You put the car in park in front of an old, dilapidated-looking house. It could be the scene of a blockbuster horror film. There are holes in the roof. Wood rot marks the siding. The door hangs askew. Despite the horrid state of the untenable home, you notice a garden that fills the entire front yard.
"Are you sure this is it?" you ask.
“It’s the right place.”
“The right place, if you want to get murdered,” you mumble. Aunt Loola climbs out of the car and begins, cane in hand, toward the front door. You unbuckle and follow reluctantly behind her.
As you approach the sprawling garden that stretches across the otherwise overgrown property, you notice that the well-kept plot is filled with plant life not so different from what fills your own garden with one obvious distinction. The ivy, vines, and thistles are laid out in perfect, well-ordered rows.
"Why would someone intentionally raise bull nettle?" you ask as you spot the alien-looking plant, known for the itchy sting it inflicts on contact.
“I’ll let him tell you,” Aunt Loola says as she climbs the front porch steps and knocks on the door. “Cravis,” she calls between incessant knocks. “It’s me, Loola.”
“Cravis,” you whisper. “What kind of name is that?”
"Loola, is that really you?" A gruff voice rumbles from somewhere deep within the bowels of the house. The creaking of the rotten floor precedes the appearance of an ancient man with a beard that covers his belly. He looks like he could be cast in a fantasy film. This is not least in part because he's holding a mortar and pestle, stained with the crimson juice of some recent project.
Before saying anything, Cravis dips his thumb into the red potion he's holding and wipes it across Aunt Loola's forehead.
“Cravis,” Aunt Loola whines in protest.
"It's an elixir I've been working on," the old man says through a white beard tinted with red-stained fringes. "It keeps the bad jinxes away."
Loola pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and removes the red from her forehead. She turns to you and motions with a sweeping gesture toward the strange character. “Cravis T. Hollowbody,” Loola says as she steps out of the way.
Cravis raises a hand and begins moving toward you. At first, it looks as if he wants to shake, but his red-soaked thumb hints otherwise.
"None, for me, thanks," you say, putting both hands in front of your face. He reaches through anyway and marks your forehead with the inky stuff. It smells like pulverized foliage left to putrify in swamp water. You wipe it away with the back of your hand.
“Cravis,” Aunt Loola calls a little louder than would be needed for average human ears. “I wanted you to show my friend your garden.”
“Garden?” Cravis says, turning on the woman. “It’s not a garden,” now turning back to you with his deep yellowy eyes. “It’s a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a hospital, even.”
“What do you mean?" you ask, a little frightened to engage.
"Well, take this one, for instance," Cravis says. He steps over a row of three-leaf ivy and stands above a tall line of prickly spikes. As he raises his voice to a volume worthy of an oratorio, Aunt Loola steps beside you.
“Here we go,” she whispers so that Cravis can’t hear. She smiles as if you are in for a show.
"Blister bean porantila," Cravis bellows as he plucks a strange bud from a spire of hideous green daggers. The flora appears as if it could sever a finger. Loola leans in close.
"That's not really what it's called," she says. Cravis continues, unaware of the whispered commentary.
"Porantila, grants you the voice of the Arcon," he says as wild-eyed as a cat in a burning house. "Take one of these, and whatever you speak with sincerity will come true. Here, try one,” he says.
"No, that's ok," you say firmly. Loola declines as well, so Cravis opens his mouth, throws back his head, and swallows the green sallow bean whole.
"Good fortune shall come to me today. Thus, I declare it," Cravis chants in a sing-song voice. Coming out of the trance, he says, "Eww, I'll feel that one in a little while," placing a hand on his rotund belly. "It usually induces vomiting within a few hours. Oh what about Sagulus gargantuan?"
"Also, a made-up name," Loola whispers.
“Let’s say you have a fever, or a cough, or a bad hair day.” He plucks a flower from a thorny tight-trimmed hedge. “Crush this up, make a warm tea from its petals, and—”
"Cravis, Honey, you're not actually consuming those, are you? They're poisonous!" Loola says.
“No, of course not. I make it into tea and soak my shirt in it before I put it on. It does wonders! I haven’t had to take an aspirin in years.”
On and on he goes. His garden contains what he calls thine-cloves for infections, snooderberries for rashes, and slarg for headaches. He even has a plant he calls golden listrup that supposedly cures financial trouble.
After ten minutes of rambling about the relative benefits of salustrictus, a plant that looks amazingly similar to dollar weed, which is supposed to fix bad posture, Loola speaks up.
“Well, thanks for letting us visit, Cravis," she says.
“Going so soon?” Cravis grumbles. “I haven’t shown you my constrictus vines.” It takes another few minutes before you are both in the car and driving away.
"What in the world!" You nearly shout as if you've been holding your breath for an hour. "Was any of that true?"
"Not a stitch, Honey," Aunt Loola says.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Cautionary tale,” she explains.
“Has he lost his mind?”
“No, not at all," she says. “He’s actually quite brilliant. He was a medical doctor for about two decades before he got into gardening and fell for one of the classic blunders.”
“He believes that he should be able to evade all suffering. He thinks he can escape every problem that life throws at him, and he’s convinced the key to dodging all pain and difficulty is in those magic plants.”
“His goal for gardening is different,” you say.
“That’s right. He’s trying to escape trouble with what grows.” Loola says as you turn the car onto the highway and head home.
God has a big important goal for your Christian life. However, there are those who have substituted God's goal for a goal of their own. In the last chapter, we talked about substituting pride for God's ultimate goal. In this chapter, we'll talk about another substitution. I call those who do this swap the Christian Escape Artists.
Like a faith-based Houdini, they seem to believe that they can get out of any tight jam with only their faith. The Christian Escape Artists believe that Christianity is a means for escaping life’s difficulties. In their opinion, no Christian should have to experience pain, financial distress, or sickness. Provided that there is enough faith, each person can supposedly escape these uncomfortable aspects of life.
There is a strong emphasis on the Spirit among Christian Escape Artists. However, it seems that they are often begging the Spirit for things the Spirit is not currently offering. It's kind of like ordering a Big Mac at Taco Bell; it's not on the menu. If a healing or financial deliverance isn't on the Spirit's menu, it doesn't matter how long you stand there and argue; it ain't happenin'.
I think the ridiculous nature of these Escape Artists was clearly revealed by the Covid Quarantine of 2020. Churches all over the country closed their doors for a time. At that painful moment in our history, we could have really used some people with the gift of healing. We could have very much benefited from some financial deliverance. Not surprisingly, the churches of those famous faith healers closed their doors with the rest of us. No doubt, they had some lofty-sounding rationalization for discontinuing services. In the end, they did what they believed in. They escaped the public in fear of disease, the very thing they claim to have power over. My dad has often said, "why don't the faith healers go visit the hospitals? There are lots of sick people wanting to get better there."
It’s true that early in the church, the Spirit was using apostles to physically heal. Jesus Himself healed many. However, these miracles had a very specific purpose. Jesus’ miracles were performed to prove that He was telling the truth about His identity and purpose.1 The Apostles were allowed to do miracles to prove they were speaking the truth about Jesus’ identity and purpose.2 A reading of the New Testament doesn’t turn up a single miracle that is performed only for the purpose of escaping trouble. The purpose of miracles is to authenticate the speaker so that people who witness the miracle can believe.
In reality, Jesus and the Apostles rarely escaped trouble. The Apostles left their livelihoods and lived with few to no worldly possessions. Jesus was homeless. John ended his life in exile away from everyone he loved. The rest of the Apostles were brutally murdered for their faith. Even Jesus was killed in the worst way possible after experiencing all kinds of pain and suffering. If the purpose of the Christian life was to escape pain, suffering, and financial ruin, then all the disciples and even Jesus Himself failed miserably.
The purpose of the Christian life is not to escape suffering. Instead, Christians should expect it. I’ll let Paul explain. To his star student, Timothy, he once said, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.3
Don’t miss this! Paul says this is a fundamental rule to trying to live a godly life. You will be persecuted. You will face trouble, affliction, suffering, and pain. The pain we feel may not always seem connected to our being Christians, but don’t forget what Jesus said. He broached the topic long before Paul wrote his letter to his buddy Tim.
Jesus said, in this world, you will have trouble.4 This might force a sprout of chill bumps down your arms. You can hear the ominous music in the background, right? Trouble is coming, and it will find you. Not everyone will experience the same suffering, but you can rest assured that it is going to come around sooner or later. In his gospel, John talks about a group of people who were believers but tried to avoid the trouble that accompanies being a Christian.
John said, many did believe in him [Jesus] even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees, they did not confess Him so that they would not be banned from the synagogue.5 This group wanted to avoid all of the consequences of being open followers of Christ. So what did they do? They stayed quiet about their newfound faith in Jesus. Unfortunately, pretending you aren't a Christian won't keep you out of trouble either, because as Paul said, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all… who suppress the truth.6 Trying to suppress the truth about God, even the truth that you’ve believed, isn’t going to keep you from experiencing trouble. That’s because God will discipline those he loves.7
This is an inescapable fact: If you're a Christian, whether you are trying to live a godly life or living an ungodly life, you will experience trouble, suffering, pain, and affliction. Suffering may come from things that don't relate to our faith. However, as soon as suffering comes, we are immediately thrown into a spiritual battle.
I once had my cornea scratched by my then three-year-old. It was the worst pain I've ever felt. In the moments when the agony was the worst, you can bet I was talking to Jesus. My prayers were the most fervent they have ever been in my life. Suffering, even suffering that seems unconnected to spiritual matters, is always an opportunity to set our minds on the spiritual.
One of the biggest questions that I get, especially when I’m talking to people who have turned their back on the faith, is Why does God let bad things happen to good people? The answer that the Bible gives to that question is often unsatisfying for unbelievers, but for us who are saved, it can be downright exciting.
For example, let’s look at what Paul said about suffering. He explained, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance. perseverance, character; and character, hope.8
Those who understand the purpose of suffering can actually rejoice when they feel the pain. When we face suffering gladly, it produces endurance. This means we grow spiritually stronger when we face afflictions. That spiritual endurance results in character. As you face suffering and face it with a spiritual mindset, it's like a fast-track character-building program. He explains that character results in hope. He concludes the train of thought by showing that hope makes us eager for the Lord to return. In other words, it sets our minds on Spiritual things.
Facing suffering with a kind of gladness produces this amazing cycle in us. Ultimately it drives us toward a godly mindset which results in a more abundant life. Imagine being able to experience love, peace, and even joy in the middle of suffering. That's a truly abundant life.
James, the half brother of Jesus, said, Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.9
Notice that James doesn't say you can get to the point where you lack nothing by easy living. Your process of maturing is going to require some trials and pains. His imperative instruction is that we keep in mind the amazing outcome of considering our trials as a gift from God.
Suffering needs a rebranding campaign. For years I virtually plugged up my ears when I heard teachers talking about suffering because I didn't want to grow that way. I wanted to grow, but I was hoping there was a kind of premium package that allowed me to avoid the rough stuff. I was doing the opposite of what James says to do in these verses, and so too are all the Christian escape artists. He instructs us to rebrand our suffering as joy.
Even Peter got in on this discussion when he said, you rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials.10
The ultimate goal of the Christian life is not to be a person who escapes suffering. Instead, our goal is to have abundant life, even in the midst of suffering. It turns out that suffering is one of the best tools to allow us to move toward that abundant life. Don't fall into the classic blunder of thinking the goal of your Christian life is to escape trouble. Embrace trouble with joy as you set your mind on Spiritual things. That will bring about the abundant life you need.
1 John 5:36
2 Mark 16:20
3 2 Timothy 3:12 CSB
4 John 16:33 NIV
5 John 12:42-43 CSB
6 Romans 1:18
7 Revelation 3:19
8 Romans 5:3-4 ESV
9 James 1:2-4 CSB
10 1 Peter 1:6-7 CSB