Thursday, August 2, 2007
THIS SLIGHT MOMENTARY AFFLICTION
(2 Corinthians 4: 17)
They strengthened the believers and encouraged them to remain true to the faith. 'We must pass through many troubles to enter the kingdom of God,' they taught.
My dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful test you are suffering, as though something unusual were happening to you. Rather be glad that you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may be full of joy when his glory is revealed.
Everyone who wants to live a godly life in union with Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled... preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church...
Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God from whom all help comes! He helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God.
We sent Timothy... to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no-one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.
When we cry, 'Abba, Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
So we do not lose heart... For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison...
It was only right that God, who creates and preserves all things, should make Jesus perfect through suffering, in order to bring many children to share his glory.
(Acts 14: 22, GNB; 1 Peter 4: 12-13, GNB; 2 Timothy 3: 12, GNB; Acts 11: 19-21, RSV; Colossians 1: 24, RSV; 2 Corinthians 1:3 and 4, GNB; 1 Thessalonians 3: 2-4, NIV; Romans 8: 15b-17, RSV; John 16: 33, NIV; Romans 8: 18, RSV; 2 Corinthians 4:16 and 17, RSV; Hebrews 2: 10, GNB)
The ultimate question for anyone attempting to minister in the name of a loving God is the age-old one: Why would a loving God allow good people to suffer? Related to this basic question are a whole host of similar inquiries that range as far and wide as the whole spectrum of human suffering: Why do people starve? Why do tragic accidents happen to infants, children and young people cut off in the prime of their lives? Why is a good spouse the subject of abuse? Why did God allow the existence of mind-altering chemicals and drugs? The list is endless.
Just when one thinks one has a reasonably good explanation that is intellectually respectable, along comes a tragedy that has no rhyme or reason. Imagine explaining to a young widow that her children's father died meaningfully when his car was struck from above by a five hundred pound beef carcass that ripped through the side of an overturned semi-truck on the bridge above his vehicle. Of all our human experiences, pain and suffering seem the most irrational.
How do you 'make sense of it' when a young man and his children have lost their beautiful wife and mother as a plane slammed into the World Trade Center in New York?
Many writers have made valiant attempts at marshalling their intellectual powers to give this irrationality a rational basis. Some have come closer than others. All fail to a lesser or greater degree. As C.S. Lewis has suggested, pain and suffering can never be made 'palatable'.
This is just the point. What we want in the midst of our pain is not intellectual brilliance, but emotional satisfaction. This is why most explanations fail to comfort. They really do not address the emotional distress. They fail to satisfy.
The value of the incarnation is often overlooked at just this point. In our suffering we want to know that, like little children who run to their parents when hurt, we still have someone we can run to - someone who understands and can hold us and comfort us until the pain goes away. Intuitively, as children, we know that our parents understand - they share the same human experience of pain and suffering. And so does God! As Hebrews 2:10 and 11 says, 'In bringing many children to glory, it was fitting that God... should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes people holy, and those who are made holy are of the same family.'
Most often, in the midst of our pain, we want comfort, not explanations. This is where our presence as 'little Christs' in the lives of those who hurt is crucial. We are the conveyors of Christ's comfort, which comfort we ourselves have received.
And what of the value of the explanations? They are of great value indeed. They help shape the spirit before and after the suffering. They are the stones upon which our spirit is sharpened. In the midst of the battle no-one takes time to sharpen his blade. The time for sharpening is before we enter the valley of the enemy...
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble as long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word 'love', and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. 'Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.' We were not made primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too), but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest 'well pleased'.
To ask that God's love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because he is what he is, his love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because he already loves us he must labour to make us lovable. We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that he could reconcile himself to our present impurities... What we would here and now call our 'happiness' is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as he can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St Augustine describes the desolation in which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him. Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one's heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.
Of course this makes excellent sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of... Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as 'Careful! This might lead you to suffering...'
Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God himself offer them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say, 'Why hast thou forsaken me?'
There is no escape along the lines St Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
It often seems to those in earnest about the right as if all things conspired to prevent their progress. This, of course, is but an appearance, arising in part from this, that the pilgrim must be headed back from the side paths into which he is constantly wandering.
George MacDonald, Anthology
The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that we might not suffer, but that our sufferings might be like his.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
Now God, who made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in him. Yet we will not seek it in him as long as he leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call 'our own life' remains agreeable, we will not surrender it to him. What then can God do in our interests but make 'our own life' less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness?
It is just here, where God's providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the divine humility, the stooping down of the highest, most deserves praise. We are perplexed to see misfortune failing upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people - on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right.
How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? It does not matter that I know I must become, in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were, personally responsible for all that suffering I try to explain - just as, to this day, everyone talks as if St Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to hell. But it matters enormously if I alienate anyone from the truth. Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when he thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: That all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know him they will be wretched. And therefore he troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; he makes that life less sweet to them.
I call this a divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to him as a last resort, to offer up 'our own' when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud he would hardly have us on such terms: but he is not proud, he stoops to conquer, he will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to him, and come to him because there is 'nothing better' now to be had.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Even such as ask amiss may sometimes have their prayers answered. The Father will never give the child a stone that asks for bread; but I am not sure that he will never give the child a stone that asks for a stone. If the Father says, 'My child, that is a stone; it is not bread,' and the child answer, 'I am sure it is bread; I want it,' may it not be well that he should try his bread?
George MacDonald, Anthology
One thing is clear in regard to every trouble - that the natural way with it is straight to the Father's knee. The Father is father for his children, else why did he make himself their father?
The Lord had come to wipe away our tears. He is doing it; he will have it done as soon as he can; and until he can, he would have them flow without bitterness; to which end he tells us it is a blessed thing to mourn, because of the comfort on its way. Accept his comfort now, and so prepare for the comfort at hand. He is getting you ready for it, but you must be a fellow-worker with him, or he will never have done. He must have you pure in heart, eager after righteousness, a very child of his Father in heaven.
George MacDonald, Life Essential
The working out of this our salvation must be pain, and the handing of it down to them that are below must ever be in pain; but the eternal form of the will of God in and for us, is intensity of bliss.
George MacDonald, Anthology
Father, I hurt. Sometimes I hurt physically. Sometimes I hurt emotionally. But hardly an hour passes that I do not hurt. O Lord Jesus, grant that I should not become focussed on and absorbed in my pain, but instead that my pain might cause me to remember your pain and the pain of the other five billion persons on this planet. Help me to see that not even one of those five billion can live in avoidance of pain.
Grant me compassion, Lord, as I see these others who seem so separate from me and yet share in this same pain and suffering in which I live. Help me to see the pain in their lives. Help me to look beyond the inappropriate behaviour, past the striking out and the anger and let me see the pain that lies at the bottom of it all. Help me, as I experience pain, to remember those others who are also in pain and let me feel compassion towards them. And Lord, grant that my compassion might grow wings that I might fly to their side and minister to their needs in some way that will display to them your love for them, your solidarity with them. O Father, let not my own pain separate me either from you or from these others. Grant that I might know your comforting arms around me as I struggle with my suffering. Let my arms become your arms for some other one who suffers, whether in sickness or in loneliness or in desperation or in hunger or in anger. And until I see more clearly, let me rest in your arms and commit myself wholly to you.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still my soul: thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Katharina von Schlegel
God grant me this day to live trusting you, my Father, Lord and Saviour. In Christ's holy name I ask it, Amen.
Rowland Croucher ed., High Mountains Deep Valleys, Albatross/Lion, chapter 18
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