Last in series: Things that have changed my life
BEING SHAPED BY HARDSHIP
Today I am continuing the series that Kyle and Vince started about what has helped to shape our spirituality. In my own mind this is still very fresh because it was the topic of much of my writing in seminary. I have experienced God shaping me in small groups and in one on one relationships. I know he has shaped me through reading of the Bible and other Christian books. I know he has shaped me a great deal through time I’ve spent in prayer. But if I am honest with myself, there is one thing that God has used to shape me more than anything else, and that is my experiences of hardship. I am not a fan of hardship. I don’t like difficult times. I find myself often getting angry at God and letting him know that he is not making my life as easy and as fun as I’d like it to be. This is not new for me, it goes back to when I first started following Jesus during my college years, my first instinct was to ask Jesus to fix all the difficult things in my life. I thought the purpose of my prayer life was to be a vehicle where I could ask God to take away all the suffering in my life. I remember early on I heard this sermon about how most of the suffering in our lives was from Satan, and we should never think that it’s at all from God. This shaped my view of suffering as something that God absolutely did not want in my life, and all I had to do was toe the line, do all the right things, pray hard that bad things would not happen, and then everything would be OK. At the time, I also heard a lot of sermons about the power of prayer, and especially about the power of persevering in prayer. When I put those two things together, the belief that God does not want to allow any suffering in my life, and that God answers perseverance in prayer, I ended up on very thin ice theologically, because I sort of started to believe at a heart level that if bad things happen, it’s only because I didn’t pray enough or because I screwed up something. I knew in my head that this was not true, but in my heart this unhelpful belief had taken root. It is of course true that God does not like to see his children suffer. It is also of course true that evil exists. And that God does encourage us to persevere in prayer. Those are all things that are clearly expressed in the Bible. They are only part of the equation however. You see there is a another truth, and that is that we must learn to incorporate the suffering and hardship we experience as part of the equation of our spiritual life, not exclude them or run from them. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he tells us that we will have an abundant life, but he also says that things will be hard. Jesus doesn’t give cheap words about life; he speaks about actual life, which we all know is not always easy. In fact following Jesus is harder at times, because Jesus encourages us to face hard truth and not run from it, to embrace it and let it shape us into someone better. He says that the father actually trains us because he loves us, just like I trained my kids because I love them, but it is training for an abundant life that is fully loving. Jesus says in Mark 8:34, that following him involves us carrying a cross. Mark 8:34 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. In another passage Jesus pretty much guarantees us difficulty when he says in John 16:33 that in this world we WILL have trouble. John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So today I want to talk a bit more about suffering and how God has used it in my life to shape me. One obstacle that many folks have to this idea of being shaped by suffering, myself included at one point, is believing in a God who is good when there is so much suffering in the world. For me it was not a show stopper, but for others I have known it to be a very difficult question. Of course I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know this. It seems very often the reason that some of us get stuck in this question and others don’t is the loneliness of the question. It seems to me that for those who are alone in their suffering, the question is very difficult to overcome. Whereas for those who experience the love and support of others, whether it be family, friends, or some other emotional support, it is a good deal easier. Something seems to happen in my practice as a counselor, and I think any other therapist would tell you the same thing, that when people unburden their hurtful memories in the presence of someone who is caring and accepting, it changes things. It becomes more bearable. It does not negatively affect the person’s outlook on life as much. There is an increase in peace and hope and grace for themselves. For those who have faith, there is less anger towards God and more belief in his goodness. Another obstacle I know from my own life... One of the things I had to face is that there was some suffering involved when I first began to follow Jesus because it was not easy to change from living my life in a self-centered way. Jesus had a bigger, more mature dream for my life than I did. I remember specifically that it was painful and lonely to stop dating recreationally to meet my own needs for fun and companionship without any regard to whether I would consider marrying this person or not. For other people when they make that decision to follow it’s hard because Jesus’ encouragements toward growth and health and maturity means leaving behind things like excessive drinking or drugs or pornography or what have you. I have a friend who used to own three stores that sold pornography, and when he decided to follow Jesus, he knew he had to change careers but he didn’t have much to fall back on, and ended up living on a lot less money and starting over as a carpenter’s apprentice. You can see that that’s not easy for someone in mid life to have built a career and to walk away from it. Dealing with our natural self-centeredness is a lifelong process that God works with us on. And for many of us, at the beginning of that process with Jesus, there is a bit more to clean up earlier than later. Speaking of later, what happens later? The unpopular truth is that just like Jesus said, hardship and suffering are part of the deal. And, again, thank God he says that! None of us need some pseudo-religious authority-figure claiming that we can find perfect pleasure and wealth and be forever free of suffering if we just do x, y, or z. What we need is to know the real truth of life, especially the hard things, and we need to be prepared in how to face them. When we go through hard times, I find that it is helpful to try to take God’s perspective on it. Is this suffering that I am going through part of God’s sovereign plan for me? Or is this something God might want me to pray to change? There is a big difference between the two. You see if God wants me to be going through something, it would not be a good idea to ask him to take it away. Because God loves me and I can trust that if he wants me to go through a difficult time, then he plans to use it for some good things in my life, and I would be a fool to settle for less than the good things that God has for me. On the other hand, if something is happening in my life because I did something stupid or unloving, or someone else did something stupid or cruel, or because of some societal injustice that is totally outside of my control, or because of some force of nature or some unexplainable illness, maybe God can help me fix it if I ask him to. Or maybe God wants me to grow in my faith by seeing how he will deal with it? Many times when we see God answer our prayers in powerful ways it builds our faith. But we don’t really know all the possibilities, and we can drive ourselves crazy trying to second guess God to figure out what he is up to in the middle of our suffering. Fortunately we don’t have to. There are two examples in the Bible that I want to go through today about dealing with suffering. The first is from Jesus, the second is from the Apostle Paul. On the night before Jesus was crucified, he had a pretty good idea what was coming. He knew that he was about to be tortured and killed, and he was in deep agony over it. Matthew 26 36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” 39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” 43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” So here we see Jesus asking three times that his suffering be taken from him, but leaving it up to God whether he does take away his suffering or not. This is very characteristic of Jesus. We know that God led him into the desert after his baptism three years before. During that time in the desert, Satan tried to get him to end the desert experience by turning stones into bread and Jesus refused. There were other times when he did miracles of multiplying bread, but Jesus was looking to God for direction, not to his own desires. We see the same thing here. Jesus is asking for relief yes, but he is also leaving it up to God and accepting what God decides. There is a very similar dynamic with the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. We see the same thing here, where Paul is suffering from a thorn in the flesh, which historians of the Bible still find mysterious -- nobody knows what Paul actually suffered from, and he asks God to take it away from him, and when God says no, he accepts that. You see in both cases the pattern is the same. We can feel free to ask God to take away suffering, and at the same time we have to be prepared to accept that God may instead be trying to use that suffering to accomplish something in us, rather than take it away. I can tell you that there is a lot in the Bible about God using suffering. The Apostle Paul, who we just read, and others in the Bible, wrote that suffering produces a lot of growth in us. It produces humility, obedience, righteousness, peace, perseverance, maturity, character, gratitude, hope, faith, and most importantly it helps to make us more like Jesus. I have found that in my own life, it has had at least a three-fold effect. First it has been a purifier, making me just a bit more like Jesus. Second it has increased my capacity to love others and made my heart softer. Third it has increased my faith in God’s ability to work his will for good in difficult things in spite of how bad they look. Early on in my career I went through two years that were very very difficult. I was in a role that was supposed to prepare me for greater things, but I hated everything about it. It seemed that I was in conflict situations all the time. Every day at least one meeting seemed to have some confrontation or unpleasantness, and there were a lot of meetings. Sometimes the meetings would start at 7:30 in the morning and not end till 5:30, and many would be unpleasant. By the time Friday came, I would pray that Friday at least would be conflict free so I would not not have it hang over me through the weekend, because I needed the weekend to recover and start the whole thing over on Monday morning. I felt very very stuck. At the time I could not tell you I was changing in any way, but those two very difficult years began a process of change I am still benefiting from today, and others are benefiting from them also. It was in those two years that I began to ask the hard questions about what I was called to in my life over the long run. It was thanks to those two years that I eventually decided to become a counselor. It was thanks to what I learned about myself in that time that I decided to go to seminary and study Spiritual Direction. The changes from that time ended up helping me become much clearer about who I was and what I was about. It meant re-evaluating what was and was not important to me, what was life-giving and not life-giving, what was for show and what was for real. It was a period where I sought much feedback from people who were close to me in my men’s group, other life-time friends, and trusted mentors. It was also a time of much prayer and drawing near to God with those questions. Ultimately it meant making a very tough decision to take a lateral career move. That move opened up the doors however for me to have some extra time to begin seminary, to study counseling, and now to finish seminary with a Doctorate in Spiritual Formation, which I’ve always known I am most passionate about. At the time I could not have told you that any of this was possible or feasible. I just felt stuck, stuck, stuck. I was just miserable. But God knew what he was doing. It’s interesting that before that time I had a dream that I was taking the SAT, and it was in two parts. I believe God was showing me that this would be a period of testing for me, and it would come in two parts. That’s exactly what happened. This job had two parts of roughly equal length, one year each, but very different in content. In retrospect, as much as I would never want to live through that again, I am very grateful for all the good that came from it. Now as we wrap up, I want to invite you to get prayer in the ministry time. If you are feeling the loneliness of your struggle, I can tell you that’s likely not what God wants for you. God prefers that we live out our struggles in community, so we can receive his comfort through each other, so I encourage you to get some prayer.
And now what I’d like to do is pray for us, so if we could all please stand…
Let us pray….