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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Suffering and Rejoicing

IT FEELS SO GOOD TO GRIPE

It feels so good to complain! To have someone empathize with you...for someone who understands the pain and frustration...for someone who can nod in agreement and look amazed at the suffering you've endured.

But complaining is not entirely socially acceptable, is it? A friend can only stand so much of my griping...it starts to depress them! The second re-airing of my woes is more than the same friend can stand. There comes a time when the listener must politely edge away before being forced to shout, "Enough already! Get a grip! Buck up! Count your blessings!"

I'm reading Paul's letter to the Colossians and I am noticing how frequently, and passionately, Paul complains. But, in contrast to my complaining, Paul manages to make his griping holy and victorious. How does Paul get away with it? He almost brags about his suffering, but the way he does it, griping glorifies God and encourages his readers.

Let's look at Paul's suffering and rejoicing. First, we'll describe some of the troubles Paul went through. Then, we'll identify what gave Paul a reason to rejoice. Finally, we'll end by putting ourselves in his place.

THREE KEY IDEAS:

  • PAUL SUFFERED (and griped about it!)
  • PAUL REJOICED (continually!)
  • WE CAN REJOICE (believe it!)

PAUL SUFFERED

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church..." (Colossians 1:24)

This is the first hint in Paul's letter that he's had any bad times during his walk with Jesus.

WHAT DOES SUFFERING MEAN?

Suffering in the Greek is pathema, meaning "something undergone", hardship or pain; from pathos, "suffering or passion"; from pascho, "to experience a sensation or impression (usually painful).

English uses many words based upon pathema: pathetic, empathy, pathology, and others. They all imply pain, sickness or grief that is deeply felt. Paul is writing about the deep emotional and physical pain he's experienced for the sake of serving others. From the moment of Paul's conversion from enemy of God to child of God, Jesus had made it clear that Paul would suffer for his sake:

"He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (Acts 9:15-16)

The words "chosen" and "suffer" remained in the front of Paul's mind for the rest of his life.

WHAT DID PAUL SUFFER?

Can we identify with any of the bad times he went through? How did he get through the depression, the frustration and the weariness of life without giving up like I sometimes feel like doing? How could he rejoice in what is obviously bad, wrong, unfair and even evil?

"Stoned and left for dead...arrested, attacked, stripped, beaten and imprisoned in stocks...Humility, tears and trials...I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ...I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God...I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God...In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 14:19; 16:19-24; 20:19, 20-21, 24, 27, 35)
"Hunger and thirst, ragged, buffeted and homeless...reviled, persecuted, slandered...scum of the world, refuse of all things." (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
"Utterly burdened beyond strength...despairing of life...under sentence of death...afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger...treated as impostor, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful and poor...Without rest...afflicted at every turn...fighting without and fear within...labors, countless beatings and often near death...39 lashes of the whip suffered five times...beaten with rods and stoned...shipwrecked three times...adrift at sea a night and a day...frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches." (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 6:4-5, 8-10; 7:5; 11:23-28)

WE SUFFER FROM THE WORLD

Paul was not the first or only Christian to suffer. Since the horrific, unfair and unbounded suffering that Jesus Himself suffered, His followers would experience trouble. Jesus didn't say "if" we suffer as Christians, He said "when" you suffer:

"...persecuted, reviled, and slandered on account of Jesus...you will be dragged and delivered over to death...delivered up to tribulation, put to death and hated by all nations..." (Matthew 5:10-11; 10:18-21; 24:9)
"...the world hates you...they persecuted me...they will also persecute you...you will weep and lament...you will be sorrowful...you will be scattered and you will have tribulation..." (John 15:19-20; 16:20; 32-33)
"...mocking...they arrested them and put them in custody...they threatened them...filled with jealousy, they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison...they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus...they came upon him (Stephen) and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses...they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him...they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him...they cast him out of the city and stoned him...there arose on that day a great persecution against the church...they were all scattered...ravaged...dragged off to prison..." (Acts 2:13; 4:3, 21; 5:17-18, 40; 6:12-13; 7:54, 57-58; 8:1-3)

WE SUFFER INSIDE

These are violent, blatant acts of persecution without cause. Although I can see the potential of experiencing similar persecution in my life, to this point the extent of trouble as a Christian for me has been internal:

"Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh...I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out...I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing...I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:18-19, 24)

SATAN PERSECUTES CHRIST THROUGH US

Much of what we suffer is instigated by the malicious hate of the devil.

"...a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me..." (2 Corinthians 12:7)
"You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?" (Acts 13:10)
"Satan, the deceiver of the whole world..." (Revelation 12:9)
"He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44)

Satan is the ultimate persecutor, the one who hates Christ and those who are Christ's.

FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING

Paul said he was "filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions." Paul regarded himself as a target for persecution aimed at Christ. In the place of Christ, Paul was suffering pain and grief for the sake of the body of Christ, the church.

Paul deliberately examined his troubles and made a direct connection between his suffering and his Saviour. Jesus suffered injustly, overwhelmingly unfairly, all for the sake of those he loved, even his enemies. Paul recognized the hand of Jesus in every circumstance. He did not gripe about his suffering...he glorified Jesus for giving him the opportunity to serve others through his suffering.

WHAT DOES "LACKING" MEAN?

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church..." (Colossians 1:24)

The Greek word translated as "lacking" is husterema, "a deficit or poverty"; from hustereo, "to be later or fall short"; from husteros, "later"; from hupo, "under". Paul used "lacking" in referring to his great friend, Epaphroditus:

"Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me." (Philippians 2:30)

Paul was not reprimanding the Philippians for ignoring him, or for failing to adequately fulfill their duty toward him. Their "lack of service" was a simple statement of what the Philippian church was unable to complete.

CHRIST'S AFFLICTIONS WERE NOT INSUFFICIENT

Paul is not completing "some last little bit of suffering" required for salvation.

“Filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions” is a reference to the fact that the world is still persecuting Christ, still trying to murder the One Who claimed to be Son of God, even after His death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. In effect, Jesus is not here to "kick around anymore", so Paul (and many Christians) are suffering persecution from the world in His place. Before allowing Jesus to be his Lord, Paul, known then as Saul, violently persecuted the church:

"But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem...Suddenly a light from heaven flahed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?...I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'" (Acts 9:1-4)

Paul's angry, violent persecution aimed at believers was actually rebellion against the Son of God: Jesus.

Understood literally, Paul, as a steward of God's Word, meant:

"I rejoice in the deep emotional and physical pain that I've experienced for your sake. For the sake of Christ's church I have endured the persecution that is still being thrown at Jesus."

GOD KNOWS THAT WE SUFFER

I can identify with Paul's experience. People suffer, even those in Christ, especially those in Christ. It seems the antithesis, the very opposite of what should happen to those who trust in the life of Christ and honor God as Father and Provider.

God's Word convinces me that He knows and even expects us to endure suffering for his sake. Our suffering comes from outside us, from the devil and from other people and sickness and accident and war and prejudice. Our suffering also comes from within us, from our sin and natural flesh. Christians suffer, and God knows it.

"...enduring sorrows while suffering unjustly...Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps...reviled, suffering, dying...since Christ also suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking...do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you...be watchful...your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter 2:19-24; 4:1, 12; 5:8)
"I know your tribulation and your poverty..." (Revelation 2:9)

PAUL REJOICED

"Now I rejoice in my sufferings..." (Colossians 1:24)

WHAT DOES "REJOICE" MEAN?

"Rejoice" in the Greek means to be cheerful or calmly happy. Paul calmly and happily endured tremendous persecution and hardship in order to preach and pastor Christ's church.

PAUL REJOICED IN GOD AS HIS FATHER

Paul believed God was his Father, which meant Paul would forever be under God's ultimate protection and providence:

"The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs...heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us..." (Romans 8:16-18, 35, 37)

PAUL REJOICED IN GOD'S COMFORT

Paul understood that sharing in the suffering of Christ, for Christ's sake, also meant sharing in Christ's comfort:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too...to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again...We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh...For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal...So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord...He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthinans 1:3-5, 9-10, 4:8-11, 17-18, 5:6-8, 12:9-10)

PAUL REJOICED IN INTIMACY WITH GOD

Paul calls the hardship he's endured "light momentary affliction", and he believed that it was preparing him for future glory beyond all comparison. Every hardship, every weakness, allowed Paul to become more like Jesus, not just in appearance or physical experience, but in perspective and attitude:

"It is my eager expectation and hope...that Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain...Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all...For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death...I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of having plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 1:20-21; 2:17; 3:8, 10;4:12-13)

PAUL LOOKED TO JESUS

Paul's hero was Jesus. Looking at Jesus brought comfort and encouragement to Paul:

"Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted...We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin...You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you know that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one...Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God...Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed." (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15; 10:34; 12:2; 12:12-13)

PAUL REJOICED IN DEPRESSION

Paul experienced depression (drooping hands and weak knees) and said, "Look at Jesus." How is that different than saying "Buck up, count your blessings, don't worry and be happy!"? Blessings and troubles don't weigh the same! I can be surrounded by benefits, and still be weighed down by a single bad situation. Blessings are temporary...they can change quickly.

Jesus is above all weight and treasure. Jesus never changes. His work in our lives is always one of grace and love, no matter what our temporary situation may look, or feel, like.

But most importantly, looking at Jesus in the midst of trouble allows us to gain an intimate relationship with a holy God, the Eternal Creator, Sustainer and Sovereign God Who lives in the soul of every believer:

"They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes...Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (Revelation 7:16-17; 21:3-4)
No more hunger or thirst...no more scorching heat...no more tears...no more death...all of this can be ours right now, if we look past what's happening to our physical body and mind, and look at our soul's relationship with Jesus. Nothing shall harm us, therefore nothing NOW can harm us!

WE CAN REJOICE

Finally, let's put ourselves in Paul's place. Here's a typical day of suffering for me:

1. Get up tired because I worked 12 hours the day before and I didn't sleep very well.

2. Get assigned a project at work that I don't enjoy and I find difficult.

3. Forget an important detail and have to re-do my work, losing time and making feel like I've worked all day without a break.

4. Apply for a transfer to a different department, but know that I don't have the experience and training that can compare with others who have also applied.

5. Spend frequent, intermittent moments regretting past mistakes and besetting sin experienced this week so far.

6. Get home tired and feeling unrewarded and inadequate.

7. Go to bed and sleep fitfully and lightly.

My days vary, just like yours. Some days seem better, with pleasureable events and met expectations. Others are worse, with bad news from family or friends, or sickness, or disappointments.

Nowhere does it seem that my typical day matches up with Paul's...neither the highs nor the lows. But, and this is an important "but", pain is pain. Paul was shipwrecked and beaten because he was preaching about Jesus, and I am tired and exasperated by working to support my family, and our suffering is real.

The important difference between Paul and me is that Paul connected his suffering with his service to Jesus. My natural focus tends to be on what I'm feeling, rather than why I'm doing what I'm doing. I imagine Paul saying to me, "Turn your gripes can into glorifying!"

REVIEW: TURNING GRIPES INTO GLORY

  • God knows and God cares

  • Suffering brings intimacy with God

  • Jesus provides comfort purpose
  • TWO SUGGESTIONS: CLARITY AND CONNECTION

  • Clarity: list down specific gripes (hardships)

  • Connection: list benefits of suffering
  • Caution: DON'T attempt to "outweigh" the bad by listing many good things. The goal is to identify the good that can be found in suffering, not the good that exists despite suffering.

    It's In The Valley That I Grow

    "Sometimes life seems hard to bear,
    Full of sorrow, trouble and woe
    It's then I have to remember
    That it's in the valleys I grow.

    If I always stayed on the mountain top
    And never experienced pain,
    I would never appreciate God's love
    And would be living in vain.

    I have so much to learn
    And my growth is very slow,
    Sometimes I need the mountain tops,
    But it's in the valleys I grow.

    I do not always understand
    Why things happen as they do,
    But I am very sure of one thing.
    My Lord will see me through.

    My little valleys are nothing
    When I picture Christ on the cross
    He went through the valley of death;
    His victory was Satan's loss.

    Forgive me Lord, for complaining
    When I'm feeling so very low.
    Just give me a gentle reminder
    That it's in the valleys I grow.

    Continue to strengthen me, Lord
    And use my life each day
    To share your love with others
    And help them find their way.

    Thank you for valleys, Lord
    For this one thing I know
    The mountain tops are glorious
    But it's in the valleys I grow!"

    Mary N. Nelson