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

Seven Churches, Six of them dying.

danger

The book of Revelation is perhaps the most difficult book in the Bible to read and to grasp.  Jesus gave this revelation of the End Times and what is to come to the seven churches in Asia through the Apostle John.  It is the only book in the Bible which promises a blessing upon the reader, and it looks towards things yet to come with great trepidation and hope.  Jesus reveals Himself to John standing amongst seven lampstands which represent the seven Churches who were intended to read and apply this prophecy, and then He takes two chapters (or nearly one tenth) of the book to write specific letters to these Churches regarding their individual and specific situations.

Six of the seven Churches to whom Jesus gives the prophecy of the end times are in dire situations.  Six of the seven churches have missed the proverbial boat when it comes to the faith.  Six of the seven churches are in danger of proving themselves to not even be believers – to have their lampstand removed – to not enter into eternal rest with Jesus.  Their six sins are unique, and yet similar at the core:  unbelief.

  1.  Ephesus – This church has persevered and toiled hard by performing good deed, but they are doing these good deeds without love for Jesus, they have “left their first love”.  The are morally upstanding but have no passion or love.
  2. Smyrna – This church has been faithful but yet is about about to enter tribulation and some will be thrown into jail.  Jesus warns them to hold fast or else they will perish.
  3. Pergamum – This church was tolerating the false teaching of “cheap grace” – it does not matter what you do because Jesus already forgave it.  In essence they were allowing sin and thus abusing the forgiveness and ransom that Jesus offers.
  4. Thyatira – They have perseverance and good deeds, and are even growing in them, but they have allowed a false prophet to remain and gain a following perpetuating immorality and idolatry.
  5. Sardis – This church has a name that they are alive but they are dead.  They are doing “good deeds” but do not know or honor God.
  6. Laodicea – Their deeds are lukewarm, Jesus says He will spit them out of His mouth.  They do not need God because they are wealthy and self sufficient, they are complacent.

The other Church, the Church at Philadelphia, receives no warning and only praise and encouragement.  Philadelphia knows Jesus, loves Him and is obediently serving and honoring him.  These six temptations and pitfalls are prevalent today.  Many churches in the United States are like Laodicea in that they are so wealthy and comfortable that Church is just an event or “good thing” to do on the weekend, to help us feel more comfortable about the afterlife.  Very few of us rely on Jesus daily and focus on earning eternal rewards because we are so fat and lazy here.  Many church here in the United States and around the world are much like Sardis and Ephesus in that they have good deeds, but their deeds are of their own strength and not centered in the will and power of Jesus.  These churches look really good to the outside world, but they are actually dead.

Many churches also look like Thyatira and Pergamum – not only tolerating but following false teachers.  False teachers do not infiltrate the church by preaching some crazy doctrine.  They start out sounding solid and Biblical and then slowly drift away from the Truth.  They twist the truth just enough to take Jesus out of the equation, and yet still remain convincing.  Most tolerated and followed false prophets teach half truths or promise blessings that Jesus simply does not promise, but yet they enchant the follower with their charisma and hope that people are blinded.  Turning a boat by one degree at first seems like no variation, but when it travels the length of the Atlantic, it ends up no where near its intended course.  So it is with false prophets.  And Jesus says that following such a one will lead to damnation.

Lastly, there are churches in the world today like Smyrna, who have a faith but run the risk of apostasy in the face of persecution and tribulation.  We know that Jesus does forgive those who fail in a moment of weakness like Peter, but the whole teaching of the Scripture is that those who persevere until the end are those who will be saved.  Jesus suffered greatly, and it is promised that all who love and follow Him will also suffer.  We will not all experience the same persecution and tribulation, but perseverance in faith through every trial is that which marks true believers.  There are some churches in the world who reject the idea that our faith will result in suffering, and there are many who would believe Jesus as long as it requires nothing from them, and thus suffering turns them away from their faith – like the seed sown on the rocky ground.

This admonition of Jesus should be a sobering one for us today.  There are churches on every street corner, even in cities that are considered “less churched” in the United States.  But Jesus, who sees all and knows all, and who will be the judge over everyone at the end, has pronounced condemnation over six of the seven churches.  These are not good statistics, folks.

What does that mean for us?  What is our take away?  Firstly, we need to examine closely the sins that Jesus says will lead a church away from Him and from salvation, and we need to check ourselves on all of those fronts.  Do you know and love Jesus?  Do you obey Him and preform good deeds as an overflowing of that love?  Are you persevering through trials and persecutions?  Are you faithful to the Scripture and not entertaining false teachers?  And are you relying on Jesus and storing up for yourself treasures in Heaven instead of here on Earth?  If so, then you are living a life like the Church at Philadelphia.  If you are unsure, or if you see any of these tendencies in your life, examine the commanded repentance in each situation instructed by Jesus.  There is still hope.  So long as you can repent, there is hope.

Let us test the Spirits, let us examine our hearts, and let us be ever diligent over our salvation and our souls, so that we do not find ourselves amongst those who thought they knew Jesus but never did.  It is not risking eternity for a moment of comfort or pleasure here.  Jesus is faithful and will grant salvation to all who call upon His name!

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

– Phil 2.12-13

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

When there’s nothing to say.

gloves

Sometimes you have said all that you can say and done all that you can do, and the outcome seems murky at best.  Few times in life is the battle anything short of a thousand-year war, rarely is the race documented by splits.  Yes, splits are important, and yes battles ultimately win the war, but the reality is that more often than not, even the minor victories can be be overshadowed by the ongoing struggle.  You might kill one mile, but the task of many more ahead can damper your spirit.

“…and he said, ‘Listen, all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: thus says the LORD to you, “Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s”.'”

– 2 Chro 20.15

We certainly play a role in the big picture.  But our role is obedience.  We hear the Word of God and we submit to it.  We fight sin.  We are active in the Church.  We share the Gospel with non believers and we train up new believers, holding them accountable and helping them to obey God.  But the battle is already won.  The end has already been written.  And God causes the growth.

“The Lord will fight for you, you need only to keep silent.”

– Ex 14.14

Sometimes we need to get out of the way for the Lord.  We can beat a dead horse but it will not run.  But God is sovereign over salvation, maturity and everything that happens on this Earth.

“So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”

– 1 Cor 3.7

And quite frankly, the reality is that before growth can occur, the seed must die.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

– John 12.24

God causes growth through dead seeds.  This is a mystery, both in agriculture and in Spiritual matters.  Scripture teaches us that we are all dead, spiritually, until God gives us a new birth:  a Spiritual birth.  And the outplaying of that Spiritual birth is our surrender, when we die to ourselves and let God take over to bring about new life.  Spiritual life.  Life that honors Him and is life in the fullest.

We will never persuade someone to follow Christ.  And if we do persuade someone, then they have been won on a superficial level only.  Only God gives true life, and true growth.  So let us not be surprised that the World acts like the World; that Spiritually dead people disobey the mandates of God.  Let us say all that God has to us to say, let us fight the good fight, but let us rest well in the fact that God has every step of this planned.  Jesus promises us that the world will devolve into chaos ad tribulation before the end will come.

“You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes.  But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.  Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.  At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another.  Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.  Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”

– Matt 24.6-13

But the one who perseveres until the end will be saved.  Push on.  It will all be worth it in the end.  Be on guard lest your love grow cold and lest you be led astray.  It will all be worth it in the end.  And the battle belongs to the Lord.

You shall not avoid tribulation.

tribulation

There is a foreign gospel often taught amongst churches that lead people into a delusion and awful state:  that God intends to make us happy, healthy and wealthy while we are still on this Earth.  We are all familiar with the extreme teaching as found in the “health and wealth gospel”, most of us have bought into the hype at one time through “The Prayer of Jabez”, and I would guess almost all of us hope for it and can test our hearts on it through the things that we pray.  Is your prayer list a laundry list of needs – things that you desire to be fixed so that you can live more comfortably and happily?  I know much of mine is.

There is a verse that some attempt to apply to today, many attempt to apply to the end times, but upon close examination only truly speaks to eternity:

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.”

– 1 Thess 5.9-10

Taking this verse out of it’s setting in the letter Paul wrote to the Church at Thessalonica, we can understand how someone would erroneously apply this verse to our every day life.  If God has not destined us for wrath, then He intends to make everything go well for me!  However, this verse is speaking in the context of the end, of eternity.  The Church at Thessalonica was confused about death and the end, they even became fearful that they had missed the rapture!  Thus Paul wrote to explain about the end, that those who had died would be raised from the dead and that when everything is said and done, we will not suffer eternal judgment but salvation through Jesus.

Consider how Jesus prayed for the disciples and for us:

“But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves.  I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.  As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.  For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.  I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me…”

– John 17.13-21

Jesus prayed for us that we would be unified with Him, that God would keep us from the evil one, and He sent us out into the world.  Jesus should be our example as we consider our Christian walk, and God sent Him into the world to seek and to serve.  He had no where to lay His head, He gave to the poor and needy, He lived His life with an eternal perspective of salvation and He was hated for it.  If we want to be like Jesus, the world will hate 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.”

– John 15.18-20

The world persecuted Jesus, and they will persecute those who follow Jesus.

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

– 2 Tim 3.12

We have the promise of eternal salvation, and are no longer living under the wrath of God.  Jesus took God’s wrath for those who believe in Him.  We will, however, live under the curse of sin until the end.  Sin leaves consequences on Earth.  The world will suffer tribulation, and we must persevere through it, for it is only those who persevere to the end that will be saved.

“Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.  At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another.  Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.  Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.  But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”

– Matt 24.9-13

God gives us the grace to persevere through trials and tribulation.  We are made more like Jesus through our trials and tribulations, because Jesus suffered and came through victorious, and when we endure suffering with perseverance, it creates character and character leads to hope (Rom 5, James 1).  Let us not think today that we are greater than our master, that we will be loved by the world and that we will be kept from suffering and persecution.  Let us cling to Jesus as we walk through the trials and struggles of life, and be molded more into His image.  He has sent us out into the world to be His witnesses.  Let’s embrace it.