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.

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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

Not by bread alone

It appears as though the primary case against Christians today is that we are Hypocritical, [1] meaning we speak the part of Christ’s teachings, but in reality we live like everyone else does.  And we know this is true – statistically there appears to be very little difference between the lives of people who claim to follow Christ and that of contemporary society. [2]

While meditating the following question came to me the other day:  If people were to judge my faith based on my actions – what would they say I believe?  Meaning: if someone had the opportunity to observe me 24-7, noting how I spend my time and money, my relationships, listening in on my conversations – what would they deduce are the core convictions that drive my decisions, and ultimately dictate the course of my life?  This question reminded me of what the apostle James wrote: “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).  So I asked myself: what do my actions reveal about my faith?  For instance, does my time in prayer show that I believe “the prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16b).  These questions are worth meditating on.

One core attitude that ought to set us apart as Christ-followers from the materialist contemporary culture is our relationship with money.  For instance, the world believes the more I own, the happier I’ll be – but Jesus taught “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) and that we should rather “store up treasures in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).  The world believes that increased wealth means a better life – but Jesus taught life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But from all the teachings Jesus taught on money, the following one stood out in my head as I evaluated my own life.

Jesus, hungry from fasting for more than a month was tempted by Satan to prove His divine sonship by satisfying His hunger by making bread in the wilderness – as God His Father did some 1450 years before to feed his starving people. [3]  But Jesus answered “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  To understand the full impact of what He meant, the context of the passage He quoted from is really important: Moses is giving the Law of God again to the Hebrews people are about to enter the Promised Land, and states the motive for the 40 year wilderness wandering.

And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.”   (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Moses gives two reasons for the wandering: firstly “to humble you” meaning to show your dependence on God.  Before you enter “a land flowing with milk and honey”, the fertile country where you will certainly prosper and increase, God taught this new nation that they are and always will be dependent on His grace, His “manna”.  Day after day for 40 years the Hebrews woke up every morning with no means of survival apart from what came from above, what came “from the mouth of God”.  They grew up in utter humility and dependence of God’s provision – and that was the first motive for their wilderness wandering.

Secondly, Moses stated that God raised the Hebrews in the wilderness to ‘test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not’.  We know that the intent and promise of the Law was a long and prosperous life.[4]  However, for the first 40 years of living under the Law there was no visible prosperity.  God’s test was clear: “Will you obey me even though you do not see the rewards?”  God was testing their motive for obedience.

And then we read the words Jesus quoted: man shall not live from bread alone (i.e. we do not live solely from the efforts of our own labors) but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (i.e. manna, or that undeserving, gracious providence from God our Father).  Do we believe this?  Most of us will say “Yes I do!”  But in which way is this visible in your life?  How do we “live this truth”?

I see five ways from this great 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, and verses 3 and 18 summarise these points well:

“man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” (v3)

“you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (v18)

  1. We respond by living thankful, humble The phrases “remember the Lord”, “do not forget the Lord” and “bless the Lord” are repeated throughout this chapter, and it seems to be at the heart of Moses’ address to the Hebrew people before they entered this prosperous, promised land.  If we truly believe that “man shall not live by bread alone” and “God… gives you power to obtain wealth” then we will naturally respond with thanks and with humble trust in Him, not boastful as someone who thinks his success is the work of his own hands (see v 17).

And our thankful hearts will result in mouths that shamelessly speak of God’s goodness to those around us.

  1. We respond by living confidently, not anxiously. If we truly believe that we do “not live by bread alone” and that God “gives [us] power to get wealth”, then the result will be to live confidently, assured that “[our] Heavenly Father knows what we have need of” (Matt 6:31-32).  We should therefore “be anxious for nothing” (Phil 4:6) but confidently bring needs in prayer to God.  Jesus rebuked the crowd around Him in the sermon on the mount by saying they should not pray anxiously “as the gentiles do”, but confidently ask, knowing they have a Father who knows them and takes care of them. Our welfare is not solely dependent on our efforts!  If this was in fact the case we would have reason to worry because we cannot control everything.  But our welfare is not only up to us – the Hebrew’s 40 years in the wilderness teaches us that God cares and God provides for us.  We have a Father who is in control of everything and knows our needs.  We can boldly ask for our daily bread, knowing that He wants to give.

However, this truth must not be confused with the notion that all will always go well with us.  It is important to note that when Jesus quoted that Scripture, he was very hungry and in the will of God. And God was apparently content that Jesus was hungry. Yet Jesus trusted his Father.  So serving and trusting God does not imply that it always goes well – which is why Paul wrote “I have learned the secret of being content – whether well-fed or hungry… I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)  Believing “man shall … live… by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God” means we trust that God knows what we are going through, and he that He is in control and knows what is best.

  1. We respond by living generous Moving beyond application that benefits us alone, we recognize that if “we live not by bread alone but everything that comes from the mouth of God” then we can live and give generously, since He has dealt generously with us.[5]  We don’t have to hoard everything in fear of not having enough tomorrow as the world does. Rather, we graciously share what we have, remembering that sufficient manna fell daily from the sky during the 40 years of the Hebrew’s wilderness wandering.  God is faithful – as the sun rises tomorrow his provision comes.  Jesus told us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:9) and the Father gives sufficiently for every day, so we can share of our fullness.
  2. We respond by living in the fear of God. In the light of God’s provision and providential blessing, this chapter stands historically as a lesson for us in the fear of God.  The concept is foreign to us as contemporary believers, but in essence, to live in the fear of God is to live with the knowledge of God’s greatness and to live in expectation of His righteous judgment – here on earth and in the age to come.[6]   As mentioned above, this refrain of this chapter rings chapter “remember…” and “do not forget…” the faithful provision of God during your wilderness wandering, and that He brought you in to possess this rich land, that He gives the increase and that He is the one who gives power to obtain wealth. Then warnings such us these were issued in this chapter by Moses before they entered the land:

“Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’… Then it shall be, if you by any means forget the LORD your God, and follow other gods, and serve them and worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish.”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17, 19)

And what happened 700 years after they entered the Promised Land?  After the kingdom was established and secured by David, there was great prosperity during the reign of his son Solomon the nation started worshipping other gods and forgot their God.  After much pleading and warning, the Northern tribes (Samaria) were destroyed completely, and shortly after that the Southern tribes (Judea) were exiled from their land and again became slaves (as promised in Deut 8 and 28-32). The Jews repented, returned to the Lord, and was reinstated in their homeland.

Our lesson in the fear of God regarding His provision is this: when the Lord blesses us, do not forget Him, and do not become conceited in forgetting that “He gives us the power to obtain wealth.”  Deuteronomy 8:5-6 “You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the LORD your God chastens you… walk in His ways and fear Him.”

  1. We respond by living in covenant with God. The beautiful verse 18 states our final point – the reason for the prosperity: that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” What is covenant?  In essence covenant is a partnership, a binding of one to another, sharing all they possess, for a specific purpose – thus a covenant with God is extremely beneficial for Israel (and us!), and  very generous from God who gains nothing but gives all.

Which covenant to their forefathers holds the promise of prosperity?  It started at God’s covenantal promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:2), and confirmed later to his son Isaac (Genesis 17:21) and grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:13-16).  The promise entails land, prosperity, a nation and purpose (to bless all the nations of the earth).  God wished to bless Abraham and His descendants, to be a blessing to all and so He partnered with Abraham with the purpose of blessing him, and blessing all through him.   And since through Christ Jesus I am an heir to the promise God made to Abraham (Galatians 3:14) I understand that my prosperity is because of my covenant with God, and therefore my prosperity has the same purpose: that through me “all the families of the earth may be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

So how do we respond to this in a practical way?  Firstly I personally respond to God’s covenantal blessing by monthly giving a portion of my income to Him (to my local church).  For the past 25 years I have done so, and have grown to the understanding that I don’t do it primarily for my blessing (although God promises so) or for the upkeep of the church (although it is a practical necessity), but I give 10% of my income to God to remind myself and declare to Him that I don’t live from “bread alone” (i.e. my own strength and efforts), but I live from “the mouth of God” (i.e. what God graciously gives).   And in giving my tithe I make that declaration monthly on a practical way.  At times in my life that declaration was not mere words!  Many times by giving God that portion of my income I made myself dependent on God’s provision, since my living expenses exceeded 90% of my income.  And God has been faithful every time, so that I know from experience I do not live from my own strength alone, but from what God freely gives.  So tithing is a sign of my covenantal dependence on Him and gratitude for His gracious care of myself and my household.  It is not law – it is relationship.

Secondly, my covenantal relationship with God is seen through my regular financial and ministry partnership in missional trips, that “all the families of the earth may be blessed.”  As God’s covenantal partnership is seen through His loving involvement in my life and provision, my covenantal partnership with God is made real through my actual participation in His mission on earth: the salvation of the world.

In summary, how would believing “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God” differentiate us from the world around us? Or put in another be visible in our everyday lives?  Firstly, when we live in thankful and humble dependence of God’s provision and help, as opposed to the arrogant assumption we merely earn what we have by our own efforts.  Secondly, when we live confident of God’s gracious provision and not in anxiety for tomorrow.  Thirdly, when we generously share our daily provision in faith that God will graciously give again tomorrow.  Fourthly, when the fear of God draws us to love and treasure Him more than the good He gives to us, since all good things comes from Him.  And lastly, when we live in the covenantal reality of our partnership with God through practical declarations such as tithing and participation in missions, declaring that “I do not live by my own strength, but by what God graciously gives to me” so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed”!

[1] D. Kinnaman, G. Lyons, unChristian (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p. 21-23.

[2] Ibid, p. 46-47

[3] See Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 for the accounts of Jesus’ wilderness temptations.

[4] See Deuteronomy 6:2-3; 28:1-14.

[5]  See Matthew 10:8.

[6] Key texts in understanding the fear of God include Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, Psalm 34:11-14, Proverbs 8:13 and Hebrews 12:28-29.  The psalms contain great promises of blessings for those who fear God, including Fulfilled desires (145:19), instruction by God (25:12-14), prosperity (25:12; 112:3; 128:2), descendants will be great (25:13; 112:2; 128:6), intimacy with God (25:14), divine protection (31:19-20) and unmerited favour (103:17-18).