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Posts Tagged ‘Hardship and Suffering’

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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Having not been hit by a personal tragedy in my life so far, such as the tragic death of one of my children or grandchildren, I cannot say for sure how I would handle it. I would surely grieve deeply, for I love each of them, but would I find a way to deal with my grief and eventually move on with life in a healthy way?

Would I be like Eric Clapton, the award-winning musician?

On March 20, 1991, Eric’s four-year old son, Conor, opened the latch of the window of a family friend’s 53rd-floor apartment in New York and fell through the window to his death. Eric arrived at the scene shortly after the accident and was understandably distraught, so much so that he went into seclusion and mourning for several months.

One of the things that ultimately helped him to deal with the tragedy was that he was able to channel his pain and loss into his song writing, especially his song, “Tears in Heaven”:

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong, and carry on
Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand
If I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand
If I saw you in heaven?

I’ll find my way, through night and day
Cause I know I just can’t stay
Here in heaven.

Time can bring you down,
Time can bend your knee,
Time can break your heart,
Have you begging please…
Begging please…

(instrumental)

Beyond the door
There’s peace I’m sure.
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong, and carry on
Cause I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven…

Lord, I know I don’t belong
Here in heaven .

Although the song won several music awards in 1992 and 1993, Eric stopped singing it in 2004, saying, “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs. I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now. They probably just need a rest and maybe I’ll introduce them for a much more detached point of view.”

If I didn’t handle my tragedy like Eric Clapton, would I be like Horatio G. Spafford?

Horatio was a Christian and a successful attorney in Chicago during the mid 1800s, but was hit by three calamities in close succession:

  • The Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out his extensive real estate holdings and investments.
  • His young son died of scarlet fever.
  • His four daughters—Tanetta, Maggie, Annie, and Bessie—were killed in 1873 when the ship on which they were sailing to England with their mother was hit by another vessel in the Atlantic and sank quickly, taking the lives of 226 passengers and crew.

Horatio was supposed to be on the ship with them, but a last-minute crisis in his business delayed him and he sent his family ahead, with plans to join them soon after. When he heard the news, he took the next available ship to join his wife, who survived the sinking, in England.

On the voyage over to England, he spent most of his time on deck, staring at the waves and praying. When his ship passed the approximate area where his daughters lost their lives, Horatio was aware of God’s sustaining and comforting presence, and the words “When sorrows like sea billows roll…it is well with soul” imprinted themselves in his mind.

With those words guiding him, he then went on to pen six verses of a hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” with four of the following verses becoming well known, loved, and sung by churches for over the past 138 years:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain)
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.

(Refrain)

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

(Refrain)

And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain)

As beautiful as “Tears in Heaven” is, it does not answer Eric’s soul-searching questions, and it reveals a father whose only recourse is to dig deep within himself and move ahead with the hope of someday finding peace through his own effort. Even then he is not even sure that he will make it to heaven to be united with his son!

Horatio, on the other hand, finds immediate peace and consolation in the midst of his tragedy, and attributes that peace and assurance to the love, grace, and redeeming sacrifice of Christ on his behalf.

It is my deepest desire that when the time comes for me to face my own tragedies, that my grief will be tempered by my faith, trust, and reliance on my Savior, Jesus Christ, who assures us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14: 27, RSV)

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