If you recall back to the last series of weeks in our study of the Heidelberg Catechism you’ll remember that we’ve been talking a lot about the question, “Who is Jesus?”. This part of the Heidelberg is going through the Apostles Creed and we are on the second section that speaks of what Christians believe about Jesus. It says,
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
We’ve already covered a lot of ground going through it word by word, learning what the name Jesus means, why the title Christ is so important, what “only-begotten, Son” means, etc. Today we are on the part that says Christians believe that Jesus Christ, “suffered under Pontius pilot” and it is an extremely important teaching because a lot of people stumble over that word, “suffered”.
Turn to Mark 8:27-38 and let’s read there. We’re going to retread a little of the ground we’ve already covered but it’s important. Start in verse 27,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’”
We’ve already talked about the importance of the title “Christ” and how it is the same word as “Messiah” or “Chosen One” and why Peter’s declaration was so important, but I want you to notice what Jesus says to His disciples next. Start in verse 30:
“And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.”
So Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
I’m not sure Peter heard that last part because, what is Peter’s response?
“And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples’ – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their idea was that this march into Jerusalem would be one of victory and conquest, overthrowing Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, Jesus calling down angels and fire and spreading health and wealth to the people, kicking out all the bad rulers and putting all 12 disciples as the new regents under Him. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
What Must Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…”
This is the question the burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? Why “must” the Messiah, the Christ, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, the King of Kings “suffer many things”?
Our study of the Heidelberg Catechism answers this question in three important ways. Question 37 asks, “What do you confess when you say that he suffered?” Question 38 asks, “Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?” and Question 39 asks, “Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?”
If I were to re-word those questions to be a little more applicable to us today I would say, “What does it mean to suffer?” “What purpose did the suffering have?” and “Wasn’t there a better way?”
These are all questions we ask ourselves every time we are hit with pain, sadness, sickness or difficulty, aren’t they? We ask ourselves, “Is this really suffering I’m going through? Can I really call it suffering? What does it mean to suffer?” And then, once we answer that we move on to, “Does this suffering have meaning? Is there a reason for it? Why am I, or why is the person I care about, going through this?” Then, once we’ve sort of settled that in our minds a bit, maybe starting to realize that this suffering has a purpose, that it is bearing some kind of fruit, that God must have a reason for it, we all ask God the same question: “Isn’t there an easier way? Is this the best way? Surely this level of suffering isn’t necessary for God to accomplish whatever He is doing. is it?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. The Heidelberg’s answer to the first question, “What do you confess when you say that he suffered?” is,
“During all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end, Christ bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. Thus, by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, he has redeemed our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.”
What does that mean? We talked a little about it last week, right? I wanted to spend some extra time last week really contemplating the need for Christ’s suffering and how it was the only way to destroy the curse of sin. If you recall we covered 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s the second part of this answer, that it was only by Jesus’ sufferings, only by becoming the dragon for us, only by facing endless temptation and pain, only by having God’s wrath against sin poured out on Him on the cross, that we were able to be redeemed, bought back, from our slavery to Satan, rescued from eternal death and everlasting damnation, and are now able to live as new creatures, free from the curse, able to live righteously forever.
I don’t want to go over that again, but instead, want to concentrate instead on the first part of the answer about Christ’s sufferings. What do we mean when we say that Jesus suffered? The answer here is that every moment of Jesus life, from birth to death, was of unending suffering. Is that true? At this time of year, we often talk about the Passion of the Christ, the last week of great sufferings, but was Jesus’ whole life a passion walk?
That’s the testimony of scripture. John 1:10-11 says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…” Jesus knew rejection, grief, and sorrow very well, and not just in His last week, but His whole life.
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Then, not long later, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a place that some people didn’t apparently care for much (John 1:46). It is thought that his father died when he was young because we hear nothing more of him, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21) and when he came back to Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). For his whole life, Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). I think of Luke 19 where Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look at the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His disciples were weak in faith and support, and people around him only liked them for what they could get out of Him and rejected Him repeatedly when He wouldn’t perform for them. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane we see Him alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
And that’s not even speaking of the false trials, beatings, mocking, and sufferings He faced before being tortured to death in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
And all of this suffering – every bit of it – was totally undeserved. In our sufferings we sometimes know that we deserve it, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead enough, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We complain, and we try to blame, but we know deep down that it was our own fault that we’re suffering right now. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, even when we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And He faced it perfectly! And when He was given the option to take the easy way out, to avoid suffering, He never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. He would be the final, spotless, sacrificial lamb whose blood would make the final atonement, the final payment, for sin.
Turn with me to Isaiah 53, the prophecy about the Messiah’s mission, and start in verse 3:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
That’s us it’s talking about. We’re the transgressors, the guilty. And the payment for sin was paid not only by Jesus on the cross, but by a lifetime of suffering.
But why suffering? Why couldn’t God just declare us all free and sinless and let it go? Why did Jesus have to go through all that? The Heidelberg asks it this way, “Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?” The answer,
“Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.”
Jesus, the innocent, was declared guilty, so that we, the guilty could be declared innocent. Let us read John 19:1–16 together and see what Jesus faced,
“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.’
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.’ So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.”
Pilate knew Jesus was innocent but was too afraid to defend Him. He had Jesus cruelly and unjustly flogged in hopes it would appease the bloodlust of the crowd, but it didn’t work. Jesus knew what would happen. He knew that God had already ordained that He would be crucified and that Pilate’s resolve would soon give out. But Jesus had to be declared guilty and condemned to a sinners death so that He could die in our place. He was the representative for all humanity, the new Adam, the scapegoat, the advocate for His people, the shepherd who would protect his sheep, the leader who would take the blame on behalf of His people.
Why? So anyone who would believe in Him could escape the judgement of the Greater Judge, God Almighty, who has decreed in Romans 6:23 that “the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And the only payment for sin must be suffering. Everyone agrees with this, even if they don’t like it.
If someone commits a crime, our internal sense of justice demands they make it right. If someone steals, they must pay it back and then face a punishment. If someone murders, they must be held accountable. If someone wrongs us, hurts us, abuses us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. We never, ever want them to get away with it? Why? Because God wrote justice that into our very DNA. Sin deserves suffering. The suffering must be in accordance with a crime. We wouldn’t give someone life in prison for stealing a candy bar. That would be unjust. We wouldn’t give a $10 fine to someone who murdered a whole family. That would be unjust.
And so, we ask ourselves, what is the appropriate amount of suffering that the perfect Judge, God Almighty, would pour out upon Jesus, for the entire weight of sin held against millennia of human sinners? It would be terrible beyond imagination.
Why the Cross?
Which leads us to the final question: Why the cross? Wasn’t there a better way? Did it have to be so serious, so severe, so terrible? “Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?”
The Heidelberg’s answer is,
“Yes. Thereby I am assured that he took upon himself the curse which lay on me, for a crucified one was cursed by God.”
Why couldn’t Jesus get a slap on the wrist, pay a fine, or just die of old age? Hebrews 9:22 says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” And Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’…” (That is a quote from Deuteronomy 21:23.) One reason it was inconceivable for Peter and the disciples to think of Jesus being crucified was because to be hanged like that was to be considered cursed of God. And how could the Messiah be cursed? It made no sense.
But it makes sense to us. He was cursed for our sake, bled for our sake, was disgraced for our sake, because as He hung there He was taking our place. God placed our curse on Him. God took His blood for ours. It was the only way.
How can we apply this today? Turn back to our passage in Mark 8:34–38. After Jesus explains that He must suffer, He must take up a cross, because it is the only way, He says this:
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Jesus gives us some options here. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus into His sufferings and thereby be saved – or run from suffering, try to save your own life and then lose it. Trade your soul for what the world offers, or give up what the world and come to Jesus who can save your soul. Live ashamed of Jesus and His words, argue that suffering is pointless and sin is helpful, turn your back on Jesus, and then be rejected in the end, or live in a way that shows that you believe what Jesus says. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Those questions pester us every day: What does it mean to suffer? Why is there suffering in the world? Why do Christians suffer? Why is it happening? Does it have a purpose? And isn’t there an better, easier way?
And when they plague us, we must look to the life of Jesus because in Him we find the answer. Jesus said that those who follow Him will follow in His footsteps. His path, the one He must tread, would be to obey God by suffering, dying, and then be raised again in victory. And so He says, anyone who follows Him must tread the same path. Obey Jesus by picking up your cross, suffering in this sinful world, die to yourself, die to sin, and then allow God to raise you to new life.
Why do Christians suffer? Because this world is still full of sin. Jesus said so, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Does suffering have a purpose? Yes. How do we know? Because Jesus’ suffering, which was the worst tragedy in history had purpose. And God promises that all of our sufferings will not go unnoticed, unrewarded, and will always have meaning. 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” And Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
And is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will go to waste. They all have a purpose. He is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart, He wanted an escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how you feel. But what did He say, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus’ sufferings had a purpose and so do ours.
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you.” I trust you know what you’re doing, that you will punish those who have wronged me, that you will restore all that was taken from me, that you will reward those who have been overlooked, that you will strengthen those who are weak, raise up the humble, give wisdom to those who lack it, establish and hold fast everyone who has chosen to build their lives upon your foundation.
The question is, looking at the life of Christ, “Do you trust Him in your suffering?” and “Will you pick up your cross daily and follow Him?”
Al reminds us that life sucks and gives some depressing reflections on Advent joy.
Please open up to Habakkuk 2, and as you get there let me give you a quick reminder of what we’ve covered so far.
Habakkuk is a book that show us a conversation between God and one of his prophets about the incredibly sinful things he’s seeing around him. His whole nation was corrupt and He wanted to know what God was going to do about it.
Habakkuk’s first question was one that we’ve all asked, “Why are all these bad things happening to us and what are you going to do about it?” God’s answer was, “I see the bad that is happening and my plan to deal with it is to discipline my people by destroying their city and sending them into captivity.” Habakkuk then asks the follow up question, “Ok, God, I know that you are good and just and hate sin, so how can you use people as utterly sinful as the Chaldeans to punish Israel – which though sinful, isn’t nearly as bad as they are? It seems unfair that you would use a greater evil to correct a lesser one.”
Then, as we ended last week, Habakkuk closed his mouth and went to sit and wait for God’s answer. Today we catch up with the prophet, sitting in the watchtower, waiting for God explain how God uses evil to bring about good. But as happened last week, God’s answer wasn’t exactly direct.
Let’s open up to Habakkuk 2:2-4 and read the first part of God’s answer to Habakkuk. But once again, realize that God isn’t about to give a direct answer. No, instead He’s going to get to the heart of the issue instead.
“And the LORD answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
The Disparity Gospel
Habakkuk really strikes close to our hearts, doesn’t it? We all suffer. We all want to know the answer to Habakkuk’s questions, right? We’ve all wondered Why God would use destruction to build people up, why He would use physical or mental illness to bring about spiritual health, why God would crush someone before making them well, why God would ordain (or plan out in advance) that His people would suffer. Why is that the way the world works? Surely there must be a better way!
I titled this message “Life Sucks and Then You Die” to be a little provocative, but also because it’s sort of true. Life does suck a lot of times, doesn’t it? Suffering and evil isn’t something that we usually talk about out in the open, is it? I’m supposed to be up here giving you the good news, aren’t I? My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” and tell me I spend way too long telling people how bad they are and how bad the world is and not enough time telling them the good news. They’re probably right, but I think it might be because God has set me up as a counterbalance to the prosperity gospel.
I think I might be preaching the Disparity Gospel. Not as in my job is to bring you to despair… Disparity means “lack of parity” or “lack of equality”, a “lack of fairness”. Where the prosperity gospel preachers say that God wants you to have your best life now and that if you follow him all your worldly dreams to come true, I preach the disparity gospel that reminds people that this world isn’t fair and has a lot of suffering and inequality in it. The wicked prosper, the righteous suffer. Good deeds are punished, and criminals run free. Healthy people suddenly drop dead, and people that abuse their bodies for years continue on. It’s not fair.
And as I read Habakkuk, I’m reminded how unfair, disjointed and frustrating life is. But that’s close to our hearts too, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I stood up here and said that life is always great, that the life of a believer is always happy, and that Jesus wants you to have your best life now – because that’s just not true.
Yes, without question, God made this world a good place. James says that God is not the author of evil or temptation, and that every good thing in this world is a gift from above. God fills this world with light and hope. He is the glorious one who makes this life worth living. (James 1:13-17)
The book of Ecclesiastes, as hopeless and frustrated as the author is, continuously reminds us that the normalcy of life is still good. We work, we live, we play, we sing, we dance, we eat and drink, and we live under the brightness of the sun. There is a lot of good in this world, and we are right to rejoice in it.
It proves that the curse of sin that came through Adam and Eve is not complete. God has given us common grace and abundant love. Much of life is good and wonderful and even happy. But – not always. Sometimes life kicks you in the shins. The question is, during those times, how are we going to respond?
The Dangers of Avoiding Suffering: Some Examples
Part of studying Habakkuk is to realize that suffering is normal and it’s good for us to accept that and then bring our big questions about suffering and evil to God. Habakkuk is just asking a normal, human questions.
We all hate suffering, don’t we? I know, that’s a weird question to ask. No one likes suffering! No one wants to suffer. But let me make a quick point here before we dig into the scripture: That I think we’ve forgotten that suffering has an important role in this world. We are right to be joyful and happy during the good times – but I think we’ve forgotten that God’s good plans for us sometimes include times of suffering.
The society around us disagrees completely. In fact, they disagree so profoundly, that people are literally killing themselves in an attempt to completely eliminate suffering from their lives.
Let me give you an example: The New York Times published an article recently that said that the death rates of young white adults in the US is climbing. We have better and more access to medicine than any time in history, but now these young people are dying faster than they have since the 1970s. Why? Because of drug overdoses and suicides. Here’s a quote:
“Rising rates of overdose deaths and suicide appear to have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites.”
In other words, the amount of people that are being saved by new medical technology from diseases are cancelled out by those who are dying from overdosing on drugs or committing suicide.
They want to avoid pain so much that they are literally killing themselves.
Or consider the rise of abortion and euthanasia (or doctor existing suicide) in Canada. Instead of caring for babies and the elderly, our most the vulnerable citizens, we have decided to get rid of them instead. The thinking is that if the existence of the baby causes any form of suffering to the mother – including physical, mental or financial – then it should be killed. We avoid suffering via murdering someone else.
And, if the “quality of life” of an elderly person isn’t up to their standards – in other words, if they are suffering in any way they feel is too much – whether that’s physical, emotional or financial – then they should be allowed to kill themselves to alleviate the suffering. Our society is fleeing suffering at all costs – even the cost of human lives.
Consider this: There’s also the growing epidemic of addiction to prescription pain killers. What do we do if we get a headache? Grab a pill. If our back hurts? Grab a pill. The thinking is that pain is always bad. We should always avoid pain. Even Christians are caught up in this. We avoid alcohol, smoking, even caffeine, because we see them as potentially addictive and dangerous – but then we go to the doctor and he gives us a jar of narcotics which we munch down with delight because it helps us avoid pain.
And of course, I have to mention the utter stupidity of the Government of Canada considering the legalization of marijuana. There are people in Canada who want to be allowed to take a drug that is known to alter their senses, deadens their brain, and affects their memories. I read a while ago that they’re even looking into perfecting a pill that works by eliminating bad memories from the brain altogether. Take the pill, wipe out the bad memory.
And this idea of fleeing suffering at all costs goes even further. We’re completely losing our ability to judge right and wrong anymore. We can’t tell anyone that their sin is hurting them and others, because we might offend them – and to cause anyone any kind of emotional pain, even if the motivation was to help someone, is becoming tantamount to a crime.
Do you know what you call someone who can’t feel pain? A leper. It’s a disease. We need pain in our bodies so we can know when something is wrong. Feeling pain is part of being healthy. When we can no longer feel pain, it’s a big problem. We bump into things, cut ourselves, even break a leg, and we won’t know it. We need pain in order to live in this world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should go looking for suffering. Nor am I trying to say that all suffering is good. If someone is violently attacked, has a crime committed against them, becomes terribly ill, or is treated unjustly, even God feels pain for that person. He suffers with the suffering. I’m not saying that we should get rid of Tylenol and reject medical help when we go to the hospital. I’m certainly not saying that people who are in pain are closer to God, or worse, that we should cause ourselves pain so we can be closer to God. That’s a heresy called “asceticism”, and it’s addressed in scripture as being wrong.
No, what I’m saying is that we live in a society that will do anything to avoid any kind of pain, and that’s terribly unhealthy! And when we avoid pain at all costs, we miss out on the benefits that come from when God prescribes suffering as a treatment for our spiritual condition. We need to feel the pain so we can know that there’s something wrong with us.
When our first reaction to any kind of pain – physical, emotional or mental – is to turn immediately to anything that will remove that pain as quickly as possible, we do ourselves a disservice.
Suffering & Pain Serves Us
Let me give a few examples:
A friendship or a marriage goes through a rocky patch where there is a lot of arguing and painful conversations. One of the common reactions is to leave the relationship, get a divorce, and find someone else – and then repeat the problem with them. However, God’s will isn’t for us to evacuate when the difficult times come, but to draw closer to Him, and work through the pain to get to the other side where there is deeper love, more respect, a better friendship, and a higher level of understanding for each other. Leaving the pain of working through a difficult relationship time robs us of the joy that was mean tot come later when we worked through it. (I’m not talking about abuse situations!)
Or here’s another example of going through suffering so we can come out better on the other side: God gives us a passion to do something. Say it’s go to the mission field, switch careers, or quit our job and be a stay at home mom. We feel the tug in our heart, and believe it’s God’s will – but it’s going to be hard. It means financial struggles, a total life change, a whole bunch of uncertainty, and perhaps even some very difficult conversations with people who won’t understand. Our natural reaction is to try to avoid the pain – to dip our toe in, realize how hard it’s going to be, and then quit before we get started. Or start doing it, and then compromise our integrity or God’s plan to make it easier. Our refusal to go through the pain of that transition robs us of the blessing of fully obeying God and doing what He has called us to do.
One more example: Say we have a personality issue that we don’t see: we are impatient, or easily angered, or lazy, or lustful, or addicted to something. And God works it out in our life that that area of our life suddenly becomes a huge problem for us. Suddenly life starts to suck, everyone around us seems to be our enemy, and nothing is going right. Our first reaction is to dig into our addictions, avoid the pain, and blame everyone around us. But that’s not what God’s doing. No, He’s trying to show you that your impatience, or anger, or laziness, or lust, or addiction, is growing in you like a cancer, and that it’s going to take your life someday.
And so, like a healthy body, He sends a shot of pain into your life so you can register that something is wrong. And that pain is meant to force you to reevaluate things so you can see clearly and address the issue. It forces you to go to Doctor Jesus to see if He can do something about it. You wouldn’t have come to Jesus otherwise, right? You needed to feel that pain before you would come to Him so He could fix it.
That’s what I’m talking about sometimes God uses suffering to give us a new perspective on life and drive us to Him so we can receive the healing we need.
That’s what he was doing for His people during the Babylonian exile. They were a sick nation that didn’t even know how bad off they were. They were on the edge of spiritual death, and so God caused them pain so they could feel how bad off they were. That pain drove them to despair, but it also drove them to God.
“So He May Run”
In verse 2 God says to Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.”
Remember the context: God is sending the Chaldeans to wipe out the city and drag everyone into exile for 70 years. So here we see God doing something very kind for His people. He’s giving the people a chance to get out while they still can. Now, that sounds like He’s giving them a chance to avoid the suffering, but it’s not. What God is doing is telling them to accept the suffering that will come because they are leaving their homeland because God has decreed it. He’s giving them a chance to decrease their suffering through obedience to His word.
Like a skilled surgeon, He’s both inflicting a wound and doing pain management. He tells them to accept the pain of leaving their homes and accepting God’s discipline for their sin, but to leave the town now so they didn’t have to go through the horror of the siege.
God does the same for us now. He puts us into this wonderful world, but then tells us not to get caught up in the joys of it too much. He tells us about the effects of the curse of sin and how to be free from the curse. And then, He gives us the same choice He gave to the people who would listen to Habakkuk’s prophecy: accept the pain and suffering of this life, allowing it to change us into what God wants us to be, or refuse, pretended it’ll be fine, try to avoid the pain, eat, drink and be merry, and then feel the full weight of his wrath.
Either accept God’s plan to use suffering to drive you to Him now, or feel the full weight of greater suffering in hell later. Avoiding the pain of this life is not only physically dangerous, but also spiritually dangerous! If we refuse to allow the pain of guilt and conviction of sin, or the sadness, grief and anger that comes when we are affected by it, we deaden ourselves to the great revelation that God wants to show us! That temporary pain is meant to cause us to hate sin and want righteousness, hate immorality and want good, to flee evil and desire the presence of God. If we avoid feeling guilt, shame or grief, then we will not come to God for relief.
Evil Conquered and Enslaved
But here’s something else. God does something even better. Not only does he use the suffering to bring us to knowledge of sin and desire to be saved, but He actually makes all that suffering work for our good! Nothing is wasted in His economy. That’s why Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 that Christians…
“rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Read Romans 8:35-37:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
What does it mean to be “more than a conqueror”? It means that the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, and slaughtering we face all day long won’t just be eliminated – but will actually serve us. Jesus is the conquering king that not only kills the evil in this world and gets rid of our enemies, but actually turns the enemy into our servants! Total, utter, victory! All the schemes of the devil, all the suffering he tries to inflict, not only come to nothing – but end up working out for the good of God’s plan!
It’s a mind boggling thing to process, I know, but it’s amazingly true. Habakkuk asks, “God, how can you use a greater evil to punish a lesser one?” and the answer we read throughout scripture is that God is so utterly perfect that He can even suffering and evil as His servants to bring about goodness and righteousness. The Chaldeans evil will work for good.
Again, this is most perfectly seen in the cross of Christ as humanity committed the worst atrocity imaginable, viciously murdering the perfect Son of God. And yet God used that worst of all evils, and turned it into the greatest good, the greatest gift imaginable. Listen again to Isaiah 53:3-5:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
So that’s my message for today, and something we all need to remember when suffering comes. So here’s the two things we talked about today:
First: Remember that suffering is an unavoidable part of this world – no matter how hard we try to run from it. Our instinct is to avoid pain at all costs, but that’s not only unhealthy, but doesn’t work for our good in the long term. If you are suffering today, or know someone that is suffering, I want you to remember that suffering is normal, it comes with this world, you are not alone, and it is only temporary. God desires to walk with you every step of the way.
Remember Psalm 23: God doesn’t just keep us in green pastures and still waters. It is in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that we learn that we need not fear evil, and know the comfort of the Good Shepherd. It is sitting at the table in the presence of our greatest enemies that we are covered with God’s blessed oil.
Second: Remember that God allowed this suffering for a purpose. If it’s something you brought on yourself, then it’s there to teach you something about yourself. If it’s something that happened to you, completely beyond your control, then it was given to you by God. I realize that takes a lot of faith and maturity, but it’s absolutely true.
Allow the pain of your suffering to force you to go to Doctor Jesus for help. Allow your suffering to drive you to God. Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That means that no matter how bad it feels now, the good that comes after will be exponentially better. Don’t waste your suffering by trying to deny it or avoid it.
If you go to God with your pain, He will do something with it. He’s going to use this terrible, frustrating, difficult time for His glory, your good, and the good of others. He promises to do that! Get into the watchtower and watch for what God will do through this time in your life. You are, right now, surrounded by people who can tell stories of how they have suffered in their life, and how God brought them through it, and how God used it for His glory and their good.
I feel some of you may need to hear the advice I recently gave a friend who is going through a tough time:
“Sometimes we feel bad after praying that God would take our burdens and then picking them back up again after we say “amen”. We think that there might be a limit on the times we can release our pain to Him and retract it, absorbing back into ourselves. There isn’t. He will let us put it down and pick it up as many times as it takes until we are ready to walk away without it. Just remember to keep putting it down.”
Here’s a powerful song by Kathryn Scott that brings me encouragement during these times: