March 21, 2014

Suffering Pays Eternity's Bills III: The Forge of Our Transformation

To conclude this trilogy on suffering I ask a simple question. What are, or what is the practical applications of suffering in the Christian life? Suffering that is literally a need or requirement of the Christian life? What will this suffering look like and how should it affect us? Let’s take a long painful look, shall we?

The enormous body of historical Christian literature points towards such things as persistence, patience, Christian character, holding to a vision, and other behaviors that are suggestive of mental and physical fortitude. One of the telltale factors involving those that suffered well in history is that it was a learned behavior over time. Few if any endure suffering with any grace or knew how to endure hardship initially. Hardship is learned. Without this backing in life most become disoriented, troubled or are consumed by the trials they face. Many crumple and give-in under the merciless pressure of suffering.

We cannot stop failures, disappointments, rejection, mistakes, persecution, and other painful events from happening in our lives...this is part and parcel of life. How we deal with and dress the wounds from these traumas and deal with the consistent pressures and pains of suffering determine the end that we will live with. Most that survived their sufferings and persevered until the end took a day-by-day approach and handled each individual day as it came. Always keeping the eternal in mind. This is especially true of Christ in His march to the Cross. He knew He would suffer but in the end it was God’s will and it was to lay down his life for sinners.

Suffering Christians need to look past a “bandage” approach. We cannot put a bandage on the suffering or injury given in this life pretending to hide it. We must confront the suffering and face it head on. Sometimes the shortest most painless way through a fire is to walk straight through it. Anything else is denial of reality and this is un-biblical. We must emphasize healing if only on the eternal level and dwell and think of the Gospel and what Jesus’ story tells us about life and suffering. There is joy after suffering, the sun will rise in the morning after the darkness of night.

When suffering is actively approached studied and placed at the core of our lives and ministry, the ministry we’ve been called to takes on a different meaning and becomes more dynamic, more dimensional...more alive. A person that understands the suffering and can better deal with it in a biblical manner will then lend a different focus to people when they have lost a loved one. It helps give a larger picture to why a friend will suffer through cancer. They will endure and hold up better under debilitating and crippling disease. In building others up with this knowledge we create greater resiliency to Satan's many methods against us.

One of the primary methods which Satan uses in suffering is to wear us down and get us to forsake God and His promises. Suffering has a tendency to make us look for God and His grace when in reality we are living in God’s grace while enduring the suffering. Pain makes us "loose our heads" so to speak and the Devil aids us in looking past the obvious in our distraction caused by the suffering towards nothing of value. God is indeed in the suffering most potently in the form of grace that allows us to persevere. The thing that allows us to “hold on” is faith and if we persevere…our faith will be strengthened. If we fail…we apostatize and fall away from the only one that can ease our pain. It is why we are so strongly encouraged to keep the faith and run the race in a way in which to win the crown or runners wreath.

A mind able to process suffering is a prerequisite for spiritual battle. We know for certain while putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:10) that there is indeed a high probably or chance of pain, suffering or injury. Why else are we preparing to put on covering to protect ourselves? We are literally told to prepare? Why? Paul knows that there are casualties in battle and wars. People get hurt. People suffer mentally, physically and in the realm of the spirits, we suffer spiritually.

The truth is we need to stop seeing suffering so much as a negative as it is an instigator of forward spiritual movement towards God. The story of Job is not so much a story about suffering and trial as it is a story about Jobs spiritual growth and victory through trusting God in both His promises and His very character. This is the same underlying premise of the Gospel. It is not a story about Jesus’s death on the cross as a failure but that His suffering was ultimately a gain in glory and victory over death for sinners. The paradoxes of Scripture should never cease to amaze us. In God’s economy, the first will be last and the last will be first. Less is more. Pain is gain. Suffering leads to Heaven…both in Jesus’ life and ours.

Regardless, our fallen sinful minds don’t do well with these paradoxes and suffering still does not strike us as good news no more than the disciples initially saw Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion as the Good News (εὐαγγέλιον/euangelion) as we do today. What caused the shift?

Simple. The Blessing that came after the Crucifixion: The Resurrection itself and the understanding and acceptance of what it signified. There was indeed eternal life after death. It is in the pain and suffering of death that one escapes the sin that entraps us and holds us to that death. We slip the mortal coil so to speak since the curse is against us in this world, not the next. It is the Blessed Hope.

In other words, suffering is a blessing hard won (not that we earn the blessing, Christ won it for us in His suffering). Suffering shapes us more towards the holy. No one likes it (not even Jesus) but it is not until we are willing to run towards it that we forsake ourselves. No one in their right mind charges headlong into pain and suffering. Everything in us tells us to run the other way. It is God working through us that causes us to run towards the suffering. In this way He uses suffering to change us into the instrument He wants us to be. The crucible of suffering redefines what we are, not who we are. I will be made more holy but it will be what God wanted me to be, not what I wanted me to be. We could’ve never made that choice to run into the suffering fire unless we were demented by sin. It is God calling us…walking us towards the forge of our reshaping....we run recklessly in sin into the fire that causes our transformation. Suffering is a spiritual tool brought to bear upon us like heat to metal and chisel to stone. Suffering is God beating our sin out of us like a blacksmith's hammer working out the imperfections in a sword while simultaneously tempering or hardening the blade. Shaping us in a reluctant manner yet hardening us to the sinful things of this world.

Romans 8:30-32 ~ “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 

By losing it all here now, we gain all eternally in Jesus. Whoever finds their life here will lose it, and whoever loses their life here for Jesus’ sake will find it in the Kingdom which exists here and there spiritually. Therefore suffering in this life for a Christian…is the signpost for the next or at least should be viewed as a blinker or turn signal that we turned onto the right path. For wide is the road that leads to destruction but narrow is the path that leads to life and few will find it. I believe part of the reason few will find it is because many will vehemently avoid the path lined with suffering…and this will be to their detriment. Suffering here is temporary but suffering there (in Hell) is eternal. Suffering here is in love, suffering there is in wrath and punishment. The motives and purposes behind the two are completely different from God's point of view.

So what are the clearest evidences that we are persevering through suffering in a Biblical manner?

The first thing we need to see is that we have confidence in God’s grace. That it is sufficient and allows us to continue. Paul was clear…

2 Corinthians 12:7-10~ Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh,a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Regardless of what we might feel or think, the Bible tells us that God really is for us. If we fail in our efforts and works…it does not matter. We believe in a God who sent His Son in our stead to justify us. It is clear from the Bible that repentance and turning to Him prevents us from being condemned.

We can have confidence in Christ’s work because it is all finished at the Cross. Because of this we have unparalleled strength and resource to persevere to the most trying and detrimental sufferings if we stay focused on Christ and His Gospel. If we closely examine Paul's ministry we will clearly see a chosen man (Apostle) of Christ beleaguered by many opportunities to give up. Shipwreck, repeated beatings, unjust arrests, rejection by his own people, harassment, ridicule and the threat of death. Let’s face it, most of us would have gone into full-time tent making and just abandoned the ministry altogether at the sight of any one of these hardships. Not Paul. He persevered until the end. So should we. Paul understood suffering was integral to his ministry for Jesus Christ…so should we. Through faith, through grace Paul completed the task set before him by the Lord even upon penalty of death…so should we.

Sometimes I believe God specifically gave us a heart of flesh and feeling just so we could hurt. Those that haven't been hurt rarely change. If we are intrinsically sinful and never change...then we will stay sinful. This is the very organ, the heart/mind referred to so often in the Bible which is the very thing we need to use to discern our spiritual condition and learn to change. In this way God shapes what we are while allowing us to stay exact what He has made us. He allows us to stay who we are while making us holy. 

So...the next time you lose your hope, ask yourself: What is the purpose in this suffering? Please recall what I have written here and it may help clarify the reason(s) for your suffering and grief. Most importantly, it will point you to another Suffering Servant who died for you…so that you could have the honor of suffering for Him in His namesake. The name above all names:

Jesus Christ who, by His obedience and suffering, was Resurrected thereby conquereing all suffering and death through the Gospel.

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