Monday, December 18, 2006

The Value of Suffering

I value suffering. I grow through suffering. I learn to love Christ in suffering.

Talking about suffering in that way may sound odd, but those are some lessons I learned about myself in a seminar a few weeks ago. It was a time for us to think through what we value and what has shaped us. I found that suffering has brought some of the greatest times of spiritual growth in my life. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul says in Romans 5 that those who suffer in Christ will ultimately end up with strong hope. So, how do we go from suffering to hope?

That is the topic I hope to work through in a set of three articles based on Romans 5:1-11. Lord willing, the first article will deal with preparing to suffer; the second will talk about the process of suffering; and the final article will help us understand hope in Christ.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.(ESV)

If we are going to suffer well, we must have a proper understanding of who Christ is and what He has done for those that follow Him. First, Paul says that we have peace with God when we place our faith in Christ. We trust that God will forgive us of our sins and credit Christ’s righteousness to our account because He has died for our sins and has been raised from the grave offering us peace with God. Jesus has broken the bindings that sin has on us both now and eternally. We can suffer well because we know that the long-term, final consequences of sin (i.e., Hell, separation from God, eternal hopelessness) have been defeated by Christ. We are confident that while suffering may hurt today, it will not last forever.

Second, Paul says that those who suffer in Christ have access to God’s grace. It is important to have peace with God, as noted in verse 1, because this gives us access to God’s grace which allows us: (1) the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to better understand and live out the Word of God, (2) to approach God with confidence through prayer, (3) to be a part of the family of God, the church. Let’s think through these for a moment to understand their significance in suffering. Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “Comforter” in John 14. At times of great pain and suffering the Holy Spirit brings encouragement. (2 Corinthians 6:2-10) We may not be able to explain this strange peace at the most painful time in our life, but we know it is the Spirit of God at work in us. Next, Christians are also called to be people of prayer that pray boldly and cast their anxieties on God. (Hebrews 4:16, 1 Peter 5:7) This does not mean that we do nothing to prevent suffering or to improve conditions when suffering is going on, but it means that we continue on trusting that God works all things for our good to transform us into the likeness of Christ. (Romans 8:28-29) As God’s children, we have also been relieved of the burden of suffering alone. God has given us the church where we can join in the sharing of our burdens and the burdens of others. (Romans 12) The church is one of God’s great gifts to believers that allows us to live every aspect of life together with those that share our hope in Christ.

Paul says that our peace with God and our access to God should cause us to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We rejoice when we are reminded that our hope finds its resting place in the majesty and power of the God that is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Can you really believe that? The God that holds countless planets, solar systems and universes in order joyfully helps with your suffering? Isn’t it encouraging that the God who knows the color of the fish in the darkest part of the ocean knows of your shattered heart and wants to refill it with His joy! Christians rejoice to know that one day God will right all wrongs and that the many pains believers face will be no more.

In the next article, Lord willing, we will talk about what God accomplishes through our suffering. For now, though, does peace with God and access to God bring you hope? If it does, why not praise God for His goodness to us even in times of suffering. If it does not bring you hope, perhaps you need to investigate who holds superiority in your life. Are your problems bigger than God? Rest assured there is nothing that is beyond the authority of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 10:28) He is surely able to work all things for His glory and our good.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Our Weekend in NYC

After an exciting and quick weekend, Monica and I are home from New York City safe and sound. We enjoyed the excitement of the city and the millions of people that shared the sidewalk with us. We made all of the tourist stops that our sore legs would allow us to make and we stopped in most of the major stores that were fully decorated for Christmas. The first night, Wednesday, was overwhelming. The speed of the city, the number of people and the brightness of the lights was a slight contrast to life following a tractor or Amish buggy here in Smiths Grove. However, by Saturday morning Monica had us hopping the subway and moving through crosswalks like true New Yorkers.

The picture above shows most of the artists that were in our concert, An Appalachian Christmas, at Carnegie Hall. It was a great joy to work with Sounds of Victory, Higher Vision, Tammy Norris, Charlene Helen Berry, Two or More, and Dr. Randall Bane and Roy Hayes from Christian Music Presenters in Nashville. There was a good crowd on hand for the concert and most of the attendees were true New Yorkers. It was fun to watch them light up during banjo, mandolin and fiddle solos and tap their feet during some of the faster songs in the program.
My highlight for the concert was the last line of the last full song we sang. It was from the song Christ Was Born in Bethlehem and we made a slight alteration to the lyric. Greg Lynch from Sounds of Victory sang, "Christ was born in Bethlehmen, Christ was born in Bethlehem to burst the bands of death." As he sang those words tears filled my eyes as I thought about how Christmas is about much more than just a baby in a manger. It is about God living up among us so that He could die for us to pay the price for sin that we owe. God sent the Christ child so that we may have life both now and forever. After walking around all of the department stores and seeing all of the beautiful lights at Rockefeller Center, I was leveled in realizing again that it was because of Christmas that I can know peace with God and find hope in Him. It was a powerful moment.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Busy Week...

Monica and I will be traveling to New York City on Wednesday where I will have the opportunity to sing in a program called An Appalachian Christmas on Friday night at Carnegie Hall. The program is a group of Christian artists from all over the country and we will be singing Christmas hymns and songs that were written by Appalachian songwriters. Even more than it being a great production, we're hoping it will be a true worship experience and that people will hear the Gospel through the Christmas songs we sing. Please pray that God would use our efforts for His glory! Hopefully, I'll be able to upload some pictures from NYC later this week. Check back to see what's here.

That means that I don't have much time to publish anything else here this week. However, I am working on a three part series on suffering based on Romans 5. I'm really excited about it and hope to post it over several days next week. So be looking for that and pray for us while we are traveling. Thanks!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Should Christians be Happy?

Christians say they have joy in their lives. Yet, they often differentiate happiness from joy. They define joy as a peaceful resolve that God is in control of all things. So, does this mean that when we become followers of Jesus we should say goodbye to our desire to be happy? Psalm 37 has an answer to this question.

Psalm 37:4 tells us to delight in God and He will give us the desires of our heart. Let’s think through this for a moment. I think delight means delight. It is not happiness-less-joy. Delighting in something is filled with happiness. Now, I know there are times when our joy does not overflow with the emotion of happiness. Yet, I believe that even in the hardest moments of life there will still be something that brings us happiness when the time is right. For example, when I preach a funeral, I always try to stir up the listeners to think of some experience in the life of the person that has died that brings a happy memory. I find people are extremely comforted when they find out they can actually smile at one of the most difficult times in their life.
The psalmist is directing us to realize where our happiness is to find its resting place. It is to rest in God. Where are some other places our happiness might rest? People, places, possessions, prestige, accomplishments (sorry I ran out of “P” words)…get the picture? There are times in all of our lives when we mistake a means for glorifying God as the end that brings us happiness. We must be careful that even things that are “spiritual” do not become idols. Let me give you an example.

When I preach a sermon or go to sing a song, there is real heart work that must be done. I need to clarify my motives as to why I am making this public presentation. If I am doing this with a desire for people to compliment me…and that will be the greatest source of my joy…then I am doing it for the wrong reasons. My ultimate motivation must be that I delight in God and I believe that others will find their greatest happiness in Him so my real desire is to point others to Him through preaching or singing.

Think through some “spiritual” things you do. Are you doing these things with the desire to find your delight in God or are you doing these things so that your delight can come from others taking notice of what you are doing?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Always On Duty

I’ve just finished working on an upcoming sermon from 1 Timothy 3 on the qualifications for serving as a deacon in the church. While I have never been a deacon, there are several overlapping characteristics for deacons and elders/pastors. One of those is being a Godly father. This means that I am to teach, lead and oversee my children. That is a challenge. It reminds of a recent event at the Porter house so I'll share this fun tale with you.

A couple of weeks ago, we were struggling to keep Isaac and Maddox in the bed at night. There were several nights in a row that we would sense a presence moving about the house long after they should have been asleep. For several nights we worked to help them understand that when we put them in the bed it is time for them to go to sleep and not wait up for the third shift to begin so they could clock in and go to work. I will have to admit that after the third night or so they wore me down. It was on a Saturday night that Monica kept saying she thought one of them was up…or at least she thought something was up. I did my best to reassure her that her children respected their parents and would not dare get up after several nights of correction. Keep in mind that the boys are four years old. (I’m sure they will disobey beyond their fifth birthday, but knowing their age will put the crime in perspective.)

Anyway, she was right. Indeed, they were up and very active to say the least. Maddox’s passion the week or so before this night had been creating water fountains in the bath tub. At some point past 11:30 on this Saturday night he decided it was time for a new challenge – building a fountain out of cars in the sink. He loaded as many cars as he could into the sink and turned the water on full force. His greatest mistake was that he didn’t realize fountains must have drains or they will overflow…and dozens of cars in the sink tend to clog the drain.

Somewhere around 5am we were awakened to the sound of running water. Monica, of course, is the first up. She first discovers most of the lights in the house are on then she discovers the Maddox-made lake that is freely flowing. I should add that it is flowing freely throughout their bathroom floor and out to the carpet in their bedroom.

Later on in the morning Maddox admitted that he made the mess and tries to explain by saying that he was “only trying to build a fountain”. The long story short is that he loses his cars until the carpets dry which takes about two days and I end up learning the most from this fountain of knowledge. There are times when leading my children is not convenient. There are times when leading my children hurts. Yes, it is painful to get up at midnight or 2am to go in and lead them to go to sleep and not attempt to build aquatic feats in the middle of the night. That night I dropped the ball. But I learned that I need to go the extra mile even when my desire to lead our children is not free flowing. Thank God for hard lessons and may we learn from them!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Making Preparations

On Thanksgiving Day, my Dad and I went by the cemetery to check on the grave of my son, Benjamin. We spent a few moments walking through the cemetery talking about life and the difficulties of this past year. As we walked, we looked at old tombstones. There were many from the mid to late 1800s and one particular family plot caught our eye. In 1887, this family experienced significant loss. In January they lost an 8 year old son, and in July they buried a still born baby girl. The pain of a still birth is certainly fresh on the heart of our family and we talked about how hard it would be to lose an 8 year old child, needless to say, how hard it would be to lose both children in the same year.

This week, one of our four year olds, Isaac, has been battling an infection and cold. One evening his fever grew to be fairly high. As I held him, his hot little body actually caused me to sweat. While I was holding him I began thinking about our walk through the cemetery and how I would respond if we were to lose him or his brother or sister. The conclusions I drew were that we would only persevere if we were prepared to handle such difficult heartbreak. Now, please know that I am not trying to wish for this to happen, but we would only deal with the situation in a God-honoring way if preparations had been made. The following are two preparations I think are important.

First, I must know and trust that God is sovereign. I must know there is nothing that happens today or tomorrow that will be a surprise to God. (Psalm 139:16) I must know that God never goes off-duty. (Psalm 121:3-4). I must know that because I am a child of God, He is working all things for my good and His glory. (Romans 8:28) I must know that God will protect and keep me through every situation in life. (2 Timothy 1:8-14) I must know that I am loved by a Savior that understands the joys and pains of my heart. (Hebrews 2:17-18) I must meditate on these truths every day of my life. (Psalm 77)

Second, I must work to teach my children about this Savior. As a father, my primary role must be to teach my children about God. (Deuteronomy 6:4-8) I must be intentional in building markers in my children’s lives that will point them to the goodness and faithfulness of God. (Joshua 4:1-7) I must pray that God will help my children see that He is to be their help and strength. (Lamentation 2:19) I must remember that Jesus does care deeply about children having a relationship with Him and so must I. (Matthew 19:14)

As much as I hope a dreadful day such as this does not come, even more, I pray that if it does, by God’s grace, I will be prepared.