The Path to Maturity
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, July 3, 2005
Copyright © 2005, P. G. Mathew
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, 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.
How many times have we heard the saying, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"? When we hear these words, we immediately start dreaming about what that wonderful plan might include: a wonderful car, a wonderful education, a wonderful job, a wonderful marriage, a wonderful house, wonderful health, wonderful children, wonderful friends, a wonderful retirement, and so on.
We never connect severe suffering with God's wonderful plan. But the truth is, the pathway to Christian maturity and glory is through suffering. There is only one way for God's children to move from irresponsible, self-centered infantilism to godly maturity: through God-ordained and controlled suffering, from which no true Christian is exempt.
This is the reality of the Christian life. In the Old Testament, Israel demanded, "Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions" (Isaiah 30:10), and the false prophets complied by speaking smooth words to those who did not want to hear truth. But the true Prophet, the Lord Jesus Christ, said, "Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me."
Everyone experiences suffering in this fallen world, but Christians suffer even more, for the Christian life includes suffering for the name of Christ, a suffering designed to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. So we must be encouraged: When our heavenly Father leads us through severe suffering-yea, even through the valley of the shadow of death-he is treating us as sons and daughters. To a Christian, suffering is proof of God's love and a sign of his commitment to bring us to heaven.
In this study we want to examine, first, what suffering is; second, how to respond to it; third, God's design for our suffering; and, fourth, God's strength that enables us to endure suffering.
What Is Suffering?
The Greek word for suffering is thlipsis. Imagine a heavy, multi-toothed threshing instrument rolling over and crushing sheaves of grain. That is suffering! Thlipsis has to do with extreme pressure, such as when grain is threshed from sheaves, or when grapes are crushed for wine, or when olives are pressed for oil. It is not speaking about a scratch on the knee or the inconvenience of a car not starting or a little sickness. Rather, it implies intense suffering, severe sickness, extreme poverty, and acute loneliness. Such suffering may include sudden bereavement, great disappointment, betrayals by friends, divorce or desertion by spouses, rebellious children, persecution by unbelievers as well as the more severe persecution by those who profess to be Christians, martyrdom by authorities who hate the gospel, and so on.
Proverbs 17:3 tells us, "The crucible for silver and furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart." God throws his children into the furnace of affliction to remove our dross and strengthen our faith. In Isaiah 48:10 God tells us, "See, I have refined you, I have tested you in the furnace of affliction." Our heavenly Father takes us through fiery trials for our spiritual well-being. In fact, even now some of us may be feeling pressure and heat and a certain chiseling by the Master Artist. If this is true of you, take heart! Soon a beautiful statue will emerge, one that fully reflects the image of Christ.
Jesus himself learned obedience by the things he suffered. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed three times that he might not have to suffer death on the cross. But it was the will of God to crush him in our behalf. When Paul was suffering severely from a "thorn in the flesh," he also prayed three times for its removal. But that was not God's will; instead, Paul says, he was given sufficient grace to endure. Jesus himself said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
True Christians cannot escape suffering. In fact, James 1:2 says we are to "consider it pure joy . . . whenever [we] face trials of many kinds." The Greek word for "face," peripiptí´, means "to fall into" or "to encounter." We cannot avoid suffering, for it is hidden from our sight until we fall into it. Peripiptí´ is also translated as "struck" (Acts 27:41): "But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground." Despite all their precautions, the sailors did not see the hidden shoal; if they had, they would not have struck it.
Suffering comes to us when we least expect it. Joseph did not expect his brothers to throw him into a pit and sell him to the Midianites, nor did he expect to become a slave in the home of the Egyptian, Potiphar, nor did he think he would ever be falsely accused and thrown into an Egyptian prison, far from his father's home. But in God's ordination and control, what Joseph did not expect happened. He fell into suffering, and could not escape.
We may never expect the ministry of fire that God has designed to purge and purify us, the ministry of the fan that separates our wheat from our chaff, the ministry of the pruning hook that cuts us to make us more fruitful, or the ministry of the plow that breaks up and softens our hearts so that we can be receptive to the seed of the word of God. Abraham did not expect the Lord's demand that Isaac be sacrificed and burned. Job did not expect that all his children would die, that his property would be destroyed, and that he himself would suffer unrelenting, excruciating pain in his body. But all of these things were part of God's unchanging plan. God's plan is not to make us rich and famous; rather, it is to make us holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4) and conform us to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). And God will achieve his plan! Because he is holy, he makes us holy, through suffering, so that we may dwell with him forever in eternal blessedness.
Our Response to Suffering
How, then, are we to respond to the suffering God sends our way? Paul says in Romans 5:3, "We rejoice in our sufferings," and in 1 Peter 4:12 the apostle Peter writes, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you." Those who are theologically ignorant will be surprised by suffering, but those who seriously study God's word will not. Knowing that suffering is part of God's plan, they will expect it, and when it comes, they will respond properly to it. They will not fall into self-pity and murmuring, nor will they look for others to commiserate with. They will not adopt the stoical attitude of "Grin and bear it," neither will they get angry with God and forsake Christ because of it.
In Matthew 13 Jesus speaks of the seed that fell on stony ground: "The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy" (v. 20). Such a person never truly understands the gospel. He wants to hear about forgiveness, but not about self-denial and following Christ. But what happens to such a person? Jesus continues, "But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away" (v. 21).
There is a story about an old man who stopped going to church after many years. When someone went to visit him and asked why he hadn't been at church, the man said, "I used to go, but when my wife and only daughter died within six months of each other, it didn't seem worth the bother." Like this man, many people have no idea that true Christianity includes suffering. They receive Jesus Christ only to get something and run away from any mention of suffering.
The appropriate response to God-ordained and unavoidable sufferings is to rejoice with exceeding joy, not in spite of, or in the midst of, but on account of afflictions themselves. So Paul says, "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings" (Romans 5:3). James tells us, "Consider it pure joy. . . whenever you face trials of many kinds" (James 1:2). Consider! That is a command. We must reckon every trial as pure joy, whether it is a physical, spiritual, economic, or relational trial. Peter tells us, "In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials . . . Though you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Peter 1:6, 8). We are to enjoy inexpressible, unspeakable, and glorious joy as we go through fiery trials.
How do you respond to suffering? Do you murmur, complain, and get angry? As 1 Peter 4:12 said, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice. . . ." I hope we will forsake our self-pity and grumbling! When God commands us to rejoice, he will give us grace to do so. "But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." Verse 16 adds, "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name." Our suffering proves that we are sons and daughters of God, different from everyone else in the world. We belong to God, who loves us enough to make us conformable to the image of his Son.
Jesus said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be [exceedingly] glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12). We find this idea of rejoicing in suffering illustrated throughout the book of Acts. Acts 4:40-41 states, "His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name." What a privilege to be identified with Jesus Christ and share in his sufferings! In Acts 16 we read that Paul and Silas, though Roman citizens, were humiliated, beaten by the authorities, and thrust into the innermost cell of the prison in Philippi. Verse 25 says, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. . . ." Notice, there is no murmuring, no self-pity, no commiseration, no getting angry at God! Because these apostles saw the divine design in their sufferings, they could worship even in prison. They knew that nothing happens to us without a purpose; God is in complete control of our lives.
Knowing God's Plan in Suffering
The key to enduring and enjoying painful trials of body and soul is knowledge of God's plan as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Unthinking, feeling-centered Christians never rejoice in suffering because they refuse to use their minds to understand how God deals with his people. They will abandon Christ, as the old man did, because it doesn't seem worth the bother.
Jesus Christ speaks about such people in Matthew 24:9-10: "At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other. . . ." When trouble comes, those who have only temporal faith will abandon Christ and the church. That is why I counsel you to know, love, and delight in the word of God. When you know God's plan, you can take comfort in the fact that God is preparing his people for heaven by making them holy and blameless through the furnace of affliction.
Romans 5 tells us how crucial it is to understand God's plan. As we go through the valley of the shadow of death, only the word of God can stabilize us. And not only does it steady us, but it also puts a song in our hearts. Verse 3 begins, "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings because we know . . . " What do we know? That suffering accomplishes, produces, secures, and brings about God's purpose in our lives. The word "accomplishes" is katergazomai, which appears in James 1:3; Romans 5:3; and 2 Corinthians 4:17, all in the context of suffering. Suffering achieves God's grand purpose to make us godly, holy, and other-worldly lovers of God. It is a causal relationship.
Today's evangelical world does not want to speak about suffering. It wants to focus on God's "wonderful plan," understood as a pleasure-filled, trouble-free life. But James 1:2-3 tells us, "Consider it pure joy. . . whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know. . ." that suffering produces spiritual graces and character.
Do you know? Or are you ignorant? I plead with you to exercise your mind in the word of God. How many of us pay more attention to our pets, our plants, or our appearance than we do to the word of God! No wonder we become confused and emotional when troubles come. If we studied the word of God, we would know that the trial of our faith produces endurance, which, when it does its work fully, will make us complete and perfect, lacking nothing.
Ephesians 1 tells us God's plan is to make us holy and blameless, and Ephesians 5, beginning with verse 25, tells us, "Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." Jesus said, "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you" (John 15:3). The word cleanses us from our interior defilement. As the bride of Christ, we are being made beautiful every day through God's word. So the purpose of suffering is to remove our wrinkles, spots and blemishes. Whether we like it or not, God does what he must to make us sparkling and radiant, fit for our heavenly bridegroom.
This idea of knowledge also appears in the classic text on divine discipline in Hebrews 12: "And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addressed you as sons" (v. 5). When we neglect the Scriptures, we are unable to interpret correctly what is happening to us. If we read the word, we would know that God disciplines us for our good as his sons.
The book of Proverbs tells us that the purpose of the rod is to drive out foolishness and impart wisdom. God does not spoil his children as human parents do; rather, he disciplines us that we may share in his holiness. Our heavenly Father wants us to be like him, not in the sense of being gods, but that we may be godly. So God's discipline is intended to produce a harvest of righteousness in us-not the imputed righteousness of salvation, but the experimental righteousness of a people eager to do the will of God. When we obey God, we will have righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Just as a wild stallion is controlled and made fit to pull the carriage of the king, so we are trained by God's discipline to serve him.
We must endure God's discipline to profit from it. Second Corinthians 4:16 says: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." Paul did not lose heart because he knew God's plan for his life. Yes, he was irreversibly wasting away as far as his physical body was concerned. (PGM) Throughout this epistle Paul details the physical and spiritual hardships he underwent for the sake of the gospel. But that is not the end of the story. He says, "but inwardly we are being renewed daily." As we endure suffering, we are continuously being renewed after the pattern of Christ so that we have more love for God, more patience, more love, and more joy.
Verse 17 says, "For our light and momentary troubles. . . ." Yes, "momentary" can mean our entire lifetime, but from the perspective of eternity, it is momentary. And what do these troubles produce? "An eternal glory" that is beyond comparison. We may not fully understand what God is doing when we are suffering, but we can take comfort that he is fitting us for heaven.
Those who are spiritually and biblically ignorant cannot rejoice in their afflictions because they do not understand God's plan. Therefore, I urge you to study the word of God. Get rid of all gnostic subjectivism and irrationalism and ask God to give you a mind that will focus on understanding Scripture.
Suffering produces persevering patience, which actually means triumphant endurance. Sometimes we see patience as a passive quality, but triumphant endurance is active, enabling us to carry a heavy load for the long haul.
Our spiritual muscles must be developed so that we can be triumphant in enduring trials. Anyone who works out physically knows that it takes resistance to build muscle. God brings into our life certain resistance so that we can be made stronger spiritually.
James speaks about the effect of patience in chapter 1 and then points us to the example of Job in chapter 5. Job lost everything, including his health. Yet as he sat in the ash heap, covered with boils and scraping himself with potsherds, he was able to say, "Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him." That is patient endurance.
Such triumphant endurance will, in turn, produce in us the character God requires so that we will love righteousness and hate wickedness, love heaven more than this passing world, and love God with all our heart. This character will then produce even greater hope-not hope in this world, but in the world to come. We hope in the coming of Christ, who will glorify us. It is a certain hope, a hope that will not make us ashamed, a sure hope in the midst of all our suffering. We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We hope to see Christ and be changed to be like him in body and spirit. Suffering focuses us heavenward.
During the Great Depression, a Christian man lost his job, his fortune, his wife, and his home. As he wandered through his city one day, wondering why all these things had happened to him, he saw masons working on the stonework of a large church. Observing one man carefully chiseling away a triangular piece of stone, this Christian asked, "What are you doing with that?" The mason stopped and pointed to a tiny opening near the top of the nearly completed spire. He said, "See that little opening up there? I am shaping this down here so that it will fit in up there." The poor man's eyes suddenly filled with tears as he realized that through his troubles here, God was shaping him for heaven.
Strength to Suffer
Though we know God's plan is to benefit us through suffering, we still cannot naturally rejoice in the midst of pain and affliction. The Scriptures tell of a power we must have; it is the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic dimension, which we define as the Holy Spirit equipping us to do God's will. If God requires us to be exceedingly glad in the midst of suffering, then he must enable us, and he does so by giving us supernatural strength.
A number of Scriptures speaks about this dimension. In Romans 5 Paul speaks about rejoicing, not only in the future glory of God, but also in our present context of severe sufferings: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that our suffering produces character. . . ." (v. 3) Look at verse 5: "And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." The gift of God's love is poured out in such great abundance that it overwhelms our soul. The Holy Spirit reveals God's everlasting love for us individually by pointing us to the cross, for the cross is the pulpit from which God preaches his love for his people. When we see the cross, we are impressed by the depth and height and length and breadth of God's great love and rich mercy towards us.
May God reveal to us this dimension of the Holy Spirit! It has nothing to do with what some modern charismatic preachers teach. There is a true Pentecostal dimension that not only equips us to endure affliction, but also to rejoice in it. There is no other way we can do so.
This charismatic dimension is based on an awareness of God's own presence with us. God does not just ask us to go in his service; he promises to go with us. We read in Isaiah 43, "But now, this is what the Lord says-he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.'" God saved us and that salvation cannot be destroyed. We will not die or be destroyed by any affliction. "'When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.'" Yes, we may want our spouse or pastor or doctor with us when we suffer. But most of all, we want God with us. "'When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, you God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . .'"
Looking at our troubles will not inspire us to rejoice. But the very presence of God enables us to transcend all our misery and leap for joy. How can we do that in the midst of our pain? We cannot unless this dynamic is real and not theoretical. So we see God in the middle of the flood, God in the middle of the fire, God in the middle of the lions' den, God in prison, and God in the pit. When God is with us, everything is all right.
Colossians 3:16 tells us, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." The parallel passage to this in Ephesians 5, beginning with verse 18, tells us "Be being filled with the Holy Ghost." We need the knowledge of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. When we have such knowledge, we will sing, praise, and bless God in the midst of all pain.
In Philippians 4:13 Paul declares, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength." He learned not only to abound, but also to be abased-he could do all things because God was with him. God is also with us. He never abandoned us and never will. May God help us to look to him and not to our own misery. Some people waste the suffering that God sends them. Instead of profiting from it, they only murmur and grumble. But God has a purpose for everything that happens to us. So we must look to the Spirit of the living God and say, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."
In 2 Timothy 4:16-17 Paul says, "At my first defense, no one came to my support." To me, that is a mystery, but Paul was telling the truth: no one from any of his churches showed up to support him as he stood trial in Rome. "But everyone deserted me." At the time of Paul's great crises, there was no one he could lean on; everyone fled. But that is not the end of the story: "But the Lord stood at my side," as the great paraclete, as the great advocate, as the great comforter, defending him, "and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion's mouth."
God is with us. The Holy Spirit is with us. Our good shepherd is with us, and he will not let us be destroyed. Our father and mother may forsake us, but he will receive us.
Paul prayed three times for the removal of a thorn in his flesh, and God said, "No." But that is not all he said. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 we read, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you.'" We may want to argue with God and say, "No, that is not true. Your grace is not sufficient." But we must realize that God gives grace only to the humble. So if we find we have insufficient grace, we must confess our sin: "O God, I humble myself before you. I forsake my arrogance." When we do so, God will pour out his grace to us, and it will be sufficient. "'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" Then we are told, "Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses" - sufferings - "so that Christ's power may rest upon me." The power, dunamis, of God comes and rests upon us, making us able not only to endure but to even rejoice and be exceedingly glad in the midst of our agony and misery. "That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong," by this charismatic dimension, by the Spirit of God descending upon me, making me able to do all things.
In 1 Peter 4: 14 we read, "If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed," or we could say, "Blessed are the insulted, the persecuted, for Christ's sake." We are blessed "because the Spirit of glory and of God is resting upon [us]." Yes, we experience insult, persecution, troubles, and pain. But that is not all. The Holy Spirit of God, "the Spirit of glory and of God," which means the fullness of the presence of God, also is resting upon us. That is the dynamic we need to triumphantly endure suffering. In fact, suffering is designed to turn us away from ourselves and fix our eyes on God.
May God open our eyes to see that the Spirit of glory and of God is resting on us as he rested on Christ in the form of a dove! As the shekinah glory came and rested upon the tabernacle, so also is it resting on us who are the temple of God.
"Charismatic" simply means gracious. This charismatic aspect of suffering is mentioned in Philippians 1:29: "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him. . . ." God gives us grace for two things: first, to believe on him, for saving faith is a gift from God; and second, to suffer for him. This is serious understanding of theology. It is the Spirit of God coming upon us, God being with us.
As we go through suffering, God asks us to turn away from ourselves and turn to him. When we do so, we will receive us sufficient grace-grace by which we can rejoice and be exceedingly glad in the midst of suffering. And those who experience such grace will always speak about God. We come away from such people spiritually edified, challenged, and thankful, with new resolve to serve God wholeheartedly.
I pray that we will not consider suffering as something strange and abnormal. May we study God's word so that we can understand that God brings us through the crucible of affliction that our faith may be intensified, that the graces of heaven may be created in us, and that we may be conformed to the image of Christ. May we glory in this grand design of our heavenly Father and be comforted.
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Copyright © 2005, P. G. Mathew
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