Then shall those powers, which work for grief,
Enter thy pay,
And day by day
Labour thy praise, and my relief;
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more thee.
George Herbert, “Affliction IV”
There is nothing more practical for sufferers than to have hope. When a person has no hope, suffering becomes unendurable. The Bible provides us with the ultimate hope—a material world in which all suffering is gone—“every tear wiped from our eyes.”
1Then I saw a new earth (with no oceans!) and a new sky, for the present earth and sky had disappeared. 2 And I, John, saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven. It was a glorious sight, beautiful as a bride at her wedding. 3 I heard a loud shout from the throne saying, “Look, the home of God is now among men, and he will live with them and they will be his people; yes, God himself will be among them. 4 He will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All of that has gone forever.” 5And the one sitting on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:1-5a NLT)
The Apostle John wrote these words to people who were suffering terrible persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian near the end of the first century. Their homes were being plundered and taken, they were torn apart by beasts in the arena as crowds watched. Others were impaled on stakes and while still alive covered with pitch and set on fire. John did not give them a message of revolt or revolution. Revolutions, even when successful, often lead to great(er) disappointment. He gave them the ultimate hope—a new heavens and a new earth. And it worked. The early Christians faced this suffering with great poise and peace. They sang hymns as they were torn apart by beasts and forgave the people killing them. And the more that died, the more the Christian movement grew. Why? Because others saw that these people died well. “These people have got something.” They did, a living hope.
Humans are hope-shaped beings. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future. Two people can face the same circumstances, one without hope and the other with hope. The one without hope will wither and the one with hope endure. What do you believe will happen when you die? Rot? Is this world all the happiness you will ever have? Or do you believe in a judgment day when all injustices will be brought to light and righted? Do you believe in an eternal future of endless joy? Those are two utterly different futures, and depending on which one you believe in, you are going to handle your suffering in two utterly different ways.
An example of how a hope-filled future changes lives is the Negro spiritual. These songs were the mainstay of enslaved African-Americans. These songs deepened the capacity for endurance; it taught a people how to ride high in life, to look squarely in the face those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned a hope that the environment with all its cruelty could not crush. The believed the Christian faith and there knew that all their desires would be fulfilled and that no perpetrator of injustice would get away it anything. They had a hope that no amount of oppression could extinguish because their hope was not in the present, but in the future.
Our secular society tells us that this world is all there is, that the truths of the Bible are at best symbolic encouragements, at worst, wishful thinking or myths. “There isn’t a Judgment Day that will put all things right but I still want you to live with hope and fearlessness.” I would reply, “Let me get this straight. You tell me this life is all there is, and if we fail to achieve happiness here and now we will never find it at all. And I am still supposed to live with my head held high? Give me my old hope back. It didn’t depend on political fortunes!”
None of us is likely to be thrown to lions and torn limb from limb as people cheer, and probably none of us will experience a life of servitude and slavery. If this Christian hope helped the early Christians face martyrdom and the slaves face injustice, surely it can help you face the pressures of day to day life!
Believers with this hope can face all types of difficulties, even death. If the death of Christ happened for us and he bore our hopelessness that now we can have hope—and if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened—then even the worst things will turn into the best things and the greatest are yet to come.
If we know what the Bible teaches about suffering and we have engaged these truths with our hearts and minds, then when grief, pain and loss come, we won’t be surprised but can respond ways laid out in Scripture. In summary:
1. Recognize the varieties of sufferings. Some afflictions are brought on by wrong behavior; others by betrayals or as a result of attacks by others. Then there are the universal experiences that everyone faces regardless of how they live. A final form of suffering is the horrendous—mass shootings, evil dictators. Suffering may come as a combination of one or more these four types. Each kind of suffering comes with different feelings: the first brings shame and guilt, the second, anger and resentment; the third grief and fear; the fourth confusion and perhaps anger at God. These types of suffering call for some common responses, but each also requires its own specific response.
2. There are distinctions in temperament between people. We must be careful not to think that the way God helped others through the fire will be the same way he will help you. Affliction may result in feelings of isolation, self-absorption, condemnation, anger and "complicity" with the pain. These factors may be stronger or weaker depending on one’s temperament.
3. There is weeping. It is crucial to be brutally honest with yourself and God about your pain and sorrow. Do not deny or try to control your feelings in the name of being faithful. Pour out your soul to God. He is very patient with us when we are desperate.
4. There is trusting. Although we are encouraged to pour out our hearts to God with emotional honesty, we are also summoned to trust God’s wisdom (since he is sovereign) and his love (since he has been through it all before).
5. There is praying. Although Job did a lot of complaining and cursed the day he was born—he did it all in prayer. In suffering, you must read the Bible and pray and attend worship even if it is dry or painful. If you can’t love God, you must want to love God or at least ask him to help you love him.
6. We must practice disciplined thinking. Meditate on Biblical truth and gain the perspective that comes from remembering what God has done and will do for you. Following the pattern in Psalm 42, practice “self-communion.” This is both listening to your heart before God and talking to your heart. This is not forcing yourself to feel a certain way, but rather directing your thoughts until your heart, sooner or later, is engaged.
7. We must be willing to do some self-examining. One biblical image for suffering is the “gymnasium.” While not all suffering is caused by our thoughts or actions, we must use the time of adversity to look at ourselves and ask—how do I need to grow? What weaknesses is this time of suffering revealing?
8. We must learn to reorder our loves. Suffering reveals the things we love too much or love God too little in proportion to them. Our suffering is often aggravated and doubled because we turned good things into ultimate things.
9. We should not shirk community. Suffering can isolate. The suffering members of the early church drew strength from each other. The “died well” not because they were rugged, tough individuals but because the church was a place of unparalleled sympathy and support. Our churches should be filled with people who support, not people like Job’s friends.
10. Some forms of suffering, particularly the first and second listed above in #1, require skill at receiving grace and forgiveness from God and giving grace and forgiveness to others. When adversity reveals moral failure of character flaws, we must repent and seek reconciliation. When our suffering is caused by betrayal and injustice, it is crucial to learn forgiveness and forgive from the heart.
Material taken/quoted from Tim Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, chapter 16 and 17.
- Written by Keith
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The apostle Paul was one of Biblical characters who experienced a great deal of innocent suffering. Even at the point of his initial calling (Acts 9:15-16), God said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Paul himself states (Acts 14:22) that is only “through many tribulations that we may enter the kingdom of God.” Six different times Paul catalogues his suffering (Rom 8:35; 1 Cor. 4:9ff 2 Cor. 4:8-9; 6:4-5; 11:23-39; 12:10). Together these experiences cover an enormous range of physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships, including hunger, imprisonment, and betrayals. He was flogged (39 lashes) five times (2 Cor. 12:25-29) and concludes, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?”
How did Paul handle these troubles and maintain a positive ministry? Paul himself confessed that “the troubles we experienced were a great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” But he concludes that these things happened “that we might not rely on ourselves but God.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). Paul saw a purpose in these afflictions, stating that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (1 Cor. 1:4) So if we want to know how Paul succeeded, we should study the instructions he gave to others in difficulty.
The Peace That Passes Understanding
One important passage in this regard is Philippians 4 (esp. vv. 4-12).
What is the “peace of God” he describes? This passage describes two elements of this peace. In verses 11-12, Paul states, “I have learned the secret of being content in every situation.” This means he was the same in one situation as in another. We may be facing bills or difficult boss; Paul was facing torture and death. If we read these verses carefully we don’t read the words of a tough guy, “I can handle it. I’m a man of steel. I was born for trouble.” Instead Paul states, “I have learned this.” It was not natural to him. This peace of God does not come naturally to any of us either. We can learn to face any situation with equilibrium.
The other thing element of this peace is that it is not an absence of something—it is a presence of something. Paul is not saying he was not afraid, but that in the midst of all these things he felt a presence; he was protected. The word translated “guard” (v. 7) means to completely surround and fortify a building or a city to protect it from invasion. Many modern strategies for facing anxiety involve removing certain thoughts: “don’t think negative thoughts, control your negative thoughts.” The peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself. “The God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:9). Christian peace does not start with ousting negative thoughts or refusing to see how bad things really are. You might be able to achieve some measure of calm by refusing to see the situation realistically. But this will be a short-lived peace. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them.
True peace does not come from positive thinking or willpower. It is a sense that no matter what happens, everything will ultimately be all right, even though is not right at the moment. No matter what is thrown at you, you know it will not make you lose your footing. Paul is the classic example. He experiences wave after wave of affliction, and yet—there he is still. “I have found a way to be completely poised under any and all circumstances.” Paul states that this was not a natural talent, he learned it and we can also. Christian peace is an inner calm and equilibrium but also a sense of God’s presence and an almost reason-transcending sense of his protection.
What are the disciplines needed to achieve this peace? While these are not intended as a pat formula, Paul gives us three types of disciplines to build God’s peace into our lives.
The Discipline of Thinking
In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul instructs us to think on noble and pure things. Most commentators agree that Paul is not directing us to meditate on the “lofty thought for the day,” but rather on the specific teaching of the Bible about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature and God’s plan for the world—the plan of salvation. Paul uses the word logizdomai, a word taken from accounting, sometimes translated “to reckon” or “to count up.” Paul is saying if you want peace, think hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible.
Modern society says “Are you stressed, unhappy, or anxious? Let’s practice relaxation or work-rest balance. Go sit on the beach and think positive thoughts.” Western secular culture answers in this way because it is perhaps the first society that operates without any answers to the big questions of life. If there is no God, we are here essentially by accident, and when we die, we are only remembered for a little while. If this is true then it is not surprising that secular books on stress never ask the big questions like “what are we here for.” Instead we are encouraged not to think hard and just relax.
This is not the way of God’s peace. Paul is saying that Christian peace works in almost exactly the opposite way. Christian peace comes not from thinking less but thinking more, and more intensely about the big issues of life. In Romans 8:18 Paul uses logizdomai again, “I reckon that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us.” “Reckon” means to count up accurately. You don’t get this kind of peace by relaxing, jogging or shopping. It means “Think it out! Think about the glory coming until the joy begins to break in on you.”
Some might object, “I don’t need lessons on doctrine, I need comfort!” But wait! The Bible teaches that Jesus came into this world, suffered and died so that one day he will wipe away every tear. If you truly believe this then this is the greatest possible comfort you could obtain. If you don’t believe this than you are stuck here for 70 or 80 years to suffer and you must grab all the happiness you can while you are here. If suffering takes away that happiness, you have lost it forever. Either Jesus is on the throne ruling all things for you or this is as good as it gets.
If you are a Christian today and have little or no peace it may be because you are not thinking. Peace comes from a disciplined thinking out of the implications of what you believe. We climb to the top of a mountain to get a true perspective of the country, to see the relationships. In the same way, we are called to think big and high. Realize who God is, what he has done, who you are in Christ, where history is going. Put your troubles in perspective. You could say that there is a “stupid peace” and a “smart peace.” Stupid peace refuses to think about the situation, instead drink up, sex up or shoot up and try not to think about the grand scheme of things. Smart peace comes when you think about the big picture and as you do, you are going to find peace.
The Discipline of Thanking
In Philippians 4:6, Paul says, “Don’t be anxious, but make requests to God with thanksgiving.” Paul is not saying be thankful after you know the response to your request, but thank him as you ask. Why should I thank God ahead of time? Paul is essentially calling upon us to trust God’s sovereign rule of history and of our lives. He is telling us that we will never be content unless, as we make our heartfelt requests, we also acknowledge that our lives are in his hands and he is wiser than we are. You are thanking him for whatever he is going to do with your request.
This is the essence of Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28. In Romans 8:28, Paul is not saying that everything has a silver lining or is good if you look at it correctly. What he is saying is that all things—even bad things—will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its design—a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Because God is sovereign we are to thank him—we are to live thankfully because we know he is like this. We are to thank him beforehand, we are to thank him for whatever he sends to us, even if we don’t understand it. We believe that God will always give us what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows. To the degree that we believe that, we will have peace.
The Discipline of Loving
In Philippians 4:8, Paul asks us to ponder “whatever is lovely…” Something “lovely” is something that is not only true but it is also attractive. Paul is urging his readers not just to order the thoughts of their mind but to engage the affections of the heart. To keep our equilibrium in the rough seas of life, it is not enough to just think the right things, it also important to love the right things.
The ancient Greek philosophers (esp. the Stoics) sought the way to live a life of contentment, to be independent of circumstances. But they also understood that if you love things you are not in control of, your contentment is not guaranteed. They suggested that you only love things under your own control; they suggested you love only your own virtue. However they were mistaken, because you do not control your own virtue. Augustine rejected the Stoic approach and argued that “only love of the immutable can bring tranquility.” Your own virtue, your career, your family, your fortunes will change. The reason we don’t have peace is that we are loving mutable things, things that circumstances can take away from us.
God, his presence and love are the only truly immutable things. He does not change. Your poor performance cannot change it. Even the worst possible trouble, your death, will only enhance God’s love in your life! Thus Augustine says, “[God alone] is the place of peace that cannot be disturbed.”
Does this mean that I should no longer love my family or even material comforts? No. Your problem is not so much that you love your career or family too much, but that you love God too little in proportion to them. C.S. Lewis stated, “…it is the smallness of our love for God, not the greatness of our love for the many that constitutes inordinacy.”
Relocating Your Glory
In Psalm 3, David is in a dire situation, surrounded by enemies and his people are whispering that God has deserted him. Yet David is able to lie down and sleep with contentment (v 5). How does he accomplish this? In verse 3, he states that God lifts up his head, God is his glory. Glory speaks about the source of David’s confidence and self-esteem. David realizes that he cannot obtain his “glory” from his people’s approval and praise. He had walked with head held high because of his acclaim and popularity but that doesn’t last through adversity. Now in the middle of adversity, he understands that God is his only glory.
In suffering something is taken from us. Inside, we are disproportionally cast down because the suffering is shaking out of our grasp something that we allowed to become more than just a good thing to us. It has become too important spiritually and emotionally. We looked at it as our honor and glory—the reason we could walk with our heads held up. We may claim Jesus as our savior but functionally we got our self-worth from something else. In suffering these “something elses” get shaken.
In verse 3 David is renews his commitment to God as his primary source of “glory.” Because of God’s great grace, we can lift our heads up confident in His love for us that will never change. When we suffer we must examine ourselves to see if our suffering has not been unnecessarily intensified because there are some things that we have set our hearts and hopes upon too much. We must relocate our glory and reorder our loves. Suffering almost always shows you that somethings you thought you couldn’t live without, you can live without if you lean on God. As we make God our source of glory, we find that suffering can sting and cause pain, but it can’t uproot us or overthrow us.
The Horrible, Beautiful Process
Suffering is like a furnace—painful, searing heat that creates beauty and purity. Here we see one way this works. Suffering puts its fingers on good things that have become too important to us. We must respond to suffering not by loving those things less, but by turning to God and loving him more and by putting our roots deeper in him. You never really understand your heart when things are going well. It is only when suffering comes that you realize who is the true God and what are the false gods of your life.
The Secret of Peace
So how do we love God more? You can’t do it by working directly on your emotions. Instead let your emotions flow naturally from what you are looking at. You have to look at Jesus and what he has done for you. Isaiah 57:20-21 says that those who do not love God have no peace. The natural consequence of centering your life on something other than God is a deep restlessness. By looking at the person and work of Christ you will come to love the immutable and find tranquility.
 Material taken/quoted from Tim Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, chapter 15.
- Written by Keith
- Category: Biblical Strategies for Facing Adversity
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So how do we respond when we face trouble? Honest grieving and realistic "lamenting" or trust God's unfathomable sovereignty. It's not either-or, but both-and. The scriptures teach both; both responses are proper responses to difficulty. Trusting God in the midst of difficulty is an important element of a believer's response to affliction. There is no better example of this than Joseph.
We are familiar with Joseph's story. But let's look a little deeper at the development of personalities and dynamics in this family. When we meet Joseph he was an older teen. He was Jacob's favorite, had expensive clothes, developing a prideful attitude and was already hated by his older brothers (Gen 37). He had two dreams in which his brothers and parents bow down to him. Did these dreams reflect an inner growing sense of superiority? (Why did he have to publicly announce those dreams?) Joseph was fast becoming a arrogant young man, a narcissist with unrealistic views of himself, who if unchecked would eventually have an inability to empathize with and love others. Joseph's brothers craved their father's love but didn't get it, poisoning their hearts with bitterness. The dynamics of amazing story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) reflect further on the nature of the brothers, callous, selfish men capable of real cruelty. (Would you sell your brother into slavery just because he got on your side of the back seat of the car?) Then Jacob inadvertently provides an opportunity for the true nature of these men to be manifested. Joseph is sold into slavery. Problem solved.
We are not told much about Joseph's spiritual life. But they say there are no foxhole atheists. If Joseph didn't pray much before, he certainly did now! He certainly cried out from the cistern, the slaver's caravan and pharaoh's dungeons. Did God answer? Joseph probably prayed for years and years for help from God—and never received a single answer. It is clear that God was doing something in Joseph's life in those dark years. God was using the darkness to form a man who would essentially become the savior of two nations! Later when the moment came when Joseph could extract revenge, God gave wisdom him on how to deal with his brothers. It may seem like Joseph was toying with his brothers, but could it be that God is using Joseph to force his brothers to relive their past and redeem them. Joseph actually gives them the opportunity to do with Benjamin what they had done with him. They now have the opportunity, once more, to rid themselves of their father's favorite and sacrifice him in order to secure their own lives and freedom. Kidner comments, "Joseph's strategy…now produces its master-stroke. Like the judgment of Solomon, the sudden threat to Benjamin was a thrust to the heart: in a moment the brothers stood revealed…all the conditions were present for another betrayal. … The response by its unanimity (13), frankness (16), and constancy (for the offer was repeated v17), showed how well the chastening had done its work." Judah goes so far as to offer himself as a substitutionary replacement! What a change.
The Hidden God
How does all of this relate to our suffering? From our perspective of history we look at Joseph's dark years and see that God was not "missing in action" at all. But when Joseph was praying in the cistern, in the caravan, in the prison everything seemed to be going so wrong. Had God forgotten Joseph in Egypt? No, he was there and he was working. God was hidden, but he was also in complete control!
Think for a moment about the long string of "accidents" and "coincidences" that brought Joseph to the position of prime minister in Egypt. Jacob had to send Joseph to find his brothers; if Jacob had known they were in Dothan which was a remote place farther way, he probably wouldn't have sent him. Joseph accidently meets a stranger who accidentally overheard where the brothers were. The brothers were in an isolated location and could do what they wanted with Joseph; Reuben happened to be away when the caravan "happened" by. Joseph was sold to the home of a woman who happened to fall in lust and Joseph was falsely accused. Joseph happened to meet the cup bearer who had a dream, who forgot about Joseph, but happened to remember him later when Pharaoh had a dream at a time just right to prevent a famine. Coincidences? Unless every one of these little events had happened just as they did—and so many of them were bad, terrible things—Joseph would have never been sent to Egypt. And who knows what Joseph would have become had he not gone to Egypt. Joseph would have been corrupted by his pride, the brothers by their anger, and Jacob by his addictive, idolatrous love of his youngest sons.
Joseph's story is a vivid and powerful illustration of the theological concept of a sovereign God. God was present at every point, and was working even in the smallest details of the daily lives and schedules and choices of everyone. "All things work according to the counsel of God" (Eph. 1:10-11; Rom. 8:28). Were the actions of Jacob, Joseph and the brothers justified because used those actions? No, they did wrong and no one forced them to do it. And they were being destroyed by the shame, inner guilt and depression. They needed a painful process by which they relived their evil behavior and were able to renounce it and get freedom and forgiveness. How did it come about? Through suffering. All went through terrible years of grief and depression. Yet how else could they have been saved physically and spiritually?
Trusting the Hidden God
If God had given everything Joseph probably asked for in prayer, it would have had terrible consequences. God essentially said no relentlessly, over and over, to nearly all Joseph's specific requests for a period of about twenty years. Many people would say, "If God is going to shut the door in my face every time I pray, year in and year out, then I give up." Despite all the years of unanswered prayer, Joseph was still trusting God. (He turned to God for interpretation of the dreams.) The point is this—God was hearing and responding to Joseph's prayers for deliverance, rescue, and salvation, but not in the ways or forms or times Joseph asked for. God seemed hidden, but Joseph still trusted. He had an intact relationship with the Lord.
It might be that we are more like Job than Joseph. Some of us may be allowed to discern God's plans in our troubles. More of us, never get to see that much of God's plan for our lives. Like Job, we never hear God boast about us in the heavenly councils. Most of us will likely see some, perhaps a little more of God's purposes in our lives as the years go by, but will never understand God's full plan on this side of eternity. But regardless of how much we are able to discern, like Joseph, we must trust God regardless.
Another desperate cry for help to God happened at Dothan many years later (2 Kings 6:8-32). Dothan had become a city and was being besieged by Syrian troops. Elisha and his servant were trapped in the city and the servant was terrified. Elisha prayed and God allowed the servant to see the "chariots of fire" God sent to deliver the city. Deliverance was immediate.
What a contrast. In Joseph's case, God appears to do nothing at all. In Elisha case, God answers with an immediate, massive miracle. Was God ignoring Joseph and responding to Elisha? No. God had been as watchful in his hiddenness as in any miracle. God was just as present and active in the slow answers to Joseph as in the swift answer to Elisha. God was just as lovingly involved in Joseph's situation as in Elisha's. It might be argued that Joseph's salvation, while less dramatic and supernatural, was greater in depth and breadth and effect. Joseph's story tells us that very often God does not give us what we ask for. Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows. We must never assume that we know enough to mistrust God's ways or be bitter against what he has allowed. We must also never think we have really ruined our lives, or have ruined God's good purposes in our lives. Ultimately we must trust God's love.
After Jacob died, the brothers again feared for their lives. Joseph's response (Gen 50:19-21) was "you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid." God took evil purposed it for good. (Rom. 8:31-38). No matter how bad things get, believers can be assured that God loves them. In Rom. 8:38-39, Paul says that he is absolutely certain of this.
Everything Hangs Together
The story of Joseph shows us that everything that happens is part of God's plan, even the little things and bad things. Perhaps you have a testimony of how God used little things to bring about his plan in your life. Yet very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is, and therefore you can be assured that he will not abandon you.
John Newton, the 18th century minister, wrote to a grieving sister, God "has a sovereign right to do with us as he pleases…his sovereignty is exercised in a way of grace… everything is needful that he sends, nothing can be needful that he withholds….You have need of patience and if you ask, the Lord will give it. But there can be no settled peace till our will is in a measure subdued. Hide yourself under the shadow of his wings; rely upon his care and power; look upon him as a physician who has graciously undertaken to heal your soul of the worst sickness, sin. Yield to his prescriptions, and fight against every thought that would represent it as desirable to be permitted to choose for yourself. … Above all keep close to the throne of grace. If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near to him, we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him."
The Ultimate Joseph
Jesus, like Joseph, suffered at the hands of people who harbored ill-will toward him. He died for his enemies, forgiving them because he understands God's redeeming purpose behind it all. Imagine yourself a disciple of Jesus. He is doing great miracles, giving amazing teaching and drawing larger and larger crowds. You imagine a golden age for Israel under his leadership (as many really did!) Now he is betrayed, tried and hanging on a cross. You hear people say, "I've had it with this God. How could he abandon the best man I've ever seen? I don't see how God could bring any good out of this." What would you say? Would you agree? Yet you are standing there looking at the greatest, most brilliant thing God could ever do for the human race. On the cross, both justice and love are being satisfied—evil, sin, and death are being defeated. You are looking at an absolute beauty, but because you cannot fit it into your own limited understanding, you are in danger of walking away from God. Don't do it. Do what Jesus did—trust God. Do what Joseph did—trust God even in the dungeon.
Again and again in the Bible, God shows that he is going to get his salvation done through weakness, not strength, because Jesus will triumph through defeat, will win by losing; he will come down in order to go up. In the same way, we get God's saving power in our life only through the weakness of repentance and trust. And, so often, the grace of God grows more through our difficulties than our triumphs.
- Written by Keith
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One cannot understand the Biblical teaching on suffering without coming to grips with the book of Job. No other book of the Bible, or any other ancient literature, faces the question of evil and suffering with such emotion and philosophical deftness. The main theme of Job is innocent suffering—why do so many good people have a disproportionate number of afflictions and tragedies, while many dishonest, selfish, and greedy people have comfortable lives? The book shows us that suffering is both a philosophical as well as a deeply personal issue.
Job is unique in that is critiques nearly all the common answers to the problem of suffering. The traditional religious response is:You must have done something wrong or bad. The secular answer is: There is no good reason. A good God wouldn’t allow this—so he doesn’t exist or he’s cruel. Both answers are given withering critiques in Job. The religious answer expressed by Job’s friends is revealed to be slanderously wrong: Job’s difficulties come upon him not despite his goodness, but because of it. But the nihilistic view, which Job veers toward at times, is also a grave mistake.
My Servant Job
The first two chapters of Job introduce us to a good and godly man, a man beyond reproach (1:1), a caring father and husband, deeply devoted to God, just and compassionate, successful and wealthy, the “greatest man” in the East (1:3). Suddenly Job is inexplicably overtaken by a series of disasters. Why? The reader is given a glimpse into events taking place in the heavenly councils which Job never sees. This view of heaven raises a lot of questions (why is Satan there?) that are not answered. (We should not build a speculative theology from about heaven, angels and Satan.) God points to Job as his finest servant (1:8). Satan responds the Job is in relationship with God merely for the benefits. “He doesn’t serve and love you. He is only loving himself, serving himself and using you to do it.” Satan is saying that obeying God is just an exercise in self-love and self-salvation. This is really an attack on God. If Job, God’s best servant, is a phony, then it means God has completely failed to make any men or women into his loving servants. Satan hates good. He knows the heart of love God has for humanity, so he wants to defeat God’s purpose to turn mankind into a joy-filled, great and good worshippers of him. Satan wants to frustrate the great desire of God’s heart.
Becoming “Free Lovers” of God
Thus God allows Satan to test Job. Why? God knew Job loved him, but God wanted to further refine this love. There is a difference between external religiosity and internal heart love and devotion to God. Do we love God for himself alone or for the benefits he brings? We may fall in love with a person for their “assets,” and as your relationship deepens and some of the assets go away, you don’t mind. We call this growth in love and character. If our relationship with God grows in this way, change in our circumstances wouldn’t bother us because we have a deeper relationship with God.
How does development take place? The primary way is through suffering. Suffering helps you assess yourself to see the mercenary nature of your relationship with God. It also gives you an opportunity to focus on God instead of giving up. Job was not fully the servant he should be, and could be, and God was going to enable him to attain that kind of greatness the only want it can be attained—through adversity and pain.
God and Evil
Some might read the first chapters of Job and conclude that Satan is on an equal footing with God, that life is a battlefield, a “crap shoot” because there is no one single force in charge. This is certainly not what Job teaches us. God is completely in charge; Satan can go so far, and no further. God is sovereign. We also learn from Job is that God is not inflicting these troubles on Job. While nothing happens outside of God’s plan, God does not will evil things like he wills the good. Evil and suffering and not God’s original intent for the world. They are only a temporary condition until the world is renewed.
Job’s initial response to the loss of his wealth and children is to express grief, he is not stoic. He still shows gratitude (“the Lord gave”) and deference to God (“the Lord has taken away”). But when he also loses his health, he loses his poise. He does not curse God, turn away from him or contemplate suicide. But he also struggles with what he sees as a great injustice.
The Speeches of Job and His Friends
The middle part of Job is three long cycles of speeches by Job and his friends who come to comfort him. Their message is clear. Job wouldn’t be suffering like this unless he had failed to pray, trust, or obey God in some way. Their approach is uncomfortably close to conventional evangelical piety. Yes, there is a moral order to universe, bad behavior can lead to painful circumstances; we should trust God and humble ourselves before him. We might be in the position of a David or Jonah. While his friends were technically right, they fail to understand the grace of God. They have a moralistic theology: suffering does not happen naturally—it only happens if you live wrongly and bring it on yourself. They were essentially saying that God can be managed—he is under obligation to human morality. They ignore Genesis 3:16. The world is broken by sin and bad things do happen to people regardless of how well they live.
Job (Ch. 6) rejects his friends’ analysis. It would have been easier for Job to go in either the traditional religious or irreligious direction. He refuses both; as a result his agony is enormous. He would rather die because he is concerned that he speak against God (6:8-10). In the following cycles, Job not only debates with his friends but also cries out to God, asking the perennial questions of sufferers—Why this? And Why me?
As readers we learn that Job’s sufferings are not punitive, they are not retribution for his sin. Neither are they corrective. Slowly but surely it emerges that the purpose of Job’s suffering is an enlarged life with God. If Job had agreed with his friends’ diagnosis, he would have missed the whole purpose of what he was experiencing. He was being called to live on a higher plane. Job seems to begin to understand this; he expresses a desire to meet God and hear directly from him. While God does appear and speak, there are four great shocks and surprises.
The Lord Appears—and Job Lives
(I.) The Lord shows up and does not destroy Job. He does appear to judge or crush Job. The term for God here is Yahweh, the name God uses with those in a covenantal, love relationship with Him. God answers. The Hebrew term used for God speaking to Job is not the idea of a one way communication, but a dialogue. God comes to invite Job into a relationship. (God even invites Job to have the final word! 42:1-6). God comes in his fullness and brings Job to an overwhelming experience of the reality of God. This is not a rebuke or warning about questioning God, but a gracious advent of a God who allows himself to be seen inasmuch as is humanly possible.
Still, God does come in a storm, a hurricane-force windstorm. A true paradox: God comes both as a gracious, personal God and as an infinite, overwhelming force—at the same time. How can this be? Only in Jesus Christ do we see how the untamable, infinity God can become a baby and a loving savior.
God Does Not Answer—and Yet Does
(II.) Job expected an explanation from God; his friends expected a condemnation. God does neither. He gives us long poetic discourses about the wonders of the natural world. God gives no explanation of what happened in heaven, no consolation for Job’s pain, no encouragement to hang in there! One commentator states that this test would only work if Job did not know what it was for. Only in this way could Job enter into a live of naked faith, to learn to love God for himself alone. Suffering becomes one of God’s most precious gifts. By withholding the full story from Job, God keeps him walking by faith, even after the test was over. It is because we don’t fully love God just for his own sake that we are subject to such great ups and downs depending on how things go in our lives. We do not find our hearts fully satisfied with God unless other things are also going well. But to grow into a true “free lover” of God, we must go through a stripping.
So the expanded life with God can only come to Job by God’s not telling him why he suffered. Suffering leads Job to a place where he trusts God simply because he is God. Job becomes a person of enormous strength and joy, who does not need favorable circumstances in order to stand up straight spiritually. Job never sees the big picture, he only sees God.
The Lord is God—and You Are Not (III.)
God challenges Job to consider the creation of the world. The point is to allow Job to see that humans have only the most infinitesimal knowledge of all God has put into creation. The point is simple: We are not God. His knowledge and power are infinitely beyond ours. Yet we question how God is running the world? Because Job does not have the power to judge, he does not have the right. Job is being called to hand the whole matter over completely to God more trustingly, less fretfully. And do it without insisting that God should first answer all his questions. This is the way of wisdom—to willingly, not begrudgingly, admit that God alone is God. To propose that we can tell God how to better run the universe is not only to usurp the role of God, become another Satan.
Job Is in the Right—and You Are in the Wrong
(IV.) Job’s friends expected God would condemn Job, but instead God tells the friends that their legalistic, self-justifying, retribution theology was wrong and Job’s insistence that he was innocent was correct. Why does God vindicate Job so strongly? First because God is gracious and forgiving. But also notice that through it all Job never stopped praying. Yes he complained, he doubted, he screamed and yelled, but he complained, doubted and screamed and yelled to God. No matter how much agony he was in, he continued to address God. Job triumphed not because it was all fine or that Job’s heart and motives were always right, but because Job’s doggedness in seeking the face and presence of God meant that the suffering did not drive him away for God but toward him. That made all the difference.
One of the most basic lessons we can learn from Job is that God is near to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18), he upholds all who fall, and lifts up all who are bowed down (Ps. 145:14), he helps us when we groan (Rom. 8:26) and will never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). All this means that even if we cannot feel God in our darkest and most dry time, he is still there. Like Job, we must seek him, go to him. Pray even when you are dry. Read the scriptures even if it is an agony. The darkness will not last forever.
In Psalm 42, the psalmist pours out his soul. This means he looks honestly at his doubts, desires, fears and hopes before God. And then he not only listens to his heart, he talks to his heart. When our heart says, “It is hopeless!” we should argue back. This is an important strategy. We must learn to take ourselves in hand. In spiritual depression we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Much of the unhappiness in our lives is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself. Remind yourself of who God is, and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged himself to do. Build biblical content into your soul. It is important to at least want to love God.
“My Servant Job”—Again
Job’s final reply to God (42:2-6) is an act of worship, not a begrudging knuckling under, for Job calls God “wonderful.” Job admits his demands had not taken into consideration the wonder of who God is. He admits that God has plans behind everything that happens, even if those plans are hidden. Job states that he had heard about God, but now “my eyes have seen you.” This means that the abstract concepts of God’s power, majesty, and might had not really gripped his heart. God’s presence had shaken him out of his desire for self-justification, his insistence in explanation and public vindication and his belief that he knew better. The change in Job is as much a matter of spiritual experience as deeper theology. Job abandons his self-justification project. He retracts his demand that God, because of Job’s righteousness, must give him explanation and public vindication. He gives up trying to control God.
The Other Innocent Sufferer
While God came in a terrifying storm, he came as Yahweh. He never accuses Job of sin. This suffering is not punishment. Job was right with God.
We have this same assurance not because of our inherent personal goodness, but because of Jesus’ work on our behalf. Jesus, the only truly innocent sufferer, becomes our friend.
Material taken/quoted from Tim Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, chapter 14.
- Written by Keith
- Category: Biblical Strategies for Facing Adversity
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Is it OK to lament?
How do you feel when you are in the middle of trouble? How should you feel?
It seems as if in our modern society/church, it is no long acceptable for a believer to truly "lament." Keller suggests that the Reformation frowned on the expression of doubts or complaints. Christians were (are?) taught not to weep or cry but to show God their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of his will. Do you believe you are failing to show faith when you feel down, when you feel as if God is millions of miles away?
Yet the Bible is full of people expressing their grief and distress. A large number of the Psalms contain expressions of the psalmist's grief, discouragement, brokenness, and feelings of abandonment. This is particularly evident in the "Psalms of Lament." (Cp. Individual lament: Ps. 3, 13, 22, 57, 139; corporate: Ps 12, 44, 74, 80; esp. Ps 88). The Lamentations of Jeremiah also express the deep grief of the prophet.
Job did not show a lot of "super faith" when he encountered deep affliction. When he got the news of his personal catastrophe, he got up, he tore his clothes and fell in the dirt (1:20). Job does not show stoic patience. Yet the Bible asserts that in all of this he did not sin. By the middle of the book, Job is cursing the day he was born and comes close to charging God with injustice with his angry questions. Job's grief was expressed with powerful emotion and soaring rhetoric. He did not "make nice" with God, praying politely. He was brutally honest about his feelings. Yet God is apparently undisturbed by all this and at the end of book commends Job (42:7-9), requiring Job's intercessory prayers for his friends!
A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break
When we comfort those facing deep trouble we cannot simply tell them to "pull themselves together." We need to learn to be patient and gentle with them and with ourselves when we face grief and pain. We should not assume that if we are trusting in God we won't weep, or feel anger or feel hopeless.
Isaiah 42:3 states about the Suffering servant, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out until in faithfulness he brings forth justice." The Hebrew term for "bruised" does not describe a light injury, but rather a deep contusion that destroys a vital internal organ—in other words, a deathblow. Applied to a person, this is an injury that may not show on the surface, but that is nevertheless fatal. When a stalk of grain is "bruised" it will not produce fruit. Yet the Suffering Servant does what no one else can do: he heals it so that it produces grain again.
Jesus is the Suffering Servant who cares for bruised people. Jesus is attracted to hopeless cases. He cares for the fragile, the ones who are dying on the inside even though it may not show externally. Jesus sees all the way to the heart and he knows what to do. He binds the brokenhearted and heals our wounds (Ps. 147:3; Is. 61:1)
The story of Elijah (1 Kings 18-19) is an excellent case study of how bruised reeds are restored and placed back into service. The weight and challenge of ministry had drained Elijah of physical, emotional and spiritual strength. He may have been a great prophet, but he was also human and could take only so much disappointment, opposition and difficulty. He is despondent, runs from his enemies, is suicidal and doesn't expect to be of any further service to God. A perfect example of a despondent, bruised person. His candle is flickering, ready to go out. He is not handling suffering and stress all that well!
How does God treat him? He sends an angel. The angel does not challenge him or ask him probing questions (although God does later). The angel feeds him, touches him, lets him sleep and protects him. True, God challenges him later and calls him back to ministry. God knew and provided what the bruised Elijah needed: rest and food, touch and gentleness. God shows us here that we are complex creatures—with bodies and souls. To oversimplify treatment would be to break the bruised reed—to put out the smoldering wick. God does not do that. At the right time, a despondent person may need a confrontation, to be challenged. But she also may need a walk by the sea and a great meal. Isaiah 42 teaches that Jesus is gentle with the bruised and never mistreats them. The point is this—suffering people need to be able to weep and pour out their hearts, and not to immediately be shut down by being told what to do. Nor should we do that to ourselves if we are grieving.
Weeping in the Dark
Is there a place provided for lamentation in the church? Do we give sufferers the freedom to weep and cry out, "Where are you, Lord? Why are you not helping me?" (How about the Pentecostal tradition? What about "praying through," "weeping at the altar?") We can learn a lot about weeping in the darkness from Psalm 88. This psalm and one other, 39, are famous because they do not end on a positive note. The last verse of Ps 88 says, "darkness is my closest friend" (and by way of implication, you're not, God!) What we can learn from Heman's (the author of this psalm) dark experience?
- Believers can stay in darkness for a long time. It is possible to pray and pray and endure and things not really get any better. There is no ray of hope at the end of this psalm. It shows us that the believer may live right and still remain in darkness. The darkness may be external circumstances or an inner spiritual state of pain. Things don't have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened. One commentator wrote, "Whoever devises from the scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing this page out of the volume."
- Times of darkness—while they continue—can reveal God's grace in new depths. Heman is angry; he is essentially cross-examining God saying, "I want to praise you. I want to declare your goodness." But in the end he is virtually saying, "You're not there for me God!" He does not control his temper or speak reverently to God. Yet commentator Kidner says that the presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to God's understanding. God knows how people speak when they are desperate. God hasn't "censored" prayers like this from His Word. God does not say, "Real believers don't pray like this." God understands. God remains this man's God not because he puts on a happy face and controls all his emotions, but because of His grace. He is present with us in all our mixed motives.3. Perhaps when we are still in unrelenting darkness that we have the greatest opportunity to defeat the forces of evil. In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We choose to serve God just because He is God. At moments like these we feel as if we are not getting anything from God, yet we continue to pray to and trust in Him. We are finally learning to love God for Himself, not for His benefits.
- Perhaps when we are still in unrelenting darkness that we have the greatest opportunity to defeat the forces of evil. In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We choose to serve God just because He is God. At moments like these we feel as if we are not getting anything from God, yet we continue to pray to and trust in Him. We are finally learning to love God for Himself, not for His benefits.
The Darkness of Jesus
How can I know that God is still present and filled with goodwill toward me even when I sense nothing but darkness? Even though we may experience great darkness in our lives and feel like Heman or the author of the other "hopeless psalm", Psalm 39, the darkness we experience can never compare to the darkness Jesus experienced on the cross. Heman wrote many more psalms that have bless millions.
The author of Ps 39 felt as if God had turned his face from him (v. 13). But the only person who sought God and truly did lose God's face and truly did experience total darkness—was Jesus (Matt. 27:45-46). It was Jesus who truly experienced the ultimate darkness—the cosmic rejection we deserved—so that we can know the Lord will never leave or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). Because he was truly abandoned by God, we only seem to be or feel to be abandoned by him. Jesus suffered for us. He did not abandon us but provided a way for us by means of his suffering. Do you think he will abandon you now in the midst of yours? Michael Wilcock imagines Jesus saying: "This can happen to a believer. It does not mean you are lost. This can happen to someone who does not deserve it [after all, it happened to me!]. It doesn't mean you have strayed. It can happen at any time, as long as this world last; only in the next will such things be done away. And it can happen without your knowing why. There are answers, there is a purpose, and one day you will know."
Grieving and Rejoicing
So what does it mean to rejoice in suffering? It should be clear that we should not understand this in subjective, emotional terms. It doesn't mean "have happy emotions." Nor can it mean that Christians are simply to keep a stiff upper lip and defiantly say, "I won't let this defeat me." It is unrealistic to act as if you have strength when you don't. Suffering creates inner sorrow, it does make you weak. Denying your hurt now means you may pay the price later by blowing up, breaking down or falling apart suddenly.
1 Peter 1:6-7 states "you greatly rejoice" in your salvation though now "you have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials." The word for suffer, lupeo, means "severe mental or emotional distress." It is the word used of Jesus in Gethsemane. Both statements are in the present tense: they are rejoicing and suffering at the same time! Not only can we do both at the same time, we must do both if we are to grow through our suffering rather than be wrecked by it.
Our emotions are not holy, sovereign things. You can't force your feelings; you must not deny or try to create feelings. But we must remember that in the Bible, "heart" is not the same as emotions. The heart is the place of your deepest commitments, trusts, and hopes. Our emotions flow from those commitments. To "rejoice" in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what he has done for us. Sometimes our emotions respond and follow, sometimes they do not. Rejoicing is not something that precludes feelings of grief, or doubt, weakness, and pain. Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.
How does it work? Grief and sorrow drive you more into God. In the same way as the thermostat in air conditioner kicks in when the temperature climbs, so, grief and sorrow drive you more into God and show you the resources you never had. Feel the grief—look at Jesus. He was known as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Yet he was perfect. Because he was not all absorbed in himself, he could feel the sadness of the world. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy! Rather than expecting God to remove the sorrow and replace it with happiness, we should look for a "glory"—a taste and conviction and increasing sense of God's presence—that helps us rise above the darkness.
- Written by Keith
- Category: Biblical Strategies for Facing Adversity
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