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Suffering and Us …


By stephen - Posted on 10 September 2011

I was recently asked to give a talk to about 450 students at a Christian School in Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia.

Borrowing heavily from Don Carson (see book below) I also added my own thoughts to this delicate subject.

The result was a talk designed to alert young (and older) people to 5 false steps when it comes to suffering … 5 common approaches that we all, as Christians, need to take seriously … and avoid!

I hope you will gain some helpful and practical insight on the topic of ‘Suffering and Us’.

 

Last week we were presented with 3 broad aspects of suffering that we need to think about when it comes to God and suffering.

Firstly, human suffering matters to God. He is not only aware of it but suffering concerns Him.

Secondly, suffering can lead to something of great value for a Christian and that, ultimately, is a godly character. Therefore, suffering has purpose and meaning beyond the pain itself (Romans 5.1-5; James 1.2-4).

And thirdly, suffering can, and will, be brought to an end. Our experience of suffering will not last forever … God will shield us from all pain and suffering for eternity.

It is worth adding to this last point that no matter how great our suffering (and this is not to minimise the reality of personal pain for one moment) if we were to compare our suffering (as worldwide Christians; including our persecuted brothers and sisters) with the joy of eternity with God then the temporary “experiences” of suffering will be extremely MINIMAL… “For 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 (ESV))

This talk is entitled “SUFFERING AND US” and I want to address 5 false steps we can take in our response to suffering.

However, before we go further it is critical that we get rid of this assumption now – “PERSONAL TRAGEDY WILL NOT HAPPEN TO ME, IT HAPPENS MAINLY TO OTHER PEOPLE.”

This is simply NOT TRUE! Never has been true and never will be true! Christians are not, and never will be, cocooned from tragedies.

In our quieter moments, if we are really honest with ourselves, we desire something greatly - we want security. In fact, we want it desperately – and we will pursue security with a passion with or without God.

Think for a moment about some topics we often pray for. These things are not, in and of themselves wrong, but they are indicative of how important security is to us all. We often pray for physical safety, property issues; material and personal well being (nothing wrong here!!) But we do so much desire SECURITY.

So, we need to be committed to destroying this false assumption: “PERSONAL TRAGEDY WILL NOT HAPPEN TO ME, IT HAPPENS MAINLY TO OTHER PEOPLE.” We need to get rid of it; not only is it a false assumption but it has disappointment with God written all over it!

We are NOT immune from EVIL in this life and we are NOT immune from suffering in this life.

So let’s look now at … five FALSE personal steps to be very mindful of.

1. Don’t get the balance of the Bible wrong.

We, sometimes, get the balance of Scripture wrong. That is, we remember the amazing triumphs of Joseph, Gideon and David in the Old Testament and in the New Testament we read the wonderful story of the man healed from birth blindness and the resurrection of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus.

But the Bible also is clear about those who suffer greatly, and often unjustly.

Consider the prophet Jeremiah … a man who experienced intense suffering.

Consider the innocent Naboth who died due to corruption and injustice (1 King 21)

When we turn to the New Testament we learn that the apostle Paul’s protégé Timothy suffers from constant ailments (1 Timothy 5.23).

Even Paul himself suffered from some (unknown) physical ailment; his very own ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor. 12.7).

Carson comments that “the ‘good guys’ don’t always win’. I would add … in this Fallen world!

2. We tend to like ‘right now’ and ‘right away’!

We may not actually verbalise it but we still may have the attitude that if God is going to relieve our sufferings (and we may say 'He should!') then when should He do it? Answer: Now! or very soon!

After all, it’s God’s job to fix it! That’s why He is God! (we would never think this, would we?!).

If He delays, well … He has betrayed His promises (see #3 below)! He’s let us down!

Carson poses 2 very telling questions regarding what I call the ‘immediacy theory’:

Question 1: How long was it before Joseph was finally vindicated and set free? Answer: 20 years! And he was totally innocent! 20 years is a LONG time!

Question 2: How long was Moses’ life spent in the wilderness at Midian before he returned to rescue the children of Israel? Answer: 40 years – that is a LONG time!

In response to this we would do well to get the following points clear in our minds.

God does NOT plan His purposes based on my diary or my timetables: nor yours either!

Delays are not always bad; despite what we may think!

It’s not a bad idea sometimes to talk to ‘older Christians’; those who have walked with the Lord for many years and listen to them as they “look back” and relate how valuable these delays were in their own experiences.

We are often an impatient people! We need to be more patient.

3. ‘Proof texts’ can be dangerous!

What is a ‘proof text’?

A proof text is usually a small section of the Bible (e.g. 1-3 verses) which is taken out of context in order to ‘prove’ a particular Bible teaching. The ‘proof text’, therefore, becomes isolated from the immediate context.

We all use them; that's not the point. The point is that 'proof texts' must be consistent with the surrounding context.

Let’s consider a well known passage of scripture that is often used as a ‘proof text’:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29.11

This verse is used a lot to paint a picture of a totally secure life under God. I am the receiver of God’s plans which give me hope and a secure future; I get to prosper and avoid harm as well!

Is it OK to use a verse like this in isolation? Should all Christians, in every country in the world lean heavily on this verse as applying to them at all times as a constant promise (from God) of security?

Recently I read about a very disturbing experience in NORTH KOREA. A church was ‘discovered’ by the state authorities; some pastors were executed and the congregation was sent off to the camps to live with vermin, cockroaches and human rights violations on a daily basis.

Do I now send Jeremiah 29.11 off to them, to comfort them in their horrible jails? Do I need to really answer that question?

Let’s look at the SAME verse but this time - IN context:

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” Jeremiah 29.10-14

This ‘proof text’ now takes on a completely new light.

It is clearly addressed to the Jewish people, living at a certain point in history in exile in a foreign, anti-God land and culture (Babylon). Jeremiah 29.10 -14 points the Jewish people to the Promised Land which is clearly in view here. These are God’s covenant people (Jewish believers) living in captivity AWAY from their (promised and covenanted) land.

In context (I repeat: IN CONTEXT) these verses would be of some encouragement to our North Korean brothers and sisters if they have some understanding of the ‘Book of Hebrews’ and the greater fulfilment of the land promise.

We all need to be very careful when ‘proof texting’ because if you take a verse out of context it may provide very false (and deceptive) comfort for you.

And, again, false comfort may lead to a huge disappointment with God – even anger with Him … even rejection of Him.

4. A thirst for an “AN UNDERSTANDING OF EVERYTHING” will let us down.

We, simply, do not know everything!

Carson makes the important point that the quest for certainty in everything can leave out room for the important ‘realities’ of mystery, of awe, of the unknowns (only God knows everything).

If we think we know EVERYTHING about God, we may despair greatly when tragedy strikes.

Certainty is great, as long as there is always room for mystery!

We simply don’t know a huge amount but this we do know: God is totally good He can be totally trusted! It’s called FAITH!!

Some of you may be surprised that atheists are by no means ‘off the hook’ when it comes to suffering. Why not? Because the alleged process of evolution (natural selection) is responsible for life in all its forms including the struggles and the pain and suffering. Evolution produces pain/suffering.

Pain and suffering, therefore, are NORMAL (not ‘evil’ – that concept is a luxury atheists have ‘stolen’ from religion. There is no ‘good’; no ‘evil’ in evolution).

5. Ever heard of the ‘Suffering God’?

The last false step is to think that God doesn’t care or understand about our sufferings; after all, God is just so immensely great, transcendent and omnipotent (etc).

This is true but so are these ‘truths’”

 God willingly suffers (e.g. the book of Hosea)
 God entered the world to suffer for us in the person of Jesus.
 God understands your suffering
 God understands my suffering

It is a major false step to think He has deserted His people in their suffering!

IN CONCLUSION

We often think about Jesus’ sufferings on the cross but did you know that He suffered BEFORE that?

The Bible tells us that … “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” Isaiah 53:3

Jesus suffered throughout the entirety of His sinless life in a fallen world. Consider what followed His baptism by John the Immerser. Immediately the Spirit led Him into the wilderness where He fasted for 40 days and nights … alone … and was 'visited' by the Evil One.

In short, Jesus was well acquainted with suffering BEFORE the awful cross.

As Christians, we all suffer; we WILL all suffer.

As Christians, we experience joy but pain as well.

Some of you may wonder, as author of an article on suffering, how I personally deal with pain and suffering?

Sometimes very badly!

I am, too often, self-centred, proud, arrogant and independent. I like to be in control.

But I do ‘know’ this in the core of my being. The God who willingly entered into this world has dealt with my suffering by suffering for me.

He understands me perfectly; loves me unconditionally and He has invited me (commanded me) to give everything to Him- including pain and suffering as well as joy and praise.

Actually, He has also 'told' me (in the Bible of course) to expect suffering and loss; as well as joy and meaning and ultimate personal resurrection.

And I do know this: He is much ‘bigger’ than anything I can ever lose. I choose to follow Him.

Stephen Cracknell

The above ‘talk’ is sourced significantly from Don Carson’s wonderful book “How Long, O Lord?” It has been suitably edited for this article.

I am well aware I have been 'guilty' of proof texting in this article. I, therefore, encourage the reader to read these isolated verses in context (provided for you in most cases).

Also, we have a special page dedicated to the important topic of SUFFERING.

 

How Long, O Lord? (2nd Edition) by D A Carson
Paperback. 256 pages.
Koorong's Price: $10.95

 

 

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Christian Quotes

"Poverty and affliction take away the fuel that feeds pride."

Richard Sibbes

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