Three Ways God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

perseverance

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.

10 Reasons Holy Week Can Become More Powerful during the Time of the Virus

Rembrandt - The Three Crosses

Holy Week is the pinnacle of our Lenten journey, drawing us into the Passion of Jesus. This year, our Holy Week journey finds us simultaneously facing into one of the worst crises of our lives with the COVID-19 pandemic. This past weekend I reflected on the significance of this intersection of Holy Week and COVID-19, leading me to write these ten reasons our Holy Week journey can become more powerful during the time of the virus.

  1. Stripped – In this time, our activities and lives feel stripped of so much that seems normal. We can fight against this, or we can enter into it with an openness to what God may want to do with us during this time. I think of the physical reality that Jesus was stripped of His garments (Matthew 27:28) speaking to His complete yielding to the Father’s will. May we, too, enter into this Holy Week with humble openness to God. This is no passivity nor resignation, but the living trust in God as our Good Shepherd these days.
  2. Helplessness – During this time, we encounter our helplessness more clearly than ever before. We are put in touch with one of the central realities of the Lenten journey, which is that we are helpless in life apart from God.  We can more deeply cry out to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
  3. We all will face death – Lent teaches us about the fragility of life, and the truth that we will all face death. Death is unavoidable for all human beings, even if we do believe that there is hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ journey to the Cross brings into sharp focus this great reality, while also reminding us that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  4. Consolation removed – Because of public health considerations, we face the removal of many of our normal consolations in life, such as friendships, meals with others, and many of the normal pleasures of life. In Holy Week, we see Jesus stepping beyond the consolations of human experience into the place of desolation. He loses His dignity, His clothing, His friendships, and eventually His life. As we let go of many of our own consolations, it reminds us of everything that Jesus lost during His Passion.
  5. Forsakenness – The ultimate desolation is Jesus’ forsakenness from the Father, and the isolation that results. Some of us  may feel abandoned in this time, even forsaken by God. Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the Cross shows us how great the sense of abandonment was between Jesus and the Father as He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In our own forsakenness and isolation we experience some measure of the weight of Jesus’ forsakenness for us.
  6. Suffering surrounds – In the news and in our lives, we are suddenly surrounded by human suffering. We cannot shelter ourselves from it, as some of us have had the luxury of doing in times past. When insulated from the suffering, we often wonder why Jesus’ suffering should be necessary. However, when we face suffering so clearly, we are put in touch with the reality of Jesus’ suffering on the way to the Cross. This makes us more aware of the cost of Jesus’ Passion in Holy Week.
  7. Mental anguish – When praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Luke tells us that Jesus experienced such anguish that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). As we wrestle with mental pressure and struggles with anxiety because of COVID-19, we are able to have some sense of the weight of the world pressing in upon Jesus during Holy Week.
  8. Tears for those in need – Because of the pandemic, we now see the suffering of others so clearly that it becomes heartbreaking to us. Often times our hearts are hardened to others, but this is softening us to the reality of human need. As Jesus looked at Jerusalem after the triumphal entry, He “saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Our tears meet with Jesus’ tears over those in need for humanity as we journey through this week.
  9. Hungry to belong – Our hunger for belonging is high in this time of physical distancing. We miss shaking hands or giving hugs. We miss having grandchildren sit on our laps to read a story or passing dishes around the table with friends. We want to experience relationship, and we can do that thanks to technology, but the barriers are high. This leads us into an encounter with our own needs and loneliness that we often try to avoid. We realize that underneath this is not just our longing for God, but also the God who longs for relationship with us. His longing is so high that He will suffer anything to bring reconciled relationship and belonging.
  10. Longing for hope – Our longing for hope – for life after this death – pulses like the beating of our hearts. We cannot wait for this to “be over,” so that we can return to “life as normal.” We all know that life will not be the same normal that we experienced before, but we still hope for it. How much more meaningful is the resurrection of Jesus Christ than in these days where the longing for hope rises up more sharply than ever before?

The Weekend Wanderer: 28 March 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

116238“To Cancel or Not to Cancel: That Is the Question” – Like so many other church leaders, I have wrestled with adjusting to the new challenges of this time of COVID-19. We quickly cancelled public gatherings, including weekend services, due to state and local governmental orders services, but also out of the desire to love our neighbor by not spreading the virus. I do know that many churches continue to struggle with these decisions and what it means to “not forsake meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25) while also “being subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Here is a joint statement on that topic issued by The National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today.


Tom Wright Coronavirus“Ask NT Wright Anything #33 – Tom on Coronavirus, self-isolating and praying through crisis” – If you’re not acquainted with the podcast, “Ask NT Wright Anything,” this is a perfect opportunity to do so. Hosted by Justin Brierley, this episode finds Tom Wright self-isolating in his home in Oxford, covering topics related to the Coronavirus pandemic. “They cover: How Christians can maintain spiritual health during isolation, the pastoral implications for churches now and in the future, and why God created a world where disease and sickness exist.”


_111407082_priest_976“Coronavirus: At least 50 priests killed by coronavirus” –  What does selfless love look like? Maybe like this. “The deadly coronavirus sweeping across the world has killed at least 50 priests, officials say. They include Father Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, who died early this month in Lovere, Bergamo – one of the worst-hit cities in Italy. Reports on Tuesday that he had chosen to give his respirator to a younger coronavirus patient he did not know have been denied by close friends. Italy is the world’s worst affected country with 6,820 deaths so far.”


Oberammergau

“Pandemic postpones Oberammergau ‘Passion Play,’ itself a response to a plague”  – In neighboring Germany, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a different sort of change. “In 1632, when the bubonic plague was spreading death across Europe and killed at least one member of every family in a small Bavarian Alpine town, distraught villagers in Oberammergau made a vow to God to perform a Passion play depicting the death and resurrection of Christ if their lives could be spared. As the legend goes, no further deaths were recorded and the Passionspiele — reenacting the end of the life of Jesus — has been staged every decade, or 41 times, since 1634. The coronavirus pandemic has now forced the cancellation of the 2020 edition — a total of 109 five-hour-long performances scheduled to run from May 16 to October 4. Officials announced Thursday that the world-famous open-air production, which features 2,500 residents from the town of 5,400, would be postponed two years, to May 2022.”


When a third of the world died“When a Third of the World Died” – History is important in the present moment to help us gain perspective on our own time, but also to learn from the past. Here is Mark Galli’s 1996 article from Christian History about the black plague in 14th century Europe, and its impact on the world and the church. “From 1347 to about 1350, medieval Europe experienced perhaps the greatest calamity in human history. It shouldn’t surprise us that this plague, or the Black Death as it is often called, left its mark on medieval Christianity. But in many cases, the mark it left looked as hideous as the symptoms of the Black Death itself.”


Chung Sye-kyun“S.Korea to act against churches for defying COVID-19 guidelines” – “South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said on Monday that his government is planning legal action against some Protestant churches for going ahead with their services, defying the ban on social gatherings. The move comes after the government claim that social distancing measures have shown positive results. South Korea on Monday said that it has reported the lowest daily figure of new COVID-19 or novel coronavirus infection since its outbreak….Chung said stern measures would be taken against churches, who have defined guidelines, meant to stem the spread of the virus. ‘The act of churches has seriously hurt not only the safety of individuals attending the service but also communities,’ Chung said while heading a meeting of various government agencies.”


116306“Pastors from Europe Tell North America: Get Ready Now” – A pastor friend shared this article by Ed Stetzer with me and I found it incredibly helpful and challenging. “This week, the Send Institute hosted a Zoom call with pastors, church planters, and missionaries in Italy and Spain to show solidarity and to glean from them how to prepare North American churches for the next few weeks. The resounding theme from the call was: Get ready.


Communion“Worship and Sacrament When the Church Is Scattered” – Every once in awhile you experience something fun when you discover two people you know separately actually know each other. That happened to me this past week when The Pastor Theologians Podcast featured Chris Ganski of City Reformed Church here in Milwaukee with Benj Petroelje, who I know from a previous ministry setting, of 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI. In this conversation, the two pastors explores what it means to worship and celebrate the sacraments in the time of COVID-19.


 

Music: Kirk Franklin and the Family, “Now Behold the Lamb,” from Christmas

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Fatherly Discipline of God: a reflection on Hebrews 12

Tree in mist

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children….God disciplines us for our good in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it….without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:7, 10, 11, 16)

While the writer of Hebrews does not ascribe all hardship to the Lord, he does encourage believers to receive it—to endure it—as God’s discipline upon us. Such discipline, he suggests, is a sign of God’s fatherly care for us meant to shape us for our own good, which, in this context, means that we share in God’s holiness.

Those who have had good parental figures, know what this looks like. A good parent disciplines us so that we might stop doing things that are either not good for us or for others. Such discipline aims to direct our efforts and goals away from that which is not helpful and toward that which is helpful. In the ideal situation, such discipline makes us into the sort of people we need and want to be.

So, too, God seeks to shape us for our own good. His discipline steers us away from sin, whether against ourselves or others, and toward holiness that is truly good. If we receive God’s discipline as the grace that it is, then over the course of our lives we will become the sort of people God most wants us to be and that we were truly made to be. It is striking that elsewhere in Hebrews, the writer says that even Jesus was made “perfect through what he suffered” (Hebrews 2:10). If Jesus needed that here on earth, how much more do we?

We endure the unpleasantness of the discipline in the present so that “a harvest of righteousness and peace” might arise from our lives. Like a farmer who prepares the land through the harsh action of plowing—land broken up and turned over—so God must at times plow up our lives through the discomfort of discipline. We, like the land before the farmer, must yield to God’s cultivation in our life, letting Him plow, plant, nurture, and bring forth the harvest He desires. This discipline is intended to “train” us and, ultimately, open up God’s best reality within our lives.

Lord, the hardships I face are sometimes difficult to endure. Sometimes my heart is weighed down by it, but I yearn to submit to You within it.  I admit I do not know exactly how You are training me, but I choose to submit to Your fatherly care and discipline in my life.

 

The Weekend Wanderer: 8 February 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

The Course - Jessica Bruah“The Cancer Chair: Is suffering meaningless?” – Christian Wiman, American poet and Professor of the Practice of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School, writes about his journey with cancer and questions about the meaning of suffering. Always an astute craftsman of words (if you haven’t read My Bright Abyss, do yourself a favor and read it sometime soon!), Wiman brings together reflections on his own cancer, the book of Job, Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, and the Cross of Christ.

 

0_DydTubCNbDSFL-mb“From the Abundance of the Heart” – Alan Jacobs shares an essay on a topic that more of us should think about, particularly in the social media era: the power of our words. Relating an experience of giving a lecture based on an essay he had written but not yet published, Jacobs encountered the sourness of his words as they came out of his mouth, bringing a sense of conviction about the fact that these were both his words and words of which he did not approve at the same. There are some interesting insights here about the words of Jesus: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

 

Vector picture of Human Evolution“What If We Don’t Have to Choose Between Evolution and Adam and Eve?” – When I was working as a college pastor in the early 2000s, we conducted a teaching series called “Hot Topics,” where we engaged with controversial issues facing students in relation to faith. One of those topics that continues to be hotly debated in certain circles is the relationship between creation and evolution. Just this past year, S. Joshua Swamidass, a computational biologist at Washington University in St. Louis, published The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry in an attempt to change the terms of the debate. His book is up for a Reader’s Choice Award at InterVarsity Press. Here’s an interview with Swamidass about his book and his thought-provoking claims.

 

Dorothy Sayer mystery“‘No Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition or Mumbo Jumbo’: Dorothy L Sayers and the Detection Club” – Dorothy Sayers, one of the most incisive writers and thinkers of her era, is perhaps known best today for her connection to the Inklings, a group of writer including J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Christians may know her for her radio play, The Man Born to Be King, or The Mind of the Maker, but Sayers was well-known for her mystery-writing with the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Sayers founded the Detection Club to support mystery writing, and it apparently still exists today. Who knew?

 

rohr_edit“Richard Rohr Reorders the Universe” – These days I cannot seem to take more than a few steps within Christian circles without someone mentioning Richard Rohr. He is one of those authors whose influence looms large for those who are seeking to reengage with faith and spirituality in an ecclesially disillusioned age. There are certain impulses about Rohr that I appreciate, some theological moves that deeply concern me, and a few other things about him that just drive me nuts. Love him or hate him, you have to reckon with Richard Rohr in discussions of faith today. Back in July, I shared Matthew Milliner’s helpful “field guide” to Rohr, and just this week Eliza Griswold offered a more personal look Rohr and his influence in North America today.

 

Steve Gillen“Willow Creek’s interim pastor to step down as church drops top candidates to fill Hybels’ shoes” – Speaking of ecclesial disillusionment, Willow Creek continues to reel after the leadership crisis surrounding misconduct accusations against former Senior Pastor Bill Hybels. After the top two candidates for filling the Senior Pastor role were released by Willow Creek, Steve Gillen, Willow’s acting senior pastor, tendered his resignation effective March 17 because of the protracted nature of the search. Looming in the background are recent accusations that Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, an influential founder of Willow Creek and mentor to Bill Hybels, has also been accused of sexual harassment and misconduct both at Willow Creek and during his time at Wheaton College. May God purify His church and have mercy upon His people.

 

Music: Asgeir, “Until Daybreak,” from Bury the Moon

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]