Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Trials and Persecution 3: The Purpose of Suffering

When anyone goes through times of suffering, the thing they really want to know is why. This is the question they might shout out to God, ask their Pastor, or beg to know from all their friends. There really is no direct answer to why suffering is in this world.

Of course, we know that all suffering came as a result of Adam's sin in the garden. But this does not follow then that all suffering happens from a direct cause and effect relationship between sin and its consequences. However, it is definitely true that some suffering is a direct result of sin in our lives.

So where does that leave us? Truthfully, it leaves us with little ability to ascertain which reasons our individual trials are in place to pursue. But we do have from Scripture some clear indication of a few purposes behind suffering in specific circumstances. That is what we will look at today.

To Avoid Stronger Suffering

It may seem to be an interesting thought to you, but sometimes the struggle that you are in is actually the lesser of two evils when it comes to your life. There are times when the Lord clearly puts His people through a lesser trial to avoid a stronger one or to end one that could not be finished otherwise. 

Take for instance, the Exodus and the Red Sea. In the geography of the day, there were much easier ways to travel than that which the Lord presented them to go on. They could have travelled completely without having to cross the Red Sea at all. 

But the Lord didn't lead them those other ways, and they experienced some inconvenience along this road. And then the Egyptians cornered them at the Red Sea, and they felt discouraged as there was nowhere possibly for them to go! The Lord of course delivered them from this trial, and they were able to see His power greater. But why did he allow them to go through this process in the first place? Well, Exodus 13:17 declares, 
"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt."

The Israelites' faith was not strong enough for them to persist when they found themselves at war with the Philistines. So the Lord directed them the long way around, to show himself mighty, increase their faith, and to avoid the suffering that would have been the end of their journey to the Promised Land.

But this is not the only example I have seen. In the days of Nehemiah, there was great suffering in Jerusalem. The walls had broken down, and the people were not protected from any assault by their enemies. Nehemiah became burdened with this situation, and he took and cast that burden upon the Lord.

Ultimately, the Lord allowed Nehemiah to gain permission from King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. But rebuilding the wall is not the only thing that Nehemiah did when he returned to Jerusalem. Indeed in chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that the children of Israel's affliction goes beyond the lack of protection from the wall.

There was a famine in the land, and in order to pay their tribute and be able to eat, the Israelites have been forced to mortgage their lands, houses, and the rest of their property. In many families, their children were being sold into slavery just to survive. To make matters worse, the rulers of the city had neglected their brethren the Jews and seemed much more insistent on keeping their own luxuries.

Nehemiah would have none of that! Nehemiah 5:6-12 tells the rest of the story,
"And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them. And I said unto them, We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer. Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies? I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them. Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise."

This had been a time of great suffering in the Israelites. It ended here because Nehemiah wouldn't stand for this type of behaviour. But had the wall not been broken down and that suffering not have occurred, it is very unlikely that Nehemiah would have ever made it to Jerusalem to see this travail of the people.

Time does not allow me to speak of Joseph and how his suffering allowed him to save his brothers from famine, nor Jesus and how his suffering freed those who would believe from eternal suffering.

Correction of Sin

Yes as I mentioned in the first place there are obvious times when the Lord used suffering as punishment for the sin that they have committed. The book of Judges for instance is entirely dedicated to the Lord putting the Israelites into captivity and thus suffering because of sin that they have committed. 

But I think that the direct cause to effect relationship between sin and some suffering goes beyond just a simple punishment to a correction of error. We do learn simply in Hebrews 12:5-11
"And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby."

The best example of this chastening purpose of suffering is the life of Jonah. Jonah went through much hardship (swallowed by a whale, I mean...) because he disobeyed the Lord's command to go to Nineveh to preach and tried instead to travel the opposite direction.  The Lord put him in this travail so that by the end of the book, Jonah was again obeying the Lord to rebuke the people of Nineveh for their sins.


Occasionally, the affliction that we find ourselves in is simply Satan looking for an opportunity to cause you to err. Indeed it's not always the sin that causes the suffering. Sometimes it's the other way around. 

Such a situation is the life of Job. Job is a very rich man and a servant of the Lord. The Devil wonders about whether Job would have such a strong commitment to the Lord should he undergo a trial in his life. He assumes that if he just had his family and his possessions taken away, he would certainly curse God. In fact in Job 1:9-12, we read, 
"Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord."

But Satan is mistaken. Despite the loss of his family and the loss of his goods, he does not curse God. Even when Satan is later given the opportunity to hurt Job's health, and cause all of Job's friends to turn against him -  not even then did Job turn from following his Lord.

Now that is an example that we should all be willing to follow. Perhaps too often in our prayers, we ask that we or someone we know be saved from having any trials or difficulties in our lives when we really just need to pray that the Lord will give us the strength to persevere through this suffering without any error and sin, and that the Lord will use it to teach us and cause our faith to be increased. But that latter option is the next - and final -  reason for suffering.

The Testing of our Faith

We are told throughout the Scriptures that the affliction we face can have a purpose of teaching us (I Peter 1:7 , Romans 5:3-4 for instance). Nowhere is this fact clearer than in James 1:2-4
"My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."

To illustrate the fact that our trials can lead us to have an increased faith by allowing us to be patient in waiting for the hand of God in our life, we need only look to the lives of the disciples. The disciples went through much persecution in their latter days on earth. As we examined in the first post, the disciples found themselves beheaded, tortured, and afflicted on all sides. But what prepared them to be able to withstand such trials? What gave them that faith?

I suggest to you that it had something to do with another struggle in their lives. If you think about the greatest suffering that the disciples went through, it wouldn't be what happened in the book of Acts. There were lots of trials in the book of Acts yes, but the greatest persecution in their lives would have had to have been when they all thought that Jesus was dead.

They were without hope because the one they knew as Lord was simply no longer living. A dead saviour has never been able to help, serve, or save anyone.

They at this point lacked the faith on God's sovereign power over all things, including life and death, and had effectively hit rock bottom. Peter denied Christ's existence, Thomas wouldn't believe any reports of his resurrection until he could put his finger through Jesus' wounded hand, and all the disciples started going back to the positions in their life that they had before Jesus came into his life.

It was a trial beyond which anyone would ever experience (except of course, Jesus), but when it was over, when Jesus did rise again, the disciples were renewed with faith, and suddenly they were able to preach the word with all boldness.

Now of course I have been assuming throughout this whole post and especially in this last section that we as Christians have a desire to serve the Lord. Unfortunately that's not always true, but it should be. But let's not get ahead of ourselves; that's next week's post!

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