Suffering in the Christian Life-
Why do we suffer?
March 23-28, 2008
KLMX Ministerial Alliance
1st Baptist Church, Des Moines, NM
Good morning and welcome to the Ministerial Alliance program here on KLMX radio in Clayton NM. This week we’ve been discussing suffering. I started out by showing that suffering is a very Biblical concept- the Bible is full of case after case of suffering. Yesterday I discussed “who suffers?” and we saw that Christ suffered more than any of us and that his suffering was both physical and spiritual. Romans 8 told us that if we are heirs with Christ we will likewise suffer. I then pointed out that even though Christ’s greatest sufferings were spiritual; we humans tend to focus on the physical aspects of suffering. We talk about the physical pain of back problems, paralysis, cancer, gout, and so on. I’m not making light of these things- physical pain is real and it hurts. But I’m going to propose that physical pain can make us take our eyes off of Jesus. I’m also going to propose that, once understood and harnessed, physical pain can actually help us focus more on Jesus.
As I’ve already stated this week, I’m standing on 3 major principles:
1) The Bible is inerrant, infallible, and 100% sufficient for our needs. Sola Scriptura.
2) God is truly Almighty. He is sovereign over all things.
3) All things work to the glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria.
I’ve discussed all 3 of these in previous messages, which you can find on our church website at www.fbcdesmoines.org.
Let me ask God’s blessing on this message, let me ask that it give Him glory, and let me ask that these things happen in the name of His son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Keeping in mind that all things work to the glory of God, my question today is “Why do we suffer?” And more specifically, “If our primary suffering is spiritual, why do we suffer in the flesh?” In other words, why can’t we have perfect bodies that don’t torment us? It seems that if we have good sound healthy bodies that we could then focus our minds on the more important spiritual things. Well, let’s see what the Bible says.
I want to start with a passage from Deuteronomy. Moses is recalling the history of the Hebrews after their release from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians and he says:
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. (3) So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
Let’s note some things about this passage. First, their suffering was physical. They hungered and they wandered in the wilderness w/ no permanent homes. Secondly, this suffering was done for the purpose of testing their hearts. Thirdly, we know this wasn’t a random occurrence because the verse says that “the LORD your God led you…” and that “He humbled you, allowed you to hunger…” We’ll discuss God’s role in our suffering in more depth tomorrow, but note that their hunger was allowed by God. And yet, it had a purpose and that purpose was to test their hearts. Here, in a nutshell we see the relationship between physical suffering and spiritual suffering. Physical suffering can force us to a position where our heart’s desire becomes clearer, both to us and to God.
Monday I mentioned that I’m using 4 books for examples. Let me give you one of those examples now. In “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God” edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor is a chapter written by Joni Eareckson Tada called “Hope…The Best of Things.” Ms. Tada is quadriplegic and has been so since her late teens due to a diving accident. She can move her arms in general motions, her head and neck. If you want to talk about physical suffering Ms. Tada is a person to talk to. Yet, she is also a firm believer in the sovereignty of God. In her chapter, Ms. Tada quotes
Luke 9:23 Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
She then says this:
“Please know that when I take up my cross every day I am not talking about my wheelchair. My wheelchair is not my cross to bear. Neither is your cane or walker your cross. Neither is your dead-end job or your irksome in-laws. Your cross to bear is not your migraine headaches, nor your sinus infection, nor your stiff joints. That is not your cross to bear. My cross is not my wheelchair; it is my attitude. Your cross is your attitude about your dead-end jobs and your in-laws. It is your attitude about your aches and pains. Any complaints, any grumblings, any disputings or murmurings, any anxieties, any worries, any resentments, or anything that hints of a raging torrent of bitterness- these are the things God calls me to die to daily.” (pg 196)
Do you see how Ms. Tada pushes this discussion from the physical to the spiritual? It’s not your actual physical suffering, she says, it’s your attitude about that physical suffering! As we saw in Deuteronomy, God willed that the Hebrews hunger. And then He fed them manna from Heaven to satisfy that hunger. Their physical discomfort helped them appreciate their blessings from Heaven (although they later complained about even the manna). Likewise, our physical sufferings, if they drive us to seek God, can bring us closer to Him than we would otherwise be. Let’s see what Paul says about this.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. (8) Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. (9) And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."
We see that “a thorn in the flesh” was given Paul specifically for the purpose of preventing him from being “exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations.” In other words, Paul received an incredible vision from God and to keep him from getting exalted, God gave him “a thorn in the flesh.” This thing “buffeted” him and he pleaded- not just asked, but pleaded- three times that it might be removed from him. But God replied “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response to this reply should set an example for us:
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 … Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul didn’t grudgingly say “Well, okay, God…if you really want me to deal with this thorn, then I guess I will. I mean, your will be done and all that. Plus, you’re bigger than me.” Instead he says “most gladly will I rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in my infirmities…for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” What a startling attitude that is! Paul is saying “If my suffering glorifies you God, then bring it on! Give me more suffering so that you may be more glorified and so that my strength may rest in you.”
Let me be the first to tell you that I don’t have that attitude. Not yet, anyway. But there it is, and this is the sort of attitude we should seek. And don’t miss Paul’s point- we desire this attitude because it glorifies God. It’s not for our glory. It’s “for Christ’s sake” that Paul takes pleasure in his distresses. This is a truth that Joni Eareckson Tada and countless other physical sufferers have realized.
Why then do we have physical suffering? It is to expose our attitude. It’s to drive us closer to God, not farther away. If we push God away, this only exposes our attitude toward Him for what it is and that is “rebellious.” After all, is God our sovereign Father who determines what is best for us or not? Is Romans 8:28, which states that “all things work together for good to those who love God” a lie or is it true? Can we praise God even in our sufferings? Can we praise God because of our sufferings? These are tough questions.
We have time for one more passage. Regarding Jesus, the book of Hebrews says:
Hebrews 5:8-9 though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. (9) And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him,
Here we see that even Christ Himself “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” As Christians, are we to be any different?
Romans 8:16-17 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (17) and if children, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.
Christians are to suffer with Christ and we also are to be perfected through this suffering. Bear in mind that the word “perfect” when used in the Bible means “finished”. The opposite of “perfect” is “unfinished”. If doesn’t mean that Christ was flawed, it means that there was business yet remaining and Christ was “completed” or “finished” through His suffering. Do you recall what He said upon the cross?
John 19:30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.
In the Greek, the “perfected” of Hebrews and the “finished” of John have the same roots. Our suffering seeks to purify us and make us finished. It’s like the refining of silver and gold in which fire is applied and the dross comes to the top and is removed.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that you can apply suffering to yourself and achieve anything. Some cults routinely cut themselves and apply various tortures to themselves in effort to increase their “Godliness”. This is not Godly. And don’t think that just because a person suffers more that you that they are more or less Godly. All of this is strictly in God’s hands.
1 Peter 1:6-7 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, (7) that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,
Note that Peter says “if need be, you have been grieved by various trials.” Peter says clearly that the genuineness of our faith is tested by fire. And this brings up to today summary. We experience physical suffering because it exposes our flaws. It brings our dross to the surfaces. It makes us rely not on ourselves, but on God. Suffering is not easy- if it were, it would not be called “suffering”- but it should bring us closer to God. James tells us:
James 1:2-4 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, (3) knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (4) But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
May your joy be solely in Christ. Mediate on these things and search the Scriptures to see if they are true. Seek the old paths and you will find rest for your soul. I’m Bryan Kimsey from 1st Baptist Church in Des Moines NM. Thank you for being with us today and tune in tomorrow when I look at the question of “Does God cause suffering or merely allow it?”
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