Archive | Suffering

Jesus Fell Asleep

As I was reading from the book of Luke this morning, a phrase in the middle of the story of Jesus calming the waters struck me, “he fell asleep.”

Luke 8   22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they set out, 23 and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. 24 And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”

Jesus fell asleep right in the middle of a scary trial for His disciples. At first reading, this feels callous on His part. Or oblivious. Or passive-aggressive. I’ve experienced people who have mocked others for not understanding a future outcome or used their ignorance against them to humiliate them. But we know that is not Jesus’ character. He’s about to be bloodied and humiliated for these very same disciples. With love and compassion, He will lay His life down for them and freely offer them cleansing through His sacrifice. He is not the passive-aggressive sort.

Instead, I think Jesus’ response in this boat is simply one of peace. He knows of the coming good outcome, both of the miracle of calming the waters and the growth of needed faith and confidence in His disciples. Jesus was eternally minded in a temporal world. He was at peace that the temporary discomfort and fear His disciples were experiencing would resolve in ways that were eternally good for them. And so He slept.

Throughout Scripture, God has had periods of time where He seemed asleep. Maybe, in heaven, He actually was. This is not to be confused with oblivion, where the incompetent king falls asleep and the kingdom falls apart without his knowledge. God’s sleep is a sleep of sovereign peace, for the record has been written and it will come to pass as the ultimate will of the King of Kings is always carried out. God sleeps in peace. And again and again, He arouses Himself in time to put things in order as He always intended.

Joseph, Ruth, and David give us micro pictures of this, as each in their own lifetime saw the resolution of things after periods where God seemed asleep in their struggles. But they also give us macro pictures of this, as each contributes to a story that lasted much longer than their lives, that wasn’t resolved until Jesus came onto the scene thousands of years after their death.

For centuries, earnest Christians faithfully following Jesus have experienced a God who seems asleep at times, sometimes for long seasons in their lives. In the disciples’ case in Luke 8, He literally was asleep. In my life, it has seemed He slept as I needed direction. Sometimes, He felt asleep as I needed deliverance from a trial. But as time goes on and I can look back, I recognize that He really seemed asleep because He was at complete peace in how He was moving in my life—what He was teaching me and how the circumstances would resolve for His purposes in my life. He didn’t give me direction for a year because it was the absolute lack of direction that would funnel me into His next steps for my life. He didn’t deliver me from my trial because the trial itself was my path. He is at peace with His plan for my life. He loves me, so I can be at peace too through His grace. It blesses me to think of my God with a sovereign micro plan over my finite earthly life that feeds into His macro plan for His kingdom purposes. And it blesses me to think of Him completely at peace with the circumstances He has put in my life, so much so that He can sleep knowing that His purposes are good and they will be carried out.

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Talking Me Off the Ledge

I hesitate to use the title, Talking Me Off the Ledge, out of concern for those with suicidal loved ones or suicidal thoughts themselves. But I decided to keep it, because it is an accurate description of the emotional and spiritual role godly friends have played in my life over the last year in particular. I haven’t stood physically on the ledge, ready to end my life. But I have felt many times of late that I was emotionally and spiritually on the ledge, that if I could have figured out a way to quit a life of faith, I would have. But the words of the disciples in John 6 have been true for me.

“Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” John 6:68

I haven’t left the faith because God hasn’t let me. I haven’t quit because God won’t accept my resignation. I have been kept in the faith by the God who promises He will not lose any of His own.

In those moments of despair, God has repeatedly sent me friends and family who have talked me off the emotional ledge. They have been God’s hands and feet, the body to Jesus’ head, that have held me and talked to me until I walked back into the safety of the room, feeling like I could face the overwhelming struggle around me. I have had enough of these conversations over the last year to notice some common elements.

1. Their faith is strong enough not to feel threatened by my fear and unbelief in the moment.

2. They are safe. They don’t minimize my struggle, but listen and then talk me through it without shame or condemnation that I am in that place (or in that place yet again after talking to them about the exact same struggle last week).

3. Most have gone through their own crisis of belief in the midst of suffering and can truly empathize with me.

4. They understand the point of the angry psalms, God’s gift of grace to us who struggle through pain that does not reconcile easily.

5. They believe and hope for me until I can do it again for myself. They pray for me in hope and confidence in God, and through their prayers, God ministers His grace to me.

Like the paralytic man lowered by his friends through the roof to meet Jesus, such friends point us to Christ when we feel too weak to seek Him out by ourselves.  They bear our burdens with us when we feel overwhelmed carrying them alone.  And they do it as Christ’s hands and feet.

We all need friends who will talk us off the ledge, who aren’t threatened or horrified by the depths of our deep emotions when we are in crisis. We all need people who will calmly respond to us and help us fact check when we are overcome with emotion. We need these people in our lives, and we need to BE these people in the life of our friends.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

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The Limp

Michael Card wrote a short book called The Walk, detailing his walk of discipleship with his mentor in college. It’s one of my favorite little books, and I drew a lot of personal application from it. But I know if I ever wrote a similar book, it would be called The Limp. This was reinforced to me after I fell in my backyard this week and wiped off several layers of skin on my knee. My knee is starting to heal, but it is very sore, and I know I will likely have a permanent scar there.

I have other bigger permanent scars. I’m permanently affected by type 1 diabetes. I wear an insulin pump all day every day, a permanent reminder of a problem with my body that affects every moment of every day of my life. I have still bigger scars, marks on my heart and soul rather than my outward body from long term suffering over things I can’t control. Many of us bear such scars. These scars and limps could be the consequence of your own sin. They could be the results of someone else’s sins against you. It could be the death of a loved one or the betrayal by a loved one. It could be an illness that will not go away, a physical ailment that will affect you the rest of your days on earth. Whatever it is, it’s not going away, and while you may be able to ignore it for periods of time, your awareness of it never fully fades. It’s always there at some level.

Like Jacob, we walk forward in life with a permanent limp that reminds us over and over of a painful event. Our scars contribute to who we are. My scars and limps don’t define me (either physically or spiritually), but they have become part of my identifying features. Brown hair, green eyes, scar on left knee. Compassionate, witty, constantly bracing herself against the next wave of pain. You and I are more than our scars, but we are not less than them. Jacob was still a father, a son, and a husband after his hip was put out of joint. But he was a father, a son, and a husband with a limp. He could kick and scream all he wanted that he didn’t want to limp (which I have tried), but his limp was still there. Jacob had to figure out instead how to walk forward with that limp. That is the issue for any of us with emotional, spiritual, or physical scars and limps that reflect long term suffering.

As I was walking today, I noted that, given the pain and rawness of the wound on my knee, I was much more cautious with my steps. My physical limp slowed me down and made me pay attention to the cracks in the sidewalk. It made me more aware of the potential ways I could fall. Similarly, my emotional and spiritual scars make me pay attention to my own heart and to zealously guard it. I watch closely for the ways that Satan tempts me to react to my pain that will actually harm me more. I pray diligently that the Lord would keep me from the evil one and help me obey.

We probably easily recognize the drawbacks to walking with a limp. But for once I am thinking of the wisdom that can come from such caution. I may walk forward slowly and more tentatively, but that caution, submitted to God and seeking His face with each step, can be a very good thing, evidence that my suffering is being used to grow me into maturity.

2 Corinthians 12 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

*If you are walking with a limp in light of long-term suffering, I recommend Glorious Ruin by Tullian Tchividjian and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller.

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Only in God Do I Find Rest

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2)

I have reached multiple low points at multiple stages of life. None ever feels as low as whatever one I am in at the moment. Consistently, in my despair, God whispers again and again to me, “Be still.” At a particularly low, low time, He reminded me from Psalms 20:7 and Isaiah 31:1 that I can not put my trust in my 21st century version of horses and chariots. I tend toward putting my hope in such things all the time. These are the things that I think I can manipulate to bring resolution to whatever issue over which I am struggling. What can I DO to fix my situation? And, certainly, we are not to lay passively in struggle or trial, allowing ourselves to be run over unwisely. If we are sick, we call the doctor. If we are sinned against, we confront the sinner. Yet, regularly, my attempts at wise response in crisis fail to resolve my situation in the way I fully desire. I run out of things to try, sit staring morosely out of the window, and start to hear the still, small voice of God saying, “Rest, wait, and be still. Don’t trust earthly options to ultimately solve your problems. I am God. I am sovereign. I have not left you as an orphan. I have a plan that I will bring about.”

In stressful situations, our human fight or flight tendency wars with the repeated exhortation from Scripture to be still and trust God. Over and over again, I feel the need to DO SOMETHING. What should I do? Thankfully, I often don’t know how to resolve my situation. At first that feels hopeless – I guess I’ll just sit on the floor in despair unable to change. Then at some point, in faith, it transforms – I guess I’ll just sit on the floor waiting on God to change things, who regularly instructs me in His Word to do just that. And that place of waiting when I’m personally out of options to fix myself or my situation is exactly the place that God has brought me, so that He in His time can fix me and my situation. The 21st century version of horses and chariots are anemic resources for my struggles. Horses and chariots are easily thwarted by Satan. But God is not. He’s not anemic. And He is not defeated by Satan. And He does show up. ALL. THE. TIME. He shows up in big and small ways. He meets us in those moments of defeated silence, and He moves us from despair to strong hope in Him, His Word, and His Church. Whatever long term issue you are struggling with now, be still, and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10).

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalm 37:7)

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When the Mountains Crash into the Ocean

I wrote last year on when our fears become our reality. That article and last week’s Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction seemed to resonate with readers. I am still meditating on both suffering itself and the fear of suffering. Sometimes, the worst DOES happen. We fear the mountain falling into the ocean, and then, sure enough, it DOES fall into the ocean.

The problem of suffering is the number one issue, in my opinion, that challenges faith. Friends I know who are wrestling with trusting God mention this issue over and over again. The innocent father killed by a stray bullet in front of his kids (which happened near my neighborhood last year). The family mowed down by a drunk driver resulting in the death of two grandparents and serious brain injuries for the mother and newborn infant (which also happened near my neighborhood last month). Even closer to home is the pain of watching someone you love struggle with chronic health issues. Or watching someone you love – a child, a spouse, a parent – struggle with faith. “Where is God?!” we cry out. The silence that greets us is deafening.

Yet in the middle of our darkest wrestling, someone who has gone before us speaks into the silence. It is those moments that remind me of the profound value of the community of Christ. Oh, the Church gets on my nerves at times. There are aspects of the Church, God’s people, that bother me terribly. Yet, I need the community of Christ desperately. And there is no time that pronounces that need as clearly as times of suffering.

I Cor. 12  21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” … 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

I need those who have gone before me in suffering to speak of the God who emerges sovereign over the mountain that falls into the ocean. I can try to pretend that my life will be exempt from suffering. I can stick my head in the sand about its reality. Or I can become paralyzed by the fear and dread of that suffering that hang like an anvil over my head ready to crush me. But none of those options work long term. I have to get my head out of the sand (because suffering for all of us is going to be a reality at some point in this life) and face my fears head on by way of the Word. If you too are ready to do that, here are a few resources that have personally blessed me.

1) This short sermon by a former pastor of mine whose wife died of cancer really blessed and encouraged me.

2) After her husband died of cancer, Dee Brestin wrote The God of All Comfort which has been, along with Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie, one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

Psalm 46
1 God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.





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Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

Fruitful in the land of my affliction. I’ve written about this phrase before. It comes from from Genesis 41:52, where Joseph names his second son after years of bondage in Egypt which led to his becoming the second in command to Pharaoh.
The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Joseph intrigues me, yet I resist his story at times as well. I have heard a number of sermons over the years from his life. He often becomes a moral lesson – be like Joseph when you are sexually tempted and unjustly accused, and God will exalt you as He did Joseph. I strongly resist that view of the life of Joseph. God’s not conforming me to the image of Joseph. He’s conforming me to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Joseph’s story is powerful because it reveals God, not because it reveals Joseph. My circumstances will be distinctly different than Joseph’s, but my God is the same.
Yet there is much to learn from Joseph’s story, particularly of our God. The naming of Joseph’s son is one such place. Many thoughts hit me as I meditate on why Joseph named his son Ephraim (which sounds like the Hebrew word for fruitful). First, it’s counterintuitive. Joseph was fruitful in the very place that should have sucked the life out of him. That paradox intrigues me. But, second, I resist the name, because I don’t want to be fruitful in the land of my affliction. I want God to END my affliction, and then I want to be fruitful in the beautiful land I imagined would be God’s best for His children. However, like Joseph, I am powerless to end whatever troubles plague me, and I get impatient waiting for God to move. It is in those moments that I wrestle with God, “How can I do what You have called me to do in THESE circumstances?!”
Once I calm down and take an objective look at Scripture, it finally hits me that no one in Scripture seems to be very fruitful EXCEPT in the land of their affliction. In fact, you can argue from Scripture that suffering, affliction, and death to self are essential to God’s plan for fruitfulness in His children.
John 12:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
I have situations in my life that plague me, that I would desperately love to see changed. God tells me to pray for His will to be done, for His name to be hallowed, and for His kingdom to come. I long for those things to come about in my home, in my neighborhood, in my church, and in the larger Body of Christ. But in the midst of waiting for the affliction to end and God’s kingdom to come, I am blessed by God’s story in the life of Joseph, and I meditate on what it looks like to be fruitful in the very places from which I would most like to be delivered.  Joseph’s story reminds me that affliction doesn’t end the possibility of fruitfulness but may instead be the very thing that prepares the ground for “fruit that remains.”
John 15:16 NAS “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain … “

I hope you will believe with me today that God has a plan to bear fruit in our lives not just despite the affliction and struggles we wish would leave our lives but through those very struggles, using them as the actual conduit for this fruitfulness. God uses the hardest parts of the story of believer after believer in Scripture to bear beautiful fruit for His name.  This is His calling card.  It is the God of Joseph’s story that causes me to hope in the midst of struggle.

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Equipped by the Gospel for a Habakkuk 3 Kind of Thanksgiving

I wrote last year on A Habakkuk 3 Kind of Thanksgiving.

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;  I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

Many dear friends of mine are approaching the holidays in the midst of such a season. Divorce. Estrangement from children. Financial crisis. Physical suffering. Death of precious loved ones. One friend recounted leaving a church service at Thanksgiving because he just couldn’t put up with everyone’s thankful testimonies when so much was going wrong in his life. Thanksgiving became a catalyst for his crisis of faith. He’s emerged from that season, praise God. But I heard him clearly. When you are hurting, American Thanksgiving in conservative Christian culture can be salt on an open wound.

God preserved Habakkuk 3 in His living, active Word to us. Though written in a different time and culture, Habakkuk’s words of faith in his barren wasteland are words of faith to us today whatever our circumstances. Instead of wrestling with God over why He has allowed such devastation to take place, Habakkuk takes joy in God. When I think about it in its literal sense, I love the idea of taking joy in God. God is the author of this joy. Habakkuk takes it first from God and then takes it into God. There are all kind of mental pictures this provokes in my head. The main thing I get from this imagery is that such joy exists close to the throne room. It’s in God, from God, by God, and to God. It is joy that is accessed in my quiet chair with the Bible in my hand, and joy that is best renewed by returning to that Bible and kneeling beside it in prayer.

Why do such quiet moments with a Bible in prayer make a difference? When Jesus died for us, the veil was torn between us and the Holy of Holies. Now, we have access to God’s Throne of Grace. We can boldly and confidently come to Him and receive the grace and mercy we need to face our own barren wastelands. He does not leave us as orphans to navigate this. If you struggle to access this joy, I encourage you to preach the gospel to yourself anew. Here are some meditations on the gospel that may be helpful.

If you are in the barren wasteland asking where God is, He answers you from Habakkuk 3. “I am here, child. I am here in my Word, communicating to you that you are not the first of my children to spend extended time in the wasteland. You are not alone. And as Habakkuk found me in the wasteland, I am here for you too. There is still joy to be had in Me. Take it! Even in the barren wasteland, I give you My strength. I will make you graceful like a deer in this awful season, standing firm in treacherous places.”

Jobs come, and jobs go. Fig trees blossom. Fig trees die. Loved ones grow in faith. Loved ones walk away. But God is transcendent. And we really do, even in the wasteland, have something for which to be very, very thankful. God has not left you as an orphan in this wasteland. He knows where you are at, and He has met you in His Word. Take the joy this day that He freely offers you in Him through His word.

Hebrews 4:16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 
2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
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