Why Christians suffer: Divine revelation on a perplexing subject

Why Christians Suffer

Divine Revelation on a Perplexing Subject

Grantley Morris

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This is a draft that I am currently working on.
Last updated June 17, 2019

It has been my matchless privilege to have invested much of my life ministering God’s love and encouragement to people who are deeply hurting. For virtually all of my life I have also been devoted to the prayerful study of God’s Word, and for well over twenty years I have been writing about how a tender, compassionate God views pain and suffering. And yet I have been stunned by the Bible-based revelation our Lord has graciously given me while writing this webpage. If it achieves in you a fraction of what it has done for my wife and for me, it will change your life.

When knocked by things that seem disastrous, we are sorely pressured to conclude there can be no alternative other than what we are suffering is either because we have let God down or he has let us down. For anyone to whom God means everything, either option is devastating. Is it callous or even erroneous to think Christians usually suffer because they don’t understand their Christ-bought authority? Is it way off the mark to think God is hardened to human suffering or that certain Christians avoid suffering because God has favorites?

Live long enough, and questions about suffering will hit you hard. Far more is on the line, however, than a need for comforting answers or an escape from affliction. At stake is our entire walk with God. Our understanding of these matters drastically shapes what we expect from God (and hence affects our critically important faith) and it determines much of our attitude to life. In this webpage we will endeavor to hunt down every possible cause, in a Spirit-led quest for answers, comfort and empowerment when life’s blows send us reeling.

Some see suffering as inevitable for Christians because we are called to be like Christ who suffered in and for a world that is in rebellion against God’s loving ways. Others believe such thinking is a denial of much of the victory Christ’s earthly sufferings achieved for us. On the other hand, could pointing the finger at a Christian reeling in misfortune, expose us to the wrath of God, as it did for Job’s friends when they turned into spiritual advisors (Job 42:7)? Could it even expose us to the fate of those causing someone to stumble, for whom Jesus said it would be preferable to be weighed down with a millstone and be hurled into the deep (Matthew 18:6-7)?

On one side, are Bible believers who see it as a privilege and the ultimate proof of faith to suffer for the One who suffered for them, whether that suffering be persecution or illness. On the other extreme, are Christians, equally fervent in their devotion, who consider such thinking distasteful and dishonoring to Christ. They think it foolish and showing a lack of faith in the finished work of the One who suffered in our place so that we need never suffer. Each side sees the other as pathetically weak, unbiblical and bringing shame to the name of Christ.

Of all people, I have reason for humility in this dispute. Despite maintaining my zeal for the Lord and devotion to him, I have at times leaned to one side of this divide and at other times leaned towards the opposite side. Mere logic compels the conclusion that I had to have been wrong at least some of the time.

Most of us are strongly convinced that our understanding of this matter is thoroughly biblical and pleasing to God. It can take a surprising degree of courage to prayerfully look to God to double-check whether, like me, you have been sincerely mistaken. Do you have what it takes to face this challenge?

The issue, of course, is not whether you and I agree with each other but whether God agrees with us. Neither is the issue whether we can amass an impressive body of biblical support for our views, but whether our interpretation of those Scriptures is human or divine. (Few of us could match the fervent devotion and biblical scholarship of the devout leaders and theologians who arranged their Messiah’s murder.)

My wife’s fervor in studying Scripture drove her to the edge of human endurance and yet she has since discovered that she had misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Her new discoveries have not merely brought her peace like never before but, far more important, it has profoundly deepened her relationship with God.

It is not for me to tell you what to believe. Through much waiting on God and seeking his face, I have grown sure – even excited – about much that we will discuss. I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for what our Lord has graciously revealed to me, and I will not hold back in presenting reasons for my certainty. Nonetheless, my longing is for you to have your own divine encounter and reach your own Spirit-led conclusions, even if that means you leaving my views behind. If I can assist you by alerting you to certain Scriptures or some implications that you have not yet considered, I would count it my undeserved privilege.

In fact, would you join me right now in a short prayer for this?

    Precious Lord,

    We come to you as the source of grace and truth. To know you is to fall in love with you; and loving you is the only way to live. As we spend this time together, may you reveal yourself to us more deeply than ever before.

    I pray your comfort upon every reader who, even now, is reeling in physical or emotional pain. In a way that only you can, I pray you penetrate the bewilderment and mental haze that assaults us in such circumstances, so that none of us is hindered from receiving the support and insight that you long for us to have.

    I also ask, however, that none of us drop this vital subject until we are as equipped as we can possibly be for whatever future challenges await us.

This webpage is far too readable, fascinating and relevant to everyday living, to be hidden behind a highfalutin title. Other than that, it could be called a theology of suffering. In exploring this topic I will dodge nothing, but where insights gained from minor suffering will prove just as instructive, I will not inflict needless discomfort by focusing on the extreme.

When asked a question, Jesus sometimes responded by asking a question himself (Examples). If we can answer the smaller questions raised below we will go a long way towards answering the big one about why Christians suffer. Examining these questions, some of which will seem initially unrelated, also reminds us that God’s attitude towards suffering is totally consistent with his stance on other matters.

Although I will share my insights into these lesser questions, I think you will find it beneficial to ponder them and find your own answers before reading mine. The choice, of course, is yours.

You will find my writings crammed with Bible quotes and links to still more. Skip them if you wish, but since there is no higher source of spiritual revelation, it would be your loss. Regardless of how familiar you are with the Word of God, I suggest you at least remind yourself of these verses by glancing at them. A compromise might be to slide over them on your first reading and return to them later.

Christians suffering is a big topic, and I plan to sidestep nothing. Before progressing to other aspects, however, we should resolve whether or not a degree of suffering is an unavoidable part of the effort required to faithfully serve our Lord. Is it that suffering never has a divine role in Christian living and it only occurs if we needlessly let ourselves be defeated, instead of exercising our Christ-bought authority over adversity? Or, on the other extreme, is it that, for all of us on this planet, suffering is fundamental to victorious Christian living? Suffering was central to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Could it likewise be a central aspect of our earthly service?

“Be sober and self-controlled. Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” says 1 Peter 5:8. What then, would be the dangers of not being alert and spiritually readied for an attack? Since, as Jesus taught, the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10), surely we would be needlessly exposing ourselves to hardship and suffering if we ignored the Bible’s directive to submit ourselves to God and resist the devil (James 4:7).

All Christians agree that there is much we can do spiritually to reduce our own suffering. There is a huge diversity of opinion, however, as to how far we can push this. Is it biblical, or is it unbiblical, to think that if we do everything right – sufficient faith, prayer, praise, submission to God, spiritual discernment, alertness, spiritual warfare, and so on – we can avoid all unpleasantness? Or if we are sufficiently in tune with God, could we avoid all but minor persecution, or perhaps all but very brief challenges? Of course, there are innumerable other guesses as to where the line should appear. And if it were to turn out that certain unpleasantness is actually unavoidable for even the most godly and spiritually empowered of us, how could that be, in the light of God’s love and goodness and our crucified Lord’s stupendous victory over evil?

These are some of the questions we will wrestle with. Before taking the plunge, however, I should confess one more thing:

In my yearning to best serve you, the reader, I find myself tortured by two conflicting concerns. Straining like a bullock team on one side, is my conviction that the longer our voyage together, the more likely you are not just to find answers but be profoundly transformed by them. Pulling in the opposite direction, threatening to tear me asunder, is a fear of losing readers who have little conception of how much they could benefit from a longer journey.

A related matter that is tearing at me is the question of how extensively I should share all the biblical evidence. I have prepared such a thorough explanation of all that God reveals in his Word about this topic that most people would be fully persuaded by less. Nevertheless, I honor those who demand more. My heart not only goes out to those who are not easily convinced, I feel a deep kinship with them. It is not that we are thick or stubborn or skeptical. On the contrary, I write for truth-seekers who are passionate about God and are keen to know him even better, and to please him even more. This webpage is particularly for those who long to honor God by being faithful to his revelation and are already well-versed in all the biblical support for their view. I long to support those who have been thoroughly taught and wish to double-check how completely their understanding stacks up against the “whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:27).

Among the things goading me to introduce more detail into this webpage is that, if continued for more than a few minutes, much good can be worked within us by pondering the possibility of suffering for Christ even if it were never to happen. A longer webpage could achieve that but I worry about less devout readers. Although I believe it would be more beneficial to prolong the tension, my compromise is to lessen it by acknowledging upfront what would otherwise be the elephant in the room. So let’s face the worst case scenario right from the start: what if our study ended up proving conclusively that, at least for some of us, devotion to Christ necessitates suffering? Would that cripple Christianity? We’ll consider this in the next section.

What would drive a Christian to continue even if it involved hardship and suffering?

We will later say still more about this but for reasons just explained we will touch on it now.

It is heart-breaking that many of us are left floundering in bewilderment at scriptures suggesting that aspects of the Christian life might be a hard slog. The sad reality is that self-sacrifice seems incomprehensible to the myriads of brain-washed victims of the era prophesied by 2 Timothy 3:2, 4, when people “will be lovers of self, . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God”. They have no idea that a world even exists beyond self-infatuation. Even among today’s churched, tragically many find ourselves so hopelessly self-obsessed that we can conceive of little reason for living other than feeding our addiction to self.

Using a range of different expressions – denying one’s self, crucifying the flesh, dying to self, and so on, the Bible repeatedly emphasizes that we cannot enter spiritual life without ending our selfish ways (Scriptures). It is even at the heart of baptism and repentance. Only by dumping the dead-weight of self can our spirits soar with God. Where selfishness ends godliness begins.

Jesus told of a man who sold everything just to buy a piece of land (Matthew 13:44). If puzzled observers thought he was crazy, it was only because they did not know his secret: the land had buried treasure on it, making it worth far more than everything he had sacrificed for it. So it is for those who pay what others mistakenly think is an exorbitant price to follow Jesus. It is actually the smartest investment anyone could ever make. In words made famous by missionary martyr, Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Framing it this way appeals even to those riddled with self. Nevertheless, the “treasure” Jesus spoke of might not be obvious in the here and now.

The apostle Paul frankly admitted that unless the Bible’s promises about the nature of life after death are entirely accurate, he and those like him “are of all men most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). We don’t like that. Who wants whatever makes sacrifices worthwhile to be delayed for an entire lifetime? Who wants to live knowing that for all that time we could have been less “pitiable” had we chosen an easier life and that for all those years, the multitudes who goof off are happier than us? Moreover, it necessitates immense faith to risk absolutely everything not just on the Bible’s promise of an amazing afterlife but on Jesus’ claim that only those who take the narrow road enjoy all the benefits. We’d rather pander to our less spiritual side. We’d prefer to hedge our bets by having an enjoyable here and now so that it would not be such an enormous loss if the Bible turned out to have it slightly wrong. Jesus, however, thought very differently. For him, what is catastrophic about hypocrisy is that hypocrites receive their full reward down here (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16).

Hebrews 11:6 says without faith it is impossible to please God. It then provides as examples of this faith:

    Hebrews 11:35-38  . . . Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance . . . Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . . wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Then, to inspire us to act this way, it urges us to keep “. . . looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame . . .” (Hebrews 12:2).

What was this future reward – the joy “set before him” – that motivated our Lord? Was it roughly equivalent to fame and fortune? Was it remotely like a drug-induced high? No. To the disappointment of the self-obsessed, it was the joy of pleasing the Father – the Love of his life; the One he lived for – and the joy of saving you and me from eternal damnation and filling us with endless joy, and of him being able to delight in our companionship for all eternity. In short, it was love.

So the greatest, most fulfilling motivator is what fired Christ to endure the cross: beautiful, glorious, exquisite love. Love for the wondrously perfect One, the most astonishing, fascinating and adorable Person, who loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves, and has done infinitely more for us than we could ever do. And love for those who mean everything to him – humanity. In the words of the great Apostle:

    2 Corinthians 5:13-14 If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us . . . And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves . . . (NIV)

Or, as the New Living Translation puts the middle verse, “Either way, Christ’s love controls us . . .” It was this same apostle who famously wrote, love “bears all things . . . endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Real love is not about having goosebumps and gooey feelings. It’s about passionately caring about people more than one’s own comfort.

    Ephesians 5:2 Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God . . .

    1 John 3:16 By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

In a universe where even mountains don’t last, and the entire planet is wearing out, “these three remain: faith, hope [the certainty of future reward] and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV). For further encouragement about love, I invite you to ponder these Scriptures.

Realizing just how invaluable love is intensifies the question: how do we find this love and grow in it? We have already mentioned a critical factor: we must avoid confusing love with feelings. If you are starving, what you want is food, not for someone to feel sorry for you. Neither do you want someone to wait until he feels moved. As I have explained elsewhere, many human conditions and attacks from our spiritual enemy (the deceiver) play havoc with our feelings, but just as temptation need not stop us from loving, neither need feelings.

There are two more factors in fostering love that I should share.

The vast number of Scriptures telling us to love God and humanity keep screaming that love is something we must choose to do. God’s Word actually calls love the greatest commandment. If so, idly waiting around, hoping God will zap us with love would be futile. In fact, it would be offensive to the Lord of all. If the King of heaven and earth commands us to do something, dare we reply, “No. You do it”?

Here’s a divine principle that extends far beyond finances: “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. . . .” (Luke 6:38). Expressed another way: he who is faithful in little will be given much.

When we do everything we can to give love, God will do everything we can’t. As we keep on investing every speck of love we can scrounge, more will be divinely deposited in our hearts. The Almighty has set everything in place. The next move is up to us.

The final insight I wish to share is encapsulated in this verse: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, many versions – in the King James, “him” is rightly in italics, which is the convention it uses to indicate when it has added a word not found in the original Greek or Hebrew). Our love for God grows as we grow in our awareness of how much he loves us. Likewise, our love for those he loves (everyone) is proportional to our understanding of his love for us.

There is no one as lovable as God. Truly, to know him is to love him. So the way to grow in love is to give top priority to knowing him better and better. The more we spend time with him and the more we learn about him by reading his Word, the more our love will grow.

Do such Scripture as “he who endures to the end will be saved” imply that suffering (enduring hardship/oppression) is an unavoidable aspect of Spirit-filled living?

Salvation might begin with a one-off prayer but, to honor biblical revelation, our understanding of salvation must progress to incorporate Scriptures as:

    Matthew 10:22 You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved.

    Matthew 24:12-13  . . . iniquity will be multiplied, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved.

    Hebrews 10:36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

    Revelation 2:7  . . . To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

    (Emphasis mine, NIV last two quotes.)

For more such Scriptures see The Need to Endure.

Does this mean victorious Christians have much to endure?

Is spiritual life like a romance novel in which we eventually realize Jesus is the one for us, we excitedly accept his proposal, and the story ends? Or is life with God – and spiritual success and failure – all about what happens after we commence our union with Christ?

At least nine times the New Testament likens our spiritual life to a prolonged event where athletes compete for a prize. Is this a favorite with the Bible because athletes are expected to embrace pain and give their utmost? Athletes who act this way win acclaim, whereas those who slacken off before the race/game/fight is over are dismissed as fools. No matter how brilliantly or heroically quitters perform early on, instead of being hailed as winners, they are shunned as an embarrassment. The Word of God sees this as so important that we read:

    1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win. Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, but I beat my body and bring it into submission, lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.

    Philippians 3:13-14 Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

    Other Examples.

It’s sobering to see in the above even the mighty apostle Paul writing this way about himself.

It is not, of course, that we compete against each other, but the emphasis is upon continued persistence lest one lose.

Jesus, too, said such things as, many are invited, but few end up chosen (Matthew 22:14). In fact, in at least eighteen of his parables, the critical factor is not how things were early on, but much later, at harvest time, or when the master or bridegroom or Judgment Day arrived – or however the parable went.

Consider the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23), in which all sorts of scenarios are detailed:

    1.  The evil one snatches the word from some people’s hearts

    2.  Some receive the message joyfully but it ends up dying due to one of the following:

      a) Trouble

      b) Persecution

    3.  For still others, the word is choked by one of the following:

      a) The worries of this life

      b) The deceitfulness of wealth

      c) Pleasures (Luke 8:14).

    4.  Others are productive, but to differing degrees:

      a) A hundredfold

      b) Sixtyfold

      c) Thirtyfold

Although we can only expect the briefest of outlines in a parable, a huge number of differing outcomes are covered, some of which involve hardship (trouble, persecution and worries) and all of the first three categories end in spiritual disaster.

Perhaps we should note in passing that in Jesus’ explanation of the parable, wealth and physical pleasure (both of which some of us might consider the extreme opposite of suffering) is seen not as a blessing but as spiritual hazards.

The spiritually discerning realize that what distinguishes those that survived is not that they were spared hardship but that they successfully endured it. This principle is seen with particular clarity in the parable of the two houses; one built on sand and the other on rock (Matthew 7:24-27). Both were assaulted by the same storm. The house that survived did so not because it suffered less but because, right from the beginning, adversity was anticipated. One builder had the ‘faith’ to believe conditions would always be favorable and that he could take it easy. The other considered hard times a distinct possibility. We might have thought that expecting never-ending supernatural protection from life’s storms would be displaying praiseworthy faith. Jesus, however, labeled it foolish (Matthew 7:26). That attitude brought disaster. This is no incidental aspect of the parable but the very heart of it. Real faith is not the positivism of convincing ourselves that since God is with us, life’s gales won’t hit; it is having the resolve to stick it out, no matter how difficult things get.

Again in the parable of the ten virgins, they all had to suffer precisely the same prolonged wait for the bridegroom, but only some coped. Again what differentiated them was whether they expected it to be easy (Matthew 25:1-12).

The limitations of parables are such that although the story of the seeds allows for differing productivity in the plants that survived, the full picture cannot be portrayed because plants have no consciousness of loss or failure. For this, Paul fills in the gap:

    1 Corinthians 3:10-15  . . . let each man be careful how he builds . . . For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire. (Emphasis mine.)

And suffering loss applies even to those who not only make a good start but spiritually last the distance. Beyond that, are those who do not survive at all. For some who start off well, things can turn out so disastrously that Paul considered the possibility of all his efforts in bringing certain people to Christ ending up a total waste:

    Galatians 4:11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

    Philippians 2:16 Do everything . . . so that you may become blameless and pure  . . . in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.

    1 Thessalonians 3:5  . . . when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. (NIV)

He even mentioned this possibility about himself:

    Galatians 2:2  . . . for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.

Falling away can be much worse than achieving a big fat zero, however. Ponder the implications of this:

    Mark 14:21  . . . It would be better for that man if he had not been born.

    2 Peter 2:20 For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in it and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.

It seems our futures hinge not on a one-off event but on continued faithfulness. And, from what we have so far seen in Scripture, it is hard to resist concluding that this could involve suffering. This message is not only crammed into the New Testament but repeated over and over in the Old – as highlighted, for example, by 1 Corinthians, which looks back at the Old, stressing that all those leaving Egypt for the Promised Land commenced with the same profound spiritual experiences. They “were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). Nevertheless, Paul continues, vast numbers perished in the wilderness because few remained faithful when the going got tough (1 Corinthians 10:5-10). These tragedies, the apostle insisted, occurred and were recorded “for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come (verse 11, emphasis mine – Romans 15:4 is similar). “Therefore,” concluded Paul, “let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall” (verse 12).

Is the time between salvation and receiving our “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) meant to be spent idling our lives away in ease, or achieving things of eternal significance?

Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). He is the one who could have indulged in inconceivable opulence but chose to fast for forty days. He who could have spent eternity luxuriating in Paradise was so exhausted that he slept in a boat tossed around by a storm so severe that it terrified even professional fishermen (Matthew 8:24-26). He who could snap his fingers and miracles would materialize, spent entire nights in prayer (Luke 6:12). He who could have had ten thousand angels serving him was so overworked that he sometimes didn’t have time even to eat (Mark 6:31-34; John 4:31). Do you think pain-avoidance or lounging around would be his idea of an abundant life? Or is this more likely to be the mentality of “the last days” when people “will be lovers of self, lovers of money, . . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied its power (2 Timothy 3:1-5)?

Ponder this:

    1 Corinthians 15:19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (NIV)

Is this our view of life with God this side of Judgment Day, or has our religion somehow strayed from Biblical Christianity?

    Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Are you comfortable with that being in the Bible? Shouldn’t it read: Because of the love of Christ you will have no oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Why did Paul and Barnabas return to the disciples in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, exhorting them that “through many afflictions we must enter into God’s Kingdom” (Acts 14: 22)? Why, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was Paul compelled to pen such words as the following?

    2 Corinthians 4:8-9 We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed

    2 Corinthians 6:4-10  . . . as servants of God, in great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in riots, in labors, in watchings, in fastings . . . by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.

    2 Corinthians 7:5-6  . . . our flesh had no relief, but we were afflicted on every side. Fightings were outside. Fear was inside. . . .

    2 Corinthians 11:26-29 I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, and in cold and nakedness.
    Besides those things that are outside, there is that which presses on me daily, anxiety for all the assemblies. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is caused to stumble, and I don’t burn with indignation?

    (Emphasis mine.)

No matter how painless some preachers might make it seem, Jesus stressed that the cost is high:

    Luke 14:28-32 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and count the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Or perhaps, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, everyone who sees begins to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and wasn’t able to finish.’
    Or what king, as he goes to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an envoy, and asks for conditions of peace.

There is a need to rest in God and let him be our strength, our righteousness, our victory, our shield, our life and our wisdom; drawing from him everything we need, for “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” (Romans 11:36). He is our beginning and end (Revelation 21:6), the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Our growth comes from him, not from our efforts (Scriptures). But don’t we, precisely because of this, need to devote ourselves to Christ; making him our Lord, serving him, obeying him and delighting in him? He must be the love of our lives, our joy, our hope, our reason for living. Our entire lives must revolve around him.

And what we have seen so far seems to indicate that resting in God is not incompatible with Christians having to endure hardship. For a little more on this, see What Does God Expect Christians to Endure?

As part of the issue of why Christians suffer, we must tackle this question: When Christians suffer, is it typically an act of heroism or spiritual ignorance? Rather than jumping to hasty conclusions, we will continue gathering evidence from the Word of God.

Before moving on, however, let’s bring together a little of what we have so far discovered. We saw Jesus warning about counting the cost and, by making it tough for would-be followers, indicating upfront that they could expect a demanding time. The parables of the two houses in the storm and the ten virgins both indicate our expectations regarding what we might encounter are critically important to our spiritual survival. We also noted the apostles strengthening/encouraging/establishing (various renderings of the Greek word used) the disciples by saying that “through many afflictions we must enter into God’s Kingdom.” The apostles acted as if it were vital for the believers’ spiritual well-being that they understand this. This message is further strengthened by many other Scriptures, such as “don’t be astonished at the fiery trial . . . as though a strange thing happened to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

We are working our way towards grappling with this question: should we worship our suffering Lord not only as our Savior but as our Inspiration and Role Model, who lived in human flesh to show us how to live, and endured to show us how to endure? Or should we treat Christ solely as our Savior, who suffered in our stead so that we can avoid all suffering? Let’s ponder a smaller question first.

Has the cross of Christ rendered obsolete what Job reveals about suffering?

If you think that’s a peculiar question, you’re not alone. Until recently, I had no idea how profoundly your answer to this question will affect your answer to the question of why Christians suffer.

Some readers might think I should spend quite a while discussing the book of Job. The risk of wasting my time is too high, however. Many an ingenious Christian mind has found ways of reverently transferring what might seem like highly pertinent Scriptures into a new category of once-divinely-inspired writings now labeled Superseded.

The Word of God is emphatic that Christ suffered in our stead (Scriptures). If this means our magnificent Lord suffered on earth so that his followers need never suffer on earth – or if persecution is the only exception – then Christ’s stupendous act has not only split history in two, it has rendered Job virtually obsolete.

Size-wise, Job is a significant portion of Holy Writ (Relevant Statistics). And it is devoted to the very enigmas this webpage grapples with. As we progress, things will gradually clarify but we must look to the New Testament to be sure of current spiritual reality. Here, I will mention the book of Job only to the limited extent that it raises issues it would be cowardly for us to dodge. After all, it remains in God’s Word and even the briefest of overviews of Job highlights brilliantly the perplexing dilemmas we Christians face in trying to get our heads around God and suffering. In fact, less than a minute’s mention of the story is enough to ram home that the subject we are tackling is not only puzzling and alarmingly emotive: daring even to hint at a possible reason for Christians suffering is so strewn with dangers as to make dancing on a minefield seem a sensible pastime.

The whole point of the book of Job is that he suffered horrifically not because he was in any way spiritually lacking, but precisely because he was exceptionally godly. The divinely authorized biography insists that Job was “blameless and upright” and “fears God, and turns away from evil,” (Job 1:1, repeated by God himself in Job 1:8, and yet again in Job 2:3). The Lord was so delighted with Job that on at least two different occasions God boasted about Job to Satan (Job 1:8; 2:3).

Like maliciously telling a man that the love of his life married him only for his money, Satan claimed Job served God only for what God gave him. Take away all the cozy benefits of being faithful to the Lord, declared the Accuser, and Job would turn his back on God.

Suffering brought Job immense glory by proving his love and integrity in a way that nothing else could. You might argue that God already knew Job’s heart but no one else knew for sure. As underscored by Peter proving manifestly less able to resist denying his Lord than he supposed, not even Job really knew. I believe that, human psychology being what it is, through successfully enduring this test, Job took with him for the rest of his life an increase in his steely resolve to serve God no matter what. In any case, to Job’s eternal glory, every angel and spirit and human who knows the way things unfolded, has undeniable proof of his devotion. For years, an athlete will endure great sacrifice and agonizing training sessions to be hailed as a champion for a moment. Job’s glory is greater in every way.

The other element to the story spotlights the serious danger in getting wrong one’s theology of suffering. Like some of us today, (rather surprising for a book some consider outdated) Job’s friends theorized that genuinely good people don’t suffer. Their sincere belief was that the good Lord protects the truly righteous. Job must therefore have had somehow erred. If they could discover the nature of his slip-up, it would help their friend. Their well-intentioned attempt was so disastrous that they ended up not only tormenting the very person they were hoping to help, but incurring God’s displeasure (Job 42:7-8).

Despite these self-appointed advisers receiving a divine rebuke, I have a lot of time for them. What makes their appalling failure so tragic is that they truly were his friends. Look at their depth of feeling:

    Job 2:11-13 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come on him . . . they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and to comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes from a distance, and didn’t recognize him, they raised their voices, and wept; and they each tore his robe, and sprinkled dust on their heads toward the sky. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.

They were cut to the core over Job’s plight.

These devout people had the highest of motives. Not only were they genuinely empathic and said not a word until Job broached the subject, when they did so, they sincerely believed they were defending the Lord. They knew that the Almighty is good, and they felt sure this means he will not allow an innocent person to suffer. I’ll keep this brief, so here’s just a sample of their wisdom and devotion to God:

    Job 2:11-13 But he saves . . . the needy from the hand of the mighty. So the poor has hope, and injustice shuts her mouth. Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects. Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For he wounds, and binds up. He injures, and his hands make whole.

    In fact, their beliefs are remarkably similar to modern prosperity teaching Other Examples.

Even today, despite reading God’s judgment on Job’s sincere, though mistaken accusers, many a devout Christian is keen to assure us that we need never suffer. They believe Job must somehow have slipped up and brought all his suffering upon himself. Sure that the Bible must somehow have overstated Job’s blamelessness, and that for all of this to finally make sense, they need simply find the dirt on Job, they have grabbed their microscope, poring over the book, hoping to detect Job’s mistake. Here’s what some found Job saying in the midst of his distress:

    Job 3:25 For the thing which I fear comes on me

Average people might simply think, “Yes, what happened to Job is one of the scariest things anyone could imagine.” Nevertheless, when eager to condemn (otherwise known as offering ‘helpful advice’) people can be quite creative. They claim the person of whom God spoke in such glowing terms, erred by fearing – and suffered the consequences.

With the highest of motives – keen to honor Christ and rescue distressed Christians – some have assumed the role of a backyard soul-surgeon armed with a rusty scalpel and verses conveniently torn from their Bible. With the best intentions, they have joined Job’s friends in their quest to find fault with the one God called “blameless and upright” (Job 2:3). But is it wise to side with those who incurred divine anger?

    Job 42:7-8  . . . The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “ My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore, take to yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept him, that I not deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has.” (Emphasis mine.)

For a hint at the gravity of their offense, consider merely the monetary cost of the seven bulls and seven rams the Lord required (and if you know anything about Old Testament law you know all fourteen had to be flawless to be acceptable to God). And, of course, this was just the beginning. The cooling of God’s wrath hinged on them acknowledging their error and humbly entreating the spiritual intervention of the very man of God they had previously tried to advise.

No matter what we have so far said, however, the burning question remains: has Christ’s triumph over sin and Satan so turned everything on its head that it renders most of the book of Job obsolete? Whereas Job was once a spiritual hero, is he now, relative to our Christ-bought authority, an embarrassing weakling we dare not emulate, lest copying him shame our Savior by letting the devil bully us?

On the other hand, what weight should we give to New Testament revelation that Christ suffered as much for generations prior to the cross as for those born later (Scriptures)? In the mind of the eternal Lord Job served, the work of the cross had already been completed, even before the foundation of the world. As emphasized in the Faith Chapter (Hebrews 11), and elsewhere, relating to the Holy One has never at any time been through works or animal sacrifices. Salvation has always been solely through faith that God can cleanse us sinners from all unrighteousness. We, living this side of the cross, have a clearer idea of how much securing our forgiveness and cleansing cost the Almighty but, as stressed in the Old Testament as much as the New, we are by no means the only ones to live in that forgiveness.

As to how Christians should view Job, we find a vital clue in James, where, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Job is exalted as the Christian’s role model:

    James 5:11 Behold, we call them blessed who endured. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the Lord in the outcome, and how the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

Nevertheless, for many Christians, doubt lingers as to whether James somehow got it wrong about Job.

We’ll leave this dangling for the moment. Earlier in this section, I mentioned the possibility of persecution being such an exceptional form of suffering that general principles that apply to other types of suffering might not apply. Let’s ponder this.

What’s the difference between suffering for Christ and other forms of suffering afflicting the righteous?

I am staggered and deeply grateful over all the revelation God has been pouring into me over recent weeks about God’s heart and plans concerning Christians suffering. What, more than anything, has opened for me the floodgates for all this revelation is the unexpected answer to the question just posed.

Maybe the answer is obvious to you: suffering is suffering. For me, however, it turns out that for most of my life I have been blinded by my supposed intelligence. The answer was too simple for a mind that goes into overdrive in wanting desperately to believe that if I could somehow muster enough faith and godliness I will be spared all suffering – except maybe persecution.

Surely, even the most casual reading of the New Testament prevents one from believing that enough faith could end all suffering associated with persecution. Nevertheless, I could comfort myself with the thought that it seems unlikely I would ever find myself living in a time or place where persecution is rife.

Moreover, the Bible’s insights into suffering tend to focus on persecution. It was so prevalent when the New Testament was written (even penned by some who were literally penned) that almost anyone considering becoming a Christian would have had to decide whether it was worth the loss and danger. From his conversion, Paul knew it would lead to horrific pain and suffering (Acts 9:15-16). Peter, too, knew the time would come when someone would force him to go where he did not want to go and he would be martyred (John 21:18-19).

Early Christians (and vast numbers since) desperately needed the encouragement to endure any suffering that could be avoided by spiritual compromise, and so it receives much attention. It’s time, however, to examine in the stark light of reality whether, for Christians, persecution differs from other forms of suffering.

Once I stared this down, I was shocked to discover that none of all the five reasons I could concoct for believing persecution is different from other sources of suffering Christians face is valid. Let’s see:

    1.  Were it not for the bigger picture, the Almighty could intervene and stop any form of suffering. Indeed, he sometimes does, either by deliverance from persecution or through such things as healing.

    In regard to deliverance from persecution, consider Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6:16-22), his friends in the furnace (Daniel 3:19-27), the Jews in Esther’s time who were about to be annihilated (Esther 9:1) and Jesus who was about to be hurled over a cliff and simply walked through the hostile crowd (Luke 4:29-30). Peter underwent a heavenly jailbreak (Acts 12:4-11). Indeed, on a previous occasion, all of the apostles did (Acts 5:18-25). Nevertheless, such interventions seem to have been outnumbered by times when persecution continued.

    2.  Persecution can become a huge temptation to compromise one’s commitment to Jesus but so can other forms of suffering. Even though it might lead to eternal regret, we can be assaulted by the temptation to imagine that suicide could end our distress. Any suffering can also provoke us into imagining that the affliction is God’s fault. Such delusions can, like persecution, turn suffering into intense temptation.

    Job, for example, might not have been tempted to sin in order to avoid his torment, but he was sorely tempted to sin because of his torment (Job 1:11, 22; Job 2:5, 9).

    Suffering raises the stakes enormously. Offering our Lord the slightest praise whilst afflicted is worth many times more than doing so when life is easy. On the other hand, affliction magnifies the pressure to go the other way and resent God, rather than glorify him.

    3.  There is no suffering in heaven. This means that, for Christians, all earthly suffering is actually suffering for the Lord, who sees us as currently having a mission on this planet. We might sometimes suppose our role down here is too insignificant to be worth the cost, but that does not mean we can see the full picture as accurately as the all-knowing Lord.

    4.  Unlike, for example, birth defects, persecution might be voluntarily entered into, but everyone has the chance to respond to any type of suffering heroically or shamefully. Some forms of suffering might be involuntary, but responding in a Christ-honoring way is always voluntary. Superficially, suffering persecution might seem more heroic than joyfully enduring other forms of affliction, but that is an illusion.

    5.  Even without there being a human persecutor, suffering can often be a form of persecution. God’s Word reveals that when Job suffered a painful illness, he was being persecuted for his faith (Job 2:3-7). To realize this, however, one had to glimpse the spirit world, because the persecutor – the one tormenting him because of his faith – was Satan himself.

    I said that to keep everyone on board I would not cite Job as authoritative. So let’s jump to the New Testament. Those of us who do not like to think that the faith-giant, Paul, could have suffered sickness are particularly keen to presume that persecution was the “thorn” that tormented him. Regardless of its exact nature, however, Paul saw beyond any human agency and discerned it as “a messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

    Regardless of the presence or absence of human pawns, “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This again renders diverse forms of suffering spiritually identical.

    Trace it back far enough – perhaps as far back as Adam – and it turns out that, just like persecution, every form of suffering afflicting the righteous has its origin not in God’s perfect will but in someone (human or not) violating God’s perfect will and doing things that break his heart.

For Christians, persecution and other forms of suffering are twins. The same principles apply to every form of suffering that the righteous endure. And it is vital for our understanding and comfort that we never lose sight of this. I know, because for most of my life I had missed this, and it was a bigger loss than I ever imagined.

In the midst of any form of suffering, it is always heroic to keep rejoicing in God and faithfully serving him to the max (even though, like being in solitary confinement for one’s faith, that might be devastatingly little). It is important to realize that, even if no one on earth sees it, such faithfulness is worthy of eternal acclaim and will one day be acknowledged as such. As I have written elsewhere:

    Scott and his team, struggled to the South Pole only to discover their honor of being the first to reach the Pole was lost forever. Amundsen had beaten them by about a month. To add to the futility, they endured further blizzards, illness, frostbite and starvation only to perish; the last three dying just a few miles from safety. Yet today their miserable defeat ending with death in frozen isolation, witnessed by not a living soul, is hailed as one of the greatest ever epics of human exploration and endurance.

    Every fiber of my being is convinced that their glory is just a shadow of what you can achieve. Though you suffer in isolation and apparent futility, with the depths of your trial known to no one on earth, your name could be blazed in heaven’s lights, honored forever by heaven’s throngs for your epic struggle with illness, bereavement, or whatever. The day is coming when what is endured in secret will be shouted from the housetops. Look at Job: bewildered, maligned, misunderstood; battling not some epic foe but essentially common things – a financial reversal, bereavement, illness; – not cheered on by screaming fans, just booed by some one-time friends. If even on this crazy planet Job is honored today, I can’t imagine the acclaim awaiting you when all is revealed. Your battle with life’s miseries can be as daring as David’s encounter with Goliath. Don’t worry that others don’t understand this at present. One day they will. And that day will never end.

To suppose something is heroic only if it is acknowledged by fellow humans is to deny the supreme importance of God. If, for you, God alone isn’t enough, you don’t know God. Many of us would do astonishing things for fame or self-satisfaction, but what will we do solely for Christ? That’s the issue that keeps heaven abuzz.

Not only are some of us inclined to create an artificial divide between the suffering of a martyr and other forms of suffering, some even feel pressured to edge towards the seemingly inconsistent extreme of acknowledging severe persecution as a mark of honor (since Scripture leaves us little option) while regarding other forms of suffering as indicative of a lack of faith or godliness, and hence a source of shame. If this is muddled thinking, I dare not be too critical because at times I myself have slid in that direction. In fact, as already hinted, it is the final shattering of the hold this lie has had on me that has made the writing of this webpage such a personal blessing.

To help us see things clearer, let’s briefly consider the next question.

Did Jesus suffer temptation on earth so that we need never suffer temptation?

As already hinted, if Jesus suffered to spare us all suffering, that’s thrilling news for some, but devastating for those who are already suffering, since it implies that even the most devout sufferers are spiritual failures. Dare we risk magnifying their torment and getting the wrong side of God by acting like Job’s self-appointed experts?

Now that we know that all forms of suffering bear many spiritual similarities, any insight into one form is likely to help us understand the spiritual implications of other forms of suffering. For this reason, it might prove helpful to glance at temptation for insight into whether Christ’s suffering means we will never suffer.

Suffering and temptation are interconnected. I cannot conceive suffering stronger temptation than being tortured in the hope that one would renounce Christ. There is an element of suffering in other forms of temptation, however. Sometimes temptation might be little more annoying than a pesky fly, but consider, for example, what Jesus endured in the wilderness when, after not having eaten for weeks, he was tormented by the possibility of turning rocks into food. Such suffering has empowered Jesus to tenderly but victoriously minister to us (Hebrews 4:15-16) when we suffer the torment of craving things we must resist in order to honor God.

By suffering on the cross, Jesus defeated Satan on our behalf, thus ensuring that we need never suffer spiritual defeat. So, in the wilderness and especially on the cross, Jesus suffered so that we can enjoy victory over temptation. But did he suffer so that those in spiritual union with him would never suffer temptation? The gut-wrenching moral falls of Christian leaders is certainly strong circumstantial evidence that not even spiritual maturity shields us from temptation.

Even though, through Jesus’ suffering, we will enjoy freedom from temptation in heaven, it’s different down here. Not even Christ-bought Christians basking in Jesus’ victory, and living it to the full, are spared temptations that are common to every human on earth (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). Our Lord’s suffering has, however, paved the way for us “to endure it” victoriously (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Does this principle extend beyond temptation to other forms of suffering?

A careful reading of the Bible reveals that, instead of teaching that Christ suffered in this world so that we would never suffer down here, the Bible says virtually the opposite: that he suffered to inspire us to suffer as he did. Note in all the following, the emphasis is not on emulating Jesus as a teacher or miracle worker but emulating him in extreme suffering:

    1 Peter 2:20-21 But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering, this is commendable with God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps

    1 Peter 4:1 Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind . . .

    Hebrews 12:2-4 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who . . . endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (NIV)

    Matthew 20:27-28 Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

    Mark 8:34 He called the multitude to himself with his disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

    (Emphasis mine.)

Christ’s voluntary sacrifice is the most pivotal event in human history. It was cataclysmic for evil and the greatest of all triumphs for good. It not merely transformed our spiritual and eternal destinies; it reversed them.

All of these Scriptures stress, however, that Christ suffered not to shield us from earthly suffering, but almost the opposite: to inspire us to embrace suffering as he did.

When I stopped to seriously think about it, extolling Christ’s suffering as the highest example for us to copy is so astonishingly common – and hence such a vitally important theme – that there are as many more Scriptures devoted to this as those cited above. For an additional five Scriptures stating this, see Christ’s suffering: Our Example. Finding all of these was so easy and the list grew long so quickly that I haven’t bothered to ensure my list is exhaustive.

I challenge you to prayerfully question why our Lord so strongly emphasizes this in his Word. And it carries even more weight when we realize that our Lord’s suffering, whilst most intense from his anguished prayers in the garden until his dying breath (Matthew 26:36), was by no means restricted to the end portion of his earthly life. Not merely by heaven’s standards but by our own, right from Jesus’ conception, our Lord’s time on earth was hardly a divinely pampered one. Rather than being an aberration of his earthly existence, Christ’s crucifixion was the culmination of a lifetime of being rejected, ridiculed, misunderstood (even by his most loyal disciples) and mistreated. If you are convinced about the extent to which Christ suffered, not just in his last few hours but throughout his time on earth, keep reading, but for a deeper insight, please read Jesus’ Suffering Prior to Gethsemane.

Being Christlike is not luxuriating while the rest of humanity hurtles to hell. It is being enmeshed in the horror of the battle, facing hostility and hardship with the love of God. There was nothing wimpish about Jesus. He was courageous, resolute and strong. He not only made himself our living example but through his atonement he has done all it takes spiritually to make us heroes like him. Having achieved all this for us, he now expects us to keep moving toward the goal of being as willing as him to embrace severe hardship.

I confess that, although half-aware that it was an oversimplification, I had for years let myself slide into giving more weight than warranted to reducing into the briefest of formulas the mind-boggling breadth of all that Christ achieved on the cross. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that although there is priceless truth in saying that Christ suffered so that we won’t suffer, it is not nearly as precise as I had hoped, but a sloppy oversimplification.

The problem with half-truths – no matter how well-intentioned – is that they are half-lies. Lies are as exciting as a mirage to someone dying of thirst. Ultimately, however, whereas truths empower us, lies set us for failure and crushing disappointment. Truth heals; lies wound.

Later, we will look at another aspect of the cost of godliness: we were born again to be like God, and to this day he is selflessly compassionate and deeply distressed over humanity. Scripture shows God not as currently sitting on his throne in endless bliss but reeling in emotional pain over the atrocious ways his loved ones (every human on this planet) act. We will leave this until further on, however.

The direction we have so far taken seems to be indicating rather emphatically that, just as a significant part of Jesus’ earthly ministry involved suffering, so it plays a role in the earthly ministry of Spirit-filled followers. Will looking at this from another perspective, however, confirm this, or will it suddenly reverse things or take it in an entirely different direction? Let’s see by examining another form of suffering highlighted in the Bible.

What comforting advice does Scripture offer slaves suffering under non-Christian slavemasters?

Like persecution, slavery is a type of suffering that the Bible mentions with what to us is surprising frequency because it was more common back then. More accurately, slavery was less secretive in those days. Slavery is actually becoming appallingly common in our own society in a dark underworld exploiting hapless people desperate to migrate to safer, richer countries. Tragically, many are treated far worse than most slaves in Roman times.

Imagine the humiliation of being a first-century slave. Maybe you were born a slave or become one through defeat in a war or maybe through falling hopelessly into debt caused by things beyond your control, such as drought, or perhaps through your own stupidity or even addictive behavior.

Once enslaved, you could languish in defeat and despair, or let bitterness hollow you out, or you could do as Scripture exhorts. Before plunging into what the Bible advises, however, let’s first acknowledge what it does not tell slaves. It is rather astonishing.

Many of today’s preachers would quote all sorts of Scriptures about our spiritual authority and tell slaves to pray, fast and believe God for instant deliverance from the oppression of slavery. In bewildering contrast, the inspired Word of God says nothing like that to the vast number of first-century Christian slaves. (Remember, the Bible addresses slaves about as often as it does married couples or children.)

There is only one New Testament passage that gets even close to suggesting one should try to extract oneself from slavery, and even this begins this way:

    1 Corinthians 7:20-21 Let each man stay in that calling in which he was called. Were you called being a bondservant? Don’t let that bother you . . .

If you were a slave when you came to Christ, “Don’t let that bother you”! “Well, never mind,” is how The Good News Translation puts it. Just lie down and accept it? Is this for real? In fact, it refers to slavery as a calling. The verse then goes on to say, almost as an after-thought:

    1 Corinthians 7:21 . . . but if you get an opportunity to become free, use it. . . .

(Most slaves, through faithful service, could eventually work their way to freedom.)

It’s interesting that this, the only suggestion that being free is even desirable, is in the very chapter that almost no one wants to take seriously. This is the chapter that says that denying oneself marriage, sex and children is better than being married.

When we find ourselves at odds with the Bible (and this will grow increasingly likely as we proceed) our mind cleverly goes into overdrive, trying to twist Scripture into conforming to our preconceptions. Or we try to shove it out of our thoughts like an embarrassing secret, or treat it like an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise exquisite masterpiece. Or, whilst being far too holy to dare use such words, we might even flatter ourselves by secretly congratulating ourselves on being more ‘enlightened’ than God’s Word. But when biblical thinking clashes with our own thinking, could it actually be time to reassess our thinking?

Are we as smart as we suppose, or more worldly than we dare think? As tempting as it is to sideline Scriptures we don’t like, let’s shock ourselves out of our deluded stupor with an icy confrontation with reality: it is God, not us, who is the greatest mind in the universe. He is the one whose ways are “unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3; Isaiah 40:28; Romans 11:33). Or did we suddenly gain that title? “No one is good – except God alone,” said Jesus (Mark 10:18, NIV). We, on the other hand, are so easily deceived that Scripture says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Consider this: what’s the point of being given a book crammed with divine revelation if it’s what our own heads would have come up with?

With this in mind, let’s see what the rest of the New Testament says to slaves (using the NIV):

    1 Peter 2:18-21 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. . . . if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (Emphasis mine.)

    Ephesians 6:5-7 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart . . . like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men

    Colossians 3:22-24 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

If referring to slavery as a calling is startling in 1 Corinthians 7:21, the quote above from 1 Peter 2 is even more so, as it refers to unjust suffering as a divine calling or vocation and “commendable before God.” That anyone could be divinely called to be a slave seems bewildering until we peer behind the gloss of every calling.

It is an overwhelmingly immense honor to be called of God to serve the Lord of glory in any capacity. Just, however, as the Son of God’s earthly assignment ended in eternal glory but involved unspeakable agony and humiliation, there is almost inevitably a grueling side to every divine mission. Fake heroes might have it easy, but nothing fake enters heaven. There is nothing cushy about true heroism. With heroism, the more grisly the ordeal, the greater the acclaim. The hazards are not futile. On the contrary, they are the very thing that creates the glory. In the words of 2 Corinthians 4:17, our “affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison”. (NASB and NET Bible, emphasis mine). Still more scriptures speak of the inseparable connection between suffering and eternal glory. As fire generates light and warmth so, for Christians, arduous times generate eternal acclaim.

Consider Joseph’s harrowing route to Pharaoh’s court. Think of Moses before the burning bush, shrinking from his call. Obediently forcing himself to do what he recoiled from not only infuriated the Pharaoh but the people Moses was trying to help ended up suffering more than ever and turning against Moses (Scripture). Think, too, of David fleeing from Saul like a hunted animal. Think of Elijah wishing he were dead (1 Kings 19:4). Think of Jeremiah complaining that he was ever born (Jeremiah 15:10; 20:18). On and on, I could go (for more, see The Cost of Service) but must I? Our exalted Lord, the beloved Son in whom the Almighty was well pleased (Matthew 3:17) was not only called to suffer as the lowest criminal (Philippians 2:5-8), he declared:

    Luke 6:22 Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake.

    Matthew 10:22, 24-25 You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved. . . . A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!

Asking, what comforting advice Scripture offers slaves suffering under non-Christian slavemasters, might have you scratching your head. Scripture’s directives to slaves, however, are not only comforting but thrilling – and not just for slaves, but for all who practice it. Dare to live this way, and you will discover that turning anything oppressive into an act of service to God, turns a tragedy into a triumph. Let me explain:

Attitude changes everything. Turn something into an expression of your love for God, and everything turns around. It not only lifts us; it impacts heaven. Love shines the mundane – even the catastrophic – until it gleams with eternal glory. It transforms everything. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God(Romans 8:28, emphasis mine).

Scripture insists that, stripped of love, even the noblest acts – martyrdom, giving all one owns to the poor, mountain-moving faith, or whatever – are a useless waste (1 Corinthians 13:2-3). Love for God, however, lifts what might otherwise be a useless waste – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical disability, chronic pain, terminal illness, or whatever – and transforms it into something noble. Without love for God, even the highest is pathetic, but with such love, even the most pathetic things become priceless.

This raises the next question.

How desirable is ease, riches, popularity, etc?

Certain big name preachers suggest we should become rich and famous to make non-Christians envious and so win them to Christ. That’s about as far from being a slave as anyone can get. I do not want to spend long on this but this matter is highly pertinent to God’s view of suffering.

When a friend recently asked me about this evangelistic strategy, my first worry was how the Author of the Ten Commandments would view a deliberate attempt to entice people to break the tenth commandment: coveting. Dare any of us, in the name of the Holy Lord, join the Evil One in tempting someone? How, precisely, would our Judge feel, after filling his Word with such things as the following?

    * “the deceitfulness of riches choke the word”

    * “it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom”

    * “You can’t serve both God and Mammon”

    * “Woe to you who are rich!”

    * “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows”

    * “Those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction”

    (These and other such Scriptures)

Instead of pursuing this, however, I retorted, “In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the man who begged at his gate (Luke 16:19-26), who was the hero?”

That got me thinking. Who won Jesus’ praise in the following Gospel stories?

    * Jesus’ parable of the revered priest, the holy Levite and the despised person we call the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30).

    * Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman whose tears wet Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:37-48).

    * The crazed man with the legion of demons or the locals who were so disturbed by his deliverance that they asked Jesus to leave (Mark 5:15-17).

    * The parable of the guilt-ridden, despicable tax-collector and the clean-living Pharisee praying in the temple (Luke 18:10-14).

    * The prosperous people and the impoverished widow putting money in the temple offering (Luke 21:1-4).

    * Zacchaeus, the tree-climbing runt of a tax collector scorned by the crowd (Luke 19:2-10).

    * The successful man in Jesus’ parable who had to build bigger barns to store all his wealth (Luke 12:16-12).

    * Blind Bartimaeus in the midst of an embarrassed crowd, who tried to hush him up (Mark 10:46-52).

    * The once-blind man whom the ‘righteous’ threw out of the synagogue (John 9:22-41).

On and on I could go, listing all the beggars, nobodies and social outcasts featured in the Gospels.

Don’t like obscurity? Want to make a name for yourself? Then Jesus isn’t for you. He was forever zeroing in on society’s rejects for special attention or praise. They were the ones who warmed his heart.

Consider the twelve Jesus singled out for special training. Even the disciples we know most about were lowly fishermen and a despised tax collector (Matthew 9:9). Who among that motley band could be considered successful, popular or respected? Celebrities, super-heroes or scholars, they were not. In fact, they sloshed around somewhere at the opposite end of the scale.

Educated? Sophisticated? You’re joking! It’s highly doubtful that any had money but even if they did, Jesus told them to give it away. They were hot-heads, forever saying or doing lame-brained things. You would think their sole purpose was to make Jesus look smart and patient – except that they were the ones to whom Jesus entrusted the gospel message and world evangelism.

Jesus could have chosen Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler who came to Jesus asking about being born again (John 3:1-10) and later stuck up for Jesus (John 7:50-52) and still later brought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (John 19:39). He could have chosen rich Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple who gave Jesus his tomb and tended to his body (Matthew 27:57-60). There must have been many other candidates more promising and respected than the twelve Jesus singled out. In fact, most of even the twelve barely rate a mention in the Bible. Most of them remain obscure to us, but not to heaven. How the world sees things is of no consequence. What matters is how our eternal Judge sees things. In fact, Jesus said, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!” (Luke 6:26, KJV). Anyone disagreeing with his assessment will be proven wrong for all eternity (Scriptures).

Emphasizing the immense value of what is seen by God alone is, of course, fully consistent with Jesus’ teaching:

    Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Therefore when you do merciful deeds, don’t sound a trumpet before yourself, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may get glory from men. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
    When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. . . .
    Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

For many more such Scriptures, see The Immense Value of Doing What Only God Sees.

If there are times when only God is aware of what you think or do, never forget there is no such thing as ‘only’ God. Place God on one side of the scale of importance and put on the other side the entire universe, along with every living being, and the scale would not budge. Relative to him, everything else weighs less than a speck of dust (Scriptures).

We live in a world that ignores God. It is therefore to be expected that it would measure people’s achievement not by how God sees things but by their fleeting fame and/or impact on this world. The sad thing, however, is how swayed many Christians are by such worldly thinking.

You might recall Naaman, the military commander struck with leprosy who would eagerly have done anything great for God, but crept precariously close to missing his miracle by dismissing as too humdrum what God actually asked of him (2 Kings 5:9-14). May we muster the humility to end up choosing as wisely as him. Often, the way we handle what seems insignificant is a better test of devotion than the spectacular.

Remember the origin of the saying that obedience is better than sacrifice. The Lord told Saul to destroy all the enemy’s captured livestock. That seemed a waste. Wouldn’t it be better to turn this into a spectacular sacrifice – an enormous thank-offering to the Almighty? The king tried telling himself that this would be nobler. So important is simply obeying God, however, that Saul lost his dynasty over choosing an impressive display of devotion and worship over what we might dismiss as a useless waste (1 Samuel 15:1-23).

Think of Sarah and Abraham suffering all the shame and emptiness of childlessness, year after year after year after year after year after year after year after year after . . . I’ll stop. I’m too embarrassed to waste a millisecond of your life for every year that they suffered this. For them, every interminable moment became as much a testimony to the power of faith as every moment spent proudly displaying their baby. Who would be impressed by the greatness of the miracle if Isaac had been born when they were in their twenties? How could that inspire others to hold on in faith year after year?

Every torturous prolonging of their agony ended up bringing more glory to God (and ultimately to themselves) as they faithfully endured it, and every slip-up on the way – and there were several – is instructive to us.

We can see how God could treasure suffering for Christ as an exquisite act of love but what Scripture says about slaves enduring their indignity opens for everyone enormous other opportunities to delight our Lord – opportunities many of us might never have seen.

The mysteries of suffering might be profound but they are strewn with beauty because the stupendously compassionate Lord, whilst most definitely not the cause of suffering, is himself an active participant. We never suffer alone. The lover of our souls suffers with us.

Human feelings are such poor indicators of spiritual truth that it can feel as if God is aloof, even though nothing could be further from reality. One of the practical implications of the infinity of God’s love and knowledge is that he is highly sensitized to everything about you.

Christian, the Almighty is so intimately connected to you that Scripture emphasizes over and over that he is in you and you are in him (Many Scriptures, with notes). You and he are one; more intimately intertwined than co-joined twins. He has invested more in you and is more alert to everything affecting you than is humanly possible. He is more aware than even you are of your every thought and feeling, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your astonishing potential, your past, your present, your future.

And your pain cuts him like a knife.

We have so many wondrous things to discover before the end of this webpage that we have barely begun. Nevertheless, we have already progressed by glimpsing two very different types of suffering spotlighted in Scripture: persecution and slavery. We have seen that not only can suffering for Christ be heroic and bring both God and us eternal glory, as it did for Christ, so can any suffering achieve this, if endured – indeed endowed – with the right attitude, the most important of which are love and faith (Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 1:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:3, 6; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; Philemon 1:5), which lead to the final part of the glorious triplet (1 Corinthians 13:13; Colossians 1:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:8): the sure hope of eternal reward.

Can it sometimes not be worth it?

We would expect most highly successful people to consider it worth all the sacrifice it took to reach the heights they are now renowned for. But what of all those who paid almost as high a price – maybe even higher – without ever making it to the bigtime? How many of them, I wonder, consider all the hardship nothing but a useless waste? Can the same apply to Christians? Aren’t there some for whom the price was too high and the success too low? The cost is so real that Jesus advised us to weight it up before following him (Luke 14:28-32). Is it ever too high relative to the benefits?

Before diving into this vital matter, there is a rather vague but relevant factor I should try to explain. An easy, risk-free, cost-free life ends us more bland and less fulfilling than one might expect. With too much comfort, the thrill and sense of achievement leaches out of life. To help me convey this, ponder with me a couple of scenarios.

Imagine yourself overcoming great odds and winning such a victory that upon entering heaven angels fall at your feet and for all eternity everyone praises your heroism. Now, instead, imagine yourself receiving such a reception for merely combing your hair. The prestige might be same but wouldn’t the acclaim leave you feeling hollow?

God can (and does) give us astonishing gifts that are totally undeserved. In some ways, however, his greatest gift is giving us the opportunity to face real hardship and become real heroes. Only through Christ as our trail-blazer, commander and ever-present help can we win such victories. Nevertheless, God is so selfless and loves us so much that he is willing to partner with us so as to grant us real glory, not just honor that is actually exclusively his.

Deep down, we tend to feel that anything that costs little is worth little. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., you have nothing worth living for if you have nothing worth dying for. This and a number of related sayings remain in circulation because they ring true. Here’s one: all sunshine makes a desert. Here’s another: too much of a good thing . . . Despite many of us supposing we cannot have too much sweetness, luxury or self-indulgence, these sayings, made popular by people’s personal experiences, shout otherwise. More significantly, so does God’s Word:

    Proverbs 25:27 It is not good to eat much honey . . .

God is no killjoy. A little honey is fine, affirms an earlier verse; it’s just that too much would spoil things by turning our stomach (Proverbs 25:16). Of course, being a proverb, this is highlighting a life-principle that extends far beyond honey. It is divine confirmation that it really is possible to have too much of a good thing – that by being overly pampered with them, even sweet, desirable things can turn surprisingly sour.

The good Lord never wants to deprive us. Instead, he longs for us to maximize our long-term well-being and live a regret-free life. We can get the most out of life and spare ourselves needless discomfort by trusting God’s leading, rather than having to learn by bitter experience. We can snuggle into the assurance that our wise, loving Lord truly cares.

We will quickly move on, but let’s first briefly consider three other angles:

    1.  Maybe those with the deepest regrets are those agonizing for the rest of their lives over what they might have achieved had they exerted themselves a little more.

    2.  More often than we would expect, what we would think would be ‘living the dream’ ends up living a nightmare. Consider, for example, records of all the winners of instant megabucks whose short-term ecstasy turned to tragedy (16 Tragic Lottery Winner Stories). We can be so disastrously wrong about what seems an ideal situation that maybe we really would be better off leaving it in God’s hands.

    3.  Whilst there is no denying that following Christ costs, we need to consider very carefully how exorbitant is the cost of not following him.

A fulfilling life needs challenges. A successful writer of soap operas said happy people are boring people. Let’s plunge deeper into whether for Christians there can be times when it simply isn’t worth all the effort.

We know that our Leader’s agony on the cross was of incalculable worth, even though at the time perhaps every spectator thought it a horrible and useless defeat, and even though millions since, despite the benefit of hindsight, have rejected the salvation he suffered so intensely to provide. Not only was his suffering not wasted, it is his greatest glory. In addition to achieving spiritual wonders as nothing else could ever do, the very thought of his sacrifice floods us with love, awe and admiration for him.

So it is with all who follow him: no matter how useless our efforts might seem in the short-term, all who suffer for our glorious leader have this divine guarantee:

    1 Corinthians 15:58  . . . be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (Emphasis mine.)

Anything achieved without Christ will fizzle to nothing (John 15:5) but everything done at his command is of infinite value. This does not mean the priceless worth of our efforts will always be obvious this side of eternity.

Neither does it mean that in the lives of others, what we do in divine obedience will always achieve great things. Their response is in their hands, not ours, nor even God’s. What it means, however, is that our efforts will achieve things of critical importance and will win for us and for our Lord great honor and will be acclaimed as such for all eternity (Brief explanation).

No matter how much being rejected by everyone you are seeking to help can expose you to the snarling lie that your efforts are in vain, challenges can pile far higher than that. Think of an athlete hoping for worldwide fame who, instead, finds himself sentenced to undergoing tough, repetitive, seemingly meaningless training sessions in obscurity. Most of us can multiply that by ten because we have no idea what the divine masterplan is, let alone how our efforts could possibly fit into it. Think of Joseph languishing in prison with everyone convinced he is a sex offender.

Yes, your loving Lord ensures your efforts are never in vain but it might take everything you have to muster the faith to hang on to that truth. And all this adds to your glory, just like every humiliation your Savior endured added to his.

To be in submission to the eternal Lord of glory is to be caught up in missions of divine significance so superhumanly ingenious that the Almighty can confidently tell the greatest human mind:

    Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And not only are God’s plans magnificent beyond word, they never fail:

    Isaiah 55:10-11 For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky, and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth, and makes it grow and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so is my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please, and it will prosper in the thing I sent it to do.

As God’s rain never falls to the ground without bringing life to a desert, so his Son’s tears, sweat and blood never fell in vain. And so it is with everyone whose sensors are locked into following him.

Since the Almighty’s plans are indescribably great and never fail, and he is glued to us by the blood of his only Son and the infinity of his love, not the tiniest speck of anything divinely assigned to us is ever wasted. Here’s another way of saying this:

    Romans 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us.

    2 Corinthians 4:17 For our light affliction, which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory

The never-ending glory is so breathtakingly beyond imagining that it renders light and momentary even Paul’s enormous list of sorrows and agonies.

The answer to why Christians suffer would be easy if it were because, through ignorance, disobedience, lack of faith, or whatever, they fail to appropriate all the benefits Christ purchased for us on the cross. However, we keep finding more and more biblical affirmation that this is by no means always so. In fact, the question becomes why good Christians suffer. It’s time to look into this.

Why does God delay rewarding his faithful ones?

Some of us entertain the fantasy that life on earth should be a picnic and that leaving this ‘paradise’ is a tragedy. Nevertheless, there can be no denying among Bible believers that the next life is so very much better for Christians. In fact, not just once but in two very different letters, Paul said he would prefer to be in heaven:

    2 Corinthians 5:8 we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (NIV and many other versions.)

    Philippians 1:23 I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

Scripture speaks of mind-boggling rewards, but why can’t we have them now?

To be frank, I don’t like making much of the reward because we humans have an appalling tendency to corrupt the most beautiful things and let greed spoil everything.

I recall a pastor saying that whenever he left his family to go on a preaching tour he would return with gifts but his children would get so rapt in his presents that they became barely aware of his presence. So that the focus could be on the joy of being together, he decided to delay gift-giving until a day or so later. Compared with you and the Lord enjoying each other, the most extravagant gifts are mere trinkets.

Nevertheless, eternal rewards are real and immense because God is the loving Lord who delights in showering us with gifts. Moreover, when we are in continual agony and suffering gross injustice, we need to know it is not forever.

Why have the critical duties of evangelism and being Jesus’ witnesses been divinely entrusted to ordinary people rather than angels?

This is the first question that came to me as I pondered issues that led to creating this webpage. I knew that if I could find the answer to why God chose us, not angels, to be his witnesses, I would be well on the way towards knowing why good Christians suffer.

You might need some background to see the connection.

I have long realized that Christians suffer on earth because they are not yet in heaven. You must be staggered by my intellectual powers in having figured that out. Nevertheless, it’s significant. Had we been whisked off to heaven, our suffering would be over. Why hasn’t that happened? Clearly, regardless of how things seem to our short-sighted perspective, the all-knowing Lord is convinced we are needed down here. Why? Primarily it must be for the sake of those who, if they died this instant, would find themselves in serious trouble in the next life.

One reason why I say primarily rather than entirely is that, although many more of us should be in the frontline than currently are, a successful army is heavily dependent upon its support staff. By being on the spiritual war zone we call earth, we are exposed to opposition from human and spiritual enemies of God and to the consequences of living in a world that does not act according to God’s ways of love, selflessness, kindness, patience, goodness, self-control, wisdom and so on, but choose the ugly things that end up directly or indirectly hurting people, the environment and our gene pool.

This begs the question, however: why are Christians who are currently fulfilling an earthly mission not divinely placed in some sort of protective bubble, so that they are spared earthly suffering? The reason must be connected with why God has chosen us, rather than heavenly angels for critical roles in touching the lives of people down here.

We all greatly benefit from role models. The more someone differs from us, the harder it is for us to be inspired by their example to believe we can achieve similar things.

One of the biggest obstacles to people becoming Christians is that they wrongly but genuinely blame God for the suffering that evil (behavior that breaks God’s heart) brings to this planet, and they resent God for it. They need role models – people who obviously adore God despite their suffering.

I’m not suggesting either angels or humans forever in a bubble of divine protection (one might even say former humans) would completely fail; only that they would be less effective. Never forget the extremes our Savior went to in becoming fully human and agonizing on the cross to save people like you and me – people he loves more than life itself and yet who deserve nothing other than hell. That same Savior wants nothing less than the best in the way of agents helping people accept the message of the cross. Like Moses before the burning bush, we might think others can do a better job (Exodus 3:11, Exodus 4:10-13) but God makes no mistakes in his choices.

Moreover, if Christians were divinely protected from suffering, non-Christians could, with some justification, accuse the Holy One of manipulating them by using suffering to force people to come to him and bribes to entice them.

Why was Jesus unimpressed when people wanted to make him king because he fed the crowd (John 6:12-15, 26)?

How impressed would you be by someone who didn’t care about you but wanted to marry you for your money, or for the ease or status that marrying you might offer? If you want someone to marry you for love, not lesser things, can you conceive of how important this is for the God who said that us loving him and loving other people are the two most important things to him (Matthew 22:35-40)? We might want to be loved merely for selfish reasons but our Lord wants us because without love we will be morally depraved and never reach our God-given potential for greatness.

These people wanted Jesus, not because they wanted to be godly but for the physical things he offered, including protection and freedom from oppression (they wanted to make him king).

If Christians received physical benefits on earth, most people would want to be Christians for these things, not for spiritual reasons.

Most people who become ‘Christians’ in order to enjoy the ease and prosperity and safety of a protective bubble would not be Christians at all. They would still be “lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, . . . unthankful, unholy, . . . unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce,  . . . headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding a form of godliness, but having denied its power . . .” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). They might seem model Christians but they would be wolves in sheep’s clothing; Bible-carrying thieves, sex fiends, pleasure junkies, back-stabbers and/or spongers.

If you whine that God isn’t fair by sometimes letting us suffer as if we had not been divinely rescued from the consequences of our sin, remember how dramatically the cross proves our loving Lord asks nothing of us he would not do – indeed has done – for us. Even more sobering is that he alone was truly innocent. He alone is worthy of heaven’s bliss. We, on the other hand, contributed to this world’s sin and deserve never-ending suffering; banished forever from sin-free heaven. If, instead of recognizing this, we look down on sinners, we are in grave spiritual danger.

Most people who are angry at God think it is because God isn’t loving enough; unaware that the real reason is that, by their standards, God is too loving. They have no idea that if our Lord were to act like they want him to, he would have to be an unjust God who plays favorites by being kinder to them than to those they disapprove of.

Most of us want a God who comes down hard on sin, except our own sin.

Like the Bible-loving ‘righteous’ who crucified their Messiah, we are terrifyingly off-track if we imagine our sins are more minor or excusable than those of people we despise and that we deserve more mercy from God than them. Nevertheless, we are geniuses at dreaming up outlandish reasons why this should be so and why God should not tolerate a moment longer other people’s sins that directly or indirectly impact us.

To begin to grasp the gravity of one ‘minor’ sin, see One Sin. The Jesus who was so tender towards those who were crushed with sorrow over their own sin (Scriptures) is the same Jesus who tore strips off the self-righteous who looked down on others (Scriptures).

We are best able to see God’s heart when it is portrayed in human flesh.

“Look up at the stars. Are they shaken from their place if you sin?” asked one of Job’s friends. “Your sin or good living affects you, not God.” That’s my loose paraphrase of Job 35:5-8. Prior to Jesus, we might have philosophically speculated along those lines, but not after God was born. By becoming fully human, Jesus achieved so very much in revealing God to us. We have no idea, for example, of the extent to which angels are capable of feeling pain or human emotions. Through Jesus’ agony on the cross, however, we know that God is in no sense aloof but very personally and profoundly affected by human sin and human suffering.

Likewise, by us remaining fully human and subject to the frailties and suffering of sinful humanity, we can portray God more powerfully than any angel or human in a protective bubble.

The more you familiarize yourself with the Old Testament prophets, the more you will see that, soaring above their miracles or the accuracy of their prophecies, it is their very humanity and vulnerability that moves us. There is Jeremiah who wept over and over and over because of his nation’s sin. There is Elijah, who slumped into such depression that he wanted to die. For three years Isaiah went stripped and barefoot as a “sign” (Isaiah 20:3). Hosea married an adulterous woman (Hosea 1:2; 3:1) to demonstrate what God suffered. In order to emphasize the seriousness of his warnings, when Ezekiel’s precious wife, described as “the desire of your eyes” suddenly died, the Lord forbade him to as much as shed a tear or show any sign of mourning (Ezekiel 24:16-17). Similarly, Jeremiah was required to suffer the shame and loss of being childless and unmarried (Jeremiah 16:2). These things tug at our hearts. Our shared humanity recognizes the depth of their suffering and the seriousness of their plight, thus amplifying their message; touching us in ways that blissfully aloof beings could not.

If, for our sake, our innocent Lord became fully human and subject to suffering that sinful people are exposed to – in fact, suffered more than most – is he asking too much for us to remain fully human on this sin-ravished planet a little longer in the hope of us helping people who need salvation as desperately as we once did?

Ponder the implications of this revealing story:

    Matthew 18:23-35  . . . the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants.

    When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

    The servant therefore fell down and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

    “But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’

    “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due.

    So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done.

    Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’

    His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”

This parable is sympathetic and realistic, in that the amount the servant was owed – his loss; how much his act of kindness had cost him – was substantial. There is no glossing over it. The original hearers would have gasped. It would take a normal workingman years of hard, sacrificial saving to accumulate this pile of money (Details). The servant genuinely had something to complain about.

The shattering thing, however, is that the amount representing how much his sin had cost his Lord and how indebted he was to God was more than half a million times more.

For anyone so in debt to be so ungrateful and act so contrary to his Lord’s generous heart is a crime against humanity and a slap in the face to God. Sinners are so precious to God that, as the parable emphasizes, to fail to respect and help them with a fraction of the enormity of love that God has shown us, will not go unpunished.

Elsewhere, too, Jesus stressed that if we cannot be compassionate and forgiving towards those who hurt us, we disqualify ourselves from the divine mercy on which our salvation hinges (Examples).

There are more answers to come. We will see how suffering can benefit the sufferer as well as observers. The impact on observers, however, is of immeasurable significance. To save lives is something good people are willing to risk and endure much to attempt. Physically saving someone’s life, however, is merely delaying his death. Christians alone can be used of God to truly save lives.

What was the goal of Saul and other religious and political leaders in flogging and imprisoning Christians, and what are the implications?

Obviously, their goal was to silence Christians – to stop them ‘spreading lies’. But have you thought through the implications? Surely such drastic measures would have worked if these witnesses were lying and there was nothing obvious, such as money or fame, that was making it worth being tortured.

I am strongly opposed to authorities ever resorting to torture. We know that the temptation to descend into barbarianism is fired by the likelihood of extracting the truth from people. The early Christians sticking to their story despite being flogged or facing martyrdom, plus there being no fleshly benefits, makes them highly credible witnesses.

As much as I recoil from it, the truth is that their suffering has been a significant factor in personally convincing me they were certain they were telling the truth when claiming that Jesus rose from the dead. I confess that it boils down to this: I don’t know that I could have mustered the faith to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (a belief fundament to salvation – 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) had these early witnesses been divinely protected from torture.

Likewise, the suffering of subsequent generations of Christians adds great credibility to their message and to their claim that what Jesus offers is more important than anything the world offers. On the other hand, the fame, material prosperity and apparently easy life of some Christian leaders significantly detract from this.

Looking at the Apostle Paul further convinces me that suffering adds credibility and empowers one’s message. Many people squirm when reading his anointed writings. Some have real issues with him. Perhaps I would, too, were it not for me being in awe of him because of the stupendous courage, endurance and love for Christ he displayed by what he suffered. I would count it an honor to spend eternity trimming his toenails.

If a spirit/angel appears, how do you know this alien being is not an evil (and hence deceptive) spirit? Supernatural signs would merely prove the spokesperson is supernatural, not that he is trustworthy. Humans, too, can lie, but when they are dying or being tortured they are more likely to be reliable witnesses. Moreover, being human ourselves makes us more confident in detecting human liars. A skeptic might find an angel’s claims more believable if it were possible for an angel to be on his death bed or being tortured to extract truth but, even then, how does one know an alien is not faking pain? In short, it turns out that someone would be more believable if he were not an angel or a former human who is now in a protective bubble, but fully human. What a staggering conclusion to having taken the time to think this through! You might even need to re-read this paragraph to check the steps that produced this unexpected result.

Why is it so often said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”?

This quote, originating way back in 197 AD (compare John 12:24) is often repeated. This is because history has confirmed over and over not only that suffering adds credibility but it produces stronger Christians.

I am not for a moment suggesting that our Lord wants it to be this way – it is to our shame – but it’s a sad fact of life that without suffering, few, if any, of us would be sufficiently motivated to reach our full spiritual potential.

“Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth,” says Colossians 3:2. This is hard to maintain when our lives are so comfortable that things on earth seem attractive. Almost inevitably, the easier and more desirable our earthly lives are, the harder it is for us to wrench our attention away from temporary things and stay focused on spiritual matters. Suffering makes earthly matters less enticing.

When, after a hard life wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were about to receive increased ease and material prosperity, Moses was compelled to issue this warning:

    Deuteronomy 6:10-12  . . . when the Lord your God brings you into the land . . . to give you, great and goodly cities, which you didn’t build, and houses full of all good things, which you didn’t fill, and cisterns dug out, which you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you didn’t plant, and you shall eat and be full; then beware lest you forget the Lord . . . (Emphasis mine.)

Even of Jesus, we read:

    Hebrews 5:7-8 He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and . . . though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Emphasis mine.)

Consider the writer of the Bible’s longest Psalm. The merest glance at his inspired work shouts that he was an exceptionally devout and spiritual person. Here’s an almost random sampling:

    Psalm 119:10-11,14,18,20,44,97,103 With my whole heart, I have sought you.
    Don’t let me wander from your commandments.
    I have hidden your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you. . . .
    I have rejoiced in the way of your testimonies,
    as much as in all riches. . . .
    Open my eyes,
    that I may see wondrous things out of your law. . . .
    My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times. . . .
    So I will obey your law continually,
    forever and ever. . . .
    How I love your law!
    It is my meditation all day. . . .
    How sweet are your promises to my taste,
    more than honey to my mouth!

Nevertheless, this amazing man of God confesses that he now loves God’s Word and lives it, but only because an affliction (some form of suffering) brought him to his senses:

    Psalm 119:67, 71, 75 Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now I observe your word. . . . It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes. . . . in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

This strongly suggests that had he continued in a life of ease he might have ended up spiritually damned.

Many of Jesus’ parables spotlight how high the stakes are. Consider, for example, the parable of the talents.

The “wicked and slothful servant” (Matthew 25:26) (very many versions of Matthew 25:30 also call him either “worthless” or “useless”) was lazy but clean living. He did not descend into an orgy of self-indulgence. He spent not a cent of the money on himself. In this sense, he was highly faithful, and yet look at the appalling consequences of him taking it easy:

    Matthew 25:30 Throw out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

So much is at stake that Jesus said:

    Matthew 5:29-30 If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.
    If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna.

And the stakes are so high that Paul had to write about a Christian living in sin:

    1 Corinthians 5:5  . . . deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

He also wrote:

    1 Corinthians 11:32 But when we are judged, we are punished by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.


    1 Corinthians 3:12-17 But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire.

    Don’t you know that you are a temple of God, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, which you are.

It is vitally important that we remain highly motivated spiritually, and for those having an easy, protected life such motivation is hard to maintain. Ironically, being physically safe can put us in spiritual danger by tempting us to slacken off.

Why does Scripture talk about suffering “refining” Christians?

    Isaiah 48:10 Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver. I have chosen you in the furnace of affliction. (Emphasis mine.)

The expression furnace of affliction sounds horrific. It is meant to. It refers to extreme suffering. Nevertheless, the Bible uses the expression not only as a picture of pain but because in Bible times – and even today, though we seldom stop to think of it – furnaces were immensely beneficial. It is only through furnaces that civilization was able to move beyond the Stone Age. The ancients discovered that the application of intense heat was the best thing that could happen to the metals they needed. Astonishingly, the Bible is saying by such references that suffering, though undeniably unpleasant, ends up being of such value to people of God that nothing can equal it.

Many Scriptures refer to hard times refining us (Examples), but here’s my favorite and I’d like to link it with another verse from the same letter:

    1 Peter 1:6-7 . . . now for a little while, if need be, you have been put to grief in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ

    1 Peter 4:12 Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you.

    (Emphasis mine.)

The reference to a fiery trial suggests a connection between the two verses and this link is, in fact, reflected in the original Greek.

Peter reminds us that gold is made still more precious by being “tested,” or refined, by fire. Oppressive heat is necessary to remove what is inferior. It purifies, thus increasing the metal’s value and usefulness. This is what Peter says suffering the pain and grief of “various trials” does to something within us that is more precious than even gold – genuine faith.

What makes faith so precious is that it is critically important to our entire walk with God. Not only are we saved by grace (our Lord mercifully showering us with blessing we in no way deserve) through faith (Romans 4:16; 5:2; Ephesians 2:8-9) but we can never ‘mature’ beyond an ongoing dependence on appropriating God’s grace through faith. Every aspect of our walk with God hinges on us continually repeating this process. To imagine that we can receive spiritual gifts or holiness or spiritual growth or answers to prayer or victory over demons or anything else of spiritual value by such means as the effort we put into prayer, fasting, self-denial, Bible study, tithing, charitable acts, or whatever, is to dangerously lose our way spiritually (Galatians 3:1-5). Faith is critical, and Peter says suffering plays a vital role in developing our faith.

Like the application of a refiner’s fire to what might have seemed to be pure gold, hard times expose flaws in our faith, thus allowing us to remove previously undetected deficiencies. Even if the process is initially unpleasant, it ends up making our faith more useful and valuable than ever.

Note the reference to various temptations/trials in the above quote (1 Peter 1:6-7). Some translations use the word manifold and the NET Bible chooses the expression “all sorts of trials.” As highlighted later by Peter, some trials are indeed “fiery” and include severe persecution and mind-numbing pain. Perhaps those on the extreme end of the scale achieve the most. Milder forms of suffering, however, are also able to produce good in our lives.

Until tested by hard times, we typically have an inflated opinion of our faith. What we think is solid faith often turns out to be shamefully weak faith artificially puffed up by circumstances (quick answers to prayer, an easy life, and so on) and feelings.

Regardless of how secure we might feel, for as long as we remain dependent upon emotions as signs of divine acceptance – such as feeling happy or secure or at ease or feeling loved by God and aware of his presence – we are in a spiritually precarious predicament. What makes us alarmingly vulnerable is that the enemy of our souls is the deceiver. He is unable to change spiritual reality – such as the enormity of God’s love and faithfulness and all that Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection. He can, however, mess with our feelings and, at times, our circumstances.

God’s dependability is rock-solid; our feelings are fickle. Even hormones and many other types of imbalances in our body chemistry (sometimes as simple as a vitamin or mineral deficiency) can wreak havoc with our feelings; causing depression (an inability to feel almost anything positive) or anxiety (which feels like a nagging guilty conscience, no matter how cleansed we are by the blood of our Lord, and can fill us with doubts, no matter how great our faith).

Trials typically have the effect of kicking from under our faith the artificial props of feelings or circumstances. When this happens most of us suddenly discover our faith is devastatingly weaker than we had supposed, and we flounder. Nevertheless, by exposing the weaknesses in our faith, trials enable us to purify our faith.

Imagine taking the crutches from someone crippled by a broken leg. This has every appearance of a sadistic act; reducing his ability to walk and increasing his pain. There comes a time in the healing process, however, when what seems like a cruel setback is essential for the person to grow stronger and fully mobile. He might have grown content to depend on crutches but being exposed to the temporary pain and inconvenience of having to hobble without artificial props, empowers him to reach his full potential; enabling him to achieve so much more.

A satanic attack might have been maliciously intended to smash our faith. Our astonishing Lord outwits the enemy, however, masterfully transforming the attack into a priceless opportunity for us to develop real faith that is founded on Christ, who will never let us down, rather than supported by flimsy feelings or circumstances that will inevitably crumble.

Both Jesus and Paul saw our spiritual development as like constructing a building (Scriptures). An unsound structure may look impressive but, eventually, events will reveal the quality of the build. The sooner we become aware of defects, the more likely we can avoid disaster.

Applying his different analogy to the same truth, Peter might put it this way: fiery trials might initially shock and discourage us by revealing that some of what we thought was genuine faith are actually impurities that reduce the value and usefulness of our faith. Once exposed, however, we can reject the inferior, skimming it away, so that all we rely on is utterly dependable.

I’m personally partial to viewing spiritual growth as akin to physical training, since both spiritual and physical development is typically slow and arduous, and affect our feelings. Like running or lifting weights, the longer a spiritual training session lasts, the more it hurts and the more pathetically weak we feel. Contrary to all appearances, however, it actually makes us stronger.

Peter is not the only apostle to understand the immense value of suffering. In fact, I can imagine no apostle not acutely aware of it, given how all the apostles in Jerusalem rejoiced at being counted worthy to suffer being flogged (Acts 5:29, 40-41). Here is the apostle James’ contribution to the subject:

    James 1:2-3 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

The meaning of the word here translated temptations goes beyond the narrow way we often use the term. Many Bible versions of this passage translate the word as trials, and a couple even refer to troubles. It is such a broad term that Thayer’s New Testament Greek-English Lexicon carves the word into nine shades of meaning.

In an earlier draft of this webpage, I wrote that the word has a wider meaning than satanic inducements to sin. I had intended that expression to be a narrow definition of what I think of as temptation. As I pondered my wording, however, I was startled to realize that almost all suffering could be viewed this way – something satanic in origin that keeps prodding us to sin; whether that sin be to compromise or to disobey, doubt, deny or disrespect our Lord.

Let’s now consider what James reveals that these trials produce: endurance. We have already seen the importance of endurance confirmed by the biblical emphasis that, ultimately, salvation hinges not merely on an adequate start but on enduring to the end. Just as increased endurance is of enormous value to athletes, so it is to Christians. Sufficient endurance makes people unstoppable no matter what is thrown at them. They cannot be defeated. And James insists that the way to develop this precious quality is through facing hard times.

An easy life keeps us weak; adversity builds strength. Of course, too much opposition might be counterproductive. Without God, adversity could reach levels that crush us. But we are not without God. As we keep looking to our faithful Lord, he ensures that, no matter what it feels like to us, oppression never mounts beyond what ends up doing us good.

By exposing imperfections, tough times strengthen our all-important faith. If that were all they achieved, tough times would be invaluable. But in addition, the Lord, speaking through James, reveals that such times build another vitally important spiritual quality: endurance. And the benefits don’t even stop there. Paul, in a remarkably similar Scripture, reveals that the benefits stretch still further:

    Romans 5:3-4 . . . we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope

Not only do endurance and persevere mean the virtually same thing in English, the word here translated perseverance is precisely the same Greek word that in James is translated endurance. (Interestingly, it is also the same word used in James 5:11 for the quality James praises Job for displaying.) So both James and Paul commence by declaring the same truth. Paul, however, goes further by saying that not only does suffering produce perseverance/endurance, but “proven character,” which is so valuable that it, in turn, leads to hope – the certainty of future reward.

Astonishingly, the Word of God reveals that still more personal benefits flow from suffering. For example, despite Christ being the beloved Son in whom God was well pleased (Mark 1:11) and the one by whom and for whom, all things were created (Colossians 1:16) and are sustained by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3), he had to grow in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Suffering – such as facing starvation and knowing that he could end it by a means God disapproved of – was an essential part of this learning process. We have already cited the relevant Scripture but it is so astonishing that it is worth repeating:

    Hebrews 5:8 though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered.

This suffering has uniquely empowered Christ to minister to us:

    Hebrews 2:17-18 Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.

    Hebrews 4:15 For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.

    (Emphasis mine.)

      Sidenote: We know that love is fundamental to Christian living (1 John 3:14; 4:7-8,16-17, 20-21). Jesus and other Scriptures affirm that the proof of love is obedience (John 14:15, 23-24; 15:10; 1 John 2:5; 5:3; 2 John 1:6). And we have just noted that even the Son of God learned obedience by what he suffered.

      When our desires happen to correspond with God’s wishes, to do as God wants is simply doing as we please. It is coincidence rather than obedience. At the heart of love and obedience is doing what someone wants when it clashes with what we want – when it hurts to follow that person’s directives.

      And it goes the other way too. Parental love, for example, includes requiring children to do good things that they do not want to do – stop fighting other children, eat vegetables, clean their teeth, get to bed on time, go to school, and so on. Likewise, a coach who thinks the world of his athlete and wants nothing but the best for him, will push him to keep breaking the pain barrier.

      So love, obedience and suffering are interrelated. I’ll explore more of the beauty of this statement later but for now, it is enough to realize that, seen in this light, suffering is very fundamental to the Christian life.

We also know from Paul’s experience that suffering can empower us for ministry:

    2 Corinthians 1:3-6 Blessed be the God . . . of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound to us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer.

Yet another thing we learn from Paul’s suffering is that hard times can protect us from spiritually dangerous pride (2 Corinthians 12:7).

That hard times end up doing good in God’s people is taught throughout Scripture. Consider this, for example:

    Deuteronomy 8:2, 16 You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. . . . who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers didn’t know; that he might humble you, and that he might prove you, to do you good at your latter end (Emphasis mine.)

It is true that the period stretched for forty years because of their lack of faith – and it is comforting that even then God’s plan was to do them good – but if they had been totally obedient faith-giants they still would have spent some time in the wilderness, being fed by manna, and so on.

Similarly, this psalm praises God for the good things flowing to God’s people through suffering:

    Psalm 66:8-12 Praise our God, you peoples! . . . For you, God, have tested us. You have refined us, as silver is refined. You brought us into prison. You laid a burden on our backs. You allowed men to ride over our heads. We went through fire and through water, but you brought us to the place of abundance.

As Hebrews 12:10 affirms, there’s a chance we might have benefitted from our parent’s discipline but it is certain we will benefit from God’s.

Often we want God to keep insulting us by babying us and treating us as hopelessly fragile, when he has immense faith in us and sees us as heroes in the making. Too many of us clash with God because we see ourselves as wimps, when he sees us as overcomers who will win for ourselves eternal acclaim. We want God to work externally, preventing hardship from touching us, when he wants to work internally, building strength and character in us.

As is typical of the Bible, the book of Revelation keeps pronouncing blessings and honor upon those who overcome adversity (Nine Examples). Whereas so many of us hanker for a religion that says it is okay to be a coward, this book ends with “But for the cowardly . . . their part is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

Elsewhere I have written much about trials and I will not repeat it here (see a link at the end of this webpage). Let me remind you, however, why top coaches give their best athletes the toughest training. It’s not to punish them, but because their coaches believe in them. Likewise, the training that elite soldiers receive is so grueling that it looks like cruelty but it can end up literally saving their lives.

“No pain, no gain” applies spiritually as well as physically. It’s an unavoidable part of becoming a champion. If even the perfect Son of God needed suffering to learn obedience and since, even after Christ’s triumph on the cross, Scripture emphasizes this, I see little chance of us finding another way to spiritually mature.

Hebrews 2:17-18 says it was essential that Jesus suffer like the rest of humanity. I can guess some of the reasons for this but most likely there are still more reasons that are beyond my grasp and that the same applies to our suffering. We can be certain, however, that suffering is not the useless waste that it often seems. When entrusted to the God who works all things together for good (Romans 8:28), our affliction achieves for us “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Yes, this glory peaks in the hereafter but even in this life, we can begin enjoying the benefits.

How much can we learn from the spiritual conspiracy to “sift” Peter “as wheat”?

I’ve spent days pondering the refining action of suffering. While doing so, I’ve been puzzling over the significance of a Scripture I knew must be closely related:

    Luke 22:31-32 Simon, Simon, behold, Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat, but I prayed for you, that your faith wouldn’t fail. You, when once you have turned again, establish your brothers.

I had never bothered to explore the details but I realized that sifting must be the agricultural equivalent of refining. Can you see the connection? Jesus was simply using another analogy to describe the process of adding value and making something more useful by removing the inferior. Moreover, as Scripture often does when using the metallurgical analogy of refining, Christ applied this to a spiritually challenging time in someone’s life. (I have since investigated this more; detailed in the brief note Sifting Wheat).

As I’ve thought long and hard about and Peter’s ‘sifting’ and subsequent denial, I discovered I needed to re-evaluate all of it. What I found astonished me.

First, note how Peter’s denial came about. It was instigated by an attack from Satan but, as evil and anti-God as Satan is, God remains mind-bogglingly powerful. Satan cannot attack God or do a thing without the Almighty allowing him to do so. It’s almost the exact process described in the first two chapters of Job where, as previously mentioned, Satan accused someone dear to God and sought divine permission to attack Job, in the hope of proving that Job was not the faithful man of God he appeared to be.

There are other biblical parallels, such as Paul’s “thorn” that protected him from the danger of pride, even though it was “a messenger of Satan” that tormented him. It achieved so much good in Paul’s life that the Lord refused to remove it, despite Paul’s repeated pleas. Paul eventually came to recognize its value and, to use his word, “glory” in it (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

A particularly confusing example is found in David incurring divine wrath by conducting a census. It was a devastating failure on David’s part, even though it ended with divine intervention that limited the damage and with the purchase of land on which the temple was built (1 Chronicles 22:1).

There are two divinely authorized accounts of this event. One says Satan was behind it, the other says God was:

    1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to take a census of Israel.

    2 Samuel 24:1  . . . the Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and he moved David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”

Before you start thinking this ‘contradiction’ proves the unreliability of Scripture, think for a moment. We find something similar in the account of Jesus’ temptation. Immediately after the Spirit came upon Jesus during his baptism, the Spirit of God drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, say all three Gospel accounts (Matthew 4:1 Mark 1:12 Luke 4:1-2). Nevertheless, not only was it the devil, not the Holy Spirit, who did the tempting, it was the devil who physically transported Jesus to various places during this time, say both accounts that detail the temptations (Matthew 4:5, 8; Luke 4:5, 9). No one could argue that this is not some accidental slip-up on behalf of the Gospel writers because the ‘contradiction’ was made not only by the same writer but occurs in the same short passage and was repeated by another Gospel writer.

Another complication is that James 1:13-14 says “Let no man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.” One then has to wonder how it is the holy Son of God was tempted. Clearly, spiritual truth is complex and the Bible does not baby us by oversimplifying.

Both statements about David’s temptation seem to be different ways of expressing the same thing: if Satan asks God’s permission and God grants it, there is one sense in which Satan is responsible and another in which the buck stops with God.

If this sickens you, it’s because I have not yet adequately explained.

Why would the good Lord let his arch enemy get away with such things as attacking Job and David and Peter? I will by no means wimp out by settling for pat answers. My longing to comfort you as soon as possible, however, drives me to begin with a quick answer before going into greater depth later.

The short answer is that there are far more factors involved than a finite mind can even conceive of, and the relatively few times when God does not totally reject Satan’s pleas occur because God’s approach ends up defeating Satan’s schemes and being in the best interest of the people involved and being the smartest move and achieving the greatest good.

In biblical thought, tempting or testing could have the good intent of proving a person’s character or the evil intent of enticing someone to sin.

If hard training sessions intended to build an athlete’s strength and stamina become a temptation for a certain trainee, leading him to give up the sport in favor of a softer life, it would be the very opposite of the coach’s hopes and break his heart. With a perfect coach, such a tragedy would not be because of a flaw in his plan but a flaw in the trainee’s character. The coach would still do all he could to reignite the trainees enthusiasm, encouraging him to tough it out and become the champion he could be. The final choice, however, remains with the trainee.

For an elite soldier, training is vital but it can only achieve so much. One day, the recruit must go into real combat situation. It is the only way to become truly battle-hardened and achieve things of great value and become a hero. Everyone knows that if he were wounded in battle, it would be the work of the enemy and never his commander’s plan.

We must avoid being so foolish as to confuse our loving Lord with the enemy. Such confusion, however, is disturbingly easy to fall into. Getting this even slightly wrong, would cruelly rob us of much comfort and zeal by cooling our love and admiration for the One who is infinitely worthy.

An average commander sending soldiers into battle can make horrific mistakes. There is nothing average about our infallible Lord. Some commanders are heartless but there is nothing unfeeling or aloof about the One who for our salvation left paradise to be tortured to death. Some commanders have always had it easy but the One who sends us says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21, emphasis mine). Our leader says, “Follow me” (many Scriptures) – follow the path I have cut with my own blood, sweat and tears. And not only has he courageously forged ahead, making it incomparably easier for those who follow, he adds, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). For as long as we remain on a planet where people are in rebellion against God’s loving ways, we are either on dangerous missions behind enemy lines or in training for such missions. Occasional times of rest and recreation aside, life will be tough. Opportunities for glory, however, are immense.

We who are forever underestimating the infinite Lord, find it mindboggling that the same event could have two different origins or opposite goals – one from the heart of Satan to do evil and the other from the heart of God to do good. That this actually happens is highlighted in Joseph’s famous statement to the brothers who had sold him into slavery:

    Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good . . . (NIV)

How this marvel came about is most instructive. The brothers hatched a despicably evil scheme that we might have expected the Almighty to have stopped. Instead, he let it proceed but, as with Job (Job 1:12; 2:6), under his restraints. That way, rather than merely stopping evil, it was reversed so that good resulted for everyone. That’s divine genius! It’s why Almighty God is worthy of all praise and all trust.

As is typical of the Eternal Lord, the outworking of the divine plan took what in human years was a long time. What is typical of us, however, is blaming God for things moving at snail pace, when the real reason is him patiently bearing with our slowness. Just as little children dawdle, tire easily, stop to explore irrelevant things, run off in the wrong direction, get stubborn because they are sure their harebrained ideas are better, and take agonizingly long to learn such elementary things as how to tie their shoelaces, God’s children are continually slowing him down, and they rarely even realize it. In fact, embarrassingly many of us are too unaware of the real situation to spare ourselves the shame of foolishly getting impatient with God when things move slow because of his patient consideration for our weaknesses.

The brother’s plan was originally to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:20). This was quickly turned – presumably through the Lord’s intervention – into selling their brother into slavery (Genesis 37:24-27). Then followed a peculiar set of sufferings, blessings and setbacks. The blessings were truly of God (Genesis 39:5, 21-23) but the hardships and disappointments were equally real (Brief Overview). Through it all, Joseph proved himself faithful and grew strong. He ended up astonishingly exalted but, as is typical for God’s faithful, it was quite a saga or, as I prefer to see it, a faith adventure that made him a true hero.

For another short answer, I’ll use an analogy. We know business owners often make it their employee’s responsibility to leave their premises locked at night. As an extra level of protection, however, they sometimes hire a security company that sends a nightly patrol to visit the place at random times to double-check everything.

A security patrol is not hired so that people can be lax about locking up at night or so that the owner can get away with cheap, flimsy locks. A patrol officer helps by regularly and diligently testing the building’s security. If any vulnerability becomes apparent, he will alert the owner, whose responsibility it remains to correct the deficiency. In an emergency, the officer might temporarily cease his other patrols and stand guard at the point that is unsecured but the owner is expected to provide a more permanent solution as soon as possible.

Picture a security guard going from building to building on his nightly rounds, checking the locks on every door and window. Now picture a thief doing virtually the same thing. Despite their actions seeming almost identical, their motives are so different that, to those of us in the know, what one does is comforting and valued, whereas the other sends a chill down us.

Should a competent security guard spy a thief, he might even stay in the shadows and let a thief try to break it. He would know that if the thief failed, the building is adequately secured. He would be confident, however, that if the thief broke in, he could prevent him from stealing anything, plus remove the threat by having him arrested.

This is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to take your time spelling it out. When we move to the spiritual, however, we tend to lose to our way. So let me round off the natural and move on to the spiritual. There is no way the guard and the thief are in league, even though they might act similarly in testing locks and even though a guard might delay intervention in order to catch the thief red-handed. And the owner does not regard any of this as absolving his employees from their responsibility to lock up at night, nor his own responsibility to provide solid doors, protected or reinforced windows and so on.

We need to be equally clear-headed in distinguishing God’s role and the devil’s role in our lives and realize that we are like the owner of the business that thieves would love to rob. Just because our Lord is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, does not mean he dissolves into a nebulous blob or disregards everyone and ceases to hold others responsible for their actions. He sees clear lines of demarcation as to who is responsible for what, and we need to see things his way.

Like confusing a security officer for a thief, it is needlessly upsetting to suppose our Lord has anything but the most compassionate intent in testing us. We can avoid that distress by steadfastly choosing to believe in God’s loving goodness. There is another distress, however, that cannot be avoided. Locks can be tested painlessly but neither for the flawless Son of God nor for us, is there any painless way of being spiritually tested. As someone’s readiness for the Olympics can only be tested by pushing the athlete to the limit, so it is for testing our spiritual readiness.

Why doesn’t the Bible spell this out clearer, rather than allowing such puzzles as the illusion of a contradiction in 1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 about who was behind David’s test? Because that ‘contradiction’ is itself a test. The Bible is crystal clear in repeatedly and emphatically declaring that God is good. Choose to root our faith deep into the bedrock of this divine revelation and we will stand strong. Should we refuse, however, we will be blown over every time God does the smallest thing that our tiny minds fail to understand. If, for no other reason than God is smarter than us, tests in the form of God doing things that make no sense to us, are inevitable.

Perhaps, after such a brief answer, you are still reeling at the thought of God not vetoing Satan’s every move. I long to work through this with you but would you mind waiting until the next question posed in this webpage? There’s another aspect of Peter being ‘sifted’ by Satan that has been nagging me and discussing it right now might settle your mind a little, as well as getting the incident involving Peter done with so that we can then focus on broader issues.

In Peter’s case – unlike Job’s – it seems as if the ‘gamble’ backfired: Peter fell. Note, however, that Jesus said right from the beginning that he had prayed Peter’s faith would not fail and told him “once you have turned again, establish your brothers.”

If, like me, you tend to think that, besides Judas, Peter was the greatest coward and failure among the disciples, think again. When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples fled. It was just Peter and one other disciple (John 18:15) who had the courage not to totally desert but to follow at a distance. For his Lord, Peter voluntarily exposed himself to considerable danger.

Did this end up a victory for Satan? If you think so, let me pose another question: Why is it that, rather than any other disciple, Jesus assigned to Peter the task of strengthening the others?

Ultimately, Judas was the only one who failed. By choosing suicide, Judas rendered himself totally useless. No one is inspired by Judas. In contrast, Peter grasped Jesus’ hand of forgiveness and has ever since been a powerful source of inspiration to literally millions of Christians who, at some time or another, have felt such failures that they were in danger of declining God’s forgiveness and falling away completely.

Peter’s painful ‘sifting’ removed the chaff of ignorance and pride, empowering him to tenderly minister to people reeling under condemnation. Here’s a sample of the tenderness it produced:

    1 Peter 5:1-3 I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder . . . Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly; neither as lording it over those entrusted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock.

God’s intention is that testings always result in good. Whereas God’s passion is to bring out the best in us, the devil strives to bring out the worst in us. The devil wants our weaknesses exposed so he can mock and discourage and attack us. God wants them exposed so that they can be removed, making us stronger and less vulnerable. It is hardly surprising that the good Lord and the Evil One have opposite agendas. The Almighty, however, dignifies us by entrusting us with the casting vote. Whether trials result in good or evil, hinges on our response to them. Peter’s remorse led him to repentance and empowering; Judas’s choice, however, was tragically different.

Whether it be shifting or smelting, good is achieved by exposing hidden impurities that need removing. The process might be less than comfy and no one likes confronting the reality of one’s failures. Nevertheless, it is only by discovering the extent to which we are wrong that we have the chance of becoming right. If spiritual cleansing were impossible, ignorance of our failings would at least provide the temporary bliss of not knowing our unavoidable fate. But since our Savior has provided a rescue plan, it is critical that we are alerted to the need to avail ourselves of it.

The process required to reveal what is in our hearts might be as unpleasant as childbirth but, like childbirth, the result can be invaluable – so valuable, in fact, that some godly people have actually sought.

    Psalm 26:2 Examine me, Lord, and prove me. Try my heart and my mind.

    (Similar Scriptures)

That’s not nearly as reckless as one might suppose. What makes it wise is that it is far better for us to discern our weaknesses and failings this side of Judgment Day than the other side.

Why does God sometimes let Satan have his way?

I find myself in a quandary. Having written elsewhere thousands of words highly relevant to the question in hand, I long to instantly meld into your mind all the information they contain without you having to take the time to read them. Since this is impossible, however, I feel driven to resort to begging you to read all of it. You will find the relevant information in links at the end of this webpage.

My dilemma is that I fear some readers will tire before absorbing it all, and end up with a grotesquely distorted view of the God whose love and goodness is so far beyond ours as to defy description.

Without stealing from what I have better said elsewhere, my goal right now is to try some approaches that, whilst not providing every insight I am aware of, might help you realize as quickly as possible that God is the most lovable and trustworthy person you could ever conceive of.

Our Lord is never in any way in league with the devil. As Habakkuk told the Lord, “your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13, NIV) Our God is totally opposed to all evil.

The Almighty is not some ogre. In fact, what alarms some people who don’t understand his ways is that he might be too patient and not nearly as despotic and aggressive as they would prefer (although they want him to act that way only towards other people’s sins; not their own).

As you know, the giving God (James 1:5, literal translation), whose love drives him to sacrifice his all for those who deserve nothing, is the extreme opposite of the one who “only comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10-11).

God’s “work is perfect, for all his ways are just. A God of faithfulness who does no wrong” (Deuteronomy 32:4). He “is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).

Both intellectually and morally, God’s ways are as higher than ours than the stars are unreachably beyond us (compare Isaiah 55:9). “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!” (Romans 11:33). “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

The appalling truth is that even the exceptionally humble among us have a perversely inflated view of ourselves. We are too blinded by the log in our own eyes to even recognize the perfection of infinite wisdom and goodness. Driven by a subconscious, self-serving ‘need’ to divert the spotlight off our failings, we have the audacity to judge our Judge.

Anyone thinking he/she is smarter or more tender-hearted that God is like a speck of water vapor thinking itself greater than an ocean. The combined efforts of a thousand Einsteins working around the clock for ten thousand years could not as much as discover all the intricacies and complexities that a loving God must consider when making what we, in our ignorance, think is a simple decision. It is like stumbling upon an expert sweating over diffusing the most sophisticated bomb ever constructed, and us wanting to intervene by casually cutting the first wire we see.

The Almighty detests evil. It infuriates him terrifyingly beyond anything humans are ever capable of feeling. It is safer to torment a grizzly bear’s cub in the presence of its ferocious mother than to even slightly offend one of God’s loved ones – and that’s any human on this planet. The only thing restraining the Almighty is that his love is so overwhelmingly vast that it even embraces the offender.

As the psalmist says of our God, “You are good, and do good” (Psalm 119:68). “The Lord is good to all. His tender mercies are over all his works. . . . The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and gracious in all his works” (Psalm 145:9,17). In fact, Jesus put us all in our place by affirming that only God is good (Mark 10:18, compare Romans 3:12; Job 15:14).

There might be moments – just one of which was Jesus seeming utterly defeated on the cross – when it looks as if God has allowed the devil to have the upper hand – but it is actually a manifestation of God’s genius as the master strategist. The Almighty might, as it were, give the Evil One enough rope to hang himself, but the goal is always the devil’s defeat, and our crucified Lord has given everything to seal the devil’s fate. This was the most critical aspect of Christ’s entire earthly mission:

    1 John 3:8  . . . To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil.

    (Similar Scriptures)

And we know the final outworking of this:

    Revelation 20:10 The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are also. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Although Christians differ as to their understanding of the present-day implication of it, we also have this Scripture

    Revelation 12:9-10  . . . he who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “. . . the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night.

Here’s solid proof, even in Old Testament times, that God sometimes denies Satan’s requests:

    Zechariah 3:1-4 He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Lord’s angel, and Satan standing at his right hand to be his adversary. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! . . .”

It goes on to say that Joshua had been wearing dirty clothes and the Lord said, “Take the filthy garments off of him . . . Behold, I have caused your iniquity to pass from you, and I will clothe you with rich clothing.”

The Lord always opposes Satan; sometimes by proving him wrong and sometimes by not even allowing the test. Surely, God refusing to allow a test must happen often – probably more often than not. This is why Scripture confidently says God “will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able” (1 Corinthians 10:13). It is why Job suffered for only a tiny part of his long life, and why so many of us stay healthy most of the time or are healed, or are spared persecution, and so on.

Not only does God prevent tests, he urges us to cooperate with him in this regard. Let me explain.

It was while these matters relating to God, Satan and temptation were thrashing around in my mind that I chilled with horror. I suddenly realized my recklessness in not taking seriously Jesus telling us to pray, “Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). I had always held on to a childhood memory verse (1 Corinthians 10:13), that our faithful Lord will not let us be tempted beyond our ability to endure, and on that basis, I arrogantly presumed I could handle whatever was thrown at me without any need for preemptive prayer. Maybe I could, because of God, but to what unpleasantness could my prayerlessness be needlessly exposing me? Suddenly I was in awe of God’s mercy in sparing me until now despite my carelessly ignoring his instructions to take preemptive action through prayer. The very verse I might have misused as an excuse for being too blasé is preceded by “let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). I’m beginning to wonder how appalled I should be by how cunningly pride and ignorance disguise themselves as faith.

I am by no means saying we can avoid all trials. I have entire pages about the limits God’s Word puts on prayer but, for now, simply remember how Paul’s earnest prayers failed to remove his “thorn” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Often, however, prayer empowers us to take preemptive measures.

Let’s also note that God puts precise limits on any attack. Consider, for example, what he said to Satan about Job: “. . . but on the man himself do not lay a finger” (Job 1:12, NIV). On a different occasion, God moved the boundary but still kept one limit firmly in place: “. . . but save his life” (Job 2:6, NIV).

And God intervenes: “but I prayed for you,” Jesus told Peter in reference to Satan’s request to sift him (Luke 22:32).

What I presume is one reason for our Lord allowing Satan certain leeway is that if God refused, Satan’s accusations would sow doubts in the minds of other people and spiritual beings and, ultimately, it is better for the accusations to be proved wrong than for God to forcibly suppress the Evil One and let the doubts fester in other minds.

What we must comprehend is that God choosing a path can be mind-reelingly different from him being pleased about it. Most beings, if granted divine powers, might selfishly choose for themselves a life of uninterrupted bliss, but there is nothing remotely selfish about our Lord.

What a stupendously compassionate, selfless God must reluctantly do in a world of sin-drunk rebels enslaved by evil with no desire to be free, is entirely different from what he would delight in doing in a world where everyone is eagerly and continually yielding to the perfection of his wisdom and is whole-heartedly devoted to doing what is good and right.

Distilling complex truth into a few words might be impossible, but I think it is most quickly seen in the torment of the eternal Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane. Grasp the fact that this was God himself suffering horrifically over doing his own will. “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death,” says Mark 14:34 (KJV). “My heart is oppressed with anguish (or overwhelmed/crushed/consumed with sorrow) to the very point of death” are other scholarly attempts to render these words. “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground,” says Luke 22:44.

Volumes have been written about the depth contained in these brief descriptions of Jesus’ torment. It is suggested that it could involve the rare, but medically attested phenomenon, known as hematidrosis (hematohidrosis is an alternative spelling). Severe mental stress (sometimes preceded by an intense headache and abdominal pain) can cause hemorrhaging of the vessels supplying the sweat glands, resulting in blood mixing with one’s sweat (Source). Note also that Jesus’ anguish was so intense that he sweated profusely despite it being a cold night (John 18:18).

Reading, even in gut-wrenching detail about someone’s pain, however, is vastly different from personally experiencing it.

Stupendously compounding this is that God suffers God-sized pain, which I believe is infinitely more intense than any human can endure. Although, as I have said, Jesus’ humanity gives us some conception of his suffering, our finiteness severely limits our ability to comprehend the extremes of divine anguish.

Consider two people who are being tortured. One is so weak that he dies after a few seconds. The other is so strong that he suffers it minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Or consider two people who know that someone else will suffer the moment they cease enduring the pain. One gives up after a few seconds. The other loves so immensely that he keeps on suffering for centuries. Or think of the difference not in terms of time but intensity. Or look at it this way: if seeing someone dear to us in pain can distress so deeply that we would rather suffer than them, how would we feel if we had the intellectual capacity to be simultaneously aware of every detail of a million people’s anguish and feel equally deeply for each of them.

Our Lord keeps on loving sin-ravished people and it keeps on hurting him. Moreover, Christians on earth suffer, and through his love our Lord is as intimately connected to their suffering as we are connected to our own body, rendering him acutely sensitive to any part that is in agony. Remember, for example, how personally the risen Lord took Saul’s mistreatment of believers:

    Acts 9:4  . . . “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

He is so deeply connected with us that:

    Zechariah 2:8  . . . he who touches you touches the apple of his eye.

    Matthew 25:40  . . . because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

    Ephesians 5:30  . . . we are members of his body, of his flesh and bones.

I remind you that I have not exhausted my limited understanding of a subject that exceeds finite minds to grasp. My goal has simply been to provide a few quick insights and leave it to you to pursue more in links at the end of this webpage.

How much does it all depend on us?

What’s our role in the very things we feel like blaming God for?

We are utterly dependent upon the One in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We did not as much as choose to be born. When speaking about himself, even the incarnate Son of God said, “I can of myself do nothing (John 5:30). How much more must this apply to us!

Does this mean, however, that we have no accountability; that it is all up to the sovereign Lord? Does it mean we could not disobey even if we chose? Are we hapless pawns in a battle between two spiritual superpowers? Or is the Almighty so powerful that Satan barely rates a mention and we are solely God’s pawn?

There is no question that if it came down to sheer power or ability or importance, we are no match even for Satan, let alone the Almighty. God could at any moment crush our every effort so that not even a stain remains. Before shriveling into total defeatism, however, let’s not be so blinded by the obvious that we miss something equally obvious: an omnipotent God is able to assign power or ability or importance to anyone of his choosing.

Instead of keeping us helpless pawns in some supernatural power-play, the sovereign Lord has chosen to dignify us with freedom of choice. Christ has won the victory and is eager to shower on us all the glory and the spoils of war but he leaves it to us whether, by submitting to God and resisting the devil (James 4:7), we win, or whether we chose defeat by letting the deceiver devour us (1 Peter 5:8). The Almighty has placed us at the tipping point so that who we choose to lean towards – God or Satan – determines whether any event ultimately ends up turning good or evil. The Lord has set things up so that it all hinges on us.

As the psalmist marveled:

    Psalm 8:4-6 what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet

And by honoring people this way, our astonishing God of love has granted every human the power to crush his tender heart, ruin his plans and vandalize his artistry.

The entire Bible screams human responsibility. Scripture speaks of little children not being able to tell good from evil, and so not being morally accountable (Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15; Romans 9:11). Infants aside – and, presumably, some with serious mental deficiencies – the God who knows precisely how much good and how much evil we are capable of, clearly holds the rest of us highly accountable for our every action and attitude (Scriptures).

We earlier touched on the following Scripture but let’s look a little deeper:

    1 Corinthians 3:7, 10-15 So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. . . . According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble; each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is. If any man’s work remains which he built on it, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but as through fire.

God has made it so that everyone can be rewarded, but even among those who scrape into heaven, some will live with the endless regret of missing the rewards that could have been theirs. What makes the difference is not what God does, but what we do.

God’s guidance, instructions, commands, warnings, wrath, judgments and so on, would all be a meaningless farce unless we have been divinely granted the power to make critically important choices.

Jesus spoke of him being the vine and us the branches. Except for the vine, a branch would not only produce no fruit, it would shrivel up and die. In Jesus’ words, “. . . apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Far from this absolving us from accountability, however, our utter dependence gives us a huge responsibility – to do all it takes to remain in submissive union with our Lord. In that very discourse, in fact, Jesus said we must obey his commands (John 15:10).

In Jesus’ parable of the talents, it was the master’s money. He had set everything up to make success possible. There were risks and challenges but it all came down to each servant. When the wicked servant was caught out, instead of finally taking responsibility for his own decisions, he proved his unworthiness by trying to blame his laziness on the master – accusing him of being a “hard man” (Matthew 25:24). That slimy attempt at blame-shifting merely added to his offense.

If we could, many of us would choose to run our lives and keep God around only as an obligation-free sugar daddy and someone to blame when we inevitably mess up. Any such attempt would be fooling no one but ourselves.

Had you been born into a universe where sin had never existed, you would never have known any pain or suffering. Everything would be a sheer delight, sparkling with the exquisite perfection of God’s heart and ways. There would only be one issue: being born into a world that has never known sin would involve having a different ancestry and DNA to ours. The Almighty could easily create such beings. They could be perfect and exquisitely happy, but anyone with different genes could no more be you than an angel is you or than any of the billions of people already in existence who have different parents to you.

As shocking as it is, our very existence depends on sinful rejection of God’s loving ways. We each have a family tree riddled with people who have broken God’s heart over and over and over. For us to be born, our holy Lord had to force himself to tolerate atrocious sin for at least as long as it took for each of our ancestors to procreate. Trace back far enough, in fact, and we are each sure to find a direct ancestor who was conceived by rape, incest, adultery, prostitution, or by some other act God hates, such as a male ancestor murdering the former partner of a female ancestor. Were it not for sin, none of would ever have been born. It is literally part of our DNA; a fundamental part of who we are.

Furthermore, sin is never victimless. Sin breaks not only God’s laws but his heart. And it hurts and corrupts the sinner. And the sins we delight in calling ‘little’ – cheating, greed, lying, slander, being a poor role model, and so on – all end up hurting other people. In short, each of us has personally contributed to this world’s pain and suffering.

Disturbingly, if we were placed in a sin-free world where there is no unpleasantness our very presence would corrupt that world, preventing it from remaining pristine. And consider this; if God were to spare some other sinner but not us – sparing him either arbitrarily or by assessing his sin as more excusable or less serious – imagine the stink we would make, accusing God of being unfair, and so on. But if it were reversed and we were spared but not others, wouldn’t it be equally unfair? We all want to draw the line as to what is excusable and for some suspicious reason, our self-drawn line almost always seems to put us on the right side of it. A righteous judge can have no part is such hypocrisy.

The Almighty could easily use brute force to obliterate Satan. Indeed, hell’s eternal fire was created as his destination (Matthew 25:41). Through our sinful rebellion against God, however, we have each joined forces with Satan and have earned the same fate as him. So God sparing us from what we deserve could not be merely a matter of force, nor of mercy, without the Holy One denying who he is – a God of justice and integrity, who acts not by whim but only by what is right.

It cost the good Lord horrifically for we who deserve nothing but hell to be granted access to heaven and even to make it so we could enter without defiling its perfection and turning it into a sewer as corrupt as the world we currently live in. Christ had to become us, suffer the devastating consequences of our sin, defeat Satan on our behalf, and bestow on us his moral perfection. Through unparalleled generosity, heroism and power, the Son of God has seized the humanly impossible and placed it in our hands. This is not because we are great but because of what our great God has done out of his unfathomable love. Whether we accept this, however, is still up to us.

Disturbingly often, Bible believers construct in our own imagination a God who is so ‘sovereign,’ aloof and untouched by human sin and suffering as to have almost no resemblance to the God of the Bible. It too often happens that people think God has a heart of stone, when the real hardness of heart is their callous indifference to the anguish that people inflict on the God who loves them. God’s wrath is but a manifestation of the inconceivable extremes to which people push divine anguish.

We humans are continually grieving God, bringing him shame and foiling his plans to bless us. He deserves so much better than us.

With appalling frequency, we betray and abuse his trust and soil his name and then have the audacity to try to blame him for letting us devastate him. Let’s not be so blind as to think today’s Christians are any less despicable than the most hypocritical, sin-hardened Jews in Bible times (Further Scriptures.)

Why does God allow us to be strongly tempted?

We have seen that temptation and suffering are inseparable. They are not only joined at the hip but joined at three places:

    * The same Greek word can be translated either trial or temptation (Examples).

    * Suffering can become a serious source of temptation. It can tempt us to chemical abuse, resent God, deny him, or the ultimate refusal to serve him on earth: kill ourselves.

    * Intense temptation can itself be a significant form of suffering.

Not surprisingly, given its strong connection with suffering, we have already mentioned temptation several times. There is still more to learn, however. This time we will focus on what for many people is a staggering concept: the spiritual benefits of temptation.

Understandably, most of us view temptation as an entirely negative experience, even when we end up victorious over it. Nevertheless, not only does Scripture say it was necessary (Hebrews 2:17) for the Son of God to be made like us and thus suffer temptation (Hebrews 2:18), Jesus himself says that temptation of other people “must” happen (Matthew 18:7) or, as Luke 17:1 puts it, it is “impossible” for temptations not to occur. Additionally, Romans 8:28 says “ all things [including temptation?] work together for good” for those who are devoted to God.

We cannot gain maximum understanding of why Christians suffer without probing this mystery.

Before plunging in, however, let’s query Scripture’s implication that temptations are necessary. Why, if nothing is impossible with God, is anything ‘necessary’? Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that just because God has no limitations does not mean that the humans he relates to have no limitations. Then, just because something is possible does not make it good or wise. This brings to mind:

    1 Corinthians 10:23 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are profitable. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things build up.

And this, in turn, makes my mind leap to:

    Hebrews 2:10  . . . it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (NIV, emphasis mine.)

The bottom line, however, is that for most things I neither have the full answer, nor do I need it. My soul soars in agreement with the heart-warming words of a Christian who suffered the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, “When you know God, you don’t need to know why” (Source).

Nevertheless, our wonderful Lord has superb reasons for everything he does and the more we seek him in faith, the more answers we will find – and the more we will marvel. So let’s proceed with exploring why God allows strong temptation.

I used to presume the divine ideal is for us to be miraculously delivered from all addictions and besetting sins in an instant and thereafter suffer no more cravings. I eventually discovered that this is so devoid of wisdom that I now feel a little foolish for thinking that way. I have told the story elsewhere, and if you have already read it, I suggest you skip to the next question. If this concept is new to you, however, it is so relevant to our topic that I will include a shortened version here.

Thinking such testimonies would draw people to God, I interviewed people who had had miraculous, almost effortless, deliverances from terrible addictions. As I proceeded, however, I grew increasingly perplexed to discover that despite spectacular victory over heroin, alcoholism or whatever, almost all of them, much to their frustration and embarrassment, were still floundering in a battle with at least one other addiction, often smoking. I never sought such information. It was so bothering them that they blurted it out.

Sincerely wanting answers that would empower Christians to live in victory, I passionately sought God, puzzling over why he allows this conflict to persist.

Temptation is never from God and always from the Evil One or from our own evil heart. What the Lord revealed to me, however, is that strong temptation does a work in us that an easy, temptation-free life can never achieve.

I discovered there are two types of divine deliverances from slavery to sin. There is the sudden deliverance that takes almost no effort on the person’s part, and there is the slow deliverance that requires the person to cooperate with God in fighting a prolonged, painful battle with temptation.

The deliverance where God does it all, is a manifestation of God’s power and brings him great glory – at least initially. The deliverance that hinges on our partnership, however, is a manifestation of God’s love and wisdom, and brings us eternal glory. In the second type, God risks his name being blackened whenever we fall, and he dares share with us the honor when we win. Like nothing else, the prolonged battle builds within us the Godlike character that equips us to rule with God for all eternity. God loves us so much that, eventually, the opportunity for this training comes to all of us, if we live long enough.

Often what most keeps us bound to sin is that we are inadequately motivated. Anyone, for instance, who thinks he can’t stop stealing, suddenly finds new power to resist when a police officer is near. The removal of temptation might make our actions more Godlike but it wouldn’t do a thing to make our heart more Godlike. It would do nothing to heighten our personal motivation to do what is right.

To be like Christ is to sweat blood praying, ‘Not my will.’ Jesus, who might just happen to know a bit more about it than your average evangelist, said that to be his follower we must deny ourselves (Luke 9:23, note the context).

If Bill’s flesh is crying out for sin and he fights that desire, he is denying himself. With every second’s resistance, he is becoming more like his Savior. Take away the craving for sin, however, and that opportunity is lost. Without that nagging itch to sin, Bill could act as godly as an archangel while pursuing his own desires as selfishly as the devil. He wouldn’t be choosing to do what is right but simply doing whatever he felt like. Even the devil can act like an angel of light, says Scripture. What matters is one’s motives for acting that way. There is no glory in acting godly if your heart is black.

Rather than help us, the weakening of temptation would merely deceive us by concealing just how much unlike God our motives and heart really are. It could also produce false confidence, lulling us into straying dangerously far from God into enemy territory.

To better understand the importance of motives, consider for a moment what might motivate a married man to stop looking at other women.

    1.  Pure selfishness

    If his wife catches him eyeing women one more time, she’ll divorce him and that would cost him mega bucks, people might think him a loser and he would have to do more housework.

    2.  He couldn’t bear for her to withdraw her love

    That’s a far nobler motivation. He forces himself not to eye other women because his wife’s love and approval mean everything to him.

    3.  He’d hate for his wife to be hurt

    That’s even better. He restrains himself because even if she kept loving him, he doesn’t want her to feel the slightest hurt.

    4.  He longs to make her as happy as he possibly can

    Better still: he doesn’t want merely to avoid hurting her, he passionately seeks her happiness, and for this, he keeps his eyes pure.

    5.  He longs to do what is right

    Another advance: even when his wife would never know, he still forces himself to not look at other women, simply because he wants to remain faithful to her.

    6.  He only has eyes for her

    Through persistent effort, he has eventually so trained himself to delight exclusively in his wife that, most of the time, every other woman might as well be wallpaper. This does not mean he is never tempted. Temptation is spiritual rape whereby hostile spiritual powers assault us with feelings that come from them, not from our heart. Even Jesus suffered a violation of his purity that came from the devil, not his heart. Nevertheless, years of persistent self-discipline have brought this man to the point where it is his habitual, unthinking response to only have eyes for his wife. He has had so many victories in this realm and it has become such a deeply ingrained part of his character that the devil has virtually given up all hope of successfully using women to entice him.

      Sidenote: We might seem to be straying off topic but any insight into temptation is an insight into suffering, since temptation is a form of suffering, and suffering is a form of temptation. One follows the other as day follows night, and night follows day. You cannot have one without it eventually turning into the other.
Slide your eyes back down those numbered lines and note the progression. God is working within us, seeking to coax us through a similar progression in our motives for serving God; advancing from fear of punishment, to not wanting to hurt God, to longing to delight God. Each higher motivation should add to, not replace, lower ones. Thus we should never lose our longing to delight God, but we can add to it by becoming so like God that we do right not only because it thrills our divine Lover but also simply because it is right. Finally, our heart can be so Godlike that we find ourselves doing the right thing because it is our very nature – our heart response. But for our motivation to be perfect, underneath that unthinking response must be the other levels of motivation, right down to being terrified of the consequences of disobeying God.

Of course, the holy Lord neither wants us to fail, nor tempts us. He simply doesn’t always hide from us our inadequacies by miraculously removing temptation. The resulting struggle helps bring us to the point where, in the words of Jesus, we hunger and thirst after righteousness, displaying a passion for holy living worthy of a child of God.

Here’s how it works: whenever we surrender to temptation, it hurts us, either by the natural consequences of sin or by the conviction and disappointment we feel at having failed. For a Christian, the end result of the unpleasantness of failing is that we learn to hate sin more, appreciate God’s love and grace more, and realize more fully how as an embryo must draw everything from its mother for its survival, so we desperately need to draw upon God and his fellowship for everything that sustains our spiritual life.

Like many delays in answered prayer, God not responding to a lazy prayer for instant deliverance from temptation serves to purify our motives and to stretch our faith and so expand it.

It seems obvious that, in the short-term at least, the Almighty would receive the greatest glory by miraculously removing temptation from his loved ones. I have provided a logical explanation, but is it really biblical to believe that the Holy One would choose to deny himself that glory by letting temptation rage in the lives of those Christ died for, despite their cries for an easier life?

As a child, I memorized what is arguably the Bible’s most powerful promise of victory over temptation. Ever since, I have clung to this glorious truth like a limpet to a rock in stormy seas. Ironically, despite my passion for this life-saving Scripture, there is an aspect of it that had eluded me for almost half a century. Thankfully, I had gleaned this truth from other parts of God’s Word but I had not seen it in this Scripture. Here’s the verse:

    1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

What had not hit me is that this is nothing remotely like a promise that God would make strong temptation melt away for his beloved. Instead, it is a promise that we would be able “to endure it.” The King James Version uses the expression “able to bear it.” The point is that if the divinely-provided “way to escape” was for the temptation to go away, there would be nothing to “bear” or “endure”.

Too many Christians wrongly suppose that if temptation continues to rage after prayer, there must be something wrong. The divine game-plan has never been to prevent us from being hit repeatedly by fierce temptation, but to empower us to endure it. The promise is not that God will mollycoddle us, treating us as embarrassing weaklings who would shame him the moment things get tough, but that God will hide within us everything that we need to heroically survive the onslaught – and by so doing be acclaimed forever as spiritual champions.

Even in the Old Testament, God’s people were called to fight the enemy, keep themselves holy and in no way compromise and yet, for at least two divinely brilliant reasons, God chose not to give them quick deliverances but to keep them battling their enemies year after year:

    Exodus 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate, and the animals of the field multiply against you.

    Judges 3:1-2 Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan; only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war . . .

What seems a simple solution –the removal of temptation, for example – often turns out to be a superficial solution. God is rarely interested in the superficial. He wants to do a work so deep that it gains you eternal glory.

Whereas the evil one, the very opposite of the good Lord, seeks to defile and degrade, God’s goal is to purify and exalt us.

As some people are miraculously spared from suffering, some are miraculously spared from addictions and temptation, and yet for such intervention to continue indefinitely would keep them spiritually weak and vulnerable.

Why does Ecclesiastes 7:2 say it is better to attend a funeral than a feast?

Funerals are a cold splash of reality, awakening us to our uncertainty as to when we ourselves will face our divine Judge. Funerals alert us to the crucial importance of daily living for God, not for self.

Many of Jesus’ parables (Examples) likewise stress that life as we know it can end at any moment without the slightest warning, and we suddenly find ourselves facing the eternal consequences of every opportunity we previously squandered. Whether it be death or the second coming, every chance to prove ourselves faithful can in a flash be gone forever and we find ourselves having to account for every idle thing (Matthew 12:36) we have ever done.

Even sudden disability can mean the end of certain things we could have done for God.

Our own mortality and that of our loved ones can not only keep ourselves spiritually motivated but can be a powerful witness to those around us of the brevity and fragility of our stay on this planet. Research indicates that being impacted by someone’s mortality is high on the list of factors influencing people to come to Christ. Us not being divinely protected from life’s tragedies achieves more for both us and others than we might have thought.

Did God’s suffering end with the cross? (Colossians 1:24)?

We have noted that the suffering God the Son started from when he was in Mary’s womb. What about before and after he came to earth? The Almighty might not suffer physical pain but as we are more personal than a plant, he is more personal than us. Unless you had some psychological abnormality rendering you incapable of empathy, if someone you loved with your entire being was in pain and you had the ability to know every moment of every day the precise extent of that person’s pain, wouldn’t your suffering be almost as intense as that person’s – so much so that you would consider swapping places? If that can be true for someone with imperfect love, what would it be like for the God of infinite love?

Imagine you care so passionately for someone that you have invested your entire life into enabling him to reach his full potential. Suppose he then wreaks havoc by a calculated decision to rebel against everything he knows to be right. If his senseless, malicious behavior ruins his life and devastates the lives of people who are infinitely precious to you, and he shows not the slightest remorse but continues to perpetuate his evil, it is hardly appropriate for you to be indifferent about it, much less blissful. It is right to be intensely distressed and displeased. This is righteous anger. And this is what sin does to God. You do not need me to inform you that sin is still occurring, and it is still stupendously impacting the God who is anything but indifferent.

Consider all the atrocities done in Christ’s name by ‘godly’ pedophiles, greedy con-artists calling themselves televangelists, ‘anointed prophets’ who stoop to cold-reading for profit, and so on. Do you suppose the Lord of heaven is not grieved, angered and pained by such things?

God’s wrath is not over. Scripture speaks of “the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7; 1 Thessalonians 1:10) and says such things as “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5, NIV and Romans 12:19). And if God’s wrath is not over, neither is his intense anguish over humanity’s sin.

Some of us are so callously self-obsessed and unaware of God that we have not even shed tears over God’s pain that humanity continually inflicts upon him. For example, there are no lengths he will not go to when it comes to love, and yet billions of people spurn him every day. The Bible refers to God’s people as his wife and to them not just being unfaithful but acting like harlots and God suffering divorce (Scriptures).

Feel God’s pain, for instance, as he says:

    Isaiah 1:21 How the faithful city has become a prostitute! She was full of justice; righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers.

    Ezekiel 16:15-17 But you trusted in your beauty, and played the prostitute because of your renown, and poured out your prostitution on everyone who passed by . . . You took of your garments, and made for yourselves high places decked with various colors, and played the prostitute on them. . . . You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and played the prostitute with them

There are occasions when it hurts to love a fallible, vulnerable person, and infinite love hurts infinitely.

If the pain the loving parents of a heroin addict never lets up for as long as their loved one, in his drug-addled state, continues to do wicked, stupid, self-destructive things, the cross of Christ was neither the beginning nor the end of divine agony. Here’s a tiny sampling:

    2 Samuel 24:16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD was grieved because of the calamity . . .

    Psalm 78:40-41  . . . often they rebelled against him in the wilderness, and grieved him in the desert! They turned again and tempted God, and provoked the Holy One of Israel.

    Isaiah 43:24  . . . you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses.

    Mark 3:5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts . . .

    Luke 19:41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it

    Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God . . .

    Related Scriptures

I suggest we each seek God’s heart and a softening of own hearts until Scriptures like the following moisten our eyes:

    Genesis 6:5-6 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil. The Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart.

    Psalm 14:2-3 The Lord looked down from heaven on the children of men, to see if there were any who understood, who sought after God. They have all gone aside. They have together become corrupt. There is no one who does good, no, not one.

    Isaiah 1:13-14 Bring no more vain offerings. Incense is an abomination to me . . . I can’t bear with evil assemblies. My soul hates your . . . [divinely] appointed feasts. They are a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them.

    Isaiah 63:3,5 I have trodden the wine press alone; and of the peoples, no one was with me . . . I looked, and there was no one to help; and I wondered that there was no one to uphold: therefore my own arm brought salvation to me . . .

    Isaiah 63:8-10 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and in his pity he redeemed them. He bore them, and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled, and grieved his holy Spirit. . . .

    Jeremiah 2:5,7  . . . What unrighteousness have your fathers found in me, that they have gone far from me, and have walked after worthless vanity, and have become worthless? . . . I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you entered, you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.

    Luke 13:34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, like a hen gathers her own brood under her wings, and you refused!

    Romans 2:1-11 Therefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judge. For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things. We know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. Do you think this, O man who judges those who practice such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, revelation, and of the righteous judgment of God; who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:” to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life; but to those who are self-seeking, and don’t obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, will be wrath and indignation, oppression and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil . . . But glory, honor, and peace go to every man who does good . . . For there is no partiality with God.

    Revelation 3:15-16 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.

    More such Scriptures

Real love longs to share not only in a person’s joy and success but in that person’s sorrow and suffering. This applies equally to our love for God and his love for us. “In all their affliction he was afflicted,” says Isaiah 63:9 about our God. Again, Judges 10:16 says, “his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel”.

Christ died to remove the toxic sin-barrier between us and the Holy Lord. He died so that we could be one spirit with God (1 Corinthians 6:17); so he could be in us and we could be in him. Through that union, we enter into all that is his – his holiness, his victory, his joy, his spiritual riches and his heartache. The Lord of the universe has burdens infinitely beyond what we can comprehend, let alone bear, but we should long to share his heart to our limited capacity.

What did Paul mean by filling up what “is lacking of the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24)?

“And now I am happy about my sufferings for you, for by means of my physical sufferings I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church,” is how the Good News Translation words Colossians 1:24. I like the clarity of this rendition but most versions are similar.

I’ll omit aspects of this matter that I have dealt with in Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayer & the Implications for Us (a link to it is at the end of this webpage). Nevertheless, I have some additional insights to share here.

For most of my life I have put this, and similar Scriptures, in the too-hard basket and moved on. In fact, to be brutally honest with myself, I virtually rejected it as poor theology because it seemed to clash with my ‘correct’ understanding of the cross and the uniqueness of Christ. How could there be anything lacking in Christ’s magnificent sacrifice? Who could possibly add to it? That sounds like heresy! Imagine having the arrogance to think I revered God’s Word and yet inwardly supposing I understood these things better than certain New Testament Scriptures seemed to!

The dilemma I faced was similar to one I wrestled with in my early days of Christian writing. I presumed I was being admirably spiritual by wanting my writing to be all of God and none of me. Surely the greatest thing anyone could ever do would be to share with the world something that is one hundred percent of God, such as a work that has been dictated word for word, comma for comma, by God. Other than mindless typing, any written contribution of mine would inevitably detract from God’s glory by spoiling the perfection of his work. With all my heart, I wanted God to receive maximum glory and have total control of my life. So, longing not to disappoint the Love of my life, I ached for the supreme honor of having no role in writing other than being God’s typist. To my bewilderment and frustration, however, God was not responding to this intense yearning. My plea to be my Master’s mindless typing machine kept falling in deaf ears.

This precipitated months of agonizing soul-searching and seeking God; sometimes annoyed that God didn’t speak louder, sometimes beating myself up for not being better at hearing him, but never doubting that by asking to be little more than an automaton I was asking for the right thing. I kept complaining to God about his failure to deliver until finally making the shocking discovery that, as flawed as it is, the Holy One values my personality and, just as a proud father treasures his child’s best efforts even if they are pathetic by adult standards, my heavenly Father cherishes as a precious love-gift to him, the effort I exert when groping for words to express divine truths.

Given our imperfection, it had seemed to me an insult to God to think the Flawless One could love our personalities or input. The inescapable truth, however, is that God loves each of us stupendously and, no matter how flawed and quirky, our personalities and less-than-perfect abilities are a huge part of who we are.

I knew that as a proud attempt to earn salvation, human effort is spiritually abhorrent. Likewise, service as an expression of a slave-mentality grieves God. It slowly dawned, however, that as a genuine expression of love and submission to God, sweat is beautiful. For the Spirit-filled Christian in divine submission, human exertion and divine enabling are not opponents but allies. I no longer see inspiration and effort as an incompatible mix of oil and water but as bricks and mortar. They merge to build a monument of love for the glory of God – glory that his father-heart longs to share with us. And if that is true of sweat, it is true even if, like our Lord, sweat is tinged with blood and tears.

It takes my breath away that God loves us so much that he craves our input, and that the Almighty can see more flaws in my effort than I dare imagine, and yet beams with pride at my full-blooded attempt – and yours.

Is the Almighty so limited as to need my contribution? Absolutely not! Does he prize me so highly that he refuses to move without my contribution? Astonishingly, yes. And he feels the same way about you. That’s why he lets us share in even his most precious love-gift to humanity: Christ’s suffering.

The parable-speaking Lord who hid divine mysteries in earthly stories (Matthew 13:34-35), hides glorious treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). Even more surprising, the Bible emphasizes that those vessels (our bodies) are decaying so much as to make us groan (Scriptures).

My Lord’s staggering love drives him to want my writing to be, as it were, our baby – a product of his and my love for each other, and bearing both his likeness and mine.

So it is with bringing spiritual children (converts) into the kingdom of God and nurturing them to maturity. Our mindboggling Lord wants us to be more than midwives. A midwife does not suffer labor pains, nor contribute to the baby’s genes. Paul, however, spoke of suffering birth pangs for the Galatian Christians (Galatians 4:19). He (e.g. 1 Corinthians 4:14; 1 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:10), like others (e.g. 3 John 1:4; Isaiah 54:1), spoke of those he had led to Christ as not only being God’s children but his own children. In fact, by saying, “For though you have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, I became your father through the Good News” (1 Corinthians 4:15) he implied there is a relationship between us and someone we lead to Christ that is so unique that no one else can duplicate it. And he said not merely “Follow Christ,” but “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Our involvement in bringing spiritual babies into the kingdom and doing all we can to mother them and bring them to spiritual maturity, is far more intimate (and spiritually costly) than most of us dare imagine.

Now let’s return to my theological dilemma.

The words “finished work of Christ” rings so loudly in my head as to almost drown out other parts of the Bible when I read them. Yes, just before Jesus died, he cried, “It is finished!” but what did he mean? Obviously, Christ’s physical suffering has ended. I have never been able to believe, however, that a God of love has ceased feeling emotional pain for all those on earth who have continued, for one reason or another, to suffer. Christ shed tears on earth for people who were hurting. Has his compassion dried up? Not a chance! In this sense, at least, Christ’s suffering continues.

Does “It is finished!” mean Christ has no more to do? Scripture says otherwise. The decisive battle has been won, but many are still in active rebellion against God’s loving ways. 1 Corinthians 15:25, for example, says Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (emphasis mine – note also Hebrews 2:8; 9:28). In other words, there is still work to be done.

We have already noted that when, before his conversion, Paul was physically hurting Christians, Jesus took it highly personally – so much so that he challenged Paul with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” The risen Lord followed this up by saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5 – this is so important that it is repeated in Acts 22:7-8; 26:14-15, emphasis mine).

Over and over, the New Testament emphasizes that Christians form Christ’s body (Scriptures). Scripture also notes that if one part of the body suffers, the entire person suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26). This is true of any suffering, not just persecution. No matter how much your suffering might be in silence or isolation, Christ is intensely aware of it (compare Psalm 139:1-12, 16-17). So Christ’s suffering continues to this day.

Evangelism and discipling new believers are critical to Christ’s mission and dear to his heart and yet he has chosen not to do this alone but in partnership with us (Matthew 28:19-20).

    2 Timothy 1:8  . . . join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God (NIV – most version says join or share ).

Note what Paul cites as proof that someone is a servant of Christ:

    2 Corinthians 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. (NIV)

It’s time to fulfill my promise to expound on how love, obedience and suffering are interrelated. Receiving things we like enormously but cost the giver nothing in terms of thought, effort, time or money, move us to love the gifts rather than the giver. As superficially happy as this might make us, loving things rather than loving a person turns out disappointingly shallow and unfulfilling.

God giving us exquisite things that cost him nothing might be appreciated but his greatest gift to us is his anguish on the cross. In fact, it is incomparably greater than anything else. It is not merely that the Son of God’s suffering achieved so much. Even if his torment had failed to achieve anything, the horrific cost to himself renders it – both for him and for us – the deepest, most moving, most meaningful expression of his love. It fills us with awe. It binds him and us together in a uniquely powerful way. The exalted Lord of perfection giving himself over to unthinkable agony for us is priceless treasure, alongside which every other happiness is as empty as a drug-induced haze.

This moves me to include an excerpt from another webpage of mine. Admittedly, it is somewhat speculative because I’m not in heaven yet:

    With the divinely inspired Word of God urging us to imitate the great apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9), we should seek to have raging within us the same passions that drove this man of God:

      Philippians 3:8-10 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (English Standard Version, emphasis mine.)

    For brevity, let’s focus on the two yearnings I’ve emphasized. Having trashed his previous fervent attempts to please God, Paul replaced them all with a burning desire to know Christ and his power and to share in Christ’s suffering.

    If lovers find knowing a finite human a never-ending adventure, the wonders and depths in knowing the infinite Son of God must keep on growing this side of eternity (Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:10; 2 Peter 3:18). As important as it is to keep knowing our divine Lover better and better throughout our earthly lives, this thrilling quest will reach its most wondrous pinnacles in the hereafter. When contrasting our earthly knowledge of Christ with what is to come, Paul put it this way: “For now we see . . . dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

    Paul’s other passion, however – sharing in Christ’s suffering – is different. Our awareness of how much Jesus suffered and how much his death achieved might reach new heights in the next life but if there is no suffering in heaven, our ability to share (or participate, as the NIV puts it) in his suffering (Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13) is limited to this life. In glory, we will only be able to wistfully look back to past opportunities. When our eyes are fully opened to just how much our Lord has done for us and how wonderful he really is, we will finally grasp why the disciples rejoiced over the privilege of being flogged and humiliated for Jesus (Acts 5:40-41). What we will lament in Paradise, however, is that the opportunity to express the depth of our love by suffering for Christ will have passed us by. And we will nostalgically miss the trials. Here’s why:

    Although we will have many thrilling things to do in heaven, we’ll be rather like former football champions who have retired and gone into sports administration. Life will be easier. There will be no more injuries, no more tedious, grueling training sessions, no more agonizing over mistakes made on the field, but the opportunity to gain more glory and become a greater hero will have forever passed.

    So life is exciting. And the greatest thrills it offers are the pain and dangers and challenges. Forget about a soft life. Leave that to your heavenly retirement. Now’s your time for glory. You’re a champion in the making; someone increasingly bearing the likeness of God himself; someone the Almighty will forever smile upon with Fatherly pride.

We know our crucified Lord wasn’t divinely protected, and we know that we are not greater than him, but I keep falling for the notion that since he suffered for us, we should now be divinely protected from suffering. Christ died to make us, in the eyes of the Judge, as if we had never sinned. But Jesus literally never sinned, and he suffered. It is undeniable that Jesus’ suffering achieved infinitely more than anyone else could ever achieve. Nevertheless, how can I say that Christ suffered on earth so that I won’t suffer on earth, when Scripture says, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12, KJV Comment)?

There are times when writing is painfully difficult for me. This gives me three options:

    1.  I can refuse to write

    2.  I can keep going but resent how agonizing it is

    3.  If after prayer the pain remains it seems God wants me to proceed, I can rejoice in the difficulty as a precious opportunity to express to God my love for him by doing something that costs me.

I am reminded of King David needing to sacrifice to the Lord and being offered land for free on which to do it. Refusing the offer, David insisted on paying the full price, saying he would not offer to the Lord something that cost him nothing (1 Chronicles 21:24).

Why did the twelve apostles in Jerusalem rejoice that they had been “counted worthy” to be flogged for Jesus’ sake (Acts 5:40-41)?

When writing about Bible Heroes in Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayer & the Implications for Us (listed in the links at the end of this page) I have expounded on other Scriptures confirming what a privilege it is to suffer for our Lord. That portion of the webpage is so relevant to our current discussion that I am sorely tempted to repeat it here. The entire webpage has so much other useful and inspiring information, however, that rather than add to the reading of those keen enough to read both pages, I suggest reading it (if you haven’t already) after completing this page.

What if you can’t find the answers you crave?

If you are perplexed by God’s actions or inaction, you are in excellent company. What I wrote decades ago rushes to mind:

    God’s saints accomplish great things while staggering around in dazed bewilderment. “By faith,” says Scripture, “Abraham . . . went out, went out, not knowing where he went.” “I go bound by the Spirit to Jerusalem, said Paul, “not knowing what will happen to me there.” The disciples were frequently stunned or mystified by Christ’s words and behavior. The psalmists were forever asking, “Why?” (Thirteen Examples). And in the midst of his suffering, Job didn’t have a clue what was going on.

    It’s exciting to gaze ahead, but faith grows best in the dark. Life in the sunshine is so exhilarating that we seldom notice our faith beginning to droop. It’s when things are dim, that spiritual life mushrooms.

Don’t for a moment think I have anything close to all the answers I yearn for. Most of my Christian life has been tormented by questions. Answers might have come after interminable years (often decades) but only to be replaced by equally vexatious ones.

It happened even while writing this webpage. Despite writing being fundamental to my calling, it has always been a frustratingly time-consuming, mentally taxing process for me. Remember me earlier saying how I used to want to be God’s mindless typing machine, but God valued my contribution? Well, the human effort it takes is one consequence. If you want further details about this trial, see (Details). It is living proof, among what must be literally millions of examples, debunking the myth that if something is of God it should be easy and painless. (George Müller, for instance, though famous for a life filled with daily financial miracles, kept finding that lifestyle a burden – Brief Details.

For months, I had sacrificed much ministry to allow time to write this webpage. That devastated me as much as seeing people all around me in anguish and not lifting a finger to help them. The Lord kept giving me thoughts for this webpage, however, and I dare not squander his precious gift by not making time to faithfully recording them. Other than my distress over how much ministry this was preventing me from doing, I was amazed at how well I was coping and very grateful. Then I began to suffer some sort of mental exhaustion. It was like trying to think straight while severely sleep deprived. Sometimes I was so incapacitated that I would do things like go to a teller machine and leave behind the cash I had just withdrawn. I often wondered if it were safe for me to drive. Yes, the Almighty could have changed all of this but you will not find me going on strike; demanding God make it easier before I serve him.

This mental fog stripped me of even more ministry time, and instead of being able to catch up on sleep, I found myself wasting countless hours; too tired to do anything and yet, for some mysterious reason, adequate sleep kept eluding me. I don’t think torturous thoughts over wasted time were the culprit, but they certainly kept me entertained while lying awake for hours on end trying to sleep. Adding to my distress was that for years, readership of my webpages had been significantly declining and I was unable to find the strength to do anything about it. I was strongly tempted to wonder if God had virtually given up on me and no longer wanted to use me.

With the benefit of hindsight (and the return of the ability to think a little clearer) I know that, as always, the Lord has taught me much through all these struggles, I would not in a million years trade an easier life for what I have learned. One of the benefits was the reminder that all of us are important to God, not because he needs us, but because he loves us. If we are sidelined, God is not handicapped. It is critical that we be faithful to whatever task he assigns us. If, however, the Almighty refuses to perform the miracle necessary for us to meet a particular need, we can rest in the assurance that he has a better plan that does not require our services.

A long time ago, I read an anecdote about a famous missionary pioneer who had achieved astonishingly much for the kingdom of God. Although the precise details have faded from my memory, I was so shocked that the impact has remained. Friends were lamenting what a loss his death would be. He replied it would simply mean one less person to mess up God’s plans. I had always thought his marks were extreme. Through what I have now learned, however, I am sobered by how true it is, not only of me but of even the greatest of us. Like letting a three-year-old help bake a cake, us serving God is a beautiful act of love on behalf of both parties. Nevertheless, in practical terms, our contribution hinders the Flawless One, rather than helps him.

My primary point, however, is that in the midst of all that was overwhelming me, I was completely mystified as to why God would allow any of it.

Although it remained frustrating, what empowered me to cope was rebuilding my trust in God. A little later, I will provide some tips on how to receive more answers. Among the many things that all my years of questions have taught me, however, one of the most important is this: the trust that lets us snuggle into God and rest in him is a priceless jewel, alongside which even the most satisfying answers are mere trinkets. Remember that quote from the victim of Nazi atrocities: “When you know God, you don’t need to know why.” Knowing that God is trustworthy comes not from knowing a thousand facts about God but from knowing him. It comes from countless hours of heart to heart communing with him.

If, to you, trusting God suggests warm, peaceful feelings, think again. Snuggling into God can sometimes be like a terrified or bewildered child rushing to his mother, flinging his arms around her, and burying his head in her bosom, while continuing to feel distraught. Resting in God can at times mean mustering every speck of willpower to force yourself to be still when everything within you yearns to run away in panic-stricken fear or disgust.

    Mark 11:24  . . . whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received them . . .

    James 1:5-6 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God . . . But let him ask in faith, without any doubting . . .

A divine principle hides in those Scriptures: faith comes first and is preeminent. As God expects us to trust him without having yet received any answer to prayer, so he expects us to trust him without having received any answers to the questions screaming in our head. Answers might eventually come but faith comes first.

We expect answers before we will trust, but God expects us to trust before he gives answers. Yes, some answers we would have to accept by faith anyhow because even if we heard them they would not ring true to our tiny mind. And some answers we could not hear or accept until after trust has done its work in quieting our spirit. Even with answers we could understand or hear, however, the Lord usually keeps quiet until we have resolved to hold on to him by raw faith without the answers we clamor for.

We think it only right that answers come first, but the God who is always right insists that trust comes first. We can dig our heels in and grow exceedingly stubborn over this, but the one who is right even when we think he is wrong, is even more stubborn than us. If we refuse to give in, the impasse can last a lifetime. For as long as it takes for us to surrender, however, we will be needlessly hurting ourselves and robbing ourselves of peace.

Just as it would be ridiculously insulting to our intelligence, let alone to God, to think we might be more powerful than the Almighty or know more than him, so it would be equally ridiculous to think we might be more compassionate than the God who died for us, or more moral than the terrifyingly holy and flawlessly good Lord.

Faith is taking God at his word – the God whose word keeps our every atom and the entire universe from disintegrating (Hebrews 1:3). It is stubbornly choosing to believe what he says and refusing to be swayed by every indication to the contrary.

Earlier, I spoke of me being tormented by questions, but that was more illusion than reality. It is actually doubts, not questions, that torment. Doubts come not from lack of answers but from lack of faith.

Like obedience, faith (taking God at his word) is our responsibility, not God’s. This is shown, for example, by Jesus repeatedly singling out individuals to praise them for their faith and rebuking others for their lack of faith (Many Scriptures). It is not a matter of waiting for God to magically drop faith in our lap; it is a matter of digging deep to muster the faith that, despite not seeming to be there, God has already buried within us.

In the midst of my turmoil and unanswered questions I resolved to increase my faith that God is trustworthy; deciding that regardless of how things seemed and how I felt, I can rest in the certainty that God is greater than me – greater in power, greater in love, greater in goodness and greater in every other desirable thing – and that he has every concern in hand, even when I cannot see how. By choosing this act of faith, I slammed the door in the tormenter’s face. The questions remained but they ceased to torment.

Peace came, not as some uncontrollable act of God but as the logical consequence of my refusal to doubt him, no matter how defiantly doubts might rise. Since it is common for feelings not to respond to logic, I kept on believing, regardless of whether feelings of peace or feelings or feelings of anxiety flooded my heart. To let feelings hold my faith hostage and determine whether or not I believe, would be ridiculous.

We have a tendency to regard faith and peace almost as if they were beyond our control when actually, like obedience, they are activated more by willpower than by waiting for some type of spiritual ‘magic’ to happen.

The Lord recently told my wife she should flush doubts, fears and hurts down the toilet whenever they came. That sounds rather gross but the image was deliberate. He explained that although she often drops offensive things such as doubt and resentment, she tends to pick them up again later. It seems the Lord chose the toilet analogy for two reasons. First, to flush anything down a toilet is to make a one-off decision to make its retrieval almost impossible. That’s important. Unfortunately, however, we humans have a tendency to renege on our decisions. That introduces the second reason: if, once flushed, there remains the slight chance of retrieval, the thought of what one would have to do to try to get it back would be enough to significantly reduce the temptation to even consider it.

The Lord was saying (and I believe it applies to us all) that what my wife does with her fears, doubts and hurts is up to her, not him. Nevertheless, the wise and spiritual response is to flush them away the moment they come, and just as she would not want to put her hand in a sewer, so she should recoil from picking up these disgusting things again.

Faith heroes, no matter how great, can be riddled with doubts, fears and hurts. They just keep on clinging to faith and obedience regardless. That’s what makes them heroes.

So being plagued with such things as doubts is of no spiritual consequence. Refusing to trust God, however, is entirely different. That is alarmingly serious. To refuse to trust until we receive answers that satisfy us would be to refuse to let God be our God. It would be to reject him as our God and install ourselves in the place that all logic and conscience screams belongs to him alone. It would be arrogantly and rebelliously usurping God and making ourselves our highest moral authority, or honoring ourselves as the greatest source of wisdom, or as the most dependable power in our lives – the one most lovingly committed and supernaturally endowed to looking after our best interests.

Praising God, thanking him and deliberately stirring ourselves to rejoice in him are powerful ways of building trust and receptivity to hearing from God. So is obedience. (How can we discover how brilliantly his plans work unless we try them?) Humility is also important if we are to receive much in the way of revelation. And we need to seek divine answers both through prayer and through Bible study. For more help in finding answers, see the link at the end of this webpage: Receive More Spiritual Revelation: The Help You Need to Find Deep Spiritual Secrets.

For now, however, let me focus on how to build trust in God and know him better.

Having had the privilege of supporting many trauma victims, I understand how trauma powerfully etches into one’s mind a long-passed horror, keeping the memory as vivid as if it has just happened and frustratingly stronger than memories of all the good, subsequent years. Alongside the trauma, the good things feel as if they barely ever happened. This afflicts these dear people with a distorted perception of current reality that perpetuates their distress and anxiety.

I am not touting it as a quick or complete cure, but I believe that lessening the distortion and increasing these people’s feeling of security can be helped by deliberately and regularly recalling all the good things they have experienced, and everything that means they are now safe. It takes time, but I think that dwelling on such positives can help restore some balance in their perception of current reality that trauma stole from them.

The tendency for things to slip out of a healthy, realistic balance can apply not just to what we might call trauma but to other forms of unpleasantness. As disturbing as it to suffer a distorted view of everyday reality, however, what is even worse is that it can distort our view of spiritual reality; preventing us from seeing God as being as good and trustworthy as he really is.

Let’s approach this from another angle: if we usually spend a total of one hour a day thinking about God, this seems quite an achievement and yet it means our mind usually spends 23 times more a day dwelling on things other than God. Should, then, we be surprised if other things seem several times more real to us than God?

I am not suggesting anything extreme. I have tried and tried, and failed and failed to do much to redress this imbalance in my own life. I think becoming obsessive about it, exhausting ourselves and/or condemning ourselves for not doing more, could prove counterproductive by making it a burden and turning our perception of God into a harsh taskmaster. Might it prove beneficial, however, for a tiny move towards thinking a little more often about God each day? There is certainly no shortage of biblical incentives to give it a go. Here’s just a small sample:

    Colossians 3:2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.

    1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.

    Acts 16:24-25  . . . threw them into the inner prison, and secured their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God . . .

    Psalm 34:1  . . . I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise will always be in my mouth.

    Psalm 63:6 when I remember you on my bed, and think about you in the night watches.

    Psalm 119:62 At midnight I will rise to give thanks to you, because of your righteous ordinances.

    Psalm 119:148 My eyes stay open through the night watches, that I might meditate on your word.

    Deuteronomy 6:6-9 These words, which I command you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.

    (Further examples.)

For the Psalm 119:62 reference to midnight above, it helps to realize that in an era before electricity, late night shopping, and so on, midnight was ludicrously late.

It seems likely to me that the more our mind keeps dwelling on the negative, the larger it will loom in our perception of reality. As I wrote years ago: praise magnifies God; the alternative magnifies the problem. The last thing we need is to see God as tiny and the problem magnified.

I believe praising God, thanking him and deliberately rejoicing, plays a critical role in healing this distortion.

Praising, and especially rejoicing, takes considerable effort. I believe the very effort, however, helps intensify the positive in our consciousness, thus making these spiritual activities particularly powerful in correcting any imbalance in our mind caused by unpleasant experiences.

What are the spiritual implications for us if we refuse to suffer for our enemies?

It only takes the slightest glance at Jesus agonizing in the garden to know that even the decision to suffer for one’s enemies (Romans 5:6-8, 10) can be a horrific battle. Nevertheless, it would be morally wrong (encouraging sin) for the Holy Lord to eternally forgive anyone who does not want God to deliver him from selfishness. (Hence the Bible’s emphasis on denying oneself, dying to self, crucifying the flesh, and so on.) Moral considerations aside, allowing selfish or self-righteous people into heaven would spoil its perfection. In time, in fact, such a place would probably end up with as much suffering as our planet currently has.

Moreover, what’s the point of wanting God to rescue us from the sins we hate if we refuse to let him rescue us from the sins we love? The sins we love are just as spiritually damming as the sins we hate.

I’m not referring to works but a heart-attitude – a willingness to take on board God’s values. (For more on this subject, see this short but separate webpage: Repentance: Why We Can’t be Forgiven While Refusing to Let Go of Sin – listed in the links at the end of this page.)

How can Christ live in our hearts if we are heading in opposite direction to him because we refuse to be like him? He is Isaiah’s prophesied Suffering Servant; the innocent one who so loves the guilty that he sacrificed not only his comfort but his very life for them.

Children bear the genes/likeness of their father. How can we be children of God if we have no desire to be like him? He is the one:

    * who loves those we are tempted to hate

    * who, because of his love, blesses both the just and the unjust with sun and rain (Matthew 5:44-45; Acts 14:16-17).

    * whose goodness and mercy is intended to lead the guilty to repentance (Romans 2:4) because he wants no one to perish (1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 33:11).

The apostle Paul wrote:

    Romans 9:1-4 I tell the truth in Christ. I am not lying, my conscience testifying with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brothers’ sake, my relatives according to the flesh, who are Israelites . . .

I have every confidence that Paul would say the same about being willing to be spiritually dammed for non-Jews if it would bring about their salvation (see Paul’s Passion for Gentiles). Nevertheless, merely consider the suffering non-Christian Jews inflicted on him. They seem to have done actually more to persecute him than the Gentiles and often stirred up the Roman authorities to attack and, they hoped, permantly silence him (Details). Soon after his conversion, the Jews conspired to kill Paul (Acts 9:23). In another time and place, they stoned him and left him for dead (Acts 14:19). Not once or twice but on five separate occasions, Paul received “from the Jews . . . forty stripes minus one” (2 Corinthians 11:24 – Comment). And yet Paul so loved them that he was not only willing to endure all of this in the hope of them finding Christ, he would willingly suffer eternally for them, if that were possible.

John has been called the apostle of love, and yet it takes little thought to realize that Paul has truly earned that title. In fact, I don’t know what anyone could do to display greater love than Paul:

    John 15:13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

    Romans 5:7-10 For one will hardly die for a righteous man. . . . But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. . . . while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son . . .

What gives hope for us all on our path to Christlikeness is that although John and Paul ended up loving like Christ, both started off so far from it they burned with murderous rage towards those they disapproved of (Luke 9:54; Acts 9:1).

A moving display of Christlike love is powerful in winning people to Christ. Paul, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV), proved his love by his suffering.

An angel can talk about love and anyone rich and/or powerful can give impressive gifts, but it is suffering that provides by far the greatest proof of love.

Love is at the heart of the book of Job. This man’s behavior was exceptionally righteous but Satan’s argument was that Job was only that way because of what he got out of it (Job 1:8-11; 2:3-5). It was only through his suffering that Job was able to prove to the world and to anti-God powers just how genuine he was.

It is noteworthy that, as with Christians suffering little persecution, the attack on Job and his possessions and family was physical but the source was spiritual (satanic), rather than human persecution because of his beliefs. As is typically also the case among us, a significant human source of his torment was not the ungodly but his marriage partner (Job 2:9 – probably drunk with pain over her own grief) and his righteous friends with their less than helpful attempts to support and advise.

Everything mentioned in this section dovetails with Jesus’ emphasis that our forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive others.

We are acutely aware that the Son of God suffered horrifically, despite being perfect and innocent like no one else, and the darling of God’s heart. We know there is no way that we are greater than our crucified Lord. Nevertheless, we Christians tend to think – I certainly have – that because Christ graciously suffered on our behalf, at least those who are exceptionally close to God should be spared earthly suffering.

We have been seeing, however, that God’s precious Word is emphatic that this is not so. Through our suffering Lord, we are headed for an eternity of perfection that is completely free from pain and suffering. Despite the hopes of some, however, not even the greatest Christian, is guaranteed an easy, pain-free time in the here and now.

It is understandable that we are not instantaneously whisked away to heaven the moment we surrender to Christ. We are needed down here. The nagging question, however, is why are Christians who are currently fulfilling an earthly mission not divinely placed in some sort of protective bubble so that now that they are in spiritual union with Christ they are spared earthly suffering?

Not even the best of us deserve divine forgiveness. Jesus alone was truly innocent and suffered horrifically for you to be forgiven. We were once God’s enemies and were rescued from eternal damnation only because God loves his enemies.

The Lord, whom many of us secretly consider to be too good, makes the sun rise and life-giving rain fall both on those we consider respectable and those we look down on (Matthew 5:44-45). There are those we consider unworthy of God’s kindness, when the humiliating reality is that the only thing any of us are worthy of is death from the moment of our first sin (Romans 6:23).

We have seen that although suffering is totally contrary to the perfection of God’s will, our sins – our actions that were totally contrary to the perfection of God’s will – that God tolerated until we eventually came to our senses (and sins we have even dared commit afterward) – slander, cheating, lying, stealing, and so on – have inflicted suffering on people.

For even the best of us, the Lord had to keep enduring our rebellion against him until we eventually came to our senses and accepted divine pardon through Christ. Do we, then, have the hide to claim the Lord who wants no one to perish but all to come to repentance (Isaiah 45:22; Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9) should not also be patient towards those we dislike?

It’s mighty hard to read the Bible without concluding that it is possible for dynamic, faith-filled Christians to suffer devastating persecution, including not just the plundering of one’s worldly goods (Hebrews 10:34) but incarceration, torture and death. Jesus even pronounced special blessings on the persecuted. And it’s harder still to believe we are spared such suffering because we are more devout. But what of other forms of suffering?

Does anyone believe he reveres God’s Word and yet claims to have more faith and spiritual understanding that the inspired writers of the New Testament who either suffered horrific persecution or taught that others can expect it? Such arrogance would be mind-boggling but I guess some today might feel forced into that dark corner because we live in the pleasure-seeking era prophesied in Scripture in which people will turn from “sound doctrine” and only want to hear what suits them (2 Timothy 3:1-5; 4:3).

All of us have been mercifully spared most of the innumerable forms of suffering – every form of natural disaster, physical disabilities, mental afflictions, the vast number of different illnesses (even if eventually healed), rape, betrayal, not being understood, loneliness, death of loved ones, poverty, the ravages of aging, and on and on – and yet it is rare for the most impressive, Spirit-filled Christians to float through a long life without being hit by at least one or two of the possibilities. And while they are suffering, dare we accuse them of lacking faith?


I have a vast number of other webpages, but the following are particularly pertinent to this topic.

A highly relevant webpage that I urge you to read, if you haven’t already, has the unlikely title Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayer & the Implications for Us. What connects the two pages is that our natural reaction to suffering is to pray against it. If, however, suffering involves loftier purposes than we suppose, the high good and our greatest glory might be achieved by those prayers not being answered. The page contains valuable biblical insights into suffering that have not been covered above.

The Surprising Joy of Trials

Christian Insights into Martyrdom and Persecution

God isn’t fair?

God’s Execution of Justice on Behalf of Those who have Suffered

Insights From a Sufferer of Chronic Pain

More About God & Suffering

Repentance: Why We Can’t be Forgiven While Refusing to Let Go of Sin

Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayer & the Implications for Us

Receive More Spiritual Revelation: The Help You Need to Find Deep Spiritual Secrets

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Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2018, 2019. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net   No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph.


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