Fighting For The Prize.

fight

Yesterday I reflected on the powerful and dynamic faith of Corrie Ten Boom who steadfastly kept her eyes on Jesus while harboring Jewish refugees, being arrested and enslaved at a concentration camp and losing her sister and other family members to the atrocities of WWII.  The entirety of the New Testament promises that when we look to Jesus and remain in Him and in His words, we will have Spiritual peace.  But it also promises that we will be persecuted, hated and even killed because of our faith.  Jesus Himself stated:

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

– John 16.33

You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”

– Matt 10.22

Paul even goes so far as to say,

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

– 2 Tim 3.12

There it is, in black and white.  Everyone who desires to live godly lives in Jesus will be persecuted.  We will be hated by the world, by everyone who does not know Jesus or have saving faith, because of our faith and our actions.  This is not a license for us to act in an unbecoming way.  We are commanded to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us and to live at peace with all men so much as it depends on us (Matt 5.44, Rom 12.18).  We are to turn the other cheek, give more to those who steal from us and return love for evil (Matt 5.39-40, 1 Peter 3.9).

These commands seem impossible at times.  Sure, we can romanticize them and have idyllic pictures in our minds of being the ever-loving victim that never holds a grudge, but it is an entirely different picture when someone intentionally seeks our harm or attacks us without cause.  We can return good for evil in our own strength once or twice, but it is impossible to make a lifestyle out of the habit without Christ.  Sometimes a soft answer does not turn away wrath.  Sometimes loving our enemies does not heap burning coals upon their heads.  Sometimes they have already made up their minds to hurt or destroy us and it is only years down the road that our loving response impacts them on any level.  All we can do is trust God for His plan in those situations.  Our obedience is driven by love for God, not a desired outcome in the other person – our enemy.

But yet we still continue to believe the lies that God will make our lives soft and comfortable if we follow Him.  Many have sold out to the health and wealth gospel, following false prophets like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn faithfully.  Consider this:  if God pours out blessings, security and health on those whom He loves, He must have despised Paul and the apostles.  They all had no homes, no security, they were persecuted and all but one murdered simply because of their faith.

Even if we deny the traditional health and wealth gospel with our mouths, we often believe it in our hearts and exemplify it by our actions.  When we find a job, get a raise, have healthy and obedient children, and go an entire year without visiting the doctor, we proclaim “God is good!”  When tragedy strikes, when a job is lost, when a loved one dies, when radical Muslims attack our cities, we cry out “Why me?” and “Where is God?”

Have you ever been hated on account of your faith?

I am not advocating self-imposed suffering or intentionally seeking martyrdom.  Jesus told the disciples to flee to the next city when persecution arose, and it was only by the direction of the Holy Spirit that Paul was led to Rome to be murdered – and that after fleeing numerous other times.  However, it is indeed the promise of Scripture that all – not some – but all who desire to live Godly lives will be persecuted and hated because of our faith.  If you are hated for any other reason, it does not count.  Peter says,

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?  But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

– 1 Peter 2.19-20

When we sin, we should suffer the consequences patiently and in humility.  That is just common sense.  But it finds favor with God when we suffer unjustly, and bear it with patience and humility.  When was the last time you were wrongly accused – because of your faith – and counted it a blessing to be able to join Christ in His sufferings?  Or did you cry out “this is not fair”, and rebuke God in your heart?

Peter teaches us that we should always be prepared to give an answer or defense for the hope that we have.  Does your living, in the wake of trial and tribulation, cause people to stop and ask you about your hope?  Or do you only proclaim God’s goodness when things are good and life is rosy?  Isaac Watts bemoaned the point beautifully:

Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
and sailed through bloody seas?
Sure I must fight if I would reign
increase my courage Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by Thy Word.

– Isaac Watts

So let’s step back and reconsider.  What is it that we consider a blessing and benefit from God?  What is it that leads us to proclaim God’s goodness and faithfulness?  What is it that we pray for, long for and lose sleep over?  A job?  Health?  Life itself?  Money?  Do you fight to persevere in your faith?  Do you fight for the prize rewarded to those who serve God and die to the flesh?  Does your life look like the American Dream, or like the apostles?  Have you ever had to defend the seemingly nonsensical hope that you have?  If not, we need to reconsider our faith and our priorities.  Let’s start storing up treasures in Heaven and dying to our flesh.

blind

The events of the past week have left our nation hurting, skeptical of one another and even more polarized on the topics of police brutality and social injustice.  As in the wake of all tragedies and disasters, the question is being asked “Where is God in all of this?” and “If there is a [good] God, why is there suffering in the world?”  The Old Testament Law painted a picture of cause and effect for sin.  We learn much about the character and purposes of God in the Old Covenant, but we gloriously have records of the person of Jesus and His explanation for many misunderstandings and misconceptions of God developed by looking at that Law (and from basic human logic).

One such misunderstanding that the Jews carried throughout the generations was that all suffering and misfortune was a direct consequence of sin.  This worldview and belief is still prevalent in many religious and basic worldviews today.  It is exemplified in concepts like karma and “balance” in the universe.  We also expect our social and political systems to respond to evil and sin with punishment to enforce the balance of good and evil where the supernatural fails.

We see brief examples of God’s sovereignty over suffering and troubles throughout the Old Testament with people like Job and the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, but by in large people prefer to be autonomous and attribute their blessings and successes to their own efforts and character, and thus are left asking “why me” when inexplicable suffering occurs.  Thankfully, Jesus explains suffering clearly.

“As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.  And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’  Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'”

– John 9.1-3

Jesus had been teaching in the temple about His identity, the bread of life, and made the Jews angry by claiming to be God.  Thus, Jesus hid himself from them and slipped out of the crowd because they were trying to stone Him to death.  On His way out the door, He saw this man who had been born blind, begging.  His disciples noticed Jesus taking notice of the man, and they piped up to ask Jesus whose fault it was that this man had been born with such a terrible disability.

The prevailing worldview of the day was so dominant that the disciples were unashamed to boldly speak out in the presence of this poor man and ask Jesus if he had somehow sinned in the womb or if his parents had sinned so terribly that he was doomed to an entire lifetime of blindness.  Can you imagine?  There are occasions that we cry out to God or doubt Him because of our current situations, but would you ever dare to approach someone with a handicapped child and speak to him about his sin or the possible sin of his child in utero which led to this situation?  If you can, or ever have, you need to repent.

The disciples were clearly asking the cause.  Whose fault was the blindness?  And Jesus responded simply and profoundly: the cause was not sin.  The cause was God setting up this very situation in which His works could be mightily displayed.

One of the most beautiful promises that Christians (and non Christians alike) claim is that God knitted us together and formed us while we were still in our mothers’ wombs.

“For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.”

– Ps 139.13

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

– Jer 1.5

God pieced each one of us together in exactly the manner He wanted us.  This promise is true for all people.  God has created us each for a specific purpose, for a specific life, and with an abundance of unique traits and characteristics.  Even the handicapped.  Even the blind.  Even the broken.  And God utilizes the ways He forms us for His own glory and honor.

Sometimes that glory and honor is exceptional service:  vast wisdom, bold preaching, faithful obedience.  And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s dynamic intervention:  healing of blindness, dramatic conversion testimonies, undeniable miracles.  And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s sustaining power and faithfulness when we are not healed or changed.

This blind man whom Jesus encountered was created without the ability of sight, in his mother’s womb, so that Jesus could heal him and so that Jesus could teach both the disciples and us an invaluable lesson.  Not every bit of suffering is the direct consequence of our personal sin.  We do understand from Genesis 3 and Romans 1-3 that all of creation is indeed under the curse because of sin and all of suffering is the result of the reality of sin in our world.  But we must also understand that all who are in Christ have been forgiven for their sins and pardoned from the wrath of God as retribution for their sin – therefore while some suffering might be a consequence of their sin, no suffering of the believer is punishment for sin (Rom 8.1).

Some suffering is governed by God for the purification of our faith.  We read throughout the New Testament that God utilizes suffering and trials to teach us perseverance and to refine our faith as through fire (1 Peter 1.6ff).  We also see examples of suffering which God does not relieve for the sake of growing faith, like Paul:

“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’  Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

– 2 Cor 12.7-10

Paul had some sort of physical ailment which caused him great distress.  So much so that He begged God three times to heal him from it, and God refused.  God used Paul to preform many miracles as a missionary and apostle, including bringing back a person from the dead.  But yet, when Paul felt a need in his own body God refused to heal him for the sake of exemplifying His own strength through Paul’s weakness.  Thus we learn that there are times that God will knit together a person in his mother’s womb with blindness and never heal him so as to glorify Himself in this specific weakness.  God will allow us all to suffer a variety of weaknesses and trials without delivering us from them so that we will be forced to rely on Him and His strength and He receive the glory for His power through our weaknesses and trials.

As we continue to process the difficulties in our nation today, let us remember that God is not shocked or surprised by our situations.  In fact, He is orchestrating our circumstances and situations for His glory.  It might be through a radical transformation of our society as a whole, through a mighty miraculous work of God, or it might be to test and grow our faith as individuals.  The greater problem might remain, but we as Christians in a weak and sinful society will need to rely on the strength and guidance of God to live loving, purely and rightly before God.  This will strengthen and refine our faith.

On the night He was betrayed, He gave thanks.

the last supper

Today is Good Friday.  This weekend commemorates and remembers the pivotal moment in all of history.  Everything that happened before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ was looking forward to, leading up to and in anticipation of that greatest of sacrifices.  Everything that has happened since is in response to it.  When humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, God promised an heir who would crush the head of the enemy by offering Himself as a sacrifice, and the entire Mosaic Law and sacrificial system was developed as a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do (Gen 3.15).  The perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the place of repentant sinners fulfilled the Law and removed from us the burden of making sacrifices, offering us salvation by grace through faith in Him (Eph 2.8-9).  Because of His death and resurrection “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8.1).

Much can be said about the intricacies, the beauty and the sorrow of Maundy Thursday leading into Good Friday.  (Maundy is a word that was created to summarize the ceremony of washing of feet – and it specifically refers to Jesus serving the disciples by washing their feet before they celebrated the Passover meal that last time.  Thus we have a fancy name for the beginning of the final Passover celebration.)  Jesus came to the Earth with the purpose of being the final sacrifice for sins.  He spoke of it throughout His Earthly ministry, though no one understood.  He knew that it was the plan, and He embraced it – “setting His face towards Jerusalem” and the cross (Luke 9.51).  He knew of Judas’ betrayal, He knew of the suffering to come, and even with this complete understanding of the plan of God, He begged God for a different way.  He was indeed a man of sorrows, and He took the weight of the sins of the world upon His shoulders.

However, He never wavered from His plan, nor lost heart.  He went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover – the holiday of remembrance when God delivered the Hebrew people from Egypt.  He was welcomed dramatically on Palm Sunday, with people praising Him while he rode on a donkey.  When He and the disciples sat down to celebrate the Passover meal, however, Jesus forever altered the tradition.  The Passover meal had been kept in the same way for generations, but Jesus redefined the celebration in His fulfillment of the final and ultimate salvation.  He gave new meaning to the elements, namely Himself.  We now celebrate the Lord’s Supper – or Communion – in place of the Passover meal because Jesus fulfilled the promise, and we now look to Him.  Pastors have been trained to lead congregations through the Lord’s Supper by quoting a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

– 1 Cor 11.23-26

Of all the things that can be observed today, I want to point out that little phrase we have glossed over for years:  “On the night in which He was betrayed, He gave thanks.”  Jesus had hand chosen twelve men to follow Him and minister alongside of Him for at least three years.  They went everywhere together, He taught them, He sent them out and empowered them to defeat demons and heal sicknesses.  He loved them.  Think about your closest friends from college – how comfortable you were with them, how much you loved them, and how you went through a season of grieving when those years were over.  Now amplify that to its extreme.  One of those close friends was turned by the religious officials and decided to betray Jesus unto death, for a little bit of money.  This was a predetermined part of the plan, and Jesus knew that it was coming.  But as He welcomed the men into that room to celebrate and redefine the Passover meal, Judas was already knee deep in his plan.

Jesus washed Judas’ feet.  And before He served the Lord’s Supper, this exchange happened:

“As they were eating, He said, ‘Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me.’  Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ And He answered, ‘He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me.  The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.’  And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, ‘Surely it is not I, Rabbi?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself.’”

Matt 26.20-25

John teaches us that Judas left immediately after dipping his morsel in the bowl with Jesus in order to begin the act of betrayal.  Jesus sent him out with these words,

“What you do, do quickly.”

– John 13.27

So we understand that the fulness of Judas’ betrayal began before Jesus broke the bread and served the wine.  And yet, though He was being betrayed unto death,

Jesus gave thanks.

We are commanded throughout Scripture to give thanks at all times, to worship and praise God at all times, and to have joy even in suffering and trials.  The apostles and early church seem to be un-human in some of the ways the rejoiced:  at the plundering of their property, at their imprisonment and torture, at their dispersion and fleeing for their lives…  They understood the root of Easter.  They grasped the true meaning and they gave thanks.  They praised God for the privilege and honor to suffer, just as Jesus suffered.  The were thankful through difficulty.

Jesus gave thanks in the very midst of being betrayed unto death.  We in the United States have deceived ourselves to believe that suffering is only by the hand of the devil, and Jesus only gives us money, happiness and pleasure.  We demonize our circumstances and pray for God to relieve us from those circumstances.  We pout, we cry, we get frustrated and we mope.  But Jesus recognized that even though He did not want to die, He knew that God’s plan was perfect, He submitted Himself to that plan, and He chose to worship and give thanks.

Today is Good Friday.  Jesus was delivered up to death today.  He was beaten beyond recognition, His beard was torn out, He had a crown of thorns dug deeply into His scalp, His flesh was ripped to literal shreds with a whip, and He was nailed onto a cross naked.  In preparation for that, He gave thanks.  Have you given thanks today, for the sacrifice He made?  Have you given thanks in the midst of your terrible, no good, very bad day?  Are you expecting God to make you happy and comfortable?  Or are you choosing to rejoice and be thankful because you have been counted worthy to join in the sufferings of Christ?  Let us give thanks.

The sufferings and comfort of Christ are ours.

praying in the garden

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.”

– 2 Cor 1.3-5

Jesus, our Lord and King came to the world to be our savior and lived a life of trials and suffering, moreso than any your or I could imagine.  His heart was so burdened and given to the glory of God and the salvation of His people that He was called the “man of sorrows” (Is 53.3).

But He found peace and solitude from God the Father, the God of all comfort.  He regularly went away to pray by Himself, where He communed with God, was comforted, encouraged and directed by Him.  Jesus, the only God who submitted Himself to flesh and was crucified for our sins, drew His strength and peace from God the Father.

He would get up before the sunrise to go pray (Mark 1.35).  He would sometimes pray all afternoon (Matt 14.23), or all night (Luke 6.12).  He prayed for others (John 11.41-42), and He prayed for Himself (Luke 22.41-44).

We, as Christians, are to be Christ-like.  We are Christ-imitators.  We are little-Christs.  And in following Him, we should expect to receive the same kind of treatment that Jesus did.  Jesus promised that many would be killed for their faith (Matt 10).  And Paul teaches us clearly that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted (2 Tim 3.12).

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”

– 1 Peter 4.12-13

We will be called to share in the sufferings of Christ.  It may not be physical torture, but it may be religious persecution.  It may be hatred from others.  It may be discrimination, mocking, loss of job, family or friends.  But when we suffer for our faith, we are joining in the suffering of Christ, and because of that fact we can rejoice.  We might not rejoice in the moment, because suffering hurts.  But we can take comfort and find joy in the promise that we are following Christ’s example.

And as His suffering is ours, so also is the comfort that He experienced from God in the midst of His trials.

God has promised to comfort you when you are suffering for Christ.  Are you experiencing persecution today?  Is someone hating or hurting you today because of your faith?  If so, follow Jesus’ example of turning to God.  He is the God of all comfort, and spending some time with Him in prayer will bring that needed healing to your soul.  As much as Christ’s sufferings are ours to share, so is His peace.  Find your peace in Him today.

When we are oppressed.

refining fire

There are a few books that have radically changed my life throughout my Spiritual walk, and one of those books is The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards.  Jesus, throughout His earthly ministry, sought to teach the disciples how to love God and love Him, not simply to serve routinely – as was the practice of the Pharisees and others.  He compelled obedience and service as an overflowing of love, not duty.  Many in the early church grasped this foundation and by the time catechisms were being penned, the answer to the primary question, the meaning of life, was understood as thus:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We have been created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  Some have concluded that we most glorify God by enjoying Him fully, and forever – as God has created us for relationship with Him and commands us to remain in Him.  Thus our religion is driven by an affection of love that is rooted in thankfulness for what God has done for us – namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to ransom us from our sin debt and offer us eternal life.

Without affection, Edwards argues, our religion is cold and dead, and simply that of the Pharisees.  But he looks also at the reality of affliction and suffering in the Christian life and he makes this beautiful observation:

“True virtue never appears so lovely as when it is most oppressed; and the divine excellency of real Christianity is never exhibited with such advantage as when under the greatest trials; then it is that true faith appears much more precious than gold, and upon this account is “found to praise and honour and glory.”

– Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections

Paul teaches us in Romans, and James teaches us in his letter that our faith is purified by the fire of suffering, persecution and tribulation (Rom 5.1-5, James 1.2-4).  We understand from natural laws that we can purify and refine metals and natural products by fire.  If you want to make gold more pure, you heat it up.  You place it in the fire to burn out the impurities because gold can withstand a higher heat than most of the dirt and other elements that might be mixed in.  The higher the heat of the refining fire, the more pure the gold.  We have mastered the art of purifying metals and making steel as strong as it can be and gold as pure as it can be.  You never leave it in its natural state.

In the same way, Edwards argues, our faith is never at its most glory at its primary state.  The greater the oppression and the hotter the fire of trial, the more beautiful and pure it becomes.  God promises that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted:

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

– 2 Tim 3.12

He utilizes trials to refine, mature and grow our faith:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

And He promises to discipline everyone that He loves:

“For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”

– Heb 12.6

We know and understand that it is God’s will that we suffer in order to purify our faith (1 Peter 1-3).  If we have not walked through seasons of suffering or trials, if we have not experienced the discipline of the Lord in our lives to root out sin, then we can assume that we are not saved.

One of the greatest lies and tactics of the enemy is to keep us complacent and comfortable.  No one desires suffering.  No one wants to be confronted in his sin.  No one enjoys the pain of discipline and the refining fire.  But when we look back over our lives, an honest assessment sees the maturity and growth that came through this times.

When is it that your attention is caught by the faith of another?  When a person walks in regular discipline of quiet time, prayer and daily chores?  Or when a person is walking through an unimaginable trial and remains faithful to God, serving others and exemplifying the peace of the Spirit.  The faith of a man on his death bed, ready and eager to meet Jesus is much more beautiful than a rote prayer uttered over a meal.  The faith of the persecuted who is clinging to Jesus as he is unemployed for his faith or his church is burned down proclaims the excellencies of God more than hosting a Bible study in one’s home with one’s comfortable friends.

Yes, praying over meals and hosting a Bible study are good things.  But it is in the moment of testing that our faith is refined and proven to be more beautiful and more precious.  It is in those moments that we grow.

The enemy draws on our flesh, on our tendency and desire to be comfortable, and teaches us the lie that if God loves us He will give us everything we want and will make our lives easy.  He distorts the beautiful promises of Jesus,

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matt 11.28

Jesus indeed will give us rest.  We will have peace and joy that is un-explainable and full of glory (1 Peter 1.18).  But the rest is spiritual.  We will have confidence in God, in our salvation, in our eternity.  Our eternal life begins at the moment we are born Spiritually and we are made into a new creation – one that understands and takes joy in the testing and refining of our faith.  We no longer have to strive to appease God and earn our salvation, we can rest in Him.  We no longer have to chase the pleasures of the world, we have the joy of God established in our hearts.  And the trials amplify that.

Throughout history, the church has grown and matured the most under persecution.  The early church multiplied and was rich in faith, but when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, people grew complacent, lazy and nonbelievers began to desire to be a part of the church.  Offices were sold, the Gospel was distorted, and the church suffered.  The Church today is bursting in countries like China – where the oppression is still real.  And believers around the world pity American Christians because we are distracted and infatuated with the world.  Our faith is not being tested and refined like most around the world, even today.

So when we enter into trials, let us cling to Jesus.  Let us abide in Him.  Let us rejoice that our faith is being purified.  Let us seek what it is that God wants to teach us, and what impurities need to be removed from our lives.  Let us praise God that He is refining our faith.  Because it is in those moments that we grow, and that our faith is most precious and most beautiful.

What is it that finds favor with God?

bottle

As believers we often grow complacent in our identity as the children of God.  We claim the promises of Scripture that all things work together for good for believers, we echo the mantra “If God is for me, who can be against me?” and we spend a lot of energy defining our identity in Christ, being of Christ (Rom 8.28, 31).  And while it is extremely important to understand these truths and to take comfort in them, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal for all of creation is to bring glory to God.  As God’s children, we should want to obey Him, please Him and bring honor to Him through our lives.  We need to look outward instead of looking at ourselves.

My small group is reading through the book of 1 Peter right now, and Peter exhorts the believers who have been scattered by the persecution to look to and and trust in God through their suffering.  Peter, however, takes a slightly different approach than Paul in many of the fighter verses we claim.  He teaches us that not only does God bring about character and perseverance through our suffering, He says it actually finds favor with God:

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.”

– 1 Peter 2.19

These brand new believers, these baby Christians, were suffering persecution to the measure that they had to flee their homes and run for their lives for no other reason than because they trusted the Gospel; they turned to Jesus.  And Peter encouraged them to submit to the governments who are in authority over them and  to submit to their slave masters who treat them harshly.  He echoes the teaching of Jesus that when someone demands of us or persecutes us, we should turn the other cheek and give more than was requested (Matt 5.39-40).  We love our enemies (Matt 5.44).  We bless those who persecute us (Luke 6.28).

Peter’s logic, however, takes us to the next level.  He states that there is no honor in humbly receiving the discipline and harsh treatment when you have sinned (1 Peter 2.20).  But the way to find favor with God is to endure the persecution and harsh treatment when you do not deserve it.  He says, in fact, that this is the calling of Christianity:

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

– 1 Peter 2.21-24

This is where the value of looking outside of ourselves becomes vital.  If we continue to focus on ourselves and our “identity”, we will have difficulty bearing up under persecution and suffering.  This is why Peter calls Jesus into focus as our example.  We have indeed been called, and that calling is to suffer – in the same manner that Jesus suffered:  to the glory of God.

But how often do you find yourself being persecuted or suffering for choosing to do what is right?

I was in the seventh grade.  My family went to a smaller church, and the Jr. High was included in much of the Sr. High students’ activities.  One day we all went over to the associate pastor’s house and most of the youth group was there, as were the church staff, just having an evening together.  After dinner, the youth all went upstairs.  One of my girlfriends and I remained downstairs with the adults, but after a while we decided to head upstairs to see what everyone was up to.  As we climbed the stairs there was a young man sitting outside of the game room door – standing guard.  We entered to find everyone playing spin the bottle.  We were invited to join, and as my friend sat down in the circle I was shocked and appalled.  Seeing my reaction, two of the seniors in the group grabbed me and took me to the other room to calm me down and assure me that this was no big deal.  Wanting no part of it, I went back downstairs to leave them to their game.  I had no malice in my heart or intention to tattle, but the associate pastor’s wife could see the frustration on my face, so she asked me what the problem was.  So I told her.  The staff, of course, broke up the game.  And for the next year I lived in the youth group as the whistle blower goodie two shoes.

This, of course, is a funny story.  But for a little seventh grader, this was a very real and difficult situation in which I had to choose if I was going to go with the crowd or not.  I chose not to, and I suffered the consequences for it.  The first century Church was probably not in crisis of deciding if they would play spin the bottle, but rather if they would claim Jesus at the risk of their lives.  But they were also choosing to obey their masters, live peaceably with one another, and to submit to the government and authorities.  Peter is certainly speaking to life and death situations, and he is also speaking to the day-to-day situations of turning the other cheek and loving those who hate us.

Here in the states it is rare to find ourselves in a situation whereby our lives might be required of us because of our faith.  We are, however, regularly in situations where people hate us because of our faith.  And if people do not hate you because of your faith, you should have a conversation with Jesus about that, as He promised us,

“You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”

– Matt 10.22

If you want to find favor with God, you will follow the example of Jesus:  to do what is right and honor God, and while we are being hated for doing what is right, we bear up under that suffering and love those who are hating us.

Are you doing what is right, even when it brings you suffering and hatred?  Are you dying to yourself and choosing to love those who would hate you and persecute you for doing what is right?  If so, then Scripture teaches us that you are finding favor with God.  If you want to find favor with God, then get busy loving your enemies.

God wants what is best for His children.

perseverance

Are you a Christian?  Have you confessed your sins and repented of them, and asked God’s forgiveness by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ?  If you have been saved, then you can rest confidently that God wants what is best for you.  God wants what is best for you even more than you want what is best for you.  The thing that we must learn – sometimes painfully – is that often times we do not know what is best for us.  Thankfully, God does.

Scripture teaches us the primary desire of God for our lives, His will for our lives:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…”

– 1 Thess 4.3

Sanctification is a big, theological and heady word which is not typically on the forefront of our minds when we consider our life choices and decision making.  Sanctification is the ongoing process of salvation by which we are being made more like Jesus and less like the world.  It is getting to know God more fully, and in response putting to death the deeds of the flesh.  It is becoming Heaven-minded and not worldly minded.  It is our Spiritual maturation process.  So, in short, it is God’s will that we mature and grow Spiritually.  Paul explains what sanctification looks like for the Church at Thessalonica and for us, at least in part:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

– 1 Thess 4.3-7

The Thessalonians needed instruction and discipline in their sexuality and relationship with one another.  Throughout Scripture we see more exhaustive lists of the sins and deeds that God hates, i.e. Gal 5.19-20.  But Paul summarizes His teaching simply, “God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification”.  This is God’s will for us.  And if we have begun the walk of the Christian life, if we have recognized and begun to confess our sins, then we also should be growing in our hatred for and conviction of sin and desiring to become more like Christ.  Our will should also be our sanctification.

That is the best for us.

We also can claim the promise of Scripture that if we have begun that walk with the Lord, He will complete it in us:

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

– Phil 1.6

When we come to God for salvation through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within our lives and begins the process of Sanctification from within.  We then get to practice dying to the flesh and letting Him live through us.  He is at work within us, and He will complete the work of sanctification.

“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.13

So if we know that Scripture teaches us clearly that God’s will is for our sanctification, for us to become more like Jesus, and that He promises to complete that work in our lives, we can know fully that all things will work out for our best:

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

– Rom 8.28

Our best, however, is rarely what we desire in our hearts.  Consider the things you long for, work for, and pray for.  Do you desire a nice house?  A new car?  Nice clothes?  Fancy food?  Do you desire to have a consistent life that is not interrupted?  A schedule that makes sense and allows for the right amount of sleep, exercise and socializing?  Do you pray for good health?  For people around you to live forever?  For your children to be perfectly behaved?  Do you pray for those things that are making you uncomfortable to be taken away?

These things are not bad in and of themselves.  Jesus, in fact, promises rest and peace to those who come to Him (Matt 11.28-29).  He desires to give us peace and rest.  But have you ever reflected on a season of peace and rest and said, “I grew so much during that time”, or “My faith is at a place it has never been before”.  No, you have not.  And do you know why?  Because God knows that our faith only grows and is refined through testing – through the fire.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.1-5

We grow in sanctification, we mature, and we develop perseverance, character and hope through suffering and trials.  It is after a season of tremendous difficulty and suffering that believers look back and are amazed at the faithfulness of God and the development of their faith.  Faith is not developed by comfortable lives, it is developed by relying on God through the storm.

Think about it this way:  If sanctification is becoming more like Jesus, should we not expect to live the kind of life that Jesus did?  Jesus had no house, no earthly possessions and treasures.  He lived a life fully devoted to God, and He suffered hatred, persecution and death on a cross because of it.  Jesus Himself said,

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

– John 15.20

Non believers hated and persecuted Jesus.  If we are becoming more like Jesus, non believers will hate and persecute us as well.  We also know that Jesus, in His greatest hour of suffering, asked God to take away the suffering, but God did not:

“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”

– Luke 22.42

Have you ever been in the midst of suffering and begged God to take it from you?  And He chose not to?  What was the result?  Did you ultimately grow and mature in your faith?  Or did you become embittered and resent God for the trial?  If you are a servant of Jesus, you can expect great suffering.  And you can expect that God will bring about your sanctification – your best – through it.

For four years I lived a life that many thought was one that required great faith.  I loved the opportunity to serve, and relished every moment of it.  It was indeed a life the required much sacrifice and conviction, but because of the desires God had placed in my heart it required minimal faith in the sense of perseverance through trial and testing.  Then God rocked my world and completely changed my life’s trajectory.  I then was forced to live a life that few would consider a life that requires much faith, but for me – because of those convictions and desires I have – it requires a daily submission and new step of faith.  And I can honestly look back on the last three years and see immensely more faith, trust and hope developed than in the four years before.

God is testing my faith.  And I am thankful that I can see growth through it.  I am also thankful that I know it means He is working in me, for my best, and for my sanctification.

We naturally want what is easiest and what feels the best.  But God has promised to develop faith and Spiritual maturity in His children.  And the way He does that is by testing and refining our faith through the fire of tribulation and suffering.  He wants what is best for you more than you want it for yourself, and He knows what is best for you – much more clearly than you know.  Are you in a season of peace and comfort right now?  Or is your faith being refined?  Can you look back over your life and see those seasons of testing and purification?  Or have you lived a relatively comfortable life that required little faith?  Trust God.  Know that He tested Jesus and even asked Jesus to surrender His desires and will.  Know that we, as Jesus’ servants, are not greater than our master and that we will be hated, persecuted, and tested by God.  And if you have not, then I would go back to the foundation and see if you have surrendered your life to God and asked for salvation.

He will work the best out for you.  And it will be through discipline and testing.  Trust Him through it, and you will be amazed at how you grow.