Do we seek suffering? – Part 2 (Philippians 3:10)

“that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings.” – the apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10

It seems that the statement is made at some point in conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to affliction for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and so many Christians in history suffer for their faith? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer for my faith? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course of action that almost certainly includes suffering to some degree?

            Because of the importance of the topic of suffering for the believer, I am going to spend several posts exploring what I see to be problems with the statement, “Of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering.” The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

            Problem #1 (January 5) dealt with the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ effectively sought out His own suffering as the necessary means for accomplishing His mission of redemption and atonement. Since Jesus sought suffering, it seems hard to imagine that we do not. In this post we will look at Problem #2.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #2

            “That’s really a trivial statement.”

Upon examination, we realize that the declaration above (“Of course, we do not seek suffering”) is somewhat trivial. What I mean is this: Of course, Christians do not seek out suffering! No one in their right mind seeks out suffering as an end in itself, so saying that the Christian is not called to seek suffering is just stating the obvious. Jesus did not call His disciples to seek suffering for suffering’s sake, but He did call us to follow Him wherever He leads regardless of any real or imagined consequences. The consequences of my obedience are the Lord’s responsibility. He determines those, and one of those potential consequences may be suffering. Another consequence could be my physical death. As a disciple of Jesus, I choose to obey regardless. The duty of obedience is my responsibility. I obey because obedience to my Master is my highest aim. I long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

When viewed in this light, the possibility of suffering is irrelevant. It is beside the point. Suffering is just one of the potential consequences of my obedience to the Lord. Why focus on one potential consequence instead of focusing on the goal or the prize of my obedience (Philippians 3:14)? Why highlight this one possible personal consequence instead of bringing all glory to Christ and focusing all my energy on proclaiming the gospel? Why think about a consequence of obedience that might cause me to shrink back from God’s appointed path (Hebrews 10:38-39), instead of running with endurance the race before me and fixing my eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), which will spur me on?

The bottom line is that the disciple of Jesus does not seek out a path just because it offers an opportunity to suffer, but neither does the disciple of Jesus shrink back from any God-appointed path that requires personal suffering. Suffering is not sought, nor is it required, but neither is it ever avoided.

SDG                 rmb                 1/9/2021

Do we seek suffering? – Part 1 (Phil. 3:10)

            It seems that the statement is made at some point in most conversations about suffering, especially among American Christians. It is usually well intended and sounds like an appropriate thing to say in response to suffering for the name of Jesus. “Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek suffering. . .” But the more I think about that statement, the more uncomfortable I become. Is that true? Are we not to seek suffering? And if that is the case, then why do so many of my heroes in the Bible and in history suffer for their faith? Why does the Bible have so much to say about suffering if my experience of the Christian life can safely avoid it? Is it normal to be a serious Christian and not suffer? And what do I do if God is calling me to a course that will almost certainly result in my suffering to some degree?

            Because of these questions and because of the importance of the topic of suffering, I am going to spend the next several posts exploring what I see to be problems with this statement. The goal is to arrive at a solid perspective on suffering that makes me more useful to Jesus.

“Well, of course, the Christian is not called to seek out suffering . . .”

PROBLEM #1

“Can you support that statement with Scripture?”

The first reaction to this statement may be to agree with it and let the conversation move on, but as discerning followers of Jesus, we must respond to these types of statements with at least a small challenge.

“That’s an interesting idea. Can you support that statement with Scripture?” Scripture is the place where all disciples of Jesus find a common foundation. Does a given theological position, or a faith practice find solid support in the word of God?

When I think about the fact that Jesus Christ was acutely aware of His appointed suffering on the cross from the beginning of His ministry and had, in fact, been sent to earth for the express purpose of suffering and dying on the cross, I seriously wonder if I can support the statement above. My entire salvation depends upon Jesus seeking suffering. Jesus’ mission could only be accomplished if He suffered and died on the cross. Where does the Lord Jesus tell His disciples that they are not to seek out suffering? Chapter and verse, please.

What about Paul? Paul intentionally did things that provoked persecution and inevitably resulted in his suffering. In Philippi he cast out a demon that ended the merchants’ revenue with the slave girl. He must have known that this was going to result in his being punished and his suffering.

Paul continued his way to Jerusalem knowing that conflict awaited him there (Acts 20-21). His own people pleaded with him to turn back and to change his plans, but Paul steadfastly refused even though he knew that he would suffer. Would Paul agree with the statement that the Christian does not seek out suffering?

And then there is Peter. Peter was warned repeatedly that, if he continued with his preaching about Jesus in Jerusalem, he was going to be severely punished (Acts 4-5), and yet he never even slowed down. If the Jewish or Roman authorities needed to punish someone for preaching about Jesus, Peter was not hard to find. Also, his first epistle has as its central theme the perseverance of the believer in the face of suffering for Christ. Would Peter say that the believer does not seek suffering?

            In the Old Testament, evil kings and false prophets warned the true prophets that, if they did not silence their prophecy or change their message, they would be punished, and the true prophets remained true to the message the LORD had given them to proclaim. For example, more than once, Jeremiah suffered for the message that he preached, but he would rather be punished with the stripes of men than fail to obey the LORD and deliver His message.

            So, while these heroes from Scripture may not have sought suffering, the prospect of suffering was not a factor in their decision-making. They sought to be obedient to the LORD, regardless. That is the view that the Scripture supports.

SDG rmb 1/5/2021

But let’s take a step back for a minute. Maybe the problem with the statement is the statement itself. That is, maybe we are saying what we mean in a clumsy way. My next post will explore that possibility in PROBLEM #2. rmb

Fear not and go forward (Exodus 14:15)

What are we to do when we perceive a threat that is greater than our resources to resist? There is danger bearing down on us and there is no place to hide. We see what feels like the proverbial “death star” on the horizon. How should we as believers respond to these situations?

One of the blessings of the word of God, the Bible, is that it is filled with teaching and stories that give us guidance for every circumstance in life. Because we are weak people living in a fallen world and we frequently encounter frightening threats, one of the most common themes in the Bible is that of overcoming overwhelming and dangerous situations with the power of the Lord. In Exodus 14, the children of Israel were in a dangerous situation.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR EXODUS 14

            The people of Israel have just escaped from Egypt after the LORD killed all the first-born in the Passover, and now they are heading out into the wilderness. The LORD directs the people to encamp in front of the Red Sea, intentionally making them vulnerable to an attack from behind. The LORD then hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he regrets letting the people go and decides to chase after them. So, the situation is that the people of Israel have murderous Egyptians closing in behind them and the Red Sea in front of them. The people of Israel became very frightened and cried out to the LORD (Exodus 14:10).

            Was this threat real? It most certainly was! In fact, the situation appeared hopeless. The Egyptian army with chariots and horses was bearing down on defenseless Israel and they had nowhere to run or to hide. This is the nature of our God, that the Lord will sometimes ordain situations which test our obedience and that tempt us to fear. In those circumstances, we are to continue to obey Him and to do those things He has commanded us to do.

A TIME TO ACT

            Moses tells the people, “Do not fear! Stand firm and see the salvation of the LORD. The LORD will fight for you (Exodus 14:13-14).” Moses reminds the people that the LORD is with them and therefore they need not fear. Even though the danger appears to be great, “the LORD will fight for you.” If the LORD is the one fighting for you, the danger has suddenly lost its threat.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward.” – Exodus 14:15

            There is a time to cry out to the LORD and there is a time to ACT. The LORD is making clear that now is the time to obey Him with action. “Go forward!” Huh? To obey the LORD’s command, the people need to begin walking out into the Red Sea.

            Of course, the LORD has a plan. “As for you . . . (14:16)” Moses will divide the sea with his staff and Israel will walk through the sea. All Israel must do is obey and go forward.

            “As for Me . . . (14:17)” For His part, the LORD will be honored through Pharaoh and his army as He destroys them in the Red Sea. “Then the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD (14:18).” Thus, the LORD delivers Israel, destroys the Egyptians, and receives honor for Himself as He displays His power.

LESSONS

“Be strong and courageous and act (1 Chronicles 28:20).”

“Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed (Joshua 1:9).”

“Tell the sons of Israel to go forward (Exodus 14:15).”

These commands in Scripture are all given because the Lord is with His people. That is, I can be strong and courageous not because I am competent and mighty, but because my Lord who guides me is all-powerful. Because the Lord is with us like a dread Champion (Jeremiah 20:11), the believer is to have these commands as a persistent attitude and is to be ready at any time to put this attitude into action.

            This world is filled with threats and dangers, and our fallen flesh fans the flames of fear, but we are called to fear not, stand firm, and courageously go forward with the Lord.     

SDG                 rmb                 12/29/2020

Walking a Darker Path (Mark 10:32-33)

My walk with Christ easily lends itself to the analogy of a path. That path began in late 1990 when I came to Christ from a very non-Christian worldview and found myself suddenly following Christ.

Much of my walk with the Lord has been pleasant and many days have been spent strolling through meadows or climbing through forest glades on well-marked, smooth paths. As the Lord effortlessly strides ahead, I struggle to keep up, occasionally stumbling over a rock or a root. When I lag too far behind, He stops and looks back waiting for me, always smiling, always patient, always encouraging. Thus He and I have spent many idyllic days in sweet fellowship, and thus over time He has taught me about His ways and has taught me how to walk, and thus I have gradually gotten stronger and better able to follow Him. I have seen His power and His faithfulness, and my trust in Him has become more sure.

This trust and increased strength are important, because the Lord knows, and I know, that my path will not always meander through pleasant meadows. There have been times in the past, and there will be times in the future, when the character of the path changes. There are times when, for His perfect purposes and for my deeper discipleship, the Lord needs to lead me into a darker, dangerous place.

I sense that I am now entering such a time and following Him toward such a place, and I feel that there are many others in this decaying world who are feeling the same thing. For the past two or three years or so, the Lord has led me past alpine lakes and through hardwood and hemlock forests, but now, as I peer up ahead, the landscape seems much more barren. Towering thunderhead clouds loom, billowing up to obscure the sun and rumbling their foreboding tune. The path is beginning to drop steeply and to narrow, becoming harder to follow. Rocks, prominent and jagged, threaten the sides of the trail. A gloomy dusk has cloaked the scene, making it harder to see where to walk. There in front of me is the Lord, still leading, still smiling and still patient, but His looks back to me are now more frequent, wanting to make sure that I am staying close. Does He sense my reluctance to follow Him into the darkness? Does He know my fear? And now it has become clear that the Lord is, in fact, leading me into a season of a darker path as He beckons me down into the foggy chasm.

What, then, is the believer to do when the path becomes treacherous and when the Lord leads us toward the edge of a murky chasm? As I walk with the Lord, there are some basic things to do to make sure I stay on the path.

  • Consider Jesus’ example of fearless obedience to His Father’s plan. Jesus’ entire life was one of suffering. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).” He knew what it was to walk a dark path. In Mark 10:32-33, the Bible says:
    • And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, He began to tell them what was to happen to Him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him and spit on Him and flog Him and kill Him. And after three days He will rise.”

When I consider that I am going to walk a dark and difficult path, I need to remember and keep my eyes on the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). In Mark 10, as they go up to Jerusalem, He is the only one who knows EXACTLY what awaits Him there. The Lord is beginning the walk to the cross. He knows with certainty that mocking and scourging and crucifixion await Him and yet He is walking ahead of the crowd. Since my Lord accepted this darkest of all possible paths and persevered, so I need to accept whatever path the Lord leads me down and persevere to the end.

  • As Jesus trusted and obeyed His heavenly Father and accomplished His work (John 17:4), so I need to trust and obey the Lord and accomplish the work He has given me to do (Ephesians 2:10).
  • Regardless of the darkness of the path, the Lord is with me. He has sworn that He will never leave me of forsake me (Hebrews 13:5; Joshua 1:5).
  • Regardless of the darkness of the path, the Lord is the one leading me. The path on which I am traveling may seem dark and difficult, and I may not know the short-term destination, but I know and trust the One leading me. The Lord is trustworthy, and He has sovereignly chosen this path for me, and He is leading me along it. Regardless of the nature of the path, because of the One who has chosen this path for me, I can trust that this is the perfect path.

SDG                 rmb                 7/24/2020