Three Ways God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

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We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

The sufferings we endure are not meaningless within the hands of God. This is true regardless of whether we have brought the suffering upon ourselves or whether it has come upon us through the hands of others or our environment. When we put ourselves in the hands of God by faith, our sufferings are invested with another purpose. As the Apostle Paul outlines here in Romans 5, God takes us in the midst of our sufferings and shapes something valuable into our lives.

First, Paul writes, God shapes perseverance into our lives. This is the capacity to keep going, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Perseverance does not just magically appear in our lives. It is something that we must develop, like a runner suffering through training until she can run a full marathon. While none of us desire suffering, when we submit our suffering to God we free Him to develop perseverance into our lives. Without perseverance, nothing else will come because we will continually push against our circumstances and against God. But as we grow in perseverance, God can have His way in developing us for His glorious purposes.

Along with perseverance, Paul tells us, God uses our sufferings to shape character into our lives. Character is not an abstract gift from God—just an idea about virtue—but is something tangibly confirmed in our lives through the furnace of our trials. If you want character without suffering, you are looking for something else; perhaps a good reputation. If you want character without perseverance, you really want something else; perhaps informational knowledge of what character is. But if we really want character, there is no other way than through the furnace of suffering. Character is developed through trying and testing, like a precious metal refined in the fire as the dross is burned away to reveal its highest quality. Our character is developed and revealed through the fires of suffering combined with our willingness to persevere.

Third, Paul tells us that hope follows character and perseverance when our suffering is given into the hands of God. Hope arises as we persevere amidst the fires of suffering in which character is shaped. Without hope we give up in life, as we know from those who lose a will to live in dire health circumstances or imprisonment. But with hope, we can find meaning in life and keep going. It is by clinging to God by faith amidst suffering that we begin to see that God is indeed doing something else as we bear up in the challenges of life. Contrary to what we perceive with our eyes, God is at work, and this revelation that God is at work brings hope into our lives. We walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul writes elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:7), but it is hope that keeps us walking. When we yield our sufferings to God, letting Him shape Christlike character in us, hope simultaneously springs up as we realize God has not left us alone and is working in our lives.

All of this meaningful work of God amidst suffering is sustained not by sheer human willpower (although the will is significant), but by the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love tying us into the presence of God through Christ. God is at work, completing what He begins in us (Philippians 1:6). God is working within us with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). And so, even as Christ’s suffering was powerful significant, so, too, when we yield our sufferings to God they bring forth a harvest of righteousness for His glory.

All Real Faith Involves Discipline: Albert E. Day on cooperation with God

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I encountered these provocative words from Albert Edward Day in Discipline and Discovery. While perhaps in some ways using exaggeration to make his point, Day strikes home the importance of cooperating with God in the process of spiritual growth.

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worlding pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe ‘turning it all over to Jesus.’ Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for god is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperations, is a heartbreak spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not life his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

In all Christian literature there is no writer who had a clearer conviction concerning the salvation provided only in Christ than has Paul. His self-despair ended in that marvelous, ageless insight, ‘I thank God, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’ ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he cried in an ecstasy of gladness, ‘and am persuaded that he is able.’ Paul was a salvationist, in the noblest sense.

But Paul was also a disciplinarian. ‘I beat my body to keep it in subjection.’ ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ ‘So fight I, not as one who beateth the air.’ ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth.’ ‘Laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily beset us.’ ‘No man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ These are not he words of a man who scorned discipline!

On might multiply such statements as these from Paul—all of them the almost spontaneous evidence of the disciplines which he, trusting in Christ, imposed upon himself in his eager effort to give Christ that co-operation without which not even Christ can save a soul and make a saint.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

Spiritual Freedom and Religious Captivity: thoughts from Galatians 5

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It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery….You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

Here we find a core lie the Galatians had bought into: that we can earn our way to God through religious activity or add something to God’s grace by doing the right actions.

Paul knows that this is a dead end. In fact, he dramatically says this in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ” (5:4). This has been a theme of the letter, and Paul is telling them that this lie will lead them off track. You cannot earn your way to God and you cannot add to the sufficiency of Christ. So, Paul writes at the beginning of this section of the letter: “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

On August 23, 1973, Jan Erik Olsson, attempted to hold up a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. When the police showed up, Olsson took four people as hostages and a stand-off with police followed, lasting six days. At one point during the standoff, Olsson called Sweden’s Prime Minister to say that he would kill the hostages. He put one of the hostages on the phone and she said to the prime minister, “I am very disappointed in you…I think you are sitting here playing with lives.” Despite Olsson’s threats, many of the hostages decided they felt safer with the bad guy than with the police. Some hostages actually resisted rescue attempts and later refused to testify against their captor. Now, whenever you hear news of a hostage who identifies more with their captors than their rescuers that condition is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. Many years afterwards, one of the hostages said, “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have, change in some way.”

Sometimes this happens to us as we consider life in Jesus Christ. We get so confused about what is freedom and what is captivity that we live in a lie. We begin to think, “It cannot be so simple that God takes upon Himself all the cost. I must do something to earn His grace. I must add something to the work of Christ.” But this is just a spiritual version of the Stockholm syndrome.

We have been set free at great cost, and we do not need to return to captivity to find life. Instead, we must face into this core lie if we are going to live the free life that God intends through Jesus Christ.

From Worry to Prayer: a reflection on Philippians 4

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In one of the most well-known passages from Paul on prayer, Philippians 4:6-7, we read these words:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Every time I read the first part of verse 6 – “Do not be anxious about anything” – I confess that I feel a tingle of guilt over my tendency to become anxious about things. However, if there’s one thing I have discovered, it’s that feeling unnecessarily guilty about the things of God often kills the growth that God wants to bring. I pointedly say “unnecessarily” there because there are certainly things we should feel guilty about, such as willful sin, disobedience to God’s express commands, or lack of love toward others. Guilt should lead us to repentance and the kindness of God’s grace.

However, when we start to feel false guilt over feeling anxious based on this verse, it doesn’t help us do what Paul is really after here in his words to the Philippians. He is most concerned with calling the believers to prayer. Perhaps the rendering of the old King James Version will help us here because it sounds so foreign:

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

The word (μεριμνᾶτε) literally means to be anxious or troubled by many cares. Paul is encouraging the believers not to be weighed down with their worries (or even guilt about having those worries), but to turn toward the presence of God in prayer to present to God those sources of care and worry, thankfully trusting that God will answer.

To put it in practical terms, when cares and worries are overtaking us we should immediately reach out to God in prayer. That is the sort of mental and spiritual activity that is most beneficial; much more than agonizing over the sources of worry, let alone being guilty about worrying. When the stresses of life – relationships, work, school, the future – reach out to grab us and hold us within their grubby hands, we should turn immediately and run into the arms of our good God. With Him we find open arms to receive us, hands capable of holding our troubles and worries, and divine peace that inexplicably enables us to find gratitude even in the midst of our stormy lives. The Apostle Peter echoes these words of Paul when he writes:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

What anxieties or worries do you need to release into the hands of God today?

What would it look like now to turn to God in prayer to experience His provision, peace, and care?

 

Power in Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul

This coming weekend at Eastbrook Church we begin a teaching series entitled “Power in  Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul.” This series is the first of a three-part series related to our 40th anniversary as a church. Since the earliest days of Eastbrook, prayer has been profoundly important and vital to our life as a church. It was often said that we wanted to be a church that could only be explained by the power of God.

As we move forward we want that to continue to be true. We believe that prayer is the heart of what it means to live with God, live as the church, and live on mission in the world. In this series, we will explore three basic aspects of the life of prayer so that we might be rooted in life with God and bearing fruit for His kingdom.

August 17/18 – “Prayer as Living within God’s Love” (Ephesians 3:14-21)

August 24/25 – “Prayer as Life-Shaping by God” (Colossians 1:9-17)

August 31/September 1 – “Prayer as Power for Mission with God” (Romans 15:23-33)