A few years ago, I took a pastoral position with the goal of shepherding that flock faithfully for at least 25 years. I told them as much after a 98-percent vote that put me in the sacred office. It was a mandate, and I pushed off shore for at least a quarter century of preaching God’s Word and leading God’s people.
Virtually from day one, the seas of local church ministry grew hurricane-rough.
My goal was not God’s goal.
I stayed for a little more than three years—each year more deeply painful than the one before. Every ministerial and theological “button” I pushed—even things that were clearly mandated Scripture—seemed to be the wrong button. Every decision I made, every change I sought to ramrod, every part of the vision I cast, triggered an avalanche of discontent, dissension, and unrest among the people. At one point, I became paranoid like the young Martin Luther and wondered if God was disciplining me for some unconfessed sin. I questioned my call to ministry. I questioned my salvation. Toward the end, I even questioned my sanity as the tentacles of depression took an iron grip on my heart and mind, squeezing them dry of vigor and joy.
Surely, I was under the wrath of an angry God. I reflected on Jonah’s narrative—I could run, but could not hide. It wrung out all my strength and revealed that my bank account of wisdom stood virtually at zero balance.
From the vantage point of time, I have gradually realized that God was actually pouring forth his love and mercy upon me. Those explosive elders meetings? Grace. Those awkward, hastily called get-togethers with families who told me they were leaving for the “going” church across town? Grace. The folks who thought my preaching was too dry, too theological, too methodical, and did not include enough homespun stories? Grace. My bankrupt wisdom and weakened human resolve? Grace.
But the form of grace God delivered was not of a sort our mind typically runs to when we ponder the term itself. It was what Paul Tripp has accurately called “uncomfortable grace.”
When we consider God’s grace, we typically think of blessing, humanly defined: the bank account is full, the church is responding incredibly well to my preaching and leadership, the children are excelling in school, music and sports, making us look like the ultimate “pastor family,” there are backslaps and smiles all around for our competent service of God’s church. And yes, all those and much more are good products of God’s loving kindness.
But there’s a side to grace we seldom celebrate, a side that seems a little dark to human reckoning. But God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). And in a day in which a demonic prosperity gospel is prospering worldwide, we desperately need to recover a theology of uncomfortable grace.
What is uncomfortable grace? It’s when God gives you what you need and not what you want. I wanted 25 years. God wanted three. Jonah wanted to hide in Tarshish. God wanted to heal Ninevah. In both cases, God got what he wanted. And it was mercy all, immense and free.
The pages of Scripture bulge with uncomfortable grace.
Joseph wanted to visit his brothers in Shechem, but their deep-seated jealousy drove them to strip him of his dignity and sell him into slavery. Later in Egypt he was thrown into prison, double-crossed by Potiphar’s wife and Pharaoh’s cupbearer. But God made him a prince in Egypt and used him as an instrument of rescue for the Hebrew nation. What some had intended for evil—and no doubt felt evil to Joseph—God intended for good. Uncomfortable grace.
Psalms fairly bristles with the “other” side of God’s mercy. One psalmist sang of how God kept Israel’s foot from slipping, brought them to a place of abundance, but not before:
You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water. . . (Ps. 66:10-12)
Paul wanted to preach the gospel in Asia (Acts 16:6)—a noble desire if ever there was one—but God slammed that door, and spirited the apostle and his companions to Troas where Lydia was converted. Then, it was on to Macedonia where imprisonment and affliction awaited them. There, Paul got made. See 2 Corinthians for details. Uncomfortable grace.
We see this at Gethsemane. Jesus petitioned the Father to let the cup of his wrath be kept upright and not poured out. Yet “it was the Lord’s will to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). The cross of Christ is the ultimate expression of uncomfortable grace.
In Church History
God’s choicest servants—both well-known and unknown—have benefited from such grace.
Athanasius defended Christ’s incarnation stoutly and helped orthodoxy to overcome Arius’s heresy at the last. His reward? Exiled five times. Uncomfortable grace.
Luther stood before the imperial diet at Worms in 1521, planted his feet firmly upon the rock of Scripture, and courageously faced down the unbiblical teaching and practices of the Roman Church, putting his life at risk daily. In his wake, God stirred up the most glorious revolution in the church since Pentecost. We celebrate 500 years of God’s victory at Worms this year. Uncomfortable grace.
John Bunyan spent a dozen years in prison for preaching the gospel, vowing he would “be preaching it again by this time tomorrow” should he be released. From behind bars and amid squalid, disease-ridden conditions, he wrote two of the best-known books in Christian history. Millions read them today and are more like Christ in the reading. Uncomfortable grace.
C. H. Spurgeon perennially waged an internal war with depression and anxiety in the wake of the October 19, 1856 Surrey Garden Music Hall disaster which left seven dead and 21 seriously injured. The unfathomable stampede broke out while the young preacher stood in the pulpit delivering the gospel. Today, millions benefit from a man whom God made one of the most widely published and deeply beloved preachers in world history. The vessel was broken, but the ointment spilled has healed millions. Spurgeon was stung, but his honey still nourishes souls. Uncomfortable grace.
In Our Hearts
We see it in the life of Joni Eareckson Tada who was rendered a quadriplegic when, as an 18-year-old, she dove into shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay, fracturing her spinal column. Later, she was powerfully converted to Christ and has been used profoundly as a gospel-driven author and speaker for decades. Following her fateful dive, Joni sought to build a path away from God, one paved with doubt, anger, and suicidal thoughts. But God arrested her as a herald for the good news of rescue through his Son. God broke her. God healed her. Uncomfortable grace.
We see it often in the pastoral ministry because, as A. W. Tozer famously wrote, God must wound a man deeply before he uses him greatly. My three-year tour and the heartache it entailed is by no means novel. All of us in ministry and many in the pew doubtless can bring to mind instance after instance of faithful men to whom God has shown his love and his sanctifying mercy by dashing him hard against the Rock of Ages.
Paul Tripp points out that uncomfortable grace is one of God’s choicest gifts both to his ministers and to his people. And it should reform the way we view God and ourselves:
“You are tempted to think that because you’re God’s child, your life should be easier, more predictable, and definitely more comfortable. . . . Struggles are a part of God’s plan for you. . . . You must not allow yourself to think God has turned his back on you. You must not let yourself begin to buy into the possibility that God is not as trustworthy as you thought him to be . . . When you begin to doubt God’s goodness, you quit going to him for help. You don’t run for help to those characters you have come to doubt.
“God has chosen to let you live in this fallen world because he plans to employ the difficulties of it to continue and complete his work in you. This means that those moments of difficulty are not an interruption of his plan or the failure of his plan, but rather an important part of his plan. I think there are times for many of us when we cry out for God’s grace and we get it—but not the grace we’re looking for . . . It comes in the form of something we would never have chosen if we were controlling the joystick.”
I am a far different man today, thanks to those three gut-wrenching years in my first pastorate. In his mercy, God used it as dynamite to explode my foolish pride. He used it as a giant hammer to smash ten thousand idols which warred day and night to occupy the throne of my heart. He reminded me that he is big, that I am small, and that this is a good thing. It was awful. It was life-disrupting. It was jarring and painful in ways I may never fathom. Though I lacked the spectacles to see it then, it was glorious.
It was uncomfortable grace.
Next time you are on your knees before our good, sovereign Father, do not hesitate to praise him for his heart-humbling, life-transforming uncomfortable grace. He knows how to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:7-11), and those gifts of grace often demolish our comfort.