The following post is about losing hope in the midst of suffering. For those who might not be up for a long read, let me begin with a powerful truth: Your suffering no more means that God has ABANDONED you than the mansions and million dollar bank accounts of prosperity teachers means that God is WITH them. Put another way, your suffering does not mean that God has abandoned you any more than Paul’s suffering meant that God abandoned him. In fact, Paul’s suffering was a hallmark sign that God was WITH him, and that Paul was CALLED to be an apostle and messenger of God. So – let’s talk about suffering today, and let’s begin with a bit of a silly story, in which I almost “accidentally” stoned somebody.
Dateline, 1990. With growing horror, I realized that the ten pound rock that I had just heaved into the air was about to crash land on my friend’s head. If I could have stopped time, I would have, but that particular ability was not in my repertoire at such a young age. I managed a very masculine warning squeal, but it was too late. Todd looked up just in time to see the meteorite coming, and just in time to be hit by it. Fortunately, it was not a direct blow – but more of a glancing one. Yes, there was blood, bruises and such, but Todd valiantly laughed it off after a few moments, and forgave me. I think he probably had a concussion, but we didn’t really know much about concussions back then, so we thought everything was okay. I was mortified, and still cringe somewhat when I think about it. I do believe it was the last time we played the “rock game.” 26 years later, and I’m still sorry, Todd.
Teenage boys lack sense. The preceding sentence should get some sort of award for understatement, because it isn’t quite strong enough. It is a wonder that most teenage boys somehow manage to survive into adulthood; at least it is a wonder that I did. Back in my teenage years, I loved all of the normal sports – football, baseball, basketball, and even some volleyball, tennis, wiffleball and wall-ball for good measure. Those traditional games that we grew up playing caused their fair share of injuries, as might be expected. When I wasn’t the one being injured (more than one broken ankle, concussion, broken arm, etc.) I was the one carrying my friends to the emergency room. We didn’t get in too much trouble for injuring ourselves in the traditional way, but it was the other “games” we played that had a tendency to land us in hot water with teachers and parents.
The high school I went to (shout-out to the R.L.C. Trees, now Jefferson County International Baccalaureate) did not have a field, or a gym. It had a deadly asphalt courtyard, and it had a somewhat easily accessible ladder that led to the forbidden roof area. We had at least one hour every day to play on that courtyard, and climb on that roof, and we used that hour as hard as we possibly could. Our group invented several games, including wall ball, execution style. Losers of this game would have to line up on the wall, arms spread above their head, and endure several hard throws (aimed at the backside) from every other player. Ouch! We also invented the “Key game,” which I believe represents the height of idiocy. The object of the key game was to throw your keys, as hard as possible, into your “friend’s” crotch. Like warfare is wont to do, this game led to an arms race, in which all of our key chains grew and grew, until some of the guys had three dozen or more keys and other heavy objects attached to their key chains. Somehow, I believe all of us now have children, but it is possible that some of those kids are adopted. 😉 We also liked to run and jump over the hoods of our cars (on asphalt) and jump from the library roof onto the road, as well as some other things that are just too dumb or violent to actually type out. Believe it or not, this was at a “gifted” high school. “Gifted” at what, I am not quite sure. Mayhem, I suppose.
One final game to mention that we played was the “rock game.” If it had another name, I’ve forgotten it. The rock game consisted of finding a good, solid rock, and throwing it at your friends. Fortunately, we managed to dodge most of those rocks, but not all of them. I remember getting a wristwatch bezel smashed by a rock (Thank you, Matt), as well as sustaining several bruises, that I would proudly show off to my mom or dad upon arriving home. So it was that one day, we were standing in the asphalt courtyard, during a free period at school, playing the rock game. Three guys on one side of the courtyard, versus three guys on the other side, standing a mere 10-15 yards away. Everything was going well, until I decided to do something “funny.” My good buddy Todd, standing across the field of glory, was a late-comer to the game – probably substituting for a wounded teammate. Jovially, with rocks flying everywhere, Todd taunted his opponents (my team) with a shout of, “Hey guys, Stone me!” And so, I did. My teenage “brain” thought it would be funny to pick up a huge rock (I’ve no idea how it got into the middle of our courtyard) and heave it at Todd in response to his request.
We had two rules in the “rock game.” Rule #1 was to never throw at a guy who was gathering ammunition. Rule #2 was to not use rocks over fist size, so as to avoid permanent death and maiming. In one fell swoop, I somewhat intentionally violated both rules. As soon as Todd requested to be stoned, he (logically knowing that nobody would take him seriously) stooped down and began to gather ammunition. I didn’t notice, and thus nearly killed Todd with a giant boulder. The moral of this story is that teenage boys – wondrous creatures in many ways – are dumb and need constant supervision. I keep trying to convince my daughters of this fact, but they remain incredulous. Alas.
Stoning does not always turn out quite as well as it did with Todd. I think most people that have heard of stoning, assume that it basically involved a crowd of people pelting a victim with baseball sized stones until that victim succumbed. That would be a cruel, awful way to die, to be sure, but the reality of stoning is actually significantly worse. While ancient accounts are somewhat vague, it appears that people were stoned in biblical times by either being dropped into a deep hole, or pushed off of a 10-15 foot cliff. After that, large stones were dropped down onto the victim from above. Sometimes death was swift and merciful, but more often death came slowly and tortuously – taking 20 minutes to 2 hours or more. It was a horrible, and shameful way to die, and Old Testament rabbis took great pains to ensure that only obviously guilty people were stoned. Indeed, by the time of Jesus, Paul and the Apostles, the practice of stoning was so restricted among the Jewish people, that it was almost de facto illegal. That did not stop a few early enemies of Christians from engaging in the practice, however. Luke 4 tells the story of some townspeople who attempted to push Jesus off of a cliff (likely intending to stone Him afterwards), but He miraculously walked away in the midst of the maddened crowd. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was actually stoned to death while Saul (soon to be Paul) stood by and approved of the stoning. In a possible bit of irony, a few years later, Paul himself was also stoned to death in the service of the same Jesus that he executed Stephen for serving. Yes, Paul was stoned…let’s read:
Acts 14:19-20, “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and when they had won over the crowds and stoned Paul, they dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. 20 After the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.“
That is quite an amazing story, and I find it a bit remarkable that Luke tells the story with such little detail, or emotion, or dramatic accouterments. Paul and Barnabas were in Lystra preaching about Jesus, and doing miracles. The Lystrans were so impressed with what God was doing through Paul and Barnabas, that they tried to sacrifice to them as gods. Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes and proclaimed themselves to only be mere men – servants of God, but this was not enough for a group of Jewish enemies of Paul. Right there on the spot – without a trial of any kind, Paul was cast down, and stoned. Not just hit with a rock or two, but stoned until the crowd believed him to be dead. After his stoning, Paul was roughly dragged outside the city limits of Lystra, and left to be eaten by wild animals. Somehow, the disciples/Christians in town came upon Paul after this, and surrounded him, which led to Paul getting up, and boldly going back into town.
What a strange story! I have so many questions. Was Paul really dead? Was he then raised from the dead? Did a miracle happen here? How in the world was Paul able to get up in the morning, and travel to Derbe? Paul was not a young man, and unless God fully healed AND restored him, I’ll bet that was one painful 54.5 mile journey!
Here’s a question to grapple with that is as contemporary and personal to your life as can be: WHY did God let Paul suffer? Consider this: Paul was on God’s mission, telling the world about Jesus. He had given up prestige, power and position to engage in the Jesus mission. When Paul, as Saul, first met Jesus on the old Damascus Road (Acts 9), he was on his way to climbing up to the highest positions of power among his people. As a Roman born Jew that was mentored by one of the most gifted leaders in Israel, Saul/Paul had everything possible going for him…and then he met Jesus, who called him to suffer for the good news.
Right before coming to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Iconium, where God miraculously delivered them from being stoned. Can you imagine the pair walking to Derbe, constantly on the lookout for their Iconium enemies, but also rejoicing at their deliverance from certain death through stoning? They must have been overjoyed! And then, upon arrival, God showed His power in a huge way through a miraculous healing. How thrilling and exhilarating for them! Paul was right in the center of God’s will, serving God with all of his heart. Further, Paul was completely humble and God-focused in Derbe – immediately deflecting any personal glory or accolades from himself, tearing his clothes in frustration to point their attention away from him personally and towards God. And God blessed him for that faithfulness by…allowing him to be stoned?
That doesn’t make much sense, does it? Don’t the preachers on radio and TV promise that following God will fill every empty hole of your heart? That God longs to bless you and pour out abundance on you financially? That He won’t ever give you more than you can bear? If all of that is true…and it isn’t…then why didn’t He do that for Paul, one of His most faithful servants? The sobering truth is that, while the love of God for us is personal, vast, deep, and beautiful beyond comprehension, there is not guarantee in the Bible that God will make us wealthy and keep us from suffering and trials. In fact, there are multiple promises in the Bible that are just the OPPOSITE of that, promises of trials, tribulation and suffering! Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at a few:
- 1 Peter 4:12-13 ,“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.“ Look at what Peter says: DON’T BE SURPRISED at FIERY trials. They WILL COME. FIERY Trials are NOT STRANGE! They are the common experience of followers of Jesus. If the preaching/teaching that you are used to in churches and books, and on tv/radio isn’t saying this, then it is possible that you are missing out on biblical truth, and instead listening to a counterfeit.
- John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” This is one of the promises of Jesus that isn’t preached on too much, and doesn’t usually make the cover of best-selling books. Note here: Jesus promises that His followers WILL HAVE SUFFERING! The Greek word there for suffering is actually a very strong word – it is usually translated as “tribulation.” Big-time suffering.
- 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Here’s another precious promise of the Bible that may not be mentioned enough. Those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus WILL suffer and be persecuted. It is a guarantee – one that I have seen validated over and over.
- Romans 5:3-5, “We also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4 endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Wait a minute…this is interesting – the same Paul that got stoned says that Christians should REJOICE in their afflictions? Why?! Because: suffering/affliction produces endurance (ask any athlete…), endurance produces character, and character leads to faith-strengthening hope. Could it be that the Bible sees some suffering as a gift?! It is almost absurd, isn’t it?
- James 1:2-4, “ Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.“ And here we see it most clearly of all. Suffering – even “senseless” suffering ultimately leads to maturity. Yes, it might be a rocky road getting there. Yes, it might be difficult and heart wrenching. But ultimately, suffering leads to completeness and wholeness.
What about senseless suffering? The rape or sexual assault of a powerless innocent? Child-abuse? Murder? Genocide? Spousal abuse? Are these sufferings sent by God in order to make His people more mature? I don’t believe so, at least not exactly.
The ultimate answer to the question about “senseless” suffering is likely beyond my pay-grade, but I can say that my belief is that the Bible teaches that we are in a fallen world, ruled by Satan himself, under the sovereignty of God. In a fallen world ruled by Satan, we can expect there to be acts of senseless violence, terrible tragedies and people who are abused. Some of these evils and sufferings are actually initiated by the devil and His minions (under the sovereignty of God) and are designed by him to “steal, kill and destroy.” Yes! God is sovereign and is the over-ruler of the world. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches us in both narrative ways (by showing Jesus and His followers suffering) and in didactic (intending to teach) ways that followers of Jesus – and people in general – will suffer greatly in a fallen World.
1 John 5:19, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is under the sway of the evil one.”
So, allow me to conclude with a direct word to people who have been suffering so much that their faith is wavering (or has seemingly been lost.) Pop-christianity and Western/American-christianity rarely teach about suffering and often teach about blessing, favor, and prosperity. This kind of teaching often strays fully away from Christianity altogether, and becomes some sort of farcical masquerade. It might seem to have substance, but it lacks Biblical truth, and often lacks the words, teachings and Spirit of Jesus entirely.
This kind of teaching is like putting a Lebron James Jersey on an old dude – it might say “James” and “23” on that Jersey, but it sure isn’t Lebron James on the inside. Churches, teachers and preachers who focus all on blessing and prosperity and riches and such aren’t actually Christian at all…they’re wolves dressed as sheep. If you have been wounded or misled by them, than I am sorry. Genuinely sorry and grieving on the border of anger. But don’t blame God for that. Don’t blame the Bible, and don’t blame Christians. You were misinformed by counterfeits, but the presence of counterfeits doesn’t mean that there is no genuine article; indeed, the presence of counterfeits actually points to the reality of the genuine thing.
Real Biblical Christianity is very clear that we live in a fallen world, and that all of creation is “groaning” waiting for the second coming of Jesus. All of creation has suffered, and will suffer. Consider Paul yet again. As pointed out before, he was stoned right in the MIDDLE of living out God’s will for his life – doing precisely what He was supposed to be doing. And he was stoned. In fact, in one of Paul’s later letters (2nd Corinthians), Paul is defending himself against a group of false teachers that had been stirring up the church. Paul lists the following as the signs that he was a follower of Jesus (notice how many of Paul’s “qualifications” have to do with suffering!):
2nd Corinthians 12, 23-27 “Are they servants of Christ?
I’m talking like a madman—I’m a better one:
with far more labors,
many more imprisonments,
far worse beatings, near death many times.
24 Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews.
25 Three times I was beaten with rods by the Romans.
Once I was stoned by my enemies.
Three times I was shipwrecked.
I have spent a night and a day
in the open sea.
26 On frequent journeys, I faced
dangers from rivers,
dangers from robbers,
dangers from my own people,
dangers from the Gentiles,
dangers in the city,
dangers in the open country,
dangers on the sea,
and dangers among false brothers;
27 labor and hardship,
many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst,
often without food, cold, and lacking clothing.“
Paul based his authority to lead in the church, at least in part, on the fact that he was a genuine servant of Christ. His proof for being a genuine servant of Christ? Look at it: stonings, beatings, imprisonment, hunger, cold, thirst, etc. This is what real spiritual authority looks like – not mansions or stunning wardrobes and nice cars. So – to you who are suffering. Consider the verses below. #1. Do not be surprised that you are suffering – God will redeem it. #2. There is coming a day when God Himself will put an end to suffering, sickness, death and tears. We are NOT YET at that day, but it is coming in Christ. Turn away from your doubt and sin and look to Him in faith believing that He died on the cross in your place, to pay the price for your sins and failings and live in Hope that He is returning to wipe away every tear and to right every wrong.
1. James, 1:2-4 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.4 But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
2. Revelation 21:3-4, “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity,and He will live with them.They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist;grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.”