Finding Encouragement within Suffering: a reflection on Hebrews 12

drought

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? (Hebrews 12:7)

Be encouraged: God disciplines His children because He loves them. Do not lose heart amidst your suffering. Instead, endure it sustained by the truth that God is lovingly at work even here.

We can fight against our suffering, and it may have some good effect, particularly if we face unjust suffering from external forces. However, fighting against our circumstances is different than fighting against God. We must internally and spiritually submit ourselves to God for training in righteousness, even if we legitimately wrestle with our circumstances.

We could give up in the face of our suffering, simply throwing in the towel by passively surrendering to what is happening. This most often happens when we feel we are powerless to change our circumstances. Still, this powerlessness to outside circumstances is different than our inner spiritual submission to God amidst our circumstances. Even if apparently powerless, we still have power to yield our lives to God so that He might grow us amidst our suffering. Although sometimes powerless to change our situation, God still releases His power in us as we surrender to Him, changing us to become more like Christ.

At other times, we are powerless to change our circumstances but do have power to remove ourselves from those circumstances. This takes great discernment because we must constantly yield to God so that He might have His way in us. Sometimes choosing to change our circumstances is best for our safety or our growth. At other times leaving our circumstances may actually circumvent what God wants to develop in our lives through challenging circumstances or suffering.

In our suffering-averse culture we do well to thoroughly consider whether we are listening more to God than we are listening to ourselves when considering leaving tough circumstances. We do not want to miss out on His best work in our lives. As James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).

It isn’t easy to discern when we should choose fight or flight. However, amidst it all we should always choose spiritually to yield to God so that He might have His way in growing us to full maturity in Christ, even through suffering and trials. We will not grow in Christ without facing hardships and challenges. We will not gain wisdom apart from navigating tough and trying experiences which take us beyond what we already know and understand. Still, w will not make our way through these challenges well with Christ if we do not daily remember God’s love for us as a good father even in the midst of suffering.

3 Simple Practices to Help us Grow to Look Like Jesus

hands folded

This past Sunday at Eastbrook I preached on the sufficiency of Christ from Hebrews 10:1-18 in a message entitled “Sufficient.” You can view that message below or here. Near the end of the message, I reflected on what the sufficiency of Christ means for us.

One of the most important aspects of Christ’s sufficient work is described in Hebrews 10:14:

For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

We are being made holy, or divinely cleansed from top to bottom through the sufficient work of Christ. We cannot do this ourselves, but Jesus does it. He takes our lives in His hands and transforms us to become more like Him, which is essentially what it means to be made holy.

Now, this requires us to yield our lives to Him. We do this once to begin the journey, something some of us may describe as “giving our life to Christ” or “being born again” or such things. That is so important, but it is also merely the beginning of the journey with Christ. To use Paul’s language, we are justified by faith in Christ, but we most also be sanctified in Christ. We are sanctified or made holy in an ongoing way.

Let me share three simple practices I have found helpful for this in my own life. The first is to take some time every year to dedicate our lives and our calendar to God. Since I have been in college it has been my practice to take some time around the new year—an hour, a day, or more—to annually consecrate my life to God. Consecration simply means that we are setting our lives apart for God’s use. So, I will lay out before God my calendar, my goals, my relationships, and every area of my life so that He can have His way in me. I am basically saying, “Lord, I want to become more like Jesus—more holy—through you this year.”

Along with this is the second practice of daily consecration to the Lord. Many people talk about having a “quiet time” with God each day. This is basically our time of being still and in solitude with God, as Jesus did in the Gospels. What I will do is spend time reading Scripture, praying, and journaling before then opening my calendar for the day and dedication my day to God. I will say something like this, “Lord, I give you each of these appointments and ask that You would have Your way in them. I know that you may want to interrupt my day, and I yield to You for that. Help me to pay attention to Your interruptions. Use me for Your glory and shape me to be more like Jesus through this day.”

A third practice is moment by moment consecration. We are not just meant to dedicate our lives to God once in a lifetime or once a year or once per day. Instead, we are invited to walk with God through our days. In this practice, we return in our thoughts regularly to God, letting Him know that we are His and He can have His way in us. I often do this by praying the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “let Your kingdom come and let Your will be done” in me. When I experience joy in my day, I will return in my inner life to God and express gratitude to God for His good gifts. When I experience trouble or tension in my day, I return in my thoughts to God, asking Him to make me more holy through this experience or to use me to bring His goodness, grace, and truth into the circumstances.

Annually, daily, and moment-by-moment consecration to God is an important overflow of God’s grace in our lives. Obviously, this is not something that we do to win God’s favor or to make ourselves right with God. Only Jesus does that through His once-for-all sufficient sacrifice. However, in response to the costly gift of grace in Christ, we yield our lives to God so that Christ’s work might have its way in us “who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

Recovering Holiness

HolinessAs I continue to reflect on the nature of pastoral ministry, ministry in the North American evangelical church, and questions of ministry integrity, I find myself returning often to the topic of holiness. Even writing the word holiness makes me feel a little bit “old school.” However, if I hold the tension of that uncomfortable feeling for a bit, I cannot help but think we may need to be a little “old school” right now on this issue.

So, I turned to a voice from an earlier time, J. C. Ryle, whose classic book Holiness has been highly regarded for years, with pastors like J. I. Packer and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones urging Christians to read it. Let me share a brief excerpt from his introduction to this book, which, I believe, puts some perspective on where we stand today in North American Christianity.

I’ve had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consciousness to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background. The standard of living has become painfully low in many quarters. Immense importance of “adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2:10), and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked. Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable, and unselfish, and good-natured, as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place in proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt. It is my firm impression that we want a thorough revival about scriptural holiness, and I am deeply thankful that attention is being directed to the point.

As Ryle continues his introduction, he outlines a series of issues related to holiness, some of which apply to our own day and some of which seem more bound to his own time. It is, however, his first point that I find particularly relevant to our own context. In the midst of our heavy emphasis on grace in North American Christianity, we have at times veered off into various versions of antinomianism, where there is no place – or at least disregard – for God’s law and obedience. As with the work of Dallas Willard, sometimes simplified in the writings of John Ortberg, we find Ryle grappling with the tension between faith and work, between earning God’s favor and application of effort to honor God. On the subject of holiness, he writes:

That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step towards a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a jot of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcomes the world; that by faith the elders obtain a good report – all these are truths which no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith….Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Rom. 4:5). Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it “worketh by love,” and, like a mainspring, moves the whole inward man (Gal. 5:6).

What Ryle emphasizes, and we rightly need to recover, is the emphatic coupling of justifying grace with sanctifying grace. We need to recover the truth that our unearned salvation by grace through faith in Christ overflows into a holy life strenuously lived as worship unto the Lord through obedience. I cannot help but think that one of the things we most need to recover today in North American Christianity is holiness.