two streets apart. In one of those oddities of life a group of six of us in the neighborhood became friends and most of us had a first name that began with the letter D. So very quickly we all became known by our last name with a D in front. I became D’Lacich and he became D’Johnson along with D’Hennel, D’Riani, D’Sieling. D’Johnson’s real name was Dwight and he is my longest-lasting friend, and as such a most treasured friend.
When we were growing up it was all about sports and girls. I won’t say anything about the girl part of things, but sports are another matter. We spent lots of time together on the base- ball field, the basketball court, the golf course, and the football field. In every instance except football Dwight far surpassed me in ability. The sheer brute force aspect of football served me better than the precision of the other sports. I never could beat him on the golf course, for instance. But I noticed that my game always got better when I played with him. In fact, the best round of golf I ever played was the day before Dwight and Debbie were married. I played out of my mind that day, and still he led the way with a better score.
Many memorable events in our lives were shared events. We woke up in my parents’ living room one New Year’s Day to the news that our hero, Roberto Clemente, had died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission to Puerto Rico. Dwight was in the room along with two other friends the night I gave my life to Christ. We were in each other’s weddings. Like the deepest of friendships, no matter how long the time is between phone calls or dinners, the bond of friendship is still unbreakable.
A few years ago I received the proverbial punch in the gut when I learned that Dwight had just been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure. The best they can do is manage the pain and the deterioration of the body. The first sign for Dwight that something was wrong was the difficulty he had holding a golf club. In just a year he went from that seemingly minor issue to being in a wheelchair most of the time and needing a neck brace to hold his head up when he worked on his computer.
Six months after the diagnosis, we were together at a charity golf tournament for him and his family. The goal was to raise money for the remodeling of their house to accommodate the inevitable wheelchair. Later we got together again, this time at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida. For two die-hard Steelers fans it was a dream come true, especially since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. For me, getting a picture with Dwight at that game was more precious than I can describe. The Steelers’ victory was an ecstatic experience. Being with Dwight was deeper, more important by far, and will remain etched in my mind like few other events. It is another of those highly valued, shared events.
Whenever someone close to you has a tragedy strike, it must be a nearly universal response to at some point wonder how you would handle that in your own life. I have thought long and hard about how I might handle such an illness for my wife or myself. The way Dwight and Debbie handled the illness that, barring a miracle, would one day end his life has forced me to ask that question over and over again. You see, my friend Dwight loves Jesus with all his heart. It was out of love for Je- sus that he and Debbie adopted two little boys with special needs, adding them to their very healthy biological daughter and son. It is out of love for Jesus that he has served in his local church. It is out of love for Jesus that he approached his suffering thinking only about others. I am forced to ask how I would handle such suffering because I see Dwight doing so with dignity and grace, and for the glory of God. In that suffering he challenges me, humbles me, and inspires me to want to honor God, if only in just a fraction of the way he does.
Oftentimes in the face of suffering we play the victim. “Why me?” we ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” We argue with the fairness of it all. In other cases we lapse into depression and give up. Dwight has been all about Jesus getting the glory. His attitude has been that of the Apostle Paul: “Whether I live or die, let God be glorified.” Also like Paul, I think Dwight has an even deeper connection to Jesus because of the fellowship shared by those who suffer. Dwight wants Jesus to use his personal experience of suffering to point others to Jesus. I think his love for Jesus is actually growing as a result of that shared fellowship. Dwight understands that God never promised us a life free of suffering, at least not this side of eternity. What He did promise us was that He would be with us always, no matter what. We would be in fellowship with Him always, because He is always with us.
There is a sense in which suffering is the calling of the Christian. Following Jesus does not come with a promise that your problems will disappear and the road of life will be smooth and free from potholes and hazards. It is quite the opposite. Jesus actually promises that if we follow Him people will persecute us. There will be hardship and toil along the way. His rationale is that if the world crucified Him and He is the Lord, how much more will we, the followers, face hardship and strife? The “health and wealth” gospel crowd that tries to show that God only wants you to be free of suffering and blessed by a huge bank account is totally out of touch with the true heart of God, the teaching of the Bible, and the example of great saints from the past.
FINDING JOY IN THE SUFFERING
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a study in how to jam-pack a small letter with huge lessons on the nature of God and following Jesus no matter what. Time and again Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice, and he tells them of his own joy. This comes from a man who is in prison for his faith in Jesus and facing the very real possibility of being beheaded any day. In just four short chapters Paul talks in depth about joy and suffering. He actually embraces the suffering not as something to be endured but as something to be welcomed as a badge of honor.
Paul said that we are to embrace our suffering as some- thing that has been granted to us in Christ (Philippians 1:29). If someone gives you a grant, they are giving you something desirable. If your request is granted, then you have received something good. If you submit a grant proposal for funding and get it, you have been given a good thing. Paul says that our suffering in Christ is something with which we have been “granted.” He connects the blessing of the “suffering grant” with the blessings of believing in Jesus. In fact, he seems to think of suffering in Christ as an added bonus that goes above and beyond the basics of a relationship of faith in Christ: It has been granted to you not only to believe in Jesus but also to have fellowship with him in his suffering.
There is something about suffering for our faith, or as part of life in general, that unites us to Jesus in an even tighter bond than simply believing in Him. It is true of our relationship with Jesus and it is evident in our relationships with one another. Soldiers who have suffered together through the horrors of war have a bond with one another that others can never have. Cancer survivors have a bond with other cancer survivors, which is deeper and tighter than everyday human relationships. Parents who have lost a child through death have a bond with similar that goes far beyond the normal bonds of joy that all parents share.
In these and other examples of suffering, people who have no other possible connection with each other—in fact, people who would by most human standards not want anything to do with each other—become the deepest of friends. The white soldier from segregated 1960s’ Alabama becomes a lifelong friend with the black soldier from Detroit, each willing to die for the other. The cancer survivor volunteers countless hours to counsel and befriend those who have just been given their own devastating news. The parent whose child died five years ago sacrificially serves the family fresh in its grief, in spite of the fact that they never met before.
Suffering has its own fellowship. Jesus came as what Isaiah chapter 53 refers to as The Suffering Servant. He came to give His life as a ransom for many. We can experience a certain level of connection with Jesus when we trust Him by faith. That relation- ship deepens when we fellowship with Him in our suffering.
In the early days of the church, following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the apostles faced serious persecution for their faith in Jesus. Luke tells us in Acts 5:17-42 that they were arrested for preaching about Jesus and told to stop. Be- fore being released they were severely beaten for their faith. If this happened to Christians in America today, we would be on the phone to a lawyer so fast it would make your head spin. Our anger and indignation would be astronomical. But that was not the reaction of the apostles. Acts 6:41-42 records: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (of Jesus). And every day in the Temple and from house to house they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”
They rejoiced because they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus. Suffering for the name of Jesus did not cause them to question their relationship with God. They didn’t cry out to God asking why they had been abandoned to suffering. That is how we react. Instead they praised God because their suffering for the cause of Christ was a stamp of approval, it was a powerful affirmation that they were, in fact, connected to Christ. How different is that from us today. We suffer and we complain that God has abandoned us. They suffered and they praised God, rejoicing for having the privilege of being so closely connected to Christ that they could suffer dishonor for Him.
SUFFERING FOR THE GLORY OF GOD
In the prosperity gospel movement there is a way of looking at the Christian life that sees health, prosperity, and a victorious life as the way God will be glorified and people will come to Jesus. The idea is simple. If people see how great and blessed the Christian life can be, then they will want to follow Jesus. In this way of thinking, God is most glorified when we are most blessed with health and wealth. If you are sick or poor, or both, then this is seen as being a disgraceful thing. Something must be wrong if you are not healthy and wealthy. There is nothing wrong with God, but rather something is wrong with you. You must have some deep sin in your life that is preventing God from healing you or blessing you.
In John 9, Jesus is confronted with a dilemma. There is a grown man who was born blind. People are perplexed about why he was born this way. They have the same mindset as the prosperity gospel folks. Some person’s sin is responsible for this blindness. The problem is figuring out whose sin is to blame. They have a hard time blaming it on the man born blind. After all, how much sin could he have committed in the womb? So, clearly the sin was not the blind man’s. So then it must be his parents’ fault. But what kind of God would cause a person to live in blindness because their parents committed some sin before they were ever born? It was a real theological conundrum.
Jesus, as He so often does, proposes a different way. “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:3). Do you catch the stunning thing that Jesus is saying? This man, who has suffered with blindness from birth, who has never seen the smile of his parents, who has heard the mocking of people convinced he was being punished for sin, who has been forced to beg for scraps to feed himself, who has been bruised and battered throughout his life, stumbling into and over chairs and rocks and stumps, this man who has suffered so much has suffered it so that on this day the works of God might be displayed in him. Are you kidding me? God caused this man to suffer so much so that when he finally met Jesus, after years of blindness, he would be healed and God glorified?
God uses the suffering of His people to bring glory to Himself. In other words, God uses the suffering of His people so that others will be led to worship and praise Him. Sometimes God does it through healing just like with the man born blind. The people were amazed, stunned, shocked, saying they had never seen anything like this before. But sometimes God brings glory to Himself by the way He uses suffering to shape us more and more into the kind of people whose very lives will glorify God.
When people look at my friend Dwight and his wife they can’t help but notice that they are approaching his illness, including all the hardship and adjustments it requires, as a way to point people to Jesus. Dwight is determined to show people that a follower of Jesus approaches suffering and death in a far different way than someone who does not know Jesus. They approach life and death with a joy that makes no sense, unless you account for the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and uphold you. Their joy points people directly to the reality of God and the presence of Jesus in their lives. Dwight and Debbie have found their greatest joy and pleasure in life within their relationship with Christ. The suffering they have gone through has actually made that joy deeper than ever. Jesus is more real to them in the midst of suffering than He ever was in the midst of blessing. God has been glorified in the fellowship of their suffering and they have grown in Christ more than ever before.
This shouldn’t surprise us. In Romans chapter 5, Paul gives us a series of growth steps that have their foundation in our suffering: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5).
The struggles that we face in life serve to make us stronger in our faith and more like Christ, if we allow them. Each struggle prepares us for the next level of becoming like Jesus. In trying to bypass, avoid, or ignore the lessons of suffering we risk greater dangers later in life. When I was in grade school we had a science experiment in the back of the classroom. It was a group of chicken eggs in an incubator. Each day we checked the incubator to see if there was any sign of a baby chick starting to break through the shell. Finally, one day during class, the person sitting nearest the incubator heard a small tapping, cracking noise. Suddenly the whole class jumped up from our seats to watch the long-awaited event. As the baby chick struggled to free itself from the shell it was clear that it was an agonizing and difficult task. One of the students asked if we shouldn’t help by taking off some of the shell. The teacher told us that if we did this it would make it easier for the chick to get out but in the long run it would be very damaging. The chick needed to struggle through the suffering time in order to strengthen the muscles it needed to survive. The struggle of getting out of the shell was actually de- signed to prepare the chick for the life ahead. God has designed our suffering in just the same way.
The apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus. In that suffering there was a renewed sense of being united with Him and of pointing people towards Him. Dwight Johnson is doing that every day. The more his body deteriorates, the more glory he brings to Jesus by living a life that loves Jesus above all else.
The more I think about Dwight the more I am forced to smile. He was better than me at baseball, basketball, and golf. Now it appears he is better than me at being a Christian as well. He is bringing glory to God in a situation that I don’t know how I would handle. However, I do know this: when the time comes when I must face that kind of suffering, I know that my game will be better because of Dwight. Some things never change.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011: I visited Dwight for the last time, in this life anyway. There have been so many people coming to see Dwight that Deb arranged for me and Dwight to have a few hours alone. The reason this was the last visit is the breathing apparatus that he has been using is no longer helping. The next option is a tracheotomy, to put him on a ventilator. Dwight and Deb decided long ago that when it reached this point they would not take that option. There is no point. Dwight is ready to go. They are going to remove the breathing assist. Dwight is so ready he decided not to wait to see the Steelers play the Packers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. They will remove the breathing apparatus on Thursday. I told him I understand: for all the glory that is the Steelers and Super Bowls, the glory of heaven outshines that in ways indescribable.
I have to admit that my emotions bounce from moment to moment. One moment it’s joy at the picture of Dwight with Jesus. The next is emptiness at the sense of a page turning in my own life and the resulting void, then to anger and frustration and wanting to break something, and then back to joy. But this is not about me. I find myself regularly having to remind myself of that. It is about Dwight and Deb and the incredible way in which they have dealt with this as they love and worship Jesus. As I say goodbye Dwight looks me in the eye and says, “I love you.” I lean down, tell him that I love him, and kiss the top of his balding head. I turn and walk down the long hallway and make a very long and lonely drive from Gainesville back home to Orlando. It’s only two hours but I found myself meandering through backcountry roads and taking four hours instead. Driving down I-75 in the midst of heavy traffic, speeding trucks, and anxious tourists just didn’t appeal to me.
Thursday, February 3, 2011: This morning the medical team took Dwight off the breathing mask, gave him some medication to keep him comfortable, and waited until the CO2 levels rose to the point that he slept and slipped away into the arms of Jesus. It took a few hours. But those hours were filled with songs of worship to God, lots of prayer, and tears of pain and joy.
I am regularly reminded of the power of suffering in Christ when I think of what Deb said to me at the end of my last visit with Dwight: “I know that God is real if for no other reason than the unexplainable peace that washes over me when I picture Dwight with Jesus.”
Amen to that.