SUFFERING

Last week in talking about our responsibilities as a Child of God, I quoted from the Apostle Peter who raised the matter of suffering and trials.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith–being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

I Peter 1: 3-7 NRSV

Peter, in the scripture above, felt assured of God’s protection, perhaps even miraculously as he had experienced in jail (see Acts 5:17-32 and 12:1-17). He does not assume, however, that God will prevent all kinds of suffering. In fact, he refers to the “various trials” they have suffered at the hands of others in the society. He believed that the quality and endurance of their faith was tested by these events, and refined as gold is in the fire. He believed that their faith would result in praise, glory, and honor when their salvation was completed and Jesus revealed. For almost 300 years, the followers of Jesus were tested greatly and many died for their faith in massive persecutions by the Roman government.

As we read further in his letter we see a phrase that is very disturbing when considered by itself in isolation from the rest of the letter.

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering is God’s will, than for doing evil.

I Peter 3:17 NRSV

Some translators of the original text do not include the phrase “if suffering is God’s will,” because it is missing in some of the early manuscripts, but most translators do include it. Peter has been encouraging the people to do good, and not to do things that would bring punishment from the local authorities, not even if they themselves have been mistreated first. Rather, he says, repay evil with good, and if your must suffer, let it be for doing good.

After all, Christ the just, suffered for the unjust. And we are no greater than the Master. God is not pleased with our wrongdoing, but if we do good and still suffer for it, enduring patiently, God is pleased with us.

Many theologians would say God does not “will” or “order” that you suffer. Some would say that God allows suffering in order to cleanse and strengthen his people (Psalms 7:9). In fact, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews expounds on this idea.

Consider him (Jesus) who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

And, have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons?–”My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him, for the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:3-11 RSV

I think the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) illustrates how God disciplines…by allowing the natural consequences to take place, as a learning process, and then when we “have come to ourselves” welcomes us back into a close relationship.

We should not seek suffering. But if you are suffering and bear it well, God is well pleased with your service, your faithfulness, and your perseverance under difficulty. God takes no pleasure in the pain that is in this world (Psalms 5:4).

In the “natural order” of things, certain consequences are likely to follow certain choices. For example, cancer of the mouth, lips, tongue, and lungs are likely to follow prolonged use of tobacco products. Likewise, particular illnesses tend to follow particular sets of risk factors. With knowledge and appropriate changes in behavior, the probability of these consequences and illnesses can be reduced.

The opportunity and freedom to learn and to choose is very valuable. God can use any happenings for good, whether or not we consider them good or bad. Sometimes we suffer for standing by our convictions and principles of good living in loyalty to God. Sometimes we suffer as a result of someone else’s negligence or maliciousness.

We have a choice in how to respond to all these happenings. We need not be utterly despondent. We can work together with God to create something good—-sometimes for someone else’s benefit..

If you find yourself walking in the valley of the shadow of death, I want you to resist the temptation to harm yourself and reject those thoughts just as Jesus resisted when he was tempted to hurl himself from the heights. Be aware that you are walking through the same “valley of the shadow of death” that Jesus walked. Jesus called on all his knowledge and God’s guiding word to challenge and refute the ideas that were contrary to God’s will for him. He was tempted to do miracles for personal convenience, to have personal power and possessions, even to possess all the kingdoms on earth, and to make dramatic, death-defying gestures. Jesus refused. He did not give in to “delusions of grandeur.” He lived within the limitations given him while bending his own will to God’s will.

New Testament writers refer to “completing the sufferings of Jesus” and the “privilege of suffering.” Paul the Apostle believed, and I know from my own experience and others’ examples, that when you have come through this suffering, you will be able to help and comfort others with the same help and comfort you found. This is one of the responsible ways we can use our own suffering for good.

Amid the troubles we have, the comfort we receive is given us so that we may comfort others…and if we suffer we shall also be comforted.

II Corinthians 1:2-7 New English Bible paraphrased

As for the “privilege” of suffering, you may look at Job in the Old Testament, whom God trusted to withstand the testing, and to whom God revealed himself in a new, personal manner as a result.

In Romans 5:3-5, Paul says that standing the test of suffering leads to hope and God’s love flooding our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit. In Hebrews 2:9-18, we read that Jesus was made perfect (brought to complete maturity)through suffering. He passed the test of suffering successfully in order to bring many to his glory, and because he himself was tempted and suffered, he can help others.

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 8, verses 14-17, tells about healing Peter’s mother in law of a fever and of others who were brought to Jesus for healing of illnesses and of demon possession. So, as the old hymns say, “Take it to the Lord in Prayer” and “Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me on!”!

It may not be easy for you or me as we wrestle with our own anger, self-pity, self-indulgence, defeat, depression, bitterness and vengefulness. (You may want to review the article on Stepping Out of Vicous Circles.)

I find great comfort and encouragement in the promise in First Corinthians 10:13. The promise is that we will not be tested above our strength, that God will provide us with strength to endure and will provide a way out.

In Colossians 1:24-28, in spite of their suffering for others’ sakes, Paul and his friends are able to “make known how great…are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory, warn and teach everyone, with all possible wisdom, in order to bring each one into God’s presence as a mature individual in union with Christ.”

Now read First Peter 5:10 regarding the promise that our God of all grace will personally equip, stabilize, strengthen and firmly establish you after you have suffered a while.

These men of faith expected suffering as a natural part of life and good things to come from it. On the other hand, to suffer as the world knows suffering brings death (II Corinthians 7:10). Let us not succumb to a negative view of our personal suffering, with bitterness and anger. Rather let us learn and grow strong. As John Maxwell said in today’s Minute with Maxwell, we need to be comfortable enough with discomfort to be able to grow from it.

The stigma of any illness adds to the suffering. We as family, ministers, counselors, and therapists also add to the suffering when our respect for the afflicted one is less than it is for ourselves, our colleagues, and our acquaintances. We need to humbly bend our knees and lend our shoulders to help bear their load of suffering while walking beside them.

At the same time we can be grateful for all that the afflicted one does for us who are helping and for all that the suffering one is able to teach us. Nevertheless, each helper is human with all the frailties of irritability, impatience, and thoughtlessness. And sometimes, the helper is lacking in sufficient knowledge.

Someone has said that the one seeking help need not judge the helpers by their mannerisms and attitudes, but by the effectiveness of the advice that they give. So I ask that when you seek counseling and care that you realize the helper is not perfect and use what you can of what is offered.

There are four traps in the therapeutic relationship between helpers or care givers and care receivers, perhaps more. First, a mistake is made when psychological signs that result from physiological problems are interpreted as primarily signs of psychological problems, and therefore, the possibility of a physical problem is not recognized or investigated. To help prevent this mistake, choose a care giver who evaluates your whole health. This includes daily food intake, nutritional status, exercise patterns, personal health history, current stressors, current signs and symptoms, family health history (particularly in reference to risk factors), and especially in women, all aspects of the hormone systems.

Second, a mistake is made when the problems and opportunities of the present time are considered less important than those of the past. To help prevent this problem, choose a care giver who 1) will work with you on “now” problems and deal with the past as it interjects itself into the present and 2) who recognizes with you the freeing power, the transforming power of the Spirit of God as each of us confesses, is forgiven, and grows in knowledge and love.

Thirdly, a mistake is made when we believe that “what we are” or “what we think we are” is more important than what we are becoming and have the potential to become. To help prevent this problem, choose a care giver who is realistic and honest in the initial assessment and continuing relationship with you, using the wisdom that comes through psychological and physical training and the knowledge and wisdom that comes from a relationship with God as a power in their own lives. There are many fine care givers who are able to be helpful, yet cannot relate to you on a spiritual level with a whole person perspective. And never waste your time with someone who really has no hope for you in your situation. Even when physical death is inevitable, relief of physical pain and spiritual healing and comfort can be offered.

Fourth, a mistake is made when either you or the care-giver believes that the knowledge and power of the therapist to help you is more important and more powerful than the power of God who wants to work with and in you all. You may test the suggestions of the care provider to see if they are indeed true in your own case, and by continuing to talk to God, your family and believing friends about your situation and what you should do. Family and friends often can see changes in you before you can see them yourself and help you in your decision making.

If family and friends confuse you and the situation more, you may have to be very selective in talking with them, or, invite them to work with you and your care providers.

Regardless of how deep and dark the valleys have been, God’s purpose for you is that you come to your full glory, to your full beauty, to completeness of your personality, and that you live in the light and love of God from whom nothing can separate us.

Suffering can be a significant stepping stone in Eden’s pathway. You have a responsibility to yourself and those around you. Please don’t stumble here. But if you have fallen, reach out again in faith to God.

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