Friday, March 17, 2017

In Times of Trial (Romans 5:1-5; I Peter 1:6-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Actress Carrie Fisher died on December 27 last year.  She was famous for playing Princess Leia in Star Wars.  Just prior to her death, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Carrie Fisher was asked, "Do you fear death?"  "No," replied Fisher. "I fear dying.  Anything with pain associated with it, I don't like.  And I've been there for a couple of people when they were dying, and it didn't look like fun."   I think like Carrie, that most people will do whatever it takes to avoid suffering and pain in life.

I suspect most of you have experienced a personal tragedy or loss or trial at some time in your life.   Why is there suffering?  Why does suffering exist?  The honest response is that there are no easy answers.   Anyone who claims to have the answer is a person who has not pondered the question very deeply.

It’s the age old dilemma between good and evil.  Let me summarize the debate between theists and atheists.   Atheism says suffering and evil exist because there is no God.  The existence of suffering and evil proves that God does not exist.  Bertrand Russell argues that because of the prevalence of suffering and evil in the world, there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-present God.   So Atheism does not have a problem with suffering and evil.  It is present because there is no good force or power like God, to counter it.   It runs rampant.  Suffering, evil, death rules life.  Therefore, life, human life, all life, has no value, no meaning, no purpose.  Is suffering a problem?  No, not at all.  Atheism has no questions.

Conversely, theism or orthodox Christianity, the Christian faith, says God exists and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or loving and all-present.  It says life has value, meaning, purpose because God is the author of life.   It says life contains joy, goodness, humor, wonder, awe, and amazement.  It says suffering and evil also exist.  It says God is greater than suffering and evil, they are not co-eternal and co-equal in power.  It says one-day God will destroy all suffering and evil in life.  And yes, there are questions.  Believers have many questions:  Why did God allow evil to enter the world?  Why does God continue to allow suffering and evil?  What is God doing about suffering and evil today?  Why hasn’t God put an end to suffering and evil?   Yes, believers have questions, and again, there are no easy answers.

One natural question we ask when facing trials is why me?  Or why this person?  I have asked it.  But there is another question: “Why not me?”  Why should I escape pain and suffering?

In this Lenten season we examine this subject from a biblical perspective.   First, adversity is inevitable because we live in a fallen world.  God created human beings with a free will, which has resulted in sin.  Sin or moral evil, that is rebellion against God, disobedience to God, is the cause of much of life’s suffering.  We have the freedom to make good or bad, good or evil, wise or foolish choices.   Further, accidents are a part of life, disease is a part of life, natural disasters and wars are a part of life.    Second, God is present, not absent, but present in the midst of evil and suffering. Third, God has given us the gift of faith.  And faith, trust, belief, assurance makes all the difference in how we cope with life’s trials.

As a pastor, I have stood beside families in nearly every kind of crisis imaginable, from the death of a loved one after battling cancer to fatal accidents to suicide to murder.     As Christians we affirm that scripture has something to say about God in relation to life’s trials?  Here are some basic biblical answers about God in regard to the question of suffering.

God understands the pain you and I experience in life.  God can empathize with us.  We don’t worship a God who is above the fray, pampered, coddled, living a sheltered existence in the celestial realm being fed grapes by the angels.  We worship a God who entered this world fully human in Jesus Christ, who has walked our walk, who has experienced life’s suffering, who identifies with us, who is empathetic, who experienced loneliness, rejection, persecution and died an agonizing death on the cross for the sins of the world.  The God whom we worship is no stranger to pain.

Scripture says the Lord is alive and with us in times of trials and will supply us with strength.  God never leaves you alone.  I Corinthians 10 says: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”   This is a divine promise.  God is with us and gives us strength and hope in times of trial.

Scripture says God works to bring good out of life’s trials.  Romans 8:28 says: “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God.”  Biblical examples abound.  Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery when he was a boy, but years later, Joseph rose to power in Egypt, and when his brothers came to him seeking food during a time of famine in Israel, Joseph said to them: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

The prophet Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den, but God rescued him; the prophet Jeremiah was tossed into a slimy pit and later rescued.  The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction during his life which God didn’t heal, despite Paul’s prayers.  Instead God said: “My grace is sufficient.”  None of them were exempt from misfortune, but they kept the faith, they fought the good fight of faith, and God brought something good out of their adversity.

Scripture says suffering can be an opportunity to grow spiritually and in other ways.  Trials can help you discover that you are stronger than you think.  God has imparted to you a stronger character, a resilience, and the ability to endure more that you realize.  Trials can become opportunities for us to mature.  Romans 5 says: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Trials can produce growth relationally, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.   Trials can inspire hope.  God does a new work in us.  God changes us amidst the pain.

Trials can motivate us to turn to God and discover that God’s plans and purposes are at work in our lives even in the midst of hardships.   And you will discover a true Friend and Lord:  A Christian wrote: “You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.”  Romans 8 says: “I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No, it doesn’t happen immediately or automatically.  We are too emotional; we are in shock and grief.  But by God’s grace, life’s trials can gradually lead us to a deeper and more profound appreciation for God’s love and guidance and peace.  I know some of you have experienced this in your own life.  I have as well.

Trials can help us to learn to appreciate the support and care of others.  We grow in our thankfulness for the love and encouragement of friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors and the church community.  Oftentimes their care and concern surprise us.  People come through when we least expect it and in ways which simply astonish us.  But it requires something on our part, having the humility to accept their offer of help, rather than reject it.

Trials can also make us more compassionate people.  Sin keeps us self-absorbed.  Trials can change us.  I have found this true time and again.  Have you?  People who have known hardships are often the most compassionate and sensitive of all people.   They have a depth, a discernment, an intuition, a sensitivity and empathy others lack. They can identify with what you are going through.  They are the best people to talk with and pray with.  They are non-judgmental. They know how to listen.

Trials can be a powerful witness to the grace of God.  Other people see how you are dealing with your suffering in terms of your faith.  God can use us to inspire, to encourage, to hearten, to motivate others in the times of their trials.

Yes, scripture has answers about God and the trials in life.  But no, it doesn’t have all the answers.  There are some answers that must wait until we meet Jesus Christ face to face in glory as the scripture says.  In the meantime, despite our intellectual dissatisfaction, we must rely upon the character, the mercy and strength of God and the love and support of others around us.  

What is the source of your comfort?  When the Bible scholar N.T. Wright was asked what he would tell his children on his death bed he answered: "Look at Jesus. The Person who walks out of the pages of the Gospels to meet us is irreplaceable.  He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know about suffering, look at Jesus.  And go on looking until you're not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.”

You may be going through a trial right now.  Know that God is for you, not against you; know that God is with you and not apart from you. May God grant us His grace, so that the genuineness of our faith, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Christ is revealed.   Amen!

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