Archive for ‘Suffering’

August 27, 2010

Thin but Anchored

I finished the last post by asking how does knowing specific reasons behind why God leads Christians down a path of suffering help us survive.  This is not just an academic question. In many ways, a question like this helps give depth and understanding to the Christian life. For some, the answer results in turning away from Christianity and for others it strengthens the resolve. The reason for this is because this is a question that deals with hope. And despair. Resolve. Or to vacillate.

Everyone, regardless of their worldview, has to deal with  hopelessness at some point in life. It may be fleeting. Or it can last a life time. It can be private – the emperor’s new clothes; or it can be as plain as the clothes you are wearing right now (I hope no one is reading this naked, after all).  Hopelessness is a strange bedfellow. It happens because of family, community, work, finance, recreation, romance and the list goes on. Just think of the time in your life when you couldn’t see any hope – no answer to relieve you of whatever caused your despair. After all hope is powerful and it cannot be underestimated. The need and want to hope is powerful indeed. We cannot underestimate people’s needs for it – and all that we are willing to trade in to have it. We trade in logic as an example. Try to explain the statistical absurdity of the lottery to the impoverished who are so decimated by their situation that their only hope (seemingly) is something that siphons their meager bank accounts. Yet they play. Or people sucked into a prosperity gospel – bankrolling the expenses of false prophets just for the hope of good health or the promise of a comfortable lifestyle.

So this universal human experience – albeit its many manifestations – must be addressed. Unfortunately, I fear, too many don’t dealt with it. We find our worldview lacking to give us satisfactory answers and we don’t know how to press on and we feel defeated. We feel as if life has killed the dream we dream (which is why this song, for me, epitomizes the issue).

The answer lies beyond both emotions and reason. It lies beyond emotions because our emotions can be misleading. We can’t always trust our heart so to speak. For example, we can overreact in heated arguments with loved ones – saying things we don’t mean just to inflict pain. Or we can stop trying to love our spouse just because “we lost that loving feeling.” It is good to know that love is more than just a feeling. Not that emotions don’t have their place, but in a place of hopelessness all your feelings are going to do is perpetuate a state of despair. It is unreasonable to think we just will our feelings from one state into another by sheer will power.

Reason – or knowledge – also falls short. You can have all the right information in the world – all the answers – and still by submerged in despair with no comfort. Knowledge itself nor the capacity to reason a situation through mere intellect is enough to fortify one’s souls to deal with the onslaught of the difficulties of life. For example, we know that reason by itself falls short because James tells us so (James 2:19).

I have another reason to dismiss emotions and reason as the deciding factor in how a Christian should work out an understanding of suffering in his/her life. The reason has to do with our current culture. Before us we see vie two competing worldviews – postmodernism and modernism. And each elevates one of these answers as the path that will lead us to the answer (ultimately I think there is at least a book full of answers – as my last post implied, but this is a blog so I’m only picking one for today). But for the Christian, I think there is a different answer. It may seem silly at first, but stay with me on this. The answer that God gives Christians to persevere through despair and hopelessness is…hope. What? Were you expecting something else?

This is part of the faith journey that we are invited into by God. What gets you through the day when you feel not just paper-thin, but cigarette paper-thin? You need an anchor. A heavy anchor that can handle the weight of the storm. Here you are getting tattered and beaten up. How do you stand your ground. Well, you don’t really. You need something to keep you anchored as the storm picks you up, tosses you around and tries it’s best to destroy you. A heavy anchor….

…like Ununoctium. The heaviest element known to man (I think). It sounds like a good answer, but it isn’t. Ununoctium is like emotions and reason. It is synthetic and it  is temporary. It gives all the appearances of being the answer, but in the end – at the height of the storm it dissipates and you are left helpless.

No, you need a heavy anchor like uranium. It is heavy – the heaviest natural element (again, I think). And it is never going to disappear on you. In fact, it can even be used as armor if nothing else. Interesting thought. How does this anchor of hope look?

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Also through Him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance,  endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.  This hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:1-5).

The anchor of hope is made of faith. We are on a faith journey. Our covenant that we have been joined to God in is a covenant of faith. It has always been that way; that is why God’s covenant people are called “faithful” in the Bible (Gen 15:6; Ex 19.9; Hebrews 11 as examples). The nice thing about faith is that it is a gift from God (Gen 15:6 cf Gal 3:6; Rom 3:22-24; Eph 2:8) – not something we have to muster ourselves. We don’t have to muster up the will or the activity that surmounts to faith (Rom 9:11,16). Our actions are in accordance to it. So, as we struggle with life, our faith produces hope as we persevere. In this respect I think Augustine’s statement “I believe in order that I might understand” makes all the sense in the world. Take that saying and put it in a different context and it seems, to me at least, a little nonsensical. But in the world of living, when it is hard to make sense of a despairing horizon, it makes all the sense in the world. Perhaps the faith journey is the furnace where our emotions and knowledge are tempered. It is at this junction that our worldview most noticeably informs our understanding of reality. For Christians, like Augustine, it is not a vacuum behind the “believe.” It has in view the power behind the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hope to which we set our eyes upon. That before God we have been declared innocent. That God, right now, is transforming us into innocents and that one day we will stand completely transformed. Our souls long for hope in despair because we were created for hope – and dwell in it in life everlasting we will.

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March 28, 2010

Crazy Week

Never has the world experienced a week comparable to the week of Calvary. The man who impacted history more than any other rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Satire couldn’t come up with a more seemingly comical scene than the invisible God who spoke the universe into existence as one who rode into Jerusalem on a dusty and rocky road on the back of an ass while people hailed “Hosanna! Hosanna!” while throwing palm leaves and coats upon the ground to mark his royal entry.  Striking is this is the closest his creation comes to praising him, honoring him and giving him his due. The rest of the week has its tumultuous turns offering emotional highs and lows – the trashing of the money changers, the establishment of the observance of the new covenant as the ultimate completion of the passover Seder, all his disciples abandoning him, Peter denying him, Judas betraying him, the sweating of blood under the yoke of the cross placed before him, the illegal arrest and criminally unjust trial, torture, whipping, beating, spitting, gambling, general disregard, carrying the immense weight of the cross, handing his mother over to John for care, experiencing the penalty of wrath as an innocent, his Father forsaking him and many other things. It strains my conceptual abilities to consider the anxiety of the knowledge of the heavy pain of sin placed upon his righteous shoulders while experiencing the immense relief to be able to say simultaneously “It is finished.” The plan that was formed and followed through before the foundation of the world was finished – at the perfect time completed. There he sweats, bleeds and breathes his last while hanging on a deplorable splinter-fest of an icon that rightly becomes an image reminding all of the evils people can imagine. But this icon becomes a symbol of hope as Passion Week ends with an empty tomb and the Prince of glory resurrected from the dead.  So what week can compare to this week which we begin to celebrate? The week that includes the day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Savior and God – both the living and the dead. While I was not in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago I look longing toward the one I will be at in the future as I celebrate the new covenant – a covenant I can never break because it is bound in Jesus’ blood and righteousness from faith through grace in Jesus to all those who would believe.

March 4, 2010

Why I want to go to Haiti

The rumors are true – I’ve been trying to get to Haiti. Not just for a short-term trip (1 to 2 weeks), but more like a medium-term trip (3 to 6 months). Unfortunately, it does not seem likely.

An oft asked question is “Why?” Why would you want to risk your safety? Why would you want to live in those conditions? Why would you leave your family? Well, you can imagine the sorts of questions. Perhaps you have a few you’d like to add to this list. My answer is Jesus of course.

As a Christian I have accepted the theology of suffering in the Bible. Everyone suffers, but that the Bible explains why Christians suffer. For example we have 2 Timothy 3:12, where Paul tells us, “In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” That is a sure promise of suffering. Or try putting on Romans 5:3-5 as to the why of suffering for a Christian,”And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance,  endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.  This hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

But this does not answer the why to Haiti, does it? No, it does not. It is a elementary introduction into a Christian attitude of suffering. The answer is that we are to not only accept suffering, but to embrace and seek it out.

Are you shocked? Think about Jesus, not only our Lord and Savior, but also our example. He did not lay down blindly as the Father decreed Jesus’ sacrifice via the cross. No, his part was a willing part. He did what the Father wanted, but of his own accord. He sought out the cross saying Mark 10:32-45  Listen! We are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death. Then they will hand Him over to the Gentiles,  and they will mock Him, spit on Him, flog Him, and kill Him, and He will rise after three days. …For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life– a ransom for many” (Mark 10:32-45). Jesus is the one who gave his life – it is not taken from him.

So it should not be surprising that Jesus would tell us to do the same.  Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). But there is another passage that I find even more compelling and drives my desire to go to places like Haiti and suffer with the people. You might think of  “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), but that would not be it. Rather it is what Paul says at the beginning of Colossians.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for His body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).  We know Christ’s sacrifice was perfect – lacking nothing. What Paul means when he claims that he is “completing what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” is the physical manifestation of what suffering looks like when faith works through love to serve others. For most people, Jesus’ sufferings make no sense because they have no reference in which to compare it. We must become an illustrative example in life so people have a reference of suffering for the sake of others.

If we merely throw money at Haiti or other places of sufferings as Christians then we are missing our primary mode of calling concerning how we are to serve. For we are primarily called to serve through suffering that is manifested before those people we seek to minister. We cannot do that far off. Donations are lovely and desperately needed, but they are not the only or primary thing needed. We must be willing to go to places like Haiti, sleep like they sleep, eat like they eat, wash like they wash so that we might be able to teach them about Jesus the Savior.

A couple of resources on Haiti and suffering follow:

Monergism resources on suffering.

Books (Click on the books for more info):

The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Fund, where 100% of your donations are used for relief on the ground.

Also, here is Charlie Rose on an update from Haiti

Vodpod videos no longer available.

January 18, 2010

Funny Picture

I found this picture in one of the only boxes that survived Katrina. I was looking for my passport. Rachelle, as she is reading this last part, is muttering that she has told me 20 times that we lost the passport in Katrina. Despite all the evidence, I refuse to believe I lost such an important document. Anyway, I found this clipping from a magazine that a friend of mine had cut out and wrote on, it is over 10 years old now. But is still too funny! 

Without God Life is Scary!

January 15, 2010

Haiti front line blog

Jeremy Schurke is on a team that runs an orphanage in Haiti. Click here to read his blog. A reminder why we need not be flipant in our attitudes or discussions concerning God and suffering, but why we must absolutelty come to terms with our answer for who God is and why He allows suffering.

January 15, 2010

Suffering as a Gift

Others have made the same strange discovery, that suffering is a gift to be embraced.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of his time in prison, with all its pain as gift.  “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.  Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts . . . .  Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.” Solzhenitsyn agrees with the apostle Paul that suffering is — or can  be — a gift not just for apostles, but for every Christian.

Quoted from John Piper’s Desiring God, chapter 10 on suffering. You can read the book here.

January 13, 2010

The God of Angola

I will never forget hearing the click, click, click of those gates closing behind us. We started walking down a long sidewalk with buildings dispersed to the east and west of the sidewalk. Inmates were huddled in groups. In one group three guys, in other seven guys and others  in-between. Each group making way for the guard who led our way. Each inmate with eyes that shone with pride or defeat, anger or sorrow. The overwhelming majority of them with no hope of parole – ever. We had entered into Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States.

I remember wondering silently to myself about the wisdom of my choice of ministry. A sense of vulnerability lasted for a time, but elapsed as I witnessed God work around me. Perhaps you have heard of the wonder of what has occurred within the confines of Angola. I was reminded recently when I saw that John Piper had visited there a few months ago via Challies Dot Com. You can listen to their Q&A session with him here.

If Angola sounds familiar it is probably because Billy Cannon works there. But there is a greater story than Cannon at work within those gates. If you want to see the mighty hand of God at work on the soil of America than look no further than this former plantation turned prison. The Mississippi surrounds three sides of this 18,000 acre prison, but 100% of it is experiencing the love of God. My first day an inmate asked me what percentage of the city I lived in (N’awlins at the time) was presented the gospel every year? I said I didn’t know. “10%, 30%, 80%?” He asked. “I don’t know.” “Well, in Angola every prisoner hears the gospel at least three times a year. We are the only place in the United States where a 100% of a population is evangelized.” With over 5,000 inmates this is something. I know towns of 300 that can’t boast such a claim.

But prior Warden Burl Cain coming to Angola, it was an entirely different prison. If not the bloodiest prison in America it was close. Inmates would sleep in groups in the barracks, taking turn standing guard over their sleeping comrades. They would stuff their shirt with newspapers and anything else they might find that could make a stab wound non-fatal. But Warden Cain’s first watch over a death sentence changed everything. Realizing the value of a man’s soul he reached out and made in-roads for Christian ministry in the prison. You can read an account here.

Approaching New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, an extension center was created to educate prisoners in ministry. But this was only the beginning. Prisoners would get their theological training and become missionaries – to their fellow prisoners. They would change cell blocks to become pastors among the populace. When I taught at Angola for the seminary there were prisoners who upon graduation were to become missionaries to other prisons.

It was a change of the grandest scale. Men who were considered the worse kind of criminals becoming men who willingly took risks unimaginable to us outside a prison’s walls in order to further the gospel message. I had a living example in front of me every week as I taught Hebrew. There was a ragin’ cajun with neo-Nazi tattoos on almost every inch of his body. Next to him was his best friend – a Jew. They were inseparable and two of the gentlest souls you will meet. The gospel did that. I asked them to explain the change one day. The former neo-Nazi said “The only explanation is the power of the gospel. If you want proof of the power of the gospel then look no further than Angola. Man cannot explain this.” There was another inmate who confided in me in-between classes one day how much he loved to look outside the widow. “How far can we see do you think? 200, 300 yards?” he asked. ”I guess so. Why do you like to see beyond the fence.” His response, “You don’t know freedom till you realize how trapped you are. Once I was in isolation because I was a danger to all the other inmates. They had no choice but to keep me confined. In there I could see nothing. No windows low enough to look out. In there God taught me about the reality of sin. Everyday as I walk among the other inmates and look around and see the world I am reminded of what real freedom is – it is not out there, but in here.” He was pointing to his heart.

The results of Warden Cain’s initiatives are a dramatic decrease in violence and an up swell in the inmates’ moral. When I was there another ministry made a visit during the weekend and gave out free books. I thought to myself, “They are riding our coattails.” But it wasn’t true. The change in Angola isn’t due to NOBTS, other committed ministries in Angola or even Warden Cain. To be sure God has used each mightily. The change comes from the grace of God. God is at work. Can you imagine that tonight there will be multiple men going from bed to bed or cell to cell. Many of them could say of their lives that they never knew love, or a nurturing touch. Their past was a mural of violence, hatred and abandonment. They knew no haven or sweet caress from a parent. All human interaction was suspect. Sleep a time of vulnerability and crying a sign of weakness. But tonight, they go to be what no one ever was for them. To reach and touch and love and weep for those with whom they live. The epitome of the gospel being lived and the glory to God being given.

Thank you Lord for letting me be a witness.

November 25, 2009

The Miracle of Suffering

Here comes Thanksgiving Day. How are we to be thankful? What should the cause of our thankfulness be? What if you are going through a hard time? Or maybe I should ask “How can we be thankful especially when things go wrong most of the time and seem to only get worse as the days go by?” Am I doom-n-gloom? I don’t think so, but we must deal with the problem of evil in the world. It is here and our answer informs the world with how we cope. When I say problem of evil I have in view all types that fall into the classical discussion– moral, natural, gratuitous, sickness, pain. For the sake of this blog I’m going to call all these things suffering. Suffering because not all of them are in and of themselves evil, but we still deal with them and have to figure out why they exist and what we should think about them and an appropriate response to them.

Here are a few thoughts from my Christian perspective of the use of suffering and what it accomplishes in life. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just some things that suffering should and does do.

  1. Suffering results in humility. God tells us to be humble (Philippians 2:3-8). John Calvin writes “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility;’ and still more with those of Augustine, ‘As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.’” (Institutes 2.2.11) In our culture humility is not a good thing, but for a Christian it is a great thing. We are not self-sufficient. There are just some hurdles we cannot jump no matter how hard we try. Reality is we are spiritually extremely needy. We are spiritually bankrupt (Matthew 5:3). We are in a worse spot than the beggar at the corner of the street. But humility comes in and by calling us to recognize our situation also points to the all sufficient Provider and Healer and Comforter and Savior (Psalm 50:15). We cling to him and he reveals how he is more than sufficient in all things. We are taught how our weakness shows off his strength (II Corinthians 12:9). Suffering does this. (More from John Calvin here).
  2. Suffering calls us to repentance (Luke 13:1-5). An overarching reality in Scripture concerning suffering is that it is a result of our declaring war upon God. Just grant for a second the idea that there is a divine being out there who created the whole universe and that part of his creation was orders and rules. Then his creation decided it was going to do thing its own way. It decided it wanted to live a life to the theme of Bon Jovi – “Its my life” and all that. So it does, the Creator lets it. Ask yourself: If this is true is suffering really surprising? The Bible says no (Romans 8:22-23) and that when we see suffering occur around us one of the things it should do is to call us to stop shoving our fist in God’s face. Lest we Christians think too much of ourselves we know that God uses suffering in our lives to burn our personal dross and continually draw us to him. Discipline, when done right, is a form of love (Hebrews 12:5-11). Suffering does this. (More on Suffering in today’s world)
  3. Suffering gives us opportunity to proclaim the value of Jesus to those who don’t know him (Colossians 1:24). Even thought this point is sandwiched into the middle it may be the biggest point. When our suffering causes us to abandon God we are saying that he is not more valuable than those things whose loss we are lamenting – be it the loss of health, wealth, security, limb or life as being more precious than him. They are not more precious than him. He is the only completely unique and set-apart being there is. There is no other. Most importantly in this aspect of suffering is the offensive reality of how much Jesus suffered for you and me. For those of us not at his crucifixion it is very hard to get the overall sense of his torment. But God puts suffering Christians into the lives of others to be liaisons of suffering – to be representatives to show everyone what Jesus’ suffering looks like and why it is so valuable (Luke 24:25-27; Galatians 2:19-21). Suffering does this. (More on living out Christ’s sufferings for others)
  4. There is a hope in our suffering as Christians (Romans 5:1-5). Our sufferings today are light afflictions. Our sufferings remind us our eternal dwelling with God is one of infinite joy. We are aliens or as one of my favorite songs says, “We are poor, wayfaring strangers.” This present from of creation is not our home (John 8:23, compare with Ephesians 2:19). Our home rests with God when he brings this creation back to rights at the end of days. We look forward, with grand anticipation (I Corinthians 15:54-58), like a young girl does all through her life as she dreams of that perfect wedding day (Matthew 25). We long, we day dream, we discuss, we sing, write poems and books and music (Revelation 21:4-8). Our kingdom is another kingdom. We patiently, but restlessly await its final culmination to be complete. Suffering does this. (Listen to Poor Wayfaring Stranger here)
  5. For those who are not Christians, their suffering is also a light affliction; although it may not feel so. However, while a Christian finds hope in our momentary afflictions, we also need to feel the call to rise and proclaim God’s message of salvation to any who will hear (Romans 10:8-21). For the Christian will find infinite joy that grows with each passing day of eternity in our fellowshipping with the Perfect Father. We will know grace and mercy to a depth unimaginable each day, only to discover that the next day brings it even deeper as our knowledge of God grows infinitely throughout eternity. But for those who stay stubbornly in rebellion despite what God has done and communicated to them, there is absolutely nothing on this present sod that will compare with the intense wrath of a holy God who has been spurned by that which is obligated to love and enjoy him (Isaiah 30:18; 58:14). If Hell is real, as Christians and the Bible contend, then it is a place where God’s wrath is felt infinitely. Where it grows with each passing day in severity and when you think you can’t imagine it being any more of a nightmare it grows ever deeper with each passing day. With descriptors of burning and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Mark 9:18; Luke 13:28), Hell is a place where God’s holiness is revealed and the knowledge of this holiness spurned causes torment. Then will those in Hell long for the sufferings of this time (Luke 16:19-31), but it will be too late. So, for Christians, suffering is an anthem call to love all. Suffering can prevent this. (Listen to Penn Jillette, from the comedy team Penn and Teller, say it best. He is a committed atheist who is having no crisis of belief and still says it best.)