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.

New potting soil for our marriage

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potting soil  With Valentine’s Day approaching I’ve been thinking about our marriage.  When Mike and I exchanged vows in church, although churchgoers, we ‘lived and moved and had our being’ in contemporary American 20th-century culture. If you had asked us the very strange-sounding question:  “What is your marriage grounded in?” we would have answered with a blank stare of incomprehension.

Had you gently probed with a further query like, “What is the basis for those wedding vows you just spoke?” I know I would have said, “Love!”  Having gotten to know Mike over 9 months, I knew simply that I wanted to be with him permanently.  Marriage made sense, for that reason.  Plus, as Army officers, we couldn’t be guaranteed joint assignments unless we were married.

But as any wedded couple can attest, living with another sinful person is very hard, whether Christian or not.  We experienced the same stress common to husbands and wives.  And at one point, year 20, separation looked like a real possibility.  Why?  Because our marriage was firmly planted in the soil of contemporary American culture where ‘what makes me happy’ is normative.  Worldly colleagues at school counseled me to ‘move on’ if my needs were not being met.

But the Divine Gardner gently repotted us into different soil, through other friends who spoke God’s truth into us.  Gradually their counsel plus sermons centered on teaching on the Biblical God, books on Christian marriage plus our participation in Bible Study Fellowship changed our individual-centered worldview for a God-centered mindset.  This steady feeding gradually weakened the lies we had accepted as true.  That ‘Mike and Maria’ died.  A new ‘Mike and Maria’ continues to grow stronger as God fertilizes and prunes us.

The dirt made all the difference.

Over time we came to understand the true purpose of marriage.  Not at all what I would have expected, certainly not the way I was brought up.  Certainly not what best selling movies and books describe.

Paul describes marriage like this, in his letter to the Ephesians. He writes:

  •  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)

Mike and I are still learning that marriage is NOT about our own ‘happily ever after’, but about covenant keeping and reflecting  (very imperfectly most of the time) the marriage of Jesus and the Church.

As Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC writes: “If we want to be happy in marriage we will accept that marriage is designed to make us holy, not happy. Happiness is a byproduct.”

Mike and I now realize that becoming holy takes a lifetime! Being married IS sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, often ordinary.  But a ‘happy ordinary’ is SO much better now than it was the first 20 years of our relationship.

Just as Jesus will never abandon his commitment and pledge to love his bride, the Church, so too we must not abrogate the earthly union with our spouse that our Father has blessed.

Have ‘fights’ and ‘frustrations’ disappeared?  No, but they are less frequent and not as emotionally charged as they used to be when ‘getting what I want’ was each of our goals.  Mike and I still struggle, but we are learning to love one another sacrificially.  For me, this means keeping my mouth shut instead of letting loose with a sarcastic or unloving response.  A new practice of putting myself in his shoes to understand his perspective feels more right.  I now take very seriously the Father’s charge to me as Mike’s wife – to pray for him and his growth in holiness.  I know that is what will make Mike happiest and me most fulfilled as his wife.

As Peter says in his 1st letter:  ABOVE ALL, love one another deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4: 8)

 

Why pray? The power of love, hospitals and gifts.

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1 Peter 4:7-10 (NIV)

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 

Are you stuck in a trying situation or have a problem for which there seems to be no imaginable solution?  Life is full of problems. No surprise for Jesus promised such tribulation, in case you thought something was amiss and there shouldn’t be all this pain.  (But He also encouraged us to cheer up because of what He would do on our behalf.- see John 16:33)

I like to commit Scripture to memory.  So I’ve been living with the Apostle Peter as I’ve made my way slowly through his first letter to scattered believers.  Memorizing the book, verse by verse, since January 2017, has provided me with rich meditation.

Recently a new insight in the above passage struck me.  ‘The end of all things is near.”  The straightforward plain reading of the text seems to be that Jesus will be back sooner than we think.  However, from our perspective (and if you think about the recipients of the letter 2 millennia earlier) the end is taking A LONG time in arriving!

Last week as I rehearsed what I ‘have’ inside of me from chapter 4, I saw something different in the above verses.  I thought about my friend Pat.  This pen-pal friend is in her late 60s and suffers from late-onset depression.  She was 60 before this darkness descended.  Meds appear to work for a while and then stop and her doctor tries out something else that might provide relief.   My new insight was this: what if God means, ‘the end of this particular trial that dominates her life right now’ is near?

If that’s the case and since God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, what can I, Maria, do to hasten Pat’s imminent relief from this disease?  Peter provides a prescription.  I’m to:

  • Be clear minded, or as another translation renders it sober up, that is ‘get a grip’ about what is important in the eternal scheme of things (and it’s not 75 % of what I churn about!)  Why?  So I can pray.  I’m to pray for my suffering sister.  We Christians are to corral and curate our thought life so we can pray for others.  Why?  Because God uses our prayers to bring an end to our brothers’ and sisters’ pains and trials.
  • Next, I’m to love this friend, that is to do what I can to make her life easier.  God gives us imaginations so we can put ourselves in someone else’s situation and understand what we would like in terms of relief and assistance.  Pat lives in Texas and I live in North Carolina.  So besides praying, I can keep in touch through mail, phone calls and texts.
  • Then what about the hospitality Peter mentions?  I love knowing that reaching out to those in need is also the origin of our centers for medical care – hospitals.  We are to be mini-hospitals to fellow members of God’s family.
  • Finally, we are to know that God specifically wired us and gifted us with the means to serve one another according to needs we find around us.  I have a friend who knits.  She works to hasten the trials of others by praying over shawls that she creates with love and care.  God did not endow me with that beautiful skill.

So you see, dear friends, God involves us in the very shortening of others’ trials.  But we have to get OUT of ourselves.  The call to pray, love, and provide healing service to those in need is a HIGH CALLING!

If you wonder what is the purpose of your life this day, then look no further.  God has equipped you and me to participate in a God-honoring and life-affirming way.  To Him be all the glory and to us be much joy.

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