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

Tag: Suffering

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?

Remember the Lord

Whenever Christians around the world take the Lord’s Supper, they’re honoring Jesus’ instructions, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22.19). In this feast we consciously remember that Jesus gave body and blood for us. However, remembering the Lord and his death should be a daily habit, not just an occasional one.

Paul, writing to Timothy to encourage him in his labors, said, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel…” (2 Timothy 2.8). That wasn’t a reference to communion; it was a reminder of the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to shape Timothy’s life and ministry.

Clement of Alexandria (an early Christian apologist, AD 150-215) said that the apostle Peter and his wife were executed by Nero on the same day. She was executed first, and as she was being led away, Peter called out her name and encouraged her, saying, “Remember the Lord” (Stromata, VII.11).

How different would your day be if you remembered the Lord in each and every moment?

  • Remember the Lord when someone insults you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone ignores you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone angers you.
  • Remember the Lord when someone assails a family member.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re sick.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re struggling at work or school.
  • Remember the Lord when you’re in the middle of a severe temptation.
  • Remember the Lord when things are going well.
  • Remember the Lord when you are blessed.

In other words, remember the Lord always.

What a powerful weapon we’ve been given! The mere memory of Christ Jesus can encourage us, strengthen us, help us, and protect us. 

All we have to do is remember the Lord.

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.

The Bright & Morning Star

Early this morning, as my wife and I were walking, we saw the moon and the morning star. The temperature was in the forties, and the sky was clear. The moon was in its waning crescent, so we saw just a sliver of it. But above it were two stars (planets, actually): above it and to the left was the planet Jupiter, and just above it and to the right was the planet Venus. 

The planet Venus was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. It’s called both the “morning star” and “evening star” because it can appear in the early morning and early evening hours. It’s the second brightest object in the nighttime sky besides the moon. About once a month, it appears in the nighttime sky in close proximity to the moon. On a clear morning, they’re a beautiful sight when seen together. 

In Revelation 22.6, Jesus said, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” What did he mean, and how does that affect us?

First, I think Jesus was alluding to an ancient prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Numbers. The prophet Balaam saw a star coming forth from Jacob and a scepter arising in Israel (Numbers 24.17). He was talking about the Messiah’s future dominion over all of Israel’s enemies. Readers of the Book of Revelation were suffering intense persecution, and John’s allusion to Balaam’s prophecy would assure them that Christ was, even then, in the process of fulfilling his role. He would be victorious over the enemies of God’s people.

Second, Jesus was reminding us that he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. From the earliest times, the Roman emperors believed they were descended from the gods. Julius Caesar believed he was descended from the goddess Venus. The emperor Domitian (who may have been emperor when Revelation was written) believed he was descended from the god Jupiter. Around the time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, the Roman poet Martial honored the emperor Domitian, saying, “Thou morning star, Bring on the Day! Come and expel our fears, Rome begs that Caesar may soon appear.” So, when Jesus called himself the “bright morning star,” he was countering the notion that any human leader could be his equal.

Third, Jesus was reminding us that he’s our ultimate reference point. When we see the morning star rising above the horizon, we know that daylight is near. Jesus was assuring his disciples that despite their suffering and persecution, they could look to him as the dawning of a new day, the arrival of a new era. That promise holds true for us as well.

So, the next time you’re awake before dawn, take a moment to look at the eastern horizon, and look for Venus, the morning star. Then take a moment to remember that Jesus is the ultimate bright morning star. He’s our king and our hope. Because of that we can rejoice at the dawning of each day. 

Now Thank We All Our God

The “Thirty Years’ War” (1618-1648) was a devastating European conflict centered in what’s now Germany. It began as a power struggle between Protestant and Catholic forces within the Holy Roman Empire, but spread among various factions throughout Europe, eventually drawing in much of Central Europe, including Spanish, Swedish, French, Dutch, Croatian, Hungarian, Prussian and other forces. Entire regions were destroyed when marauding armies looted and plundered the villages they conquered, and in the process, consumed and destroyed land, crops and cattle. 

The human toll was staggering. It’s estimated that half the male population of Germany died, as well as 15-30% of the total population. Some areas lost between half and three-quarters of their populations. Thousands of castles and towns were destroyed, as well as tens of thousands of villages. Some towns took a century to recover from their losses; others disappeared forever. Disease aggravated all of this. Epidemics of bubonic plague, scurvy, dysentery, and typhus killed thousands, perhaps millions.

From this miasma of death, disease, and destruction emerged Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a German clergyman. Rinkart spent most of his life in Eilenburg, Saxony (near modern Leipzig in eastern Germany). The son of a poor cooper, he attended the Latin School in Eilenburg. At 15, he became a scholar and chorister at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig, which enabled him to study theology at the University of Leipzig beginning in 1602. In 1610 he became master of the gymnasium in Eisleben and cantor of St Nicholas Church. In 1611 he became Deacon of St Anne’s Church where he remained for two years. From 1613-1617 he was pastor at Erdeborn and Lyttichendorf (Lütjendorf), near Eisleben, after which he moved to Eilenburg, where he remained until his death in 1649. 

He was appointed Archdeacon in 1617, and was one of four pastors in Eilenburg at the beginning of 1637. As a walled city, Eilenburg was frequently the destination for refugees in the region. It suffered greatly during the Thirty Years’ War, but, to make matters worse, the Plague swept through the region and city in 1637. One pastor, the superintendent, left for healthier climes. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two. His wife died in May of that year. At times, 30-40 people could be seen in the streets of the city fighting over dead cats and crows in hopes of finding food. About 8,000 people died from the plague, mostly that year, and Rinkart officiated at the funerals of over 4,000 of them, sometimes for as many as 40-50 people per day. By the end of the year, they simply dug trenches and buried people en masse with no funeral services. 

In 1638, a wave of marriages swept over the town, as citizens attempted to rebuild their lives. Rinkart officiated most of these, and he himself remarried in June. Soon afterward, a severe drought struck the area, which strained Rinkart’s own resources. During this same time span, Rinkart was able to spare the city from attacks by Swiss forces in 1637 and again in 1639. Despite his extraordinary service, he was harassed in his final years by local officials who had little appreciation for all he had done. 

Rinkart was a prolific hymnist and around this time, probably in 1636, he wrote what became his most well-known hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Regardless of when it was written, it dates to this general period of war and disease. Some think it began as a table prayer he used with his family at mealtime. The words are humble and thoughtful, especially in view of what we know of Rinkart and his times.

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

It’s difficult to imagine the level of hardship that a man such as Rinkart endured. It’s equally hard to read the lyrics of this simple hymn and fully grasp the contentment and gratitude it expresses. 

The truest measure of gratitude comes not when our pantries, plates, wallets, bank accounts, and garages are full, but when they’re empty. Can we be grateful and content when we lack these things? “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6.8). I once heard a church member comment on this text saying, “Well, I just think it would be a whole lot easier to be content if a person was rich.” 

May God help me be less like that and more like Rinkart.