Overwhelming Victory in Overcoming Suffering (Romans 8:31-39)

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New Living Translation)

There is a way to overcome suffering; there’s a path you can follow, leading to the overcoming of your struggle.

That struggle with suffering comes in many forms:

  • Wrestling with guilt and shame;
  • Dealing with the meanness of others
  • Chronic physical pain
  • Continual financial trouble
  • Ongoing estranged relationships
  • Past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present
  • Constant feelings of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems
  • A crippling Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression)

These and a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world can discourage and debilitate us.

I invite you to consider that the road ahead will likely be counter-intuitive to how you may currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. In fact, it might be so far off your radar that you might simply discard what I’m about to say to you.

But before I get to that, I’ll say first, that suffering is endemic to the human condition. Everyone suffers. Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional. 

None of us will ever be immune to affliction. There is no way to insulate yourself from pain. If you are not currently suffering in some way, it means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.

Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay. Just the opposite. The Lord Jesus promised us that following him will involve suffering: 

“While you are in this world, you will have to suffer.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand the reality of suffering. Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Lord.  If Christ suffered, his followers shall suffer, as well.

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV) 

James, the Lord’s brother, wisely discerned that suffering could become a teacher for the Christian; all the adversity the believer faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.

“My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested.” (James 1:2-3, CEV) 

The Apostle Paul was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus; he continually faced terrible circumstances. His reflections on the matter are sage and true:

“Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others.” (2 Timothy 3:12, CEV) 

“Suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5, CEV)

“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NIV)

The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Although suffering is a part of being in the world, yet Jesus said:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV)

Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering. Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering: 

The truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.

Stated a different way: Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, may hurt and it might be senseless; yet no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.

More pointedly: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.

Your suffering is trying to tell you something. 

If you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you. You can’t beat suffering. You can only learn from it. And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it. 

So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles or trauma. Evil is evil, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots. However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness. The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:

“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating:”

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do not run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.

Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear. Both bears and suffering can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for its large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.

Face suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. Speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. Stay calm. Freaking-out only encourages suffering to attack. 

If you’re alone, that’s not good. Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life. Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other. Keep your eye on suffering. Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there. 

Don’t run. The Lord is with you. Face suffering. Keep it in front of you. It will pass, but you must be patient and calm. Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.

The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass. Then, you will be able to consider it joy whenever you face various struggles, knowing that your faith is being exercised, and perseverance developed. (James 1:2-4)

Stop fighting. Stop going it alone. Don’t be a martyr. Be silent. Listen. Change suffering from an adversary to fight to a companion to learn from.

You and I have nothing to lose. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 2:1-11 – Relying on Spiritual Power

Brothers and sisters, when I came to you, I didn’t speak about God’s mystery  as if it were some kind of brilliant message or wisdom. While I was with you, I decided to deal with only one subject—Jesus Christ, who was crucified. When I came to you, I was weak. I was afraid and very nervous. I didn’t speak my message with persuasive intellectual arguments. I spoke my message with a show of spiritual power so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

However, we do use wisdom to speak to those who are mature. It is a wisdom that doesn’t belong to this world or to the rulers of this world who are in power today and gone tomorrow. We speak about the mystery of God’s wisdom. It is a wisdom that has been hidden, which God had planned for our glory before the world began. Not one of the rulers of this world has known it. If they had, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. But as Scripture says:

“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
the things that God has prepared
for those who love him.”

God has revealed those things to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, especially the deep things of God. After all, who knows everything about a person except that person’s own spirit? In the same way, no one has known everything about God except God’s Spirit. (God’s Word Translation)

We need the Holy Spirit of God.

Without the Spirit’s help, Jesus is just one guy out of thousands who were crucified in history – merely an example of someone martyred for his faith. Yet, Jesus was infinitely more. Christians discern Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. 

Because of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, people can be redeemed from empty lives, saved from destructive life-patterns, and given the kind of security and purpose which God intended from the beginning. The Spirit’s role is to take these redemptive events of Jesus and apply them to our lives. 

Christian Trinitarian theology understands we are unable to see the truth about the cross of Jesus Christ unless God the Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and the Son, breaks into our lives and does an intervention, showing us our denial about how we are really doing – as well as our delusions about who we really are.

Admitting we need the Holy Spirit of God means the power of Christianity and the Christian life rests with Jesus Christ and him crucified, and not with us.

We are, in many ways, powerless. I realize this is not a popular message, especially in Western society. Tell the average American they are powerless, and they’ll think you’re off your rocker. It sounds ridiculous. Some would argue that we have done quite well, thank you very much, on our own. We have a couple of cars, a house, a job, and a family. After all, we worked hard, and we did it.

However, any worldly success we gain, and getting the things we want, may lead us to the delusion we have the power to do whatever we want.

Oh, sure, we might reason, we have problems just like everybody else. After all, we cannot control everything.  But we are not completely powerless. Just because we have difficult circumstances and a few problem people in our lives doesn’t mean I am weak, right? God will step in a take-over where I leave off, right?…

Wrong. Apart from the Holy Spirit of God, we are unable to become Christians and live the Christian life.

If we believe we manage our lives fine, with some help from God, then we might be in denial about how much we place ourselves at the center of the world. Whenever our consistent response to adversity, or the realization we are not handling something well, is to try and fix ourselves, we are living the delusion we have the power to independently change.

A reflexive response in asking Google to find answers to our problems; or dealing privately with our personal issues; or expecting our willpower to be enough; or passively resigning ourselves to mediocre lives because we have tried to change or be different; then we are feeding the delusion we don’t really need the Holy Spirit of God. I just need more effort or information to overcome my problems, right?

Wrong. More won’t solve our issues. And when it doesn’t, we easily become discouraged. We might even chide ourselves for our inability to deal with problems.

Our real need is for the true power source of the Christian life. We need the Holy Spirit applying the work of Jesus Christ to our lives so that we can live a victorious life.

Unfortunately, it typically takes a tragedy or crisis to break our delusion of power – a bad marriage, a family member’s addiction, a runaway child, a terminal illness, a bankruptcy, a death.

How bad do you and I need to hurt before we will admit we are not managing our lives well, at all, and that the real power to change resides with the Holy Spirit?

There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul believed this with all his heart. Although Paul was an intelligent and learned person, he did not rely on his abilities but on proclaiming the power of Jesus and him crucified.

The crucifixion of Christ was a past action with continuing and forceful ripples into the present time.

The cross of Jesus is more than an historical event; it is an ongoing reality to experience for victory over all the brokenness of this world and all the mess we have made of things putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

The Reformer, John Calvin, repeatedly instructed and encouraged his Geneva congregation that the Spirit joins us to Christ, assures us of salvation, and grows us in confidence through the Scriptures. Calvin, although a genius, did not rely on his intellect or abilities but insisted we need the Spirit’s witness to mature as followers of Jesus.

There are tough situations and incredibly sad realities which are mysteries beyond our comprehension. They defy simplistic answers and are greater than our attempts to explain them. Hard problems stretch our faith. And they ought to cause us to cry out to God and Christ’s Church for help because we are powerless to manage our lives.

We absolutely and totally need the Holy Spirit of God. Without the Spirit, we are lost. But with the Spirit we experience the saving power of Christ’s cross to deal with everything in our lives.

The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.

Psalm 20 – May the Lord Grant All Your Requests

Psalm 20:4-5, Common English Bible

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
    may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
    and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
    and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:
    The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
    with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
    but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
    Answer us when we call!
(New International Version)

There are times when a present situation seems nonsensical. It’s just downright confounding. There’s a disconnect between the contemporary present moment and the ancient biblical past. How do we pull ancient Scripture and the wisdom of the past into the here and now?

We look to the psalms and pray them, out loud, multiple times, every day.

In the crucible of life’s challenges and the struggles of daily living, we might too quickly neglect the grace, relevance, and truth of God’s Word to us. 

The psalms are both prayer and worship directed to God. Many of those prayers are for oneself. Others, like today’s psalm, are intercessions for others.

It is my sincere and ardent desire that you will experience a good life, even when that life has a bevy of challenges, stresses, and difficulties baked into it. And so:

May the Lord answer you in the stress of your life.

May the name of the ever-living, ever-present God protect you.

May the Lord send you help from the holy habitation, and give you support from heaven itself!

May God almighty remember all the ways you have given and served.

May the Lord be pleased with everything you have sacrificed on behalf of divine purposes and plans.

May God grant your heart’s deep longing and carry out every good plan you conceive.

May we together shout for joy when you overcome incredible pressure, and in the name of God throw a big ol’ party because of answered prayer!

May the Lord bring to fruition every one of your prayers.

I have supreme confidence that God’s people shall be delivered from trouble. The Lord will answer from heaven with the full force of saving power. Some put their ultimate trust in military might. Others place faith in financial security. But the people of God trust in the name of the Lord our God.

We may collapse and fall. There might be obstacles galore. Stress and pressure may be our constant companions. No matter. We get up and stand again with confidence. The Lord will save us. God will answer when we call.

For the Christian, all of God’s good promises are realized in Jesus. Ultimate help and deliverance come from Christ. Even more, Jesus came to give victory to all people everywhere….

Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:57-58, CEB)

Everyone who has been born from God has won the victory over the world. Our faith is what wins the victory over the world. Who wins the victory over the world? Isn’t it the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5, GW)

The Lord wants to grant our requests. God is on our side. There is help from heaven. It is available to us – if we but ask….

 “Continue to ask, and God will give to you. Continue to search, and you will find. Continue to knock, and the door will open for you.” (Matthew 7:7, ERV)

“From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it. That’s how the Father will be seen for who he is in the Son. I mean it. Whatever you request in this way, I’ll do.” (John 14:13-14, MSG)

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

G.K. Chesterton

Perseverance in prayer is needed. Lifting a request to God isn’t a one-time event. It is okay, even encouraged, to persist in prayer….

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So, what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” (Luke 18:1-8, MSG)

Giving voice to our needs and wants to God is the first step toward having our sincere requests answered. And the psalms can help us realize it.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace, I pray. Amen.

1 Corinthians 15:20-34 – That’s Weird

“Nonsense” by Wanidaem, 2016

But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,
    for tomorrow we die.”

Do not be deceived:

“Bad company ruins good morals.”

Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (New Revised Standard Version)

There was a lot of goofiness going on with the Corinthian church.

That’s why the Apostle Paul’s first letter is long and filled with addressing a variety of problems. Some of those issues we can understand and relate to, and some we don’t have much of a clue what’s really going on. I tend to think that because the Corinthian believers tended to keep some bad company, a lot of weird stuff pops up, like vicarious baptisms for the dead. Where the heck did that come from?

“Weird Blue Painting” by Matthew Freese

Well, what we do know is that when Jesus told good old Peter the fisherman to leave his nets behind and become a fisher of people, catching them was only half the work. Cleaning them takes a lot of work, too.

I have done my share of fishing in life (both real fish and real people), and I can say that cleaning fish is a messy affair. Just as a fish gets gutted, so a person, caught for Jesus, needs to be eviscerated of all the worldly entrails of sin. And that didn’t completely happen with the Corinthians.

Rather than hanging out with the goofy weird dudes who are saying and doing only God knows what, Paul brought the Corinthians back to the center of the gospel. He reeled them into Christ’s resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from death is the penultimate event of securing victory from sin’s guilt and shame, as well as death’s sting. It’s the resurrection which enables every Christian to realize the power of cutting out the weird and goofy stuff of worldly sin for the meat of Christ’s words and ways.

Because Christ arose with a real physical body, we, too, will experience a bodily resurrection. This means, as believers in Jesus, we are not to have a goofy approach that resurrection is all spiritual with nothing physical going on, as if the body were just some weird container for the soul that we have to put up with here on earth.

Whenever that weird thinking takes place, people do goofy things, believing they can do whatever the heck they want, since the body is like a paper plate that we’ll just toss in the garbage when we’re done with it. Christ’s kingdom ethics and physical morality ends up taking a back seat to ethereal philosophical musings. Leave it to the Greek Corinthians to do mental gymnastics in order to live however they want. Sometimes, when I read Paul’s letter, it feels like I’m watching an old “Leave It to Beaver” episode where Beaver is having all kinds of goofy thinking and doing weird stuff because of Whitey and Larry’s bad advice.

Jerry Mathers as the Beaver

Coming back again and again to the redemptive events of Jesus helps preserve us from the esoteric bunny trails of theological goofiness. Yet, if we continue to keep company with a bunch of folks who are into power and control through the ungodly means of mistreating the body (and other people), making comparisons between the physical and the spiritual, (as if they were two completing separate identities), obsessing over their weird and unintelligible philosophies, and refusing to take responsibility for their physical actions – then, we’re going to turn goofy, just like them.

Come to your senses, Paul would say, and get your head screwed on straight. Fill the space between your two ears with proper knowledge of Christ’s resurrection, and pay attention to your hands and feet, because they are the tangible means of putting the will of God into practice.

There’s a goofy and weird “ha, ha,” and then there’s a goofy and weird “uh, oh.” Keep the “ha, ha,” avoid the “uh, oh,” and you’ll be just fine.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us, your people, and grant us your wisdom and peace. Amen.