Thursday, May 15, 2008

Suffering and hope

Like many members of the human race, Christians suffer. This is the simple point of my post today. Christians have it hard too. Moreover, at least some of their hardships stem from choosing to be a follower of Jesus. This is basic Christianity, yet tragically, such a basic truth escapes many. But the Bible’s teaching on this is inescapably clear. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). Or as a preacher at my church said recently: in God’s economy, there is no ringroad around Calvary. Paul, at the end of a lifetime of mature reflection, tells Timothy: "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12), having just reminded Timothy of his many persecutions and sufferings (v.11). These are but two of the myriad number of passages that reflect the commonplace nature of suffering for Christians.

I think about this a lot, especially as I have become acquainted with suffering in both my life and others. In some ways, I feel slightly hesitant to use the word suffering when I think about Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch or Burma and China. But pain is pain and is real to the person experiencing it regardless of whether he/she happens to be in leafy suburbia or an orphanage in India. I think about my friend who died of leukaemia at 13. I think of another friend whose dad died in a car accident. I think of Uncle Jason. I think about my own dad who battled clinical depression for over a year and how that affected my family. I think of friends right now who are struggling over bereavement and different problems. And I think of myself, be it over loneliness or finding work or something else.

As Christians, some of us might question the very existence of God at this time. And yet I suspect that for most of us, our reaction is probably closer to that of C.S Lewis:
'Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not "So there's no God after all," but "So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer." '
(A Grief Observed)
Is God in control? Is God loving? Is God trustworthy? The experience of suffering is likely to lead us back to these foundational questions, even if we initially have to work through a pile of other questions that obscure this. We could then say, “I’m fine. There’s no problem. God is good. Hallelujah.” I know, I do it all the time, though perhaps not in so cheesy a fashion. But this is false piety at work; it is a refusal to hope, to believe God can actually make use not only of our times of joy, but of our times of suffering, and so, we are effectively telling God that he is not big enough for our problems. James writes: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds..." (1:2) but a pious response such as the one above fails to even acknowledge that we are facing trials! Instead, we have chosen to play the martyrdom card instead of wrestling with the possibility that there might actually be a better tomorrow. It is a refusal to remember the times where God has been good so that we don’t have to come to terms with the prospect that he has let us down now.

And so to encourage each other is not to take the don’t worry be happy approach. It is to come together and recognise how far the world has fallen from the glories of Eden. It is not wrong to weep and groan over suffering. But more than that, it is to help drive each other back into the arms of God, to keep our gazes fixed firmly on Jesus, who is able to redeem all things. It is not a passive resignation, it is active endurance. This is what Paul gets at in Romans 5:1-11. We can "rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" (v.2), even in suffering, and that this "hope does not disappoint us" (v.5). He gives us 3 reasons why our hope is certain: the assurance of his love which we feel subjectively through the Holy Spirit (v.5), the assurance of his love through the objective truth of the death of Jesus for sinners (v.6-8), and the assurance that we are most definitely justified by his blood and reconciled to God (v.9-11). I was reading the story of Angie, wife of Selah member Todd Smith, and her still unborn baby, who is very likely to be stillborn, and I was struck by her impromptu words when she heard the news from the geneticist: “I think that my Jesus is the same as He was before I walked into this room.” That is applied theology at its very best. Her life changed, but her hope did not.

It’s all gonna be ok in the end, but not in the way we usually think of it. It might not be ok here and now: our cancer might not go away, debts brought about by the credit crunch may mean life remains stressful. But in Christ we are heirs not only his sufferings, but of his glory which will be revealed one day. Then the curse will be lifted! Imagine, the new creation will be a place where "never again will there be...an infant who lives but a few days" (Isaiah 65:20), and "my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them." (v.23)

It's gonna be better than ok in the end.

Now I just need to heed everything I’ve just written in this post!



The song, I have a Shelter, from the new Sovereign Grace album Come Weary Saints, which you can download for free here (the offer might not be on indefinitely, so grab it while you can!) captures the sentiments of this post well. It's a fitting way to end:

I have a shelter in the storm
When troubles pour upon me
Though fears are rising like a flood
My soul can rest securely
O Jesus, I will hide in You
My place of peace and solace
No trial is deeper than Your love
That comforts all my sorrows

I have a shelter in the storm
When all my sins accuse me
Though justice charges me with guilt
Your grace will not refuse me
O Jesus, I will hide in You
Who bore my condemnation
I find my refuge in Your wounds
For there I find salvation

I have a shelter in the storm
When constant winds would break me
For in my weakness, I have learned
Your strength will not forsake me
O Jesus, I will hide in You
The One who bears my burdens
With faithful hands that cannot fail
You’ll bring me home to heaven



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