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Suffering, Spiritual Growth, and the Biographies of Saints

November 13, 2020 4 comments

Over the last several years I’ve learned, through experience as well as study, the purpose of suffering in the Christian life, as well as the difference between afflictions sanctified and non-sanctified.  For it is not the affliction itself that causes growth, but the response to it, as a spiritual growth opportunity, a point brought out often in the “Gospel According to Habakkuk” series over the last few months. 

Another aspect of suffering, for Christians, is the relationship we have to our heavenly Father, the one who brings the trials into our lives–it is done with God’s loving care, measured, with a limit, and not to the end of wrath and punishment.  In reading Charles Spurgeon’s Faith’s Checkbook devotional, the reading for October 19 especially speaks to the measured chastisement, with this interesting observation:

As many as God tenderly loves He rebukes and chastens: those for whom He has no esteem He allows to fatten themselves without fear, like bullocks for the slaughter. It is in love that our heavenly Father uses the rod upon His children.

This truth is referenced often in the Psalms and in Hebrews 12:7-8, that we often observe the wicked and the ungodly having great prosperity without great trials or difficulties, while the godly are often regarded “as sheep to the slaughter” with many difficulties in this life.  It’s easy to see this in those who do not show any outward interest in Christianity, yet prosper.  But sometimes this even shows up in the lives of well-known “celebrity” Christians–wealth and success in life and in ministry, an easy going life of  common grace, without great trials or difficulties.  Yet, this may well be an indication that the “successful Christian” may actually be an “illegitimate son” exempt from the discipline that all God’s true children have participated in.  Certainly within a pastor’s ministry, before any hardship and subsequent spiritual growth, such a case shows a person who is unable to relate to and help others in need–and in a pastor, great insensitivity in any type of pastoral /  counseling ministry.  

Here I recall David Murray‘s testimony of early ministry years, when he had not yet had any great trials–and it showed in his lack of sympathy and inability to provide counseling to the members of his congregation.  In time, God did bring a great trial, through which he learned and changed to become far more effective in his ministry.  Charles Spurgeon found a similar positive effect from the great trials he went through during his early years as a pastor in London–the intense trials at first taking him by surprise, leading him to study the topic of suffering and why it was happening, and then later seeing the positive benefit to his ministry.

The negative examples, such as “celebrity” pastors in ministry for many decades without experiencing any great suffering – whether internal (such as mental depression) or significant external events of loss or failure — accordingly, give us pause to consider and discern for ourselves, if such people are really God’s children after all.  Unbroken success and wealth, without any significant suffering, reveals shallow characters that show great arrogance and lack of concern for the well-being of their sheep, the people in their congregation, and so they fit into Spurgeon’s description (above):  those for whom He has no esteem He allows to fatten themselves without fear, like bullocks for the slaughter.

Certainly Christians can be blessed with great wealth and success, yet we can observe the overall balance of their lives and their experiences.  Christian singer / songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, for example, has been blessed of God with great financial success–yet such success was moderated by an extreme tragedy, that got his attention and brought about spiritual growth — and also proving the other part of Spurgeon’s observation:  As many as God tenderly loves He rebukes and chastens.

So, in our own lives, let us apply this teaching of scripture, this point brought out in many places such as the Spurgeon devotional.  Also, by continuing to draw near to God; and if we haven’t learned the lesson from previous afflictions, to let the current ones (or ones soon to come) tesach us, that these would become sanctified afflictions.

Psalm 13, Depression, and Feeling Abandoned

July 10, 2019 1 comment

I’ve been reading through volume 1 of James Montgomery Boice’s commentary on the Psalms (Psalms 1-41, book one of the Psalter), a past free monthly book offer from Logos software, usually two psalms per week.  (The commentary comes from Boice’s exposition of the psalms; for psalms after the 41st, I may return to listening to the original sermons.) This psalms commentary is a great combination of technical information and excellent application.

The commentary on Psalm 13 also ties in with another recently read book—from Christian counselor Ed Welch, another Kindle sale deal: Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness.  (See previous posts of Welch’s books here and also here.)

Some highlights from Welch’s book:  our greatest need is forgiveness; having a purpose statement for our life; and recognizing that perseverance is one of the attributes of God.  Thus, our suffering and the consequent perseverance, is another way in which we are conformed more and more to God’s image.  The sovereignty of God, especially in suffering that comes from, at least in part, our own past choices, also has greater value and importance than the mere “academic” idea of it:

Although life before a sovereign God assures us that God is in control, accomplishing His good plans even through our poor choices, it is easy to lose sight of this reality.  When we do, we can feel as if an unwise decision has forever doomed us to a path that is second best.

Returning to Boice, it is interesting to see how much helpful material can be found within the context of a few pages of commentary on a particular text.  Here Boice addresses several considerations, examining the psalmist David’s feelings and the three parts of the psalm.  One interesting point is the feeling of abandonment described, and Boice (writing in the late 20th century) observed that among Christian authors dealing with the topic of depression, even Martyn Lloyd Jones, they don’t address the issue of feeling abandoned—perhaps because of the deeply ingrained idea that, of course, Christians are never abandoned and should never have such experience.  As Boice observes:

Although this is a common problem, I have not been able to find much helpful literature about it, particularly by Christians. Even D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure does not specifically deal with feelings of abandonment.

Why do you suppose this is? I think it is because we have been taught that Christians are not to experience such things, that we are only to have “life more abundantly” or to “live victoriously.” In the last chapter I quoted the dying French atheist Voltaire, who said, “I am abandoned by God and man.” We are not surprised to hear an unbeliever say that. But if any of us should admit to such feelings, many of our friends would look askance at us, shake their heads, and wonder whether we are Christians. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that the chief reason why you do not talk to other Christians about this or about many other problems?  How good then to find that David does talk about it! David is a giant in Scripture, a person “after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Yet described here is a time when David felt that God had left him entirely. And he doesn’t cover up his feelings.

Following the outline of Psalm 13, the commentary describes several reasons why people feel abandoned:

Prolonged Struggle

We still believe God is there. It is different when the short-term experience becomes a long-term pattern, and we begin to wonder whether God’s silence may endure “forever.”  … Andrew Fuller, another of the earlier commentators, said, “It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting.”

Lack of Apparent Blessing

A second cause of depression, leading to feelings of abandonment, is an extension of the first: a prolonged period in which the blessings of God given in an earlier time seem to have been removed.

Boice lists several areas of such impact in our lives:  family relationships (“the happiness of the early days of a marriage has been replaced by the stress of trying to work out personality conflicts or other difficulties”), as well as in our work, our church life, and in our spiritual life and progress.

Dark Thoughts and Uncontrollable Emotions

The third time David asks, “How long?” he refers to a combination of what we would call dark thoughts and uncontrollable emotions. When we no longer sense that God is blessing us, we tend to ruminate on our failures and get into an emotional funk. And when our emotions take over it is always hard to get back onto a level course. This is because the best means of doing this—calm reflection and a review of past blessings—are being swept away.

You know that God deals with us by grace. But the lack of blessing has continued for so long that you have become morbidly introspective. You have been dredging up past sins and have been wondering, “Is God punishing me for what I did then? I confessed the sin and believed he forgave me. But maybe he is bringing it up again and putting me on hold because of it.”

Often what we learn comes from meditating upon God’s word and its application, from considering new information from multiple sources (such as Christian articles, books, and selections from Bible commentaries), and connecting it all together.  Both of the above resources – James Montgomery Boice’s commentary on the Psalms, and the Ed Welch book, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness, are helpful for study.  The Psalms study includes the lament type Psalms, and Welch teaches through many scripture examples and real-life examples of people applying scripture to their real-life problems.

Bible Application from the Patriarchs’ Lives

April 20, 2018 2 comments

It has been well observed that God’s word instructs us in two ways: by precepts, and by illustrations. Sections including the Decalogue, the Proverbs and New Testament epistles emphasize right living by precepts and commands; then we have illustrations of real people’s lives – such as the patriarchs and King David – that show us the good and bad, including the consequences of sin.

The Tabletalk 2007 back-issues (the same calendar year as 2018), going through the lives of the patriarchs, are excellent studies, packed with application regarding Christian living.  I was familiar with some of the more obvious issues — such as the repeated patterns of lying (Abraham and Isaac), parental favoritism (Isaac and Rebekah with Esau and Jacob), and Jacob’s years with Laban, for Jacob to learn some things about his deceitful behavior the hard way – and the general point that the Bible is a divine book, that it does not whitewash the heroes of the faith, it does not hide but tells us the many faults of these men, to show that it is all of God’s grace and not ourselves.

Beyond that, though, Genesis has much more to say about day to day life and the trials and suffering, showing us by way of illustration that it has always been this way for God’s people, and that what we experience is nothing new or unusual (ref. 1 Peter 4:12 and 1 Peter 5:9).

Abraham and Sarah lived, day by day, through 25 years before the promised heir was born.

Isaac and Rebekah clearly did not have a great marriage, one that had broken down in communication by the time of Genesis 27, such that each was doing their own thing.  Along the way, they both experienced the daily grief of Esau’s wives—and this went on for decades, from the time when Esau married them (age 40) to the time of Jacob’s stealing the blessing when they were about age 76-77: life events did not come and go quickly, but they endured this situation for over 35 years.

One of the Tabletalk articles from February 2007 consists of John Calvin’s exposition of Genesis 26:26-35.  In the details of Isaac’s life we see a Bible example of what Spurgeon pointed out in his sermons: when God does not answer our prayers and provide relief in one specific area, He will answer us in some other way (a truth which I have come to know, time and time again, in my own trials):

Here we see on the one side, how God would comfort his servant [Isaac] every way: For it was not only showed him that he should be assured from then on that none should hurt him — seeing the king himself of the country came to seek him — but also he had water given him, which he might enjoy peaceably and quietly as his own. When therefore our Lord shows this great favor towards Isaac, let us know that He does not tempt him above their strength, but always sweetens their afflictions in such sort, that they shall not be, as it were, ever oppressed and quite overthrown. Let us hope, that just as Isaac was upheld, God after He had afflicted him, looked also again unto him to give him some comfort, so likewise must we wait, and then we shall not be disappointed if we rest there. For God knows our frailty, and there is no doubt He will always give us such taste of His mercy and favor that we shall have good cause to bless His name and have no occasion to think the sad thought that we do not know how to comfort ourselves anymore in Him.

Then another Tabletalk article from this same issue defines the law of retaliation, the talion (an eye for an eye, for equivalence of punishment), followed by reference to the specifics of Jacob’s life.  Jacob deceived his father who was blind; later, Jacob was deceived by Laban due to the blindness of night (Genesis 29:21-30, Leah substituted for Rachel).  Jacob deceived his father with a goat skin; his own sons deceived Jacob with the blood of a goat (Genesis 37:31).  Noting the specifics of how God worked out His justice in the life of Jacob, is good application to God’s Providence regarding our own lives, to reflect on the reality of this in our own lives. I can relate the events in Jacob’s life, and the truth of Galatians 6:7, to my own circumstances, to better understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of God’s chastening in the specific events in my own life.

Yet God’s grace and kindness comes through as well, sometimes in very amazing and unexpected ways–in their lives, as well as ours.

But God is rich in mercy as well as justice. By Leah, Jacob’s wife through Laban’s deception, was born Judah, through whom Christ was to come (Gen. 29:35). And by Joseph, who was at last restored to Jacob, God delivered the world from a famine (41:57). So in all of this we see that God is rich in mercy as well as justice. In wisdom He works to accomplish His sovereign ends even through the just punishments He visits upon His errant covenant people for their evil means.

A Theology of Suffering: Mark Talbot Lectures

April 10, 2018 Leave a comment

From last fall’s free special from Reformed Resources, a series done a few years ago by Mark Talbot is very helpful, a five-part series on Trusting God When We Suffer.  These lectures look at what suffering is, within the plan of God: a divine, though unsought gift.  Yes, we do not seek suffering – but it is still a gift from God.  So much information is presented, and presented clearly with the challenge for us to really think hard about it, to think through it.

Talbot mentioned a book he was working on, not yet published; this book is apparently still unpublished, but one free book resource from John Piper includes a chapter from Talbot: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.

Talbot responds to apostate agnostic Bart Ehrman, who has claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the reality of suffering by believers; according to Ehrman, the Bible depicts a loving God who rescues His people and does not allow suffering, but instead provides good and prosperity not only in the life to come, but in this life also.  By contrast, scriptural examples of suffering (many to pick from) include the stories of Naomi (Ruth 1), Job, and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20).  Profound suffering sometimes involves the person coming to have false beliefs about God, such as Jeremiah in chapter 20; in other cases such as Naomi, the person maintains their basic belief in the goodness of God, while seeing no possibility of any further good in their own life.

Suffering includes physical and mental, and sometimes both, as well as many levels and degrees. It is person-relative, such that the particular suffering one person endures, would not necessarily affect another – an adolescent being bullied online versus an adult’s more mature response, for example.  An overall definition of suffering:  from the sufferer’s standpoint, all suffering involves something disrupting his/her life’s pleasantness, to the point where that disruption feels disagreeable enough that he/she wants it to end.  Suffering can be considered on a sliding scale, from minor (such as Talbot’s wife, who dislikes Wagner and Opera, having to listen to it) through more intense, chronic, or other types of suffering.   For scriptural support, Hebrews 12:1-13 deals with this in the abstract, the definition. For experience of it, we can turn to many places in the Bible, including the Psalms – such as Psalm 126, which contrasts positive and negative events.

A solid theology of suffering includes application from the many Bible accounts of actual suffering, “breathing” the promises of God, and a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty over everything – including our next breath, and even our thoughts.  How many times in everyday life do we start to say something and then realize we don’t know the words to express it, or forget what we were about to say?  God is sovereign over our thoughts.  Theological anthropology is another term, the biblical understanding of what it means to be human—and applied to suffering.

Talbot references studies that conclude that most people are happy most of the time – when accounting for all other factors such as age, gender, and economic situation – as long as a few basic physical and social needs are met.  Thus we find that poor people in third world countries are happier than some wealthy, successful people in developed countries.  Again we can return to biblical proof:  Acts 14, Paul’s speech to the people who attempted to offer sacrifices to him and Barnabas (as Hermes and Zeus); verse 17,  “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

We view life within the bookends of scripture, the first two and the last two chapters of God’s word.  Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 both describe a time – past and future – of undisturbed peace and pleasantness.  Everything in between these two times will be a mixture of pleasant and painful experiences.

Another area where people get tripped up is in their view of God as our Father.  Viewing this from a bottom-up expansion, of how good human fathers are and thus how much more God is this way, sufferers have trouble with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-11.  Instead we need to see God as Father from a “top-down” view:  God is the starting point, all goodness is in Him; when we happen to see some goodness in human fathers, that is a derivative or shadow of the reality in God.  Further analysis also brings out the reality of even human parenting: children cannot see the future, long-term good of certain things done by their parents – who have long-term goals for their children such as a good education and life-skills.  Mark Talbot as a child could not understand the value of the restriction his mother placed on him, requiring him to read for a certain amount of time every day before going out to play; the child who wants to have the same “popular” shoes as every other kid cannot appreciate the value of a different, higher quality shoe.

This series is very helpful, with a lot of information to think through – and held up to a second round of listening a few weeks later.  For further study of the theology of suffering, the above-mentioned book by John Piper looks interesting.  The Tabletalk issue from April 2007 (the same calendar year as 2018) also featured a study on Grief, with several articles on suffering and grief.  A good quote from one of the articles, ‘From Grief to Glory’:

God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. … We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.

All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.