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.’

 

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.

Why we can trust God!

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Romans 8:32 – Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? (NLT)

I read some GREAT news this morning!  And this GREAT news is the means to provide you and me and all believers with the reason why we can trust and rely on God’s promises written in the Bible.  If we have ANY love for the Biblical Jesus (that is NOT a Jesus we have made up to fit our pleasure and needs but as the Bible presents Him), then we have been born from above.  For without the Holy Spirit in us, we can’t see anything attractive in Jesus.

And once we know that we have been born from above, then we are entitled to:

  • the rest and relief that come from being sure…
  • that we belong to God…
  • and have a place in His forever Family…
  • with Jesus as our big brother and protector…
  • and the Supernatural Divine, Holy Spirit as our counselor, comforter, and explainer of God’s Word.

Now here comes what was new to me and very reassuring, clarifying WHY I can trust God to come through on His promises, as recorded in the Bible.

John Piper, in a book about justification as the apostle Paul lays it out in Romans 9, declares that God’s unconditional election of us IS the foundation of the fulfillment of His promises.

All of a sudden, I SAW why I can trust Him when He promises protection and guidance and provision.  It’s the argument from the greater to the lesser.  If He has already chosen me, then, of course, He WILL provide!

2 Cor 1:20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him, the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (NIV)

Do we receive all of them now, in our current state?  No.  But we DO receive ‘a daily allowance ‘of what our good Father knows is necessary for us to live here and now before our Big Brother returns in glory for us.

So dear brothers and sisters in Christ.  Don’t fear.  NONE of what God promises now and later is too good to be true.  Au contraire, our future life with God, our inheritance is far better than we can even imagine!

 

 

My New Year’s Resolution in 2018

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Moses said, “Please show me your glory. – Exodus 33:18

We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2b

Verses like the above have always startled me and caused me to think that some Christians must be VERY different from me.  I don’t even understand what that hope looks like.  Just what is it about God’s glory that others find compelling?

This theme of God’s glory as being something to be VERY happy about has birthed a growing desire to understand just what this glory is.

What tipped this quest into the ‘gotta know NOW’ category was a recent Pastor John Piper’s meditation on glory. John Piper writes about God’s glory.

Reading that, I knew that the only New Year’s resolution I wanted to set for myself was to keep my eyes open as I journey through the Bible again this year, searching for all the mentions of God’s glory.  I mean to write them down in order to grow my understanding and (I hope!) appreciation of this gift our Father holds out to His adopted sons and daughters.

And if I need a compelling example of someone else on the hunt for this kind of intimacy with God, the apostle Paul comes to mind. Beyond question, this former Pharisee had re-oriented his life toward KNOWING God’s glory.  Just read how he encouraged believers in Philippi  (chapter 3, verse 14):

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  

Just what did this formidable evangelist long for that he willfully embraced hardship to hold out this prize to many?  Nothing else but seeing God face to face and experiencing His essence as much as possible.

So what is God’s glory?  In one sentence, I would say that God’s glory is the visible, physical manifestation of His holiness.  It would be akin to describing patriotism as the love of country made manifest in military service, citizen action, political representation, etc.  We can apprehend something of God’s holiness through this observable and usually physical and emotionally OVERWHELMING experience of His glory.  Beyond that, I cannot say.

What am I hoping for?  That my love for the Triune God will warm up and that I’ll long for Him more, so that I can say with all sincerity, “Come Lord Jesus”.

 

A Biblical ‘Rule of Life’ for 2018

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1 John 3:23   And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

As Mike and I reach the end of another year’s journey through God’s Word, I marvel at the theme that reoccurs through many biblical exhortations: Trust God!

One strong message God has directed toward me since this past summer rings: Be still! Know that I am God (Ps 46:10).  To a fault, I de-FAULT to thinking (as opposed to feeling and doing).  As a result, not realizing I lack the necessary data, I run myself ragged like a caged rat wearing grooves on his treadmill.  Round and round I go, trying to think myself toward a solution.  Imploring God for an answer brings me His counter solution, “Give it up, Maria.  Stop!  Lay it aside.  What you need more than an answer is to know who I AM.  That is enough.”

Recognizing that I’m more prone to live inside of my head than to give to others, God is wooing me toward the joy of enjoying ‘doing’ or action.  I’m a reluctant and slow learner, but gradually I am experiencing that He truly knows what is best for me, what will give me authentic joy.

I’ve written about how 16 months ago I finally ‘succumbed’ to joining work colleagues at lunch, to fellowship while sharing our lives.  ‘One day a week I’ll give you, Lord!,’  I had conceded, begrudgingly and guilted by God into abandoning my ‘precious email surfing’  time alone in my room while munching away.  Not ever, ever imagining how much I’d grow to love that ‘lunch bunch’. Or how deprived I would feel on the rare occasion when everyone split off for teacher duties, meetings or one-off reasons.  “What? eat alone in my room?”  And that had been my hoarded and cultivated custom in the 24 previous years of teaching.

God is patient.  Far more so than we are with ourselves or with families and friends.  This past season He has led me deeper into stepping outside of my self-centered mindset to GIVE (His nature) to others.  For example, a new pattern has fallen into place – that of scheduling one Sunday afternoon catch-up phone call a week.

And I have learned to accept that if I don’t ‘GET to’ all my curated podcasts or reading I have chosen in a day, then what He allows for IS enough.  I’m just not wise enough to know what is best for me.  That is the relief of resting in God’s sovereignty.

So, what about 1 John 3:23?  The apostle John, through God’s divine Spirit, sums up what it is to abide in Christ.  I like it.  I can hold on to it.  And by God’s grace, I can start afresh each morning to practice it:

  • Trust Jesus:  what He has done for me through His blood, what He promises me in the future grace He purchased for me (thank you, Pastor John Piper!), and in the Life (that grace-filled, nourishing sap) with which He feeds me moment by moment as I consciously stay connected to Jesus.
  • Look outward and see who needs what, and after consulting with my special Advisor, move toward him/her/them to offer what I have.  That is called Love.

Pay off?  1 John 3:24 reassures me with this Word of Truth: Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. 

I get it!  And praise our good Father, He is growing IN me, slowly but surely, a desire both to trust Him with all my unresolved issues, problems, questions, and VERY messy situations, while I go about His business of loving others in the strength He supplies.

I never expected the simplicity and relief of this liberty.

 

Slow reading – best birthday gift ever!

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The birthday present arrived 3 months late, making it VERY special.  I could tell the wrappings contained a heavy book.  “Aah, what could be better than a book from a kindred sister!”  Regina had gifted me with what turned out to be a 37-month course in Puritan thought.  I had no idea how long it would take to read through all 1265 pages when, in October 2014, I opened up William Gurnall’s collection of sermons on spiritual warfare.

Never having heard of William Gurnall, I found out online that this 17th-century English pastor preached biblically-rich sermons that have fed many a pastor and layperson since.   When I ponder the time this dear man invested in writing out each sermon, dipping his quill every couple of words into his inkwell to continue, I marvel.

Through his preaching listeners then and readers today have taken to heart what God reveals in the Bible about the nature of fragile, sinful, and blood-bought Christians and the need to be fortified against the very real dangers of sin and spiritual attack.  These exhortations have stood the test of time, for nothing in human nature has changed since the 1650s and 60s.

Gurnall Book.png (see Wikipedia info at end of post)

How has my journey with Gurnall changed me?  Taking nothing away from the content, I would say that I have developed the very enjoyable habit of SLOW READING.

Living within an hour of Asheville, North Carolina where SLOW COOKING/EATING reigns, it’s not a long stretch to picture slow reading.  This book delighted me and soon I accepted the gift it presented: to savor and take notes from each column and page.

The very language of Gurnall’s writing enthralled me.  Only 6 or 7 decades past the time of Shakespeare, the sentences evoke very different word pictures through the use of what we would call ‘old English’ and Latin.  I found myself eagerly looking up English words I did not know, as well as Latin phrases.

And, my French teacher-self was gratified as I recognized the plethora of French words apparently accepted in everyday parlance in 17th-century England. (puissant or powerful comes to mind).

I took notes as I read.  And I only nibbled on Gurnall weekends and summer mornings when I was home.  Hence, my 37-month trip with this pastor!

I will give you one tidbit from Gurnall that I formulated into a prayer for myself:

  • As Gurnall teaches – not only must I keep killing the pride and the anxieties and the resentments that pop up daily in order to maintain and grow my holiness, which is a source of godly strength and way to see and savor God more and enjoy him. – but I must work to grow the counter qualities. That is – humility, trust/reliance on Him and rejoicing and being glad in each hourly circumstance that God brings since I KNOW that this very circumstance is what He thinks is good for me.
    Help me, Lord!

So what is next?  – a book written in the early 1980s by my favorite pastor to listen to and read.  John Piper spent an 8-month sabbatical thinking about, studying and then writing a book on Romans 9:1-23 entitled The Justification of God.   I settled in with Piper this past weekend, pen and paper in hand.

What about you?  Have you discovered the joy of slow reading?  If you start with William Gurnall, not only will you develop an effective antidote to the unfortunate decline of your attention span due to current technology, but you will be spiritually fortified as well.

**

Per Wikipedia – “Gurnall is known by his Christian in Complete Armour, published in three volumes, dated 1655, 1658 and 1662. It consists of sermons or lectures delivered by the author in the course of his regular ministry, in a consecutive course on Ephesians 6: 10–20. It is described as a magazine whence the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armor, and taught the use of his weapon; together with the happy issue of the whole war. It is thus considered a classic on spiritual warfare. The work is more practical than theological; and its quaint fancy, graphic and pointed style, and its fervent religious tone render it still popular with some readers. Richard Baxter and John Flavel both thought highly of the book. Toplady used to make copious extracts from it in his common-place book. John Newton, the converted slave trader, said that if he were confined to one book beside the Bible, he’d choose Christian Armour. Richard Cecil spent many of the last days of his life in reading it, and repeatedly expressed his admiration of it. Charles Haddon Spurgeon commented that Gurnall’s work is “peerless and priceless; every line full of wisdom. The book has been preached over scores of times and is, in our judgment, the best thought-breeder in all our library.”

 

A Rule of Life

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I feel blah, relishing nothing in the future.  It’s a Friday night, on the cusp of summer and 9 weeks off from school.  My mind thinks about upcoming trips.  I should be excited.  I’ll be with family; there’s even a 5-day cruise in my future.  But nothing stirs.

I finish dinner.  It tasted good! But it’s over.  I briefly ponder the merits of having some chocolate with me tea.  Maybe that’ll make my unhappiness and blah-ness go away.

But I don’t indulge and the next morning I’m glad.  The dessert would not have made me content in the long run.

I go to bed before too long, for even my book doesn’t satisfy.  My husband checks in with me a couple of times, ‘You okay?’  He cares, but I rather not go into it then.  After all, he has his ‘Ecclesiastes Moments’ too, when, as penned by Solomon, nothing under the sun satisfies any more.

The next morning, Saturday, I start my morning with a John Piper archived sermon.  He’s preaching from Isaiah 58: 8-11 about how a certain kind of fasting brightens your day.

“Then shall your light break forth like the dawnand your healing shall spring up speedily; if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”

That’s the kind of light and satisfaction I yearn for!

There’s time for one more sermon as I exercise and I listen to John Piper in a current commencement address at Boyce college talk about ‘Sacred Schizophrenia.  Truth marinates as I finish up my exercise routine.  I settle in with a cup of hot coffee and open up God’s Word to read today’s assigned chapters according to the Chronological Reading Plan Mike and I follow.   

One foray into Scripture leads to another and I come upon Jesus’ harsh words to Peter that seem to reinforce Piper’s call to deal harshly with the unholy self (one of the two selves living in a kind of schizo struggle).  He corrects his outspoken disciple, Peter, admonishing him to move his mind OFF of man-centered priorities and onto what matters to God.  Matthew records what follows like this: 

Then Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Matt 16: 24-25

I’ve always shied away from the idea of denying myself.  After all, I’m an arch hoarder of time, of energy.

But I’m feeling empty….maybe that’s where fencing off daily time and space for myself has gotten me. Bankrupt and unsatisfied.

Turning 60 this year has stimulated a lot of this kind of self-reflection.  In my 20s, 30s and early 40s, I was busy with children and work.  And then our sons left home for college, work and marriage and I had time to think.  A lot.  Mike has gone through this soul reflection as well.  The kind of wondering ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’.  Looking at others rushing to and fro and asking: ‘What is any of this for, any way?’

But this morning, I see a glimmer.  Piper says that once we have been born again, we have a new self.  But the facts are like this:  our old man is continually at war with our new man until the day we die.  This old man is a liar, as are Satan and the world.  But God doesn’t leave us clueless and alone.  Thankfully, He points us to what will TRULY satisfy, every time.  Speaking through the prophet Isaiah and then in Jesus’ words to His disciples, He instructs:

Only by putting to death the desires prompted by the old man and giving to those who are hungry and oppressed and naked will we find a life, daily, which satisfies.

So what does that look like, practically, when I’m on the cruise this summer, at my mother-in-law’s for a week, at home this summer, in my classroom?

Solomon has the last word and I find the peace that I need from Eccl 2: 24-26

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness,

From Matthew and Isaiah I have already seen what pleases God:  

  • when someone hungry crosses my path, I can offer food in the form of a listening, sympathetic ear, some of God’s Word and a prayer right then and there when appropriate

But it starts with a daily re-commitment to suffer with Christ as necessary, to deny my old worldly self that hoards time and energy and a willingness to travel this day WITH Jesus, depending on Him to guide and supply and protect me.

And that’s not all.  God intends for me to also enjoy the simple pleasures of every day life, eating, drinking and working.  These are, indeed, gifts from God TO me.  When I do them acknowledging His goodness, I bring glory to God.

Later on during the day while we hike, I share with Mike what He has revealed. Already light has dawned.  I HAVE a mandate of how to live, a new rule of life.  I know what to do at each stage, whether now, almost 60 or at age 93 and in assisted living!  The burden and gloom have lifted. I revel in the beauty of the day and how good it feels to move my body and be with the man whom I love.

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