Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: Suffering & Perseverance (Page 1 of 2)

It’s the Climb? Really?

“The virtue lies in the struggle, not in the prize.” (Richard Monckton Milnes)

“It’s not about how fast I get there. It’s not about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.” (Miley Cyrus)

Partly true, partly false. 

First, the Bible repeatedly affirms the value of suffering for Christians. 

  • “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.2-4).
  • “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4.1-2).
  • “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5.3-5). 

However, the Bible never affirms suffering for its own sake. Suffering always has direction: it points its victims toward something higher and more important. Suffering also has purpose: it’s intended to teach us lessons about things other than suffering. 

In Scripture, the purposes of suffering are many:

  • Suffering purifies us (1 Peter 4.1-2).
  • Suffering produces endurance in us (James 1.2-4).
  • Suffering builds character and gives hope (Romans 5.3-5).
  • Suffering teaches us to depend upon God (Psalm 42.1-11).
  • Suffering now may prevent suffering later (2 Corinthians 4.16-18).

To be sure, there’s value in suffering, but only to the extent that it has a desirable outcome. Struggle is pointless if it doesn’t lead somewhere. Most of all, struggle that leads anywhere but heaven is wasted.

What struggles are you having, and where are they leading you?


Always do right. This will gratify some and astonish the rest!

Mark Twain

Doing right is at the heart of a relationship with God. The apostle Peter said, “in every nation the man who fears [God] and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10.36). To be right with God means that we must do right. 

This may explain why the world hates righteousness and righteous people. Peter also said, “such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2.15). The world may slander us for doing right, but doing right is its own best defense. 

It’s sad that the business of doing right has such an effect on people around us. Some may be astonished because they see so little righteousness in our world. They’re skeptical, even cynical, and learn to expect the worst. To them, doing right is astonishing because it’s so rare. 

Others may be astonished when they see us doing right because sometimes we don’t do it enough. If that’s the case, the problem isn’t with them, it’s with us. We need to repent.

When we try to do the right thing and the world pushes back against us, what then? The apostle Paul said, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12.20-21).

The best way to get even with others, the best way to astonish them, the best way to counter the evil in the world, and the best way to glorify God is to do what’s right. First, last, and always. 

So, get busy and astonish someone today!

The End of the Rope

We’ve all been there: at the end of the rope, without hope, and unable to cope. 

I recently read a blog suggesting that Christians should never be at the end of their ropes, and if they are it’s only because they’re selfish and stubborn, and they only use God as a last resort. 

My problem with that approach is women and men of faith in the Bible who were at the end of their ropes. Please note that when I say that they were at the end of their ropes, what I mean is that they were in hard places, struggling emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. They weren’t sure what options were available. They weren’t selfish and certainly didn’t look at God as a last resort. In that moment, they just weren’t sure what to do.

In 1 Kings 17 we read about two people who were at the ends of their respective ropes. First, we’re introduced to the prophet Elijah who cursed the land of Israel with a drought because of King Ahab’s sinfulness (v. 1). God sent him to the brook Cherith in the Jordan River valley. There the Lord fed him with a daily provision of bread, meat, and water (v. 2-6). Then the brook ran dry because of the drought (v 7). Foodwise, he was at the end of his rope. 

Meanwhile, 100 miles away in Zarephath, a Phoenician city on the Mediterranean coast, there was a widow with a young son (v. 10-12). They were also affected by the drought and had just enough flour and oil for one last meal. She was at the end of her rope. 

Two people at the end of their ropes. What happens next is that God brings them together. Imagine that: two people struggling, and God uses them to help one another. 

God sends Elijah to the widow so she can provide for him (v. 8-9). Think about it. He sends a hungry man to the home of a widow with no food. But the Lord, through Elijah, miraculously provides her with flour and oil that wouldn’t run out until the drought ended. (v. 13-16).

Two people at the end of their ropes, provided for by the God of grace and mercy. 

When we get to the end of the rope, there’s a knot that we can grab. That knot is the promise of God. God never deserts his people. “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1.5; Deuteronomy 31.6). This allows us to say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” (Psalm 118.6; Hebrews 13.6).

How God works it out is his business. He may directly intervene and solve the problem. He may send us a friend to help. He may delay so that we’ll develop trust. God’s business is deliverance. Our business is to trust, pray, and obey. 

When you’re at the end of the rope, with God there’s always hope. 

In the Moment

“The thing is to rely on God. The time will come when you will regard all this misery as a small price to pay for having been brought to that dependence. Meanwhile, the trouble is that relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing has yet been done.”  

C. S. Lewis

Lewis was warning against the tendency to rely on God only when we’re in trouble, only when some urgent need arises. As he noted, relying on God is a daily discipline that we exercise moment-by-moment.

I don’t know about anybody else, but it’s hard for me to live in the moment. Some days I spend too much time looking backward with regret at something I wish I’d done better. Other days I spend too much time looking forward with anxiety about what needs to be done this week or next. The reality is that all I have is today, this very moment. I need to learn the art of living in the moment.

What should help me in this daily reliance upon God is to remember his daily provisions. Jeremiah said, 

The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3.23-24

Jeremiah wrote these words while surveying the ruins of Jerusalem after King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city. Looking backward only served to remind him of the nation’s past failures. Looking forward only frustrated him because there were no resources with which to rebuild. Jeremiah could only look at each day as gift from God, a reminder that God hadn’t abandoned his people.

The challenge for us is to see each day’s situation as a gift from God. In each day do we see God’s provisions? Do we see God’s help in temptation? Do we see God’s forgiveness? Do we see his mercy and grace? Do we see his comfort and hope? We see them only to the extent that we look for them. THAT is how we learn to rely upon God.

It would be too much to say that we should never look backward, because we should always be ready to learn from past mistakes. It would be equally foolish to say that we should never look forward, because we should always be aware of where our past and present decisions point us. However, properly evaluating the past and the future depend upon how we look at God in the present, in the moment.

Soldiers of Christ, Arise!

How does God deal with evil in this world?

In biblical history, God dealt with evildoers in a variety of ways. God brought Pharoah and Egypt to their knees with the plagues. God defeated the Philistines with the judges and King David. God defeated 185,000 Assyrians in one night by his angel. God made Nebuchadnezzar eat grass like a cow. God struck Herod Agrippa I with disease. God has used many methods to punish evildoers in the world. 

But there’s one other approach. God most often uses his people to address evil in the world.

In Revelation 19, Christ appears as a general mounted on a white horse, followed by a great army. He’s preparing to destroy the beast who’s been persecuting Christians in the Roman province of Asia in the first century. John has already revealed that Satan is behind this persecution. But he’s enlisted some to carry it out in real time: a best from the sea, a beast on land, a false prophet, and a harlot. In my opinion, they represent the Roman Empire, the Roman culture and economy, Roman religion, and the city of Rome herself. 

One-by-one these characters are introduced. And one-by-one, they’re destroyed. In Revelation 19, Christ is preparing to defeat the Roman political machine. With him is a sizeable army from heaven. It’s tempting to interpret this as an angelic army, but one detail suggests otherwise: the army is clothed in clean white linen (v. 14). Elsewhere in Revelation white clothing is applied to Christians. Here, this army is the faithful, redeemed, and victorious people of God. 

When John wrote this book, Christians in Asia lacked influence, prestige, money, and clout. Everyone was against them: the Romans, the Jews, the courts, and the pagans. Still, Christ used this ragtag army to defeat the most powerful entity on earth. 

This helps us in three ways. First, it gives us hope that our efforts are effective. We do the will of God, and the Lord Jesus uses us to accomplish his purposes in this wicked world. We may look like a T-ball team playing in the World Series. To God, we’re his agents of righteousness.

Second, it helps us remember our job on earth. We’re soldiers of Christ, fighting a cosmic battle against evil. We may suffer, we may even die, but we won’t be defeated. In the Lord’s army, we fight against evil every day.

Finally, it helps us trust the power of God. We have the armor of God. We wear the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

So then, every day, we hear and answer the battle cry, “Soldiers of Christ, arise!”

The Blessing of Discomfort

A Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Fox (Sacred Heart Monastery in Dickinson, ND) wrote this “non-traditional blessing” in 1985: 

  • May God bless you with discontent with easy answers, half-truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live from deep within your heart.
  • May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace.
  • May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.
  • May God bless you with the foolishness to think you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.

We rarely think of discontent, anger, tears, and foolishness as blessings. Yet this unusual benediction bluntly reminds us that those are the very things we need if we hope to make a difference in this world. 

I think that Americans are cursed with a microwave mentality about life. The microwave oven (a marvelous invention) has become a metaphor for modern life. It represents what’s fast, convenient, and easy. 

The pace of life is fast and furious, and for this reason we would prefer convenient and easy solutions to our problems. However, the most important things in life don’t come easily, cheaply, or quickly. That’s why the Bible places a high premium on things like perseverance, patience, hope, and even suffering.

In Ecclesiastes 7.1-3, Solomon agreed with this rather harsh view of life:

  • “The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth…”
  • “It is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting…”
  • “Sorrow is better than laughter…” 

Solomon wasn’t playing the Devil’s advocate. Solomon said these things because they’re true. They’re the realities of human existence. We learn lessons from suffering, privation, and hardship that we can’t learn in any other way. 

I won’t end this devotional by wishing you a lousy day! But my prayer for you this day is that you have just enough difficulties, just enough reality, to see things for what they are, to learn what you should learn, and to do what you can to make a difference.

What Good is Suffering?

What is suffering? Suffering is pain or discomfort that may be experienced physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It’s associated with adversity, misery, hardship, or affliction.

Physical suffering includes the pain of scrapes, cuts, burns, broken bones, strained muscles, surgery, toothaches, headaches, backaches, or stomach aches. Emotional suffering includes embarrassment, shame, loneliness, depression, abuse, neglect, addiction, emptiness, or stress. Spiritual suffering includes persecution, loss of faith, feeling abandoned by God, questioning one’s beliefs, struggles with temptation and sin.

In other words, suffering comes in all shapes and sizes.

For Christians, the more important question is this: What’s the purpose of suffering? The purpose of suffering is to draw us to God. 

Even when we experience what we might call minor suffering, believers should still turn toward God. I may have a head cold, and my atheist neighbor may also have a head cold. Spiritually speaking, my head cold is no less or no more significant than my atheist neighbor’s head cold. The difference, however, is that while I have a head cold, I pray to God and ask for his help, strength, and comfort. When I’m healed, I thank God for what he did. My atheist neighbor simply blows his nose.

The psalmist said, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statutes.” 
(Psalm 119.71, NASB)

The psalmist was simply acknowledging the power of suffering to move us in a Godward direction. Suffering is God’s version of Post-It Notes — reminders everywhere that he’s still there, awaiting our reply.

We all suffer, and we all suffer in different ways and in different degrees. But we all suffer. It could be chronic pain or a terminal illness. It could be a broken marriage, or children who’ve broken our hearts. It could be financial catastrophe or a ruined career. It could be depression, despair, uncertainty, loneliness, frustration, abuse, neglect, or a hundred other things. But it’s still suffering, and for God’s people it’s an opportunity to draw near to him.

As you go through your day, don’t grumble and grouse about affliction and suffering. Be thankful that our God has arranged our world so that even in distress, we have constant reminders of him, and constant invitations to return to him.

Perpetual Pain & Festering Wounds

American writer Flannery O’Connor had an aunt who thought the only good stories were ones that ended with someone getting shot or getting married. She liked tidy endings.

Unfortunately, real life is rarely tidy. For many people their dreams look more like nightmares. Even Christians may struggle for years with marital woes, illness, death, family feuds, financial problems, job frustrations, church problems, addictions, disappointments, and depression.

Chronic spiritual pain is nothing new. Six centuries before the time of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah lamented, “Why has my pain been perpetual, and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15.18) He was struggling with deep spiritual pain and saw no relief in sight. 

Jeremiah’s life was anything but charmed. God called him as a teenager (Jeremiah 1.1-19), and he resisted (verse 6) because God promised him a hard road (verses 7-10, 18-19). His hometown wanted him dead (11.21). Priests and prophets (26.1-9), officials (38.1-6), and kings (32.1-5) persecuted and abused him. Not only that but God forbade him to marry, to attend family funerals or feasts (16.1-9). He even forbade Jeremiah to pray for his own people (11.14-17). Jeremiah saw the nation of Judah collapse, and his beloved city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians. He chose to live in the city with the refugees after its destruction (40.1-6) but was taken to Egypt against his will (chapter 39), and legend has it that he was stoned to death. 

There’s nothing in Jeremiah’s life or ministry that we’d call neat or tidy or cheerful. Still, he was a faithful prophet of God for almost half a century. He was even once compared to Jesus (Matthew 16.14). How did he manage?

Twice in Jeremiah’s prayers, he says something that I think is the key. 

  • Jeremiah 15.15b-16: “…do not, in view of your patience, take me away; know that for your sake I endure reproach. Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by your name, O Lord God of hosts.”
  • Jeremiah 20.8b-9: “…because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say ‘I will not remember him or speak anymore in his name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”

For Jeremiah the word of the Lord was the center point of his life with God. The word of the Lord, with its commands, promises, warnings, and assurances. And so it is with us. We may suffer disappointment and pain, but God’s word and promises will never fail. “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1.5b). In the midst of our pain we have God.

Scar Tissue

On the same day Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared that evening to his apostles who thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24.33-37). John’s gospel says, “…he showed them both his hands and his side. The disciples then rejoiced… So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you…” (John 20.20-21). We’re then told that the apostle Thomas wasn’t there and said that unless he could see and touch the scars of Jesus, he wouldn’t believe. A week later, Jesus appeared to the apostles again, this time with Thomas present. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see my hands; and reach here your hand and put it into my side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!” (Verses 27-28)

How did the disciples react to Jesus’ scars? They believed, they rejoiced, and they had peace!

When we see the scars of others, we’re often repulsed or uneasy. We feel sorry for them and wonder how they got them, or we wonder about the pain. When we think of our own scars, we feel uneasiness or shame or embarrassment. Our scars can be painful or irritating. We don’t boast about scars; we hide them.

What’s true of physical scars is also true of emotional scars. They’re painful and ugly. They never completely go away. We’re shamed by them. Whether our scars are self-inflicted or inflicted upon us by others, emotional scars hurt.

How do we get rid of scar tissue? The short answer is, we don’t. We never really get rid of scars; instead, we let Jesus transform them into beauty marks.

As we just saw, Jesus’ resurrected body still had scars. Yet, the scars resulted in faith, joy, and peace in his disciples. This suggests to me that it’s unrealistic to expect our physical, emotional, and spiritual scars to just disappear. Rather, in the hands of Jesus, they’re transformed.

The apostle Paul was once burdened with a chronic health problem, what he called his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12.7-10). He prayed three times that God would remove it. “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [my] power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (verses 9-10). For Paul, his scars became sources of strength in Christ.

Maybe you have physical scars: disease, injury, surgery, accidents, or addictions. Maybe you have emotional scars: abuse or neglect, broken homes, marital woes, debt, job problems, neighbor problems, church problems, insult, or ridicule. Those scars will never go away. But, by the grace and power of Jesus Christ, your scars can become things of beauty and strength.

Run With Horses

Horses are amazing creatures. No other animal so easily combines beauty and spirit, strength and speed. Horses can run as fast as 55 m.p.h. for a few seconds. In 1973, Secretariat ran the fastest Kentucky Derby ever, averaging over 37 m.p.h. What would it be like to run with horses?

In Jeremiah 12.5, the Lord asked the prophet, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of Jordan?” 

Jeremiah was complaining to the Lord about his troubles. He had just learned in the previous chapter that the people in his hometown of Anathoth – even some of this own family members – wanted him dead. So, he complained to the Lord (12.1-4). He complained that the unrighteous were prospering (12.1). He asked that the Lord punish the wicked (12.3), including those in his own family. He wondered how much more the country could endure (12.4). 

The Lord’s answer was a mild rebuke. The imagery was drawn from the military. He tells Jeremiah that if running with foot soldiers was tiresome, then what would he do if he had to run with cavalry horses? If marching on a wide, level plain was hard, what would happen when he had to traipse through a jungle? In other words, “Jeremiah, if you think your life has been hard up to this point, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” 

Indeed, Jeremiah lived to see the decline and demise of not only the nation of Judah, but also his beloved city Jerusalem. He was never permitted to marry; his own family rejected him; he had few friends and many, many enemies. Near the end of his life, he was taken against his will from Jerusalem to Egypt. As far as we know, he died in Egypt, a place he didn’t want to be.

Like Jeremiah, all of us have disappointments, hardships, and frustrations in life. Like Jeremiah, we’re sometimes tempted to just quit. Like Jeremiah, we complain to the Lord about how bad we have it. And as with Jeremiah, the Lord patiently hears our complaints, rebukes us for our impatience, and tells us to keep going, to keep trying.

But implicit in the Lord’s rebuke of Jeremiah was a glimmer of hope. Jeremiah faded early but finished strong. All because the Lord gave him a glimpse of what could be: “Jeremiah, you CAN run with horses. Quit worrying, quit complaining, and start trusting me.” 

What a thrilling thought – that we can run with horses as we serve the Lord! So, for today, get ready to run with the horses!

(This was inspired by the book Run With the Horses, by the late Eugene Peterson.)

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