Selected highlights from this sermon.
Suffering. We tend to think our suffering is because of Satan, and in some cases this is true. But suffering can also be from the hand of God.
God will allow suffering in our lives to expose the sin that we need to deal with. But that’s not the only reason we encounter hardships.
In John 9 we read of the man born blind. Was his suffering due to his sins or perhaps those of his parents? Neither. Jesus said the man was born blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him.
We may never know why we’ve had to suffer. But we can live in such a way that our suffering brings glory to God. Job lost ten children. Paul lost his health. Naomi lost a husband and two sons. Jesus was beaten and crucified. All of their hardships and agony brought glory to God.
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Suffering for the glory of God! After all, what we’re learning in this series of messages is that nothing else really matters except the glory of God.
Of course, as you know, there are many different kinds of suffering. I shall list just a few. There is physical suffering. Some of you live with chronic pain. Some of you who are listening may be diagnosed with a terminal disease such as cancer, and we’ve all seen people go through excruciating physical suffering and how awful it can be. Some of you may be going through a time also of emotional suffering. You live with depression. You live with a sense of rejection, a sense of alienation and loneliness, and you feel a sense of being unsuitable for God, and you live that way, and sometimes it’s hard for you to find a joy in the journey. And then of course we could talk about marital suffering where you have conflict in the home and all that that means in marriages, and between children and their parents, and parents and their children. How much pain can this world endure?
There are other kinds of suffering as well. There is suffering that is inflicted upon us by others. There is also that which we have brought upon ourselves. Some of you are going through times of financial suffering because you don’t know how your bills are going to be paid and you scarcely have enough money to be able to catch a cab or perhaps a bus to come here to The Moody Church, and you wonder about the future. Suffering is all around us.
Unfortunately, there are many Christians who do not see God’s hand in their suffering. We must understand that there are two different responses to suffering or two different intentions. That’s a better way for me to say it. On the one hand you have Satan’s intention of suffering in the lives of Christians. His intention is very, very clear. It is to make us miserable and cynical and to cut our hearts off from God. His intention is indeed that we no longer trust God and that we don’t believe in His goodness, and as a result, we turn inward, bitter, angry, jealous and self-serving. That’s Satan’s intention, and there are some Christians in whom he is winning those battles. I have no doubt about that.
I remember my parents were friends with a woman who came over from time to time and for two or three hours did nothing but complain. She had complaints about her pain, complaints about the doctors, complaints about the nursing home, complaints, complaints, complaints. And you looked at her and you thought, “I’m looking for Jesus there somewhere but I’m finding it hard to find Him.”
And so Satan wins temporary victories in our lives. I say temporary because as Christians the future is secure, but temporary victories because we don’t see God in the midst of it. God’s own purpose for suffering is very different. It is to break us, to humble us, and to develop His relationship with us. Suffering is really God trying to put His arms around us, and how many of us absolutely resist those arms, and we become angry as I mentioned before.
You know the Bible says in Philippians 1:29 (a very interesting verse), “Unto you it is given on behalf of Christ to believe on him.” All of us believe that faith is a gift of God and so God gives us the opportunity to believe on Him. It is a divine gift, but the rest of the verse says, “Unto you it is given to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for his name.”
In the next few moments I want you to see suffering as a divine gift in your life, coming from God’s hand for God’s purposes. And it’s a gift that I don’t want you to resent. It’s a gift that I do not want you to be angry about but to be able to see the larger picture of what God has in mind for His glory and for His honor. That’s the agenda.
Now there are so many different passages of Scripture I could turn to, to show that the Bible is filled with teaching about suffering. Nowhere in the Scripture do we ever come across a phrase where Paul says, “Now, I am really sorry that you are suffering. That’s really too bad.” You don’t find it in the Bible. Everything is “Rejoice in your tribulations. Count it all joy when you fall into diverse trials,” because if you and I see God and His glory we will suffer well.
So what I’ve decided to do is this. Rather than use one passage of Scripture, I’d like to use a number of passages—a number of examples from the Bible that help us get into this whole business of suffering to pull back the curtain and see what God has in mind. And I’m going to invite you to turn, if you will, in your Bible to a few passages of Scripture. If you prefer to listen that’s fine, but join me on a journey because at the end of this journey I’m going to ask you to submit to God in a way that perhaps you have not submitted to Him before in whatever suffering He has brought into your life. I want you to see suffering as His gift to us.
Are you ready for the journey? First of all, suffering glorifies God. It glorifies God when God uses it to expose our sin that we deal with. The best example is Job. You can turn if you will to Job 42 for just a moment. I’m going to be reading a few verses, but remember the story of Job. He loses ten children. There are ten fresh new graves on the hillside. His wife is not supportive. She says, “Curse God and die.” Job’s friends come and in chapter after chapter they are trying to unravel the mystery of suffering, and they are saying in effect, “Job, if you were a righteous man you wouldn’t suffer like that. Cough up your sin. Tell us what it is.”
Did you know that it is always wrong for you to judge someone because of the suffering that they are going through, and to assume that somehow it is because of their sin? Now in some instances we can see that clearly, of course. If you are involved in an addiction, the consequences are evident, but for the most part you and I have no clue, because there is no direct cause-effect relationship between the extent of somebody’s suffering and whether or not they are righteous. As a matter of fact, the Bible says that God chose Job because he was upright, he feared God and turned away from evil, and it’s because of his righteousness that God allowed him to suffer.
So in the end what is God doing in Job’s life? Yes, he was righteous, yes he feared God, but there was more sin in Job’s heart than he knew about, and suffering brought it to the surface. There’s nothing like suffering to bring out what is within us. Job indicated that he was self-righteous. He was angry with God. He didn’t trust God. He didn’t like the way God was dealing with him. There was really no submission in his life despite the fact that he was probably one of the most religious and good men that was on the earth at that time. Now after that God reveals Himself to Job, and now we’re in chapter 42.
In verse 5 Job is saying in the presence of God, “I heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job is a righteous man but God needed to reveal to him the depths of his sin so that his relationship with God might be strengthened, that he might be able to accept this trial as from the hand of God for God’s glory, and God brought Job to that point as a result of suffering. Nothing can do it. Sermons can’t do it. There’s nothing like sickness that makes you realize how sinful and petty you really are. Dr. Alan Redpath (who for many years was a pastor here—a very godly man) went through a time when he had a stroke, and in his suffering he said that when he was recovering from his sickness he saw in his life anger and lust and jealousy and all kinds of sins that he thought he had dealt with, and he ended by saying this: “I concluded that there is nothing in Alan Redpath that is good except Jesus Christ.”
Suffering, my friend, is good. We can suffer for God’s glory when God reveals and exposes our sin. I’m going to say something that is hard to hear, because Job’s children certainly were precious to him and to others, but God was saying, “When I really want to get to a man, even his children are not untouchable,” and God took Job’s children to get to Job’s heart. Job ended up not being angry with God but saw his suffering as part of God’s program for him, and that’s the sense in which his suffering glorified God.
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she,
But oh the things that I learned
When Sorrow walked with me.
Suffering to the glory of God!
Let me give you a second example and that comes to us from the Apostle Paul, and you know the story so well you need not even turn to the text. The Apostle Paul is going through a time of difficulty and in 2 Corinthians he says, “I had the temptation to be proud.” That was because he was given so many revelations. People would say, “Oh, Paul, he’s got a direct hotline to God. Look at the way in which he is writing inspired Scripture.” Jesus personally appealed to him and appeared to him (first of all appealed to him and then appeared to him), and so people began to say, “Oh, you know Paul just walks on water.” He said, “Lest I become proud as a result of the abundance of revelations given to me, there is given to me a thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know exactly what the thorn was. The Greek word is skolops. It is a stake in the flesh—probably some physical pain. In chapter 12, verse 9 of 2 Corinthians the Apostle Paul cried up to God three times, “Take it away. Take it away. Take it away.” God said, “No, I’m not taking it away, but I will supply grace.” God said, “My grace is sufficient for you for my strength is perfected in weakness,” and Paul said, “Most gladly will I therefore rather glory in mine infirmity that the power of Christ might rest upon me.” In other words, if it takes pain to give me power, I’ll accept it from God’s hand.
Let me say this: You and I, because of the pride of our hearts, have within us our heart, which is a temple whereby we worship ourselves. All that really matters is us, where we live, how much we earn, what other people think of us, our health. There’s nothing wrong with being concerned with those things, but that’s as far as it goes and we do not have compassion. We cannot see beyond our own need, and in our pride and in our self-will and in our self-defensiveness there we are, and God comes along and weakens us, because what God wants to say is, “You need a new sense of dependence upon me if you want my power.” Paul says, “I will glory in insults.” Let me give you the whole list. He says, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecution, calamities. I’m content with them because I see God in them, and when I am weak,” he says, “then am I strong.” In other words, Paul was saying, “I could become angry at God. I could close my heart toward him. I could doubt his goodness. I could become bitter. I have all of those options but I choose rather to see God in this affliction and have a whole new sense of dependence that my pride might be brought low.” And you can suffer for the glory of God when God does that in your life.
Another example is we can glorify God in suffering when it extends the Gospel. You know the Apostle Paul was in prison, very probably in Rome, chained to guards. This is what he said in Philippians 1. Listen to it carefully. He’s saying, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And now most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Paul says, “Here I am in prison confined, but I see God in this. I have the opportunity to witness in prison, and if my suffering gives me a platform on which people are willing to listen to my calamities, and not to listen because of the calamities but because of what I am willing to endure for Christ, and I endure it cheerfully, I am witnessing right where the Gospel needs to be, and my witness is inspiring others to be bold too.” Paul says, “Hey, I’m content to be in jail if my suffering does that.”
Some of you work in environments that are very, very difficult. I know that there are those who I have talked to who say that in your work environment there are all kinds of innuendos. There are all kinds of people who are trying to undercut one another. It is a very unkind, unclean environment, and you want to get out of it. And I say to you; before you get out of it, remember this: You are the best witness these dear people have and if you are suffering, if you’re going to work and you are discovering hardship, it is a platform on which you can live out the Gospel (not in a judgmental way, but in a way that honors God) and be there for people when the bottom falls out of their lives. Then remember that that kind of suffering is good because after all it extends the Gospel, and Paul says, “I am willing to put up with this as long as I have the opportunity to tell somebody about Jesus.” And in that sense, Paul glorifies God right where he is.
Let me give you another example, and for this we turn to the Old Testament, and that is that sometimes we suffer for future generations. Let me tell you the context of the book of Ruth. There is a woman by the name of Naomi. She marries a man by the name of Elimelech. They leave Bethlehem, which is known as the House of Bread (in Hebrew Beyth Lechem) because there’s a famine in the House of Bread, and they go to Moab, and they choose to live there for ten long years. They have two sons and suddenly Elimelech dies, and Naomi is left a widow, and then of all things, her two sons also die and she is left with two daughters-in-law.
Then Naomi has heard that Bethlehem is doing better economically. There is some bread there now so she is leaving Moab and now she wants to go to Bethlehem, and the two daughters-in-law accompany her. One of them turns away: Orpah. Did you know that Oprah is a misspelling of the name Orpah? I think that’s why Oprah Winfrey has such a unique and special name. Orpah turns back but Ruth decides to go with her and says, “I want your God to be my God.” All right, that’s the context.
Now listen to how Naomi is responding. Naomi’s name means pleasant. The people in Bethlehem say, “Hey, Naomi’s back. That’s great.” Listen to how Naomi is interpreting this in verse 20 of chapter 1. She says, “Do not call me Naomi or pleasant. Call me Mara (The word Mara means bitter.) for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought this calamity upon me?” At least give her credit for knowing that her calamity ultimately came from God, though there were secondary causes. But here she’s saying, “Call me bitter. I left full. I had a husband and two sons. Now I am a widow and here I am. God has dealt bitterly with me.” Is there a widow who is listening to me today and that’s the way you feel? You’ve lost a husband, and maybe you’ve lost a child to boot. You’ve lost your identity perhaps. You’ve lost your friends, and you feel like Naomi. “Don’t call me pleasant. Call me bitter.”
Now if we had gone to Naomi and said, “Why do you think God brought that calamity upon you?” she probably would have said, “I have no reason at all to know.” Now of course God wanted to do a work in her heart for her to accept her calamity, and later on she does because things turn out pretty well for her, but listen to the way in which the book ends.
You’ll notice it says, “Ruth married Boaz,” and then verse 17 of chapter 4 says, “And the women of the neighborhood (after Ruth had a child with Boaz) gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi (Naomi’s actually the grandmother)’ and they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David,” and your jaw drops. And Ruth shows up in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1.
If you had said, “Naomi, why is God being bitter with you, or at least you think that he is being that way?” she would not have been able to look centuries into the future and to know that the reason that God brought all of this about (certainly one of the primary reasons) was so that Ruth might be converted to the true God, the God of Israel, and secondly, God wanted a Moabitess in the genealogy of Jesus to show that the Gospel is really for everybody and not just for the Jews.
Listen, you don’t know the half of the reasons why you are suffering. That’s why we have to trust God. That’s why we read together “the trial of your faith, being much more precious that gold that perishes,” because Naomi needed to trust God, and God’s picture was so much bigger than hers, she had no way of knowing the far-reaching implications of her sorrow, and her moving from Bethlehem to Moab, and then from Moab back to Bethlehem. She didn’t see that. She died without knowing it. Imagine.
In John 9 there’s a man who was blind from his birth. I should have looked it up. I think it was 27 years or was it 47 years? I didn’t look at the passage but for many, many years he was blind, and the disciples say, “Now, who sinned-this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In other words, whose sin do we attribute it to? They were interested in the cause-effect relationship. They were saying, “We can judge how good a person is by how much they suffer. If you were born blind, maybe you sinned in some way before birth, or your parents sinned, and they said, “Jesus, who did it?” And Jesus said, “There is no direct cause-effect relationship here.” He said, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents.” He didn’t mean that they were sinless. He meant that there was no causal relationship between their sin and the blindness, but Jesus said that he was born blind that the works of God might be manifest in him. It takes your breath away. Throughout all those years sitting in blindness, did he know the reason why he was blind? Of course he didn’t. Later on it became clear to him when Jesus healed him and opened his eyes.
At the time that you are going through a trial, you see no purpose in it whatsoever. That’s the time to trust and believe God that even though you don’t see the purpose now, if you can see further down the road God has purposes that you and I never know about. And blessed are those who understand that it is because of the future, and the blessing that we are to others through our suffering and that that also is part of the equation. That man in his blindness suffered to the glory and the honor of God.
Now, of course, God is also honored when we see Him as being entirely worthy, and I’m not going to turn to this passage, but you can read it later. In Ephesians 3 Paul talks about the wisdom and the greatness of God being displayed throughout all of eternity and then Paul says, “For which also I suffer.”
And that leads me to some conclusions I want you to write down. If you say today, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I am not suffering today,” you’re the one who should be taking notes most carefully because your day is coming. It’s guaranteed. It’s on its way. Wait till tomorrow.
Number one, we can glorify God not just by winning, but also by losing. Let that sink in. We can glorify God not just by winning, but also by losing. Think of it this way. Job lost ten children. Paul lost his health. Naomi lost a husband and two sons. You see, we have this idea that unless we are always advancing, always going up the ladder, always from one success to another, always keeping up with others that somehow that is God’s blessing. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is in the setbacks of life where we see God’s glory most clearly.
Blessed are those who go on believing and trusting when they do not see God’s purposes but know that it has come from His hand, and they go on and they keep on believing no matter what. Blessed are those. It’s the trial of your faith, as I mentioned, that is more precious than gold that is perishable. Wow!
Think of it this way. Jesus not only glorified the Father by His resurrection (and we know how He did glorify the Father by his resurrection), but Jesus also glorified God as a result of the crucifixion. In fact, before He was crucified He said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified thereby.” Oh, well there He is hanging on the cross. He looks as bad off as the other two that are on either side of Him. He looks as weak and as helpless as the thieves, and there He is, and He is glorifying God.
We don’t always have to win. Oh, it takes the pressure off of life. If you sincerely believe that nothing else matters except God’s glory, it’s as if you are taking the weight from your shoulders and you are just rolling it onto the ground, and you are walking away a free person. You really are.
A young man said to me, “Would you pray that I might be able to get through my comprehensive exams?” I said, “Sure, I’ll pray that, but is it okay if I also pray that you’ll glorify God just as much if you fail?” Well, he swallowed hard and said, “Yeah, you can pray that too.”
We don’t have to always win. Look at the people in the Bible who suffered and died suffering. From a human standpoint they weren’t winners but from God’s standpoint they glorified God in their weakness and in their suffering, and in the next message in this series I’m going to speak on how to glorify God in death, because remember Jesus told Peter how he was going to die, “and this he said to Peter by which death he was to glorify God.”
Death, I believe, is the crowning example of how we can give glory to God. So we don’t always have to win. You see, what God wants to do is to crush us, to bring us to the place of Job, to bring us to the place of Paul, where we stop resisting His hand. Of course we do all that we possibly can to alleviate our suffering. We go to doctors. We go for help. We do everything we can, but at the end of the day you can’t get rid of it all and you embrace it, and you say, “This has come to me from God. I’m going to lay down the weapons of a rebel and I’m going to accept it and thank Him for it, and give Him glory.”
Let me give you a second lesson, and that is that time is short, and eternity is long. I love that verse in 2 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul says this. He says, “This light affliction….” And do you remember what he went through with a thorn in the flesh, people who tried to undermine him, the resistance of many groups that were against him, insults, stoning a number of times? He went through all that and he says, “This light affliction is but for a moment and works in us an exceedingly great and eternal weight of glory.”
I was brought up in a culture where we used to (when I was young) actually have scales where you put a pound on this side and then you’d balance it with a pound on the other side, and that was how you would know (if you went to a grocery store) how much meat or whatever it was you were buying. That tells you a little bit about my age. It also tells you why I never read medical books. I’m always scared that I’m going to die because of a misprint. (laughter) But anyway, I remember those scales, and I remember them well because I was in a store where, as a little boy, I put my hand on one of those sides, and the proprietor was not amused and let me know it. It’s amazing how those things stick with you throughout the years.
What the Apostle Paul is saying is, “Take all of your trials, take the cancer, take the difficult marriage, take the financial pressures, take the jealousy that is in your heart and confess it, and be content with where you are at. Take that and put it on this side of the scale and it is the weight of a human hair in comparison to an elephant on the other side. He says that, “This light weight works in us a far exceeding weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Eternity is coming and it’s really long, and do you know what I think Paul actually is saying? He’s not just saying that God is going to have all of eternity to make it up for us, though he’s saying that for sure. What he is saying is that the greater the suffering, the greater the glory, and that’s why you and I should be known as people who suffer well. In fact, the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians actually says that that’s the mark of him being a true Apostle. He says, “If you want to know if I am a true Apostle, I’m good at suffering. That’s my pedigree. That’s my certificate.” And the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison is coming, and no wonder the Bible says we rejoice in trials. We don’t fight them. We lay down our anger against God and against others. The trials have humiliated us. The trials have given us a new sense of dependence. We trust God beyond what we can see, and we trust Him and we suffer differently.
There’s a third lesson, and that is that Jesus, of course, models suffering. Do you want to know how to suffer? Look at Jesus. Now here’s a verse that maybe you have not read for a long time, and I won’t ask you to turn to it but I want you to listen as I quote it. It’s from Hebrews 5. It says that Jesus, “in his flesh, cried up to God with longsuffering and tears unto him who is able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared,” and then it says (Really, I’m not making this up. That’s the footnote), “and though he were a Son yet he learned obedience by the things he suffered, and having suffered he became the heir of salvation, having been made perfect.” I neglected to mention that phrase “through suffering.” You say, “Well, wasn’t Jesus perfect?” He was absolutely perfect in His person. There’s no question about it. He was sinless and incapable of sinning. We believe that, but was He perfect in His mission? Could he have decided at the Garden of Gethsemane to say, “You know what? Father, from what I’ve seen of humanity I’m on my way to heaven. I’m going to forget the cross.” Aren’t you glad that He didn’t say that? Would that have made Him perfect in His mission? Obviously not! He had to go through suffering. He had to suffer in order to fulfill His mission.
Now I won’t ask for a show of hands, though I should–well, let me because it’s just between us. How many of you have ever prayed that God would make you like Jesus? Can I see your hands, please? “Oh Lord, please make me like Jesus.” Well, you know what you prayed for? You prayed for a cross, it seems to me. That’s the way God brought Jesus perfect in His mission, and are you telling me that we’re all going to pray that we’re going to be like Jesus, and God is not going to use the very same instrument in our lives as he used in the life of Jesus to bring it about? And so at the first little bit of struggle, and the first little bit of trial we immediately complain and say, “Where’s God?” Isn’t that exactly the way we are? Because we don’t see God in this. And because we don’t see God, that’s why we can be believers in Christ with an eternal inheritance and be utterly miserable with no joy and no faith–nothing.
God says, “Therefore we rejoice in trials, knowing that tribulation works patience, patience experience, experience hope. Hope makes not ashamed because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us.” Finally, we see God. We give up our weapons. We embrace our circumstances because at the end, nothing else matters except His glory.
There’s something also that I need to tell you about the suffering of Jesus that is very unique from others. You and I may suffer physically and in other ways be rejected by people and have evil be spoken against us. But Jesus suffered differently, because on the cross He actually bore our sin and our iniquities that were laid upon Him. You see, there are some of you who are listening to this message and you say, “I could never trust God like that. I don’t even know Him. How do you expect me to trust Him?” Well, let me tell you how you get to know Him. It is when you acknowledge your own need and the fact that you need a savior. You don’t just need a good teacher; you actually need a savior, and you trust that savior as your very own. And you say, “You, Lord Jesus, having died for sinners, bring me to God, and therefore through faith I receive You as my own.” And when you receive Christ, here’s the promise: “As many as received him to those he gave the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on his name.” And you claim that promise for yourself, and then you know Him. Then He creates love in your heart for Him–supernaturally created within us because we don’t have it naturally, and we desire to follow Him all the days of our lives, all the way to eternity, knowing that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. But we’re on our way to an eternal kingdom, and it will be entirely worth it to glorify God in our suffering. Are you ready to begin? Today would be a good time to begin.
Would you join me as we pray together, and those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, I’ll give you an opportunity to do that, and those of you who are believers, angry with God, angry with circumstances, refusing to see God in the midst of your need, God is after something. He would not have brought all of that sorrow into your life unless He was after something. Let Him put His arms around you and deal with the issues.
Lord, we are such poor sufferers. Help us to look more like Jesus in our suffering, and help us to know that we don’t have to compete. We don’t have to always win. We don’t always have to do this or do that. We can be content with where we are at with hardships, with insults, with pain, with shattered dreams, because we know that You are bigger than all those things, and You are after something–namely our hearts. Take from our hearts, Lord Jesus, the coldness and the cynicism. Instead of our heart being a temple where we worship ourselves, help us to genuinely worship You.
And now for those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, you can receive Him right now if you say, “Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. Your Spirit is teaching me that through the Word, and I also know that Jesus is the Savior and today I believe on Him as mine.” You tell Him that.
Lord Jesus, draw us ever nearer, even through the storm. We love You. Amen.
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