Sunday, March 30, 2008

Suffering & Service

To understand God is to understand suffering. An indispensable key to understanding the Scriptures is suffering in the path of righteousness. In addition, suffering, be it our own personal tribulations or the trials of the world, is Satan's unwitting contribution to our becoming more faithful, and even better Christians as a whole and theologians in particular. Here we must cry out to God alone when our sense of abandonment in the world or our individual torment seemingly exceeds the powers of our faith.

Suffering is a normal, useful and even essential element in Christian life. It weans us off the world and teaches us to live on God as Paul exemplified in 2 Corinthians 1.9, "indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead"; Colossians 1.24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the Church)....", and in Philippians 1:21, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain." The greatest example of suffering that we persevere to emulate is found in Jesus Christ. His suffering on the cross is the greatest example of ultimate love. Those who loved Christ in the early Church also suffered and were martyred with the first being Stephen, followed by the imprisonment and later death sentences of Paul and Peter, the assassination of the first James and thirty years later, of the second. However, like two warriors committed to victory, Paul and Peter glared with defiance into the terrible eyes of the Roman wolf. Christ did not fail his martyrs.

This is also evident in the life of John Bunyan (1628-1688), a Christian writer and preacher, born at Harrowden (one mile south-east of Bedford), in the Parish of Elstow, England. He wrote The Pilgrim's Progress, arguably the most famous published Christian allegory. In 1658 Bunyan was indicted for preaching without a license. He continued, however, and did not suffer imprisonment till November 1660, when he was taken to the county jail in Silver Street, Bedford. There he was confined at first for three months, but on his refusing to conform or to desist from preaching, his confinement was extended for a period of nearly 12 years (with the exception of a few weeks in 1666) until January 1672, when Charles II issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence.

Bunyan knew suffering well. In his book, "Grace Abounding", he talked about Suffering Rightly: "to pass a sentence of death upon everything that can be properly called a thing in this life even to reckon myself, family, friends, health, enjoyment, and all, as dead to me, and myself as dead to them.” I can identify with Bunyan when he talked about "to live upon God that is invisible" (the Word, prayer, meditation), and what Paul said: "the way not to faint, is to look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." Jesus Himself stated this very same teaching throughout the Gospels: in Matthew 10:37, "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me", Matthew 19:29, ".....everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name's sake, shall recieve many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life", and lest we forget the impulsive and reluctant folowers in Luke 9:62, " one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

The aim of suffering is to awaken you, rouse you off the bed of ease, security & pleasure and fetch you down on your knees before Him, to beg Him to be concerned about the salvation of your soul.

To suffer well is not only to die in sin but also to the claims of precious and innocent things, including family and freedom, not only because God is superior to sinful pleasures, but also because He is superior to sacred ones as well. Bunyan: "Everything else in the world must be counted as dead to us and we in it." Bunyan learned this from imprisonment and from Paul in Galatians 6.14, "....the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

Many years ago it finally became apparent to me the meaning behind Bunyan's suffering and not just how he learned, but what he learned "to live upon God that is invisible." Nothing glorifies God more than maintaining our stability and joy when we lose everything but God. In Ps 119, the Psalmist not only prayed and meditated over the word of God but suffered it in order to understand: Psalm 119.67, 71. Temptation, affliction, and trials are touchstones. {Incidentally, German monk, priest, professor, theologian, and church reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) expounded on this Psalm with prayer, meditation and tribulation (suffering). He made it into a rule that suffering is essential to know the Word of God as we ought: "These rules teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God's word is: it is Supreme Wisdom." Ps 119.18, 27, 34-37}.

Suffering also opens understanding to the truth that the Christian life is hard (Mark 8.36-37). The aim of suffering is to awaken you, rouse you off the bed of ease, security and pleasure an fetch you down on your knees before him, to beg him to be concerned about the salvation of your soul. Suffering and understanding to the truth go hand in hand, not meaning at the point of conversion, but during the process of perseverance and transformation: "The one who endures to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13). Jesus warned that life with Him is hard: "The wind sits always at my face and the foaming rage of the sea of this world, and the proud lofty waves thereof do continually beat upon the sides of the ship that myself, my cause, and my followers are in; he therefore that will not run hazards, and that is afraid to venture a drowning, let him not set foot into this vessel." This also falls inline with John 15.2, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear fruit." Fruit-bearing is the normal product of regeneration. To be fruitless is abnormal and suggests the possibility of an insincere conversion experience. Christ's statement that fruitless branches shall be removed is in line with James's statement that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:26). At the same time Christ also makes it clear that fruit is not the final purpose of the believer's life, but rather a joyous and loving fellowship with God Himself. Nevertheless God purges the fruit-bearing Christian (painful though it may be) so that he or she becomes more fruitful.

Conversion or even following Christ is not the smooth, easy going process some seem to think. It is wounding work, this breaking of hearts, but without wounding or suffering, there is no saving. Also suffering develops passion about wounding and builds patience and teaches the words of Jesus firsthand: "The way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few." Matthew 7:17. Clearly suffering and salvation are synonymous with the narrow way (Phil 2.12-12; Eph 2.5; Luke 13.24). I admit my passion for suffering, and I sacrifice nothing while sacrificing everything - my possessions, relationships even my life; I receive peace and joy in the here and now and my rewards await me in heaven.

As Christians, sufferings strengthen assurances that God is sovereign over all afflictions. Many of those who stand by the doctrine of God's sovereignty over suffering have been those who suffered most and who found in the doctrine the most comfort and help. 1 Peter 4.19 "Let them who suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator." According to the will of God, it is not what enemies will, nor what they are resolved upon, but what God wills, and what God appoints, that shall be done - be it manmade trials, natural disasters, etc. No enemy can bring suffering upon a man or woman when the will of God is otherwise - so no man can save himself out of their hands when God will deliver him up for His glory. (Just as Jesus showed Peter "By what death he would glorify God," John 21:19). We shall or shall not suffer, even as it pleases Him, and thereby ordered by the will of God.

God appoints who will suffer. Suffering comes not by chance, or by the will of man, but by the will of God (1 Thess 3.3). We must not think that suffering is a strange thing for those who fear God (1Peter 4.12). Be reminded and appeal to Rev 6:11 where the martyrs under the alter in heaven are told "that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also." An appointed number of martyrs! Suffering for righteousness and righteousness sake is by the will of God.

God has appointed when they will suffer for His truth in the world. Sufferings are timed as to when a believer will be tried for his faith. When Paul was arrested in Corinth, the Lord strengthened him in a dream (Acts 18.9-10). His time of suffering was not yet come; the same with Jesus in John 7.30. The times, the seasons even for the sufferings of the people of God, are not in the hands of their enemies, but in the hand of God, as David said, "My times are in thy hand" (Ps 31.15).

God has appointed where this, that or the other believer shall suffer such as was discussed by Jesus, Moses and Elijah in Luke 9.30-31. Jesus also said, it could not be that a prophet should "perish out of Jerusalem" (Luke 13.33).

God has allowed what kind of sufferings to His people: Paul in Acts 9.16, Jesus signifying to Peter beforehand in John 21.19, they are all in God's book in Jeremiah 15.2-3, and the will of the Lord be done in Acts 21.14.

Suffering does have a purpose! To glorify Him! How can that be, you say? For those who suffer and rest their faith in Christ, an even stronger faith emerges. For those who suffer, whether they know Christ or not, it calls to action the faithful - God's children, into action, to love, rescue and help those who are dying, to pray for the dead, and alleviate the suffering of those left behind. It even opens up the opportunity to evangelize.

The problem of suffering in the Old Testament is dealt with most fully in the book of Job. In the new Testament, Christ promised His people tribulation (from the Greek word, thlipsis, meaning "pressure" or "affliction"). Believers must be careful to distinguish the different forms of pressure and realize the sources from which they come. In general, there are three orders of affliction: (1) that which comes simply because we are alive and share in the fallen nature of the human race (experiences like natural catastrophe, sickness, bereavement, and death); (2) afflictions that (by God's permission) come to us from the malice of Satan because we have been delivered from his power and he strives to bring us back under bondage (1 Peter 5:8); and (3) afflictions that come directly from the hand of God Himself and are designed to purify or refine us (Job 23:10). These often overlap. Thus God can and does use the afflictions in the first two categories to accomplish His work in us. Yet Christians should be careful to avoid attributing to God, or even to Satan, that which they bring on themselves. Afflictions resulting from our own folly we must face up to as our personal responsibility. What is important to point out is the mercy that we suffer rather than torture with no feelings of revenge. In other words pity and bewail the condition of the enemy - Proverbs 24.19 and Isaiah 54.7-8. God is sovereign over the temptations of the soul as well as the sufferings of the body, be it to destroy or humble.

The key to suffering rightly is to see in all things the hand of a merciful, good and sovereign God and "to live upon a God that is invisible." There is more of God to be had in times of suffering than at any other time. To echo Bunyan's words: "There is that of God to be seen in such a day as cannot be seen in another. His power in holding up some, His wrath in leaving of others; His making of shrubs to stand, and His suffering of cedars to fall; His infatuating of the counseling of men, and His making of the devil to outwit himself; His giving of His presence to His people, and His leaving of His foes in the dark; His discovering (disclosing) the uprightness of the hearts of His sanctified ones, and laying open the hypocrisy of others, is a working of spiritual wonders in the day of His wrath, and of the whirlwind and storm. We are apt to overshoot, in the days that calm, and think ourselves far higher, and stronger than we find we really are, when the trying day is upon us. We should not live without such turnings of the hand of God upon us. We should be overgrown with our flesh, if we had not our seasonable winters (from Seasonable Counsel). It is said that in some countries, trees will grow, but will not bear fruit because there is no winter there. Bunyan's point is clear - humble ourselves under the almighty hand of God and to trust that all will be for our good in His glory. God does nothing without a cause, but His main reason is His glory. We take what comes to us from God with joy, peace and thanksgiving.

Fruit-bearing is the normal product of regeneration. To be fruitless is abnormal and suggests the possibility of an insincere conversion experience. Christ's statement that fruitless branches shall be removed is in line with James' statement that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:26). At the same time Christ also makes it clear that fruit is not the final purpose of the believer's life, but rather a joyous and loving fellowship with God Himself. Nevertheless God purges the fruit bearing Christian (painful though it may be) so that he or she becomes more fruitful.

If we may ever avail ourselves the opportunity to escape suffering, then if it is in our heart to fly, then fly; if it is in our heart to stand, then stand. Do what is in your heart, but not in a denial of the truth. God may call you to do both: Moses fled, Exodus 2.15; Moses stood, Hebrews 11.37; David fled, 1 Samuel 19.12; David stood, 1 Samuel 24.8; Jeremiah fled, Jeremiah 37.11-12; Jeremiah stood, 38.17; Christ withdrew Himself, Luke 19.10 & Matthew 12.15; Christ stood, John 18.1-8; Paul fled, 2 Cor 11.33; Paul stood, Acts 23.40. The believer is best able to judge upon his heart, as ordained by God to stand or fly.

Suffering deepens a confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and a passion for sharing the Word as a key to perseverance. Lay hold on Christ through the Word of God, the Bible, but not at the exclusion of prayer and meditation. "To live upon God that is invisible" during our times of disappointment, agony, suffering, trials, tribulation, deep emotional turmoil and the questions they bring. To serve and suffer rooted in God is to serve and suffer saturated with the Word of God. Reverence through the Word of God and tremble at the prospect of dishonoring it (Judges 16.30). This is how we shall live, this is how we shall suffer, and by our suffering and total surrender and reliance upon Him, we flourish and survive.


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