Suffering, our good tutor

Writing this article, I am sitting in front of a casket of a faithful Christian minister who passed away un-expectantly, almost pre-maturely.  I am early for the funeral, and my heart is heavy for his children whom I know well.  Death brings grief, and the added shock of unexpected passing of a loved one leaves a sense of abandonment, and greater loss since there was no opportunity to say farewell.  Even more so if there was no time to reconcile hearts.  Furthermore, my mind and prayers keep going back to friends of ours who’s four-month old baby is in ICU again after heart surgery.  Things like these wear you down.

We suffer in many ways.  My wife and I have a list of people we pray for daily: beautiful single friends who long for a suitable mate to share life with, who suffer through loneliness and also some couples who long for a baby of their own to fill their arms.  I think of people in church who have been frustrated in the area of work, purpose and finances for quite some time – they wait, work and pray for some break-through.  There is the lady who has been battling leukemia for three years.  The friend who has been involved in a custody case for his son (who is in a very bad situation) for three years, but the case keeps on dragging out.  And yesterday I received a text message from a friend who let me know that her nanny and “second mother” to her three children has passed away after a serious heart attack; there will be tears in their house today.  No one escapes suffering. No amount of faith, no degree of devotion to God exempts us from suffering.

Over the past two decades much has been written on the detrimental effects of suffering, pain and trauma on the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of a person.  Recently however, studies have been done on what is called “post-traumatic growth” or the positive growth effects of suffering, including gaining inner strength (resilience), become more appreciative of everyday things, growth in compassion and capacity for intimacy.  These findings do not surprise us since many of us can refer to some trying time in our lives as the turning point for positive personal or relational development.  Suffering is indeed a good school master.

The Bible has much to say on suffering and our approach to it.  Although God is not the author or origin of suffering the Bible teaches that God turns any situation for the good for his children (Romans 8:28-29) and that therefore one should approach suffering as an opportunity for God to complete a redemptive work in you or through it (see James 1:3-4; compare Hebrews 2:9-10).  In this article we will look at what the Bible says we benefit or learn from suffering.

(1) Allow suffering to tests your foundation

Charles H. Spurgeon wrote that “trials teach is what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.”  We have all found this to be true: in trying times our character and relationships show itself for what it is; suffering is a good test of our true selves.  This is what the author of Hebrews also write to a church undergoing mounting persecution: “Yet once more I will not only shake the earth, but also the heavens.” [This] signifies the removing of those things that are shaken… so that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:27-28) Trying times tend to differentiate between that which is firm and stable in us (beliefs and character traits), and that which is not, and also to show that which has lasting value and that which is of temporal nature.

Jesus taught two parables that relate to this:  In the one he used the metaphor of two men who built houses – one on solid bedrock and another on unstable sand; when the same storm hit the two homes, one collapsed and the other stood through it.  The storm simply revealed the strength of the foundations (see Matthew 7:24-25); without the storm this could not be known.  A second parable is on the Sower and his seed which fell on various terrains and some germinated and sprung up.  However, when the sun comes up the seedlings in the shallow soil perish because “they have no root… in a time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). The sun, representing a time of testing, simply reveals that these seedlings have no roots to sustain them; without the testing of the sun this could not be known.  It is a redemptive time of testing.

In a similar manner Moses also wrote of the suffering as a test, summarizing the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering of the Hebrews firstly as a test, “to know what is in [their] heart” whether they will obey God or not (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Whatever the cause of suffering, it brings with it a test of our faith, our character, and our relationships (1 Peter 4:12).  Suffering, like any good tutor, helps us see ourselves for who we are, and shows us what areas we need to work on next.

(2) Suffering reminds us we need God

Apart from suffering bringing a test, Moses also stated the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering was “to humble you.”  God kept the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years, feeding them manna daily, to teach them that although they enter a fertile, rich land, they will always be dependent on His provision.  They ought to remember the LORD… for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).  Their suffering was a way to teach them that they need God daily.

The apostle Paul personally experienced suffering as a tutor in humility, testifying that “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan harassing [him], to keep [him] from becoming conceited [or proud]” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).  Although Paul begged God to deliver him from this suffering, the Lord simply said to endure it with the strength he provides.  In our suffering we learn that we are always dependent on God.

Another powerful example of this lesson from suffering is the account of the mighty emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who admired his great empire and ascribed the vast advancement of his empire to his own hand.  At that moment, a voice from heaven rebuked him and his mental capacity was removed from him and he lived among the wild animals for a time, until he acknowledged the hand and provision from God in all his success; only then he was re-instated as emperor.  His suffering taught him his dependence on God.

(3) Suffering helps us grow in intimacy with God (and others)

Suffering creates opportunity to know God in a depth and sincerity that we have not known before.  In my twelve years of pastoral ministry I have heard countless times that people say during (and after) their most difficult times in their lives “I have grown closer to God.”  Suffering allows one to re-evaluate what you believe, and also creates a desperation to get answers from God as Job did. That desperation in turn helps us cast away all pretense and diplomacy so that we can approach God in all earnestness and “rawness”.  Job received a reply from God he never anticipated, and said “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).  Suffering allows us to get to know God as never before, and to grown in intimacy with him.

In addition to growing in intimacy with God, suffering allows us to grow in sincerity and vulnerability with those around us as our brokenness, weakness and needs cannot be hidden behind facades.  This creates the capacity and the reality for deeper, more honest and intimate relationships of those around us.  Even when the tough times pass, these relationships remain deep and strong because of the shared experience of suffering.

(4) Suffering helps us grow in Godly character

Like a baby who must learn to sleep alone or to soothe himself, casting aside the pacifier, growth is often associated with discomfort and suffering.  Suffering is not pleasant, but we learn from it and we are changed through it.  Suffering not only shows our weaknesses and strength (as mentioned in the first point), but it creates a good opportunity to realign our values, adjust our thinking and rethink our responses to situations – allowing for behavioral changes and ultimately character growth.  Suffering thus helps us to grow up, and therefore we should rejoice in it (Romans 5:3-4).  Do not shy away from difficulty but allow it complete its perfect work in us (James 1:2-4) by letting us grow up in the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29).

(5) Suffering teaches us resistance to temptation

Suffering teaches us resistance to temptations – that’s why we have public penal systems such as traffic fines and imprisonment, and why we have similar systems in schools and in our homes.  Suffering in its very nature helps to builds a resistance against the seduction of sin: Peter wrote to a church undergoing severe persecution that he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” and no longer lives with fleshly cravings, but submitted to the will of God (1 Peter 4:1).  That is the reason why we chastise our children, with the aim that the undesirable behavior will seem no longer desirable.

This metaphor of suffering as chastisement is common in Scripture.  About 750 BC Isaiah the prophet wrote of the oppressive Assyrian Empire as “the rod of [God’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) – thus Israel’s suffering was God’s discipline to deliver the nation from the destructive, sinful habits, notably injustice to the poor and idolatry.  In the same manner, about 800 years later, the author of the letter to the Hebrews referred to the Roman persecution of those congregations as God’s loving chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-7) – to deliver them from the seduction of turning from Christ as the only Mediator and Savior in the light of severe suffering.

Many of us learned our own lessons through tough times brought about by our own bad decisions.

(6) Suffering gives us eternal perspective

Paul Alexander was my instructor during my theological studies.  In their book A Certain Life Paul and his wife Carol write of their darkest night when their son Jason collided with a truck and was battling death for more than a month in ICU (chapters 16-17).  They write that one of the outcomes of this ordeal for them as a family is that they have a renewed perspective – they are no longer thrown by petty things nor drawn in by temporal comforts or worldly pursuits. Their brush with death have taught them that life is short and relationships are precious, and now they make each moment count for eternity. With the apostle Paul, imprisoned and faced with death after years of suffering, they can say “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Elsewhere, Paul reflected om his suffering, comparing it with eternal rewards: “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The English poet Samuel Johnson said “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”  A morbid thought, but it is indeed true that suffering like the threat of death, has the ability to focus the mind on what is important, on that which has value in eternity.  Because of his suffering, Paul did not fear death nor waste time; he had an eternal perspective which translated in making the most out of every opportunity (Acts 20:24).  Suffering does the same for us.

(7) Suffering creates capacity for empathy and compassion

I had an exceptional mathematics lecturer during my first two years at university. Mrs Roux classes were always full due to students preferring her lectures above other more qualified professors teaching the same modules.  What made her an exceptional teacher – in her own confession – was that she struggled to understand mathematics in her student days and had to wrestle with the abstract models and concepts.  She admitted she was not as smart as the other lecturers who seemed to intuitively grasp these abstract concepts, but she had to work hard to really understand the work.  This gave her the edge over the other teachers since she herself understood what it was to struggle in mastering the coursework, and therefore patience to help those who wrestled with the work.

Furthermore Mrs Roux had sincere compassion for her students: I recall one day receiving a phone call as I prepared for a rewrite, wondering how I was doing – she called from a hospital bed recovering from an operation.  Her own struggle with mathematics made her an exceptionally supportive lecturer.

Suffering does that for us – it creates in us a capacity for empathy and even compassion, as Paul writes to the suffering church in Corinth “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  Even Christ himself was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10-11) and therefore can sympathize with us in our weaknesses during trials (Hebrews 4:15-16).  Therefore we can approach him confidently, knowing Jesus has compassion for our circumstance.

In conclusion, looking at the mourners around me who gather around their deceased spouse, father, grandfather, minister and friend, I am reminded yet again that none of us escape suffering.  But suffering has the potential to be our tutor towards godliness.  So allow suffering to have its perfect way in us, don’t let these opportunities go wasted on self-pity or escapism.  Rather, let it reveal our true selves, remind us of our need for God, grow us into intimacy and Christ-like character, even as Jesus himself was perfected by it.  Let it deliver us from our sinful natures and create in us a capacity to show compassion and have empathy with those suffering like us.  Let us in our direst moments pray as our Lord did “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”  (Matthew 26:42)

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Is there more to rest than sleep?

Our culture is marked by incessant business and cluttering communication; we are generally overworked and overloaded with information.  Both our work schedules and social calendars are jam-packed, leaving us drained on Fridays and tired on Mondays.  It is ironic that, although we are constantly engaged in events, surrounded by people and always in contact with hoards of “friends” on social media platforms, loneliness and the feeling of isolation are also on the increase according to leading newspapers.[1]  Thus our never-ending business leave us tired and lonely.

busy_life

Evidently the need to rest is not only for social or recreational purposes: a lack of rest has many known health-related consequences, including heart disease, headaches, depression, diabetes, and obesity, decreased mental alertness resulting in poor memory, lower creativity and delayed reaction, and even death – overwork is a cause for at least 1000 death per year in Japan, and 2007 saw more than 2200 work-related suicides, mostly attributed to overwork.[2]

In light of this I find Jesus’ words very logical and refreshing:  “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27).  God instituted resting days and seasons in the Israelite calendar that mandated rest for everyone, because everyone needs a regular break that refreshes, rejuvenates and restores.  These resting days were ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, and although New Testament believers are not mandated to keep these resting days sacred, we learn a lot from how and why these holy days (from where we get the word “holidays”) were instituted “for man”.[3]

What then do we learn about our need for Sabbath from the ceremonial culture instituted by God in the Jewish nation?

A need for reflection

Notes
Notes

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the 7th day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the 7th day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the 7th day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”  (Genesis 2:1-3)

The creation account in Genesis concludes God’s creative work with the creation of man.  After creation God appointed man as governor and keeper of the earth, but the first thing man had to do was rest.  Imagine this!  Here we have Adam and Eve created in perfection – no sin, no ageing, no sickness, no tiredness (they have not even lived a full day!) and they had to observe a resting day!  What “rest” did they need to observe?  A rest of reflection that takes off the pressure of responsibility: God is in control.  The rest which the psalmist refers to when he writes “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Resting in the knowledge that God was busy before I arrived here, and God does not need me – he simply invites me into what He has been doing.  Likewise we rest and breathe out when we reflect on this truth: it does not all depend on me.[4]

The institution of the Sabbath day in Israel’s law, before they enter the promised land, had the same intent: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)  The command to rest is so that the Israelites remember that they were not slaves who live from their labour, but rather that God saved them from that lifestyle.  Their rest was for reflection – to know that they are not left to themselves – God takes care of them.   The Sabbath was a weekly reminder that life does not only depend on my effort, but that God cares for me.

A need for relationships

In the Israelite calendar, every 7th day is holy to commemorate the deliverance from Egypt, the forming of their nation under and by God.  Yet in addition to the weekly ray of rest seven other feasts are prescribed, namely the Feast of Harvest, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Pentecost, Passover Feast, Feast of Booths (tents), Feast of Lights, and the Day of Atonement.[5]  These feasts were grouped together over three periods during the year considering the agrarian calendar, allowing for longer time spent together in traveling as well as festivity.  God calls these sabbaths were “holy gatherings” (Leviticus 23:3), annual celebrations of God’s faithfulness in deliverance and provision.  Thus the intent was that the inhabitants would leave their homes and everyday dealings and travel together as families and friends to Jerusalem for the festivities.  The Passover feast was unique in that it had to be celebrated with the family around a meal (reminder of God’s deliverance from Egypt).  But whether at home around a meal or in Jerusalem in festivity around the temple, there feasts had in common that were times where people gathered together in celebration of life in relationship with God.   There was a regular coming together and celebrating relationship, and a constant affirmation of identity and belonging.

dancing

And this was the intent of the resting seasons.  We primarily find our identities in our work (what we do) and who we relate to (family and friends).[6]  When you meet someone you typically ask “What do you do?”, then “Are you married? Tell me about your family!” or “do you know [John Little]?”  We find our identities in what we do and who we closely relate to; we are known by our work, our family and our friends.

But the performance-culture at work places stress on us to always do more, because the underlying philosophy is “you are what you do, and therefore you are worth what you contribute”.   At work what we do gets celebrated and rewarded, yet at home showing up gets celebrated and rewarded.  “You are family therefore you are worth much.”  It is so easy to fall into the trap of valuing yourself based on you responsibilities and contribution at work.  And this is the intended of rest family/friendship holiday seasons: when the work gets left out of the picture for a season and I find my identity and value in whom I associate with and my relationship with God (referring to the seven feasts of Israel), where I am not valued for my work contribution but for my relating with them.

These seasons of rest are essential for families to bond hearts around festivity and relaxation.  We know that incessant business and work-related stress decreases intimacy in marriage and families, and also friendships.  Thus stopping everything and spending time with loved ones is essential to build and maintain these heart-connections, which in turn re-enforces identity and belonging in the individual –vital for growing children.

A need for refreshing and restoration

These holiday times in the Israelite calendar served as a refreshing as well – a break that not only allowed for reflection and relationships, but also for refreshing of the soul and spirit.  But at times unplanned or unscheduled breaks from the vocational arena might be necessary to restore what was lost or drained from work fatigue or some intense episode.

Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems,  painting or sculptures.
Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems, painting or sculptures.

A practical example for such a need comes from the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Acts 13-14).  They have travelled quite a distance to the Galatian churches, had times of intense preaching and ministry with signs and miracles with success, followed by intense discipleship.  Yet they were also violently resisted and even stoned.  The closing words in this missionary account read as follows: “From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them…   So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Act 14:26-28)  Paul and Barnabas were set apart for missionary work, but after their intense and eventful first trip they were drained, and needed refreshing, so they stayed with their home church and did not go out again for a long time until they were ready for another trip.  They knew that “the sabbath was made for man”.

Even in Jesus’ ministry we see him taking time out to withdraw frequently, sometimes to rest with his disciples, sometimes to rest by himself. On two noteworthy occasions Jesus withdrew for a season to refresh and restore himself after particularly intense episodes: once after the execution of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 14:12-13) and another time after intense resistance when the Jews sought to kill him (John 10:39-40).  We can learn from this: after an intense working schedule or even an intense spiritual or emotional experience we need a lengthy break within a loving community to refresh our spirits and souls.

There are times, however, when a “Sabbath year” [7] or a prolonged season of rest might be necessary.  This might be true in the case where the need is for restoration or rejuvenation, as Israel had to refrain from sowing and ploughing for a year, because the ground needed to rest and be restored.   The reason might be due to loss or trauma which left deep emotional wounds, perhaps recovery from sickness or simply burnout due to overwork, or even recovery of a man who fell in sin, but the idea is that a longer season of recovery is needed.  The idea of restoration in the Scriptures is frequently coupled with “waiting on God”, since a work of recreation is commonly needed, and God alone can restore that which is no more.  The petition during these times is as Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations 5:21 “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.”

A promise of reward

The last Sabbath I would like to highlight from Scripture is the Eternal Sabbath that we will celebrate together when the Lord will take us into the eternal Promised Land when He returns. Hebrews 4:9-11 speaks of that promised rest:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.
The promise of reward gives the strength to press on.

The chapter in its entirety makes it clear that the author exhorts the recipients to not depart from Christ as Mediator, but to keep the faith amidst severe persecution, because the reward is worth it: eternal rest with God!  That is the Final Sabbath everyone in Christ will enjoy – one that is given as a reward for perseverance in faith during this life.  Every other sabbath in this life is a picture[8] of the rest believers will enjoy with Christ in eternity.

How do we respond?

How do we respond to Jesus words “The Sabbath was made for man”?  There are at least four ways: firstly, there is a need to stop all our work dealings weekly in deliberate declaration and reflection that it all does not depend on me – to remind oneself that God is in control.  We need to acknowledge that God is at work and has been before I came onto the scene.  Therefore I do not carry all the responsibility, nor do I have all the answers.  This is really difficult for us; frequently taking a sabbath is in itself a declaration of trust that God success or provision does not depend on us alone, but our trust is in God.

Take those family holidays!
Take those family holidays!

Secondly we take holidays – time with friends and family deliberately aimed at building relationships in times of laughter.  We do it because we believe Jesus when He said we need that relational time.  It is a time of bonding hearts, a time of laughter and festivity.  We find our rest in relationships as we realize again that my value is not determined by my performance but by my acceptance in relationship.  Holiday times with friends and families refreshes as it bonds hearts, strengthening identity and belonging.  These holidays are important for ourselves, but even more so for the children and the lonely people.  Holidays are not just for fun.

Thirdly we acknowledge that there are times we may need to step aside from the vocational arena for a while to recuperate after a particularly draining project or intensely emotional event.  These sabbath seasons are meant to refresh and restore our spirits and souls.  Our egos may stand in the way, since resting many times are associated with weakness, or our fear of lack the lack of provision tomorrow.  But the epidemic proportions with which anxiety and depression are diagnosed is a strong indication that these sabbath seasons were indeed “made for man” – we need them to function well.

Fourthly, in resting times we make time to reflect on the Eternal Sabbath – that life on earth is temporal, and soon Jesus will return to judge all people and to test our works, and only the weighty things will remain.[9]  Much of our work is vanity, as the writer of Ecclesiastes laments.[10]   So reflecting on our eternity brings proper perspective to our time spent on earth.  This reflection has the power to reveal the motives for our incessant business.  The pursuit of riches and comfort in this life is vanity, since all will be dissolved with fire.  However, our relationships, obedience and faithfulness, kind deeds, prayer, witnessing for Christ and building into God’s people – these things have eternal value and eternal rewards.[11]  Although God instituted work, our work must find a proper place in our lives.  Reflecting on our life in eternity helps to bring proper balance and removes undue work-pressures.

So, how will you respond to Jesus’ words “The Sabbath was made for man”?

schedule_holiday

[1] Merz T., Young people are lonely, The Telegraph, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html; Pantry L., Yorkshire Post, 5 August 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html, Gill N., Loneliness: a silent plague, The Guardian, 20 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[2] Harden B., Japan’s Killer Work Ethic, Washington Post Foreign Service, July 13, 2008, Available online http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/12/AR2008071201630.html

[3] Note that the Sabbath we discuss is not the ceremonial law instituted for the Jews as weekly memorial of their deliverance from Egypt (refer to Exodus 31:13) – Christians are not obliged to celebrate a weekly “ceremonial holy day” (refer Colossians 2:16-17).  We however learn a lot from God’s answer to our need for rest, for as mentioned above “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In this article “Sabbath” implies resting time, not the observation of specific ceremonial calendar dates.

[4] Giglio L., I am not but I know I Am, (Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs), 2012, chapter 1.

[5] See Leviticus 23.

[6] Stanley A., When work and family collide, (Multnomah books, Colorado Springs), 2011, p20.

[7] Every 7th year in the Jewish calendar was a year of rest – for both the soil and the farming community.  See Leviticus 25:4.

[8] Colossians 2:16-17

[9] See 1 Corinthians 3:13-15

[10] Ecclesiastes 2:23; 4:4.

[11] See Revelations 22:11-12