Archive for Suffering
Last week I Googled a recipe for a chocolate cake, made from scratch. The recipe was surprisingly simple:
3/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
After these ingredients are blended together, the recipe calls for an additional 1 cup of boiling water to be added to the batter. After combining the ingredients and the water, the batter is to be poured into a greased and lightly floured cake pan, then baked at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes.
The thing that struck me was that most of the ingredients in the chocolate cake are not fit for consumption by themselves. Who reaches into the pantry for a big scoop of shortening or a bowl of flour for a snack? No one. Most of the ingredients alone are bitter, but when combined, they make something wonderful.
Now think about your adversity. Those life challenges can be bitter when consumed alone. But God has a marvellous way of bringing them together with “time” and “heat” to create something beautiful. Don’t get lost in the bitterness of the ingredients that accompany adversity. Instead, focus on the product that is produced by the loving hand of a God who is good.
The building with the deepest foundation in the world can be found in Malaysia. The Petronis Towers, standing some 1,483 feet above ground rests upon a foundation that reaches 394 feet beneath the earth’s surface. For a point of reference, the tallest building in Iowa is 801 Grand, which headlines the Des Moines skyline at 630 feet.
The simple lesson is this: the greater the structure, the deeper the foundation. If you want God to build height and breadth in your life, he will first have to build depth. And more often than not, the way he builds depth into your life is to allow you to experience adversity.
Joseph walked a lonely path of suffering for 13 years before he recognized that his God given ambition would come true. Those 13 years were not wasted years. God used the adversity to prepare Joseph for the ultimate challenge of success. Joseph learned to tenaciously cling to God during those days of character development. He developed a dependence that was so strong that he never lessened his grip when he was exalted and promoted.
Many people know how to cling to God when God is all they have. But it can be even more difficult to cling to God like your life depends on it when all is well. Do you cling to God when all is well? Or do you only look to God when things “go south?”
Last Christmas my daughter Lauren gave me The Hole in the Gospel as a gift, but I think it would be more appropriate to call it a blessing. Written by Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, U.S., this book serves the reader in two special ways.
The first section of the book is autobiographical. Stearns shares his story of growing up in poverty and putting himself through an Ivy League school, earning a degree in neurobiology then later a MBA. He was an avowed atheist who turned to Christ through the witness of his girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Stearns was successful in his business career and was named President of Parker Brothers at the age of 33. He later became President and CEO of Lenox, Inc., America’s fine tableware and gift company.
During his years in business, the Stearns family lived a committed Christian life. They were active participants in local churches and were especially supportive of missions and mission work around the world. Stearns replays with transparency the struggle he underwent hearing and acknowledging God’s calling to leave the business arena to become the head of World Vision.
Stearns then shared his work with World Vision and provided the reader with a powerful challenge to become engaged in helping to solve real problems among the suffering around the world. There are many talking heads today that are able to share some of the same statistical data that Stearns provides in the book. Some of those statistics are well known while others are obscure and unfamiliar. Statistical data works in this book simply because Stearns has been to the places he writes about. He tells stories from his travels of the people he’s met and the suffering that he’s witnessed first hand. For me, those statistics became more striking because I knew that he knew something that went beyond the numbers. He had walked and lived among the suffering and was able to attach a name and a face to the suffering. Statistics alone can never do that.
I also appreciate Stearns ability to appropriately use Scripture in context to call the community of faith to action. His writing wasn’t filled with peppered assaults on the reader from the Bible. He faithfully interacted with Scripture and called the reader to be open to the Holy Spirit’s call to involvement. This was powerful in the most tasteful way.
The Hole in the Gospel is a wonderful book for those who have a heart for missions and to alleviate suffering in the world. I commend it to those who are passionate about the world, and recommend it to those who realize that there’s more to life than making silverware.
“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.” (Matthew 25:34-36, Richard Stearns Version)
So what is The Hole in the Gospel? The Hole in the Gospel is the dispairity between what we say we believe and what we actually do. Until we fill that hole, our religion is an empty religion that God despises.
Theology precedes ethics. Or one might say what we believe determines how we behave. This is the pattern of the epistles. It is clearly evident in Paul’s letters, and 1 Peter is no exception. The first section of 1 Peter (1:1-12) is an intense theological passage. Like Paul, Peter follows up his doctrinal statement with an ethical section. In the above passage, he challenges his readers with five imperatives to apply to their everyday lives.
1. Control your thought life (1 Peter 1:13).
Their new found faith should inform how they process information. The same is true of us. The experiences of life are real. But what we choose to think about those same experiences is under our control. We can’t change reality, but we can manage our thoughts about those experiences.
2. Be holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).
I find it interesting that Peter’s instruction is to be holy, not to do holy. We commit a grave injustice when we reduce holiness to a list of “do’s and don’ts” rather than seeing it as a vital part of our position in Christ. As holy people we do self-examination. But holiness motivates our self-checking, not vice versa.
3. Live in reverent fear of God (1 Peter 1:17-21).
One of the most important daily disciplines a Christian should exercise is the simple confession “God is in control.” Living in reverent fear of the Lord is the result of living with the conviction that God is sovereign and in control of all things. God has already saved us from the worst of all, so we can trust him to reign over every circumstance in our lives.
4. Intentionally love others (1 Peter 1:22-25).
One of the first things we learn when we come to faith is that God loves us. We know our faith is beginning to mature when we learn that God loves others too. Love is important, because it’s the one eternal value that we possess on earth that will carry over into our life in heaven. In heaven we won’t need faith and hope for faith will be sight and hope will be fulfilled. But love endures eternally.
5. Develop good eating habits (1 Peter 2:1-3).
Good nutrition is a critical part of good health. This is true of the spiritual realm as well as the physical realm. We must grow as believers, and a balanced diet from the word will make sure that we are spiritually healthy and balanced.
“(God) comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT)
God is the source of all comfort and he comforts us when we face crushing pressure. But God doesn’t comfort us to make us comfortable. He comforts us so that we will become comforters.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection he spoke words of assurance to them. The Bible then tells us that Jesus showed them his scars. He comforted the disciples with his presence, and gave them an indellible reminder of his suffering. Though the image of Jesus’ scars is not referred to again in the New Testament story, one has to believe that with every blow of suffering the disciples experienced that the image of those scars comforted and encouraged them.
God is the source of all comfort and he comforts us in our troubles. The word Paul used to describe our troubles is thilipsis, which means pressure. It’s a word picture for a wine press that crushes the juice out of the grapes. So we might say that troubles are the crushing pressures of life. When the crushing pressures occur, God comes to our side and comforts us.
How then does God comfort us? The Bible is not specific, but allow me to offer three thoughts that will help us understand what God’s comfort looks like. First, God comforts us though his presence. We are assured that God is nearby during the crushing pressures of life. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus referred to the coming Holy Spirit as the paraklete, the one called alongside to help.
Second, the word comfort is in the present tense, meaning that his comfort is continuous. God’s comfort is not on again and off again. His presence is steady and ongoing.
Third, his comfort is sufficient for our need. 2 Corinthians 1:5 states, “For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.” (NLT) In other words, the more we suffer, the more we recognize God’s continual presence by our side. This is perhaps why we esteem those who suffer the most to have the closest relationship with Christ. As we suffer, Christ is revealed more and more in our lives.
How does God comfort us? God comforts us by revealing his continuous and sufficient presence in our lives.
As I have said, scars are a part of the story of our lives. They communicate things about our lives and inform us of the nature of life as well. Scars give evidence of that we have been wounded at some point in the past. At the same time, scars also provide evidence of healing. We don’t remain perpetually wounded, for through time and care we experience healing. Scars serve as ongoing reminders of past experiences that provide lessons that can’t be learned any other way. We are transformed through those pains from the past. After all, scars change our appearance. The story of life is developed through each one of those transitions. Obviously some of our scars are physical. But not every scar we bear can be seen. Some of our deepest scars are on our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls.
For the past several weeks I’ve been teaching on the subject of suffering and adversity. This past weekend I concluded my portion of the teaching from Paul’s words to the Church at Corinth. 2 Corinthians 1:3 says,“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.”
We learn about pain early in life. Some of our earliest memories of life are associated with pain and injury. Quite naturally we sought comfort from a parent who would care for our bumps and bruises. When my kids were very young my wife always carried Band Aids with her where ever she went. Any good mother knows that a Band Aid will do wonders to quiet a child’s tears. I believe the band aid may very well be the universal symbol of comfort. In fact, if comfort flew a flag, the symbol on the flag would be the Band Aid.
Paul states that God is the source of all comfort and that God himself is the source of any comfort we know or experience in life. That’s easy enough. So what’s the definition of the word comfort? The word Paul used for comfort is paraklesis, which is also be translated as encouragement. We know from communication dynamics that face to face is the posture used when for things like teaching or even confronting. But paraklesis is not a face to face posture. The word literally means to be “called to one’s side.” Comfort is a side by side posture. Why is that important? When you are side by side you face the same thing at the same time in the same direction. I think we can understand comfort more fully if we think of it as a posture instead of an activity. Comfort is my expression of love toward others that has been perfected by personal experience.
In the final section concerning discipline, the writer shares two purposes that God desires to accomplish. First, God’s loving discipline is beneficial because it produces holiness in our lives. Psalm 119:67 reads, “I used to wander off until you disciplined me; but now I closely follow your word.” Verse 71 of the same chapter continues, “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees.” Discipline serves as a corrective and produces holiness in our lives.
Second, discipline trains us in right living that purifies our character. Hebrews 5:8 states, “Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.”
In the western world parents view their objective as that of raising independent children who will be functional in the world. In the ancient world of the Bible, the goal was different. The goal of parents in Bible times was to create worthy heirs. (Think about that as you read Matthew 5:10-12 and Luke 15:11-32.) God uses discipline to create worthy heirs who inherit the Kingdom of God.
As we experience the necessary discipline to inherit the Kingdom, we must first deal with ourselves. We “take a new grip” and embrace the promised outcomes of God’s discipline. It may be painful at the time, but God doesn’t expect us to embrace the pain. He expects us to embrace the outcomes that he’s working out in our lives. As we deal with ourselves, we simultaneously must watch our influence. When we undergo God’s loving discipline we cannot forget that people are watching us and taking note of how we respond to God’s work in our lives. God is good, and he’s working out his plan for our best. Remember, it’s not what happens to us that matters. What matters most is what happens in us.
Since God’s discipline is an act of love that is based on our relationship to him, it seems logical for the writer to use our human fathers as an illustration of God’s function as our heavenly Father. According to the author, our earthly fathers disciplined us though they doubtless made mistakes. Some fathers discipline too much and others not enough. Some fathers discipline too heavily, while others discipline too lightly. But God makes no mistakes.
You may have had a father who disciplined you inappropriately. We live in a world where abuses of all forms are too frequent in society. Any time a parent abuses a child in any form is an injustice and should be renounced in the strongest possible manner. If that’s your story, it’s important that you not enforce that same standard of measure on God. Good fathers make favorable comparisons to God. They provide living and visible signposts to enable children to see God with clarity. But not every father is a good father. These fathers provide contrasting images to that of our heavenly father. Instead of thinking that God is like my bad father, think God is not like my bad father.
Recently my daughters were watching an episode of Jon and Kate Plus 8 on TLC. As I was in the kitchen, I heard Jon Gosselin describe to the camera the objectives of good parents. He remarked that in his opinion, good parents make sure their children are happy, healthy and safe. That’s not terrible advice, but it is certainly incomplete. A parent’s ultimate role is to enable their children to know God. Through every aspect of parenting, which includes discipline, we help our children learn how to relate to God.