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).

 

 

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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)

 

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?

Never give in!

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him.  They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies.  After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days.  On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.

Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected.  Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.

Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice

The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce.  On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again.  The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.

The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds.  The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest.  They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.

Boats on Elephant Island
Boats on Elephant Island

Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird  and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!)  After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted.  This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.

Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia

The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island.  To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia  – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget.  During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening.  The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.

Panoramic view of South Georgia
Panoramic view of South Georgia

Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself.  They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts  to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.

The Chillean steamer Yelcho
The Chillean steamer Yelcho

 

This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together.  Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible.  He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.

Football on ice
Football on ice
Gramophone for the penguins
Gramophone for the penguins

Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence.  Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?

(1) Comfort of Scripture

As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they.  Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.

New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God.  Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11).  The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).  Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.

The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve,  and that he is willing and able to save.   Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.

(2) Companionship in community

Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community.   That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together.  These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times.  He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive.  If no-one gives up, the group endures.

In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”   For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.

(3) Celebration of life

Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.

Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant.  Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  (Matthew 6:22-23).  Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.

Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances.  This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.

Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).  By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

(4) Continuing in hope

Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up.  They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow.  In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England.  He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance.  If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on.  But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.

The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.

Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  How did he endure these hardships?  He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24).   Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord.  He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.

(5) Courage from God

Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up.  I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations.  With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.

Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).   Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God.  From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us.  Strength is found in God’s community.

Making it personal

If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12).  Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19).  He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).

And in the words of Paul: Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).  “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).

It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914.  Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years.  On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners.  Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!

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)

Suffer well

Over the last few weeks the world’s attention has been drawn to the intense persecution of Christians and other minority groups by the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), offering Christians three choices if they wish to stay: convert to Islam, pay peace tax and lose your family, or die.  More than 800’000 Iraqi minorities have been displaced, thousands have died a cruel death.

Ann Drew argues that “at no other time in history have we ever been more aware of the horrors of religious persecution.”  And rightly so: the #WeAreN campaign (Arabic “N” for “Nazarene” or follower of Jesus) is gaining momentum in social media as activists appeal raise awareness in the hope of a speedy end to this injustice by uploading images and petitioning for governmental engagement and financial contributions. (Do you also find the mainstream media strangely quiet on this serious matter?  I suspect they fear to put Islam in a bad light in fear of retribution). 

So again we have all been alerted to suffering of persecuted Christians in Iraq.  Off course, this is not new to the church in Iraq, as this is probably the most ancient Christian community in the world today, living in one of the most hostile Islamic nations on earth.  Most of Christian history is written in blood, and for large parts of the world, Christianity lives in varying degrees of religious persecution – it’s only in the West that we have enjoyed religious freedom – for now.

In fact, suffering is one of the main themes in the Scriptures.  Most of the Bible books were written to or about oppressed believers – whether slaves in Egypt, oppressed by Canaanite nations during the period of the judges, or Daniel and his contemporaries as Babylonian or Persian slaves, or the Entire New Testament written when the Church war persecuted by both Roman rule and the Jewish persecution.  Therefore a great number of the examples are recorded in Scripture about individuals of communities suffering, and God’s redemptive response to them.  Regarding these examples Paul writes to the persecuted congregations in Rome: “For 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” (Romans 15:4).  To the believers of both the Old and the New Testament, suffering was a reality.  This is our legacy.

Yet, for many Christians today, especially in the West, suffering is foreign to their theology.  But we all know the story of Job – probably the most ancient book in the Bible.  Job was a rich and influential man in his day.  He was a worshipper of God, a righteous man who interceded for his family and encouraged others.  Then disaster struck and he lost everything, leaving Job utterly surprised at first, then depressed and angry at God – crying “this is not fair!”  After lamenting his loss (and even his birth), his friend Eliphaz couldn’t keep quite anymore:

4 “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now [suffering] has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?” (Job 4:4-6, ESV)

This sixth verse is a good summery of the theology of Job and three of his friends: the belief that if I worship God and do the right things, nothing bad will happen to me, because God is on my side.  In other words, bad things happen to bad people, good people should not suffer.  We might not say it like this, but this is also a popular theology in our time.  Like Job we are prone to believe that a life of integrity and sincere devotion to God will prevent bad things from happening to us. Then we, like Job, are caught off guard when disaster strikes, so we resort to unhealthy introspection (“What have I done wrong to deserve this?!”) or futile accusation (“Why does God allow this to happen to me?  God is not fair!”). 

When one believes that good standing with God prevents bad things from happening to you, as in Job’s case, suffering brings doubt: it makes you either question yourself (“where have I sinned to bring this suffering on me?”) or question the nature or power of God (“is God fair?” or “is God really there?” or “does God care?”).  This presumption is a pharisaic notion that entrusts the welfare of the self in one’s ability to walk rightly: “if I abide by the rules it will be well with me.”  It places our relationship with God on the contractual plane: “I do my part, God watches over me.

The ninth chapter of John tells of a man born blind. Both the disciples (v2) and the Pharisees (v34) presumed that the man was blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin, but Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)  In other words, his suffering had a redemptive purpose from God, and was not the result of someone’s sin.  God had a plan, and it involved the suffering of an individual.

We believe rightly that obedience brings blessings, but Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that righteous people suffer in this life, Jesus even promised that.  But even more clearly the life and death of our Saviour demonstrates that righteous people suffer, accomplishing the will of God. Therefore obedience to God does not prevent suffering in this evil age, and suffering is not always the result of sinful conduct. 

How do we view suffering as Christians?

As mentioned before all of Scripture was written to suffering people, mostly about God’s redemptive intervention into the lives of those suffering.  This is the basis of the Christian worldview: God’s creted everything good, the fall of sin bringing about suffering and death under the reign of Satan, and God redeemed creation by the death of his Son. 

A questions asked many times during periods of hardship is “Where is God in all of this?” to which Phillip Yancey simply answers “God is among his people” (see Revelations 21:3).   As Christ “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) during his life on earth, so Christ’ still today engages suffering with compassion and redemption through and among his people, being his “body” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12).  The church is and will always be God’s chosen means of addressing suffering in this earth, until Jesus comes to usher in the new heaven and new earth.

So, if the church is God answer to suffering in the world, how do we respond to it?

How do we respond to suffering?

1. We are not surprised

Firstly, Peter wrote to the early church to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you… as though some strange thing were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12 ).  We should not be surprised either.  Suffering is normative to all humans, and Christians are not excluded, as our history teaches.  In fact, Jesus promised “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!” (John 16:33).  Paul echoed that promise, saying that “all who wish to live a godly life will suffer” (2 Timothy 3:12).  Why can we be so certain to experience suffering?

Although God created a good world, our world is fallen (1 John 5:19), and “the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1Pet5:8-9) seeking “to kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10).  But we also know that suffering is not only caused by an enemy “out there” – sin is locked up in every human heart (Romans 3:23), and therefore we humans are the cause of much of the suffering in the world (see Galatians 5:19-21).  Paul taught the Colossians (3:5-11) that greed leads to sexual immorality and (and eventually sexual violence), anger in the heart results in slander and obscenity (and eventually violent abuse). Even a casual observation of society makes one see that greed (or envy) makes one satisfy the desires of self causing suffering of others whether financially, sexually, or by exerting authority (1 John 2:16).  The same can be seen of pride which asserts rights for self at the cost of others, manifesting in of divisions in homes and communities, resulting of all types schisms: sexisms, classisms, sectarianisms, racism.  These in turn spurs hatred, oppression, violence, and a long history of wars as we see in Iraq and Gaza today.  

Do not be surprised when you are struck by suffering, for as long as we are in this world the prince of this word (John 14:30) excerpts his reign of terror and death, working through sinful people who both endure suffering and spread suffering (Ephesians 2:2).

(2) We joyfully endure suffering

New Testament writers teach that our response towards suffering should be joyful.  Jesus said that those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, mourning, persecuted and slandered are blessed: fortunate, well off and happy (acc to Strongs Dictionary; see Matthew 5:3-12, compare 1 Peter 3:14). This happy response is not natural.  However, there are at least six reasons to be joyful in our suffering according to the New Testament.

The first reason for rejoicing in our suffering is the imitation of Christ: since Christ himself suffered unjustly in this life, the early church counted it an honor to suffer like him, even to be identified with him in his death (1 Peter 4:12; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; Hebrews 12:3).  Secondly James motivates a joyful response to suffering because it gives opportunity to grow in godly character (James 1:2-4).  Hardship has the ability to reveal which parts of one’s faith and character are strong and which is not (Hebrews 12:27-28); it has the ability to reveal yourself for who you really are as Peter was brought face-to-face with his own cowardness the evening of Jesus’ arrest (John 13:38; 18:27).  Moreover, bodily suffering rids one of the susceptibility of sinful sensual pleasures (1 Peter 4:1-2), as we know from receiving a hiding as a child.  Thirdly, suffering (especially the threat of death) has a way of focusing the mind on what is really important, bringing the correct eternal perspective to our everyday tasks on earth (Philippians 3:8-9, 14; 2 Corinthians 4:18).  Furthermore, we endure suffering joyfully since we know there are rewards when Christ returns (Matthew 5:12; 16:27; Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:19) – our perseverance and faithfulness amidst hardships will rewarded (See Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelations 2:7, 11, etc).  Lastly, this eternal perspective gives joyful hope since we know that the age of suffering will soon be over, when Christ will usher in the New Earth where  there will be no more tears, no more sickness or poverty, no deceit or rejection, no suffering and enslavement, no violence or death.  Jesus said “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Rejoice, for our suffering is temporal.

(3) We work towards its redemptive purpose

Our suffering also has redemptive meaning, and therefore we have to see it as an opportunity from God to be grasped (James 1:2-4).  Jesus taught in the parable of the Sower that trials, temptation and tribulation arises because of the seed, to show the depth of the soil (Mark 4:5-6; Mark 4:16-17).  In other words, God allows difficult times for our sake to show the depth of our character and trust in him – which will otherwise not be known to us.  As an exam shows our depth of understanding in a subject matter, so suffering shows how much we trust God and how much our character has grown to represent Christ. 

In Peter’s case the time of testing rid him of immature flakiness and cowardness, and in turn produced godly character and courage in him (see Luke 22:31).  In Joseph’s case the repetitive injustice and abuse produced a beautiful humility and strength (Genesis 37-41).  In Job’s case, the suffering brought him to the place where he knew God for the first time (Job 42:5-6).

So suffering, Biblically, holds redemptive purpose from God, as Paul teaches “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:19).  Or as Dallas Willard stated it nothing irredeemable has happened to us or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s world.” All suffering can be redeemed by God.  As Christians, our suffering has purpose.

How do we let the suffering fulfill its redemptive purpose? Difficult as it is, we surrender ourselves to God’s work in the suffering in the same way Jesus surrendered himself in the garden of Gethsemane to the cup his Father gave him to drink.  Note that, although Jesus was handed over by jealous, self-righteous Jewish leaders, and crucified by Roman soldiers – he rightly saw his suffering as a bitter cup which God gave him to drink (Matthew 26:42).  

This calls for a re-interpretation of our suffering, acknowledging God the Father has seen it fit to allow the suffering, and that he entrusts you with the suffering (1 Corinthians 10:13).  At some point during his suffering Joseph had to re-interpret his enslavement and imprisonment as a work from God, as he told his brothers who sold him into slavery you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).  Paul encouraged the congregation in Corinth to find some meaning in their suffering, to reframe their experience with the words Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that 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 1:3-4)  Suddenly, the Corinthian suffering was no longer persecution by the Romans, but a school of comfort and compassion with God as the Teacher.  Moses did the same reframing of the Wilderness wandering as a lesson in humble dependence on God, as well as a test of devotion to God amidst suffering (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 – see a previous post on Not by Bread Alone). 

As we realize our suffering has purpose and is permitted by God for our good and the good of others we entrust ourselves to God, knowing that he has the power to deliver us, and even to sustain us in during these fiery times (1 Peter 4:19; compare with Daniel 3:14-18).     

(4) We Suffer well

Peter admonishes believers under a reign of persecution to follow the example of Christ and suffer honorably, blessing those who hurt you (1 Peter 2:20-23).  He teaches Christians to maintaining their innocence under unjust rulers so that no one can find fault with their conduct, especially pertaining to honoring and obeying the rulers and slave masters as appointed by God himself (1 Peter 2:12-15; 3:9, compare Romans 13:1-7).    We walk worthy of the Lord at all times, and follow his example in suffering.

 (5) We respond prayerfully

 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray!” (James 5:13)  Our natural inclination is to pray for an end to the suffering, but in the pursuit of the redemptive purpose of our suffering, Scripture has very helpful examples prayers recorded.   When Jesus warned Peter of his time of testing by Satan, he said “I prayed… that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31; compare Ephesians 3:17).  I always pray the same for people going through a very hard time, since people are tempted to abandon their belief in God’s good character and his ability to save them.  The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews (written probably early in Nero’s persecution of Christians around Rome 60 AD) had to be reminded of the same truth, from there the eleventh chapter on the heroes of our faith.

To the church in Ephesus undergoing persecution, Paul prayed three significant things, the first of which was for hope: a revelation of the rich inheritance God has reserved for all believers (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that they may know what lies ahead for them beyond this time of suffering, so that they may have something to endure for.  Everyone going through tough times needs something to press on for, otherwise the human spirit wills no more.

Then Paul prays “that you may be strengthened with power through his spirit” (Ephesians 3:16) – for endurance, the ability to persist.  The strength to suffer well, but to push on through this difficult time.

Paul continues to pray “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may… know the love of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).  Why pray for love?  Because when suffering prolongs people are tempted to think that God does not love them anymore, that God has forgotten them.  So Paul prays that the suffering congregation may be secured in the awareness of God’s loving devotion towards them, even though the experience pain and grief from suffering.  Elsewhere he writes “nothing can separate you from the love of God…” (Romans 8:39).

Lastly, the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to end his personal suffering gives good guidance for our prayers: pray for sufficient grace amidst the trial (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) – for God’s help and power to sustain one in times of weakness.  His is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  In other words this grace carries the one suffering through to the end.

(6) We respond generously

Our last answer to the question “How do Christians respond to suffering?” is found in Apostles’ instruction to Paul and Barnabas regarding their mission to the Gentiles: “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).  We read of this practice of collecting goods for suffering, persecuted believers in 2 Corinthians 9:1-7, what John calls “love not just in words, but love in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).  As the church we respond compassionately and generously with those who suffer.  One avenue for giving to the church suffering persecution in Syria and Iraq is via the disaster management agency relief.life

In this life we will not escape suffering, since the world is fallen, and so are we humans.  Yet we trust God our Father since our life is in his hands, and he is able to deliver us, or sustain us during these trying times.  Therefore we pray to him to reveal and accomplish his redemptive purpose with our suffering.  We joyful endure the suffering because it is good for us – and others – and we remind ourselves that this life is short, and that – for Christians – suffering will end when Christ returns to usher in the New Earth.  And while we wait for That Day, we the Church will follow our Lord’s example to comfort and support those suffering with the same compassion he showed while he walked this earth.