From Suffering to Grace

From Suffering to Grace

How many people here have never suffered? How many of you have never gone through any kind of trial? If you can honestly answer, “Yes” to either of those questions, then you either have an extremely optimistic and innocent outlook on life, or God has blessed you more than any other person in the history of the world, his own son included.

Each of us has had our troubles; each of us has had to deal with trials in our lives that we have perhaps felt were unfair, or at least we wondered why God allowed those things to happen to us. When I first came to Fujairah three years ago, I was coming from a series of quite unpleasant experiences in Canada, some of which had occurred when I thought I was doing exactly what God had wanted me to do. I remember arriving here, away from my family that I love more than life itself, and sitting in my hotel room crying and wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. Why was I sitting in this strange place, in a strange culture, with strange people, away from everything I found familiar, when what I really needed was comfort from God. It was ten weeks before I was even able to get in contact with other Christians. Certainly, God gave me one or two friends to spend time with, but I can still remember very clearly asking God over and over again what was going on. I didn’t accuse God of harming me, and I didn’t accuse him of making a mistake, but I certainly let him know that this was not my idea of a good time. Even today, I cannot say that I know why God has sent me to Fujairah. Perhaps that is none of my business.

I’m sure that each of you has a story to tell similar, and sometimes more painful, than mine. Sometimes it is difficult to deal with reality.

Psalm 66:1 – 12 (NIV)
1 Shout with joy to God, all the earth!
2 Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious!
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power
that your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you,
they sing praise to your name.”
5 Come and see what God has done,
how awesome his works in man’s behalf!
6 He turned the sea into dry land,
they passed through the waters on foot—
come, let us rejoice in him.
7 He rules forever by his power,
his eyes watch the nations—
let not the rebellious rise up against him.
8 Praise our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
9 he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
10 For you, O God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
11 You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
12 You let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance.

Do we suffer?
Sure we suffer. We all suffer at some time or other. To suffer means to experience or be subjected to something unpleasant. There are, of course, different degrees of suffering. According to the dictionary definition, eating bad food at a restaurant or sitting through a long staff meeting are both suffering (unless you like bad food or meetings). I hardly think that either of those qualifies as anything serious. The nervous wreck one can become after spending a period of time being pursued down the highway by some of the ultra-aggressive drivers in this country qualifies as suffering to a greater degree, I think. However, when we speak of suffering as a condition in our lives, we usually think of circumstances far more serious than any of these. Being stranded in the UAE with no job, unable to get your passport back, and unable to support or return to your family living several thousand kilometres away, I think, qualifies as suffering on a much greater scale – a situation that is worthy of the word. Developing cancer yourself, or I think perhaps worse, having one of your loved ones developing cancer, certainly qualifies. Having your business destroyed and watching someone else walk away with all that you have worked for qualifies as suffering. Suffering is nothing new to the human race; it has been around for almost as long as people have existed; ever since Adam and Eve had that fiasco in the Garden of Eden, as a matter of fact.

Everyone suffers at sometime. No one is exempt from it. Even Jesus suffered. He suffered far more than any of us is ever likely to. People everywhere he went rejected him. He was sentenced to death for doing nothing wrong. He was tortured, then executed in the most awful way man had devised to that point. One might say that there have been lots of people since that time who have died for their Christian faith, some of them in very awful ways, and you would be right. However, there is one very large difference between Jesus and those martyrs. Jesus is God. He didn’t have to allow himself to be subjected to that humiliation and pain – but he did. He suffered here on earth so that you and I would not have to suffer for eternity.

When speaking of people, and not God, as Christians we often think of Job as an example of suffering. Job was a very righteous man; the Bible says he was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil; he did nothing wrong and kept all of God’s ways completely. He was a family man, loving his children; praying and sacrificing for them regularly. He was also very wealthy, having thousands of animals and large numbers of servants to take care of him. God even used him as an example to Satan and the other angels of how a righteous man should live. Yet Job lost everything and became sick as well. Why did it happen? It certainly didn’t happen because he was bad.

Why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer? That is often a question we ask ourselves, and a question we may also often ask God. Why can I not have just a bit more money so I don’t have to worry about making it to the end of the month? Why is my child sick? Why are people so poor and unable to keep from starving?

Psalm 22:1 – 11 (NIV)
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.£

4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

8 “He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

These were the words of David, crying out to God, as he was known to do frequently. However, do you recognise the words of Jesus in this passage? A great king and the Son of God both crying out to the great and mighty Master of the Universe, asking why he had left them alone probably doesn’t make us feel much better when we think ourselves done badly. However, we shouldn’t feel alone. Many great and powerful people before us have suffered and many after us will do so as well.

We ask these questions of God as though we believe that he is the one who caused the suffering. He doesn’t. God is love. His very nature should indicate to us that God is not the source of the suffering. He only permits it to happen. “I beg your pardon!” you say in amazement, “Why would our God of love permit me to suffer? If he loved me, he would prevent such things from happening!” Even David seemed to accuse God of doing nothing when he should:

Psalm 77:1 – 14 (NIV)
1 I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.

2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.

3 I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.

4 You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.

5 I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;

6 I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:

7 “Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?

8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?

9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

12 I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

13 Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is so great as our God?

14 You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
If you look closely, you can see that in the middle of David’s cry to God, his speculation that God has forgotten him; he remembers that God is great and mighty, that he has performed so many miracles in the past and displayed his strength. Because of these memories, David realises that God cannot be to blame for the suffering.

We realise now that God is not the source of the suffering, but that still doesn’t tell us why he allows it to happen. We know that God is omnipotent. He can do anything anytime he pleases. We also know that God loves us. Why else would he send his only son as a sacrifice for our sins? It only seems logical then, that God must have another reason for allowing the suffering to come our way. In Romans, Paul states exactly this point:

Romans 8:18 – 28 (NIV)
18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope

21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?

25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

God does things only for our good, not to abuse or torment us. We don’t have to worry that he has evil intentions, for that isn’t possible.

2 Corinthians 12:7 – 9 (NIV)
7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

9But 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.

Paul himself experienced much suffering, including this one of which we know no details, yet the reason is made clear – to perfect God’s power in Paul. God allows things to happen to us that will make us strong, and that will glorify him.

There is another word that is sometimes used to describe the unpleasant things we go through in life, and using this word and understanding it will help us to get through our problems. That word is trial. One meaning of this word is “a test of performance, qualities, or suitability”. Another, similar, meaning is: “something that tests a person’s endurance or forbearance”. If we read our Bible carefully, we can see that this is the reason that God allows us to suffer, or be tried.

Isaiah 48:10 (NIV)
10 See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.

1 Peter 4:12 – 13 (NIV)
12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

Daniel 11:35 (NIV)
35Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.

God allows us to be tried to strengthen us. Through our problems and afflictions we grow in a number of ways. We grow more able and willing to endure hardship, or simply doing without something we are used to having. In being able to do that, we can more clearly understand how others live, to know the things that they have to do without. We are more able to help others because we relate better to their position in life. Since I have been in the UAE, I have encountered people who cannot even imagine what it would be like to live without a housemaid and to have to do their own work. I have met people who cannot believe that everyone here does not have the money to go out and spend several thousands of dirhams on an afternoon’s casual shopping. None of these people are Christian, so I don’t know what their commitment to helping others might be, but if they were interested in helping others, do you not think that knowing how to do without for a little while would help them?

Suffering can also help in our walk with God. We realise very quickly that we cannot resolve all of our problems on our own, that we need help that cannot come from within ourselves or, very often, from our friends. That help can only come from beyond this world – from God. We have to realise that he is the source of all that is good, all that blesses us, and all that is our help. Job realised that. He knew that God is the giver of all good things and that God would not forsake him. Billy Graham wrote about this in his book “Unto the Hills”:

Job did not know that Satan had to get permission from God before He could touch Job, much less Job’s possessions. Yet when Job lost everything he did not say, “The Lord gave and the Devil has taken away,” but “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of God be praised”

So when we are hurt it is important to remember that God himself has allowed it for a purpose.

It was a theologian from the nineteenth century, Edward B. Pursey, who said it so well: “God does not take away trials or carry us over them, but strengthens us through them.”

Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as adversity has done. Out of pain and problems have come the sweetest songs, the most poignant poems, the most gripping stories. Out of suffering and tears have come the greatest spirits and the most blessed lives.

J.R. Miller wrote, “Many of us find life hard and full of pain. We cannot avoid these things; but we should not allow the harsh experiences to deaden our sensibilities, or make us stoical or sour. The true problem of living is to keep our hearts sweet and gentle in the hardest conditions and experiences.”

The mountain flowers in summer in the Swiss Alps are some of the most beautiful flowers in the world. These flowers have survived the heavy snows of winter. The burdens of ice, snow, and winter storms have added to their lustre, beauty and growth. Only a few weeks earlier they were buried under many feet of snow. Our burdens can have the same effect on our lives.

As Christians face the winds of adversity and the storms of trouble, they rise like the skylark. They are like the trees that survive the storm because their roots are driven deep. They are like the trees that grow on the mountain ridges in North Carolina – trees battered by winds, yet, trees in which we find the strongest wood.

The skylark, the flowers, the trees –all these illustrate Job’s words: “When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (23:10). The Christian who understands this aspect of God’s nature can find comfort in his suffering and peace in his pain. “Blessed is the man God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For He wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal” (Job 5:17-18).

From “Unto the Hills” by Billy Graham

What is God’s solution?
We have determined that all of us will suffer or go through trials, some more than others. We have also determined that God doesn’t cause these trials, but merely allows them to strengthen us and to further his kingdom and his overall plan for us. Still, even knowing that, it is difficult to accept that we don’t have enough money to pay the bills because God wants to make us better. The knowledge of why things happen to us is often beyond our capacity to understand. To always be able to know why, we would have to be God and we are not. As in Job’s case, we often have to rely on our faith and our knowledge of God’s love and his character to accept what has happened, to realise that God will always care for us, and to accept that what he has allowed to happen is for our ultimate good. I often have trouble doing that. Max Lucado has an interesting story in his book “In the Grip of Grace” that illustrates how human beings react in these situations:

Here is the scene: You and I and a half-dozen other folks are flying across the country in a chartered plane. All of a sudden the engine bursts into flames, and the pilot rushes out of the cockpit.

“We’re going to crash!” he yells. “We’ve got to bail out!”

Good thing he knows where the parachutes are because we don’t. He passes them out, gives a few pointers, and we stand in line as he throws open the door. The first passenger steps up to the door and shouts over the wind, “Could I make a request?” “Sure what is it?”

“Any way I could get a pink parachute?”

The pilot shakes his head in disbelief. “Isn’t it enough that I give you a parachute at all?” And so the first passenger jumps.

The second steps up to the door. “I’m wondering if there is any way that you could ensure that I won’t get nauseated during the fall?”

“No, but I can assure you that you will have a parachute for the fall.”

Each of us comes with a request, and receives a parachute.

“Please captain,” says one, “I am afraid of heights. Would you remove my fear?”

“No,” he replies, “but I’ll give you a parachute.”

Another pleads for a different strategy, Couldn’t you change the plans? Lets crash with the plane. We might survive.”

The pilot smiles and says, “You don’t know what you are asking” and gently shoves the fellow out the door. One passenger wants some goggles, another wants some boots, another wants to wait until the plane is closer to the ground.

“You people don’t understand,” the pilot shouts as he “helps” us, one by one. “I’ve given you a parachute; that is enough.”

Only one item is necessary for the jump, and he provides it. He places the strategic tool in our hands. The gift is adequate. But are we content? No. We are restless, anxious, even demanding.

Too crazy to be possible? Maybe in a plane with pilots and parachutes, but on earth with people and grace? God hears thousands of appeals per second. Some are legitimate. We, too, ask God to remove the fear or change the plans. He usually answers with a gentle shove that leaves us airborne and suspended by his grace.

There are times when the one thing you want is the one thing you never get. You’re not picky or demanding; you’re only obeying His command to “ask God for everything you need” (Phil. 4:6). All you want is an answered prayer, for which you will be thankful.

So you pray and wait.

No answer.

You pray and wait.

No answer.

May I ask a very important question? What if God says no?

What if the request is delayed or even denied? When God says no to you, how will you respond? If God says, I’ve given you my grace, and that is enough,” will you be content?

What if God’s only gift to you were His grace to save you. Would you be content? You beg Him to save the life of your child. You plead with Him to keep your business afloat. You implore Him to remove the cancer from your body. What if his answer is, “My grace is enough.” Would you be content?

You see from heaven’s perspective, grace is enough. If God did nothing more than save us from hell, could anyone complain? If god saved our souls, then left us to spend our lives leprosy struck on a desert island, would he be unjust? Having been given heavenly riches, dare we bemoan earthly poverty?

Let me be quick to add, God has not left you with ‘just salvation.” If you have eyes to read these words, hands to hold the book, and the means to own it, he has already given you grace upon grace. The vast majority of us have been saved and then blessed even more!

From “In the Grip of Grace” by Max Lucado.

There are a variety of verses in the Bible that tell us very clearly how we are to react when trials come upon us:

James 1:2 – 4 (NIV)
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,

3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

In verse 12, James goes on to say:

James 1:12 (NIV)
12Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

These verses clearly tell us that our spiritual beings are being strengthened and matured through this process and that we will be blessed for persevering under these circumstances. Peter also had something to say about suffering and trials:

1 Peter 1:3 – 7 (NIV)
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

4and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you,

5who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

6In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.

7These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12 – 13 (NIV)
12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

God loves us. We cannot deny that. He is all-powerful and all knowing. This combination of traits guarantees that what he does for us to strengthen and improve us; to help make us grow spiritually. We cannot expect to know why, but only to remember that God does everything for the good of those who love him.

I asked God to take away my pride, and God said no.
He said it was not for Him to take away but for me to give up.

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole, and God said,
” No, her spirit is already whole. Her body is only temporary.”

I asked God to grant me patience, and God said no.
He said that patience is the byproduct of tribulation. It isn’t granted; it’s earned.

I asked God to give me happiness; God said no.
He said He gives blessing; happiness is up to me.

I asked God to spare me pain, and God said no.
He said I must grow on my own, but he will prune me in order to make me fruitful.

I asked God if he loved me, and God said yes.
He gave me his only Son who died for me, and I will be in heaven someday because I believe.

I asked God to help me love others as much as he loves me, and God said, “Ahhhh, finally! Now you have the idea.”

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