Sunday, February 27, 2011

Suffering: Redemption


Sad, and hurtful things are the bane of our existence. Why do they happen to us? Or to people we love? Sometimes it may be because of punishment (as in Amos 4). It may be to get people’s attention and turn them back to God (Deut. 4:30). Sometimes it may be because God wants to discipline us (Hebrews 12:5b-9). God tests his servants (Gen. 22:1) to see what is in their hearts (Gen. 22:12).

Sometimes, act of God that result in suffering may be for REDEMPTION.

Some think that every act of God is for the redemption of people. Even when it results in suffering and death, God hopes that will turn people back to him (Deut. 4:30). As Amos 4 showed, it doesn’t always work as God hopes! In Amos the people suffered, but they didn’t turn back to him.

But, sometimes suffering does cause the response God wants (Psalm 119:67, 71; 76:10).

There are times, however, when God acts in ways that are especially for redemption. "God’s redemptive acts are those moments when God acts to remove suffering, to overcome evil, and to destroy death. Those are the moments when God rescues, delivers, and restores his people." (J.M. Hicks, Yet Will I Trust Him, p.138-39). We think of the cross, and rightly so, as God’s great redemptive act.

But the OT is also filled with stories of God acting redemptively to save his people: Calling Abraham; Sending Joseph into Egypt; Delivering Israel from Egypt; Raising up judges to conquer enemies of Israel; Sending of prophets; Returning Judah from captivity.

The OT is a history of redemption. But, two redemptive events stick out as particularly significant. Both of these events provide the context in which Israel interprets God’s redemptive work in their lives.

Exodus 3:7-10 says God heard the cries of his people and he redeemed them from bondage. This would fulfill a promise God made earlier, back when the Israelites under slavery were told they had to gather their own straw. At that time the Lord spoke to Moses and reassured him (Exodus 6:6-7). God revealed himself so that his people could know him.

What is the purpose of dating? To have fun? Get to know people? Yes. Ultimately, dating is about getting to know someone you will marry. Dating is about marriage. Dating doesn’t start out with commitment, but it ends with it. How do we know when we find "the right" person that we want to marry and trust that they want to marry us? By what we reveal about ourselves. Our thoughts, values, goals. Ideas about family. Unfortunately, too many young people think dating is about concealing. We want to conceal the parts of ourselves we feel insecure about. We may feel we are unattractive, dumb, clumsy. So we hide those parts of ourselves as best we can. The truth is, dating is an opportunity to reveal who we are with the ultimate view of finding the person who loves us for what we are and wants us in marriage.

The Exodus - God dating Israel
I know this may sound like a stretch, but to God the Exodus was like an opportunity for him to "date" Israel. An opportunity for him to reveal himself in the hopes that Israel would accept him and love him.

What did God reveal about himself? His power over nature. Think of the plagues. His power over people. Think of how Pharaoh finally gave in to God. Why did God do all this? Exodus 10:1,2 - So that he could reveal himself to his children. Why do we take pictures and put them in albums? So years from now our children can show our pictures to our grandchildren and say, "We are going to go see Grandma and Grandpa. Do you remember them? Here, let me show you their picture." God said, "Years from now, show your children the photo album. Tell them of the good things I did for them so that they could be free." God wants his children to know and love him. And the Exodus shows a side of God that his children could love.

God blessed his children with life in the promised land. It was a land flowing with milk and honey. A land free, for the most part, of hostile enemies. Crime was low. Wealth abounded.

But what often happens in times of plenty like that? In times of ease? The people forgot God. And when they forgot God, they sinned. They sinned in abundance. Their punishment was to be conquered by foreign enemies. The northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria and the southern kingdom by Babylon. Also, thousands of Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon to live as slaves (Jer. 30:15.).

And that didn’t make God happy. As much as they deserved their punishment, it grieved God. In Jer. 30:18 God promises to restore their fortunes because he love them with an everlasting love (31:3). Jer. 31:20 says God yearns for them. The idea of ‘yearning’ is God still wants fellowship with these stubborn, rebellious people.
So God enacts a bold plan. He will bring his people home. They are miles away in a foreign land. They are working as slaves. They do not have the freedom to just get up and return home. But, that is not a problem for God. God works in the heart of Cyrus, King of Persia. After Cyrus defeated Babylon, he told the Jewish people, "Ok, you can go home now. Go back to your lands." And they did.

And this is just as God wanted (Jeremiah 33:11b-16). My favorite verse in all this is Jer. 31:5 - they will plant fruit trees that will bear them fruit. Why would God be so kind to such a rebellious people? (Jer. 31:18-20). These were HIS people.

"God punished Israel, but in his compassion he redeemed a remnant. The remnant sought God in their exile, and God responded to their prayer. God will be found by those who seek him (Isaiah 55:6). Redemption flows out of God’s great love whereby he seeks to share his communion with his people. God yearns for a people and he acts in the world to create a people for himself." (Hicks, p.148).

Ultimately, God’s yearning for a people finds fulfillment in the events we read about in the NT. But that story comes later.

For now, remember this about suffering:
Sometimes we suffer because God is punishing us.
Sometimes we suffer because God is disciplining us. Making us stronger.
And sometimes we suffer because God is working redemptively in our lives. Ultimately, God wants all of us back home in fellowship with him.

Years ago, when I was a kid, I heard a preacher tell a story about when he was a teenager. He was rebellious. He yelled at his parents, slipped cigarettes into his room, smoked and in other ways was disruptive in the family. He left home in anger. He took what money he had and went a long way from home. And like the prodigal son of Luke 15, this boy ran out of money and friends. He had no food, no home, and no money. So he called his dad collect. Dad paid for the call and the boy poured our his heart. "I’m sorry Dad. I realize now how wrong I was. I was rude and disrespectful. I broke the rules of the home. And I’m so sorry. Will you and mom forgive me." The Dad cried. The Mom cried. "Of course we forgive you son. You are our boy and we love. And you have a home here waiting for you."

"Oh thanks, Dad. Could you send me the money for a bus ticket Dad?"

"Of course not, son. You got yourself in this mess because of being selfish and undisciplined. Now, learn some discipline. Get a job, save your money, and buy your bus ticket home. And we’ll be here for you."

I know a lot of us might think that Dad was pretty cruel to his own son. Wouldn’t even buy him a ticket home. Let him stay a couple of months far, far from home, all alone and broken-hearted. Did the dad make the right decision? Well, the man I heard tell the story was the son, all grown up, matured and disciplined. And he said he learned more from his time in captivity than he ever would have learned if dad had wired him the money.

Time in captivity may be for punishment. It may be for discipline. But ultimately it is for redemption. God wants you home. He wanted the Israelites home. It took some suffering to get their attention, but they left captivity to be with the Father. And God wants you home. You may be in the captivity of sin, or in the captivity of suffering. But you can come home to the fellowship of a father who is waiting for you to call.

(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

When God Acts #3: Discipline


Why do people suffer? Especially innocent people? Why do children have to die in war? Why do babies get HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome through no fault of their own?

We can never satisfactorily answer all such questions. Even if we accept that WE LIVE IN A FALLEN WORLD, a world that is not as God intended it to be, we still wonder sometimes, "Why?"

As horrible as suffering can be, God has a way of using it for his purposes. Sometimes God uses suffering to punish the wicked, a retributive action. They are getting their "just desserts." God also uses suffering as punishment for the purpose of deterrence - to warn people, to turn them from sin. God has two other purposes for suffering - REDEMPTION, which we will look at in another article, and DISCIPLINE.

Suffering has a way of refining, training and educating a person, especially a believer. Through the process of suffering, especially suffering as discipline, we can learn to love the Lord more and depend upon his grace and his resources. There are basically two forms that suffering for discipline can take.

"God has always tested his people." Abraham is one example. In Gen. 22:1 the Bible says, "God tested Abraham." Some versions read, "God tempted Abraham." The Hebrew word here, ns, means "test, try, prove, tempt, put to the test." It is incorrect to think of it in terms of "entice to do wrong." (TWOT, p.581). The idea of "God tempting would not fit with Matt. 4:3, where the devil is the tempter, and James 1:13-15, where it says God does not tempt people to do wrong. But God can and does test people.

God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his only son (Heb. 11:17-19). Would Abraham love his son more than God? Would Abraham, like Adam and Eve, choose to go his own way and do his own thing? Abraham was put to the test. And I can’t imagine what kind of emotional agony it must have been for a dad to lead his son to the place of sacrifice, knowing it was his own son that was the offering. When my children ask me a question of a spiritual nature I get a funny feeling inside. These are my offspring, my children that I want to see in heaven, and they are asking me a question! I have to answer it right! These are my children at stake!

And Abraham had a lot at stake - his son. And more than that, his direction. Where would Abraham’s heart lead him? In the way of the Father, or self? When Abraham chose God over son and self, here is the commendation the Father gave him: "I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son from me, your only son." Gen. 22:12.

God frequently tested the children of Israel. Exodus 15:25 - God tested them in Marah with bitter water. Exodus 16:4 - God tested them with mana. He would give them plenty, but would they trust God and take only what they needed? Or would they prove to be selfish and lack faith, taking more than necessary?

One reason for God testing people is to learn their hearts. Deuteronomy 8:2 says God led the Israelites in the desert for 40 years to "humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." The reason for this is explained in v.5 - "Know ... that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you."

Wandering in the desert was also punishment. Punitive punishment. People died the in the desert for their sins. The would never see the promised land. But for their children who also wondered in the dry, dusty climate, hoping for rest, it was not punishment. It was a testing.

Is there suffering in your life? What may God be trying to tell you? Is he trying to discipline you? Discipline from a loving Father has the aim of testing our hearts. Do we truly want communion with the Father? Who do we love the most, God, or self? Testing, suffering bears that out.

Sometimes God is trying to teach us something through our suffering. Hebrews 12 is the classic passage about suffering as a means of "learning." Eight times in verses 5-11 some form of the word "discipline" is used.

What is the nature of the suffering or discipline in Hebrews that chapter 12 is referring to? Persecution. In Heb. 10:32-34 the writer calls upon these Christians to remember an earlier persecution they suffered - they were publicly insulted and persecuted. They were thrown in prison and had their possessions stolen by the state. But they didn’t lose their faith! Now, another contest of suffering is upon them (12:4). There is more persecution. Will they stay strong? Faithful? The writer wants them to know that this suffering is not because of punishment! It is for discipline. (12:5b-9).

The word for punish literally means, "to flog." Many of God’s followers have been literally "flogged." Jesus and his disciples were. Some of the witness in chapter 11 had been (see 11:36). Some of the current readers might be! But it is important for them to realize that this "flogging" or suffering is not a retributive punishment. It is a form of discipline to motivate the sufferers to reach higher levels of maturity. (12:10-11).

What good does God intend by this discipline? That we share in his holiness. That the "training" we experience from suffering produces righteous and peace. "God uses suffering and pain to produce a fruit whose purpose is communion with him." (Hicks, Yet, p.137). Suffering teaches us discipline.

But one more thing it teaches us ... Joy and perseverance. (James 1:2-3). And the great reward for persevering under trial (testing, suffering)? James 1:12 says it is the crown of life!

"The crown of life is worth the trials, and God disciplines us with that goal in mind. God acts, sometimes by inflicting pain, even floggings, to train and prepare us to share his holiness. God intends good even when it seems painful and senseless to us." (Hicks, Yet, p.138).

Is there suffering in your life and you wonder why? We all do. Please, when suffering comes into your life, don’t let it break you or discourage you. I know that is easy to say in a time free from suffering. But try to hold on. Remember, one way God uses suffering is to teach us to be stronger and more like him.

If suffering is in your life right now ... suffering of any kind ... take it to the cross. One way we all suffer is from the contamination of sin. And Jesus stands ready to clean that up as soon as we have suffered enough and are ready to come to him for cleansing.

(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)

Warren Baldwin