Psalm 22:23-31 – Full of Suffering

Psalm 22 by Mike Moyers, 2016

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
    All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
    All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—
        stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
    the suffering of the one who suffered—
    he didn’t hide his face from me.
    No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.

I offer praise in the great congregation
    because of you;
    I will fulfill my promises
    in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
    Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
        I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
    will remember and come back to the Lord;
    every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
    he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
    will worship him;
    all who are descending to the dust
    will kneel before him;
    my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
    generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
        to those not yet born,
        telling them what God has done. (CEB)

“Faith must be tested, because it can only become your intimate possession through conflict.”

oswald chambers

“Suffering” is a word we would like to avoid. Simply saying or reading the word might make us cringe. Suffering? No thanks. I think I’ll pass on that. Yet, something inside of us instinctively knows we cannot get around it. Everyone suffers in some way. It is endemic to the human condition that at times we will suffer physically, financially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

That’s why I believe there is so much talk within some Christian circles about miracles. It’s more than understandable. A chronic pain sufferer wants relief; she prays for a miracle of health. A small business owner is bleeding financially; he looks to God for an immediate miracle of wealthy clients. A beloved senior saint knows she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s; she prays for the miracle of deliverance, even to be taken home to be with the Lord. A young adult finds himself in the throes of depression and has tried everything to cope and get out of it; he petitions God for a miracle out of the deep black hole. The believer in Jesus keeps experiencing a besetting sin and cannot get over it; she looks to God for the miracle of not struggling any more with it.

These scenarios and a thousand other maladies afflict people everywhere. There are a multitude of stories out there. Folks who have experienced a miracle tell of their wonderful deliverance. But what about the rest? Those without the miracle? Do they have a lack of faith? Has God forgotten them?

Oh, my, no! God sees, and God knows. God is acquainted with suffering. Jesus knows it first-hand. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus cried out in his suffering.  But there was no deliverance coming for him.  There was, instead, deliverance coming for us.

Sometimes the greatest miracle and deliverance of all is to be freed from the need for a miracle. The reason God doesn’t just offer immediate relief from everyone’s suffering and bring a miracle is that he is doing something else: Walking with us through our suffering. God oftentimes has plans and purposes for us well beyond our understanding.  We simply are not privy to everything in God’s mind.

We may not get the miracle we desire. However, what we will get without fail is God’s provision and steadfast love all the way through the suffering. Where is God in your suffering? Jesus is suffering with you. You are not crying alone; Christ weeps with you.

Let, then, those who suffer, eat and be full. Let them be satisfied with the portion God has given them. What’s more, let them offer praise to the God who is squarely beside them in every affliction and each trouble.

God Almighty, you are the One who knows suffering and affliction better than anyone. I admit I don’t often understand what in the world you are doing or not doing in my life and in the lives of those I love. Yet, I admit that I have found in you the comfort, encouragement, and strength to live another day in my trouble. For this, I praise you, in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Acts 15:36-41 – Imperfect Relations

Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they should not take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (CEB)

Perfect consensus, complete harmony, and perpetual peace are ideals, not reality, this side of heaven. Oh, it is not as though we ought to give up striving for such things – we just need to understand we will only experience them partially, and not fully, until Christ returns. 

Imagine if Paul and Barnabas, along with their entire coterie of people who traveled with them, decided that they would not go anywhere until there was 100% consensus on every decision to be made. It could be that they would never get anything done at all. It is sad when people cannot come together and be of one mind, but it happens, and will happen again. Sometimes we simply need to go and do what we think is best, whether others agree with us, or not.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”

Mahatma Gandhi

I am a bit adverse to taking sides on most things, but I admit to having a bent toward going with Barnabas. His name means “Son of Encouragement.” He understands taking someone under his wing and giving them a second chance when they screw up.  Barnabas had a soft spot for John Mark.  Barnabas seems like the kind of guy who knows about grace. This is a guy I could hang out with.

Paul, on the other hand, had much more of a Type A personality. I can just imagine Paul saying, “There are things to do, goals to reach, areas to conquer. I don’t have time for this whining and cry baby stuff.”  Paul did not want someone in the group slowing them down with fear or lack of courage. For all that I appreciate about the great Apostle Paul in the New Testament, sometimes he strikes me as being too driven and difficult to work with.

Yet, in the end, taking sides is not really the issue. It is about God working a divine, sovereign, and good will through stubborn and stupid people like me, and maybe like you, who sometimes get lost in winning an argument. 

When all is said and done, nothing is going to thwart God’s providential plans and purposes in this world.  So, rather than taking sides, I think I will rely solely on God’s grace and mercy in my life to work through me, despite my oft short-sightedness.

Holy God, you work your good purposes in and through your people, no matter what.  I want my life and work to be a joy to you and with others, and not a burden.  Create in me a clean heart.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting, through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Romans 16:17-20 – Remove the Negative Influence

Snidely Whiplash, villain from the TV show Dudley Do-Right (1959-1964)

I urge you, brothers, and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s original writing of these verses was packed with an exceptionally large punch.  Almost every word he used was in the strongest possible language. For example:

“Urge” has the force of “beg,” as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) 

“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.

“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines, and acts of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:19-20) 

“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal,” which is caused by judging another person. (Romans 14:13) 

“Keep away” is not a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger, like Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from his wife. (Genesis 39:11-12)

Paul was begging his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to identify people who contrive human divisions between others and create offensive scandals and get as far away from them as you can.

If this were a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians. In the church at Rome, there were three primary groups of people: 

  1. Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life.
  2. Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions yet were willing to change to accommodate new believers.
  3. Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions but were unwilling to change and sought to make Jews of the Gentiles, using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity to do it.
Professional wrestling star Dick the Bruiser (career 1954-1986)

Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout his letter to the Romans was to argue for the priority of the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, liturgical traditions, feast days, and ritual observances. Paul had no problem with the practices themselves; what he had an issue with is making them mandatory alongside the gospel. 

The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions. They tried to negatively influence everyone they could. And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him as they could. Yet, Paul remained consistent in all the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.

Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people – which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace: 

After a first and second warning, have nothing more to do with a person who causes conflict, because you know that someone like this is twisted and sinful—so they condemn themselves. (Titus 3:10-11, CEB).

Whenever a passion for power and tradition prevails over a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then we have an issue of character. Stirring up antagonism against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativism which is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.

Jesus said to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves because there are wolves among the sheep (Matthew 10:16). You will know them by their fruit. We are called not to participate in negative influences!  Thus, individuals must be called-out for their chronic negative spirits. So, how do we do it?  How do we shut-out the negativity?

Refuse it.

Name it. Call it what it is: fighting against the Holy Spirit and attributing evil to the work of God (Matthew 12:30-32). When someone comes to you and wants to dish up a little sumthin’-sumthin’ on someone or something, refuse to take the bait. Reject the deprecation like the big man in the middle of the defense in basketball, rejecting the shot, with announcer Marv Albert shouting, “Ree-jected!”

Keeping a group of friends who are positive, encouraging, helpful, and steering clear of antagonistic attitudes is extremely beneficial to both physical and spiritual health.  In a recent study at Stanford University, a pair of researchers reviewed over 200 studies on group therapy and concluded that group members “develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their positive acceptance and feedback.”  In other words, negative thinking keeps people in bondage, whereas the positive encouragement of others brings freedom and life.

Rebuke it.

Someone might be speaking to you, start talking around some issue slowly, but eventually comes around to carving up another person like a Thanksgiving turkey. What do you do?  Rebuke it. We can say something like, “When you continue to speak with such negativity about ______ I feel upset because I need to be in a place which helps me to spiritually grow. Will you please stop being so negative?”

I once had a person come to me not knowing how to deal with a negative person. I walked him through some biblical ways about confronting the negativity when it comes. He simply hung his head and said he could not do that. He was miserable, which is why he came and talked to me. And he walked away with that same misery because he was not willing to call out a person on their destructive negativity.

You and I are in control of our own happiness. If another person causes us anger; if some politician drives us nuts; if a television program or radio show is upsetting me; then, it is our responsibility to keep away. If we have a chronic negative person in our life, and have tried to deal with that person, and they refuse to listen, we can say something like this when they start their rant: “I don’t want to hear it. And if you keep bringing it up and being negative, I will walk out of the room.”  The principle here is that we control our own behavior, not somebody else’s.

Redirect it.

Satan is the author of negative antagonism. He talked trash about God in the garden to Adam and Eve. So, avoid getting caught up in trying to dialogue with a negative person. Redirect the negativity by calling the person to change their ways, because truth be told, the negativity is really rebellion against God. It is not uncivil to put the focus on the life-giving positive effects of God’s gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and insist on repentance.

If you are wondering, “I could never do that” then you likely have been telling yourself a lot of negative thoughts. God calls us to stamp-out the negativity before it can get started, even within our own brains. In some cases, we need to re-train our minds to focus on the positive, and not the negative.

It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative and stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals. If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something, Paul said to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it.  Rebuke it. Redirect it. God wants us righteous and robust, holy, and happy – not walking around like a grump who was baptized in pickle juice.

We can choose to fill our minds with the gospel of Jesus; pray positively about everything; and find the good in all things. We can continually choose to cultivate unity, purity, peace, and love. In doing so, we enjoy life together.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Hebrews 13:20-21 – Conflict and Peace

Pretty Place Chapel Blue Ridge Mountains
Pretty Place Chapel in the Blue Ridge Mountains

May the God of peace,
who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep,
our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,

        equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen. (CEB)

These verses are the benediction, that is, the blessing given at the end of a long letter to a group of struggling Jewish Christians. In fact, things were so difficult for these believers that they were giving serious consideration to reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the author of Hebrews sent them an exhortation and an encouragement to remain true and steadfast to the faith.

What is needed is not a shrinking back from faith but instead an enduring faith which is sustainable for the long haul of a person’s life.

The believers had both inner and outer conflict. They were experiencing hardship and persecution in the form of confiscation of their property and public insults. The Christians had started out well, facing such trouble with confidence through standing side-by-side with others who were suffering as well as holding on to their vibrant faith.

Yet, over time, their resolve began to break down. A slow drift occurred. Eventually, they started to retreat from the helping of others. They emotionally and spiritually inched their way to becoming despondent to the point of questioning whether all this Christianity stuff was worth it. The outer conflict worked its way inside their souls and damaged their spirits. By the time the writer of Hebrews comes along, a group of Christians are stuck in discouragement.

It’s one thing to deal with trouble and hardship on one day, even two. It’s quite another thing when that difficulty does not let up – when days turn into weeks, weeks into months, even months into years.

There are times when peace seems to have about as much chance of being realized as winning the lottery.

Yet, God is the God of peace, real lasting harmonious spiritually restful peace. It was achieved through the life and death of Jesus. The peace Jesus has brought is so much more than the absence of conflict. God’s peace is freedom from fear and anxiety. It is a settled confidence deep down inside that God will ultimately make good on all his promises and that things will not always be this way.

Until that day comes, God is not sitting in some divine Lazy-Boy recliner watching old reruns of the Angels playing baseball. Rather, God is active through carefully, deliberately, and, to our occasional consternation, slowly equipping us and developing us into spiritually fortified people who do the will of God and please Jesus in everything they do and say. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep who will not lead us astray but will settle us in green pastures.

The word translated “equip” is a rich word (Greek καταρτίσαι, pronounced “cot-ar-tids-ay”) which means to set something straight. Picture a bone which has been broken and needs to be reset and have time to heal. That is what God is doing in his people – repairing broken spirits. This divine healing is equipping believers for a lifetime of handling adversity with faith, confidence, and endurance. The process, frankly, hurts and requires patience before healing and health come.

If God can raise the dead, he can most certainly handle any earthly trouble we are going through.

God is in the transformation business. Extreme makeovers are his specialty. He uses hard circumstances, troubles, and torments of our lives and bends them into divine tools to form and shape his people to both survive and thrive in the world.

Complaining spirits, blaming and shaming others, and impatience borne of unrealistic expectations are the evidence of damaged emotions, wounded souls, and weak faith. This is the antithesis of God. He’s not overlooking humanity with a divine *sigh* in exasperation. That’s because he is the God of peace who is bringing all things to a conclusion in Christ. Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is now and very presently active to heal damaged emotions, repair wounded souls, and strengthen faith.

In those times when God seems absent and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling are the times that God is establishing peace and expanding our capacity for faith and patience.

Benediction, blessing, and doxology come through the dark night of the soul and not by avoiding it.

Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the Glory.

Almighty God,
all thoughts of truth and peace
proceed from you.
Kindle in the hearts of all people
the true love of peace.
Guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel
for the nations of the earth;
that in tranquility your kingdom
may go forward,
till the earth is filled
with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–From the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, St. Andrew Press.

Click It Is Well with My Soul by TenTwoSix Music and arranged by David Wise.