Revelation 2:8-11 // The Church that is Suffering and Afflicted

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TEXT: Revelation 2:8-11, NRSV

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen. [1]

INTRODUCTION:

Smyrna was founded in 1200 B.C. That is two hundred years before King David, and back in the days of the judges of Israel. In the sixth century B.C., Alyattes, king of Lydia, conquered Smyrna and dispersed the inhabitants into tiny villages throughout the area, where they could be no threat to his rule. For almost four hundred years, Smyrna was in eclipse. Alexander the Great wanted to rebuild it, but the task fell to his successor, who rebuilt the city around 300 B.C. on the slopes of Mount Pagus, about two miles south of its former site. It had wide and spacious streets. Its major street (called “the street of gold”) began at the harbor, curved around Mount Pagus, and ran on to the foothills away
from the sea.

Smyrna had been destroyed, yet she had come back to life. It was remarkable, and Smyrna ended up with the nickname “the city that was dead, yet lived.”

  • Jesus reminds them, “You may be a resurrected city, but I am a resurrected savior.”

Smyrna was not only beautiful and prosperous, she was extremely nationalistic. Three hundred years earlier (265-146 B.C.), when Rome was fighting for its life against the Carthaginian empire, Smyrna had sided with Rome. She was the first city in Asia to declare allegiance to Rome, and she built a temple to Roma, the goddess of Rome. That was in 195 B.C., almost one hundred years before Julius Caesar.

In 26 A.D., when the whole world wanted to be friends with Rome, eleven cities competed for the privilege of erecting a temple in honor of Tiberius Caesar. Smyrna won the honors. Rome considered Smyrna the most noble and worthy of the cities of Asia. Cicero called Smyrna “the most faithful of our allies.” Roman nobility came to visit and vacation there. After 70 A.D., when Jerusalem was destroyed, Smyrna was a favorite place for Jewish settlement, and the Jewish community there was large and influential.

So the scene is set. Smyrna is beautiful, prosperous, highly patriotic, and of esteemed reputation. Its citizens are proud of their city, and they feel fortunate to live there. [2] Sound familiar?

No one really knows the origin of the church at Smyrna, but the facts are clear. They are guaranteed suffering, and this is completely antithetical to North American Evangelicalism.

Jared C. Wilson, who is a Christian, wrote an article this week about how Christian movies are sending the wrong message, and he said:

“There is a kind of prosperity gospel that pervades contemporary Christian art. It’s there in Christian Music radio, of course, and it’s all over Christian movies, including the ones based on true stories. The team has to win. The sick person has to defy the odds. (If you can get a sick person and a sports team in the same story, you’ve hit Christian movie gold.) The atheist professor must get owned. The unbelieving spouse must be converted. On and on it goes. Why? Because “if you just believe,” you can win.

Christian movies have embraced a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross. This is why, apart from inauthentic dialogue and stilted acting, Christian movies ring so untrue to ears tuned to reality. We know real life doesn’t work this way — even for believers. The world of Christian movies is uncomfortable sitting in the ambiguity of suffering, confusion, or chaos for too long. But if we must have Christian movies, they above all others, should be brave enough to tell us the truth, which is messier than what the market usually wants to hear.[3]

There is an implicit lie within Christian media that if you believe hard enough you’ll always win in life. Try selling that to starving Christians in Venezuela.

In John 16:33, Jesus said in no uncertain terms, “In this world you will have many trials and sorrows.” That’s the bad news and it’s important that we remember because it makes the good news so much sweeter.

  • The good news is the rest of John 16:33, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

So, as we look at the text this morning, I want us to see three things: A Picture of the Savior, A Promise of Suffering, and A Promise for Faithful Conquerors.

 

A PICTURE OF THE SAVIOR

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: 9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” – Revelation 2:8-9, NRSV

What we’re mostly dealing with in these two verses is who Jesus is and what Jesus knows. And, if you’re suffering, both of those things should be comforting.

  • Jesus told us I would have trouble. He knows we’re in trouble, and He is the Son of God who conquers the world that is giving us trouble.

The first thing Jesus says is that these words are the words of the first and the last.

In the Revelation 1:17, the first thing that Jesus says to the Apostle John is, “I am the first and the last.”

  • This is Jesus affirming Himself to John. This title of the first and the last is something that God says about Himself three times in the book of Isaiah, and by telling John, “I am the first and the last” his mind immediately goes back to Isaiah 44:6 where God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”

 

The second thing is, “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life”

  • Resurrection is authentication. This proves that Jesus is who He says He is. So, Christ’s resurrection is central to the life of the Church.

    • His resurrection means our resurrection.

  • How much do we really believe this though? Here’s the test: Imagine if Jesus’ had never risen from the dead. If Jesus had never risen from the dead, and you [as a church, not an individual] can go on living how you’re living now, and function as you are now if Jesus had never risen from the dead, then you are not living in the power of His resurrection.

“and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20, NRSV

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” – Philippians 3:10-11, NRSV

Let me say this again: Christ’s resurrection is central to the life of the Church. If the life of the church wouldn’t be any different if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, then we are not living by the power of His resurrection.

The next thing that we learn about Jesus is in verse 9, “I know your affliction and your poverty…”

Jesus knows our affliction and our suffering. He identifies Himself with the poor, the afflicted, the suffering. He identifies Himself with the marginalized.

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” – Isaiah 53:3, KJV

A man like this isn’t coming for the righteous, but the unrighteous. He’s not coming for people who don’t suffer. He’s coming for the oppressed. He’s coming for the victims.

  • He’s coming for people who mourn, people who are hungry and thirsty, people who are meek. Because, according to Matthew 5, they’re the ones who receive the blessing.

The fourth idea here is that He knows our hearts.

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” – Revelation 2:9, NRSV

So, who are the Jews in question? Are they actual Jews by lineage and race or is Jesus using the word “Jew” to mean something else?

“For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.”
– Romans 2:28-29, NRSV

  • Just as a side note: Romans 2 is the key to understanding Romans 11, when Paul says, “All Israel will be saved.” He’s not talking about the nation of Israel or all ethnic Jews. He’s talking about all those who trust Jesus as their Savior and Messiah.

In Revelation 2, Jesus is saying “I know those who say they are Jews and are not, they are not they are of the synagogue of Satan.”

  • In Smyrna there was a Jewish synagogue not too far from where the church would meet, and the Jews would do all kinds of awful things to get this church in trouble with political authorities.

  • They would even come into the church and pose as converts and try to tear the church apart.

Jesus knows who they are. Jesus knows who is a genuine believer and who isn’t. Jesus knows who really loves Him and serves Him and who doesn’t.

In this passage, not only do we see A Picture of the Savior, but we also see A Picture of the Suffering.

 

A PICTURE OF THE SUFFERING

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” – Revelation 2:10, NRSV

When we talk about suffering in terms of persecution, I always want to make sure that if we’re suffering, then we should be suffering for the right reasons.

“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed… Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” – 1 Peter 3:13-14a, 16b-17, NRSV

Now, listen to what Peter says in the next chapter.

“If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.” – 1 Peter 4:14-16, NRSV

Let’s put this in perspective: Revelation, 1st and 2nd Peter, and Jude, and John’s Letters are all written to Christians who are suffering under persecution, and Peter is saying: If you’re going to suffer (and you will because Jesus said you would) then do so for the right reasons.

This important information for us because here in America we think we’re being persecuted when someone says, “Happy Holidays!”

Meanwhile there are Christians in China who are actually suffering for their faith.

  • If we’re suffering we need to evaluate why we’re suffering. Are we really suffering for our faith or are we suffering because we are “mischief makers” as Peter says.

Jesus knows the suffering of the Church of Smyrna, and it appears that they’re suffering for the right reasons, and so He tells them, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction.”

This is not the message of the prosperity Gospel. You’ve got people in the charismatic movement who will walk saying, “God told me to tell you x.”

  • There are really people with prophetic gifts and I don’t want to disparage that, but when you claim to have that gift and all of your “prophetic words” are encouraging and positive, then I’ve got to wonder what’s real and what isn’t because in the Bible, not even all the messages from the men and women who spoke for God were positive and encouraging.

The prosperity Gospel will not tell you that you are going to suffer, but Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but there’s good news here.

  • He says, “for ten days you will have affliction.” Here’s the thing: you can interpret this a million different ways, but ultimately it all means the same thing. Jesus named a specific amount of time that their affliction would last and that tells me that it’s temporary.

Your suffering, your affliction, your trouble is temporary. If you’re a believer, if you’re a Christian, then Jesus personally sees to it that your suffering is only temporary.

  • Satan is at work to make sure you have pain and trouble, but Jesus is has come to make sure your suffering isn’t forever.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10, NRSV

Not only do we see A Picture of Jesus, A Picture of Suffering, but we also see A Promise to Faithful Conquerors.

 

A PROMISE TO FAITHFUL CONQUERORS

“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” – Revelation 2:10b-11, NRSV

Listen to what’s being promised:

  • Be faithful until death and you’ll receive a crown of life.

  • Conquer and you will not be harmed by the Second Death.

Here’s the thing: because we haven’t faced the real threat of death for our faith yet, I don’t think we appreciate this as much as Smyrna did.

According to John MacArthur, this place was the hotbed of emperor worship. You must treat the caesar as a god.

  • In America, what little emperor worship we see is voluntary; in Rome it was mandatory, and it was all over the place.

  • The promise of a crown of life is more valuable to you when you live in a state that tries to suppress any kind of hope that you have simply because you’re giving your worship to Whom the worship is due, namely Jesus.

    • Jesus is always a threat to secular authorities because He has what they want and they’ll never have – absolute power and authority.

 

Jesus’ promise of a crown of life means that we can look at those earthly kings and rulers in face and say with boldness, “Do your worst.”

Do you know Jesus this morning? Do you understand that this promise to the Church of Smyrna is for you?

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Let’s pray.

CLOSING PRAYER

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and we are Your people. When suffering comes, give us the strength to endure. Send Your Holy Spirit to give us power and strength when we need it most in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

_______________________________________________

  1. Book of Common Prayer, pg. 215, Second Sunday After Epiphany
  2. Revelation Sermon Series – Bruce Van Blair
  3. “Why Christian Movies Are So Terrible.” For The Church, 7 Jan. 2019, ftc.co/blog/posts/why-christian-movies-are-so-terrible. 

Suffering in the Sight of God: Integrity in Suffering // Job 2:1-10

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Text: Job 2:1-10

Introduction:

Gary Carr tells the story of Chippie the parakeet. “Chippie never saw it coming. One second he was peacefully perched in his cage, sending a song into the air; the next second he was sucked in, washed up, and blown over.

“His problem began when his owner decided to clean his cage with a vacuum. She had stuck the nozzle in to suck up the seeds and feathers at the bottom of the cage when the nearby telephone rang. Instinctively she turned to pick it up. She had barely said hello when–ssswwwwwpppppp! Chippie got sucked in. She gasped, let the phone drop, and switched off the vacuum. With her heart in her mouth, she unzipped the bag.

“There was Chippie–alive but stunned–covered with heavy gray dust. She grabbed him and rushed to the bathtub, turned on the faucet full blast, and held Chippie under a torrent of ice-cold water, power washing him clean. Then it dawned on her that Chippie was soaking wet and shivering. So she did what any compassionate pet owner would do: she snatched up the hair dryer and blasted him with hot air.

“Did Chippie survive? Yes, but he doesn’t sing much anymore. He just sits and stares a lot.” Life is like that sometimes. You never see it coming, but sometimes you get sucked up, washed up, and blown over.1

This morning we’re starting a new series called “Suffering in the Sight of God.” In this series over the next four weeks we’re going to cover the Lectionary readings over the book of Job, and we’re going to hopefully be reminded of the fact that when our world turns upside down God is still in charge and He can still be trusted.

  • Just as a fair warning, I think this morning’s sermon is going to be more information than application. And I think sometimes that’s good because sometimes I think as a preacher you just need to talk about the text and let the application come naturally instead looking “5 Ways to be More Spiritual” or whatever. I think this morning we just need to talk about what’s there and let the application naturally unfold.

Why “Suffering in the Sight of God?”

The reason I’m using the title, “Suffering in the Sight of God” is because I want us to see that when Job suffers, and more practically, when we suffer God sees it all. He’s not ignorant of what we’re going through. When we suffer, we suffer in His sight. When we suffer, He sees it all, and He doesn’t leave us. He’s there with us. The problem is not that He’s distant, the problem is that in our suffering we have a tendency to feel disconnected.

We think, “If I’ve been good, and if God is good, then I wouldn’t experience anything this bad,” and the book of Job teaches us that that’s faulty thinking.

“The book of Job is a great book, and like many great things our natural tendency is to get it down to a more understandable level so that we can piously misunderstand it.” – Douglas Wilson

If you read later in the book, then you know that this is exactly what Job’s friends did with his suffering. They piously misunderstand his suffering, and assume that because Job’s life is chaotic and he’s lost everything, then he must have done something to deserve it when in fact God is at work in the suffering, and you don’t see the result of his suffering until the end of the book.

  • And I think that’s a practical word in and of itself. You’re not going to understand what your suffering produces in you until you get on the other side of it. So, hang on. It’s been a bumpy ride and it may get bumpier, but if you don’t hang on, you won’t see the good on the other side of your suffering.

Another thing that I think is worth pointing out is that the book of Job is a very direct book that provides little to no explanation to what we’re reading.

  • There’s no historical connection to hardly any other place or event in Scripture. It’s been the archaeologists and historians who have figured out for us that Uz was apart of Edom so we can assume that Job was an Edomite, and then in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) there’s an added paragraph at the end of Job that tells us that Job was the second king of Edom mentioned in Genesis 36:33, known as Jobab… which would explain his immense wealth and prosperity.  It is also supposed that his three friends (four if you count Elihu at the end) were members his cabinet.

One final thing, by way of introduction, when someone brings up the question of evil, we’re quick to respond because we all know the Genesis 3 narrative, but we quickly learn that there is a vast difference between, “Why is there suffering?” and “Why am I suffering?”

  • The first question is philosophical and theological.
  • The second question is practical and personal.

The Story So Far…

The story so far up to our passage is that we are introduced to Job, his family, and his possessions, and then in 1:6-12 we see a picture of a time when some heavenly beings came before God. They are identified as the sons of God (1:6), and then we read where Satan does what he does best. He accuses Job before God, he basically says, “You know, God, Job doesn’t really love you. He loves all the things that you give him, but He doesn’t love you, but if you were stretch out your hand against all that he owns, he will curse you.” And then this is God’s reply in Job 1:12.

“Very well,” the Lord told Satan, “everything he owns is in your power. However, do not lay a hand on Job himself.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence.” – Job 1:12, CSB

And then that’s when all hell broke loose in the most literal sense of the phrase.

  • Have you ever had hell break loose in your life? If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

    • You’ve got bills back to back and you can’t get caught up, you’ve got projects at work that just pile up on your desk, in your family you’ve got loved ones dropping left and right, it just seems like out of nowhere everything hit you all at once and you can’t seem to find a normal.

    • I think one of the most freeing things is that you are not the first person to experience this. You are also not the most important person to experience this either.

    • The undeserved suffering of Job points to a greater undeserved suffering. Jesus undergoes unimaginable suffering and violence at the hand of violent men all for us. He stands in our place, and takes beating, our scourging, even our death, and then He resurrects so that we could resurrect with Him in the newness of life. It’s for those reasons that we might consider Job to be a theologian of the cross.

The rest of chapter 1 includes the death of robbery and destruction of all of Job’s property, and the death of his children, but the chapter doesn’t end there. Job gives God praise with these words, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

And then verse 22 says, “Throughout all this Job did not sin or blame God for anything.”

Where We Are Now

In chapter 2 we come back to this scene in heaven where the sons of God present themselves before God, and Satan was there again and as the conversation goes on Satan accuses Job again, and says, “He still doesn’t love you, you know. A man will give up everything he owns in exchange for his life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 2:4b-5)

“Very well,” the Lord told Satan, “he is in your power; only spare his life.” 7So Satan left the Lord’s presence and infected Job with terrible boils from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.” – Job 2:6-7, CSB

And again, if it’s not one thing it’s another. First his property gets destroyed, his children are dead, and now he’s covered in boils.

And then in these last few verses in chapter 2 is where we’re going to get the majority of our application from.

“His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” 10“You speak as a foolish woman speaks,” he told her. “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” Throughout all this Job did not sin in what he said.” – Job 2:9-10, CSB

  • Job’s integrity is recognized by his wife. I think that’s significant because integrity is a lot like humility. Once you recognize those things in yourself you no longer have them or at the very least you make people skeptical of you.

    • I don’t trust people by nature, but if you tell me that you’re humble or that you have integrity, I’m going to doubt you even because you don’t trust your own humility or integrity enough to let someone else see those things on their own.

  • I think the fact that Job’s wife saw his integrity and asked him if he was still going to retain it creates an important question: Does our integrity in God show to people around us?

  • When we suffer, can people tell by looking at our lives that we retain our integrity?

Job’s Integrity

If we look at what we know about Job’s situation up to this I think there’s a two things that make up Job’s integrity and that I will make up ours.

Trust in God’s Sovereignty

First of all, Job trusts God’s sovereignty. What does it that God is sovereign. It means that He’s in control. He’s large and in charge. Nothing happens that is outside His control.

“That which should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and He brings or allows to come into our lives only that which is for His glory and our good.
– Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts

Remember what Paul says in Romans 8:28.

“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28, CSB

  • How many things? All things. What about the death of a loved one? Or worse yet, what about the death of a child? It’s not up to us to figure out how those work for our good and God’s glory, but it is our responsibility to trust God in the process.

When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, he went and spent time in prison, and then Potiphar’s wife accused him of sexual misconduct against her, he still was able to tell them, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

  • God is always working good for His people. Always. And it’s because He is good.

Which brings us to the second part of Job’s integrity. He not only trusted God’s sovereignty, he also trusted in God’s character.

Trusting in God’s Character

We not only believe that God is large and in charge, but we believe that He’s good.

  • In Genesis, when God begins the work of creation, he finishes off his whatever he’s creating and he says plainly, “It is good” and then when he created man, he said that man was very good.

  • Good can only come from good. God is the ultimate source of good, James 1:17 even says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17, NIV)

  • Psalm 34:8 tells us “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” The Bible is filled with invitation after invitation to see God, but there is something that stands out to me in Psalm 34:8.  David is telling us that if taste God, if you even get just a little sample, you will find Him to be good. That’s a guarantee.

    • I think the word “taste” is really interesting in this context because when we think about our tastes, not everyone likes the same thing, but David is saying that it doesn’t matter your “tastes” are, it doesn’t what you like or don’t like, if you really seek God, and if you really pursue Him in His Word with the love and support of His Church, then you will find Him, and not will you find Him, but you will find Him to be good.

Those are the two things that are essential about God, He is good and He is powerful, and that’s what Job acknowledges.

When his wife tells him, “Curse God and die,” Job doesn’t take the easy way out by shaking his fist at God, he asks her a very deliberate question in chapter 2, verse 10 that I want to ask you, “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?”

  • In this verse, Job acknowledges that both come from God.

Commentators and “scholars” can try to weasel their way around this passage all they want to, but Job very plainly says that when God holds out His hand toward you, you had better take what’s in it whether it’s good or whether it’s adversity.

  • The old King James Version renders it this way, “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10, KJV)

Regardless of whether the thing that God hands you looks good or whether it looks evil, God is always going to use it for good.

Now, we read the book of Job and we know the ending, he got his stuff back and we think that’s the good that God was working all along, and that’s part of it, but if you think the end of Job is about Job getting his stuff back then you have a very materialistic superficial view of Scripture.

  • Even if Job hadn’t got his stuff back even if he was still sick, and even if he was poor and destitute, there still would’ve been good in Job’s life that God worked. And that is in Job 38 and 39 when God speaks to Job, reminds him about all of His inner workings in the universe, and then Job finally realizes that the world is bigger than himself, and he repents.

  • The book of Job could’ve ended at that point, and God would’ve still been good. Do you know why? Because you can’t measure God’s goodness in your life by how well you’re doing.

    • And when I say, “You can’t do that” I mean it in both senses of the word.
    • You can’t in that you’re not allowed to, and you can’t because it’s impossible. It’s not a fair treatment of God. God is good whether or not your circumstances are. And really, I think that’s good news for us.

God is good even when we’re not. God is good even are circumstances are not. God is good even those around us want to accuse our God of not being good.

In his book “If God is Good…” Randy Alcorn talks about a story that Sinclair Ferguson used to tell.

“In January 1852, a search party found Missionary Allen Gardiner’s lifeless body. He and his companions had shipwrecked on Tierra del Fuego. Their provisions had run out. They starved to death.

Gardiner, at one point, felt desperate for water; his pangs of thirst, he wrote, were “almost intolerable.” Far from home and loved ones, he dies alone, isolated, weakened, and physically broken.

Isn’t this one of those stories told to raise the problem of evil and suffering? Indeed, if the story ended like this, we would find it tragic beyond description.

Despite the wretched conditions of his death, Gardiner wrote out Scripture passages, including Psalm 34:10: “The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing” (KJV). Near death, his handwriting feeble, Gardiner managed to write one final entry into his journal: “I am overwhelmed with a sense of goodness of God.” [page 175]

That’s what I want for us. In our deepest moments of turmoil and affliction, I want us to be able, with confidence, to say that we are overwhelmed with a sense of God’s goodness.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing one more hymn.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, remind us that when we suffer we do not suffer alone. You are there with us, and You love us. We are not alone, and we thank you for that. Lord, send us Your Spirit to apply the word that we’ve been given. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

_____

  1. Sermons and Outlines, http://www.sermonnotebook.org/old testament/job 2_7-13.htm.

Why Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel are Different Manifestations of the Same Thing

When you hear the phrase “Prosperity Gospel,” you might imagine the luxurious mansions and perfect health supposedly promised to any person with faith enough to claim it. The term “Fundamentalism,” on the other hand, may conjure images of stern people in conservative clothing threatening others into good behavior. What could these possibly have in common? Quite a lot, actually.

Both Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel see good things as a reward for good people who make good choices. For the Prosperity Gospel, faith and positivity unlock wealth and health. For Fundamentalism, holiness and submission lead to happiness and success. In essence, the Prosperity Gospel says, “If you have enough faith, then you will be happy and successful,” while Fundamentalism says, “If you make good choices, then you will be happy and successful.” But God doesn’t work that way, and nowhere does he promise health in exchange for faith or happiness in exchange for holiness.

There are some unsettling and heartbreaking implications to this way of thinking. For one, trials in life are seen as the result of personal failure, whether failure of faith or of holiness. Success, on the other hand, is a reward for those who do enough or believe enough. If a person struggles, it is because they are inadequate. And if a person is happy and life is going great, it is because they are great. Those who experience difficulty, therefore, can be judged and should be fixed. And those who are successful can be honored and should be followed.

Let’s look at some examples. In the case of sickness, the Prosperity Gospel urges people to “just have faith” that a reversal of fortunes is just around the corner. A person who believes such nonsense will tell the sufferer to believe better so they can get better, rather than compassionately sitting with the sufferer in the midst of the mess. In fact, when people with this view encounter suffering, they must either believe that the sufferer lacks sufficient faith or reexamine their entire worldview!

In another example, Rachel Joy Welcher recently spoke on Twitter (@racheljwelcher) about Fundamentalism’s view that abstinence guarantees a happy and problem-free marriage. The idea is that abstaining from sexual activity before marriage earns you the reward of blissful marital intimacy and lack of relational conflict. In other words, do good to earn happiness. One problem with this is that when these rewards do not manifest, people feel confused and guilty. Here’s what Rachel says:

Common in Christian dating and purity books from my teen years was the promise that waiting until marriage for sex guaranteed a good marriage. Included in this promise was the idea that the greatest trial your relationship would endure was this waiting. The expectations this creates. The turmoil and fear and false-guilt when marriage is difficult – more difficult than abstinence. One book I read last night promised that “if you wait…you’ll make babies with great celebration” and that sex will be “a blast.” What happens when starting a family is full of loss and pain? When your sex-life is not “a blast”? When those who did all the “right things” and wrote the “lists” are getting divorced?

There are other commonalities between the Prosperity Gospel and Fundamentalism besides false if-then promises. These include the idealization of leaders and a theology that is too enmeshed with a specific cultural context. However, these are topics for another time. For now, let’s look at what the Bible actually teaches and how it challenges these faulty beliefs. 

First of all, the Bible teaches that all people, including good Christians, will experience difficult times (take a look at the book of Job!) and the full range of emotions (see the book of Psalms or Jesus in the Gospels). It does not promise that we will see happy resolutions to our suffering in this lifetime or that we will be successful if we work hard enough. To teach otherwise is inconsistent with what is true.

Second, life’s challenges–ill health, marital strife, or other difficulties–are sometimes the result of our own sin or foolishness. But other times they are because of the brokenness of this world, another person’s sin, a corrupt society, or the Devil. Most often, difficulties occur because of some combination of these reasons. To assume the cause of suffering is always just one of these is not fair to the teaching of Scripture.

Third, the Bible urges us to have faith, to trust in God’s character and God’s promises. However, it is not our faith that unlocks God’s character or allows him to keep his promises. He is who he is regardless of our belief or unbelief; our faith does not create reality. The very fact that God’s character and promises are not dependant on us is the one of the reasons he is worthy of our trust!

Fourth, God does call us to holiness in all areas of life, both as individuals and as communities (see Romans 12-16, Ephesians 4-6). The Book of Proverbs even enumerates the ways that living according to goodness and wisdom may lead to blessings! But our right choices do not guarantee blessings and may even lead to more difficulties (again, see Job).

And finally, regarding motivations for holiness, the Bible provides several motivations beyond the potential happy outcomes. There is the hope of reward in heaven, the call to live according to our new life in Christ (Romans 12:2-2), and the desire to bring God glory. Again, Rachel Joy Welcher has some excellent thoughts on this specifically as relates to sexual purity.

Lovers of God, do we need more motivation (great marriage, lots of babies, great sex, easy-sailing after the alter, etc.) to obey our Savior, than His glory? These books. So full of promises. Dangled carrots. Cultural references. There are lots of reasons people practice abstinence before marriage. Christians should not pursue purity to ensure a trial-free future (this is never a promise in Scripture) or their own personal fulfillment. Christians pursue purity for the glory of God. Because He is our King. And we fail & fumble at this. Some endure theft & rape. Purity isn’t virginity, fitting into a white dress or having the same story, history or future as everyone else. It’s about loving God so much that obeying Him is worship, failing Him is repentance & accepting grace is daily.

Rather than promising escape from earthly trials either through faith or through holy living, the Bible promises that God is with his people in the midst of difficult times. Christians may or may not see success and happiness on this Earth, and we do a disservice when we promise otherwise. Instead we can walk in faith and obedience, coming alongside those who are hurting in order to be a tangible reminder of God’s presence with them in their troubles.

So let us not fall prey to the lies of if-then religiosity in any of its forms. Instead may we embrace the whole counsel of Scripture, walking in holiness and putting our faith in God, not because we believe we are guaranteed happy results, but in order to live as those who are in Christ and whose destination is heaven, where all things will be made whole. ❤️

~Hannah

Check out Rachel Joy Welcher (@racheljwelcher): https://twitter.com/racheljwelcher?s=09 A big thank you to her for her insights and inspiration! 

Why “Be Strong” or “Buck Up” is the Wrong Response to Suffering…

In the context of talking about people in difficult and ongoing situations, someone once asked me: “Why is the simple instruction to ‘be strong’ or ‘buck up’ at best insufficient and at worst harmful?”

When I heard this question, I was immediately struck 1) by my strong feelings on the subject and 2) by my natural ability to answer the question with insight and nuance. This was presumably in large part because I’ve dealt with significant and ongoing health issues (both physical and psychological) in recent years that have forced me to stare the painful realities of life full in the face. While on this journey, I’ve had my share of both helpful and unhelpful responses from people. Concurrently, I’ve had numerous opportunities to deeply connect with other people who are suffering, even when their suffering is quite different than my own. All that to say, I guess it makes sense that when I was asked the above-mentioned question, I felt both passionate and somewhat-competent in writing up the following reply…

Telling someone who is suffering to “Buck up!” or “Be strong!” shuts down conversation by shaming the person, instead of providing a safe place for healthy dialogue and compassionate understanding. It says that you are not willing to try to understand the other person’s situation, that you’re not willing to walk with them through this trial.

It overestimates the power of the human will and emotions. It assumes that if only the person tried harder or thought more positively, things would be better. It assumes that the problem is with the person’s effort or attitude. This ends up isolating the sufferer from resources and people that may be necessary for their situation.

It guilts people about things which are largely not under their control, instead of freeing them with knowledge that some things are not their fault, while providing a safe and empowering environment in which to make choices over those things that they can manage.

It downplays or denies the reality of the difficult parts of the human experience and the validity of unpleasant emotions. This means, of course, that such persons will be of little or no help in actually dealing with such experiences.

Basically, telling someone to “be strong” or “buck up” shuts down conversation and relationship, isolates the sufferer, guilts and shames over that which is out of the person’s control, may prevent the sufferer from getting the help they need, and denies the reality of the full human experience.

– Hannah

(Picture from: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1398985/Sheryl-Sandberg-Real-empathy-is-sometimes-not-insisting-that-it-will-be-okay-but)