A Former Muslim’s Story

This is the season of Immanuel, God coming into the world to dwell with us, the incarnation. It is more than myth or legend, this God-Man Jesus changes lives, and people do not recant in the face of hostility and death. Take a look at this Voice of the Martyrs video at one family in Iran.

Matthew 5:10-12, Mark 10:29-31, Luke 21:12, John 15:20, Acts 7:51-53, 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5, 2 Timothy 3:12, 1 Peter 4:12

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Suffering and Glory

These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.

According to the Bible, suffering is an alien intrusion into God’s good world, and it will have no part in his new universe.

  1. Suffering is often caused due to sin, or the sin of others: children suffer with unloving or irresponsible parents, poor and hungry people suffer from economic injustice, refugees suffer from cruelties of war, people suffer in road casualties cause by alcohol.
  2. Suffering can be a reckless use of our freedom. There is cause and effect but it is much different than Hindu karma. Think about how unreliable the universe would be receiving pain for every wrong step and pleasure for every good step.
  3. Suffering is due to the human sensitivity to pain: but pain is a valuable warning sign that something is wrong (Dr. Paul Brand, leprosy, and feeling pain).
  4. Suffering is due to the kind of environment God has placed us: laws of nature are in effect when the hurricane devastates a coastal town.

Stoics believed that suffering is meaningless, but Jesus spoke of it as revealing God’s glory. What then is the relationship between Christ’s suffering and ours? How does the cross speak to our pain?

Patient Endurance: while suffering is to be recognized as evil therefore resisted, there comes a time when it must be realistically accepted. It is no credit to us if we are beaten for doing wrong, but if we suffer for doing good and endure it, this would be pleasing to God (1 Peter 2:18-23, Hebrews 12:1-3).

Mature Holiness (Hebrews 2:10, 5:8-9, 7:28, James 1:2-4): Jesus was made perfect through suffering, and he was never disobedient. Here are biblical images of suffering and discipline:

  1. A father disciplines his children: this is an expression of love. No discipline means no love.
  2. God as a refiner of gold: heat to purify and remove the dross.
  3. Jesus mentions his allegory of the vine: pruning to bear fruit.

God intends suffering to be a means of grace; it develops humility and deepens insight.

Suffering Service (John 12:23-26, 32-33): death is more than the way to life; it is the secret of fruitfulness. Unless it falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. Paul found meaning in his suffering; the greatest secret of evangelism or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die for the sake of others:

  1. For the sake of the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1, 13)
  2. For the sake of the body (Colossians 1:24)
  3. For the sake of the elect (2 Timothy 2:8-10)

The Hope of Glory (Hebrews 12:2): suffering should be expected; don’t be surprised by it (Matthew 5:10-12, John 15:18-21, Philippians 1:30, 1 Thessalonians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:21, 4:12, 2 Timothy 3:12). It is the hope of glory than makes suffering bearable. What happens to us down here cannot compare to the next life. Suffering is God’s appointed path toward sanctification (mature holiness), multiplication (fruitful service), and glorification (our final destiny).

The Ground of a Reasonable Faith: Job had the attitude of self-pity and self-assertion, while his friends’ attitude may be described as self-accusation. The goal is self-surrender, which Job realizes at the end of the book.

The Pain of God: the cross of Christ is proof of God’s love, that it is personal, loving solidarity with us in our pain. Philip Yancey wrote a book called, “Where is God When it Hurts?” and asked an interesting question, “If God is truly in charge, somehow connected to all the world’s suffering, why is he so capricious, unfair?” Similar to Job 9:23, like God mocking the despair of the innocent. But God is not on a deck chair watching us, he was on the cross, and continues to suffer with us today.

Outside of Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept with those who grieved and snorted with indignation. He wept over Jerusalem, lamenting over their blindness and obstinacy.

Nobel Peace Prize winner (1986) Elie Wiesel wrote about his time in the death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald and came to this conclusion: he heard over and over the question about “Where is God? Where is he?” and as they were force to watch hangings at the gallows, he heard it again, “Where is God now?” He heard a voice within him answer, “Here he is…he is hanging here on this gallows.” God in Christ suffers with his people still.

Seven Affirmations in the Letter to the Galatians:

  1. The Cross and Salvation (Galatians 1:3-5): an introductory statement that is theologically balance and indicates what the letter is going to be about.
    1. The death of Jesus was voluntary and determined.
    2. The death of Jesus was for our sins.
    3. The purpose of Jesus’ death was to rescue us.
    4. The present result of Jesus’ death is grace and peace.
    5. The eternal result of Jesus’ death is that God will be glorified forever.
  2. The Cross and Experience (Galatians 2:19-21): in context Paul writes about justification, how a righteous God can declare sinful humans as righteous. Several times he repeats it is not by the law. The death of Jesus on the cross satisfied the demands of the law.
  3. The Cross and Preaching (Galatians 3:1-3): once you have begun in faith in Christ, why continue in their own achievement?
    1. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross visually (prographo).
    2. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross visually as a present reality (to accept or reject).
    3. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross as a visual, present and permanent reality (perfect tense indicates a permanent benefit of the historical action).
    4. Gospel-preaching proclaims the cross also as an object of personal faith (we continue in faith and grace, not personal efforts).
  4. The Cross and Substitution (Galatians 3:10-14): here is the meaning and consequence of the faith. Here is Paul’s logic:
    1. All who rely upon the law are under a curse (Galatians 2:16, 3:10, 11, 12, Deuteronomy 27:26, Habakkuk 2:4).
    2. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (plain statement of substitution, Galatians 3:13).
    3. Christ did this in order that in him the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, by faith (Galatians 3:14).
  5. The Cross and Persecution (Galatians 5:11, 6:12)
    1. Preaching circumcision is to preach salvation by the law.
    2. Preaching the cross is to preach salvation by God’s grace alone.
  6. The Cross and Holiness (Galatians 5:24): there are acts of the flesh and acts/fruit of the Spirit).
  7. The Cross and Boasting (Galatians 6:14): false teachers where obsessed with the numbers of their converts.
    1. To glory or boast in the cross is to see it as the way of acceptance with God.
    2. To glory or boast in the cross is to see it as the pattern of our self-denial.

The Cross in Galatians:

  1. The grounds for our justification (Galatians 1:4, 3:13)
  2. The means of our sanctification (Galatians 2:20, 5:24, 6:14)
  3. The subject of our witness (Galatians 3:1, 5:11, 6:12)
  4. The object of our boasting (Galatians 6:14, 17, Philippians 3:18)

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A New Year with the Basics

I trust you all had a safe New Year weekend. As we start 2011, the Men of Steel desire to be the strong leaders God intends for us to be, so perhaps your resolution may have been to become a better leader and example to those around you. No one gets strong without the preparation it takes to build up that strength. I like this verse:

“Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it. 1 Timothy 4:8-9

Each year, people from around the world compete for the title of the world’s strongest man. These competitions are held in exotic locations and feature events like placing heavy stone orbs on top pillars, lifting large numbers of children on one’s back, and pulling double-decker buses down a street (sometimes by their teeth). The strength and determination of these contestants are second to none, but for them to get to the world championships, they have to be disciplined in the way they train, the foods they eat, and the way they recover from injuries. If any one of these three aspects is neglected, the results could be disastrous.

Christians are not typically known for carrying 300-pound weights long distances, but their feats of strength are equally remarkable. I have read stories about people being healed of sickness and disease, families being reunited, and individuals surrendering their lives to Christ. As leaders, there has to be a constant habit of spiritual training. The apostle Paul understood this and made sure Timothy got the message.

The routine is pretty straightforward:

  1. Talk to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, daily.
  2. Tell him your needs and the needs of others.
  3. Thank him for his answers
  4. Let him know how wonderful he is.
  5. Get to know Christ better by reading the Bible.
  6. Learn what your spiritual talents are and begin to use them.
  7. Spend time with other followers, encouraging and challenging them to become more like Christ.
  8. As opportunities arise, tell those who don’t know Jesus about him and his love for them.
  9. Repeat daily.

If properly followed, this outline will provide a lifetime’s worth of challenge and excitement. It’s time to get serious about the faith. It’s time to become truly strong. It’s time to get disciplined.

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Life Can Be Hard

After Paul had his near death experience (the stoning at Lystra – Acts 14:8, 19), the group packed up and headed to Derbe (Acts 14:20). They preached the gospel faithfully and then went back through the previous cities to strengthen the believers by telling them that “we must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21, 22). The converts needed to be reminded to stay true to the faith.

What did Paul mean using the word, “must?” He meant that it was inevitable in the nature of things. Hardship has a place in the life of a believer, check out 2 Corinthians 4:17, mentioning “our light and momentary troubles achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweigh them all.” Perspective helps us to see that what happens on earth is temporary but our eternity is worth it. Our struggle is not against fresh and blood but against spiritual forces that would have us fail (Ephesians 6:12). A great reminder comes from 1 John 4:4, that God is greater than our common enemy who wants us to fall.

At first we may not think a message of unavoidable troubles very appealing, but check this out:

Recognizing inevitable hardships can motivate us to redirect our energies; fear of the trial can consume more energy than just facing the trial. In redirection, we change our focus from fear to faith. I’m not talking about a prosperity gospel that says if one has enough faith these hardships won’t defeat us, but to stand on what Peter says that hardships will prove that our faith is genuine (1 Peter 1:7).

Believing a heretical prosperity gospel can leave us disappointed, broken, wounded and discouraged. A friend once told me “the only people who believe such a gospel are baby Christians in America.” I tend to agree. I have seen great faith of believers in Africa, who regularly suffer greatly. I see their faith to be genuine, not a result of what they get out of a relationship with God. It is such an insult to their faith to say that if they only had enough faith they would not have children die of worms or malaria, or they would have plenty of food on the table.

We also know unbelievers who may suffer as terribly as believers, but the difference is that our suffering is never in vain; Paul says that we will enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

Application: Do you ever feel that God is against you when your life seems to be falling apart? Take courage in the fact that you and the apostles and early believers are in good company. They did not escape the hardships of life, so why should we be immune to them? See life from God’s perspective, he walks through life with us. We may not experience his deliverance as we would like, but we always have His presence. Paul encouraged Timothy that all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12, John 15:20). Sounds like a certainty to me. Keep the faith.

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