Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good News?

“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:”  1Peter 2:21
Think of it, because Jesus suffered, we are called to suffer as well.  Do you know that there were organizations way back then that considered themselves “Christian-esque” but they didn’t believe that Christ actually suffered?  They claimed that He only seemed to suffer, that He could not experience pain or death, in fact, that Jesus just seemed to be at all.  That’s interesting when you read 1Peter 2:21 where we’re asked to suffer like Jesus did.  If He didn’t suffer, does that mean we don’t have to?

There are several other groups of people who would have us believe that suffering is not, or should not, be a part of the Christian, or even the human experience. 

Christian Science is one of those organizations. In an article by an individual who was raised as a Christian Scientist, I read that 
“members of the church hide their illnesses from one another…no one ever acknowledged the obvious illnesses or infirmities of any other member.” Caroline Fraser,“Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church”, Atlantic Monthly, April 1995.  
According to Fraser, the theory is that “their illness is not real and that the pain they feel is not a part of the real world—God’s world.”  So, suffering is not something that can be experienced.  Again, how does that fit with the text from First Peter?

Other modern Christians also seem to argue that suffering is not in God’s plan for us.  Those folk who teach prosperity doctrine would argue that God’s legacy involves only health and wealth.  Suffering and pain only happen to people who lack the faith to claim God’s prosperity for themselves.

Non-Christians also jump into the discussion with the assumption that “the ultimate good is served by a lack or absence of suffering.”  J.David Hoke, Romans: By His Grace – For His Glory, “Don’t Waste Your Sorrows”, June 30, 1996.  And with that tidy definition are able to open the door to all kinds of things like euthanasia, abortion and genetic engineering, because they will supposedly eliminate pain and suffering.

Other unbelievers use the reality of suffering as an argument against God.  Their logic, according to C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain goes this way: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But His creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.” Ouch.

That’s disturbing enough, but Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s, in his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, deals with the problem of human suffering by doing away with God’s omnipotence and then encouraging us to go ahead and love God and “forgive Him despite His limitations.”

Excuse me? My God does not have any limitation…HE’S GOD!

I think that’s pretty sad, when even a Rabbi feels like he has to diminish God to make a reasonable explanation of why suffering exists.  Those approaches don’t leave the people who believe them with many options of how to handle suffering in their own lives when it comes.

One way to deal with pain and suffering is despair.  You’ve met those folks, right?  Their motto could be: “Life stinks and then you die.”  Not only is life bad for them now, they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop because things can always get worse.
Another coping mechanism that some people use in the face of suffering is what the Greeks called Epicureanism.  This guy, Epicurus taught that bad stuff was going to happen to everybody, but the individual’s job was to make sure that he (or she) experienced more pleasure than pain.  The person who lives by this philosophy spends his life trying to balance the scale.  Their motto might be:  “Life’s hard; party harder.”

Another way that many people deal with life’s unpleasantness is with another Greek hand-me-down, stoicism.  A stoic’s motto might be, “Life’s hard; what’s your point?”
I’m really glad to say that as a Christian, I have something better.  Check it out:  
“…,but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:3-8
God has promised over and over again, that we don’t have to worry about the why of earthly suffering; we just have to hang onto Him.  He knows how weak we are.  He knows the people He wants us to become.  And He won’t ever leave us to suffer alone.  In fact, He promised that the hard stuff would make us stronger and better.  As weird as it sounds, suffering isn’t a waste of time.  It actually does us good.  In fact, Romans 5:3-5 tells us three very specific things we can gain from following “our calling” from God to suffering.

Suffering produces perseverance – patience, endurance, doggedness, steadfastness, tenacity and persistent determination.  Those are all things we desperately need for the spiritual and earthly battles we have to fight every single day.  Remember the old poster with the picture of the kitten hanging on a rope?  It said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
That’s perseverance which produces character.  Character is not an easy concept to define.  But think about the people that have made a real difference in your life – people you deeply respect.  People like that are usually individuals who have had lots of different kinds of experiences in their lives: both joy and sorrow. They’ve responded appropriately and emerged stronger, wiser and closer to God.  They have learned that they can trust God no matter what is happening around them.  Those folks are the ones who can truly say,
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Psalm 23:4
And the third benefit that grows out of suffering according to Paul?  Hope.  “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”  If you grew up here in San Antonio, you probably went on the little train at Brackenridge Park at some point.  On that train ride there is a man-made tunnel that is just long enough, with just enough of a curve in it that for a few seconds you are in complete darkness.  It never failed; my heart would pound, and I would breath faster.  I would grab my father’s hand and hang on.  I know I was a fraidy-cat, but that tunnel scared me to death, because it was completely dark just a little longer than I could stand.  When I could finally see that light from the end of the tunnel, I was so relieved.  The light at the end of the tunnel was my hope that the dark would end soon and everything would be okay.  The hope that God is with us and things will get better is sometimes the only thing that helps us through the day.

Remember what Paul said in Romans 8:28-32?  
“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.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
 Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?
He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”  

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