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.’

 

Fighting discontent with prayer

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Father, you who SHOULD be enough, forgive my discontent!

You specifically command us NOT to covet. And I continue to disobey you. Coveting, wanting what I don’t have, is the very opposite of loving you with 100% of my mind. As the sun of summer passes over the yardarm, I find myself internally grumbling and focusing on the countdown to the end of my quiet mornings and longer evenings. As though Jesus’ purchase of eternal life were not enough, my disquieted heart is MORE focused on my dread of going back to school. To the point that:

  • not only am I not reveling in these pristine mountain mornings,
  • but I’m deliberately avoiding your will for me that I rejoice, pray and thank you in every thing.

But you have not left me to fight this by myself. If so, then as Martin Luther so rousingly portrayed:

a mighty fortress

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing

So just how do you propose to help me, Father?  Your word to me in fear and anxiety has always been –  Armor-up, Maria!  Dread, that wicked picturing of a scary future, is simply a different flavor.  (And just as much a violation of your command to count ALL things as joy – whether trial or trove, since they come from You, for my good.)

I thank you, that your word in Ephesians 6 has taught me the following tactic:

  •  we’re to pick a weapon from the arsenal of your Word and fight the fear with spirit-indwelt force.

Here is what you gave me this morning during church and I’m going to make it mine in this battle with discontent:

James 5: 11-12 Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You’ve heard, of course, of Job’s staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That’s because God cares, cares right down to the last detail.

When I personalize your encouragement I find it easier to remember your promise. But I need your Holy Spirit to prompt me, to remind me of your sure pledge each time I’m attacked by those Satan-suggested gloomy pictures of the coming school year.  Then I can substitute your word to me for the fear scenario I’ve assembled.

Just like Job’s assignment was not what he chose, but he stayed under your heavy hand, honoring your name, with your strength I will stay in the seat you have seen fit to assign me this day, this season. In return for his loyalty, you blessed Job more richly than he ever could have pictured. So I will look to my future blessings.  You’re more kind than I can imagine, so just maybe you have woven treasure into what I’m dreading.  But if nothing else, may my sure inheritance in the next life fill me with enduring energy to be faithful to your will.  Help me to savor and daydream about what full fellowship with you, and overflowing joy may be like.   

God, you KNOW that I can’t successful win the battle against fear and dread without your supernatural help. But woe is me if I don’t daily take up the spiritual weapons you’ve handed me and use them throughout the day and night as the enemy lobs in artillery shells of discontent.

In Jesus’ name, whose intercessions I’m counting on, I pray.  Amen!

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!

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