I am the vine, you are the branches. In me you will bear much fruit, but you can do nothing apart from me. John 15:5

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Suffering – Part 2

Learning to Suffer Well: Acknowledging Sin’s Role in Suffering

by Mike Riccardi

Earlier this week, I met with a prospective seminary student for lunch. As is common for first-time meetings at Grace Community Church, our discussion began with testimonies of how the Lord saved us. This particular brother had a Christian friend whose very welcoming family often shared the Gospel with him and invited him to church. As friendly and as clear as they were, though, the seed of the Gospel fell on fallow ground—until the father of the family had contracted a life-threatening illness. When this young man saw how the family responded to suffering with such confidence, joy, and peace, his heart began to pay attention to the Source of that steadfastness. He began to read his Bible with greater earnestness and listen to the sermons he heard in church with greater interest. Eventually, the Lord saved him.

I tell that story because it only further legitimizes the need for Christians to learn how to suffer well—how to suffer righteously. I mentioned in last week’s post how necessary it is to be equipped with a theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of a particular trial. The fact of the matter is, the heat of an intensely trying time often clouds our vision and our judgment, so that we fail to act the way we know we should. We respond to suffering sinfully because we have not prepared to suffer righteously beforehand, when our vision is clear.

A Second Lesson

To help prepare us to fight the unbiblical thoughts, attitudes, and actions that we are tempted to have in times of suffering, we’ve turned to the example of Jeremiah as outlined in the Book of Lamentations, hoping to glean five lessons on how to righteously respond to suffering. We saw the first of those last week: One way to suffer righteously is to identify with and suffer along with those who are suffering. We are to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). A second lesson to learn in the pursuit of suffering well is that we are to acknowledge sin to be at the root of suffering.

Just as it is significant that Jeremiah identifies with the suffering of his people even though he had little to no part in bringing it about, it is also significant that in his deep mourning Jeremiah acknowledges Israel’s sin. Unlike Job, Jeremiah’s lamentations in response to suffering contain no protest of innocence. He confesses that this judgment is due to “the multitude of her transgressions” (Lam 1:5) and that she “sinned greatly” (Lam 1:8–9) and “rebelled against His command” (Lam 1:18). He goes on to say that Israel’s iniquity had exceeded even that of Sodom (Lam 4:6), and that even the prophets and the priests worked unrighteousness (Lam 4:13). He makes no excuses for the people, but accepts their responsibility for the suffering they are experiencing.

A Caveat

Now, it’s important that we make the point that not everyone who suffers suffers as a direct result of particular, personal sin. That’s an error that Job’s counselors made, and they were severely rebuked for it when God showed up at the end of the book. It’s also an errant accusation Paul’s opponents made against him in 2 Corinthians, and throughout that letter he presents his suffering as evidence for the authenticity of his apostleship, not as evidence for its falsehood.

Better Than We Deserve

However, we do need to acknowledge that on a general level, all suffering is a result of the condition of sin that we find ourselves in as sons and daughters of Adam. Had we not sinned in Adam, and had the human race never fallen into sin, we would never have known suffering (Gen 3:7–24; Rom 5:12; Rom 8:19–25).

And because of our sin, we all deserve to suffer infinitely and eternally—to a horrifying degree and all the time. When we suffer, the comfort that we do receive from the “Father of mercies” (2Cor 1:3) is just that: mercy. That the comfort is mercy implies that we do not deserve it, for mercy is the withholding of deserved punishment. One impediment to responding to suffering righteously is thinking that we are entitled to something other than suffering.

In reality, we deserve even worse than we experience. After all, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (2 Pet 2:4). That we are all not suffering eternally in hell at this very moment is a sheer gift of God. The only difference between our sin and the sin of the angels who were damned without mercy is that our sin was graciously paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ (cf. Heb 2:16).

And so when we undergo suffering—even intense suffering—we should not act surprised as if we deserved something better (cf. 1 Pet 4:12). Our attitude should reflect the wisdom of what Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:39–40: “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins? Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to Yahweh.” In our times of suffering when we are tempted to complain, we should be reminded that we are but dust and are entitled to nothing good at all. Remembering that in ourselves we are hopelessly sinful, and that even in intense suffering we are getting better than we deserve, will equip us to suffer with a biblical worldview, and thus will strengthen our joy and endurance in our trials.

HT: The Cripplegate

Suffering – Part 1

Learning to Suffer Well: Weeping with those who Weep

Many times when we suffer, the first Bible book and Bible character that pops up in our mind is Job. And that makes sense. That’s why the book of Job is in the Bible—to teach us how to actually trust in God’s sovereignty and respond to suffering righteously.

But the suffering that Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, endured at the time of the Babylonian captivity was just as severe. Job’s sufferings were indeed horrifying, yet there’s something to be said for the fact that his sufferings were fairly personal. Jeremiah’s sufferings, on the other hand, were on behalf of an entire nation wickedly brutalized and ripped from its land. On top of that, Jeremiah himself had not followed in the unfaithfulness of his countrymen which brought this judgment upon them. All the while, he acted righteously and proclaimed the word of Yahweh as the sole voice of faithfulness. Certainly his suffering is worth considering, and the way he responds is worth imitating.

Spread out over a few posts, I want to take a look at how Jeremiah responded to the suffering of Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile, in the hope that we can glean some principles or lessons on how we can righteously respond to suffering.

Some of you might be thinking, “But things are actually going pretty well right now. I mean, nobody’s life is perfect and stress-free, but I’m not really going through any serious suffering.” These posts are especially for you. In fact, it’s best to be equipped with a rock solid theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of it, so that when we do go through various trials we will be able to fight the unbiblical attitudes, thoughts, and actions that we are tempted to have in those trying times. The best defense against responding to suffering unrighteously is to prepare to suffer well before that suffering comes.

He Weeps with Those Who Weep

So, what are some ways of thinking, believing, and acting that would indicate that we are suffering well? The first lesson that I’d like to consider today is that Jeremiah identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.

What is immediately identifiable at the opening of Jeremiah’s lamentations is that he himself laments and mourns over the destruction of his people. He shares in Israel’s pain, by identifying himself with her. He even personifies Israel and speaks for her as if they were interchangeable. Notice, in 1:2 he says, “She weeps bitterly in the night and her tears are on her cheeks…” But then he switches to the first person: “For these things I weep; my eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter,” and so on (Lam 1:16, 18, 20–21). Later he identifies himself with Israel by referring to them and himself collectively in the first person plural (Lam 3:40–47). He also speaks as himself and tells of his own tears and trouble (Lam 2:11; 3:48–50), his own affliction and brokenness (Lam 3:1–4), and his own shame and despair (Lam 3:14–18). Though he has spent forty years telling them that this destruction would come unless they repented, he did not celebrate their destruction in spiteful vengeance, as if to say, “I told you so!” Rather, their misery moves him to compassion and to prayer.

In a similar way, this godly compassion and love-for-God’s-people-because-they’re-His ought to cause in us the same sentiment. We are to identify with the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, suffer with them, weep with them (Rom 12:15), and comfort each other out of that genuine compassion.

If One Member Suffers

This principle is carried through into the New Covenant ministry of the Church. 1 Corinthians 12 says that the Church collectively is Christ’s body, and that those who make up the body are its individual members. And so, Paul reasons, if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1Cor 12:27, 26). Because we belong to the Lord, not one of us lives or dies to ourselves (Rom 14:7), for we are united to Him as His body (Rom 6:3–7). And if we are united to Him, we are united to one another (1Cor 12:12–14).

Jesus Wept

When Lazarus had died, and Jesus had finally arrived at Bethany, Mary was so grieved that she didn’t even leave the house as Jesus was approaching (Jn 11:20). When she did get up to meet Jesus, those around her thought that she was simply going to weep further at Lazarus’ tomb (Jn 11:31). Then, in her grief, she falls at Jesus’ feet and almost blames Him for her brother’s death. You can almost see her incredulous, tear-filled gaze at Jesus as she says through the sobs, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:32). She was heartbroken.

Then the text says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled” (Jn 11:33), and then in verse 35: “Jesus wept.” Though the Jews interpreted His weeping as love for Lazarus—which of course had something to do with it—notice that the text says that it was Mary’s weeping in grief that moved Jesus in spirit. Jesus is grieved not only out of compassion for Lazarus (whom, by the way, He knew He would raise from the dead within minutes), but because He identified with the suffering of Mary, who was dealing with the pain of losing her brother.

In the same way, then, friends, if the love of Christ is in us, the compassion of Christ must be in us. This compassion was in Jeremiah for Jerusalem at the time of the exile. And the man who wept with them for 40 years, warning them of the coming judgment that had now taken place—the only man who did not deserve the punishment brought upon Israel—did not stand self-righteously aloof with his arms folded and a smirk on his face, saying, “I bet you wish you would have listened to me!” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Instead, he identified with his people and suffered along with them.

And so should we.

My eyes fail because of tears,
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is poured out on the earth
Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
Lamentations 2:11

HT: The Cripplegate

Upcoming Blog Series

In the coming 2-3 weeks, we will be covering two significant topics on The Vine Church blog:

God’s word and suffering.

Both of these are present in our world, sometimes in varying degrees, and will be with us until we take our last breath. How a person engages both with God’s word and suffering will determine how they experience the world God has created and the world that He is Lord over.

Please share your comments and questions. You can also email for any further follow up: jeffLweaver@gmail.com

Competitive Motherhood: Are you under the podium instead of on top?

Yesterday, our church looked at the doctrine of conversion and new birth and the preacher made a claim that doctrines produce life. Right thinking about God and His ways produce abundant life in Him and by Him. Here’s an example.

Below is a fantastic post from Tim Challies regarding competitive motherhood. The doctrine of conversion and new birth tells mothers that they have been converted from this guilt-ridden, hampster-on-a-wheel, exhausting life and born into a life boasting in weakness. God says, “this, my dearest daughter, is who you are, not what you need to try to be, but who you are.” These doctrines promise the woman who has turned from herself and fully received Christ, that she is not guilty, a hampster or exhausted in her identity. She is weak and united to a capable God. This is who she IS. Contentment starts there, before any action, earning, or Pintrest posts can even be made.

The doctrine of conversion places a responsibility to not only take hold of a promise like this, but to reject and turn from (maybe literally) anything that invites you to retain “the former ways.”

For mothers reading this, how do you go about rejecting, forsaking, truly repenting and turning from the things that inflame your desire to compete?

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We are quite the competitive bunch, we humans, and really, given the opportunity, there isn’t much that we won’t or can’t turn into some kind of a competition. I don’t know if this is innate in our humanity or something bequeathed to us in the Fall into sin, but what is certain is its certainty—we just plain love to compete with one another. Or maybe it’s better to say that we hate to compete, but we do it anyway.

One of the greatest, most common, and most bloodthirsty contemporary competitions is motherhood. Yes, motherhood. It may be that motherhood has always been competitive, but the Internet in general, and social media in particular, have widened the field. You are no longer competing against only neighbors and sisters-in-law and fellow church members, but the professional moms, the ones who are reinventing motherhood. It’s always a losing battle.

Today you open up Facebook or blogs and you see daily updates from the moms who lead the way, who set the standards. They keep the house spotless every day, even while homeschooling six kids. They never miss a day of devotions and love every minute of working their way through Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. They go thrifting and put together a magazine-worthy home on a budget of very nearly nothing. They dress beautifully or eclectically or whatever their style is, without spending any money. Their husbands are that perfect combination of handsome and harmless, good-looking but not demanding. Their children are mischievous but not rebellious, they make funny messes in the home, but nothing that can’t be fixed with a hug and a few homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Of course these moms also chart and photograph every one of their triumphs. Julian says it well:

And whatever you do, if you are a good mom, you must make sure you get it all on camera so you can post the pictures on Facebook and the ideas on Pinterest to let everyone know you’re keeping up. Plus, you should probably earn some income (at the very least, open an Etsy shop) to prove you’re not inferior to the women around you who hold down jobs.

Most moms consider themselves to be in the little leagues, just barely learning the rules of the game, but through the Internet they’re now directly comparing themselves to the big leaguers. Not surprisingly, they find themselves falling woefully short.

The fact is, mother is more competitive than it has ever been. No longer do you just need to raise your children and care for your home and help your husband, but you also need to do it publicly, to display your triumphs for all the world to see. Perhaps worst of all, you need to watch others do it better than you. Every day you will see evidence of your own shortcomings.

As if that isn’t already bad enough, so many women appear to have a near-infinite capacity for carrying guilt. I don’t know of any challenge or opportunity or responsibility—however you want to classify motherhood—that lends itself more readily to guilt. Many mothers live in guilt from the day they first become pregnant (“I can’t believe I drank coffee! I need to take more vitamins!”) to the day they die (“So many opportunities missed!”). Husbands feel great freedom to chip away at a wife’s confidence and so, too, do children. “Why don’t you spend more time with the kids? If you really loved me, you’d let me…”

Is there a solution? Is there a way out? Of course there is. Instead of boasting in your strengths as a mother, or wanting to be able to boast in your strengths as a mother, why not boast in your weakness? Only when you accept your weakness, your insufficiency, will that competition and guilt begin to melt away. Gloria Furman says it well:

You and I may never be nominated for the fictitious Mother of the Year award. The proverbial trophy case will remain dusty and empty. But nonetheless we should boast all the more gladly of our weaknesses and need for God’s grace so that Christ’s power will rest on us (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Glorying in God is a truer and better award than the adulation of others. Considering God’s potential to deliver all the grace he promises us in Christ is a truer and better estimation of the potential of 2012. So let’s start a new year rejoicing in God’s work of making us a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Grounded in the objective truth of the gospel, of what Christ has done for guilt-laden, competition-losing mothers, this provides true hope and freedom. It comes not by a mother’s own accomplishments but by what Christ has already accomplished. It levels the field, it destroys the competition, it brings glory to the ultimate Victor.

HT: Tim Challies

 

Preparing for Sunday’s Sermon

On Sunday we will take some extended time to reflect on what we all have been learning from the scriptures. Feel free to share scriptures, their impact on your lives, and questions you may have regarding them.

Also, we will take a second, and more in-depth, look at Peter’s preaching of the gospel in Acts 3:12-26 to gain insight on:

– how to share the gospel of Christ

– understand what he meant in his plea to the audience in v.19: “repent and turn back.”

 

Here are passages of scripture to read and study as you prepare for Sunday (you can click each):

Genesis 1:1
Genesis 12:1-3
John 3:1-8
Romans 8:28-30
Titus 3:3-5
Revelation 21:1-5

Thoughts for Mother’s Day

As we celebrate this Mother’s Day, may we be reminded and consider the many realities that are true today:

– Jesus Christ is the most important person in the world
– Mothers and their faithfulness are essential to God’s plan for the family
– women in our midst are unappreciated by their families
– women in our midst want recognition from people rather than from God
– women in our midst have many children, have been blessed with fertility, and are blessed by our support of their endeavors
– women in our midst have had abortions, are single, struggle with infertility, and feel less of a woman by not being a mother
– not all women will have children or want to have children
– all women are called to disciple others, in particular, older women and younger women
– women in our midst have children that are following the Lord in obedience
– women in our midst have children living in rebellion and indifference to the Lord

As people redeemed by God, we are meant to see Mother’s day not in isolation, but as integrated into the personhood of Jesus Christ. For those who celebrate motherhood, it’s blessing and it’s goodness, we and God celebrate with you. For those who mourn on Mother’s day, who are reminded of pain, who can’t wait for it to be over, we and Jesus weep with you. Jesus himself promises to be greater than the brokenness. He promises to save. He welcomes your doubts, as one who is gentle and lowly in heart. Below is a reflection from Bryan Polivka that catches up our view of motherhood into the image of Christ.

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Matthew 23:37
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those
who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

Here is the cry of Jesus’ heart, God’s heart, and he expresses it as a mother’s
love and desire for her young. An amazing thing for a male Jewish leader in that
culture, one in which women were generally considered weak and unworthy.

God is the Father, true, but He also created motherhood. And here we see that
there are cries of the soul that reach into the deepest heart of God, that only a
mother’s love can accurately reflect.

And before we assume that unless you’re a mother you can’t know about this…
we need to remember that Jesus was in fact not a mother, but male, unmarried,
and without children… so motherhood is clearly not just a situation of life that
some experience and others don’t. Rather, it’s a place deep in the soul where all
of us who follow Jesus, and want to be like Him, and are alive in His Spirit, can
and should go. A place from which all of us can and should live.

Motherhood is that place from which we look out and see our children, our
families, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our neighbors, and even our
enemies… with a great, deep longing and compassion. A desire that they would
know, and revel in, the love and security and heartfelt joy that only Jesus offers
them.

“How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her
chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling.”

May we all, always, have the mother’s heart that is the heart of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel – News that is very Big.

What is the gospel of Jesus Christ? May you find encouragement from this short clip. Below is how the Vine Church defines our first of three core values: A Gospel Vision. Have we reduced the gospel or allowed it room to grow?

The gospel, or good news, is the announcement of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done on our behalf – both make Him the most important man who ever lived. A gospel vision progressively sees our reality the way that God sees it:

–          Jesus Christ is God, not us or anything we make the centerpiece of life
–          He has died on the cross as our substitute, identifying and solving our greatest problem: sinful separation from God
–          He has been raised to life, providing our new identity and the power to accomplish all that He desires of us
–          He reigns now and forever, expanding our hope and directing our plans

This good news explains the world around us, ourselves and God Himself. To have a gospel vision, sees any situation, any emotion, any relationship, any task, any problem or any hope from this perspective. By God’s grace in Christ we will see like He sees.

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