More on Suffering

I’ve talked about this in several of the previous articles, but I have more to say.  The religious hucksters love to prey on the ignorant and unsuspecting by preaching a gospel that promises emotional and material blessing now to those who would embrace it.  "Come to God and get in on the good life that He promises and that only He can give."  And the good life described by these deceptive entrepreneurs is not a future life with God in the eternal state, but a life in the present where all their desires (if tempered by the right moral values) are fulfilled.  You would think these guys were gleaning their message from Hollywood and Jack Nicholson movies: "Did you ever think that maybe this is as good as it gets?"

If you went to the Christian Book Store (please don’t), you’d see shelf after shelf of religious fantasies with titles like the currently popular "Your Best Life Now".  Am I missing something here?  Is not the underlying theme of everything God has ever revealed to man the promise of something better in the next life?  Now, I’m not a man who is generally prone to fear or depression, but if I truly believed that this is as good as it gets, I’d be quickly driven to a deep, dark despair from which there would be no return.  My hope for a future eternity with a righteous and holy God is the reason I get up in the morning.

So, what’s my point?  There’s a huge gulf that separates truth from the message heard by most of those who attend the various religious institutions or look for answers in religious books.  Let me explain.  Since the fall of man, this life was never meant to be easy or carefree.  Remember the curse described in Genesis 3?  It was the result of man’s disobedience and every aspect of the curse made this life more difficult and problematic.  Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:13-14 could not be more clear when He describes the life of the believer as one that is compressed by the pressure of obstacles that must be overcome.

OK, there’s a bigger point I have to make here.  The fact is this: coming to God does not make this life better or easier; it makes this life even harder and more difficult.  Let’s review.  When we truly submit our lives to God and to His purpose (and remember what that purpose is – to conform us to the image of His Son), we are quickly introduced to the concept of suffering. You can count on it.  Things that never went wrong when you were ignorant of truth and wallowing in error will go completely nuts when you embrace truth.  People who were loyal to you, who would follow you into battle, who would give you the shirt off their back will abandon you.  People you love will hurt you.  And to your total amazement, you will hurt people you love.

And when you understand the purpose of God and the fact that it is not simply a concept to be understood in the mind, but a reality that must be experienced in life, then suffering is recognized as part of the package.  That’s why today’s "bless me" gospel is so deceptive.  Our carnal nature is such that experiencing the kind of blessings that religion promises can never change us.  Religion always appeals to the flesh, thus the promise of the things we all want.  Yet, God demands that we reject our flesh and what we want and embrace what He requires.  Getting what we want will never change us. God knows, and we have to accept the fact, that suffering is what gives us the opportunities to change in the ways that He wants us to change.

It is only the hurtful circumstances and the stressful situations that push us into a corner, forcing us to a point of decision.  Am I going to be obedient to what I know God wants or not?  Am I going to obey my carnal nature or reject it and suffer the consequences?  Am I going to manipulate my options and try to avoid this unpleasantness or recognize it as God working in my life and submit to it?  Or, if the situation is unavoidable, am I going to be bitter and angry over it, or am I going to ask God to help me understand it and benefit from it.  Am I going to allow God to humble me, embarrass me, hurt me, isolate me and ask me to give up the things I want or that I think I need?  In other words, am I going to submit to God so He can continually put me in situations where I have the opportunity to reject my flesh?

Even Jesus learned obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8) and His willingness to suffer became the example we are all encouraged to follow (I Peter 2:21).  We are to share in His suffering (Philippians 3:10I Peter 4:13) and have no reason to expect that we will share in His glory if we don’t (Romans 8:17).  And as I have argued before, if the plan and purpose of God is that we submit to Him and be changed into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29), then change is required.  And further, if suffering in all its various forms is what God uses to facilitate that change, then what can I say about those who want to avoid suffering?  What is the true spiritual condition of all those folks out there who will accept only a message that promises blessing?

I know what the problem is.  This whole business about suffering just sounds wrong.  It’s negative.  It’s scary.  It doesn’t feel right.  It’s not what we want to hear.  It doesn’t make us feel good.  You certainly can’t build a church on it.  But these last seven statements all come from our carnal nature. So, there is a bottom line here.  I talk about it in the article "Avoiding the Dog and Hog Disease, Part 2: Self Preservation and Materialism".  When we truly submit to God and to His purpose (I mean completely surrender and learn to be honest and transparent with Him), then we learn two things: the first is that we must embrace suffering (the subject of this article); the second is that the things that are important to religious institutions (more specifically, moral values) are not necessarily important to God.  This second thing will be the subject of a future article.

But for now, let’s concentrate on the concept of embracing suffering.  The Book of I Peter is the example I like to use and I’ll try to be brief.  Peter understood suffering.  He talks about it in every chapter of this letter, five chapters with five different aspects of suffering.  In chapter one he explains that suffering is necessary to prove the genuineness of our faith (verse 7).  The word translated "trial" in most translations is dokimion from the verb dokimazo and is a test to prove whether or not something is real or acceptable. In this case the meaning is clear.  God uses suffering in our lives to test us to see if our faith is real.

And let’s be clear on this point.  Faith (pistis) is not what we believe or accept as true in our minds.  In Scripture, faith describes our real experiences with God (Hebrews 11).  Faith defines our relationship with Him, a personal relationship in which we are submitted to Him and He is personally involved in our lives to accomplish His plan and purpose.  And Peter tells us that God uses suffering to test the reality of that relationship.  What’s the application here?  When we encounter difficulties, when we suffer, what is our response?  Do we take it patiently (James 1:3) and seek to understand God’s reason for allowing it?  Do we try to be Christ-like in our response to it so we can learn and grow from the experience?  Or do we try to avoid it or rebel against it?

And, we should emphasize this point as well; the test is for our good, not God’s.  He knows what we’re going to do before we ever do it.  But the purpose of it is to teach us.  When we respond correctly, we have a sense of His approval; but when we don’t, it exposes our weakness.  And when we fail, in His mercy He allows us to take the test again.  If we’re truly submitted to Him, we recognize our failure, repent and determine to pass the test the next time we face it.  If we’re not submitted to Him, we continue to resist. Then reality is revealed, maybe not to us (because we’re so good at deceiving ourselves), but to Him.

In chapter two Peter talks about undeserved suffering (verses 20 - 23) and the fact that it is unavoidable in the believer’s life.  Why is undeserved suffering required?  Because when we suffer in this way it gives us the opportunity to be Christ-like.  He wasn’t guilty of anything.  He wasn’t deceitful in any way. Yet, when He suffered abuse, He didn’t fight back or retaliate in any way.  He simply trusted His Father.  Given our ability to protect ourselves, justify ourselves and keep others from taking advantage of us in any way, underserved suffering is a supreme test of our willingness to control our flesh.  And when we do, God is pleased, because we have just demonstrated an important aspect of the character and nature of His Son.

Chapter three talks about suffering for the sake of righteousness (verse 14). The word in the text is dikaiosune and describes what is just or right.  For every believer righteousness is the fulfillment of all that God is.  We are to be partakers of His divine nature (II Peter 1:4).  And if we are, then we determine to be like Him and do what He does.  Of course this will cause conflicts in our lives as we refuse to follow our flesh, cave in to the pressures the world puts on us or give in to the temptations of evil.  As Peter cautions in this same verse, we shouldn’t be afraid of the opposition this brings. Again, it proves a reality in our lives: are we more concerned about God’s approval or do we take the deceptively easy way out and act in a way that gains the approval of those around us.

Suffering because you bear the name of Christ is found in chapter four (verse 14).  Here Peter tells us that when we suffer the abuse of others because of our obvious devotion to Him, we’re fortunate.  Why?  Because it is certain evidence that the Spirit of God is resting on us.  Talk about a reality check, this is certainly it.  When even unbelievers (as ignorant and rebellious as they are) recognize God in your life and abuse you for it, then it’s real!

Then in chapter five, and this is my favorite one; Peter talks about suffering at the hands of evil (verses 6-10).  And, if you’re familiar with what I’ve said in previous articles on so-called spiritual warfare, I’m not big on yelling at the devil or making false claims of authority that I don’t have where he’s concerned.  The key to avoiding unnecessary suffering at the hands of evil is and always will be humility (as in most other cases, just the opposite of what religion claims).  Humility is how Peter starts this paragraph on suffering.  Of course, anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts knows that even Jesus suffered at the hands of evil.  Yes, when it was the Father’s plan, Jesus exposed and triumphed over evil; but by the same token, when it was His plan Jesus suffered the abuse of evil and was powerless to avoid it.

And it is not possible for us to avoid it either, as Peter makes clear in verse 9 when he tells us that this kind of suffering is appointed to the whole brotherhood of believers.  Isn’t it strange how religious types want to believe they can control their own fate?  They want to believe they have power over the devil and his imps.  It’s a fleshly response coming out of religious institutions that are purposely crafted to appeal to the flesh.  Only God has power over the devil and the devil is the prince (ruler) of this world (John 12:31) and the god of this world (II Corinthians 4:4).

But this is the good part.  Let me translate verse 10 for you.  This is what it says: "And the God Who is generous in giving His favor and blessing, the One Who has called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, will make you everything that He wants you to be, then you’ll never change, you’ll never suffer again and that’s the way it will be forever." What a fantastic promise!  Of course the part about suffering "a little while" is God’s perspective.  We may groan and moan and wonder "how long, Oh Lord", but it really is just a short time.

And here I have to quote Paul, "I reckon that the sufferings of this present life cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us."  So, those who have bought into religion and its empty promises can have their best life now, if that’s what they choose.  I’d rather have the life that God has chosen for me, including all the suffering that He has determined, so I can have my best life for all eternity.