No one likes suffering, and generally, we try to avoid it. However, some suffering is unavoidable, as there are people and circumstances beyond our ability to influence. This is part of the human experience. But we are not neutral, and though suffering is inevitable, how we handle it is optional. If we greatly fear suffering, then we may be tempted to avoid it at all costs, and the weakening instinct of self-preservation might handicap us from maturing in life. God wants us to grow up and become mature Christians (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-14), and suffering is sometimes the vehicle He uses to help get us there.
As Christians, we realize some fear is rational and healthy, and this helps regulate our words and actions. Rational fear might also be labeled as healthy caution, which is a mark of wisdom. When driving on the highway, it’s good to be slightly cautious of other drivers, as this can help us avoid an accident. And, when entering a relationship with another person (i.e., friend, business partner, spouse, etc.), a little caution can save us much heartache. Solomon tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Here, an ounce of prevention will save us from a pound of trouble.
Sometimes, we’re the source of our own suffering, as we make bad choices that affect us physically, socially, financially, etc. The wise will learn from their bad choices—even choices done in ignorance—and be better. And sometimes our mental and emotional distress is the product of irrational fears in which we manufacture imaginary negative situations that upset us. These are the mental dramas we construct in our thinking in which we are under attack by someone or something and feel helpless to stop the assault. These self-produced mental plays can include family, friends, coworkers, or anyone we think has the power to hurt us. But we have the power to redirect our thoughts, shut the story down, change the characters, or rewrite the script any time we want. Of course, this requires introspection and the discipline to manage our thoughts. As I’ve shared in other lessons, the stability of the Christian is often predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. It’s not only what we think, but we keep on thinking that provides mental and emotional equilibrium.
As a Christian, suffering can be viewed either as a liability or an asset. A liability is a burden, a drain on one’s life and resources. However, an asset is a benefit, something that adds value to life. If we’re able to frame life’s difficulties from the divine perspective, then we can thank God for the trials He sends our way, because we know He’s using them to humble us and shape us into the persons He wants us to be. How we view the trial determines whether it makes us bitter or better. But such an attitude is a discipline of the mind.
In Paul’s second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he recorded an incident in which he’d been caught up to heaven and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor 12:4). But Paul’s heavenly experience came with a price. The Lord knew Paul would become prideful because of the experience, so the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” that was intended to cause him suffering and humility (2 Cor 12:7). Though Paul did not like the suffering, he eventually came to understand it was divinely purposeful. Twice he declared it was given “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor 12:7). The word “exalt” translates the Greek verb ὑπεραίρω huperairo, which means “to have an undue sense of one’s self-importance, rise up, [or] exalt oneself.” It means one becomes prideful. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18), and that God “is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b).
Paul asked God, on three occasions, to take the discomfort away (2 Cor 12:8). But God denied Paul’s request, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). God’s grace (χάρις charis) in this passage refers to His divine enablement to cope with a problem that He refused to remove. God’s grace was the strength necessary to cope with a problem that was greater than Paul’s ability to handle on his own. And God’s grace was in proportion to Paul’s weakness. The greater Paul’s weakness, the more grace God gave. This was a moment-by-moment grace, sufficient for Paul’s need.
As Christians, it’s legitimate that we ask God to remove our suffering; however, what He does not remove, He intends for us to deal with. This was true with Paul. God did not want to remove Paul’s discomfort because it served a purpose, and that was to keep him humble, to keep him close to the Lord. When Paul understood what God was accomplishing in him through the suffering, Paul chose to embrace it, knowing it came with divine help to shape him into a better person. Paul responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). This was done by faith and not feelings. Furthermore, Paul said, “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” (2 Cor 12:10). The word content translates the Greek verb εὐδοκέω eudokeo, which means “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, [to] take delight.” Paul was not a victim of his suffering, as he chose to frame it with a healthy biblical attitude. This also fulfills the command to “Do all things without complaining” (Phil 2:14), and to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18).
Elsewhere, Paul said, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 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” (Rom 5:3-5). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:
Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy.
Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. By framing his weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties from the divine perspective, Paul was able to see them, not as a liability, but as an asset that worked for his benefit to help shape him into the person God wanted him to be. From God’s perspective, Paul’s Christian character was more important than his creaturely comforts. And Paul needed to have a character that was marked by humility, not pride.
It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send us trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, that He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content, pleased, and even find delight in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. And this is done by faith, and not feelings.
So, there I was, up at 2:30 AM studying my Bible (my normal study time from 2-5 AM), when I read the words of the psalmist, who said, “My eyes anticipate the nighttime hours, that I may meditate on Your Word” (Psa 119:148). My heart leapt. I’m not alone. Praise God! I’d found an ancient soulmate; a companion whose study habits were similar to mine. Of course, I had to dig a little deeper to understand my new found friend.
The psalmist tells us he anticipates the nighttime hours when he can devote himself to thinking on Scripture. The Jews, like Greeks and Romans, commonly broke the night into military watch times (three to four hours each). The time mentioned here would have been “the last watch from two to six o’clock…[and] the plural indicates that the small hours were regularly used in this way by the psalmist.” Earl Radmacher writes, “Accompanying the prevailing prayer of the psalmist was a meditation in the Word of God. Prayer and reading the Word preceded the dawning of the day and continued unto the watches of the night. That is the secret of getting a hold on God.” Amen. The quiet time of the early morning, after a good night’s rest, provided an ideal time for the psalmist to study God’s Word. His mind was fresh and focused, and he could give God his best attention. His time of devotion renewed him on the inside, and transformed him into a godly character on the outside, as God’s Word was integrated into his relationships and daily activities.
From other portions of his psalm, the writer explained that Scripture had a strengthening and revitalizing effect on him. He expressed this through repetition, saying, “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (Psa 119:25), and “My soul weeps because of grief; strengthen me according to Your word” (Psa 119:28), and “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me” (Psa 119:50), and “I am exceedingly afflicted; revive me, O LORD, according to Your word” (Psa 119:107), and “Sustain me according to Your word, that I may live” (Psa 119:116a), and “Plead my cause and redeem me; revive me according to Your word” (Psa 119:154). The idea in these verses is that this believer recharged his battery by means of God’s Word, which is “alive and powerful” (Heb 4:12). When faced with grief or affliction, he wisely cried out to the Lord for strength. The benefit was a knowledge of God and His Word, a spiritual life recharged, and a soul set free to walk unhindered with the Lord.
Elsewhere, David and Jeremiah mentioned the benefits of meditating on God’s Word. Of the blessed person, David said, “his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law, he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). And the profit of a life devoted to thinking on Scripture is that “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers” (Psa 1:3). The believer who is rooted in God’s Word will draw vital nourishment from its ever-flowing stream. Jeremiah used similar language (Jer 17:7-8), and adds, “and it will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jer 17:8). Here is a picture of spiritual strength and health.
May we learn from the psalmist and structure our lives in such a way that we devote ourselves to the study of God’s Word. I pray we see Scripture as the fuel that sustains the fire of our spiritual lives. And as His fire burns within, it will naturally glow for others to see, and will warm the hearts of those who need His truth, love, and goodness.
During His time of ministry on earth, Jesus was constantly teaching His disciples and developing their walk with Him. This development required testing. Some of the situations the disciples faced were turbulent, which exposed their weaknesses and provided teachable moments. Because of positive volition, Jesus’ disciples would, over time, learn His lessons and advance to spiritual maturity. A good example of testing in adversity is found in the Gospel of Matthew, which reads as follows:
When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being covered with the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep. 25 And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” 26 He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. 27 The men were amazed, and said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matt 8:23-27)
In this pericope, we observe that following Jesus did not preclude the disciples from experiencing a turbulent storm that they perceived as life-threating (Matt 8:23-24a). God, who controls meteorological conditions (Psa 135:7; Jonah 1:4), used this storm as a means of testing and developing the disciples’ faith. Jesus, who was on the boat with them, was relaxed about the storm and “was asleep” (Matt 8:24b). But the disciples, in a state of panic, woke the Lord and requested He save them, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” (Matt 8:25). To their credit, the disciples had enough faith to cry out to the Lord in their perceived crisis. But though the disciples were concerned about the storm on the sea, Jesus was not; and when He was awakened, He addressed the storm that was raging in their souls. Jesus, standing face to face with His disciples on the ship, with strong winds blowing and violent waves crashing all about, said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” (Matt 8:26a). Here was a contrast of perceived problems. The disciples thought the storm was the great issue at the moment, but Jesus thought their fear and little faith was the greater issue. Jesus’ perfect perception of the situation, which kept Him calm, was used to correct the disciples’ misperception, which caused them to fear. The implication of Jesus’ words was that if the disciples had possessed greater faith, they would not have experienced fear and panic. After Jesus addressed the true problem, “He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm” (Matt 8:26b). Just as Jesus could speak and calm the raging storm on the waters, so He could speak and calm the storm in the disciples’ souls, if they would heed His instruction. Being amazed at Jesus’ power over this great tempest, the disciples asked, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matt 8:27). Here, the disciples learn a deep Christological truth that Jesus, as the God-Man, has complete control over the universe He created.
The storm the disciples faced with Jesus on the sea would set a precedent for other problems they would face. Though the disciples failed the test at that moment—because of their little faith—they learned the lesson Jesus had for them as they witnessed His great power. Over time, the disciples would develop their faith and become some of the most courageous men in history. They would learn that faith in God and His Word produces a fortress within the soul that offers stability when life is upsetting. David understood this well and said, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid” (Psa 56:3-4a). And Isaiah said, “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation” (Isa 12:2).
As Christians, we are to consider ourselves as God’s ambassadors who represent Him in a foreign land. At the moment of salvation, God rescues us from Satan’s “domain of darkness” and transfers us “to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Furthermore, we have a new identity “in Christ” (1 Cor 1:30), a citizenship “in heaven” (Phil 3:20), and a tremendous portfolio of spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3). But once saved, God does not immediately pluck us from the devil’s world. Rather, it is God’s will that we continue to live in the world under His protection (John 17:15), to be sanctified by means of Scripture (John 17:17), and to serve as His divinely appointed representatives (John 17:18). And we know He provides all our needs while we’re here (Phil 4:19).
The Christian who properly represents the Lord Jesus Christ will possess certain qualities that are useful to the Lord, and these are developed over time. We are to be aware that many people are hostile toward God, and will naturally be hostile toward His representatives. Jesus said “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:19). Though we cannot control the attitudes and actions of others, we must not allow ourselves to be controlled by them. This can be difficult. Rather than react to the sinful behavior of others, we are to respond as God directs. As Christians, we are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), “with grace” (Col 4:6), and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15-16). There’s no place for hostility in the Christian life, for “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:20). This is how the Lord Jesus conducted Himself, for “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:23). Paul handled himself this way too, saying, “When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we respond graciously” (1 Cor 4:12-13 CSB). The bar of Christian behavior is set very high, as it should be.
I must confess, learning to behave as the Lord directs has been an ongoing challenge for me. Though my grandmother led me to faith in Christ at age eight, there was little Christian education that followed. The ensuing thirteen years of my life were completely immersed in the ways of the world. Eight of those years were spent living in Las Vegas, which provided every opportunity for sin. By the summer of 1988, my lifestyle had eventuated in being homeless and suicidal. But the God who saved me at a young age humbled me through divine discipline (Heb 12:5-11), for “He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Dan 4:37). Though I was a reckless son for a period of time, I responded positively to His discipline (Psa 119:71), and like the prodigal son, He graciously welcomed me back (Luke 15:11-24). God is good. In the summer of 1988 I surrendered to Christ, and my Savior became my Lord. I’ve been studying and learning God’s Word since then, working to unseat a lifetime of human viewpoint and replace it with divine viewpoint. But learning and living God’s Word takes time. Practicing God’s Word is where the rubber hits the road. It means applying His directives to my life on an ongoing basis. A key passage of Scripture that has helped me over the years is found in Paul’s second letter to his friend, Timothy. Here, Paul writes about the conduct of the Lord’s servant, saying:
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Tim 2:24-26)
All that follows in this article is an exposition of Paul’s statement. The Lord (κύριος kurios) is none other than Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, who added humanity to Himself and became the God-Man (John 1:1, 14). Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary, and was “born of a woman, born under the Law (Gal 4:4). Throughout His life Jesus lived perfectly in the Father’s will (Matt 5:17-18). Scripture reveals Jesus lived His entire life “without sin” (Heb 4:15), that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21a), and “in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). By the end of His life on earth, Jesus said to God the Father, “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do” (John 17:4). Jesus then went to the cross and laid down His life as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for us (Mark 10:45). Jesus “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). In this way, He was the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). After His death, Jesus was placed in a grave where He remained for three days, but afterwards was resurrected (Luke 24:1-7), seen by hundreds of people (1 Cor 15:3-8), and afterwards ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), from where He currently directs His children until the time of His return (1 Th 4:13-18). Those who trust in Christ as Savior become His servants here on earth. We are those who carry out His will, live honorably as He expects, preach the gospel to the lost, and teach fellow Christians to live righteously.
Paul uses the term bond-servant (δοῦλος doulos), which is used here in a positive sense of “one who is solely committed to another.” In this sense, it refers to one who is surrendered to the will of another. In this passage, it is the Lord Jesus Christ that we serve, and it is an honorable place of service to the King as we adhere to His royal standards of conduct. The title of bond-servant was held by such notables as Moses (2 Ki 18:12), Joshua (Judg 2:8), David (2 Sam 7:5; Psa 89:3), Elijah (2 Ki 10:10), Paul (Rom 1:1), James (Jam 1:1), and Peter (2 Pet 1:1).
Paul follows the designation of bond-servant with the verb must (δεῖ dei), which means “to be under necessity of happening.” The word denotes compulsion, obligation, duty. And what is the Lord’s servant obligated to do? Paul states one negative directive followed by four positive ones. The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, and with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition to the Lord and His people. This behavior is not something that comes naturally to the Christian, otherwise these directives would be superfluous. But the directives are helpful.
First, the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome (μάχομαι machomai). This word is used of physical combat in Acts 7:26, but here Paul uses the word to describe someone who argues with others, who verbally engages “in heated dispute.” To be clear, rebuking another is biblical (Luke 17:3; 2 Tim 4:2), but quarrelling is not. Even when addressing a trespass in another Christian, Paul instructs, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1). Sadly, many in the world operate by a fist-in-your-face attitude that seeks to destroy the other person, but this is not the Lord’s way. As Christians, we live in a fallen world and it is natural that we will encounter others who operate by different values. Satan, the current ruler of this world, has his values and modes of operation, and these include sinful acts of violence which are intended to silence the opposition. This division of humanity will continue until Christ returns (Matt 13:36-43). Living in a fallen world, the Lord’s bond-servants must be willing to engage others in conversations of disagreement. However, we must resist the temptation to engage worldly-minded people by the practices they employ against us. The Lord’s servant is a diplomat, a royal ambassador who represents the King of kings and Lord of lords, and as such, must be characterized by His noble qualities.
Paul then shifts to four positive qualities that should mark the Lord’s servant. The first is to be kind to all. To be kind (ἤπιος epios) means to be “gentle, mild, kind…soothing, assuaging.” Elsewhere, the word “was frequently used by Greek writers as characterizing a nurse with trying children or a teacher with refractory scholars, or of parents toward their children.” And Paul states we are to be kind to all (πρὸς πάντας), which in this context pertains to our opponents. As Christians, we are to stand firm on God’s truth and not abandon our position; however, unlike our opponents who operate with hostility, we are to be kind. Speaking God’s truth is vitally important, and so is the attitude and delivery, which God uses to break down Satan’s strongholds in the minds of those held captive by him.
Second, Paul states the Lord’s servant must be able to teach (διδακτικός didaktikos). This word refers to someone who can handle God’s Word correctly and is “skillful in teaching.” It is normal that Christians will encounter others with heterodoxical views (i.e., contrary to sound biblical teaching), and to be influential, the Christian must be able to communicate the truth of God’s Word accurately, and in a clear and concise manner. Of course, being able to teach does not guarantee a positive response from the hearer. Remember, while on the earth, Jesus communicated perfect truth with love, however, the majority of those who heard Him rejected His message (John 3:19), even though He verified His claims with miracles (John 12:37). Sadly, the majority of those who saw and heard the Lord rejected Him and His message. These will someday pay a price. In teaching, the emphasis is always on biblical content clearly presented. And though a teacher may be passionate, he/she should avoid histrionics.
Third, Paul says the Christian must be patient when wronged (ἀνεξίκακος anexikakos). This word is a hapax legomenon (i.e., a word that occurs only once in the Bible) that refers to someone who bears “evil without resentment, patient, tolerant.” It means God’s servant puts up with the evil actions of others and does not retaliate when personally attacked. I think Paul describes patient behavior in his letter to the Christians at Rome. He instructed, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Rom 12:17a). Paul was a realist and knew that living in the devil’s world meant there would be opponents who would treat us in an evil manner. When such situations arise, we are to place the matter in the Lord’s hands, trusting He sees what’s happening and will act as our Judge. Being patient when wronged is not easy, as the knee-jerk response is to retaliate and attack our attacker. But Paul instructs, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19). Paul goes on to say, “But 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” (Rom 12:20). As Christians, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Being patient when wronged means trusting God will dispense justice in His time and way.
Fourth, the Lord’s servant must respond to opponents with gentleness (πραΰτης prautes). The term may be defined as “gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, [or] meekness.” The opposite of gentle is harsh, brutal, or rough, and this we should not be. Unfortunately, many in the world see gentleness as weakness, but this is wrong. Remember, the Lord Himself was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29), yet all the power of divinity was readily at His disposal. It’s not that the believer is in any way deficient in power or strength, but that he/she voluntarily forfeits the use of it, knowing that harsh behavior is nothing less than a bully tactic, which fails to recognize the other person’s right of self-determination. God does not force Himself on others, and neither should we. Others may not agree with our message, and we can shake the dust off our feet when we leave (Matt 10:14; Acts 13:51), but we have no right to ram, cram, or jam our message down their throats. Being gentle means we maintain composure in the face of opposition, mainly because we realize the opponent actually stands against God, the One we represent. We are to represent the Lord openly, accurately, and with dignity, but we do not have to defend Him any more than a mosquito needs to defend an elephant. We are to be gentle, knowing God will deal with His opponents as He sees fit, and the Lord tends to be very patient and gracious, until He’s not.
To correct (παιδεύω paideuo) means “to provide instruction for informed and responsible living.” And who needs this divine instruction? It is those who oppose God and His people. The term for opposition (ἀντιδιατίθημι antidiatithemi) means “to oppose someone, involving not only a psychological attitude but also a corresponding behavior—to oppose, to be hostile toward, to show hostility.” Experiencing opposition—even hostile opposition—should never be a surprise to the Lord’s servant. Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (John 15:18-19; cf., 1 John 3:13). Though sometimes treated with hostility, the Christian is directed to offer gentle correction to those who will listen. In most instances the opposition does not realize they are under Satanic delusion and enslavement, and the most compassionate thing we can do is to share God’s liberating Word with them. With gentleness—as well as kindness and patience—the Christian seeks to educate or guide the other person into divine truth. This instruction can include the gospel of grace (1 Cor 15:3-4) that leads to forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Eph 1:7; John 10:28), or it can refer to biblical teaching that helps the immature Christian advance as a disciple of the Lord (1 Pet 2:2).
Having conducted ourselves as noble servants of the Lord, operating under His sovereignty, we then trust that He will work in the hearts of those who have heard His Word. We know it is God’s Word that transforms others from the inside out. We know His Word is “alive and powerful” (Heb 4:12) and accomplishes what He intends. The Lord said, “My word which goes forth from My mouth will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). As Christians, we simply communicate God’s Word accurately and in a loving way, and then let it do its work in the hearts of those who hear it. I believe it was Spurgeon who said, “the same sun that softens wax also hardens clay.” By this he meant that God’s Word, which gives light like the sun, has different effects depending on the material exposed to it. The reality is that some hearts are positive to God (wax) and these grow soft when exposed to the light of His Word, but other hearts are negative to God (clay) and exposure to His Word only make them harder. We control the output of our message, but never the outcome. What the hearers—or readers—do with God’s Word is between them and the Lord.
Having done our part by following the Lord’s directives not to be quarrelsome, but kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, and with gentleness correcting those in opposition, we leave the matter knowing it is in God’s hands. And we know that the Lord is not willing “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), and to those who are positive, He will “grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25b). If the heart is willing, God will grant the person the opportunity to repent and receive salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. John wrote, for “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). Repentance (μετάνοια metanoia) means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” This change of mind occurs when one hears the gospel message and favorably responds to it. Paul states this positively when he speaks about “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Faith in Christ is the sole condition for salvation (John 3:16; Eph 2:8-9; Acts 16:31), and true repentance means the unbeliever turns from trusting in anything and everyone and trusts solely in Christ to save. For “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The gospel is the good news that follows the bad news. The bad news—from our perspective—is that God is holy (Psa 99:9; Isa 6:3) and demands absolute righteousness from us in order for us to spend eternity with Him in heaven. Being perfectly righteous, God can have nothing to do with sin except to condemn it (Hab 1:13; 1 John 1:5). God’s standard of righteousness is absolute moral perfection. This is bad news because we are egregious sinners in serious violation of God’s perfect standard. The Bible reveals we are sinners in Adam (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:21-22), sinners by nature (Rom 7:14-25; 13:12-14), and sinners by choice (Isa 59:2; Jam 1:14-15). To further complicate the problem, we are helpless to solve the sin problem and save ourselves (Rom 5:6-10; Eph 2:1-3). Good works have no saving merit before God (Isa 64:6; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5). We cannot save ourselves any more than we can jump across the Grand Canyon or throw rocks and hit the moon. But God, because of His mercy and love toward us (John 3:16; Eph 2:3-7), did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He provided a solution to the problem of sin, and that solution is the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18). God the Son—the second Person of the Trinity—came into the world by human birth (Luke 1:26-35), lived a perfectly righteous life (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5), and willingly died in our place—as our substitute—and bore the punishment for our sins. Jesus solved both problems: 1) He lived the righteous life that God demands and committed no sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5), and 2) He died for us on the cross and paid the penalty for all our sins (Mark 10:45; Rom 5:6-10). The gospel message is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Jesus died in our place, “the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). In order for us to be reconciled to God, we must simply trust in Jesus as our Savior (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31). When we trust in Christ as our Savior, we are forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7; Col. 1:14), given eternal life (John 3:16; 10:27-28), and receive the righteousness of God as a free gift (Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9). This is good news.
As the Lord’s bond-servants, we are called to a high moral standard of conduct befitting the King we represent. We are His ambassadors to a fallen world. Our hope is that those trapped in Satan’s world-system will see their faulty way of thinking and living and “may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Tim 2:26). Those who accept God’s message will know freedom and eternal life. Those who reject God’s liberating truth continue as slaves to the devil, trapped as an animal in his cage, always doing his will because it agrees with their own sinful proclivities. God has opened a door of freedom for them, if they’ll respond positively to the gospel. Those who reject the gospel continue as slaves to Satan, and this by their own choice. But regardless of their choice, we are to conduct ourselves according to God’s standards of expectation. As Christians, we “must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, [and] with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:24-25b). We are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), “with grace” (Col 4:6), and “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15-16). There’s no place for hostility in the Christian life, for “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:20).
 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update.
 Later, when I realized I had the gift of Teaching, I began to teach God’s Word to others. I later learned this three-step practice of learning, living, and teaching was Ezra’s model, as he “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach” it to others (Ezra 7:10).
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 260.
 Some Christians are bothered by the fallen world and prefer hiding and pursue a monastic life of solitude. However, the Lord never calls us to hide our light, but to be in the world and let it shine so that others might see it. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). But living in a fallen world is dangerous business and can be upsetting to the sensitive soul.
 Three times Jesus referred to Satan as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Other passages of Scripture call Satan “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), informing us “that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Satan rules as a tyrant who has “weakened the nations” (Isa 14:12), and currently “deceives the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
 H.G. Liddell, A Lexicon: Abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), 354.
 W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1996), 263.
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 240.
We live in a divided world. I’m speaking about a division between believers and unbelievers, children of God and children of the devil. Jesus gave an illustration of this when He told the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30). Afterwards, when Jesus was alone with His disciples, they asked for an explanation of the parable (Matt 13:36), and Jesus said:
The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, 38 and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. 40 So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matt 13:37-43).
In this revelation we understand: 1) God the Son has sown good seed in the world, which are believers, 2) Satan has sown weeds, which are unbelievers, 3) both live side by side until Christ returns at the end of the age, 4) at which time Jesus will send forth His angels to separate out all unbelievers, 5) which unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire, and 6) believers will enter into the millennial kingdom. We have here a picture of the current state of the world which consists of believers and unbelievers. The current state ends at the return of Christ when He renders judgment upon unbelievers and establishes His earthly kingdom.
For the present time, Satan is the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2; 1 John 5:19). We are all born under “the dominion of Satan” (Act 26:18), into his “domain of darkness” (Col 1:13). Our spiritual state changes at the time we turn to Christ and trust Him as Savior (1 Cor 15:3-4). At the moment of faith in Christ, we become “children of God” (John 1:12), are transferred to the kingdom of His Son (Col 1:13), forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7), given eternal life (John 10:28), the gift of righteousness (Rom 5:17; Phil 3:9), and the power to live holy (Rom 6:11-14). And, it is God’s will that we advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1; Eph 4:11-13; 1 Pet 2:2), and serve as His ambassadors to others (2 Cor 5:20).
Are Christians called to make the world a better place?
As Christians, our primary focus is evangelism and discipleship (Mark 16:15; Matt 28:19-20), not the reformation of society. Christians are to be good and do good (Gal 6:9-10; Eph 2:10; Tit 2:11-14), and in this way, society is better as a result. However, the reality is we live in a fallen world that is currently under Satan’s limited rule, and God sovereignly permits this for a time. True good is connected with God and His Word, and His good is executed by those who walk according to His directives. But there are many who reject God and follow Satan’s world-system, which system is always pressuring the Christian to conform (Rom 12:1-2). A permanent world-fix will not occur until Christ returns and puts down all rebellion, both satanic and human (Rev 19:11-21; 20:1-3). Those who are biblically minded live in this reality. As a result, our hope is never in this world; rather, we are “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Tit 2:13). We are looking forward to the time when Christ raptures us from this world to heaven (John 14:1-3; 1 Th 4:13-18). This will be followed by seven years of Tribulation in which God will judge Satan’s world and those who abide by his philosophies and values (see Revelation chapters 6-19). Afterwards, Christ will rule the world for a thousand years (Rev 20:1-7), and shortly after that, God will destroy the current heavens and earth and create a new heavens and earth. This is what Peter is referring to when he says, “according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1). Our present and future hope is in God and what He will accomplish, and not in anything this world has to offer. As Christians, we are “not of the world” (John 17:14; cf. 1 John 4:4-5), though it’s God’s will that we continue to live in it (John 17:15), and to serve “as lights in the world” (Phi 2:15), that others might know the gospel of grace and learn His Word and walk by faith. This understanding is shaped by God’s Word, which determines my worldview.
How are we to see ourselves in this present world? In the dispensation of the church age, we understand people are either in Adam or in Christ (1 Cor 15:21-22). Everyone is originally born in Adam (Rom 5:12), but those who have trusted in Jesus as Savior are now identified as being in Christ (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Co 5:17; Rom 8:1; Gal 3:28; Eph 1:3). This twofold division will exist until Christ returns. Furthermore, we are never going to fix the devil or the world-system he’s created. Because the majority of people in this world will choose the broad path of destruction that leads away from Christ (Matt 7:13-14), Satan and his purposes will predominate, and Christians will be outsiders. And being children of God, we are told the world will be a hostile place (John 15:19; 1 John 3:13). There will always be haters. Until Christ returns, Satan will control the majority, and these will be hostile to Christians who walk according to God’s truth and love.
How should we respond to the world? The challenge for us as Christians is not to let the bullies of this world intimidate us into silence or inaction. And, of course, we must be careful not to become bitter, fearful, or hateful like those who attack us. The Bible teaches us to love those who hate us (Matt 5:44-45; Rom 12:14, 17-21), and we are to be kind, patient, and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-26; cf. Eph 4:1-2; Col 3:13-14). What we need is courage. Courage that is loving, kind, and faithful to share the gospel of grace and to speak biblical truth. The hope is that those who are positive to God can be rescued from Satan’s domain of darkness. We also live in the reality that God’s plans will advance. He will win. His future kingdom on earth will come to pass. Christ will return. Jesus will put down all forms of rebellion—both satanic and human—and will rule this world with perfect righteousness and justice. But until then, we must continue to learn and live God’s Word and fight the good fight. We are to live by faith (Heb 10:38; 11:6), share the gospel of grace (1 Cor 15:3-4), disciple others (Matt 28:19-20), be good and do good (Gal 6:9-10; Tit 2:11-14), and look forward to the return of Christ at the rapture (Tit 2:13; cf. John 14:1-3; 1 Th 4:13-18).
Frederick William Pitt (1859-1943) was a pastor in London who was known for his doctrinal writings and poetry/hymns. This thoughtful hymn, The Maker of the Universe, captures truth pertaining to the hypostatic union, that Christ is fully God and man.
The Maker of the UniverseAs man for man was made a curse;The claims of laws which He had made,Unto the uttermost He paid.His holy fingers made the boughWhich grew the thorns that crowned His brow.The nails that pierced his hands were minedIn secret places He designed;He made the forests whence there sprungThe tree on which His body hung.He died upon a cross of wood,Yet made the hill on which it stood.The sky that darkened o’er His headBy Him above the earth was spread;The sun that hid from Him its faceBy His decree was poised in space;The spear that spilled His precious bloodWas tempered in the fires of God.The grave in which His form was laidWas hewn in rock His hands had made;The throne on which He now appearsWas His from everlasting years;But a new glory crowns His brow,And every knee to Him shall bow.
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)
Christianity, as it was spreading its gospel message of Christ and grace, posed a real threat to Saul’s religious tradition. Feeling that the church must be stopped, Saul sought permission from the Jewish high priest to search out and arrest Christians in Damascus, a city in Syria, in order to bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before Jewish courts. Little did Saul know that when he set his will against the church to attack it, he was attacking the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
Saul was completely caught off guard. The word “Lord” in Acts 9:5 translates the Greek word kurios and was most likely used by Saul as a synonym for God, as Saul probably knew this was a divine encounter due to the supernatural “light from heaven” that knocked him to the ground. In the OT, the proper name of God is YHWH—sometimes used with vowels as Yahweh—and is translated LORD, using all capital letters. When the Septuagint was written around 250 B.C.—the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT—the translators chose the Greek word kurios as a substitute for the Hebrew word YHWH. Though the word is sometimes used in the NT to mean sir (John 4:11; Acts 16:30), and master (Col. 3:22), it is also used to refer to the deity of Jesus Christ (compare Isa. 40:3 and John 1:23; or Deut. 6:16 and Matt. 4:7; cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:11; Phil. 2:11). Surely Saul was surprised to learn that he was talking with the resurrected Lord Jesus. More so, by attacking the church, Saul learned he was attacking Christ Himself, who is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23). Jesus did not ask “why are you persecuting My church?” Rather, the Lord said “why are you persecuting Me?” At the moment of salvation, a believer is in union with the resurrected Christ, and when one attacks a Christian, it is an attack on the Lord Himself.
The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:7-9)
Though there were men traveling with Saul, the divine encounter with the risen Lord Jesus was meant primarily for him. Rising from the earth, Saul realized “he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8). The brazen Saul who had originally rushed to Damascus on horseback, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), ultimately reached his destination blind, on foot, and perhaps a little bruised from his fall. His cohorts led him like a helpless little child to the city he intended to crash with waves of violence. Once there, Saul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). I suspect Saul was anxiously waiting for the Lord’s next instruction, since the Lord had commanded him to “get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6).
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (Acts 9:10-14)
Saul had come to Damascus to attack the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1); yet God’s grace was upon Saul, for it was through “a disciple at Damascus named Ananias” that God would heal Saul of his blindness and show him love he did not deserve. The Lord spoke to His servant Ananias and commanded him to “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11). This verse gives us the first glimpse into Saul’s background, for we learn that he was born in the city of Tarsus. More importantly, Saul was praying to the Lord at this time, seeking Him from the place where the Lord had brought him, a place of helplessness. The Lord went on to reveal to Ananias that Saul had “seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12). It’s interesting that God had given Saul a vision of something that was certain to happen, involving the volition of Ananias, even before the Lord had asked Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul. At first, Ananias offers fearful resistance to the Lord’s command. Ananias was genuinely afraid of Saul, citing previous acts of violence against Christians in Jerusalem, and stating that he had religious authority from the chief priests to persecute the Lord’s disciples even in Damascus (Acts 9:13-14). The Lord did not rebuke Ananias for his fears, but offered him kind reassurance.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
Here is divine revelation into the eternal counsel of God, who revealed to Ananias that Saul was His “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15). The word chosen translates the Greek word ekloge which means to select for one’s own purpose. God chooses—or elects—to salvation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:3), spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3-6), holy and righteous living (Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), and service for the Lord (Jer. 1:4-5; Gal. 1:15-16; cf. Acts 9:15). Election is always the free choice of God, based on His sovereignty (Rom. 9:10-21), and never based of the worthiness of the object (Deut. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Rom. 9:11). God chose Saul, not because he was sweet and lovely and doing all the right things; rather, the Lord chose Saul in order to demonstrate His grace, His love and His power. As the “chosen instrument” of the Lord, Saul was to carry the Lord’s name “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Thank God for His sovereign grace!
The Lord assured Ananias … This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Saul was to become Paul, the apostle to the uncircumcised (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:2, 7-8; Eph. 3:8), including kings (cf. Governor Felix [Acts 24:1-23], Governor Porcius Festus [24:27-25:12], King Herod Agrippa II [25:13-26:32], and possibly Emperor Nero [25:11]). The apostle, of course, also ministered to “the people of Israel” (cf. 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 26:17-20; Rom. 1:16). How amazing that the one who persecuted Christians so violently should himself be transformed into a witness of the gospel—and such a dynamic, forceful witness at that!
Attached to Saul’s divine calling were the Lord’s words to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). The persecutor will now be the persecuted. Saul, who inflicted suffering on Christians, will now suffer as a Christian. Saul had the pronouncement of a lifetime of suffering from the very beginning of his call to ministry. Saul was no coward. He received the word of the Lord and accepted his commission to Christian service knowing fully it would be marked by a life of suffering wherever he went.
Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and spoke the words of the Lord to him, and Saul received his sight again, and after eating and visiting with the disciples for several days, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). Because of Saul’s conversion, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:30). Even though the church enjoyed peace for a while, not having to fear their greatest persecutor, the Lord’s new servant would begin his life of suffering for Christ.
Saul, who eventually came to be known as Paul after Acts 13:9, would serve three missionary journeys for the Lord and share the gospel with many who would be saved. Paul’s missionary journeys started in Acts 13 in the city of Antioch and concluded in Acts 28 in the city Rome. Between these chapters, Paul experienced much persecution.
Paul’s life was marked by suffering and persecution from the time he was saved on the Damascus road until he arrived in Rome. This was all in fulfillment of what was spoken by Jesus to Ananias when He said of Paul, “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). In addition to what is recorded in the book of Acts, Paul tells us of more sufferings he endured:
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28)
Paul knew suffering like few others in this world. His suffering was the result of his service for Christ, as one who boldly preached the gospel message and taught others from the Scriptures. Paul experienced hostility primarily from his own people, the Jews, but also from Greeks and Romans. Apart from the external hardships Paul faced throughout his life, he also had “the daily pressure…of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Paul was often internally distressed over the church because he knew that Christians were in real danger of false teachers who might lead them astray from Christ and from sound teaching (Acts 20:18-32; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 2:4-5; Phil. 3:2). In addition to all that he suffered during his time of ministry, there was a special form of suffering that came to Paul, a “thorn in the flesh” as he called it. Regarding this special form of suffering, Paul said,
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for 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. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Paul had personally received divine revelation from the Lord, and there was a real temptation that Paul might get prideful over having received such revelation, so the Lord gifted him with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and effective in ministry. It was unimportant for Paul to tell us what his thorn was, but rather that it kept him humble, which was his purpose in revealing his “thorn” to us. At first, Paul did not want his painful thorn, and even petitioned the Lord three times to take it away. God, in His great wisdom, denied Paul’s prayer request, informing Paul that He would give him the grace—or divine enablement—to cope with his new weakness. God loved Paul enough to give him what he needed, and the Lord needed Paul to be weak, so that he would learn to rely on the Lord and not himself. Paul’s pain kept him close to God. The wisdom and greatness of Paul is seen in his response to the Lord’s refusal to his prayer request, for Paul declared “most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Such declarations are contrary to human nature, since our first inclination is to complain about the things that cause us pain. However, we must fight against our human nature and live by faith, trusting God at His Word and believing that when He causes us to have pain—like He did with Paul—that it serves some purpose in us and benefits us as well as others. This requires faith. May we all learn to say with the apostle Paul, “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” (2 Cor. 12:10).
For Paul, pain and suffering were not anomalies that occasionally popped into his life; rather, they were a regular part of the fabric of his life and ministry. Too often Christian ministers sell Christianity as a way to escape pain and suffering, teaching others that if they’ll only come to Christ and live godly lives their troubles will go away. Such teaching is false; for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). The Lord Jesus stated:
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
Not every Christian will suffer for their faith. Certainly there are Christians whom the Lord has blessed with a life of peace and prosperity. However, when looking through Scripture as well as through history, suffering is more the norm rather than the exception. For the Christian, joy is not found in the absence of suffering, but in doing God’s will and being found pleasing in His sight. This requires biblical understanding and a lifetime of learning to walk in God’s truth (Phil. 4:11-13).
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Eccl. 7:2-4, NASB)
When I was younger (in the 80’s) I spent a lot of time partying. Feasting and laughter was all I wanted. I never spent a day mourning for anyone or anything, but then I never thought about the end of life either. Solomon says, “The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Eccl. 7:4). “The fool is one who thinks only of the present; he lives for the hour. He shuns places of sadness and death, because they contradict his lifestyle.” I was a fool.
There is a place for laughter and joy and celebration, and there is a place for weeping and mourning. “Laughter can be like medicine that heals the broken heart, but sorrow can be like nourishing food that strengthens the inner person. It takes both for a balanced life, but few people realize this.” Earlier in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon declared there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4). The Bible clearly recognizes both. However, when comparing mourning with feasting, and sorrow with laughter, Solomon says, “it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting” (Eccl. 7:2), and “sorrow is better than laughter” (Eccl. 7:3).
When a man enters the house of mourning he is faced with the reality that someday he will die, and this experience can be healthy, when viewed from the divine perspective. Solomon wants us to know that death is “the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). “Such a perspective forces the individual to face the reality of death toward which all life inevitably points.” Not only does the house of mourning make us think about the day of our death, but it can also draw our thoughts toward heaven and make us think about God and where we will spend eternity. When a man is on his deathbed, he does not ask for a book on science, or a book on history, or a book on mathematics, rather he asks for THE BOOK, because he knows his days are near. May the fear of the Lord “teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely” (Ps. 90:12, NET).
I walked a mile with Pleasure;She chattered all the way,But left me none the wiserFor all she had to sayI walked a mile with Sorrow,And not a word said she;But oh, the things I learned from herWhen Sorrow walked with me!
The character of a person is sometimes measured by the difficulties he overcomes. The warrior by his battle victories, the runner by his long races, or the climber by the mountains he summits. Of course, we all fight battles, run races, and climb mountains in our own lives. Sometimes these are not physical, but mental, emotional or even spiritual.
Great victories are not accomplished overnight but require time, discipline and training. There’s a saying among warriors that you fight like you train. From that maxim comes the cliché, the more you sweat in training, the less you’ll bleed in battle. We all struggle in different arenas almost every day, so the concept of fighting should not be reduced to military combat or a boxing ring. The nurse’s ability to fight and save lives depends on her years of academic and practical training which prepared her for the conflicts she faces in the emergency room as sick and wounded come in for medical treatment. The lawyer’s ability to fight in the courtroom depends on the years of training she received in law school as well as the training she gleaned from years of personal experience in the courtroom itself.
Every Christian is born on a spiritual battlefield. It is the devil’s world, and Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The Christian is called to resist the devil by faith, trusting God at His Word (1 Pet. 5:9). This means learning God’s Word and consciously applying it to everyday situations. It is through everyday practice that the Christian becomes proficient in applying God’s Word to his life, as it addresses marriage, raising children, friendships, social issues, finances, law, and other aspects of human life and experience. We cannot always predict the difficulties we’ll face in life, and certainly we cannot always stop or avoid them, but we need not be overrun by them either, as we can be mentally prepared to stand firm in the faith. The daily practice of learning and living God’s Word prepares the Christian for challenges, in whatever form they take, whether prosperity or adversity (Phil. 4:11-13). I say prosperity or adversity, because one can destroy the Christian as easily as the other. The first is a pleasant distraction while the other a difficult one. Both can be used by Satan to get the believer to focus more on the things of this world rather than God. Spiritual victory demands focus on God and His Word, otherwise defeat is inevitable.
When confronted with a crisis, the mind can be shocked and want to shut down due to sensory overload, but this is the time when the Christian should be the thinking on Scripture. Failure to respond properly in a crisis can result in being a casualty rather than a victor. The repetition of daily reading and thinking on Scripture helps ingrain God’s Word for when the Christian needs it most during a trial. Constant exposure and repetition to Scripture is the key to learning, and we know we’ve truly learned something when we can apply it when under pressure. The time we spend reading the Bible, studying under a good Pastor-Teacher, reading good Christian books, and engaging in good theological discussions all prepare us for when the disaster strikes. I speak with certainty on this point, for if one lives long enough, trials will come. I know Christians who collapse under minor disturbances such as changes in the weather, burned food, or a flat tire. Because these Christians have failed to handle life’s little battles, they’ve set themselves up for major failure when the big storms of life come their way. This need not happen. The Christian can train his mind daily to think on Scripture and to apply it to the various situations that come his way. As we grow spiritually over time, our little faith will become big faith, and little victories will lead to bigger victories in the Lord.
The storms of life are inevitable, but how we face them is optional. As Christians, we have a choice to live by faith and apply God’s Word to our situations. We do not always have control over the things that happen to us, but neither do we have to be controlled by them. As Christians, we always want to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, [and] to please Him in all respects” (Col. 1:10). By faith we can face a conflict, an injustice, or a hurt done to us, and be the winner because we handled it in a way that pleases the Lord. The life of faith always pleases God (Rom. 10:17; 2 Cor. 5:7-9; Heb. 11:6).
God is always with us. He never leaves or fails us. He is our Lord and He loves us more than we will ever know, even when the battle rages and it seems we are fighting longer than we can endure. We cannot fail, and the Lord will see us through us through it.
Jesus told His disciples to “love your enemies” and to “do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). As a Christian, I’ve often wrestled with the command to love my enemies. It does not come naturally or easily. Biblical love and worldly love are different. Worldly love is often couched in terms of affection or how I feel about someone. For many years I used to think I was supposed to have warm fuzzy feelings for my enemies. I now realize that’s wrong. Biblical love is a commitment to seek God’s best interests in others. I don’t have to like a person to be committed to them and to seek their best interest according to God’s values. I can apply biblical love to everyone, whether it’s my spouse, my child, my brother, my coworker, or even my enemies.
The word love in Luke 6:27 is a translation of the Greek verb agapao. The verb agapao is in the imperative mood, which means Jesus is commanding believers to love their enemies. It’s important to understand that God commands our mind and will, but never our emotions. It’s impossible to command an emotion. Feelings simply respond to thought and action. I can have an imaginary thought and experience a real emotion. For example, I could sit in a room by myself and imagine an evil woman killing a helpless infant by strangling him to death. I could then imagine this woman disposing of the baby’s body and then going on with her life and being successful and prosperous and never being caught or punished for the murder she committed. Though fictional, this image evokes emotion within me. Anger is the emotion that comes as a response to a perceived injustice, real or imagined. My emotions cannot differentiate reality from fiction. They only respond to the thoughts in my mind, and when I have thoughts of injustice—whether real or imagined—I get angry. Emotion always follows thought. As I think, so I feel.
Loving our enemies has little to do with how we feel. If anything, we must love them by faith in spite of how we feel. We don’t have to like our enemies to love them. We don’t have to approve of their false beliefs, sinful lifestyle, or cultural values, but we are commanded to love them. Loving our enemies means that we identify those who hate us, and perhaps mean to harm us and commit ourselves to seeking God’s best in their lives. We love them by praying for them, acting in a Christian manner and speaking God’s truth to them when given the opportunity.
There is no greater example of love than Jesus Christ. All that Jesus said and did was done in love towards others, as He was seeking their best interests. Certainly the love and goodness He displayed to His enemies was never based on their worthiness. Jesus displayed love and goodness when:
Healing the sick (Matt. 8:1-4).
Casting out demons (Matt. 8:16).
Feeding the multitudes (Matt. 14:19-20).
Speaking divine Truth (John 1:14; 14:6).
Rebuking the arrogant (Matt. 23:1-39).
Dying for sinners (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Providing eternal life (John 10:28).
These are but a few of the loving and good acts of Christ. We are all naturally drawn to the pleasant things that Christ did such as healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Yet, in love He also spoke perfect truth and rebuked the arrogant, even if they hated Him because of it. Sometimes it is an act of love to point others to God by sharing the truth they need to hear, even if it exposes their sin and makes them feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people respond positively, but often they respond negatively. At one time, Jesus told the Pharisees, “you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth” (John 8:41). Later, after another discussion with the Pharisees, some of Jesus disciples came to Him and said, “do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” (Matt. 15:12). Apparently, Jesus offended some of the Pharisees with His words, and I suspect the omniscient Son of God knew exactly what He said and the impact it had on those to whom He said it. Jesus still offends people today, though His written words and deeds could not provide a greater display of love than what is recorded in Scripture.
Being a Christian means being like Christ. It means learning His Word and acting as He would act. Unbelievers are sometimes positive to Christian love and goodness, but sometimes they are negative to it, even hating the Christian for being like Christ. In fact, Jesus warned His disciples that they would be hated for following Him and said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). This is a difficult saying and certainly one that should make every believer count the cost of discipleship. However, though there are times we will face opposition for our Christianity, there is much about the Christian life that is beautiful. There is a love and kindness in Christianity that the world does not know and never will, because it does not know Christ. Though we cannot say and do all that Jesus did, nor can we be as perfect as He was; yet we are to strive to love others and do good to others as Christ commands. Sometimes loving our enemies and doing good means being gentle and kind and tender, meeting physical and spiritual needs as they arise, but others times it means speaking strongly, rebuking, and even giving offense. How we behave in love depends on what they need to bring them to God. Love can be both gentle and strong. Grace means we’re doing it sacrificially for their best interest. Remember, Biblical love is a commitment to seek God’s best interests in others.
Many in the world today look to gods and religions that are ultimately no greater than those who support them. Sadly, many who defend them often resort to violence when their theological presuppositions are threatened. Unlike those who feel they must rise in violence to defend their religious beliefs, the mature Christian knows that God needs no defense, for He is the sovereign Lord of the universe, the Creator of all things, and He never feels threatened by the activities of mankind. When people speak out against Christ or Christianity, Christians do not take up arms in violent defense of God. The Lord is able to defend Himself, and indeed He does. When men rise and take their stand against God, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4), for “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth” (Dan. 4:35). Christianity is inherently strong, because it is God who supports and defends the Christian, not the Christian who supports and defends God.
Unbelievers often attack God because they are totally depraved and reside in a state of spiritual darkness. Total depravity means that every part of man’s being (mind, will, and emotions) is corrupted by sin, so that his natural tendency is toward self and sin. Man, by his very nature tends toward evil. We should not think solely of the immoral man, but also of the moral degenerates who have substituted works-religion in place a genuine relationship with God. The Bible tells us men are lost, and the heart of man is wicked to its core, for “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] slanders” (Matt. 15:19). It was not too long after the fall of Adam and Eve that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). The Scripture reveals that the heart of every man is bent toward evil and “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9a). Most Christians in America seem regularly surprised at the ungodly behavior of unbelievers in the world. This surprise is due to the poor theology that streams from our weak pulpits where ignorant or cowardly pastors fail to teach the dynamic truths of God’s Word that should give Christians a correct view of the world that helps them orient to reality as God’s Word defines it. Unfortunately, solid theology is traded for tinsel teaching set to organ music, theatrically presented with colorful lights, and an orchestra and choir.
The world is an evil place, and those who have given themselves over to Satan’s evil system often demand that others in their periphery do the same. Failure to conform brings pressure and persecution. Persecution often comes in stages and is defined as “the sufferingor pressure, mental, moral, or physical, which authorities, individuals, or crowds inflict on others, especially for opinions or beliefs, with a view to their subjection by recantation, silencing, or, as a last resort, execution” (G. W. Bromily, “Persecution,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 771). Evil men often employ pressure tactics of all sorts, including violence, in order to obtain their objective. Paul wrote to Christians who were facing evil persecution and told them they must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
Because persecution was part of the normal Christian experience in the early church, Paul knew they would be tempted to retaliate against their attackers and return evil for evil. Unjustified attacks naturally stimulate the sin nature within the Christian. Because the sin nature is usually the first responder in evil situations, the Christian must be careful to exercise self-restraint and not act impulsively, but control his emotions. The Christian must be governed by God’s Word and never by his emotions, as the Scripture tells him to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). The Christian will face evil his entire life, so he should prepare for it. More so, he should ready himself mentally to respond as God would have him to respond, as a dignified ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). And how should the Christian respond to evil?
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:17-19)
It’s easy to retaliate and kick the one who kicked you, or hit the one who hit you, or curse the one who cursed you. But this is not the Christian way. Jesus suffered unjustly many times throughout His life, and especially during the illegal trials which led to His crucifixion. And even though He was verbally reviled, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23).
As children of God, we must live on the highest level—returning good for evil. Anyone can return good for good and evil for evil. The only way to overcome evil is with good. If we return evil for evil, we only add fuel to the fire. And even if our enemy is not converted, we have still experienced the love of God in our own hearts and have grown in grace. (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 1, 556)
As Christians, we cannot stop the injustice or violence that often comes our way, but we can control our response to it by thinking and living biblically. I cannot help but think of Stephen who, when being falsely accused and stoned by his attackers, cried out to the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and then prayed for his attackers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60). God sovereignly controlled the circumstances of Stephen’s martyrdom, and Stephen glorified the Lord by facing his death with an attitude of faith and love, looking to the Lord and trusting Him in the face of violent opposition.
By faith, the Christian has confidence in the face of suffering because he knows “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”(Rom. 8:28). Even if the Christian should face violent death, he knows he will leave this world and come immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), have a new home in heaven (John 14:1-6), receive his resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Phil. 3:21), obtain his eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4-5), and enjoy the reality of the eternal life he received at the moment of he trusted Christ as his Savior (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 John 5:10). Jesus Himself stated “do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
Living in God’s will is not always easy, and it does not guarantee a positive response from those who follow worldly values. The teaching of Scripture is that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Sadly, there are many Christians who suffer for sinful reasons and it is good that they suffer, if it teaches them humility and respect for legitimate authority. The Apostle Peter tells Christians to “make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Pet. 4:15-16). We cannot stop suffering in this life, but “it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Pet. 3:17). We cannot control what other people think or how they behave, but we can control our response to them, and we can make sure that what we do is pleasing to the Lord by being obedient-to-the-Word believers. In this way, we can overcome evil by doing God’s will for our lives; and this is good.
The Christian cannot control much of the suffering that comes into his life, but he does not have to be overcome by that suffering, as he can look to God and maintain faith in His Word. Jesus was not overcome by the cruelty and suffering he endured, but showed love and forgiveness to His attackers (Luke 23:34), and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Stephen, who spoke strong words of truth while filled with the Holy Spirit, prayed and asked God to forgive those who were stoning him (Acts 7:60). Paul and Silas demonstrated loving concern for the jailer who kept them in chains, sharing the gospel with him when given the opportunity (Acts 16:22-32). Our lives may be vulnerable to the unjust pain and suffering caused by others, but we must look beyond the suffering and be willing to love even our attackers for the sake of Christ in the hope that they may come to know the gospel and be saved.
Rejoicing in the midst of Christian suffering is an act of the will, not a natural emotional response. By faith the Christian chooses to praise God in the midst of his suffering because he knows God is using that suffering to produce the character of Christ in him (John 16:33; Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). Even when the Christian faces death at the hands of violent attackers, he is to continually entrust himself to God as the keeper of his soul (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). The Christian overcomes evil when he adopts God’s will for his life and follows it, no matter the cost. The Christian overcomes evil by committing himself to doing God’s will according to Scripture and refusing to bow down to the evil pressures of weak people who have surrendered themselves to Satan’s worldly system. To be sure, overcoming evil is not a onetime event, but a lifetime activity that has application to every aspect of life wherever evil is encountered.
Turning now to the matter of God’s vengeance, let me be clear that God has not ignored the fact that His children are being wrongly treated everywhere. The above section was presented first to show the believer that God is aware of the unjust suffering that His people face and to make the Christian aware that the Lord has provided everything he needs to overcome every adversity this world will present, so that that he might face it with courage and honor (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:28; Eph. 1:3; Jam. 1:2-4). At the present, God is being patient with sinful men, withholding His wrath and graciously drawing them to Himself and saving many (2 Pet. 3:9). However, though the grace of God is infinite in scope, it is not eternal in its duration, and there will come a day when the Lord’s grace will largely be withdrawn from this world, and He will pour forth His wrath upon mankind (Rev. 6-19). In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John had a vision in which he saw underneath an altar, “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9). These are the souls of martyred saints who will be persecuted and put to death unjustly at the hands of violent men because of their faith in Christ. John heard them crying out to God and asking, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). The answer that came in heaven was, “…they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev. 6:11). Patience was required. God has in His mind a set number of martyrs who must die for their faith before the measure of the world’s sinful cup becomes full, and then He will pour forth His righteous wrath upon the world and bring about the judgment it so richly deserves.
Christians who look to the Lord for justice have every right to call out to Him in expectation that He will judge and avenge them for their mistreatment in the world. Even though Scripture tells the believer, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God”, it also assures him that vengeance will come, for the Lord says, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY” (Rom. 12:19). God will execute vengeance on the earth, and that day of retribution will ultimately come when the Lord Jesus Christ personally returns to earth at His second coming. At this time He will put down all human rebellion and establish His millennial kingdom (Rev. 19:11-21; 20:1-6). John saw in a vision the return of the Lord Jesus Christ at His second coming and described it as follows:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He [Jesus Christ] who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations [who oppose Him], and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty [cf. Isa. 63:1-6]. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out with a loud voice, saying to all the birds which fly in midheaven, “Come, assemble for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.” And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast [i.e. the Antichrist of the Tribulation] was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which came from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse, and all the birds were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:11-21)
Rest assured, there is a day of vengeance coming upon this world, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will personally bring it to pass (Rev. 19:11-21; cf. Isa. 63:1-6). After the millennial reign of Christ, all unbelievers of human history will stand before the Great White Throne of Christ and be judged because they had rejected Jesus Christ as their Savior (Rev. 20:11-15). Because their names were “not found written in the book of life,” they will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15). A day of judgment follows a day of vengeance. Until then, believers must stay the course and be faithful to the Lord as His ambassadors to a lost and hostile world He desires to save (2 Pet. 3:9).
A truth of Scripture is that living by faith may result in great blessing, and other times may result in great suffering. The believer is not to concern himself with the end result of either blessing or suffering, but is to live by faith and advance toward spiritual maturity. In Hebrews chapter 11, the writer shares both the blessing and suffering aspects of those who lived by faith. Regarding some of the blessings he says:
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight. (Heb. 11:32-34)
Every Christian loves to hear the victory stories of those who lived by faith and overcame the adversities of life as God rescued them from their trouble. The Bible is encouraging because there are many victory stories and the Christian needs to hear them. God blesses the believer with many victories that result in deliverance and blessing. However, there are times when the Christian lives by faith in God and is obedient to His Word and suffers great persecution and dies at the hands of violent men. Regarding those who suffered for their faith the writer of Hebrews states:
…others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. (Heb. 11:35-38)
Faith in God is no guarantee the believer will live a life free from suffering or persecution. Too many preachers speak of the blessings of the Lord and the victories to be had while dismissing those clear passages in Scripture that speak about Christian suffering which is according to the will of God (1 Pet. 2:19-21; 3:14, 17; 4:19). The growing Christian lives by faith in God, trusting His promises and obeying His commands, whether it requires him to sit still or be active. Sometimes being quiet and doing nothing is just as much an act of faith as speaking out and being busy (Ps. 46:10; Jam. 1:19). The believer learns discernment as he grows in wisdom. (excerpt from, Overcoming Evil in Prison, p, 96-98)
Everyone suffers. It’s not really a question of who will and who won’t, but how much and how often? Most people want to know why they suffer, if there’s any purpose to suffering, or if there’s anything they can do to minimize it. Suffering is a perpetual and universal feature of the human race that will last as long as we live in a fallen world with fallen people. According to Scripture, God not only allows suffering, but causes it for our good (Ps. 119:71; Isa. 45:7; Heb. 12:5-11). The presence of suffering does not necessarily mean something is wrong in the Christian’s life, and the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean God is pleased with him. One can be completely in the will of God and experience great suffering (1 Pet. 4:19), whereas one can be completely in sin and be free from any form of suffering at all (Ps. 73:1-12). Suffering by itself proves neither godliness nor sin.
Suffering is all around us, both visible and invisible. Some is bearable and some is beyond our natural ability to cope. It can be physical, mental, and/or emotional. It can be short lived or last a lifetime. It can leave scars. It can influence behavior either positively or negatively, either making us stronger or tearing us down. Suffering can be self-induced or brought on by others. Some suffering is deserved (Dan. 4:1-37; Luke 23:41), and some undeserved (Matt. 16:21; 17:12; Mark 9:22; Acts 5:41; 9:15-16; 2 Tim. 2:3-9; 1 Pet. 2:20; 3:14-17; 4:19). I’ve learned not to turn away from suffering so quickly (though it is my natural tendency to do so), but to question its value and ask whether it serves some good purpose. I am convinced that God wants me to know some suffering because it helps me mature, both in my natural human development as well as my spiritual life. No pain, no gain as the adage goes.
In the Old Testament, suffering is commonly identified by the Hebrew word oni which is translated as “affliction, poverty” and at times “frustration.” Familiar Old Testament passages where oni is found include: Gen. 16:11; 29:32; 31:42; Ex. 3:7, 17; 4:31; 1 Sam. 1:11; 16:12; Job 30:16, 27; 36:15; Ps. 9:13; 25:18; 119:50, 92, 153; Isa. 48:10; Lam. 1:3, 7, 9. In the New Testament, the common Greek word for suffering is thlipsis, which is translated as “trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation.” New Testament passages where thlipsis is found include: Matt. 13:21; Rom. 2:9; 2 Cor. 1:4; 2:4; 4:17; 7:4; 8:2; Phil. 4:14; Col. 1:24; 1 Thess. 3:7; 2 Thess. 1:6; Rev. 2:10. Numerous theological truths are gleaned from these passages; truths which help the Christian orient to reality and live within the biblical framework.
Though many have wrestled with the biblical subject of suffering, no one has a complete understanding of it. There are often more questions than answers. We struggle to grasp our own pain and the pain of others. As humans, we wrestle to produce some good in the world to offset the sorrow of suffering, but our limited abilities and resources constantly hinder our best efforts. Even the good we do for others is short-lived; leaving only a memory of kindness in hearts that perpetually face new needs and struggles. Frustration abounds. At present, there is no lasting solution to suffering among men, and it will not cease to be part of the human experience until God destroys the current heavens and earth and creates a new heavens and a new earth that is free from sin and all its destructive influences (Rev. 21-22). God alone must save us from our current condition, as men are drowning in a sea of sorrows. Sin is the major reason for suffering, and though we counterbalance some of sin’s effects by good works, in the end it is God alone who must ultimately deal with the sin problem.
The Bible gives the divine perspective that helps us to make sense of suffering. Having the divine perspective does not always lesson the pain associated with suffering, but it gives us an answer for suffering and, I believe, makes it bearable. One such answer is that God wants to mature us as Christians, and suffering is a vehicle that He uses to advance our spiritual life. It’s not suffering by itself that gets the job done, but our biblical response to it that brings the outcome God desires. He wants us to respond properly to the difficult situations He’s permitted or caused in our lives. We cannot control many of the difficult circumstances that come our way, but we can respond to them biblically, and in this way we can please the Lord and grow to be mature believers.
Among Christians, I’ve met some who regard all forms of suffering as bad, rooted in evil, and who seek to expunge it from their lives when possible. Others accept suffering, seeing it as purposeful, even welcoming it because they believe it will help develop their Christian character and bring about the spiritual maturity they desire. God can use suffering to break down pride and humble us (Dan. 4:37), or He can use it to build us up and make us stronger (1 Pet. 5:10), but He never leaves us alone, and suffering is just one of the many tools He uses to mold us into the character of Christ; if we’ll let ourselves be molded by His hand.
Everything we experience in this life is designed to prepare us for the life we will come to know when we leave this world and enter into God’s eternal presence. The challenge before every Christian, especially during times of suffering, is to view all aspects of life in the light of eternity. We must constantly live in the eternal-now, never divorcing our current experiences from our eternal destiny that is assured to us who are in Christ. The apostle Peter tells us “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). The apostle Paul shares a similar mindset when he says “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18); for “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Suffering becomes bearable when the Christian sees it in the proper context of eternity to which he belongs right now. I say he belongs to eternity “right now” because as a Christian he possesses eternal life at the very moment he believes in Christ as his Savior (John 10:28). Eternal life is not what the Christian can have, but what he does have at the moment of salvation. However, it is only at the moment he leaves this world and all its sorrows and enters into the presence of God in heaven that eternal life has its greatest experiential expression. The flow of time ceases at death, and all life’s sufferings associated with this world come to an end when the believer passes into eternity. More so, at the end of time itself, God will put an end to all suffering and evil when He destroys the existing universe and earth and creates a new universe and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At such a time “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes [believers who have suffered]; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we must look to the Lord.
When considering the subject of suffering from a biblical perspective, it’s beneficial to start with a proper understanding of God and His character. The Bible teaches that God exists as a Trinity: God the Father (Matt. 6:9; Phil. 2:11), God the Son (John 1:1, 14; 20:28), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). All three Persons of the Trinity are co-equal, co-infinite, and co-eternal, and though they have differing roles in how they relate to each other and the creation, they are perfectly equal in essence (John 10:30). Being equal in essence means that all three Persons of the Godhead share the same attributes. According to Scripture God is:
Sovereign – He rules His universe as He pleases (1 Chron. 29:11; Dan. 4:35; Acts 17:24-25).
Righteous – He is upright in character (Ps. 11:7; 119:137).
Just – He is upright in all His actions (Ps. 9:7-8; 19:9; 50:6; 58:11).
Holy – He is positively good and completely set apart from sin (Ps. 99:9).
Omniscient – He knows all things (Ps. 139:1-6; Matt. 6:31-33).
Omnipresent – He is everywhere (Ps. 139:7-12; Heb. 13:5).
Omnipotent – He is all powerful (Job 42:2; Isa. 40:28-29).
Immutable – He never changes (Ps. 102:26, 27; Mal. 3:6).
Truth – He is truth and reveals truth (2 Sam. 7:28; John 14:6; 17:17; 1 John 5:20).
Loving – He acts in the best interest of others (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:7-12, 16).
Faithful – He is consistent to fulfill His promises (Deut. 7:9; Lam. 3:23; 1 John 1:9).
Merciful – He is compassionate to the needy (Ps. 86:15; Luke 6:36; Tit. 3:5).
Gracious – He is kind to the undeserving and humble (Ps. 111:4; 116:5; 1 Pet. 5:5, 10).
Eternal – He has endless existence (Deut. 33:27; 1 Tim. 1:17).
God controls suffering. Even the wickedness of men and the suffering they cause is used by God to display His grace and love. King David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah and the Lord caused David to suffer for his sin (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24); yet, by God’s grace, it was through David and Bathsheba that the baby Jesus was eventually born into this world (Matt. 1:6, 16). David’s sinful relationship with Bathsheba was sovereignly used by God to bring about the birth of His Messiah! At the end of His earthly ministry, Christ suffered at the hands of godless men who nailed Him to the cross, yet His suffering was “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” in order to bring about our salvation (Acts 2:23a; cf. John 3:16). Wicked men willfully raised their hands against the Son of God and crucified Him, but what they accomplished was exactly what God “predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28), and the outcome is eternal life to us who have trusted in Jesus as our Savior. By His infinite wisdom and sovereignty “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Historically, God has used suffering to bring about His will and this is most obvious in His provision of salvation to a fallen world He wants to save.
On the negative side, men who reject God and the biblical perspective are forced to live in a naturalistic mindset in which their very existence is the product of chance. If there is no God, then men are the product of chance, the accidental collection of molecules over time, and the suffering they experience is simply a part of the natural order of things, neither good nor evil, neither purposeful nor meaningful. More so, morals and values become arbitrary, and people like Hitler and Stalin are no better or worse than Mother Theresa. If there is no God, then evil itself must be regarded as a natural part of the fabric of the universe, self-existent in its own way. The cruelty of man then becomes no better or worse than the cruelty of animals, for all is part of the same natural universe. Without God, life simply is what it is; and conversations about right and wrong really become power-plays as men seek dominion over each other through the use of clever and forceful rhetoric.
Biblically, sin originated in heaven with Lucifer, an angelic being of the order of Cherubim, who rebelled against God and convinced many angels to follow him (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:12-18; Rev. 12:4). Shortly afterward (no one knows exactly when), Satan convinced Adam and Eve to set their wills against God, and the heavenly rebellion moved to earth. Suffering, as we know it on earth, is the result of sin, and sin in humans originated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve when they rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-8). Both sin and suffering are connected. A perfect world was cursed, thorns and thistles introduced, and pain in childbirth increased, all as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16-18). The major hammer blow of sin was death, which was pronounced on Adam and Eve and extended to all their descendants who were born after them (Gen. 3:19; cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). The children of Adam and Eve have only known the struggle of life’s decay that eventuates in death (the removal of the soul from the body). Death is unnatural to the creation, and this is why it hurts when someone we love dies. However, death can also be a display of God’s mercy and grace, for it keeps man from suffering forever in a fallen world plagued by sin.
Since the fall of Satan, as well as the fall of Adam and Eve, the major sources of suffering include oneself (Prov. 1:22; 8:36; 15:32; Isa. 3:9; ; 2 Pet. 2:12-15); other people (Gen. 3:1-18; 1 Chron. 21:14-17; Jonah 1:12), Satan (Job 1:1-21); demons (Luke 8:29); and God Himself (1 Sam. 16:14-16; Job 1:21; 2:10; Eccl. 7:14; Isa. 45:7; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Rev. 19:11-21). Suffering exists mainly in connection with willful creatures and the choices they’ve made in the past or are making in the present.
The main causes of suffering are righteous living (1 Pet. 3:13-17; 4:12-19), fellowship with Christ (Phil. 1:29-30), membership in the Kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:3-6), sinful choices as believers (Gal. 6:7-8; 1 Pet. 4:15; 2 Pet. 2:12-16); the sinful unfaithfulness of others (Num. 14:32-33), the ravages of disease (Matt. 4:24; 9:20; Luke 4:38), and the will of God (1 Pet. 4:19).
From the biblical perspective, some of the major purposes for suffering include bringing the unbeliever to salvation (Dan. 4:28-37; Acts 9:1-9), moving people geographically to accomplish God’s will (i.e. the famine that moved Joseph’s family to Egypt: Gen. 15:13-14; 37:1-50:21), humbling the arrogant believer (Jon. 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 5:5), teaching Christians to have sympathy for others (2 Cor. 1:5-7), helping advance Christian character (Rom. 5:1-5; Jam. 1:2-4), warning against sin (1 Cor. 11:27-32), teaching obedience to God’s laws (Ps. 119:71; Heb. 5:8), correcting from sin (Ps. 32:1-5), teaching that God is faithful to strengthen in times of adversity (Phil. 4:11-13), providing an opportunity to share your Christian hope (1 Pet. 3:14-15), serving as a godly example to others (Jam. 5:10-11), displaying the works of God (John 9:1-3), and for God’s glory (John 11:1-4; 21:18-19; 2 Cor. 4:17-18).
Jesus Himself is the greatest example of suffering for the believer, as the Scripture plainly states He “suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). And what is the example the Christian is to follow? That even though Christ suffered unjustly and was physically and verbally attacked, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). It is because of Christ’s example that Paul tells Christians “never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
Suffering is inevitable in life, but the believer who lives by faith in God and clings to His Word has an anchor for the soul that sustains him during difficult times. The believer who lives by faith can have joy in the midst of trials (Isa. 26:3; Acts 5:40-41; 16:22-30; 1 Cor. 10:13; Phil. 4:10-13). To Christians who were facing persecution, the apostle Peter wrote “in this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). These Christians could rejoice because the trial itself would prove the genuineness of their faith, and “though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). And Christians who were suffering in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul declared had “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). The truth is that Christians are complex and can simultaneously know tribulation and joy, as these are not mutually exclusive experiences. The apostle Paul made this clear when he stated:
…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. (Rom. 5:3-5)
Paul could “exult” in his tribulations because he saw them as purposeful, being used by God to bring about “perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” Paul’s objective was to glorify God and advance to spiritual maturity, and he knew that God often used suffering as the means to accomplish that goal, and was therefore willing to rejoice in such hardships. James uses similar language when he writes:
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. (Jam. 1:2-4)
As Christians, we will face trials, but how we respond to them is a matter of choice. No one likes suffering, and our first response is usually to complain and turn away from it. However, we must be mindful of our natural inclinations and fight the weakening instinct that compels us to grumble at our troubles rather than look to the Lord and live by faith. James tells us to “consider it all joy” when we face trials, because those trials will help us advance in our Christian character. To “consider it all joy” is purely an act of faith, because our feelings are usually down in the dirt when trials come. When we’re facing a trial, our feelings aren’t up to praising God, but faith must rise above our circumstance and feelings if we’re to live spiritually and benefit from the promises God has provided. The apostle Paul demonstrated this magnificently when he faced a time of suffering he called his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7).
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-8)
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” caused him great pain, and he knew the suffering was to produce humility and keep “from exalting myself.” Paul’s first reaction was to pray to the Lord several times to take it away, and we can all identify with Paul in his prayer. However, God refused to remove Paul’s suffering, and informed him that He would give him the strength necessary to live with the hardship, saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Now, upon hearing this news, I suspect many believers would double-up on their prayers and beg God even more to take away their “thorn in the flesh.” Some might even get angry with God and perhaps accuse him of being cruel or unloving. But notice, the apostle Paul handles the news well and by faith declares:
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. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)
These are the words of a believer who is sold out for God! He’s totally committed to the Lord and has surrendered his life to Him! Paul is essentially saying “God, I trust Your actions in my life no matter what, and am convinced that the suffering you send my way is for my good, and I will cling to You in the midst of my stormy life, for You are my strength.” I have read the above passage many times, and by faith have stated those words in my own trials. I’ve not been consistent in every hardship, and I don’t know any Christian who has, but Paul’s words reflect the proper biblical attitude we ought to have in every trial.
Coping with suffering is possible when the believer learns to look to the Lord and utilize His spiritual provisions (Eph. 1:3). This primarily means living by faith, moment by moment, and trusting God at His Word (Rom. 1:17; 10:17; Heb. 11:6). The world and those who live in it are dominated by thoughts that exclude God, and so they think about anything and everything except God and His Word. The believer has a choice to include or exclude God in his thoughts, words, and daily activities. This daily choice determines whether the believer will live in the house of faith or the house of fear. If he lives in the house of faith, he will be able to cope with the pressures of life and stand for God and His will in the midst of life’s storms. If he’s living in the house of fear, then life’s trials and pressures will overrun his soul and he will only know perpetual anxiety. Sometimes the believer goes back and forth on a daily basis, living in one house or the other. As we advance in our spiritual walk, we learn to live more and more in the house of faith and benefit from the blessings God has provided to those who take refuge in Him and His promises (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 26:3; Prov. 3:5-6; 25-26; Matt. 6:25-34; Phil. 4:10-14).
The Christian who learns God’s Word on a daily basis increases his capacity to live by faith and enjoy the many blessings of God. As goes his knowledge of God’s Word, so goes his capacity for understanding and enjoying life, even in the midst of suffering. The reality is that the Christian will face many hardships beyond his control, and God does not promise to take them away. In fact, some trials are sent by Him to humble us and to develop our character to be more like Christ. Some ask God to remove their trial, but God will never remove that which produces humility and keeps us close to Him.
It was early January and I was dining after dark with friends when I heard faint cries coming from outside. Standing and looking out the nearby window, I saw a young man who looked to be in his early twenties, stagger down the sidewalk and collapse about ten feet from the building. I rushed outside and knelt on the ground next to him while others inside called for medical help (which took about five minutes to arrive). He lay on the cold asphalt, shivering and sobbing, and appeared to be more in emotional distress than physical pain. He looked at me, a total stranger, and through his tears said he was on the verge of losing his girlfriend and newborn baby and that his life had been ruined by bad choices and the use of cocaine and other drugs. After saying these things he turned his head and cried uncontrollably. His life had not always been marked by bad choices. Phantom memories surfaced and he spoke of a Christian childhood when Christ was Lord of his life and all his friends were wholesome believers. Somewhere in his teenage years he had turned away from the Lord and the suffering of bad choices and worldly friends helped bring about his present sorrow. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed quietly as I sat next to him. He cried out to the Lord, and not knowing what to say, he started praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…” (Matt. 6:9, KJV). I verbally joined him in his prayer so that he would not feel alone, but would know he was in the presence of a caring Christian. He heard me praying with him, and through teary eyes stared for a moment. For a brief instant we connected, but a minute later an ambulance pulled into the motel parking lot and I was moved aside so they could perform their necessary service. Apparently he had been using harmful illegal drugs and was in need of medical attention. The young man called out to me as he was put on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance and I could only watch and pray for him as he was taken away. I never saw him again, though I’ve prayed for him many times.
I was marked by that brief encounter. That young man was at a place of personal brokenness when the paths of our lives crossed. There seemed to be sorrow and repentance on his lips. It mattered little to me that much of his pain was self-induced, but only that he was crying out to the Lord for help. To turn away from him at such a moment would betray a spiritual poverty and sickness within my own soul. More so, it would ignore the sovereign hand of God who creates such opportunities for us to show grace and love to others. A year earlier I was in a similar place of personal brokenness, for my life had been ruined by many bad choices and I knew what it meant to have others praying for me and showing grace and love when I needed it most.
Looking into Scripture, we find the greatest examples of suffering anywhere. Job and Jeremiah were two men who suffered greatly. Both were sensitive men who knew depression as a result of their suffering, and as we read about their lives we can cry with them. In the midst of his sadness Job said, “why then hast Thou brought me out of the womb? Would that I had died and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been, carried from womb to tomb” (Job 10:18-19). Because of his sorrow, Job saw his life as a “land of darkness and deep shadow; the land of utter gloom as darkness itself, of deep shadow without order” (Job 10:21-22a). During his time of sadness, the prophet Jeremiah wished that his “mother would have been [his] grave, and her womb ever pregnant” and in his great anguish went on to ask, “why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?” (Jer. 20:17-18).
What shall we say to Job and Jeremiah? Shall we ask them to be silent and not use such language because it makes us feel uncomfortable? Shall we be callous and accuse them of hidden sin or not having enough faith? Shall we fault them because they are not expressing joy in the midst of their sorrow? There is a joy to be had in life, but let’s not rob these godly men of their sorrow, or turn away from them for expressing themselves with such grief-laden language because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Let’s not turn away from them for at least two reasons:
Because their response to suffering reveals their humanness. Job and Jeremiah were real people living in a real world who were touched by real circumstances. Though most of us will never know the depth of suffering and sorrow that Job and Jeremiah knew in their lifetime, we can identify with their pain and cry with them because we understand in a smaller way what it means to suffer, and this is our connection with them. Suffering connects us all together.
Because despair was not their only perspective on life. Job and Jeremiah also had the divine perspective on life and at times spoke words of truth and hope, and this gives us truth and hope as well. Though they suffered in the furnace of affliction, they proved God and His Word to be reliable and more than sufficient to sustain them. During and after their time of suffering they spoke words of praise to the One in whom they had placed all their confidence. Worshipping God as the One who sustains and gives us hope in the midst of our trials is what binds us together with other believers, even those who lived long ago in a foreign land and who spoke a different language. God and His Word connect believers together.
Job was a righteous man who loved the Lord and turned away from evil (Job. 1:1-5). In one day Job was confronted with the sudden death of all his sons and daughters, the destruction of his business, and the loss of his personal health (Job 1:6-19; 2:1-8). Though he could have cursed God as his wife suggested (Job. 2:9), Job kept his faith and continued to trust the Lord (Job 1:20-22; 2:10). In the midst of grief Job said:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me. (Job 19:25-27)
Jeremiah had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. The city had been burned, tens of thousands of men and woman put to death, and many taken away into slavery to Babylon as Jeremiah watched. One can see why he is often referred to as the weeping prophet (cf. Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17). Yet, even after witnessing Jerusalem’s destruction and enduring personal persecution, Jeremiah stated:
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him. (Lam. 3:21-24)
Other men in Scripture such as David, Elijah, Peter and Paul all knew suffering and sorrow, yet expressed words of hope and faith in God. Of course, no one knew suffering more than the Lord Jesus Christ, who throughout His life was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). During the time of His public ministry, Jesus knew He would suffer and die upon the cross, and He declared, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22). And just hours before His crucifixion, Jesus “began to be grieved and distressed” (Matt. 26:37), telling a few of His disciples, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38). In spite of His personal pain, Jesus was willing to suffer and die for the benefit of the salvation of others. The Scripture declares that “as a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). The death of Christ had meaning, because God’s righteousness was satisfied and others were blessed to enjoy the gift of eternal life (Rom. 3:21-26).
Suffering touches us all. It moves and shapes us in ways we never imagine. It breaks us down and builds us up, but it never leaves us where it finds us. In Scripture we learn that God’s power is magnified in our weaknesses and that suffering reveals our true state as weak creatures who need the Lord in our lives for strength and guidance (2 Cor. 12:7-10). As we develop spiritually, we learn to keep our eyes more and more on heaven, knowing that ultimate relief from suffering will only come when the Lord returns and establishes righteousness on the earth (Rev. 20-22). There is much Scripture on the subject of suffering and there is hope and strength in God for those who turn to Him in the midst of life’s sorrows.
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 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.
Adversity helps the obedient-believer grow spiritually, when he responds properly in faith (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4). Suffering by itself does not advance growth, but rather, the believer’s faith-response to it. The obedient-believer knows God is in control of every aspect of his life and that He produces the events that help the believer reach maturity (Rom. 8:28). There are no chance events in the believers’ life.
Adversity serves to bring the rebellious-believer back to fellowship with God (Ps. 32:1-5; Heb. 12:5-11; 1 Jo. 1:9). However, if the rebellious believer rejects warning and intensive discipline, God will remove him from earth to heaven through the “sin unto death” (1 Jo. 5:16). The three stages of discipline for the rebellious-believer are:
Warning (Dan. 4:4-27; 1 Cor. 11:30).
Intensive (Dan. 4:28-37; 1 Cor. 11:30).
Death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30; 1 Jo. 5:16).
For the growing believer, divine pressure produces humility by helping him realize his weaknesses and overall inability to cope with life (2 Cor. 12:7-10). As a result, the growing believer looks to God to sustain him, and lives by faith in His word (Isa. 26:3; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). The pressures of life help the believer grow in dependence on the Lord. God is glorified, and the believer is benefitted, when God’s resources are utilized in pursuit of spiritual maturity. The process of growing into spiritual maturity never ends so long as the believer is alive. There’s never a time when the believer can say “I don’t need to grow anymore. You can stop now God; I’ve arrived!”
The power of God is available to the growing obedient-believer. Once the believer turns away from God, he grieves/quenches the Holy Spirit and cuts off the source of divine strength. Relying on others and/or self will bring disaster when the pressures of life become too great. Francis Schaeffer illustrates this truth as follows:
“A culture or an individual with a weak base can stand only when the pressure on it is not too great. As an illustration, let us think of a Roman bridge. The Romans built little humpbacked bridges over many of the streams of Europe. People and wagons went over these structures safely for centuries, for two millennia. But if people today drove heavily loaded trucks over these bridges, they would break. It is this way with the lives and value systems of individuals and cultures when they have nothing stronger to build on than their own limitedness, their own finiteness. They can stand when the pressures are not too great, but when the pressures mount, if then they do not have a sufficient base, they crash—just as a Roman bridge would cave in under the weight of a modern six-wheeled truck. Culture and the freedoms of people are fragile. Without a sufficient base, when such pressures come only time is needed—and often not a great deal of time—before they collapse.” (Francis Schaeffer, How Should we then Live? page 23)
Adversity comes to everyone, but only the believer – armed with Scripture – has a sufficient base with which to handle to pressures of life. Mental and emotional stability comes from learning and living God’s word on a regular basis. This means the believer must submit every area of his life to God, and be willing to do His will no matter the cost. Many Christians compartmentalize, giving God some areas of their life, while holding on to other areas. Those areas of life that are kept from God are used by Satan to defeat the believer. There is no middle ground. The believer who compartmentalizes wants to keep control of his life, and comes to God only as he feels safe. In such an immature life, Christianity becomes a self-serving religion in which God is allowed control so long as He blesses and does not cause discomfort. Blessing and safety becomes the all consuming concern in the life of the baby Christian. The growing believer “exult[s] in tribulation” (Rom. 5:3) because he knows God is working in Him to form the character of Christ, and that’s what he wants more than anything. The growing believer accepts suffering as means of becoming more like Christ. It is important to stress that there is no real value inherent in suffering, but rather in how the believer handles the suffering by living by faith in God’s word.
Divine suffering tests the believer’s faith, exposing those areas where he is weak and in which he needs to trust more in God; obeying His word. The believer who loves God wants to mature and become more like Christ, and praises God for the fire of suffering that burns away that which is worthless.