Allow me to start with a well-known and (may be poor) joke about marriage. You all know about the three rings of marriage right, It starts with the engagement ring, it gets solemnized with the wedding ring and then continues with… suffering. Right? Leslie and I of course have the privilege of having a forth ring, a silver ring after 25 years of suffering.
That was my sermon topic last I spoke to you here at BBF. Last time when I spoke here, I spoke on 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–. I am not saying that it is the condition of all married people. But more seriously, my last Sermon was about how Paul and his companions responded to what he called as “light afflictions” (2 Cor 4:17). We examined three things that enabled Paul and his companions to really look at suffering as “light afflictions” and to get through them victoriously. The three characteristics we found were
Have the right frame of reference as to who Jesus Christ is
Have faith in Him and His resurrection
Give thanks in all circumstances/ situations
I am encouraged to continue on the same topic of suffering this Sunday too. I know some of you are going. “Oh. No…not again” I do hope that after my Sermon today, you will still love me the same and will call me back to preach here again. Why do I say that? Because, suffering is not something we “want” to hear about on a Sunday morning. We “want” to hear comforting words. We “want” to hear great promises. We “want” to hear the Good news always. Good as we define it. Isn’t it?
But what we “want” to hear and what we “need” to hear might be two different things isn’t it? Is suffering something that we may not “want” to hear, but is it something that we “need” to hear? I don’t know. God will reveal it after the sermon is over.
So you may ask, pray, why do we “need” to hear about suffering? Isn’t there enough suffering out there? Don’t we hear about it from everywhere? We cannot escape it even if we “wanted” to. Well!! That is the exact reason why we “need” to hear about it. We need to know how to make sense of it all from a Christian perspective, we need to know how to respond to it as a follower of Jesus Christ. We need to know the role of the Church in suffering. I will try to take a look at just the first topic this morning, and God willing, and if you invite me again next month, I will continue the study on our responses and the role of Church in the matter of suffering.
As Christians we all know that suffering entered with the original sin. God had planned eternal pleasure for mankind, but because of the fall, we lost that privilege. Genesis 3:17-19 (NKJV) Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” It is clear, pain and suffering entered our lives through the original sin of Adam. So, is God the villain in this? If God is a loving God, why do we need to continue to suffer? Has God not forgiven us? Is He not a merciful God? Doesn’t he care about our suffering? These are legitimate questions for us today. One of the best answers to this question can be found in Philip Yancey’s book “Where is God when it Hurts?”
In this book Yancey elaborately describes the studies that were conducted among Lepers. This study interestingly was conducted in India by Dr. Brand , and expert in this field. . He establishes the fact that what lepers suffer with most is not because of the decease per se, but because of the fact that the decease acts as a very very strong anesthetic and takes away their sensation of pain. They cannot feel pain and thus they end up hurting themselves (without feeling anything) over and over again. They put their hands in fire because they cannot feel the heat. They walk on broken glass because they cannot feel the pain when glass pierces their feet. Even common activities like holding a mop or turning a key, or working with a screwdriver could damage their skins and muscles, because they just cannot fathom how much pressure to put on those things. Simple shoes can cause infections because they do not know when the shoe hurts and causes bruises. Imagine a nail piercing your foot when you walk and it staying there, and getting more and more deep into your flesh because you did not feel the nail piercing your foot. Imagine not being able to itch when a mosquito bites you, imagine waking up with your toe missing, because a rat chewed it off and you didn’t feel a thing. It is difficult for you and me to fathom this, because we take these things for granted. And we are able to take these things for granted because we can feel pain. Pain helps us to stop doing things that could damage us more permanently. Pain warns us to stay away from activities that could be harmful. Pain tells us when to stop. That is why Dr Brand boldly states “Thank God for inventing Pain. I don’t think He could have done a better job. It is beautiful.” Dr. Brand knows the value of pain, because he raised and spent millions of dollars to design and manufacture gadgets like special gloves, special shoes, special audio devices etc, to enable lepers to be able to “feel” pain artificially.
Does that help us to make sense of Pain and suffering? Though the example I quoted deals with physical pain, it is same with any kind of suffering. Pain is not a “mistake” that God made. It is a Gift that tells us where to draw the lines and how to enjoy the pleasure of life that He intended us to.
But the fact is, all of us want the pleasures without having to go through the pain isn’t it? We love the end, but we don’t like the means to get to the end. Good news is that we are no exception. Jesus’s own disciples were no different. Let us take Peter for example. Matthew 16:13-20 (NKJV) When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then He commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ. I want you think about Peter’s state of mind here. He had reasons to be proud isn’t it? He figured out correctly who Jesus is and he must have felt pretty good about what Jesus said he will accomplish through him, Peter. Jesus is promising to do great things through Peter. He said He will build the entire Church upon Peter, and He will hand over the keys of the kingdom of heaven. It is not a small thing that Jesus is offering Peter. Wow!! That is a great privilege isn’t it? I would have been all puffed up if someone offered me something like that. Won’t you? I would have wanted that glory to come soon, I would have done anything to reach that stage soon. It was a glorious future that Jesus was offering Peter. But then comes the dampener. Jesus started talking about the means to reach that glory.
Matthew 16:21-22 (NKJV) From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”. Just Imagine Peter’s dismay and disappointment when he finds out that all the glory that was promised to him is not going to happen, because the one who promised is saying that He is going to suffer and die soon. Suffering and death? Lord, are you joking? I am expecting you to build your kingdom and hand over the keys of your kingdom to me. How can a suffering man, how can a dead man do that? It cannot be. This shall not happen to you. I do want the glory that you promised me, but I do not want to hear anything about the suffering and death stuff.
That is when Jesus comes out with one of the strongest rebukes for his disciples. And after the rebuke Jesus goes on to tell them the price of following Him. Matthew 16:23- 26 (NKJV) But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? Jesus was making it clear that His suffering and death is not as per man’s plan (things of men) but is according to a divine plan. He was making it clear that to reach the glory that He promised to peter, his suffering and death was a necessity. He was also making it clear that it is not only that He needed to suffer, He was making it clear that those who decide to follow Him need to partake in that suffering.
Jesus repeats this message in different ways multiple times. In Mathew 20: 17-22, we see the mother of James and John , after realizing that Jesus will be raised up, asks for positions of prominence in His kingdom. Jesus’s response is again similar to the one he gave Peter. Jesus says, Matthew 20:22 (NKJV) But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” Jesus is once again reminding the disciples that the glory cannot come without the suffering associated with it.
But there is a greater sense that we can make of this suffering, being on this side of the cross. Have you ever wondered why the symbol of Christianity is the Cross? After all, cross is the symbol of execution, death and suffering. Jesus is our Lord and King right? Why not have the crown as the symbol of the Church? Or the throne? Why have this constant reminder of the most painful death that one can imagine as the symbol of the most followed religion in the world? Is there is a message there? I certainly think so. The cross is not there just to give us a reminder of Christ’s sufferings. The cross offers proof that God cares about our pain and suffering. It is there to give us the assurance that He was, is and will be part of any suffering that we can imagine. He has Himself gone through those sufferings.
Peter came to this glorious understanding, and he extols the virtue of suffering in his first epistle. In Chapter 1 peter talks about suffering being the will of God to purify our faith. 1 Peter 1:6-7 (NKJV) In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,. In Chapter 2 he holds up Jesus as an example to explain why innocent people suffer. 1 Peter 2:20-22 (NKJV) For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;. In Chapter 3 Peter exhorts us to consider Suffering as a blessing 1 Peter 3:18 (NKJV) For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,. In Chapter 4 he says suffering should not surprise us, but be a cause for rejoicing. 1 Peter 4:12-14 (NKJV) Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. And in Chapter 5 Peter clarifies the role of the church in sharing the sufferings among believers. 1 Peter 5:9 (NKJV) Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.
So Peter surely learnt his lesson on this side of the cross. How about you and me? Do we still have struggle with understanding pain and suffering? If so, let us ask God to help us understand the message of the cross a lot better as we prepare to enter into the season of lent and Good Friday and Easter.
1 Peter 5:10-11 (NKJV) But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.