Monday, November 9, 2009
Since January 2005, for whatever sovereign reason, the Lord has taken me on a journey of studying suffering in the lives of His saints. Though not actively seeking this path, I have found myself time and time again learning of the purposes for which God has called Christians to suffer. From sermons to studies to self-experiences, I have been drawn to take a deeper look at that which is dreaded but inevitable. Bro. Brent Summerhill, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Cabot, Arkansas, (my home church) is currently preaching through a series on Joseph's life entitled Roots Grow Deep in Winter. This series has put into words that which has been formulating in my heart over the last four years. Maybe you are like me, and grew up with the idea that as a Christian life should be grand. Doing right should equate to the 'good life' and those who were having hard times were getting their 'just deserts'. For the good Christian, life should be 'heaven on earth'! And suffering should be a reality check. What factors led me to this type of thinking? Probably a combination of parental ideals, Sunday school teachings, and my own interpretation of the way things should be. I suppose that was exactly why the Lord decided to challenge my way of thinking by bringing me face to face with ideas like those from Dr. John Piper's book Don't Waste Your Life. And face to face with patients who were deeply spiritual and yet still were facing the loss of an unborn infant. I realize my conventional theology was corrupt from the very starting block. Scripture says so. And I believe God is going to work through my life to allow whatever suffering I encounter to bring Him glory and further His kingdom - more than it could be furthered by my "good deeds=easy life" mentality. Let me just say a word about marriage. Perhaps you are a newly married person who is finding him or herself coming down off of the "high" of having fallen in love. You are realizing that love is tough, and marriage is hard, and maybe even that the person you married is not who you thought they were. Reality is striking a knock-out punch. Or perhaps you are through with what you believe is a wasted life-endeavour of marriage to a person who has been nothing but ungrateful and unloving toward you for years. While I haven't experienced all of these emotions, I know there are many, many women who have. In either scenario, you feel cheated and you don't want to suffer another minute. May I challenge you to continue reading? If nothing else, for the sake of the vows you spoke before God and man. It is my prayer that as you take a second look at suffering through the lens of the Scripture, you will see that God can redeem and that he ALWAYS has a plan and a purpose when His children suffer. Remember, Satan had to approach God first before he could get at Job. A marriage that has been through war and back can, with God's help, be matured, beaten, broken and mended and better than it has ever been before. (paraphrase from Sarah Markley) (Of course, if you are in physical danger from your spouse, please get away from him/her and seek help. God cannot work in your relationship if you are dead; and your spouse needs a wake-up call) Let's face it, it only takes a few times around the block of life before the Lord feels distant or (dare I say it?) non-existant. On this earth we can encounter some HORRIBLE times and events, even (and especially) as Christians. In Joseph's story, he was being thrown in prison through no fault of his own and because of something he didn't do. Anyone out there feel like YOU are in a prison? Satan likes to attack us until we feel trapped and alone. Scripture makes one thing clear, though: "But the Lord was with Joseph..." is a phrase repeated in this story in Genesis. In the passages following this one, we can see that not only was God with Joseph, but that he was working through his prison experience to get him back to the palace!! Because of the hurt you are experiencing right now, you may be thinking "Palace? What Palace? There's a palace to be gained from this?" It is not I who say this to you, but the Lord...and his answer is "YES!" Now, allow me to clarify the concept of palace. I do not believe that God has an agenda of wealth, prosperity, and health on the other side of our struggles. But I do believe this: that each one of us who are His sons and daughters have a mansion that awaits us in the coming ages in Heaven. But aside from the next life, I also believe that God wants to use our lives to glorify Him and satisfy ourselves. And those two are not mutually exclusive... Suppose you are in a boat similar to Joseph's at the time of his imprisonment. It can be very hard to lift your mind out of the depths of despair and discouragement that plague us through sufferings. A good place to change your gears of thought could be contemplating how "It could have been worse..." For Joseph, it definitely could have been worse. He could have easily been executed by Potiphar instead of being sentenced to prison. In prison, he could have been killed by inmates or solitarily confined. Instead, it was during this time in prison that God continued developing the masterpiece of Joseph's life. Satan was conniving, but God was creative. How could your situation be/have been worse? Reflection upon such an idea causes us to trace the hand of God even when that which surrounds us is dark and dismal. It sheds light upon His continued mercy and blessings, which are indicative that He is still with us. Joseph's story is a perfect example to us that integrity is no assurance of a life without problems. Jesus Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, suffered immensly - both in His life and on the cross. What more can we expect? Paul's writings are riddled with accounts of suffering for the cause of Christ, all of which he counted as a privelege. We WILL suffer - but not because of the curse of sin that had us bound. What we were once so deserving of, death and hell, has been cancelled for each of God's believers. So to the age-old question of "Why do good things happen to bad people?" we can answer "What is amazing is not the bad things that happen to us, but the good!!" Now our suffering takes on a whole new meaning. Its purpose is to enable us to identify further with Christ's sufferings and so to become more like Him. Whether the cause of our suffering is natural (disease) or man-made (caused by others) is, so to speak, irrelevant. This is how we can reconcile the two facts that Joseph's life exuded integrity yet he was plagued with repeated delimmas. Responding negatively to our trials and sufferings can diminish the potential for joy that exists in our situations. Paul says to "consider it pure joy, fellow believers, when you face trials of any kind". Why joy? Because trials have a way of chiseling at us until we are mature, complete, and more like Christ. THAT kind of joy - more like the Savior! The benefits of what we have gained through knowing Christ and His cross far outweigh anything negative we will face on this earth. Again, Paul said it best in Philippians 3:8, "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ." Satan may be the cause of your problem, but he can't be the cause of your unhappiness IF your delight is in the Lord. Remember these words from my former pastor: "The Lord's favor is most clearly seen against the backdrop of suffering."