Stewarding our suffering

2 Comments

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.

Communion – an engagement promise reminder

2 Comments

engagement-ring  I’ve struggled for years to grasp the spiritual richness of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

Many Catholics and Episcopalians regard this sacrament as the highlight of their weekly worship experience.  I know.  I’ve talked with them, trying to glimpse and sense what it is that nourishes them so richly.

It’s NOT like I don’t make an effort to meditate on what Jesus suffered for me personally by going to the cross. It’s just that I feel enriched more through the sermon and corporate prayer.  And because some of my friends and family wax on about the centrality of the Eucharist to their worship experience, I keep feeling like I must be missing something.

Reading  Ann Voskamp’s  recent book  the-broken-way The Broken Way, I grasped a fresh understanding of what this sacramental liturgy might represent.

Voskamp reminds her readers that what Jesus performed during that last meal with his friends was a covenant, similar to a wedding vow.  Think about Hebrew culture two millennia ago and and how couples were first betrothed and then married. You’ll recall that the engagement itself bestowed legal status and rights. The initial commitment was the BIG DEAL.

When God births us the first time, we receive the spirit of life. When He births us the second time, He gives us His very own Holy Spirit.  Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians at 1:14 – The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.

So you could call the indwelling Spirit of God Jesus’ engagement ring – a very real promissory note whose presence we are meant to sense intimately and enjoy.

But knowing that we humans NEED tangible concrete reminders, Jesus instructed His Bride (us, the Church) to reenact often the engagement ceremony.   Re-reading the account of His vows would be a start, but incomplete.  Jesus put into place a practice of sharing a scaled-down version of the original covenant meal, meant to be enjoyed with re-awakened awe among fellow members of Jesus’ Bride.

Each time we eat and drink tokens from that historic and singular Covenant, we recall what Jesus performed FOR US in order to ‘win’ our hand. A few of those ‘challenges’ He embraced ‘for the joy set before Him’ (Hebrews 12:2)included these deeds:

  • He temporarily emptied Himself of His divine status and privileges and happy community
  • He accepted the weaknesses and degradations of Hebrew poverty under cruel Roman rule
  • He endured hateful and murderous scorn from family, neighbors, church leaders
  • He suffered abuse and murder due to false charges
  • He showed the entire Creation a righteous life, down to the last jot and tittle of the Law’s requirements.  He even exercised complete patience and strength to withstand every temptation Satan could throw at Him.
  • He took on to His perfect body and life all the sins of His Bride and paid off the debt she had accrued.

The New Covenant ceremony Jesus enacted was His announcement of His coming marriage to US!!!! And until the wedding date, He promised a Helper who would be the deposit guaranteeing this promised union and subsequent inheritance.  During the Covenant Supper He described the home He was going off to make ready for His Bride. And He told His Bride not only to ponder the reality of her new status as legally betrothed bride, but also to cash in the promises and call on her bridegroom’s Father who would now be her Father, too!

Can you catch a glimpse of the rich layers of this Covenant Reenactment and how much we need it?  

I frequently forget that you and I are legally engaged to Jesus.  With rights and privileges that make a difference in this life.  And although our Bridegroom has gone ahead to make our home ready, He has not left us alone.  He has given the Church His best friend who is His stand-in until He comes for us.  This supernatural Helper is the same as Jesus; only He is inside of each born-from-above believer, whereas Jesus in His resurrected flesh is with the Father. For the time being!

Ann Voskamp’s lavish unpacking of ‘Communion’ has made me very glad that our church holds to a regular reenactment of the engagement covenant.  I easily forget.  

Thank you, Jesus, that You have commanded that we DO this to remember You.

Exercising the right muscles….

2 Comments

Weights

I don’t like working out.  Whether it’s with the weights above or just my daily trek.

In fact, I dread that strenuous cove walk here in the mountains of western North Carolina. Yes, it’s beautiful and the trees and birds point to God’s glory.  But the average incline is 13% and my route takes me up and down the gravel roads.  It never gets easier.

I thought about the difficulty of my daily routine, rereading that Hebrews truth (12:11)…

  • No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Boy, does THAT describe my early mornings – Unpleasant but worth it!

From that reflection, it’s easy to connect to God’s training plan for our character. He uses suffering and difficulties of all stripes to build up our faith and hope muscles.  Just look at what these many God-sent trials accomplish for us:

1 Peter 5:10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

The 4 verbs listed are powerful encouragements to persist through the God-ordained ‘workouts’.  If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I love looking up the Greek or Hebrew words to help me understand God’s teachings. So here’s a glimpse of some of God’s many purposes in designing our suffering along with what He promises to do through or by means of the difficult times:

  • Restore – this verb sometimes gets translated as ‘to perfect’.  It means to kit out, equip completely.  Obviously I lack qualities God deems necessary and can only be given me through hanging onto Him when tested.
  • Confirm – you can see the ‘firm’ part of the verb.  Troubles endured in Christ are the means to set us fast, to fix or place us more ‘immovably’ than we’ve been.
  • Strengthen – means just what we think – to make us vigorous in our minds and hearts.  Think resolute and determined!
  • Establish – to ground, shore up the foundation.  Imagine a house being constructed in a hurricane or earthquake-prone area.  The structure of the building would be reinforced and enhanced to withstand intense natural thrashings.  We, too, need this kind of bracing that will not give out.  Strengthening trials ready us for greater ones, kind of like skirmishing with the Varsity team grows the JV team’s abilities.

Do any of us like trials?  NO!!!!

But just as you and I recognize the value gained from physical workouts, let us not fight the spiritual and emotional training that our good God ordains for us.  Besides, we have a workout partner meant to encourage us at all times.  This Comforter will bear us up when the struggles are too much.  The truth is, our faith grows best amidst storms.  Think of giant trees, windswept and battered, strengthened through the storms.  Think of pearls, formed by the irritating grains of sand within an oyster.

So, I say to you just as I have to remind myself: God means my circumstances for good. Fighting against Him just makes us tired!

%d bloggers like this: