Sunday 24 September 2017

Standing firm in trial: Appreciating what Christ's death saved us from

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting what particular things may help a Christian stand firm in the face of a trial. I am particularly wondering whether there is anything that we should, as parents and people who are involved in ministry, be emphasising more in order to prepare and equip young people for the day of trial. Recently, I've discussed how I believe understanding just who God is - His attributes, and perhaps particularly His sovereignty and goodness, underpin our perspective.

I think also, we need to know clearly what it is a Christian has been saved from. In John 10:10, Jesus says 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full'. Other translations talk about life in all it's 'abundance'. In fact, this is why I chose the name 'An Abundant Adventure' for this blog. But I think we have to take care when we consider what abundance means. I have heard people suggest that it means physical and material prosperity in the here and now, a life of pleasure and of ease. That would be inconsistent with what Jesus said a few chapters later in John 16:33: 'In this world you will have trouble.' Or the writings of Paul (Romans 5:3-4) who describes how 'we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope', James (James 1:2-3) who tells us to 'Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything', or Peter (1 Peter 1:6-7), who reminds the believers that in their hope in Christ 'you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed'.

So - the aim of salvation is clearly not to provide a life of comfort, ease and material prosperity!

I often consider how previous generations (perhaps read some writings from the Puritan era, or some missionary biographies from years past) and certain parts of the world today know many more physical trials - sickness, high maternal and infant death rates, poor infrastructure, poverty, corruption, conflict - and yet from among these circumstances, there will be Christians with faith that shines as brightly as a beacon, overflowing with heartfelt thankfulness to God for His goodness, and living with joy that is almost impossible to understand when one looks at the circumstances. How can that be? What is it that these people have grasped?

That without Christ, we are all destined to eternal death. Without Christ, all the problems in this world make no sense, will only get worse, and will be even worse when a lost eternity is faced. It does not seem 'popular' in churches today to speak of judgement, of hell, of a lake of fire, of eternal damnation, of separation from God with no hope of return. In a day where it seems any philosophy or value system is acceptable other than a belief in the God of the Bible and absolute truth, it sounds too harsh to discuss such realities. But that is what they are. Realities.

The darkness and all-pervading nature of sin is such that even the physical world was affected by this. I don't fully understand, but the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 of how, 'the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who  have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies'. (Romans 8:22-23). Nobody escapes the darkness of sin: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is non one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'. Romans 3:10-12. Today, people would argue that there are 'good people' who are 'not religious'. But this fails to appreciate what sin actually is. 'Everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. Living without submission to God is sin.

I think many people today do not appreciate how dark sin really is. Again, returning to writings from a bygone age, I am always struck how the most godly, sacrificial people were overwhelmed by the darkness of their own hearts. As they got closer to God, their sin seemed all the more abhorrent. It's not something I hear many Christians speak of today. I remember when I first heard the gospel, how aware I was that 'He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins' Colossians 1:13-14. It is as black and white as that. From death to life. From darkness to light. No ambiguity, no half-ways, no grey areas. Through Christ's sacrificial death for us, we are free, and there was no other way that freedom could have been attained. Christianity is not an 'add on' which enhances the quality of our life in this current world. It is an appreciation that without Christ's death for us, we were headed to a lost eternity, without any hope that we could somehow claw our way back or give a justification for ourselves.

Appreciating this, we can start to understand how the Apostle Paul could assert, 'For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain' Philippians 1:21. Our life here is not about comfort and freedom from trials, but about living for Christ. Indeed, just a few verses later, the Philippians were reminded, 'it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have' Philippians 1:29-30. Christians often spend time wondering what God's plan for their lives might be - but don't often like to consider the truth, that we are often called to a life of suffering in order that we can fully display His glory to the suffering world around us.

When I consider my sin, and the amazing truth that God sent His only, beloved Son into the world to willingly die in my place -  when I stop and really think of that, then suddenly things fall into perspective. I am promised an eternity in heaven, where there will certainly be no more sickness, sadness, tears or pain. That is made clear through the Bible. In the meantime, the trials that we face help us to see the eternal perspective and help us to realise what the biggest issue of all really is: A life lived without God, and the need for repentance and salvation.

As I understand this, the question turns on its head, and becomes much less about 'why a good God would allow suffering', but much more about 'how can God use this pain for His glory'.

I am aware that I have not fully explored this issue, and that there are others who could do so much better than I. My writing here is more personal - as it approaches ten years since my daughter's death, and as I reflect on all the ups and downs of the past decade, I am spending time reflecting on what doctrines have been most essential in enabling my husband and I to not just stand, but to grow in God's grace during times of trial. And it is my prayer that some of these writings bring encouragement to others.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Give thanks in all circumstances

'Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus' 1 Thess 5:18

This weekend, I had planned to spend more time reflecting on the aspects of our faith which can most help a believer stand firm in the face of trial. Instead, I've had crippling pain in my neck and arm, and have only been able to function by taking four classes of analgesia. However, this has given me cause to reflect, and to be thankful:

1. I am thankful I am not in this amount of pain all the time! I have a genetic condition which means that from time to time I do get severe pain from my joints, but much of the time I am able to function perfectly well. On the days when I feel incapacitated, it is a reminder of what I am spared, much of the time.

2. I am thankful that God gives sufficient strength to function. I had important work meetings this week, and yesterday was a seven hour thanksgiving service at church. I was able to give as much to these as I was able (and most likely, very few people would have noticed anything amiss). 

3. I am thankful for medicines. I usually carry a selection with me, so that if I have an injury or a flare up, I can treat the symptoms rapidly. I have been considering how disabling this condition would be without these medicines

4. I am thankful that it gives me a greater understanding of what people with 'hidden disabilities' must endure. I am better able to 'rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn'. It makes me aware that other people might be facing unseen challenges

5. I am thankful that the Lord knows all things. Sickness, including genetic conditions like mine, is ultimately a consequence of the fallen world we live in. God knows the challenges we face every day - be it physical limitations, pain, mental health challenges, every bit as much as He is aware of our external circumstances. We can draw close to Him in our times of trial, and for that I am most thankful.

6. I am thankful that this teaches me humility - when life and work are going well, there can be a temptation to become confident in ourselves. Setbacks like this remind me that we are frail humans, dependent on God's gracious provision every day.

7. I am thankful for the reminder that God's timing is perfect. Sometimes we wonder why things happen when they do - why does a challenge or an illness come at what seems to be a most inconvenient time? It's a reminder to trust that God knows about this, and can work in and through it. In fact, I was meant to travel this weekend and the trip was postponed; whilst initially disappointed, I have been very thankful that I have no travel and a relatively empty diary this week.

So, as the week starts, I am in pain and feel a bit daunted. My husband has just travelled for a few days so I'm alone with the children. I can't easily rest the way I would like, and I can't take the stronger painkillers as they make me a little drowsy. But I do know from previous experience, that God will give me strength and grace enough to get through the day, and that He will surprise me with joy and encouragement along the way.

I wonder what challenges you face this week? Do some situations feel impossible? Let me encourage you to trust God, who knows all about it - even more about it than you do. Look back over God's faithfulness and provision to you, and trust that He will continue to provide all you need.