Friday, January 4, 2019

When Faith Confronts What we Believe about Pain

When I was growing up, televangelism was just beginning to become popular. Many TV evangelists promised health and wealth in exchange for obedience and pledges of money. This prompted me, as a baby Christian, to begin to barter with God, saying things like, "I will do this, if you will do that." The "this" was things like tithing, never missing church, or telling friends about Jesus. Ironically, the things I promised God were things He had already instructed us to do. The "that" might be a healing I wanted for someone, a job for which I had interviewed, or provisions needed to for tuition. The things I asked for weren't bad, but the way I asked implied I was asking God to prove His existence and His love to me over and over again. As I grew in my faith, I began to do things simply because I loved Him, not to gain His benefits.

I remember televangelists saying if one had a problem, all they had to do was come to Jesus and He would fix it. Many even gave the impression the abundant life was a pain-free life. For a while I bought into that lie and ended up obsessively looking for hidden sin that caused my pain. I lost sleep, replaying each day in my head, examining words spoken and actions taken that might have been sinful. Every trial and temptation I faced were proof that I had messed up in some unknown way. I began to think even others' unkind words or hurtful actions indicated some darkness in me. The lie I had accepted as truth lead to some pretty stinking thinking.

As I spent more time in the Word, I realized God never promised a picture-perfect, painless, or sorrow-free life. The author of Hebrews says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." These verses and many others make it clear that the Christian life is not trouble-free. Pastor Brent Van Elswyk shared in a sermon that the original word for race implies struggles, pain, and suffering. It’s the word from which we derive our word "agony." I love that! It is more in line with what we see from Eden on.

Abel's race included offering a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's. But it also resulted in Cain going into a jealous rage and striking Him dead. His faith that led him to worship in God's way is still speaking to us today.

Noah's race included being born at a time when every thought and intention of man was evil. It included years of reverent fear motivating him to build the ark on a bone-dry land to save his household from an impending flood. It included the knowledge that his obedient faith condemned the world and the world included people he knew. His faith that saw God as Savior is still speaking to us today.

Sarah's race included years of infertility while living in a culture that worshipped fertility gods. It included living with a fearful husband who put her in compromising situations to save his own skin. It included trying to help God fulfill His promise and the messiness of giving her servant to her man to bear the children she could not bear. It included a long wait between the giving of God's covenant and its fulfillment in little "Laughter." Her faith that matured beyond her doubts and allowed her to see Jehovah as God of life is still speaking to us today.

Jacob's race included his own deceitful heart and the resulting shame and consequences. It included a deceitful father-in-law who substituted the bride of his choice with her less desirable sister. It included the conflict between two wives who competed for his affection. It included the long trek home with large family in tow to meet a brother who may or may not kill him. It included a long night of wrestling with the Lord over His sovereign plans, resulting in his walking with a limp for the rest of his life. I
t included the humbling that comes with repentance and the need of forgiveness. His faith that is balm to all who have stepped out of God's will for a season is still speaking to us today. 

Joseph's race included being sold by brothers, being falsely accused of rape, and being cast into prison and forgotten. It included coming face to face with the brothers who had betrayed him and facing the painful grief he had buried deep. It included having to struggle through the practical side of forgiveness to help the very brothers who had hurt him so deeply. His faith that said, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good," is still speaking to each of our wounded hearts today.  

Moses's race included a lonely ride in a river as an infant that resulted in him being raised by an Egyptian princess. It included being called to lead a nation of stiff-necked people out of Egypt. It included a steady diet of manna and a dry walk through a riverbed, waters heaped high on either side. It included forty years of desert wandering because others didn’t believe. His race included harsh, unwarranted criticism by the people God called him to rescue. His faith that shows us how to persevere when the race gets tough is still speaking to us today.

Daniel and his friends had races that included being taken captive and carried to a foreign land. It included having their identity changed by captors training them to be leaders in a foreign land. Daniel's faithfulness landed him in a lions' den and his friends' faith landed them in a blazing-hot furnace. They didn't enter these races knowing the results you and I know. They entered them only knowing in Whom they believed. The faith that preserved their lives is still speaking to us today.

And there were others who ran similar races that resulted in premature deaths. Because they faced death in faith, their deaths were not in vain. Their faith that said I am willing to die because I believe speaks just as loudly as those who believed and lived. Their dying faith is still speaking volumes to those of us who know death is imminent.

Even the disciples who walked and rubbed shoulders with Jesus ran hard races. They lost their lives, were disowned by families, and suffered under brutal persecution. Some were run out of the villages they evangelized. Paul, in Second Corinthians, tells us he endured countless beatings, hard labor, being stoned, being shipwrecked three times, and being adrift at sea for a day and a night. He tells us on his frequent journeys he was in danger from rivers, robbers, Jews, Gentiles, city dwellers, wildlife, exposure, and people posing as believers. He endured poverty, got little sleep, and was often hungry, thirsty, and cold. He endured anxiety as he felt burdened for the churches he started. He suffered with an affliction he called a thorn in his side. And his faith that kept him going is still for those of us that take  great effort to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

As Pastor Brent put it, the diagnoses just received, the struggle with pornography, the addictions slowly killing us, the broken marriages we want fixed, the struggles we have with "extra-grace-required" people, the besetting sin that cloaks us in shame, the abuses experienced in the past that are still impacting us in the present, the chronic illnesses that leave us exhausted and dealing with constant pain, the memories of bloody wars served in, and the grief experienced over the loss of dreams, possessions, health, and loved ones are the races you and I have been called to run. As Brent said, "Welcome to the race!"

As believers, we need to understand how we see the Christian life will determine how we run the race set before us. Satan wants us to believe hard races prove God has forgotten us or doesn’t care about us. But the Word tells us God is a God who sees, a God who hears our cries, and a God who understands pain. We know because Jesus left glory to take on flesh to endure rejection, hatred, being misunderstood, being called crazy, being accused of being demon possessed, being arrested, being betrayed, being deserted by friends, being beaten beyond recognition, being mocked, being spat upon, being stripped of clothing, being crowned with thorns, and being nailed to a tree. His race included having the weight of all of our sin placed on His shoulders. It included experiencing the wrath of God we deserved for sin. God never promised us easy, He promised to never leave us and forsake us.

It is important to understand pain we experience is a tool in the hands of a loving God who desires to strengthen faith and mold character, which in all honesty needs molding. We respond by complaining about the unfairness of the race we’ve been called to run or about our God not doing what we want, or by going to Him to complain the “not-fair.”

I wonder what might be different if we choose to trust God and look at the race we’re running as an opportunity for God to do His perfect work in us. It is important to remember suffering came through sin, it is not the work of God! Our faith grows as we stand on His promises in the face of the hard--promises like He will work all things for our good, He will never leave us or forsake us, He will return for us, and He will ultimately destroy all sin and death and will wipe away every tear we have shed. The hard we live is being used by Him to mature us.

Our God desires us to confront our pain with faith because that gives us the opportunity to see His faithfulness and allows Him to weed out sin and turn unbelief into a firm confidence that He will do what He says He will do. When pain is met by faith, God accomplishes His perfect work, preparing us for the eternal weight of glory that far outshine the painfulness of the races run now. We grow the most when faith confronts what we believe about our pain.

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!