Pressing On Through the Pain

In II Corinthians eleven Paul is dealing with false prophets and to make his point he starts listing all the evidence that supports him being a servant of Christ (verse 23). It reads like a summary of suffering and hardship and when he gets to the end of the list he punctuates everything in verse 28.
“Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.” (II Corinthians 11:28)

Daily pressure? You cannot read through any of Paul’s letters without seeing his deep love and concern for all those Christians he has worked with. He completely invested himself in the spiritual well-being of others.

There is no better example of this than I Thessalonians.

“For this reason, when I could endure no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain. But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we live, if you stand firm in the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 3:5-8)

Knowing what the Christians were facing, his concern is palpable. I can almost picture Paul waiting by the window, watching for Timothy, praying for a favorable report. His response to the good news says everything, “now we LIVE, if you stand firm in the Lord.”

The thought of carrying that kind of sincere concern for other Christians frightens me. It exhausts me. To my shame I don’t know if I have ever truly felt that away about someone else’s faith.

This week I was able to visit with a couple that I dearly love. They are humble and godly and are constantly thinking of ways to serve others. Their most recent act of service was taking in and taking care of a six year old little girl who had to be removed from her mother. They embraced her like she was their own, showing her love and affection and providing her safety and stability. They introduced her to the gospel and involved her in bible studies and worshiping with the saints. They established routines for her and starting laying a foundation to provide this little girl an eternal future. The little girl bounces around, smiling, full of energy. She is thriving in the environment they have created.

Earlier this week they were informed that she will be returning to live with her mother. Friday will be her last day in their home. My heart breaks for many reasons. It breaks because this little girl is being taken from warmth and love and stability and being put back into an uncertain situation at best. It breaks because she is being removed from a home filled with the love and knowledge of God and returning to a home saturated with the world. It breaks because I know my dear friends have received just as much from this little girl as they have given. My heart breaks because their hearts are broken. I have no doubt that their concern for her is exactly the same as Paul’s concern for those Christians in Thessalonica.

So I’m left here wondering what to do? How would I handle such a situation? I’m a little angry and I’m a lot sad. There are so many instances in life when we open ourselves up and expose our hearts just to have them broken. It is easy to shut down and say, “Why bother?” and close ourselves off to others. I believe this is what many of us do in order to protect ourselves from such heartbreak. So how did Paul handle it?

“Brethren, I do not regard myself of having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

In Philippians chapter three Paul is expressing the overwhelming value of knowing Christ Jesus. He is expressing how utterly useless all of his accomplishments are in comparison to knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection. He has completely sold out so that he might gain Christ. Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind…I press on toward the goal.”

So how does this apply to my dear friends? They will hurt and there will be pain. The pain might lessen over time but it probably won’t go away completely. But they will press on. They will continue to serve. They will embrace the opportunity to open themselves up again and will, most likely, be hurt again. Why would they do this? Because it is what Jesus did and their goal is to know Christ.

Did Jesus know that He would be rejected? Did he know that the very people He came to save would stand in front of Pilot and shout, “Crucify! Crucify!”? Did Jesus know that His dearest friends on this earth, friends He had poured Himself into, would abandon Him and even deny Him at His darkest hour? Yet He opened Himself up, He embraced those around Him and He pressed on.

The reality is that we never reflect the character of our Lord more fully than when we have been hurt and we have been rejected and we decide to open up our hearts and continue to love and serve those around us.

Disappointment

Disappointment is inevitable in a sin-cursed world.  Disappointment is all around each of us in our own lives or in the lives of others.  Why is this so?  Why is there such a thing as a “sin-cursed world” and is the disappointment in it necessary?

We see how this all came to be as a result of Adam and Eve rebelling against God and sinned, there were consequences.

To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:16-19; NKJV).

And it is not just man and woman that is affected but creation in its entirety.

For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. (Romans 8:19-22; NKJV).

 Sorrow.  Pain and Suffering.  Sweat or Tears.  Physical Death.  These are the results of sin.  These all certainly sound disappointing if you don’t understand the why of them.  But in understanding the why we know that all of this is intended to drive us to God and His Son.

In doing so, we live today in the context of eternity and we understand that what is going on here is but a moment and the disappointment of this life does not measure up to the tremendous eternal rest and gain in Heaven.

But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”  (Hebrews 11:16; NKJV)

God is in His country which is Heaven.  Heaven is the country to which those who believe and obey the Gospel of Jesus go. We get to see His face!  What we will not see is deception, lies, temptation, sin, suffering, or death.  These things do not exist there!

In knowing this, we can then bring encouragement into the lives around us as they might be experiencing disappointment in this world.  We can demonstrate the great hope we have in Jesus and in our expectant Heavenly home.  We can live in such a way that clearly articulates “there is no disappointment in Heaven” and “I sure would like to help you get there”!

This will shine a light into someone’s life and if they let you help will lighten their load as they go.

Lord, Increase Our Faith

This year at our congregation we are focusing on the theme, “Lord, Increase Our Faith,” which comes from Luke 17:5.

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
(Luke 17:1-6)

Yesterday, I shared 3 simple points during the sermon about increasing our faith. There are several passages in Scripture about our faith growing. It’s not like God gave you a 10-pound bag of faith when you became a Christian and said, “This is your lifetime allotment.”

#1. Our faith is constantly challenged.

I’m not trying to be negative and pessimistic, but it just the reality we are going to face some really tough things in life. Whether we are pagans or believers we will go through dark valleys. Even more so for the Christian, though, because the devil is coming at us with great wrath (Revelation 12:12; 2 Timothy 3:12).

Our faith, in order to grow, will do so through adversity. Look at the above passage in Luke 17. Jesus was talking about relationships, pain, and forgiveness. The disciples realized how difficult His instructions were to follow, and they knew that their faith needed to grow to meet the challenge.

Another example is of the man whose son was demon-possessed in Mark 9. The disciples could not cast it out because of a lack of faith and a lack of prayer (Mark 9:19,29). When Jesus came to the father, he told the father that all things were possible if he believed. Here is the father’s response:

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
(Mark 9:24)

I think we can relate with that. In the midst of the trial our faith is revealed and tested, and we see our need for growth and our great desire to draw closer to Jesus.

#2. Our faith, with God’s help will rise to meet the challenge/trial.

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
(2 Thessalonians 1:3-4)

The brethren at Thessalonica were bragged about by Paul everywhere he went, but why? Because of their faith! But notice the faith they had was in the midst of “persecutions and…afflictions” they were enduring. We also see in this passage that during those hardships their faith was “growing abundantly.” Their faith was growing to meet the trials at hand.

#3. Jesus, His word, and His people help to increase that faith.

The Word

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
(Romans 10:17)

Jesus

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith...
(Hebrews 12:2)

Our brothers and sisters

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
(Hebrews 3:12-13)

Do you see that in order to grow our faith we need all the above? It’s the stuff preachers and grandmas have been telling us our whole lives, and when we find ourselves falling and stumbling it is because we are forgetting these three things. The Word creates and builds faith, the brethren encourage us and strengthen our faith, and Jesus perfects it.

“Lord, increase our faith.”

 

Choices Have Consequences

Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, introduces the concept of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence. The Circle of Concern is the area that we have no control over. For this discussion, I adapted this concept and changed “Influence” to “Consequences” and “Concern” to “Choice”.

Throughout the Bible we see the concept of the “Law of the Harvest” or the “Law of Sowing and Reaping”. The idea is that in order for us to receive a return we must first take action and put in the work. To build upon this further, we “choose” to work and have control over this aspect of the equation. The “consequence” of those choices is a result and therefore not something we directly control and/or avoid past the choices we make.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).  This is a cause and effect relationship…there is a reaction to every action…we are free to choose but slave to the consequence. So what? How does it fit with God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, and hope? In what ways will it impact how we live and our relationships with those in our lives?

We should not be of the mind that because God has forgiven us (or others) that all of the negative consequences of our (or others) sins will be washed away. That isn’t how it works. Conversely, if we have negative things happen in our lives, we shouldn’t think that God really hasn’t forgiven us or that He doesn’t really love us because we are suffering.

Forgiveness and consequences are not opposite ends of a spectrum. Together, they establish an essential part of the Lord’s plan for believers. Forgiveness is relational. The Father sent Jesus to make a sacrifice on our behalf, and by so doing reconciled us to Himself. By His mercy alone, we can have communion with the Lord. On the other hand, consequences are circumstantial.  Consider an illustration of this from the cross itself. Christ made it clear that the thief dying with him was completely forgiven (Luke 23:39-43). Yet moments later, the man died an excruciating death. The thief’s sins had been erased in God’s sight because he chose to believe in Jesus, but he suffered the punishment for his crime…the consequence of his previous bad choices.

Consequences from sin are not an indication that a person isn’t saved or that God is angry with the individual. The Lord frequently allows some painful situations to continue so He can teach lessons we would otherwise never learn. Very few things motivate us to give Him our undivided attention like being faced with the cost of our wrong choices. When we draw near to the Lord, He reveals how to respond correctly to painful circumstances. Unprecedented spiritual growth will often result.

We all have scars. Their purpose is not to cause us grief as a daily reminder of our sin, but rather to remind us of how gracious and merciful the Lord is.  He loves us and chooses to work though us despite our past mistakes and wrong choices. Further, as we bear scars from past sins we often become the most effective at leading unbelievers to know Jesus as their Savior.

Our attitude toward negative consequences affects how we relate to our heavenly Father and to others. A negative approach could lead us to become bitter, whereas a positive attitude could bring us to a point of understanding and gratitude for the daily reminders of divine mercy…and how we can have grace with those in our lives. We can view our scars as monuments to God’s grace, or as ongoing punishment.  I encourage you to see them as proof of your spiritual healing and if you do, you will change even when circumstances stay the same.

Rest assured, sinful choices have consequences, if not in this life, then in the next. We are blessed, though, because the principle of reaping and sowing works in a positive way as well: “The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). We can sow good seeds that will turn negative situations into positive ones.

Don’t spend the bulk of your time trying to convince God to remove painful consequences. Try praising Him instead. Receive His blessings, be at peace, sow love, and allow that to change your life and the lives of those you love.

NOTE: Some thoughts taken directly from "Charles Stanley's Handbook for Christian Living" (1996).

A Story on Perspective

Take a minute and read and consider this story.

People were sitting quietly. Some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

  “It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, ‘Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?’”

  “The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

  Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm (heart) shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘You’re wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’ Everything changed in an instant.”   (Stephen Covey)

Now consider the Holy Spirit’s words in (Galatians 6:1-5).

1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. 5 For each one shall bear his own load.

 What did you think of in this exercise? What comes to my mind is the importance of knowing and participating in the lives of those I love…especially the brethren. If I know them and participate in their lives, I will understand better their circumstances. If I better understand their circumstances, I will have more patience with what I might be observing in their lives and seek out opportunities to help rather than chastise or be annoyed. If I seek out opportunities to help, those I love will be lifted up and God will be gloried and the law of Christ is fulfilled…and His law is love.

We all have spiritual and physical burdens to carry but God has given us one another to be a helper to each other and sometimes that “one thing” we carry for another is just enough. Meditate on this today. Pray God would turn your eyes and heart to other’s lives. Have the courage to love them.

And the Lord Remembered

And the Lord remembered Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19).

The Lord remembered Noah (Genesis 8:1).

God is worthy of praise because He “remembered us in our lowly state, for His mercy endures forever” (Psalms 136:23).

The above verses are so comforting. “And the Lord remembered…” God loves His children. He remembers His promises. God never leaves us nor forsakes us. That is a fact, but in the midst of pain, look at what God’s people sometimes wonder. Watch as they go through the process of despair to hope. These Holy Spirit-given passages are there for us today to help us go through the same process with God (and to help others do the same).

I will say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a breaking of my bones, my enemies reproach me, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God (Psalms 42:9-11).

To the Chief Musician. To Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph. I cried out to God with my voice–To God with my voice; and He gave ear to me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; my hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled; I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search. Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He be favorable no more? Has His mercy ceased forever? Has His promise failed forevermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah. And I said, “This is my anguish; but I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the works of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will also meditate on all Your work, and talk of Your deeds. Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary; who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who does wonders; You have declared Your strength among the peoples. You have with Your arm redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah. The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were afraid; the depths also trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies sent out a sound; Your arrows also flashed about. The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; the lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was in the sea, Your path in the great waters, and Your footsteps were not known. You led Your people like a flock By the hand of Moses and Aaron (Psalms 77:1-20).

Here is one final passage from Isaiah. Notice how God’s people feel, and how God helps them (and us) to see the reality. He will never leave us nor forsake us.

Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth! And break out in singing, O mountains! For the LORD has comforted His people, and will have mercy on His afflicted. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me” (Isaiah 49:13-16).

What about Grief?

A dear friend, who has just gone through a tragic loss, said to me, “I need to be strong but I feel so much grief.”  Deep sorrow and anguish is a natural response to significant loss or suffering but is it a contrast to strength?  As men, we often make the mistake of believing that strength is suppressing our grief and not allowing it to be seen.  When we do this we not only cause ourselves harm but we are also missing an opportunity to positively impact the family of God.  We need to redefine our definition of strength.

Please read the text below from II Corinthians 1:3-11 and consider some observations.

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 will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

  • “…just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.” (5): There is a direct correlation between the suffering and grief we experience and the comfort we experience in Christ.  To deny the grief is to deny the comfort of Christ.
  • “…we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength…so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises from the dead” (8-9): There is a lesson to be learned in all suffering and grief.  The pain of grief should be a reminder that we are not adequate, in and of ourselves, to handle the ups and downs of this life.  The grief should be a reminder of our lack of control.  To deny the grief is to deny God’s strength.
  • “…He on whom we have set our hope.” (10): Suffering and grief should remind us of the temporary nature of this life.  Properly embracing the grief will force us to place our hope in God, the only stable foundation we have in this world.  To deny the grief is to misplace our hope.
  • “…who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us…” (10): Allowing grief to turn our eyes towards God will strengthen our faith.  As we leave one storm behind us and head towards the next, we will be secure in the knowledge that He has delivered us and will deliver us again.  To deny our grief is to head towards the future unprepared.
  • “…who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (4): Suppressing our pain and grief is ultimately selfish.  We do not live in a vacuum and every tragedy and every hardship is an opportunity to be shaped and molded into a useful instrument for God.  God is preparing you because somewhere out there someone needs comforted.  To deny our grief is to fail our brothers.
  • “…so that thanks may be given my many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.” (11): Worst of all, when we fail to embrace our grief and refuse to allow God to use us we are robbing Him of the thanks that He deserves.  In a way, we are stealing His glory.  Allowing others to see our pain provides them opportunity to be involved in prayer and encouragement and when we have come through the storm God will be glorified.   To deny our grief is to deny God His glory.

Grief is a powerful force in our lives.  We can suppress it and render ourselves useless in His kingdom.  We can succumb to it and allow it to cloud our vision and erode our hope.  Or we can embrace it, be trained by it, and become effective tools in the hands of our Creator.  It is our choice.

Now Jesus loved

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was (John 11:5-6).

Here’s a quick thought for today…Jesus loved Martha and Mary. He loved Lazarus, too. But what does it mean when Jesus “loves” someone? Does it mean that He removes all pain and suffering from their lives?

No, Jesus loved this family enough to allow them to experience pain. In John 11, He plainly tells us why.

For God’s glory.

But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”
(John 11:4)

Jesus said to her (Martha), “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40)

Through pain and suffering, God does amazing things in us and through us. His love, His majesty, His grace and His power are all seen in and through the trials we face. That was certainly true here in John 11.

For stronger faith and a better understanding of who Jesus is.

So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him” (John 11:14-15).

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).

Everyone in the crowd that day understood Jesus was the “death-stopper” (John 11:21,32,37). Jesus is growing their faith. He is not just the “death-stopper,” He is the resurrection and the life. If God removes us from all suffering, pain and trials, our faith will never grow.

Faith that is not difficult or challenged is not faith at all.