August 10, 2016

Ministry to those who suffer

An elderly Christian woman had been blind for a long time, but whenever the church held prayer sessions for those with health problems, she adamantly refused to ask for healing. I’d wondered if she considered her blindness as a God-thing or some sort of chastening, but I didn’t want make any assumptions or judge her. At the time, I had very little understanding of why God allows suffering.

Today, Chambers hints at the various reasons for suffering using parts of this passage . . .

“If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:14–19)

From this and other passages, God says Christians suffer because they are Christians. Our message and our lives offend those who are not interested in being redeemed from sin, never mind admitting that they need redemption.

These verses hint that we are not to suffer because we have broken God’s laws, even the laws of the land. If we do, any suffering that incurs is likely deserved justice.

Other passages say that Christians suffer because God is using a painful situation to produce deeper faith, or perhaps to purify our lives. If this is the case (and as Chambers says), I might know what is going on in my own life, but others should not assume anything, like Job’s friends did.

Nor should I interfere with the discipline of suffering in another Christian. Because I want them strong and mature for God, I should not feel sorry for them, yet I must be compassionate and encourage them to seek the face of God.

At the same time, feeling pity for a person God is chastening is contrary to God’s will. Who am I to say that God should not correct or chasten His children with suffering or build their faith with hardship? Chambers says sympathy actually weakens those in such situations. If my lack of discernment into God’s purpose for suffering produces pity, then it could interfere with His purifying work in them and even weaken others in the church.  

Obviously this topic requires understanding and discernment. My dictionary equates sympathy with compassion, but ‘sympathy’ is a word seldom used in the Bible. Philippians 2:1 and 1 Peter 3:8 uses two different words that most translate as sympathy, but both equate sympathy with compassion, which is a good thing. In contrast, Chambers uses ‘sympathy’ to refer to a ‘poor-you pity’ that has no understanding of suffering other than it is to be totally avoided. This is not biblical.

Of course, if I choose to suffer, there is something wrong with me. However, if I choose God’s will even if it means suffering, God is pleased. Yet when I am suffering, others cannot understand why unless they are very much in touch with the Holy Spirit. If I suffer because of my own sin, I should not be pitied but exhorted. Others should not sympathize with my pain if it encourages self-pity or renders me weak and useless. Jesus even said that such ‘sympathy’ is of the devil . . .

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21–23)

Peter put comfort ahead of God’s purposes. This is contrary to ‘common sense’ and could be demonic.

If I am suffering because of God’s plan (like Job, and like Jesus) then I am in good company, but my suffering will be misunderstood just as theirs was. Job’s friends thought he must deserve it for some reason or other. Jesus’ friends thought ‘no way, He does not deserve this’ and protested.

As for me, when I pray for the sick, I’m concerned and want them to be well, but I’m also aware that I’ve no clue about God’s will for them. Perhaps the more difficult question is how to talk and minister to the suffering. Is God at work? Do they want His will to be done? How can I be compassionate yet discourage self-pity and encourage them to seek God’s best and to entrust their lives to Him?

How much I need the Lord to show me these things.

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