Life in general has its fill of challenges, in everything from finances to relationships to health to every other aspect. Sometimes we would like to think that Christians are exempt from this. There are certain preachers that do claim this. We are supposed to be kids of the King and so our life should all be all about wealth, comfort and prosperity. But that is not the experience of most of us.
I have experience a certain amount of adversity. While my life has not been terrible bad, I have experienced challenges in most of the areas that people experience. I won’t go into the details but I will say that at times, responses from Christians often made things worse rather than better. People tried to explain away our suffering, always well meaning, but usually not very convincing.
This is the fear that I have in preaching this message. I don’t know the details of your challenges. I don’t know how you feel about your challenges. And I don’t know what God is doing through your experience.
Having said that, the Bible is not silent about faith in the midst of adversity. Our faith is one that is able to respond to adversity and that does not have to die in the face of suffering.
Paul and Adversity
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one his most joy-filled letters. This is sometimes referred to as his epistle of joy. Certain letters of his show Paul getting a bit grumpy, but this letter gives us Paul’s best side.
The strange thing is that the story is written in the context of suffering. This is one of Paul’s prison epistles, a letter written while he was in prison. I have only spent one night in jail and I hated and over twenty-five years later I’m still complaining about it. Paul is spending a lot more time than that and he is completely innocent of all wrong doing. Paul has every reason to complain about his situation. But instead of focusing on the bad, he sees the positive. Being imprisoned gives Paul a captive audience with his guards to talk to them about Jesus. They can’t escape his evangelism because they are obligated to keep an eye on him.
Paul also reveals that he is experienced conflict within the church. There are preachers who are attacking Paul and who were preaching with wrong motives. They may have been ancient equivalents of televangelist, preaching to make money. This should make Paul angry but it doesn’t. The reason is that no matter why they are preaching, Jesus is being preached. God can use these preachers, even if they have the most selfish reasons and people are getting the message.
The lesson here is not to simply see every cloud having a silver lining. When we read all of Paul’s letters, he never ignores suffering, even in his own life. He has no problem in admitting that pain exists.
What Paul is really doing is demonstrating that his joy does not depend on how good or bad things are. There is a difference between happiness and joy. We are happy when things are going well. But we can have joy even in bad circumstances. Joy is not based on what is happening to us. Being in jail and hearing dishonest preachers didn’t make Paul happy, but he could rejoice because God was present and active in those circumstances.
Each of us here represent a wide variety of experiences. Whether in our past or our present, we can identify with a certain amount of suffering.
I don’t want to try and wash away your pain with a Christian platitude. “Just turn that frown upside down.” “Remember Jesus loves you.” “Just try to pray more.”
It is important to understand the full biblical response to pain. The Bible confronts it head on and doesn’t try to hide it. The Bible acknowledges that it is real and that it hurts. And so should we.
The question is, Can our faith survive adversity? Honestly, there have been people who have walked away from God because of bad things that have happened.
To me, it all comes down to what we expect of God. Do we believe in a God that puts our comfort and prosperity at the top of his priorities? I have heard many stories of people who gave up on God when trouble came because they couldn’t believe in a God that would allow them to suffer. I have had my share of challenges but my question is not about why God allows suffering but about what he is doing in the midst of the suffering.
The passages of Scripture that I am drawn to include the Psalms and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. What I love about the Psalms is that the Psalmist is painfully honest about how bad things are and then states that they will remain faithful to God. In Gethsemane, the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prays to the Father. Despite being the Son of God, Jesus demonstrates a real dread about the cross. He doesn’t attempt to hide his emotions and yet is determined to follow the Father’s will.
While some people give up in the midst of adversity, some of the most spiritual and faithful people I have met are those who have suffered. Their suffering drew them closer to God rather than away from. Many of the most moving hymns of the church were written by people who suffered. The areas of the world where the church is thriving the most is where it is most difficult.
Christianity doesn’t just acknowledge suffering, it embraces it. Our symbol is the cross, a symbol of suffering. Through the cross, God comes to know suffering, not just as facts but as experience. God can meet us in our suffering because he is already there.
I wish I could give you a nice little formula that will make all of the adversity in your life make sense. I can’t do that. What I can do is affirm that suffering is real and that we are free to be honest about it as Christians. We do not have to pretend that everything is all right.
More than that, there is hope in suffering. There is even the possibility of joy. Joy is based on our relationship with God and not our circumstances. Paul understood that. Life was tough and yet he rejoiced because he could see God at work. We can have joy as well. The God who suffers can redeem our suffering. It may not make us happy but it can give us joy.