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.

John 16:16-24 – There Must Be Suffering Before Glory

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (New International Version)

“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come with patience and equanimity.”

Carl Jung

An Unpopular Message

Jesus often said things that were neither expected nor wanted. Jesus consistently told his disciples there must be suffering before glory. The disciples either could not or would not hear of it. They didn’t sign up to follow Jesus into suffering! Trying to get people to pay attention to suffering is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to put their names down on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.”

Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had such a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

A Real Message

Just as a woman experiences terrible pain in childbirth, then ecstatic joy over seeing her child for the first time, so the Christian’s excruciating pain in this life points to the inevitable joy at the end of that suffering. In the scope of eternity, adversity and pain last only a moment. Glorious joy, however, will be forever.

In talking with his disciples about their disappointment, even depression, about Christ’s words of leaving and grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy even in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending.

I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will realize its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, however, we still experience heartache along with the great joy of resurrection and new life. It can be confusing, living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind, the grief is temporary. The despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

A Good Message

Christians serve a risen and ascended Lord. Therefore, we need not wait to be happy, and we need not expect everything must go our way. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family sort of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living days of constant change followed by ever new normal. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of walking with Jesus for the disciples, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Revelation 7:13-17 – Your Tears Will Not Last Forever

One of the elders asked me, “Do you know who these people are that are dressed in white robes? Do you know where they come from?”

“Sir,” I answered, “you must know.”

Then he told me:

“These are the ones
who have gone through
    the great suffering.
They have washed their robes
in the blood of the Lamb
    and have made them white.
And so they stand
    before the throne of God
and worship him in his temple
    day and night.
The one who sits on the throne
will spread his tent
    over them.
They will never hunger
    or thirst again,
and they won’t be troubled
by the sun
    or any scorching heat.

The Lamb in the center
of the throne
    will be their shepherd.
He will lead them to streams
    of life-giving water,
and God will wipe all tears
    from their eyes.” (Contemporary English Version)

Suffering Before Glory

There is a day coming when followers of Jesus will come before the throne of God, serving the Lord day and night. And he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. It will be a glorious time of unending peace, harmony, and rest.

But first, before this permanent Sabbath rest, there will be trouble, hardship, trial, and even martyrdom.  There will be suffering before glory.  Sometimes the difficult circumstances of life seem to have no end.  Yet, they will eventually pass, and we must continually keep this in mind.  There is a day coming when God’s pastoral presence will forever guard and keep our lives if we endure to the end.

Running Before Finishing

Perseverance, endurance, and pushing through hard situations are necessary to realizing the finish line.  We cannot just sit here on earth in some sort of holding pattern waiting for the end.  Just as an athlete must go into strict training to run the race well, finish strong, and cross the line, so we as Christians are to be in training. Believers possess at their disposal an array of spiritual practices that will fortify their souls to keep going and finish the race. 

The book of Revelation was a vision of the Apostle John given to suffering Christians in grinding hardship. Those ancient followers of Jesus had a great need of patience and perseverance. God graciously gave the believers a glimpse of the glorious ending to come. It was one way of helping them endure their present adversity and live for Jesus Christ.

Indeed, it is future hope which gives shape to the Christian’s life in the immediate here and now. Hope is what sustains us and helps us move through the difficulties of our current existence. Knowing there is a time coming when our tears will be personally wiped away by a loving God enables us to endure our griefs and sorrows.

Partial Before Total

God is with us. What we must continually keep in mind is that our salvation is assured – yet will not come in its fullness until the end of the age. So, we read Scripture portions like Psalm 91 with the understanding that ultimate safety and security is not found in this life but in the life to come…

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
    will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
    he is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
    and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
    He will shelter you with his wings.
    His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
    nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Though a thousand fall at your side,
    though ten thousand are dying around you,
    these evils will not touch you.
Just open your eyes,
    and see how the wicked are punished.

If you make the Lord your refuge,
    if you make the Most High your shelter,
no evil will conquer you;
    no plague will come near your home.
For he will order his angels
    to protect you wherever you go.
They will hold you up with their hands
    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
You will trample upon lions and cobras;
    you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet!

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me.
    I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer;
    I will be with them in trouble.
    I will rescue and honor them.
I will reward them with a long life
    and give them my salvation.” (New Living Translation)

May God’s peace and hope fill you with inexpressible joy at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Patient God, you tediously work until your plans and purposes are accomplished.  As you are slowly bringing your kingdom to the world, strengthen me so that I do not give up.  Help me to persevere, living and loving like Jesus, to his glory.  Amen.

Take the Stairs Out of the Basement Shame Lounge

Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, NIV)

A century ago, the English novelist, G.K. Chesterton, observed that in the house of life, many people are content to live in the cellar. In fact, they assume the cellar is the only room in the house. Cellars and basements have certainly changed in the past one hundred years, yet Chesterton’s observation still holds true – that people often seem content to dwell in conditions far beneath what they could experience. 

Maybe the basements of today provide a way to extend Chesterton’s metaphor. Rather than take the stairs and dwell in the house itself, we create spaces in the basement, game rooms and family rooms, to avoid dwelling in the main part of the house. We might even make the basement a shame lounge, complete with old purple shag carpeting, dimly lighted with a lava lamp, and stocked with cheap $2 a bottle wine. Its where we go when we are down on ourselves.

It’s hard to be joyful in the basement, especially when it’s a shame lounge, because it is a place where people hate themselves because of their failures, are disappointed with God for what has been allowed to happen in their lives, and blame others for their sadness.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian Church to lay a solid foundation of teaching on who Jesus Christ is and what he has done (chapters 1 & 2); and to give some solid encouragement and exhortation on what that theological foundation means for daily life (chapters 3 & 4). 

The Colossian believers were to avoid getting sidetracked by false teachers telling them they belong in the basement of life, in the shame lounge, and that the only way up the stairs and out of the cellar is through a crazy, circuitous route of constant rule-keeping.

The truth Paul wanted the Colossians to grasp is that Jesus has made the stairway clear through his cross and resurrection. Those who believe in these redemptive events are full participants in the death and life of Jesus. Christ rising from death is not merely a doctrine to believe; it is a powerful reality to be lived! Christian doctrine always has the upward trajectory of changed lives. Paul gave three reasons why we must live upstairs instead of hanging around the shame lounge….

1. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because Christ’s resurrection makes it possible.

Paul made up a word that takes five words for us to communicate in English (συνηγέρθητε – “you have been raised with”). It is meant to communicate the truth that we have a vital connection and union with Jesus (co-raised with Christ). Jesus has so closely identified with us that it is as if we are his body. 

The bond existing between Jesus and the believer is so intimate and so close that when Jesus was raised from death, we took part with him in that event. The incredible implication of this is that our life is to be the life of Christ. Our task, then, is to live up to who we are in Christ. 

Paul exhorts us toward that end by telling us to set our hearts on things above. Today, on Easter Sunday, is the day to get our hearts out of the shame lounge and live upstairs with Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of God. 

Empty Tomb by Anneli Anderson

Being seated at the right hand is a symbolic picture that the work of Jesus on the cross is finished. Therefore, the only work left to do is to believe, and to participate in the life of Christ. We do that by living upstairs with Jesus. Christ’s heart was set on giving us eternal salvation from sin and death, and he accomplished it. 

Now, Jesus Christ has his heart set on seeing us experience freedom from the habits of shame and addictive practices which keep us from living upstairs with him. Jesus wants our hearts. Christ does not want us getting headaches from smoking nasty cheap cigars in the shame lounge any longer because his resurrection has made it possible to be with him in the clear bright sunshine of grace. 

We are to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. We must get our heads out of the cellar and get them upstairs with Jesus. If our heads are not in the main part of the house, shame thoughts will fill the void. The shame lounge becomes a prison because our thoughts do not rise above the bad circumstances we have experienced. You, however, have been raised with Christ. We can ascend the stairs of grace and enjoy life.

The believer in Jesus will follow him up the stairs and dwell with him in God’s house. The Christian will develop the life of the mind by being seeped in the living water of Jesus and not the cheap wine of shame. The follower of Jesus will take the stairs with a heart of prayer that talks to Jesus on a regular basis, instead of sitting in the shame lounge, mumbling speeches to oneself.

The person raised with Christ will take the stairs and serve the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength because staying in the confining walls of the basement shame lounge prevents the believer from seeing the immense need of people in the neighborhood who are lost, sick, dying, hurting, hungry, depressed, and longing for someone to show them the stairway of grace out of the hopeless basement they are in.

So, take the stairs!

  • Take the stairs and leave the shame lounge behind with its anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (Colossians 3:8).
  • Take the stairs as God’s chosen people who dwell in the upstairs grace by embracing the house rules of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love. (Colossians 3:12) 
  • Take the stairs to forgiving whatever grievances we have against one another because the Lord has forgiven us. (Colossians 3:13)
  • Take the stairs to love, which binds every good virtue together. (Colossians 3:14) 
  • Take the stairs into the large living room of peace, since as members of one body we were called to peace. (Colossians 3:15)
  • Take the stairs and let God’s house shape you as we enter the rooms of teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom; singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts; and doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him for raising us up with him. (Colossians 3:16-17)

Take the stairs and live the resurrected life!

2. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because we possess new life in Christ.

We died, and our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. The shame lounge is now dead to us. We can ascend the stairs and live a new life. One of my friends in college was a party girl; she partied every chance she got. Then, she became a follower of Jesus. She received an invitation to a kegger and sent this response back: “I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend your party because I have recently died.”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

Since the shame lounge is dead to us, take the stairs and then burn them behind you so that you not go back there again. The basement may feel safe and familiar, but as a believer in Jesus, you and I now belong to God. Our security is firmly with Jesus upstairs, not downstairs.  God has called and gathered us upstairs out of the shame lounge.

Don’t go back downstairs. If we don’t burn that old stairway we will eventually go back down into the basement. Then, someday, someone will find your lifeless corpse down there. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to the shame lounge: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

3. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because of the future glory that awaits us.

Christ is coming again. When Jesus returns, the believer will share in God’s glory forever.  Christ has not returned yet because he wants to live through us here on this earth for a while longer. Jesus desires to spread good news of grace and forgiveness through us. Jesus Christ wants others to have the chance to ascend the stairs and live a new life. He is patient, not wanting any to perish in the cellar, but for all to experience the resurrected life. The Apostle Paul himself struggled to put all his energy into living the resurrected life:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14, NIV)     

Move to another level. Leave the shame lounge basement behind. The first step up the stairway of grace is always a step of surrender so that our heart, mind, soul, time, possessions, and energy are revitalized to new ways of living.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He has given us new life and hope.

He has raised Jesus from the dead.

God has claimed us as his own.

He has brought us out of darkness.

He has made us light to the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!