Lesson 9: A Sister to the Suffering
A widow, Edith had developed rheumatoid arthritis when she was around forty years of age. Not many years before, she had been left with sole responsibility for her four children. When the doctor had first diagnosed her condition, he'd advised her to "get lots of rest." She'd smiled and nodded, well aware that following his direction was out of the question. She was working two jobs just to keep food on the table.
As years passed, Edith's hands grew twisted and claw-like. Simple tasks became exhausting. She fought an endless battle against debilitating pain. Although she had joint replacement surgeries for both hips and one knee, her condition continued to deteriorate, and eventually she had to take an early retirement from the work force.
Her friend Kathleen had often tried to discourage her from pursuing medical solutions for her illness. "You should pray, Edith. Pray and fast. If you had more faith in your heart, you'd be healed. I just saw a woman on Christian television yesterday who was miraculously healed from rheumatoid arthritis!" Edith always listened carefully to Kathleen and never argued with her. The fact was, deep inside she felt guilty about her problem—somewhere along the way she'd read that rheumatoid diseases were caused by emotional problems. She often blamed herself for not handling life a little better. It didn't take much to convince her that she lacked sufficient faith for healing, even though she was extremely dependent on God.
When she was in her early seventies, Edith was faced with yet another surgery. "If you don't have your right knee replaced with a prosthetic, you're going to be unable to walk within a year's time." Her orthopedist had treated her for years, and she knew she could trust his judgment.
When Edith checked into the hospital, she was delighted to learn that her roommate was a Christian who loved to talk about the Lord. She was having surgery too, but professed a strong belief in faith healing. She was quick to point out that God could heal Edith's arthritis—if only she'd let Him.
"I've been asking Him for years to heal me," Edith explained, recalling Kathleen's countless admonitions. "And I honestly believe He can. But for reasons of His own, He just hasn't chosen to do so."
"Have you praised Him?" The woman looked at Edith suspiciously. "I mean really praised Him?"
Edith searched her soul. "Yes, I do praise Him—every day. I can't help but thank Him for my wonderful kids, and for the way He's always taken care of my needs. Do you know that, in spite of everything, we never missed a meal for lack of money, and. . ."
"Then it's sin!" the other patient interrupted. "There's unconfessed sin in your life. That's it! And I'll bet it's unforgiveness, isn't it? If you'll get rid of your sin, He'll heal you!"
Edith shook her head. She couldn't think of a soul she held anything against. She'd been through this course of thinking a thousand times before, and it always ended without resolution. Wouldn't God reveal a sin to me if He wanted me to confess it? she asked herself. Nevertheless, a sense of failure and hopelessness began to surround her.
Edith fought back tears. Why do I have to be such a burden to everyone? She closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep.
Meanwhile, the woman in the other bed looked at her and shrugged. She turned on a Christian television broadcast and began to hum along with a popular praise song. The woman was completely oblivious to Edith's deep heartache. Instead, she was feeling quite satisfied with herself for having "spoken the truth in love." It never occurred to her that she, too, was in a hospital awaiting surgery. She hadn't received divine healing either.
Facing Inevitable Pain
Sickness. Injury. Disease. Financial disaster. Death. Divorce. Suffering comes into all of our lives from time to time. We face it, work through it, and eventually emerge from it into better days. But particularly in the case of illness, we sometimes encounter additional pain brought on by well-meaning individuals who maintain simplistic views of health and prosperity.
Most all of us agree that God can do anything. God can heal. God can end suffering. God does heal and deliver and transform our difficult circumstances. Sometimes He uses human agencies in the process, and sometimes He doesn't.
In the case of physical ailments, we know that all healing is from God, but it's important for us to recognize that physical healing is not guaranteed by Christ's atonement. As our story illustrates, some Christians say, "If you are not trusting Christ to heal you, then your lack of faith is why you stay sick. In Isaiah 53:5, it says, 'by His wounds we are healed.' They would say that means we should always be physically healed."
Peter quotes that portion from Isaiah 53:5 giving it a different emphasis,
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
Peter is talking about sin and salvation, and he is applying Isaiah's words spiritually. When we try to say that "by his wounds you have been healed" guarantees physical healing through the atonement, we narrow the scope of what Christ did on the cross. His redemption provides much more than just physical healing in this life. His redemption provides permanent healing by giving us a resurrection body that will never get sick and cannot die.
That doesn't mean that God won't heal or doesn't heal. He does. But the healing may come in eternity and not on this earth.
A Quest for Health and Wealth
Today the Christian church is permeated with a false gospel of prosperity. Proponents of this teaching assert that faith guarantees health and wealth. This is accompanied by the idea that difficulties, especially physical and financial problems, are the results of inadequate faith. It's vitally important for us to understand this kind of faulty reasoning so we can recognize it and reject it. Women will come to us in despair because they have been told this is biblical. We must be able to show them the truths from Scripture.
Most of the Scripture used to support this point of view is drawn from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Israel was promised that if she obeyed God and His covenant, she would be given physical and material blessings. In Deuteronomy, God said (in summary), "If you worship me and obey my covenant, I will bless you. I will bless you in your crops, your flocks, your family, everything. I will pour down blessing upon you. And all the world will know that there is a God in Israel. If you turn to idols, I will curse you; I will shut up the heavens. There will be no rain; therefore, there will be no crops. Your wives will miscarry; your flocks will miscarry. Instead of blessing there will be cursing; instead of fertility there will be death."
This was the condition for God's blessings given to govern Israelis who lived in the Promised Land. However, if you take God's Old Testament promise and carry it into the New Testament, what verses are there to support it? Where does it say in the New Testament that spiritual health guarantees physical health and material wealth?
In the New Testament we are promised spiritual blessings and spiritual fruitfulness. Wealth is not presented as a goal in the New Testament—we're not under an Old Testament economy. We are not the nation of Israel. We are not in "the land." And we are not under the old covenant. Yet some contemporary Christians have transferred these promises made to Israel as a nation and have applied them to the church.
Another error lies in the concept that all righteousness is rewarded and all unrighteousness is punished. The conclusion is, of course, that all suffering is punishment for sin. In short, if you are suffering it is supposedly because you are being punished for some sin.
Is it true that righteousness will be rewarded and that unrighteousness will be punished? Yes, ultimately, it is true. But God never promises total justice here on earth. This is a fallen world. That's why Psalm 73 is so comforting. The Psalmist couldn't understand why the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered until he "entered the sanctuary of God" (Ps. 73:17). Then he understood their final destiny. He then realized that his relationship with God was the only prosperity that mattered.
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
Psalm 73:25-26 (Rsv)
Who Is to Blame?
Now some suffering is the result of sin. And when that is the case, God will make it clear to us. But let's take a closer look at those things that we cannot figure out—things that really don't seem to have a logical cause. It's in these cases that the sufferer is sometimes bombarded with judgmental comments.
Even the disciples made that mistake. In John 9:2, they asked Jesus why a man was born blind. "Who sinned, this man or his parents?"
Jesus replied, "Neither one. He is blind so that God can be glorified." Was Jesus saying that those people were sinless? No, He was saying that they had not done anything that had brought on the man's blindness.
Job gives us a perfect example of affliction. Of God's purpose in pain. And of how not to treat a suffering person. Job's problems didn't stem from a lack of faith or a sin problem. He got into trouble because God was so proud of him!
Satan came before the Lord, and the Lord said to him,
Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.
Does Job fear God for nothing? . . . Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.
Satan accused Job of worshiping God only for what he got out of Him, and this brings to mind an interesting question: Why do we worship God? Is it because of what He gives us or because He is worthy of worship? God trusted His friend Job, so He gave Satan permission to test him. He said, "Very well, then. Everything he has is in your hands. But not on the man himself."
In a single day Job's wealth was swept away with no explanation. All of his children, all of his cattle, all of his servants, everything—gone.
Poor Job tore his robe, shaved his head, and said,
Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.
In all this Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
Satan went back to God and said,
"A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hands and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face."
The Lord said, "Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life." What does this tell us about Satan's power over us? It is limited by God.
Job again had no explanation for what was happening to him. Then his counselors came. For thirty-three chapters they "counseled" Job, repeating over and over their basic conclusion—You are suffering because you are a sinner.
Haven't we heard this somewhere before?
Job constantly said, "No, no, no! I haven't sinned!"
But his friends simply would not listen to him.
At the end of the story, God confronted Job's counselors. He said, "I am angry with you . . . because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7).
God confirmed that Job was righteous. After informing Job's friends that they had misrepresented Him and maligned Job, He instructed Job to pray for them.
Finally, God restored Job. He gave him double everything he had lost—double sheep, double camels, double oxen, double donkeys. And he gave him seven sons and three daughters. Why didn't he double the children? Because the others were still alive in spirit, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies.
So here in the Old Testament we see a man who suffered very unjustly without explanation. Job was used for cosmic purposes, beyond his human understanding, in the great spiritual warfare that we all face every day. We learn from him that suffering happens for reasons beyond our comprehension. We learn that God is not pleased with judgmental "comforters." And we learn that God has the authority to give and to take, to withdraw and to restore His people's fortunes, according to His sovereign will.
Heroes and Heroines of Faith
In the New Testament we find similar evidence that suffering is not necessarily related to sin or faithlessness. In Hebrews 11 we read about great heroes and heroines of the faith. The author concludes the landmark chapter on faith by saying,
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Without exception, these individuals had trials. Some were delivered, and some were victorious. Others were not delivered, and some suffered and died. But they were all commended for their faith, both the winners and the losers. And none of them personally experienced what had been promised to God's people for future fulfillment.
Suppose you have a husband who is terminally ill and you pray and pray that the cancer will be healed, but it isn't. That does not mean that you did not have faith. Or that the church did not have faith. Or that there was unconfessed sin. It means that God's time came for your husband's life to end. And God is going to take care of you now that you don't have a husband. That's all. The outcome of our difficulties doesn't prove anything about our faith or personal righteousness.
If faith doesn't guarantee healing or prosperity, what does faith do? Why do we need it? Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Faith receives God's wholehearted approval and gets His attention. God isn't measuring and doling out hardships to you like somebody pulling wings off a fly. He is testing and deepening your faith.
How can we pray when difficult circumstances come into our lives and we just don't know how to handle them? We need to pray for God's will to be done and for God to be glorified. In doing so, we can't go wrong.
We can pray, "Lord I don't know why this has happened, but I want Your will more than I want anything. And I want You to shine out of this situation so that everyone who is witness will know that You have been glorified."
Then God is free to act.
You can apply this to anything. To the child who strayed. To the husband who cheated. To your separation from loved ones. To loneliness, sickness, or financial stress. To your past, or your future. To your own personality defects that keep you from really being free to serve God. In saying, "I want just Your will and Your glory," you are praying the way Jesus prayed. "Now, Father, be glorified in Me." Don't fail to remember that He prayed that prayer when He was on His way to the cross!
Something to Offer
What resources do we have as we confront suffering in our own lives or in the lives of others? Dr. Larry Crabb puts it well: "A relationship with Jesus Christ gives us indispensable and unique resources to substantially heal now and perfectly heal forever." You cannot find comfort or effectively minister to women unless you have that in mind. A knowledge of psychology will not suffice. Whatever assistance you receive or provide in the face of suffering has to be based on faith in Christ.
And, in reaching out to the suffering, you don't want to collect a lot of emotional cripples, dependent on you as their crutch. You want to help women and then turn them over to God. They need to establish dependence on Him, on His Word, and on His Spirit as they come to maturity. You should be there to help but not to become their "holy spirit."
Gary Collins writes in his book How to Be a People Helper:
Suffering is a common thread in human experience. And in spite of theologies that might belie the facts. [As Keith Miller says,] "Our churches are filled with hurting people. Outwardly, they look contented and at peace. But inwardly they are crying out for someone to love them, just as they are. Confused, frustrated, frightened and guilty, these individuals are often unable to communicate even within their own families."
Hurting people often view other churchgoers as a happy and contented group, unable to relate to human suffering. These people simply can't find the courage to own up to their own deep needs. Consequently our modern church is filled with many people who look pure and sound pure. But they are inwardly sick—sick of themselves and of their weaknesses, sick of their frustrations and sick of the unreality around them in the church.
Wanted: Real People
Do you agree or disagree? I have to say that there is a lot of truth in those statements. But is that what God really intended for His church to be like? If so, why does He choose terms that speak of unity, mutual caring, and mutual support to describe His people? He uses the word "body." The word "flock." The word "family." Human beings were never designed for isolation and independence. On the contrary, God created us with a need for companionship and mutual interdependence.
And yet our intensely independent American culture, which stresses our individual rights and freedoms, has robbed us of our responsibility and concern for others. And our mobility has made us rootless. It is difficult to sustain intensive friendships when forty million Americans move every year. These facts encourage shallow personal relationships. Consequently, there is a pervasive loneliness eating away at the deep inner core of millions of people, and many of them are sitting in churches.
Gary Collins goes on to say,
Several years ago a book appeared with a title We the Lonely People. The author observed that most of us want a greater sense of closeness but that we nevertheless spend our lives resisting this closeness. We want to have close intimate friends who know us, love us and are available to help in times of need, but we want other things more. Like privacy, mobility, convenience and the freedom to do our own thing.
Consequently, many us don't have that sense of community and family love that results in extending ourselves sacrificially to those that need help, need companionship or counsel.
Is there an answer? Yes. The Bible says,
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
We need relationships that get below the surface of "How are ya? Just fine!" Two are better than one because they can work together in a common effort with greater results than either of them could accomplish separately. Two are better than one because they can support each other when one is weaker. They can encourage and strengthen each other against adversity.
Maybe you're thinking, "I just depend on the Lord. I'm very mature spiritually, and I can handle my own problems." We are to depend on the Lord. But the Lord has chosen to use other people to counsel us, to encourage us, to support us. And He wants us to do the same for them.
Realize that our human bodies would starve to death if the food we took into our stomachs simply remained there. If the stomach did not digest the food and send the nutrients into the bloodstream to be distributed all over the body, we would die.
In the same way, the body of Christ will die emotionally and psychologically and will remain immature spiritually unless each part of the body does its work for the benefit of the whole. We all need to be continually developing new relationships and deepening present ones so they go beyond the surface.
We need to be transparent in our relationships with others so they can feel comfortable with us, not intimidated or put off by our seemingly "perfect" lives.
And we need to see those who are suffering through the eyes of Christ, caring for them with His compassion. Speaking to them with His wisdom. Reaching out to them with His helping, healing hands.
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