The Joy of Suffering

suffering

Have you ever considered the joy of suffering?  Can there be such a thing?  Is it possible for Christians to view suffering in such a light that suffering is in fact seen as a good thing?  I would like to say an emphatic yes to all of these things.  Let me share why.

Recently I have had an intense period of trial and suffering; this period of suffering has been going on for five weeks now and I am not sure how much longer it will go on for.  When I was first faced with the suffering forced upon me I reacted poorly.  I jumped quickly to the conclusion that this suffering was unjustified and unfair.  Why should I have to go through this?  The more and more I thought about it the more I attempted to rationalise the fact that I should not be suffering and it just is not fair.

So what changed?  Well, I happened to be (thanks to the providence of God) reading through Thomas A Kempis’ book ‘The Imitation of Christ‘,

IT IS good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing. It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well. These things help us to be humble and shield us from vainglory. When to all outward appearances men give us no credit, when they do not think well of us, then we are more inclined to seek God Who sees our hearts. Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of men.
When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without Whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays. He wearies of living longer and wishes for death that he might be dissolved and be with Christ. Then he understands fully that perfect security and complete peace cannot be found on earth.

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996), 19.

Quotes like this – and I tell you there are many amazing quotes, I recommend anyone to read it (skip the section on communion on the end) – forced me to stop and reconsider the purpose and joy of suffering.  You know I knew that God worked all things together for the good of those who loved him (Rom. 8:28) but what I didn’t realise until now was that the very suffering that I was opposing is the thing that is bringing good.  I wrongly assumed that God would make the suffering end as a result of good.  But I think it really means that the suffering is the carrier of good.  I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”. (Rom 5:3-4)  You see the truth is, suffering is not a bad thing though it hurts and is a challenge to walk through and deal with, suffering is actually a good thing that should cause us to rejoice.  Paul’s rationale is that it brings endurance, endurance character and character hope.  I would like to add something to Paul’s reasoning.  Not only does it bring all those things, but suffering forces a response which easy living never could.  Suffering forces a Christian to rush to his Heavenly Father.  It creates a situation where the Christian must lean on Christ all the more, in fact, it creates the context in which Paul says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. (Phil. 4:12–13)

 

I started by asking if you had considered the joy of suffering.  I tell you I had not, but now I have seen the joy of it.  The suffering I have gone through has forced me to run to Christ, to run to my Father in Heaven, to run to my Lord and my God.  And I tell you the truth, if this is the outcome of suffering, then I can definitely say there is true joy in suffering and I say with Paul “we rejoice in our sufferings”.  If what I have said is true, I would conclude by saying that it is far better to suffer in this life then have ease.  It is far better to live a life of burden and heartache then to live a life of peace and plenty.  Let us embrace suffering like children of the Most High God, because he is at work in all our suffering to mould and make us into the perfect image of his Son.

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The Sower or the Seed

Sower

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:1-9, ESV)

The parable of the sower is one of those classic parables that is very well known in the church.  In fact, if you google, “sermons on the parable of the sower”, it comes up with 97,500 results!  At the moment for my personal devotions I am travelling through the book of Mark and when I came to the parable of the sower something really struck me.  As I read the parable I came to the traditional interpretation of the story; that is, Jesus is teaching us about the different growth stages for the preached word and we must ask what soil we are.  Insert a  spurring challenge to produce fruit and you have yourself a sermon on the parable of the sower.  I do want to state that I think this is one proper way of understanding the text and I do not want to deny this interpretation.  However, as I was reflecting on this parable – particularly its explanation by Jesus – I realized that there is another very important aspect of this story to hear.

As I looked at the parable and the explanation a question popped into my mind, “Who is the sower?”  All of a sudden it struck me, to the crowds who were listening to Jesus the traditional teaching of this parable makes sense.  But to the disciple, what was the teaching meant to be?  Does it make sense for Jesus to tell the disciples that they need to make sure they are the good soil?  As I pondered this question I came to the conclusion that the disciples were not being told to be a certain type of soil; but rather were being encouraged as sowers of the seed.

Now is when the wider context of this passage begins to become important.  Jesus has just (3:13-19) appointed the 12 apostles so he might send them out to preach (sow the seed!).  Shortly after this series of teaching (6:7-13) Jesus is going to send out the twelve disciples to proclaim that people should repent.  So the context of this parable is that Jesus is preparing the disciples to preach or rather be sowers of the seed.  Now if my conclusion is correct then this gives another layer of teaching for what Jesus is teaching to his disciples and those of us that are his followers.

If I am right in my conclusions then that means that the main application for followers of Christ is not only, ‘be good soil and bear fruit’ (though this is a valid teaching of Jesus found elsewhere as well), but rather it is a call to understand the implications of being a sower of the word.

Being a sower of the word means the following kind of applications:

  • You must sow the word indiscriminately (across all soils)
  • You must sow the word intentionally (the sower went out to sow)
  • You must sow the word but God must bring the growth
  • You must sow the word but only the good soil will bear good fruit

This is just a very brief idea of the kind of applications that come from this understanding of the text.  This understanding of the parable also addresses the relationship between our responsibility to evangelise (preach the word / sow the seed) and God’s sovereign work saving sinners.  The implications of this understanding abound!

Or maybe, I am just way off base and have let my pondering mind get the better of me.  You tell me what you think, have I missed the mark or is this a valid layer of interpretation?  Again, I am not saying we must do away with the traditional interpretation of the text, but rather I am asking for another layer of interpretation of the text.

The heresy of worshiptainment

I just finished reading this and thought it was extremely interesting and challenging for many of today’s churches. Have a look for yourself.

Mike Livingstone

The great heresy of the church today is that we think we’re in the entertainment business. A.W. Tozer believed this to be true back in the 1950s and 60s. Church members “want to be entertained while they are edified.” He said that in 1962. Tozer grieved, even then, that it was “scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction was God.”*

More recently, David Platt has asked: “What if we take away the cool music and the cushioned chairs? What if the screens are gone and the stage is no longer decorated? What if the air conditioning is off and the comforts are removed? Would His Word still be enough for his people to come together?” (Radical)

Would it be enough?

Tozer got it right: “Heresy of method may be as deadly as heresy of message.”

HALLOWEDNESS, NOT SHALLOWNESS

Like Tozer, we…

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The Story of an Unloved Wife

When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing.

Genesis 29:31–35, ESV.

Despised, rejected, ignored, hidden, hated, shamed, unwanted, loathed, shunned, undesirable, unpopular, detested, avoided, abhorred…unloved.  Have you known any of these feelings before?  There are many people who have experienced the pain of being ignored, or rejected, or unwanted, ultimately being unloved.  Children unloved by parents and parents unloved by children.  Husbands unloved by wives and wives unloved by husbands. Brothers and sisters unloved by siblings.  Friends unloved by friends.  Grandparents unloved by grandchildren and grandchildren unloved grandparents.  In fact, some of you, reading this, will know exactly where you fit in that list.  Maybe you were rejected by a husband, wife or parent.  Maybe your best friend betrayed you.  Maybe never in your life have you ever experienced the sweet love of another human being.  In our passage we see the stunning reality of a woman who desperately wanted to be loved.  A woman who would do and give anything to be loved.  Yet, a woman who would not find the love she wants from her husband. This, is the story of Leah.

Leah the woman ignored by all, she was plain to look at and had weak eyes.  In contrast to her sister, who was beautiful in appearance and form, she was nothing (vs. 17).  And Jacob agreed, he desired to have Rachel as his wife.  He was willing to work the seven years to pay the bride price for his wife to be.  Yet at the end of those seven years something very strange happened.  We are told that Laban did the old ‘switch-a-roo’.  When Jacob woke up in the morning after his wedding night he discovered that it was Leah lying beside him and not Rachel.  Now, we are not told how this happened.  Perhaps Jacob was drunk and just didn’t realise what was going on.  Perhaps because of the veil there was no way that he could have known until the morning.  However, the question of how it happened is not really important.  The question that is important is why it happened.  Laban gives us one side of the answer to the question.  He states pretty straight forwardly that, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.” (vs. 26)  However, let me ask you, could the Father have done this if Leah was not willing?If she did not want this to happen surely she would have been able to inform Jacob. I think, and I can only take a guess, we are not told, that Leah had fallen in love with Jacob over the last seven years.  If this is the case then she would have been more then willing to deceive Jacob in this way. She probably assumed that eventually she would be able to win him over.  So here we have Leah, desperately in love with a man who loved another, foolishly involved in a deceitful plan in order to get what she wanted.

The problem of course is that Jacob obviously was not that impressed with what happened when he woke up in the morning.  He found another woman lying next to him!  We cannot know if Leah expected Rachel also to be given to Jacob, all we know is the outcome.  “So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah.” (vs. 30)  He loved Rachel more then Leah. He loved Rachel more.  Can you imagine her feeling, as she comprehends what is happening.  She is going to be in this relationship until the day she dies.  Another 40 or 50 years of being loved less.  The one whom you love and cherish more then anything else, all you want is his love, you would give anything for it.  And all you experience is seeing it poured out upon another.  Maybe you know exactly what this is like, maybe you sit and watch  your spouse, child, parent spread their love out on everything except you.  Maybe the person whom you love loves another.

So the question is, what do you do?  Where do you go to feel loved, what do you do in order to get the person to love you, to make you feel content and accepted in their sight?  Here is where we find Leah dealing with this very problem.  We are told that “the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” (vs. 31)  God looks down from Heaven and sees Leah, in her bitterness and distress.  Unloved and forgotten.  And God comes to her aid, he opens her womb but closes Rachel’s.  Now the interesting thing about this whole section is that the name that Leah uses and the name for God in this verse is not the general name for God, but the covenantal name for God, the LORD, YHWH, the God of Jacob.  So Leah had obviously been learning about Jacob’s God.  But the LORD’s aim for Leah is not quite what Leah thinks.

We are told that Leah’s womb is opened and she gives birth to a son.  She names him Reuben, saying “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” (32) At this point we have to note that Leah got it half right.  The LORD had seen her affliction and he had given her a son.  But why did the LORD give her a son?  Was it so that her husband will love her?  Is that what she really needs?  You see God sees that Leah is unloved by her husband and comes down to meet her.  Does he come in order to restore the relationship?  Or does he come in order to create a better relationship?  God comes to Leah because he wants her to meet him.  He wants her to know who the LORD is, for herself!  And so he provides her with a son.  Yet, as we often do too, Leah learns a bit slow.  She assumes that the LORD is providing in order to help her win her husband from her sister.

Unfortunately after a bit of time it becomes apparent that things are not quite going as she expected.  Jacob still isn’t loving her as he is Rachel.  She is still unloved.  So she cries out to the LORD, to the one who gave her the first son.  And what does God do?  He gives her another son, and Leah calls him Simeon saying, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” (33) At this point Leah’s aims and intentions have not changed much.  She is now crying out to God for help with her situation, and God is helping, but she is still aiming for her relationship with Jacob to change.  Now it appears that she isn’t seeking him to love her, maybe she has given up, but only that she would not be hated by him.  (When it says hated it doesn’t mean actively hate but rather it is using a strong word to highlight his lack of love for her)  Leah’s problem?  She is focusing on what she wants to change in her situation, instead of looking at what the LORD is trying to say to her in the situation.

Eventually again the LORD gives Leah a son and she names him Levi, saying, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” (34)  Notice a problem?  Leah appears to have given up on the dream of Jacob loving her, or even hating her less.  Now she effectively says, ‘Well he isn’t going to love me, he isn’t going to hate me less, but at least this way he is tied to me indefinitely and no one can argue what I have done for him.’  Is this what God is wanting for Leah?  Is he really just wanting her to be resigned to her lot and to live out her life in that way?  Or is the covenantal God of Jacob, the one who would give her three children, is he trying to get her attention for a different purpose?  You see, as I have said Leah is a slow learner, as so many of us are, three children and however many years and she still hasn’t gotten the message God is trying to say.  But our God, he is a patient God, he does not give up because we don’t get it, he keeps on going until it becomes clear.

She conceived again and named him Judah saying, “This time I will praise the LORD.” (35)  What…nothing about Jacob, nothing about love or hate.  Nothing earthly, just “I will praise the LORD.”  It seems that the Lord’s message had finally sunk in.  Up till this point Leah had assumed that God was trying to do what she wanted through child bearing.  But what God was really doing, was showing her how much he loved her.  You see, when Leah was hoping to win her husband over through child birth, God was exclaiming his love for her.  When Leah was despised, her God was saying “you are my beloved child”.  When Leah was unloved by her husband and hated by her sister, she was loved by a God who is far greater then both.  And after this birth of Judah she finally realised, this finally sunk in, God hadn’t just been trying to win Jacob over, he had been showing her how much the infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, infinitely loving God cared about her.

Reader, I don’t know what you are going through right now, I don’t know what you have been through in your life.  But regardless of your lot, regardless whether you are the unloved wife, husband, parent, child, brother, sister, friend, grandparent or grandchild, God is doing the same thing for you that he did for Leah.  It may be that your lot is unchangeable like Leah’s, but that does not mean anything for God.  For although he may not give you children to get your attention, he has given something far greater.  Notice something that came from Leah, her last child, the child that got her attention, the one which finally made her realise what God was saying, what was his name?  Judah.  And let me ask you, what did Jacob many years later prophecy about Judah?

Judah, your brothers shall praise you;

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;

your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Judah is a lion’s cub;

from the prey, my son, you have gone up.

He stooped down; he crouched as a lion

and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until tribute comes to him;

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

Genesis 49:8–10, ESV.

And how would it happen? Did not one come from the tribe of Judah that all his brothers would praise?  And would that one not put his hand on the neck of all his enemies and would not all bow down before him and would the scepter ever depart from him?  And who is the descendant of Judah spoken of but Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Reader, if you feel unloved, if you feel abandoned by men, or despised and rejected, hear God’s cry to you.  He calls out to you with a greater gift then the four sons of Leah.  He cries out with the gift of his one and only son.  How did John say it? For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son!  That whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Or to paraphrase it another way, “For God so loved you, that he gave his one and only son up.  That if you believe in him, you shall not perish but have eternal life.  And you shall feel his love upon you.”

Reader, the only way you can begin to feel contentment and love in any relationship, especially those where love is not given, is if you look to the one who has given up ALL for you because he loves you.