Monday, December 22, 2008

Suffering & Optimism

Well, this is the last in this mini-series of posts on Suffering. This last benefit is one that, quite frankly, doesn’t happen very often. The reality is that suffering produces optimism. It is hard to be optimistic when you’re getting pummeled! Optimism and suffering don’t seem like they go together, but they do.

At this point some of you may think, "What are you saying? How can suffering produce optimism? The way I see it is that suffering makes people weak and miserable and negative."

Well, often it does. That's because people "waste" their sorrows and do not let the Holy Spirit work in their lives when times are tough. They focus on their problems and continually ask "Why Me?" instead of using their problems to become stronger. However, if you approach suffering with the right attitude, you experience a complete transformation. “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance (produces) character; and character (produces) hope” (Romans 5:3-4, NIV).

Too often, we use the word “hope” as a synonym for "wishful thinking." For example, say we have scheduled a family picnic and the skies become cloudy and gray, we might say with resignation "I hope it doesn't rain." Unspoken is the thought, "But by all appearances it will, and there's nothing I can do about it." That's not hope, that's just helpless, wishful thinking.

The Bible uses the word differently. The Greek word in Romans 5:4 means "facing life with confidence, knowing God is in control." With this definition of hope, we would react to the rainy skies with the attitude, "It may be cloudy and gray, but not even the rain keep me from having a great time with my family this afternoon."

Suffering produces an attitude of confident optimism, because once you have suffered you realize that problems aren't all they're cracked up to be. They have limitations, and there are some things your problems cannot do. For example, they cannot separate you from God's love. They cannot destroy your happiness. They cannot keep you from living life to the fullest...unless, of course, you allow them to.

I read about a bull rider by the name of Gene. Every weekend he rides in a rodeo. Once in a small town in Oklahoma he had drawn a pretty mean bull, and he knew it would be a tough ride. Now a ride is supposed to last 8 seconds; his lasted about a second. When the gate opened up and the bull came out of the stall, before his back feet had hit the ground Gene was already in the dirt. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't over. His hand was caught in the rigging, and the bull drug him around the arena for a while. When he finally got loose, the bull speared him once or twice before the clowns came to the rescue. On the way home, Gene said, "The toughest part about getting throwed is having to wait a week before I get another chance to ride. I know what I did wrong, and I know I'll get it right next time, but I've got to wait a whole week to do it!"

After the beating Gene took, most people would have said "That's it for me. I'll find a new hobby." But Gene wasn't afraid of getting thrown. He had been thrown enough to know that it wouldn't kill him (most likely), and he left the rodeo that night convinced that next week he would do better!

That is hope. Some people would define it as crazy -- and do you know what? It does seem a little crazy to have a hopeful, confident, optimistic attitude in the face of suffering.

In the midst of his troubles, Job's wife gave him some rather cynical advice: she said, "Curse God and die!" (Job 2:9). In other words, "Give up! How long can you keep hanging on to this foolish belief that God is in control?" Well, eventually Job’s fortune, health, and family was restored to him and "the Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first" (Job 42:12, NIV).

When you suffer, and you stay with it, you become stronger and your problem becomes weaker.

What good is suffering? Well, when you suffer the right way ... when you rejoice in your sufferings ... when you approach hardship with the right attitude ... you discover that suffering doesn't beat you down, it builds you up. It makes you stronger. God has the ability to take any trial or hardship or crisis or negative situation you face--and cause it to work to your benefit (Romans 8:28). What may appear to be a curse in your life can actually become a blessing (Nehemiah 13:2).

Nobody likes to suffer, and nobody in their right mind would choose to suffer, but followers of Jesus Christ need not fear suffering. In fact, when it comes (and it will from time to time) you can rejoice in the midst of it, because the end result will be that you become stronger, and God is glorified in your life.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Suffering & Staying Power

Last time we found that our suffering produces inner-strength.

Have you ever been house hunting, and the agent said "I've got a great property for you to look at. It's an older home, but it has character." When a real estate agent says it has "character" it's about like saying a blind date has a "good personality." You know the house may not be beautiful, but most likely it will look like it has weathered some storms.

Romans 5:3
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance (produces) character ….”

The word translated “character” can also be translated “proof.” Another good term is “staying power.” When you weather storms you have a chance to prove to the world what you're made of, and prove to the world how God is faithful to protect you through trials.

Bible teacher Steve Brown says that, “Whenever a non-Christian gets cancer, God allows a Christian to get cancer so that the world can see the difference.” Now obviously Brown’s statement is made somewhat facetiously. The statement is intended simply to make a point: a believer endures difficulties differently than a non-believer. God's presence in the life of a believer gives him the power to endure, and the proof is in the end result. When you endure suffering, you develop character; you develop staying power.

All kinds of records have been set in major league sports. Most have them to do with a player's performance in a single-game, or a particular season. Cal Ripken Jr.'s record (he played 2,632 baseball games consecutively) is different. It is not a record that can be attributed to talent, but character. He has proven that he had the drive to hit the field every day, even when his body hurt, or his head ached, or his nose was runny, or he had personal problems, or he was in a slump, or he didn't feel playing that particular day. We don't have to wonder if Cal Ripken Jr. was a great player; his record is proof that he was.

When you endure suffering, you develop staying power. Staying power proves to yourself and to the world that God’s power really is “perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Suffering & Inner Peace

What do rejoicing and suffering have in common? Nothing, if you asked someone walking down the street. But the Bible says that the two actually do go together for the believer.

Romans 5:3 “… we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance….”

Suffering, by itself, is no good. But God is able take something bad and turn it into something good, positive and beneficial. Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

The Greek word for perseverance in Romans 5:3 literally means "to handle pressure." Suffering puts us under a tremendous amount of stress and the Bible says that being under stress of suffering teaches you to handle pressure.

You cannot be successful in any field unless you learn how to handle pressure. When we see an NBA star sink a three pointer at the buzzer to win the game for their team, they make it look so easy that we forget that most of us would crack under that kind of heat. You make the shot and you're a hero; miss it and you're an overpaid bum. How do they do it? For them, it's all in a day's work. They have been in that situation countless times, and they have learned from success and failure how to handle the pressure of a close game.

In the story of David and Goliath, at first glance David seems to be an inexperienced kid who appears out nowhere to slay the giant, but that was not really the case. David could handle the pressure of facing Goliath in battle because he had endured similar pressure fighting lions and bears who threatened his sheep (1 Samuel 17:34-35). Enduring those pressure-filled situations gave him the strength to face the pressure of fighting Goliath.

You can rejoice in suffering because, at the very least, your problems will help you develop inner-strength. And inner-strength is one of the virtues suffering produces in our lives. It is the inner-strength that suffering produces that enables us to handle the uncommon circumstances that life throws our way.

We’ll look at another benefit of suffering in the next post.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Suffering: Friend or Foe?

It is interesting how some words look and sound like their meaning. Take the word "Joy." It is a great word that is fun to say. When I say the word, it makes me feel a little better. Happiness is another of those kinds of words. Or take the words "beautiful" and "ugly." See what I mean? Or how about this word: suffering. It just doesn't produce those warm, tingly feelings on the inside, does it?

And regardless how you feel about that word it is a reality that we each must face from time to time. It may be physical pain and suffering or it may be suffering of a broken heart. It may be the suffering of a prolonged season of bad circumstances that drive you to the edge.

There are some who believe that if you commit your life to Jesus Christ that he promises to take away your suffering and your problems. It is the sentiment of him being some kind of Giant Fixer. But the reality is that suffering is a part of our human and Christian experience. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33, NIV). In fact, the prophet Isaiah said of the coming Messiah, "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" (Isaiah 63:3, NIV).

Unfortunately, many within the Christian community have this idea that when you live for Christ he will reward you by making your life trouble-free.

This simply is not the case. In fact, scripture promises just the opposite. Consider these passages:

Philippians 1:29, NIV
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him....

1 Peer 4:12, NIV
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

Matthew 5:45, NIV
God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Everyone's life is filled with sunshine and rain. Sunshine isn't always evidence that God favors you--even the evil get some sunshine. Rain isn't evidence that God is punishing you--even the righteous have to face the rain. Suffering is a part of life that everyone must endure. However, when it comes to suffering, Christians have some advantages. The obvious one is that God will help you through hard times. A second advantage is that no matter what kind of problems you face, God has promised to use them for your benefit, and for his glory.

The Bible says, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28, NIV). So when you suffer, whether it is illness, mistreatment, job problems, relationship problems, money problems, or whatever it may be, it is crucial that you approach your suffering with the right attitude, so that you will ultimately benefit from the problems you face. What is the right attitude? The Bible says, "... but we also rejoice in our sufferings..." (Romans 5:3, NIV).

This is the attitude that we must have whenever we face hard times. An attitude of rejoicing. Now, don't misunderstand me. Our attitude doesn't have to be some kind of phony, Pollyanna way of thinking that says, "Hooray for me. I am suffering! I'm in pain and my life is coming apart at the seams. Aren't I lucky?" This is not what the Bible means. We don't rejoice because of our sufferings, or for our sufferings--we rejoice in spite of our sufferings. This would sound like crazy advice, except there are two factors that make rejoicing in suffering a reasonable idea: First, God will help you through the problems. Second, your problems themselves will help you too, and work to your advantage.

Think of it this way. Pretend that you are prisoner of war and you have an evil taskmaster who tries to make you weak and powerless by forcing you to carry a heavy boulder on your shoulders all day. Some of your fellow prisoners give in under the strain, and stop trying, and let the boulder crush them completely. But you keep carrying the weight. Soon you discover that carrying that boulder isn't making you weaker, it's making you stronger. Eventually you have the strength to cast the boulder aside and overpower your captor and earn your freedom.

This is exactly what your problems can do for you. You can give up and let your problems destroy you, or you can use them to become a stronger and better person. No one in their right mind would choose to suffer, but when it happens, we can rejoice in the fact that the suffering isn't going to beat us; we will eventually win the battle.

This is why we rejoice in suffering; because there are certain benefits that we can claim whenever we are faced with it.

In the next few posts, we're going to try and answer the question, "What good is suffering? There are three advantages to suffering that we'll look at and I hope you'll find them helpful. By the end I hope the "S" word won't look so ugly.