Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
When I read Job and Psalms recently, I realised that Job and David both suffered life threatening situations and went through times of anguish and despair. In this article we look at David’s trials and troubles when he was a fugitive.
David’s burdens as a fugitive
David was a shepherd who became the king of Israel in about 1010 BC. But he had good times and bad times before this happened. In the good times he became king Saul’s musician and armour-bearer. Then he killed the taunting Philistine champion Goliath, married Saul’s daughter and was given a high rank in the army. Because of his military victories, he became a national hero.
ButSaul became jealous of David and when this developed into hatred, he tried to kill him. First he hurled a spear towards him on three occasions, which would have been terrifying as Saul was a head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). Then he gave him a military mission hoping that he would die in battle. After these attempts on David’s life failed, Saul remained David’s enemy for the rest of his life (1 Sam. 18:28-29). Next, Saul commanded his men to kill David. They ambushed David’s house, but his wife helped him escape that night.
David’s life had changed drastically. He now feared for his life and was a fugitive on the run from Saul and his men (1 Sam. Ch. 19-30). David said, “there is only a step between me and death” (1Sam. 20:3). He fled to Samuel in Ramah where he was given refuge among the prophets (1 Sam. 19:18). When Saul discovered David’s whereabouts, David escaped to Nob (1 Sam. 21:1-9), and then to Gath among the Philistines and from there to the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:1-4; 1 Chron. 12:8-18) where 400 men joined him and accepted him as their leader. David’s parents joined him too, but for their safety he took them to Moab east of the Dead Sea. A prophet then told him to move to the forest of Hereth. Meanwhile, Saul was so desperate that he ordered the murder of 85 priests and their families who had innocently given refuge to David at Nob (1 Sam. 22:11-19).
For a while, David found himself in the bizarre situation of fighting Saul’s enemies and fleeing Saul at the same time. David and his men drove the Philistines from Keilah (1 Sam. 23:1-14) and then moved to the hill country of Judah to escape Saul in the deserts of Ziph and Maon. When Saul’s forces almost caught David’s men, they were called away to fight the Philistines. Then David escaped to En Gedi on the Dead Sea. After Saul arrived with 3,000 soldiers, David went to the region of Maon once again. David spared Saul’s life on two occasions when Saul was hunting him (1 Sam. 24:10, 26:9). He was still loyal to the king.
David and his 600 men and their families then returned to Gath and settled in Ziklag because he thought he was safer amongst the Philistines. As Saul stopped searching for them, they were able to stay there for 16 months until Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 27:1-6; 31:1-6). David was probably a fugitive for about 4-5 years; assuming he was about 16 years of age when he defeated Goliath (2 Sam. 2:2,10; 5:4).
When David was on the run as a fugitive, he hid from his pursuers; Saul and his men. His life was in danger because Saul feared and hated him. Instead of addressing the Philistine threat, Saul’s attention was diverted to the pursuit of David.
David’s songs as a fugitive
Today we see people walking and running around with headphones listening to songs. Well David also had songs in his head, but he didn’t need headphones because he was a singer, songwriter and musician!
Here are some songs that David composed when he was a fugitive, which show his feelings and responses to his burdens of life.
Psalm 59 is a prayer for deliverance when Saul’s men ambushed David’s house (1 Sam. 19:11-17).
“Deliver me from my enemies, O God;
be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
Deliver me from evildoers
and save me from those who are after my blood.
See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense or sin of mine, LORD.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!” (Ps. 59:1-4NIV)
He trusts in God in such times of trouble and the song finishes with praise.
“I will sing of Your strength,
in the morning I will sing of Your love;
for You are my fortress,
my refuge in times of trouble.
You are my strength, I sing praise to You;
You, God, are my fortress,
my God on whom I can rely.” (Ps. 59:16-17)
Psalm 7 is a prayer for deliverance from one of Saul’s men.
“LORD my God, I take refuge in You;
save and deliver me from all who pursue me,
or they will tear me apart like a lion
and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.” (Ps. 7:1-2)
The song finishes with praise.
“I will give thanks to the LORD because of His righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the LORD Most High.” (Ps. 7:17)
In Psalm 56 David experiences waves of fear and faith as he seeks refuge from Saul amongst the Philistines (1 Sam. 21:10-15; 27:1-4).
“Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.” (Ps. 56:1-2)
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4)
In Psalm 57 David fluctuates between faith in God and fear of his enemies when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22).
“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in You I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings
until the disaster has passed.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God, who vindicates me.
He sends from heaven and saves me,
rebuking those who hotly pursue me—
God sends forth His love and His faithfulness.
I am in the midst of lions;
I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts—
men whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.” (Ps. 57:1-4)
Even though God and his enemies were ever-present, the song finishes with praise.
“I will praise You, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of You among the peoples.
For great is Your love, reaching to the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let Your glory be over all the earth.” (Ps. 57:9-11)
In Psalm 142 David is overwhelmed with stress when he is hiding from Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2; 24:1-22). So, he prays for deliverance.
“I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
I pour out before Him my complaint;
before Him I tell my trouble.” (Ps. 142:1-2)
“I cry to You, LORD;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise Your name.” (Ps. 142:5-7)
Psalm 54 is a prayer for deliverance when the Ziphites betrayed David twice (1 Sam. 23:19-28; 26:1-4).
“Save me, O God, by Your name;
vindicate me by Your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
listen to the words of my mouth.
Arrogant foes are attacking me;
ruthless people are trying to kill me—
people without regard for God.
Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.
Let evil recoil on those who slander me;
in Your faithfulness destroy them.” (Ps. 54:1-5)
He then offered praise and thanksgiving.
“I will sacrifice a freewill offering to You;
I will praise Your name, LORD, for it is good.
You have delivered me from all my troubles,
and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” (Ps. 54:6-7)
Some other songs may have been composed when David was a fugitive.
Psalm 13 is a prayer for deliverance from his enemies.
“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in Your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in Your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for He has been good to me.”
So although David felt forgotten, depressed, humiliated faced the risk of death and defeat, he finished with praise.
Psalm 17 is a prayer for deliverance from enemies who had tracked him down.
“Keep me as the apple (or pupil) of Your eye;
hide me in the shadow of Your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.” (Ps. 17:8-9)
Psalm 31 is prayer and praise for deliverance.
“But I trust in you, LORD;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in Your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.” (Ps. 31:14-15)
Psalm 109 is prayer for God’s judgement of enemies.
“My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.” (Ps. 109:1-4)
Psalm 35 is a prayer to be rescued from those who taunted him. As usual, he finishes with praise.
“May those who delight in my vindication
shout for joy and gladness;
may they always say, ‘The LORD be exalted,
who delights in the well-being of his servant.’
My tongue will proclaim Your righteousness,
Your praises all day long.” (Ps 35:27-28)
Psalm 120 is a prayer for deliverance from lies and slander.
“I call on the LORD in my distress,
and He answers me.
Save me, LORD,
from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.” (Ps. 120:1-2)
Finally, in Psalm 22 David feels forsaken by God and rejected by people and surrounded by his enemies.
“Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.” (Ps. 22:12-13)
Lessons for the children of Israel
All these songs are recorded in Scripture for the benefit of God’s people. What was the lesson for the children of Israel in Old Testament times? As a fugitive, David’s life was in danger because he was outnumbered by Saul’s men and he was under continual stress. How did he handle this burden and the fact that his father-in-law hated him? He used the weapon of prayer to get God’s help; he said “Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22). He dealt with his burdens by directing them to the Lord. So, he laid the situation before God, recalled who God was, what God was able to do, and his status before God. He requested God’s help, affirmed His power, and offered thanks and praise. It was a pattern of prayer and praise. After all, David said, “I am a man of prayer” (Ps. 109:4). He also said: “In the morning, LORD, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait expectantly” (Ps. 5:3). He prayed when his mind was clear and the temperature was cool. Being “a man after God’s own heart”, he was a model for the Jews to follow (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).
David’s suffering was also prophetic of the suffering of the Messiah; they both felt forsaken by God (Ps. 22:1; Mt; 27:46) and they were both taunted with “let God rescue him” (Ps.22:8; Mt:27:43). Jesus was a descendant of David who suffered, yet was innocent. Like David, He responded to His burdens with prayer and endurance.
Lessons for us
First, are we like Saul or like David? Who do we trust? Saul trusted himself, but David trusted in God. David knew that God created the universe and rescued his nation from slavery in Egypt. Do we realise that God created the universe? Through trusting in Christ we can be rescued from the consequences of our sinful ways and have peace with God. That’s real security.
Second, if we are trusting God, we need to be careful when applying Old Testament verses to us today because since then Jesus has come and the church has formed. God’s people today are Christians whose sins have been forgiven by the death of Christ and who live under God’s grace, not the children of Israel who lived under the Old Testament laws (Rom. 6:14).
Is David’s pattern of surviving burdens by prayer, praise and endurance consistent with the New Testament? Yes it is, but with the following changes because of what Jesus and the apostles taught:
- Like Jesus, we are to love and pray for our enemies, instead of hating them like David (Mt. 5:44). Although David did respect Saul as king of Israel.
- We shouldn’t pray vindictive prayers or seek vengeance on others like David in Psalm 109, but leave such judgment up to God (1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:9). Although vindictive prayers were proper for a Jew living under the law, they are not for a Christian living under God’s grace. The time of God’s vengeance will come after the church is raptured to heaven.
- Also, we should be willing to endure suffering, taunting and slander like Jesus did and not react against it like David (Mt. 5:11-12; 1Pet. 2:20, 23; 3:9)
- Today people are not our enemies like they were for David; instead it is our sinful desires that war against our soul (1 Pet.2:1). Our enemies are within; they are internal not external (Mt. 15:11, 19). They are spiritual not physical. Keep that in mind when you read the Psalms.
There are two similarities to note between today and David’s time:
- As Saul’s men followed David relentlessly, so our emotional and spiritual burdens follow us around.
- Prayer is still important for New testament believers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7). Like David, let’s be people of prayer.
So although our burdens are ever present, remember that our God is also ever present and that prayer and praise are essential for surviving the burdens of life.
Written, October 2011
Life inevitably has its peaks and valleys; its good times and its bad times; its easy times and its hard times. We all experience burdens of some kind. Life doesn’t always go the way we would like it to. In this article, we look at what the Bible says about how to survive the burdens of life, which may be our circumstances, or our perceptions, or our fears and anxieties. In particular, we will focus on the example of Job who lived about 4,000 years ago, after Noah, the global flood and the ice age, but before Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. He was a godly man with eight children who was wealthy with many animals and many servants.
One day his animals were stolen and destroyed by lightning, his servants killed, and his children all died in a tornado (Job 1:13-19). Next there was health crisis when his body was covered with painful sores. They itched so badly that he scraped himself with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:7-8). Because his wife couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much, she said “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9NIV). He was tempted to give up on God; but he did not.
What a catastrophe! He lost his family, his possessions, his health and the support of his wife. His life was “full of trouble” and he suffered alone (Job. 14:1). He asked “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?”He put his questions to God. He called out to God for relief, but his prayers weren’t answered (Job 30:20). His suffering was so bad that he cursed the day he was born and wished that he had died at birth because then he would be resting in peace instead of being in misery and turmoil (Job 3:1-26). He longed for death to release him from his difficulties and troubles. He was haunted by depression, mockery and pain (Job 30:1-31).
Job had a big problem. He thought his suffering was undeserved and unfair. Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. That’s why he protested to God. His burdens and emotional struggles raise questions such as: Why do godly people suffer? Will Job’s faith endure or will he give up on God?
Job’s friend’s response
Four of his friends seek to comfort Job. Their debate is given in Job 3-37. Their argument was: God is righteous; He punishes the wicked; if Job is being punished it proved that he is wicked. But this is poor logic. Evil isn’t always punished in this life and all human suffering is not a punishment from God. Not all suffering is a direct result of sin in one’s life. For example, God can use suffering to refine the character of the godly. Instead, his friends only thought of God’s justice and not His love and compassion.
But Job defends his integrity and strenuously claims his innocence (Job 27:1-6; 31:40). He is not a wicked person.
Finally God speaks. How will He deal with the problem of Job’s suffering? Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of questions that reveal His divine wisdom and power and Job’s insignificance.
The first series of questions address the fact that God provides the conditions for life on earth (Job. 38:4-38). The examples given include: He created the earth; He provided water in clouds, rain, hail, snow, the water cycle, and the sea; He provided light; and He provided the stars of the universe. Then God asked Job, “Were you there when I made this?”; “What do you know about the natural world?”; “Can you do what I have done?”. Scientists may understand aspects of how these components of our universe work, but God is their ultimate cause; He designed them and created them.
The second series of questions address the fact that God sustains life on earth (Job. 38:39 – 39:30): The examples given include: lion; raven, ostrich, hawk, and eagle; goat, donkey, ox, and horse. God asked Job, “Do you provide food for all these creatures?”; “Can you tame wild animals?”; “Did you design and create these creatures”; “Can you manage the creation as well as God does”? Of course, the answer is “no”! Job would have felt small and insignificant compared to God’s might.
Job’s first response
“Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:3-5). Overwhelmed by God’s divine greatness, wisdom and power, Job realised his insignificance. He couldn’t answer God’s questions, but he knew what the answers were. He felt so weak that he was speechless. But now that had no more to say, he was ready to listen to God.
God’s second response
Then God responded again by asking questions about two of the greatest creatures He ever made. People debate about whether these are mythical or real and living today or extinct. The Bible says that they were real and it is clear that was familiar with these giant creatures (Job 40:15). Their description matches those of the largest dinosaurs, which are now extinct. Contrary to what many scientists say, the Bible teaches that people were on the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Behemoth, which lived on the land, marshes and rivers, was “first among the works of God” (Job 40:19). This means that it was God’s best, chief, foremost, greatest and supreme creation. Metaphors are used to convey that its skeleton seemed to be as hard as iron (Job 40:18). God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. Of course, Job couldn’t control this monster; but God controlled the world.
Leviathan lived in the sea. “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (Job 41:33). “When it rises up, the mighty are terrified” (Job 41:25). Once again God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. If no one can stand up against it, no one can stand up before its creator. After all God made everything and runs the universe! God is much greater than any of His creation.
Job’s second response
“Then Job replied to the LORD: I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).
Job was overwhelmed by God’s power and greatness and he repented of his arrogance in questioning God. He was ashamed and sorry for the things he had said. So through his suffering he gains an accurate impression of almighty God and his own failures and limitations. He thinks more of God and less of himself. He accepts his place in the universe and submits to God’s will for his life. His faith endured the test of suffering. It proved that Satan was wrong; Job didn’t curse God in his afflictions (Job 1:11; 2:5).
Although Job was, “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”; his trials led him to repent of his arrogance and pride (Job 1:8; 42:1-6). This domonstrates that pride is the root of all our sin.
The Christian view of suffering
Now we look at what the New Testament says about when God’s people suffer. “They (our fathers) disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-12).
Christians are children of God; He is our spiritual Father. As human fathers discipline and train their children, so God disciplines and trains us. As fathers love their children and want the best for them, so God loves us and wants the best for us. Fathers train their children to become mature adults; but God trains us so that “we may share in His holiness”. His goal is that we may become mature as our life becomes purified and the fruit of the Spirit grows. The result of the discipline and training is pictured as a harvest. Crops are harvested when they are mature. Christians are mature when they practice love, joy, peace, forbearance (or patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and holiness (Gal. 5:22-23).
This discipline and training is painful like it was for Job. So the suffering that Christians endure isn’t punishment, it is training and education. In many ways it is “no pain, no gain”, because it is possible to go through trials and never have them do a thing for us if we complain all the time. But if we persevere, suffering leads to patience and hope: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3). Job persevered: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jas. 5:10-11).
Christians are to endure hardship and suffering because it is divine discipline, “God is treating you as His children” (Heb. 12:7). We are to “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). If we think of all the suffering that Jesus went through for us, then we won’t become weary and give up. It can sustain us through the burdens of life.
So, don’t give up in the tough times. Persevere and endure. Hang in there like Job and Jesus did. Remember it is training for your spiritual growth. Job said “He (God) knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So the Christian view of suffering is to never complain or give up in despair.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this? Firstly, the burdens of life don’t necessarily cease at death. Although God has provided eternal life for those whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, this is only available to those who have repented and turned to trust in God’s provision like Job did. That is the only way to survive the burdens of life in the long term. The future is dark for those without God in their life. They are not survivors.
Secondly, we need to normalise burdens and suffering. Job suffered as a godly man. Even the godliest people suffer; it’s part of the normal Christian life. We need to expect it and not be surprised when it happens. God doesn’t always explain the reason for our suffering. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves because suffering is not necessarily the result of our sins, although it is a characteristic of our sinful world.
Thirdly, suffering keeps us humble. By enduring the burdens of life we can realise that God controls the universe, not us. We need to submit to His will, rather that demand that God submit to our desires. So, the suffering of the godly has a purpose, even though we often don’t realise at the time.
Fourthly, enduring suffering can be a great witness for the Lord. Job suffered. Jesus suffered. As a result, God was praised and served because He deserved it, no matter the circumstances, and not because of how they benefited, but despite the trials of life. Likewise, if we persevere in suffering, we demonstrate God’s worth. We are given the privilege of suffering for Christ and demonstrating our faith in God by enduring life’s trials (Phil. 1:29). What a witness that can be!
Fourthly, suffering develops endurance and perseverance. God’s discipline and training also helps our growth towards spiritual maturity. So, don’t give up in the tough times.
Fifthly, suffering tests our faith. Are we only serving God on the good times? That is a weak faith. Strong faith also serves God in the tough times; when you can say to God, not my will, but Yours be done. Because Job didn’t give up on God, he was an example of great faith.
Don’t be misled by people like Job’s friends who say if we follow them we can be exempt from suffering. That we will be healthy, wealthy and wise instead of suffering the burdens of life. No one is exempt from the burdens of life, particularly the godly.
Finally, those who are suffering don’t need advice. They are on the road to maturity. So don’t feel sorry for them but join them and like Job we may learn more about God and more about ourselves in the journey.
That’s how the Bible says we can survive the burdens of life.
Written, September 2011
Suffering and Glory
God allows Christians to go through trials, suffering and persecution. How can we cope in such tough times? Paul gives an answer in 2 Thessalonians 1.
Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time and in response to his preaching a church was established. After he left, he wrote them the letter of 1 Thessalonians. Have you ever explained something to someone and find the need to repeat it soon after? Well Paul also had this experience. Paul saw a need to encourage the believers in Thessalonica as they were still being persecuted. Some of them thought the tribulation described in Revelation had already arrived and some had stopped working. As Paul didn’t have telephone or e-mail, he wrote them another letter.
The Source of Strength
“Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Th. 1:1-2NIV).
The introduction is similar to that for the first letter to the Thessalonians. It mentions the writer, the recipients and an opening greeting. Silas and Timothy were with Paul when he wrote this letter from Corinth. It was written to the “ekklessia”. As the Greek word “ekklessia” could mean any gathering of people, Paul described his readers as being believers at the city of Thessalonica. He needed to do this as elsewhere this word was used to describe a group of Jews, a riotous mob and a local governing body (Acts 7:38; 19:32, 39, 41).
The word “in” emphasises the close relationship that believers have with the Father and the Son—this is our primary relationship. The word “from” indicates that this relationship is the source of “grace” and “peace”.
Paul mentioned “grace” and “peace” in the introduction of 12 of his New Testament letters. The fact that they come from God the Father and God the Son implies equality between these members of the Godhead. In this context, “grace” means “to be in favor with”. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to be in favor with God and to have the peace that flows from this. He knew that God “shows favor to the humble and oppressed” (Prov. 3:34; Jas. 4:6). Of course peace is one’s desire in times of suffering and persecution.
In this letter, Paul used the full title “Lord Jesus Christ” on 50% of the occasions when he referred to God the Son. This is a high proportion compared to 29% for 1 Thessalonians, 13% for Acts to Revelation.
“We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Th. 1:3-4).
Paul’s prayers that their faith and love would grow had been answered (1 Th. 3:10, 12). Therefore he kept on thanking God for his spiritual children. Faith is Godward and love is towards one another. Faith keeps us in contact with God and this leads to love for one another. In the first letter faith, love and hope are mentioned together, but here “hope” is left out maybe because they needed correction concerning the second coming of the Lord (1 Th. 1:3; 5:8). Their hope was not clear. So Paul writes to correct the situation
They were doing so well that Paul boasted about their spiritual progress to other churches. Despite tough times of persecution and trial, their faith remained strong. By mentioning this in the letter, Paul is affirming their faith, love and perseverance.
Punishment and Relief
“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 Th. 1:5-7a).
Their endurance in the face of persecution was evidence that God was at work among them! They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith, but God knew that they could bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). People who are under pressure give up easily unless something is strengthening them. God provided strength so they could endure their suffering and persecution. In fact, Christians can rejoice in suffering because it produces character and maturity (Rom 5:3-4; Jas. 1:2-4).
Paul points out three things about their suffering. First, it showed they were “worthy of the kingdom of God”. They had been made worthy by faith in Christ and this was evident in their endurance under suffering. The pattern is one of suffering followed by future glory. It is the same one that Jesus followed. The Old Testament prophets predicted; “the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11), but they didn’t understand that these events would be separated by at least 1,900 years. The Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory, but instead He came in a humble way and suffered greatly. Whereas at His future appearing He will come in great power and glory. This pattern also applies to believers: Paul wrote: “… if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:17-18).
Second, their suffering showed that their persecutors deserved to be judged. Because God is just, He will punish the persecutors—“He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you”. The Greek word translated “trouble” in v.6 means to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances or under antagonism (Vine). We know that God judges unrepentant sinners, both on earth when He “gives them over” to suffer the consequences of their sins (Rom. 1:24,26,28) and at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Third, their suffering showed that they deserved relief for their undeserved persecution. Because God is just, the punishment will be balanced with relief for the Thessalonians and Paul and his colleagues who were suffering as well. The Greek word translated “relief” means relief from persecution.
When will this all happen?
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might on the day He comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you” (2 Th. 1:7b-10).
It will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven. Christ is now hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him.
When will the Lord Jesus be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels”? As this hasn’t happened in the last 1,900 years, it is still future. Obviously, it’s a reference to the second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. In fact there are two main comings, the rapture when Christ returns to the air to take all believers, both dead and alive, to be with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:13-17) and the appearing when He returns to the earth in great power and glory to remove unbelievers for judgement (Rev 19:1-21).
The timing of these events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation: firstly the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); then church in is heaven, which implies that the rapture has occurred between chapters 3 and 4 (Rev. 4-5); then there is tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); which is followed by the appearing (Rev. 19:11-21); and then the millennium (Rev. 20:1-10); and finally the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the rapture and the appearing are separate events is shown by their relationship to the tribulation. Christians are said to be “saved from God’s wrath” (Rom. 5:9) and kept from “the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev. 3:10); for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). Of course, God’s “wrath” may refer to the tribulation (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:9-10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19) or to His eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to 1 Th. 5:9, the context is the tribulation. This is consistent with the rapture occurring before the tribulation—believers will be in heaven while the tribulation is occurring on the earth. This understanding is known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
On the other hand, the appearing occurs at the end of the tribulation. The tribulation is described in Matthew 24:3-28, and then the appearing in v.29-31. It is a time of awesome power and punishment of Christ’s enemies (Is. 66:15-16; Rev. 1:7).
When Paul writes in 2 Th. 1:7, 10 about when this will happen, he means when it will be visible to all. At that time, during the tribulation, it will be clear who are believers destined for the millennium and who are those to be punished. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we know that when a believer dies they obtain relief and all their suffering and persecution has ended—they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). So, after death, believers enjoy relief in heaven, while unbelievers suffer in hades.
Two classes are marked for punishment. First, “those who do not know God” – these have rejected the knowledge of the true God that is revealed to everyone through creation and conscience (Rom 1:19-20; 2:12-16). Of course, they may never have heard the gospel. But God has revealed Himself clearly to everyone that He is God. He is in charge of the world. Second, those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – these have heard the gospel of salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, but sadly they have rejected it.
These people are punished because God’s justice demands punishment for sin. The punishment is:“everlasting destruction”, which means eternal ruin; and being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which means without Him forever. They will reap the consequence of their choice to ignore God.
The appearing will be a time of great glory and amazement. The Lord Jesus will be glorified and the spectators (those saved during the tribulation) will be amazed at what God has done in the salvation of believers—“glorified in His holy people”. This will include the Thessalonian believers, because they believed Paul’s testimony to them. Paul also described this elsewhere: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18-19).
God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling, and that by His power He may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Th. 1:11-12).
Paul prays that the believers may live lives that are worthy of their calling to participate in the appearing and to reign in the millennial kingdom. He asks for God’s power to enable them to obey every desire to do good and to carry out every deed prompted by faith. Here we see that God prompts such desires and deeds. When God answered this prayer, they were faithful ambassadors for Christ; bringing Him glory through their lives. Because of their relationship with Christ, the Thessalonians will also share in Christ’s glory.
Lessons for us
These are also difficult days and some are going through tough times. Let’s remember how Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere at such times. Our primary relationship is with the Father and the Son; they are the source of grace and peace and endurance. Be encouraged that if you hold out against the pressures and temptations of this life it is evident that God is at work in your life in developing character and maturity.
Like the Thessalonians, we can be so occupied with suffering or persecution that we forget about our hope for the future. Do we have a clear view of what we are waiting for? Present suffering will be replaced by glory in future. Do we have a vision of the rapture and the appearing? There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. It will be amazing, much more spectacular than the New Years fireworks show.
We can help believers who are going through tough times of trials, suffering or persecution by reminding them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. Be encouraged that God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. Give them a reality check. Help them see the big picture; the eternal perspective. Remind them that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”. This helps them to cope.
Written, April 2007
See the next article in this series:
- Standing firm against false teachings
How to endure our circumstances
Last year I hiked along a trail that followed the route of an electric power line. As the power poles were on ridges with valleys in between, the trail traversed a series of ridges and valleys. So the trail went up and down several times with zig-zags up and down each ridge, which reminded me of life, with the hills being like when times are good and the valleys like when times are tough with difficulties, struggles and suffering. It this article we will look at a similar pattern in the lives of Joseph and Moses.
Joseph was born to Jacob and Rachel about 3,900 years ago. He was Jacob’s 11th son, but Rachel’s first child. The hills and valleys in the first 30 years of his life are shown in a figure; the graph goes up for hills and down for valleys.
Hill: As Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph was given a richly ornamented robe (Gen. 37:3). So life would have been good for him as a child. The robe was a mark of Jacob’s favoritism, but this made his other brothers jealous and they hated him.
Valley: When Jacob sent Joseph to visit his brothers who were grazing their flocks about 100 km away, they wanted to kill him. So his life was threatened. Instead they put him in a pit and then sold him as a slave to some traders who were travelling to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. What a change from being his father’s favorite to being a slave in a foreign country. That’s why later on he was glad to forget his family (Gen. 41:51).
Hill: Because God was with Joseph, he was put in charge of Potiphar’s household, which would have been one of the most respected households in Egypt apart from the palace (Gen. 39:2-4).
Valley: When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph ran out of the house. As a result of this, he was accused of attempted rape and Potiphar was angry, putting Joseph into prison (Gen. 39:20a). So now Joseph was in prison in a foreign country.
Hill: As God was still with him, Joseph was put in charge of all the prisoners (Gen. 39:20b-22).
Valley: God helped Joseph interpret two of the prisoner’s dreams and Joseph asked the cupbearer, who was to be released, to remember him and help him get out of prison (Gen. 40:14-15). But Joseph was forgotten in prison for another two years (Gen. 40:23 – 41:1a). That’s why he called Egypt, “the land of my suffering” (Gen. 41:52TNIV). God allowed this—he was there because he didn’t compromise his integrity in Potiphar’s house.
Hill: When Pharaoh had two dreams, the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph and he was released from prison. After being told that the dreams meant that there would be 7 years of abundant harvests followed by 7 years of famine and that they should store up food for the famine, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of Egypt (Gen. 41:40-43). So, at the age of 30, Joseph was second-in command over all Egypt! He was given a wife and he had two sons. Later on his extended family moved to Egypt to survive the famine and Joseph lived for another 80 years in Egypt.
After about 200 hundred years in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied so greatly that the Egyptians felt threatened and put slave masters over them and used them as laborers. Pharaoh issued an order that every Hebrew boy that was born was to be drowned in the river Nile. It was a dangerous time to be born. The hills and valleys in the first 80 years in the life of Moses are also shown in a figure.Valley: Moses was under the death threat as a baby. When his mother could hide him no longer at home, she hid him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile.
Hill: When Pharaoh’s daughter went to the river to bathe, she saw the basket and opened it and felt sorry for the baby (Ex. 2:6). As a result, she adopted him and he was brought up in the palace, receiving the best education in Egypt and having all the privileges of royalty (Acts 7:22).
Valley: When he was grown up, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew and as no one was around, he killed the Egyptian. But the news got out and Pharaoh tried to kill him (Ex. 2:15). As his life was in danger, Moses escaped Egypt as a fugitive. He fled the palace to live with sheep herders.
Hill: Moses lived in Midian for about 40 years where he married and had children.
Valley: Much later, God gave Moses the task of leading the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan (Ex. 3:10). But Moses was reluctant and doubted that he could lead the Jews and that they would follow him (Ex. 3:11; 4:1, 10, 13). He thought they would not believe him or listen to him and he was a poor speaker. So he asked God to send someone else.
Hill: God gave him Aaron to speak on his behalf, and miraculous signs that convinced the Jewish people that God was going to rescue them from slavery.
Valley: But when they asked Pharaoh permission to travel into the wilderness, he reacted by making the Israelites work harder (Ex. 5:1-23). So, the Israelites hated Moses and Aaron. It took 10 plagues to get out of this valley: the river changed into blood, there were plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, the livestock died, there were boils, a hail storm, locusts, darkness, and all the first born sons and firstborn livestock died.
Hill: Finally the Egyptians wanted the Jews to leave Egypt and Pharaoh relented. The exodus of about 2 million Jews was a great victory. They were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21-22). God caused Pharaoh to send his army out to bring them back, but they were drowned in the Red Sea (Ex. 14:28). Moses led the Jews in singing about God’s great victory over their enemy. The Jews celebrate this deliverance each year with the Passover Festival.
There were many hills and valleys during their 40 year journey to Canaan. The hills included: receiving the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, and being provided with manna, water and quail. The valleys included: facing enemies; the complaints, criticism and grumbling of the people; idolatry; the bad report by the spies; rebellions; and deaths due to God’s judgement.
Valleys Are Inevitable
Like Joseph and Moses, we experience many hills and valleys due to the circumstances we face, many of which we can’t control or influence. After a hill-top experience, the Lord allows a valley. For example:
- At Mt Sinai God demonstrated His power and called Moses up the mountain to give him the 10 commandments and other laws and instructions about the tabernacle and priesthood for the Jewish people. As this hill-top experience lasted 40 days, the people got impatient and made a golden calf and worshipped it in pagan revelry (Ex. 24:18; 32:1-35). God told Moses about it and threatened to destroy the people. So Moses went down the mountain and when he saw what was happening he knew he was in a valley.
- When God told Moses to send 12 men to explore Canaan, Moses expected to enter Canaan soon. However, his hopes were dashed by the bad report from 10 of the men. That night all the Israelites grumbled against Moses and wept aloud longing to return to Egypt (Ex. 13 & 14). As a result of this, they wandered for another 38 years before reaching Canaan. These examples show that we can go from a hill to a valley in less than a day and that valleys can last for a long time.
- Job was a successful man, but God allowed it all to be taken away and he suffered greatly. Fortunately he had another hill later in life.
- Paul experienced a vision of heaven. But to stop him being conceited, he was given a physical problem that tormented him—his “thorn in the flesh” (1 Cor. 12: 1-7).
In the case of Christians, the Bible teaches that we will suffer in this life and be rewarded in heaven (Rom. 8:17-18). We should not be surprised to experience trials and insults (1 Pet. 4:12-17). Paul faced many valleys and wrote, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Cor. 4: 8-9; 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 3:12). So, valleys are inevitable while serving God in this sinful world.
God Allows Valleys
Joseph told his brothers, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:7-8). So God allowed Joseph to go through the valleys of slavery and imprisonment to bring him to the hill-top in Egypt and use him to rescue his family from the famine. God also allowed Pharaoh to mistreat the Israelites, so that God’s power could be demonstrated in the exodus (Rom. 9:17-18).
Valleys help us rely on God and not ourselves (2 Cor. 1:8-11). God rescued Paul from many valleys; he learnt to trust God’s deliverance, like the Israelites under Joseph and Moses (2 Tim. 3:11). The principle is when we are weak, we need to rely on God’s strength.
The valleys of life are God’s training ground (Heb. 12:7-11). He uses adverse circumstances to make us more like Christ—they produce holiness, righteousness and peace.
Satan tempts us when we are weakest. When we are in a valley, we are tempted to give up on God and to sin. For example, during the exodus the children of Israel grumbled (Num. 16:41) and turned to idolatry and sexual immorality (Ex. 32:1-6; Num. 25:1-9). Their failures are examples and warnings for us (1 Cor. 10:6-11).
Common temptations believers can face in the valleys of life include: focusing on the valleys, which become a barrier between us and God; worrying (Phil. 4:6); complaining and grumbling (Phil. 2:14); being discouraged (Heb. 12:3); giving up on living for God and lapsing into sinful ways (2 Cor. 4:16).
But God has promised, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). So, we all experience valley temptations—even Jesus was tempted when He was hungry and weak. Fortunately, God limits our valley temptations; they will not be beyond what we can bear and God will provide “a way out” of each valley temptation, which will help us endure it.
A Way Out
God has promised a way to endure valley temptations and help so that we do not fall into sinful ways. Here are some of His provisions.
Believers who were suffering were advised, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:30; 4:6-7). So when in valleys we should pray instead of worrying and we will receive the peace of God. This means realising our dependence on God and bringing our needs before Him.
Vision of the eternal
Paul wrote, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4: 16-18). He looked ahead to the resurrection and eternity with the Lord, which is far greater than our temporary valleys on earth—the valleys are insignificant compared to eternal life.
We are to be content with our circumstances because God gives us the strength to endure them (Phil. 4:11-13). Don’t be discouraged. No valley is too great for God. Like Paul we should learn to accept the valleys that are not removed. He accepted his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). He was given the ability to bear it.
Instead of turning against God like the Israelites in the wilderness, “encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:7-19). Paul looked for the good of his imprisonment—the gospel was advanced (Phil. 1:12-18). The church’s repentance brought joy in the midst of Paul’s sufferings (2 Cor. 7:2-7). So, look at the big picture and get encouragement from what God is doing. Also, be ready to encourage others going though the valleys of life.
The early Christians endured persecution and trials (2 Th. 2:4-10). Christ is the greatest example of perseverance: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3). This means using the patience given to us by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). God gives us supernatural strength to have endurance and patience in the valleys of life (Col. 1:11). The second coming is a great incentive for patient endurance (Jas. 5:7-11). Other examples of patience are farmers who wait for the harvest and Job who endured intense suffering.
We all have hills and valleys in our lives. Our circumstances can always change; for better or for worse. Thank God there is a way out for believers to endure the valleys of life. Let’s be ready to pray; have a vision of the eternal glory that awaits us; learn to be content and accept what God allows us to go through; look for and give encouragement; and use patience, to persevere and endure our valleys because the hill-top ahead is the greatest of them all.
Written, March 2008
Surviving difficult times
Life doesn’t always go smoothly. We all face times of sadness, sorrow, struggle and disappointment. However, for the believer the sorrow of difficult times should flow into joy. This is an important principle for the people of God.
The Promised Messiah
The Holy Spirit made revelations to the Old Testament prophets which they didn’t always understand. Nevertheless, these were recorded for the people of God down through the ages. Many prophecies concern the Messiah who would restore Israel as a nation, judge wickedness and rule over the earth (Is. 9:6-7). Peter said they “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11TNIV). This is also what Jesus told the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:25-27). With hindsight we see that passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 describe the sufferings of Christ, but this may not have been evident in Old Testament times. In particular, they didn’t know that the suffering would occur during His first visit to the earth and the glories during His second visit to the earth. However, Daniel was told that the Messiah would be put to death (Dan. 9:26).
When the long-awaited Messiah was born in Bethlehem, the angel told the shepherds “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). The Jews were waiting for the Messiah to come and release them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead they had to learn that honor and glory is preceded by suffering.
Although Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, he could not accept the idea that Jesus would be rejected and killed (Mt. 16:16, 21-22; Mk. 8:31-32). Because their concept of the Messiah was one who would be a victorious leader, the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus told them that He would suffer (Lk. 9:45; 18:34). They were looking for a Messiah who would release them from Roman domination and set up His kingdom immediately (Lk. 19:11; 24:21; Acts 1:6).
Near the end of His ministry Jesus told His disciples: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:20-22). He foretold that they would experience sorrow at His crucifixion, but this grief would turn to joy after the resurrection. This transformation would be like the pain of a mother giving birth being replaced by joy. They were assured “no one will take away your joy”.
Jesus said that the reason for this teaching was: “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The prospect of joy enabled the disciples to have peace of mind amidst their troubles.
Today we can learn from these examples in Scripture. When we face sorrow and grief let’s remember that Christ had to go through the sorrow before He will experience glory, honor and joy at the second coming. The sorrow is temporary, while the joy is eternal.
Unlike the disciples, we don’t have to wait for the resurrection to experience joy. Instead we look back on the resurrection as the basis for our joy. Likewise, we don’t have to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell us to experience joy. Instead we rejoice that He is always present within us (Gal. 5:22). That’s why we can have peace with God despite the trouble in our world. But we do look ahead to the second coming as another basis for our joy. Until Christ comes to reign on earth, God’s people anticipate His final victory.
Written, December 2007
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008
Living in a world shaped by tragedy and heading for destruction
Disasters such as wars, famines and freak weather events can change the course of our lives. Let’s look at four major disasters, two from the past and two from the future, that bring great tragedy to humanity and the physical world.
The typical sequence of events for a disaster begins with a warning that may include a choice, followed by a cause which initiates the disaster, and a consequence which follows the disaster. The consequence can be immediate, or it can extend into the long-term future. Major disasters can have lifetime consequences that extend to the after-life.
1. The Fall Of Humanity
After God created Adam and Eve, He gave them a warning: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17 NIV). So Adam and Eve had a choice: either to follow God or to make their own rules and live without considering God. It was a test of obedience that we all face from time to time. In their case the penalty for disobedience was spiritual and physical death.
The cause of the first disaster on earth was Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God. They failed the test and were the first people to sin. After this they hid from God among the trees in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8); they felt shame, fear and guilt and were separated from God. Later they were banished from the Garden (Gen. 3:23-24).
We all experience some consequences of their action; when they sinned, sin entered the entire human race and decay and death spread to everyone (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). It drastically changed everything in the world: the ground was not so productive and thorns and weeds came into existence (Gen. 3:18); people had to work hard and struggle to earn a living (Gen. 3:17, 19); “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22); there is pain, suffering, illness, tragedy and tears (Rev. 21:4); and humanity is destined to be separated from God, which is spiritual death.
The fall of humanity into sin was the predominant disaster and it has led to the other three disasters. It has affected us all, as we all inherit a rebellious sinful nature, being naturally rebellious and sinful from birth.
2. The Global Flood
Nine generations after Adam and Eve, the wickedness on earth was so great that God was actually sorry he had made people. He used Noah to warn them to change their ways. Noah preached for up to 120 years warning them of God’s judgment if they did not repent (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pet. 3:18-20; 2 Pet. 2:5). The next great disaster was caused by people rejecting Noah’s preaching and continuing in their sinful ways (Gen. 6:5).
God allowed all the underground waters to gush up everywhere, and torrential rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights (Gen. 7:11-12). Flood water covered the earth for 150 days. “Every living thing that moved on the earth perished – birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind … Only Noah was left, and those with him in the boat” (Gen. 7:20-24).
A global flood destroyed the landscape; living creatures and all land vertebrates died, except those on the boat (Gen. 7:22; 2 Pet. 3:6). It probably also destroyed any evidence of earlier civilization. The landscape was totally changed with the uplift of new mountain ranges and the formation of the continents and oceans as they are today. There was a new start to civilization on earth. As a result of this catastrophe there are huge sedimentary layers across the earth; fossil graveyards have been found and we use fossil fuels for transport and for generating electric power. All this should remind us of the worldwide flood of Noah’s time.
The Bible teaches that the ungodly will be judged by God. The next two disasters concern two aspects of these judgments – namely, events on earth culminating in its destruction, and the eternal state. They are both consequences of rejecting God’s revelation to mankind.
3. The Day Of The Lord
The phrase “day of the Lord” appears in 22 Bible verses, and it refers to any time that God acts in judgment (2 Pet. 3:10). In the New Testament, it means God’s judgment at the end times. It is “a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger – to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9). It is “a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek. 30:3), when “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (Joel 2:31).
This coming “day of the Lord” is comprised of two main events – the tribulation, and the end of the world as we know it. The tribulation is a seven year period when God will judge unbelievers living on earth (1 Th. 5:2-3; 2 Th. 2:1-12), ending when He returns in judgment at His appearing in power and glory (Mt. 24:27,30; 2 Th. 1:7-10). Paul warned his generation that the “day of the Lord” was an event yet to come (2 Th. 2:2).
The Bible also teaches that the universe will be destroyed and re-created (2 Pet. 3:7,10,12-13). Everything will be destroyed, and the earth will be renewed and purified through a judgment by fire. Einstein discovered that matter (m) is stored-up energy (E = mc2, c being the speed of light) that can be released in nuclear reactions when matter is converted into vast amounts of energy. There is plenty of energy for a great disaster today, just as there was plenty of water in the early earth.
Of course there are scoffers who laugh at the warning of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pet. 3:3). They say, “You Christians have been threatening us with a terrible judgment upon the world. You tell us that God is going to intervene, punish the wicked and destroy the earth. It’s just nonsense! We have nothing to fear. We can live as we please. There is no evidence God has intervened in history. Why should we believe He ever will?”
But they ignore the biblical and geological evidence of the big flood, and the ancient traditions about it from many nations around the world. As in Noah’s time, people are being warned today of God’s judgment and told about the possibility of being rescued through the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Why the delay in God’s judgment? He is being patient because He does not want anyone to perish, and is giving people more time to repent (2 Pet. 3:9). So far He has waited thousands of years, giving everyone more opportunity to be rescued from the coming two disasters.
The cause of the “day of the Lord” is unbelief and refusal to accept God’s provision for mankind. Those who reject the good news of salvation will be left behind after the Rapture – when Christ comes to take the believers away to heaven as He promised, delivering them from the extreme distress of the tribulation (Dan. 12:1; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).
This day will come upon the unsaved as a thief, by surprise and causing loss (Mk. 13:32; 1 Th. 5:2-3; Rev. 16:15). Because they will not be prepared or ready, they will experience extreme suffering that is “unequalled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equalled again. If those days had not been cut short, none would survive” (Mt. 24:21-22). The terrible consequences for those living at that time are described in the seals, trumpets and bowls of Revelation 6-19. It will be a time of great fear and terror when people will panic and wish they could die rather than face God’s judgment (Rev. 6:15-17). Christ spoke about this time in Matthew 24-25, which culminates in the battle of Armageddon where Christ defeats all His enemies on earth (Rev. 16:14-21).
4. The Lake Of Fire
The Bible says that a “day of judgment” is coming when God will judge the world in justice (2 Pet. 2:9; Acts 17:31). The “lake of fire” is a term to describe the place of everlasting punishment after the final judgment. Jesus also described it with the Greek word “Gehenna,” which was a valley near Jerusalem where a fire was kept burning at the city’s garbage dump (Mk. 9:43; Lk. 12:5).
As in Noah’s time, those who reject the warning of God’s judgment are destined to experience much suffering and pain (Mt. 22:8-13). There are two reasons why: first, they have rejected the true God as revealed in the creation and in their conscience (Rom. 1:18-2:16); secondly, they have rejected the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ (2 Th. 1:8).
The consequence is judgment at the great white throne and being sentenced to be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” in the “eternal fire” (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10-15). This “eternal punishment” is called the “second death” (Mt. 25:46; Rev. 2:11; 20:14) where there will be trouble and distress due to God’s wrath and anger (Rom. 2:8-9). The agony is described graphically by the rich man in Luke 16:22-28. The eternal torment and separation from God (2 Th. 1:9) is like an eternal death. There is no possibility of rescue or escape. It is the ultimate disaster that never ends.
The Key To Understanding Our World
Knowing of these four disasters helps us understand the future of our world. We have all been impacted by the Fall (of humanity), which teaches that we are all sinners. Our biggest problem today is that people are generally not aware of sin; the word seems to have been removed from their vocabulary. This is a result of unbelief in the Fall (into sin) as a real, historical event that has drastically altered the earth’s history.
The Fall should remind us that we are not gods or masters of our destiny. If we live as though we are, then our destiny is the lake of fire. Those not aware of the Fall are not aware of their dangerous situation; like the people of Noah’s time, they are on the road to disaster. The Fall was also the ultimate cause of pain, suffering and death. God allows us to experience the consequences of our choices so we will have more time to turn to Him and avoid the lake of fire.
The global flood should remind us that God judges sin, regardless of what humanity may think – remember, the scoffers perished in the disaster. We also see from the Fall and the flood that our choices can have lasting consequences (Gal. 6:7-8).
The day of the Lord and the lake of fire, the two disasters yet to occur, remind us that we are accountable to God. They show that disasters are on the horizon. Are you prepared for them? Those who trust in God will be rescued from them.
Unbelievers are scoffers who haven’t realized they are in danger. Don’t be like those who perished in the great flood. If we trust in God’s provision we can avoid the coming disasters and be prepared for the future – for life after death.
What should be our response as believers when thinking about the disasters facing the world or when facing personal disasters? According to the Bible we should:
- Be clear-minded, alert, prepared, self-controlled, not alarmed, and we should warn others (Mt. 24:6,44; 1 Th. 5:6-8; 1 Pet. 4:7)
- Live by faith and obey God (Gen. 6:22; Heb. 11:7)
- Be holy, pure, godly and at peace (Gen. 6:9; 2 Pet. 3:11,14)
- Encourage one another (Heb. 10:25)
- Look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13)
C. S. Lewis wrote: “God will invade our world … When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the Author walks on the stage the play is over… It will be too late then to choose your side … That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it or not. Today is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us the chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”
God’s servants depend on God
It has been said that “life was never meant to be easy.” And I believe we can all testify to this. We all face trials, troubles and difficulties from time to time. To help us through them, the Bible contains many examples of how God’s servants responded to their troubles. Let’s consider just two of them, one from the Old Testament and one from the New.
In the Old Testament, King Saul was jealous of David’s military victories and his popularity. Jealousy developed into hatred, and Saul pursued David to kill him. During this period before he became king, David lived as a fugitive, seeking refuge in various places and moving around to avoid Saul and his men (1 Sam. 18-30). He feared for his life.
Saul tried to kill him at least three times with a spear, and then he attempted to have him killed in a battle with the Philistines. After these attempts failed, Saul “remained his enemy for the rest of his days” (1 Sam. 18:29 NIV).
Saul then asked his son Jonathan and all his attendants to kill David, and even sent men to his house to kill him, but David escaped. David told Jonathan, “there is only a step between me and death” and Jonathan knew for certain that “his father intended to kill David” (1 Sam. 20:3,33).
David kept moving from place to place, as Saul and 3,000 men searched for him. He fled to Nob and then to Gath; he hid in the cave of Adullam and then in Moab, Judah and in the desert. Finally, he settled among the Philistines in Gath.
David prayed for guidance and God answered and protected him. He consulted with men of God such as Samuel, Ahimelech and the prophet Gad. He “found strength in the Lord” in difficult circumstances (1 Sam. 30:6).
David’s experiences as he fled from Saul are described in Psalms 7, 18, 34, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59 and 142. These are characterized by both earnest prayers for God’s help and songs of praise recognizing God’s goodness. Consider these examples.
After pleading “save and deliver me from all who pursue me,” David said, “I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High.” In distress he cried for help; when he was rescued he praised God (Ps. 7:1,17;
David was always ready to praise the Lord, and sought to be delivered from his fears (Ps. 34:1,4). After criticizing a traitor, he said he would praise God forever (Ps. 52:2,9). After seeking God’s mercy, he praised God’s promises (Ps. 56:1,10).
David prayed for protection in times of danger, and was ready to sing hymns of praise for God’s love and loyalty (Ps. 57:1,9-10). He asked to be protected from his enemies, yet he sang of God’s strength and love (Ps. 59:1,16). When he laid all his worries and troubles before the Lord, he looked forward to being able to praise God for His goodness (Ps. 142:2,7).
As a Jewish leader in the New Testament, Paul persecuted the early Church by punishing its members, trying to get them to give up their faith, putting them in prison and even supporting their execution (Acts 26:9-11).
After his conversion to Christianity, Paul faced all sorts of persecution: expulsion from Pisidian Antioch; ill-treatment and stoning in Iconium; stoning and being left for dead in Lystra; arrest, flogging and imprisonment in Philippi; a riot in Thessalonica; abuse in Corinth; being publicly maligned in Ephesus; plotted against in Greece; and being arrested, flogged, struck in the face, and having more than forty men plot to kill him in Jerusalem (Acts 13-23).
Paul said of his hardships and sufferings, that he had “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers … from bandits … from my own countrymen … from Gentiles … in the city … in the country … at sea and … from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Cor. 11:23-27).
His sufferings in Asia were so horrible and unbearable that death seemed certain (2 Cor. 1:8-9). He also experienced a “thorn in the flesh” that tormented him (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
Paul persevered with the mission to which God called him despite his hardships. For example, when he faced opposition from the Jews in Corinth he protested to them and moved on to preach to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6-8). Like David, under God’s guidance he was courageous and was able to escape many threatening situations.
Paul’s response to difficulties is illustrated by his time in jail at Philippi. Having been severely flogged, placed in the inner cell and fastened in stocks, Paul and Silas were “praying and singing hymns to God” in the middle of the night (Acts 16:25). So, like David, prayer and songs of praise characterized his life. This would have included prayers for those who persecuted him (Mt. 5:44; Rom. 12:14).
Although we may not face life-threatening situations as often as David and Paul did, we can learn from their experiences. We will all face hardship, trials, troubles and difficulties while serving God in this sinful world. On such occasions it is important to realize our dependence on God and express it through prayer and praise.
In difficult times and at critical moments in life we should bring our needs to God in prayer. Then as we realize God’s power, love and goodness this should lead to praise and thanksgiving. Only those who see the big picture, God at work even in our trying times, can suffer gladly (Rom. 5:3).
Opportunities for spiritual development
God can seem so distant when we are going though difficult times of trial and trouble. Yet the Bible teaches us that God is always at work for our good (Rom. 8:28).
The Christian faith, like the human body, requires exercise in order to keep healthy. Otherwise it will grow weak and useless (Jas. 2:14-26). The trials in our lives can be viewed as opportunities to develop our “spiritual muscles” in four areas of our lives.
Trials Develop Patience And Maturity
Besides prayer, the most common theme associated with suffering is that of developing patience, perseverance and endurance. In such times our faith is being exercised and tested and we become more mature (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
God does not want weak Christians who give up when they face difficulties. Instead, Paul says “we do not lose heart,” and he reminds others, “you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering” (2 Cor. 4:16-17; Heb. 10:32 niv). The illustration in these verses is that of a contest or a battle. Near the end of his life Paul stated, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
Christ is the greatest example of perseverance: “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3).
Patience is a characteristic of the divine nature (Gal. 5:22). Paul told the Thessalonians: “We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Th. 1:4). He also urged them to continue to persevere: “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Th. 3:5).
Another illustration is that of training and discipline within a family. Here God is viewed as a parent disciplining a child: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).
So God uses trials and hardships to mold and refine our character, like metal is refined and molded in a furnace. Through these we learn what is most important in life, and our values, priorities, attitudes and behavior are developed. We are transformed and God’s image and likeness are more evident in us (2 Cor. 3:18). This vision of maturity enables believers to joyfully endure trials and suffering (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4).
For example, David faced adversities in preparation for being king of Israel. His perseverance in facing the opposition of wild animals (like the lion and bear), enemies (like Goliath), and countrymen (like Saul and his men), gave him the experience which developed his skill to lead his nation.
Trials Increase Reliance On God
Paul saw that the reason for the hardships that threatened his life in Asia was, “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). He knew that God supplies all our needs (Phil. 4:19).
The Bible also states that: “He who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:1-2). Physical suffering makes us realize that we are accountable to God and we need to live for Him.
Paul understood that he was given the “thorn in the flesh” so that he would acknowledge Christ’s power rather than take the credit himself and become proud. As Christ’s power is more evident in times of human weakness, Paul delighted “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
Similarly, Paul could write that our bodies are likened to “jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:7-11). Due to physical weakness we learn to persevere by God’s power and not our own strength.
Trials Encourage Care For One Another
God calls on His people to support those facing trials and troubles through helping, praying and comforting.
°Helping: We are to “share with God’s people who are in need” (Rom. 12:13; 2 Cor. 8:13-14; 2 Cor. 9:12). In fact, “if anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him,” then he is not behaving as a Christian should (1 Jn. 3:17).
Paul thanked the Philippians for sharing in his troubles and sending him aid (Phil. 4:14-18). He also remembered those who helped him when he was in prison (Phile. 12-13). The principle is to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3). This could include standing side by side with those who are being persecuted (Heb. 10:33).
°Praying: When Peter was in prison, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him,” although they were surprised by his miraculous escape (Acts 12:5). And Paul was confident that the Corinthian church’s prayers helped to deliver him from hardships and suffering (2 Cor. 1:10-11). He also asked others to pray for his struggle against unbelievers (Rom. 15:30-31).
°Comforting: We are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). As God comforts us in our troubles, we in turn can comfort those facing trials and difficulties (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Trials Strengthen The Church
Christianity has flourished under persecution. For example, when the early Church was being persecuted, the Christians left Jerusalem and evangelized wherever they went (Acts 8:1,4). This resulted in Christianity being spread across the Roman empire.
When Paul was imprisoned he was glad that the gospel was being preached by others and that his Christian faith was widely known (Phil. 1:12-18).
The Church is also strengthened in difficult times as more believers grow towards maturity and realize their dependence upon God and express this through prayer and praise. There is also an increase in care for each other by helping, praying, and comforting.
Finally, we must keep in mind that our troubles are insignificant when compared to eternity with Christ (2 Cor. 4:17-18). We always need to view the present in the context of a vision of the eternal.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10NIV)
Don’t worry, He’s returning
News stories on the internet, radio, TV and newspapers often arouse our fears of impending danger, trouble and evil. They seem to feed on the fact that we all experience anxiety and worry. For example, we can be worried or alarmed about: unemployment, money, relationships, loneliness, security, crime, terrorism, illness, aging, climate change, technological change, cultural change, moral change, our circumstances, our choices, the future, or the unknown.
About 2,000 years ago, Mary lived in Nazareth, a village about 115 km north of Jerusalem, which was more than two days of travel. She was far from the capital city of Israel. One day God sent an angel to visit her: “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! God is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:28-29TNIV).
Mary would have been surprised by the angel Gabriel, because she had never seen an angel before. Six months earlier the priest Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear” when the same angel appeared in the temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 1:11-13). If an old Jewish priest was terrified by the angel, then it is understandable that a young woman would also be terrified by the appearance of the same angel. Being alone with an angel could be scary.
Mary was worried about what the angel’s message meant. She would have known that God used angels to proclaim important messages. Was it bad news? She would have also known that angels can be God’s agents of judgement. Was she feeling guilty? As this was a circumstance that she had no control over, she may have felt helpless.
Then she was told, “Don’t be afraid”. Why? Because she had found favor with God and would have a son named Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:30-33). God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, who would establish the kingdom of God on earth. This was a radical change in her life, because a baby changes everything, particularly the first-born. Nevertheless, her fears and anxieties were allayed and replaced with joy which she expressed in a song of praise for all that God had done (Lk. 1:46-55).
The Shepherd’s Anxiety
Nine months later the shepherds at Bethlehem had a similar experience: “they were terrified” when an angel appeared to them and God’s glory blazed around them like a supernatural search light (Lk. 2:9)! An angel appearing in the countryside during the night with a bright light would be scary. This was totally outside their experience. What was going to happen next? Were their lives in danger?
They were given the same reassurance as Mary, when the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10NIV). Mary’s promised baby had been born and they were told how to find Him. After seeing the baby Jesus for themselves, they also praised God “for all they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20).
The Disciples’ Anxiety
According to the Bible, the baby Jesus grew up to be a man who was the unique Son of God who came to take our judgement. After Jesus told His disciples that He was about to die and return to heaven, they were “filled with grief” and wept and mourned and felt abandoned (Jn. 16:6, 20TNIV). After all, they would be without the leader that they had followed for at least three years. But like Mary and the shepherds, they were told, “Do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:1, 27bNIV).
Three reasons were given for not being afraid of their new circumstances. First, they were assured of a home in heaven if they trusted Christ – because Jesus was the only way there. Jesus said, “Trust in God, trust also in Me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to God the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:1b, 6). That’s why the shepherds were told that the baby was a Savior; one who could rescue them. Faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life which is the ultimate cure for our anxieties and worries.Second, Jesus would return and take them to be with Him; He said “I will come back and take you to be with Me” (Jn. 14:3, 28). Although He was going away, they could look forward to a reunion with Him. Third, in the meantime the Holy Spirit would always be within them – the Holy Spirit “will be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). They would not be like orphans (Jn. 14:15-21, 25-27). This was like having Jesus with them all the time, not just sometime!
So, they had a Savior who was going to take them to heaven and God the Holy Spirit was always going to be with them. Like Mary and the shepherds, Jesus said that their grief would be turned into lasting joy (Jn. 16:20-23). The illustration He used was how a mother’s pain turns to joy after the birth of her baby.
The First Advent
At Christmas we remember the unique birth of the Lord Jesus Christ who was both divine and human. This was His first advent. He was sent to earth by God to die for us in order to enable us to be reconciled with God. The Bible says that God so loved the people of the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). After His death, Jesus was buried and He rose back to life three days later.
Those who accept His free gift have peace with God and an inheritance of eternal life. We must receive what Christ has done for us before God will give us eternal life. However, those who don’t accept the gift face God’s judgment of eternal punishment; that’s what the word “perish” means in John 3:16 above.
The Second Advent
Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended back to heaven by disappearing in a cloud. Then the eleven apostles were told, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11NIV). So, Jesus is going to return to the earth. This will be His second advent.
At Christmas we look back to the first coming of Christ and look ahead to the second coming of Christ. In His first coming He suffered and died; in His second coming He will conquer and reign. In His first coming He came as a baby and a suffering servant ((Isa. 52:13-53:12); in His second coming He will be a conquering king ( Rev. 19:16). That’s when He will be the king of the Jews. In His first coming He came to be a Savior; in His second coming He will be a Judge. The first is characterised by a cross and the second by a crown.
Did you know that all of God’s creation looks forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth? When the Lord returns to set up His kingdom, the creation will be released from the affects of humanity’s rebellion and re-created to be “very good” like it was in the beginning. The Garden of Eden will be restored (Acts 3:21). There will be harmony between all of God’s creatures. This is when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6-9TNIV).
All the wrongs will be made right. All evil will be judged. Satan will be bound and unable to deceive people (Rev. 20:1-3) . All environmental problems will be solved. There will be justice and no wars. That’s when believers will be blessed materially as they rule with the Lord. In the meantime, they are already spiritually part of this new creation. Those who believe that the Savior died for them don’t have to worry, because Jesus is returning.
Between the advents
What can we learn from this as we live between the two advents of Jesus Christ? Mary and the shepherds faced supernatural circumstances and the disciples faced the loss of their Master and closest companion. We may not face supernatural circumstances, but at times we all face difficult circumstances and the loss of those who are near and dear to us. Like them, there are circumstances that we have no control over. Like them, we can experience anxiety, fear and worry, which can lead to panic and depression. But in their case, God’s solution led to joy.
Do not be afraid!
Remember the message, “Do not be afraid”. The reasons given to the disciples also apply to us. If we have trusted Jesus as our Savior our fears can be changed to joy and we can look forward to eternal life instead of eternal judgement. If we have not , then we will face Him as our judge. If we are true believers, the Holy Spirit is in us all the time. This transforms our lives. As believers we can look ahead to the second advent when the Lord Jesus will come and rule over a restored creation.
Another way to remove anxiety and fear is to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those that mourn” (Rom. 12:15). This involves sharing the feelings and the emotions of the good times and the bad times. This means listening to what life is like for others and validating their feelings. This means helping them realise that they are not alone. This means praying with them. This means talking about God and what He has done and what He has promised. These encouraging activities can help us get through all circumstances. He’s always with us and He’s always on our side, no matter how bad it gets. Believers are never alone; they have both spiritual and human resources to draw on.
So, don’t worry, Christ has been here once and He’s coming again to fulfill all of God’s promises.
Published, December 2011