The Beatitudes

Life_in_Tension_web“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:11-12 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes appear in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel immediately after Jesus calls his disciples [1]. In Matthew, we are given the impression that this is an early point in Jesus’ public ministry because chapter 4 occurs right after Jesus’ baptism and starts with his temptation in desert. Furthermore, Jesus’ teaching in chapter 4 sounds a bit like John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17 ESV) Only three verses summarize Jesus’ ministry after calling the disciples (Matt 4:23-25) [2]. In Luke, our impression is a later point in Jesus’ ministry because Jesus’ life is threatened after he heals a man with a withered man on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7-11). In either case, the Beatitudes appear as a special sermon in a commissioning service for his disciples. The disciples’ call to follow Jesus is a call to share in his life of ministry. Jesus tells them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19 ESV)

Sharing in Jesus’ life is, however, is also to share in his suffering.

This message is clear both from the content of the Beatitudes, but also in the content of Jesus’ life. From the point of conception and birth, Jesus’ life is threatened. Divine intervention is required twice to keep his family together and to escape from the murderous King Herod (Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-13). In ministry, Jesus is baptized by John who is himself arrested and later beheaded (Matt 4:12; 14:10). Summarizing this point, Bonhoeffer (1995, 89) writes: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” In so many words, the disciples are being commissioned in the Beatitudes to take up a life and ministry characterized by tension. We know that the disciples got this point because 10 of the 11 faithful disciples died a martyr’s death (Fox and Chadwick 2001, 10).

The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin translation, beati, of the Greek word, makarios (μακάριος), which Jesus repeats 9 times. It means “humans privileged recipient of divine favor”. It can also mean: “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged” (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a) In the Bible, repetition always implies emphasis. Twice is emphasis; 3 times is highly emphatic; 9 times is seriously emphatic and unprecedented—a string of pearls [3].  Reinforcing these repetitions, Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses issuing law on a mountain, while Luke cites both blessings and curses (woes) patterned after the law itself in Deuteronomy 28.

Jesus’ repeated use of the Greek word, Makarios, is hardly an accident. In the Greek Old Testament, Makarios appears in the first verse of Psalm 1:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)

This is a clear call to holiness as defined in God’s law.  It also appears to 2 significant Messianic texts: Psalm 2 and Isaiah 30. The immediate context of Psalm 2, cited above, calls on the faithful to serve the king while he is in good humor, but begins with an ominous warning: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Psalm 2:1 ESV) Clearly, not everyone is excited to see the King! Immediately after the cite in Isaiah 30, God makes an interesting promise for those that wait for him: “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.” (Isaiah 30:20 ESV) The Hebrew word for teacher has a second meaning—early rain [4]. In a dry region like Israel, early rain is itself a blessing. Both citations speak of tension—Psalm 2 refers to political tension and Isaiah 30 refers to adversity and affliction.  By contrast, Psalm 1 pictures integration (the opposite of tension) with ourselves, with others, and with God through obedience to God’s law [5].

In commissioning the disciples, Jesus gives them more than your typical pep talk to sales associates; he redefined what honor means (Neyrey 1998, 164). In the extreme case, he re-framed dishonor in the world as honorable in his eyes. Jesus said:

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12 ESV)

In other words, heavenly rewards follow from earthly persecution. And, oh, by the way, you are not the first to be persecuted.

 

[1] The calling of the disciples occurs in Luke 6:13-16 and Matthew 4:18-22. The Beatitudes follow in Luke 6:20-26 and Matthew 5:3-12.

[2] Guelich (1984,42) describes these three verses as a summary of Jesus’ ministry explained in more detail in the Gospel of Mark.

[3]  The term, a string of pearls, refers to Ben Azzai, a second century Rabbi (Stangler and Tverberg 2009, 43).

[4] ( מוֹרֶיךָ (Isa 30:20 WTT)).

[5] Elliott (2006, 90) observes that “the morality of the emotion is determined by its object.” If the object of our love is God, then we are not only blessed but also morally righteous in the Hebrew mindset.

REFERENCES

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Fox, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Spangler, Ann and Lois Tverberg. 2009.  Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus:  How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

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Suffering

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why do we care about Christ’s suffering on the cross?

The Apostle Peter said it best: “By his wounds you have been healed”. (1 Pet 2:24) [2] The Jewish authorities said that Jesus claimed to be a king and charged Jesus with sedition (Mark 15:2) [3]. In fact, Jesus was a king (messiah) in the Jewish sense, but not a king (political rival) in a Roman sense. For this reason, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate cross examined Jesus publicly and concluded: “I find no guilt in him.” (John 19:4)

Jesus’ link to Pontius Pilate underscores the credibility of his innocent suffering because, even by Roman standards, Pilate was corrupt and brutal—Pilate had Jesus both flogged and crucified solely to satisfy the blood lust of a crowd [4]. The link to Pilate also links Jesus (and the Apostle’s Creed) to a known, historical person. Not only is Pilate mentioned in Josephus, an inscription bearing the phrase “Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea” was found in 1961 in the excavation of a theatre in Caesarea [5].

Jesus’ death on the cross underscores his extreme suffering. The Romans devised crucifixion as a method of execution by torture—it amplified the suffering inflicted. It was a slow, painful death. Crucifixion was so horrific that Roman law forbade Roman citizens from being crucified.

In Jewish tradition, death on the cross meant that one was cursed by God [6]. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Gal 3:13) [7] The implication was that the crime committed was so horrible that the person deserved not only death but also eternal damnation. Burial behind a stone assured that Jesus was truly dead [8].

Because Jesus was sinless and remained innocent, even in death, he became the only sinless person to live after Adam (Heb 4:15). Unlike Adam, Jesus, whose sinless life came to an abrupt end, never gave into temptation. In death, he was accordingly a perfect (without defeat or blemish) sin offering (Lev 4:22–24). In doing so, Jesus became the Second Adam, reversing the curse of death, as validated by his resurrection (1 Cor 15:21–22).

In the same way that the Immaculate Conception con-firms Jesus’ divinity and establishes credibility with God, Jesus’ innocent suffering on the cross confirms his humanity and status as God’s chose sacrifice for our sins.

[1] The references in this chapter to the Apostle’s Creed are all taken from FACR (2013, Q/A 23). Another translation is found in (PCUSA 1999, 2.1—2.3).

[2] The Apostle Paul likewise wrote: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6)

[3] Crucifixion was a penalty for sedition—rebellion against the Roman state. The inscription that Pilate placed over Jesus on the cross in Latin read: “Iesus Nazarenus rex Iudaeorum” (John 19:19 VUL). It is usually recorded with the acronym, INRI, and translates as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

[4] By contrast, when the Apostle Paul found himself charged with profaning the temple only a few years later, another governor, Porcius Festus, simply kept him locked up for two years (Acts 24:6, 27). First century Jewish historian, Josephus (AD 38—100), records several accounts of Pilate that picture him as ruthlessness (Josephus 2009, 3.1).

[5] Pilate was Roman prefect from 26 to 36 AD (Zondervan 2005, 1714).

[6] Deut 21:22–23.

[7] Also see: Acts 5:30, 10:39, and 13:29; 1 Pet 2:24.

[8] The story of the death of Absalom illustrates this point. Absalom rebelled against his father, King David, and raised an army to over-throw him. When his hair got caught in a tree, he was considered cursed by God. David’s commander, Joab, had Absalom publicly executed, buried in a pit, and covered with stones (2 Sam 18:10–18).

REFERENCES

Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online: https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=372.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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McKnight: Insightful Reading of 1 Peter

McKnight_commentary_reviewed_08092014Scott McKnight. 1996. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The NIV Application Commentary has been my default commentary over the past several years because the series takes the narrative of scripture seriously. Once I am acquainted with an orthodox interpretation, I can judge a book from other dimensions. I have taught from the series the Books of Romans, Luke, Genesis, Revelations, John, Matthew, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians (I may have forgotten some books). The series takes seriously John Stott’s division of the homiletical task into 3 things: the author’s context (original meaning), the reader’s context (contemporary significance), and the need to bridge the two (bridging contexts) [1].  This background in the series led me to consider Scott McKnight’s commentary on 1 Peter.

McKnight sets out the goal of “to study 1 Peter in such a way as to highlight Peter’s proposals for Christian life in a modern society” (22). In his overview, he breaks Peter’s message into three points: salvation, the church, and Christian life. Peter describes salvation through Christ’s suffering (1 Peter 2:24). The church is pictured as the family of God. In the Christian life, Peter exhorts his readers to practice hope, holiness, fear before God, love, and growth (32). What caught my eye was McKnight’s observation that 1 Peter is the most popular NT book among Christians living with social marginalization and suffering outside the Western context (35). That would include many Hispanic and Middle Eastern people that I know.

Suffering. It is my own observation that the suffering in my own life–a wife with cancer, a child on dialysis, and a younger sister who died suddenly–has enabled me to witness more effectively to those around me. In like manner, we are drawn to the cross of Christ. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). McKnight’s rendering of 1 Peter and his focus on the role of suffering convinced me that I need to spend more time with this book.

McKnight spends a fair amount of time trying to unpack the social position of Peter’s audience. He views 1 Peter 2:11-12 as a pivotal passage. Are his readers “aliens and strangers”? Is the pursuit of holiness especially important because of their low social standing? If they were literally aliens and strangers—the illegal immigrants of their day—how do we, who are not, read this book? Interesting questions.  In the new, downwardly-mobile, post-Christian context in which most Americans live today, 1 Peter becomes more relevant with each passing day.

Among the NIV commentaries in this series, the McKnight commentary on 1 Peter is a gem. He struggles with interesting questions. His reading of 1 Peter is both balanced and insightful. After reading about Peter’s response to suffering, McKnight convinced me to look also at Paul’s treatment of suffering in 2 Corinthians—a study that I have taken up this summer.

[1] See:  John Stott. 1982.  Between Two Worlds:  The Challenge of Preaching Today.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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2 Corinthians 1: Sealed, Guaranteed, and Comforted

Rainbow over Fairfax, VA
Rainbow over Fairfax, VA

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 ESV)

Paul begins his second letter to the church at Corinth with a statement of his apostleship:  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God (1:1).  An apostle in the New Testament has roughly the same job description as a prophet in the Old Testament.  Prophets do not volunteer; prophets are called (e.g. Jeremiah 1:4-9).

Paul follows the normal form of a letter—from, to, and greetings—but he adds his own twists.  Most of his letters then offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipient.  Here, Paul follows the greeting with a lengthy (1.3-7) blessing of comfort suggesting the purpose of his letter.

In my experience, God is mostly obviously present in times of trial and can be recognized by the comfort He brings.  The psalmist writes:  Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:18-19 ESV)  Noah recognized God’s comfort and covenant through the sign of a rainbow (Genesis 9:13).  The apostle Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (1:3-4)

Interestingly, Paul talks about God’s seal—a sign of ownership and protection—and guarantee—the Holy Spirit given as a down-payment on eternal life.  The Apostle John uses the word, Paraclete (παράκλητος; John 14:26 BNT), which is often translated as helper or comforter.

Garland [1] identifies 4 motifs in this chapter:

  1. Affliction and suffering;
  2. Comfort;
  3. Life and death; and
  4. The interconnectedness between Paul and the Corinthians.

Affliction and Suffering (1.4, 6, 8).  As we have discussed previously, affliction and suffering help us to abandon our idols—particularly the idol of control—and focus on God.  Paul writes:  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (1:9).

Comfort (1.3, 4, 5, 6, 7).  As mentioned above, the Holy Spirit specializes in offering comfort.  Holy dreams and visions, for example, often not designed to inform us but simply to offer comfort.  To let us know that we need not be afraid.  Paul writes:  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (1:7)

Life and death (1.8, 9, 10).  Paul is not a complainer, yet, he sketches out a recent near death experience to reinforce the point that God is not only our comforter, but also our deliverer.  Likewise, the Jewish people remember the Exodus from Egypt not as a spiritual salvation, but a deliverance from physical destruction (Exodus 14:26-28).

Paul’s Relationship with the Corinthians (1.6, 7).  The Corinthians are the beneficiaries of Paul’s afflictions.  Paul writes:  If we [Paul and his friends] are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (1:6) Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the template for our life, death, and resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).  When we minister to others, we then perform a similar sacrificial function on their behalf, like Christ for Paul and Paul for the Corinthian church (and us).

Comfort is God’s trademark.  Paul looks to God in his own afflictions.  So should we.

[1]David E. Garland, 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture.  New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing. Pages 56-58.

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2 Corinthians: Lifting the Veil

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

How can one be strong in weakness?

At the core of the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Church at Corinth is a paradox. Christ was crucified in weakness, but in his weakness displayed the power of God (13:4).  This same paradox was displayed in Paul’s private pain (12:7-9) and his very public humiliation as he writes:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (4:8-10)

This paradox manifests itself in that when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, we abandon our private idolatries and turn to the living God who is our only real hope.  Paul writes: to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over [our] hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (3:15-17) Herein lies the paradox, that our own strength (for the Israelites, the law) veils the presence of God in our lives.

Second Corinthians is a very personal and complex letter. For example, Paul provides two separate lists (6:4-10 and 11:23-29) of own afflictions—who brags about being beaten and thrown in prison?  He is writing from Macedonia (9:2) around 56 AD just before his final journey to Jerusalem.  Theological topics addressed include:  the character of God, salvation, the Gospel, the church, the nature of apostleship, Christian ministry, the Christian life, suffering, stewardship, Satan, and eschatology (Harris 2005, 105, 114-125).

The importance of Second Corinthians in the life of the church is underscored by the attention given to even small portions of this letter.  For example, The Confession of 1967 [1] adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) emphasizes these verses:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (5:18-20)

Paul’s emphasis is on reconciling the world to Christ; the Confession expands on this idea to speak about reconciling the church to divergent groups in society.

References

Garland, David E. 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing.

Hafemann, Scott J.  2000. The NIV Application Commentary:  2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdman.

[1] www.pcusa.org/resource/book-of-confessions

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The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

Slave Ship, Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC

The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA,  August 24, 2003

Greeting

Good morning!

A key point when we face pain and suffering is that God remains with us.  We are not alone.

The prime example of this principle comes in the story of Daniel[1].

Now after Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den, King Darius was astonished that Daniel was still alive.  So, he summoned Daniel into his throne room and asked Daniel why the lions had not eaten him.

“It was easy, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “I went around and whispered in each lion’s ear — ‘After dinner, one of our elders will say a few words.'”

Scripture

Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Amen

 Psalm 51:10-12 RSV

Illustration

Let’s start this morning with a little mind experiment.  Think of someone that you respect.  What is special about this person?  Are they strong? Are they good looking?  What led you to respect them?  Chances are that many of the people you have in mind have suffered serious pain in their lives.

Larry’s Funeral

In July I attended a funeral of a colleague, Larry.  Larry was special.  No one was a stranger around Larry.  Larry had the glow.

At the funeral people talked about Larry’s lust for life and his joy.  Larry was known for his singing.  He was known in the office because he remembered co-workers’ children and asked about them.  About third of the church was filled with colleagues of Larry from other parts of town.

At the funeral, people talked about Larry’s strength.  He was a father and a grandfather.  He could throw a football an entire city block—twice the distance of his own brother.  What really stuck out at this funeral was the long list of testimonials—Larry clearly touched many lives.

Why do I mention this?

Larry was black and confined to a wheelchair for the time that I knew him.  Underprivileged, handicapped, and killed at age of 48 by the disease that crippled him, Larry was no stranger to hardship.  In spite of everything, he persevered in winning the golden crown award in the fellowship of saints.

Challenges Grow Us

We respect people that overcome difficult challenges.  In his book, Where is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey reports that leaders, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Queen Victoria, were all either orphaned at an early age or experienced severe childhood deprivation[2].

Why God?

The problem of pain sums up with the question:  If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he allow such pain and suffering? In shining light on this question, I will divide my comments into three parts.  First, I will look at the nature of pain.  Second, I will review Biblical views on pain and suffering.  Finally, I will conclude with a few words of wisdom.

What is Pain?

Pain communicates.  When we put a hand on a hot stove, our hand seems to shout:  get me out of here[4].  When we do something stupid and suffer ridicule from our friends, we experience a different kind of pain.  In the physical world or a social context, pain demands immediate attention.  It teaches us what to do and what not to do.

In discussing the spiritual side of pain, it is helpful to distinguish avoidable from unavoidable pain.

Avoidable Pain

Avoidable pain challenges our intelligence more than our faith.  When we drive without a seat belt and have an accident, God is not normally blamed.  Instead, the wisdom of wearing a seat-belt becomes painfully obvious.  Not all avoidable pains in this life, however, are equally obvious.

Sin.

The relationship between sin and pain is well understood.  Sin occurs when we do something that we should not do.  The obvious case is murder.  The immediate consequence of murder is the pain of imprisonment or death.

Iniquity.

Iniquity is more insidious than sin.  Iniquity occurs when we fail to do something that we should have done (Proverbs 3:27).  Iniquity can not only produce pain, but also a consuming guilt and shame.

When I think about iniquity, I remember a puppy that we had when I was in high school.  This puppy was very enthusiastic and slipped out of the house one morning as I was walking to school.  That morning I was late and the puppy did not catch up to me until I was quite a distance from home.  Upset with him, I sent him home.  Obediently, the dog immediately ran across the road and was struck dead by a passing car in front of my eyes.  I had done nothing wrong, but what I failed to do cost that innocent puppy his life.

More than sin, iniquity challenges modern society.   Consider, for example, the effect of technology on our ability to work 24-7.  As work fills our lives with good things, we have less time to raise our children, care for our elderly parents, and commit time to God.  The workaholic has no special proclivity to sin, but finds iniquity a constant challenge.

The Learning Process.

In the example of the workaholic, it is ironic that something good (like work) should lead to something bad (like iniquity).  This problem arises because the normal learning process breaks down.

Psychologists describe learning as responses to positive and negative stimuli.  We are attracted to positive stimuli and we avoid negative stimuli.  In other words, if it feels good, do it!  Or, as my doctor always tells me, if it is hurts, don’t do it!

The learning process breaks down when a positive stimulus is associated in the short run with pleasure and in the long run with pain.  Such phenomena are described as social traps.  Smoking, alcohol or drug addiction, cheating on our spouses and compulsive attention to work are all social traps.  In each case, the immediate gratification of our desires leads us where we would not normally choose to go.  Because the learning process breaks down, social traps require spiritual instruction.

Unavoidable Pain

Because God gives us the freedom to make decisions, bad decisions can generate avoidable pain.  The problem is that we cannot always avoid pain caused by other people’s decisions and the natural world has rules that all of us must respect.  Accidents happen.  Unavoidable pain is accordingly a consequence of free will and life in the natural world (Lewis, p. 34).  Still, the tendency to blame God for our pains has been with us since the time of Job.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (p. 90) describes suffering as: any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.  Like Lewis, I use the terms pain and suffering interchangeably because of personal experience.  When my wife, Maryam, began her battle with breast cancer eight years ago, her surgery and physical recovery were completed within weeks.  The immediate pain went away.  The scars on her soul and mine, however, never completely healed.

Perceptions of Pain

During World War II, anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher noted that only about one in three soldiers injured on the battlefield requested morphine while about four out of five civilians with similar injuries made this request.  This led him to conclude that physical injuries and the perceived pain are not directly linked (Yancey, p. 177).

Beecher’s conclusion makes sense because morphine calms a patient’s anxiety.  We can infer from Beecher’s observations that soldiers and civilians differ in their morphine use primarily because their sources of fear differ.  For the soldier, a trip to the hospital meant that he would likely survive the war.  For the civilian, the trip to the hospital meant pain and potential disabilities.  In effect, the soldiers’ joy in leaving the battlefield came associated with physical injuries that would terrorize a civilian.

Because fear magnifies our pain and suffering, pain management and a full recovery require that we deal with the spiritual side of healing.

Biblical Views of Pain and Suffering

God works to grow our faith and relationship with Him.  Sin thwarts this objective but God typically does not immediately punish us.  The point of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was to redeem us from God’s judgment and to bring the hope of eternal life—the Good News of the Gospel.   The Biblical view of God’s relationship with His creation can accordingly be interpreted as an antidote to the pain and suffering of the natural world.

The Beatitudes

To understand how Christ’s earthly ministry could end with the cross and the resurrection, it is helpful to begin with the Beatitudes—the happy attitudes.  In Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
”Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
(Mathew 5:3-4 NIV).

Notice that Jesus starts his sermon with suffering[7].  What could be more ironic than: happy are those who suffer?

Billy Grahm on Pain

In his book, The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham describes the mourners in the second Beatitude as those who mourn of their own spiritual inadequacy before God[8].  This is not a spirit of self-pity.  Rather, it is someone who has sensed the presence of a Holy God and found the comparison with self unbearable.  Mourning of spiritual inadequacy is accordingly followed by mourning for repentance (P. 20-21).  More to the point, we are all born under sentence of death, mourn under pain of death, and need the comfort of redemption.  Suffering accordingly plays a key role in our understanding of Christ’s redemptive ministry.

Pain And Suffering As A Wakeup Call

The Beatitudes give us hope that redemption, not suffering, is at journey’s end.  It is accordingly not surprising that the Bible disputes the common notion that God uses pain to draw attention to our sins.

The clearest example of this principle is found in chapter 9 of the book of John.  When Christ heals the man born blind, he answers the question of sin directly: who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus answered:  Neither this man nor his parents sinned, …but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1-3 NIV)[9]As in Christ’s ministry to the blind man, the point of our pain and suffering is not to draw attention to sin but for God to build a stronger relationship with us (Yancey, p. x).

Spiritual Warfare

In the Bible, great pain accompanies great joy.  In Mathew’s account of Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph flee in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s attempt to murder the Christ child[10].  Although we love to celebrate the joy of Christmas, the original Christmas story was marred by genocide and the stench of death.  Great pain accompanies great joy[11].

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Consider the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven.  During the period when he was losing his hearing, Beethoven wrote his ninth symphony, the Choral Symphony, taking the text from Friedrich von Schiller’s poem, Ode to Joy.  On its opening night in 1824 Beethoven conducted the orchestra. The music was so beautiful that some of the musicians cried.  Yet, Beethoven heard none of it.  He was so deaf that when the symphony ended a member of the orchestra had to get up and draw Beethoven’s attention to the audience who had already begun to applaud.  Had Beethoven given into depression in his deafness rather than looked to God for inspiration, the world would have been robbed of one of its greatest musical treasures.

Beyond Pain

Just like we must look beyond the pain of crucifixion to see the joy of the resurrection, we must look beyond the suffering in our own lives to see the perfect future that is in Christ.  Just as James writes:

Consider it pure joy, my friends, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-5 NIV).

This Biblical view of pain accordingly turns the stimulus-response world of human psychology upside down.  Normal learning is disrupted because a positive response (that is, joy) follows a negative stimulus (that is, suffering).  In Christian psychology, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.  This is why Paul writes: but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Words of Wisdom

In confronting pain and suffering, we are not alone.  We are not alone!  As the Apostle Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NIV)

Like Daniel in the lions den (Daniel 6:10-24), we testify to our faith by how we cope with pain and suffering.

Why Me?

The temptation in time of great adversity, of course, is to turn inward[13] and ask:  Why me?  The consequence of turning inward is that we end up blaming God for our problems and we become slaves to fear.

Stressful Year

During about a 12 month period in 1992-93, I lost my job, my son was born with a kidney defect, and my wife went through her first battle with breast cancer.  This was the hardest year of my life and I reacted by retreating into my work.  Out of deep seated fear, I worked every waking hour to learn new skills and to advance my career.

Initially, this approach worked.  I found a better position and was later promoted.  As time passed, however, the office situation changed.  Technical skills became less important and I found myself less able to adjust—I lacked self-confidence and fear prompted me to turn ever more inward.  It took me almost a decade before I was able to trust God enough to pull out of my shell.  While these years were not exactly wasted, I vowed before God that I would never again let myself become a slave to fear.

Where is God Leading Me?

Instead of asking why me, a better question to ask is:  where is God leading me?  Focusing on God’s plan for our lives is not only better theology; it diverts our attention away from our suffering and directly reduces our pain.  The change in attitude is also critical.  We are no longer victims of our own fears, but servants of an almighty God who are both willing and able to cope with the adversity.

An important byproduct of our own suffering is an increased capacity to minister to those suffering around us.  As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV).

The strength that we gather from a life at the foot of the cross therefore allows us to be available to those who suffer around us.  Can you listen?  Can you empathize?   In the words of Paul: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi [14]

Lord, grant that I may seek rather

To comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved;

For it is by giving that one receives,

It is by self-forgetting that one finds,

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen

Benediction

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

(Romans 15:13 RSV).

 Footnotes


[1] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel.

[2] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel. Zondervan:  Grand   Rapids, Michigan.  P. 141.

[4]God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains:  it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  Lewis.  P. 93.

[7] It is interesting that in the much shorter version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Luke 6, Luke also highlights these two among the four Beatitudes he lists.  Mathew lists nine Beatitudes.

[9] Likewise, Job learns to depend on God in adversity (McGee, pp. 188-89; Job 42:1-3 NIV).  Similarly, Paul write:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV).

[10] Mathew 2:16-18. Exodus 1:15-22.

[11] Similarly, in speaking of the second coming in Romans 8:22, Paul describes it as the pain of childbirth which is immediately sweep away by the joy of holding a newborn baby.

[13]If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Ecclesiastes 4:10.  Also, Cloud and Townsend, p. 216.

[14] Graham. p. 24.

References

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend.  1992. Boundaries.  Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor. 1980.

Graham, Billy 1955. The Secret of Happiness, Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain.  MacMillan Publishing Company:  New York.

McGee, J. Vernon.  1991. Job.  Thomas Nelson Publishers:  Nashville, TN.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  New   York:  Bantam Books, Inc.

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