Monday, February 28, 2011

Traction In Trouble - Making Sense of Suffering

Our community has been through a trauma these past several days. One of the brightest lights in our little town, a leader in so many ways, and a sterling Christian as well, was senselessly murdered, leaving two married daughters and two young grandsons.

Yesterday her pastor, and ours, shared an incredible message dealing with how God gives comfort in chaos. Using 2 Corinthians 1, Pastor Ryan helped us understand how God works to give us strength and grace in times of great difficulty. I borrowed some thoughts from his message, then researched other verses to put together something for the home Bible study I lead.

Since the beginning of time, mankind has experienced suffering. Some of it we bring on ourselves, and some we seem to inherit for no apparent reason. Here are some thoughts on human suffering that we discussed in our home Bible study. I hope you’ll find this helpful.

First, suffering is pervasive.

Everyone experiences suffering on some level; it’s a universal reality.

Oswald Chambers addresses the universality of suffering when he declares, “Suffering is the heritage of the bad, of the penitent, and of the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. The bad thief is crucified, the penitent thief is crucified, and the Son of God is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.” (Christian Discipline)

Secondly, suffering is painful.

Just consider some of the synonyms for suffering: trials, tribulation, adversity, struggles, difficulties, trouble, pain, hardship, affliction, distress, and tests.

No one enjoys suffering, except perhaps someone who is emotionally off balance. Pain is never fun. Most of us flee situations that we think could be painful.

Paul relates how, when faced with a “thorn in the flesh” that caused him pain, he pleaded with God three times to remove it. (2 Corinthians 12)

Suffering is a product:

 Suffering is a product of evil. We live in a fallen world. Sin is rampant. People, since the beginning of time, have gone their own way, oblivious to the God who made them and who loves them. (Isaiah 53:6) The fact that God allows evil to exist is evidence of his love and of his willingness to give mankind the freedom to love Him in return, or not to love Him if they so choose.

 Suffering is a product of our own foolishness. People do stupid things and suffer the consequences.

 Suffering is the product of persecution. Christians have always suffered for their faith. Believers have been persecuted, abused, and mistreated since the beginning. Jesus told us to expect persecution.

 Some suffering is a product of God’s own doing. Again, Paul says that his thorn in the flesh was given to him and that God purposed it. Jesus’ suffering and death were purposed by God. And there are times when God either causes or allows His children to go through trials and suffering for reasons known only to Him.

Suffering can be purposeful.

First, suffering produces purity. It is like the crucible used to produce pure metal. It does not consume nor destroy, but it refines, removing all impurities.

Next, suffering produces endurance and strength. I visited a vineyard recently, and noticed how severely the branches had been pruned from the vine. The vintner explained that this process is necessary to produce the highest possible quality of grape. God prunes us to develop strength and endurance, cutting away anything that is not fruitful. (see John 15)

Finally, God uses suffering for the purpose of developing in us the character of Christ. In other words, as we suffer we grow to become more like Christ.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.” Malcolm Muggeridge (Homemade, July, 1990)

God’s people are certainly not immune to suffering. Someone asked C.S. Lewis, "Why do the righteous suffer?" "Why not?" he replied. "They're the only ones who can take it."

Let me share some verses that speak of suffering along with a brief paraphrase.

1Peter 2:21 – we follow Christ in our suffering
1Peter 3:14 – if you suffer you will be blessed
1Peter 3:17 – better to suffer for good than for evil
1Peter 4:1 – because Christ suffered and is victorious
1Peter 4:13 – we share in Christ’s sufferings
1Peter 4:15 – Don’t suffer as a criminal
1Peter 4:16 – suffer to glorify God
1Peter 5:9 – all followers of Christ suffer
1Peter 5:10 – God will use our suffering to strengthen us
1Corinthians 12:26 – as a body, we suffer w/each member
Acts 9:16 – we suffer for Christ’s name
Romans 8:18 – sufferings are temporal and of the earth, not heaven
James 5:10 – we have many models in scripture of those who endured in suffering
2Corinthians 1:6 – God allows us to suffer so we might benefit others
Galatians 3:4 – don’t let suffering be for nothing
Philippians 3:10 – we participate in the fellowship of his suffering – identity with Christ
2Thessalonians 1:5-8 – God will make things right at the judgment
Hebrews 2:18 – Christ helps us when we are tested because he suffered for us
Romans 5:3-5 – we can rejoice knowing that suffering produces endurance
2Timothy 1:8 – we share in suffering, identifying with one another
2Timothy 2:3 – suffering is like soldiering
2Timothy 2:8-9 – we suffer as we declare Christ and live in him
2Timothy 3:10-13 – if we follow Christ we will be persecuted

A famous evangelist told the following incident: “I have a friend who in a time of business recession lost his job, a sizable fortune, and his beautiful home. To add to his sorrow, his precious wife died; yet he tenaciously held to his faith -- the only thing he had left. One day when he was out walking in search of employment, he stopped to watch some men who were doing stonework on a large church. One of them was chiseling a triangular piece of rock. '’Where are you going to put that?' he asked. The workman said, 'Do you see that little opening up there near the spire? Well, I'm shaping this stone down here so that it will fit in up there.' Tears filled my friend's eyes as he walked away, for the Lord had spoken to him through that laborer whose words gave new meaning to his troubled situation. (Our Daily Bread)

So, as James admonishes, count it all joy when you suffer, knowing that God is at work, shaping you for His purposes. (see James 1)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

God provides

prov·i·dence prä-v&-d&n(t)s, -"den(t)s
Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin providentia, from provident-, providens (14th century)
1 divine guidance or care: God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny (WWWebster)

“Skip, this is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hilton Head Island. Our church is seeking a minister of youth and education, and your name has been given to us. I’m going to be in Louisville next week and would like to talk to you.”

“Hilton Head? I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it a golf and tennis resort?” I replied.

“It is indeed. It’s a wonderful place,” he said.

“Well, with all due respect, I really love my work here and I’m not anxious to leave. You might be wasting your time with me.”

I meant what I said. I was in my last semester of seminary and serving as student pastor in one of the most wonderful churches in the city of Louisville. I was part of a tremendous staff. And, with a daughter approaching 9th grade, another in elementary school, plus a 3-year-old and a newborn, I wasn’t anxious to relocate to some remote island three states away.

At the time I was engrossed not only in finishing my final semester, I was also serving as interim minister of music in addition to my youth ministry. So, in the midst of preparing for our Easter drama, I put the phone conversation about Hilton Head on the back burner. That is, until I attended my next Christian education class with Dr. Findley Edge.

After class Dr. Edge asked me if I had heard from the Hilton Head church.

I nodded. I then proceeded to tell Dr. Edge that I had indicated to the pastor that I was not really interested.

Dr. Edge looked at me with his keen eyes and said, “Please do me the courtesy of at least talking to him. I’m the one who submitted your name.”

So it was that I showed up the next afternoon for my interview. I was on my way after class to work on a set for our Easter drama, so I was wearing holey jeans (appropriate for a seminary student, don’t you think?) and sporting a week-old stubble I was growing for my part in the production. Quite a contrast from the other interviewees in their Sunday best.

I didn’t expect much to come from the interview, but was I wrong! Let me just say that when I got home I said to Mary Beth, “Don’t be surprised if the Lord calls us to Hilton Head.” And, as I left the interview, the pastor turned the chairman of deacons, and said, “I think that’s our man.” The rest, as they say, is history. Four months later we became “islanders.”

Was it difficult leaving family, friends, and a wonderful ministry? You betcha! But God provided for us in every way. And let me stress this point also - he provided, in His time, for someone to fill the vacancy my departure created.

God always provides for His people. This is a truth that Abraham learned as he trusted God explicitly. When he obediently took Isaac up to the altar and raised the blade over his beloved son he was trusting God to provide. He believed that God knew best and that God would do what was best.

John Calvin, in his seminal work of theology stated, “When Abraham said to his son, God will provide, (Gen. 22: 8,) he meant not merely to assert that the future event was foreknown to God but to resign the management of an unknown business to the will of Him whose province it is to bring perplexed and dubious matters to a happy result.” (John Calvin, Institutes)

What I hear Calvin saying is this: When things look uncertain or difficult, understand that God is at work for our good in the midst of the circumstances. Our best course is to take hands off and let God work to provide for our needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.

Will you trust Him to do that?

A tragedy in our community reminds us of our need to trust that God knows what He's doing. Even though God is in control, He doesn't always intervene in our lives in ways that we would expect. Hence, we struggle with questions such as "Why would such a lovely person as Vanessa Mintz be senselessly murdered?" As our pastor, Ryan, said this morning, we don't understand, but God does, and He can be trusted to work for good in the midst of tragic circumstances.

We must trust God all the more when we can't make sense of circumstances. He has always been, and will always be, faithful, loving, and true. And in His way, and in His time, He will provide for His children.