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The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Our Suffering

July 24, 2011
Sermon:  The Spirit of God in Daily Life:  In Our Suffering
Text:  Romans 8:18-39

We continue our series The Spirit of God in Daily Life today by thinking about God in the midst of our suffering.

Our three younger children – two in high school and one in junior high – were still at home one day.  I had one of those splitting headaches, the kind that makes you want to crawl into bed, hide under a pillow, and stay in the dark until it has gone away.  I had taken some medicine, and I did go to sleep.  When I woke up though, my head was still hurting.  One of our sons looked at me and said, “Dad, I could tell the first time I saw that head that it was going to give you a lot of trouble.”

I approach our time together today with a little trepidation.  I know that while words can make a lot of difference when we are suffering, just offering platitudes does not offer much support.  The truth is that sometimes words do not give comfort. It has been a busy week.  We have had many sick members admitted to the hospital.  For several days, we had members in four of the six different intensive care units at Regional Medical Center.

In my experience in pastoral ministry, two people in my memory – two people you will recall – suffered more than any other individuals I have ever known.  One was Rosemary Allen.  The other was Steve Maffett.

This week, I have visited with another member of our church, a young man who has already suffered terribly.  His name is Brad Biggerstaff.  In the last two weeks, Brad has had both legs amputated.  Doctors discovered that he has a blood disease that is the opposite of hemophilia.  His blood clots inappropriately.  Also this week, Brad has been diagnosed with cancer in his esophagus, stomach, liver, and lungs.  The prognosis for Brad is not good.  I sat with him and his close family members and realized that there is not a lot to say.  In the midst of this kind of experience, our words do not offer much comfort.

When Job was suffering so terribly, his friends came to see him.  For seven days, they sat and said nothing.  That silent companionship was good for Job.  Then his friends began talking, trying to offer explanations and reasons for his suffering.  Not only did these men make a mess of the situation, but they also made Job angry.

I can tell you from my own experience that offering sweet words, words that are nothing but clichés and platitudes, just do not help those who are suffering.  Even a macaroni casserole is better than that attempt to comfort.

About a month ago, I met at Cudd Memorial Baptist Church with individuals interested in forming a new group called HopeKeepers.  One of our church members, a member from Cudd Memorial, and a member from Cross Roads Baptist Church have started this support group for people who suffer from chronic pain.  They asked if I would be their initial speaker.

Gathering there in the Fellowship Hall was like being at Lourdes.  People who suffer all kinds of pain came, using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs.  What was so amazing was that about half of those people did not need any assistance with walking.  They looked very ordinary; but they, too, suffer silently with chronic pain.  Though some of the individuals have no outward manifestation of pain, they carry it in their bodies all the time.

A number of you have experienced this same condition.  Some of you, even now, sit in a church pew, an instrument of torture for those who suffer chronic back pain or chronic leg pain.  You have suffered, and you have taken medication.  You wonder how to live with this suffering day after day.

How in the world are we, as Christians, to understand how God’s Spirit can minister to us when we have unrelenting suffering in life?  God ministers to us in a variety of ways.

Considering our physical well-being during a time of suffering is vital.  Sometimes people with pain do not want to move.  They have the idea that moving will increase their pain.  It is true that exercise sometimes hurts.  Anyone who has been through the process of rehab after a joint injury will attest that exercise is necessary to recover from that particular surgery.  The condition will not get better without pain; it will only worsen.  For a person having chronic pain, exercise is absolutely essential.

Mentally, pain can be absolutely exhausting.  Those who suffer chronic pain often find that they need some sort of diversion.  Participating in some creative activity – like music, art, writing, or woodworking – helps mitigate the stress just a bit.  The emotional dimensions of chronic pain are legion.  They can affect every part of life.  People can fall into despair, develop great anxiety, encounter sleep disturbances.

When I met with the HopeKeepers, I drew a verse from the prophet Zechariah, one that perhaps you do not know:  “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12).  How odd it is to think that we could be imprisoned by hope.  That idea, though, helps us find an approach to understanding how God’s Spirit works with us in our suffering.

I want to consider the case study of a person who was indeed a prisoner of hope.  This man who suffered terribly has been described as being bow-legged, bent at the back, and bald-headed.  His eyebrows met in the middle, and his nose was hooked.  By almost anyone’s assessment, he was not very attractive.  You know this man by the name the Apostle Paul.  We are going to look at some of the details of his pain chronicled for us in his letters.  Scriptures written by Paul tell us how God’s Spirit ministered to him in his suffering.

We will begin by looking at II Corinthians 11:21-28, a passage that shows Paul’s feelings of awkwardness about sharing his condition.  Some people are not embarrassed by revealing the details of their pain at all.  When asked how they are doing, they offer an organ recital, telling everything going on in every organ of their body.  They provide too much information, more than anyone would ever want to know.

If you have been in ministry as I have for forty-five years and seen the anguish of people like Rosemary Allen, Steve Maffett, and Brad Biggerstaff, your patience with those who whine diminishes greatly.  I have seen real suffering, and I just do not have much patience for whiners.

Paul explains in Verses 21-28:

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

Did Paul suffer?  He had bumper-to-bumper suffering.

In the midst of this anguish, however, Paul turned to God in prayer.  He teaches us an important lesson about suffering and prayer in II Corinthians 12:5-10:

5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.

We do not know the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”  Some say it was epilepsy.  Others say it was blindness.  He certainly had difficulty with his eyesight.  It is just as well that we do not know the particulars.  We can read this Scripture and place our own specific ailment – chronic arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes – into Paul’s statements.

Did you notice Paul’s request in his prayer?  He asked God to take the suffering away from him.  You have probably made the same request.  I certainly have.  I have also petitioned God on behalf of other people.  God answers those prayers in the same way that loving parents answer the requests of their children.  Sometimes God says, “Yes.”  Sometimes He responds, “Let’s wait a little while.”  Sometimes He replies, “No.”  God’s answer to Paul’s prayer to remove his suffering was, “No, I am not going to take this suffering away from you.”  Even with a simple “No,” God has still answered prayer.

Paul reveals that through his experience of suffering, he has discovered a truth that is very important:  “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  Having grace sufficient means that when our own strength runs out, we have a strength that is beyond our own.  We have the strength of God.

Turn with me to Philippians 4:4-9.  Paul, this prisoner of hope, is actually in prison when he writes the words in this letter.  He is not just a prisoner.  He is also a prisoner condemned to death.  He is on death row.  Take the suffering he endures and now multiply it by the experience of being on death row.  Listen to Paul’s remarkable comments:

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Where is God in our suffering?  The Spirit of God is so close we can flick Him with our eyelash.  We can hear that gentle whisper.  Where is the Lord in our suffering?  He is near.

Are you telling me that this man on death row is encouraging us not to be worried?  He is telling us not to be anxious about whether the excruciating pain is ever going to end?  God makes an incredible promise:  “The peace of God” – something we all want – “which is beyond human understanding, will keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.”  We want peace of heart and peace of mind.  Paul tells us that we need to direct our thoughts.  We cannot give in to pessimistic thinking.  We cannot begin pondering all the negative possibilities.  “Woe is me.  Woe is me.”  Look at what Paul says:

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Telling people who are suffering, “Don’t think about it” does not help, does not eliminate the problem.  Getting them to focus their attention elsewhere and to include some positive thoughts will begin to make a difference.

Verses 11-13:

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Can you be content during a period of suffering?  Can you be content while being held as a prisoner on death row?  Finding inner contentment when circumstances are difficult is a secret, a great mystery.  Sometimes what we need most is a big dose of Jesus.  Sometimes that is the only source of help.

II Corinthians 1:3-5:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

Paul addresses the fellowship of suffering in this passage.  We are not alone in times of affliction.  God is near.  The Spirit of God is at hand.  Our fellow human beings are also fellow sufferers.  A part of the meaning of our suffering is that it gives us an opportunity to minister to others who are suffering.  One of the primary functions of the church is to share in the fellowship of suffering and in the fellowship of comfort.

Turn with me to Romans 8:18-39, the announced text for today.  Here we see Paul’s great treatise on enduring suffering.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

             “For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I have a wise old saying that I invented:  Don’t ever waste a good experience of suffering.  God wants to use your suffering.  Through the Holy Spirit, He can make your suffering redemptive.  As surely as the suffering of Christ on the cross is redemptive, God can use our suffering to be redemptive.  That is the reason Paul includes the expression about groaning three times.  The whole creation, those of us who are Christians – who have the firstfruit – and the Spirit of God Himself groan.  This groaning is not fruitless.  It is groaning as in the pains of labor.  God wants to use that groaning, that suffering, to produce something good in every life.  There are no exemptions.  If you think that you are going to get out of this life without suffering, you have not lived long enough.  Suffering will come to everyone.  It is part of our experience.

I find it amazing that God Himself experiences suffering.  God hurts.  We do not ordinarily think about that truth.  We think that somehow God should be immune to suffering.  I can tell you that we hurt Him.  As surely as our children hurt us, the children of God hurt Him at times.  If you want Exhibit A, look at what Paul writes in Philippians 2:8 about Jesus.  He says that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient even unto death – even death on a cross!”  Paul is referring to the Son of God who suffered terribly on the cross of Calvary.  Do you think for a moment that occasion did not cause the Father in heaven great pain?  God suffers with us.

When these experiences occur, our tendency is to want to kill the pain, to eliminate the pain.  I am not against medication.  I am not opposed to painkillers.  I take something for headaches just as you do.  Suffering has the ability to bring healing, even if the pain does not vanish.  Do not dispense with suffering as a useless experience, however.  The revelation of God works through our suffering.

Consider a deeper kind of healing.  Sometimes God makes us lie down so that our soul can be restored.  Our physical healing may not be what is most important to God.  The restoration of our soul may be more important.  Suffering is a great teacher.  It will teach us lessons we cannot learn any other way.  Paul, for example, learned about the life of prayer.

The Spirit of God ministers to us even in our greatest difficulties.  You must be a Christian to see that.  If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, I would like to invite you to respond.  Make that your decision today.  Acknowledge Jesus as your Savior.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2011
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