The Tension of Advent (Hebrews 11:32-40)

What else can I say? There isn’t enough time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Their faith helped them conquer kingdoms, and because they did right, God made promises to them. They closed the jaws of lions and put out raging fires and escaped from the swords of their enemies. Although they were weak, they were given the strength and power to chase foreign armies away.

Some women received their loved ones back from death. Many of these people were tortured, but they refused to be released. They were sure they would get a better reward when the dead are raised to life. Others were made fun of and beaten with whips, and some were chained in jail. Still others were stoned to death or sawed in two or killed with swords. Some had nothing but sheep skins or goat skins to wear. They were poor, mistreated, and tortured. The world did not deserve these good people, who had to wander in deserts and on mountains and had to live in caves and holes in the ground.

All of them pleased God because of their faith! But still they died without being given what had been promised. This was because God had something better in store for us. And he did not want them to reach the goal of their faith without us. (Contemporary English Version)

God has entered history through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In this season of Advent, Christians everywhere enter a time of anticipation, waiting, and hoping. Advent is meant to stir our awareness of God’s actions – past, present, and future.

During this time of year, we need to feel the tension between what is and what is yet to come. Christ has come, in his first advent, to seek and save the lost. And yet, not all things have reached completion. Our deliverance from sin, death, and hell has been accomplished through the cross of Christ; yet this salvation isn’t here in it’s fullness. That will come when Jesus returns in his second advent to judge the living and the dead.

Which is why today’s New Testament lesson is perfect for the Advent season. It captures this awkward tension between already having something but not yet possessing it. It’s the tension of the Christian life. Celebration and hope are practiced together because we rejoice in what is, while confidently expecting what is not yet.

Throughout every era, people of faith have lived with the rubber band existence of feeling the extreme stretch without being broken by the pressure. Our spiritual ancestors didn’t break because of their hope. And the persons mentioned by the author of Hebrews inspire us to join them on this journey of perseverance until the promises of God are fully realized.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah all defeated large armies with just a few people because their robust faith melted circumstantial fear.

David, Samuel, and the prophets proclaimed truth, justice, and righteousness, knowing there would be adverse circumstances to speaking up and out.

People overcome dark times, establish what is just and right, gain what is promised, and do incredible things because they are looking beyond the present here-and-now of their difficulty to see something better. They know that their actions now will connect to better times ahead.

That’s what Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the face of overwhelming heat in a fiery furnace. It’s what Moses, Elijah, and David did by escaping the edge of the sword. They all refused to be thwarted in their mission and purpose for the world.

There were those who willingly endured torture and death rather than get sidetracked from their purpose. They were able to do it because they truly believed that their suffering and death was not the end of it. Better days were ahead and not even death could stop it.

This tends to make our own proclivities toward giving up when things are hard look really wimpy. Far too many folks have their focus in the wrong place – trying to change circumstances and other people – instead of focusing on simply being faithful to what God calls us to do.

We likely won’t have to undergo joint dislocations, torture racks, crushed bones, catapults, thumbscrews, branding irons, and a hundred other devious devices for trying to make a human’s spirit break.

Yet, we are presently enduring the subtly evil machinations of gaslighting, emotional manipulation, mental torture, spiritual abuse, and a hundred other sinister ways of attempting to break our will and commitment to what is right, just, and true.

The present awful consequences mean little whenever we’re able to connect what we’re doing to our coming heavenly reward. If the faithful people of the past could live and die in faith, no matter the circumstances, so can we.

Someday, everything will be made right by God. And when that day happens, we will experience it together as one people of God – all the believers of the past and us together. Right now, this present moment, the saints who have gone before us are patiently waiting for us….

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may all rise together to eternal life, through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

What’s the Point of All This Suffering? (2 Thessalonians 1:3-12)

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches 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, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you because you believed our testimony to you.

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (New International Version)

There are 66 books in the Bible. Every one of them, without exception, addresses human suffering. What’s the point of all this suffering? Isn’t salvation supposed to deliver me from all that mess? Why should I even read this dumb blog post?

All of the Apostle Paul’s epistles (a fancy way of saying “letters”) contain a perspective on suffering. And Paul’s reasoning and understanding of suffering goes like this:

  1. Jesus suffered. Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ endured opposition, trouble, and malevolence, especially in a cruel crucifixion and death. Yet, his suffering was the means of redeeming the world.
  2. Christians suffer. Throughout our earthly ministry, we will endure opposition, trouble, and malevolence; especially in a commitment to live the words and ways of Jesus. Yet, our suffering is the means of participating with Christ in redeeming the world.
  3. Suffering is mandatory. It is a significant means of spiritual growth for the Christian. And it is an important way of displaying Christianity’s virtues to a spiritually lost world.
  4. Misery is optional. There’s no solid biblical reason to become miserable or nihilistic with all the seemingly random suffering of the world. It’s hubris to think that my perspective on the subject of suffering and God is the right one.
  5. God is just. And Jesus is the rightful Judge of malevolent troublemakers.
  6. Christians, too, are to be just. Christians, however, are not the rightful judges; thus, there is to be neither executing of judgment on troublemakers nor any judgmentalism in Christ’s church.
  7. Suffering before glory. We are not above our Lord. Jesus rose from death, ascended to heaven, and is glorified. It had to happen that way. It has to happen that way for us, too. There must be suffering before there is glory.
  8. Suffering is temporary. Just like their Lord, Christians, too, shall rise from death, ascend to heaven, and participate in God’s glory. The suffering is for but a moment, but the glory is everlasting.

This reality of suffering and its purpose begs several questions of us. If this is all true (which it is) then:

  • Why do Christians spend so much of their spiritual energy praying and working toward avoiding suffering at any and all costs?
  • What does this tell us about ourselves?
  • Where do we feel the pull to resist change?
  • Will we allow suffering to be our teacher, or not?
  • How might our suffering bring justice and righteousness to a lost world?

Suffering is the mechanism by which spiritual growth is activated. If Christians never faced suffering, there would be no need for faith. That’s because faith is not static but active; it is meant to be regularly used, and if it is not, then belief atrophies and is worth nothing. Much like a muscle, faith needs daily exercise.

Furthermore, the Christian’s exercise of faith is not only for personal spiritual wellness but also for the benefit of others. To put the matter another way, Christians put blood, sweat, and tears into justice for the common good of everyone – thereby putting themselves in a position to be leveled with unjust vitriol. Whenever we challenge the power of another’s unjust actions, the inevitable consequence is fireworks in the form of catching some suffering.

This is why suffering for the right reasons is a sign of God’s grace in one’s life. We aren’t supposed to suffer because of our own stupidity and bad decisions; we are to suffer by our advocacy of the  powerless and the voiceless, thus redeeming time, energy, and resources for God’s kingdom. And it won’t be just a little bit of suffering; it will be a lot.

“If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles.”

Acts 14:22, CEB

We may get rather impatient with all this suffering. Yet, it’s also a sign and demonstration of God’s great patience – not wanting anyone to perish but all to enter eternal life. The least we can do is endure hardship for the sake of another’s life.

The Lord isn’t slow to do what he promised, as some people think. Rather, he is patient for your sake. He doesn’t want to destroy anyone but wants all people to have an opportunity to turn to him and change the way they think and act. (2 Peter 3:9, GW)

And if we persevere to the end, we will be vindicated; and malevolent troublemakers will have to contend with God. When we see the injustice of evil winning and good people suffering, it’s easy to get discouraged. But it won’t always be this way. Evil is temporary. Love is eternal.

There must be suffering. Yet, there will also be glory. Our trials and tribulations are but for a moment. But God’s favor lasts forever.

So then, earnest and heartfelt prayer is in order and always in season:

Great God of justice and righteousness, we pray that you will make us perfectly fitted for what you have called us to be. We ask that you fill our good ideas and acts of faith with divine energy so that it all amounts to something. May you cause our lives to honor the name of Jesus; and may we soon experience the day when Christ honors us. Your grace is sufficient for us – whether in good times or bad, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Don’t Let Suffering Surprise You (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 

If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will, should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (New International Version)

In a culture of toxic positivity, we can never quite bring ourselves around to the reality of suffering. Being uncomfortable with the unwanted emotions associated with suffering seems to be the modus operandi of the Western world.

Like it, or not, none of us gets off this fallen planet without experiencing a host of circumstances we neither asked for nor wanted. And no amount of plastic smiles, fake-it-till-you-make-it approaches, and spin doctoring of attitudes will ever take the pain completely away – or even fully understand it’s mystery. In the long run, whitewashing pain only exacerbates the suffering.

Yet, despite all hardship and hurt, joy and the ability to rejoice still remains a necessary part of life, even in the worst of situations. The problem is: We tend to believe that we cannot hold seemingly opposing feelings at the same time – even though we actually do it all the time.

When the youngest child leaves home and the parents are empty nesters, they feel the simultaneous emotions of proud joy and deep sadness.

And when an aging parent or grandparent dies, the family experiences the bittersweet feelings of knowing that suffering is ended, yet also this dear loved one is gone from us.

Or when you are treated unfairly and spoken of unkindly, there is a mix of emotions from anger about what is happening to some sense of peace that this person or group of people have shown their real colors to the world.

I am going to make one of the simplest observations about God’s people in the Bible: they suffered; they were seen.

Whether Abel dying by the hand of his own brother, Noah enduring the ridicule of his neighbors, Abraham facing an uncertain future, Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem’s calloused destruction, or Paul enduring persecution, everyone who wants to live a godly life will face suffering.

Every New Testament Epistle has a message about how to handle the inevitability of human suffering.

Fifth Station of the Cross, by Candido Portinari, 1953

The Apostle Peter, in his epistle, made it clear that every Christian should neither be surprised nor shocked when they suffer. If our Lord suffered (which he did, even to the extreme) then we, too, will also suffer, as those who follow him. 

Yet, Peter balances the harsh reality of suffering with the need for followers of Jesus to properly interpret that suffering. The Apostle learned the hard way that our means of accepting, coping with, and transcending hardship is by interpreting our personal suffering in light of Christ’s own suffering.

He insisted that the Christian’s suffering is a privilege, even a blessing. It is a mark of belonging – a sign that God’s Spirit is within us. 

If we do stupid things, we face the consequences for our foolishness. But when we do the good, right, and altruistic thing – then suffer some adverse effect – it puts us in solidarity with Christ. We can be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered. It prepares the believer for even greater happiness when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.

I’m under no illusions or delusions here. Interpreting our suffering through specifically Christian lenses is no easy task. Sometimes it’s rough and downright hard. And it gets complicated when the suffering doesn’t let up and is compounded daily for weeks, months, even years at a time.

So, what shall we do in such times? Peter says that if your suffering originates in obedience to God, then keep the faith, keep on doing the right, the just, and the good thing.

A bad attitude, giving up, and revenge are not options on the table for the Christian. I believe most followers of Jesus understand that. The greater temptation, however, is a more subtle and insidious approach toward suffering: going with “meh.”

“Meh” is a spiritual, emotional, and mental stance of simply going with the flow, getting along on the surface of things, and hoping all the unpleasantness goes away soon. In facing the adversity with all it’s painful suffering, the “meh” person just shrugs their shoulders and says, “Meh, whatever; what’s a guy to do, anyway?”

Thanks for asking. We persevere. Don’t let suffering surprise you when it shows up at your door like an unwanted guest. Here’s some practical ways of getting through it:

  1. Tell your story to others and don’t go it alone and be the martyr. We already have a Martyr, and his name is Jesus.
  2. Do something that isn’t nothing. Avoid piddly busywork. Instead, when renewal and rest are needed, read a good book or have a stimulating conversation.
  3. Have a support system in place before suffering comes upon you. Trials to faith will happen. It will be overly difficult to face them without a community of persons around you.
  4. Ask for help, for God’s sake! People are hard-wired by their Creator for community. Rugged individualism is a myth; it doesn’t exist and isn’t even possible.
  5. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Comfort is not the summum bonum of life. Hedonism only masks pain and does not take it away. Expand your ability to handle diverse situations.
  6. Realize that Christianity is a process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a one-and-done uttering a sinner’s prayer and waiting to cash-in a divine life insurance policy in order to stay out of hellfire. If you actually believe this, I suggest reading the Bible.
  7. Keep living your life. The earth is still spinning on its axis. The sun will still come up in the morning. God’s steadfast and faithful love will still be waiting for you when you wake up.

God sees and will vindicate the godly attitude, the ongoing work, and all the blood, sweat, and tears that go with our commitment to Christ and perseverance in the faith.

You’re already signed-up for suffering just by being a person. Welcome to the human condition. What will you do with your pain?

Saving and sustaining God, it is a small thing for me to suffer in light of your great suffering on my behalf through the cross. Empower me, and all your people everywhere, to do right every day so that praise, glory, and honor for Jesus Christ will always be on my lips through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Persevere Through Adversity (Psalm 129)

Painting of Jerusalem by Alex Levin

From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me.
    Let all Israel repeat this:
From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me,
    but they have never defeated me.
My back is covered with cuts,
    as if a farmer had plowed long furrows.
But the Lord is good;
    he has cut me free from the ropes of the ungodly.

May all who hate Jerusalem
    be turned back in shameful defeat.
May they be as useless as grass on a rooftop,
    turning yellow when only half grown,
ignored by the harvester,
    despised by the binder.
And may those who pass by
    refuse to give them this blessing:
“The Lord bless you;
    we bless you in the Lord’s name.” (New Living Translation)

The Jewish people know a thing or two about perseverance through suffering; they’ve been enduring it for millennia. If we let them, they can show us a better way of facing adversity.

It seems to me that we modern Gentiles could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. We Westerners tend toward burying the past, putting things behind us, and forgetting all the bad things which occurred back there. But the Psalms, a wonderful depository of Jewish thought and practice, will have none of that approach.

Today’s Psalm comes from a group known as the “Psalms of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) These were sung by ancient Jewish worshipers as they made the journey up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.

As the pilgrims walked together on their ascent to the great city, the experience of collectively singing and worshiping made the people feel united in joy, purpose, and sorrow. Remembering was central to that sense of solidarity.

The Jewish people have been attacked by countless enemies, not only throughout the Old Testament, but also throughout their long history. Empires tend to not like Jews because Jews hold to their own set of laws and worship practices – which seem to always come into conflict with what some Emperor, Dictator, or Tyrant wants. So, they try to be rid of Jews, like plowing a field to break up the stubborn hard ground of Yahweh worship. The Jewish people end up being treated, literally, like dirt.

“The attempt to eliminate the people of God was an attempt to eradicate the presence of God from the human situation. The fact that after Auschwitz the Jewish people still lives and can still affirm its faith is the most powerful testimony that God still lives.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant

God will deliver… eventually. Whether Jew or Christian, there will always be enemies to the faith. And sadly, the history of Christianity includes their own brand of persecuting Jews. *Sigh*

Haters, the Psalm hopes, will be like grass in shallow soil: They may sprout quickly, but will also wither quickly and blow away to be gone forever.

The evil of this fallen world is terrible and ugly; but it isn’t permanent. Therefore, we need patience and perseverance through the suffering and adversity to realize the deliverance.

And as much as aggressive bullies try to wipe out those not conforming to their ways, the Lord simply brings in a harvest of righteousness, despite it all.

Even though the Psalms of Ascent were written long ago by people living in a time and place very different from ours, yet they express the emotions we all feel, which makes them helpful for our journey through life, as well.

Although none of us delights in persecution, pain, and struggle, we can take the stance of embracing our hard circumstances because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, since love is the force that binds the world together. (Romans 5:3-8)

“When two friends climb a hill, the hill seems less steep than if they climbed it alone.”

Sherri Mandell

Oftentimes, it is inside the pain that we begin to become one with our own vulnerable humanity. And that humble humanity is where great courage, great creativity, and great work germinates within our spirits and cultivates the ground of this world, growing to produce faith, hope, and love.

Everyone facing adversity knows how hard it is to keep going without seeing the goal. Like the farmer, we must expectantly wait till the harvest. There is nothing we can do to speed up the process and go straight from planting to harvest. It takes time and plenty of patience. Grumbling and complaining about how long it is taking will not make it go any faster.

Perseverance in the face of hardship is a major pathway to realizing a holy life. Consider the ancient prophets:

  • Jeremiah was faithful to proclaim God’s message yet was thrown into a cistern and left for dead. Yet, he was delivered from it. (Jeremiah 38:1-28)
  • Micaiah was faithful to declare truth to King Zedekiah, who then promptly imprisoned him, even though the king asked for God’s message. (1 Kings 22:24-27)
  • Daniel was faithful to pray consistently to the one true God and was thrown into the lion’s den to be killed. But the Lord saved him. (Daniel 6:1-28)

The prophets all suffered for doing the right thing and did not waver in their commitment to the Lord. Through their troubles they learned to trust God and draw near to the Lord. The adversity strengthened, not weakened, their faith.

What’s more, consider the Old Testament character of Job, who is Exhibit A of perseverance through grinding hardship. Job had it all; and he lost it all… except his faith. Job tenaciously held onto righteousness, despite his awful physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain. And he eventually came through it, restored and whole.

We are to keep going in our faith and not give up – and the Psalms of Ascent can help us in our endurance.

The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears. We live in a time when we will either sink or swim – there is no in-between. God’s celestial shore is within sight; don’t miss it by getting discouraged by all the fog. 

Hang in there, my friend. There is good reason to do so.