Sunday, April 18, 2010


I have been reading a book entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life coauthored by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison. I'm reading it slowly, taking time to ponder what these authors have to say regarding this important topic. Early in the book they make the statement: "Our primary frame of reference remains competition." They say this is the case even when we choose to act compassionately. They write in the context of American culture, but I think the basic themes they address can be applied in other cultures as well.

I don't think of myself as highly competitive (though I do hate to lose!), but as I reflected on this statement I realized how much I do view the world through a competitive lens. Competition does, in fact, permeate our lives. We compete for status, for money, for acclaim and honor. We compete for the affection and attention of our spouses and friends. Even in ministry we often compete for resources, approval and acclaim. We want our efforts and accomplishments to be recognized. We want to be thought well of and considered successful. We often compete unconsciously, but the spirit of competition subtly affects us even when we are not aware of it.

Why do we compete? We compete because we feel the need to prove our worth and establish our identity over and against others. In other words, we compete because we are insecure. If we can demonstrate in some way that we are better than someone else, we can feel a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. How can we break free from this? In order to break free of a competitive spirit we must be secure in our identity in Christ. As long as we are insecure in this we will try to establish our identity in something or someone else. Often that means demonstrating our worth--proving our value--in competition with others. The arena of competition will differ, but the basic struggle to establish my identity in superiority to others remains. But when we are secure in who we are in Christ--secure in our core identity--we no longer need to prove ourselves in competition. Our worth is already solidly established and confirmed entirely apart from anything we do or accomplish. What freedom we can find in this truth, if we will only fully recognize and embrace it!

We also compete because we worry about the future. We operate from a worldview that sees life as a competition to get as much for ourselves as we can before someone else takes it. The pie is limited, so we'd better beat the others and grab as much as we can for ourselves and our children. If we don't, it will go to someone else and we might be left with nothing, or less than we desire. The poor in the world, in this perspective, are those who have failed to compete successfully and while we may pity them, we certainly don't question the underlying ethic of competition that leaves them poor and destitute. But this motivation for competition also belies a lack of recognition of the true nature of God. If we trust fully in the faithfulness, the trustworthiness and goodness of God, we don't have to compete to provide for our needs. We have a God who has promised to supply what we need. We have a God who is capable and willing to do so because he is fundamentally good and loving. I would emphasize that this does not amount to a call to passivity, as if we don't need to do anything except wait for God's blessings to fall into our hands. We should do the best we can with the abilities God has given us. But we can do so without worrying for the future because we know our future is secure in him.

I share these reflections not as someone who has mastered these lessons. In fact I feel I've only begun to learn and apply them. I think there is a place for competition in the world, though I'm still pondering what that place is. For example, I think sports competitions can be fun and enjoyable, as long as we don't base identity and worth on them. But living within a framework of competition denies fundamental truths about who God is and who we are. I want to be set free to live in those truths, no longer bound by the need to prove myself in the arena of competition.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Thoughts on Suffering

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, my thoughts turn to the issue of suffering. I was reading a book today that contains excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings related to Easter and Christ’s passion. Let me share a couple of them with you.

“It is not the religious act that makes a Christian, but the sharing in God’s suffering in earthly life.”

“It is good to learn early on that suffering and God are no contradiction, but much more a necessary unity….I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest, and a strong and courageous heart.”

I think there are two mistakes we can make in our thinking about and approach to suffering. The first, much less common among Americans, is to see suffering as essential to the redemption process and therefore to seek it out. According to this perspective, “the more suffering, the more refined and therefore more holy I will become.” This mindset often expresses itself in a very ascetic approach to life. Pleasure, being the absence of suffering, should be avoided as ungodly. I know a few people who seem to think and live this way and have certain tendencies in this direction myself.

The other error in thinking about suffering, much more common among Americans (and not only), views suffering as a sign that God’s favor is lacking. A person who experiences suffering obviously does not have a proper relationship with God, because God would never allow his children to suffer. Job’s friends expressed basically this mindset. It also lies behind the prosperity gospel, which proclaims that God wants to bless his children and that a person who is not experiencing this blessing (i.e. suffering in some manner) must not be in proper relationship with God.

One of these days I want to do a thorough study on the biblical perspective on suffering. At this point in my life though, what I see from the Scriptures, what I have experienced in my life and what I see in the lives of others is this: God does allow his children to suffer and uses this suffering for the purpose of refining them. However, we’re not to seek after suffering as if the more of it we can find the more holy we will become. I believe C.S. Lewis commented on this, perhaps in his book The Problem of Pain. Unfortunately I don’t have my copy handy for reference. I do know that the Scriptures speak quite clearly to this issue. Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12 and 14:

“My friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you….But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.”

Paul echoes this in Philippians, when he wrote:

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

If we have a proper understanding of suffering, we will be better prepared to face it. If we believe that God would never allow his children to suffer, then our faith in God’s goodness may be shaken when we do encounter suffering. On the other hand, if we deliberately seek out suffering, we may become embittered and forget that God truly is good and merciful and he desires good for his children. But if we recognize that God does allow and use suffering, we will not be surprised when it comes our way and will be able to look to him to lead us through it. This is not to say that the suffering will be easy to endure. It may in fact be quite difficult. But in spite of that we can remember that God can and will use it to shape and refine us to his glory. At the same time, when we have opportunity to enjoy the pleasant things of life, we will not feel that we are somehow unholy, because we know that God also gives his children good things.