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Archive for the ‘Hardship & Suffering’ Category

During the recent Thanksgiving week as church members and I were in our church parking lot preparing boxes of food for needy families throughout Los Angeles, I looked out over the fog-covered San Fernando Valley below and saw the distant and majestic snow-capped peaks of the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge to the north west and the Angeles National Forest to the north east.

Those mountaintops and the San Fernando Valley are constant reminders for me of our spiritual journey during which we encounter mountaintop experiences of joy, victories, and celebrations that are often followed by spiritual valleys of deep discouragement, hardship, and failure.

I think of Elijah’s experience on Mount Carmel when he, through God’s mighty power, was victorious over the 450 prophets of the pagan god, Baal, yet how quickly Elijah became fearful, depressed, and fled from queen Jezebel when she sent soldiers to kill him. (I Kings 18-19:18)

As in Psalm 23:4, the valley has come to represent the spiritually dark, harsh, sometimes dangerous places of life in which we experience failure, danger, defeat, despair, and depression, and where death is sometimes just a breath or a decision away.

I’ve journeyed through several of those valleys, the most difficult one in the early 1980s when I was out of work for 23 months and was almost homeless. In the midst of the ensuing depression, death seemed very inviting.

But like many Bible figures going through their own dark valleys, it was my willingness to cry out to God in my despair and to hang on to his promises found in his holy Scriptures that saved me from giving in to despair. Most importantly, it was God’s promise that he would not leave or forsake any of us that kept me going one day at a time.

These Bible characters, for example – Joseph (Genesis 37-50), Moses (Exodus through Deuteronomy), Joshua (Joshua 1-24), David (I Samuel16-I Kings 2; Job (Job 1-42), Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 1-12, especially chapters 3 and 6) – always turned to God in their crises and held on to God’s promises.

And we see in the following passages the many occasions during which David despaired for his life when various people tried to kill him, yet he cried out to God and clung to God’s promise of faithfulness to those who trust him:

The Crises                  David’s Responses
• I Samuel 19                Psalm 59
• I Samuel 21                Psalms 34 and 56
• I Samuel 22                Psalms 52 and 142
• I Samuel 23                Psalm 54
• I Samuel 24                Psalms 57 and 63
• 2 Samuel 22               Psalm 18
• 2 Samuel 12                Psalm 51
• 2 Samuel 15                Psalms 3 and 7

Mountaintop experiences are few and far between on our spiritual journey. Most of the time we live on spiritual plains where things are normal with every-day experiences. It’s here that we are content to go through our routines with few ups and downs. It’s here that we are safe in our comfort zones.

But every now and then our lives are suddenly interrupted with an unplanned crisis along our journey—sickness, death, unemployment, divorce, loneliness, abandonment, or some other unwanted event, some so severe that we wonder if we’ll ever survive. This is the dark Valley of Psalm 23:4!

Yet it is in the Valley that we have the opportunity to grow spiritually and be strengthened for life’s arduous journey ahead, for it is here that our self-reliance is likely to fail us and, like David, we have to rely on God to protect and guide us through the dark days.

Whether this Valley breaks us, embitters us, and defeats us, or whether it transforms and strengthens us to meet the challenges and become well-adjusted survivors of the crises, depends on how willing we are to seek God with all our heart throughout the whole Valley experience.

Some of us give up in despair if God doesn’t rescue us quickly, and we end up being bitter or angry with God. Some stop believing in him. Sadly, some take their own lives if they cannot find their way out of the Valley.

But we can be sustained, comforted, and strengthened during our Valley sojourn by relying completely on God through our fellowship with Jesus Christ and by being nourished through the daily study of Scripture and prayer.

And it helps to have a community of caring Christians who love and support us through our travail.

For any among us who might be going through the Valley at this time, take courage with these words from the apostle Peter:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange is happening to you. Instead, be very glad—because these trials will make you partners with Christ in his suffering, and afterwards you will have the wonderful joy of sharing his glory when it is displayed to all the world. (I Peter 4:12-13, New Living Translation, NLT)

These trials are only to test your faith, to show that it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold. So if your faith remains strong after being tried by fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. (I Peter 1:7, NLT)

Now, you might be thinking, Come on! How can we be glad or joyful when we are in the midst of suffering and trials?

As someone who has gone through the Valley at various times in my six decades of life, I can testify to the fact that it is in the midst of the pain, tears, brokenness, and despair that we can experience a very special, deep fellowship with the living Christ, and it is he who blesses us with his joy and peace—and it is for this that we can be glad and rejoice!

I have always found great comfort, strength, and joy in God’s Word, from such passages as James 1:2-4 (NLT):

Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.

. . . Romans 5:3-5 (NLT), where Paul reminds us that because of our faith in, and fellowship with, Jesus Christ:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

. . . and I Thessalonians 5:16-18 (New International Version, NIV):

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

So, no matter where we are in our spiritual journey at this time as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior—in the midst of a mountaintop high, on the pleasant plains where all is well, or in the dark Valley—

Rejoice and give thanks!

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She dropped in midway through our church’s 12-week workshop, “EXPERIENCING GOD: Knowing and Doing the Will of God,” and sat beside me at our table.  She had never been to our church before and had been invited to the workshop by one of our members to learn about the will of God.

But we were not far into that evening’s session when our visitor became agitated and began to mutter in disagreement with what was being said about Terry, one of our congregation’s outstanding Bible teachers and leaders, who had died the week before at the age of 57, less than four months after doctors discovered that he had a brain tumor.

Terry had been very successful in business, including the founding and operating of a very profitable sportswear company.  He lived an affluent life and was a highly respected and effective Bible teacher and leader at our church.

But in the 1990s, Terry suffered financial setbacks and lost his business.  For several years he was unable to find work and eventually lost his beautiful home.  Throughout his years of financial setbacks and ordeals, Terry continued to witness and teach about God’s faithfulness, love, and amazing grace – even after his brain tumor was discovered in July 2000, and even after he knew that he was going to die.  Despite our fervent prayers for Terry’s healing, he died within months, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

This discussion disturbed our visitor.  She had become a Christian nearly two years before, with the expectation that not only would Christ save her soul but that he would bless her abundantly in all aspects of life – including her finances, love life, health, and with long life.

When we started to discuss the possibility that the premature death – and not the healing of Terry – might have been God’s will, she became so disturbed that she got up from the table and left the workshop.

As I watched her leave, I suddenly thought of the words and tune of a 1970s pop song by Joe South:

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden,
Along with the sunshine
There’s gotta be a little rain sometime.

Our visitor expected her new faith in Jesus to be the key to life’s rose garden, but she was unwilling to accept the possibility that along with the beauty of roses could come thorns, storms, droughts, setbacks, failures, and things that kill.

She had apparently embraced the “prosperity gospel” brand of Christianity but couldn’t handle the reality that “s – – t happens” to even those who follow Christ.

And even more significant, she freaked out at the idea that God would allow such things to happen to his followers!

So she ran.

As we begin 2011 and look forward to the coming months, we naturally hope and pray that it will be a great year in which we’ll enjoy the good things of life – health, financial stability and success, happiness, pleasure, and loving relationships, all part of achieving the desires of our heart.

But what if bad things were to intrude into our carefully planned lives?  How do we, as Christians, deal with life in crisis?

There are several principles in Romans 8 that our brother Paul lays out to help us face life’s difficulties:

First, remember who we are and to whom we belong.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death. (vv. 1, 2; these and the following verses quoted are from the New Living Translation)

The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.  And just as he raised Christ from the dead, he will give life to your mortal body by the same Spirit living within you. (v. 11)

So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family – calling him “father, dear Father.” For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children. (vv. 15, 16)

Second, we share God’s glorious treasures – as well as his suffering.

And since we are his children, we will share his treasures – for everything God gives to his Son, Christ, is ours, too. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later. (vv. 17, 18)

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. (vv. 22, 23a)

Third, the Holy Spirit sustains us and intercedes for us in the midst of our hardships and sufferings.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. (vv. 26, 27)

Fourth, God works in every circumstance – even the bad ones – for our long-range good and to fulfill his purpose for us.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (v. 28)

Fifth, nothing can separate us from God’s love – so live with confidence and joy.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or are hungry or cold or in danger or threatened with death? (Even the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35-39)

I sometimes think about our visitor who walked away from our workshop that night, and I’ve prayed that she has since come to a deeper understanding of her relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

No, God did not promise her a rose garden, but something far better – himself, with all the richness and fullness of his indwelling presence that enables her to live life powerfully, confidently, and joyfully because of his gift of Jesus Christ.

And he promises that, too, to all of us who believe, trust, and follow Christ.

******

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