Why we run away from trials and suffering and why we shouldn’t

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I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Psalm 119:75

Seems that every other archived sermon I listen from my iTunes feed of daily John Piper ‘past sermons’ is about suffering and the benefits.  But he’s not the only one proclaiming that uncomfortable message.  Another pastor Mike and I follow has started a series on the Book of James, written by Jesus’ half-brother.  You know how he starts at the beginning of his letter, that invitation to join the ‘Pure Joy Club’?

Count it pure or all joy, my brothers when you fall into trials of many kinds….

And then there is my hero in the faith, George Mueller, the 19th century British pastor who prayed about the idea, then planned for and ran orphanages that eventually housed 3000 parent-less children over 40-50 years.  Not once did he publish outside of the handful of praying partners the financial needs to support what he undertook.  And God directed daily bread (literally and also metaphorically, referring to all their needs) Mueller’s way.

But it was not easy. Most often the forthcoming provision was obscured until the last minute.  After decades of practice at banking on the Father to meet all their needs, Mueller concluded that the good and ever-present God:

  • gives us problems and difficulties, so that we are led to exercise prayer and faith and grow stronger

Yet, we’re human.  It’s a no-brainer to choose comfort and ease and visible provision.  But could we be wrong in what we cherish, in what we think is due us, what we conclude will best serve us?

One doesn’t have to look far to see that whereas EVERYONE suffers in life, the pain and problems are disproportionately distributed. Does that seem fair to you?

No!, but…..caveat coming:  Pursuing that question of ‘rightness’, going down THAT path will NOT lead to any SATISFYING answer that quiets all our questions. Just ask Job.

So of course the uneven assigning of pain doesn’t seem fair.  But don’t let us therefore conclude that God is neither in charge NOR good.

Yes, the world is messed up.  And always has been since our primal parents opted for their own wisdom, rather than God’s.

But that doesn’t mean that suffering and problems are gratuitous.

Here’s what one language scholar from Blue Letter Bible wrote in explaining the word ‘afflicted’

  • Jehovah depressed/ consumed my strength that was in the way

Why would God do that?  Well, plenty of Bible contributors have explained that:

  • Before you made me suffer, I used to wander off, but now I hold on to your word. Ps 119:67
  • My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. Job 42:6
  • God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. James 4:6

Looking at that last verse snippet, let’s ask this question: To whom does God give His supernatural power and wisdom and favor?  only to the humble.  How does God humble us?  Well, you tell me!

Okay, so this makes sense on paper.  What about LIFE?

In this current season in my late 50s, what I struggle with is still….. willling and eager worship of my self-created version of ‘feeling good’.

And it seems that the more lessons He plans for me, the worse my situation, my sin grows. It happens in 3 ways:

  • I understand more clearly the evil of idolatry
  • I feel more helpless to deal with it
  • I cling to it all the more

As Paul bluntly cried out to his scribe, (and I paraphrase) Miserable, self-absorbed wretch that I am, who can rescue me from this mess?  Romans 7:24

I know everyone can identify when they think of that one (at LEAST one) on-going, dogged sin that we both despise and cherish in some sick way because it’s familiar.

Permit me to share some hope that I recently received during an episode of God’s ‘attentiveness’:

  • First – from Blue Letter Bible, again about the term ‘affliction’

The simple basic verb ‘to be afflicted’ means ‘occupied with/ busied with.  So when we are blind-sided with suffering, whether brought on BY ourselves or BY another, God is at work in us, concentrating ON us.

So we can’t say, “Where is God???!!!!”  He absolutely IS with us, is busying Himself with us.

  • Second – in a sermon Pastor Steve Brown entitled, ‘Don’t Waste Your Sin’, I learned something new.  When Jesus died on the cross with our sins attributed to or assigned to Him, He paid for them, right?  A synonym for ‘paid for’ is ‘purchased’.  Jesus BOUGHT our sins for us, so in one sense, we ‘own’ them. Brown counsels us to put them (the cancelled sins) to constructive use.  What does he mean?  Think of the woman at the well who, once she was saved, happily and boldly proclaimed to her fellow villagers, “This man told me ALL about myself!”  And she was joyful.  She made GOOD use of her sins, that SHE committed, that she chose time and time again, but that Jesus had forgiven.

So, if I apply those ideas to myself, then each time (and there will be more, I don’t doubt) I struggle with investing importance in my particular ‘something’, which is created, rather than the creator I hope I remember:

God is doing something ON me for my good.

Jesus bought this sin, so how can I use it to bless someone else?

For starters, no point in covering it up!  May I boldly share how God never tires of restructuring the same ole’/same ole’ lesson to conform me to His Son. And if He keeps forgiving AND using even THIS stupid sin in my life, then He will do the same for you!

Do you believe Jesus or believe IN Jesus? Just what is it that you believe?

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Words matter. And ubiquity weakens the meaning.

Take for example our use of the verb ‘LOVE’:

  • I love my husband
  • I love chocolate
  • I love to read
  • and my common email/letter closing of ‘love, Maria’

The overuse and cross-categories application of ‘to love’ has so watered down this affectionate inclination that when we are told to love God, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal.

Same with the idea of ‘BELIEVE’:

  • I believe that people are basically good
  • I believe in family
  • I believe in luck
  • I believe in love
  • I believe in being the best I can be
  • I believe that 2 and 2 are 4

The Bible takes the exhortation to believe VERY seriously. It actually seems to be a matter of eternal life or death, what we believe. So how should we think about it? Does it matter how we believe or what we believe in?  After all, the half-brother of Jesus taught us “…even the demons believe (in God) and shudder!” James 2:19b

Maybe a more precise question might be: How do we distinguish saving belief and simple factual belief?  And does that preposition IN make the difference?

Blue Letter Bible is the name of a website/app that provides a wealth of examples in how terms are used. In their discussion of the verb ‘to believe’ (Greek verb # 4100 PISTEUO) they consider contexts both in the Bible and in literature preceding and after NT days.  I found these nuanced meanings helpful:

  • to rely on
  • to place one’s confidence in
  • to embrace with joy
  • to make the foundation of your faith

In view of the richer and deeper concept of ‘to believe’ I now make a point to use one of these fresher substitutes. So in lieu of saying: I believe in Jesus, I substitute I rely on Jesus for all my needs.

I used to think many people were Christians when they said with easy confidence, “Oh I believe in God!”

But as I pointed out above, people believe in all sorts of things on a surface or shallow level, some of which are not even real (think – tooth fairies, conspiracy theories and a government that can fix our problems!)

I ask you then, does it matter what we mean by ‘to believe’?  Actually it does matter.  For what we believe and rely on….

Life and death balance

…..determines where you and I are going to spend eternity.

Here’s one example. When Jesus arrived at Mary and Martha’s house after Lazarus had died, Martha berates her friend by postulating that her brother would not have died had he arrived earlier.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

The question then is, does everyone who mouths the words, “I believe in Jesus” receive ‘forever-life’ with God?

Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself by sharing pastor John Piper’s view of belief in Jesus.

“Believing is coming to Jesus to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.”

From his sermon on 10th anniversary of 9/11

So I see belief in Jesus to be a reliance on Him as my constant and never-ending source for every need, desire, joy, anxiety, and problem.  He IS my treasure.  He IS my greatest good.  And His presence is rest and peace.  That is belief.

And what we believe in can actually be what we truly LOVE. I’ll let John Piper have the last word tying the two together:

“So the love of money is virtually the same as faith in money — belief (trust, confidence, assurance) that money will meet your needs and make you happy.”

Question:  What is it that you believe or base your life on?

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