God’s Acts of Providence (24)

Cross-NailThe Way that Refused to Go Away (2)

Opening Thoughts

We have already discussed the general environment in which Jesus met His Cross.  His path to this seemingly ignominious death has been discussed at length in The Language of Suffering.

What remains surprising is the determination of Christ’s enemies to overlook even the most convincing evidence that this Person might actually be the Messiah.  For example, read the descriptions of the career of Judas the Galilean in the previous post and compare it to that of Jesus.  The differences in action, motive, in every possible dimension could not be greater.  And yet the authorities lumped Jesus into the same category as this man of violence and shame.

In fact, with every demonstration of grace, healing, mercy and wisdom his enemies only increased in their hatred and determination to destroy Him.  One begins to sense that they were not in control of themselves, but rather were being driven forward by an unseen force.  Jesus Himself said as much.

“The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

(Luke 9:22)

Note the “must” in this statement, not “might be.”  If in God’s sovereign will the “elders, and chief priests and scribes” must treat the true Messiah in a particular way then can they anything but be compelled to do so?

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Concluding The Language of Suffering (2 of 2)

LoS-ImageMeditation

When we suffer, we experience an invasion of frail mortality. Whether it is physical pain, emotional distress, spiritual darkness, combinations, or additions, the illusion of permanence and stability that we normally carry with us is shaken. For example, for most of us the normal physical condition is wellness. When we experience the suffering of deep illness or significant injury, we are reminded of just how frail and temporary our bodies really are. Or, when we suffer emotional distress due to rejection or some other dislocation of human relationship we are reminded of just how vulnerable we are socially.

These invasions bring far more than “reminders” with them. We all know well that the dominant feature of suffering is pain. Pain that sears our bodies, our minds, our souls with torment that can drive all other experience out to the edge of consciousness. Pain can be the deadly deception of suffering, by which it draws our attention away from the potentiality for holiness and towards the temptation for selfishness, bitterness, and, in the extreme, nihilism.

Before we throw pain to the wolves, though, perhaps we should take one more look. When we do, it becomes clear that pain is the signal telling us that something is not as it should be in our world. It is indeed a very blunt, indirect instrument of communication. That is, the immediate source of pain in many cases has no or only the most tangential relationship with the spiritual issues that we have been considering. Rather, it breaks down the defenses that protect our fantasies of self-sufficiency, permanence and contentment. It invades our lives with a message that reads simply “Not so!” It doesn’t tell us which way or to whom to turn; rather it simply negates that which is false so that we have the opportunity to begin the search anew with our illusions discarded.

This is where the resources that God has graciously and abundantly provided through Jesus Christ can make all the difference – God’s Word and Spirit. These two work together to provide a map and motive force, respectively, for the journey into answering the question of “Then what?” to pain’s shattering message of “Not so!”

This all sounds so clean and simple on paper. In reality it is messy, complex and often drawn out over many months, years or even decades. We (and most assuredly I included) are particularly incorrigible pupils in the schools of salvation and sanctification. What we may learn in a bought of suffering is all too often forgotten once normalcy has been restored. Or, as was noted above, we all too often fall into the trap of self-pity, thus missing the lesson entirely.

Regardless of our response, God is always there ready to provide His guidance, encouragement and strength if only we will ask. He is always faithful, always available. So, when we find ourselves in a time of suffering, our first goal should be to pull our focus away from ourselves and refocus on Christ. Realize that He is there with you. His heart is indeed filled with compassion, because he has taken up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. Only Christ can fill the loneliness of suffering to the point of true peace. Invite Him in, He will come bringing blessing beyond comprehension.

With Christ as our companion we will be given access to the power of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit’s light that God’s Word comes alive, allowing flat toner on white paper to become God’s Living Word to you. It is by the Spirit’s influence that our prayers flow into paths of new relationship, new discovery, new hope, new awareness. And, it is by the Spirit’s power that we begin to hear the strange, inexplicable language of suffering.

We hear suffering speak holiness when the pain becomes so great that we call out to Christ in the humility that only total desperation can motivate. It speaks holiness when we realize that our relationships are so tangled in webs of failure and misunderstanding that we are utterly incompetent to set them right, and we cry out to our Savior in the despair of the knowing lost. If the language of suffering has a sound it is that of a soul being emptied of its false pride.

This language is strange and inexplicable because, although we can’t identify anything in particular that communicated something of great significance, we nonetheless know for certain that we have been profoundly changed. The best that we can do is to say, “The experience has changed me.” This is true enough, for suffering is indeed a language of experience.

And so, we find ourselves still trapped in a mystery. It is, though, a mystery only in terms of the reasons why, not in the outcomes offered. God has offered us the opportunity for deeper identification and fellowship with Jesus Christ through the experience of suffering. This, in turn, can allow us to meet our family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, even our enemies, with greater peace, humility and love. We can become cleaner mirrors, reflecting more brightly Christ’s light into this dark world. The experience itself is painful but the opportunities it leads to are boundless because they are of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Closing Thoughts

I set out on this journey simply because of the felt call of the Holy Spirit to do so. I am content, having reached this conclusion, that to have simply obeyed provides all the reward that I could ever desire. If others should benefit as well, which surely is my hope, then may God be praised!

Suffering is surely one of the least desirable topics upon which to devote sustained study. Yet, as Christians we must seriously consider its mysteries if we are ever to fully grasp what Christ has done for us and what He offers in fellowship. Now that the toil is done the rest can be confidently left in God’s sure hands.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20,21)


 

Postscript

If you would like to obtain the entire Language of Suffering manuscript, it can be found at the Document Repository page.

Concluding The Language of Suffering (1 of 2)

LoS-ImageIn 2015 I have shared numerous excerpts from the Language of Suffering, which is my meditation on the purposes and meaning of suffering from a Christian perspective.  Although there are numerous topics which have not been published here, sufficient topics have to enable concluding thoughts in this and the following post.

I do this in order to complete this important thread of contemplation in preparation for the new issues and challenges that 2016 will bring.

Looking Back

We have traced suffering’s path through the Biblical record. In the Old Testament we found mountain peaks from which God’s plan for redemption could be seen. In the New Testament we saw this plan brought into our very world, to walk among us.

We have seen that it is through the experience of suffering that God chose to make right again the broken relationship between Himself and humanity. The particular form that He chose was to incarnate His own Son in human flesh and to suffer in body as well as in spirit. This choice forces us to consider suffering as both the great mystery of salvation and the great pattern by which to gain access to deeper fellowship with Christ. We would rather have had almost anything substituted for this pattern. But God in His infinite wisdom has chosen suffering. Who are we to second-guess the LORD God?

How, though, can we apply what we have learned to actual suffering? What does this “language” that has been referred to actually consist of? These questions must be addressed for our journey to end at its final destination, the oasis where we can satisfy the thirst that we feel here and now.

LoS: Blessed are the Persecuted – Closing Thoughts

uncomfortable-christiansChrist is here announcing a radical reinterpretation of suffering – if it is experienced because of allegiance to Him. Rather than being endured, it should be received with rejoicing as a seal of authenticity upon our faith. Even more, suffering on earth for the sake of Christ builds up eternal treasure in heaven.

These are hard words for Christians living in the United States, particularly those of us who live and work in the higher income / quality of life strata of an already wealthy nation. Although some of us may have experienced real persecution because of our faith, many of us simply have not.

In part this may be due to the partial victory of Christian mores, at least in lip service, in our culture (though this influence is receding fast). But, for my part, I fear that there could be another reason. Is it possible that I’m not living my life as fully and openly as a Christian as I should? Is the lack of open persecution a telltale sigh that the bushel basket may be partially over the light of Christ in me? These are questions that must be faced. It’s possible that we live in a society where many people will like us more (although some surely will like us less) if we live out our Christian values more fully. Perhaps we should simply say that Christ calls us to ever-fuller obedience, regardless of the cost. If persecution is the price, rejoice, for great is your reward in heaven. If it is not, then you are still seeking to follow your Lord and Savior to the fullest where you are. There surely will be a reward in that as well.

It is nothing short of stunning to see how much meaning can be drawn out of just three of Christ’s sentences; and nothing short of hopeless to add anything of value to what He has said. In a very real sense it is folly to comment on His words. They contain a power and immediacy that can only be detracted from by the addition of more. And yet, we are compelled to respond to them, to enter a dialogue in which our poor attempts to understand are patiently, lovingly blessed by our Master. As with so much in Christianity we are forced to live within an unfathomable paradox, but one that offers “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27b).

LoS: Blessed are the Persecuted – Perspective

6th century mosaic of Jesus Christ in Ravenna

6th century mosaic of Jesus Christ in Ravenna

The Old Testament has taught us much about the language of suffering. However, it must be acknowledged that suffering is but one of many strands that are woven into a beautiful, but highly complex tapestry. The reason that we knew to follow this scarlet strand was due to suffering’s unmistakable centrality in the New Testament.

The New Testament exists, of course, because of the incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ. Before Christ, we were only able to observe God’s will indirectly through the experience of mortals. With Christ, we have been given the wonderful privilege of directly observing God’s will for human life.

There are times when this privilege feels more like a burden as we despair over our faltering, failing attempts to live up to the standard that Christ has set. There is no reason to despair. Christ is the Victor over Sin and Death. We can live confidently in this new life.

As we pass through these passages of dark suffering, remember that Christianity is at its core a faith of light. But light would have no meaning if there were not darkness for it to shatter. We will have to wait to fully understand why so much darkness had to be let into our world. Until then, we can rejoice that:

In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:4,5)

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12,13)

Amen!Sermon on the Mount detail

LoS: Blessed are the Persecuted – Exposition (Matthew 5:11)

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Heinrich Bloch

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Heinrich Bloch

11Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

However, in the first centuries A.D., in the pagan Roman Empire, living out the righteous Christian life placed one in radical conflict with the dominant religious practices, cultural norms and political realities. For example, to claim Christ as LORD could be, and was interpreted as a challenge to the Roman Emperor’s position as a deity. Again, the Lord’s Supper was interpreted as a monstrous rite of cannibalism. Worship of a crucified “loser” in a culture that revered great victors was viewed as beyond strange.

The consequences for early Christians varied from social disapproval to mass martyrdom. Christians were sent to their deaths in the coliseums as fodder for wild animals or burned alive for the entertainment of the pagan population.

Unfortunately, the violent, deadly persecution of Christians today is even worse in terms of numbers than it was two thousand years ago. If you pay attention to news from countries around the world with Christian minorities, you will quickly come face to face with the terrible facts of persecution because of faith in Christ.

Although we may live in societies in which the residue of Christian ethos prevails, it often doesn’t prevail in practice in our institutions. We should be very concerned if no one in the organizations in which we operate, be they for work or pleasure, has ever found us objectionable because of our distinctive Christian ethic. For to conform yourself to Christ is to stand against the passions that are given free sway in those who have conformed themselves to the world.

Finally, it simply must be pointed out that this sure saying of Christ is in complete opposition to that dark blot on Christian teaching known as “prosperity theology.” Most of us have seen it in its grossest form on the television, where some slick, shifty televangelist seeks to fleece the gullible with the promise of a ten-fold return from god for their generosity.

Unfortunately, this blight insidiously creeps into even the most well founded theological lives of the well off. It slithers in when thoughts of having been so blessed are connected with our own talents and hard work. It sneaks in when we tisk, tisk about the incompetence of other’s efforts as compared to our own. In short, our own prosperity can so easily become an idol at which we worship our own selves. My God deliver us from evil.

LoS: Blessed are the Persecuted – Exposition (Matthew 5:10)

The three verses under study (Matthew 5:10-12) are taken from near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the most important sermon ever preached. This oration fills three entire chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (5-7). It touches on many important aspects of Christian life, providing God’s own Word spoken by God Himself. It is a holy, humbling, fearful, hope-filled and blessed utterance. To read this sermon is to be shaken down to your very depths while simultaneously lifted towards hope and joy. This is what happens when God Incarnate speaks.

Sermon on the Mount Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

Sermon on the Mount
Copenhagen Church Alter Painting

5 10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This verse is the eighth of the eight Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount. It is the only Beatitude that is expanded and amplified upon, as follows in verses eleven and twelve.

These words hit modern, Western ears oddly. Persecuted…for doing right? This is the case only because we live in a culture where the residue of Christianity lives within our laws, morals and worldviews. That is, there has been a partial alignment between cultural norms and Christianity in those societies in which it has been the dominant religion.

LoS: Blessed are the Persecuted – Opening Thoughts

called-to-sufferJesus Christ predicted on numerous occasions that allegiance to Him would result in persecution. In fact, Christ went even farther, saying, in effect, that a sure sign of belonging to Him was to suffer persecution.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20)

Christ’s words have been proven true from the moment He spoke them up to the very present. They will continue to be true right up to the moment when He returns in glory.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the whole of creation was transformed into opposition to the will of God. Therefore, to be transformed through faith in Christ back towards God’s will inevitably places us in opposition to the world as well. The magnitude of this opposition is a function of the extent of our transformation back to God’s will and the nature of the society in which we live.

Thus, some Christians suffer terrible persecution for taking the very first steps of faith while others suffer almost none even though they follow their Savior to the farthest boundaries of devotion. The reasons remain shrouded within the inaccessible depths of God’s wisdom and purposes.

LoS: Isaiah – Closing Thoughts

In Genesis we witnessed suffering’s entry into human experience. In Job we struggled with the terrible questions of its apparent arbitrariness, meaning and spiritual implications. What has this passage added?

I believe that there are at least two primary messages to be found in this perhaps the most important passage in the Old Testament. Firstly, the dialectic synthesis between suffering and salvation within the context of a person is explicitly identified. This person is clearly exceedingly special in God’s sight, and given the incredible events and consequences of his experiences could have been identified with messianic attributes. Had this passage of Scripture been used as the template for the Messiah, Christ may not have suffered and died as He did. But in God’s wisdom and foreknowledge, a very different messianic expectation was in place ca. A.D. 30, one of a powerful, conquering, nation-restoring hero.

Secondly, although it would not become understood until after the resurrection, God is here telling us, centuries before Christ, that suffering is an experience that He Himself will enter into with us. We will see the terrible fulfillment of this prophecy in all of its chilling detail when we follow Christ to the cross in Christ’s Suffering and Death.crownnails1

LoS: Isaiah – Exposition (53:8-12)

8By oppression and judgment he was taken away.

       And who can speak of his descendants?

       For he was cut off from the land of the living;

       for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio.

The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio.

9He was assigned a grave with the wicked,

       and with the rich in his death,

       though he had done no violence,

       nor was any deceit in his mouth.

   10Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,

       and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,

       he will see his offspring and prolong his days,

       and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

We have passed through the black night of Christ’s suffering and now begin to see glimmers of the daybreak. He is entombed in a place of shame and then, a turning, where the luminosity of the intention for good deeply wrapped inside the cloak of this darkness breaks forth.

11After the suffering of his soul,

       he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

       by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

      and he will bear their iniquities.

Resurrection of Christ by Noel Coypel

Resurrection of Christ by Noel Coypel

The Resurrection!

Let those who doubt answer how the same Peter who denied Jesus three times could only a few weeks later speak thus to a crowd in the same Jerusalem that meted out such a gruesome punishment on his Master.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22-24)

Christ had known it all from the beginning:

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33)

12Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

       and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

       because he poured out his life unto death,

       and was numbered with the transgressors.

       For he bore the sin of many,

       and made intercession for the transgressors.

May the Great Apostle have the last word.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)