Category: Suffering

Both Now and Forevermore

The most serious mistake you can make on the path of discipleship to Jesus is to think God has given up on you. When you get sick, when you feel anxiety, when conflicts come, or when loneliness or grief set in, it can feel like God has left you. God has gotten bored looking after you and he’s shifted his attention to a more faithful Christian and you’re going to have to take care of yourself. God is tired of your up-and-down faith and now you’re on your own.

If that’s what you think, you’re wrong. If you believe God is tired of you or he’s already given you too many last chances and he’s given up on you and you don’t have his love or protection anymore, you’re wrong.

“The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” ~Psalm 121:8

God’s love and care for you, and his presence with you, does not wax and wane according to your ups and downs. I know it’s hard to believe the Maker of Heaven and Earth gives a rip about your mundane everyday life and all your feelings and all your problems. But he does.

Nobody gets out of this life without experiencing some pain. While we’re on this journey, we’re walking the same ground everybody else is walking on. We’re breathing the same air. We’re drinking the same water, shopping the same stores, paying the same gas prices, fearing the same dangers, subject to the same pressures, and dying and being buried in the same dirt as everybody else.

The difference is that each step we take, each breath we breathe, we know we’re protected by God. We know we’re accompanied by God.

Peace,

Allan

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1944

Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Lord from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak to my jailers
freely, friendly, firmly,
as though they were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of hardship
unconcerned, amused, proud,
like one accustomed to winning.

Am I then really that which other men tell me?
Or am I only what I myself know of me?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage
struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for songs of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for human company,
quivering with anger at despotism and insults,
anxiously waiting for the next event,
helplessly worrying for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at working,
exhausted, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others
and by myself a contemptible, whining weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. I am yours!

How Long, O Lord?

“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. “
~Habakkuk 1

Healing Comes in the Running

“Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” ~Hebrews 12:12-13

In the big cities that host the large annual marathons in which thousands of runners participate, the front of the race is dominated by world class athletes. They’re young and lean and fast and they just seem to effortlessly cruise to the finish line. At the back of the race, though, it’s a different picture. That’s where all the ordinary runners are.

The ones near the back have a few more years under their belts and a few more pounds hanging over their belts. There’s a lot more stopping to catch a breath and to get a drink. There are also people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people with disabilities. Those people are courageously struggling. They’re determinedly suffering. And those people at the back of the race help each other. Have you noticed that? If somebody back there gets weak from the heat or faint from exhaustion, the other runners pay attention to that and they help out. At the back of the race, it’s much more about compassion than competition.

The great race of the Christian life is a lot more like the back of the pack than the front. And you ought to be able to find that compassion in the Church.

If you are a weary or discouraged Christian, if you’re an out of shape Christian, the preacher in Hebrews encourages you to strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. The runners who are lame, the Christians who are struggling and hurting and suffering still have to get out there on the track and run. You can’t say, “I’m too weak to run” or “My legs are too hurt to participate” or “I’m in too much pain.”

Like Jesus, the preacher says, “Pick up your bed and run!”

In the Christian faith, if you play hurt, you end up healed. If you stay on the sidelines, the injury gets worse. If you keep running, the Word of God, through the people of God, promises complete healing.

Peace,

Allan

The Gain is Worth the Pain

“Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” ~Hebrews 12:10-11

Our Father is at work during the hard times in our lives, training us to share in his holiness, righteousness, and peace. The preacher in Hebrews is telling us, look, we ought to recognize the pattern here. We experienced this with our own parents and, if we’re parents ourselves, we do the same things. Good parents, including God, exercise discipline because they want their children to grow up to be like them, to share their values and commitments and way of life.

We sent one of our daughters to college in Oklahoma City and we told her, “You can only date boys from Texas.” Why? Because we have standards — standards related to our values and way of life. I check our youngest daughter’s phone from time to time and I see that almost half her playlist is Tom Petty and Aerosmith. And I say to myself, “Ah, we raised her right.”

God’s like that, too. He wants us to grow up to be like him. He wants us to love what he loves, to think what he thinks. He wants us to be holy like he is holy, to treat people the way he treats people, and to be righteous in the ways he is righteous. So he trains us. He conditions us. He uses discipline. And it’s not always pleasant. But it is always for our good.

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” ~Romans 5:3-5

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” ~James 1:2-4

“We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God.” ~2 Thessalonians 1:4-5

We know what God is doing through our struggles. We know it’s for our ultimate, eternal good. This character forming, this kind of relationship building with God, is proof that you belong to him as his child. It’s proof that he cares for you and he’s committed to you.

I know your sufferings are painful and your trials are terrible. And I know your troubles or whatever you’re going through make you feel lonely and desperate and depressed. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually — I know it’s real. And the Scriptures do not discount how hard this life is. The Bible doesn’t downplay the costs associated with a life of faith. The Scriptures don’t brush off your feelings. Your feelings are real. Your hard experiences are real. But the preacher in Hebrews wants to open our ears and our hearts to the eternal truth, to the everlasting reality of what’s being accomplished.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.

Jesus stayed focused on the joy in front of him: the joy of doing his Father’s will, the joy of fulfilling his Father’s purposes, the joy of participating in God’s salvation. Jesus endured the agony of the cross, he suffered through an excruciating physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual torture and death. And because he persevered, he reigns today at the right hand of the throne of God.

The preacher in Hebrews knows the people in his church are hurting. And they’re tired of hurting. They’re tired of suffering. To encourage them to keep running the race, he reminds them of the truth of Christ Jesus. Whatever you’re suffering, whatever you’re going through, Jesus went through so much worse, so much more, for the sake of your holiness, your righteousness, and your peace.

Peace,

Allan

Our Suffering Has Meaning

All suffering is painful to the body. All suffering is a challenge to the spirit. But the suffering that destroys a soul is the suffering that has no purpose, a suffering that has no point or goal. You can endure a whole lot of pain and distress is you know it’s not meaningless. What good is my pain accomplishing? What benefits are being achieved in my suffering?

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons and daughters. For what child is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons and daughters. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” ~Hebrews 12:7-9

When a hospital patient is recovering from surgery and calls the nurse in the middle of the night and says, “This pain is killing me; why is this pain so bad?” the most reassuring truth the nurse can provide is to say, “The pain is a sign that healing is taking place.” This passage in Hebrews 12 is the preacher coming to the bedside of his hurting congregation to reassure them that the pain they feel is not a destructive anguish, but a healing one.

Now, I know discipline is a touchy subject. If it’s not done correctly, a child can grow up believing that authority belongs only to those who hit the hardest and hurt the most. We’ve seen too much of that and a lot of people now feel like it’s wrong to discipline children at all, especially in physical ways.

But at the same time, we’re very aware how dangerous it is for children who’ve never learned any limits, kids who’ve never been told “No” or been given any boundaries. Spoiled children or ignored children are a nuisance to everyone around them. In fact, we point to those kids when we’re disciplining our own kids: “We’re doing this because I don’t want you to grow up like that! We’re disciplining you so you won’t behave like that!”

We all agree that some kind of discipline, as an aspect of genuine love and concern, is vital. We see a kid growing up with no discipline and we think there’s something wrong with the parents. Or maybe the parent doesn’t really love the child enough to undertake the difficult work of discipline.

That’s the point in this part of Hebrews 12. If we are genuinely God’s children, then we should expect that God will treat us like a wise parent does, by bringing us up with appropriate discipline. “The Lord disciplines those he loves (12:6).”

Discipline is not just punishment. It’s not correction only. Discipline is also training, it’s conditioning. Giving your children chores like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom mirrors isn’t punishment, it’s training for a certain kind of life. Making your kids save part of their allowance and count their blessings and use their manners isn’t punishment. But it’s still discipline, it’s conditioning them to live a certain way.

Whatever hardship you’re going through right now has meaning. It’s not random. It’s not arbitrary. And whatever pain you’re suffering, whatever trial you’re in the middle of right now, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned you or God’s mad at you or he’s stopped paying attention to you. Just the opposite! God is treating you as his beloved daughter. God is treating you like his genuine son. You belong to him. He loves you. He’s training you, conditioning you, bringing you up for a certain kind of life that looks like his.

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his child.”

Whatever is causing our hardship — the devil, God himself, or just a result of living in a broken world — we do know that our Father uses that suffering for his good purposes in our lives. Whatever the cause, he’s ultimately the one who allows it, yes? Well, Hebrews tells us it’s a good idea to see your suffering as God’s instruction, his discipline, his training. The best possible thing you can do in a terrible situation is not ask what’s causing this, why did this happen? The best thing you can ask is, “What is God doing in the middle of this? What does God want to accomplish in me? What’s he trying to teach me? How am I supposed to grow? What part of me needs to be changed through this difficulty? How is this going to make me stronger? How can this struggle make me more like Christ?”

In my position as a congregational preacher, I have the occasional opportunity to visit with people who are going through terrible sufferings. And we’ll talk about the situation and we’ll visit about the problems. And then I’ll ask a couple of those questions. “What is God trying to do here? What’s God saying to you in the middle of this? Your marriage is breaking up, your finances are in ruin, you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Where is God in all this? What’s he trying to grow in you?”

And I get a blank stare.

It’s never occurred to them to ask those kinds of questions. They’re so focused on what God is not doing, they never imagine he’s actually very involved.

It might come as a shock to you but, precisely because God loves us and treats us like his sons and daughters, he refuses to spoil us or ignore us, he refuses to let us get away with our sin and rebellion, and he refuses to let us wallow in mediocrity or stagnate into some kind of boring weariness. People say when God closes a door, he opens a window. Maybe. I think sometimes God closes a door because he wants us to kick it down! He’s training us. He’s conditioning us. He’s growing us.

In the middle of tough circumstances, a lot of people I talk to feel further away from God, not closer. They’re praying less, they’re not reading their Bibles, they stop coming to church. But the Lord disciplines those he loves. Pray more. Read the Scriptures more. Come to church more. Open your ears and your heart to the training of the Lord. He loves you.

Peace,

Allan