The marks by which we are known

The growth rings of a tree trunk intrigue me. These contours compile the life story of the tree in the lines left by nature’s faithful seasons of wet and dry.  Years of plenty leave thick lines, years of lack leave thin lines. Yet more than mere rainfall history is recorded in these contours: forest competition leave elliptical lines of asymmetrical growth, while the trauma of forest fires, animal damage, pests or sickness leave permanent stains or scars in the tree trunks.  These lines, scars, stains and blotches portray the life of the tree: it is the record of events the tree witnessed, what it encountered and what it survived.  Just like our fingerprints these contours distinguish one tree from another – what a tree lives through lends it its distinguishing marks; its experience lends it its beauty and character.  As these pictures show[i], each tree is known and valued by its marks.

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The tales trees trunks tell. [image credits below]
But note that the lines and marks in a tree are the trees response to its environment – not the environment itself.  We don’t see the rains, droughts, fires, bugs or animals.  The contours only record the tree’s growth because of a wet season, and its hardening because of a dry season.  We only see the elliptical contours because of the tree’s self-adjusting growth for a few years in its fight for better sunlight. We only see the darkening as it healed from the heat and flames, the recovery scars left from animal damage and the discolouration caused by other environmental conditions.  In essence, the trunk of the tree is a witness to how the tree coped with its experience, how well it adjusted to survive in its environment and how it was strengthened through it.  Indeed, these contours are aptly called the “growth rings of a tree”.

If your character could be dissected as a tree trunk, it might reveal similarly distinguishing “growth rings” – the marks that show how each season has impacted you.

tree-rings-0023_web

As I reflect on the past year I am struck by how deeply it influenced me – both for the good and the bad.  A few family traumas of people within our church community has left a heightened appreciation for my family and my health, with a deliberate response to cherish the precious time with those I love and make the best use of my health and fitness.  Frequent reports of leadership failure have heightened my awareness of my own fallibility and the traumatic impact it has on many; this sparked renewed study and intentional growth in Christian leadership practice as well as intentional accountability as I see the need to allow others to speak into my life.  The development and facilitation of a marriage intimacy course has made a lasting impact in my attention to and intention for growth in marital intimacy.  A demanding season has highlighted the dangers of isolation resulting in purposeful pursuit of healthy friendships for me and my family.  But the business has also caused me to reevaluate my life, reconsider my efforts and remind myself where I should be heading, so I can readjust my course now.

Sadly I am also aware of some less noble responses to events in the past year: I recognise a mounting degree of cynicism due to frequent disappointment by certain people, coupled by latent anger and even bitterness in my heart.  I notice a resistance to spontaneous generosity because of perceived entitlement and misspending of some with whom I have supported.  I note the signs of compassion fatigue because of seasons of overextending myself.  And sadly I am aware that I laugh and play less because of the impact of the serious things that I deal with. These responses are not good for my soul, my family and my relationships.

Thus the events of the past season has touched me personally and impacted my character.  I have grown grateful and humble, more relational and accountable, vulnerable and intimate, and more purposeful.  Yet I have to acknowledge that I have grown more cynical, less innocent and less generous, less compassionate and less joyful.  My growth through the last season has been both good and bad; in some ways I have grown to resemble Christ my Lord better and in some ways I have grown to represent him less.

Although the memories of our experiences remain with us, it is our own responses to those experiences that ultimately impact us and those around us greatly, because how we respond shapes us for the long run.  Our responses to life’s significant moments and seasons lay the contours that make up our character – and our character shapes both our consciousness (how we view life) and our course (where we end up in life).

That is why we need to “guard our heart above all things, for from it flows the issues of life.”[ii]  We cannot control or undo what life’s seasons throw at us, but we can and should control our response to those moments.

The Bible teaches that one is “blessed” (or better off) when in spite of injustice one remains kind and merciful; when in the midst of cruelty and betrayal one remains pure in heart; when in the midst of conflict one pursues reconciliation and peace; when in the midst of hardship one remains faithful and true to God.[iii] In fact, the Bible shows that regardless of what life throws at us, a godly response always leaves one blessed – in this life and the life to come.[iv]  And that although everything seems hopeless, there is a very real reason to be optimistic, because God can and will bring beauty out of every situation.[v]  Although there are things that challenge us in every season of life, God’s grace in that season is enough to carry us through.[vi]

It’s a new year.  Another year is over and it left its marks on your life.  Was it a year of plenty or of want?  A season of vigorous growth or a tough season of hardening?  A festive time or fiery trial that left its stains?  Regardless of what the year brought you, its impact on your life will prove significant in the shaping of your heart.

How will you allow your experiences to impact your character for good or bad?  Consider it carefully, because your response to this season will determine your consciousness in the next season and ultimately your course in life.

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[i] Images from online article in Mizzou Magazine https://mizzoumag.missouri.edu/2013/05/if-trees-could-talk/

[ii] Proverbs 4:23

[iii] Matthew 5:7-9; James 1:12

[iv] Romans 8:28

[v] Jeremiah 29:11; Revelations 20:5

[vi] 2 Corinthians 12:9

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In Pursuit of Happiness – how to reap joy

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 2006 film Poster-pursuithappynessIn Pursuit of Happyness based on the true story of how Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) endured being homeless for nearly a year while pursuing his dream and caring for his
toddler son Christopher (played by eight-year-old Jaden Smith).  In the film Chris is a struggling salesman who invested all his life savings in new portable bone-density scanners. His wife leaves him due to mounting financial pressures and he is left alone to care for their five-year old son Christopher. His life reaches an all-time low when Chris loses his last bone-scanner, gets arrested for unpaid parking tickets, his bank account gets garnished by the revenue services for unpaid income tax and he gets evicted from his apartment.  Homeless and penniless Chris manages to land an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, competing against 19 others to win the only paid position at the end of six months.  In the post-script we read how Chris continued to eventually own his multi-million-dollar brokerage.

This emotion-laden real-life drama each of us can identify with because it speaks about the sacrifices needed to realize one’s dreams, and the tremendous joy that comes from the fulfillment of the dream.  We were created to pursue the things that give us joy, and therefore joy is indeed one of man’s chief motivators especially in enduring difficult times.

An ancient Hebrew song dating around 400 BC has this same theme.

Psalm 126:1-6

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the South!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

This psalm was sung against the dark backdrop of Jews who returned from exile, being oppressed and enslaved for seventy years first by the Babylonians and thereafter the Persians.  They were slaves who had no value or dignity, no sense of identity or value, with no rights or power to steer their own destinies.  They felt flawed, forgotten, worthless, powerless, and essentially hopeless.  Then suddenly Cyrus had an urge to send them back to rebuild their temple and their city, and these slaves were set free – a day of great rejoicing!

The first half of this psalm sings this prayer of gratitude, looking back at how God had graced these exiles to come home and rebuild the temple and its walls, and the people “were glad”.  The second half is a prayer for restoration of the nation that had been scattered and their land that had laid desolate for 70 years. Now that Zion (verse 1, pointing to the temple and its worship) had been restored, the psalmist prays the nation and its land be revitalized like the annual winter rains transform the arid dessert in the South of Judah (Hebrew “Negev” in verse 4) into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Restoring Joy like SOUTH
Rain transforms the arid desert into a flowery garden bustling with life.

Sowing in tears

Sowing is not a particularly sad or even hard job.  Why then would the psalmist write of “weeping” and sowing “precious seeds”?  The context of the Psalm is of Jews returning to a dilapidated Jerusalem and barren land, to a city and land that have been unoccupied and uncultivated for 70 years. They brought food with them what they were able to carry, but that would not last long.  So they would soon need to live off the land – they needed to sow.  And when you sow the food you want to eat, when you sow the seeds your children hunger for, your sowing is accompanied by tears of anguish.  These are costly seeds that mere money can’t buy – these are “precious seeds” that get its first watering by the tears of the sower

seed-sower-jeremysams
The sower by Jeremy Sams.

How to reap joy

This ancient song teaches us how to cultivate a life of joy amidst suffering – a valuable lesson for each of us.

Firstly, a life of gratitude makes for a glad heart even amidst hardships, as the psalmist teaches: The Lord has done great things for us [and] we are glad.”  In looking back, remembering the good things the Lord has done for you, the hard times in which God has preserved you and later from which he has delivered you, the anguished heart is refreshed with joy, hope and faith.  When you relive joyful times your heart relives the past joy and your faith is stirred by hope as you remember how God has delivered you from similar hardships in the past – he will do the same again.  Indeed, gratitude makes you cheerful, and the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” which no fire can quench (Proverbs 15:15).

Secondly the psalmist says that sowing needs to be continuously, not impulsively or sporadically.  You keep on sowing until you reap a harvest.  Considering the context then the psalmist probably had in mind how his people had been restored to joy from a life of slavery and exile through “sowing in tears” like recorded in the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 9), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 1-4) and some of the Psalms (eg Psalm 137).  These prayers give us a view into the anguish of the exiled Jews, and how they lamented bitterly and continuously petitioned God for return and restoration – a true sowing in tears that resulted in the joy expressed in half of this psalm.

This is a great lesson to never give in to hardship, and never give up because of disappointments.   We continue to sow in tears because of the expected joy in the harvest.  In fact, the great anguish is the great motivator to continue sowing in tears as we long for the great joy.  So do not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9).

Thirdly, the sowing of precious seed (KJV) especially results in “shouts of joy”.  And this is the main teaching in this psalm: sowing seeds which makes you weep will ensure a harvest accompanied by shouts of joy.  In other words, a life of selfless sacrifice results in joy.  The giving up of what you deem precious so that there is enough for others to share will result in joy.  This first generation of returned exiles made the big sacrifice to re-cultivate the farmlands from their own meagre food-packs to ensure that there is enough food for other returning exiles and their coming generations. Their sacrifice resulted in joy for all.  The joy is multiplied when the precious seeds you sow results in bundles of sheaves – enough for everyone.

Sowing_Angelus

When the sacrifice is rewarded with breakthrough and the effort was worthwhile – then there is great joy.  But without sacrifice – without the sowing of precious seed – there will be no reaping worthy of great joy. Playing it safe does not result in great joy.  Only sowing in tears results in a harvest of joy.

Lastly, although accompanied by anguish, the sowing is very hopeful.  The farmer knows that for every single seed he sows he is sure to reap thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8).  His tearful sowing can be done confidently and hopeful, because “he shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”  And our confidence in sowing is not misplaced!  God himself oversees the principle and process of sowing and reaping: “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:8).  Sowing in tears is never in vain.

The psalmist teaches that persistent, sacrificial and hopeful sowing will result that results in a joyful harvest.

Bringing home the joy

Jump_baloon4

Each of us are in pursuit of happiness. We are all driven by a longing for joy: we run away from things that might cause us harm (fear) and we run towards the things that we belief will bring us pleasure (joy).  But many times we exert effort on what does not produce true delight or lasting joy (Isaiah 55:2).

The wisdom of this world says self-serving efforts (or selfishness) produces joy: “SPEND EFFORT FOR MORE COMFORT AND CARNAL PLEASURES TO INCREASES YOUR JOY.”  Self-serving pleasure is the chief motivator behind most of the marketing campaigns that dominate the media: “Buying [this] – it will give you joy.”  “Living [here] will give you joy.”  “More of [this] will increase your joy.”  “Doing [this] will give you joy.”  This philosophy is the heart behind every temptation that lures us into sin, yet it still leaves us unsatisfied and without lasting joy.

But over against this the psalmist says “Those who sow in tears you will reap with shouts of joy.” In other words, selflessness produces real joy: “THE GREATEST JOY IS FOUND IN THE GIVING OF YOURSELF FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHERS.”  Just as the endurance athlete gets joy from completing the race, so the self-emptying mother of a disabled child reaps love and joy from any response the child may give. The couple who walked through their dark valley together reaps tremendous joy in their relationship at the end.  But for the one who quits or gives up or gets distracted during hardships, there is no reaping of joy.  If you wish to reap in joy, you need to sow the precious seed in tears.

The context of “sowing in tears” in this psalm as sketched above is to “restore [Judah]” (verses 4-6) – not only for yourself only.  “Shouts of joy” comes when your anguished efforts for another results in an end of their suffering, their hardship.  Ironically your joy overflows when you give of your precious time, share of your precious belongings, and give of your very life for the betterment of another.  It is truly “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also Hebrews 12:3).

Reflection

So consider your life, your pursuit, your prayers.

  • Can you recall what you have sacrificed a great deal to achieve or complete, and when it was fulfilled you were joyful, satisfied, ecstatic, and fulfilled?
  • Where are you currently “sowing in tears” – i.e. where are you sacrificing your own comfort for the benefit of another, so that joy may come?
  • Can you remember why?  What do you hope to achieve with this “sowing in tears”?

And as you go out again tomorrow, pouring out of what is precious to you, let this verse encourage you as it did the Jews who first sang when they rebuilt Jerusalem and their nation (400 BC):

He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

A call to courage

Our world is scared, and increasingly so. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US today according to the National Institute of Mental Health affecting one third of the North American population, with a staggering 37% and 50% increase in occurrence among children (ages 4-10 and 11—19) over the last decade. It is estimated that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, nearly one third of the country’s total mental health bill.

But the cost of anxiety is not limited to medical bills.  The fear of terrorism has caused an arming 114 percent increase in the US defense budget in the last 13 years, which would total about $586.5 billion in 2016 (by far the greatest in the world). In addition the global security technology and services market which is expected to total $86 billion this year.

Our world is a scary place.  Our society is characterized by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability, daily fueled by images of terror and rumors of impending disaster. But we are not the first generation passing through these shadows of uncertainty, uproars and unrests. Like the generations before us we need to overcome the urge to panic.

This is a call to courage. It’s not the time to be anxious, to be intimidated, to succumb to terror. As we see the climate is changing, the shadows drawing longer, we need to look back and find courage from the accounts of others that have navigated similar moments in history. During Nero’s reign Paul urged the anxious, persecuted believers to look into the the Scriptures for “learning… encouragement… comfort… [and] hope” (Romans 15:4). And what examples of courage does the Scripture not have!

A Call to Courage

Abraham left all he knew for promise from God in his spirit.  Later he pursued five kings with their armies to save his nephew Lot from slavery. Noah, a preacher of righteousness had courage to confront a perverse generation and build the ark amidst their mockery for 120 years. Young David stood up to Goliath the giant.  Joshua and Caleb were not intimidated by the giants in walled cities and trained armies that occupied their Promised Land, patiently waited forty years and in their old age lead the nation to possess this land.  Daniel walked into a den of lions, and his three friends into the fiery oven because they would refused to bow to another god.  He did falter to fear but told Darius straight-up “God found you too light!” Moses confronted the terrifying Pharaoh demanding release of all his slaves, and then led the entire nation into.  Queen Ester risked her life when she approached the Persian king to save her generation from annihilation.  Nehemiah did the same to rebuild the holy city.  Gideon and his small army walked unarmed into a Midianite camp with 15’000 soldiers. Samson single-handedly took on 1’000 Philistine warriors. Jehoshaphat led the whole nation into the dessert against three massive armies. Elisha was besieged by the entire Syrian army but walked right up to them and led them into siege.  Elijah challenged all the Baal prophets to a public showdown asking “Who is the real God?!”  Jonah walked into the most violent city of his day as a foreigner, demanding repentance and submission to his God.  Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Amos, Hosea, Nathan and John the Baptist willingly chose a life of mockery, poverty and pain as they confronted kings, rebuked hypocrisy, and exposed the injustice of the day.

Jesus, son of God, left the comfort of heaven, the honor of the throne, the worship of the angels and the power of divinity to enter a life of pain, poverty and persecution – ultimately to suffer brutally and die shamefully. All because “God so loved the world.”  And his courage set the pattern for his followers, as we see in the first beatings of Peter and John, the first martyr Stephen, the hardships of the Apostle Paul history of the church throughout the ages.

How do we grow in courage?

In Joshua 1:1-9 we see the Lord giving a pep-talk to the new leader called to lead the Hebrews to occupy their land inhabited by Giants in secure cities.  We learn much from this instruction about how to “take heart” when times are tough.[i]

Courage must rise in the face of fear.  There is no need for courage when everything is plain sailing, when all is as it should be.  But in the threat of pain of discomfort, loss or death, when the natural inclination is to hide or run away, that’s the que to take heart!  The Lord told Joshua to be courageous because the situation was terrifying.  A sense of fear must trigger the response to courage.

Courage has a cause.  When there is no need, no urgency, no mandate, there is no need for courage.  When one puts his hand into a lit furnace for no reason he is rightly labelled a fool.  But a woman who runs into a burning house to save her daughter is a hero.  Joshua had to be courageous to fulfill his mandate.  Bravery is called upon when the fight is worth it.  Courage is needed to uphold the righteous purposes of God.

Courage is gained in the knowledge of God.  Joshua was told to not forget “The Book of the Law” which Moses left Israel.  Today we have it as the first five books in our Bible. Why would that help Joshua to grow in courage?  Because it records – from Creation to Exodus – the accounts of God’s wisdom, power and loving faithfulness with his people. Joshua would be “encouraged” every time he reads how faithfully and powerfully God had preserved and delivered his people in desperate times past.  Thus courage is gained as we become convinced and get reminded of God’s power and might – that truly “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).  Courage grows as we learn from these accounts who God is: that God is good, righteous, faithful and merciful.  This revelation of God’s power and character is preserved in Scripture as records of his interaction and decrees, so we get to know God and are encouraged as we read these accounts of divine intervention (Romans 15:4).  Indeed, but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32)

Courage is gained in the assurance of God’s presence.  The Lord encouraged Joshua with the promises of his personal presence.  More specifically “as I was with Moses” – thus Joshua was promised the same intimacy with the Lord, the same faithfulness in preservation and the same powerful interventions which Moses experienced as he lead these people.  What an encouraging promise!  The Lord made that same promise of companionship his ascension (Matthew 28:20), and that companionship we experience in the empowering presence of His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:11). We grow in courage as we grow in revelation of the Lord’s personal presence, declaring with David The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

Courage is infectious. The Lord encouraged Joshua.  Before these words of encouragement Joshua was intimidated and anxious.  But the words of encouragement put the necessary strength into his heart to go on and fulfill his mission. That’s why we are repeatedly called to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – literally “put courage and strength into the heart of another”.  We get encouraged through deliberate effort to be built up, but also indirectly as we see others or hear their stories as they continue courageously amidst hardship, thinking “If another can do it, so can I.”  Courage is infectious, as we can see in this video

Read here how to Encourage One Another (https://walklikejesus.net/2015/09/10/encourage-one-another/)

Courage is a choice. The Lord’s repeated commands of courage implies a choice to succumb to fear and intimidation or to take heart and continue with his commission.  We either choose to allow fear to dictate our actions, or we choose to allow courage to reign in our hearts. So Jesus told his disciples – as he is saying to us today “Let not your heart be troubled…believe in me” because “In the world you will have trouble. But TAKE HEART; I have overcome the world.” (John 14:1; 16:33)  These exhortations from the Lord demand a response, a resolve to not allow fearful situations to “trouble your heart” and dictate your actions. So when there’s a choice to fight or flight, choose to fight and persevere.

Add courage to your faith

Life in the kingdom of God is not for the faint-hearted – it never was, it never will be. The kingdom suffers violence” said Jesus (Matthew 11:12). Our world is unfriendly and uncertain. But so it was in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Their society was oppressed by the Roman army and heavily taxed by Caesar, plagued by perpetual civil unrest and terrorism, divided by extreme classism. For that reason Peter exhorted the church to add to your faith COURAGE (2 Peter 1:5). Mere saving faith does not make you fit or fruitful to fulfill your mandate. Our mandate is clear: peacemakers, Kingdom-bringers, heralds of the Good News.

So “don’t be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt 6:34), don’t live a life pacified by fear or paralyzed by what can go wrong. Fear steals your joy and taps your strength.  Reflect on this truth: if God is for us, who can be against us!?  Then look up, shape up, sign up and step up. TAKE HEART, finish the job, then we can go Home.

[i] Note the incredible similarity in form of the appeals to courage to complete the divine mandate with assurance of the Lord’s power and presence in the following texts: Solomon’s charge to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28:20), Joshua’s command for conquest (Joshua 1:1-9), the disciple’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the angel’s warning about Paul’s shipwreck and appointment with Cesar (Acts 27:24-26) and the Corinthian’s church charge to not fear death but continue in their faith (1 Corinthians 15:57-8).

 

 

Enduring Nero’s fire

How to remain true to God amidst suffering.

Writing to a congregation of predominantly Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign, the author of Hebrews repeatedly exhorted believers to not renounce Christ in fear of the mounting persecution.  And that is necessary, because suffering moves one to re-evaluate what you believe.  At some point in life we all walk through the fire – but how do you remain faithful to God amidst suffering? How do you endure the fires of life.

Brief background to and outline of Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers (1:1 “spoken to our fathers”) probably in Rome (13:24 “those from Italy greet you”).  After hearing the gospel confirmed with signs and miracles (2:4), they were converted (3:16), were baptized and had partaken of the Holy Spirit (6:1-5).  This was a long-established church (5:12) whose members have lived exemplary lives of faith and good works (6:10), and have experienced persecution, imprisonment (13:3) and the loss of property (10:32-33), but have not yet suffered martyrdom (12:4).  The congregation were capable of charity and hospitality (13:2,16), and previously had great teachers and leaders (13:7) who grounded them in foundational Christian teaching in the Jewish Scriptures (6:1-2).

But their faith had been outlawed and these ostracized believers became discontent and discouraged and longed for earthly property and a sense of belonging in their society (13:5, 14).  So they started questioning their beliefs, considering other avenues to God so they could be reintegrated into society; they were on the verge of walking away from their Christian convictions.  In response the author of Hebrews wrote this “word of exhortation” (13:22) to bolster the faith and perseverance of this wavering Christian community, reminding them how to correctly “draw near…” (10:23) to God.

The recipients seems to have been influenced by the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria who mixed Judaism with Greek philosophy and wrote that there were several ways for sinful man to approach God.  He mentioned the Logos (elsewhere “the word or reason of God”), Sophia (elsewhere “the wisdom of God”), the angels, Moses, Melchizedek the high priest and the Jewish sacramental system were all avenues (or mediators) to bridge the divide between man and God.  Reading Hebrews, it appears that the first recipients of this letter were considering these alternative avenues to avoid persecution, yet still worship God.[1]  In response to their searching the author writes how Jesus Christ is better than Philo’s Logos and Sophia (1:1-3), better than the angels (1:4-2:18) and Moses (3:1-6), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (7:1-24), presenting a better offering (9:14) in better place (8:2).  Jesus has also secured a better, eternal covenant by his sacrifice “once for all” (10:14) that he can guarantee fulfillment on behalf of both man and God (7:22).  Our author shows this superiority to deter readers from turning to these “alternative mediators” to escape the pressures of persecution and to exhort readers to hold fast to their confession if faith in him amidst difficult times.

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Faithful in the fire

How does this 2000 year old letter to Jewish believers suffering under Nero’s persecution help us today to “hold fast to your confession” (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23) in the midst of our own hardship and suffering? How can we be prepared to remain faithful in the fire and joyfully endure the suffering as these early believers who remained true to Christ through Nero’s fires?

The answer lies in the pivotal point of this letter, Hebrews 10:19, where the author moves from orthodoxy (or correct thinking) to orthopraxy (or correct living)Here the epistle shifts from theory to practice, with the transition Therefore” meaning “based on our argument up to here” and then follows with three powerful exhortations that appeal to the required response of the hearers.  These three exhortations contain the keys that will help the readers through the mounting persecution they feared.  The author encourages readers to “draw near… in faith” (v22), “hold fast to … hope” (v23) and “to stir one another in love” (v24-25).  Then he unpacks real faith in chapter 11, hope for endurance in chapter 12 and love in practice in chapter 13.  Like so many times in the letter he again reminds them that they need to remain faithful to Jesus, because of the coming judgment of Christ (v25-31).

These three exhortations to continue in faith, hope and love apply as much to us during times of hardships today.

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Draw near in faith

These wavering believers were graciously encouraged to “draw near in full assurance of faith” (v22).  Even although they considered renouncing Christ they were encouraged to “have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace through the blood” (4:16; cf 10:19).  God has not written them off!  Amidst their suffering and wavering they can be assured that their confidence before God was not based on their track record, but based on Jesus’ shed blood (v19).  This also implies that their suffering was also not due to their failures.  Rather they were encouraged that Jesus, their perfect High Priest has also “suffered when tempted, [and is therefore] able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18). He “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15-16) – so draw near to get help!

Hold on to hope

Poor and pushed aside, mocked and outlawed, their current circumstances were very uncomfortable.  And their immediate future looked even bleaker as the Roman persecution was escalating.  Therefore the author encouraged these fragile believers to hold onto their Lord who promises their share in his eternal inheritance! He is their “forerunner” (6:20) who went to announce their coming and the High Priest who secured their confidence before God (6:20). There is no room for doubt: Jesus secured their access and inheritance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. And “this hope is the anchor of the soul” (6:19) – it settles the emotions and keeps the believer on course to, not swept away by the circumstance. So the believer is encouraged to endure suffering the way their Lord did – joyfully anticipating his reward (12:1-2).  This hope is the reason to remain faithful amidst the fire; their endurance will be rewarded!

Assemble to grow in love

Thirdly the author exhorts this congregation, fearful of being hurt or ostracized, to not neglect their assemblies (10:25). In effect he tells this fragile congregation “I know that you are afraid of being identified as a Christian, and I know that you will suffer and might even die when you are seen to gather with other believers – but do it!”  Why the urgency?  Why should they assemble?  Could they not practice their faith in private?

The author motivates that their primary purpose of assembly is to “stir one another to love and good works” – to grow in godly character and excel in good works (10:24).  More specifically, each congregant should make it their goal to think about how to help another excel in character and good works.  As he did earlier in the letter he encourages them to continue love and service for the saints (6:10-12).

Enduring the fire today

How do we endure suffering?  What was true for the Hebrew congregation in Rome suffering under Nero’s reign is true for me and you.  First, hold on to your faith: you are loved by God, approved by God, sanctified by God and preserved by God ford God.  Not the suffering nor your doubts or fears can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).  So boldly approach of throne of grace to receive help in time of need! (Hebrews 4:16).

Second, let hope stir your joy and calm your fears, motivate you to continue in faith, work for your reward and find purpose in all you do.  God rewards faithfulness!

Thirdly, “never walk alone!” Join in the assembly to grow others “in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and see how you are strengthen and encouraged yourself.  Indeed, “it is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 10:35)

References for understanding the letter to the Hebrews

  1. Nash R.H., The Notion of Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 40 (1977), p89-115.
  2. Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1998).
  3. Gutrie D., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
  4. Schenck K., Understanding The Book Of Hebrews (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003)

 

All Things New 1 – A new beginning

“Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:1-5)

It is quite fitting that we celebrate New Year’s Day.  In its nature these celebrations rejoice in the faithfulness of God who has preserved us another year, so we can exclaim “Thus far the Lord has brought us!” (I Samuel 7:12).  But more so it is a celebration of a fresh start, a clean slate, an unwritten book yet to be penned.  There is the anticipation of the unknown, the mystery of the unpredictable – what does this year hold for us?  How will things be at the end of this year?  How will it change me?

A Fresh Start

Open_Door1

It is necessary that we start this year with the reminder that our God is the God of a fresh start.  He is the God of the second chance who never grows tired of his children but is always “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4).  Jeremiah wrote “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  New mercies every day.  He is the One who lures the distant sinner closer by saying “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).  Indeed, our God is the God who wishes to put the past behind with the promise of a clean slate for a fresh start!  His invitation is clear: “forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead… press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).

A New Beginning

thrive_tree-after-fire

Our God is the God of New Beginnings.  He is all-wise, all-mighty, and all-sufficient. Therefore over every situation we can confidently declare “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; cf Jeremiah 32:27).  He is the One who promised “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19).  Our God springs life-giving water in a lifeless wilderness and creates a mighty army from dried bones (Ezekiel 37:1ff).  Nothing is ever too far gone or too hard for him. He has the power and the wisdom to redeem the hopeless or to make something out of nothing.  Even death does not mark the end since He himself rose from the dead and poured his resurrection spirit into our hearts (Romans 8:11).  He is the reason we hope and don’t despair, the reason we confidently wait and smile in the face of impossible odds.  Where there seems to be a dead end our God opens “a door of hope” (Hosea 2:15).  Our God reconciles the divided, rejuvenates the fatigued, restores the broken, and revives the dead.  He is the God of new beginnings!  With him life goes on, forever.

New Things

Butterfly-Transformation

Our God is the God of New Things. He is called Creator, the Beginning, and the Bright Morning Star announcing the coming new day.  He is the God of new inventions, new solutions, new answers, a new way of life.  As with the birth of a baby, new beginnings always starts with cries of pain and tears of desperation. These cries are not from a place of despair but in hopeful anticipation – joyful change is on the way.  As the birth a baby represents the promise of new life, a clean slate and new potential, so every oppressive or painful situation holds the promise of this newness of life. And when God is at work in these painful circumstances he promises that it is certainly not in vain (Isaiah 66:8-9).  This pattern we see repeated in the Scriptures.

The slaves cried out in Egypt – God’s answer for deliverance and a new way of life was in the birth of baby Moses; he embodied their answered prayer.  Years later, in their promised land, time and again the oppressed Israelites cried out to God for deliverance, his answer was the judges Gideon, Sampson, Jephthah, Deborah.  In a similar way the Bible talks of Samuel, David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist and, yes, Jesus our Redeemer.  God’s plan for new things, new life, enters our world during painful times through a person whom he empowers.  In a similar way, you are God’s answer for new things this year.

Your New Year

dont_look_back1
“Don’t Look Back” by Erik Johansson

This is a New Year.  The old is gone – it cannot be redone and it cannot be undone.  But it is a good time to turn the page and start with a clean slate.  Our God is the God of the Fresh Start.  He is the God of the Fresh Start in whom we can find peace for a plagued conscience and forgiveness for a life wasted.  Don’t despair – life is not over until he calls us home.  Come reason with him; unburden yourself and find new mercies for this New Year.  His steadfast love never ceases!  What do you want to close the book on this year?

He is the God of the New Beginning, who creates a garden in the wasteland, an army out of dead bones and makes a way where there seems to be no way.  Nothing is ever too hopeless for him to redeem. As long as your heart pumps he has good plans for you – plans of a glorious future.  He heals bleeding hearts, mends shattered dreams and restores broken relationships.  He truly makes all things new!  What can he do for you and in you this year?

He is the God of New Things, the all-wise, all-mighty creator of all things who knows the end from the beginning.  The Bible records how in the past he gave inspiration and plans for deliverance and warfare, for health, healing and sanitation, for designs and building of the ark, the tabernacle and temple, for arts, poetry and music, economic planning, supernatural providential sustenance and wise governance.    What can he do though you this year?
Sunrise3 - Mountaineers

Happy New Year! Make this one count for eternity.

RESPONDING TO A CRISIS

A crisis is due (time of arrival uncertain)

September 11, 2001 is a day that no New Yorker (or our generation) will ever forget.  It started off as another ordinary day as people hurried into the day.  Someone overslept, another had a fight with his wife, someone’s car broke down, one planned to get engaged that evening.  But for more than 5000 people in the Twin Towers it was the last day of their lives.

crisis

We never schedule a crisis in our dairy – no one knows when disasters is going to hit.  A sudden death of a loved one, news of cancer, robbers in your home or a letter of retrenchment.  These things happen to someone every day.  Jesus spoke the truth: “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).  All we can do is “be watchful” and ready (1 Peter 5:8) and respond in a godly way.

Judah’s king Jehoshaphat had such a day as three big armies crossed the sea from Syria to invade Judah.  Yet this Godly man did not panic or run away.  His response to this crisis is recorded for our comfort, encouragement and learning (Romans 15:4).

Comic_1
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (1 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (2 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)
Photo-documentary of 2 Chronicles 20 (3 of 3)

What can we learn from this great historic account deliverance?

  1. DEVOTION: Live ready (v6-13)

1Devotion

Jehoshaphat is a king that served God with the devotion of king David, “walked in his commandments” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4) and had his “heart set on God” (19:3).  Not only did he serve God in the privacy of his heart and personal life, but this righteous ruler courageously brought about a great reformation in the nation of Israel by destroying Baal worship with its immoral public practices, and by further commissioning priests to teach the Law of God throughout Judah and later judges to bring about justice in his kingdom.

So when the news of this crisis came to his palace, Jehoshaphat did not fear but did what he did every day: he went into his inner room and prayed to the God whom he had faithfully served all his days.  I love the way the book of Daniel records how that godly prophet responded to the death threats of not worshipping the emperor: “and Daniel went to his house… and he kneeled on his knees three times a day and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since his youth.” (Daniel 6:11)

So what do we learn from this?  A crisis may hit any of us at any moment, and the best way to be prepared is to be securely rooted in a devoted relationship with God.  When war breaks out the soldiers should be disciplined and trained; when exam day comes the student should be prepared; when a fire rages the fireman should be trained.  When a crisis hits, the believer should be firmly established in the devotional disciplines and relationship with His God – just like Jehoshaphat was.

Secondly, Jehoshaphat was ready because he was forewarned about some impending doom (2 Chronicles 19:2).  Peter teaches us to “be watchful because the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and Paul urges the believer should “not be ignorant if [Satan’s] plans” (2 Corinthians 2:11).  We are ready by staying close to God and watching in prayer, listening to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us.

  1. PRAYER: Run to God (v13-14)

2Prayer

As soon as the news of the approaching armies reached the king he proclaimed a fast, and everyone in this reformed nation ran to their God.  Jehoshaphat’s prayer is deliberately included as an example prayer for a crisis such as this.  This is how he prayed:

  • Praise: Even with the crisis looming Jehoshaphat starts by praises to God, allowing his (and the assembly) to consider Whom they are praying for: the Almighty God who Rules from Heaven and has power over every nation, and he is the God who made covenant with them!
  • Remind: The king reminds himself (and the assembly) of what God has done in the past, which immediately makes this present crisis seem less dooming since God has done many similar miracles for Israel in the past. Furthermore Jehoshaphat reminds himself (and the assembly) of the promises of God, stirring faith that God had already promised to do the thing he was about to ask. These two reminders stirred the assembly’s hope that God is at hand and for them, and therefore he is willing and able to deliver them from this disaster.
  • Confess: “You have not because you ask not”. Only after praising God for his attributes and faithfulness does the King confess his problem to God and asks for intervention, but he adds their helplessness in the situation and trust in God’s willingness and ability to help. He prays “For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” (verse 12).   God promises “grace to the humble” – and that is exactly what the nation needs in this crisis!
  1. WAIT: Let God direct you (v13-15) 

3wait

After the prayer the whole nation “stood before the Lord” (verse 13) – just waited patiently, quietly for God’s direction or instruction. Each minute that they stood waiting they knew the army marched closer to Jerusalem.  But no-one did anything to prepare for war or flight – they abstained from all food and rest and entertainment because they knew that all their efforts will be futile – they literally looked and waited for God to save them.

Just like Habakkuk did years later, the Jews took their eyes off their enemies and looked towards God: I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me” (Habakkuk 2:1). Then God answered through the prophet Jahaziel that he will destroy their enemies – they simply had to walk to the edge of the desert and see what He was going to do.  Juda was encouraged by God and worshipped God with relief and gladness.  God heard their prayers and would save them from certain destruction!

Because they waited, God answered the questions “Lord, what do you see?”, “Lord, what will You do to save us?” and “Lord, what must we do?”  In every crisis the Word of God is what changes the situation from trial to triumph.

  1. FAITH: the worship of faithful obedience (v16-21)

4faith

But as in almost every situation, God involves us in His salvation.  What did the Jews have to do?  In simple obedience walk head-on towards the enemy.  As Moses had to face Pharaoh, Joshua had to encircle Jericho, David had to walk up to Goliath, and Gideon had to walk into the Midianite camp, so Judah had to march in faith towards this massive army.  As Daniel’s friends discovered, God’s Great Plan sometimes requires us to walk through the fire. But as they obeyed in faith, they started singing the ancient Israeli song associated with God’s faithful deliverance of the Egyptian Army after their Exodus “Praise the LORD, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 20:20)

And this act of faithful obedience and praise resulted in God’s intervention into the situation: the three invading armies turned on each other and completely annihilated each other so that “No-one had escaped.” (v24)  All Judah had left to do was carry the spoils of war back – for three full days!  What a marvelous victory by the Lord!

  1. THANKS: Stop to give honour (v24-26)

5thanks

But the story does not end with the spoils and peace – Jehoshaphat had the wisdom to end where they began: at the House of God.  The whole nation returned to God’s Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God and make His praise glorious.  They returned to the place where they prayed, waited and received the Word and direction from God.

Just like one of the ten lepers who had received healing from Jesus returned to give thanks and “was made well (or whole)”, so Jehoshaphat and Judah was reward with “quite” and “rest all around” because of their gifts of thanks.

The other day the Lord said to me as something happened which was out of my control, “Don’t walk around defeated.”  I want to leave you with this phrase – when Crisis hits don’t walk around defeated, like heathen who live “having no hope and far from God in this world” (Ephesians 2:13).

Rather, like King Jehoshaphat, devote your life to seek and serve God.  When news of crisis comes, turn to Him in prayer, reminding yourself of Who He is and what He has done, present your problem to Him and confess your helplessness and trust in Him. Ask Him what He will do and what you should do. Then wait – let Him direct your response.  Act confidently – God is in control of your life, and you are precious to Him.  And once He has saved you, make His praise glorious!

LordForMe

Get up! Encourage yourself

“Wherever you go, there you are.”  Grin or laugh about the silly statement, but it is a truth with significant consequences.  The older we get the more we realize that we cannot run away from ourselves – the painful or shameful memories of past failures and disappointments with oneself, our emotions or our own shortcoming – because “wherever you go, there you are.”  Sadly we can’t outrun ourselves.  Where you go, these aspects of your life follow you.

wherever you go there you are

But we also realize that the people in our lives come and go because we move on, because we hurt or get hurt, or because inevitably our loved ones pass away.  So apart from the constancy of God in our lives, only “you are wherever you go” – no one else.  Good or bad – this truth requires some reflection and response.

Sooner or later in life you will find that you are left to face a big, troubling situation all by yourself.  With no-one else to spur you on, you will need to encourage yourself in God.

ENCOURAGE YOURSELF IN GOD

Although he did not live an isolated life, David had to face many critical situations alone with his God.  In 1 Samuel 30 we find David at a very vulnerable position in his life: he and his group of mercenaries (all refugees from Israel) just returned to their refugee-town of Ziklag after being rejected by the Philistines to participate in war on Israel.  As this agitated group of warriors returned to their hometown they found it plundered by a band of Amalekites who left with all their possessions and loved ones.  The historian records that David and the people who were with him wept until they had no more strength to weep… And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in soul, each for his sons and daughters.” (v3-5)

David was at the end of himself, and so were all the soldiers with him.  They have been living with the Philistines for the last 16 months as foreigners far away from family and familiarity.  They were tired and without income.  The last bit of comfort were their homes, family and community – now this too was taken away.  They worried what those savages would do to their loved ones.  The anguish was great and brought David to an all-time low – it seemed as though God had rejected him.

But our shepherd-king knew his God, and strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (v6) David knew he needed courage to go on, and he knew where he would get it.  Better yet – he knew from WHOM he would get courage – “the God of Encouragement and Endurance.” (Romans 15:5)

How did David encourage himself in the Lord his God?

  1. THE DISCIPLINE OF PRAISE

worship_1I bet that this psalmist sang a song that he wrote just over a year earlier, after God had delivered him from Abimelech the Philistine King (Psalms 34).  In that song David vowed to “bless the LORD at all times (verse 1) – in all circumstances, good or bad.  Why? Because the Lord is always God, always good.  Then he vowed “his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (verse 1) – leaving no space for negativity, grumbling, complaining, fearful or hopeless confessions.  David’s mouth was dedicated to speaking of God’s power and goodness – he therefore his heart was encouraged to move on in faith.

  1. REMIND YOURSELF HOW BIG AND CLOSE GOD IS

who-is-god1

This discipline of praise lead David to magnify the LORD, and …exalt his name” (verse 3).  Is it possible (or even necessary?) to make God bigger than he is?  No.  God’s magnitude will not change with David’s praises – but when you tell God of his rehearse his great attributes and benevolent, righteous character, your perspective of our circumstances does change.   By making God bigger, you make your problems smaller.  You see life from God’s perspective, and that makes your troubles seem smaller.  When we praise God we remind ourselves that God can make a way where there seems to be no way – even in this hopeless situation we now face.  That reminder stirs hope, the confidence that this troubling situation will “work together for the good” (Romans 8:28) and that God “will make a way” where it seems impossible (Isaiah 43:19).  Hope stirs courage – it gives strength to the heart.

  1. REMIND YOURSELF OF WHAT GOD HAS DONE

Then, in the praises, David reminds himself of how God answered and delivered (verse 4) him in the past.  He probably recalled how the Lord saved him from the lion and the bear while he was watching his father’s sheep, and how the Lord gave him victory over the giant Goliath and later as captain in Israel’s army. He probably recalled how the Lord had delivered him many times from the hand of the jealous King Saul and the barbarians he fought as mercenary.  David truly experienced how the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (verse 18)

This gave David strength to get up from the pit of despair, to get out of his raided house, face the angry mob of mighty men outside and encourage them to pursue their enemies!

  1. WAIT ON THE LORD FOR INSTRUCTION

wait_on_Lord

But David was wise enough to not act in presumption.  David knew how to wait on the Lord [to] strengthen your heart” (Psalm 27:14), and that it requires patience and discipline until God gives the go-ahead. The historian records that before David got up to pursue the band of Amalekites he inquired of the LORD, ‘Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?’ [God] answered him, ‘Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue’” (1 Samuel 30:8).  Only then did David encourage the men with this prophesy of success, turning their hopeless frustration into hopeful fortitude.

David and his men were so invigorated by this encouragement from God that they pursued the Amalekite army for two days and then engage them in combat from twilight until the evening of the next day” (verse 17).  A promise from God gives one strength to go on.

A NEED FOR ENCOURAGEMENT

Had David not leaned the discipline to encourage himself in God, his story might have ended in this chapter.  But he gained the necessary courage to press on in the presence of God.  Not only did David himself benefit from his self-encouragement: his army of mighty men got turned around from self-pity to strength, their wives and children got rescued, and everyone was prospered through this pursuit to such an extent that David even had wealth to share with the tribal leaders in Israel – the very thing that turned their hearts and attention to him and invite him to return from exile and receive his kingship.  All because David could encourage himself in the Lord his God.

Can you identify with David’s feelings of frustration, loss and despair?  Then follow his example: shut the door to all the noises and demands, praise God and remind yourself how powerful and close he is, and what he has done for you and others1 in the past. Then wait patiently on him for direction, and see how the Lord “encourages your heart and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17)

You’ll be surprised to find that – like for David – self-encouragement not only changes your mood, but your circumstance and the lives and destinies of those around you.  After all, what else would you expect from a meeting with Allmighty God?

 

Footnote

  1. When one is in despair it is often difficult to remember good times and breakthroughs of the past. I find it helps to rehearse and reflect in prayer on what God had done for others as recorded in Scripture. I would recall Gods saving intervention in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Gideon, David, Daniel etc… Their life stories as recorded in the Bible give me courage in my times of difficulty.  This is what Paul referred to when he wrote “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”  Try this.

Encourage one another

Have you considered what your legacy will be?

What will you be known for one day?

What will your colleagues remember you by?

What will your kids imitate (either intentionally or unintentionally)? Or what are they learning from you now?

What is your influence right now? When you leave the office today, or the dinner party tonight or the Bible study group this evening, what do people say of you after you’re gone?  What are you known by?

I WANT TO BE A BARNABAS

St-Barnabas-cropped
St Barnabas “Son of Encouragement”

Imagine being known and remembered primarily for being an encourager.  I want to be that guy!  Joseph, a Levite of Cyprus, got the nick-name “Encourager” (“Barnabas”) by the apostles and the early church (Acts 4:36-37).    His ability to encourage was so influential that he is still remembered today by that name.  What a legacy!  This Encourager had much influence in the early days of the church and missions.  For instance after the zealous persecutor Saul of Tarsus had his life-altering encounter with the Lord Jesus and became Paul, the Encourager was the one who went to look for him, encouraged him and brought him to the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-28).  When the believers fled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom and resulting authority, witnessing as they travelled, they “accidentally” established a big church in Antioch with Gentiles (Acts 11:19-24).  The Encourager was delegated by the Apostles to discover what was going on; he saw God was at work and encouraged them to continue what they were doing.  Afterwards he went to look for Paul, and encouraged him to join him in Antioch and to pursue the ministry he received from the Lord – the ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 11:25-26).   Years later, while the church was praying, the Holy Spirit set apart two people for missions to the Gentiles – Paul and the Encourager (Acts 13:1-3).  Again we read of the Encourager when he and Paul had an argument over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40); Paul considered him to be fickle and untrustworthy, but Barnabas could see God at work in and through him, so he encouraged him and took him along on his ministry trip. It seems whenever there was a new thing or a big change about to happen, God positioned the Encourager right there in the middle of the crisis, to put strength in the hearts of his people so they might press on amidst uncertainty and difficulty.

PUT STRENGTH IN THE HEART

To encourage literally means to PUT STRENGTH INTO THE HEART (en = into, courage = strength).  Fear does the opposite; it takes away the will to fight.  So in times of uncertainty or hardship with much opposition, people lose the will to press and as their hearts close up or cower away.  In times such as this people need to be strengthened in heart, they need to be encouraged to press one.

See how encouragement can produce strength and endurance in a very practical way in “Death Crawl Scene” from Facing the Giants: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sUKoKQlEC4]

Everyone needs encouragement at times.  And a need for encouragement is not a sign of weakness just a desire for water is not a sign of weakness.

SCRIPTURE AS ENCOURAGEMENT

It is helpful to keep in mind that the Old Testament history, poetry as well as prophesies were written during times of tremendous uncertainty and hardship.  The intent of the writings is to remind the reader of God’s promises, God’s power, God’s proximity and God’s personal commitment to his people.  Every book in the Old Testament is very encouraging.  That’s why Paul referred to it when he said “whatever was written in former days was written for our learning, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

Bible
The Bible: an encouraging record of God’s power, promises and proximity.

Likewise most of the New Testament was written during the three periods of most severe persecution of the first century (around AD 45, 60 and 92).  Many of these communities also suffered from internal conflict, so understandably the Apostles wrote with the intent to encourage the believers to remain faithful to Christ in their worship, witness and works.

Thus the New Testament is a great place to learn about this skill much-needed ministry skill of encourage.  So how do you encourage another?

  1. DELIBERATE INTENT IN MEETINGS
We come together to encourage on another.
We come together to encourage on another.

When the author of Hebrews moves from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxis (right practice) in the 10th chapter, he encourages the scattered, persecuted church to maintain “full assurance of faith” (10:22) in Christ while “holding on in hope” of eternal reward (10:23).  These instructions come as no surprise, but he goes on to instruct this fearful group to “not neglect to meet together” (10:25).  These believers may die when they meet together openly in their hostile environment!  Why should they risk the public association as Christians?  He writes says believers should meet together to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:25).  He says “think about ways to encourage one another to greater love and more good works!”  Continue to come together so that you may effectively encourage one another!”

  1. VERBAL CULTURE OF UPLIFTMENT

We look for gold within the dust.

Such a deliberateness requires a disciplined community that – amidst personal hardship – have trained itself to only speak words that are encouraging and leads to the edification of another (Ephesians 4:29-31). Therefore there is no room for complaining, criticizing, slander or gossip in their communal verbal culture.  Rather, the tone of conversation is always one of affirmation, thanks, recognition, exhortation – always encouraging, even when correcting.

Our verbal culture is always uplifting.
Our verbal culture is always uplifting.

Notice the way the apostles start and end their New Testament letters with affirmation, thanks and encouragement.  Jesus speaks the same way in Revelations to the seven churches around Ephesus, starting and ending each message to these congregations with affirmation and praise, and ending each letter with hope – a promise of reward.  What an example of verbal encouragement!

  1. ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THE GOOD

The verbal encouragement obviously stems from eyes that have been trained to be “light” and not “dark” as Jesus taught (Matthew 6:22-23), in other words they have trained themselves to recognize whatever is good and godly, and not to fixate on what is negative and evil.  As a pessimist sees the glass “half empty” an optimist sees the same glass “half full”, so one who has trained his eyes to see good can see goodness in great difficulty and thereby become an exceptional encourager when everyone else complains.

We look for gold within the dust.

Eugene Person’s paraphrase of Proverbs 11:27 (MSG) sums up this disciplined attitude well: “if anyone can find the dirt in someone, be the first to find the gold!”  An encourager always seeks what is good and Godly in someone, and when he finds it he praises it, drawing attention to it so others can also see and celebrate it.  Because, as Andy Stanley puts it, “whatever gets celebrated gets repeated!” 

  1. RELAYING GOD’S MESSAGE OF ENCOURAGEMENT THROUGH PROPHESY

New Testament Prophesy is exactly that – a message from the Lord that reveals and affirms what is good and even praiseworthy, meant for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:4).  Prophetic words from the Lord – whatever the message – communicates to the receiver that “I, the Lord know who you are, what you are going through. I care and I am for you!”  Indeed very uplifting, encouraging and comforting! That’s why Paul encouraged this very charismatic but persecuted church in Corinth to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy…” (14:1). Everyone needs encouragement, and the Lord wishes to encourage His church (also) through prophesy!

  1. LET NO-ONE SUFFER ALONE

One of the best ways of encouraging one who goes through hardship is by simply being with them in their times of hardship, and to encourage them to not give up.   Paul wrote to the Galatians that they ought to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), or more literally to “stake yourself to” the one suffering, using the imagery of strengthening an injured leg, to prevent it from folding under the load.  Whatever the hardship, your presence with one suffering is encouraging and helps preserve the person’s spirit.

We encourage one another by our support.
We encourage one another by our support.

The affirmation that “you are not alone, you are not forgotten” is an extremely powerful motivator to press on through hardship.  Community, love and a sense of belonging is in itself a reason to live and not give up.  Jesus knows that, and therefore, in various forms we find these words of comfort to persecuted congregations “Behold, I am with you! I will never leave you or forsake you.” (see Hebrews 13:5; Matthew 28:20 etc).   May times our presence and ministry to hard-pressed people reaffirm this encouraging truth: “God knows about you and He is near to you.” 

  1. ENCOURAGED TO PRESS ON THROUGH HOPE

One of the primary ways in which believers are encouraged within the New Testament writings is through hope – the certain promise of reward that give sense and meaning to the current suffering.  As for the athlete, the student, the pregnant mother and fighting soldier, anyone who undergoes suffering will hold on if they know that what they go through is rewarded in some way.  Like Paul says “these light afflictions do not compare with the glory that awaits us” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Encourage through hope to press on.
Encourage through hope to press on.

The most common hopeful encouragement in the New Testament is the promise of rewards on “the Day of the Lord” – Judgment Day or the Return of Jesus, where the Lord will reward faithfulness and obedience amidst suffering, and judge the wicked. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:2-14 as example).  But even temporal hope is a strong encouragement, and the Bible abounds with examples of encouragement to push on with the promise of reward in this life, such as David’s prayer “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen [encourage] your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14) 

THE GOD OF ENCOURAGEMENT

Just as long-distance runners need water and cheers throughout the race, so the people around you need encouragement to go on.  God is “the God of Endurance and Encouragement” (Romans 15:5) who wishes to encourage his children, cheering them on as they do good, comforting them with his presence, promising that their efforts are worth it.

You and I have the privilege to imitate this loving, encouraging God who cheers his children on.  You and I have the privilege to put strength into the hearts of fatigued, faithless and fearful people.  And for that, you will also have your reward!

So look up.  Chances are the first person you meet now will need a cool cup of encouragement.  Be ready!

 

From surviving to THRIVING!

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to THRIVE; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou (American poet, actress and activist in the American Civil Rights Movement).

Reading through the gospel John, one cannot escape the promise of LIFE, of flourishing and thriving, in Jesus.  Over and over Jesus promises that “I have come that you may have LIFE… and that you may have it in overflow” (eg John 10:10).  In fact, the over-arching identity and mission of Jesus (at least from John’ Gospel) is one of LIFE-GIVER.

Jesus is LIFE.  He said I am THE BREAD OF LIFE (John 6:35), “I am THE LIGHT OF LIFE (John 8:12), “I AM THE DOOR” for the preservation of life and access to life (John 10:9), “I am THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life (John 10:11), the “I am THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live(John 11:25), “I am THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE (John 14:6) and lastly “I am THE VINE” though whom we have access to and power for life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I share Mark Hall’s philosophy on this video of Casting Crown’s album THRIVE:

THRIVE in spite of hardships

This promise of LIFE is not defined as an easy life, overflowing with worldly goods and void of suffering.  Jesus did not promise his followers a life void of pain, suffering and difficulty; rather, he promises “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 

thrive_on_bonsai

The apostles echoed his words when they wrote to the suffering churches “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12).  In essence, the New Testament says “don’t just SURVIVE hardships – THRIVE in spite of it!”  The LIFE Jesus promised is not snuffed out through suffering.

This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.
This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.

THRIVE in spite of lack

It is difficult for us to think that it is possible to THRIVE in spite of financial difficulty. Yet it is true that most of the New Testament Church was really poor, being marginalized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Yet the church had power and grew rapidly; they knew to be true what Jesus taught: “life does not consist in the wealth of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

thrive_not_money

Just like some plants flourish in the harsh conditions in a dessert, so a LIFE OF THRIVING is not dependent on abundance of wealth or material success.  In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the other apostles had much possessions.

The dessert is full of life and beauty.
The dessert is full of life and beauty.

THRIVE in spite of imperfections

Just as a THRIVING plant may not be void of imperfections, so a THRIVING life is not a perfect, faultless life either.  Paul likened the full LIFE of Christ contained in human imperfections to a fire shining through the cracks of a clay pot that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our imperfections shows God's glorious life.
Our imperfections shows God’s glorious life.

Thriving therefore is not dependent on worldly comfort, prosperity or perfection.  So, Biblically speaking, how does one move from a life of mere SURVIVING to THRIVING?

  1. A Place to Belong: LIFE flows through receiving and giving love

Using the metaphoric language of a tree, the Psalmist writes “They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  To THRIVE, one needs to be “planted in the house of the Lord” – to find your space in church community which one calls “home”, a place of belonging.  To THRIVE one has to open your heart to people, and be received into theirs.

thrive_tree_1
“like a tree planted next to water…”

It’s common to not feel part of a community, to feel like an outside.  But Paul writes that – regardless of our background – Jesus has “made us accepted” into Christ’s beloved community through adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6).  If this remains “cognitive truth” at best we will SURVIVE; but once this adoption and acceptance becomes “realized or incarnated truth”, once we experience the blessedness of unconditional acceptance in the community of love we THRIVE in life.  We thrive in a community where love is evident both in our giving and receiving of one another.

Jesus refers to this THRIVING as the GLORY we share in wherever we living in unity, in harmonious, Christ-centered community. He said to his followers that THRIVING LIFE or GLORY will set us apart from the world, so that we will be recognized as Christ’s followers, sharing in his LIFE (John 17: 21-23).

Thriving in belonging.
Thriving in belonging.

Thriving happens in Christ’s community, in God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-19) within the security of unconditional love and acceptance, and space to grow and be yourself.  A place where there is no need for presence, where we can live in truth.

  1. Community of Truth: LIFE flows where the LIGHT shines

David observed that it is not financial prosperity that causes one to be blessed but rather by “delight in the law of the LORD” leading to a life devoted to its perpetual study and mediation.  He concludes this person “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3).   As trees flourish and bear fruit next to a flowing stream, so humans THRIVE in a life devoted to the way God intended – a life directed by “the Law of the Lord”.  The “Law of God” or “Truth” is the manual for how God has ordained life, and the pursuit thereof promises a THRIVING LIFE (James 1:25), although not without opposition or difficulty.

One thing that the “Law of God” (or “Word of God”) does for the sincere reader is to search one’s heart and show what is true and what is false (Hebrews 4:12).  This shows what is dynamic and of God (truth), what is destructive and of the sinful self (selfish ambition), or deceptive and from Satan himself (a lie).  That which is from God causes eternal THRIVING LIFE in self and others; that which is from self or Satan causes death and destruction (James 1:13-17).  The Word of God brings to light the veracity of motives, thoughts and feelings.  It causes one to LIVE in Truth.

Thrive in the Light of Truth.
Thrive in the Light of Truth.

One prospers in the Truth: an environment of honesty without deception, of sincerity without pretense.  Such a community that embrace truth in love cultivates tremendous vigor – it leads to THRIVING LIFE.  Where there is freedom in unconditional acceptance to either confess faithlessness or failure, or to lovingly confront and correct destructive behavior or beliefs so that one’s life may be directed in Truth and be set free to THRIVE (Romans 8:32).

  1. Hope – a reason to LIVE on

As mentioned earlier, a THRIVING LIFE is not void of trials, tribulation or temptation, but rather this resilient life THRIVES in spite of hardships because of hope – the confident expectation that good will come.  Like the tree shoots out its roots, even splitting open solid rock because it follows the scent of water beyond it, so THRIVING in hard times requires the hope of reward.  There must be a reason to push on.  There must be a promise of THRIVING life beyond this hardship.

Press on in hope.
Press on in hope.

Paul was a man that endured much: “imprisoned frequently, in [danger of] death often… five times I received forty stripes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he did not give up, and he did not just settle to SURVIVE, but pressed on to THRIVE in spite of these hardships.  How?   Through hope!  He writes “we do not lose heart… For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  Paul always kept his eye on the promise of ETERNAL LIFE, not being phased with temporal hardships.  Paul THRIVED on hope.

His life philosophy was that “all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and reasoned that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-5). He stressed the fact that this hope is not an empty dream, because already the Holy Spirit is living in the believer as a guarantee of ETERNAL LIFE (Ephesians 1:14) and what he calls “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) – the promise to share in the GLORIOUS LIFE in Christ.  Therefore Paul rejoices in these hardships, because it helps him produce godly character and reminds him long for a life without sin and suffering in Christ’s Kingdom.  He does not want to forfeit that prize by giving up now!

THRIVING amidst hardships means we push on in hardships in faithfulness to God, because we know “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23) – our perseverance has promise of the prize.  Although itit is much more costly!  To hold on, to break through, to push forward in hope leads to a better LIFE.   THRIVING in hardships requires hope – a clear picture of what the reward for perseverance is.

David writes on hope: “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and concludes “wait in the Lord; be of good courage and he will give strength to your heart” (Psalm 27:13-14).

  1. Jesus – the source of LIFE

Earlier we wrote that Jesus us the SOURCE of ENDURING LIFE: He called Himself “THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “THE LIGHT OF LIFE” (John 8:12), “THE DOOR” to LIFE (John 10:9), “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who preserves and leads us on in LIFE (John 10:11), ” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (John 11:25),  ” THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and “THE [LIFE-GIVING] VINE” (John 15:5).

Jesus is the source of LIFE.  This thriving life is found in Him.  He told his followers to “Abide in me… for apart from me you could do nothing” (John 15:5).  How do we “live” and THRIVE in him?  Simple

Jesus said came that we “may have life abundantly” (John 10:10) – not just life to survive but LIFE in overflow, in excess: THRIVING LIFE.  This LIFE is found as we “abide” or live in Him (John 15:5) – in communion and prayer with Him; as we study his will and live in obedience to his Word (John 15:7); and as we participate and share in his loving community (John 15:12).

thriving_6

When you walk through the fire

It’s the beginning of a new year, and we are reminded often of the good plans God has for us – “plans to prosper and not to harm us, to give you a future and hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  But what do we do when God’s plans include walking through the fire?

i_believe_in_God“I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” This first line of the Apostolic Creed is fundamental to the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6): the belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible, and God who is a loving Father who has our best interests in heart.  In this God we trust.

Yet this great truth is the problem for many devout believers who sincerely trust in God for something – healing, provision, breakthrough at work, peace in a relationship – but God does not come through.   Over and over we affirm that God is almighty and good, and that he hears our cries and answers our prayers – but then a loved one dies, your company folds and finances dwindle or marriage ends in divorce court.  Or your desires are unmet in spite of all the promises you received, and you start another year lonely, or childless, or frustrated at work.  What do we make of these situations?  How do we relate to a loving, Almighty Father that allows for the suffering of his children?


 The cause of suffering

As mentioned in a previous post Suffer Well, suffering has two basic behavioral consequences in a believer.

"Introspection" - bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)
“Introspection” – bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)

Firstly, he/she may gravitate towards doubt of self, leading to unhealthy introspection, believing that the suffering is either a result of God’s punishment for sin or some “open door” through which Satan has access to hurt us.  Job’s friends believed this and accused him of secret sin. (Yes, “sin leads to death” (James 1:15) and yes, our God “disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), but like a good father he warns beforehand and makes it clear what you are being corrected of – his aim is correction)).

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

Secondly, the one suffering may doubt God’s character or ability, leading to accusation, that either God is unjust (as Job did) or unable to save. This can escalate to agnosticism or even atheism.

However, the Bible contains a myriad of godly characters who has undergone suffering – neither because of their sin or God’s unfaithfulness.  These accounts were recorded during times of hardship “for our learning… encouragement… [and] hope (Romans 15:4) during similar circumstances.  One such helpful recording is of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship a statue which emperor Nebuchadnezzar erected (see Daniel 3:14-30).  By their own declaration these godly men believed “our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand…” (v17).  Yet they ended up in the fire; God did not prevent them from suffering.  What can we learn from this account of the three Jews in Babylonian exile 530BC?  How does it encourage us or give us hope in our own suffering?

"The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace" -  3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome
“The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace” – 3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

God is not the author of suffering and death

In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sikcness, no enmity.
In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sickness, no enmity.

As illustrated in this account, God is not the one who initiates suffering and death – the pagan king was.  God’s character and desire for his creation is clear in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1 and 2) – there was no death, sickness or suffering until the fall.  We see this also in the promised re-creation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 20 and 21) where again death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). God is the author of life; Satan is the author of death and destruction (John 10:10). Since the fall of creation sin in our hearts and our world will result in pain, suffering, sickness, and death.  This is exactly why Jesus came – “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) so that mankind may again have life more abundantly” (John 10:10).  God is not the author of suffering, but he is drawn to our suffering to redeem mankind from it.

A good life does not save us from suffering.

As seen in our text, a good moral life does not prevent us from suffering.  In fact, even a devout godly life does not protect us from all harm as we see in this account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship idols, and yet were thrown in the fire.  A casual glance at Biblical and church history will assure you that good people suffer – in spite of their godliness and often because of their devotion to God.

Consequently, suffering is not always the result of our sinfulness or imperfection.  Our suffering many times is the result of other people’s cooperation with evil (as in this case – the idolatry and oppression of Nebuchadnezzar), or simply the result of the fallen world infested with genetic imperfections, diseases and natural disasters.  Our righteousness does not always exclude us from these hardships.

God enters into our fire.

God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)
God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)

Suffering believers often feel abandoned by God.  The question asked many times “Where is God when it hurts?” is clearly answered in this account of Daniel’s friends: God enters the fire to be with his people in their suffering and strengthen them.  This is clearly demonstrated by Christ’s incarnation: Jesus became man to identify with us in our suffering (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Hebrews 4:15) and to ultimately bring an end to the suffering brought about by sin and Satan (Revelations 21:2-5).

And still today Jesus is “Emmanuel – God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) who will “never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5).  Especially during hardship the Psalmists sings “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).   No amount of suffering, pain, death or loss – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38).  God enters our fire – we never suffer alone.

Our suffering has purpose

Why does a loving God then allow suffering? If he is with us in our suffering, why does he not simply save us from it?  The mocking Jewish elite asked this same question to Jesus hanging on the cross 2000 years ago (Matthew 27:41-44), but Jesus endured it because he knew there was purpose to his suffering (Hebrews 12:2) – the salvation of the world!

Our text shows us that the suffering of the three righteous men at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar also had purpose, and we find hope that our suffering has the same three benefits.

Firstly, we note that their suffering lead to their immediate promotion (Daniel 3:v30).  This is a pattern in the Bible – the one who suffers well is promoted directly after his/her suffering.  Think of Job who was double as wealthy after his loss (Job 42:10), Joseph who became ruler over Egypt after his imprisonment (Genesis 41:41-44), David who was crowned king after his persecution (2 Samuel 5:3), Peter who became leader of the early church after his “shaking” (Luke 22:31-32 and Acts 2:14), and Jesus who earned the title “King of kings, Lord of lords” through his obedient suffering (Philippians 2:8-11 and Revelations 19:6).

As mentioned in a previous post Suffering your good tutor we can rest in the truth that “Nothing irredeemable can happen to a Christian” – or as Paul said it “all things work together for the good…” (Romans 8:28).  For the Christian who hold onto God in Christ, regardless of what you are going through, you are better off afterwards – both in this life and the life to come.  Suffering well always lead to promotion.  Nothing we encounter can put you back – God can turn every situation around for your good and his good.

Secondly, the suffering of the three friends of Daniel functions as an amplifier of their witness of and faith in God, so that everyone knew them and was attracted to them after the suffering to hear and investigate their story (Daniel 3:27; refer Philippians 1:13).  Their faith in God and faithfulness to him drew the attention of the king and his governors.  Furthermore, because of God’s preservation and presence in the fire, the king issued a decree that no one may “speak anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) for fear of their life. Effectively, their faithful, hopeful suffering lead to the honoring of Israel’s God throughout the vast Babylonian Empire, by the King’s decree.  Because they suffered well, the name of God was known and held in honour throughout the fast Babylonian empire; in other words, their suffering was part of God’s plan of salvation of the world. Joseph discovered the same after his imprisonment and promotion – what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for the preservation of millions of souls from widespread famine (Genesis 45:5-8).

Throughout the ages, the blood of the saints has been the seed of the church.  In other words, the faithful, hopeful suffering of God’s people has lead to the salvation of millions of souls throughout the ages.  Likewise your suffering amplifies the witness of your faith in God and lends credence to your message of hope in God – if you suffer while trusting God and remaining faithful to him.

Thirdly, as in the case of the godly martyrs who endured Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, suffering helps one grow in the knowledge of both yourself and God.  Trying times helps one discover the end of yourself and you realize how much you need the Lord’s grace to survive the fiery ordeal, as Paul realized (2 Corinthians 12:9). This produces a beautiful humility.

But suffering also helps one grow in intimacy with God like never before, as we see in this rich example of the three Jewish martyrs who experienced Jesus “walking in the midst of their fire” with them (Daniel 3:25).  Suffering forces one to draw near to God with no pretense, and the result is an honest perception of who God is, as Job discovered (Job 42:5).    This intimacy with God leads to uncharacterized confidence to pursue the impossible, because you have come to know the power and faithfulness of God through your hardships.

Taking it home

In closing, there are three take-home messages from this story in Daniel 3.

We find comfort in the truth that God will never forsake us – especially not during hardship!  “I am with you when you go through the fire… you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you…” says the Lord (Isaiah 43:1-2). But don’t isolate yourself, don’t walk through the fire alone – “God is among His people” (Revelation 21:3).

We find hope that our suffering has meaning, it has purpose – God makes “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  You will be better off after this suffering than you were before it!

Lastly, this story makes us consider and prepare our hearts: can we say with these three godly men “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but even if not… we will not serve your gods… (Daniel 3:17-18).  They knew God could save them, but God said no.  Jesus pleaded his Father to make a way around the cross, but God said no (Matthew 26:39, 42).  Paul pleaded the Lord to save him from his torment, but the Lord said no (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).  David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) – will you?  Will you serve God when the he says no and you must walk through the fire?

flames
Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?