The famous American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, told a story about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of an illness. This woman lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown hotel. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman, a person of great means, who was used to nice things in life.
Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb up to the fifth floor. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place.” Her friend replied, “It’s better, higher up.” When they arrived at the third floor landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better, higher up.”
When they reached the attic level where they found the bedridden saint of God, she had a beautiful smile on her face radiating a joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and there were flowers on the windowsill, the wealthy visitor couldn’t contain herself about the stark surroundings and blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this.” Without a moment’s hesitation, the homebound woman replied, “It will be better, higher up.”
She was in a valley, a tough stage of life, but she was not looking at her circumstances or the temporary things of this world. Her eyes of faith were fixed on the eternal. She had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment. Where did this homebound woman get her strength? It was from Jesus. She knew and believed the Spirit of Jesus was always with her and within her, and she clung to the promises of God’s Word. Therefore, she was filled with hope, with courage, with peace, and with joy!
Have you ever had a time in your life journey where faith and suffering existed side-by-side? You’ve heard the saying, “This world is not our home.” For every believer in God – who has given us Jesus Christ and filled us with the Spirit – this resonates as profoundly true. We are only visiting this planet; this world is not our home. As Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
John Dunn, a well-known poet, once wrote, “No need to send to sea for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” The beloved Psalm 23 says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Yet faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God creates an expectation for God’s blessings to come to us, and when we endure times of suffering, it can create a faith crisis. We might wrongly begin to think about God like a lucky rabbit’s foot or a genie in a bottle. The truth is God can richly bless us. Even though in this broken world, we have suffering. In more than three decades of being a pastor in Christ’s church, I’ve never known a person or a family who hasn’t experienced both euphoric great joy, as well as times of deep sorrow; moments of accomplishment and tremendous victory, and periods of great struggle and disappointment.
Suffering for any of us, as human beings in this imperfect world, can be the result of our own careless choices. The cause-and-effect relationship of what we decide to do – how it determines an income into our future and impacts the people around us – is undeniable.
Sometimes our suffering comes only because life in this world is not always fair. We might suffer though innocent. We might experience natural disaster, be it an accident, or have the sinful deeds of other people affect us adversely. We might experience physical pain, illness, accidents that have a permanent effect. Some of us have lost loved ones and stood by an open grave. Worse yet, some have lost a precious little child when the potential was still so significant.
Others have gone through stormy relationships that never resolved. We lived in the dissonance and the fighting. Emotionally we might experience great depression or loneliness. Pain and suffering manifests itself in all kinds of ways. This is why we do well to understand the promise of Jesus in John 16:33 – “In this world, you will have trouble. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome this world.”
We begin to understand then, Job’s words in the 23rd chapter of his book: God, I don’t see you. I look forward, you’re not there. I turn around behind me, I don’t see you. I look to my left, I look to my right, I don’t see where you’re at work. But God knows the way, my way that I walk, and when God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.
Job’s suffering was not a result of his foolish errors. Rather, Job was so righteous that satan told God Job was so good only because God had blessed him so much. So God gave satan permission to put Job through adversity to test him. First Job loses all his oxen and donkeys. Then he loses all his sheep, and then all his camels. Then Job loses all his children. Yet Job worships God. God says to satan, “See Job’s integrity, see the strength of his faith?”
Satan replies, “Yes, but if you let me touch his flesh, he will no longer praise you” So God gives Satan permission to test Job further. Job loses his health. He has boils all over his body. He itches, has worms, and his skin turns black. He has a constant fever. Job’s wife asks him, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” But Job, in that infamous line, says, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him” (Job 13:15).
How do we respond when our faith is under fire through suffering? Remember the verse from Paul, “We even rejoice in our suffering, for we know that in suffering God produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Do you persevere when the going gets tough? The word perseverance is different from endurance. Endurance is when I hunker down under a winter blizzard and endure it until it blows over, then I come back out of my hovel. Perseverance suggests that I, in faith, keep moving forward with courage, despite the adversity. When we are in the midst of suffering, we need to pray for strength and courage. We need to pray for Jesus’ Spirit to be released into the context of our circumstances, then keep moving forward in faith believing God will help us and deliver us.
In those times of suffering, as we persevere, we can always make it our goal to seek to know God better. Somehow, in the midst of suffering, as we keep moving forward in faith, we begin to understand the privilege of intimacy with God in a profound way, deeper than ever before.
Perseverance eventually shapes our character, bringing us proven character. So, in our suffering, we should ask God to teach us and shape our character into the image of Christ, in the midst of our sin.
Steve Largent, a retired wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks football team, once said, “I’ve learned that God is always more interested in my character than my comfort. Pain can be used by God to transform us. The word origin of proven character refers to soldiers who have been to battle and proven to be champions. May I be, in times of great victory and adversity, God’s champion – proven in my character.”
The suffering and brokenness of this world also convinces me that God alone is my hope. This world truly is not my home, and I am not strong enough to face Him on my own. I am going to put my hope in God, and in the midst of even difficult moments and put it in the context of an eternal perspective. My present suffering will not last forever. In my hope, I remember that Jesus has marked me with the cross of Christ as His very own child. You and I, as baptized believers, bear an invisible tattoo upon our forehead and upon our heart that we belong to God. God said in Isaiah 49, “See, I have engraved you; I’ve inscribed you on the palm of my hand.” So my hope is in the truth that in faith, my life is in God’s hands.
God pours His love into me with the Holy Spirit. Psalm 139 says, “If I make my bed in hell, behold you are there. Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me. For even the darkness is not dark to you, O Lord.”
The cross of Jesus Christ is a wonderful symbol of the love of God, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins for all believers in Jesus’ name. The cross also clearly witnesses to me that no matter how dark the journey of life, God is right there with us, even in the midst of what we cannot understand. Even in the darkness, we can reach up our hand and clasp the hand of God. He holds me fast in my suffering.
James Bjorge, a gifted Lutheran preacher and author, in his book, Living Without Fear, wrote, “A 91-year-old man wrote a letter to my father many years ago with these lines penned with his feeble hand: ‘I realize my days are almost up. I look at the trees standing along the street, almost naked, barely a leaf left. I said to myself, ‘You are like them. There are not many leaves left, and then you’ll be laid away.’ I can’t get around anymore because of fainting spells I had in the past 20 years coming back. This poor, old temple held for a long time, but finally the lack of strength has laid me up. So here I am, set on the shelf, pushed back as far as will go.
“‘But don’t think I am alone. No. My heavenly Father, who was stood by me these 91 years, stands by me now. He is wonderful! Here I am today, rejoicing in the Lord. If I had 1,000 lives yet to live, I should hold onto my Savior’s hand all the more. Nothing is better in this world! So, friend, I will see you in the morning when the sun shall never set, and we shall see Him. And we shall be like Him. So, until then, keep looking up.’”
That 91-year-old Christian believer, in the midst of the realities of the suffering of this world, still held onto Easter hope. Job said, “When God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” But Job also said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and when this life is over and my body is no more, then I shall see God.”
May God fill you with strong faith, and with hope, and with joy in His promises, His love, and His presence. Amen.
Pastor Lee Laaveg