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Friday, April 8, 2011

A sermon on suffering

Searching for God When We Suffer
How many of us have suffered at some point in time or another?  It could have been because of a loss - job, a dog, a loved one.  Maybe there was sickness or lack of finances.  Maybe you went through a season of uncertainty and didn't know what to do or how to do it.  [Pause] You can see that none of us are alone in this category.
Suffering happens in life when we can't take it!  That is part of what makes up suffering.  Again, we can look all through the Bible and see where God's people were afflicted with pain and suffering.  Job is probably the most common and popular book to turn to when the topic is suffering.  I am sorry to disappoint, but we won't spend any time in the book of Job today!
One cause for suffering that I didn't mention is sin.  When we are lost in our own selfish desires we often find ourselves struggling and hurting on the outside.  I mentioned earlier that sometimes we are blind to the sin that is in our life, but that doesn't mean we don't feel the pain.  How do we find God when we suffer?  Does anyone have any suggestions?...
Let's look at what David did when he was suffering because of sin.  Open your Bibles to Psalm 32.
     1 Blessed is the one
   whose transgressions are forgiven,
   whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
   whose sin the LORD does not count against them
   and in whose spirit is no deceit.
 3 When I kept silent,
   my bones wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
   your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
   as in the heat of summer.
 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
   and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, "I will confess
   my transgressions to the LORD."
And you forgave
   the guilt of my sin.
 6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
   while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
   will not reach them.
7 You are my hiding place;
   you will protect me from trouble
   and surround me with songs of deliverance.
 8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
   I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
9 Do not be like the horse or the mule,
   which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
   or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
   but the LORD's unfailing love
   surrounds the one who trusts in him.
 11 Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous;
   sing, all you who are upright in heart!
Verses 3 and 4 of this Psalm really nail down what the problem was for David in his suffering.  He "kept silent".  He refused to go to the Lord.  He refused to confess.  Can you see that shift in attitude again when he talks about his confession in verse 5?  This Psalm starts off being a "Prayer During Distress" but after he opens his heart to the Lord it becomes a Psalm of Praise!  I love how it ends in verse 11 with "Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!"  That is a powerful statement that is reminding us of the attitude we should have because we have been liberated from sin and suffering!
How do we find God in times when we suffer because someone has sinned against us?  That is such a difficult question.  I have been through that and am grateful to say with confidence that we serve a God who has the power to heal and bless in difficult times like those. 
In my particular situation I was made aware of some horrible wrongs that a family member had committed.  Shock, anger, hurt, disappointment and loss are all words I would use to describe how I felt for a long time.  I felt like I had lost this person; like they had died.  My suffering was deep and my heart was broken.  I knew that I needed to forgive the offenses of this person, but it was incredibly difficult to grasp.  I prayed and prayed that the Lord would lift the burden of suffering from me.  One night I was studying the Bible with a young man.  We were working through some family troubles he was in the middle of.  I remember that he was very upset with someone in the church family because they had hurt his family deeply.  He wanted to forgive, but was too angry to let go.  I turned to Colossians and immediately read 3:13 in the NLT, "Make allowance for each other's faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others."  I don't take it lightly when someone says I MUST do something.  There is no suggestion that maybe you should consider forgiving!  We MUST forgive others because the Lord forgave us!  That verse so deeply convicted me that I cleared the matter up with the one who hurt me.  I was very open and clear about the hurt that had been caused and that I had been working toward forgiveness but that it had been a struggle.  I shared that the Lord had deeply convicted me to let it go and to reconcile.  When I said these words there was a huge burden that was lifted and the relationship was restored. 
There is another Psalm where David cries out to the Lord because of his suffering.  It is actually a time when he finds himself under the thumb of the Philistines in Gath.  In Psalm 56 David expresses his suffering and his faithfulness to the Lord.
  1 Be merciful to me, my God,
   for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
   all day long they press their attack.
2 My adversaries pursue me all day long;
   in their pride many are attacking me.
 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
 4 In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
   What can mere mortals do to me?
 5 All day long they twist my words;
   all their schemes are for my ruin.
6 They conspire, they lurk,
   they watch my steps,
   hoping to take my life.
7 Because of their wickedness do not let them escape;
   in your anger, God, bring the nations down.
 8 Record my misery;
   list my tears on your scroll—
   are they not in your record?
9 Then my enemies will turn back
   when I call for help.
   By this I will know that God is for me.
 10 In God, whose word I praise,
   in the LORD, whose word I praise—
11 in God I trust and am not afraid.
   What can man do to me?
 12 I am under vows to you, my God;
   I will present my thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered me from death
   and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
   in the light of life.
Did you notice that in verses 8 and 9 that shift starts to happen again?  David goes from lamenting and crying out to praising God and getting fired up!  He really hammers home the message in verses 10-13:
 10 In God, whose word I praise,
   in the LORD, whose word I praise—
11 in God I trust and am not afraid.
   What can man do to me?
 12 I am under vows to you, my God;
   I will present my thank offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered me from death
   and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God
   in the light of life.
This Psalm has been called "A Song for the Distressed", but the true message at the end is what we need to hold on to!  This is "A Song of Liberation from Suffering"!  How do we get there though?  How are we liberated?  How do we find that freedom?  Sometimes it is in confession and sometimes it is in forgiveness.  What if we are suffering physically?  Most of what we have talked about is of the spiritual realm, and that is good.  But in life we are often tested spiritually by how we react when we are afflicted physically.  Again, Job is a good example.  We still aren't going there today though! 
I love the Apostle Paul!  I love that so often he speaks of rejoicing in his sufferings.  That concept is so far out there for us sometimes I wonder what we would do with ourselves if we actually grasped it!  Paul was a man who suffered much – physically and spiritually.  Paul learned how to suffer with joy and allow his afflictions be an offering to the Lord.  Think about what so many of the early Christians went through and they did it with joy!  They knew that even in the toughest times, "when things weren't going their way" there was something to celebrate! 
James 1:2-3 says, "2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance."  Isn't that so true?  I know that in the hard times when I wasn't as faithful and strong as I should have and could have been I have learned some things and grown.  How much more could I, could we, have grown if we would have held on to our faith and rejoiced in the opportunity to suffer for His name!?  If we go through trials that are unbearable and are able to do so with a smile and a song in our heart don't you think that will have a profound effect on those around us? 
I love the story about the pastor in China that was imprisoned for his faith in Christ.  This man's captors wanted to humiliate him as much as they could so they made him work in this cistern where his job was to wade into human waste and separate the solid matter from the liquid.  That's nasty!  My daughter's diaper pail has a stench that could kill a roach and I'm sure it is nothing compared to what this was!  So, later on after this man had been liberated he is telling his story and he gives the details of this horrific job.  Then he said, "Those were the best days of my life!"  Because the stench was so bad the guards would leave him unattended to do his work.  He would take that opportunity to worship openly – singing and praying to the Lord!  He would start off singing in that cistern of human fecal matter "I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…". What a visual!  What an attitude!  Doesn't that encourage you?  Man, it encourages me. 
I want to share another encouraging story of finding God in the midst of suffering.  This is another story about the right kind of attitude. 
When I was in college I would often go to a mid-week worship service that was put on by the students at Hardin-Simmons University.  The speaker each week was a dynamic, energetic and passionate young man who was only a year or two older than me.  He spoke in such a way that touched lives and souls.  My understanding is that after college he was hired by two different churches to preach: one in Dallas and one in Houston.  He would commute to and from and bring the Word in both places.  He was very successful in reaching out to the lost and increasing the number in God's Kingdom.  In fact, I heard that the church in Dallas only had a few hundred members when he started around 8 years ago.  Today, there are a few thousand (give or take).  He has done some very good things!
About a year and a half ago, in November of 2009, he collapsed while at home and had a seizure.  He had never had an episode like this and it brought about a lot of concern.  After a lot of testing it was discovered that this young preacher had a large brain tumor.  I remember watching a video interview that was posted not that long after his diagnoses.  He talked about how he had preached many times on rejoicing in your sufferings, but never felt like he had done that.  Everything always went pretty easy with him and he never had any major problems or sufferings.  After he and his wife had learned of his brain tumor there were times of uncertainty and times of emotion.  How could there not have been?  But, one thing really resonated with me.  He talked about how now he understands what it is to embrace and find joy in one's sufferings.  He has decided to take on this suffering with the right attitude and allow the Lord to use him in spite of it and because of it.  He has picked up his cross!  I recently heard that he made a trip to Africa with other ministers and his doctor so that he could encourage young men who are training at a preaching school!
What a great attitude!  I pray that if my sufferings ever include tremendous loss and illness that I would have an attitude that would glorify the Father!
Again, I defer to Fenelon's "The Seeking Heart".  This is entitled "The Cross – A Bond of Love".
 "The Cross – A Bond of Love"
I am sorry to hear of your troubles, but I am sure you realize that you must carry the cross with Christ in this life.  Soon enough there will come a time when you will no longer suffer.  You will reign with God and He will wipe away your tears with His own hand.  In His presence, pain and sighing will forever flee away.
So while you have the opportunity to experience difficult trials, do not lose the slightest opportunity to embrace the cross.  Learn to suffer in humility and peace.  Your deep self-love makes the cross too heavy to bear.  Learn to suffer with simplicity and a heart full of love.  If you do you will not only be happy in spite of the cross, but because of it.  Love is pleaded to suffer for the Well-Beloved.  The cross which conforms you into His image is a consoling bond of love between you and Him.
Let's close with an encouraging word from the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:8-11):
8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
-Sascha Terry
Saturn Road Church of Christ
Garland, Texas

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