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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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The literary structure of Mark 6:46-53

We have now covered Jesus feeding the 5,000, both the miracle of it, and also how it functioned as a sign which points to who Jesus is. Well, right after this we have our story for today – Jesus walking on water.

This story is somewhat similar to what happens in chapter 4 when Jesus calms the storm. And, as we’ll see, the question the disciples ask at the end of that story, “Who then is this that even wind and sea obey him?,” is answered even more clearly in our passage.

[In fact, this story in chapter 4 begins this section in Mark and our story today ends it in chapter 6, which we talk about next time.]

[Notice the parallels between these two stories: 1) Both are a water crossing – west to east; east to west. 2) Both begin with the same time frame – “when evening came.” 3) Jesus is not available – he is asleep; he is on land. 4) There is wind and struggle – the boat was taking on water; they can’t make headway. 5) The disciples are afraid – going to die; a ghost. 6) Both have the same phrase – “the wind ceased.” 7) Jesus demonstrates his power over the waters – calm sea; walks on the water and calm. 8) Jesus challenges the disciples’ fear – “Why are you so afraid?” “Do not be afraid.” 9) The disciples respond in similar ways – “filled with great awe” “utterly astounded”]

Here is a map of where this happens –

Galilee Jesus feeds 5000 2

There are two key things I would like to highlight from this story, a word of encouragement for us, and what we will look at first as we go through the passage –

Who Jesus is: Mark 6:46-53

46And after he had taken leave of them (the crowd), he went up on the mountain to pray.

Finally, Jesus gets some time away from the crowds, even if just for a few hours. And he spends it in prayer. (See also – 1:35, 14:35-39).

Jesus has just revealed himself, his identity as the Messiah and Son of God in the feeding of the 5,000, at least to those who had eyes to see it. And he’s about to reveal himself again to the 12.

47And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.

So the disciples are in the boat and he’s still on land.

48And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.

Jesus, still on the mountain, saw the 12 struggling, just after it got dark. The disciples were several miles away. Was it a clear night so that Jesus could see them in the moonlight or is this supernatural? Not sure.

Unlike in chapter 4 and the calming of the storm, the 12 are not in mortal danger. But they are struggling mightily against a strong headwind and not getting anywhere.

And about the fourth watch of the night . . .

 This would be from 3:00 AM to 6:00 AM in the morning. Now Jesus saw them struggling earlier in the evening, but doesn’t do anything about it until the fourth watch, several hours later.

What does he do?

. . . he came to them, walking on the sea.

This is the miracle of our story. He’s not on another boat. He’s not walking in shallow water – there’s no illusion going on. He’s literally walking on top of the waves and the water!

Here we need to remember that in Hebrew thought the deep waters are connected to ideas of chaos, turmoil and evil. Indeed they are associated with Satan and judgment (e.g. Psalm 74:13-14, Revelation 12:9). And Yahweh is the one who has power and dominion over the waters (e.g. Psalm 93).

This was clearly demonstrated when God divided the Red Sea and allowed his people to escape Egypt. And when this happened, God is described as making a path through the sea. Psalm 77:19 says, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters.” (See also Isaiah 43:16 and Job 9:8).

That Jesus walks on water, that is, he makes his path through the sea, shows that he too has complete dominion over the waters. Jesus is doing what only God can do, which demonstrates that Jesus is God’s Son, for like Father like son.

The story goes on –

He meant to pass before them . . .

It doesn’t seem likely that Jesus intended to leave the 12 behind while he went to the other side. No. The word for “pass before” is used in some key places in the Old Testament (LXX) for when God reveals himself. And this is in the background here. Let’s look at the most important example. Remember in Exodus 33 and 34 when Moses was on Mt Sinai? God, it says, “passed before him” – Exodus 34:6 (Also 33:19, 22). And when he does this he reveals himself to Moses. He can’t see God’s face because that would kill him, but he sees God’s back. So ‘passing before’ has to do with God’s self-revelation to people. (See also 1 Kings 19:11-12).

Well, here, like God his Father, Jesus is seeking to reveal himself to them; his identity as God’s Son in walking on the water.

49but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50for they all saw him and were terrified.

So Jesus is trying to reveal himself, but the disciples don’t get it, but are rather terrified thinking that they’re seeing a ghost or sea demon on the water. We get our word “phantom” from the word used here for ghost.

But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

So Jesus comforts them by telling them that it’s him and encouraging them not to be afraid. But there’s more going on here. The phrase “It is I” (ego eimi) is the way that God’s name “Yahweh” is translated into Greek – Exodus 3:14. And when God passed before Moses on the mountain, a key part of God’s revealing of himself was saying his name – Exodus 33:19. So Jesus here is saying the divine name in relation to himself,  or more specifically – I am Yahweh’s Son. He is God’s Son in human form. This is who Jesus is.

51And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.

This is what happened when Jesus calmed the storm in chapter 4. Both have the phrase “the wind ceased.” Jesus delivers the 12 from the storm.

And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

They couldn’t believe what just happened. As we saw before, if they had gotten what Jesus was trying to communicate in the feeding of the 5,000 – they would’ve known that Jesus is God’s Son. And as such he’s perfectly capable of walking on the waters.

Our story ends with v. 53 –

53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore.

They made it safely to the other side and back onto land.

Now let’s talk big picture for a moment. As we have gone through this perhaps you’ve noticed that our story today, and the story of the feeding of the 5,000 go together. The feeding of the 5,000 which we saw is reminiscent of the feeding of Israel in the wilderness is paired with this water crossing which has parallels to the crossing of the Red Sea.

[Parallels between this and the Red Sea crossing include:

  • God came from his mountain – Habakkuk 3:3. Jesus came from a mountain to the 12.
  • The Israelites crossed the sea at night, early morning – Exodus 14:21, 24, 27. This story takes place at night and early morning.
  • There was a storm involved – Exodus 14:24-25; Psalm 77:17-18. There was a storm involving strong wind.
  • God is described as making a path through the sea – Psalm 77:19-20; Isaiah 43:16. Jesus walks on the water to his disciples.
  • God came for the salvation of his people – Habakkuk 3:13. Jesus came to deliver his disciples.]

So in these two events Jesus is symbolically reenacting the story of Israel’s salvation, although in reverse order; God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and his caring for them in the wilderness. (It’s not in reverse order if this is seen as the crossing of the Jordan into the land of Israel, which itself was a reenactment of the Red Sea crossing).

In this light, Jesus can be seen as showing forth his identity as the  Savior of God’s people. Just as God delivered Israel and cared for them, so Jesus as God’s Son is the one who is bringing about God’s kingdom salvation for the remnant of God’s people. This is who Jesus is.

Let me end with –

A word of encouragement for us

 This story can teach us a few things about going through trials ourselves.

  • Just as with the disciples, we will go through deep waters and experience strong headwinds in life, both as individuals  and as a congregation.
  • Just as with the disciples, Jesus sees us and knows our struggles. Even though he seems far away or absent, he always knows what’s going on in our lives.
  • Just as with the disciples,  he lets us go through trials. Jesus saw the disciples struggling but waited several hours before he came. We have to remember that trials are meant for our good. God is working in us to cause us to grow in our character and relationship with him. Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
  • Just as with the disciples, Jesus comes to be with us and tells us to take heart, don’t fear. He gets into the boat with us in the midst of our struggle. As Isaiah 43:1-3 says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . .. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
  • Just as with the disciples, Jesus reveals himself as Son of God and Savior. At the right time he delivers us from the wind and storm; from the clutches of the deep waters. Peter gives these comforting words in 1 Peter 5:10 – “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

 

 

 

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Our lives can certainly be difficult. I think we can all testify to that. We have our daily stresses and hardships. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (He is talking about securing our food and clothing needs.) So we have it on Jesus’ authority that each day has more than enough problems in it.

On top of this we go through times of intense testing, crises that stretch us to the breaking point. Speaking of this kind of testing, Hebrews 12:11 says, it “always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time.” So we have it on Scriptural authority that testing is indeed painful.

God allows us to go through these things. Now notice, I’m not saying that God causes these things to happen in our lives. We live in a sinful and broken world and bad things happen all the time. But God definitely does allow us to go through them. And these things can weigh us down and wear us out. So I want us to look at four things this morning that will hopefully encourage us and give us strength to carry on.

Know that even in hard times, God loves you

When you’re in a time of testing you can definitely feel forgotten, alone and abandoned. So it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care about you. We ask, “Why would God let me go through this?” But we need to understand that even if God lets us go through tough times, God still deeply loves and cares for us.

We know this first of all because we see that God let his own beloved Son, Jesus, go through difficulties. And we know that God loved Jesus above all. So there is allowance of hardship and love together.

Second, Hebrews 12:5-8 teaches us that God will also let us, his beloved children, go through hardship. Again there is allowance of hardship and love together. Let’s look at these verses. The readers were having hard times for sure, experiencing persecution.

The writer says, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children? “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every child whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as children. For what child is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate and not children.”

In this we see that God allows and uses hardship for the benefit of those he loves. In fact, God’s allowance of hardship actually shows that God loves you and owns you as his own child. You are not abandoned, but loved. God is concerned about you and your well-being.

This leads us to the second thing we should remember –

God can bring something good out of your suffering

Now, this is not something you can share with someone flippantly. When you are going through hard times this isn’t usually what you want to hear. Or even need to hear. It is nevertheless true.

It was true for Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 says, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” And we also learn through our suffering about following God and being righteous.

Scripture talks about this in a number of places:

  • God allows us to be tested “for our own good, in order that we may share his holiness” – Hebrews 12:10.
  • Going through difficult times “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” – Hebrews 12:11.
  • Romans 5:3-4 says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • Testing “is intended to make you worthy of the Kingdom of God” – 2 Thessalonians 1:5.
  • James 1:3-4 says, “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God is doing a great work within us as he allows us to be tested and tried.

Romans 8:28 is a familiar verse and it comes from a context of talking about suffering. It says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas for so many in the world, their suffering seems to be pointless and for no reason, the promise of God to us, his children, is that whatever God allows us to go through he is able to use for our good; and for the good of others. He can bring something good out of it. And we can hold on to this, even if in our trial we can’t possibly see how it is so at the time.

God won’t let you be tested beyond what you can bear

1 Corinthians 10:13 is a great verse. It says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

When we are going through hard times, these become a test of our faith. The question is, “Will we remain faithful to God in the midst of it?” What this verse says is that God will not let us get into a situation that we cannot handle in terms of remaining faithful to him.

Satan will try to discourage us, and cause us to give up. But God always provides a way of escape. God will make sure that we have the grace and strength we need to get through it, or that the situation will change.

This is God’s promise to us and we need to remember it when we think that we can’t handle our testing. The fact that God has allowed it, means you can handle it.

You will be blessed if you endure

Let’s look at some Scriptures:

  • Paul said, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” – Galatians 6:9.
  • Jesus says to us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” – Revelation 2:10.
  • As Paul said, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” – 2 Timothy 2:12.
  • James tells us, “Blessed is anyone who endures testing. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” – James 1:12.

As difficult as our trials are, we can know that the blessings will far outweigh them. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” It is more than worth it.

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Series on faith in God

We have been looking at the topic of faith in God for the last number of weeks. (Perhaps you might even think the title today applies to making it through this series.) We have also looked at the obstacles that get us off track and keep us from receiving what God has for us.

Last week we talked about the third part of faith, how we need to act on our belief and trust in God’s word to us. Today, we are talking about the third obstacle to faith, giving up. This is when you act on your belief and trust in God’s word to you, but then things get hard and so you quit.

Now, this much is obvious –

Walking by faith isn’t easy

You will experience difficulties and you will have to wait on God. In fact, I think we can say that it’s rare that God acts suddenly or that there are no difficulties.

  • Abraham waited 25 years. From the time he was promised a son until the promise was fulfilled was a long time! And there were many trials and tests related to receiving this promise.
  • The Psalmist says, “For you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” – Psalm 38:15. The writer here is seriously ill and has enemies who are scheming against him. He’s going through a hard time and waiting for God to answer.

And we will often find ourselves in situations where we are in a test and it seems to be taking forever.

Why do we go through difficulties and have to wait? Let me say just briefly, that God is working in us. God wants to teach us (Deuteronomy 8:3) and shape us and make us more mature. As James 1:3-4 says, “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” This is God’s goal for us.

But also Satan is working against us. He is called our “enemy” (Matthew 13:39), and also our “adversary” (1 Peter 5:8). He opposes our attempts to walk in faith, by making it hard for us. So for these reasons it can be really hard to walk by faith. You will be tempted to give up at one point or another.

Let me ask you –

Where are you struggling with your faith?

Where are you tempted to give up? If you’re in a situation like this I invite you to think about it as we look at the Scriptures this morning. If you’re not currently struggling, let me give you some examples to work with.

1. Starting a new ministry: You step out of your comfort zone to do what you think God is calling you to do. But things don’t go well at first. Not a lot of people are interested and it seems really hard to you. You’re sure that God wanted you to do this, but you have acted and nothing is working out. What do you do?

2. Looking for a spouse: You’re single and you know it’s God’s will that you marry a believer. And you have prayed for God’s help. But no one is on the horizon. What do you do?

3. A financial crisis: You can’t pay your bills. You have cut back and done everything that you can do, but the struggle continues. What do you do?

Well –

We need endurance

– in these situations. We need endurance in our belief, our trust and our action. Endurance means that you keep on doing what you are doing, despite the difficult circumstances and despite how long it takes.

  • You keep believing in God’s truth
  • You keep trusting in God and dealing with any doubt that comes
  • You keep acting on God’s truth and your trust in God

Endurance means that you do all this, despite whatever problems come your way. 

Now this doesn’t mean that you dig in and ignore everything around you, so that you have blind faith. If it really is difficult and taking forever, maybe there’s some presumption going on. It’s not a lack of faith to check. Jesus did this in the garden of Gethsemane. Just before the cross he prayed, “God, is this really the path you want for me?” But once you check and affirm that you’re standing on firm ground, don’t give up!

And here’s –

Why you shouldn’t give up

1) God won’t let you be tested beyond what you can take. Now, I confess I have wondered about this myself. Because it has certainly felt like it is more than I can take at times. I think, “I can’t take any more.” And then more comes. And then more. And then still more.

But Scripture tells us that it is true. “God . . . will not let you be tempted (tested) beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” – 1 Corinthians 10:13. God will not let us get in over our heads, and he will provide a way out in due time, if we look to him.

Another reason not to give up is that 2) The answer might be just around the corner. Another reality of walking by faith is that God often acts when we are at our weakest. Think of Abraham. God acted when he and Sarah were both too old to have children. It simply wasn’t possible.

And with us a well, God often waits until we can’t do it in our own strength. So do you feel weak? Are you ready to give up? That might be exactly when God is getting ready to come through for you.

And then finally,  3) It is those who endure who receive the blessing. Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Don’t grow weary in your situation, because in due season you too will reap the blessing, “if you don’t give up.”

A personal story . . .

Listen to Hebrews 10:36. “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” Endurance in doing God’s will is the key to receiving the promises that God has given us.

I believe that this is God’s word to you here today and I hope you will receive it. Don’t give up.

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Series: Faith in God

We are focusing on faith because this is how we receive God’s blessings. So let me just ask, “How many of you want to receive the blessings God has for you?” “Do we want God to provide for our material provisions, to give us peace, to give us more and more of the Spirit – and all of God’s other promises to us?” Well, we must ask for these things and we need to ask fully trusting in God and God’s promises to us.

But let’s just note the obvious. Faith doesn’t just spring up within us. It’s not a natural part of us. We would much rather walk by sight;that is, by what we can see and control. But God calls us to walk by faith; that is, trusting in God even when we can’t see what’s ahead or control things (2 Corinthians 5:7).

And so, like the disciples, we too don’t trust God at times. We can honestly say, “I don’t have this kind of faith!” Or “Where does it even come from?” You know, “How can I have confident assurance in God’s promises to me?” And we especially ask these questions when what faith we have is being stretched and tried by difficult life circumstances.

Well, this is what we’re here to talk about today – overcoming doubt so that we can walk in the path of faith, so that we can receive God’s blessings in our lives.

Last week we looked at –

What doubt is

And specifically about how Scripture speaks of doubt, not really about intellectual doubt, but concerns of the heart about God’s faithfulness.

Doubt means that you are not fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised (Romans 4:21). The reason for doubt is that you fear that God will fail you. When you look at the circumstances and difficulties around you, you think, “Is God going to come through for me?” And, then you think, “If God doesn’t come through for me, this could get really bad.”

Doubt is really about wavering. It’s a state between firm faith and unbelief. You say, “I should trust God.” But then you say, “No, I shouldn’t trust God.” You are double-minded, going back and forth between the two. And the end result is that doubt keeps you from acting on God’s promises. It’s too risky if you aren’t sure God will come through. So you “shrink back” (Hebrews 10:39).

What can you do to overcome doubt?

Perhaps you are trusting God to provide for a need, or as we looked at last week, to give you the words to share with a friend who doesn’t know the Lord. Whatever your situation –

1. Fight your fear. Fear is where our doubt comes from, so this is key.

Last week we saw how Jesus told Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe” – Mark 5:36. He was afraid that since his daughter wasn’t just sick, but had died, Jesus couldn’t help him. Well, when we think that God can’t help us we need to hear this too! “Don’t fear, only believe.”

Here are two ways to fight your fear: Ask the Spirit to give you the strength to be courageous. Our flesh is weak and vulnerable to fear. But the Spirit can give you the strength to die to your fear, to crucify it and to trust in God’s promises. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak.” But he also said, “the Spirit indeed is willing,” that is, willing to help us and empower us – Mark 14:38.

Next, when Satan tries to reinforce your fear rebuke him in the name of Jesus. Tell him to go away. He comes to us and puts ideas in our head  – “you should be afraid!” Or “God won’t come through for you!” As James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

When you are seeking to trust in God to come through on his promise to you, and your fear rises up – fight it in these ways. Draw on the power of the Spirit to strengthen your heart and on the power of the name of Jesus to clear your mind.

2. Keep God’s word in your heart. Where does faith come from? “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” – Romans 10:17. Now this is talking about the promise of salvation through Jesus. But the general principle stands: God’s word to us builds faith within us.

God can speak to us through the Scriptures. And I don’t mean merely reading Scripture. The word is powerful and alive. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active . . ..” So, I’m talking about when we read Scripture and God’s truth comes alive and goes down into our heart and touches us. And we know the truth at a level that goes beyond simply the mind and the senses.

When God speaks to us like this and we receive it God’s word builds us up and strengthens our faith. Something supernatural takes place within us, that is powerful and life changing. So when you are struggling, immerse yourself in God’s word and let the power of his word work in your heart.

3. Remind yourself of God’s faithfulness. First, remember that God is always faithful. Lamentations 3:21-23 helps us see this. The writer here, is despairing and is suffering greatly after the destruction of Jerusalem. And then he says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” He finds hope in God’s unchanging character, despite his awful circumstances.

Second, remember that God has always been faithful. This is not a theoretical concept. God has a track record that you can look at. In Psalm 77:11-12 the writer is troubled and concerned. Is God still faithful? He feels that God has deserted him. But then he says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.” He goes on to remember God’s miraculous deliverance of his people from Egypt. And this encourages him. God has always been faithful. And the Psalm then ends on a note of faith.

You can remind yourself of God’s faithfulness too. Recall Scriptural stories of God’s faithfulness, perhaps toward Abraham or David. Think about stories of God’s faithfulness in history or People’s testimonies that you know. And remind yourself how God has been faithful to you; how God has answered your prayers and come through for you in the past. Remembering these things build up our faith. It will strengthen and encourage you.

 4. Keep your focus on God, not your obstacles. Stay focused on God’s truth to you, and God’s faithfulness. Otherwise you will be overwhelmed by your difficult life circumstances; by the heaviness of it all; by the craziness going on around you. It is these that feed our fear and doubt.

Remember Peter walking on the water? He started out great! He walked on the water to Jesus. That’s amazing! But when he took his eyes off of Jesus, and started to focus on the circumstances – the strong wind and no doubt the waves, he became afraid, he doubted and he sank – Matthew 14:30. This is a perfect picture of what happens to us when we focus on the wrong thing and fall into fear and doubt.

What you choose to focus on makes a difference. Focus on God.

5. Remember faith is a choice, not a feeling. Feelings you can’t always control. But you can control your choices. So deal with what you can control, your choices. Even if you feel fear (you’re all alone, it’s gonna fail, God’s not gonna come through) still make right choices. Your feelings will come into alignment with God’s truth eventually, if you keep making choices of faith.

2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “We walk by faith not by sight.” And we could just as easily say, we walk by faith and not by feelings. Let the reality of God’s truth determine what you choose, not your feelings about your present difficult circumstances.

6. Be around others who will encourage your faith. Especially if you are struggling. Fellow Christians can help build up your faith, encouraging you, praying for you and ministering to you.

The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” – Hebrews 10:23-24. The problem here is wavering and the answer is to be stirred up by others, knowing that God is faithful.

So this is –

How we overcome doubt

  1. Fight your fear
  2. Keep God’s word in your heart
  3. Remind yourself of God’s faithfulness
  4. Keep your focus on God, not your obstacles
  5. Remember faith is a choice, not a feeling
  6. Be around others who will encourage your faith

I encourage you to put these lessons into practice in your life. I want each of us as individuals, and as a congregation to receive all that God has for us. And trusting in God is how this happens.

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We are seeking the Lord’s guidance as a congregation and will be coming together for a meeting next week after church. As a part of our preparation I shared last week on Listening for the Spirit – to help us know what this means and how to do it. We are continuing on with this theme today.

Last time I made the point that it’s normal for believers to be led by the Spirit of God. As Paul says in Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons (children) of God.” This is simply a part of being in relationship with God.

And we also looked at the most common way the Spirit leads us, which is the inward witness of the Spirit. This is when the Spirit doesn’t necessarily speak words, but gives us a deep inner sense of things that goes beyond words; an affirmation or a conviction that teaches and guides us in the way to go.

Today we want to go further on the topic of the Spirit’s leading, and first we look at –

How to receive God’s leading

That is, how do we get ourselves in a place to hear what God might want to say to us? (more…)

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We are in Daniel chapter 3 today. This is the familiar story of the fiery furnace (quite a contrast to our temperatures today). I want us to hear this story again today, perhaps with new ears, to glean some lessons for when we go through difficult times of trial in our lives.

Let’s begin with some –

Background

– to our story that helps us understand what’s going on. Nebuchadnezzar has conquered the people of God and taken many of them back to Babylon. Daniel was one of these, but our story today focuses on his three friends – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

So they are living in exile in a foreign land, but they were determined to be true to God, even though they worked for the government. And this wasn’t easy, especially with the beliefs and practices of the people of Babylon.

v. 1 sets up our story – “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.” So this was a really big idol – 90 feet high and 9 feet wide.

And he had big plans for it.  V. 6 conveys his order to everyone, “whoever does not fall down and worship (the image) shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” Now for most people this was no big deal. They worshiped many gods, and the idols that represented them, and so this was just one more.

But for Jews this was strictly forbidden. The second of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:4-5 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image  . . .You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” So they had a choice. And this brings us to –

Lesson #1 – They were true to God

When the King had gathered together all his officials to dedicate this golden image and fall down before it, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did not bow down. They made the right choice, even knowing the danger it posed to their lives.

And sure enough the report came to the king. In v. 12 they speak, “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men, O king, pay no attention to you; they do not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” There must have been a lot of competition between these officials to get ahead and some saw this as “a golden opportunity” to get rid of some of the competition.

The story goes on in Daniel 3:13-15. “Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought. So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Even with all these threats and the rage of their king, they remained faithful to God.

This brings us to –

Lesson #2 – They entrusted themselves into God’s hands

vs. 16-18 – “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’”

They already knew they would be thrown in the fire. But they have strong faith in God. In response the king’s taunt, “and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (v. 15) they confess that the true God is more than able to deliver them if he wants to. But even if God doesn’t choose to do this, they will still be faithful to him.

Lesson #3 – God was with them in their trials

Things got even worse for them. In Daniel 3:19-23 we learn that:

  •  the king was furious and his countenance changed
  •  the furnace was heated seven times hotter
  •  it was so hot it killed the men who threw them into it

Things are really bad. But God didn’t leave them alone. Vs. 24-25 – “Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.’”

So the king is working on his basic math skills and finds a problem – there was an extra person in the furnace. Who was the fourth man? An angel, who are called sons of god? Or was this the Son of God? All we know is that God sent one of his own to be with them in the midst of their trial. God didn’t let them go through it alone, but was there with them right in the fiery furnace, walking with them.

Lesson #4 – God came through for them

We have already seen that the fire didn’t kill them, but they were walking around in the furnace. V. 26 goes on to say, “Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!’ Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire.”

v. 27 tells us that the fire had no power over them

  • Their hair was not singed
  • Their clothes were not burned and
  • They didn’t even smell like smoke

But God not only delivered them, he glorified his Name. In v. 28, the king acknowledges the greatness of the true God. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.”

And in the end he promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (v. 30).

These are lessons for us

For we are in a similar situation. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego we too live in exile in a foreign land. Peter calls all Christians “sojourners and exiles” in this world – 1 Peter 2:10. And the author of Hebrews talks about the saints as those who have “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” 11:13.

And in our time of exile we too will go through trials of various kinds. The world tries to get us to live by its will instead of God’s will for us. And this often puts us in a bind where we have to choose. And the evil one, the god of this world is always seeking to test and try us. And as 1 Peter 1:7 says, we are “tested by fire.”

So when we go through fiery trials remember this story. 1. Remember to be true to God. Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego  made the right choice and stuck with it despite the rage of many and the threat to their lives, so we need to make right choices. We can’t let difficult circumstances lead us to be unfaithful to God.

Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” In a time of testing it is easy to grow weary in doing what is right, but we must remain steadfast. James 1:2 says, “Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial.” We too must make right choices and stick with them, even when it is terribly difficult.

2. Remember to entrust yourself into God’s hands. Just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in full faith, gave their lives into God’s hands in their trial, so should we because God is more than able to take care of us too.

Hebrews 13:6 is a strong confession of faith, “the Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Whether God delivers us from our trial or not, we know that God will take care of us and bless us.

3. Remember God will be with you. Just as he was with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, so he will walk with you through your fiery trials.

Hebrews 13:5 says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And as Isaiah 43:2 says, “I will be with you . . .when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you.” God doesn’t leave us alone.

4. Finally, remember that God will come through for you. Just as he came through for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, so he will come through for you. Like them, we don’t know how he will do this – through a miracle or strengthening us to endure and overcome in the midst, or in the world to come. But God is faithful and he will come through.

1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

When you go through difficulties, remember you are not the first to do so. There are many examples in the Scriptures that can help us. This morning, let’s learn from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and be strengthened to endure and overcome just as they did.

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