Collin Hansen: “God gives you the grace when you need it, and not always before.” That’s something Matt Chandler has learned over the past 17 years of pastoring The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. He learned it by watching Christians in his church suffer. According to Matt, “I learned from listening to and praying with and watching my brothers and sisters. That in the day of trouble God will be there. That doesn’t mean the day of trouble is not a day of trouble. It really is a day of trouble. And that’s where He meets us.”
Matt and Lauren Chandler’s own day of trouble came in 2009, when on Thanksgiving Day, Matt collapsed from a malignant brain tumor, and was given two to three years to live. In spite of that diagnosis, Matt is healthy today and he joins me on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” to talk about his own experience of suffering which he tells in a new book, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well. Along with Matt and Lauren’s story, the book includes nine other stories of suffering and joy told by members and former members of The Village Church. Matt, thank you for joining me again on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast.”
Matt Chandler: Man, it’s good to be back. It’s been a long time.
Hansen: I know, too long, too long. Well, I’m excited to talk about this. I mean, it’s difficult stuff. But I’ve learned a lot watching you in this process, Matt, and eager for others to do the same in this interview and then also in the book. You started what you call a deep dive into the Bible on the subject of suffering well before you got a brain tumor. This isn’t something that just followed that. But I’m wondering, Matt, what propelled you to seek out and study suffering?
Chandler: Well, it was in the season of the life of The Village Church, where it was mainly weddings and not a lot of funerals. And then there was this wave. Around the second year, I was here, there was this wave of, yeah, just heartbreak, whether that be cancer, and I’m thinking cancer in a young child here. That story’s not in the book. There was the death of a very young, very vibrant, very godly young man in a random and wild fishing accident on a lake, leaving a wife with a 6-week-old son. I mean, these things started happening everywhere. And there was one in particular where I went to the hospital, and a woman named Dottie who was the grandmother…this story is not in the book either, was a grandmother of a child that had some degenerative disorders and was in ICU, and it was not looking good.
And she just kind of collapsed into my arms. And it occurred to me while we were talking and praying in the waiting room outside of the ICU that people had not been given… And maybe it’s broader than The Village Church at that time. Maybe it’s not, I think it is, which is the purpose of the book and why I mean we chose to suffer publicly rather than privately, that we are ill-prepared theologically to understand suffering. And the errors tend to be people have an over-realized eschatology or an under-realized eschatology. And when you err in either one of those directions, it actually adds a greater burden to the suffering itself.
And so, what I wanted to do is be able to explain to a congregation that was predominantly in its 20s, what it looked like to live in a fallen world with a joy, that God is sovereign, and that He can be trusted, and that difficult days are coming for us, that nobody gets out of this life unscathed. That eventually…like, some of the lines I would always say, in those early days were, like, everyone in this room, your life can be altered with the ringing of your phone. Well, like, that’s just how fragile we are. And I would make some…I always try to lighten it a little bit by saying like the great theologian Sting said and then quote, fragile. So, that was what was happening, that I had this extremely young congregation and these tragic things were occurring. And there didn’t seem to be any kind of theological mooring for it. There were just people that, you know, would err on the side of an over-realized eschatology and say things that just aren’t true. And then on the other side, there were those that had this under-realized eschatology and they would say things that were incomplete. And so, I thought, “Man, if I’m the pastor here for the next 40 years, to prepare us well for what is surely coming, we need to have this conversation pretty frequently in this season.”
Hansen: Do you and Lauren ever regret choosing to suffer publicly as opposed to privately?
Chandler: No. And this is an opportunity for me to just…I was super anxious about it because they were messing what…my story was brain cancer. And before we had surgery, you know, we had to listen to this long list of things that could happen and ways that I could wake up and, you know, right frontal lobe is the silent hemisphere, and one of the things that can be affected is spatial reasoning. So, the ability to look at a subject from bearing angles and then, you know, bring it to a conclusion. And so, that’s literally all I can do is spatial. I don’t have any other skills, but spatial reasoning. And so, that’s a pretty terrifying moment. But I was concerned that I might say something crazy, that I might say something disparaging about Jesus or despair. I mean, I just was anxious about my capacity to reason coming out of the surgery.
And so, I was kind of trying to contend with Lauren to not do that. And the way she does, she just lovingly just said, “Hey, you have been very public in clearly the Lord’s anointing and touch on your life. And so, I think you should trust Him also, with this season of suffering. We can’t just be in the limelight when everything you’re touching turns to gold. I think we also have an opportunity here to make much of Jesus in a time where most people would circle the wagons and choose not to do that.” And not that there would have been anything wrong had we circled the wagons, because this also brought about a season where people were saying really crazy things to us.
And I think I have every cancer book written that year and the previous decade, and I’ve got hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of stories of someone’s aunt, who drank, you know, seven gallons of flaxseed oil and rubbed one of the essential oils on the bottom of her feet. And, you know, is never gonna die, that literally a chariot came down with Elijah and took her up into glory, and then brought her back so she could be with her family forever. And so, that’s the kind of stuff that happens when you’re sick is that people are well-meaning. They’re generous. They’re trying to minister to you. But another thing that really helps when you talk about suffering is you help other people know how to address those who are suffering.
And I think that theme kind of comes up in the book where there are these hurts that happen from well-meaning people who are trying to encourage, but it comes off as cold or it comes off as disconnected. And people just don’t know what to do. And so, there’s nothing wrong with circling the wagons, but just for us, we just felt like, specifically, my wife pressed me to, “Hey, let’s let the Lord shine His grace.” And saying that when we didn’t know which direction it was going, in fact everything we heard at that point was bad news.
Hansen: Yeah. Right. We often hear, Matt, people talk about the problem of suffering or the problem of evil for Christianity. But as you think about that more, you realize that evil, and suffering, and brain cancer, it doesn’t choose you because you’re a Christian, it doesn’t choose you because you’re white or black or where you’re born or how much money you have, like, this is just something that happens to everyone, of all different types, not just in brain cancer, but ultimately, evil and suffering, and finally death. So, there’s actually a corresponding problem of good of why do we expect anything else in the hope that Christianity gives that nothing else gives? I’m wondering, how did that experience change any of the way that you, I don’t know, teach apologetically, or evangelize, or just kind of talk about these difficulties in light of the hope that we have in Christ for eternity?
Chandler: Yeah, well, it’s not just Christianity that has a problem with evil and suffering, right? It’s secularism has just as big of a problem with evil and suffering, right? If we are progressing to utopia, then secularism, man, it really breaks down. I would argue it breaks down far more quickly than, say, our belief that a sovereign God who’s outside of time is working all things for His glory and our good, and that there are certainly aspects of that we’re not gonna see and understand but we can look to the cross, and we can see that he’s for us and not against us. And that we can have hope, that what we’re enduring is not punitive, but God is accomplishing something. The secularist, their head has to be spinning at why we haven’t reached utopia.
Remember, World War I was the war to end all wars, right? And then there was World War II. And then World War II was the war to end all wars, then we came up with United Nations. The United Nations was gonna stop the madness from happening. And just at every turn, this has not happened. So, evil and suffering is just as much of a problem for the secular world. In fact, I would argue more of a problem for them because we’ve gotten some answers by which we’re gonna approach suffering, that at least fit into a worldview that acknowledges the world is broken, there is hope in that brokenness.
It doesn’t mean it’s always gonna go easy. It doesn’t mean we’re always gonna understand, but there is a hope that we possess. And now, I think the way I talk about that in the book is a thick peace, that there’s a thick peace that we walk in as believers in Christ if, and this is a big if, if, by the grace of God, we at least have some categories for what’s going on. And this is where I think the prosperity gospel can be so devastating. And that over-realized eschatology can be so devastating because it doesn’t leave any space for someone to die, or for someone to get cancer, and then ultimately die of that cancer without putting a weight on them that the word of God does not put on them.
Hansen: And I think it would be the greatest scientific breakthrough of our generation if somehow we found out tomorrow, we saw that alert on our smartphones that brain cancer had been cured.
Chandler: Oh, Amen.
Hansen: It’d be amazing, and it would be wonderful, and we’d rejoice in that, and we’d praise the scientists, and we’d give thanks to God, and then, Matt, we die of something else.
Chandler: That’s right.
Chandler: And that’s already proven because they have cured forms of cancer that 50 years ago, it was a death sentence. And there are types of leukemia now, they can give you a suppressant pill that you take every day and it just suppresses the Leukemia. So, we really have had these massive breakthroughs. But there’s a book, it’s not a Christian book, it’s called The Emperor of Maladies. And it doesn’t know that it’s doing this but it’s just confirming what Christians believe about the fall, that there’s a rebellion inside of us, that there is brokenness that will lead to death at the cellular level. And so, yes.
Hansen: Well, that’s the thing about utopia. And I’m not sure exactly how those benefits are supposed to accrue to somebody who denies the existence of eternity or denies the existence of that hope, or denies the existence of judgment or something like that. There’s not a way out of that you can… Like, that suppressant for leukemia, you can merely suppress that truth. Like, we see in Romans 1. You can suppress the truth of what this fallen world is telling us about not only the goodness of God but also the reality of sin. But you can’t make that go away.
I mean, I think I’ve thought about this often I was talking with a church elder. He was having to discipline a man in his church. But it was a tragic situation because this man had suffered Job-like in his life, but finally he had renounced his faith, and led his family away from the Lord and all that sort of stuff.
And I just kept thinking, but he didn’t suffer because he was a Christian, like, his belief didn’t… This wasn’t like he was being persecuted or something. And now, where does he think he’s gonna find hope? All he’s done is committed a kind of spiritual suicide. But there’s no benefit that comes from that. But you talk in the book, Matt, about how God uses suffering to reveal our sin, one of many different things that he does with it.
But I want you to tell people here about the time when you came home from the hospital and a Christmas card sent you into a tailspin of anger.
Chandler: Oh my gosh. Yeah.
Hansen: What did you see God doing during that time?
Chandler: Well, in reality, I think at any given moment, by the grace of God, I’m trying to be aware of my sinfulness, aware of what’s going on in my heart, and ask the Lord to work, to forgive, to heal, to grow me. I mean, that’s just an ongoing process. And yet, the brain cancer, in particular, in fact, more than anything else in my life as a 45-year-old man, revealed some nooks and crannies in me that I did not know was there, some self-righteousness I did not know was there, even though I feel like I was saying the right things. So, right after I was diagnosed, one of the things I tweeted out was, “Why not me?” Because there were just well-meaning people that were just like, “Well, there’s no… I mean, the church needs you.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, no, no, like, the man goes in the ground and the message moves on. And if I die within two years, no one will think twice about it because the message is going to move on, and God raises up men and women in every generation.”
And so, I knew that, I knew why not me. But then I come home, and I’d finished a radiation treatment, and I’m worn out, I’m feeling a little bit more thin, a little bit more fragile than normal. And I sit on our couch and around our mantel are all of these Christmas cards with these families on it. And when you’re a pastor of a large church, I mean, there are a lot of those. And so, there was one in particular and I remember this family, just like what you would think of a wealthy suburban family, just smiling, beautiful. And the man or the husband in that family, kind of a perpetual adulterer, crushing on the souls of his daughters in regard to berating them for their appearance at times, I mean, just a really wicked man.
And I mean, out of nowhere, out of nowhere I was thinking, “Really, God? Me? Like, this guy right now, he’s about to enjoy Christmas, he’s about to…and I’m wondering if this is my last one. This guy is gonna get to walk down the aisle with his daughters, I’m probably not.” I mean, and it was a kind of rage that I didn’t know was in me and a kind of self-righteousness I didn’t know was in me. And by the grace of God, I came to my senses quickly. I just think the spirit was just really merciful to let me see if this makes sense, let me see what I was thinking. And let me understand what was going on in me. And then I was quick to repent to the Lord. I’ve never told this family that that was my thoughts. And I think I tell it in such a way that even if they heard this, they wouldn’t know that I was speaking of them.
And so, that was that moment where there was this bit of self-righteousness in me, where I shifted into it in an aggressive way that I don’t think I ever would have even known was in me if it wasn’t for the sub… Now, I wanna be careful there because the Lord can bring that to my attention a billion ways, all right? It was just how he brought it to my attention in this season. And that’s one of multiple stories I could tell you about, like I said, in these nooks and crannies of my soul, these things that would come out about what I believed about God, that He just refined in that season.
Hansen: Well, you talked about all the different crazy things that you heard from people, I would imagine most of that being about how you would be healed and, you know, prophecy about how you would be healed and things like that. But, I don’t know if you experience this, but a lot of times you see this in Job especially, people believe that our suffering must be caused by a specific sin. But I’m wondering what’s the difference between that and then recognizing that suffering can actually help us to repent of our sin?
Chandler: Yeah. And this is what I was alluding to earlier that people can have an over-realized or an under-realized eschatology around suffering in particular. And so, what we know as believers in Christ because of the word is that we as Christians are not under wrath, but we’re under mercy. And so, the wrath of God is not gonna be poured out on us. Although we do have to acknowledge that there are times that we are disciplined as his sons. But I’ve always taken that… I think if you dig into the text, I don’t think that discipline is probably what you and I think about as kind of your classic get in the corner or let me give you a spanking kind of discipline, but a long-term shaping of our lives to look more and more like Jesus. I think that better fits the Hebrews context where that passage is found.
So, under mercy and not under wrath, suffering then is used according to the Bible, as a purifier, as something that draws us near to the Lord and has us understand that he is drawing near to us. It is used to mature and build, it is used in those ways, but it is not punishment for the Christian. And so, I think when we talk about suffering, what I wanna do is have a doctrinal conversation. I wanna talk about what the Bible says. And so, those are the things that the Bible would say in regards to, are you being punished because you didn’t consistently wake up early and spend time in the Bible, or because you did this or did this, or is God up to something bigger? And some of what He is up to is in helping you mature, helping you see, helping you grow, and creating a new steadfastness.
Hansen: Yeah. That sounds more consistent with the testimony of the Psalms.
Chandler: Yeah. Very, very much so. And at the end of Job, the final friend, right?
Hansen: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Here’s a statement you hear fairly often, especially in certain circles, “Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to.” How do you respond to that?
Chandler: Well, I mean, I think the quick way is to dive into the New Testament and look at the stoning of Stephen, look at… I mean, I just don’t know how you say that sentence, even something as simple as Timothy needing to take wine for his stomach, coming from the Apostle Paul, whose, I mean, handkerchief and apron healed people. So, there’s obviously throughout the New Testament suffering of various kinds, and sometimes that’s a bad stomach, some kind of digestive issue, or anxiety issue that Timothy has. And sometimes it’s the very real suffering of being in prison, having your stuff plundered, being boiled alive, being crucified upside down, and these realities exist throughout Christian history. So, you’ve got the biblical witness and then you got the historical witness that although Christ has suffered to ultimately alleviate my suffering, he’s also suffered and died to bring me a resurrection body, and I am certainly not in my resurrected body right now. And if I am, I am uber-disappointed. I just thought I’d have better abs than this in this body.
Hansen: Why do you think that’s appealing? I guess is it the sense that, you know, when somebody says that within the church that they’re so cut off from Christian history that they don’t care? They think, “No, this is a new era because we have new prophets with new messages who have finally realized this.”
Chandler: I just don’t know because I think in that stream, a lot of those things also exist, the kind of new ideas, new prophets, new words, new…I mean, I’m a reformed charismatic. So, I’m certainly not in any way trying to disparage those things. Like, I get myself in trouble quite a bit by saying that those things are biblical, and good, and right. But I do find that there’s a kind of… And that’s why I keep just going back to over-realized eschatology. I think there is an ignorance of church history. But I also think there’s a way that we cherry-pick verses out of the Bible. We don’t understand that the Bible is a single story and not a bunch of stories. And so, when you pull two sentences out and try to form a doctrine around it or form a theological idea around it, then, man, you’re more than likely gonna do greater harm than good.
But if we can read it in its context and we can read it in the kind of narrative of the Scriptures, what God is doing in saving a people, and making them a kingdom of priests, and making them holy by the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God who comes as Jesus Christ. And, like, if you get outside of that story and you cherry-pick verses, you can really create whatever you think people want to hear. And I think well-meaning brothers and sisters who want to try to bring hope in very, very… If you get the book, I just promise you, they’ll be points in the book where you just cannot weep. And in that really dark moment, the impulse is let me bring hope, when really you should bring presence. Not presence like, “Let me be here with you. This is unbelievably awful. Can I just sit with you?”
And instead, we’ve got these old taglines, we’ve got these kind of fake promises that might happen, breakthrough might happen. God might heal. In fact, I would even argue that the Bible commands us to ask for him to do it and then expect for him to do it, while holding our hands open to the reality that He is the sovereign King of glory and His will, will be done. But He has asked us in Scripture to have elders pray, to cry out for healing, and then to expect that He will. And then if He doesn’t, we’ve got an open hand and we trust that He’s good and kind, and He’s accomplishing something that’s beyond our understanding.
Hansen: Just a couple more questions here with Matt Chandler, talking about his new book, Joy in The Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well. Matt, we’ve talked a lot, especially about the over-realized eschatology. But I wanna give you a chance to talk about a little bit more of that under-realized. We do worship a risen Christ who made healing a regular part of his earthly ministry. Now, we know that there are those dynamics. You talked about over and under-realized eschatology. We can also talk about the already not yet of the kingdom. It’s already a common Christ, but not yet fully realized until his return. How does that affect your kind of view of suffering and healing? And maybe talk especially to those people who don’t quite expect that healing to happen in their lives?
Chandler: Yeah. Well, and that’s where I think you do and rightly said, I think that’s exactly where you get into this under-realized eschatology, where all you’ve got is the will of God, right? So, whatever the will of God is, that’s what’s gonna happen. Don’t even worry about it. Just ride it out. And I wanna just affirm, affirm, affirm the sovereignty of God, the will of God, the might of God, but I don’t wanna get so far away from how He’s revealed Himself to us in Scripture, that that becomes our default posture when we’re suffering. Because our default posture is we are confident that the will of God is going to be done. We find a lot of joy in that. We find a lot of comfort in that. And then I would argue from James, from other portions of Scripture, that then we cry out for healing, and then we expect with an open-handedness that understands that sovereignty.
And so, to be this kind of passive… Well, I mean, I think it does great harm to people who suffer and who want to be healed, to throw a little bit of shade, whether spoken or unspoken, that that desire is somehow ungodly. We certainly don’t see David praying like that in the Psalms. We certainly don’t see Paul praying like that in the New Testament. I mean, three times he’s pleading with God, “Take this thorn from me. Take this thorn from me.” And Paul is expectant until he hears from the Lord, “No, my strength is going to be enough.” But notice that Paul contents three times. And he doesn’t seem to be embarrassed or feel like he needs to repent of the fact that he’s perplexed, but not crushed.
And so, I think when we just kind of say, “No, hey, listen, be careful of boldly praying like that. Be careful of expectations. Be careful of really believing that God’s gonna heal you.” You just need to trust that His will is going to be done. And no one says those exact words, but they do try to couch people’s expectations. And I think that can do just as much harm. I want us to believe together. I want us to ask for the gift of faith while we’re praying and expect God to heal while always having our hands wide open, and believing that God is sovereign, and good, and He can be trusted with this outcome. And that’s, I think the tension that the Bible leads us into where I think it’s easier for people to choose one of the other of those, rather than standing in the middle and going, “I know God’s will will be done. He is sovereign, He is good. But I can see in James, I can see in Paul, I can see that I am too right now. Let my want be known, and to plead, and to believe by faith that He can heal me. And then I’m gonna with open-handedness contend that He would do just that until He makes it clear that he’s got other things planned for me.”
Hansen: So, Matt, your story of suffering, just one of nine in this book, all of them written by members or former members of The Village Church, but I want to give you in this last question, a chance to share a little bit about another story that especially stands out to you.
Chandler: Well, I think of all the chapters, there are two, in particular, without…I mean, being real careful with all of these stories. They’re all really dear to me. That’s why they are the ones in the book. But the two that really struck me in pretty powerful ways were Kyle Porter and his wife with the loss of their daughter Kate, and then Tedashii and Danielle with the loss of their son. And maybe those are because we’re talking about children but, gosh, man, I ugly cried when guy’s wife died. I mean, I was like, “Lord, what are you doing?” So, like, I was in Orlando when I heard that Kate, baby Kate had died. And I knew Kyle and his bride were so excited to add a third to their family.
And then the way they responded, I don’t know if you read his blog. I think TGC picked it up. He wrote a blog. And man, I was in the Orlando airport. I had just finished speaking at a conference in Orlando. And I mean, I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to go to the bathroom or someone’s gonna come and check on me, they’re gonna send security over to see me.” I mean, it was just everything that we had tried to teach, that we had prayed that God would put in the heart of our people, they were all there. And man, I just wept for them and was heartbroken for them.
And then man, with Tedashii and Danielle, we knew that their son had passed away. Tedashii was on a plane. And so, news was starting to get out that this had happened and Tedashii didn’t know yet. And so, I was just terrified that he was gonna land and turn on his phone, and have 40 messages about how everybody’s praying for him, and have no idea what people were talking about. And so, I think Tedashii and Danielle stick out for two reasons. One, because of how anxious I was for Tedash, to find out about the death of his son, via people who didn’t know that he didn’t know yet. And then secondly, that celebration service, that celebration service. Man, I think of all the spaces I’ve been able to be as a pastor, that celebration service was unbelievable, and just rejoicing, and the year that they’ve got with him, clinging to one another, clinging to the promises of God in Christ. I just thought, “Man, it was incredible.”
Hansen: Well, for more stories like that and more of what we’ve been talking about here, we encourage you to pick up Matt Chandler’s new book, Joy in the Sorrow: How a Thriving Church (and its Pastor) Learned to Suffer Well. Matt, thank you for setting us an example in that and thanks for joining me on The Gospel Coalition podcast.
Chandler: It’s my pleasure, Collin. Thank you.