Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Rejoicing in suffering. . .
Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha and one of the world's richest men, does not think inherited wealth is a good thing. He vows to give most of his fortune away. Part of me would like to prove him wrong and show him what I could do with all that money. How about you? But under it all we know the truth of what he says. The old saying is that error and hardship are great teachers but success leaves little wisdom in its wake. So it is with faith.
Part of us would like to believe that faith grows best when insulated from hardship, pain, temptation, trial, and suffering. But the truth is that faith grows best when tempted, threatened, and tried. God permits this suffering because it teaches the faithful and it prevents the greater ill of eternal suffering. All of that is easy to say when life is going okay. It is not so easy when we find ourselves tried, tested, tempted, and in the midst of suffering. Like the children of Israel in the first lesson today, we cry out “where is God? Is He with us or against us?” when sufferings, struggles, and trials touch out lives.
Today we heard St. Paul suggest the unlikely statement that we rejoice in suffering. Who in their right mind would ever say that? Perhaps we prefer to think of God as a doting grandfather instead of the disciplining father described in the book of Hebrews. We prefer a God whom we can fool and manipulate instead of the God who sees and knows all things. But those whom the Lord loves He chastens and those whom He chastens He loves.
St. Paul draws the lines. Sin and its eternal death are a greater danger than the suffering and trials of this mortal life. Suffering in the hand of God builds us up in grace, strengthens our faith, and is a tool of the Spirit for our sanctification. Suffering produces endurance. None of us knows our weakness or our strength until tested. Suffering teaches us where our strength comes from, that what is impossible for us, it not only possible with God but a sure thing by His promise. This is the grace on which we stand and not our own strength or power.
From this endurance, our character is built up in faith. We trust in Him who cannot fail us and we give up trusting in ourselves or the things of this world. For as sure as suffering takes something from us, God gives us grace greater than what this suffering has stolen. The character of faith that is produced by endurance is hope. Not optimism or a cheery outlook but real and genuine hope in Christ, in His death, and in His resurrection. Hope not of a good outcome but hope born of our conviction that we know the outcome. We live our lives backwards – from the ending which we know in our own joyful resurrection to eternal life and reading this backwards into the struggles, sorrows, and sufferings of this present day.
We rejoice in suffering, says St. Paul. Then he proceeds to place our own sufferings in the context of Christ's suffering for us, a redemptive suffering that won our salvation. God showed His great love for us that He sent His only Son to die for us – not because we deserved or were worth this investment of suffering even to death. No while we were still enemies and sinners under His wrath and condemnation Christ died for us. Knowing what His suffering won, we know our suffering in Him is not in vain.
Furthermore, by our suffering we participate in His suffering (not to add to or complete what He has done but as a people who live out our lives in the shadow of the cross). Our suffering produces its own redemptive fruit and blessing in our lives. This is the privilege of faith. Only because the love of God has been poured into our hearts and the Holy Spirit given to us can we see suffering differently. Only because we know that there is a curse greater than suffering can we rejoice in the suffering that produces good effect in us and our faith.
It is completely unnatural to talk about suffering in this way. Only those who have the new nature born of baptism’s living water and God's life in us can rejoice in suffering that produces endurance that produces character that produces hope which cannot put us to shame. Therefore, knowing this, people of faith see the whole thing differently than the world around us. Like the discipline of the parent that is born of love, we acknowledge that suffering is not without its fruit in our daily lives. It helps to keep us in Christ.
In the face of suffering, the world cries out "why?" We do not. We know why. We confess that we are sinners who deserve only condemnation and punishment. We are not only born into a sinful world where death reigns but we add to that sin by our own thoughts, words, and deeds. We know where suffering comes from – suffering for our sinful choices and suffering even for the sake of the Gospel. We acknowledge the grace of God that gives us not what we deserve but mercy, grace, and blessing. We rejoice to see what Jesus' own suffering has born for us – our very salvation. Therefore we do not look at suffering as the ultimate evil. No, living apart from God and His salvation is the greatest evil to befall any of us.
We will meet the sufferings of this mortal life as Christ did. As the verse for today says, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross. . . “ Christ saw the end and bore the suffering of the moment in view of its outcomes. Do we who live in Him by baptism and faith do any less? Seeing the hand of God at work in us even in suffering, sure that we will not be overcome by the burdens laid at our door by a sinful world and sinners by their sins, we refuse to allow these sufferings to shape the character of our lives. By this suffering our faith is ever more focused upon Christ, whose strength is made perfect in our weakness and whose healing power sustains us in every trial. And we will grow ever more confident of the hope that is within us by our baptism into Christ and the faith the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to grasp hold of this gift.
Our eyes are not on the suffering but the prize – not the prize in the sense of a reward for our suffering or even a consolation prize to make up for what we bear here below. But the prize! What Christ has won for us and gives graciously to us in the living waters of our new birth and by faith. Eternal peace with God in Christ and our own joyful resurrection to everlasting life, wearing the blessed new flesh and blood of God's righteous people justified by faith. Because we know the end, we do not lose our way through the struggles, sorrows, and sufferings of this mortal life. Even more so, they keep us upon the way of Christ, the way of life and salvation. This is why we rejoice and suffering cannot steal this joy away from us. Amen.