Archive | Suffering

The Encouragement of the Scriptures

A lot of the time, I am relatively strong. I persevere. I encourage others. I like to think of myself as Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, or Phoebe in Romans, or Ruth. But every few weeks (at least I hope it’s only that often), I get seriously discouraged. Stay in the bed, can’t stop crying discouraged. It’s not a generic depression requiring treatment, though I imagine it could become that. It’s always tied (and has been my whole life) to a consistent theme – simply that this world is not right. It is not as it should be. Relationships aren’t as they should be. Work isn’t as it should be. Health isn’t as it should be. The Church isn’t as it should be. And most sobering of all, *I* am not as I should be. God does not have to talk me into praying that His kingdom would come. I know good and well that it is only He and His rule that will set everything right in this world. And I long for it. I pray for it. I seek it.

On a good day, I know His kingdom is at hand, and I have hope that He is perfecting His Body to be revealed in all her glory very soon. But not every day is a good day. Some days, the marathon that is the Christian life overwhelms me. Every day, I feel like I’m trudging upstream against a raging current. But on those days, it feels like weights have been attached to my ankles. And then my wrists. And then my back. My ability to trudge upstream against the current slips. I feel myself moving slower. And then I come to a dead stop, the weight of the current threatening to overtake me. In those moments, I cry out, “God, please move!” I just want God to do SOMETHING. I want Him to move in some way that I can document. To do something for me that I can’t mistake that reminds me that He’s there and He has a plan. Pay a bill through unexpected means. Have someone call me with a heart for Christ that I thought was dead to Him. I want reconciliation in unresolved conflicts. Healing where there has been long-term illness. Hearts passionate for Him that once were stone cold.

And He does none of it for me.

He doesn’t resolve the unresolved conflict. He doesn’t bring healing to the debilitating illness. Stone cold hearts remain stone cold. At least it seems that way to me. To me, in that moment, there seems a complete lack of movement on His part. I cry out again—“please God, won’t you MOVE?! I need ENCOURAGEMENT.” Again, silence.

Finally, after hours of this, I stumble over to the Word. I am reading through Romans, and there it is in tonight’s reading.

Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

I have long since learned not to go looking through Scripture for a verse to make me feel better. Instead, I read straight through books of the Bible. I have found that God is much better at finding me in Scripture than I am of finding Him. When God speaks to me in unexpected places in His Word, it increases my faith in ways that a sudden healing from illness or bill paid out of nowhere cannot do. He says it Himself again and again—His Word is His sword. It tenderizes hearts and builds them back up again. It is His self-revelation to us, and it contains EVERYTHING that pertains to life and godliness. And as I read Romans 15, sure enough, those words written in the former days for my instruction gave me endurance and encouragement and HOPE.

The truth is that God IS healing the sick. He is resolving conflicts. He is paying bills through unexpected means. He is turning stone cold hearts into living things passionate for Him. But that’s not where I’ll find my source for enduring. I certainly can get comfort from seeing such things, but I get long-term encouragement and hope from the Scriptures. May I never forsake them or underestimate them in those moments of discouragement.

Thorns in the Flesh

I read a Facebook update today in which a reasonably healthy friend experienced health issues out of nowhere that are likely going to be something he has to deal with for the rest of his life. My first reaction was concern and hope for healing. My second reaction (not spoken publicly) was a realistic, “Welcome to the world of the chronically ill.” And I didn’t mean it with sarcasm. I meant it seriously. Welcome, dear friend, to the world of the thorn in the flesh that God does not remove. As you adjust to its pain and inconveniences, know that it will also bring unusual blessing to you as it distracts you from much that does not matter in this life and makes those things that do matter seem much more precious.

I Cor. 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. 9But 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.

Paul doesn’t say exactly what his thorn in the flesh was. Speculation is that it had to do with poor eyesight that caused him to have to dictate his letters to an assistant. He does call it a messenger of Satan to harass him. There’s an interesting tension here between his trust in God’s sovereign control over this thorn and his belief that it comes from Satan. But even if Satan has sent the thorn to harass him, an uninvited guest that impedes his progress and annoys him persistently, Paul is still confident in God’s supernatural ability to thwart Satan’s purposes for this thorn and replace them with His own good purposes.

What is God’s good purpose in this thorn? It is a simple purpose with profound results – humility. God’s purpose is to keep Paul, who was entrusted with an incredible privilege in sharing the gospel, from becoming conceited. The purpose was TO MAKE HIM WEAK. That is so opposite our views of what makes an influential leader. We want our leaders fit and handsome. But God instead allows affliction that brings Paul low, for it takes us being in that state to hear some of the most beautiful words from God to His children in all of Scripture. “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Wow! God says basically “I will be enough for you to accomplish what I want you to accomplish. Your weakness opens the door for my supernatural strength to become fully realized in you.”

So, welcome, friend, to the world of the chronic thorn in the flesh. It may be cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, glaucoma. It may be a long-term financial burden, caring for a disabled loved one, or what have you. The main characteristic of it is that it isn’t going away, and it seems like something that is going to keep you from doing the things for the Lord you thought you would do. But really, it does the exact opposite. As Satan harasses you with it, God opens your eyes to your utter dependence on Him in a way you didn’t fully grasp before. And then, in HIS strength when you have absolutely none of your own, He accomplishes things that you never thought possible.

Thorns hurt. They are not pleasant. They don’t get easier. They remain an agent in our lives that makes us weak. But I love God’s supernatural ability to transform the worst that Satan throws our way into the very things that accomplish His gospel purposes through us.

9 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.

Oswald Chambers On Disillusionment

This is from the updated version of Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest. Thanks to my good friend Mary for sending this to me.

The Teaching of Disillusionment

Jesus did not commit Himself to them . . . , for He knew what was in man —John 2:24-25

Disillusionment means having no more misconceptions, false impressions, and false judgments in life; it means being free from these deceptions. However, though no longer deceived, our experience of disillusionment may actually leave us cynical and overly critical in our judgment of others. But the disillusionment that comes from God brings us to the point where we see people as they really are, yet without any cynicism or any stinging and bitter criticism. Many of the things in life that inflict the greatest injury, grief, or pain, stem from the fact that we suffer from illusions. We are not true to one another as facts, seeing each other as we really are; we are only true to our misconceived ideas of one another. According to our thinking, everything is either delightful and good, or it is evil, malicious, and cowardly.

Refusing to be disillusioned is the cause of much of the suffering of human life. And this is how that suffering happens— if we love someone, but do not love God, we demand total perfection and righteousness from that person, and when we do not get it we become cruel and vindictive; yet we are demanding of a human being something which he or she cannot possibly give. There is only one Being who can completely satisfy to the absolute depth of the hurting human heart, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord is so obviously uncompromising with regard to every human relationship because He knows that every relationship that is not based on faithfulness to Himself will end in disaster. Our Lord trusted no one, and never placed His faith in people, yet He was never suspicious or bitter. Our Lord’s confidence in God, and in what God’s grace could do for anyone, was so perfect that He never despaired, never giving up hope for any person. If our trust is placed in human beings, we will end up despairing of everyone.

The Holidays Clarify Our Pain

I have spent my fair share of Christmases crying under the Christmas tree in the dark, staring at the lights on the tree dreaming of the Christmas I want rather than the Christmas I have. This Christmas, I am joyfully anticipating family time, and I thank God that I don’t anticipate crying under the tree this year. But I’ve had enough lonely Christmases in the past, longing for something different, to respect the fact that many of you who follow this blog are entering a season that puts a harsh spotlight on the losses in your life. Perhaps you lost something you had — a child, a spouse, a parent, a relationship. Perhaps you feel the loss of something you long to have but have not yet gotten to hold — infertility, singleness.

The holidays clarify our pain. They make it very clear exactly what we are longing for and exactly what we are mourning. It is very hard to distract ourselves from our losses during this season. If you find yourself in this place, spotlight shining on your losses so that you can not escape the pain whether sitting under the tree, singing a carol, buying a gift, or opening a present, here are some thoughts from someone who has been there before.

1) It’s ok to feel your loss. Despite what you likely sense, everyone else is not enjoying the holidays unconditionally. You are not alone in your loneliness. There is not something wrong with you. Or actually, there is something wrong, but there is something wrong with all of us. So don’t let the feelings of isolation go unanswered in your own head. You may feel that you are alone and no one else understands the weight of your loss you carry through the holidays, but the truth is that MANY of your brothers and sisters in Christ are carrying such burdens and you are not alone in your loss.

2) Holiday pain can also clarify what you do have. Screw turkeys and cranberry sauce. Forget gifts given and received. Stocking stuffers are over rated. Instead, understand that your circumstances also shine a spotlight on Christ. When you aren’t distracted by (or enamored by as many of us are) Christmas frivolities, we recognize the void that can only be filled by one thing — Christ Himself. It was during lonely Christmases that I discovered Colossians 1 and sat under a tree reading it to myself. It sustained me, not just for a season, but I’ve gone back to that passage for a lifetime.

I’ll leave you with Colossians 1, this passage that tells us exactly Who arrived in the manger that night. As the holidays spotlight the pain of your losses, I encourage you to let God’s description of His Son shine an alternate spotlight on all you have in Him this season.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

May your holiday season clarify your identity in Christ alone. See you in the New Year.

An Anthology of Posts on Endurance, Suffering, Trust, Etc.

I can’t believe the number of hits one post on verbally violent elders has generated. The comments were thoughtful, and I enjoyed the discussion. Now, I want to shine a light on a focus of this blog over the last year–endurance, perseverance, and hope in suffering. If you are waiting, enduring, or just barely hanging on, watching the gulf between what you thought your life would be and what the reality currently is, here are posts that you may find encouraging.

1) This World Is Not My Home

2) Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

3) Learning Obedience through Suffering

4) Job, Screwtape, and Our Testimony in the Heavenly Places

Learning Obedience through Suffering

Hebrews 5: 8 Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.

I don’t think there is a more perplexing verse in Scripture than this. Jesus was sinless and perfect. How did He LEARN obedience?! But for this post, I want to put aside questions that deal with the interplay of His humanity and divinity and instead focus on the simple idea of learning obedience through suffering. What does this verse indicate to us about the interplay of suffering with God’s sanctification in our lives? In Hebrews 5, Scripture just briefly touches on this idea. But in Hebrews 12, we get a deeper look.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts the encouragement I receive from this cloud of witnesses. There are the Biblical witnesses listed in Hebrews 11. But I can add some modern ones that encourage me as well. Joni Eareckson Tada, Corrie Ten Boom, Elizabeth Eliott … . What is it about these ladies that has set them apart for peculiar ministry and makes them effective witnesses from the sidelines of the character and worth of God? No one wants to say it, but it is their suffering. Joni Eareckson Tada has had a lifetime of physical suffering. The tragic murder of Elizabeth Eliott’s husband set the stage for her ministry. And Corrie Ten Boom is known for the shame and betrayal she endured at the hands of so called Christians for her compassion toward Jews in the holocaust. Suffering. Pain. Betrayal. And sometimes that betrayal seemed to come from God Himself.

3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Do not regard lightly God’s discipline. Do not be weary when He rebukes and chastens you. Remember first that God’s discipline is not punishment. It’s not that you stupidly missed some lesson He was trying to teach you the easy way. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a 100 times from friends going through trials–“I just wish I could learn whatever God was trying to teach me so that He could stop this situation.” And they wrestle in frustration trying to figure out what magic action or attitude from them will suddenly release them from their struggle. But that misses the entire point of discipline, God’s proactive training in righteousness. He’s killing in us our affection for this world and its attractions. He’s preparing us for eternity. But though we want the physical stamina to be ready to run the triathalon, we don’t want to learn endurance through long runs day after day after day. But there is no other way to learn endurance. If you want Christian maturity, there is no other way to learn it. You must suffer. You must endure. You must experience the testing of your faith for the long haul. I submit that there is no other way to become conformed to the image of Christ.

7It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

You are enduring for the sake of discipline, i. e. training in righteousness. And God does this for ALL His children. Don’t envy those who seem to not be enduring hardship. I won’t draw too much in the way of conclusions from this verse on the fate of those who seem to have it easy, but suffice it to say, God disciplines ALL His true children.

9Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.

That we may share in His holiness! We are conformed to the image of Christ through suffering and the endurance of discipline. There is something about the exposure of sin and lack of faith that can ONLY come through extended suffering. God exposes to us parts of our character and shows His adequacies in comparison to our complete inadequacies in a way we can never get through success or accolades or times of plenty.

11 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.

The peaceful fruit of righteousness. I want that. This is why we shouldn’t despise painful times of endurance–LATER it will yield the beautiful golden fruit of enduring peace based on authentic righteousness. How wonderful! That is the best of fruits indeed.

If you are in a season of suffering and endurance, here is my encouragement.

1) Look to Jesus. Every moment of every day when the mental battles threaten to crush you, think on Jesus. This world is not your home. Jesus is your Bridegroom, and He looks on you with love, mercy, and grace in your time of need. Think of Him ministering to the woman at the well. Reread the story of His love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus or His rebuke of the accusers of Mary Magdalene. Hang on to Him mentally, and do not let go!

2) Do not DESPISE God’s discipline. Recognize it for what it is–not God’s punishment of you, but His training of you which ALL His children must participate in.

2) Open your hands in acceptance and ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE TRAINED BY IT. For me, this acceptance isn’t a one time thing. I have to weekly (or daily) literally open my hands to God and accept those things He has allowed into my life to train me in righteousness.

3) Then get up and go forward. The end of this section of Hebrews words it much better than I ever could.

12Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

Some people don’t want to hear this. They can’t handle the truth. But if you would like to read more from authors who get this truth, I recommend The Path of Loneliness by Elisabeth Elliot and Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie.

What’s the opposite of grumbling?

Our church is going through a series on Philippians. Last week, our pastor preached on “do all things without grumbling and questioning” from Philippians 2. Having been raised in the church, I’ve heard a number of sermons on this passage that amount to the pastor (or college president or missions leader) bludgeoning the listeners over the head with the verse because someone dared to question some decision he made. But this week, I heard this verse preached in context of the whole message of Philippians and really in context of the whole message of the Bible. My pastor’s gospel-centered look at this verse this week resulted in a profoundly different response from me. I have actually listened to this sermon three times and replayed parts of it even more. In a brief 26 minutes, God spoke to me through His word in profound ways.

If you are struggling with a loss or lack in your life and tired of the weak Christian response of just buck it up or count your blessings, please listen to this sermon. I can’t recommend it highly enough.