Finding Your Story in the Bigger Story
About the Guest
If suffering is so integral to human sanctification, why do we, as humans fear and avoid it? Jerry Sittser discusses the role of suffering in our spiritual formation.
Jerry SittserGerald Sittser is professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University, where he has served for 30 years. Over the past few years he has worked with many partner churches to engage the culture and equip disciples with the good news of Jesus. He has written nine books, among them A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss and A Grace Revealed, The Will of God as a Way of Life, Water From a Deep Well: Ch...more
If suffering is so integral to human sanctification, why do we, as humans fear and avoid it?
Finding Your Story in the Bigger Story
Bob: Are you looking for joy and purpose and meaning in life or a sense of fulfillment? Jerry Sittser says, “Isn’t everybody?”
Jerry: I think there are all kinds of alternatives in our culture that are promising shortcuts to human happiness. One is alcohol; entertainment; maybe even drug addiction or something like that. Another one would be a quick job change; it could be a quick remarriage. They are so tempting. I mean, come on; they are very tempting to me. But I don’t think in the long run they’re going to deliver what they appear to promise.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, November 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. The pathway that gets you to joy and meaning and purpose is often a pathway that is clouded – shrouded in suffering. We’re going to talk about that today.
Bob: Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve had two things running through my head as I’ve been thinking about our conversation today. The first is the old, I guess you’d call it a gospel song, that says, “Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine; you’ll understand it all by and by.” (Laughter)
And then the second thing is the Apostle Paul talking about mysteries: “Behold, I tell you a mystery.”
Bob: When a mystery is told in the Bible, something you didn’t understand before is all of the sudden made understandable. It’s revealed. That’s a little bit about where we’re headed today, don’t you think?
Dennis: It is. It really is. I’m glad you didn’t sing.
Bob: You don’t want to hear me? (Singing) “Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine; we’ll understand it all by and by.”
Jerry: Good little twang there.
Dennis: Should I ask our guest if he can provide the harmony to that?
Bob: A little “Name That Tune?”
Jerry: I can do the latter. (Singing) “Behold, I tell you a mystery!”
Bob: That’s the bass part on that one.
Jerry: Handel. (Laughter) Handel.
Dennis: Well, that’s the baritone voice of Jerry Sittser who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Jerry, welcome back.
Jerry: Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis: He’s our friend from the Northwest. Jerry is Professor and Chair of Theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He and his wife Patricia have five children, all grown. And Jerry is – well, he’s known for a lot of things. Not only for teaching, but he’s a great writer. His best-selling book is A Grace Disguised. Now his newest book, that we’re going to discuss today, is A Grace Revealed.
I have to ask you, Jerry, all the way back to when you wrote A Grace Disguised: How was it not revealed? What was taking place in your life that you would call it “a grace disguised?”
Jerry: Well, sometimes we go through experiences where God seems absent or God’s plan for our lives seems cloudy, obscure, disguised, so to speak. I wrote that book in the wake of an experience where God seemed absent and His grace seemed very disguised. That was a drunken-driving accident, as you know. I’ve talked about this before-- that took my mother, who was visiting for the weekend, and my wife Linda, and one of my children, Diana Jane, who was then four.
I survived the accident, along with my three other children: Katherine, who was then eight; David, who had just turned seven; and John, who was two at the time. In the wake of that accident, many things seemed very disguised.
Dennis: As a result, you were a single parent for 19 years.
Jerry: Nineteen years.
Dennis: And that grace was revealed in some very difficult days in your life – of how God met you as a single parent dad in raising those children, really, all the way to adulthood, right?
Jerry: All the way to adulthood, right.
Dennis: Now you’ve written this book, A Grace Revealed, which is really about two things. It’s about story--a big story and a smaller story. And it’s about the theme of redemption. I want you to explain to our listeners why you chose the method of telling a story as the way to explain the powerful theme of redemption.
Jerry: Largely it’s because redemption takes place as a narrative, right? Redemption has movement to it. It’s got life to it, vitality. Granted, we are redeemed through what Jesus Christ has already done for us. One of the leading verses or texts that I use in this book is from 2 Corinthians 5: 16 and 17: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.”
Notice the “is” – not “is becoming,” or “might be,” or “hopes to be,” but is a new creation. My identity in Jesus Christ and through what Jesus Christ has done for me is a new creation, but I don’t always live like a new creation. So part of redemption is affirming who I am in Jesus Christ. Part of redemption also involves becoming like the person I already am in Jesus Christ. And that is narrative. That’s story; that takes place over time and in a specific set of circumstances.
For me, it had to do with being widowed. It had to do with having three young children and raising those children in a way that was honoring to God. That takes place through story. So that was the reason I chose story as kind of the leading metaphor in the whole book.
But the other thing I wanted to do is affirm the relationship between my little story--
Jerry: -- the story of Jerry and his three kids and our circumstances – living in Spokane, teaching at a university, having neighbors and friends and all the rest, you know? And how that little story of my life - which seemed so confusing to me for so many years – how that story really fits into and finds its meaning in the larger story of God’s redemptive work in the world as we read about it, especially through the Bible.
Bob: I want to go back to this idea of the new creature that you are and that you are becoming, because it’s really both. It’s who you are and who you are becoming. You saw a sculpture in Florence, Italy that was a great metaphor for you of what is going on with all of us, right?
Jerry: It was. I mean, it was almost revelatory in a certain way. I visited Florence for a kind of late honeymoon with my first wife, Linda, way back in the ‘70s. We had Florence as one of our target cities – we knew there were great art galleries and cathedrals and all of the rest.
One of the ones we wanted to go to was a gallery that displays this magnificent Michelangelo sculpture of David. Now, here’s this towering figure – I mean, it’s just amazing – looming over us. David stands there looking serene and confident; he’s got a stone in his hand. He’s got a sling he’s holding over his shoulder. He’s looking with a kind of steely gaze, probably at Goliath. Art historians don’t know whether he had already killed Goliath or whether he was about to. When you look into his face, you realize that it doesn’t matter. This man was in control. He knows he’s going to win the battle.
But what I didn’t know was that down one of the wings of this gallery are five sculptures that Michelangelo did that appear to be incomplete – but maybe not!
What they are, are sculptures of figures that are partly still encased in this marble “tomb,” you could say, I suppose. Part of them is done and, where they are completed, they are perfect. It could be a torso, an arm, part of a leg, a face, whatever. The rest of it is still in this marble encasement.
Jerry: I got curious, so I did some research on this and I realized that Michelangelo had this uncanny – almost supernatural – ability to see in the marble what he was going to sculpt, as if the figure already existed. So, unlike most sculptors, who first do a plaster cast of it and play with it and tweak it until it’s where they want it to be, and then they take a big block of marble and they mark out on the marble how they’re going to replicate that in something where you can’t make mistakes, Michelangelo could just take a block of marble and start.
He would begin to do his sculpting. He would bore in – usually in the mid-section – and where he would start to sculpt it would always be perfect, because he saw the figure even before he started. His goal was simply to remove everything that kept it from coming alive.
My argument is that we are new. God has made us that way through the perfect work of Jesus Christ. I ama new creation, period. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t contribute at all to God’s finished work of who I am in Jesus Christ, but I still need to become who I am. I need to let that excess marble get chipped and sanded and ground away so I can emerge. When I emerge, I am only emerging to become what I already am.
Dennis: You almost said this a few moments ago. I think it was Michelangelo who said this. He said, “As the chips fall to the floor, the image emerges.” What God is doing in our lives is He is chiseling and He’s shaping. He knows what we are to become and He is shaping the image of Christ in our lives. Sometimes, as you know from the car wreck with the loss of your mother, your wife, and your daughter, the chips can fall off in some pretty good chunks, and it doesn’t feel good at the time.
Jerry: It does not feel good. And it’s not just painful, it’s confusing. It’s bewildering. It’s interesting to note that one of the predominant emotions I had in the wake of that catastrophic experience was bewilderment. It’s as if I experienced reality with a cocked head and with this question mark on my brow. I just didn’t get it; it just seemed so strange to me. “Why did this happen? This is just stupid! It doesn’t make any sense!”
So that bewilderment meant that God’s grace was disguised. But now it’s twenty years later and life begins to look a little bit different. You know, you begin to pick up narrative threads; you begin to make some sense of things. You begin to read your story in light of the Story – not perfectly. That will never happen until we get to heaven, but you begin to see patterns, some themes emerge, some things that make sense of it.
That happens in fits and starts. Sometimes you’ll go years and it’s cloudy and all of the sudden, as if you’re on a backpacking trip, light breaks forth and you look at a trail from some kind of a peak and you just see the narrative. It begins to make sense to you. But then, after a while, you go back into the valley.
Bob: So a person who is twenty years removed from a catastrophic experience like you and says, “I haven’t seen anything. I’m still in the cloud. The pain is still real. It just feels like there’s no revelation.” Is it because they’re not looking from the right perspective or is it because sometimes God leaves you in the cloud for the rest of your days?
Jerry: That does happen. I do not, in this book, want to give the impression that after five years, or ten years, or twenty-five years, all of the sudden everything is going to be clear and happy again. To tell you the truth, my kids actually tease me about this a lot. I do not believe in human happiness as it is conventionally defined. I don’t think that’s what the point of life is: to become happy. It tempts us to take shortcuts, to do things on our terms, to angle for things so it always plays to our advantage.
I don’t think God promises us happiness. I think He wants to make us holy. In the process of making us holy, chances are, along the way, we will find human happiness. You know, think about the story of Joseph. I mean, how long – how long – before this man started to get clarity of his journey? It was years. So I do not have a kind of “magic wand” mentality when it comes to understanding our stories and our journey.
Dennis: Give me a couple of illustrations of how you see people trying to take a shortcut to try to achieve the guarantee of happiness as this culture is selling it. What do you think are some of the dominant themes of people’s lives today where they’re doing that?
Jerry: I think there are a number of categories that I’m talking about. One is addictive behaviors. They drown pain through alcohol, entertainment, maybe even drug addiction or something like that. Another one would be making decisions where immediate human happiness seems to be the goal. It could be a quick job change; it could be a quick remarriage. I mean, I think there are all kinds of alternatives in our culture that are promising shortcuts to human happiness. They are so tempting. I mean, come on; they are very tempting. They were tempting to me. But I don’t think, in the long run, they’re going to deliver what they appear to promise.
Dennis: Yes; and if you think about redemption, redemption was not a shortcut. It was costly. It took God working over centuries to reach down and offer the plan of salvation to us because of His finished work on the cross and the empty tomb. He is working that in us.
One of the things you talked about in your book that I found interesting: you spoke of redemption being a paradox. Explain to our listeners what you mean that redemption has this paradoxical side to it.
Jerry: Well, it does in a number of ways. Jesus Christ is the sole source of our redemption, and yet it involves our choices. There’s a paradox. How can God do it all through Christ, and yet I’m supposed to participate in that process?
Another paradoxical element is the fact that I already am redeemed, but I’m still becoming redeemed. So I am this way and I’m becoming. Paul really captures this well when he says, “I press on to make it my own.” That word “press” is a word that’s used in athletics. It’s striving, it’s like a runner in a race. “I press on to make it my own” – but he doesn’t stop there – “because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”
Jerry: I work because God has already done the work. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” There’s that same sense of agitation and energy and striving. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in you to will and to work for His good pleasure.” And what is His pleasure? Our redemption.
We have to learn to live in these truth tensions in the Christian faith, it seems to me.
Bob: There are a couple of pictures you have in a family photo album on the shores of Lake Louise – the same family, with some missing parts, right?
Jerry: Yes, I discovered this almost by accident. It was actually quite a startling experience and it illustrates to me how, on occasion, we have this kind of very evocative juxtaposition of events or images that startle us and surprise us. So in 1991, in August - just a month before the accident – Linda and I took our four children on vacation to Banff National Park. We camped and so on.
We have one photo of the kids standing on the shores of Lake Louise on a particular rock with glaciers and the lake behind them. In 2006, I went to Banff National Park with my three children and I just happened to take a photo without any intentionality at all, purely by accident, of the three kids on the same rock with the same background. They’re making silly faces and, of course, by now they are young adults – they are tall and strong and, in my mind as their dad, beautiful.
When I saw those two connected --and I didn’t make the connection-- all of the sudden there they are – I realized that fifteen years of life experience had passed between that first album where we were a family of six and the second, when we became a family of four. That kind of tells it all-- that strange combination, juxtaposition of sorrow and joy; of plenty and of a rediscovery of a different kind of plenty, but only through a journey of a lot of pain and struggle along the way.
I just think we get glimpses like this every once in a while; glimpses of God’s redeeming work that seems to come out of periods of such acute pain and confusion. And then we’ll go through another one again. I just don’t think it’s a smooth pathway. I don’t think there are five years of pain and then everything becomes happy again. I don’t think that’s the way life works. I think there’s this strange mixture of sorrow and joy, of defeats and victories, that remain intermingled until we finally go home.
Dennis: Jerry, I think you just summarized why I really enjoyed your book. I told you I read it while I was sitting on our back porch in the morning early; it was cool. I didn’t read it all at once. I kind of read a chapter a day or maybe every other day and began to kind of chew on the themes that you talked about. The idea that we’re all a part of a big story – God’s story; what He’s doing on planet Earth – but that we each have our own little stories that we’re hammering out.
I reflected back over more than six decades of my story and our story – Barbara and I together in our lifetimes. It’s proved to be as you describe it. It’s full of mountaintops and dark, deep valleys; places of despair and, as you’ve described, bewilderment, wondering “what in the world is taking place here and now?”
But I love the way you capture the big theme of redemption – what God is doing on planet Earth. He came to seek and to save the lost, and how He found me and somehow began a work in my life. I just celebrated redemption morning after morning. I told Bob, “We’ve got to get Jerry. Our listeners need to hear about A Grace Revealed, because a lot of our listeners are living right there. They need fresh bread - freshly baked bread - that offers grace and hope and purpose in the midst of life.”
Bob: And you know, I think a lot of people are looking at their lives through the lenses of absurdity. They look at life and say, “It just doesn’t make any sense.” So they live absurd lives. Other people are looking at their lives through the lenses of despair and hopelessness.
Dennis: And I think it’s easy to do that, by the way.
Dennis: I think it’s the default position of the human nature to move toward cynicism, unbelief, and, ultimately hopelessness.
Bob: But when you look at life through the lenses of faith – and that’s really what you’re advocating here –if you start with a sense that there is a God and He’s up to something and my story fits somewhere even if I can’t see it clearly now. . .
Jerry: It’s a faith, though, that comes out of knowledge of the big story, what we already know that God has already done through revelation.
Bob: And that’s what comes through so clearly in your book, A Grace Revealed. I’d encourage listeners, if you haven’t read the book A Grace Disguised, that’s really a great place to begin, because it takes you into the lessons God taught you in the valley. But the new book, A Grace Revealed, gives a twenty-year perspective on how God is at work, even in the midst of our difficult days.
Of course, we have both books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about how you can get copies of both of these books by Jerry Sittser - A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed. Once again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also order the book when you call toll-free: 1-800-358-6329. That’s easily remembered as 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY”.
Now, we are getting closer every day to the celebration of Thanksgiving here in the United States. Not long ago, Dennis and I sat down with our friend Nancy Leigh DeMoss to talk about the subject of gratitude – having grateful hearts, grateful spirits. How do we cultivate that in ourselves? How do we do that in our children? It was a great conversation, and this month we’d like to make the two CDs that feature that conversation available to those of you who are able to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation.
We depend on your donations to continue the work of this radio ministry day in and day out. As you support FamilyLife Today, you’re keeping us on the air and keeping us online 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We want to say “thanks” to those of you who contact us occasionally and let us know that God is using this ministry in your life. Thank you for that. One way to say thank you is by sending out these two CDs of our conversation with Nancy Leigh DeMoss on the subject of gratitude.
To make an online donation,go to FamilyLifeToday.com; click the button that says “I CARE”; make your gift online and we’ll send you the CDs. Or call 1-800-FLTODAY to make your donation over the phone, and just ask for the CDs on gratitude or the CDs with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Again, we’re happy to get those out to you and we are grateful for the part you play in the ministry of FamilyLife Today. Thanks for your support.
We hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. We’re going to continue our conversation with Jerry Sittser about the lessons we can learn over time as God takes us through challenging circumstances in our lives. We’ll talk more about A Grace Revealed tomorrow. I hope you can be here.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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