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.

Hebrews 12:3-17 – Don’t Let Bitterness Take Over

Think about Jesus, who endured opposition from sinners, so that you don’t become tired and give up.

You struggle against sin, but your struggles haven’t killed you. You have forgotten the encouraging words that God speaks to you as his children:

“My child, pay attention when the Lord disciplines you.
Don’t give up when he corrects you.
The Lord disciplines everyone he loves.
He severely disciplines everyone he accepts as his child.”

Endure your discipline. God corrects you as a father corrects his children. All children are disciplined by their fathers. If you aren’t disciplined like the other children, you aren’t part of the family. On earth we have fathers who disciplined us, and we respect them. Shouldn’t we place ourselves under the authority of God, the father of spirits, so that we will live? For a short time, our fathers disciplined us as they thought best.

Yet, God disciplines us for our own good so that we can become holy like him. We don’t enjoy being disciplined. It always seems to cause more pain than joy. But later on, those who learn from that discipline have peace that comes from doing what is right.

Strengthen your tired arms and weak knees. Keep walking along straight paths so that your injured leg won’t get worse. Instead, let it heal.

Try to live peacefully with everyone, and try to live holy lives, because if you don’t, you will not see the Lord. Make sure that everyone has kindness  from God so that bitterness doesn’t take root and grow up to cause trouble that corrupts many of you. 

Make sure that no one commits sexual sin or is as concerned about earthly things as Esau was. He sold his rights as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterwards, when he wanted to receive the blessing that the firstborn son was to receive, he was rejected. Even though he begged and cried for the blessing, he couldn’t do anything to change what had happened. (God’s Word Translation)

Bitterness begins with a seed of resentful anger…

it steadily grows within the soil of antagonism…

then, buds of hostility pop out…

and a devastating crop of corruption, injustice, chaos, and trouble feeds the community with death.

A bitter spirit doesn’t appear overnight.

Something happens, an event for which a person neither wanted nor expected.

And life becomes more difficult and sad.

A change or a loss occurred. It could be anything: a spouse walks out and asks for divorce; a job transfer or termination happens without any warning or discussion; estrangement occurs between friends; the house burns down; a bankruptcy looms in the near future; it’s hard to make ends meet; items are stolen; assault, abuse, and ridicule violate a person, family, or community.

These and a thousand other events happen in this old fallen world. It makes us angry, and rightly so. And yet, if that anger stews within us for too long, and grudges are nursed and coddled, it turns eventually into the bitterness which gives us gangrene of the soul. Then, like a nasty weed, the bitterness spreads and takes over the garden.

Don’t let bitterness take over your garden.

The ancient Hebrew Christians were in danger of losing their resolve and reneging on their commitment to Christ. Their circumstances had been so adverse, for so long, that they just did not have any more fight in them to keep going. 

The believers were losing their faith. They began holding onto grudges and letting go of their spiritual commitment; instead of holding fast to perseverance and discarding their resentments toward others, and even God.

Yes, life was a challenge. But, no, it wasn’t because God didn’t love them or was in some way just mean or capricious. The struggling believers were invited to see their adversity as education by correction in the school of hard knocks. It was a class in faith formation, and many of them were failing it.

God loves us enough to not always make everything a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or a plate full of bacon. The Lord is going to dish up some broccoli and brussels sprouts and expects us to eat it – even if we don’t like it or don’t want to. We aren’t going to have a healthy faith apart from it, and God is just being a good Father.

It isn’t what happens to us that matters; it’s how we interpret what happened to us that makes all the difference.

Hard unwanted circumstances will either make us bitter, or better. They will never leave us the same.

The path to perseverance, healthy interpretations, and keeping the seed of bitterness away is through keeping our minds on Jesus and being kind to one another. Antagonism cannot grow in the soil of grace and mercy.

Sometimes we might forget that Jesus didn’t have it so easy on this earth. He faced ridicule, insults, hardship, and was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eventually, he was tortured and killed, having done nothing wrong and everything right. And there was absolutely no bitterness in his heart about any of it.

If that was the path for our Lord, then it is silly to think that, as Christ’s followers, we should avoid suffering and hardship. 

So, think about Jesus.

Consider him who endured suffering without resentment.

Don’t give up.

Keep your head and your heart in the game.

Feelings of resentful anger, giving up, and getting back at others only brings self-harm and makes life unnecessarily difficult for everyone. Whenever such feelings arise, it is our inner person’s warning that it is time to retreat with God and get a divine perspective on your situation.

Jesus, you are the Suffering Servant who has gone before us and secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell. In the scope of eternity, it is a small thing for me to live for you and face any kind of ridicule and hardship it might bring to me. I only ask to be in solidarity with you in all things. Amen.

Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.