How to understand suffering – some of the ways

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A friend applies for job after job, only to make it to the final interview and be rejected. Not just once, but discouragingly, a number of times.

Another gal miscarries, yet again. The hope of carrying a baby to term erodes with each pregnancy.

Then there is an older sister in the faith who has been through so many cancer treatments, from chemo to radiation to surgery to enduring experimental drugs in clinical trials.  Nothing seems to work.

One more example, a brother who struggles wholeheartedly to save his marriage through prayer, fasting and pursuing counseling.  Alone.  Nonetheless, his wife wants no part in an attempt to reconcile and files for divorce.

These are 4 standout examples of suffering that quickly came to mind.  We all can enumerate such cases and more.

How about the more mundane types of painful struggle like trying to give up drinking, one more time? Or losing that weight, over and over?  Or attempting to engage in conversation your silent, sullen teen?

Do you ever feel like you keep praying, even quoting scripture BACK to God yet nothing changes?

I have significant unanswered prayers in my own life and have…. and am walking through similar suffering in the lives of friends and family in the faith.

Now at age 60, I’m recognizing some of the reasons that God seems sovereignly to ordain such circumstances.  I’ll mention a few, but as John Piper has taught me over the years of listening to his sermons, (and I’ll paraphrase): ‘God is doing 1000 things at one time in any event and we might only be able to spot two or three.’

(If you don’t yet know what to do with evidence in the Bible that God CAUSES suffering, here is one verse to illustrate that fact: Psalm 88:8 ‘You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out’

Here are the reasons that I’ve seen in the past year or so that God might be saying ‘No’ to the sincere and fervent prayers of a righteous Christian:

  • What you are praying for is not ‘good’ per God.  For if something IS good, then He doesn’t withhold it:  Ps 84:11  ‘no good thing does he withhold from those whose way is upright’
  • The way you are choosing to go and asking for his permission does not showcase God’s righteousness.  Ps 23: 3 ‘He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.’
  • Per Anne Graham Lotz, our Father sometimes repeatedly shuts doors to a work until he has refined our purpose FOR the project.
  • Since God has created us to showcase his value as explained in Isaiah 43:6-7  ‘Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’ then in some cases God blocks ways and projects that work counter to his purposes.

The other morning I was listening to an archived John Piper Sermon about joy.  And what I realized is this:

IF God’s purpose in creating us is to showcase how much we treasure HIM above anything he has created, then it is possible he is ordaining our circumstances in the optimal manner to fulfill this purpose.

Recall that God fashions, calls and redeems a particular group of people for his glory, that is for us to showcase just how much we esteem HIM above anything else in the universe.  If this is so, then how does the world figure out that we consider God OUR MOST valuable possession?

Yes, by taking away other sources of contentment and pleasure. For if we have ‘earthly success’ but actually treasure God more than that success, what would be the evidence to the non-believer that the Triune God is more precious to us than gold or good health or a happy family or fame?

How will my non-believing neighbor see that knowing God makes me supremely happy?

I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.  Perhaps the most striking example of a Christian being content with Christ is when something normal and important is removed.  Or everything is stripped away:

  • think of Paul beaten and confined in prison
  • or Stephen stoned to death
  • or heroes of the faith burned at the stake for their beliefs
  • or a Columbine High School teen standing up and identifying herself as a follower of Jesus
  • or the Amish families who ministered to the widow and children of the murderer of their girls

That kind of faith doesn’t make sense to the world, but it sure does make God look good.

Is this why you are suffering? why God seems to be keeping doors shut or saying no?

I don’t presume to say.  I will say, though, that the longer I live, pray with friends and read my Bible I see more redemptive reasons for suffering for Christ’s sake.

If the above examples leave you depressed, here are two other reasons that will lift your spirits:

  • Joseph was sold into slavery, slandered and forgotten for years in Egypt before God’s good plan was revealed – Genesis 50:20  ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
  • Job’s suffering – at the time, he likely did not know about or understand God’s purpose in giving Satan almost free reign to harm him. But over the centuries thousands of Jews and Christians have found help and strength to endure their own painful trials and losses.

Let’s allow God the final word:

1 Peter 4:19 ‘So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.’

 

The prophet Samuel’s scumbag sons and God’s will

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Was the prophet Samuel a bad dad?  After all, the people rejected both his sons to be the next judge because of their immoral characters.

1 Samuel 8: 1-3 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.  The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice.

Before today, I always concluded that Samuel, as godly a judge as he was for Israel, failed to train up his sons according to God’s word, sadly following the pattern of his predecessor and mentor, Eli.

Today I changed my mind, as I read this familiar passage.  When Samuel shares his disappointment and anger that the people don’t WANT his sons to succeed him, God says NOTHING about the character of his boys. Instead, God replies:  …..obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.

Why is Yahweh changing the routine now? Ever since Joshua died, God has raised up a new judge to rescue and guide His people.

I think it’s because the time has providentially come to set in motion a line of kings beginning with the good-looking, but weak-willed and jealous Saul all the way to the perfect King, Jesus.

God’s sovereign will trumps and overrides any action or non-action of man.

Did you get that?

Neither our GOOD actions nor our SIN determines the final outcome of events.

If we conclude that Samuel was a lousy dad and failed to train his sons properly, it is only out of speculation! The text is silent, contrary to what we read about Eli and how he fathered the other two priests, Hophni and Phinehas.  God explicitly rebukes Eli and announces severe punishment for Eli’s poor parenting.

1 Sam 3:13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them.

No such detail is given about Samuel to explain his sons’ greed and perversion of justice.  So we must beware of looking at their character and laying the blame at the Prophet’s feet. God has His reasons for each of us and each circumstance that we can only guess at.

I write this NOT to give me or you an excuse for not doing what we should.

I write this to correct our occasional false conclusions about our successes and failures.

What are you claiming is a failure in your life?  Yes, you might have exercised poor judgment or made some mistakes that led to this failure.  But could it be that God is actually directing the circumstances?  For His GOOD purposes which remain unknown to us at this time?

Likewise, we must beware of taking credit for good turns of events, what we often claim are successes due to us!  As Paul in Romans 12:6 teaches  – We have different gifts according to the grace given us.  And you can be sure that what God has given is for a specific purpose of His.

Resting in God’s sovereign control helps me both to NOT beat myself up when I fail nor to boast when I succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stewarding our suffering

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Your suffering is not about you, primarily.

Does that statement surprise you…..offend you….or resonate with what you already know?

Just look at Psalm 23:3 – He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

David doesn’t assert that the course on which our Shepherd has us is primarily for OUR sake or our sanctification, but for His sake, for His reputation.  That means the paths are according to God’s purposes, most of which we won’t come to know in this life. It’s a given that these God-centered plans often include our suffering.

Even though the goal of this sort of suffering might be hidden from us, there is a class of personal suffering whose end is explicitly explained in the Bible.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:4 how God….” comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

Who might these ‘others’ be?  There are only three categories of people as my friend Darlene Bocek explains – Christians, pre-Christians, and non-Christians.  The suffering that fellow believers undergo is meant to deliver a salutary effect on their sanctification.  Pre-Christians also receive a benefit from their pains, problems, and pits in that the suffering serves as a wake-up call to turn to God.  Well, what about the non-Christians? Does suffering benefit them? Darlene describes God’s purpose in their suffering as a warning about God’s coming judgment and an immediate indictment of their lack of gratitude for all the undeserved goodness that God showers on the world.  Non-Christians might develop compassion for others and support humanitarian impulses, but a holy or DIVINE benefit does not accrue to them.

So how do we believers steward or manage the pain we experience during trials?  One big clue is to look to Jesus.  The writer to the Hebrews in 12:2 reveals to us how Jesus handled spiritual and physical suffering. He penned, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Our troubles can cause us to grow more reflective about where our true joy lies.  Destruction, decline, deterioration, and disappointment tend to loosen our vice-like grip on the goodies of this earthly existence.  Plus, when we see pain and injustice around us, a longing for a perfect world grows more intense.  We hurt not only for ourselves but also for others.

Since most of us recognize injustice and hardships when we witness them, you might be asking, ‘Well, what exactly qualifies as suffering, for the Christian and pre-Christian?  Are we referring only to hardships and persecution received for following Jesus’ commands when we share the Gospel?”

No, not from what I read in the Bible and in the works of Puritan authors like John Owen and William Gurnall, nor from what I pick up listening to podcast sermons by Pastor John Piper. I have surmised that ALL pain, disappointment, and hardship, whether it originates in us or outside of us, is suffering appointed by God for His good purposes.

And please let us not indulge in ‘comparative suffering’ in EITHER direction.  There is no shame in undergoing suffering that is ‘lesser’ than what we see others submit to. Nor should we derive a kind of sick pride in being gifted with ‘greater’ troubles as though there were something special about us.  I believe that each trial, test, trouble is tailor-made and individualized.  A personalized lesson-plan, or in ‘eduspeak’ an IEP, individualized education program.  This God-prepared course is actually a present from the happy, holy triune God.

Recall that Paul writes in Philippians 1:29 – For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.

Did you get that?  Jesus has trusted us with His gift of customized suffering.  We undergo the training for Him, that is for HIS purposes.  Some of which benefit us and the other kind, those hardships that on the surface from our point of view do not.

So how am I dealing with my own suffering these days?

At age 60, I am RE-learning that my appointed suffering in this season is on purpose.  And that I need to first of all not complain about it or even fear it, as though something abnormal or strange were happening.  Peter brings this fact up in his letter to the churches in 1 Peter 4:12 – Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

Considering it as normal, in this life, and meant for my good and for God’s purposes is a fact I need to rehearse each day. The world tends to broadcast that suffering is NOT the norm and that given enough technology, we can avoid it.

But that is a lie.  From Satan.  May God help us to submit to His plans with humility,  gratitude, and Spirit-provided courage and endurance.  And when we balk and complain, may He give us quick repentance so we can receive His forgiveness and walk on, keeping our eyes on our Advocate who has trod this path before us.  For the joy that awaits us.

What are you afraid of?

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You’ve probably heard about ‘disordered loves’.  That’s when you love something more than God.

If I’m honest, I struggle with THAT sin not only every day but also multiple times in a day.

What do I love more than God?  Theologically, nothing!  But functionally, I can rattle off probably 10, without pause:

  • my time
  • my comfort
  • my routine
  • speaking French
  • my ability to cook well
  • my appearance (being fit for my age)
  • READING
  • writing
  • sleep
  • long stretches with no obligations

And I haven’t even mentioned people I love!

Yes, I am aware that the Holy Spirit constantly is at work in this entire area of my life.  It’s called pruning, or sanctification, or suffering.

But the other day, something caused me to think about ‘disordered fears’.  I haven’t spotted that expression before, but books have been written about the disproportionate fear of man over the fear of God.  Or how we can become immobilized through fear of failure.

There are a hundred things to fear. And Christians and unbelievers alike battle fear.  Winston Churchill understood the evil of fear during wartime.

Here’s what prompted me to think about how our fears might be out of whack.

First I saw God’s emphasis on loving HIM above everything else.  This lesson has recently been reinforced as Mike and I journey once again through the Bible in a year. Today we finished the book of Joshua.  This successor to Moses is about to ‘be gathered to his fathers’ and he passes on his final advice and admonitions to the congregation of Israel at Shiloh.  He spends a good deal of time recounting God’s faithfulness to the Hebrew tribes, beginning with Abraham and mentioning this fact:

“Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.” Joshua 23:14 (NIV)

BASED on what God has done for them, Joshua explains their responsibility to LOVE God.  It’s a command.  If it’s a command, it must not be a feeling.  Because ephemeral feelings come and go.  Loving God turns out to be an action that looks like this:

  • serving God wholeheartedly
  • clinging to God
  • preferring the one true God to other Gods
  • obeying God
  • worshipping and sacrificing to this God only

But how did I connect this directive to love God to what we are to fear?  Well, you can’t read much of the Old Testament without picking up the importance of ‘fearing God’.  Proverbs 19:23 is just one of many verses: “The fear of the LORD leads to life, so that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil.”

Earlier in the week, I was wallowing in some non-God fears.   Kind of like Pilgrim mucking around in the Slough of Despond.  But thanks be to the Holy Spirit!  He brought me up short about the sin of fear.

I saw that these temporal fears (I’m gaining weight, some work-related circumstances might never get better, what if………….happens?) were occupying my thoughts and causing me to be despondent.  That was a slap in the face to God.  God brought me up short about my unbelief in God’s good (*good as HE calls good, that is whatever facilitates my eventual conformity to Jesus) plan for my life.  That realization led me to confess that I was fearing FIRST and FOREMOST something other than God.

I now see that if I shift my thoughts and energy to fearing, to pleasing, to caring about God’s reputation, then maybe my other fears will fall ‘into’ place and to their correct size. God doesn’t want us to deny our fear; He invites honesty.  BUT He is at work to place them in perspective.  Loving God leads to life.  Fearing God leads to life.  Loving AND fearing something over God leads to death.

It’s a new thought for me.  What about you?  Do you struggle more with disordered loves or disordered fears?  OR…..are they one and the same, two sides of the same sin?

 

 

 

Focusing in on the wrong words!

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A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  1 Tim 2:11

How’s that for a controversial admonition!  Why it’s enough to stir up some of us gals into a frenzy!

The other day, I listened to a podcast conversation where a woman, well-equipped to handle the Bible in a way faithful to the text, respond to some pushback about this thorny passage.

She handled it by pointing out that most ’21st century moderns’ pass over just how counter-cultural and preposterous was the idea, this new tradition, of women being included in LEARNING! Up until then, only men enjoyed the privilege of being taught.

Jews and gentiles alike would have balked initially at women acquiring any kind of education beyond that necessary for running a household. But Paul viewed men and women from God’s point of view. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:28

For as many years as I have read this section of Scripture about women who are to be ‘quiet’ in church, I had missed the main point.  That emphasis being that women were actually encouraged to LEARN.  What other facts have I missed by not giving each word of God equal attention?

Here’s one more example –

He (Jesus) answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ Luke 10:27

I’ve always focused on the ‘ALL’ as a modifier, as in: “You’ve got to be kidding!  love God with ALL my heart, strength etc.  How is THAT possible? I love too many other things as well!”

Having shifted my attention to examine each word for meaning, I realize that one possible interpretation of this admonition is this:

Given that every person is going to love something with all his or her BEST energy, that something must be GOD instead of something like…

  • a job
  • another person
  • oneself
  • money
  • the favorable opinion of others
  • one’s family or kids
  • leisure
  • one’s country

Doesn’t Jesus’ command change everything?  For it acknowledges that human beings are wired to be devoted to SOMEthing.  If we don’t wholeheartedly worship God as worthy of our full attention and energy, we will shift our soul and strength to something created.  And that is idolatry.

How about looking at a familiar passage to see if you can read it through fresh eyes?  What might you have missed?  Let me know in the comment section.

 

 

Fruit of the Spirit – a different angle

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Calling all abiding branches!

Here is a simple question:  If you are abiding in Jesus – that is, if you are connected through the Holy Spirit to our Holy Vine, Jesus, are you close to Jesus or distant?

Picturing grapes or tomatoes, it’s easy to see that the fruit-producing branch keeps company with the vine beCAUSE of a live connection.

Another question: What are we branches to look at or fill our minds with while we abide in and stay connected to Jesus’?

That’s easy – where do we find any news of Jesus?  In the Bible.  So the most logical place to find food for our minds is the gospel accounts of Jesus’ actions and words as well as the writings of the prophets and apostles.  The Gospels furnish us with his words of truth, to include promises of blessings and woes.

With those ideas in place, let me relate to you what I saw this week when thinking about the fruit of the spirit.

I started to wonder:  Could it be that fruit emerges the more we look at Jesus’ fruit?  Could it be that the ONLY way for us to bear God-produced fruit on our branch is to LOOK at Jesus’ fruit?  If healing from snakebites came to Israel from gazing at the bronze serpent, might not that principle be at work here?

After all, who do you know who tops Jesus in showing agape love, calm joy, unhurried peace and contentment, fretless patience, genuine kindness not only to inquiring Pharisees but to ‘untouchable’ women and sick mothers-in-law as well, goodness to the undeserving, faithfulness to his heavenly Father (not to mention to us), ‘controlled strength’ – aka meekness and finally…….. supernatural self-control when spat upon, mocked and tortured?

I know I make the Christian life of discipleship more complicated than necessary.  Do you find yourself doing the same? And aren’t we all just plain exhausted by all this doing and trying?

What would it be like JUST to trust our good shepherd when he makes us lie down near him? What if all we ‘had to do’ was to feast on him and be satisfied in him?  How?  by resting in what he has already done.

The more we turn to him for our provision and cling to him, the more natural will be the harvest in our lives.

I think we often TRY to produce the fruit ourselves.  But that is not what we see in nature?  After all, what tomato branches resolve to put forth tasty Heirlooms for the picking?

Nature doesn’t work that way nor does Jesus call us to this alien way.  I think he says something like, ‘Don’t work for me, just fill up on me.  Look to me and be satisfied in what I have already done for you and others and what I have taught awaits you.

It is THAT contentment which makes for ideal fruit-bearing in us, the branches.

And when we DO accept his way, the pay off is categorically better: A harvest for others (patience, self-control, and kindness) and plenty of produce for us (joy and peace and feeling God’s approval).

 

 

The ‘if-only’ weed – Toxic to my soul

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John Owen is nailing me!  For someone whom I’ve never met and who died 335 years ago, it’s uncanny how well this man knows my heart.

His book on how to kill your sin, Mortification of Sin in Believers, is my current weekend reading before I open my Bible.

Look at what I read yesterday, paraphrased for me:

Do I lack strength and power?  Do I lack comfort and peace? (Owen then writes parenthetically that these 4 qualities are the only ‘lacks’ worth mentioning).  If so, then their lack has been brought on through NOT mortifying my sins. Giving in to any sin (what he calls ‘exercising’ or practicing that sin) precipitates the following:

  • My soul is weakened and deprived of strength and vigor
  • My soul is darkened and deprived of comfort and peace

So what does Owen recommend?

First, he explains how we strengthen the power of sin.  Whatever we set our affections on, whatever we cherish or love we THINK about. And what we invest our thoughts in grows in power to rule us.

Owen quite unnervingly calls those affections not set on God LUSTS.  (And he is not talking just about wrong sexual desires.)  We created beings were made by God to love Him first and foremost. And if we cannot say in all sincerity to God, “You alone are my portion, my treasure,” then whatever takes God’s rightful place as first in our hearts is a lust.  No surprise that feeding and investing my thoughts, fears, desires, and hopes in this cherished but dangerous affection has a deleterious effect on my soul.

Owen describes the condition of directing our beloved and best thoughts elsewhere as ‘a drinking up the spirit and all the vigor of one’s soul’.  The result?  A dark cloud barrier between me and God, blocking all the beams of love and favor from God to me, an adopted daughter.

When I read that yesterday, I realized that one of my pet sins, a ‘péché mignon’ as the French call it, is the ‘if-only’ game. This is where I imagine a better circumstance than the one I’m ‘stuck’ in.  This is sin. And yes, it displeases God, as does all sin.  In essence, when I wish for a different scenario than the one God has given me, I am declaring:  Where you have placed me, the boundary lines you have set for me, the details of my life are NOT good, Father!  If only they were other, I would be happier or more at peace or more content.

What presumption and what a slap in the face of the all-wise and all-good God.

This is sin! This is lust and John Owen says I need to be killing it every day.  That is, if I want the vigor and comfort that are mine by rights as an adopted child of God, whom Jesus rescued and transplanted through his life and death.

These lusts grow stronger the more I fantasize about them.  My thoughts do carry energy; they are fertilizer, ‘Miracle-Gro’ to whatever I direct them.

So what are we to do practically?  How do we kill lust?

Mike and I are going through a very difficult trial.  Like a lot of suffering, we don’t understand it and in this case, don’t know yet what to do.  In our God-centered moments we think and pray like King Jehosophat when he and his people faced the imminent attack of a horde of Edomites: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” 2 Chronicles 20:12

But more than I like to admit I invest time in feeding the ‘if-only’ lust.  So as I read John Owen yesterday the Holy Spirit showed me how readily I elevate ‘fixing this situation or eliminating this suffering’ to the number one place in my life, above God.  The desire for a life without this ‘whatever’ can dominate my prayers and thoughts.

‘But isn’t that natural?’ you might say.  Yes! but just because it is natural doesn’t make it less of a sin.  As believers, we are commanded to walk or live by the Spirit, not by the flesh.

I am finding that a good remedy for this wrong thinking is our Lord’s Prayer.  After all, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He gave them this content and model.

So when I shift my thoughts UP to what really matters eternally – Praying for God to be honored and worshipped by everyone, for His will to be done everywhere and for His kingdom to come NOW those small, self-centered fantasies of peace and good I have indulged pale.  Next, as I pray through the Lord’s Prayer, I am retrained to ask for what I need this day – basic necessities, forgiveness, and protection.  Does God, my Father, NOT care about the suffering and trials He has sent and what we are to do?

Yes, He does! He commands me to trust Him and to hand them over.  He is using them for my ultimate good and will resolve them when and how He deems best.  For now, I am to get back to His priorities – Loving Him and my neighbors.

This is the weeding, the killing of sin that John Owen describes as a believer’s duty.  And not just duty, but the way to enjoy God’s favor, His strength, comfort and peace that He WANTS me to experience.

Thank you, Father, for inspiring and using these Puritans to instruct not just their contemporary flocks but generations of believers who have followed.

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