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.

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

Letters to the Old and the Young (2 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul and Timothy by Unknown artist, 1886

As for you, my son, be strong through the grace that is ours in union with Christ Jesus. Take the teachings that you heard me proclaim in the presence of many witnesses, and entrust them to reliable people, who will be able to teach others also.

Take your part in suffering, as a loyal soldier of Christ Jesus. A soldier on active duty wants to please his commanding officer and so does not get mixed up in the affairs of civilian life. An athlete who runs in a race cannot win the prize unless he obeys the rules. The farmer who has done the hard work should have the first share of the harvest. Think about what I am saying, because the Lord will enable you to understand it all. (Good News Translation)

The Apostle Paul was a spiritual father to Timothy. Oh my, how we desperately need Paul and Timothy relationships today!

Too much independence breeds nothing but goofy thinking, messed up emotions, extreme ascetic practices, doctrinal heresy, and shallow spirituality. A good and godly spiritual father or mother is an absolute necessity to properly guide others, pass on sound teaching, and model how we ought to live.

I’m going to address two groups of people: older generations and younger generations….

Dear Older Generations:

Hey, if you are concerned about younger generations, then by God do something about it!

Heed the words of Paul to Timothy and be a spiritual director of souls to those who are like sheep without a shepherd.

Get your mental and emotional energy off of retirement, your economic portfolios, only giving money, and placing your hope in political elections.

You have built a lifetime of knowledge concerning personal piety and ethics, human behavior and community, and divine ways and means of living. Don’t squander it by dying and leaving only a material inheritance. Rather, die to self, and leave a spiritual legacy of mentoring others in the faith.

Guide a younger man or woman in discerning between the workings of the Holy Spirit and the machinations of evil spirits. Help them unlock the mysteries of being united to Christ. Assist them in moving into greater self-awareness and God-consciousness.

Keep learning and growing. Don’t rest on your laurels. Continue navigating the circuitous ways of the interior life – and leading other younger Christian disciples into the life of the Spirit.

Warn and encourage with all spiritual wisdom. Warn against the temptations of wealth, security, and attention. Don’t be the answer guy but learn to ask good and helpful questions which pilot the soul and inspire the spirit – instead of rigid lectures telling others what exactly to do and how to do it.

Don’t be a putz, a schmuck, a curmudgeon, or a blockhead. Be winsome, kind, self-effacing, gentle, and above all, humble. You have learned many things in the school of hard knocks. So, give the space and grace for younger generations of people to fail and be trained by their mistakes. And be there to help them get back up.

With sincerity and humility,

Pastor Tim

Dear Younger Generations:

This may or may not be obvious: You don’t know it all. And you cannot do it all by yourself. You need a spiritual guide.

So, go find one. Actively seek for a spiritual father or mother. In your search, look for a virtuous person, especially looking to see humility, self-control, service toward others, wisdom, deep and prayerful contemplation, a heart for God and a love of neighbor.

This may take a while but that’s okay. The journey is as much or more important than the destination. Once your search finds such a person, take advantage of the opportunity by submitting fully to your mentor with obedience. Follow their advice because they’ve been there, and they know what is useful for you.

You haven’t reached the Promised Land. There is a lot of wilderness wandering that needs to happen, a lot of soul-searching, and many temptations to face down. Your director knows these challenges better than their back door, so don’t think for a moment that everything is going to be victory in Jesus. Suffering can be your greatest teacher.

It isn’t the outer person who needs all the attention; it’s the inner person. And the journey to the heart is fraught with many trials.

Stick with the process. Don’t flame out early. Persevere, endure, and don’t give up. Work hard at not having a “meh” attitude. Expect to struggle with spiritual laziness, emotional heaviness, physical weakness, fearful apprehension, depressing despondency, desertion of hope, and dark thoughts.

Nobody is going to give you a shot in the arm which inoculates you against harm, heresy, or half-baked obnoxious people. Every good thing in life requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, so be willing to roll up your sleeves and put in the work of sanctification.

The Christian life is a marathon, not a hundred meter dash. When the metaphorical bear jumps on your back, and you feel you cannot go on, remember that your spiritual mentor has your back – not the bear.

Be patient and do the consistent practices which will add up to a godly life, blessing both the church and the world.

With encouragement and love,

Pastor Tim

Heartfelt Prayer (Lamentations 5:1-22)

Orthodox icon of Jeremiah praying

O Lord, reflect on what has happened to us;
consider and look at our disgrace.

Our inheritance is turned over to strangers;
foreigners now occupy our homes.

We have become fatherless orphans;
our mothers have become widows.

We must pay money for our own water;
we must buy our own wood at a steep price.

We are pursued—they are breathing down our necks;
we are weary and have no rest.

We have submitted to Egypt and Assyria
in order to buy food to eat.

Our forefathers sinned and are dead,
but we suffer their punishment.

Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.

At the risk of our lives, we get our food
because robbers lurk in the wilderness.

Our skin is as hot as an oven
due to a fever from hunger.

They raped women in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.

Princes were hung by their hands;
elders were mistreated.

The young men perform menial labor;
boys stagger from their labor.

The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped playing their music.

Our hearts no longer have any joy;
our dancing is turned to mourning.

The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this, our hearts are sick;
because of these things, we can hardly see through our tears.

For wild animals are prowling over Mount Zion,
which lies desolate.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do you keep on forgetting us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Bring us back to yourself, O Lord, so that we may return to you;
renew our life as in days before,
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (New English Translation)

“’Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac?”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Prayer is not about getting the right words strung together in a correct formula in a perfect disposition of the heart. Rather, prayer is conversation and a dialogue with God. 

Sometimes prayer looks a lot more like a triage unit in a hospital than it does a steeple on a church. Prayer often looks like desperation more than it does praise. 

God is a Being that we can tell the truth about what is really going on in our lives. Prayer isn’t prayer when we just tell God what we think God wants to hear.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The biblical book of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s extended prayer of grief, lament, complaint, and raw feeling. His hometown of Jerusalem was decimated by the invading Babylonian army. Thousands of people were taken out of the city and into exile. The ones left, including Jeremiah, were beside themselves with anger, grief, sadness, and fear.

We hear his cry to God, not worrying about whether it is appropriate language or not. Jeremiah’s words and phrases to God were heartfelt and real:

“We’re worn out and without any rest.”

“All the joy is gone from our hearts.” 

“We are heartsick.”

“We can hardly see through our tears.”

“Why do you keep forgetting us, God?”
“Lord, why dump us and leave us like this?

“Give us a fresh start, for God’s sake!”

Jeremiah was not concerned about how he looked or sounded, and not afraid to express his real thoughts and feelings.

Every thought and feeling is a valid entry into prayer. It is of utmost importance that we pray what is actually inside of us and not what we believe God would like to hear from us. 

The Lord doesn’t like pretense and posturing; God wants the real us. 

Plastic words and phony speeches are an affront to God. We must pray precisely what is on our minds and in our hearts – unfiltered, if need be. No matter the headache or the heartache, we only need to pray, without any concern for doing it perfectly.

“Suffering forces us to change.
We don’t like change and most of the time we fear it and fight it.
We like to remain in emotionally familiar places
even through sometimes those places are not healthy for us.
On occasion, the suffering is so great that we have to give up.
We surrender the old and begin anew.
Often it is the pain we experience that leads us, not only to a different life,
but a richer and more rewarding one.” Dennis Wholey

Gracious God, sometimes I feel like I have to have it all together to even speak to you. Yet you already know my heart better than I know it myself. Forgive my constant hiding from you and accept my heartfelt prayer to you for grace and help, through Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. Amen.