Posts Tagged 'suffering'

Peter and Jude, Part 3

How can you tell if somebody is a “follower of Jesus Christ?” Is it because they and other people call them a “Christian?” Is it because they go to church? Is it because they wear a cross? How can you tell? Peter tells us:

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21 | NIV84)

That’s it. A “follower of Jesus Christ” is one who follows in Christ’s steps; He learns from Christ’s example and then lives accordingly. By necessity that means following Christ will change a person’s life. For some, the changes will be drastic, and for others not so much, but every follower of Christ lives a changed life.

That’s the basis of this quick study. Let’s take a look at what kind of changes take place in a person’s life when they make the decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

Living blamelessly

Throughout 1 Peter 2, Peter wrote about the practical implications of one’s salvation, demonstrating that a believer’s new relationship with Christ would impact his existing relationships with the government, his employer, and his family. Being a Christian should make a person a better citizen, a better employee, and a better family member. In chapter three, Peter continues this line of thought by giving similar exhortations of a more general type. In all, Peter writes about five things a Christian should have going on in their lives.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. (1 Peter 3:8 | NIV84)

First, in verse 8, there’s this:

live in harmony with one another…

Christians are to “live in harmony with one another.” That sounds so easy, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s hard to get along with certain people. Disagreements easily arise when two people talk together for just a few minutes. What does Peter have in mind here? Simply put, the character of a believer is determined and revealed by the things that are foremost in his mind. As far as Jesus was concerned, His followers should be united in a common goal and common interests. That doesn’t mean that Christians should always agree with each other on every single issue in life. But it does mean that as followers of Jesus Christ, our minds should be controlled by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Paul had a similar thought when he wrote to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:5 | NIV84)

All believers should hold the same attitudes about things as did Jesus. Other translations refer to this as “having the mind of Christ.” His mind – His attitudes – serve as examples for us to follow. Essentially, that means that we need to adopt a Biblical worldview; a worldview that frequently, though not always, runs contrary to a secular worldview. In order to accomplish this, believers need to know the Word of God and need to follow Christ’s example.

Second, believers are to be sympathetic, also in verse 8. This means that Christians should have an active compassion for each other. In fact, the Greek word really means “suffering together.” That means Christians ought not to be selfish. What affects one believer should affect all believers.

Third, still in verse 8, Christians should love as brothers. It’s not that we form a brotherhood when we confess Christ, it’s that we become members of one big family: The family of God. Think about how you get along with your mom and dad, or your siblings. Surely you don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. Surely you have your disagreements. But in the end, you would probably give your life if it meant saving a member of your family. That’s the idea Peter is trying to get across using the phrase, “love as brothers.”

Fourth, believers need to be compassionate. The Greek word carries with it the idea of being “kindhearted,” to be “sensitive to the needs” of other believers. Christians should never be afraid to show genuine affection to each other.

Fifth, followers of Jesus should be humble. This kind of humility has to do with being humble in spirit – it’s the same kind of humility that characterized Jesus. Humility is a big thing in the Bible, where it paints a humble person as one who sees himself as weak or dependent upon God, one who is a finite being whose existence depends on the God he serves.

Those simple characteristics should be obvious in every believer’s life. Next, Peter tells his readers how to manifest them.

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9 | NIV84)

That, of course, is exactly opposite to our natural response: We strike when stuck. But because our lives have been changed, we won’t do that. To retaliate is not the Biblical answer. Jesus taught:

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44 | NIV84)

When Peter wrote that we should “bless” those who hurt us, the Greek word he used suggests that we speak well of those speaking evil of us. In other words, we treat them opposite to the way they treat us.

He then quotes from Psalm 34, which gives the believer certain guidelines to follow if he wants to live a life full of meaning and purpose.

Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:10 – 12 | NIV84)

In all, there are three things a believer must do. First, he must keep his tongue from evil and lips from deceitful speech. If you want to live a good life and love the life you’re living, never say words calculated to hurt another; never say anything tainted with falsehood. If you do, in the end you will regret it.

Second, believers must turn from evil and do good. There’s more going on in those six words than meets the eye. Doing evil takes planning; most of the time we don’t accidentally do wrong. Therefore, if you want to live a worthwhile life, instead of planning ways to sin, plan ways to do good things.

Last, we must seek peace and pursue it. This doesn’t mean Christians are to be passively sitting around letting fascists steamroll over them. What it does mean is this: We will live disciplined lives; we won’t say things that tear people down; we don’t repay evil with evil; we don’t run around insulting people we don’t like. Instead, we will be peacemakers; we will find peaceful solutions to arguments or disagreements.

Peter uses the rest of Psalm 34 as a reason to live this way. First, God is well aware of everything going on in our lives. Everything. Because of that, He is attentive to our prayers and ready to help us. But second, God is steadfastly against all who do evil. He will deal with evildoers in His own way and it won’t be pleasant. That’s reason enough to abstain from retaliating in kind!

Suffering is no problem

Then Peter askes a rhetorical question:

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? (1 Peter 3:13 | NIV84)

The cynic in me cries out, “Anybody!” And I’d be right. Plenty of do-gooders have been harmed or killed over the centuries since Peter wrote verse 13. Look at all the missionaries who became martyrs! But it’s verse 14 that’s important:

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14 | NIV84)

It’s important but paradoxical. If you are suffering because of your faith, you should consider yourself “blessed?” Really? Peter is not suggesting you should be thrilled with the prospect of losing your job because of your faith or with being lied about because somebody wants to cause your problems on account of your faith. The idea here is “privilege.” Jesus suffered because of who He was and what He believed, so if the same thing is happening to you, you’re doing something right. Something Paul wrote to the Romans makes this idea of suffering a bit more palatable:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18 | NIV84)

Then there’s this bit over in 2 Thessalonians 1 –

Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. (2 Thessalonians 1:4 – 7a | NIV84)

The unpleasantness a Christian goes through because he is a Christian prepares him for what lies ahead. God, as any good parent would do, allows His children to pass through difficult times to teach them discipline; to toughen them up. Neither Peter nor Paul has in mind suffering because of misdeeds, but suffering for living right.

Keep in mind that Peter wrote to suffering Christians. Suffering for doing wrong is easy to wrap our minds around, but not so suffering for doing good! It’s a challenge to accept the very notion. It’s funny that this Biblical teaching on suffering has been in the Bible for 2000 years yet even the most seasoned saint seems surprised by it to the point that they try to avoid this kind of suffering!

It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17 | NIV84)

It may well be that suffering for doing good is God’s will. Doing good, by the way, is rarely an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances. When suffering touches our lives, God uses it for good:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, a who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 | NIV84)

That kind of insight is usually only seen in hindsight. That’s why it’s helpful to know the Bible. Joseph, in hindsight, realized the truthfulness of what Peter and Paul taught. Here was a young man who had risen to the heights of Egyptian politics and was used by God to rescue his entire family from drought and starvation. But all that was possible only because of what his nasty brothers did to him.

You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20 | NIV84)

This is God’s amazing grace in action. When we choose to serve Christ and devote our lives to living for God with Christ as our example, the Lord promises to use everything for our benefit.

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Is God Your Father?

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“Is God really your Father?” That looks like an trick question, but it isn’t. However, it is a loaded question that isn’t all that easy to answer. Roman Catholics and a great many Protestants believe that God is the Father of all people. There seems to be some Biblical support for this idea:

‘In him we live and move and exist.’ As some of your own poets have also said, ‘We are his children.’ (Acts 17:28 NIrV)

In a sense, God is the Father of people because He created all of us. Malachi 2:10 provides us with that bit of truth –

People of Judah, all of us have one Father. One God created us. (NIrV)

Over in the New Testament, the apostle Paul taught something very similar –

In him we live and move and exist.’ As some of your own poets have also said, ‘We are his children.’

“Yes, we are God’s children. So we shouldn’t think that God is made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t a statue planned and made by clever people.” (Acts 17:28, 29 NIrV)

God is the creator of all people. That essential Biblical truth was taught to the Jews in the Old Testament and to the Gentiles in the New. But that isn’t the end of it. Charles Spurgeon wrote this of the Fatherhood of God –

Believe the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God to His people. Abhor the doctrine of the universal Fatherhood of God, for it is a lie and a deep deception.

He’s right about that, of course. The very sad fact is that most people have become “children of the wicked one” because they have chosen to live in sin.

The field is the world. The good seed stands for the people who belong to the kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. (Matthew 13:38 NIrV)

You can’t “belong to the evil one” if you are a child of God. The great Biblical truth of the fatherhood of God is that He is indeed the Father of those who belong to Him. We are made children of God in the relational sense by faith.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born again because of what God has done. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children as well. (1 John 5:1 NIrV)

The teaching of “the universal Fatherhood of God” is an outright contradiction of Christ’s own teaching. Only those who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and are actively living for Him have a right to call God their Father. That very nice person who lives down the street, who is kind and courteous to all, cannot call God his Father if he is not born again. Our Lord put it this way –

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me. I came from God, and now I am here. I have not come on my own. He sent me.” (John 8:42 NIrV)

Love with corresponding devotion to Jesus Christ is the evidence that a person is under the Fatherhood of God. Knowing about God or even claiming to love God does not make Him your Father. That’s the essence of Jesus’ teaching in John 8. He declared this in John 8:12 –

Jesus spoke to the people again. He said, “I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will never walk in darkness. They will have the light that leads to life.” (NIrV)

The relationship between Jesus and the Father is such that they are really inseparable. That’s why Jesus could say something like this –

If you knew me, you would know my Father also. (John 8:19 NIrV)

That assertion is probably the most striking one Jesus ever made. He was speaking to “nice people,” highly educated, respected, very religious people. They were sure that they knew God; they thought they understood His ways. They thought they were His children. However, their rejection of Jesus Christ showed that they really didn’t know God at all. The only things they knew for sure were their own ideas about God.

If these religious people really loved God as they claimed to, they would have loved God’s Son. Merrill C. Tenney’s remarks on this issue are worthwhile noting –

Love for God is a family affair; it involves loving all whom the Father has sent. This love should especially be manifested toward the Father’s most beloved representative, his Son.

Just so. So is God really your Father? Are you in love with Jesus? How do you know for sure? Love for Christ shows itself in the following ways:

Love for Christ is manifested by trusting Him

You can’t say that you love God without having faith in His Son. Specifically, you must trust in what the Son did for you on the Cross. You must know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He bore your sins to the Cross, was punished and died in your stead, taking away all your guilt. You have to believe He did all that and you have to claim your position in Christ as a genuine child of God. All that takes faith. All that takes an attitude of trust toward Jesus.

When a man works, his pay is not considered a gift. It is owed to him. But things are different with God. He makes evil people right with himself. If people trust in him, their faith is accepted even though they do not work. Their faith makes them right with God. (Romans 4:4, 5 NIrV)

Love for Christ is manifested by listening to His Word.

But because I tell the truth, you don’t believe me! (John 8:45 NIrV)

If you love Jesus, and thereby you love God, you will pay attention to the Word of God. James Stephenson wrote –

Where there is love there will be a joyful reception of His words into the heart.

Does that describe you? Is your Bible covered with dust? Or is it well-read? Do you struggle to stay awake during the sermon? Do you think Bible study is a waste of time? If God is really your Father, you’ll love His Word.

We live in a world that is very hostile to the Word of God. What does that say about the state of our nation? The vast majority of people today do not know or do not acknowledge the truth of God’s Word. People today are too busy trying to live in a “politically correct” manner instead of living in the light of the objective truths contained in the Bible. Pilate was like that. He famously uttered those words, “What is truth?” Here was a man who was so bogged down in the politics of his day he could no longer recognize the truth even as it was standing there in front of him.

It’s sad but true, but most people today live in a world of lies and delusion, of distortions and falseness. For those religious people listening to Jesus and for far too many of your neighbors, truth is a foreign language they do not understand.

Love for Christ is manifested by a desire for fellowship.

When you love someone, you want to be with them. When you love someone, you can’t wait to see them. Are you that way with Jesus? Is prayer a burden to you? When was the last time – not counting grace – you spent time in prayer?

But there is more to fellowshipping with Christ than praying. The truth is, fellowshipping with other believers is also fellowshipping with Christ. A true child of God prefers the company of other true children of God. Does that describe you? Do look forward to fellowshipping with other Christians? What kind of people do you like to spend your time with the most? How you answer those questions speaks volumes about what you think of Jesus.

In 1545, William Turner wrote this famous verse –

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.

We say it like this today –

Birds of feather flock together.

People in love with Jesus love to spend time with Him and with others like Him.

Love for Christ is manifested by talking about Him

If you love Jesus, and if God is really your father, then you’ll talk about Him. It’s human nature to enjoy talking about things we’re interested in; things we spend the most time thinking about. What do you spend time talking about? Your favorite sports team? The latest blockbuster in the theater? Your children? There’s nothing wrong with any of that “small talk,” by the way. But there’s this –

So be very careful how you live. Do not live like people who aren’t wise. Live like people who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity. The days are evil. So don’t be foolish. Instead, understand what the Lord wants.

Don’t fill yourself up with wine. Getting drunk will lead to wild living. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. Always give thanks to God the Father for everything. Give thanks to him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15 – 20 NIrV)

That’s how you should be living. It’s not that Paul wants you to run around singing at each other necessarily, but God the Father and Jesus the Son shouldn’t be too far from your thoughts. It’s good to talk about spiritual things. It builds up the faith and encourages the heart.

Love for Christ is manifested by willingly suffering for Him

If God doesn’t punish you when you need it, as other fathers punish their sons, then it means that you aren’t really God’s son at all—that you don’t really belong in his family. (Hebrews 12:8 TLB)

As Leon Morris observed,

It is the universal experience of children that life means discipline.

So much so that if there is somebody who has never been disciplined, then, that person is “illegitimate.” Verse 7 actually clarifies verse 8 –

Let God train you, for he is doing what any loving father does for his children. Whoever heard of a son who was never corrected? (Hebrews 12:7 TLB)

In the Greek, “train you” is in the emphatic position, meaning that’s what you’re supposed to remember from this verse. Suffering should never be looked upon as misery, or by chance, or bad luck for the Christian. Difficult times show that God is teaching you and disciplining you. It sounds so trite, but God uses difficult times to teach His children something.

If God is really your Father, you will be tried and tested because you are His heir – a legitimate child of God.

Love for Christ is manifested by a desire to be like Him

Christ suffered for you. He left you an example. He expects you to follow in his steps. You too were chosen to suffer. (1 Peter 2:21 NIrV)

Without regard to the bit about being “chosen to suffer,” Christ is our example and if God is your Father, you’ll want to live your life the way Jesus did. In living like Jesus, you’ll be living like God. That’s how you should want to live because that’s how God wants you to live –

God planned that those he had chosen would become like his Son. (Romans 8:29 NIrV)

Is God really your Father? He’s not everybody’s Father. The Fatherhood of God is exclusive to those who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Don’t believe otherwise.

 

Evil and Suffering: Why

Auschwitz Death Camp

Auschwitz Death Camp

People have a lot of questions about God. They wonder about miracles. They wonder about creation and where they came from. But probably the most often asked question about God that unbelievers (and some believers) ask goes something like this:

If God is real (or if He is so good), why does He allow evil and suffering to continue?

And everybody that thinks to ask that question thinks they are the first person to think it up; that it’s the most profound question any human being has ever asked. The truth is, it’s a dopey question. But don’t tell that to the person who asked it! Rather, look at that dopey question as a “door opener,” an opportunity to share the Gospel with them.

Apologist Paul Little put the dilemma of answering this question succinctly:

Either God is all-powerful but not all-good, and therefore doesn’t stop evil, or He is all-good but unable to stop evil, in which case he is not all-powerful.

Just so. For such a dopey question, it’s tricky to answer.

Things to keep in mind

In dealing with this question, we need to maintain a proper perspective. God created man and He created man perfect. Man was not created evil. God also gave man a free will – the ability to obey or disobey His Creator. The simple fact is, had the first man freely chosen to live in obedience to His Creator, the question of evil and suffering would be moot. There would be no evil or suffering in the world had the first man chose wisely. Unfortunately, that man, Adam, did not, and at the moment of his rebellion, the perfect and harmonious relationship he had with God came to an end. We might go so far as to say that when Adam decided to disobey God, the perfect and harmonious relationship he had with the world around him also came to an end.

And, unfortunately for the rest of us, Adam’s tendency to disobey God was passed on to his descendants.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… (Romans 5:12 NIV)

If we accept this to be true – and we should because it’s what the Bible teaches – then the next logical thing to consider is this: Why didn’t God make man so that he couldn’t sin? The answer to this is obvious: God wasn’t making robots or puppets, He was making people. It wasn’t a mechanical, chatty doll God wanted to have a relationship with. He created beings like Himself, so that when that being said “I love you,” God would know he meant it. Real love is always voluntary, it is never forced or coerced or imaginary.

Furthermore, since the problem of evil and suffering in the world is man’s fault and not God’s, God certainly could wipe away all evil and suffering in an instant. But then that would mean He would have to wipe away us. Jeremiah once wrote:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. (Lamentations 3:22 NIV)

Indeed, it is a measure of God’s compassion that He doesn’t stamp out evil.  If He did, this world would be lonely place.

The truth is, God has already done something about the problem of evil in the world. He did the most dramatic, stunning, and powerful thing He could do: He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for sinful (evil) men. God made it possible to deal with evil and suffering and yet also make it possible for all men to escape judgment and punishment. God arranged for His Son to take evil man’s punishment.

These are the things to be kept in mind when trying to answer the question of evil and suffering in the world. In all likelihood, those things won’t completely satisfy the person asking the question if they don’t hold the same Bible-based worldview we Christians do, but this must be your mindset and starting point.

A basic problem with the question

The stumbling block for some people is trying to reconcile the notion of an all-good God with evil. If God is so good, how can He possibly allow evil and suffering? The basic problem with that question is our understanding of the word of “good.” What is “good” for us and what is a “good” God? Is a “good” God a God who only lets “good” things happen to us? Does a “good” God treat us like we deserve to be treated? Here’s the thing, when you get right down to it, we don’t know what’s “good” for us. A great many of you reading this might think a million dollars would be very good for you. But would it? What you do with that million dollars? Would it strengthen your relationship with your spouse? With God? Would a million dollars make you happy?

Let’s take that notion of happiness. Ask almost anybody and they will say that happiness is the greatest good in life; that they deserve to be happy. In fact, some people will go so far as to say that God wants them to be happy. But is that true? Those people think that happiness has to do with comfort or security and good feelings. But true, lasting happiness is much deeper than mere feelings. And as hard as it may be to believe, suffering doesn’t preclude the possibility of happiness. There may be times when our greatest happiness can only be achieved through what appears to us as negative experiences. Take away those so-called negative experiences, like suffering, and God would rob us of a rare chance to experience some profound opportunities of personal and spiritual grow and to see a side of happiness we would miss out on otherwise.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10 NIV)

Bad karma?

Okay, so man is pretty ignorant about what’s good for him. Some people can accept that. So where does evil come from, then? When there is no apparent explanation for acts of evil or evil events, how do we explain it? Some people fall back on the law of karma. It’s not just drugged out hippie tree huggers that believe in karma. The so-called “law of karma” says that what happens to you today is the result of your actions, either in the past or in a past life. So things like physical ailments and a run of bad luck are the results of things you did in the past or in your past life. People who subscribe to the dopey “law of karma” do little to help themselves or others when they suffer because, after all, God is only giving them what they deserve in the first place.

There is a grain – a very small grain – of truth in this. Think about this verse in relation to “bad karma”:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7 NIV)

Isn’t Paul talking about “bad karma” here? Doesn’t this mean that human suffering is a punishment from God? It certainly sounds like it when, for example, preachers across the country blamed Hurricane Katrina on the sins of Louisiana during Mardi Gras. Or when you, as a Christian, go through a rough patch after you committed some sin. Isn’t that how God works? How many times have you said something like this: “What did I do to deserve this?” How about Job? His friends all thought his suffering was brought about by his wrong thinking.

The short answer is this: To think that every bad thing that happens to you or somebody else is God’s judgment or punishment is nothing more than superstition. However, the longer is answer is, well, a bit longer. God does indeed notice our sins. Much of the suffering we endure may well be the natural results of a sinful lifestyle, like a hangover, for example. Then there are Bible characters like Miriam, whom God afflicted with leprosy because she challenged the leadership of Moses. And David. God took the life of David’s newborn son because of David’s sin. And what about Ananias and Sapphira?

One of the great, profound truths of Scripture is that God always warns people ahead of His acts of judgment. For example:

But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3b NIV)

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11 NIV)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23:37, 38 NIV)

If apparent evil or sufferings come along, you or whomever is experiencing it will be left without any doubt if it is the result of God’s judgment. He will make that known.

Another possibility

We’ve noted that evil and suffering on Earth are often the result of man’s inhumanity to man. Man sins, evil ensues. Or a man builds his house on a floodplain and eventually that house will end up under water. A child is run over and killed by a drunk driver. Someone you love accidentally takes too many pills and suffers the consequences. Things happen – bad things – that are completely out of your control but are easily explained when you have all the facts.

But, man is not alone on this planet. There is an enemy here. You can’t see him, but he’s here all the same. He appears in many forms, sometimes he appears as an “angel of light” or as a “roaring lion.” Satan is his name and his sole purpose in life is to bring as much chaos and trouble into the life of man as he can. He was allowed by God to cause the sufferings of Job. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the farmer’s harvest was ruined by Satan, whom Jesus referred to as “an enemy,” in Matthew 13:28 NIV.

Satan exists today to cause trouble. And he’s expert at it. While our great enemy has limited power, he cannot – cannot – touch the one in close fellowship with God:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. (James 4:7, 8 NIV)

Man isn’t the only one

There is one other thing to keep in mind when considering the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Our God is not far away and distant from His creation. He is not far removed from His people. God not only sees our suffering, He actually feels it. There is no pain, physical or otherwise, that you have ever experienced that has not touched God first.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3 NIV)

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18 NIV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)

Summary

The problem of the continued existence of evil and suffering is a question many people like to ask and its answer is multi-faceted. The Bible doesn’t spell out an answer in a verse or two, but it gives us tiny clues from the Old and New Testaments.

First, evil and suffering resulting in loss and tragedy is more often than not the result of the thoughtless, sometimes sinful actions of people. J.B. Phillips, in his book God Our Contemporary, wrote this:

Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.

He’s right.

Second, evil and suffering in the world can often be traced back to bad, thoughtless, or evil decisions made by people. The oft-cited “law of unintended consequences” kicks in and innocent people suffer because a decision somebody made, or a law or regulation passed by government.

Third, sometimes suffering may touch us because God in His sovereignty allows it to for a purpose, often known only to Him.

Fourth, the enemy of God and man is at work in this world, and he has a limited free hand in what he is allowed to do on Earth until his final judgment.

Lastly, there is not a human being alive on Earth who has suffered as much as God has. God feels the suffering of all people, all the time. God has confronted the problem of evil and suffering head-on in the Person of His only Son, Jesus Christ. In dealing with man’s problem, God gave everything He had to give. The consequences of man’s sin have been dealt with forever in the work of Jesus Christ. No man need suffer alone or suffer for no reason when he may embrace the Savior and His work.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17, 18 NIV)

Our Great Salvation, 1

St.-Peter-at-the-Pearly-GatesBarely Saved!

Text: 1 Peter 4:18

If the righteous are barely saved, what chance will the godless have? (1 Peter 4:18 TLB)

This verse is way simpler to understand than you may think. But then Bible scholars tend to think too much, meaning sometimes they get it all wrong. Many Bible scholars look at this verse and believe it to be a prophecy. Peter wrote this letter roughly a decade before the great fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and these very smart scholars believe Peter is referencing that devastating event. When Cestus Gallus began his siege against Jerusalem, many believers were stuck in town—they were prevented from escaping. For some reason, the siege was halted for a brief time and many, though not all, Christians slipped out of town and headed for a place called Pella, in King Agrippa’s sphere of influence. These expats were “barely saved,” because the Roman army soon returned under the command of Titus, who decimated the Temple and its grounds and basically razed Jerusalem to the ground. In all, some one million citizens of Jerusalem were slain.

This is why some scholars see Peter making a short prophecy: during the siege of Jerusalem, some Christians were “barely saved” by leaving Jerusalem, but unbelievers remained and many were killed; they had “no chance.” But is this what Peter was getting at? Think about this: the word translated “barely” in The Living Bible and “hard” in the NIV does not mean there is any degree of uncertainty surrounding our salvation. Our salvation is absolutely assured in Christ; we are currently enjoying our great salvation and because we are saved, there is a 100% chance we will end up in Heaven when we die. There is NO chance we won’t make it. It does not mean that Christians will just barely squeak in through the pearly gates, either. Now, there may be some believers that will enter Heaven that way, but it’s not God’s ideal for any us.

And God will open wide the gates of heaven for you to enter into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:11 TLB)

God wants to see all of us rushing the gates of Heaven, which will be open wide in joyous expectation of our arrival. He wants us to sweep through the gates, not crawl through.

No, the word “barely” really means “with difficulty.” So, according to Peter, believers are saved “with difficulty.” That’s still a bit cloudy, isn’t it? So a look at context is needed.

Suffering: Common

We need to go back to 1 Peter 4:12 to understand why Peter wrote verse 18—

Dear friends, don’t be bewildered or surprised when you go through the fiery trials ahead, for this is no strange, unusual thing that is going to happen to you. (1 Peter 4:12 TLB)

Of course, Peter is not writing us US, he is writing to his “dear friends,” which is from the Greek agapetoi, meaning “beloved.” His beloved friends were going through a rough patch with no end in sight, so he’s trying to encourage them by telling them that they are not alone in their suffering. Fiery trials, according to Peter, are the norm in life for all believers, including YOU. Suffering should never, ever, be regarded unusual, but rather as a “refining test.” This idea was already floated by Peter a few chapters back:

So be truly glad! There is wonderful joy ahead, even though the going is rough for a while down here. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return. (1 Peter 1:6, 7 TLB)

But the “trials” are not the results of dumb things you may have done. That speeding ticket you deserved is not a trial and it’s not persecution. The headache you are enduring is probably not a test of your faith, it’s the result of, say, not getting enough sleep.

Don’t let me hear of your suffering for murdering or stealing or making trouble or being a busybody and prying into other people’s affairs. (1 Peter 4:15 TLB)

No, what Peter means is what John meant:

So don’t be surprised, dear friends, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:13 TLB)

It should not surprise any Christian anywhere in the world when they are “persecuted” in any way. It ought to be expected, though not necessarily sought after.

Suffering: Response

Instead, be really 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 in that coming day when it will be displayed. (1 Peter 4:13 TLB)

Whenever we face a trial not of our making, we are usually bewildered and surprised and shocked; we may rail against this person or that organization or even God. Here, Peter tells us how we ought to react to unprovoked suffering: “be really glad,” he says!

Be happy if you are cursed and insulted for being a Christian, for when that happens the Spirit of God will come upon you with great glory. (1 Peter 4:14 TLB)

This is one of those verses that is difficult to translate from Greek to English. Essentially Peter wants us to understand suffering (“cursed and insulted for being a Christian”) is a token—an evidence—that you really are a Christian. But he tacks an important phrase that needs to noted: “for when that happens the Spirit of God will come upon you with great glory.” In other words, it’s not really the suffering that does it, it’s standing up and enduring that suffering; it’s your response to the suffering that demonstrates to God and everybody else that your faith is real. Stephen is a dramatic real-life example of what Peter is writing about here:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. (Acts 6:55 TLB)

In the midst of his own martyrdom, Stephen stood up, stood firm in his faith, and was given this incredible vision of God’s glory. Now, it’s an extreme example to be sure, but we may be sure that when we maintain our faith when it is tested, God will similarly bless us by allowing us to experience a side of Himself we may never experience otherwise.

Suffering: No shame

But it is no shame to suffer for being a Christian. Praise God for the privilege of being in Christ’s family and being called by his wonderful name! (1 Peter 4:16 TLB)

You have to admire Peter for writing verse 16 because you know he wrote it out of his own experience. It’s common to beat yourself up when you encounter trials. It’s common to question yourself or God and to feel embarrassed; like you did something wrong. A Christian should never feel this way if they are enduring any kind of “persecution” on account of their faith. It’s nothing they’ve done. They aren’t being punished. On the contrary! If you are encountering difficult times because of your faith, realize it’s a privilege! It’s proof that you are part of His great family.

Now, if you are suffering on account of your own sinful actions, that’s not glorifying to God and it’s not a privilege. It’s merely reaping what you’ve sowed. But, if you are, for example, tossed into prison because of your faith, then you can glorify God and be a tremendous witness for Him in how you handle that situation.

Suffering: Ultimate Purpose

The crux of Peter’s argument comes here in verse 17—

For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin first among God’s own children. And if even we who are Christians must be judged, what terrible fate awaits those who have never believed in the Lord? (1 Peter 4:17 TLB)

This is a chilling verse, so let’s discuss what it really means. In Acts 14, Paul wrote this:

We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God… (Acts 14:22b NIV)

Both men, Peter and Paul, seemed to understand that their present trials and tests were just the beginning of a long period of judgment. Now, in the Old Testament, the prophets often spoke about the judgment those who sinned against God would face, both in this life and the next. What Peter wrote sounds like what these OT prophets wrote but it’s not the same thing at all! The people of Israel continually sinned against God in spite of the prophet’s warnings and in spite of their difficult times. They were hard-hearted and stubborn and eventually faced grievous judgment when the Lord punished the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

But Peter is not talking about judgment in the sense of “punishment.” The community of believers is not the same thing as Israel. Israel was punished on account of their sin; we, however, are being “judged” at this present time. We can look back at the way God dealt with Israel and we can see a pattern even though the Church is not Israel. God always disciplines and judges His own people before He passes judgment on others for the purpose of revealing who will stand the test. In Peter and Paul’s day, the terrible suffering the Church was going through was a true “ordeal by fire,” revealing who the true believers where and which ones were just “hangers on.” The trials the early Church endured were for the purpose of purging it from troublemakers and religious rascals thus enabling them to glorify God. In our day, that purging is still occurring. Trials and tests come along personally to test our faith; to reveal to us and to others what our faith is made of. God is not punishing we true believers by allowing difficult times to descend upon us; He is giving us a chance to grow in our faith; to engage in a time of self-examination. Rarely do we ever see ourselves the way we really are; a rough patch can serve as mirror, showing us how weak or how strong our faith may be.

And that beings us to our text:

If the righteous are barely saved, what chance will the godless have? (1 Peter 4:18 TLB)

Now, here we see the two groups of people God sees when He looks at planet Earth: the righteous and the ungodly. Both groups face and will face God’s judgments. As Peter noted, God’s judgment comes first to His people, later it will come to those who don’t know Him. Verse 18 did not originate with Peter; he’s really quoting a verse from Proverbs:

Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed in the earth: Much more the wicked and the sinner. (Proverbs 11:31 KJV)

Peter actually quotes from the Greek version of the Old Testament which reads a little different and looks more like this:

If the righteous receive what they deserve on earth, how much more the ungodly and sinner!

In other words, both groups, the saved and the unsaved, get what they deserve. Now, looking at 1 Peter 4:18, we see that Peter is simply stating a fact: getting saved is difficult and sometimes staying saved is difficult. But then Jesus said pretty much the same thing, didn’t He?

But the Gateway to Life is small, and the road is narrow, and only a few ever find it. (Mathew 7:14 TLB)

It takes effort to get saved—to stay on a very narrow road, and it’s hard to even find the way to it–some barely find it at all! Peter’s intent here is to show in a simple way that the life of the believer is not supposed to be easy, it was never easy, and it never will be because it wasn’t designed to be. So, suffering Christian, don’t get discouraged. Don’t lose heart. Don’t doubt God. If you, as imperfect a specimen of Christianity you may be are “just” saved, realize that everybody else—all those unbelievers you envy and wonder about because they don’t have the problems you have—come up far shorter than you ever did, or ever will, and they have no chance whatever.

Suffering: The Final Word

So if you are suffering according to God’s will, keep on doing what is right and trust yourself to the God who made you, for he will never fail you. (1 Peter 4:19 TLB)

You need to read this verse correctly. It is not saying that God plans specific suffering for every individual Christian, for that would make Him no better than a great cosmic joker.  Rather Peter is simply restating what he’s been saying all along: you will suffer on account of your faith in God. God knows it, He didn’t hide this fact from you, and He warned us many times ahead of time what we may expect.  That suffering may take many forms and is always relative to the culture and society believers find themselves in.  That being the case, what do we do? We keep on living and doing right.  We don’t change and we don’t compromise.  We don’t give up on God; we trust Him even more. He will never fail us.

Praying through trouble

suffering

Psalm 77

The Psalms are a unique genre of Biblical literature.  For some Psalms, we can find the historical setting from clues within the psalm itself.  Many of David’s psalms are like that.  When we know the circumstances surrounding the psalm, the psalm means so much more.  Some psalms were written as hymns of praise to be sung in the worship of Jehovah.   Generally speaking, the psalms are not dissertations of doctrine and theology.  They are poems and songs written either to magnify the nature and attributes of God, or to reflect the mood of whoever composed them.  Generally we don’t find promises or doctrinal statements upon which to hang our faith on in the psalms.  But there is a lot we can learn from each and every psalm.

Psalm 77 is known as a “lament.”  In fact, it is a personal lament, not a national one for it describes the desperation of one man:  Asaph, the writer of this pslam.   It follows the pattern of other laments in the Bible: it begins down in the valley of despair but rises to the summit of hopefulness.  Verse 10 is the turning point of the psalm—

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

This verse separates the major segments of the psalm; the first section tells of great sadness and sorrow and in the second section, the lament turns into a song where the sorrow is all but forgotten.  In the first, the individual is predominant and in the second it is all about God.  In fact, in the first 9 verses the personal pronoun occurs 22 times and there only 11 references to God.  But in the second section, God is mentioned 24 times with only 3 personal references.

This makes the basic message of the psalm so powerful:  to dwell on the negative side of life leaves a person broken and disheartened; but when we focus on God our troubles pale.

We know nothing of the personal story that inspired the writing of this psalm, although Bible scholars love to try and figure it out.  For us, we’ll just say that the author was probably very much like we are who have good days and bad days, and at the time of this psalm, Aspah is having a very bad day.

1.  Sorrow, verses 1—3

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.
Selah

Here was a desperate man.  Day and night he cried out to the Lord.  While we don’t know exactly what is problem was, the KJV’s translation of verse 2 may give us a clue—

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.

His “sore ran in the night” seems to suggest some sort of physical ailment was at the root of this man’s distress.  This is, of course pure speculation, but whatever the problem was it was serious enough to cause the writer wonder if God turned His back on him.

The sadness of this verse cannot be missed: here was a faithful man who sought the Lord in time of trouble, yet he found no relief.  This made the writer restless and confused.  He writes in verse 3 that he “mused” when he thought about God.  His present predicament seemed to run contrary to what he knew about God!  In this instance, because of his self-centered mind-set, the more he thought about God the more he became discouraged and the more he “groaned” in despair.  Usually good memories about God have the opposite effect, but if we are mired in negatively, even good thoughts can be turned negative.

2.  Searching and questioning, verses 4—9

You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.

I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;

I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?

Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?

Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Selah

In his darkest hour, the psalmist recalls what it used to be like and he recalled the “songs in the night.”  These hymns were sung in the nighttime hours to comfort the people of God as they rededicated themselves to Him.  As they lay awake, unable to sleep, they would sing these special hymns and their anxiety, hopefully, would leave and sleep would finally come.  Unfortunately, things were now so bad, that not only could Asaph not sleep, but these “songs in the night,” these spiritual lullabies, no longer worked.

As he sat up in bed, unable to sleep, he asks a serious of six questions.  These are common questions that depressed people often ask, but they came from the psalmist’s heart and were not considered complaints.  Doubts and questions, incidentally, are actually therapeutic and common to many of the great men of Scripture.  Even our Lord on the Cross quoted Psalm 22:1—

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)

Each of these questions demands a negative answer because they are asked from a negative mindset:

  • Will the Lord reject forever?  Answer:  No.
  • Will he never show is favor again?  Answer:  No.
  • Has his unfailing love vanished forever?  Answer:  No.  His love is still there, in fact.
  • Has his promise failed for all time?  Answer:  God is still keeping His promise whether we see them coming to fruition or not.
  • Has God forgotten to be merciful?  Answer:  No.  Being merciful is part of God’s character.  He has never stopped showing mercy.
  • Has he in anger withheld his compassion?  Answer:  No.  Again, being compassionate is part of God’s nature; the fact that we cannot feel that compassion says something about us, not God.

If we look at these questions, we see a kind of progression from the writer’s personal present situation (he feels rejected) to the cause:  the Lord’s apparent anger (He withholds His compassion).

What is interesting about these questions is that they reveal something very precious about the psalmist’s heart.  His heart finally comes to rest because as he gives voice to his doubts he realizes that the living God cannot be as he perceives him to be at this dark moment.   The more questions he asked, the more hope swelled in his heart.

3.  Surrender, verses 10—15

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is so great as our God?

You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
Selah

The questions asked are followed by some determined statements, each beginning with the phrase “I will.”  Remembering God’s acts in history provides the foundation for a faith that trusts.  This is why knowing the Word of God is so important.  The great stories of the Bible are meant to teach us something, to encourage us, and to lift us up when we find ourselves in a desperate position like the psalmist found himself in.

Verse 10, as previously mentioned, is the turning point in the psalm.  Here are other ways to read this verse—

And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.  (KJV)

Then I said, “It is my grief,
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”  (NASB)

Then said I, This is my weakness: — the years of the right hand of the Most High.  (Darby)

In other words, the psalmist has realized:  “This is my trial, this is my grief.”  Here he had reached the absolute lowest point of his experience; he had come to the end of his resources.  At that point, his whole attitude began to change.  What changed his attitude?  He took his eyes off himself, after all there was nothing he could for himself, and started to look at God; the God of the Bible.  He “remembers” all the amazing things God did throughout the history of Israel.   The Hebrew for “remember” may also be rendered “proclaim,” suggesting that in the midst of his misery, Asaph proclaimed the goodness of God!   He did not complain or whine; he preached.

Aspah reached the bottom and there was no way to go but up, which is why verse 10 signals such a change is thinking and direction.

4.  Sovereignty, verses 16—20

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.

The clouds poured down water,
the skies resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.

Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

These verses remind us of some of the things Job said of God in the midst of his suffering.  He, like the psalmist, hit rock bottom and was forced to see the greatness of God from a different perspective; from the bottom up, so to speak.  From a literary stand point, these verses are powerfully dramatic and imaginatively written.  In this passage we read of the supremacy of God in nature and in the history of Israel.   God is seen as working in and through nature; He who made the earth has not left it merely hanging in space.  God continually uses His creation to benefit his people.  Even terrible things, like violent storms, are used by God to help man.

John James Stewart Perowne, bishop, Hebrew scholar and author of an excellent commentary on the Psalms wrote this:

We know not, they knew not, by what precise means the deliverance was wrought…and we need not know; the obscurity, the mystery here, as elsewhere was part of the lesson.  All that we see distinctly is, that through this dark and terrible night, with enemy pressing close behind, and the driving sea on either side, He led His people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

God is sovereign.  When we are suffering we see things very narrowly.  The urgency of the moment crowds out the important and eternal truths we know about God.  The great lesson of this psalm is that sometimes, when times are rough, we need to reach the bottom before we may begin our ascent.  God uses the circumstances around us to affect a positive change in us.

May each of strive to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, instead of on the passing circumstances around us.  Only then will we be lifted up, like the psalmist was.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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