03/02/14 AM, Sharon OPC
Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
As I looked over the list of members and friends of Sharon Church the other day, I was struck by the fact that there’s hardly a household or a family in the whole list which hasn’t experienced some kind of serious sufferings in the past year. In fact, I don’t know of any!
Various folks have had sickness and health problems of one kind or another, some even quite serious and life threatening. Others have struggled with marriage problems, some even leading to separation or divorce. Some have struggled with interpersonal family problems of other kinds that have brought great stress on your families. Several of you have mourned the loss of close friends or loved ones. Quite a large number have also gone through serious trials at work, or even lost your jobs entirely. Many have struggled financially, to the point of rather severe hardship, from time to time. Some have wrestled with depression, or other emotional issues that you may not have even brought to the attention of others in the church. Some have suffered through burglaries, or traffic accidents, or storm damage, or injuries of various kinds.
Read through just a few months of our Sharonite Prayer List and you’ll see how many great difficulties the Lord has allowed us and our friends and loved ones all to suffer in this past year alone.
I think I can safely say that Sharon Church members and friends have been through many “sufferings” in this past year, not to mention the sufferings of previous years as well.
Paul writes, in Romans 5, to help us to understand these sufferings a little better.
He begins by reminding us all of our “justification” that he’s been talking about in the last few chapters. He says, “1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
In other words, no matter what sufferings and trials we’ve had to bear, we can at least “rejoice” in this: God’s wrath no longer abides on us due to our sins! Because we have been given faith to believe in Jesus Christ, Who suffered the wrath of God in our place, for our sins, we will not have to face that wrath of God in hell for all eternity! We will not have to go to that place of “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
No, Paul says, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
Formerly, we were barred from entering into God’s holy heaven. We were banished from His beautiful Garden, just like Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden and barred from entering by those mighty angels, flashing their swords back and forth to guard the entrance. We were on the outside of God’s favor. We were under the sword of His wrath. We were condemned to eternal hell for our sins.
And then God sent His beloved Son to leave that peaceful Garden, to suffer the wrath of God for us, and to carry us back into God’s beautiful Garden in His loving arms. We have received grace! We were justified and made holy and righteous because God clothed us with the holy and righteous works of Jesus, our Savior. And now, dressed in those glorious rainbow garments of Christ’s righteousness, we have a guaranteed home in God’s beautiful heaven!
That’s what Paul means when he says, “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God!”
That hope is a sure and guaranteed home, with God, forever and ever! Instead of standing under the wrath of God’s anger, outside His Garden, we “now stand,” says Paul – we “now stand” in God’s loving “grace.” Our loving Father now wraps His arms around us and welcomes us into His happy home where we will each have our own, special suite, decorated with all the finest furnishings. And He welcomes us to His table of bounties spread before us, where we will eat with Him and fellowship with Him and with all our brothers and sisters in the Lord. What a happy prospect, as we look forward to that day when we enter into that fabulous glory!
But Paul goes on in the text – and this is the part that might raise some eyebrows and might bring some confusion to our minds if we don’t pay attention to Paul’s argument.
Paul says, in v. 3, “3 Not only so [not only do we rejoice in this guaranteed “hope of the glory of God,”] but we also rejoice in our sufferings!”
What in the world was Paul thinking?
“We also rejoice in our sufferings?” How could he even say such a thing? How can we rejoice in losing a loved one? How can we rejoice in chronic back pain, or in cancer, or in a sick and hurting child, or in the emotional stresses and strains on our marriages and families?
Paul knew that such a statement needed some explanation. So he continues, “3 Not only so [not only do we rejoice in this guaranteed “hope of the glory of God,”] but we also rejoice in our sufferings – because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 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.”
Paul’s point is this: Suffering is one of the primary means that God uses to mold us and to shape us into His beloved sons and daughters and to bring us to glory!
For the Christian, Paul is saying that that wonderful “hope of the glory of God” is increased in us through the means of suffering! You see, the sufferings we experience in this life increase the assurance of our glorious hope, because sufferings, just like those spankings of our parents, produce good fruit in us. Discipline helps us to persevere in doing good, because we sometimes need “a good, swift kick in the pants” to keep us from wandering down sinful, dark pathways, like David did with Bathsheba. Sometimes we need to get our hands slapped in order to learn not to steal. Sometimes we need to get “burned” a few times, so that we’ll learn not to play with fire. Sometimes we may even need to spend a little time in jail in order to teach us that it’s more joyful to do what is right. And sometimes we need to learn how to do things we don’t like to do, difficult things, so that we’ll grow up to be less selfish people and we’ll have better character and better usefulness to the Lord.
Persevering in doing the right thing, over time, helps to build character in us. And as we see ourselves growing in Christian character, that gives us greater assurance of our faith and our hope of glory. And Paul says, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Sprit, whom he has given us.”
God doesn’t just “ration out” His love to His children. He doesn’t just “trickle down” His love upon us in a few drips now and then. No, He “pours out” the rain showers of His love upon our heads! He fills us with His Holy Spirit so that we can know and be assured that we are His children and that He will carry us through every trial and suffering and bring us to glory!
We, as members and friends of Sharon Church, have seen God mightily at work in our midst, molding and shaping us after His will through these very sufferings! We have seen, as v. 5 says, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
Now someone might be thinking, “Love? God has poured out His love upon us? He’s poured out His sufferings upon us! He’s poured out His afflictions upon us, not His love!”
But Hebrews 12:5-13 corrects such worldly thinking. It’s found on p. 1186 in our church Bibles, if you’d like to follow along as we examine this passage.
“5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons [And then the writer of Hebrews quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12]: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ 7 Endure hardship as discipline [Every hardship we face in life, as Christians, is our heavenly Father’s discipline, intended to help us to grow and to mature as Christians. The text goes on…]; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best [We all know that earthly fathers aren’t perfect. They’re all sinners and they all make mistakes. Sometimes fathers fail to discipline when they should, and sometimes they wrongfully discipline when they shouldn’t. But God never makes any mistakes in His loving discipline. His discipline is always for our good and His discipline is always best for us. So the writer continues…]; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”
God’s discipline in our lives is always good for us. And it’s always aimed at bringing us to glory where we will actually “share in his holiness!” Through suffering, we, as the sons and daughters of God, will actually be brought to a firm faith in Him so that we may enter into His glory and share in His perfection and holiness for all eternity! I don’t doubt that if we could only peek ahead to the day when we receive glorified bodies and when we enter into His glorious Paradise, we wouldn’t take back one single hardship or one single discipline of God’s love. We’d see, instantly, that it was all worth the suffering a thousand times over!
Paul makes this same point in Romans 8:17-18, where he says, “17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us!”
Paul speaks about that incomparable glory in II Corinthians 4:16-18, where he says, “16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away [In other words, as we get older, our outward bodies gradually become more and more afflicted with arthritis, and diseases, and cancer, so that we begin to waste away, bodily, until finally, we die…], yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. [Inwardly, Paul says, it’s just the opposite! Those trials that we all go through as we get older may be destroying our outward bodies, but they’re also, day by day, making us stronger and stronger in our inner spirits. And so Paul puts it this way…] 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
[Here again Paul is explaining to us why troubles and suffering are not “bad things” in the life of a Christian. First of all, every trial or trouble we face is only temporary. And in addition, every trial or trouble we face will be “far outweighed” – “far outweighed” – by the eternal blessing and benefit we receive by going through that suffering! But this is hard for us to grasp in the here and now. So Paul continues by giving this advice:] 18 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.”
What we see in this life, in the here and now, in the way of pain and sorrow, trouble and affliction – all this is temporary. “This too shall pass,” we often say. “This too shall pass.” All earthly troubles, for the Christian, are only temporary. One day they’ll be over, never to bother us again. But in the meantime, they’re being used by God in ways we may never know until we get to glory. They’re being used by God to bring us to glory. And that state of glory – that perfect, sinless, happy state – is eternal. It will last forever and ever. Won’t that be grand?!
Well let’s go back to Hebrews 12:11-13 and hear the rest of what the writer says:
“11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 ‘Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”
Those last couple verses come right out of Isaiah 35:1-10. Listen to Isaiah as he talks about this future glory in beautiful pictures and images:
“1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’ 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped [You see, when we enter glory, all those weaknesses and frailties, all those diseases and sufferings of this life will be gone!]. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away!”
Wow! What a beautiful picture of the future glory of God’s children! Because heaven is so far beyond our earthly experience, Isaiah has to use pictures and images to help us to get at least an inkling of what heaven is like and what our future inheritance will be like.
Why should we “rejoice” in our sufferings?
Because these sufferings are teaching tools that God uses to bring us to glory!
Sufferings work on us like a fiery furnace helps to melt all the impurities out of gold, making it beautiful and glorious. None of the finest gold jewelry that you’ve ever seen got to be so shiny and glorious without first going through that fiery furnace of testing.
When God tested Job, He wasn’t disciplining Job for any particular sins. In fact, God had bragged about Job to Satan, saying that Job was a fine, upstanding, righteous man. But these tests that God allowed Job to suffer helped to strengthen Job’s character even more, so that, in the end, he refused to curse God, even when he was afflicted greatly. And in the end he received even more blessing than before!
Satan wants us to respond wrongly to such trials. He wants us to become angry with God and bitter with God because of the hardships He allows us to suffer. He wants us to grumble and complain about our troubles in life. The last thing in the world Satan wants us to do is to “rejoice in our sufferings.”
But we must remember that there’s always something greater to be gained by suffering than there is to be gained by pleasure. Earthly pleasures are shallow and fleeting. But the eternal pleasures brought about through suffering far outweigh those sufferings, making our sufferings more than worth the trouble!
That’s why we can “also rejoice in our sufferings.”
We may not always see or know the good that God has in mind for us in a particular trial, but we can always “rejoice in our sufferings,” because, as Hebrews 12:10 puts it, “God disciplines [or trains] us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”
God is a perfect parent. He’s a perfect Father. He never makes bad decisions regarding our training. He loves us perfectly. He always wants what’s best for us, just as we human parents want what’s best for our children. But we don’t always know what’s best for our children, and we can’t always give them what’s best. Our heavenly Father, on the other hand, knows what’s best, and is able to grant it!
Our loving, heavenly Father has given Sharon Church a pile of sufferings and trials over the past years. Yet we can be perfectly at peace about this because God has explained for us that these things mean He loves us. He’s told us that these things are good for us. No, not just good for us – they’re the very best possible things that could have happened to us! Our God is molding and shaping this congregation to be conformed to His perfect will. He’s “poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
No, we don’t like suffering. Nobody that I know likes suffering. And when we’re suffering, we pray that God will make our suffering stop. When we’re sick, we pray that God will make us well. When we’re sad, we pray that God will make us happy. When we’re suffering financially, we pray that God will provide for our needs.
Those things are right and proper things for us to pray when we’re going through trials. God wants us to come to Him with our needs and petitions. But we must still “also rejoice in our sufferings,” no matter what, because we know that God is giving us only what’s best for us. Our ways are not His ways. Our thoughts are not His thoughts.
Sometimes we must simply break forth in praise to God, as Paul does in Romans 11:33-36, “33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! 34 ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ 35 ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen!”
It’s simply a fact that “The road to glory is paved with suffering.” But the suffering on the road to glory is only temporary. It will come to an end. We can always say, “This too shall pass.” And we can also know that the end will be glorious!
The road to hell, on the other hand, though perhaps paved with many temporary pleasures, will end in eternal suffering. And if God thinks it best that we suffer a few “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from time to time, in order to bring us to eternal glory, then let’s continue to rejoice in our sufferings!
So “We rejoice in the [guaranteed] hope of the glory of God!” “But we also rejoice in our sufferings” which God uses to get us there!