Music playing What we're facing is real and it hurts. And that can sometimes lead to bitterness or resentment. But today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg explains that God's faithfulness in an affliction can actually produce growth in us if we're willing to be trained through the trial.
Music playing We live in a framework in which somehow or another we have been tempted to believe in a triumphalistic approach to everything we do. And that if all is not well, if trouble is in our way, if we are facing difficulty and illness and despair, then we're tempted to find ourselves far more akin to the counselors of Job, who gave some pretty poor advice to the servant of God in the midst of an experience of genuine trial. There is, I think, a pressing need at this time for someone somewhere to write a decent theology of suffering, so that Christian people may be able to face life, live life, deal with bereavement, children that are impaired both mentally and physically, circumstances of deteriorating health and diminishing powers, and yet at the same time bless God for his faithfulness in and through it all.
And our time this morning hopefully will at least be a step in the direction towards biblical sanity. It is very possible for us to try and deal with the whole question of suffering by trying to talk it out of existence, as it were. And there is a great deal of that going on—others by searching for an instant cure, and others by living in the realm of illusion and mythology by pretending that in some measure at least suffering doesn't exist. The great danger in speaking about affliction, especially if one is not in an immediate afflicted condition oneself, is that one may be very theoretical and quite unhelpful to those who are going through deep days. And I trust this morning that I will not fall foul of that, because there are a number of pitfalls to avoid in addressing this issue. One is philosophical rambling that is devoid of any kind of theological foundation—the kind of talk which stimulates the mind but never settles the heart.
Just, essentially, a lot of hot air. And if you are in the middle of suffering, you know that of all the things you don't need, just a lot of philosophical twaddle is one of them. Another pitfall is that of adopting a simplistic approach which hurts people rather than heals in any sense at all. And I'm referring there, without turning to it, to the kind of offerings of help that were given by Eliphaz and by Bildad and by Zophar.
These characters were quick on the draw, they were ready with an answer, and most of it was distinctly unhelpful. Some of us somehow think, in seeking to be of help to others, in affirming the faithfulness of God in the experience of suffering, that if we can bang out one or two proof texts, a quick burst on the Romans 8.28 scenario, then surely people will take that to heart and they will get on with their lives. Probably that we have never truly been broken ourselves enough to realize the importance of eloquent silence. In the experience of suffering, silence in the offerings of those who are concerned to give counsel is often far greater in its help than a lot of talk. Job, and from the second chapter, and from verse 13, when they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him. They began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was. That's good.
You go to chapter 13 and to verse 5, still in Job, and Job is now speaking. He says, You, however, smear me with lies. You're worthless physicians, all of you. Obviously not impressed with their counsel.
They did far better with seven days and seven nights of silence, would that we might learn. You're all worthless physicians, all of you. If only you would be altogether silent. For you, that would be wisdom. You say, Well, maybe we should just sit in silence for the next forty minutes.
Well, no, because I've been asked to do what I've been asked to do, but one of the missing links in evangelicalism is silence. One of the missing dimensions in many of our lives is silence—contemplation, meditation, take the earphones out of our ears, turn the tape off, turn the radio off, sit down, and shut up. And we may make far more progress in that silent, contemplative dimension than any of us ever realize. Job certainly had that to say.
But since we're not going to opt for the silent option, let me proceed. What, then, is the perspective that we are to adopt in relationship to this matter of God's faithfulness displayed in suffering? Because his faithfulness is displayed even in the suffering of his servants. Scripture is replete with that. Well, first of all, we need to live in the realm of reality rather than the realm of illusion. And the first thing that we can say, quite straightforwardly, is this, that suffering does exist, and it does hurt. Affliction is a reality in everyone's life at one time or another. That's why Peter writes to his friends, and he says, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as if something strange were happening to you. Isn't that the most interesting thing, that even as Christians, as soon as when you tell somebody about another believer, you say, Oh, you won't believe what happened!
You know, they were diagnosed with such-and-such. So what's surprising about that? God does not suspend the laws of human nature and physical existence simply because we are redeemed. If you're not looking where you're going when you're walking along the road and you bang into a pole, you just banged into a pole, you silly thing. Why didn't you look where you were going? Don't be praying when you should be looking.
Don't be surprised. Suffering does exist, and it is real. First, Peter is full of it. Life is full of it.
No one has pastored for any length of time without understanding that. And I don't want to tell you a lot of stories this morning, but I've lived through the reality of that truth, that suffering is there, it does exist, and it is jolly painful. Secondly, that suffering comes in all kinds of different ways. 1 Peter chapter 1 and verse 6, In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. Manifold trials—I think the King James Version has it.
Manifold grace for manifold trials in all different kinds of ways. And the grief which is referred to here in 1 Peter 1.6 is that which is expressive of the mental impact of enduring hardship. The trials that were coming were buffeting their minds and were crushing their spirits. And he says, In a little while, or for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief. You see, the little while for us needs to be understood in the light of eternity, so that even a lifetime is a little while in light of eternity. To suffer over a protracted period of time with whatever it is, a matter of years in our lives, is still in the economy of God and in the framework of God's plan and purpose for his children a little while.
That's not to say that it feels like a little while. Especially those who suffer mental anguish. Those who suffer mental anguish, a minute can seem like a day, and a day can seem like a year, and a year can seem like it's never coming to an end.
The trials that come are manifold trials. Suffering is real and it hurts. Suffering comes in manifold ways. Thirdly, suffering is inevitably limited in its time frame.
You go to the doctor, and you have to have some kind of local anesthetic, and it comes at you with that big needle. I remember on one occasion he said to me, If you can make it through the next forty seconds, we'll be fine. It sounded very ominous, and it was ominous, and it was jolly painful. And I'm glad it only lasted forty seconds.
Four separate injections, ten seconds each. You've been there. Some of you do that to people. You think of it in relationship to Paul's life in 2 Corinthians, and in chapter 4, verse 15, all this, he says, is for your benefit so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. Now notice, for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
J. B. Phillips paraphrases that, This is the reason why we never collapse. Also, we're able to say with confidence that in the pain of suffering there is the presence of God—not exclusively, but certainly—that God is there in the reality of suffering. For example, in the book of Exodus and in chapter 2 and in verse 24, we read as follows, The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
That's what people say to us all the time, is it not? So where is God in the midst of all of this? Did your God leave you? Did your God desert?
The answer is no. He's here all along. He heard their groaning, he remembered his covenant, and he was concerned about them. In the book of Isaiah and in chapter 63 and in verse 9, you find a similar expression. In the day of God's vengeance and redemption, it says, In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. And in his love and mercy he redeemed them, and he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Surely they are my sons who will not be false to me. In all their distress he too was distressed. What does Jesus say when he meets the arrogant Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus? Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
How could he say that? Because of his solidarity with his church. It is one thing that we might share the fellowship of his sufferings. It is quite another that he would share the fellowship of ours.
Isn't that the wonder of what we find in Hebrews, that we have in the Lord Jesus a great high priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities? That as the songwriter says, there's no throb nor throw that our hearts can know, but he feels it above? That when we're tempted to believe that somehow or another nobody knows the trouble I've seen? That there's not another living soul who understands where we've been or what we're going through as well?
There may not be. We may be confident in this, that in the pain of our suffering is the presence of a faithful God. John Stodd in the cross of Christ says, we are not to envisage God on a deck chair but on a cross.
And surely that is part of the significance of the fact of the incarnation itself, that his name is Immanuel, which will be interpreted, which means God with us. Fifthly, suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. Suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. Hebrews chapter 12 and verse 11, No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace by those who have been trained by it.
By those who have been trained by it. It's similar to what he says earlier in Hebrews, when he talks about the Word of God being of no value to those who heard it, because they did not combine it with faith. So they listened to the Word of God, but it was like rain falling on a hardened surface. It was impervious. They were impervious to the truth. They did not take it to themselves.
It was not combined with faith. And in the same way, just the experience of suffering need not draw a person closer to God. It may embitter us. It may make us useless. It may sideline us for a period of time, because our hearts become antagonistic towards God rather than sympathetic and open.
We need to ask ourselves the question when we go through it all. In the midst of heartache, is this making me brittle, or is this making me gentle? One lady loses a son, and she becomes hardened and cold and cynical. Another lady, you meet her at the market, and you're struck by the tenderness of her eyes. She's got crow's feet, you know, but she just has kind eyes. You see her on a subsequent day, and of all the things you're struck by, you're struck by her eyes.
And you ask someone, Where did Mrs. So-and-so get those tender eyes? And the answer is, when she lost her boy in whatever year it was, God broke her heart and gave her a spirit of dependence upon him that is quite unique. And she has become, says the person, one of the best and most careful, helpful biblical counselors in our church. Because in the experience of suffering, she drew close rather than stood at a distance.
Suffering does not necessarily bring us close to God, but it may. I remember in the seventies in Scotland, as we sent out one of the young missionaries from our church, Colleen. We sent her off as a missionary to Senegal. She had been out there a couple of years. She had written back to say that she'd been feeling unwell. She came home with abdominal pains that they were unable to tackle in Senegal, and within a matter of days, they had diagnosed her with a large carcinoma in the very central area of her lower abdomen.
And within a matter of weeks rather than months, she had gone home to glory. And some people came over to her mother and father's home on the evening that we had conducted the funeral, and they let them know that their daughter need not have died, because it was apparent to them, at least, that we simply did not have enough faith when we were praying for her healing. Now, let's assume that these were well-meaning souls and just dreadfully misguided, and they felt somehow or another that God was only glorified if Colleen was raised up from her bed in which she was stuck with cancer. They didn't have a theology which said, God is also glorified in taking to himself Colleen and leaving behind a legacy of those who will revere her memory and recollect on her faithfulness and tell others of the way she faced death with fortitude and with faith and with anticipation.
Not a triumphal story about how she got up and danced around her bed, but a sad story of how a twenty-four-year-old girl was removed from apparent usefulness in a realm of missionary endeavor. And in it all, and through it all, God never violated his faithfulness. You see, God is glorified in the death of his saints. His faithfulness is so vast, it is so comprehensive, that it embraces not only our successes but also our disappointments, that his providence orders all things—the good days and the bad days.
We don't somehow or another need to dress up the deity and make him acceptable to the minds of pagan men and women who only have a notion of some triumphal God. Our God is a God who manifested the essence of his faithfulness with a cry, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Was that an expression of faithlessness? It was a very apex of his faithfulness. Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my sovereign die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?
And in that, declare his faithfulness. When you go back into the Puritan writers, you have these wonderful illustrations of the same. One of the great stories that comes out of the covenanting period in Scotland is that of Richard Cameron, and if you've read Men of the Covenant, then you'll know this story. But Richard Cameron, one of the leaders of the Covenanters, was known as the Lion of the Covenant, and he was killed in a battle when he was just thirty-two years old. His enemies cut off his head and his hands, and on their way to the nether bow in Edinburgh, which is where the prison was, where they were going to display these trophies of war—namely, to take his head and his hands and impale them on the railings outside—they took them to Richard's father, who was being held prisoner in the tollbooth jail. Displaying the head and hands, they asked him, Do you know them? He said, Well, we live in a very brutal generation, you know. The heart of man is desperately wicked in every generation.
Can you imagine these characters walking in, holding a head, severed from its body, holding the hands of a man's son, and holding them before his gaze, and saying, Do you recognize this? Languishing in a jail, on trumped-up charges, confronted by the bloodied head of his son, he takes the opportunity to declare the faithfulness of God in the midst of suffering. The hymn writer says, When we are going through a trial, each one of us has to decide if we're going to allow suffering to draw us closer to God. That's a topic that we'll explore further as we listen to the second part of this message from Alistair Begg on Monday.
This is Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. As we just heard, suffering is real and it hurts, but we have a God who shares in the fellowship of our afflictions. In fact, many of God's attributes are at work when we're experiencing pain, when we're struggling through trials or difficulty. That's why it's so important for us to have a clear understanding of God's character, of all of the different aspects of his nature that are at work when we're facing hardship. That's the reason we've selected a monthly devotional titled None Else, 31 Meditations on God's Character and Attributes for you to request today. This book contains a collection of daily readings that can help us learn more about the unique aspects of God's character.
For example, we can learn about his power or his wisdom, about his love for us, and so much more, all in one reading at a time. You want to request your copy of this book today. The book is only available through Monday. You can request your copy when you donate through the app or when you go online to truthforlife.org slash donate.
I'm Bob Lapine. Hope you're able to worship with your local church this weekend. Be sure to join us on Monday for part two of this message on growing through suffering. We'll discover why we shouldn't simply run away from the painful trials we encounter in our lives. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
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