Looking For Lovely

I taught a girls’ Bible study this summer called, “Looking For Lovely”. The gist of the Bible study was to look for and focus on the lovely things among our circumstances. The study focused on Romans 5:3-5 which says, Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” As I watched my Pastor–my friend, mentor and father figure– battle pancreatic cancer over this last year, I desperately searched for the lovely. I insistently banged on the door of heaven, asking God to explain Himself. I mulled over all the scriptural reasons for suffering, I pondered God’s motives, I examined His intent, as if God needed me to judge His work. In all this, I found nothing lovely. In all this, at every turn, there seemed to be only ugly.

I looked for purpose, but I found only suffering and pain. I sought understanding, but I only experienced doubt and frustration. My beloved Pastor went home to be with the Lord last Monday and it is now a week later that God has finally spoken. The whole time my Pastor battled cancer, I asked God what was the purpose of building his character through suffering if it was only going to lead to death? What was the purpose of refining his character if he wasn’t going to stay alive to share what he learned? God answered: It wasn’t Pastor’s character that was being built, it was the character of all those who loved him. God was building the character of all those who would continue their lives after our Pastor was gone.

Just like our Pastor poured out his life into ours while he was living– teaching us, mentoring us, praying for us– so would he be poured out in death, a final sacrifice unto God bearing the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved… a fragrance that brings life.” (2 Cor 2:15,16) and “a sweet smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.” (Phil 4:18). All those who loved our Pastor persevered in prayer and persevered in faith. Our prayers may not have been answered the way we expected or wanted them to, but our faith that God is still on the throne and is still perfect in holiness, love and justice, has persevered. Through faith, we are more than conquerors over every temptation we faced to succumb to doubt, anger, or frustration. We experienced all those things, yet they never prevailed over our faith.

It was hard for me to see any perseverance because I was too focused on the ugliness of the circumstances. It is so easy to fall into the temptation to judge God’s love for us based on our circumstances. But scripture tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, neither “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword..” (Rom 8:35). Jesus never promised us that we wouldn’t suffer, but He did promise that we would never be separated from His love.

We are told that the fruit of hope is the result of all the suffering, all the perseverance and all the building of character, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” (Rom 5:5). After all the suffering and persevering and building of character, we are left with hope and God’s love. We are left with the peace and assurance of our salvation and that one day very soon we will be with Pastor again. We are left with fulfilling the purposes of God by the power of His Holy Spirit Whom He has given us. We are left with only lovely.

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Sweet Suffering

I have often wished that my spiritual gift was mercy. If God had given me that gift, then I would have the right words to give someone when they are hurting or confused. If God had given me that gift, then surely I would be able to use it more than any of the other spiritual gifts, since we live in a world that seems saturated with suffering. But, my spiritual gift is not mercy. As a matter of fact, when I began discipleship and my pastor evaluated my spirit, my heart, my abilities, my personality and my experience to help me determine my spiritual gift, it was mercy of which I had the least.

One of the qualities of someone that has the gift of mercy is that they are more inclined towards alleviating the cause of someone’s hurt, rather than to look for any benefit from their pain. Whereas my natural reaction to suffering is to begin searching for answers. My natural reaction to those who are hurting is to try and figure out why God is allowing them to hurt. I want to give them answers more than I want to give them comfort. That is because one of the weaknesses of my own spiritual gift is to see answers as comfort. But not everyone wants answers, sometimes they just want to be comforted and usually any effort I attempt at comforting ends up awkward and botched.

Last night, my mother called me to tell me that my cousin went in for a lumpectomy and ended up having both her breasts removed. The cancer has likely spread to her lymph nodes, and if so, she will have to begin chemo. She is four years older than me, she will turn forty-five this July. She has three beautiful children, three precious grandchildren and one granddaughter on the way. She has a loving and supportive husband. She has two older sisters that love her dearly, and as the youngest of three girls, she is still my aunt and uncle’s baby. They are a close, happy family. As many of you who read this blog already know, my pastor, who is also my mentor and father figure, was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last fall. Two people whom I love dearly are now fighting for their life. So, I search for answers.

Why would God allow my pastor, a man who has dedicated his life to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to undergo such suffering? Why would God allow my cousin, a ray of sunshine in the life of so many, to experience such a seemingly cruel and unjust fate? And while we’re at it, why would God allow my friend’s brother, a young man with a solid faith, a loving wife and small children, to be utterly crippled by ALS, unable to move, unable to play with his own children or wrap his arms around his own wife?   Why would God allow my husband’s friend to give birth to a daughter that lived for only a few days, just long enough to become attached to, to experience the blissful embrace of her own child, only to have to let her go? Why does God encumber us with such suffering?

And the answer He has impressed upon my spirit is because He is glorified in our suffering, but this is not the answer that most people want to hear. He is glorified when, despite our suffering, we hold onto Him with both hands and refuse to let go, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who approaches Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (Heb 11:6). He is glorified when our suffering brings us into a more intimate relationship with Him that we would have otherwise never pursued as long as everything in our life continued to go along smoothly, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). Sometimes the suffering in our life is to remind us that there is nothing in our life that is more important than our relationship with God, so He will remove those things that have become stumbling blocks to our faith or those things that we have allowed to take His rightful place in our lives. Sometimes our suffering is the only way we will keep our eyes on His abilities and His kingdom, rather than our own. Sometimes God’s allowance of our suffering is to simply save us from ourselves.

For those who simply want to be comforted, these answers will not satisfy your desire. But for those who find comfort in answers, then the scriptural answer to suffering can be found at Hebrews 12:7, “Endure suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?”  You see, to truly follow Christ the way He calls us to follow Him, we must all endure suffering, because according to God’s own word, it is our suffering that refines us. It is our response to crisis that determines our priorities. It is how we react to our suffering that determines whether we are true disciples of Christ.

What I have learned about suffering thus far, is that it is not determined by how seemingly “good” any of us are. What I have observed, is that those throughout history who seemed to have the greatest devotion to God, suffered greatly.  What I believe, is that it was their suffering which determined their great devotion, because it is our longing for the comfort that only the sweet presence of God can give, which brings us into genuine, deep, intimate fellowship with Him.  And what I know, is that it was God’s own great suffering that brought about the ultimate presence of God– the redemption and reconciliation of all mankind.

When I told my cousin last night that I loved her and that our whole church would be praying for her, her beautiful response was, “We have a mighty and strong God, He will take care of me and all of us through this. I’m grabbing hold tight and I ain’t letting go. All will be okay.” The one thing I have observed which my cousin, my pastor, my friend’s brother and my husband’s friend all share in the midst of their suffering, is that they are all reaching out for something greater, they are all holding onto truth, and God is glorified.  Although their circumstances of suffering may differ, each one of them dug down deeply into their faith and have resolved to hold onto God with both hands. And God is glorified. They have inspired my own faith, they have strengthened my own resolve to hold onto God no matter how brutal the storms may get in my own life. And God is glorified. And as they each weather their own brutal storm and hold onto the cross of Jesus Christ with both hands, despite the waves crashing all around them, they glorify God with their sacrifice of faith and are glorified themselves as they each long for the comfort that only God can give and enter into the sweet intimate fellowship of His presence that only suffering can bring.

We are all part of the Body of Christ, and each of us have distinctive and unique gifts that He has given us to operate in unity with each other. Each of us being one part, designed to work in conjunction with all the others, to make up a whole. Whereas one may be weak, the others are strong. One of the weaknesses of those with the gift of mercy is basing decisions on emotions, rather than on scriptural reason– reacting to God’s purposes in allowing people to suffer, being blinded by their emotions, rather than embracing what can be learned from it. On the other hand, one of the strengths of my spiritual gift is to analyze a situation objectively and to speak the truth of God’s word even when it is unpopular and difficult for others to accept– my willingness to challenge others with truth in order to encourage their spiritual growth. And one of those challenging truths is that God disciplines us through our suffering, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:7).

” ‘Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save Me from this hour”? No, it is for this purpose that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify Your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ ” (John 12:27,28).

“And if we are children, then we are heirs: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with Him, so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:17,18)

“For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles.” (2 Cor 4:17)

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that has come upon you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory.” (1 Pet 4:12,13)

“I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

The Deep

There is a beauty that can be found when wrestling with God through some of the ugly parts of life. Could there possibly be a beauty found in suffering? I think so, to a certain extent. But you have to look for it. Why would you want to look for beauty in the suffering of another human being? Because if you belong to God, if you are saved in Jesus Christ, then He says He will never leave us nor forsake us. Which means we must be able to find Him somewhere among the suffering. He says so.

When you watch someone being eaten alive by cancer, you begin to desperately search for God among the suffering. I can see a beauty in that, because it pulls you out into the deep water. Many of us stay comfortable and safe along the shoreline, content with our shallow faith. But when you are pulled out into the deep water, where your feet can no longer touch the ground, you are forced to reconcile whether you really, truly believe God is Who He says He is and whether He really, truly loves us like He says He does.

There is a beauty in our feebleness, there is a beauty in our weakness, because it demands someone stronger. The irony of that, is that the One Who is stronger chose to immerse and encapsulate Himself into our weakness. He experienced our weakness. He experienced our death. He is not a God to Whom you can say “But you don’t understand…” Because He does understand. He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities and “…by His wounds we are healed.” Suffering is ugly and when I see someone suffer, I wrestle with God. Most of the time I’m content to sit at His feet, my head bowed in reverence. But when I encounter suffering I seek His face. I want answers, I want Him to explain how He justifies something that seems unjustifiable. And when I look up to seek His face, I see Him, way far out in the deep water. Waiting.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that made us whole was upon him, And by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4,5)