Joy and Suffering

BishopSavesJeanValjean
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It’s primarily a story of grace and new life.  The main character, Jean Valjean, spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man.  By the time he is released, he is hard, angry, cynical, with nowhere to go.  In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit.  In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver and runs.  The next day, however, he is caught by the police.  When they bring Jean back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.”  After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.”  In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life.  The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life.  Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop did.  Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life.  There are trials and temptations for Valjean throughout his life.  What keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy.  Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

JoySuffering
Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking the way of suffering.

Suffering and joy.  Those two words, at first glance, may seem to be opposites.  Yet, Christianity views suffering as an occasion for joy, and not as empty meaningless grief.  Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking the way of suffering.  We are told in Holy Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened.  Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles.  Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity becomes our Teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to Jewish Christians living in a Gentile society.  They were strangers and aliens in the ancient world.  These were people who responded to the preaching of Peter at Pentecost and gave their lives to the risen Christ.  When persecution broke out after the stoning of Stephen, the church was scattered, and many Jewish Christians went to live in Gentile nations very different from their home in Jerusalem.  In that Gentile environment, they were often looked down upon simply because they were Jewish.  What’s more, they were alienated from their families because of their commitment to Jesus.  They were alone and faced both the social and economic hardships that came with being Jewish Christians.  So, Peter wrote to encourage these suffering believers in their hardship.  He reminded them of what they possess and to use that precious possession rather than focus solely on their poverty and difficulty.  Peter let them know that their adversity has the positive effect of making their faith genuine.

Every generation of Christians needs to see that their faith is not only a matter of confession with the lips; faith is also proven primarily through suffering.  Faith is much like a new car – it is meant to be used.  It’s not just something we own and possess – to only sit in the garage and be admired.  A car is meant to be on the road, and if it does not perform well, we say it’s a lemon and we get another car.  Cars are the vehicles that get us from point A to point B.  And, hopefully, we enjoy the ride without being frustrated and having road rage.  It is unrealistic, as drivers, to believe we will never have to drive in adverse road conditions.  We recognize that it is silly to believe the weather must always conform to our driving habits.  We will have to drive through snow and thunderstorms.  We will need to deal with traffic and road construction.  We will have to drive defensively and continually be vigilant to the other drivers on the road.  We might always have a plan for how to get from point A to point B, yet, we must deal with whatever conditions we find along the way.  This isn’t optional, unless we decide to let the car sit in the garage and never use it.

The winter road with car
Mature Christians allow their faith to take them places, and have seen all kinds of adversity and suffering along the road of life.

Good drivers are good drivers because they drive a lot and have driven in nearly every type of road condition.  Mature Christians are those followers of Jesus who allow their faith to take them places, have seen all kinds of adversity, trials, and suffering along the road of life.  What makes them mature is that they have learned through all their troubles and trials to enjoy what God is doing in their lives instead of being frustrated and have faith-fury.  Such Christians have the confidence that they are receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls.  They understand that their faith grows and develops as they face the challenges of life every day with a firm commitment to their Lord Jesus.

The most miserable people are those who have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending mercy to others.  Peter could praise God because his life was transformed by the grace and mercy of Jesus.  Peter went from an impulsive and fearful fisherman who denied the Lord three times, to a confident and courageous witness of Christ because he was regenerated, restored, and renewed by grace.  He joyfully endured suffering and opposition because his faith was precious to him.

There is a tendency for many Christians to show a stoic attitude through the trials of life.  We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure.  Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long.  Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. It is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice – even though the rejoicing is through tears – in the living hope kept for us. This gracious inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer with spiritual endurance. We can do this, friends.  We can persevere through our worldwide trial of pandemic.  We can even do more than survive – we can thrive through having our faith muscle stretched and strengthened.  We are not alone.  We all suffer together.

MotherTeresa
“Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together, is joy.” –Mother Teresa

Our shared value of the risen Christ is the fuel that keeps our car of faith running.  It is what transcends the stoic attitude of unfeeling endurance to a joyful flourishing of faith.  Suffering is central to living for Jesus Christ.  Suffering is not something to continually avoid, go around, or bemoan because it is God’s means of forming us spiritually to be like Jesus.  I can say that the sufferings I’ve experienced in my own life I never want to go through again. I can also say that I would not change those experiences for anything because they have formed and shaped me in ways that would probably not have happened apart from adversity.

Our goal in this life is not to escape the world.  There is a time coming when our salvation will be consummated, heaven comes down to earth, and both are joined forever.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). 

This is our inheritance in Christ.  First, however, we must come prepared for the future by undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings in the present.  These trials to our faith are a sort of pre-marital session that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever.  Until that day, let’s not stay in the garage of life.  Let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith.  Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.  Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth.  And let us allow our trials to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of blessing the world.  Even in suffering, God is good all the time; and, all the time, God is good.  To him be the glory.

Faith, Hope, and Love

            God is real.  The Christian life works.  Those are the bedrock presuppositions and assumptions I work from each and every day of my life and ministry.  If I did not believe those statements I would be knee-deep in the muck of church work with little to offer people.  Because I believe that Christianity works for people, I also confidently hold that the correct response to the reality of God is faith, hope, and love.  Any response to God less than this will result in an inability to function well in the Christian life. 
 
The path to maturity for any local church is to bring all thinking, desires, attitudes, aspirations, and actions in harmony with trusting God, loving God, and making Him the object of our hope.
 
            At first glance this might sound difficult.  But this is really not rocket science.  It is only confusing if we have not been taught correctly according to the Word of God.  If we have lived in error when it comes to how the Christian life works, then there are established patterns of thinking and behavior which are neither easy to identify and evaluate, nor to defeat.
 
            Therefore, the very first step in solving this kind of problem is to get back to the bedrock belief of God.  We cannot effectively respond in faith, hope, and love to a God we do not know much of. 
 
Knowing God, then, is an absolute necessity to the Christian life in order to experience spiritual freedom and be fruitful in ministry.
 
            God is a Person.  He is the infinite God, the Creator of all things and is thus worthy of all our trust and affection (e.g. 1 Samuel 17:20-51; Daniel 6:1-28; 2 Chronicles 14-16).  God is absolute truth, love, and holiness.  God will always remain true to himself in all of his relationships and actions with us.  He does not act out of harmony with his basic character.  Therefore, God can be trusted.
 
            God has revealed himself through the Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible is God’s Word to us.  The Word of God cannot fail because God cannot fail.  God is always true to himself and to his Word (e.g. Psalm 119:49-50; 146:5-6; Jeremiah 32:1-44; Romans 4:21; Hebrews 2:1-3).  The Word of God is living and is therefore powerful. 
 
To the degree that we know and practice the Word of God, we have the experience of the grace of God and therefore have the power of God.
 
            It is a wonderful and tremendous privilege to possess the Word of God with all of its potential to effect change in our lives; its certainty concerning who God is; and, its assurance of pardon through faith.  So, then, each and every believer has a sacred responsibility:
 
We must be aggressive in knowing the Word of God; we must be confident in believing God; we must be active in claiming the promises of God; and, we must be intentional about living according to what God has revealed about himself and his creatures.
 

 

            Church ministry, then, has a sacred trust to help people know God better.  No matter what the ministries, programs, or activities, our greatest aim is to connect people with the God who is real and who has given us guidance by means of his powerful Word.  Faith, hope, and love are the logical and heartfelt responses to knowing God.  The promise we have is that when we seek God will all our heart, we will find him.  Amen and amen.

Maturity

 

          Maybe it goes without saying that a genuine Christian wants to follow Jesus. We all may have various ideas of how to do this, or differ on what the goal of spiritual growth is. Yet, perhaps we need to ask what God wants and what his goal is for his followers? Maturity is where it is at, man, and we all need it, without exception. It is not unusual for me to have a conversation with a student who is hot for God, and bemoans some problem in the church or world, but lacks the maturity to go with the fire. I usually say something to the effect, “yeah, well, you can post your 95 Theses once you own a door to put them on.”  It’s also not unusual for many Christians today to have heard thousands of sermons, but there is no fire to go with the length of time spent in church and, furthermore, is not sure of how to avail of the great Christian resource of grace.  Physical maturity does not always equal spiritual maturity.  And maturity does not happen apart from unity.
 

 

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians telling them his aim: “Him (Jesus) we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). He echoes this again with the Ephesians letting them know that the process of maturity is to not be done in isolation, but together as a community of believers, so that no one is left out or behind in God’s goal of seeing a well-rounded church, fully developed and equipped to follow Jesus in every circumstance of life (4:13). Our Lord himself exhorted us to be mature, just as our heavenly Father is. Since God is mature, we are to reflect him in all of our relationships by handling them in a mature manner (Matthew 5:46-48).

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that those who are mature have developed a keen sense of discernment in distinguishing between good and evil (5:14); and, Paul told the Phillipians that maturity brings a proper perspective from which to view hard situations and allows one to endure suffering (3:12-15).

Here is the crux of the matter:  maturity results from spiritual growth which occurs over an extended period of time in the context of community. Maturity can neither be realized with only growth, nor with just time. Both are needed in order to reach a mature state. The process of growth over time is of vital importance to Jesus, who knows that this is the manner in which one bears fruit that will last (Luke 8:9-15).

Are you spiritually mature? If so, how did you get to this point? If not, how will maturity be realized? Does my ministry and church have maturity as a goal? Why, or why not? May God be gracious to work in us and instill in his children his own mature nature so that we may be like Jesus in all we do and say.