Category Archives: suffering

Cheering me on?

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up…. everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15.1,2&4)

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

(Philippians 2.1-3)

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

(2 Thessalonians 2.16&17)

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes about how each part of the church – each individual member – has a valuable contribution to make to the life of the whole. One of the gifts mentioned is that of encouragement, and while I recognise that some people are particularly gifted in that way, we can all probably learn to practice it better!

What do we mean by “encourage”? I think there are two aspects to it: firstly, that it should help people to see themselves as God’s redeemed and beloved children; and second that it should help them to find strength and courage for the next steps along their journey as believers.

When we celebrate people for who they are, the unique combination of qualities and experiences which make up their characters, and all the varied elements of their life story, we remind them that God values them. They are those for whom Christ died, those who are being refined to a perfection of beauty which will leave us all speechless, those whom he delights to call his own. We can use our words to show them their own worth in God’s sight, affirming the struggles they are going through, and the triumphs they have achieved.. In our family, even very small occasions are an excuse for celebration cakes, and an affirmation that the details of our lives matter. When I take the time to notice someone, to find out about them and share something of their story, they are encouraged – God has sent someone to say “I care about you”.

If I feel that who I am matters, that the details are all known by my Father in heaven, every sorrow and joy seen and cherished by him, then I have reason to be confident that my future will also matter. When I remember that Christ died for me, that I am united forever with him, then I am free to stop worrying about propping up my own self-worth or achieving “self-fulfillment”. My Saviour has everything that matters safely in his keeping; my reputation is his affair, not mine and I am free to put others first, to seek their good, loving them as God loves me.

It is this kind of encouragement to which we are called as believers, drawing on the biblical pattern, where so often God’s people were called to remember his care for them, provision for their needs and long-suffering with their sins. This remembrance was the basis for a call to new commitment on their part, to obedience and faithful reliance on God to provide for them and achieve his purposes through them.

So how shall we encourage one another this week?

Think back over conversations you have had; if there is anything which was concerning a friend, or a trial they were facing, go and ask how it worked out. Celebrate the good things which happen, mourn together over the disappointments, and point one another back to the cross and the faithfulness of God, so that courage is found to persevere.

If someone has done something to help you, to make you laugh or to ease a difficult situation – tell them, in a card or text, let them know that they made a difference, and were God’s means of helping you at that time.

If someone has offended you, ask God for grace to forgive them – as you have been forgiven so much more by him – and then go and find something you can do to celebrate that person.

We can encourage one another anonymously, but it is lovely to know who has taken the time to be God’s love in person for us. In this way we build one another up, we grow in Christ-like love, in unity, and God is glorified among us.

Let’s make some cakes!

 

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Will you sit with me?

O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer! From the ends of the earth, I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed.

Lead me to the towering rock of safety, for you are my safe refuge, a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!

(Psalm 60, 1-4)

Oh, why give light to those in misery, and life to those who are bitter? They long for death, and it won’t come. They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure. They’re filled with joy when they finally die, and rejoice when they find the grave. Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties? I cannot eat for sighing; my groans pour out like water. What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; only trouble comes.

(Job 3.20-26)

People don’t like to hear the truth sometimes…they find it upsets their own faith when fellow believers struggle and suffer for no reason. When depression or deep sadness come to faithful Christians and they walk in the dark, they may well find themselves reluctant to share what they are feeling, afraid of unsettling others and aware that no one can actually help them…

It is so much easier to be around those who are finding life positive, seeing much to be thankful for, obviously overcoming and triumphing by God’s help over the various trials they experience. Who wants to sit, like Job’s comforters(before they spoke a word!), in the dirt, in silence, weeping with him and pouring out an agony of lament? That takes courage, humility, deep love, and a deeper faith.

But is it more glorifying to God for me to pretend that all is well, when the reality is a bleak, numb hopelessness? If God is God, good and loving, holy and faithful, with our best interests at heart and a great master plan for glorifying his son in which we play a part, then my experience of darkness is not enough to undermine his power. Does the reality of my – or anyone else’s – struggle need to be hidden in order to protect his reputation?

As ever, the bible shows us the right response in the darkness. To tell it out. Tell it loud and clear. Tell it to the one who above all is concerned for my heart, who more than anyone else can understand and feel for my pain. Lament; weep and cry; leave no detail unexplored and lay the entire ugly, messy, appalling burden in the lap of God the Almighty, who although beyond our meagre understanding, is never far from us but close and tender-hearted toward us.

Can we extend this same grace to one another? Are you willing to hear a fellow believer share their experience of apparent defeat without jumping in to tell them what they should be doing about it? Will you sit and weep a while; listen to the truth of their darkness as it speaks without demanding that they focus on the light which will surely shine at some point? Will you comfort – that is to gently reassure someone that they are heard, loved, and never alone? All without judging or assuming that you have all the answers?

The time may come when you can give words of direction or even exhortation; but as a soul who knows very well how it feels to be in this darkness, may I encourage you to restrain your kind enthusiasm, and just let me know that you are with me. You may not know how I feel, but you can allow me the opportunity to feel and express it, without trying to shape my thoughts into forms which suit you.

When I am in the darkness, when I am unable to rejoice in God’s gifts and when hope is utterly gone, the best help you can give me is to pray for me; sit with me; and if you want to speak, then help me to bring everything to God. While he is my focus for lamentation, I am safe and you will have done all you can.

 

 

When it hurts too much…

Hasten, O God, to save me; O Lord, come quickly to help me. May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.

But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

(Ps 70)

I have never known what it is to have my life threatened as David did, nor to have people who actively sought to cause me harm. I am blessed and thankful to know such peace, and have an obligation to pray for those who are oppressed in this way.

But I do not think it is inappropriate to apply this psalm to those times in our lives when it seems our spiritual life is under threat, when we are assaulted by doubt, fear, and the relentless voices which wear us down into a dungeon of self-pity and hopelessness. The devil is wily and knows how to use our experiences to twist our perceptions and undermine our faith in the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When I am under such assault, it may take a while to realise what is going on, and to gather my wits to claim the victory which is mine in Christ. This happens most readily when it is my feelings which are attacked, and the resulting emotional storm is hard to ride out. It happened today.

There is a grief in my life which has been my companion for many years, and which, like Paul, I have begged to have removed. The Lord has thus far answered me as he answered Paul, saying that his strength will suffice for me, and I must trust that means he can be glorified through the wounded soldier and servant that I feel myself to be!

Sometimes, I can bear it more easily than others, and have my eye fixed more securely on God’s faithfulness and less on the pain and my own weakness. But not today.

Today, as I floundered on the brink of despair, God has been pouring out extravagant love gifts of beauty upon me, as brilliant winter sunshine picked out the snowy summits of our mountains, each one clear as a razor edge against the blue sky. Each fresh sight cut me afresh, like a wound. The contrast between the grief and darkness within my heart, and the tender love which was being proclaimed across the land, was just too much to bear. It was as though I was on one side of a chasm, with my pain; and the beauty and my dear Lord were on the other side, taunting me with my inability to reach them.

All I wanted to do was run away home, to leave this weary world of warring emotions, messy lives, and endless struggle to keep in step with the spirit of God. I wanted to be where there is no more need to endure, only the privilege of enjoying our God for ever. But of course, I couldn’t run, I have to stay until the time God decides is right for me, so how can I bear it?!

There is no magic formula; this life of faith is indeed a struggle, and at times a bitter one. But I can testify to the power of God to keep me in and through each fresh bout – because by his grace and mercy, he draws me back again and again to Christ.

There I find one who knew the pains which we bear in our human experience; and who can enter into the feelings which torment and drag us down. I praise God, that he turns me toward and not away from him in my need. I confess that I am still far more poor and needy than I like to admit, but rejoice that he will never give up on me and never abandon me to destruction by the forces that assault me.

There is no place for pride here, only profound thankfulness that our God is sufficient, ever-attentive to our cries and never running out of patience with us. Let our cry  in our need always be that of the psalmist:

..come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and deliverer; 

Whispers of comfort

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 

 (Isa 54.10-11)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 

(2Cor 1.3)

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

(Rev 21.3&4)

Lashed by storms and not comforted, surrounded by a land laid waste by disaster and conflict.. This image in Isaiah’s prophecy of the desolation suffered by Jerusalem is a powerful and heart-rending one – calling to mind for us in these days places like the Syrian city of Aleppo, where distress beyond telling is the daily experience of so many people. Our globe continues to suffer the consequences of human rebellion against God – and humanity’s exaltation of itself.

Sometimes it can be a very private and personal desolation, a series of losses, setbacks and disappointments – in others and ourselves – which leave us reeling, breathless and weak. It was into such a personal situation many years ago that my mother read these words to me, bringing word from God of his tender compassion for my grief and agony. They were a lifeline, a trustworthy and secure connection to the solid ground of God’s over-arching provision for me through Jesus’s death and resurrection. All would one day be well, and I could hang on in the dark to that promise.

Is this not one of the most precious elements of the riches which we find in the coming of Jesus to be our Saviour? We are to be comforted – held closely by loving arms, like frightened or lonely children; warmed by the fiery love of God dwelling within us; quieted in our spirits by the knowledge that there is one in control who is all-powerful and ultimately victorious. Do we not all carry around in our adult bodies the spirits of little children, looking for a home and security, a place to lay down a burden of responsibility which is too great for us? Surely this is what Jesus meant when he called us to bear his yoke, which is light, and to allow the Almighty and Everlasting God to be God, to take from us those things which crush and destroy?

Our guilt for past sins – gone, by the grace of God in the atoning death of Christ on the cross. Our regrets for what might have been – lifted by the promise of eternal life in a new creation with infinite possibilities for good, and by God’s ability to work all things together for good for those who love him. Our fears for the future – transformed into quiet hope and expectation, that with God, we can do all that needs to be done, and that He sees and knows how to value our desire to obey and keep faith with him.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.”( Isa 40.1)

The comfort which God offers is ultimately guaranteed by the fulfillment of all the prophecies about the coming of a Saviour. That comfort comes to us at the price of God’s son taking on human flesh, and then taking that flesh to the cross – for me, for you – where he was not comforted in his appalling isolation and pain, but mocked and abandoned.

What we receive, Jesus gave up. In his darkness there was no comfort, only agony and degradation as sin shut him out from his Father’s presence. Do I even begin to grasp what the perfect Son of God suffered for love of me? No, I can only wonder, and worship, and reach out passionately to grasp the precious comfort which his death provides for me – how I need this!

Be comforted, be warmed and reassured this Christmas, as you celebrate the coming of such a Saviour, and have confidence in telling others. We have tidings of great comfort and joy!

Right isn’t always easy

Keep me from lying to myself; give me the privilege of knowing your instructions. I have chosen to be faithful; I have determined to live by your regulations. I cling to your laws. Lord, don’t let me be put to shame!

Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found.

Turn my eyes from worthless things, and give me life through your word.

(Ps 119. 29-31,35,37)

How often in our human frailty do we manage to convince ourselves that the easy path is the right one – simply because it is the easy one? We know somewhere deep inside that we are lying to ourselves, and that the attractively easy option is not God’s best, not the choice that echoes His character and instructions for holy living. But we choose not to hear that truth, to deafen it by our own arguments, tuning in to the culture around us that clamours of our self-worth, our entitlement, the obvious morality of looking after ourselves first!

There is a very real danger of course that as followers of Jesus we wrongly assume that good things are somehow wrong, since we know we cannot ‘deserve’ them. This is a trap, and leads to a bitter, martyred attitude to life, where we end up wallowing in self-inflicted discomfort or difficulty, and that is no more glorifying to God than a self-centred, lazy life!

But there is a necessary balance and we need to be honest – as the psalmist is here – in recognising that it is only with God’s help that we can learn to regularly make godly choices in how we live, in the paths along which our lives are taken. The prospect of pain, being out of our comfort zones, difficulty and even loss, should never be deterrents if we see God clearly summoning us. Think of the prophet Jonah, who heard a clear call from God, and deliberately chose to go in the opposite direction, rejecting the uncomfortable job of preaching repentance to the enemies and oppressors of his people. God’s grace finally turned him around to obedience, but what a dreadful time he had of it!

When he wrote to the little church in Philippi, Paul reminded them of the example of our Lord and Saviour – always a good idea when we are unsure about what to do! Jesus was called on to abandon his throne, the privileges of heaven, the freedom of eternity, and to embrace the limitations of time, space and flesh. He “did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”(Phil 2.6-8)

Jesus obeyed his Father’s will, aligning his own will with it, submitting in love for the Father, and in love for us, to this humiliation and suffering. Obedience may well involve us in suffering. And if so, then we can rejoice that we should be counted worthy to share in the experience of our Lord! Does the love of Christ not compel us to seek ways in which we may glorify and exalt him; to show that we are profoundly indebted to him and delight to honour and serve him in any way we can? Is it fitting that the disciples of a suffering and crucified Lord should have soft feet and no scars of their own to testify to their journey with him?

I do not desire the martyr-complex, I choose not to invite pity. But I will beseech my loving and faithful God to give me courage to embrace with a whole heart the consequences of the call which he places on my life. May I not be like Jonah, running away from a costly obedience, but rather like Christ, who steadily faced down every painful encounter, that he might obey his Father. May I choose to offer my suffering, grief and pain to the God who is walking the path with me, as offerings of praise to his keeping of me through trials.

There will be grace sufficient for every step, let me only be willing to keep walking!