Sunday, January 28, 2018

Rejoice in Sufferings?

Who brags about his troubles? Well, someone who wants some attention and especially some pity might do that. But Christians? And yet, that’s exactly what Paul writes to those saints in Rome. Listen.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…  Romans 5.3-4
And there it is. We rejoice in our sufferings. That could just as properly be translated - not paraphrased but translated - ‘We brag about our troubles’. Now, at first blush that doesn’t seem to make any sense. But, as you know, there are many things about following Jesus that, at first blush, don’t seem to make any sense. What I’m going to do this morning is show you how this actually does make sense. It makes good sense, something that will make life work better for you.

All right, so we brag about our troubles. Why? Paul tells us why.
we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing…
We brag about our troubles because we know something. And knowing things can make a very large difference in how you are able to live well. Imagine you’re traveling cross-country. It’s the wee hours of the night, and you’re on some interstate driving through the middle of nowhere. Not a house or store or anything in sight. Just field after field after field. And then, you glance down and notice that you’re almost out of gas. Is it a time for you to become anxious? Actually, it isn’t. And why is that? It’s because you know something. You know that at the next exit, a mere mile or so down the road, there is an all-night store that sells gas.

Too many Christians struggle with aspects of life because there are things that they do not know, things that they can know.

Paul writes that instead of feeling overwhelmed by the troubles that come our way we Christians can face them quite confidently. And we can do that because we know something about those troubles.

So, what is it that we know? We know that those troubles produce something good.

Now, will they produce this good automatically? Or is there some condition that we need to meet? Well, the fact is that sometimes God blesses us in some difficult situation even though we don’t believe that He will. We find ourselves all stressed out even though He is right there about to act for our good - just like He promised. He is kind and merciful that way. However, I also need to say that there are times when He won’t bless us in some difficult situation because we aren’t believing that He will. He might do that to teach us about the importance of believing Him when life gets hard. The best choice, of course, is always to believe what God has said which will result in your seeing Him produce good out of your troubles - just like He promised.

So, our troubles will produce good. Fine. But what good will they produce? And again, Paul tells us.
…suffering produces endurance…
Now, what is this endurance? It’s the ability to keep at it even though you want to quit. And our being able to endure is actually quite important. Listen to what Jesus said.
​But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Matthew 24:13
Do you see the implication of what Jesus said? Whoever does not endure to the end, whoever doesn’t keep at it but quits, will not be saved. Endurance is a necessity.

Now, don’t fall into Satan’s trap where you tell yourself that this enduring is all up to you, that this enduring is about convincing yourself to keep at it, followed by pushing and pushing and pushing yourself. What is that but trying to be saved by your works, by what you do. No, endurance is the ability to keep at it because of the grace of God that you have entrusted yourself to.

So, when it comes to endurance a key element is prayer. ‘Father, I don’t feel like dealing with this, but I know that I have to. I can’t quit on this, even though I really want to. So, Father, bless me with Your favor. Give me what I need so that I can keep at it.’ Salvation - past tense, present tense and future tense - is always by grace.

So, according to Paul, experiencing troubles results in endurance.

Now, I’m going to guess that how that actually works is not exactly obvious. But looking at what endurance produces will help us here.
…endurance produces character…
I find the word translated ‘character’ very interesting. The basic notion of the Greek word that Paul used has to do with being put to the test and passing that test. This is why a couple of translations render this word as ‘proven character’. Paul writes to the Philippian saints about Timothy.
But you know his proven character… Philippians 2:22 [HCSB]
Timothy has faced various tests and passed those tests. He responded well. Thus, his ‘proven character’. That’s what endurance produces.

But how does endurance result in this proven character? Well, consider again what happens in the life of a saint who actually does endure. What does he do when confronted by some trouble? He appeals to God for the grace to endure. And God grants that. He always grants that request. As a result, that saint is changed. He has faced the trouble and worked his way through it. He endured by God’s grace. After that trouble is dealt with, this Christian is not the same person who faced the trouble at the start. His faith has been tested, and he has passed the test. God acted and has blessed. Because of that, this Christian’s faith has gotten a little more robust. And when the next trouble comes, his faith, his ability to trust His Father, is a little stronger and thus a little better able to respond faithfully to that new trouble. He’s able to endure a bit better. And that results in more blessing. And on we go. A cycle is established. This is a Christian who is becoming someone of ‘proven character’ because he knows how to endure and seeing this fruit of proven character encourages him to endure the next time trouble comes his way.

Here’s something that I’d like you to understand about this. Christian maturity doesn’t come because you’ve read a book or two. Doing that can certainly help. It can prepare you for the battle which is why reading good Christian books is such a good idea. But maturity actually happens in the trenches. Maturity develops as you are actually faced with some trouble and respond well, taking what faith you have and calling out to God for whatever is needed to deal with the problem. Christian maturity happens, by God’s blessing, in the midst of life.

Let’s move on. This building of character, this facing and then passing the tests of faith, likewise produces something.
…character produces hope…
Remember, hope is waiting for God to keep a promise. And how does proven character produce that ability to wait? As you have faced those tests, calling out to your Father, you’ve seen how He has been faithful in responding with His grace. You’ve seen Him in action. It’s because of those experiences and that building up of your faith by those experiences that you are able to tell yourself, ‘My God has been faithful in the past. I know that He will be faithful in the future. He will keep His promises’. And what shall we call that? How about hope?

So, being confronted by troubles of whatever sort, and responding well, will ultimately result in a firmer hope. And along the way, you will develop Christian maturity, something that keeps at it and doesn’t quit. And that’s one reason why we can look at our troubles in a way that is so very different from so many around us.

Now, let me anticipate a question. Does this mean that we need to accept our troubles stoically? Are we supposed to stifle any negative emotions so that we can brag about our troubles? Absolutely not! Christian maturity is not about becoming some unfeeling machine. Quite the opposite. It’s about becoming more human.

Consider the only fully human person since Adam and Eve fell into sin. Read through the Gospels. Examine Jesus’ emotional responses to suffering, His own and others. He was - and still is - a very emotional person.

So, we don’t stifle our emotional responses to the troubles of life. No, we are to be honest with God. We tell Him, ‘This hurts. I really don’t want to deal with this now. I’m feeling overwhelmed by it all, and I don’t like it.’ Read the Psalms.

But at the same time there are things that we know. Suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope. And knowing these things tempers our emotional response so that we don’t give in to feelings of being overwhelmed and crushed by it all. Because of what we know, we are able to take the next step in the face of trouble and then the next and the next until that trouble is endured and dealt with.

Now, what might you do with all of this? Here’s one thing that I’d like you to do. Work to understand what I’ve just told you. It may be that for some of you this has been a review of things that you already know. Good. But there’s still more for you to understand. There’s always more for us to understand. But for some of you this is something that is a bit new. Whichever group you find yourself in, spend a little time going over what I’ve said. See if there are questions that you have about these things. See if there are gaps in your understanding of how to face troubles. To benefit from a sermon, you need to do more than just listen to it and then move on to the next thing. Work to understand what you’ve just heard.

I’m urging you to do this because you’re going to be confronted again by some trouble or other, if not today, then for sure it will happen tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be some great crisis. Trouble comes in lots of different sizes. But it will come for you. What I want is for you to be well prepared to deal with it when it does come. That’s how you will mature.

The other thing you might do is examine your past. Consider how you responded when trouble came your way. Don’t start with some catastrophe. Start with smaller situations, some smallish disappointment, whether at home or at work. How did you respond? Now, you might find that you’ve been learning how to respond well to your troubles. That should be so very encouraging. Progress! Even so, you might see some times when you didn’t respond well. The thing to do is to try to see why. Where was the fork in the road where you could have gone right and handled it well, but you went left instead? What aspect of the trouble seemed to be just too much? And when you discover these things, consider what you might have done instead. What would handling it well have looked like? Don’t limit that to what actions you should have taken. Trace things back to the desires of your heart and how your mind was thinking about the situation. Learn from your past. That’s one reason why God has blessed you with memory.

On our journey to the gates of heaven we will face many troubles. It is a part of living in a fallen world, a world afflicted by evil. But at the same time, these troubles are God’s ways of changing us, of maturing us. So, even as we mourn over these evils and their consequences, we can be optimistic, very optimistic. Hope will grow. We will mature and become like Jesus.