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.

Dealing with Grinding Pain (Psalm 79:1-9)

The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, by William Hole (1846-1917)

God, nations have come against your chosen people.
    They have ruined your holy Temple.
    They have turned Jerusalem into ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants as food to the wild birds.
They have given the bodies of those who worship you to the wild animals.
They have spilled blood like water all around Jerusalem.
    No one was left to bury the dead.
We are a joke to the other nations;
    they laugh and make fun of us.

Lord, how long will this last?
    Will you be angry forever?
    How long will your jealousy burn like a fire?
Be angry with the nations that do not know you
    and with the kingdoms that do not honor you.
They have gobbled up the people of Jacob
    and destroyed their land.
Don’t punish us for our past sins.
    Show your mercy to us soon,
    because we are helpless!
God our Savior, help us
    so people will praise you.
Save us and forgive our sins
    so people will honor you. (New Century Version)

I don’t like evil. And I really don’t like arrogant people who want what they want and leave a path of destruction behind them.

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple. It was razed by a conquering army who proudly gloated over their victory. This psalm, as all psalms, is a prayer. It’s a bitter and angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people.

The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable.

To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling.

Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear.

Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. This realization enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness their horrible spiritual pain. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us.

For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will.

Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God.

As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 30 – Mourning Has Turned to Joy

I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
    You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you restored my health.
You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
    You kept me from falling into the pit of death.

Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones!
    Praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

When I was prosperous, I said,
    “Nothing can stop me now!”
Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.
    Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.

I cried out to you, O Lord.
    I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die,
    if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
    Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
    Help me, O Lord.”

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! (New Living Translation)

Life is not only full of the tears which give way to joy; a great deal of life is learning to move through our grief and transform the pain into something beautiful.

Hard circumstances make us either better or bitter.

The psalmist, King David, had his share of adversity, difficulty, and distress. The youngest of seven sons, David was something like the runt of the litter. He was given the grunt work that nobody else wanted to do, since he was the lowest person in the household.

So, off to the fields he went, shepherding the sheep, dealing with hot days and cold nights, fighting off predators, and keeping the sheep healthy and safe. Yet out there where no one was looking, God was watching. And the Lord was developing within David the very qualities needed to one day rule over all Israel and Judah.

Even in-between becoming a member of the king’s court and becoming king himself, David’s life was mostly characterized by misunderstanding and being victimized. In other words, David had intimate first-hand experience of terrible sorrow, buckets of tears, and stress-filled anxiety. Through it all, he did not become bitter. Instead, David learned to transform his mourning to joy.

Many persons, having experienced the sort of things David of old did, come through their difficulties and adversity with a hard heart. They end up hurting people, just like they were hurt. Their verbal and physical acts of violence betray their inability to turn pain into something useful.

So, what makes the difference between those who experience the same sorts of painful events, yet go in the different directions of caring or harming?

I believe the twentieth-century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, understood the true source of violence and non-violence…

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton rightly discerned that the false self (the self we project to others and try to maintain as real) is in fact the source of violence – specifically, the false self’s need to gratify impulses for power and control, affection and esteem, security and safety, at all costs.

However, we do not find ourselves in those ways. The cultivation of solitude, silence, and contemplation are non-violent practices which organically produce non-violent ways of being in the world. Those were the very practices which characterized David’s early life as a shepherd.

It’s what we do when no one is watching, and nobody is around, that makes the difference. Our way of being in the world is determined by the way we are with ourselves when we are alone.

How you are, matters.

“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

Richard Rohr

We need to be present to our pain, to pay attention to it. Our hurts don’t simply vanish if we ignore them, try to go around them, or seek quick fixes to them. The pain is still there, and over time, becomes gangrene of the soul.

Instead, we must dare to go to the unexplored territory of the inner person, to confront and contend with our inner turmoil and be open to hearing from it.

“The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.”

St. John of the Cross

Today, like every day, we have the opportunity and even responsibility to bring our whole selves, pain included, to the relationships we have, the work we do, and everywhere we go. The world not only needs our skills and abilities; it needs us.

The path to joy isn’t through perfect circumstances and having all our wants satisfied; joy comes after a season of darkness with all it’s sobbing, tears, and wondering. As we become more comfortable with the shadowy places of our lives, the more open we become to transforming our pain to a beauty which blesses the world.

O God, you are my God, and I will praise you, whether at night’s inky blackness, or in the day’s bright sunshine of happiness. As I endure each difficult situation, help me to see it’s transformative power and it’s potential to make me a better and more godly person, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.