I decided to post my sermon notes for this message so I can get some comments back and new ideas from everyone. It is kind of a loose amalgam of blog post and brief speaking points, but I’m throwing it out there anyway because I’m out of time and I have to go to work. Sorry for the fact that some of this is as yet half-baked.
1. Introduction to grace and suffering
We have come to characterize the Christian life as a response to the initiative of God. God tremendously and strongly loves us, and we begin to learn to respond in kind. Our response to God’s initiative of love is our worship. There is another factor, however. When we are having trouble, when there is affliction or injustice or chronic hardship in our lives or in the lives of others, how can we intelligently interpret that as God’s initiative of love and grace? In other words, if God is gracious and loving and wonderful, why am I having such problems? Why am I hurting? Why am I so wounded? How can so many of the NT authors reflect this idea:
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” James 1:2
“… we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations …” Romans 5:2
They must be crazy or delusional, because no one in their right mind rejoices in tribulations. I want to show how the right thinking about grace can make this truth really live and breathe for you, and how you can interpret grace and worship into your real life with all of its disappointments, problems, hardships, and afflictions. Beyond being delusional, the NT authors found a source of strength and joy which no circumstance on earth could overcome. This is certainly the same frame of mind and the same power which God wants to show us how to walk in now. Affliction is absolutely guaranteed for 100% of humanity, but our response to it is the real wild card.
1.2 The universality of suffering
Anyone on planet earth who breathes is experienced with affliction. Certainly the birth experience itself is shocking and afflictive event. We all expect death to be traumatic, and as Billy Graham has said, one out of one people die. The minute we wake up every morning we begin to commiserate with Leo Kottke’s song:
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And you crawl out of bed and you crawl out of bed
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And there’s tears in the bank and the credit card
In the back yard, in the back yard, in the back yard
If you look in the mirror it’s your father’s face
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
1.3 Extreme examples of grace under affliction
Let’s take a look at what Paul call’s ‘momentary light affliction’:
“Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.” 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, NASB.
This is some pretty serious stuff. We know also that Paul had a chronic condition of some kind, a lot of people think it was his eyes:
“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Galatians 6:11, NASB.
combined with this:
“And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me–to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NASB.
Paul was no stranger to serious chronic affliction, punctuated with bouts of acute affliction ranging from hunger, exposure, physical torture, and much much more. It is important to understand that it is this man, the same man in the same book who wrote out this impressive list of afflictions, wrote of ‘momentary light afflictions.’ How could this possibly be?
It is a matter of comparison. If you compare your afflictions to other people whom you perceive to have less affliction, or to previous times in life when you seem to remember having less affliction, happier times, your present affliction will seem all the more to carry a tremendous weight. It is this inner perspective, this inner comparison of the mind, that makes the affliction all the harder to bear.
1.4 Woundedness – woundedness is a special case. Affliction is a present pain, that may soon go away. Tribulation is an outward circumstance that makes life difficult. But woundedness is a result of our own sin and the injustice of others, that has harmed us on the inside. It is an internal scar that we carry with us. It is chronic, and often it is something that no talk, no counsel, sometimes even no prayer, can seem to touch.
1.5 Owning your wounds: Brothers karamazov quote: “It is Rachel of old,” said the elder, “weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother’s grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin.”
When Jesus was weeping and sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, who was going to come up to Him and say, “cheer up Jesus! Have a positive attitude! It will all work out! Where’s your joy brother?” We are not to put on some false joy when we are hurting and wounded. It is better to own our grief, to allow ourselves to really be hurt. Comfort can come, dignity can come, when we realize that the cross we bear is a real cross, and the pain we experience is important to God. when we come to a Christian assembly, and only put our best smiling face forward, and in all our relationships never reveal our wounds, we never enter true fellowship.
2. Your personal suffering is important to God
It is thus important to note, that none of this says that your affliction, your present tense difficulties, are nothing. They are real. They are true. They are pressing. They are a cross which kills. You are an unsung hero bearing under a difficult weight. As Peter says:
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6, 7, NASB.
This word, He CARES for you, in the Greek, means something very strong. It doesn’t mean, He has some distant and vague feeling of pity for you. The tense is this: “it is a deep burden to Him.” He sees, He carries the burden of it, it is an emotional and important thing to Him. He knows that it is difficult for us to see that these things are fleeting, and a beautiful heaven is coming soon.
When I went to Auschwitz, I saw the picture of Christ dying on the cross that the Christian brother scrawled on the wall with his fingernail. It was 25 years ago, and I remember it clearly to this day. (A detail of this picture is at the top of the blog post.) It is one of the world’s great canvases, created under such demonic stress of evil and torture that one cannot even imagine it. Here is a man who knew that he would die, who possibly knew that he would be experimented upon alive by Dr. Mengele, and who looked to the suffering of Christ for solace and believed. For the longest time, I would look at this canvas in my mind, and think that compared to such suffering my own problems were of no account. I have come to see that this robs me of the dignity of my own cross. The artist of Auschwitz does not serve as a club to beat me over the head and tell me that my sufferings are nothing and that my weaknesses are unforgiveable; this is a disservice to the power of this artist’s courage and faith. Grace says, find inspiration that the comfort and strength you find from God in your present hardships, will continue right up to the worst evil.
For each of us, our woundedness takes its own shape, and our woundedness is very precious in the eyes of God. This is the important kernel, the core message, of this post. Grace means God cares, God loves, God sees, God understands our pain. Worship is expecting this compassion, pressing in to God’s perfect heart, while in the present tense affliction still presses on us.
2.1 The importance of our unique individual suffering
– Edith Schaeffer’s book on affliction, example of the guy on his death bed, and how important it was for him to persist in saying God is good from that place. He was the only person in history with his history and demeanor and particular affliction that could declare the praises of God from that place of difficulty and faith. The critical warfare is an individual’s worship under fire. Our worship under affliction weaves a vast tapestry which together is a beautiful thing from the perspective of heaven. A tapestry looks like a tangled mess underneath, but is beautiful on the viewing side. Life on earth is the tangled mess side of the tapestry.
2.2 Suffering as an opporutnity
it is the fleeting opportunity of praise in the midst of difficulty which is our tiny window of opportunity to exercise real powerful faith. It is the truly deep place of fellowship with His sufferings. Also, you are going to have to walk through the affliction one way or the other, should it be with faith or without?
3. Close look at the verse:
MOMENTARY affliction: it is not forever, even chronic affliction. The years pass very quickly. Eventually and sooner than later we will be with the Lord in heaven. Just like the school child can’t imagine they will ever graduate from high school, and the teenager can’t imagine that they will ever really find their soul mate and get married, we can’t imagine that our presence in paradise will ever be real, but it will. Then, even our most persistent affliction will be seen for what it really is -> MOMENTARY.
LIGHT affliction: we’ve all said, I can’t go on like this. But it depends on what you’re comparing it to.
IS producing for us: not at some imaginary point, but NOW.
ETERNAL WEIGHT OF GLORY: What story or movie unfolds without some kind of challenge or problem? What hero is there who doesn’t face impossible odds? The most amazing stories come out of the WWII period, because it was a time of intense suffering and thus a time of big heroes and a time when people’s tenacity and strength were really tested and proven. In the end, though we think it is the good times, the prosperity, the peaceful times, which will define us, it is actually the worst times that define us. This idea is only a partial shadow of the real truth, that our afflictions are creating a lasting and extremely substantive glory. Like Jesus, we will be honored and even praised and known by our wounding, our scars.
4.1 How not to take this
God is not about putting us constantly under affliction. We are not weird medieval monastic masochists, delighting in flogging ourselves and taking ridiculous vows of poverty and silence and constant fasting. There is no glory in suffering, there is glory in grace and overcoming faith. God does not delight in our suffering. He delights in our liberation, our joy; but there is a special beauty in His compassion for us and our beautiful response under affliction. Sometimes suffering is an instrument of healing from Him, a way of speaking through discipline when we have become deaf to other forms of revelation. This is not always, and is perhaps rarely, the real source of affliction. Many times it is the result of the sins of others, or even worse, the result of our own sin. His love is not some trick message to give us a psychological crutch in times of affliction. He obviously wants us to have life and have it abundantly. There is no doubt that most if not all of us have been terribly wounded by the circumstances of life, and He has a real desire and an agenda to heal us and move us from our Egypt of bondage through the desert of transition to the abundance of the promised land. In affliction, faith says that God is yet gracious, God cares deeply for me, and there is yet hope that a greater life awaits me. There is power to have joy and truth in the present, to worship God in spirit and in truth, in the midst of our woundedness. Our woundedness, our affliction, is our big fleeting chance to worship God in faith. It is our big and temporary chance to shine as true saints, to do the thing that distinguishes us as believers, when it appears unwarranted.
4.2 How to take this
“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2, NASB.
Jesus did not really find pleasure or joy in His suffering. He suffered with the understanding that it was for a PURPOSE, that it was for the joy set before Him. His suffering was accomplishing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. He was all about the joy set before Him. He didn’t like suffering. He trusted the Father’s plan and compassion; He made His request known (please take this cup away from Me!), but He submitted for the greater joy. This is also His design for us.
4.3 Prayer and ministry time; the focus is on worshipping, not for His wonderful attributes that kind of have nothing to do with you, but being cognizant of His deep burden of care for you,of the reality and dignity f your problems and woundedness.
Peace to everyone who reads this.