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.

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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.

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.

When suffering is necessary.

twin towers

September 11th, 2001 is a day that we will all remember.  Every year people recall what they were doing and where they were the moment they heard that a plane had hit the first tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.  I was in my first year of college and involved in Campus Crusade for Christ.  A group of us immediately formed and on September 12th we loaded up a van and drove to Manhattan to be available to talk to and counsel people who were still in shock from the events of the day.  Cru loosely organized the students that poured in from around the country to pray, counsel and comfort those in need, and to guide us in our conversations they gave us a pamphlet entitled, “Where is God in the midst of suffering?”

This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions for the 21st century world.  The United States is built on the value that we all have the God-given right to pursue happiness and no one can stand in our way.  The industrial revolution has developed cars and air conditioning so we rarely have to suffer physical discomfort, and medical research continues to develop vaccines, supplements and treatments that can heal most ailments and keep us alive longer and longer.  We have developed to the point that I have multiple friends in their thirties who have never been to a funeral.  We understand suffering less and less, so much so that the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or any other relatively normal form of suffering will send us into bouts of depression, we will abandon faith in God, and we will despair of life itself.

When something tragic does occur, those of us who claim faith in Jesus intrinsically ask the question, “Where is God?”  We think that if He is love and if He is good, then suffering cannot be a part of His plan.  We are so out of touch with the nature of life, we are so narcissistic that we think suffering is foreign, is bad, that we do not deserve it, and if it happens then something is wrong with the universe and with God.

The most Spiritual among us will admit that perhaps God can bring good out of it, but it would never be His intention or plan that we suffer.

But what does the Bible say?

Let us first consider Jesus.  Jesus is the son of God.  The incarnate person of God.  The visible image of the unseen God (Col 1.15).  He came to the Earth to seek and to save that which was lost, and to do the will of God the Father (Luke 19.10, John 6.38).  And how, exactly, did Jesus do all of that?  By being brutally murdered on a cross and rising again three days later (Matt 26-28).  As Jesus was approaching the cross, He was broken in His spirit and did not want to endure it.  He begged God in prayer to let Him not have to suffer thus, but He ultimately submitted saying,

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

– Luke 22.42

And it was the will of the father to slay Him.  In fact, Scripture says that it pleased God to crush Him:

“But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering…”

– Is 53.10

Now, one might be tempted to say that Jesus’ situation was different.  It was bringing about salvation, after all.  But what did Jesus promise us?

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.  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.  But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”

– John 15.18-21

Jesus promised us that if we are in Him, we will suffer as He did.  The world will hate us, persecution and trials will come at the hands of others.  And Scripture teaches us that God uses all trials – not just persecution for our faith – as part of His plan for our lives.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

– James 1.2-3

I got to visit my family this weekend, and my niece and nephew were over as I was getting ready to head out for a run.  They adamantly wanted to join me on my run, and so I bargained with them that I would run my long run and then we would do a short run together afterwords.  In planning the short run, my four year old nephew told me that the longest he had ever run was 46 miles.  They, with no training and a love of chasing each other in circles around the living room (and childlike faith), believed that they could go out and run many many miles.  But when they saw the distance and time that only a four mile run was, they were surprised and affirmed that I can run for a long time!

We often view faith and suffering in that way.  We hear the valiant stories of martyrs and the faithful and believe our faith to be of that type.  But then the car breaks down, a water line breaks in the wall, or a friend turns into an enemy and we crumble.  We thought we could run 46 miles, but we realize that we have never trained.  We have no endurance and we have no idea how far 46 miles actually is.  But God puts us through all sorts of trials to develop and mature our faith.  Various trials, according to James, are those things that God puts in our lives to test our faith and will develop endurance.

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”

– 1 Peter 1.6-9

Peter explains that these various trials are necessary, and not only that, the very will of God:

“For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”

– 1 Peter 3.17

“Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”

– 1 Peter 4.19

Not only is is God’s will that we suffer, but that we would suffer for doing what is right.  And this is the same manner of suffering which Jesus endured.  And Paul promises us,

“If we suffer with Him, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us…”

– 2 Tim 2.12

Our suffering is intentional and is the will of God to test our faith and to bring about maturity.  It is not malicious, it is not abnormal, and most importantly, God is not evil because of it.  Rather, He is good and is allowing us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus to obtain a deeper faith, greater love and trust for Him, and ultimately salvation.  It is because of this that James commands us to rejoice in suffering.  Paul explains that we should have joy and hope in our trials because of their outcome and God’s plan through them:

“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 5.3-5

Faithful Unto Death

jail

The second church Jesus addressed in the letters of Revelation was the church in Smyrna.  While at first the admonition does not sound as harsh as the condemnation of the Church at Ephesus, Jesus does give a qualifying stipulation to the Church at Smyrna regarding their admission into Heaven, which is quite sobering:

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:  I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.  Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days.  Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death’.”

– Rev 2.8-11

The Church at Smyrna was (is) facing severe persecution by which some will be cast into prison.  Jesus, because of their fate, defines Himself as “the first and the last, who was dead and has come to life” (v 8).  He does this to remind them of the fact that their salvation rests in the fact that Jesus walked the path which they are destined to walk.  He, in fact, walked a more difficult road of tribulation and death.  And in all of this He is sovereign, He is the first and the last – He is in control of all things.  Jesus is aware of the false prophets in their midst, just like He was over the Pharisees, and He knows that they have been faithful in the midst of the false teaching.

Jesus’ admonition, based on His sovereignty and His understanding of having walked through what they are facing, is to not fear and persevere until the end.  The New Testament teaches us a doctrine of salvation known as “the Perseverance of the Saints”, which essentially states that everyone who has been saved will persevere until the end, and unless one perseveres until the end, he has not been saved.

Jesus taught this plainly,

“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”

– Matt 24.13

James echos Jesus:

“Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”

– James 1.12

Paul also taught this truth:

“If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us…”

– 2 Tim 2.13

And the author of Hebrews:

“For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end…”

– Heb 3.14

We also see clearly that some will infiltrate the Church, utilized by the devil to create discord and problems, but they are false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing.  We will ultimately know these by the fact that they do not continue with the faith or they will stray so far from the Truth that they will become evident:

“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

– 1 John 2.19

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?  So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  So then, you will know them by their fruits.”

– Matt 7.15-20

This is an extremely difficult doctrine to grasp.  Some people, throughout the generations since Jesus’ ascension have suffered to the point of death for the sake of their faith, and some have had little to no persecution.  The early church suffered greatly under some of the Roman Caesars, and the church actually split over this doctrine.  Some people gave in under the persecution, and denied Jesus verbally.  Some people avoided taking a stand and hid.  While others claimed Jesus and suffered greatly.  Some of those who never denied Jesus and survived considered those who did deny or who avoided taking a stand as false believers and desired to excommunicate them from the Church.

We see the provision made for Peter, who denied Jesus three times and was restored, and thus need to be able to test the fruit of those who might falter in a moment of weakness.  But we also see the clear teaching that there are many who will be proven to be false prophets and false believers, and we need to be able to discern them when possible.

Thankfully, God looks on the hearts of men and He alone has the final judgment over the sincerity or validity of one’s faith.  We also know that it is God who gives us faith and God who is working out our salvation in our lives:

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

– Phil 2.13

“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

“…if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.”

– 2 Tim 2.13

But let us take the admonition of Jesus seriously.  He commanded us to be faithful until death, and if we do so we will receive the crown of life!  We will be given eternity in His presence.  We may suffer persecution, we may be put in jail.  We may have to make a bold claim of faith in the face of an enemy of Christ, and if we do so, we will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and immediately be with Him in eternity.

God is getting ready to do something big.

change the world

When I was a sophomore in High School, I went on a mission trip with a bunch of other high schoolers from around the country to South Korea.  There were around thirty of us, plus adult chaperones and leaders.  We spent a week together getting ready, learning music, praying, and preparing ourselves to go and then we spent a month traveling around military posts and camps sharing about Jesus.  While we were having our week-long preparation, an emergency arose with the team leader and he had to withdraw from the trip.  The mission organization brought in another team leader who was able to lead us, but there were a variety of other hiccups along the way that made this particular trip substantially more difficult than others – others which had more than double the number of participants.  As we were loading the bus to go to the airport to begin our trip, we had one final prayer meeting and the sentiment was shared over us, “God is going to do something big through this group – because the enemy has worked hard to make this trip not happen”.

Nothing big happened – at least in our observation.

Yes, God is infinitely bigger than us and has every circumstance orchestrated sovereignly to accomplish His perfect will in and through us, and there could be ripple effects from that trip to South Korea of which I and the rest of the team will never be aware.  But in our finite perspective, we did what we said we were going to do, we saw a very limited response, and we came home.

Many times when we are walking through crises and difficulties in life, we comfort ourselves with the platitude that “God is getting ready to do something big”.  The only explanation we can muster to understand our suffering is how awesome we are, God wants to change the world through us, and therefore Satan is putting up a big fight to slow us down or thwart the plan.

But may I ask you, how many times have you come through that difficulty and observed a mighty act of God?

And how many times do you get through the difficulty and immediately forget the suffering, and stop looking to God?

Scripture teaches us that Satan does in fact prowl around on the Earth like a roaring lion, seeking those whom he can devour.

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

– 1 Peter 5.8

Satan is looking for people who are weak, who are distracted, who are able to be devoured and made ineffective for the name of Christ.  He also uses his cunning to attack the diligent – as he twisted Scripture and attempted to deceive Jesus Himself!  But no where does Scripture teach us that Satan sees the plan of God and therefore sets out to thwart it by throwing obstacles in our path.

Rather we see from Scripture that trials and tribulations are actually a part of God’s perfect plan for our sanctification and maturity:

“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 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 5.3-5

The testing of our faith produces endurance – when we persevere through trials.  And endurance results in character, hope, and ultimately maturity.  In short, we will not become mature believers until we walk through trials and difficult times, and grow from them.  Our faith must be tested and refined in order for it to become more pure.  If left stagnant and untested, it will remain immature.

So I guess we need to reconsider what exactly it is that we mean when we say God is going to do something big.  Do we mean that God is going to help us grow, understand the Gospel, and become more mature and Christlike?  If so, then let’s continue to praise God’s sovereignty in our circumstances.  But let us beware of giving Satan too much credit.  Scripture is full of unfathomably difficult circumstances.  Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son – who was born to him when he was 100 years old, after leaving his country and roaming for most of his life.  Joseph spent years in slavery and in prison while waiting for God to fulfill the vision He gave of him being in a position of high leadership.  David was anointed king and then literally ran and hid for his life for years while waiting for God to put him in power.  Jesus Himself lived a lifetime on earth without a house or place to lay His head, and then suffered death in the form of crucifixion.

Now, we know that God was doing the mightiest of works through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  But even Jesus was disciplined and learned maturity through trials.  He was glorified as the son of God by His perfect example of perseverance through even the most unfathomable of situations:

“In the days of His flesh, [Jesus] offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.  Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made [mature], He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…”

– Heb 5.7-9

So let us step back and take a realistic look at our lives.  When we encounter a trial and difficult situation, let us keep in perspective the fact that God not only allows but orchestrates the testing of our faith so that we can grow, become more mature, and be more like Christ.  Without the testing of our faith, we do not grow.  So let us take comfort in the fact that yes, God is doing something – but the magnitude of it may only be a refinement of sin within our own hearts.  God is not necessarily planning on changing the world just because this went wrong or that fell through.

But let us also be intentional to step back and see the lessons and refinement that is intended by our circumstances.  If God has you in a trial, it is for your growth and sanctification.  We will not grow if we do not join Him in perseverance and faith through it.  If we just hunker down and wait for the situation to end, if we just barrel through and force the resolution that we want, if we do not intentionally seek out God and His plan through our suffering, then when we get to the other side we will have not persevered in faith; we just got through it.  And we forget.  As soon as it is over, we no longer placate ourselves with the empty hope that God is getting ready to do something because we are comfortable again and God gets placed right back on the back burner where He belongs.

Rather, let us get in God’s face and ask Him boldly, “What is it that you want me to learn here?”.  Let us press into God during these trials and experience the refinement that He intends for us.  And then, when it is over, let us be able to look back and see what exactly God did in our hearts and in our lives during those trials.  Let us intentionally engage with God, be humble, grow, see what He is doing, and at the end be able to give witness to it.  God is doing something big, and that is our sanctification.

All things work together for good for those who love God – and often the good is our Spiritual growth and maturity.

“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

Does it really make you stronger [if it doesn’t kill you]?

stronger

When I was a child and a teenager, I had a concept of adulthood that assumed everyone who was a grown up physically was mature and responsible.  Children were characterized by their levels of youth-li-ness (terrible two’s, irresponsible adolescents, etc), and often times I would hear testimonies and accounts of people who had “finally grown up” or who, through a series of terrible circumstances, “had to grow up too soon”.  Being “grown up” meant, to me, being mature, responsible, having polished social skills, and good interpersonal relationship skills.  Somewhere along my path of maturation, however, I realized that not everyone is guaranteed to grow in every aspect.  Sometimes obnoxious children turn into obnoxious adults.  Sometimes irresponsible teens turn into irresponsible middle-aged people.  And sometimes the burden of life and mid-life crises turn what appeared to be responsible adults into fools or senile old people.

But while all of these things are glaringly true, we as a culture live by the motto,

“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

In essence we cheer ourselves through hardships and struggles by chanting the mantra that we will grow and be stronger because of our current life situation.  Have you found this to be true in your life?  If you step back and make an honest assessment of your most difficult moments, did you grow?  Or did you become hardened?  Did you mature?  Or did you set up walls to protect yourself from the world?  Did you press into God and the Church?  Or did you learn how to make it on your own because “people will always let you down”?

It has been said that the same boiling water that hardens an egg softens potatoes.  And we, as Christians, should be the potato.

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

God has sovereignly and purposefully given us lives full of trials and tribulation so that our faith can be tested and through perseverance we can obtain good character and ultimately hope. We do not by nature enjoy and rejoice in trials, we want life to be smooth, easy and comfortable.  But God desires to make us people of deep and solid faith, and He does that by causing us to be more holy through the purification fire of suffering (James 1.2-4).

God also uses suffering and persecution to weed out false believers:

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.  Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

 – Luke 8.5-8

The Gospel falls on all kinds of ears.  Some people do not respond at all – the birds eat the seed away before it can take any root.  Some people respond quickly and with joy, but as soon as persecution arises they die and wither away because they have no depth, no conviction, no hope.  Some people respond quickly and spring up, but when the temptations and pleasures of the world come around, they take over and their faith withers away.  They choose the world instead of God.  And the others hear the Gospel, believe it, and when trials come they persevere and die to themselves.  When the pleasures of sin tempt them, they turn away and choose the pleasures of God.  These are those who persevere and develop character and hope.  These are those who are softened by the boiling water.  These are those who are saved.

“To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

 – 2 Thess 1.11-12

It is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2.13).  Trials and suffering will make us stronger in a worldly sense if we do not have the Holy Spirit at work within us:  we will rely less on people, be more independent, we will be hardened and calloused.  Strong like a rock.  But if the Holy Spirit is at work within us, we will gradually be softened by trials.  We will be humbled and die to ourselves.  We will put one another first and seek to serve one another and God.  When the Spirit is in us, He is doing the mighty work of making us worthy of our calling.  Not that we would deserve our calling of salvation, but that He is continually making us more holy and Christlike.  He is making us into what our calling demands of us.  He helps us set resolves for holiness and then empowers us to fulfill those desires, and that all to the glory of Jesus Christ.

Our trials do not develop perseverance, character and hope so that we can have a better reputation.  They do all of things to make much of and to glorify God.  If Jesus has paid the penalty for your sin, He will also fight your sinful nature within you and make you more like Him in the process.  He will not pay the penalty for your sins and leave you to act like the world.  He will transform us to be representative of the glorious calling to righteousness and holiness.

So what does that mean, practically?  Step back and look at your current trial or hardship.  How are you responding?  Are you pressing into God?  Or are you ignoring Him?  Are you putting your desires and emotions to the side and considering the other person involved?  Or are you harboring bitterness and anger?  Are you training yourself in “street smarts” for how to not be taken advantage of again?  Or are you asking God to show you how to bring Him glory by your loss?  Are you content in whatever life situation you are currently residing, giving glory to God and finding every opportunity to praise Him?

“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

 – Phil 4.11-13

Let us be aware that trials and difficulty to not produce strength by their very nature.  Many people revert, become hardened, or simply choose to play the victim and never mature.  You must be an active participant and choose to grow through trials, and we do that by relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the Scriptures and to become more Christlike.  Be purposeful and intentional in your self-awareness and Spiritual growth.  Growing up physically does not mean that you will mature Spiritually.