Archive for the ‘suffering’ Category

In the fall of 2008 the Indian state of Orissa was rocked by a shocking wave of violence. Tens of thousands of Hindus went on a month-long rampage against local Christians. By the time the violence ended more than 60 pastors were killed, mostly beaten to death by mobs, and 100 churches or church related buildings were burned. I have just returned from doing 3 days of basic ministry training for 130 pastors and other leaders in Orissa. It was the most difficult trip I have ever taken. Not because of the forty hours of travel to get there, or the large furry rodents running at my feet as we ate in the hotel restaurant to go with the two others the kitchen staff had just killed and swept out the door. It wasn’t because of the garbage and filth that lined the streets and choked every lake, pond or canal. It wasn’t the smell of raw sewage flowing in the gutters or stepping in one of the countless cow patties left by the animals that roamed freely, everywhere. It wasn’t even the concern for my safety that my hosts had after a gang of men tried to disrupt our training. (From that point on I was not allowed to be on the street and was never alone expect when I got back to my hotel room.) All of that I expect as part of the deal. I have traveled enough to know that’s how it is and that someplace has to be the worst yet. You simply have to learn how to roll with that.

What made this so difficult was seeing the video tape from the news station that showed people being beat to death because of their faith, seeing the homes and churches that were burned, talking to pastors who hid in the woods for a month while people brought them food. Seeing all that and then seeing that these Christians continues to press ahead, longing for ways to reach out and serve the very neighbors who attacked them and then comparing it to our own situations in the west, THAT is what made it so difficult and painful. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the words of Jesus out of my head, “to whom much is given is much required”.

You see, even though these pastors have theological degrees and are well-educated in doctrine, church administration, preaching and the like, they have received no training in basic disciple-making, community outreach, the pastors family life, or multiplication through church planting. The training we did was the only known training conference for pastors EVER in this area. The average evangelical church member in the USA or England or South Africa has tons more training and resources in basic ministry than these pastors of churches in India. On top of that a single pastor there typically oversees 6 or 7 churches at the same time. They have nothing. Yet they press ahead in the face of life threatening opposition, seeking to learn how to love and serve their neighbor, their enemy. They are doing more with nothing than most in the west are doing with everything.

When I finished a session on The Good Samaritan and told them you do “What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are”, a number of them said that they felt guilt and shame because they had no idea that ministry was supposed to be about reaching out to those God puts in your path, those who are clearly in need. They had a time of repentance right there.

The typical reaction when hearing about this is for western Christians to express how grateful they are for the blessings God has given us, our freedom, resources, safety, etc. But as we are prone to do, such sentiments, while a good start, fall woefully short of what is really needed. What we  need to do is ask, “God, what do you require of me in light of all my freedom, blessings and resources”. Again I say, “to whom much is given is much required”. It simply will not do to stop with a recognition of our good fortune. We must go the next step and ask how that fortune is to be used by God so that others will come to know and love Him. In Orissa, Christians are asking that question in spite of the fact that the answer could lead to their death. How much more should we be asking that question ourselves?

You probably remember something from a history class somewhere in your past that during the first few centuries after Christ, that His followers were periodically arrested, beaten, thrown to the Lions and under Emperor Nero, covered in tar and set on fire as street lamps for the city of Rome. But you probably have the opinion that such persecution and danger for followers of Jesus is a thing of the past. Surely in 2,000 years we have progressed as people and there is a tolerance for people of other faiths. Live and let live.

In spite of our optimism, some reports claim that more people have died as martyrs for Christ in the past 100 years than in all the 1900 years prior. Such statistics can leave you overwhelmed and staggered, searching for some way to block out their significance and more one in life pretending that it doesn’t impact you. Such a notion runs totally counter to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:16, “When one of us suffers we all suffer”. Every once in a while such numbers get personal and hit a little closer to home. That happened on April 17th 2010 in the town of Selaiya in central India.

For me it started in November of 2009 when I was at a conference in Delhi hosted by Rod Gilbert. Rod is an Indian who loves Jesus and is a leader in the House Church Movement in his country. He is a gracious man who is sold out for Jesus along with many members of his extended family. On April 17th the persecution of Christians struck very close to home for him. Rod has a cousin whose family follows Christ. On that day, Amit Gilbert, a member of that family was attacked by members of Bajrang Dal. These are Hindus who worship the Monkey God. Amit had been sharing the Gospel in that town and these men did not like that. So that beat him to death and threw his body down a well. That is not an isolated occurrence. Christians around the world are having their homes burned, being beaten and threatened, as well as kid-napped never to be seen again.

Two things come to mind when I consider the persecution of Christians around the world. First is that Jesus promised this would happen if we followed Him. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. John 15:20-21

Certainly there are Christians who invite suffering simply because they are obnoxious and argumentative. That is not persecution for following Jesus. That is a just reward for being Un-Christ-like. But there are those who do follow Jesus, loving their neighbor, reaching out to those in need, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, setting people free with the life changing message of forgiveness. Those people are being persecuted and killed all around the world. It is just as Jesus said it would be. Following Jesus is not for sissies.

The second point that comes to mind is this. If you are following Jesus and never been ridiculed, laughed at, rejected, or mocked, are you really following Jesus? You may believe in Him and have knowledge of Him that includes things like going to church. But if you have never faced anything close to the rejection that Jesus promised, are you really walking in His footsteps? Again that doesn’t mean you go out and make a nuisance of yourself. But trust me, if you decide to go feed some homeless people, or use your vacation for a mission trip to New Delhi instead of a beach trip to New Smyrna, if you tell people you believe in a God of absolute truth, or that Jesus is the only way to heaven, you will find opposition and rejection. You will be persecuted as Jesus promised and if you are not that maybe you need to reassess how closely you are following Jesus.

Lest you leave this all bummed out and depressed let me share this final thought. Many in the west think that Christianity is on the decline. We look around us and think the influence of Christians is less than ever and fewer people are following Christ. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that around the world, Christianity is growing like a weed. It is growing in places like India, China, all over Africa and South America. It is growing in spite of a lake of resources and in spite of, or maybe because of life threatening persecution. Maybe the persecution exists in those places because more and more people are truly following Jesus by being loving, gracious, hospitable, committed to the poor, sacrificing for their neighbor in ways the west does not. And so as more people follow that kind of Jesus, the opposition grows and so does the church. Maybe the lack of persecution in the west and the decline of Christianity are linked. When it is so easy to follow Jesus, few people see the need and few people do, so few people bother to make Christians suffer.

A recent post on the topic of submission in the Bible has received a fair amount of response in the way of readers and comments. A couple of those readers pointed out a missing piece in what I said. Put simply the question would be, is there ever a time when a Christian should refuse to submit? Is there a situation when submission to those in authority would be a bad thing? The answer is clearly yes. There are times when a Christian should refuse to submit to a human authority, but those times are few and specific and we must be prepared to face the consequences for our rebellion.

Shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter and John where arrested for preaching the name of Jesus and taken before the religious rulers. They were commanded to stop preaching in the name of Jesus and stop trying to convert people to him.  But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19 & 20

The decision was between obeying God or obeying man. Peter and John had received a clear and specific command from Jesus, “Go and preach the Gospel to all the world”. The religious leaders gave them a clear and specific command to not preach the gospel. The choice was clear, they had to obey God rather than man. So they continued to preach. The result was that they were arrested and beaten and the Apostle James was executed.

A similar event takes place in the Old Testament. The prophet Daniel was forbidden to pray to anyone accept King Darius. God had made it clear that only He was to be the object of our pray life and that we should never pray to a false god. Daniel had no choice but to continue to pray as he had always done. As a result he is arrested and thrown into the Lion’s Den. God in His mercy rescued Daniel from the lions.

In both cases there was a clear command from God about what we are to do. When those in authority tried to require God’s people to violate God’s command, the only choice was to rebel against the human authority and obey God. But it must not be forgotten that refusing to obey the human authority and follow God does not come with a guarantee that you will not suffer for your rebellion. Daniel was thrown to the lions and God saved him, but James was beheaded for insisting on preaching the name of Jesus. We make a grave mistake when we think that obeying God rather than men should result in things being wonderful for us. Often that is not the case. If your boss wants you to do something illegal or unethical and you rightly refuse, he may still fire you. In that case the Bible would actually have us rejoice in the blessing of suffering for doing good. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 1 Peter 2:20.

In fourth grade we had an incubator in class filled with eggs. Day after day we looked into the incubator to see if there were any tell-tale signs of cracks in the eggs that would be the sign that the chicks inside were beginning to hatch. When that first chick started to peck its way out of the shell we gathered around, mesmerized. Bit by tiny bit the opening got bigger. With its miniature beak the little chick worked and worked to get out. As more of the shell was broken away we could see the chick breathing heavy and straining to get out. One of the students asked if we shouldn’t help it and take away some of the shell. Our teacher told us that even though we thought that would help, in the long run it would actually harm the baby chick. She said that it was critical that the chick do this for itself because that helped it to develop the muscles and strength it would need to survive in the future. Our desire to help the chick so that it did not have to struggle and suffer as it worked its way out of the shell, while commendable, would actually harm the chick in the long run.

That lesson never left me. To my amazement, years later I came upon that same lesson in Paul’s letter to the Romans. He talks about the positive nature of facing hardship and struggles and how God uses them to shape our character.

1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through 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. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5

How different is that from the common cultural value we have that says any and all hardship, suffering, struggle, or pain is bad and to be avoided at all costs? We cannot avoid hardship. We cannot avoid pain. It is part of life in a world infected with sin and rebellion against God. Being a Christian does not save you from hardship. In fact the opposite is promised. Follow Jesus and you will be persecuted, you will be called on to sacrifice. You will be called to pick up your cross and follow Jesus. The question is not, “How do I avoid hardship?” but rather, “How does God want me to grow as a result of hardship?”.

Paul says that God uses the struggles we go through in order to shape our character. It makes us people who are able to persevere in the midst of struggles. It will eventually shape our character into something that looks and lives more like Jesus everyday. Finally it will make us into a people of hope. That hope is the result of our relationship with Jesus. It is a relationship that will bring glory and honor to Him. It really gets us back to 1 Peter 3:15 that tells us we are to always be ready to explain the reason for the hope that is within us. If life is always wonderful, free of hardship, and filled with worldly abundance, you don’t need to explain the reason you feel so good. But if life is hard, and you still have joy and hope, then people want an explanation. They want to know why you are able to press ahead, be joyful, have hope. The answer should always point them to Jesus.

You see, when you have struggled in some way and Jesus helped you have victory, then the next time you face a struggle, you have developed some spiritual muscles that will give you the strength you need. Each time that happens, you get stronger. The strength is in many ways a stronger faith in Christ. You know that he saw you through before and you have the assurance, what the Bible calls hope, that He will see you through again. He won’t do all the work, just like as fourth graders we couldn’t do the work for the baby chicks. But Jesus will be with you in ways that give you the encouragement and strength that you need.

If he did everything for us in such a way as to remove any and all obstacles from our lives, removing all hardship, then we would never mature. We would never grow up and be spiritually strong. You see this in the way some parents work overtime to make sure that their children never experience any struggles in life. It is well meaning but in the long run it produces adults who are unable to handle hardship when it comes. And it will come. It is hard to watch them struggle, but it will be harder to watch them act like a twelve year old when they are thirty or even older. Colleges have a term for such parents. They call them Helicopter Parents because the are always hovering around their 20 year old to the point of making excuses for them to their professors. I would have been embarrassed beyond belief I my parents had done that. And I would never have matured to any degree.

We don’t like hardship or struggle and that is understandable. However we can not avoid it and God will not remove it from our lives. So we need to embrace the upside of it like Paul suggests and ask how the struggles of life can make us more like Jesus, more joyful, more hopeful, stronger, pressing ahead for the glory of God.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” Philippians 3:10

We met the first week of sixth grade. I was the new kid in the class and as it turned out we lived two streets apart. In one of those oddities of life a group of six of us in the neighborhood became friends and all of us had a first name that began with the letter D. So very quickly we all became known by our last name with a D in front. I became D’Lacich and he became D’Johnson. His real name is Dwight and he is my longest lasting friend and as such a most treasured friend.

When we were growing up it was all about sports and girls. I wont say anything about the girl part of things but sports is another matter. We spent lots of time together on the baseball field, the basketball court, golf course, and the football field. In every instance except football, Dwight far surpassed me in ability. The sheer brute force aspect of football served me better than the precision of the other sports. I never could beat him on the golf course for instance. But I noticed that my game always got better when I played with him. In fact the best round of golf I ever played was the day before Dwight and Debbie were married. I played out of my mind that day, and still he led the way with a better score.

Many memorable events in our lives were shared events. We woke up in my parent’s living room one New Years day to the news that our hero, Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash while on a mercy mission to Puerto Rico. Dwight was in the room along with two other friends, the night I gave my life to Christ. We were in each other’s weddings. Like the deepest of friendships, no matter how long the time is between phone calls or dinners, the bond of friendship is still unbreakable.

A year ago I received the proverbial punch in the gut when I learned that Dwight had just been diagnosed with ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure for ALS. The best they can do is manage the pain and the deterioration of the body. The first sign for Dwight that something was wrong was the difficulty he had holding a golf club. In just a year he has gone from that, to being in a wheel chair most of the time and needing a neck brace to hold his head up when he works on his computer.

Six months after the diagnoses we were together at a charity golf tournament for him and his family. The goal was to raise money for the remodeling of their house to accommodate the inevitable wheel chair. Just a few days ago we got together again, this time at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. For two die-hard Steelers fans it was a dream come true, especially since they won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. For me, getting a picture with Dwight at that game was more precious than I can describe. The Steelers winning was an ecstatic experience. Being with Dwight was deeper, more important by far, and will remain etched in my mind like few other events. It is another of those highly valued, shared events.

Whenever someone close to you has a tragedy strike, it must be a nearly universal response to at some point wonder how you would handle that in your own life. The way Dwight and Debbie have handled the illness that, barring a miracle, will end his life, has forced me to ask that question over and over again. You see, my friend Dwight loves Jesus with all his heart. It was out of love for Jesus that he and Debbie adopted two little boys with special needs, adding them to their very healthy biological daughter and son. It is out of love for Jesus that he has served in his local church. It is out of love for Jesus that he is approaching his suffering thinking only about others. I am forced to ask how I would handle such suffering because I see Dwight doing so with dignity and grace and for the glory of God.

Often times in the face of suffering we play the victim. “Why me?” we ask. “What did I do to deserve this?” We argue with the fairness of it all. In other cases we lapse into depression and give up. Dwight has been all about Jesus getting the glory. His attitude has been that of the Apostle Paul, whether I live or die let God be glorified. Also like Paul I think Dwight has an even deeper connection to Jesus because of the fellowship shared by those who suffer. Dwight wants Jesus to use his personal experience of suffering to point others to Jesus. I think his love for Jesus is actually growing as a result of that shared fellowship. Dwight understands that God never promised us a life free of suffering, at least not this side of eternity. What He did promise us was that He would be with us always, no matter what. We would be in fellowship with Him.

There is a sense in which suffering is the calling of the Christian. The health and wealth Gospel crowd that tries to show that God only wants you to be free of suffering and blessed by a huge bank account are totally out of touch with the true heart of God and the example of great saints from the past. The Apostles considered it a privilege to suffer for Jesus. In that suffering there was a renewed sense of being united with Him and of pointing people towards Him. Dwight Johnson is doing that every day. The more his body deteriorates the more glory he brings to Jesus by living a life that loves Jesus above all else.

The more I think about Dwight the more I am forced to smile. He was better than me at Baseball, Basketball, and Golf. Now it appears he is better than me at being a Christian as well. He is bringing glory to God in a situation that I don’t know how I would handle. However, I do know this, when the time comes when I must face that kind of suffering, I know that my game will be better because of Dwight. Some things never change.

UPDATE: Tuesday February 1st 2011. I visited Dwight for the last time today, in this life anyway. The breathing apparatus that he has been using is no longer helping. The next option is a tracheotomy to put him on a ventilator. Dwight and Deb decided long ago that when it reached this point, they would not take that option. There is no point. Dwight is ready to go. So on Thursday morning they will transition Dwight off the breathing mask, give him some medication to keep him comfortable, and wait until the CO2 levels rise to the point that he sleeps and slips away into the arms of Jesus. Dwight is ready to go. In fact he is so ready he decided to not wait to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I told him I understand, for all the glory that is the Steelers and Super Bowls, the glory of Heaven outshines that in ways indescribable. I have to admit that my emotions bounce from moment to moment between joy at the picture of Dwight with Jesus, emptiness at the sense of a page turning in my own life and the resulting void, to wanting to break something, and back to joy. But this is not about me. It is about Dwight and Deb and the incredible way in which they have dealt with this. As Deb said today, she knows that God is real if only because of the otherwise unexplainable peace that washes over her when she pictures Dwight with Jesus. Enough said.