Mary at the Cross

One of the hardest parts of being a pastor is that you get to know many of the heartaches and sorrows of the people in your church. In a sense, their pain becomes your pain. And you want to fix it for them, but you know that many times you can’t.

There’s the husband fighting cancer. The young couple who are devastated with infertility. The family that was just ripped apart by divorce. The senior saint who recently buried their spouse after fifty plus years of marriage. The father who just lost his job. The single mother struggling to keep food on the table for her children.

The list gets long and it weighs on the pastor.

It is inevitable that people will suffer.

It is also a privilege to be taken into people’s lives and trusted with their heartaches and trials. You know that even if you can’t fix every problem that comes to you, you can hold them up before the throne of immense grace.

It’s not that pastors don’t want to know, it’s just that they care – sometimes too much.

And then I think of Mary at the Cross.

Can you imagine her heartache? The son that she gave birth to; the boy she raised; the young man she watched as he grew into a man destined to shake the world. And now he has been accused of treason, arrested, beaten to within an inch of his life, publicly humiliated and he’s hanging on a cross bloody and bowed.

This wasn’t just her son – he was her Messiah, her Savior. He has been lied about, tortured, rejected, and crucified like a common criminal. A piece of trash to be thrown out.

And she has had to stand by and watch it all happen . . . and could do nothing about it.

Mary at the Cross has experienced more pain, more sorrow, more heartache than we will ever know. She is the ultimate sufferer.

Not that it helps my pain, but it does say to me, you are not alone. There have been others and there will yet be others who will suffer in ways that are hard to even imagine.

The Apostle Paul understood this when he penned the words, No temptation (trial) has overtaken you except such as is common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13). Common to man. Common among men. Our pain is not unique.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that most of us have not struggled to the point of shedding our blood – perhaps a metaphor for death or martyrdom (Hebrews 12:4). We have suffered but we have not died.

We have suffered but not in ways that others have suffered. We can’t even begin to compare to Mary’s suffering.

Mary at the Cross is a lesson for us; an example; a paradigm of grace. She suffered the ultimate suffering in silence, committing herself to a faithful creator (1 Peter 4:19).

Sometimes that is all that we can do.

And it is enough.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Is God Unloving or Just Too Weak?

I read an online article this morning as I waited for the bank to open. The title was Where is God for the Suffering, Starving, and Freezing? Besides being a great, attention-getting title, it’s a great question. You can read the article here.

It’s also an age-old question that’s probably been around since the dawn of time. We want to know where God is in the face of evil. The typical question goes something like this: If God is a god of love then why do people suffer? The oft drawn conclusion is that either God is not a god of love or He is not an all-powerful (omnipotent) god. He just can’t do anything about evil.

But are those the only two conclusions?

In fact, are we even looking in the right place?

Certainly, God is a god of love. The sacrifice of His beloved Son is all of the evidence that we need of His love.

Certainly, He is all-powerful. The miracles of Jesus, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead are all evidences of His power.

To ignore the sacrifice or the miracles of Jesus is to rewrite history in our own image.

So where should we look for answers when it comes to people who are suffering, starving and freezing?

We need to begin with sin. It was the voluntary sin of our first parents that introduced evil into the human equation. There are theological explanations as to how that sin got down to us but let’s just say that had any of us been in Eve’s place we would have done exactly as she did. Don’t flatter yourself to think otherwise.

Suffering, starving and freezing are the result of sin, not of God’s lack of love or any perceived weakness on His part.

Let’s not blame God for the ravages of sin.

Sure, God could heal the suffering, feed the starving and provide for the freezing – and He did (see Matthew 8:1-15 for healing the suffering, Matthew 14:13-21 for feeding the starving, and Mark 5:25-34 for providing for someone).

But Jesus didn’t heal every leper or give sight to every blind person or feed every starving child.

Why?

We don’t know why He met some needs and didn’t meet others. And we don’t know why God does what He does today. Some He heals, some He doesn’t. Some He feeds, some He doesn’t. Some He provides for, some He doesn’t. (Maybe He’s waiting for you and me to be the answer that He uses to meet their suffering!).

Just because we don’t understand the reasons for the actions of an omniscient, omnipotent God don’t mean that there aren’t any.

Those answers lay in the infinite wisdom of God.

But to accuse God of being unloving or impotent in the face of evil is to ignore the question of sin and to assign blame where it does not belong.

God is neither unloving nor weak.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

In the House of Suffering

I’m in a series in our church that we’re calling No Life for Sissies. It’s about the Christian life. If you live the Christian life the way the New Testament lays it out for us, you’ll find that it’s not easy – in fact it’s a hard life.

Which brings me to this – if you’re a Christian and you find that the Christian life is easy, you’re probably not doing it right.

Do it right and you’ll find out that it’s hard. No all of the time, but much of the time.

Several weeks ago I spoke on It’s Not Easy to Suffer.

As Christians, God has called us to a life of suffering. Suffering for your faith (1 Peter 3:14), suffering for others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), suffering for the name of Christ (1 Peter 4:12-16).

When you suffer your response is what matters.

So how should we respond to suffering?

Since there are different types of suffering there are also different ways to respond. But there are some general responses that will apply to all types of suffering. Here are three things that you can do to turn your suffering from a negative into a spiritual positive in your life.

Try to understand what God is doing in your suffering.

We believe that nothing happens to us by accident. That God has a plan and a purpose for everything that takes place in our lives. That means that when you go through times of suffering, God is working. He has a purpose for your suffering.

And while you may not be able to definitively determine His purpose, it’s helpful to try and understand to the extent that you can.

Spend time in the Word. Spend time in prayer. Look for answers. Ask God to reveal some spiritual insight to you that will help you understand His divine actions.

Even if you never come to a conclusive answer, the effort will be beneficial.

Let your suffering move you closer to God.

It’s true that everything in life will either move you closer to God or farther from Him. And in the mystery of the Divine/Human cooperative, you get to decide which will be true in your moment of suffering.

Allow your suffering to move you closer to God. Closer in fellowship with Him. Closer in worship. Closer in prayer. Closer in dependence. Closer in trust. Closer in love.

View your time of suffering as a holy place.

We don’t normally think of suffering as a place of holiness – but it can be. It can become that place where you grow in the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, meditation, prayer, silence, solitude, and learning.

Most likely your place of suffering will either become a place of holiness or it will become a place of carnality. It will either be a place that feeds your soul or a place that feeds your flesh.

In our humanness our natural inclination is to allow our sufferings to become times of unholiness. Fight against it – make it a holy place.

Suffering, for whatever reason, is never easy. But it can be beneficial. Don’t waste periods of suffering. Allow them to be times of spiritual growth in your life.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

A Better Day is Coming

One of the New Testament books that people struggle with is the book of Revelation. Not only is it difficult to understand but even scholars disagree on its interpretation. However, there is still a lot of material that we can understand. One of the passages that gives us encouragement and hope is Revelation 21:1-4.

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.

Let me point out the obvious. In eternity we will no longer be separated from God. Three times (I’ve underlined them for you) we are told that God will be with us. The preposition means to be in company with or to accompany. The idea is that we will have a close intimate relationship with God that is different from what we presently experience. That relationship will be possible because we shall be His people and He will be their God. That is, we will be totally His, heart, mind and soul, and He will be totally ours. No sin to tempt us; no temptations to lure us away; no lust to divide our loyalties, we will be His. And He will be ours. Think about it. The Almighty God of the universe will be totally and only for us to enjoy.

The next statement is not only encouraging but it illustrates just how much He will be ours. Tenderly and compassionately He will wipe away every tear from their (our) eyes. As a father I can remember the times when my children were very young and one of them would fall down or hurt themselves. All I wanted to do was to hold them and wipe away their tears until the hurt was gone. Now I feel the same about my grandchildren. I just want to make it all better. That’s what God will do for us. We often think of God as austere and authoritarian. But He is also kind and compassionate and I like to think that someday He is going to take you in His arms, wipe away your tears and hold you until all of the hurts that you have experienced in this life are gone. I don’t know how He will do that with millions of believers, but then He’s God – I’m sure He can figure it out.

And life will be fundamentally different. No death, no sorrow, no crying, no pain. All of the things that bring you pain and suffering in this life will be over, never to be experienced again.

Some of you are going through trials in your life of pain and suffering and it’s easy for the rest of us to say, we’re praying for you. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. Perhaps you are battling cancer or something equally difficult, with endless rounds of hospital visits, doctor’s appointments, chemo therapy and you are facing an unknown future. Your prognosis is not good. You are suffering physically, emotionally and probably spiritually. To you I want to hold out the hope, the assurance, of rest in the arms of God. Of a future that will know no pain or suffering, but only the blessedness of the presence of God.

God Himself will be with [you] and [He will] be [your] God.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

God Cares – But Sometimes It’s Hard to See

I’ve been talking a lot lately to groups in our church about caring. We want to be known as a church that cares for each other (we do a good job here) and for our communities (we need to do better here).

The question that arises is Why? Why should we care, especially for people outside of the walls of our church?

There are several answers to that question. One is that we are taught to care in passages like Galatians 6:10, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men. That’s clear. Not just to other Christians – the passage goes on to talk about that – but to all men. Everyone.

Even if they’re not part of our “group” (IE church). Even if they don’t believe like us. Even if they don’t look like us. Even if they don’t like us! All. Men.

But the primary reasons that we are to care is because God cares.

Passages that actually talk about God caring are limited to just a few.

Psalm 27:10
When my father and my mother forsake me, Then the Lord will take care of me.

1 Peter 5:7
Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

You get a more complete picture of God’s care when you look into the areas of His love and His faithfulness.

Most Christians understand God’s care from an intellectual perspective, but sometimes struggle with it from an experiential perspective.

It’s hard to really believe that God cares when you can’t see His care or feel His care. When His care isn’t evident in ways that you expect you begin to wonder if He really does care about your problems.

When we care for people we show our care in tangible ways; ways that they can relate to. We are conditioned to equate care with verbal and physical gestures. We tell people how much we care for them. We give them hugs. We try to take away the hurt and “fix” whatever is wrong. That’s how we care.

But God’s not always like that. Sometimes He is – but not always. May not even normally.

The statement quoted above (1 Peter 5:7) was said to people who were suffering persecution. God didn’t eliminate their persecution – which is what I would have done so that they knew I cared. In fact they were suffering because it was God’s will for them to suffer (1 Peter 4:19).

The truth that we fail to grasp is that God’s will for them to suffer did not negate God’s care for them.

It is possible for a human parent to inflict or allow suffering in the lives of their children and yet still care for them profoundly.

How much more is it possible for God to bring (allow if you like) suffering into our lives for any number of reasons and yet care for us with a love that comes from the deepest recesses of His heart.

His care is not dependent on our seeing it nor on our feeling it. It is not even dependent on our understanding it.

It is enough that we know His care in the person of Jesus and that we have His impeccable word on the matter.

Never doubt His care, whatever comes into your life.

Your suffering may have a greater purpose than you will ever know.

His Care will never fail you.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle

One of the more difficult assignments that we have as Christians is to offer comfort to people who are going through deep trials. Comfort that is both Biblical and helpful. It’s easy to offer a quick cliché but it’s hard to give genuine comfort that ministers to a hurting soul.

One cliché that we’re all guilty of – even pastors, is to tell someone going through deep trials that God will never give you more than you can handle. That statement has bothered me for a long time. Somehow it never rang true.

Think for a minute – what do we mean by that? Don’t we mean that the person will be healed and not die? Don’t we mean that it will all work out for their good in the end when sometimes it doesn’t?

If that’s NOT what we mean than why don’t we say, God will never give you more than you can handle but you might suffer for the next ten years and then die an agonizing death? Because that’s what happens to some people. Where was God and what happened to His promise?

Too many people go through too deep waters and don’t get through (in a very human sense).

I’m sure that we mean well when we say it. And I’m sure that we believe it to be true. After all Paul says that no temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it (1 Corinthians 10:13). That seems to make the case.

But does it?

Pastor Mitch Chase of Kosmosdale Baptist Church has written a great article with the title God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle (I stole my title from him – I just couldn’t think of anything more original!) in which he points out the problem with our common understanding of this verse.

You can find his article here. I’m not going to rehash everything he said because he said it so much better than I could. I would encourage you to read it.

There’s one line in his article, however, that I love: God will give us more than we can handle – but not more than he can.

That’s the truth that we need to share with people who are hurting. GOD CAN HANDLE THIS!

You might not be able to handle it, but HE can. So we turn to Him in faith in our times of deepest need and trust Him to bring us through the dark times.

We trust Him to do what is right in our lives. To do what we need Him to do to make us more like Christ. To change us by our suffering.

We trust Him not to be capricious but to have a purpose for our suffering. To have a reason for our pain.

The next time you have an opportunity to offer words of comfort to a hurting soul point them to Jesus. Tell them that He knows. That He understands. That He can be their rock. That when they’re weak, He’s strong. That when they can’t take it anymore, He’ll be there for them (working through you and His Word).

Put their focus on Jesus.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What if You Don’t Get Through This?

In our Adult Bible Fellowship classes at our church we’re going through Max Lucado’s DVD series You’ll Get Through This. Using Joseph as his model, Lucado emphasizes that when a Christian goes through hard times You fear you won’t make it through. We all do. We fear that the depression will never lift, the yelling will never stop, the pain will never leave. In the pits, surrounded by steep walls and aching reminders, we wonder: Will this gray sky ever brighten? This load ever lighten?

Lucado’s answer is:

You’ll get through this.
It won’t be painless.
It won’t be quick.
But God will use this mess for good.
Don’t be foolish or naïve.
But don’t despair either.
With God’s help, you’ll get through this.

This is not a new idea. The old hymn most of us sang as children (depending on how old you are!) said:

Be not dismayed what-e’er betide; God will take care of you.
Beneath His wings of love abide; God will take care of you.

God will take care of you, thro’ every day, o’er all the way.
He will take care of you; God will take care of you.

In other words, You’ll get through this.

As much as this appeals to me, I wonder about the person whose depression never does lift. About the family where the yelling never does stop. About the wife whose pain never leaves her.

What happens when the gray sky is never bright again or the load is never lightened?

It happens.

So what do we say? Have we been sold a lie? Is God not who we think He is? Has He failed us in some way?

I think there’s more to this than simply saying You’ll get through this. While I agree with a lot that Max Lucado says – trials won’t be painless, they won’t always be quick; God will use this mess for good, because that’s what God does; you don’t need to despair because you can get through it with God’s help; there’s more that needs to be said.

Here are a few thoughts.

1) It’s possible that Lucado means different things by the words he uses than I understand. When he says You’ll get through this he may include eternity in his statement (although his statement doesn’t make sense in eternity). If he’s including, not just this life but eternity then it’s true You’ll get through this.

2) It may be that we have the wrong idea of what it means to get through this. Did the people mentioned in Hebrew 11 get through this or did God fail them (Hebrews 11:32-38)? Getting through might look more like pain and suffering than healing and resolution.

3) It may not be God’s will/plan to remove all of your pain and suffering. Many Christians (Hebrews 11 again) throughout history have suffered and died without healing, without seeing a resolution, without knowing why God didn’t change things. Certainly we would not want to claim that God’s plan never includes unresolved suffering.

4) What we need to teach people is that the issue is not getting through our problems but how we deal with our problems.

The average person deals with his/her problems on their own, in their own strength, by getting even, by masking their pain, by venting their anger, by throwing their hands up in despair.

The Christian, on the other hand, should deal with their problems with God’s help, in His strength, by forgiving, by having a Biblical perspective on suffering and dealing with their pain accordingly (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Hebrews 12:1-11) , by rejecting anger, by trusting God. And most of all by accepting whatever comes into their life as coming from the hand of a loving God who knows what is best for them – even when none of it makes sense.

So even if you don’t get through this in this life, trust that God has something for you in the pain and the sufferings of life.

Without being presumptuous, I’d like to suggest another perspective for those facing pain and suffering – or as Lucado says, for those down in Egypt (Joseph).

This has a purpose.
It won’t be painless.
It won’t be quick.
But God will use this mess for good.
Don’t be foolish or naïve.
But don’t despair either.
With God’s help, you’ll be better for it.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve