We’ve all sat listening to a friend or loved one detail a story of a tragic circumstance from their life. Possibly the loss of a child. Or the fracturing of a cherished relationship. Maybe the struggle of being jobless for weeks or months. Or the pain experienced over the course of a long battle with cancer.
These stories are hard to digest. Hard to hear. And yet people—those we love—go through things like this every day. Truthfully, each of us has a story to tell of something heartbreaking we’ve walked through.
Even so, it struck me one day. I’ve heard stories like these from friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors, and many times—not always—but many times, near the end of their story, they utter these remarkable words; “Yeah, but, you know… it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Your friend goes through the gory details of how he discovered his best friend and long time business partner stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company they started together, right under his nose, and he has the gall to say it was the best thing that ever happened to him? Go again?
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C.S. Lewis
That is a curious quote. God shouts to us in our pains? What does that mean?
After enduring some extremely difficult times of my own back in 2009, I began to take a closer look at pain. Its reality. Its devastating blow. And its potentially transformational power.
Acts 13 and 14 recount Paul’s first missionary journey, telling of the many places he and his companions went to encourage believers and preach the Gospel. In city after city, they met trouble—serious trouble—over and over again. In Acts 14, we are told that Paul and Barnabas returned again to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, where they strengthened the believers. Verse 22 lays out their challenging words. “They encouraged [the believers] to continue in the faith, reminding them that they must enter into the Kingdom of God through many tribulations.”
These words echo into eternity and are certainly for us today.
Unfortunately, many are taught that Christianity simply exists to make our lives easier—and in one sense, this is true. Yet, as we might expect, we tend to shy away from other passages like the one above—where it seems that believers could even see a significant uptick in suffering and persecution.
We, of course, are familiar with John 16:33; “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” I imagine we are just as sobered by the middle line of this passage as we are empowered by the last.
I wrestle with what 1 Peter 4:12 throws at us; “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.”
Don’t be surprised? Ha! Seriously? I’m not only surprised by my trials; I’m typically shocked and often bewildered by them. Yet Peter attempts to provide perspective. He says, in essence, “Hey guys, I know you think it’s odd when bad things happen to you—especially after you made that really spiritual decision to follow Jesus—but the truth is, it’s not strange at all. It’s normal. In the Kingdom, you must grow to expect these types of things, and even embrace them.”
I remember in college when this type of thinking first started to take root in my heart. As can be expected, I almost went too far, thinking, “Ok devil, bring it on! If trials are a part of God’s plan for me, give me your best shot!”
Look, we don’t need to go out looking for trouble. And we definitely aren’t being encouraged to stop praying against evil or sickness or tragedy. Yet God does empower us to change our attitude in the midst of suffering.
My pastor used to say, “Look, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 doesn’t say we’re supposed to give thanks FOR everything, but IN everything.” Subtle, but important perspective shift. And of course, James 1:1 is a classic that can seem a little twisted; “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.”
Yea! My car broke down. Just what I was hoping for. Score!
Acts 5:40-42 takes things a notch higher as it details the apostles near celebration after being severely beaten by the religious high council for preaching the Gospel. They were clearly commanded to never preach in Jesus’ name again. But check this out! “The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, in the Temple and from house to house, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.”
God is certainly not urging us toward masochism, where we seek out or even thrive on pain and suffering. No, he is simply directing us to shift our perspective so we can understand the beauty of difficulties—that they are a grand part of his strategy to strengthen us and to help us recognize our true supernatural, God-given power to overcome—a power we possess only because of his Spirit in us.
How will you know you have faith if your faith is never tested? How will we understand our power to overcome if we never have anything to overcome? God certainly taught Abraham something amazing about himself when he tested him by asking him to sacrifice his only son. He proved to Abraham and everyone else that Abraham could and would remain faithful to God even in the face of the most difficult request. This must have been very encouraging to Abraham—very empowering—and certainly something he couldn’t have known with absolute certainty had he not been faced with this intense spiritual exam.
I don’t know about you, but I see the apostles and leaders like Abraham as a very different breed of leader from many of today’s leaders. Think about it. Most of what we here about is wealth, success, prosperity, large churches, best selling books, #1 albums, grandiose dreams, and moving from glory to glory. But how does that bode with the teaching the Bible offers concerning suffering?
It’s so easy to separate what happens in the Bible from today’s everyday world. Honestly, if we heard about a pastor in 2017 with Paul’s record for trials and hardship, many of us would start using the “F” word. No, not that “F” word. The word favor. We’d be saying stuff like, “Can you believe this guy. I mean, if he really had the favor of God on his life, all these things wouldn’t be happening to him.” Or, “If he had the favor of God on his ministry, he wouldn’t be having so many problems. Something’s not right. I can just feel it.” As if the “good life” is synonymous with God’s approval and a life full of difficulty is tantamount to God’s disapproval.
Clearly the apostles had a different view. They seemed to expect these things to happen to them, like it was a natural part of being a supernatural follower of Christ. Almost as if God plans suffering for us and even uses it to make us worthy.
“We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. And God will use this persecution to show his justice and to make you worthy of his Kingdom, for which you are suffering. In his justice he will pay back those who persecute you.” 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6
Granted, we are talking more about religious persecution in these verses than daily life struggles. Yet we absolutely face some of these things indirectly today; businesses being forced to provide services for those engaging in sinful behavior, taxpayers being required to pay tax dollars that go toward the murder of unborn babies, and people of all faiths being kept from sharing their faith in the workplace by HR. There is no real difference in these modern mandates from those the apostles faced (or others like Daniel or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), and yet today we are encouraged to “bow” to them to save face or to avoid stirring up trouble.
Question. If we knew of a guy in your church who got fired for sharing the Gospel with a coworker when he knew there was a clear mandate restraining coworkers from proselytization, might our first reaction be, “Well, he knew better!”
But is he any different than the apostles? See how we separate the Bible stories from the real life stories of every day believers? Is this different because it is in the work place instead of out in the street? Have we bought into the humanistic ideology of those who want to silence believers? Have we bought into the notion that people have the right not to be “bothered” with the Gospel?
WOW. Seems we are more concerned about rights, personal safety, and political correctness than we are about the souls of people.
And why not? It’s when we move away from political correctness and toward a scriptural worldview that we open the door for more trials. More persecution. More opposition. From the government. And from friends, family, and neighbors who would politely ask us to keep our archaic religious views to ourselves.
All the while, people die and are eternally separated from their Creator.
But shouldn’t we try to avoid the negative publicity from the world around us? Shouldn’t we do our best to simply follow Christ without drawing so much attention to ourselves? Here’s what Paul said:
“Instead, I sometimes think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor’s parade, condemned to die. We have become a spectacle to the entire world—to people and angels alike. Our dedication to Christ makes us look like fools, but you claim to be so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are so powerful! You are honored, but we are ridiculed. Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment.” 1 Corinthians 4:9-13
These are difficult issues. They are real challenges. Suffering and persecution are everywhere—as a result of challenging circumstances, attacks of the devil, and sin in the world. But it is all part of what we are called to.
Peter says this; “For God is pleased with you when for the sake of your conscience, you patiently endure unfair treatment. …This suffering is all part of what God has called you to. Christ, who suffered for you, is your example, Follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:19, 21
John says this; “I am John, your brother. In Jesus we are partners in suffering and in the Kingdom in patient endurance.” Revelation 1:9
Paul says this; “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. 2 Corinthians 4:8-10
It perplexes, and even angers, some Christians, to hear talk about “learning and growing through suffering and trials.” I’ve heard many a pastor declare from the pulpit that God is never responsible, nor did he ever cause any bad thing to happen in our lives. Yet, as good as this sounds, it’s just not what scripture teaches. Yes, we can go round and round about whether God causes bad things in our lives or simply uses them, but all we really have to do is look at our own parenting.
Have you ever caused your child “harm” or “discomfort” by disciplining them either physically or by taking away a privilege? God does the same. “Yes,” you say, “that is punishment.” OK, but have you ever giving your kid a difficult task to accomplish? Something they had to struggle at or fret over. Certainly not! Why would you such a thing? You could damage their self-esteem. But wait, maybe people need to be pushed in order to learn—to learn that they can accomplish more than they ever thought they could accomplish in God’s help. Just like Abraham.
How would we really learn that we don’t need to fear death unless we came face to face with it and then overcame it?
A few weeks ago I was in an accident where a driver pulled out in front me across 2 lanes of traffic just as I was approaching a signal free intersection going 45 mph. I only had time to touch my brakes before t-boning him. Yet, as I shared with my nephew last night, I learned something about myself through this. Ten years ago, I would have jumped out of my car to berate the other driver—something some would argue was fully within my rights. But guess what, I didn’t! In fact, my first thought, after realizing I was still alive, was concern for the other driver. And I didn’t realize it until yesterday. Now before you roll your eyes, I’m not saying God caused this accident so I could learn that I was becoming more spiritual. But we always say you find out who you really are when crisis hits. And to my great joy, through this terrible situation, I found out I am becoming more like Jesus! To God be the glory!
God is fully, 100% good, and the fact that he sends bad as well as good times into our lives (see Isaiah 45:7 and many other passages), does not erode this truth. If God sent or allowed Paul to have the thorn in the flesh in order to keep Paul from becoming prideful. Is the thorn a good or bad thing? It feels bad, but in the end it produced immeasurable good in Paul—keeping him from going down the path of personal destruction.
We must begin to widen our gaze in order to see the bigger picture. The picture where pain and suffering are extremely helpful in our lives. The one where God can actually use the devil as a pawn by allowing him to send bad things into our lives, all the while knowing those “bad” things are going to produce wonderful results in our lives. The one where God is actually Lord over the good and the bad, just as the scriptures proclaim. The one where we could find ourselves uttering those same poignant words, “That was the best thing that ever happened to me!”
“These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.” 1 Peter 1:7
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