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.

Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How Can I Move Through My Grief? (Lamentations 1:7-15)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Her people recall the good life
    that once was theirs;
now they suffer
    and are scattered.
No one was there to protect them
from their enemies who sneered
    when their city was taken.

Jerusalem’s horrible sins
    have made the city a joke.
Those who once admired her
    now hate her instead—
she has been disgraced;
    she groans and turns away.

Her sins had made her filthy,
but she wasn’t worried
    about what could happen.
And when Jerusalem fell,
    it was so tragic.
No one gave her comfort
    when she cried out,
“Help! I’m in trouble, Lord!
    The enemy has won.”

Zion’s treasures were stolen.
Jerusalem saw foreigners
    enter her place of worship,
though the Lord
had forbidden them
    to belong to his people.

Everyone in the city groans
    while searching for food;
they trade their valuables
for barely enough scraps
    to stay alive.

Jerusalem shouts to the Lord,
“Please look and see
    how miserable I am!”
No passerby even cares.
Why doesn’t someone notice
    my terrible sufferings?
You were fiercely angry, Lord,
and you punished me
    worst of all.
From heaven you sent a fire
    that burned in my bones;
you set a trap for my feet
    and made me turn back.
All day long you leave me
    in shock from constant pain.
You have tied my sins
    around my neck,
and they weigh so heavily
    that my strength is gone.
You have put me in the power
    of enemies too strong for me.

You, Lord, have turned back
my warriors and crushed
    my young heroes.
Judah was a woman untouched,
but you let her be trampled
    like grapes in a wine pit. (Contemporary English Version)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The only way to the mountain is through the valley. The only way to make the pain go away is to move through it – not by avoiding it, pretending it’s not there, or trying to move around it. Pain and suffering are inevitable; misery is optional.

The reality is that, when experiencing catastrophic loss, you and I will grieve forever. We shall never “get over” it; we only learn to live with it.

Yes, I do believe there is spiritual and emotional healing. Significant change and grinding loss doesn’t need to define who we are. We can rebuild ourselves around the loss we have suffered.

Yes, you and I will be whole again. However, we shall never ever be the same again. It isn’t possible – nor should it be.

The prophet Jeremiah, the exiles in Babylon, and the remaining people of Jerusalem faced a tremendous and heartbreaking adjustment to a new world full of changes and losses. Expressing that grief was central to not becoming stuck in the past, living in the here and now, and moving into the future.

Grief is the normal mental, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical response to any significant change or loss. Grief is not optional but necessary. It is our personhood’s way of facing the pain and moving through it to a place of finding renewed meaning, support, and purpose in life.

How do people move through the grief?

  • Community: Grief needs a witness. It must be expressed. We must tell our stories of life, love, and loss. Otherwise, the grief just sits unmoved deep within and eventually becomes gangrene of the soul.

Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.

Galatians 6:2, GW
  • Connection: Grief doesn’t so much go away as it morphs into fond memories of remembrance through ritual behavior.

Then Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV)

  • Character: No one is defined by their grief, their disease, their mental disorder, their disability, or their addiction. In many religious traditions, people are identified as carrying the image and likeness of G-d.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.

After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. (Romans 8:29-30, MSG)

  • Care: Practice caring for yourself. Give yourself the grace and the permission to be happy… or sad… or angry – to feel what you need to feel. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

  • Compare not: Please do not compare your grief and loss with anyone else’s. The truth is this: The absolute worst loss is your loss, not somebody else’s.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NIV)

  • Count: Count your wins. Count your blessings. Say them out loud. Write them down. Share them with a friend or loved one.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

    who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. (Psalm 103:2-4, ESV)

Sometimes, prayer is the only possible way forward. Maybe the Lord will once again hear us and respond, as of old:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people… I have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows.” (Exodus 3:7, NET)

May the presence of the Lord melt your fear and discouragement. May God strengthen and help you. May the Lord lift you and hold you in gracious and compassionate hands. Amen.

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.