Necessary Heat

Why we have to suffer for the right dreams

"You have to suffer for the right words."

This would be the strangest—and possibly best— writing advice I would receive at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing this past April. Nathan Foster, author of Wisdom Chaser, and son of Richard Foster, had been insisting to his audience that all good writing is motivated by love. And love is a slow and patient work—a steady, suffering travail.

'You have to suffer for the right words.' I can't imagine that many of us eagerly scribbled down his words.

"You have to suffer for the right words."

I can't imagine that many of us eagerly scribbled down his words. Although the crowd was full of "Christian" writers who are eager to write for God, we wanted bylines and book contracts—not suffering. We hadn't anticipated paying a pound of flesh for the pages we would write. Suffering? No, that had not been an ambition we had entertained.

But maybe Nathan Foster said something profoundly true, not just for writers, but for all dreamers, who dare to imagine doing and being something remarkable for God. Maybe he meant to prepare us for the attendant risks and responsibilities of all-holy, God-glorifying dreams.

You have to suffer for the right dreams.

The dreamers in Scripture

"Here comes the dreamer!" the sons of Jacob said, watching their brother's approaching figure emerge from the hazy horizon (Genesis 37:19).

Twice, Jacob's favored son, Joseph, had boasted of strange, subversive visions. First, his brothers' sheaves of grain had bowed to his. Then, the sun, moon, and stars had paid him homage. These dreams prophetically pointed to a time when the young son of 17 would gain power over his older brothers, but they—and he—were met with outright mockery. "'So you think you will be our king, do you? Do you actually think you will reign over us?' And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and the way he talked about them" (Genesis 37:8). Joseph's brothers, jealous of the favored son and his multi-colored coat, hatched a plot to bury the dreams with the dreamer.

You have to suffer for the right dreams.

Twenty shekels of silver. Joseph, the dreamer, was sold by his brothers and bartered as a slave into Potiphar's household. Soon, recognizing Joseph's savvy, Potiphar entrusted the entirety of his household into Joseph's care, reserving only conjugal rights with his wife. Nevertheless, she tempted Joseph, begged him to sleep with her, and when he refused, accused him falsely. Potiphar's favor turned to fury, and Joseph was thrown into prison.

You have to suffer for the right dreams.

In prison, Joseph again garnered respect from the higher-ups. As Potiphar before him, the prison warden identified Joseph's managerial skill and conferred to him great responsibility and had "no more worries, because Joseph took care of everything. The Lord was with him and caused everything he did to succeed" (Genesis 39:23). The dreamer was proving capable of the prophetic visions of his youth.

But those dreams were betrayed again by more delays. Having accurately interpreted the dreams of a fellow prisoner, Joseph was promptly forgotten—despite the prisoner's promise to bring Joseph's case before Pharaoh. Two more years and the dreamer and his dreams languished in prison, buried by what could only have been mounting despair at ever regaining freedom.

You have to suffer for the right dreams.

Misfortune had been necessary for positioning Joseph to assume authority in Pharaoh's household at the necessary time.

Of course the story ends well for Joseph. The accumulated evils of his life—the betrayal of his brothers, the indictment of attempted rape, his prison sentence—had been intended by God for a greater good (Genesis 50:20). Misfortune had been necessary for positioning Joseph to assume authority in Pharaoh's household at the necessary time. The promise and people of God survived a great famine because Joseph suffered; his losses were their great gain.

Joseph suffered for the right dreams.

And surely Joseph's story anticipates a greater one: a future Son, favored by his Father, betrayed by his brothers, his body bartered for silver. He, too, was sent ahead for rescue, his suffering—a broken body and spilled blood—providing food for the hungry. The promise and people of God survived eternal famine because Jesus suffered; his death has become our life.

Jesus suffered for the right dreams.

The motif of redemptive suffering in Joseph's story obviously foreshadows Jesus' story. (Additionally, we have the prophetic vision of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.) But despite this prophetic evidence, even Jesus' own disciples misunderstood the nature of his mission, rejecting the necessity of the Son's suffering for God's dreams. When Jesus foretold his death by crucifixion, Peter rebuked him. "'Heaven forbid, Lord,' he said. 'This will never happen to you!'" (Matthew 16:22). Why must you carry a cross when you can wear a crown?

Peter, like many other disciples, had envisioned a political Messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression. Others, like James and John, savored that anticipated triumph, planning for their own rise in stature. "When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left" (Mark 10:37).

"You don't know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?" Jesus replied (verse 38).

How prepared are you to suffer for those dreams?

Refiner's fire

It is often commended to us, as God's people, to dream—and dream big. Recently, I read a post from a well-known blogger who touted that God is a God of Yes. He says yes to our desires, yes to our dreams, she had insisted. But I couldn't help but wonder if hers weren't too simplistic a formulation. Did it require that we discern the content and character of our dreaming? Did her theology allow for suffering?

More than a year ago, I set out to write a book about desire (even ambition). But what has most surprised me is the irresistible return I have made, in that book about desires and dreams, to my stories of loss and disappointment.

The death of my father.

The suicide of my brother.

The turmoil of an unexpected (twin) pregnancy.

What was it that felt intuitively credible about those stories in the context of desire? Why, when attempting to goad God's people to take up holy, God-glorifying dreams, had it felt so necessary to insist upon the fragility of life, the futility of our attempts at control, the endless surprises we, God's people, have at his hand?

You have to suffer for the right dreams.

We commit our lives bravely to his will being done. But these good dreams, corrupted by pride, become self-glorifying visions.

As Nathan Foster has said and as the life of Joseph and the death of Jesus bear out, I think I can say it as plainly as this: We have to suffer for the right dreams. Suffering is the necessary, refining heat for dreams and dreamers, for we are not unlike Peter, James, and John. We dream of being part of God's kingdom coming. We commit our lives bravely to his will being done. But these good dreams, corrupted by pride, become self-glorifying visions. Suddenly, God is in our service, rather than the other way around, and only pain has the power to disabuse us of the notion that God owes us our illustriousness.

"I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" mocked the prophet Jeremiah, citing the false prophets of his day. He asked, "How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?" (Jeremiah 23:25–26).

The 'right' dreams are vastly different from the self-interested imaginings of our own deceitful hearts.

The "right" dreams are vastly different from the self-interested imaginings of our own deceitful hearts. Perhaps suffering performs a critical function for those who dream: It provides the necessary heat to forge bravery (to meet the risks of dreaming) and resolve (for shouldering their responsibilities). And maybe suffering also burns away the dross of selfish ambition—vainglory, as the King James Version poetically puts it. Our motivations to do and be something for God are purified when we suffer: Through pain and heat, we long, less to be remarkable, and begin gaining the necessary resilience to love.

I am beginning to think that we recognize our dreams to be "right" only insofar as they are committed to the slow and patient, steady and suffering travail of love. This, according to God, is the only ultimate heroism.

"There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).

We have to suffer for the right dreams.

Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She writes regularly for the devotional publication, Today in the Word, and Christianity Today's Her.meneutics. She is publishing Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith with InterVarsity Press later this year. Connect with her at JenPollockMichel.com or on Twitter @Jenpmichel.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Brokenness; Character; Dreams; Faith, Testing of; Motivation; Pain; Patience; Struggles
Today's Christian Woman, July Week 1, 2014
Posted July 2, 2014

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