Sunday, November 20, 2022

My Wife Left Me

 Suffering 16


Note: After today's post, I will take my customary winter break. I will continue this series on suffering in January. Along the way, in this series, I have tried to bring you some real life stories, people whom I know have suffered, and done so with grace. Today's post is one of those. I cannot tell you the author. I will tell you I have known him for many years; he has suffered with grace. May the Lord use this grace to minister to you.

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What do you do when you are in full-time ministry and life throws you a curveball?


Some years ago my wife left me. As a man in full time ministry, not much else can derail your life like being rejected by your spouse. I could fill pages explaining my story, but instead of going through all the details and trying to prove anything, I want to simply share with you three major lessons that I learned through trials.

We are not as great as we think we are.


Proverbs 11:2 “When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.”


The truth is we NEED to get knocked down sometimes. When everything is going well and we are accomplishing big things, we start to subtly get arrogant and depend on ourselves instead of depending on God. I had a measure of influence. I was given the opportunity to preach in some large churches and rubbed shoulders with some of the “big” names.


Nothing wrong with that influence, but, boy is it easy to start thinking we have it all figured out. 


My wife leaving me, revealed some areas that needed work in my life that I would never have noticed without being knocked down.


The blessing of trials is that it brings humility and increased dependance on God.


God is enough.


2 Corinthians 12:9 “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”


I felt like my life was over. I didn’t know how to go on. There is a stigma that weighs heavily on every divorced man or woman, especially in our ranks as independent Baptists.. 


They say a man used to be a drunk.

They say a man used to be immoral.

They say a man used to be violent.


For every other failure, we typically offer forgiveness, however when someone is divorced, there is always a cloud of suspicion placed over him or her.


My heart still passionately wanted to serve God. I knew things would be different, but I was determined, however it looked, I was still going to serve the Lord when the dust settled.


I thought about David. He desired to rebuild the temple. God told him no, he was a man of war and was not the right man for the job.


I imagine that hurt David, a man after God’s heart.


It is hard to be told no. Especially when your heart is sincere. David, however, determined that if he couldn’t build the temple, he could prepare the way for someone else.


Even if he couldn’t be “top dog” he was going to do something.


Whatever trial you face and whatever or whoever has hurt you, there is a place of service for you. You do not have to shrink into oblivion. You do not have to hide in the shadows.


The people and connections that I lost were not the reasons why I entered ministry. I answered a call from God and His Word. While, like David, things might look different in HOW I serve, I was called by God and MUST serve. 


I lost a lot. I lost friends, I lost support, I lost influence… Not to mention I lost my wife and had to fight for a reasonable custody agreement. It was humbling, humiliating and looong…. 


I never lost my relationship with God… and that is enough.


You will smile again. Psalms 30:5b “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”


After my wife left, I needed help and counsel as much as ever. I am thankful I had Godly men in my life who could help me make some important decisions. It is just about impossible to think clearly when your world is turned upside down.


The pastor who had performed my marriage ceremony was very kind to me. He sympathized with me and then said these simple words, “You will smile again.”


I sure didn’t feel true. I felt like I was just existing, just trying to survive. He has no idea how much I needed that statement that day. It took time, years in fact. Some things are still hard.


In all of that, God has been faithful. He is in the restoration business. He can give you a life of value and purpose again.


I am now years out. God has given me a family schedule that is workable, a ministry that is pressing forward, great people all around me and hope for the future.


If you are dealing with a life altering change, look up and look forward, God is not done with you.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Beauty of Suffering

 

Suffering 15

 

          The last time I spoke to him was a week ago. The last message I received from him ended with him saying, “I look forward to meeting you and sharing a meal together.” I will not speak to him again this side of Glory. The first meal we share will be the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Just a few short days ago, an Iraqi militia bracketed his car in Baghdad, poured bullets into it, and ushered him violently into eternity. Cut down in the prime of life just as his ministry was beginning to bear fruit, his wife suddenly widowed and his children fatherless, ‘tis tempting indeed to scream “Why?!” at the God who allowed it.

          One of the primary reasons I am writing this blog series on suffering is an attempt to prove that there are answers to these heart-rending questions. I have already given you several – suffering is consequence, suffering is judgment, and suffering is the school that forms us into the image of Christ. Additionally, suffering is necessary if free will is to exist. Today, we come to a superior reason for the existence of suffering: God uses it to produce or create good, something better than would have otherwise existed.

          We see this both directly and indirectly in the Word of God. Directly, it can be found in the well-known Romans 8.28. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Was Stephen Troell called according to His purpose? Assuredly. Then will God somehow use even this brutal evil to produce good? Just as assuredly.

“All things” here implies not just things we instinctively view as good but also those things that are arguably not good. I propose it would even include things that are inarguably not good. In some way, though God does not create evil in the sense of sinful evil, He uses even the devil’s vicious hatred and desire to inflict harm to produce something truly beautiful. I say again, suffering is beautiful.

Indirectly, we can see via Paul’s wondrous soliloquy on his thorn in the flesh.

2 Corinthians 12:7–10

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

          The thorn, sent directly from Satan to buffet him, instead produced new strength as the power of Christ rested upon him.

          The devil is a pervert. By that, I mean he twists things out of their intended path in order to harm God. He does it with sexuality, most obviously, but in a myriad of other ways as well. Yet he never succeeds in accomplishing his evil intent for God does it right back to him. God takes the devil’s purpose or aim and twists it to produce or create some good that otherwise would not have existed.

“Power” in the above passage is similar to influence in the original language. Satan’s attack only increased or furthered Paul’s influence for Christ. It deepened Paul as a Christian and caused his impact to widen in its scope. “Strength” here means able or competent. It speaks to an increase in skill and thus an ability to do more. Satan’s attack made Paul a better leader, pastor, mentor, friend, writer, soul winner, and Christian. The devil’s intent brought suffering to Paul and from that suffering God created something good. Is not that beautiful?

Aside from our Saviour, what biblical character suffered the most? Many people would say Job did. Yet look what Job’s suffering – directly instigated by Satan – produced: the first book of the Bible penned. The comfort that has thus flowed from Job’s suffering is literally indescribable in its extent.

          Let us turn, once again, to Christ. The devil attacked Him with all the fury at Hell’s command. Yet what was the result? Christ’s suffering produced the devil’s own destruction, humanity’s redemption, indeed, the redemption of the cosmos itself and the end of sin. The devil’s intent brought suffering to Christ and from that suffering God created something good.

          We see this most explicitly, perhaps, aside from Christ in the life of Joseph. Years after his enslaved and imprisoned years he said to his brothers, But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. (Genesis 50.20) The devil’s intent lashed Joseph’s soul with pain yet from the pain God created something good.

          In each of these cases – Paul, Job, Jesus, and Joseph – we see that the person in question experienced deep suffering but the good that resulted went much further than just them. It was a good that passed through them on to others.

          So often, we make the Job mistake; we view suffering only or primarily through the lens of ourselves. “I suffered. I did not get better. Nothing got better for me.” I would disagree with that for when God enrolled you in the school of suffering He gave you a golden opportunity to grow into His image. But setting that aside, your personal advantage is not the point. It is not about you.

          There is nothing selfish about Christianity, including suffering and God’s use of that suffering in my life. I do not suffer for me; I suffer for you. Through my suffering, I minister or transfer the good that God is creating. I do not mean this unkindly, but it is not about you so stop measuring it with your measuring stick. It is about God’s work through you benefiting others.

          I can show you this in a thousand ways in real life. In 1994, a sex offender unknowingly moved in across the street from an innocent family. In his vile sin, he killed a girl in that family, a seven year old known as Megan. And Megan’s Law has saved how many lives in the decades since? C. H. Spurgeon, that prince of preachers, became too sick to pastor or preach for lengthy periods of time. Much of his writing, including the matchless commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David, was produced in such times. My last book, Next, was directly birthed as a result of a painfully long delayed transition from one pastorate to the next. If everything I had planned had come off smoothly that book would not exist. Leaf through a hymnal at church and you will discover a multitude of songs birthed through the writer’s suffering. “It is Well with My Soul” was the result of the drowning of the author's four daughters. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was written after the death of the author’s fiancĂ©. “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus” was produced by a man determined to follow the Lord’s will even though his wife left him over it. And I could go on and on and on.

          I can hear his words now, the smile in his voice, the love in his heart, as he said at the end of that last two minute Signal message, “I look forward to meeting you and sharing a meal together”, a voice stilled forever via an angry Muslim’s bullet. I have wept much this week thinking of his children now fatherless, his wife a widow, and his converts at the mercy of the wolves around them. Yet in that sorrow I know this deep in my soul – God is at work. Yes, God is at work, and with this suffering He will produce something breathtakingly beautiful in its goodness.

          I say again, suffering is beautiful.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Marriage of Free Will and Suffering

 

Suffering 14

 


          Five years ago this weekend, on a peaceful Sunday morning, a demonically inspired man in Sutherland, Texas, picked up his rifle, and walked into the Baptist church his in-laws attended. Rapidly firing, he murdered 26 people and wounded 20 more before eventually killing himself at the end of the ensuing car chase.

          Why did God let that happen? Why did He allow His own children, in the middle of a church service, to be gunned down in cold blood? Why did He not stop it? What good is God is He cannot or does not protect His own people from such evil brutality?

          Before I offer you a reason let me briefly mention a wrong answer or two. Some men proffer that the shooting in Sutherland Springs happened because God is incapable of protecting His own. Why is this a wrong answer? Because to assert it makes God less than God, and it flies in the face of plain biblical teaching and example.

          We see this clearly in the crucifixion of God’s own Son, Jesus. It did not happen because the Father was unable to stop unpleasant earthly events. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26.53) God is all-powerful. He could have, if He chose, stopped this evil in its tracks and preserved the lives and happiness of His children in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

          Other people suggest this happened to them because God was punishing them. Such an insinuation places the suggesters within the orbit of Job’s friends, who insisted the bad in Job’s life was a result of his sin. To the contrary, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot look a the circumstantial events of a person’s life and declare they happened as punishment for some hidden sin. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9.2-3)

          So if the above two attempts to answer the question are wrong what is the right answer? Permit me to make four statements in response.

          First, God made us with a free will. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22.17) Unequivocally, God has the power to force Himself on anyone. He has the power of a Creator. He has the power of omnipotence. He has the power of omniscience. He has the power of eternity. He has the power of omnipresence. Yet He chose not to force Himself upon us. He chose not to create robots; He chose to create us in His image and equip us with a will that is free.

          Second, God made us with a free will so that we would willingly choose to love and serve Him. Moses instructed his readers, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deuteronomy 6.5) Jesus constantly reiterated the same. And it is not real love if it is forced love. Nor is it real service if it is forced service, as Joshua reveals. It requires conscious, unhindered choice. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve. (Joshua 24.15)

          Slaves serve because they do not have a choice. My God wants sons, not slaves. And if we are going to enter His service, even to the extent of viewing ourselves as His slave, He wants it to be our idea. He desires it to be motivated not by force but by a heart love that constrains us to give our lives for him. Our God does not break down the door of our heart; He humbly knocks and asks admission. (Revelation 3.20)

          Third, allowing us a free will must mean allowing people to go against Him, including in some very bad ways. The proof of this point is the existence of Satan, the very motivating force behind every tragedy ever since. For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. (Isaiah 14.13-14)   

          If I want you love me from your heart I have to let you hate me if that is what you choose. I cannot give you a free will and then control its exercise. I can persuade. I can reason. I can motivate. I can influence. But I cannot force you to go against your will. Ergo, I am going to regularly experience what it is like for people to go against my will.

          This is God’s self-chosen existence. He could make us do all that He desires but He does not. So we do some very, very bad things, including things that hurt other people God loves.

          Fourth, somehow, though all of this is true, Scripture also reveals a God whose sovereignty is intact. Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: The remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain. (Psalm 76.10)

          “Pastor Brennan, you are arguing against yourself.” No, I am telling you what God said even if I cannot adequately explain it. God gave us a genuinely free will, yet He retains His sovereignty. Like with the Trinity, I do not have to understand the complexities of this doctrine in order to believe it.

          The reality of this is seen in the absolute fact that every knee will bow to Him eventually. He may let us defy Him for a little while, but at some point His patience will be at an end. His longsuffering is long but it is not eternal suffering. He will be obeyed. He will be worshipped. How much better to do so now, voluntarily, from a heart of love? Neglect the opportunity you are given by His grace now and you will be dragged there in chains, if need be.

          The reality of a free will requires the existence of suffering. That is (one reason) why horror was visited on the saints in Sutherland Springs, Texas, five years ago this weekend.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The School of Suffering

Suffering 13

Note: Having begun this series on suffering with definitions and descriptions, we then moved on to some scriptural and current examples. Last week we shifted and began to offer some answers to the great question, "But why did this happen?" We began with two reasons, that suffering is sometimes the consequence of our sin and other times judgment on us for our sin. Today I will offer a third reason, that suffering is a school that develops or grows us into Christian maturity. I cannot write this better than I already have in a chapter in Freed From Sin. Here is that chapter.


          I like to be comfortable. I would rather sit on a hard bench than stand up, and if a cushioned chair is available, I am going to leave the hard bench for you. I would rather walk than run, and I would rather ride than walk. I suspect you are like me. I have never yet seen a line outside of a gym. Our flesh likes to be pampered, indulged, and spoiled. We do not like to suffer.

          The problem with this approach in the context of holiness is that being at ease in Zion has never yet brought a body to the place of conformity with Jesus Christ. It is suffering that God holds valuable in His economy, not comfort. Peter tells us to suffer according to the will of God (I Peter 4.19). In other words, there is some suffering that our Heavenly Father has purposely designed for us to endure for reasons that seem good to Him. It is His wish, His desire, His will for us that we experience it.

          I Peter and Job are the best books in the Bible to study suffering, but we find an absolutely foundational truth tucked away in an obscure corner of Hebrews. Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered. (Hebrews 5.8). Obviously, this is talking about Jesus Christ. Just as obviously, Jesus did not ever have a time in His earthly career when He was not completely obedient. Incomplete obedience is partial disobedience, and disobedience is sin. Jesus was not a sinner; therefore, this verse cannot be telling us that He came to the place of learning to obey by way of suffering.

          What does it mean then? One of things sometimes misunderstood about Jesus is that there were things He had to learn. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature (Luke 2.52). Yes, He was God, but in choosing to robe Himself in human flesh, He chose to empty Himself temporarily of some aspects of His deity. God is omni-present; Jesus was not. God has never learned anything; Jesus did. As a child, He had to learn how to walk, how to tie His laces, and how to read. As a young man, He had to learn how to use Joseph's tools. At some point (I think about the age of twelve) He had to learn Who He was. It was not that He was ever stubborn, rebellious, or unwilling; no, for those are sins. It is simply that He had to mature and to grow in his ability, in His capacity, so to speak.

          Included in the other areas in which He needed to grow was obedience. He was never disobedient, but His obedience had to increase in capacity, too. As a young man, He sat in the Temple and solemnly declared His willingness to obey His Heavenly Father when He stated, I must be about my Father's business (Luke 2.49). Although at the age of twelve He was completely willing to do His Father's will, He was not yet ready to follow through on the ultimate expression of that will – His death on the cross. His obedience had to grow for another two decades to that point, so to speak. And it did. He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2.8).

          Indeed, I could even go so far as to say that obedience to His Heavenly Father during his earthly career is the central lesson for Christians. It is what jumps out at you again and again as you examine His life. Four times alone in the book of John He references this. I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father (John 5.30). For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me (John 6.38). I do always those things that please him (John 8.29). As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do (John 14.31). Christ was never disobedient, but Scripture teaches us that He had to learn the fulness of obedience, which He clearly did.

Christ Bearing the Cross
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
c 1970

          How did He learn to increase, to grow His capacity to obey? In what school was it taught? Beloved, He learned it in the school of suffering. Yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered. Or, as the writer of Hebrews phrased it elsewhere, For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings (Hebrews 2.10). No one was ever so obedient as Jesus Christ; no one ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ. And the two halves of that sentence are not a coincidence.

          Our situation, while different in that we must first grow away from disobedience into obedience on our way mature obedience, is still similar. If we want to grow in the grace of holiness, we must grow in our capacity to obey. This will include seasons spent in the school of suffering. In his matchless paean to suffering, his first epistle, Peter says as much. Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God (I Peter 4.1-2).   

          How does suffering do this? The short answer is that suffering minimizes or, perhaps I should say, mortifies our flesh. Remember, our flesh likes comfort; it does not like suffering. It shrinks away from suffering, pulls back from it. Peter shows us that suffering in the flesh (a phrase he used three times in those two verses) does something to decrease our lust, causing us to cease from sin.

          There are two ways to apply this understanding. One is to interpret this as meaning we ought to actively try to harm our own body, as if we can in this manner minimize our lust and bring ourselves to the place of holiness. In Catholicism, dedicated members of Opus Dei wear barbed garters under their clothes so that they may live in constant agony. In the picturesque Spanish town of Guardia Sanframondi, every few years penitents parade through the streets while scourging themselves with metal whips and pins. Supposedly, such self-inflicted physical pain draws the favor of God and brings one closer to Him. This is utter nonsense. The Word of God teaches us to take care of our body (Ephesians 5.29). Sadistically tormenting our own flesh is not the answer.

          On the other hand, if God brings suffering to us, a proper reaction on our part produces precious things. Namely, suffering in the flesh minimizes our attention to it and minimizes its claim on our lives. Conversely, suffering allows us to maximize our sensitivity to spiritual things.

          Some of you reading this are puzzled at the moment. "Minimizes our attention to our flesh? Minimizes its claim on our lives? That's nonsense. I live in constant pain, and I've never had to pay more attention to my body in my life." I think I understand this, yet at the same time, if that suffering is accepted in the right spirit, it produces in us the humility necessary for spirituality.

My reading spot on my most recent prayer
retreat just this month.

          Nearly ten years ago, I set aside a few days to go into the woods alone for my first prayer retreat. Just prior to this, I had taken an extended course of a powerful antibiotic for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, that antibiotic would kick off an inherited genetic flaw linked directly to an obscure condition called Meniere's Disease. First identified in the early 1800s by French doctor Prosper Meniere, it is an incurable condition that manifests itself principally in headaches, dizziness, vertigo, tinnitus, and eventually deafness. Associated with these, to one extent or another, are nausea, fatigue, hyperacusis, photophobia, and a condition with the curious name of brain fog (think of what happens to a computer trying to run too many programs at once).

          Nearly a decade of intimate acquaintance with this disease has taught me how to manage it, but when it first struck, I was completely at sea. I had no idea what had happened to me. I only knew that as I drove alone west out of Chicago toward the Mississippi River I was terribly sick. I was dizzy. The only way I could drive was by focusing my eyes on some fixed point in the distance and sitting bolt upright and still in the seat. I could not look down at the instrument panel, aside to my mirrors, or around me at passing cars or other scenery. When I stopped and got out, I had trouble walking in a straight line. My ears felt like someone had inserted a balloon and then proceeded to inflate it near to the point of bursting. Several hours later, after arriving at my little one-room cabin, I collapsed onto the bed physically drained.

          During the next few days, I spent most of my time on that bed. Periodically, I would feel good enough to attempt a prayer walk. But soon enough the symptoms would activate again, and I would stumble back to my bed. At one point, in the initial grips of a despair that would through the years become an old and familiar foe, I wept. All I wanted to do was pray. All I wanted to do was walk with Him. All I wanted to do was experience God. And I could not even stay out of bed, let alone concentrate well enough to enter into prayer of any depth.

          Curiously enough, you would think such physical frailty would focus my attention so completely on my health that I would be unable to concentrate on growing spiritually. The opposite has occurred. Empathy toward the physical ailments of others has grown in me, and that empathy has made me a better pastor and a better friend. Humility has been inserted into my life through crevices pried open by the crowbar of weakness. Faith, in the sense of dependence on God, has come to rule the secluded moments immediately prior to my public ministry. Gratitude for a longsuffering wife, for patient children, and for a kind and flexible church warms my heart. Even when I am misunderstood by others for actions I take as a result of an invisible disease, I am reminded of how often my Saviour was misunderstood.

          Please do not misunderstand me in turn. In the third paragraph of the introduction of this book, I laid aside any claim to personal holiness. I am not picking it up now. The distance between where I am and where I should be in the likeness of Christ is breathtaking in its expanse. But He has taught me, beloved. He has grown me; He has stretched me; He has developed me in the school of suffering. It is in this school we realize how frail our flesh is. It is in this school that He reminds us of just how temporal this world is while He draws our attention to the next one. It is in this school that we come to see God alone as the source of all comfort, strength, and peace. It is in this school we come to depend less and less upon ourselves and more and more upon Him. It is in this school our flesh is mortified, and our spirit is enlivened. It is in the hothouse of the school of suffering that the fruit of the Spirit is grown to ripeness.

          Remember, as in all things, Jesus leads us by example here, too. Whatever pain He calls you to endure, He endured worse. Whatever burden He calls you to carry, He carried more. Whatever bitter cup He calls you to taste, recall to your mind that He drank from it more deeply and more often. He did so without anger, without doubt, and without complaint. No wonder He learned obedience!

          Heretical branches of modern Christianity promote a prosperity gospel that is entirely unattached to the Word of God. They do so because it sells. More orthodox branches of Christianity are little better, promoting a God who pours out only what seems good to us – peace of mind and heart, complete acceptance, unconditional love, continual forgiveness – crowned with eternal life as the frosting on the cake. All of these last are true about God, yes; but they are decidedly one-sided. He also calls us to suffer, to live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth, to deny ourselves, to labor for Him, and to pay the price. This side of eternity God is not in the business of making us comfortable. He is in the business of making us holy, and at some point, that always entails suffering.

          For most of you reading this book it has come to you already. For a few of you, it has yet to arrive. But for each of you, the truth is the same: suffering is not a hindrance to holiness, but a help. You do not have to seek such suffering; rest assured, He will bring it to you in His time. No, you do not have to seek it, but I do advise you not to run from it. In fact, with a bit of fear and trembling, I urge you to embrace it. It is a hard school and a long school. But it is a wonderfully precious school, for it draws us to Him. And that is where you want to go.  


Sunday, October 16, 2022

Suffering Consequence and Judgment

 

Suffering 12


          We have spent the opening part of this lengthy blog series on suffering examining what suffering is, and looking at various examples of suffering in the pages of God’s Word. We have also heard from two individuals of how they dealt with a season of suffering in their lives. We are going to shift now, and for the next five weeks or so we are going to discover God’s purpose in our suffering. Put another way round, I am going to attempt to provide some solid answers for the age old cry, “Why is this happening to me?!” God does things for reasons. Though He is often inscrutable He is always good, and always works to produce good. I may not be able to tell you the why for a particular suffering, but I do intend to show you from Scripture why God uses the tool of suffering in our lives.

          Suffering is our response to loss and loss is rooted somewhere or other in sin. Most of the time the loss that comes from sin is indirect, in other words, it does not come as a result of our own sin. But other times, the loss in our lives is a direct production of sins we have committed or maintained. Sometimes, then, our suffering is simply but painfully the straightforward consequence of our own sinful or foolish choices.

          History is full of examples of this, and it just so happens I am reading one of them right now. Garret Graff’s 2021 work, “Watergate, A New History” casts a wide net, and in the process shows us the agony of Nixon’s second term as he cast a permanent stain on his name. The suffering Nixon endured was entirely self-inflicted; he did it all to himself with a cascading series of foolish, selfish, criminal actions.

          We also see clear illustration of this in the Bible. For example, think of those who endure the suffering of poverty. Proverbs 19.15 tells us Slothfulness casteth into a deep sleep; And an idle soul shall suffer hunger. Certainly there are times when people are poor or hungry and it is not the fault of their own sinful or foolish actions, but God is clear here that sometimes it is their fault. If you are lazy, sooner or later it is going to catch up to you. You will need something you do not have, and that need may well be pressing or distressing.

          This is built-in suffering. In other words, God does not have to send suffering to the lazy man; laziness automatically produces it. Another and better known term for this is consequence. We all know too much about that, do we not?

          There are other occasions, however, in which our suffering comes at the hands of an angry God. This is different than consequence, or perhaps I should say in addition to the consequences. This is judgment. This is God taking an active rather than a passive approach in meting out suffering.

          Again, it is relatively easy to find examples of this in history. The Flood. Sodom and Gomorrah. The destruction of the Jewish nation by Nebuchadnezzar. The awful siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. But if you want to see this in all of its horrific clarity I would beg you to look forward rather than backward. Look at the end of the unsaved man’s life. What do we find? The torments of hell. Jude plainly calls this judgment. Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them, in like manner giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. (Jude 7)

          Let us return, however, to the consideration of God’s purposes in suffering. Even in these, though they are self-inflicted and not the primary focus of this series, God has a purpose. What is it?

          The purpose of consequence is deterrence.

Peter suffered bitterly when Christ looked at him across that courtyard as he cursed and swore and denied that he even knew Him. That searing emotional pain was the consequence of betrayal. What was the result? A chastened and humbled Peter placed his bold spirit entirely at the will of His Saviour, and did so for the rest of his life, up to and including his own martyrdom. He never again wanted to feel how he felt that cold night of the crucifixion. And he did not.

          In Peter’s case, the consequences deterred him personally. Other cases are recorded so that we may be deterred from foolish activities by observing the consequences they experience. There is deep wisdom in tasting another’s suffering and learning from their consequences. Years ago, I took my oldest son into the basement of our home and made him watch a documentary on meth. It tracked the implosion drugs produced in even the best of young people. Why did I show him that? So he would learn from the consequences of others. In his case, their suffering produced deterrence in him.

          The purpose of judgment is different. Judgment is not about deterrence; it is about justice. It is about equaling the scales. The marble frieze above the entrance of our Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. contains a blind-folded woman holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other. The blind-fold represents that the absence of favoritism. The scale represents something being weighed carefully so that it may be made equal. The sword represents judgment. Solomon said it this way: A false balance is abomination to the Lord: but a just weight is his delight. (Proverbs 11.1)

          I spent sixteen years at the corner of George and Lavergne in Chicago. In that time, I saw gang fights in the streets, shootings on the sidewalks, and murders in the alley. Last time I checked, the statisticians tell us there are 50,000 gang members in Chicago. They run entire neighborhoods, now more than ever. Drug use, theft, and robbery are often ignored by the police. Even the most serious of crimes, murder, is mostly unpunished. In my years there, the police department’s clearance rate – meaning someone was charged for that murder – averaged twenty five percent. That is right, three out of every four murders in the city never even resulted in an arrest let alone a conviction.

          As awful as that paragraph reads, and as angry as it makes me I take solace in knowing that justice will indeed be done some day.

 

Revelation 20:11–15

11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

          What is the Great White Throne but the equalizing of the scales? It is justice meted out. It is judgment. The tormented suffering the guilty will endure for eternity is right and righteous. They have broken God’s law countless times. They have spurned the costly grace of God and trampled His Son’s broken body under their feet. The piteous wails of their victims cry out for redress, for judgment, for justice. And they shall have it.

          There is always a purpose in suffering. There is an answer to why. God designed it that way. Sometimes that purpose is the deterrence of consequence. And sometimes it is the justice of judgment.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

When You Are Hurt by God's People

 

Suffering 11

 


Note: From time to time, as we proceed through this series on suffering, I am going to bring you the stories of some people who have suffered, stories written in their own words. Today's post is by Robert Rutta, veteran missionary to New Zealand. At one point he was deeply hurt by a fellow missionary. He tells that story, and how God gave grace to overcome it.

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Depression, discouragement, and despondency can bring a slow death to ministry. These are things that everyone who is in service for our Lord faces to some extent. The normal trials that we face can weigh us down, but sometimes you have a situation that just punches you in the face and leaves you dazed and hurting. We had one of those back in the 90s that could have been the death of my ministry. This was the closest that I have ever been to quitting, packing up, and going back to the States and it took a few years to recover.

I was 26 when my wife and I landed in New Zealand, ready to serve. We jumped into the work with both feet. We set out to plant a church. In those first years we saw our church reach close to 40 in attendance, and then go down to almost nothing and then back up again several times. Oh the joys of an infant church in a town where people were constantly moving in and out. There were no transfers from other churches. These were people that we had met, won to the Lord and carefully discipled. We were seeing the ministry growing, but inside my wife and I were terribly lonely. We were so far from home and there were no churches anywhere close to us for fellowship. We went from the excitement of deputation, rushing from church to church presenting our ministry and always being around people to years of complete isolation.

In our 8th year on the field we were contacted by a missionary wanting to come to New Zealand. He needed a sponsor to help bring him into the country and I was eager for fellowship. When a missionary enters into a situation like that it can be the greatest of blessings or it can be a nightmare. We had no idea of the storm that was coming. We ran into an immediate conflict when we went out soulwinning together as I felt that he was using a shallow, pressure filled, deceptive method in order to get notches on his Bible, but with no true decision within the heart of the “new converts.” I had to confront him about it. This didn’t go over well. In the time that he was with us we went out soulwinning together about 3 times a week but from that point on he had few, if any, decisions while I was with him because he was limited to doing it without pressure. Even so, he would come to church every Sunday reporting 20 or more that he had “won” while going out on his own that week doing it his way.

After he had been with us for a few weeks we were talking in my office and he said something about the pastor that started the college that we had both attended. I made the statement that I love him but he is human and there are things that he can be wrong about. Everything went downhill from there. From that point I was the enemy. He and his wife refused to talk with my wife and I, even at church. We realized that we had to move him on and get him out of there so we worked out a deal with the government that he could alter his visa and let him go out on his own. He and his wife were only with us for 3-4 months, but he destroyed our church during that time. His attitude about us was clear to all and the spirit of discord caused people to leave that we had worked so hard to reach. He spent much of his time trying to convince our members to move with him to help him start the new church and even returned to our town afterwards to meet with them. In his arrogance he defied every rule of ethics in the ministry.

I have always been an introvert by nature. I can plod. I can work and be consistent, but there was no way that I could compare with someone with a charismatic personality who is fully self-assured, outgoing and well-spoken. We made it to his last Sunday with us and he asked to preach in his final service. I foolishly said yes, thinking this would be his chance to have a friendly goodbye. He preached about how our church didn’t qualify as a real church and they needed a pastor that was a man of God and a true soulwinner. I sat on the front row and cried. I know I should have stopped him, but I didn’t have any self-worth left. Those few months had worn me down and ripped me apart.

When you have been hurt badly it will take time to recover. We understand that when we think of our physical bodies. When you have an accident or an operation you expect that you will need to give your body the time that it needs to mend. Bones need to knit together, the stiches need to heal, and scars must form. That all takes time. The same must occur with the spiritual and the emotional.

I went through a few years after the above incident where I was functioning in the ministry – preaching, serving – but inside I was a wreck. I would preach on Sunday and then go home and fall down on the floor in my office and cry. Inside the words still echoed that I wasn’t worthy to be in the ministry. I would go soulwinning and when the people opened the door I would begin to cry. I recognize now that I was going through depression, but it is hard to see clearly when you are in the middle of it.

What do you do in order to mend? How do you get back to normal? Can there ever be normal again?

 

Pray.

Bare your heart fully and honestly with God. Tell the Lord what you are feeling – every last detail, every hurt, every fear, every disappointment - and then ask for His strength to get you through. You are not going to make it through on your own. During the times of hurt you are going to need to draw closer to the Lord than you have ever been before.

 

Tears.

Early in Bible college I worked in a job where many of my coworkers were immigrants from countries all around the world. Most knew little or no English. My heart would break as I wanted to witness but couldn’t communicate. I would find myself crying for them as I worked. That truly gave me a heart for missions and the needs all around the world. I asked my pastor from my home church how to handle it. He told me, “Show joy when you around people during the day, but then cry when you are alone with God at night. They need to see the joy of the Lord in your life.” Those words have stayed with me through all aspects of ministry. Tears have an important cleansing characteristic. As you go through the process of forgiveness, tears that are shed in the presence of the Lord will help in the healing process.

 

Forgive.

Recognize the humanity of the person that has hurt you. Understand that they are just human and can do wrong. Then forgive. Don’t strike back and leave the vengeance to the Lord. Unforgiveness will simply lead to bitterness. Bitterness is like rust on iron. It will eat you alive and destroy every aspect of your spiritual walk. We are commanded to forgive as Christ forgave us. We must forgive, or we will never be able to help others.

 

Look to the Bible for examples.

The Bible is filled with stories of men and women who were seemingly insignificant – and that is how I felt. But God chose them, prepared them, taught them, enabled them, and then used them for His service. Those like Gideon. He saw himself as the least in his father’s household, but God saw the hidden man of the heart, the mighty man of valor that he could become. You are focused on your own weakness. Instead, you must focus on His strength.

 

Don’t compare yourself with others.

When we compare ourselves among ourselves we truly are not wise. (II Cor 10:12) I went through too many years looking at people with big ministries or who saw great results and shaming myself for being the person that I saw myself to be. The incident above just reinforced that view of myself. Jesus taught the parable of the talents to show us that we are not all entrusted with the same level of ministry, but as long as I take what I have been given and invest it fully and completely, then I can stand before the Lord and hear those most beautiful of words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Truly understanding that truth lifted a weight off of my shoulders. I don’t have to match anyone else. I don’t have to have the skill or personality of anyone else. I just have to use all that God has entrusted me with. But here is an additional thought. Don’t limit yourself. If you remain in the service of the Lord for a lifetime you may find that in youth you saw yourself as a one or two talent Christian, capable of so little, but you determined to be faithful with what you had. As the years progress you may find that God, because of your faithfulness, has now entrusted you with more that He wants you to invest.

 

Reach out for help.

Find someone that you can confide in and share your heart. I phoned a pastor friend in the States and told him that I was hurting really bad. My heart was broken and I needed him. My body was heaving and through tears I said, “Don’t tell me to give up. Please help me to find a way that I can keep going.” Through the years, whenever I have sought counsel or help because of burdens that has always been my initial request – I want to find a way to stand up again and continue in the work.

Robert and Diana Rutta

You will find that time and a consistent walk with the Lord are great healers. We have been on the field for 34 years now. I have never been happier in the ministry than I am now. I laugh a lot. If anything, I get in trouble for laughing too often. I constantly rejoice and am amazed by what I see the Lord doing. I look at my church and ministry and I have so much more than I ever could have imagined. My church is filled with people that I love. I rejoice with every step of growth in them that I see. If I had responded incorrectly to the hurt and pain, I would have lost all of this.

Community Baptist Church
Dunedin, New Zealand

Keep serving the Lord and build new experiences and new victories and those hurts of the past become a distant memory. From time to time you will look at the variety of scars that you have gained – the scars will never go away – and you will remember. But you will have peace. God had a purpose and He meant it for good. The memories will be of the wonderful way that God brought you through, and He will be exalted.