From my book "Getting to Heaven"
Three initial reccomendations
1) Pray for God's presence and for your mind to be stilled
2) Fight the good Christian fight knowing that Heaven and rewards in Heaven are promised you
3) Seek someone out who has more needs than you and help them.
If we could change one word in the Bible, we could probably settle on a word that James wrote in his epistle. Two verses into the letter, James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” How nice it would be if he used the word “if” instead of “when”… or how nice it would be if trials were completely unavoidable! (Macarthur p 179)
The incidence of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith and has been in every generation. “Making peace” with suffering is perhaps the biggest roadblock to serenity. The distribution and degree of suffering appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love. If you live long enough you will suffer. The only way to avoid it is to die. When people lose their faith because of suffering, it is usually a result of being misled… of having a weak or nominal faith that doesn’t account for evil and suffering. It’s a faith that focuses more on life here on earth than life in the hereafter. Any faith not based on the truth of scripture needs to be lost. (A 11-13)
A paradox exists between those who live in comfort and reject faith in God and those whose faith grows in the midst of evil and suffering. While many western atheists may turn from a seemingly wrathful God who would allow a tsunami or earthquake, paradoxically, it is those who endure such disasters that tend to deepen their faith. Intellectualizing is an enemy of faith. For those of us in the west, many living in comfort, we have the “unfortunate” luxury of intellectualizing. We have become soft. Christian faith in poorer countries tends to be more innocent, raw, and direct. It is probably for this reason that more miraculous healings are reported in Africa. God works best when faith is pure. (A 32)
It is through faith and an eternal perspective that we can see God’s goodness in our weaknesses and suffering which provide a platform for showing our strength. The apostle Paul, one of the most determined and devout Christians in history, was not granted a peaceful and comfortable life. Paul said, “To keep me from becoming big-headed as a result of my revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh. I pleaded three times for its removal, but the Lord said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why I delight in weaknesses… for when I am weak I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). (A 172)
We may wonder why some people are born with horrible defects. Such sufferings shake the faith of some, but it is God’s sovereignty that provides comfort for those stricken. A man named David O’brien was born with cerebral palsy. At a conference of disabled people, Mr. O’brien stated that God didn’t merely permit such challenges – but He actually created them! In John 9:1-3, the people of Jesus’ time were confused as to why a man was born blind. It says “as Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. ‘Rabbi,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind? Was it because of his sins or his parents’ sins?’ ‘It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered. ‘This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.’” James 1:2-3 asks us to embrace our troubles for when “troubles come, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.” Even in our confusion, the Holy Spirit leads the way. Romans 8:26 confirms “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. The Holy Spirit prays for us with groans that can’t be expressed in words.” (A 233)
There is a story of a man in the World Trade center on September 11, 2001. On his way to work that day, he had prayed in the train to feel extra close to God. He was high in one of the towers when the plane hit. Somehow he managed to escape. His family rejoiced… and then they experienced survivor’s guilt. What about those that didn’t make it? Did God love them less? Or perhaps God loved them more because now they were with Jesus (if they were Christians). Would they have survived if they had prayed? These are very disorienting issues to ponder.
Psalm 1 conveys this confusion. It says, “I am one who has seen affliction (because he has been stricken by God’s angry rod).” God has “brought him into the darkness without any light.” The poet complains, “Against me alone God turns his hand, again and again, all day long.” He feels God’s displeasure by being besieged “with bitterness and tribulation.” Lost in a maze, he feels that “God has become a vicious predator.” He feels flushed, surrounded with bitterness, shut out, barred from progress, and lost in a maze. Psalm 3:15-18 says:
He has filled me with bitterness,
He has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel;
And made me cower in ashes;
My soul is bereft of peace
I have forgotten what happiness is;
So I say, “Gone is my glory
And all that I hoped for from the Lord.”
As you can see from the verses above, all scriptures do not reflect “sunshine and butterflies.” Is the Bible telling the truth about God and life here? Well… actually no. Instead, what’s being described here is one man’s perception of God. We may also find it necessary to tell the truth about our feelings towards God, but as we do, we need to remember that our current feelings about God and life do not represent the ultimate explanation of reality.
Bad things do happen to good people… and good things happen to good people as well. How do we reconcile the tension? The point is – we don’t reconcile it. We don’t say “there’s no justice in the world. Nor do we say “there is a simple, clear, black-and-white justice in the world.” Instead, we do what Job does, and what the Bible as a whole does - we learn to live with the tension, feel its pain, and let the discomfort churn within us. We abandon hope of an explanation that will let us happily and easily accept reality as it is. We note that something happens when we make this move. When we refuse all easier alternatives, we find our hearts strangely being empowered. We, paradoxically, become both surrendered and resolute at the same time. We become determined to throw our lives behind the will of God and wherever that may lead.
In the middle of the tunnel, where it’s the darkest… we assume the worst and we rage at the unacceptability of our lightless plight. Yet even in the midst of darkness we find that are minds are stilled. As we grope in the darkness at times our minds are soothed. We summon the courage to ask “why?” Maybe there is a purpose. Maybe there is hope. Maybe God hasn’t failed us after all. The “why?” offers a glimmering pinpoint in the distance. We learn that there are prayers of reorientation. Lamentations 3:21-33 says,
But I call this to mind
And therefore I have hope…
The Lord is good to those who wait for him
To the soul who seeks him
It is good… for one to sit in silence
When the Lord has imposed it
For the Lord will not reject forever…
We embrace the reality of our situation and add a freshness to our hope. We think of the Apostle Paul. He was an older man who knew a lot of pain. He was misunderstood. He became the objects of thoughts to kill him. Still he kept serving God, both trusting and loving Him. He took risks knowing they’d lead to more suffering. He endured betrayal by friends, false accusations, imprisonment, beatings, and the daily concern of those he loved. All through this, in Romans 8:18 he says, “I consider that the sufferings of the current time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”
When alone or feeling abandoned, we may serendipitously find that God has opened up new possibilities for us; something we couldn’t have arrived at through our logic and everyday understandings. To be abandoned is to find out who you are. God has made us so real that we know of our existence even when completely alone. As you will soon read I was in this place myself. I was reduced to having a gun pointed at me; of being illegally forced from my home with nothing but a backpack and a bike… even spending a night in jail.
Yet in this terror what came slowly to me was the peace of knowing I was not completely alone. At times I felt incredible self-pity and outrage, and at other times I felt the peace of being in the eye of the storm. What quickly developed in me was an incredible compassion for those down and out. What grew in me was an immense empathy for all those who live every day similar to the circumstances I was thrust into.
Things were bad for me. Melbourne (Florida) had just encountered the second of two hurricanes. My rogue landlord lied to the courts by failing to mention that I was a paying rentee (and not a “squatter” of the home he had bought from me). This is how I was evicted and would later have all my belongings thrown into a dumpster. Since my car was getting a new engine, I was forced to travel on bike. I was very new into the Mormon Church at the time. Nobody could make sense of what happened to me. I think many thought there was a raid (drug raid) on my house. I can’t necessarily blame them. What happened to me defies any logical explanation. It was tough to get support as people first needed to get over the shock of what happened to me.
My mental state was void of everything I thought was fair and just and right with the world. Innocence was lost. What remained was a glimmer of an awakening; an enlightenment of sorts. Having lost virtually everything… here I was. I learned that what I focused on in my prior noisy life determined not just what I saw – but what I missed! 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 says, “If one died for all people, then all people should no longer live for themselves… now having encountered Christ in a new way, we encounter others in a new way… for all who are in Christ, all creation I anew! The old things have passed away. Behold! All has become new!” (McClaren 194-95)
There is a kind of slow-motion quality to finding yourself in the eye of the storm. The silence is different than, say, the silence of riding your car without the radio on. It is more “still” and far deeper. There is a reverence and holiness to it. When I was there it felt like it was just God and me… and a queer sense that God was piling the hurts and holding me up for a reason. All was not lost. At hand was the realization of the gift of being, of existing, of being alive, and of mattering. I felt as though I now knew others… of different ages and races. I could look into their eyes and see their souls. I could make meaning of madness. (McClaren p 177)
How is it possible for “bad things” to become some of the “best things” that happen to us? It is because God is both loving and sovereign. God can use almost anything for immeasurable good. We never know when we are near an inflection point for the good of mankind. It took Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of a bus that help spark the end of a racist South. It took one Tunisian man exercising his will that led to the ouster of Tunisia’s dictator and later, to Egypt’s dictator as well. Those that hold strong in faith during tribulations know that there is redemptive value in suffering – even if it can’t be seen at the time. God has a purpose for whatever he permits. (A 237)
Faith through suffering also requires proper perspective. We are but a “point” in time compared to the “line” representing eternity. Heaven awaits those who stay faithful through sufferings. One can argue the case that those who experience significant suffering have a “leg up” on faith. When pain exceeds their threshold, they are backed into a corner. What do they do? They may curse God. But in time they often surrender to Him.
God can work with a surrendered soul but has difficulty with proud hearts from people locked into their own plans and who insist on doing their own thing. We delude ourselves when we think we have ultimate control over our lives. The motivational speakers will convince us that we can be whatever we want – but it is a lie. God is sovereign and we have the freedom to “be the best we can be” under, and only under, God’s sovereign umbrella. James 4:13-16 gives the arrogant, proud, and self-willed a warning. James says, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” (A 235)
C.S. Lewis commented, “To write about suffering and not mention heaven is like leaving out the whole of one side of the account. Scripture and tradition habitually put the put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of the earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one.” Jesus said that when we, as his followers, hunger, weep, and are hated and insulted, we should rejoice. Why? “Because great is your reward in Heaven” (Luke 6:23). In contrast, Jesus added, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24-25). God has an eternal two-part solution for the righteous presently suffering and the wicked presently prospering: Heaven and Hell. In Romans 8:18, Paul wrote, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.” (A 293)
We can rejoice now because Christ promises us that weeping will be replaced with laughter; our poverty with wealth; our hunger with satisfaction; and hatred, insults and rejection with eternal reward. In Matthew 5:5, we are told that “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” We will inherit an Earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). On that New Earth God will reverse life’s injustices and tragedies – and all the blessings that Jesus promised will become ours.
The verses above need to be understood in a metaphorical way. Having lots of money does not predestine us to Hell. These verses refer to attributes that many wealthy people have. This includes haughtiness, arrogance, pride, and most importantly, a lack of dependence on God. In the same manner, a destitute “bagman” could have an arrogant attitude by demanding and expecting money from those he begs. It’s all about one’s attitude and heart.
When the New Testament discusses suffering, it repeatedly puts heaven before the eyes of believers. Sadly, many churches fail to follow this example. Most churches operate in the “here and now” mode. There’s a focus on telling people what they want to hear in the present because people that feel better are more likely to tithe. When we focus on a “health and wealth” gospel, or put our hope in medical advances, we rob God’s people of an eternal perspective. The stronger our concept of God and Heaven the more we understand how Heaven resolves the problem of evil and suffering.
Many people believe that this life is all there is. “You only go around once so grab for whatever you can.” But if you are a child of God, then you do not just go around once. You are standing in eternity right where you are. Eternity will ultimately be Heaven or Hell. As believers we will, in time, inhabit a New Heaven and a New Earth forever (to be explained later). Here we have bodies that work and play and this will be what we consider “life.” Yet many have mistakenly redefined eternal life to mean an eternal off-earth disembodied existence stripped of human life’s defining properties. Yet the Bible tells us that we will enjoy eternal life in resurrected (embodied) form. Our resurrected bodies will always have a connection to the bodies created for us here, but they will be flawless. We could more accurately call our present existence as “before-life” rather than calling Heaven the “afterlife.” Compared to eternity, our lives on earth are miniscule.
Dinesh D’Souza writes, “The only way for us to really triumph over evil and suffering is to live forever in a place where those things do not exist. It is the claim of Christianity that there is such a place and that it is available to all who seek it. No one can deny that, if this claim is true, then evil and suffering are merely exposed as temporary hardships and injustices. Suffering is as transient as our brief, moral lives. God has shown us a way to prevail over evil and suffering by virtue of our lives in eternal Heaven.” (A 294-297)
A nephew of mine died of cancer at the young age of 21. He had a tumor in and on his head that was deemed inoperable. His parents suffered during the attempts to stop the cancer, and they grieved upon his death. He was the “baby” of the family. What can one tell the family to take away the pain? If there was an easy answer I would state it here. “Shrink-wrapped” answers don’t suffice when people are at their apex of grieving. In time the best one can do is reveal the promises of the Bible.
At some point in time the family may be comforted to know that they will reunite with their son in Heaven. The apostle Paul (in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18) speaks of relative weights. He calls our present sufferings “light and momentary.” This is not to downplay a family’s pain but rather tries to put it into perspective. When we face a lengthy period of great adversity, though it may not seem momentary, in fact it is. In eternity, people in God’s presence will fully agree with Paul that their earthly sufferings were unworthy to be compared with eternal glory. The nature of biblical faith is to learn to trust God in the very worst of circumstances for what we cannot see. (A 339, 353)
Despair has been described as suffering without meaning. It is imperative that we find some meaning about situations that appear hopeless. A simple faith that God has His reasons for doing what He does may be enough to sustain us. Viktor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning that “there is nothing in the world that would so effectively help someone survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.” Frankl found meaning in his suffering and thereby avoided despair.
To the dismay of Christianity, prosperity (health and wealth) theology has undermined people’s ability to deal with suffering. Some churches have no place for pain. Those who say God has healed them get the microphone, while those who continue to suffer are shamed into silence even though the Bible treats such suffering differently. In Philippians 1:29 Paul says, “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ to not only believe in Him, but to suffer for his sake.” In John 16:33 it says, “In the world you will have tribulation.”
The theme of suffering was prevalent in the days of Jesus. Besides the suffering that Jesus endured, John the Baptist underwent horrific trials. In Luke 7:28 Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest of men. In time John the Baptist was imprisoned and murdered. His head was mockingly displayed on a platter. The normal life of any Christian will include both blessings and sufferings. There is no way around it. Consider the plights of other men of Jesus’ time who lived under the missive given by 2 Timothy 3:12 which says, “Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it.”
As Christians need to change our relationship to suffering. Nobody likes it, but it is can’t be avoided. We should see our suffering as God keeping His promises, not violating them. If physical health and comfort are our primary values, then why endanger it for a higher cause? Earlier Christians risked their lives to serve those dying from the bubonic plague or those who endured earthquakes.
We overrate health and underrate holiness.
Ephesians 1:11 Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.
Hebrews 6:17 God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind.
Matthew 5:18-19 I tell you the truth, until Heaven and Earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
So what is prayer? Prayer involves intercession:
~ Prayer is man giving God the legal right and permission to interfere in earth’s affairs
~ Prayer is man giving earthly license to Heaven to influence earth.
~ Prayer is a terrestrial license for celestial interference
~ Prayer is man exercising his legal authority on earth to invoke Heaven’s influence on the planet.
As we can see, personal influence only goes so far when it comes to allowing God into our lives. None of the scriptures allow us to take the reins ourselves. God’s sovereignty rules. Yes, there are verses that tell us to “ask, seek, and knock” and that tell us “if we had faith we could move mountains”… but on balance – comparing scriptures to other scriptures – God’s will rules. This makes sense considering that nobody has perfected a healing prayer because everybody who has ever lived has died (or will die). It is hard to put prayer under the microscope, but it does appear that those who live Godly lives and those who live lives of integrity do seem to have more success with prayer.
The success rate of our prayers tends to be increase the more fervently we believe in the outcome. Part of this is thanking God for our prayer as though it were already answered. We can then look with hope that the desired result is made manifest in our lives. James 1:22 tells us that if we think that just listening to the Word is enough, we are deceived. We must believe the Word and act on it.
Some hindrances to prayer are:
Sin 2 Chronicles 7:14 tells us that if we are humble, seek God, and turn from sin that He will hear our prayers.
Fear Fear undermines our faith and our expectancy.
Guilt We must remember that we can pray with a clean conscience as God has forgiven us and our sins.
Wrong motives As much as we would like our own way – God’s will comes first.
Unforgiveness Unforgiveness hinders our prayers by blocking our relationship with God and others. Ephesians 4:26-27 advises us to “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Confession and amends deal with the hurt we do to others. But what about the hurt done to us? What about petitions for prayer for ourselves that deal with wounds inflicted on us? In some ways making amends to those we hurt is the easier route. We are in control and need only clean up a mess we made. We simply have to have our side of the street in order. It is easier to make an amend that to wait and receive one.
So what do we do when others make a mess of our lives? We are talking about betrayal… insults… being taken advantage of… lies… insults… slander… being forgotten… being abused… being mocked… being cheated… being disrespected… being misled… being robbed... being assaulted.
There is immense freedom in giving up “being right.”
Our anxieties tempt us to catastrophize, to inflate every risk into a potential cataclysm. Soon, surrounded by potential danger on all sides, we shrink to our primitive mind. Our reptilian brain calls on three options: fight, flee, or freeze. The devil has us where he wants us. We can use prayer to pierce the fog and allows us to see seek peace and to spot opportunities that were henceforth undiscovered. (McClaren 116)
Should we pray for blessings for ourselves? Absolutely. Why? Because if we don’t our anxiety will default towards our needs and wants. Anxiety is the black hole that sucks everything into itself. It preoccupies us with our own fears. With anxiety, more of our energies will curve inward towards ourselves as we become self-absorbed. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
By practicing petition, by referring our anxieties to God through our simple prayer of “help,” our focus will change. Mathew 6:31-33 says, “So don’t worry about these things (clothing and food), saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. As we come to know that our needs are being met, we can turn our focus to others who are in need. Through prayer and petition, we reframe our situations and rename our needs. We learn to extend compassion to our antagonists, mercy to forgive them, wisdom to communicate with them, and determination to work towards reconciliation. (McClaren P 115)
Philip Yancey comments, “At its best, my prayer does not seek to manipulate God into doing my will – quite the opposite. Prayer enters the pool of God’s own love and widens outward.” When we are wounded by others, we’re tempted to dehumanize them by labeling them with such words like “Communist,” “right wing fanatic,” “flaming liberal,” “fundamentalist,” “psycho,” “fag,” “degenerate,”… and a host of other names I’d rather not put into print. Ironically, such labels empower our foes by making them bigger than they really are. As a result, contrary to what Yancey writes, our world becomes smaller. (p 131, 137)
No wonder Jesus taught that our first response should instead be to pray for them and to bless them. In so doing we reverse them from the threatening monsters into what they really are: scared human beings with any combination of fear, rage, hate, anxiety, ignorance, misinformation, misguided values, prejudice, bad habits, poor rearing… the list goes on. A lot of behavior can be understood if we keep in mind that:
People who are “drowning” (scared people) will do anything to protect themselves
“PERIPETTEIA” – THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
The most dramatic moment possible in Greek theatre, according to Aristotle, is called “peripeteia.” It is pain that brings us to our knees. The agony of peripeteia brings a complete reversal in a person’s understanding of his or her life. It is a complete disorientation from what was to what is. Everything that seemed true about life appears false, and what seemed false and impossible is shown to be true. It is a breakdown encompassing a complete paradigm crash, and it plunges us into the deepest kind of pain imaginable.
It can occur outside of us as a natural disaster, or internally within a family where traditional roles are abandoned and scapegoats are targeted. It refines us and redefines our goals in life. It brings as much confusion as it does pain. It either sinks us or gives us supernatural strength. Examples?
- Natural Disasters (ie; Japan) - Shootings (ie; Tuscon, Az)
- Spousal Infidelity - Abandonment (of parents or spouse)
- Loss of a child - Recognition of disease
- Drug Addiction or Early Recovery - Prison sentence (you or loved one)
- Victim of fraud (ie; Bernie Madoff) - Loss of long held job
- Drastic change of economic status - Home Foreclosure
- Family incest - Betrayal of trust by authority figure (Judge, Priest, Police)
- Disfiguring car accident - Loss of independence
- Incest - Betrayal by family
MY “PERIPETTEIA” (DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL)
I hemmed and hawed whether or not I should include a description of the tribulations I endured in the early 2,000’s. I finally decided on a middle road. I will include the happenings but only as an appendix. If you’d like to take a look then you can skip to Appendix B. The story is important as it served as the foundation for my Christian faith.
Where did I come from? In 2002-2003 I lost my children, my marriage, my home, my cars, my dog, my cats, my cars, and all of my belongings were thrown into a dumpster. I also endured the confusion of having mixed family loyalties. I never knew a person could feel so alone.
Where am I now? All of my family relationships have been healed including the one with my ex-wife. She has created an excellent structure for my boys and is diligent with their homework. Jack and Billy are vibrant, healthy, and respectful children. I see my twin boys approximately four times per week. My financial situation has improved to the where I now look to help others in need. I am the owner of a retail business and I also consume much of my time writing this book. I was also able to extend some forgiveness and compassion to those who had opposed me during the separation of my boys. I related that due to some subtle symptoms I had from my brain surgery at the time – that there was some merit in some of the actions taken at the time. That took a lot!
Many individuals who endure persecutions will paradoxically deepen their faith at the time. This was my experience. I reached out to my vague notion of what I thought God was. Up until this time I had no Christian schooling… yet there were times I experienced a remarkable peace in the “eye” of the storm. My most serious attempts at religion prior to this time was attending Unity Church (New Age) for three years and spending a year in the Mormon Church. When you consider I toyed with Eastern religions in my twenties I have a lot of hands-on experience to share! Near the end of my “peripetteia” I actually started attending a Christian church. Having “tried and tested” at least four religions, I view Christianity as providing the fullest package - from birth to death to the hereafter - and as being the one true religion.
When we are in distress, we need to be careful where we reach during our dark times. When we are struggling, we need to beware of theologies formed in times of prosperity and comfort. For example, we need to be aware of theologies (such as New Age) which can be patched together feel-good theology. Comfort rarely brings us to the truth. Who would you rather rely on to give you the “meaning of life” - Victor Frankl or Joel Osteen? (McClaren 170-171)
We should beware of springtime theologies that haven’t felt the burn of cold winds and the numb of icy rain. I experienced a faith that somehow endured when seemingly it failed; about a hope that extended when it seemingly was gone. My faith was built on the shoulders of pain. About 8 years ago I experienced one of the bleakest, darkest nights of the souls imaginable. At its worst, I had a gun pointed at me as I was pushed outside of my home with nothing but a backpack and a bike… with nowhere to lay my head. I even spent a night in jail.
I can recall talking with a friend and explaining the events that had unfolded in my life. By the end she was in tears. It was the depth and the length of my trials that helped refine my faith. In perhaps what may be peculiar reasoning, I inferred that what happened to me couldn’t be simply the “luck of the draw.” So many horrible things couldn’t happen to me – with so many people being so incomprehensibly hurtful – all at the same time. Nature couldn’t produce this by chance! God must have had a hand in it. Perhaps this is strange reasoning, but it makes sense if you reflect on it. A “statistics person” would put the odds near zero.
I didn’t know when the tide would turn for me, but deep down I felt that God would lead me out. I believed God must have been preparing me for something big to put me through so much. Maybe this book is it. Unfortunately, it took a while for the light to shine. But in time it did. In hindsight, everything that happened to me literally had to happen to bring me to me to bring me where I am today… this includes my drive North (Florida to Pennsylvania) and bumping into my (current) African-Americans friends at the exact moment I did (see chapter 1). Without my encounter with them, I likely would not be a Christian. They showed me the way as I described in great detail in the first chapter. For more of my travails, as I said, you can skip to Appendix B.
When it comes to the problem of pain, there are three theological propositions put forth:
Yet this classic presentation is incomplete.
Few of us find the church on a winning streak. We need brokenness.
God uses pain to move us from “here to there.”
God uses pain to get us from “here to there.” How else would he move us? Do you think we would get their on our own? We need brokenness. I know I needed brokenness. Earthly success is more likely to keep us away from church than draw us in. The theme of Mark 10:24-25 is that we can’t afford to fall in love with secular trappings. The scripture says, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
You can recall earlier that, when my dad was dying, I read him some scripture. The scripture indicated that there are some people whom God calls to a special kind of suffering. I believe this covers most adults. Who among us hasn’t gone through a period of intense trials? These trials are given so they might develop the faith that is so precious to Christ, a faith which stands as a great reward. 1 Peter 1:7 is repeated here: “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.”
What a wonderful scripture for one enduring trials! Peter 1:7 tells us that our suffering will be redeemed. Just as we redeem a coupon, we give God our suffering and He in turn grants us praise, glory, and honor. My dad spent 2 ½ weeks in a Hospice and was given morphine on demand. Since his pain was allayed and he had near “round the clock” visits I believe his battles were mostly spiritual. In his compromised condition he was forced to look death straight in the eye and say, “Jesus, either you are or you aren’t. This journey I must make on my own. I hope I fall into your loving arms.”
God gives us the deal of the ages! Like a celestial coupon, He redeems our suffering and he “gives back” praise, glory, and honor to us.
I believe more people die as Christians than we know. Like my father, when their physical maladies reach a critical stage, they surrender. They ask Jesus to fill the void. There’s nothing else to do but that. Often times people are quick to judge whether a person is going to Heaven or Hell. But we have no idea what’s in their hearts at the point of death. I believe there’s room for an outstanding citizen who never knew Jesus to make a “bed ridden” conversion when they die. Such a conversion would also make them eligible for Heaven’s rewards for the good works they performed during their lives. As I said earlier, the relationship is between them and the Lord. No one knows their exact disposition when death knocks.
How terrible the dying process must be for people who aren’t believers! To assume that when you die you’ll be taking a “dirt nap” and that your body will only serve as “worm food” must be awfully depressing. What I tried to do is fill my dad’s mind with “Christian truths” so he could look forward to the other side with hope and optimism. I reminded him that, in Heaven, he would see his parents once again and could anticipate the arrival of loved ones still on earth.
1 Peter 1:19 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.
I tried to keep things simple for my dad. I did this because he was really sick. I also did it because he is a “newspaper reader” and not a “novel reader.” He liked to get to the point fast. I told him the following:
Christianity in 2 words is TRUST HIM
Christianity in 4 words is: TRUST HIM, GET SAVED
Christianity in 6 words is: TRUST HIM, GET SAVED, LIVE ETERNALLY
1 Peter 4:12-14 says, Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.
So be happy when you are insulted for being a Christian, for then the glorious Spirit of God rests upon you.
1 Peter 1:3-4 Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power. Consider the good news this scripture brings us.
Being persecuted for righteousness is one kind of suffering in the Bible. Suffering comes in many different forms. It can show up as::
~ suffering due to physical afflictions and infirmities
~ suffering due to a consequence of one's own sin
~ suffering due to the consequences of someone else’s sins
~ suffering due to unjust laws and crooked courts
~ suffering due to satanic afflictions
~ suffering due to bereavement
~ suffering due to doing good and giving to others
It is interesting that good works and giving can also bring about suffering. Helping others comes with a price. Consider the sacrifices Ed and Deral made for me during my week in North Carolina. They were:
Fortunately for all of us, I was incredibly grateful. But even if I wasn’t I know they would have helped me.
As I mention further down, in attempt to enrich themselves, some modern preachers try to convince congregants to give “seed money” which will magically provide a phenomenal return on their money. Ed and Deral had no expectation of this. Instead of “give and receive” they “gave and forgot.” They were actually quite certain that nothing (monetarily) would come back to bless them. They were saintly. Christ-like giving “gives” when the other side is appreciative – but also when they are unappreciative, arrogant, or even rude.
We give to someone for the same reason we would love them.
Because they need it… and for no other reason.
I experienced people who weren’t appreciative at a soup kitchen that I helped with on Friday nights in Pennsylvania. My friends, Chris and Patty Pelton, started the kitchen and funded it almost entirely by themselves. We utilized the kitchen of a Methodist church which also doubled as a women’s homeless shelter. People from the outside were allowed in as well as all the residents of the shelter. Were many of these women inhabitants grateful? Heck no. In their eyes we were invading their space. Some women ate the food and still complained. My friend, Chris, said we were tasked to care not only for the appreciative ones – but also for God’s “un-lovelies.” This included active alcoholics. This included prostitutes. This included those who are spiritually sick. Christ-like giving provides for others because it is the right thing to do regardless if it’s appreciated. The focus is on the “means” and not the “ends.”
Ed West, my friend from North Carolina, made a very wise statement. He said:
Anybody can share their “chump change.”
True giving is a sacrifice. True giving should hurt.
It hurt when some of the women turned on us. The best Christians I know give when it doesn’t necessarily make sense to give. I am not saying we should continuously more than we are capable of – but it certainly doesn’t hurt if sometimes we reach beyond our comfort zones. .
We pray for health and comfort here on Earth. But think about it – if every prayer were answered then, in effect, nobody would ever die. Even the very sick would pray for at least one more day! And even this wouldn’t happen because they wouldn’t be sick in the first place! They would have already prayed for health. We’d have perfectly healthy people living one hundred, even one thousand years! Sounds like an accurate description of Heaven. For now, we can’t have Heaven on Earth. We can only have Heaven in Heaven.
My prayers for my dad asked mainly for God’s will to be done. I thought it was selfish on my part to pray for longevity for itself. It wasn’t me who had to suffer his acute infirmities. He hadn’t gotten out of bed in four weeks. Remember, he had stage four cancer of the esophagus, the liver, lymph nodes, and wherever else it spread. There were only three possibilities.
1) A full and miraculous healing that would stun everyone
2) Pray that he remain alive with his body falling apart
3) Pray that He be with the Lord and in Heaven (in Paradise)
It came down to praying for God’s will. I let God decide what was best. Meanwhile the Hospice would
alleviate his physical pain and his friends and family would be present him with emotional support. I tried to help him stand on firm Christian ground so that he’d see his family once again on “the other side.”
At its core, suffering is a consequence of sin. Prior to sin everything was pure. Adam and Eve’s fall introduced sin the world. Suffering followed the inescapable and deadly virus of sin. We can’t put the genie back in the Bible. We can’t avoid sin despite our strongest attempts to do so. Sin is like putting a drop of ink in a glass of water. We can never again make the water clear. We can only accept Jesus’ offer.
Just as we can’t entirely avoid sin, we can’t avoid the consequences of sin. Sin doesn’t just show up in our actions. Sin also shows up in our thought world. Sin is insidious. Even the most holy among us cannot escape thoughts of envy, greed, or lust. To be human is to sin.
What is the view among most Christians regarding sin? Many hold to the world's Pollyannaish thinking and actions rather than what the Bible teaches. This has led to serious doctrinal errors among many who claim to be biblical Christians. Perhaps the most widespread promotion of this is in the "healing and prosperity" movement that commands a large part of so-called Christian television. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, followers of this “cotton candy” gospel movement promote the false idea that suffering was done away with at the Cross and that God wants us to be rich. Prosperity is only a prayer a way (and perhaps a tithe). Therefore, this line of teaching teaches that suffering is caused by a lack of faith. This leaves the suffer to feel incredible shame and guilt. This method is eerily similar to the New Age “Law of attraction.” When thoughtfully considered, anyone can see that these notions are utterly ridiculous… even cruel.
As Christians, what we think must be governed foremost by what we know to be true, not by how we feel. Feelings aren’t to be mistaken as reality – and they certainly don’t represent Biblical truths. Our emotions should be the caboose on a train of thinking that is powered by true thoughts about God and His Word. Confidence in theological realities is the only sure anchor in the tempests of trials. In Romans 8:38-39, Paul says, “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
For believers, this present life is the closest we’ll be to Hell.
For unbelievers, this present life is the closest they’ll be to Heaven.
God’s goodness, sovereignty, judgment, grace, wisdom and mercy can reset our troubled hearts through the power of perspective. God uses the troubles of this life to pry our grip off this world and refocus our hearts on what lies with Him. Maurice Roberts writes, “the degree of a Christian’s peace of mind depends on his spiritual ability to interpose the thought of God between himself and his anxiety. If a believer can keep his mind on God, no evil in this world can steal his peace. And that will be enough until Heaven.” (Macarthur p 187)