Last week we began a series of sermons probing into suffering and the bad things that disrupt our lives. I need to say again that I do not have “the answer” to the question, “Why do bad things happen?” Today we’re going to begin to explore where God is active in our suffering. What does God do with our suffering?
The Christian author C.S. Lewis was no stranger to suffering; in fact his life was marked with tragedy. When Lewis’ was four years old his dog Jacksie died. Lewis loved his dog so much that he insisted on being called by the dog’s name; friends and family called him “Jack” throughout his life. As a child Lewis was sent away to a school which was later closed when the headmaster was committed to a psychiatric hospital. When he was 10 Lewis’ mother developed cancer and died a long painful death. Lewis who had been raised an Anglican professed to be an atheist. At age 15, he was “very angry at God for not existing”. As a young man, Lewis fought in WWI. The brutal nature of “modern warfare” disturbed him. In the trenches Lewis was wounded and two of his closest friends killed by friendly fire – a British bomb that fell short of its target. While healing from his wounds in hospital his father didn’t come to see him. It’s no wonder Lewis failed in his life long pursuit to get close to his emotionally cold and distant father. For the next 25 years Lewis cared for the family of one of his fallen friends. During this time, at the age of 31, he came back “kicking and screaming” to Christ. Later in life, after having become a very successful English teacher in an esteemed university, this somewhat crusty old prof fell in love with an unlikely woman. She was a divorced woman (a scandalous thing in 1942) with a Jewish heritage. She had only recently become a Christian after a long association with Marxism. They were married and Lewis was ecstatic. Her name was Joy Davidman and indeed she brought a new and profound joy to his life. Early into their marriage Joy developed cancer which led to her death and left Lewis quite alone and heart-broken. Needless to say with all of these tormenting experiences, Lewis struggled to make sense of his life. In his book The Problem of Pain he wrote, “When I think of pain, of anxiety that knows life and loneliness that spreads out like a desert, and the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery … if I knew a way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it …I am not arguing that pain is not painful … that is what the word means … I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect though suffering (Hebrews 2:10) is not incredible.” Or as he says elsewhere, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
If Lewis is correct, I for one, would prefer God to use – oh let’s say a Caribbean resort as his megaphone – kids who are well behaved and happy – a career that is bursting with success – a body that gets stronger instead of older. But, as noted earlier, I’m not God. In fact, many verses in the Bible suggest that tough situations and hurts can be an important class room. James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of faith produces endurance …” (1:2-3). I’m to consider trials as ‘joy’? It tests my faith? Well James got the second part right – when bad things happen our faith ends up in the cross hairs; where once we were so sure of God, we become angry. We wonder if God loves us. Is God really in control of things? If anger brews long enough we can even ask, who is God anyhow? In fact, is there a God? [We can relate to this scene from the movie Patch Adams that finds Patch struggling with God at the edge of a cliff, asking some very poignant questions.
When bad things happen it’s all too easy to give up on faith and maybe even God. Hebrews encourages us to remain faithful. When we suffer we often feel like we are all alone. The writer of Hebrews’ assures us that’s not the case. Having gone over in chapter 11, a long list of men and women who have been beaten up, mistreated, sick, homeless, jobless the author encourages us, “Do you see what this means – all these pioneers who blaze the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it – and never quit.” (12:1). The saints, who suffered more than we, are cheering us on. The seats are filled and it’s a huge home crowd. And they’re not the only ones sitting in the stands. They’re joined by Jesus himself who also suffered. We’re reminded, “For the joy set before him he [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (vs.2) Jesus who was sinless; Jesus who could have called down an Angel army, endured both the physical torture of the cross and the emotional shame of humiliation. How did he do it? “He never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God (vs. 2).
When the author of Hebrews talked about suffering coming upon Christians, he believed it was precisely because they were followers of Christ that they were persecuted. While this isn’t really our issue (although it is in many places in the world) what’s said might help us understand how suffering can help us grow. Hebrews tells us, “My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline, but don’t be crushed by it either” (vs. 5). The author speaks of the tough times as “God’s discipline”. Many of us will go immediately to the place that bad things come directly from God to either test us or punish us. I don’t believe this is the case. Last week I spoke of human freedom to choose and natural laws governing certain things in life. It’s not that God looks up his records and says ‘Right then, today we’re going to dump on Sabrina’. Life rolls out the way it does: it is what it is. While I’m uncertain why such things happen, I know God allows things to happen and that “this trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; its training, the normal experience of children” (vs.8). So God isn’t out to get us. God doesn’t inflict bad things on us. But when bad things happen and we suffer as a consequence God sees an opportunity to work in our hearts and lives. God sees no point in pointless suffering so God uses our experiences to help us mature and become more Christ-like. God knows adversity can be a tremendous teacher. God takes no joy in watching us suffer, but in his love for us, he draws on our suffering as an opportunity for new life. We know from the cross, God uses suffering to generate redemption.
And so God ‘disciplines’ us. If you’re still think discipline equals punishment, let’s reframe the word. I remember learning to play the piano. It took discipline. It was a personal discipline as well as one imposed on me. My teacher told me what to learn and held me accountable. I was told what exercises to do – how many scales, chords, and arpeggios I’d play each day. I had a metronome to discipline my timing. My parents told me when to practice. There were many long nights of sitting in front of a keyboard sometimes resentfully but often happily because I wanted to play music. When we study at university what we study is often referred to as one’s ‘discipline’. Mine were history and then Biblical studies and theology which meant I read book upon book on these subjects and wrote paper after paper. I was graded and tested. It took 6 years of determined self-discipline to finish school and many more years of self-discipline to bring me to where I am now. Without that discipline I wouldn’t be or know who I am. This development of identity and character also came from the training I received at the hands of my parents. My parents were strict but they had my best interests at heart. God is the ultimate loving parent. God uses tough times to ‘discipline’ (educate/train) us so we can get where we need to go.
And where is that training leading us? An author whose world had imploded on her reflected, “I learned that the desert is not a tragedy. The tragedy is to fail to hear what God was saying to me there.” We often think the end game is a happy existence, enjoying life without any pain or problems. From the Biblical perspective the end game is to walk though life with the Lord becoming more Christ like in all we do and say. We read this, “While we were children, our parents did what seemed best to them. But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God’s holy best. At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like it’s going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it’s the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God” (vs. 10-11).
We noted last Monday night that God can also use us, in the midst of suffering, to be a blessing to others; one person shared how a death brought a fragmented family together. When things are tough the drudgery of dealing with daily difficulties can cause us to circle the wagons and focus on – well, ourselves and our suffering. We become insular and isolated. Hebrews reminds us that we need one another, “So don’t sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet! Clear the path for long-distance runners so no one will trip and fall, so no one will step in a hole and sprain an ankle. Help each other out. And run for it!” (12-13). People live in community. Christian people are a community – we’re in this together. In our times of suffering we need others to help us out. We have one another, we have those who have gone before us and we have Christ himself to turn to. And when the worst of our suffering fades we can offer support and healing to others from a place of deep compassion.
Like a parent teaching a loved child to respond well to life’s hurts, God uses such times to help us grow and mature. So when life overwhelms you and your faith begins to flag, don’t give up. “Run with perseverance the race marked out for [you] fixing your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (vs.2) Because, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3 – 5)