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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

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A number of weeks ago I saw an article entitled, “The coronavirus pandemic is making earth vibrate less.” (CNN April 2013, by Harmeet Kaur). It talked about how since people were staying home and not using cars, trains and buses, that seismologists were noticing that the earth’s upper crust was actually moving less. I thought that it was very interesting that human activity can have this kind of effect on the earth, that we make it shake! But I also thought that in a way the earth is moving and shaking much more than I have ever seen it shake before. This is the kind of –

Shaking

– that Psalm 46:1-3 speaks of when it says – “1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

This kind of shaking has to do with events that happen that leave us stunned or even traumatized. When life changes in ways that we never imagined. When things happen that we thought never would.

And that’s exactly what has happened because of the coronavirus pandemic. Under the stay at home order almost everything has come to a screeching halt.

  • Large cities seem deserted. Even around here, as I drove to work in mid-March through April (I work in an isolated office) there was hardly any traffic on the streets. It’s like something from a post-apocalyptic movie.
  • Businesses are closed.
  • Schools have closed during the school year.
  • Sporting events are shut down.
  • Churches have stopped meeting.

And life has changed. We have to social distance. We have to wear masks. When I drove down to Georgia in April to care for my father, I actually had to check to see if there were curfews or mandatory quarantines that would stop me from getting there.

Life has changed. Many have lost jobs. And for those who have jobs things are very different with many working from home. Many are lonely now, not being able to be with friends and family. Some are experiencing mental health issues that are heightened by the stresses of this situation. Something as simple as getting groceries is a far different experience than it was just a few months ago, as is also getting food from a restaurant.

The world economy has been devastated. And, of course, underlying all of this many have become sick or have lost their lives.

Such unprecedented change. And it came on us so quickly. It can leave us feeling dazed. It seems like the very earth under our feet has crumbled and our stability and equilibrium is gone. And the deep waters are raging all around us, as Psalm 46 pictures.

The question I’m asking is –

What is God’s purpose in all this?

Let’s turn to Hebrews 12:26-29. This is a passage that talks about God shaking things and so let’s see what we can learn about God’s purpose in shaking things.

 26At that time his (the Lord’s) voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

The writer begins with a reference to the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:18. This verse says, “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” So, when God gave the ten commandments, God shook the earth.

Next he refers to Haggai 2:6 with the phrase that begins, “yet once more . ..” This passage is taken to refer to the final judgment. And in this case God will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens.

Hebrews 12:27 is the writer’s exposition of Haggai 2:6 –

27This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken – that is, things that have been made – in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.

So, on the final day God will shake all of creation; all that God has made; heaven and earth.

And this shaking will be a kind of sorting process whereby anything that can be shaken – the old creation – will be removed. It will be no more. And only those things that cannot be shaken will remain – a reference to the new creation.

Scripture talks about this coming event in several places. For instance in Isaiah 65:17 the Lord says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” And Isaiah 66:22 seems to be in the writer’s mind, because it says, “the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me.” The same key word and idea.

28Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29for our God is a consuming fire.

So yes, anything in this old creation, the world that we currently live in, can be shaken. But God and God’s kingdom (or new creation) cannot be shaken. God and his new creation will remain forever.

I wanted us to look at these verses because we learn here what God is up to when he allows us to be shaken. God uses shaking to show us what is ultimate and eternal – and what is not. To rephrase the last part of Hebrews 12:27, God uses shaking “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may” – it says “remain.” But since we’re not yet at the final judgment we can insert “be seen” or “revealed to us.”

When things are shaken we are enabled to see the difference between what is temporary and what is eternal. We are enabled to see the difference between what has to do with this earthly life and what has to do with God’s kingdom.

Now in the examples in Hebrews God is the one doing the shaking – in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai and on the final day. With regard to the pandemic I cannot say that God is directly causing it. But I can say that God has allowed it, because its happening. God has allowed us to be shaken as individuals and as a people. And, as we know, whatever God allows God will use for God’s own purposes and even for our good, as Romans 8:28 teaches us.

So since this is so, let me end with what I see as –

The message for us

– in all of this. Because of the pandemic we are reminded in a big way that 1. Anything in this world can be shaken. Things do not always stay the same; there are no guarantees.

Whether it’s:

  • our daily routines of life
  • our jobs and career path
  • our health
  • our earthly relationships
  • our life goals and plans for the future

All the things that we take for granted and so often give us a sense of comfort and stability – all these can change so quickly and even disappear. So this shaking shows us that they are not ultimate or eternal. This is the sorting or revealing process I’ve been talking about. The pandemic makes this clear to us.

2. We shouldn’t be overly focused on or attached to these earthly things. All of the things I’ve mentioned – jobs, plans, earthly relationships, comfortable routines, health – they are all good things, even blessings of God.

But like with all created things we can turn them into idols that we put in place of God. We become overly devoted to them; excessively absorbed with them. We orient our lives around them. We live our lives for these things and not for God. We can get so caught up in these things that 20 years pass by without a thought. It’s like where did my life go?

What I’m saying is that we can love them more than God, or instead of God. And the shaking that’s going on can reveal this to us. It can be a wake up call. It can give us an opportunity to make some hard choices to rightly order our lives once again – or maybe for the first time.

So let’s not just rush ahead to try to get through the pain and suffering of this shaking. There is pain and suffering. But in the midst of the shaking:

  • Let God challenge you.
  • Let God sort through some things in your heart and life.
  • Let God reveal some things to you about where your true loves are. 

And then finally, 3. We should supremely be focused on and love what cannot be shaken. As Christians we know God. And in the words of Hebrews 12:28, “we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” We have this now! The world doesn’t have this. But we do. And this should be the foundation and center of our lives.

And that we have what is unshakeable in our lives should lead us to praise God. As Hebrews 12:28 also says, “thus (since this is so) let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”

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   Many are suffering right now because of the coronavirus pandemic. It may be due to the disruption of our normal life patterns and relationships, or economic distress and even the potential of financial ruin. We may be grieving for lost loved ones, or we ourselves may be sick and fearful of whether we will live or not. As I write the global death toll is approaching 100,000. 

   These experiences of suffering are, of course, not new. Such suffering goes on all around us. The global scope and near simultaneous experience of this situation, however, is unique.

   Whenever we endure suffering we need others to love and care for us; a network of good and strong relationships around us. We also need categories to think about our experiences; to help us process and sort through what’s going on. How are we to think about all this? And what’s a Christian way of understanding our suffering? The following are some reflections on this topic. And we start with –

Some basics

   Yes, the world is broken. It doesn’t function the way God originally intended and so there are things like sickness, plague and death. It’s broken because of human sin. Passages like Genesis 3 and Romans 5:12 highlight the connection between sin, suffering and death. And sin doesn’t just affect us as individuals. It impacts everything including social structures and, in our case, the creation itself.

   In Romans 8:20-22 Paul says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Not just people suffer, even the creation is groaning under the effects of sin and is eagerly waiting for God’s salvation.

   As Christians we have hope. And that’s because suffering is not a necessary part of God’s creation. When God’s kingdom comes to earth all things will be made new (Matthew 19:28). There will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1; 2 Peter 3:13). This is when “God will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” (Revelation 21:4. Also Isaiah 25:6-8). We look forward to this in hope.

   But until that time, we live in the tension of the “already” and “not yet.” Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God has begun with his coming (Matthew 12:28; Luke 17:20-21). But it’s not all the way here yet. That won’t happen until he returns.

   So we exist in an in-between time. We live in the “already” of the kingdom where God has begun to make things right. This was evidenced in Jesus’ ministry of healing, nature miracles and exorcisms. And is still evidenced today when God answers prayer to heal and help those who suffer.

   But we also live in the “not yet” of the kingdom. As Paul says to Christians in 1 Corinthians 10:13, we still go through the same testing and trials that are “common to everyone” (NRSV). That’s because Jesus hasn’t returned. The resurrection and complete redemption of our bodies has not yet happened. And Satan is still alive and active. So we still experience the realities of sin, suffering and death. Although these realities have been decisively defeated through Jesus, we will not experience the fullness of this victory until the final day.

   In the meantime, we have –

Questions upon questions

   We turn to these now. 1. Should I assume I’m suffering because of my personal choices? You know, “Is God judging me for something I’ve done?” The answer is, “No, you should not assume this.” This is not to say that there can’t be a connection. God can specifically cause suffering in relation to our choices to sin. For instance in Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. (See also 1 Corinthians 11:29-32).

   But the idea that every time I suffer it’s because God is punishing me for something I’ve done is just not the way the world works in its brokenness. Scripture makes this clear. The wicked prosper (Psalm 73:3-5) and the righteous suffer. Job suffered, but not because of sin (Job 1:8). And Jesus suffered, but was sinless. This shows us that there is no one-to-one connection between a person’s sin and consequences in this world. So short of God making a connection clear to us, we should not assume that our suffering means God is specifically judging us.

2. Is it God’s will for the world to suffer through this pandemic? As I said, God does sometimes directly intervene to judge sin in this world. So is that what’s going on? Well, since it’s happening, we can say for sure that God has allowed it. God is the sovereign creator and overseer of all things. But that God allows something doesn’t mean that God specifically caused it. Not everything that happens in the world is an expression of God’s preferred will (Acts 7:51; Ezekiel 18:31-32; Isaiah 63:10; Luke 7:30).

   So like with question #1, short of God telling us this is God’s own work, perhaps through trusted messengers, we should not assume that God is causing this pandemic. We’re simply experiencing, yet again, the current brokenness of the creation.

3. Why did God make the world in such a way that we could mess things up so badly? If human sin causes such pain and suffering, why did God take such a risk? Simply put, God wants us to freely choose to love and serve him. God doesn’t want robots as servants. God wants people, made in God’s image, who will be his partners in his plans for the creation. And this can’t happen without allowing the possibility of our choosing to hate and rebel against him, which we have done. The possibility of love, even in human relationships, involves the risk of suffering.

4. Is all the suffering worth it? According to Scripture, it will be. That’s because our suffering is temporary, but our blessings will be much greater and eternal. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “. . . no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Paul, a man who knew about suffering, said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18. Also 2 Corinthians 4:17)

   This doesn’t take away the pain of our current suffering, but it does give us comfort and encouragement.

5. Can God bring good out of our suffering? Scripture talks about this quite a lot (James 1:3-4, Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:10-11). For instance, Joseph was sold into slavery and was also put in jail. But God used his suffering for good. As Joseph said to his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). Also, Paul’s life was in danger due to persecution, but God used this experience to teach him to “rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).

   Although it was not God’s will that we choose sin and thus suffer, God can nevertheless accomplish his plan by using our suffering for his own ends. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God can redeem and transform our pain and suffering to bring good into our lives and into the lives of others.

   This also doesn’t take away the pain of our suffering, but it encourages us to endure and to keep moving forward.

6. Can we show how God brings good out of every example of suffering (question #5) and that it will be worth it (question #4)? No, we cannot. We say this all by faith. We are simply not in a position to know how God orchestrates everything and why God allows things like pandemics.

   This, in part, is what the book of Job teaches us about suffering. It never tells us why Job suffered. It simply teaches us that God is in control and that what he does is beyond human understanding. As the Lord says to Job in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” We will not understand why and how God does all that God does, at least in this life. And so we have to trust God in all this. We have to trust that the God we know to be just and merciful is doing what is right and good.

7. Where is God when we suffer? God is with us in our suffering. It doesn’t always feel like this is so. It can seem like God is absent. As the psalmist says in Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

   Yet we are taught that God is with us. As the Lord says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God is with us to watch over us, to encourage us, to comfort us and to strengthen us.

   And not only this, God has come to be with us through his Son. He sent him to this earth, whose name is Immanuel or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God did not stand far off and aloof from us. Jesus suffered with us and for us in his life and in his death on the cross. God knows first-hand what we’re going through.

   God has not left us alone. He is with us as we experience the pain of suffering. And he suffers with us, until that day when all things will be made new.

   A final thought –

We can have joy even while we suffer

   Even though we will continue to suffer in various ways, Christians can experience victory in the midst of it. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

   A part of this victory is the experience of joy even while we suffer. We can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4. Also Romans 5:3-5). We can also have joy because, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” We can “rejoice and be glad, for (our) reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). There is a new world coming and we have a part in it.

   We can have joy because, even though we cannot always understand our suffering or explain it, by faith we know that God is working in our lives and we know that God’s promises are true.

William Higgins

April 9, 2020

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We’re finishing up our series on Christians and suffering today. Last time we looked at three kinds of suffering we go through as Christians.

  • First, there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes from living in a fallen and sinful world – sickness, brokenness, tragedies and death.
  • Second there’s the lowliness and suffering we freely choose, in that we lower ourselves to love and serve others.
  • And finally there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes our way because of our connection to Jesus – rejection and persecution.

Anytime we go through these kinds of suffering it unleashes a struggle within us. Will we remain faithful to God? Will we take the easy way out of the test? Will we lay down our cross to find relief?

This struggle is a part of what I’m calling the inner cross. And my message today is this – the secret to being victorious in our times of suffering is to overcome by the Spirit in the realm of the inner cross.

First we look at –

Jesus’ inner cross: Mark 14:32-42

When Jesus faced his greatest trial – the cross – he experienced the inner turmoil of it all. Jesus was fully human and as he said to the disciples about humanity, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

Mark tells us, “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus doesn’t want to die, and certainly not the shameful death of a criminal or blasphemer on a cross (Hebrew 12:2).

Three times he prayed for deliverance. This, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to go to the cross. (He told his disciples this three times – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). But this is a final discernment. Is there not some other way, God? “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:35-36). (See also Hebrews 5:7-8)

During these times of prayer he received help from the Spirit. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The word “willing” can also be translated as “eager to be of service” or “ready.”

We see the evidence of the Spirit’s enablement in two ways: 1) Jesus prayed, “not what I will, but what you (Father God) will” (Mark 14:36). He submits his heart to the Father. And then 2) He rose up from prayer to do God’s will. He said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:41-42). And he then went to the cross.

By the power of the Spirit Jesus crucified his human desire to live and be honored. He denied himself and took up his cross (Mark 8:34). He received strength to endure arrest, slander, shame, torture, crucifixion and death.

So there’s a death within before there’s a death without. He finds victory by the Spirit at Gethsemane, which allows him to find victory in his circumstances of suffering at Golgotha.

Paul’s teaching on the inner cross – Romans 8:1-17

There are several points of contact between Paul’s teaching here and the story we’ve just looked at. Paul seems to have Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in the background as he teaches. 1) There’s the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). 2) He talks about prayer to “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). 3) There’s a theme of suffering (Romans 8:17; also 18-39). 4) And he highlights how the Spirit enables us to overcome (Romans 8:3-4, 13). We’ll focus on this last theme.

Because Jesus suffered for us and overcame, we receive the benefits of God’s salvation. After presenting in Romans 7 the futility of trying to obey God from the heart without the Spirit, Paul describes this salvation. We are forgiven – “there is now no more condemnation” (Romans 8:1). And we receive the Spirit of God into our lives (Romans 8:9, 15-16).

And because of our new relationship with God and the presence of the Spirit within in us we are enabled to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). We are empowered to do God’s will. And we can do this because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

More specifically, we are enabled to crucify the desires of the flesh by the SpiritPaul says, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13).

Paul is saying here that by the power of the Spirit within us, we are strengthened to be able to crucify our own desires that oppose God’s way. “By the Spirit we put to death” these desires and thus any deeds that would come from these desires. As he says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Again, the Spirit is key. And again the inner cross – putting to death our wrong desires by the Spirit – is the key to walking faithfully before God in our times of suffering.

Let’s look at –

How this works

When we’re in a time of testing and suffering, and we’ve discerned that it’s God’s will for us to go through this, and we’re struggling within – so that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), like Jesus – we can call out to God our Father for help.

And in prayer we can receive encouragement and strength from the Spirit. Without the Spirit we would easily cave in. The desires of our flesh want to avoid suffering. The flesh wants the easy way out, it wants comfort and security. Or it leads us to just give up.

But the Spirit strengthens us to say no to the desires of our flesh. And when we say no a crucifixion takes place. There’s a death within to our own desires, so that we don’t act on these unfaithful desires of our flesh. By the Spirit we put them to death (Colossians 3:5). Our “old person” (Romans 6:6) dies a little bit more. This is the inner cross.

Also, there’s a resurrection within. The new person God is creating us to be is strengthened to walk in the path God has for us. We are raised to new life within so that we can walk in newness of life without.

Just as Jesus had to gain the victory at Gethsemane before he could gain the victory at Golgotha, so it is with us. We must prevail in the realm of the inner cross by the Spirit, before we will prevail in our lowliness and suffering.

Let me end with –

A word of encouragement

 1. We’ve been given all that we need to overcome by God’s grace. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We’re not left to our own resources. We rely on God’s Spirit and power. As Paul says in talking about suffering, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – Romans 8:37.

2. Even if we fail, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s true, as James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We will not always respond correctly to our times of trials and cross bearing. But as 1 John 1:9 teaches, //“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And then we can move forward again by God’s grace.

3. God will come through on his promises. As we’ve seen, the faithful will be exalted and blessed (Matthew 23:12, Luke 6:20-26, Mark 8:35). As Romans 8:17 says, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

On the day of the great reversal, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will inherit the blessings of the kingdom and we will be lifted up by God to receive honor and glory.

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If one way of thinking about and processing our suffering is to see it as testing, which we’ve talked about, today we look at another way of framing it – our suffering as a cross. As we saw last time, Jesus calls every believer to take up their cross and follow him. And a cross involves lowliness and suffering. Today we go into more detail, starting with –

The three stages of the way of the cross – Philippians 2:6-11

The first two stages have to do with our downward movement. In Stage 1: We lower ourselves to love and serve others. Here the lowliness and suffering is freely chosen.

We not only experience the suffering of living in a fallen, broken world, we lower ourselves further. We choose to give up our privileges and rights, and use whatever gifts and strengths we have to love and serve others. We deny ourselves and lay down our lives for others to meet their needs and lift them up (Mark 8:34; 1 John 3:16-17). To follow Jesus in this way can bring great joy, but it will also involve loss, pain and suffering.

Let’s look at the example of Jesus: He set aside his glory at the right hand of the Father to come into our world to love and serve us. Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7 – “. . . though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . ..” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . ..”

When he walked this earth he bore our troubles and burdens (Matthew 8:17; 17:17), he suffered through conflict, long hours of ministry work and stress to serve us (Mark 3:20). He was even betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. He laid down his life for us in all these ways (John 10:11; 1 John 3:16; Mark 10:45). And he did this without the honor that was due him as God’s Son, or often without any appreciation or thanks.

Jesus knew what it was like to be lowly and suffer because of his love and service to others.

In Stage 2: We lower ourselves to accept rejection and persecution. We don’t seek this kind of suffering, it finds us. We’re mistreated by others because of our connection and service to Jesus. This can involve ridicule, shame, insults, exclusion and even death (Luke 6:22). This takes us even lower.

Here’s the example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He accepted mockery, dishonor and torture. He also suffered within, saying in Gethsemane “my soul is sorrowful, even to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). He literally took up his cross and died on it (Mark 8:34-35). He was faithful unto death.

Jesus knew what it was like to suffer rejection and persecution and to go as low as one can go.

In Stage 3: God lifts us up. If we’re faithful in the first two stages of the way of the cross – we will experience the great reversal. God will intervene to exalt and bless us. This is how the kingdom of God works.

The example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The “therefore” that begins these verses has to do with Jesus’ faithfulness in lowering himself in the first two stages of the cross. Because he did this, God has exalted and blessed him.

Hebrews 12:2 says of Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him (he) endured the cross, despising the shame.” But then it goes on to say, “and (he) is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” He lowered himself and suffered. But God vindicated and exalted him.

Now this will most definitely happen for us when Jesus returns. But it can also happen even in this life as God blesses us and lifts us up in various ways. But these experiences are only a small taste compared to what’s to come – when we experience the fullness of the power, honor, wealth and well-being that awaits us.

Next, we look at –

Two questions

– that, I think, are pretty important. 1. Is our suffering just like Jesus’? Well, his suffering is certainly an example to us and an encouragement for us (Hebrews 12:3). As we just saw, if we remain faithful we too will be blessed by God.

But his suffering is also different than ours. His suffering and death on the cross is what provides for our salvation. Our suffering can be used by God, but it doesn’t save us or anyone else. It is, rather, the proper expression of our faith, lived out in deeds. It’s not about us becoming Jesus the savior, it’s about us taking up our cross and following after Jesus the savior (Mark 8:34).

2. What about the suffering of living in a broken world? Here the suffering is what comes to everyone; the trials that are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). This includes sickness, disabilities, tragic accidents – among so many other things.

Jesus himself said that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34); and he’s talking here about everyday life stresses like obtaining food and clothing. And Jesus experienced this kind of suffering. His step-father Joseph died, apparently when he was a child. And he lived in a land that was poor and under the oppressive rule of Rome.

Although this lowliness and suffering is not due to our faith, as Christians we understand that there will be no more tears, no more death and a new creation in the end, because Jesus overcame this on the cross. The solution to all suffering is the cross.

And as Christians we should see the suffering of living in a broken world that we experience in cruciform terms. Paul does this while referencing our general human lowliness and weakness in several places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9) including his own lack of bodily strength and skill in public speaking (2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). So although this kind of suffering isn’t unique to Christians, we view it and respond to it as a part of the way of the cross. Which is what we turn to now.

Viewing our suffering through the lens of a cross

There are many things we can do to find comfort, help and strength when we suffer. But here we’re looking at key aspects of a fundamental attitude or approach to our suffering.

1. Freely accept your suffering, whether it’s suffering that comes from our love and service to others, or from rejection and persecution, or from living in a fallen world.

Yes, pray for deliverance from suffering (Matthew 6:13, Philippians 1:19). Yes, use the means God makes available to you to overcome suffering, for instance treatment if you’re not well (1 Timothy 5:23). Yes, pray for healing. God loves to heal and he does so to glorify his name and to have mercy on us. Yes, if you can escape from persecution you are free to do so (Matthew 10:23).

And as we learn from the examples of Jesus and Paul we can even press God three times on a matter before we accept it. Jesus prayed three times to be spared the cross (Mark 14:32-42). Paul prayed three times to be spared his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But once God said no three times, they accepted their suffering – without bitterness – and lived into it as God’s choice for them.

In the same way once we know that God wants us to go through this suffering, at least for a time, accept it and move forward knowing that God is in it.

2. In faith endure suffering knowing that it’s not the last word. It’s something we go through for now, but there’s an end and there’s great blessing in the end.

Hebrew 12:2 says, “for the joy that was set before him (Jesus) endured the cross.” The joy set before him was what was on the other side of the suffering – resurrection and blessing. In the same way Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

As we saw in the three stages of the cross, after our lowliness and suffering comes resurrection and blessing. And God will come through for us just as he did for Jesus:

  • The lowly will be exalted (Matthew 23:12)
  • Those who suffer for the sake of the kingdom will be blessed (Luke 6:20-26)
  • and whoever loses their life for Jesus will truly gain their life for the world to come (Mark 8:35).

So we ought not give up no matter the pain of our suffering. Because of God’s promises we know that suffering is not the last word and so we can have hope in the midst of our suffering.

3. Our suffering helps bring about the kingdom of God. God used Jesus’ cross suffering to establish the kingdom; the great reversal. Because the powers of evil, both spiritual and human, the same ones who preside over this broken world that we suffer in – because they killed an innocent Jesus, they are judged and brought down, while he is saved, vindicated and raised up.

In the same way, although our suffering doesn’t establish our salvation, we participate in this process that Jesus has begun of bringing down the powers of evil and advancing the kingdom, until this is completed with Jesus’ return. God uses us and our suffering to advance the kingdom of God, which puts a new light on what we go through.

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Notice he’s not just saying there will be a reversal. He’s saying that God will use us to help bring about the great reversal; “to shame” and “bring to nothing” the powers of evil. God uses our lowliness and suffering to advance his kingdom.

Seeing our suffering through the lens of the cross gives us a different perspective on our suffering, and one that can sustain us to endure in the midst of it.

 

 

 

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Of all things Jesus used a cross to talk about following him. A cross was used for killing criminals. A cross involved great suffering; it was an excruciatingly painful way to die. And to die on a cross was shameful. Only the lowest died this way, naked, on full display to the public. He used a cross in order to communicate a key truth about Christianity – suffering and following Jesus go together.

Jesus had to take the way of the cross – lowliness, suffering and death before God raised him up and blessed him. And the same is true for us.

This comes out clearly at a crucial transition in the center of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 8. Jesus is rightly acknowledged as the Messiah (8:29). And so he immediately begins to teach his disciples what kind of Messiah he is. And he’s clear that he takes the lowly way of suffering and is about to die on a cross (8:31).

But Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32). This can’t be right! Peter was “seeing things merely from a human point of view” (8:33 NLT). He wanted a victorious Messiah reigning in worldly power in great pomp and circumstance.

And later James and John, the rest of Jesus’ inner circle, showed they were in the same place. In chapter 10 they saw the Messiah as one who is served, not one who serves; as one who lords it over others, not one who lays down his life (10:42-45). And they wanted the two highest seats next to Jesus in his earthly glory.

All three of Jesus’ closest disciples had their hearts set, not on the way of the cross – but on what we can call – the way of glory. The way of glory emphasizes this world and what it has to offer. It’s about moving up and gaining what you can of power, honor, wealth and comfort.

But not only did Jesus take the way of the cross, he calls any who follow him to do the same. As he said after rebuking Peter, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life of lowliness, self-denial and suffering is our model. Just as Jesus’ life was cruciform, our lives are to be cross shaped as well; marked by lowliness, self-denial and suffering. Suffering and following Jesus go together.

Now, our Christian lives are not just about suffering. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about –

Three types of Christianity

 Before I noted the ‘already – not yet’ character of the kingdom of God; how God’s salvation has come – but it’s not yet all the way here. This idea helps us to spell out these three types.

1. “Not yet” Christianity. In this view our current lives are only about lowliness and suffering. God gives us the grace of his forgiveness, but little changes in us, nor does God work through us in powerful ways. (This view minimizes discipleship because we are not really able to follow Jesus.)

On the “already – not yet” scale, there’s very little of the kingdom here now and almost everything is yet to come. This is, I believe, an anemic form of Christianity.

And then there’s 2. “Already” Christianity. God’s kingdom has come in power; it’s here, except for the resurrection. And the kingdom is not about suffering but about earthly power, honor, wealth and comfort.It includes these things now.

On the “already – not yet” scale, almost all of the kingdom is here now and only a little is yet to come. This is a Christianity of glory.

  • The “super apostles” who boasted of their pedigree and gifts and exalted themselves over others are an example of this view (2 Corinthians 10-12).
  • Another example is when Christians seek to run the world now through the State and politics, as if their nation was the kingdom of God. Jesus will rule the world, but not until he returns. (This view minimizes discipleship because we have to have a low enough ethic to run the world, which involves an eye for an eye.)
  • Another illustration is when Christians teach that Jesus is the one who gives us the ‘American dream.’ God wants us to always have health and wealth here and now.

Instead of lowliness, this emphasizes being lifted up now.

If the first view overemphasizes our current lowliness and suffering, and the second overemphasizes our current freedom from lowliness and suffering, the final view presents the right balance.

3. “Already and not yet” ChristianityYes, this life will have its share of lowliness and suffering, because suffering and following Jesus go together. But it’s also true that the Spirit is working in and through us in powerful ways to make the kingdom real now. Yes, this life is not where we should seek out power, honor, wealth and comfort, but God gives us victory in all things.

On the “already – not yet” scale, this is in the middle. Much of the kingdom is here, but much is yet to come for sure. And just to be clear, what I’m saying is that this is New Testament Christianity.

Jesus is our model right? He calls us to follow him. And no one was more lowly or suffered like Jesus. But also no one was as full of the power of the Spirit to do great things for the kingdom as he.

We have to understand that lowliness and suffering, and the power of the Spirit go hand in hand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure (the kingdom or the presence of the Spirit) in jars of clay (our weak, broken bodies), to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Here we see weakness and surpassing power together in us at the same time. God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace (in lowliness and suffering) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is weakness and there is God’s power in our lives, not one or the other.

The fullness of power, honor, wealth and well-being come when the fullness of the kingdom comes. And it comes from God, not people. And it comes precisely to those who are now lowly, deny themselves and suffer for the kingdom. (This view maximizes discipleship. We are called to take up our cross and the Spirit empowers us to do just this. Lowliness and power are held in balance.)

Jesus talks in several places about how –

A great reversal is coming

Those who are high and exalted now, will be lowered and those who are low now, will be exalted. For instance in Matthew 23:12 he says – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who lift themselves up seeking power, honor, wealth and comfort will be humbled, that is, God will bring them low. But whoever is lowly now for the sake of the kingdom, God will lift up on that day.

This reversal is stated in very stark terms in the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-26. Just to take one example, Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God.”(v. 20). And“woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (v. 24) Jesus tells us that those who compromise their faith to seek wealth (and also food, entertainment and reputation) will not enter the kingdom. But those who are lowly and suffer for faithfulness to the kingdom, that is, they experience poverty for this (and also hunger, weeping and slander) these faithful ones will enter the fullness of the kingdom.

In Mark 8:35 Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If we seek to save, preserve or focus on our life in this world, we will lose our life. But if we give up everything, deny ourselves and suffer for Jesus (Mark 8:34) we will find our lives in the fullness of the kingdom.

It is those who now follow Jesus in the way of the cross in lowliness, self-denial and suffering who will experience the promises of exaltation and blessing on that day.

Let me end with –

Some things to remember about suffering

 We shouldn’t glorify it. Suffering is terrible and without our faith in God it can crush and destroy us. Jesus didn’t seek the suffering of the cross, but rather prayed to avoid it (Mark 14:36). And Hebrews 12:2 tells us that although Jesus “endured the cross” he also “despised the shame.”

The end we all want is peace and well-being, when there will be no more suffering or tears. We’re able to rejoice in suffering, not because we enjoy it. No, this would be a sign of sickness. We can rejoice in suffering because it demonstrates that the kingdom is ours (Matthew 5:10).

The way of the cross is foolishness to the flesh and the world. As Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:18a). It looks like a good way to miss out on all that this life has to offer. “Lower yourself and accept suffering and then trust God to lift you up? And most of this won’t take place until the final day? That’s crazy!”

  • Just as the disciples – Peter, James and John didn’t understand it and Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, so we struggle with it today.
  • Just as the powers of this world didn’t understand it when they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) so they don’t now.

Despite this, the way of the cross is how God brings about his purposes in this world. It is folly to the world, but as the rest of 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “but to us who are being saved the word of the cross is the power of God.” The wisdom of this world is all about the way of glory – seek and strive for what you can get in this life; lift yourself up to obtain power, honor, wealth and well-being.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). This is God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). This is how God overthrows evil and establishes his kingdom in this world.

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Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

 

 

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