Thursday, June 14, 2007
WHEN THROUGH THE DEEP WATERS
He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering... He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth... After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.
If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too... The time will come when anyone who kills you will think that by doing this they are serving God.
Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered... If we share Christ's sufferings, we will also share his glory... We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope... You have been given the privilege of serving Christ, not only by believing in him, but also by suffering for him.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ.
I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us... In everything, as we know, [the Spirit] co-operates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.
(Isaiah 53: 3,7,11, NIV; John 15: 20; 16: 2, GNB; Hebrews 5: 8, NIV; Romans 8: 17b, GNB; Romans 5: 3-4, NIV; Philippians 1: 29, GNB; 1 Peter 4: 12-13, NIV; Romans 8: 18, 28, NEB; Psalm 23: 4, GNB)
'I know that God will not let anything bad happen to me. I fully believe he has thrown a wall of protection around me.' It was the confident assertion of a new Christian. What she had not yet learned is that there have been those in every age who have claimed exemption from suffering and disaster, but have finally had to realise that these experiences are part of the fabric of life for every person -- the righteous, the wicked, the Christian, the non-Christian, the deserving, the undeserving.
The book of Job is a very ancient drama that tells of a very good man who was struck by disaster. We are led to envisage a conference taking place between God and heavenly beings, including the adversary, Satan. 'Of course Job worships you,' says Satan. 'You protect him and everything he owns. Take away everything he has and he will curse you.'
The idea persists in many circles. 'It pays to serve Jesus,' sings one. 'Do all the right things and God will give you prosperity,' says another. 'If people would only believe in God, bad things would not happen.'
People who have such expectations do not understand a basic teaching of Jesus and the New Testament. Those who respond to Christ's call to follow him, to be his disciples, learn that, not only are they not exempt from the difficulties and calamities that come to all humankind; they have the added prospect of persecution and suffering that come from being a follower.
Malcolm O. Tolbert says: 'A disciple is not a person who memorises vast amounts of religious tradition so that orthodox answers can be given to theological questions. The disciple is a person who follows after Jesus, gladly sharing in his redemptive suffering.'
'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?' (John 9: 2). The question of the disciples expressed an old accepted view that all suffering came as the result of sin and that blame could be assigned. The friends of Job had the same idea. Said Eliphaz: 'Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?' (Job 4: 7).
But the lives of people such as Job and Jeremiah could not be explained in such a way. Their suffering needed a more adequate explanation.
The English historian Herbert Butterfield writes: 'The period associated with the Jewish Exile provides us with a remarkable example of the way in which the human spirit can ride disaster and wring victory out of the very extremity of defeat... Through a long period of other vicissitudes, the Old Testament people vindicated human freedom and the power of personality. They showed that using resources inside themselves, they might turn their catastrophe into a springboard for human achievement, even when the catastrophe was of that irresistible kind which breaks people's backs.'
Peter, writing to first century Christians, accepts that some of his readers were reacting with surprise that their Christian lives involved 'fiery ordeals'. He exhorted them to react positively, not in retaliation, but with acceptance in the name of Christ, making sure that the testimony of their lives did not give cause for reproach. His words must have challenged Christians in later centuries as churches increased in number and persecutions continued.
Tertullian, the early church apologist, said, 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.' Many men and women through the centuries were content to suffer patiently for Christ's sake. Some even courted persecution, thinking that thereby their testimony would be more real.
There is enough disaster and calamity in today's world without the need to look for it. Such trouble will not necessarily come in the form of persecution -- though that is not an impossibility in some countries. In a world where the popular belief is that life is meant to be easy, and the chief aims are affluence and ease, the Christian needs to be aware that no person is exempt from sorrow. As the writer O. Henry expressed it, 'Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and sighs, with sniffles predominating.'
So: what to do when sorrow, pain or suffering strike? Some people allow themselves to become peevish and bitter, while others are sweetened and refined by adverse circumstances. The latter result will come when people let God use their experiences to become the means to a closer relationship with him. C.S. Lewis has said, 'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'
Brian Hession, suffering from cancer, wrote: 'In our anguish we love that cry of Christ, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" We are glad he said it; we are glad that he was tempted in all points just as we are. In the midst of our dark tunnel of difficulties, depression or suffering, Christ is there. "My God, my God!" If he could cry that, so can we. If he could go through the barriers, the sound effects of suffering, and come out on the other side with God, so can we. It may not be in the wisdom of these things for us always to live. We have to learn to die gracefully or to live gracefully.'
The Christian can express faith in the words of the eighteenth century hymn:
When through the deep water he calls thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For he will be with thee in trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
The disciples wanted [Jesus] to save their lives. He said, 'Those who lose their lives for my sake shall find them.' This is a hard saying. It was hard for the disciples; they didn't want a suffering, dying, crucified God; they wanted a God alive and victorious, with priests and kings and Roman governors kneeling at his feet. It was hard for the martyrs; they didn't want a painful death; they wanted to be happy, ordinary citizens with wives and children and a small business.
And it is hard for us. We don't want a Christianity that demands we give up our lives; we'd prefer a Christianity that would show us an easy way of keeping them. Though we often couple death and resurrection in one phrase, we are seldom quite as sure of our promised resurrection as we are of our inevitable death. And we hesitate to gamble our lives on Jesus' promise.
Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain
We speak of martyrs in the past tense; the tyrannies of our own time have seen the folly of making martyrs. What, indeed, could be more self-defeating than the measures of the old Roman government? To pick the most distinguished, or the most stubborn of the Christians, and do them to death in amphitheatres, before ten thousand eyes, with all the circumstance and drama of a Spanish bullfight -- was it surprising that the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of the church? No anti-Christian regime is likely to repeat the error.
Christians will be condemned for fiddling the currency, or leaguing with the national enemy; for economic sabotage or political subversion; not for loyalty to Christ. They will not be given the opportunity of attesting the faith they profess; they will be given the opportunity of confessing the crimes they have not committed; and they will do it; for they will be subjected to a technique of suspended torture and psychological persuasion capable of breaking any mind.
So there are to be no more martyrs, only involuntary apostates; and this depressing fact seems to some of us the greatest obstacle in the way of faith.
Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited
The problem of pain is always with us. And he' (Jesus) chose pain. He never said that pain is a good thing; he cured it. But he chose it. The ancient world stumbled on that very thing. God and a Godlike person, their philosophers said, are not susceptible to pain, to suffering... Then if Jesus suffered, he was not God; if he was God, he did not suffer. The church denied that... he chose pain, and he knew what he was choosing. Then let us be in no hurry about refusing it, but let us look into it. He chose it -- that is the greatest fact known to us about pain.
T.R. Glover, The Jesus of History
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure and merriment he has broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun and some ecstasy.
It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God; a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Pain, considered in isolation, is, no doubt, an evil. But we easily misconceive the problem of pain as it presents itself to a Christian mind. The world, starting from a crude notion of justice as consisting in a correlation of pain and guilt, as though so much pain could be regarded as wiping out so much guilt, is bewildered by the suffering of the innocent. The Christian has no interest in solving the problem as thus stated; we must begin by formulating it afresh. For the evil of sin is so great that no amount of pain could ever be regarded as a counter-weight...
Sin is the setting by us of our wills against God's -consciously (when guilt is also involved) or unconsciously. This is the essential evil; no pain is comparable to it... Pain is in fact evil only in a secondary sense; it is something which, other things being equal, it is right to avoid... it is harder to see the justification in the eyes of the righteous God of pain which degrades the sufferer, however guilty he may be, than of pain which ennobles the sufferer, however innocent she may be.
William Temple, Readings in John's Gospel
Amid my list of blessings infinite,
Stands this the foremost,
'That my heart has bled.'
Thou needest not to worry about me. I live my day through and it is never too long for me; and though on the surface it may be rough weather or a storm, at a depth of twenty fathoms it is quite calm. God has taken us thoroughly in hand and has cast us into his furnace, but telling us again and again, and proving to us, that he has our own good in mind. He will stop his bellows in good time, and we must let him carry on until he completes to his liking, in his wonderful wisdom, the whole of the work that has been such a care to thee.
Anonymous German pastor in prison, 1939
In the cross of Christ, God confronts the successful person with the sanctification of pain, sorrow, humility, failure, poverty, loneliness and despair. That does not mean that all this has a value in itself, but it receives its sanctification from the love of God, the love which takes all this upon itself as its just reward.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
Take away out of our hearts, O Lord God, all self-confidence and boasting, all high and vain thoughts, all desire to excuse ourselves for our sins or to compare ourselves proudly with others; and grant us rather to take as Master and King him who chose to be crowned with thorns and to die in shame for others and for us all, thy Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Oh thou whose strength sustains us without cease,
Bestow us patience all our load to bear
In lonely days, oppressed with gloom and fear;
Oh, fill our hearts for ever with thy peace.
Oh, make us free from our self-centred will
And ready thine own holy will to serve,
Then may we near thy goal, and never swerve,
Till thou dost rise before us great and still.
Anonymous German pastor in prison, 1939
We bring before you, O Lord, the troubles and perils of people and nations; the sighing of prisoners and captives; the sorrows of the bereaved; the necessities of strangers; the helplessness of the weak; the despondency of the weary; the failing powers of the aged. O Lord, teach them, in their hour of need, to draw near to you, and may they be conscious of your presence with
O God, my Father, I thank you for those who take up their cross and follow you; for those who tread the way of sorrow in the calm of faith; for those who battle for the right in your strength; for those who bear pain with grace and patience; for those who are enabled to teach the way of true life; for those who love unselfishly in you.
Enlarge my soul, O God, with a divine love, that I may hope all things and endure all things: and may I become a messenger of your healing mercy to the sorrows and sufferings of men and women. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord our God, teach us, we beseech thee, to ask thee aright for the right blessings. Steer thou the vessel of our life towards thyself, thou tranquil haven of all storm-tossed souls. Show us the course wherein we should go. Renew a willing spirit within us. Let thy spirit curb our wayward senses, and guide us into that which is our true good, to keep thy laws, and in all our works evermore to rejoice in thy glorious and gladdening presence. For thine is the glory and praise from all thy saints, for ever and ever.
May the grace of love, courage, gaiety and the quiet mind, which is the grace of the Lord Jesus, be with us now and always.
Robert Louis Stevenson (adapted)
Rivers in the Desert ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 229-236