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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’


The second neglected aspect of discipleship John Stott addresses in The Radical Disciple is Christlikeness.  This, in my mind, is the very goal of discipleship.  So I guess that if there is actually neglected, we don’t even have discipleship.  That is a radical concept.

Stott lays out 3 texts that are foundational to this concept of Christlikeness.  The first is from Romans 8.

28And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (ESV)

Here the process of becoming conformed to the likeness of Christ (instead of the world) is largely passive on our part.  It is God who is working all things in our lives (including our sin) for this purpose.  His love resulted in election with this purpose of being conformed into the image of Jesus.  God’s goal, as C.S. Lewis put it, is perfection and He will not rest until He is done.  It will often be an arduous process for us.

Paul returns to the process in Romans 12.  Again, we are the objects of transformation.  This time it is not through our circumstances (God’s providential working in our lives), but the renewal of the mind.  This won’t happen unless we actually read the Scriptures, but God is at work when we do to transform us so we are no longer conformed to the likeness of the world.

From Romans we see, in part, that God is ultimately in control of the process not us.  One of the strengths of the Puritan’s theology was providence, and seeing sanctification as taking place (in part) through those providentially arranged circumstances.  Instead of avoiding hardship, they wanted to be shaped by it through the gospel.

Where Stott errs is in limiting this text (Romans 8) to the past.  Our election takes place in the past, but God is working now to conform us to the image of Jesus.  That is a small problem, not a big one.

The second is 2 Corinthians 3:18.

6But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (ESV)

One again we are passive.  At conversion, God removes the veil that covers our faces when we read the Old Covenant.  Interesting, the problem is not the Old Covenant but the veil which is removed.  Now we are being transformed from glory to glory.  When?  When we we behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus (4:6).  Once again Scripture is central to our sanctification, for it is there that we behold Jesus (not in some mystical experience).  After all, Paul was talking about reading the Old Covenant to see the glory of God.  But we do see the present work of God to remake us in the image of Jesus.

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I must confess that I have never read an Alister McGrath book, until now.  Three years ago a friend recommended The Journey: A Pilgrim in the Lands of the Spirit while I was on one of my journeys to the RTS Orlando Bookstore for a sale.  At some point I started to read it, but got stuck along the way.

Fast forward to my trip to PA earlier this month.  Seemed like a good book to bring.  I’m wondering why I put it down in the first place.  It was very appropriate for the place in life where I find myself.

Alister McGrath confesses that it is too easy for him to intellectualize his faith.  Here he is not advocating an anti-intellectualized faith, but internalizing the truth of our faith so it produces hope in the midst of life’s journey.  To do this he spends some time advocating biblical meditation (see my post on this).  This is part of the map he provides for us to persevere on the journey.

He takes Exodus as his template with alternating stages of wilderness and oasis.  To promote trust and hope in the midst of the suffering that will often mark this journey, he talks about remembering what God has done and anticipating what God will do.  These are essentially the past and future aspects of biblical meditation.

“The present was thus sustained by the memory of past events and the hope of future events.”

Along the way the introduces a series of landmarks from a biblical theology (creation, fall, redemption), and some companions for the journey.  He recognizes the need to learn from those who have gone before us.  He chooses men like Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, C.S. Lewis, John Bunyan and more.

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This year FarmFest will be like a mini-retreat.  We’ll have worship & teaching Saturday night and Sunday. We expanded the teaching aspect, just as we expanded the singing aspect.  I hope people find it meaningful and encouraging.

On Saturday I’m going to talk about hardship and God’s plan in the midst of it from Deuteronomy 8.  This has been the theme of the last few years of our lives. In many ways we have been humbled, and also sustained as if by manna from heaven.  We may live in the sweat box that is central Florida, but we have been living in the desert waiting to enter a better land.

This is the situation of every Christian at some point.  The circumstances are often very different, but the purpose is essentially the same.

In looking at my NICOT commentary on Deuteronomy by Peter Craigie I found some very important points to remember.

“… forgetfulness is tantamount to disobedience, for the self and human concerns have pushed into the background of the mind the reality and claims of God.”

“On the one hand, the desolation of the wilderness removed the natural props and supports which man by nature depends on; it cast the people back on God, who alone can provide the strength to survive the wilderness.  On the other hand, the severity of the wilderness period undermined the shallow bases of confidence of those who were not truly rooted and grounded in God.  The wilderness makes or breaks a man; …”

The wilderness can be a horrible place to be- it can destroy many a person.  But there character is forged if we do not forget God.  If there we remember His love, His redeeming love, we will be sustained and purified.  But if we go our own way, it will destroy us.  Rather, the wilderness puts our scheming to an end.  It puts our delusions of self-sufficiency to an end.  In some ways it brings us to an end.  By faith we learn to trust more fully even though our circumstances make no sense.  He humbles us, that He might give us grace.

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All that work to go nowhere!

All that work to go nowhere!

Nothing excites me more than to hear a friend say that they want to be more like Jesus.  Too often they end up frustrated and dismayed.  Unfortunately we think that by following certain steps, rules or principles that we will magically become like Him.  The question nags at us each day as the sweat of our brow profits naught.  Try as I might, I fail.

Paul reminds us that if works cannot save, neither can they change us (Gal. 3:1-5).  This pilgrimage which begins with faith is not maintained by human efforts and schemes.  Rather, the same regenerate heart that produces justifying faith also produces sanctifying faith.  Such a faith believes that obedience prompted by love is more satisfying than the fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11).  This is a faith that relies upon God’s promise to change us through the mundane events of everyday life (Rom. 8:28, 29) instead of spectacular experiences or ceremonies.  The focus is on God’s promises to us, not our promises to God.  It is a faith that expresses itself through love, fulfilling the very law that we are unable to keep by nature (Gal. 5:16).

This is not to say that we are inactive.  We are responsible to make use of the means of grace.  Faith is sustained through reading the Bible, prayer, public worship and evangelism.  Here we learn of God’s promises and His faithfulness.  As we fulfill these duties, trusting that what He says is true, our faith in Him is nurtured.  Performing these duties without faith only hardens our hearts.

The difficult part is how God makes our faith in Him grow.  Adversity and temptation stretch, deepen and purify our faith (1 Pet. 1:6, 7).  we slowly learn to love nothing more than Christ.  What obedience to the moral and ceremonial laws could not do, the Spirit produces through the providential events of life.  God slowly transforms our character in ways we cannot perceive through the blessings and hardships of life.  Our recognized need for Jesus and all that He has done grows.  We are responsible to avail ourselves of the means God has ordained for our growth, but He alone can make us grow.

This path is unique for each of His children.  It is not a novel program, but a call to trust that all that God commands you to do and brings into your life is designed to make you share in His holiness (Heb. 12:1-12).  Through faith we receive sanctifying grace.  He asks you to trust Him to bring you home safely.  The heart that truly believes will also be busy acting upon His sure Word.

(This was originally published in the May 1996 issue of Tabletalk Magazine [p. 43], published by Ligonier Ministries.)

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As a result of Paul’s discussion of his own ministry, we also learn much about his adversaries in Corinth- the “super-apostles.”  This is important because their errors are found in many pulpits today.  Just as the Corinthian Christians were drawn to the “super-apostles,” many contemporary Christians are prone to follow their progeny.

Paul’s ministry, like Peter’s, was characterized by humility, knowing that this too was due to God’s mercy (2 Cor. 4:1; 1 Peter 5:1-4).  This stands in direct opposition to the self exaltation practiced by the “super-apostles.”  They carried letters of commendation and gloried in their abilities.  Brimming with self-confidence, they thought themselves competent for any task.

Paul boasted not about himself but in God Who chose to use this fragile jar of clay (2 Cor. 4:10-11).  He knew success did not depent upon himself, but upon the power of God.  Therefore, Paul felt no need to rely upon himself, but upon the power of God.  Therefore, Paul felt no need to rely upon half-truths or manipulation in order to further the Gospel.  He taught the truth plainly.  This is rooted in Paul’s convictions that God does not lie and His word can be trusted (v. 13).  The “super-apostles” used Scripture to further their own agenda and maintain their power.  They told the people what they wanted to hear, and not what they needed to hear.  This furthered their popularity and power, lining their pockets with money (2 Cor. 2:17).

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The cycle of speeches between Job and his 3 friends has finished with Job’s final speech.  Their rather limited theological views couldn’t answer Job’s questions.  They ended up condemning Job.

There is one telling statement about Job in 32:1- “because he was righteous in his own eyes.”

Job shared their faulty theology.  Since he was certain he had not sinned, he thought he was suffering unjustly.  This book exists, in part, to let us know people suffer for a number of reasons, all under the soveriegnty of God.  It rebukes our presumption- but I get ahead of myself.

Elihu appears out of nowhere.  There is no prior indication that he was there.  And he isn’t mentioned at the end of the book either.  This has led some to speculate that Elihu is a later addition.  But the whole book is mysterious- suffering often doesn’t make sense.  So why should we expect the book to tie up all the loose ends.

Elihu’s contribution seems to be that suffering is a warning from God.  Job is being warned that he is in danger of departing from God.  He spends lots of time saying not much of anything.

Before we get to God’s response and the conclusion, I thought I should summarize the various reasons people suffer.  Some of those are found in this book, and some of them aren’t.  These are helpful to keep in mind when we suffer, and when people we counsel (formally or informally) are suffering.

  1. Our suffering is under the sovereignty of God.  This is the one consistent message of the book, and it is true.  Satan must seek God’s permission, and God held the Chaldeans and Sabeans at bay.
  2. Sometimes we suffer to test us.  This is why God permitted Job to suffer.  He knew Job would pass the test (as a result of sustaining grace), though Job didn’t always suffer well.
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Job shifts to a series of shorter speeches.  Not quite sound bites, but more succinct than the first cycle of speeches.

Eliphaz basically says ‘you’re wrong, and tradition is on our side’.  He continues to say that Job must be suffering because he has a sin issue, so stop blaming God.

Job continues to assert his innocence AND God’s great anger.  His former position of honor has been stripped from him and he is despised by all.  He is weary of his friends.

Bildad is weary of Job’s stubborn claims.  Ho-hum, only the wicked suffer.

“How long will you torment me and crush me with words?  Ten times now you have reproached me; shamelessly you attack me. (19:1-2)”

Job feels surrounded by God, under seige.  He has been abandoned by all his friends- particularly those who now accuse him.  Zophar continues the attack as Job grows weary.  Job adds to his complaint.  He says that the wicked often prosper, which often dismays God’s people.  Like today, many non-Christians live well and enjoy life.  In light of their rebellion against the fabric of the universe, this is disheartening at times for those who love and fear God.  Particularly when things are very difficult for us.

Finally Eliphaz lays out some concrete accusations:

“Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you?  Is not your wickedness great?  Are not your sins endless?  You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.  You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, …. And you send widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless.  That is why snares are all around you …. (22:4-10)”

He accuses Job of being an oppressor.  Job must begin to submit to God to find peace and then prosperity will return.

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I just finished Faithful God: An Exposition of the Book of Ruth by Sinclair Ferguson.  I wish I had had this book when I preached through Ruth in the Spring of 2007 (chap. 1, chap. 2, chap. 3, chap. 4).  Originally given as a series of addresses presented to the English Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales back in 1996, he was asked to adapt them into written form.  It took some time, but he ‘just happened’ to come across his disk of the material and finished the project.

This exposition is neither overwhelming to the lay person or too simplistic for the pastor looking for substance.  As usual, Dr. Ferguson is like a mother bird, digesting difficult material and regurgitating it for the benefit of the average person.  He does not avoid, nor get mired in, Hebrew and the historical background.  There is enough to make his points clear, and not so much you lose that point.

Ruth is a story of grace and providence; or put another way how God graciously acts for His glory and our good in providence.  Ruth, Naomi and Boaz aren’t sure what God is doing until after the fact.  The same is true for us as well.  We are often prideful and presumptuous, thinking we know what God is doing.  But His purposes are not crystal clear until after the fact- sometimes LONG after the fact.  In this case, the little romance is cute but meaningless until we see that first David and then many generations later Jesus himself are the purposes God has in view as He works to bring Ruth to Himself by faith, into Israel and eventually into the home of Boaz.

There is much to chew on here if you are in the midst of a difficult providence.  But I get ahead of myself.  He begins with an introduction that points us to 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  On the basis of this passage, and its context, he says we should always ask ourselves 4 questions:

  1. What does it teach us?
  2. In what areas of our lives does it rebuke us?
  3. What healing, restoring, transforming effect does this teaching have?
  4. How does this section of Scripture equip me to serve Christ better?

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Job responds to Eliphaz’ claim that he is obviously guilty of some great sin, bringing this disaster upon himself.  Yes, Job admits that God has striken him.  In fact, he wants God to go all the way and put him out of his misery.  Job is losing perspective, but he sees he is in great danger of denying “the words of the Holy One.”

Job feels quite let down by his friends- they are like intermittent streams (wadis).  He asks them to show him where he has gone wrong.  They accuse him of sin generically, not a specific sin.  Their faulty theological formula means they must accuse him- but they know of no particular sin of which he is guilty.  As a result, Job continues to “speak out in the anguish of (his) soul.”  And it is in this anquish that he speaks the antithesis of Psalms 8 & 139.

“What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?  Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?  If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men?  Why have I become your target?  Have I become a burden to you?  Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?  For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”  (7:17-21 NIV)

He’s not sure why God values humans so highly that he watches them and examines their actions and attitudes.  In his grief he does not reckon with our being made in God’s image.  We are meant to be like him- good and righteous.  In our fallen condition, God examines us and tests us.  And he finds us wanting.

Job somehow understands this, but still isn’t sure of what he’s done to offend.  He’s not sure why God, his God, has not forgiven him.  Just as he has sacrificed for his children’s sin, he most likely sacrificed for his own sin- by faith.  “Where, O God, is your mercy?” he asks.  Since there seems to be no mercy, he wants God to turn his gaze away.  Apart from mercy, the gaze of God is disturbing, discomforting and oppressive.

Enter Bildad the Shuhite.  His messages seems conflicting.  God is just so you wouldn’t suffer without just cause.  But he then says the unthinkable:

“When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.” (8:4 NIV)

He tells Job his children died because they sinned.  God, he says, brought them to justice.  If they were in some obvious, grievous sin this might make sense.  But, like with Eliphaz, no specific sin is mentioned- just a vague condemnation.

He seems to offer some hope for Job personally.

“But if you look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place.  Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be.  … Surely God does not reject a blameless man or strengthen the hands of evildoers.  He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.  Your enemies will be clothed in shame, and the tents of the wicked will be no more.” (Job 8:5-7, 20-22 NIV)

He is right … Job will be more prosperous in the future than he was in the past.  Job is blameless before God, despite his friends suspicions.  But this sliver of truth does not outweigh the pointed lies he speaks to his friend.  Not only are Satan, the Sabeans, Chaldeans, and seemingly God himself, against Job but his wife and friends have turned against him.

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A friend asked me today about Crabb’s book Connections.  I referred him to David Powlison’s book Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community.  They have a similar vision, but somewhat different approaches to that vision.  I’ll focus on Powlison, since I just finished reading this book.

David Powlison does not see counseling as the guarded territory of “professionals”.  He has a vison, from Ephesians 4, of counseling taking place in “mutually constructive” relationships.  What this does is place counseling back into the relationships you already have, or should have, so it is more natural and a function of mutual discipleship. 

This may sound strange to many people, but we are to have relationships in which we lovingly speak the truth into one another’s lives.  The problem really is that we have bought into a false vision of the church.  It is the place, not so much the counselor’s office, where we are to be made increasingly whole and loving as Jesus transforms us, in part, through our ministry to one another.

In his chapter on Psalm 119, he sets the context of sin and suffering that counseling must inevitably address.  The Psalm is sort of a dialogue between the Psalmist and God.  The Psalmist hears God in His Word, decrees, precepts etc.  He is bringing his sin, and suffering at the hands of others into the presence of God.  This is the purpose and method of biblical counseling.

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Ryle’s next chapter in Holiness is on Growth in Grace. He addressed 3 topics in this chapter: the reality, marks and means of spiritual growth.  His text is 2 Peter 3:18 (Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.).  This should basically show the reality of spiritual growth (which is concurrent with our growth in our knowledge- both objective and subjective- of Jesus).

The marks of spiritual growth include increased humility, increased faith and love toward Jesus, increased holiness of life, increased spirituality of taste and mind.  The first ones should make sense, and be obvious to any converted person.  The last I mentioned may not be instantly clear. 

“The ways, and fashions, and amusements, and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart.  He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell.  He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections, and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes.”

He does not really specify what he means.  Our hobbies should become less important to us, and we should spend more time cultivating a heart toward him, toward others etc.  One does not want to say that anyone must abstain from indifferent matters (1 Tim. 4).  However, I fear we (me included) have been captivated and be-dazzled by indifferent matters.  We are more concerned with missing our favorite show or game than not having/finding time to be with God.  We can be more focused on a new CD than a new book by someone who will spur us on to holiness and love.

Two other marks are growth in charity (love) and increased zeal and diligence in trying to do good to others.  These are connected.  The grace of God teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and live proper, godly lives in this present age (Titus).  “One of the surest marks of spiritual decline is a decreased interest about the souls of others and the growth of Christ’s kingdom.”

I want to focus on the means of grace.  We can often think that these things earn God’s grace.  Modern Pharisees think this way.  Antinomians avoid these means out of fear of legalism, forgetting that God uses means to give us grace.  “They seem to suppose that those who grow are what they are by some special gift or grant from God. … Cast away for ever the vain thought that if a believer does not grow in grace it is not his fault.”  God has appointed those means.  Those means do not benefit us unless we participate in them believing God has ordained them, and that God will provide the grace He promised.  We do not think the act itself provides grace, but that God does it as He sees fit.  However, if we don’t utilize those means… no grace.  So, what are these means?

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“Persecution and difficulty will inevitably tell the truth about our motivations. … As long as we can have both God and the world, it is going to be hard to tell for sure.  But when we have to choose between God and the world, between serving God and progressing in our careers, between following God and getting married, between being rich to God and laying up large amounts of money, between obedience to God and life itself, then we find out in a hurry the true nature of our commitment.”  Iain Duguid in Hero of Heroes: Seeing Christ in the Beatitudes

btw: This is yet another great book in a great series.  Well, technically this does not fall into the same series as The Gospel in the Old Testament, but it does follow the same pattern, including questions for discussion after each chapter.

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