Embracing Suffering

What I have posted here is the sermon manuscript from our joint Lenten worship service that we do with the Presbyterian Church here in Jackson.  We are exploring a book together called Embracing Obscurity by anonymous.

Embracing Obscurity

The chapter we spoke about on Wed, March 13 was titled “Embracing Suffering”.  Below is my portion of the message:

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As I begin this message I want to share with you a couple short paragraphs from the book Chris and I are talking about, Embracing Obscurity.  These paragraphs will help set the stage as we talk about Embracing Suffering tonight as a way to help us embrace obscurity.  This is what our anonymous author writes:

In A Path through Suffering, Elisabeth Elliot muses, “The word suffering is much too grand to apply to most of our troubles, but if we don’t learn to refer the little things to God how shall we learn to refer the big ones?” Perhaps that’s why her definition of suffering seems so fitting: Having what you don’t want, or wanting what you don’t have. This is the perfect definition of suffering for our discussion about embracing obscurity because it’s in the little “sufferings” of demotions, hard breaks, layoffs, out-of-state moves, menial jobs and (allow me to add…failed adoptions), that we learn to defer to God our dreams of being well-known, respected, and admired. It’s in these trenches that we realize God is big and we are small, where we exchange our will— our dreams, desires, and plans— for the opportunity to make much of Him and less of ourselves.
[Anonymous (2012-09-20). Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God’s Everything (pp. 108-109). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

And that is the embracing obscurity part ~ to make much of God and less of us.  That is what we should be about, but when we are in the midst of suffering, that can be very hard to do.  After all, we are sinful, self-centered and glory-seeking people.  We want what we want and this makes it hard for us to embrace the obscurity that Chris and I have been talking about for a few weeks.  We naturally look inward but when we do that, our suffering is what we focus on…not on what God is doing.  So when something happens that we can classify as suffering some initial reactions include (but not limited to):

Why is this happening to me?  Where is God?  If God loves me then why did this happen? If God exists then suffering shouldn’t exist either, right? How long, O Lord, how long?

Sound familiar? Those are tempting questions… aren’t they?  And I have to admit…I was asking questions like that last week.  As Connie and I were in Florida on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; waiting to adopt a baby, I have never prayed harder for anything in my life.  I so wanted to be able to bring home a baby.  I prayed for the birth mother and family.  I prayed for the baby.  I prayed for our attorney.  I prayed for wisdom and strength.  I prayed, I prayed and I prayed some more.  You know 1 Thessalonians 5 where it says “Pray without ceasing”?  That was me.  But then on Wednesday afternoon we got the news we were dreading the most: “The birth mother has decided to parent the baby.”  My first prayer following those words was “Why God, why?”  My heart began to ache. And if we are to use Elisabeth Elliot’s definition then one could say I began to suffer.

The walk through the long hospital parking lot, back to our car, felt like the longest walk ever.  When we finally reached the car, I sat down and placed my hands and head on the steering wheel; not knowing what to do.  I didn’t want to leave because I didn’t want to believe what just happened.  I was at a loss. The only thing I could think of doing was to cry out to God.  So we prayed…again.  We continued to pray for the birth mother and the baby and the family.  We continued to pray for strength and wisdom.  But this time we added healing and understanding. We had so many questions.

As we began the long 1600 mile trip back to Jackson I can remember thinking through my tears:  How in the world does anyone do this without God?  It totally baffled me.  How does anyone deal with any kind of suffering without the Almighty?  How does anyone move on with life without the awesome love of our Father?  At that moment, I needed God more than ever.  I didn’t like feeling the way I did (and I still don’t) but what I pray for now is for understanding and wisdom in how to best use this for the glory of God.  Because, no doubt, someone else will go through something similar. If they don’t know Jesus I want them to or if they DO know Jesus, I want them to remember, because true healing can only be found in Jesus. You can’t do this alone.

When we are suffering we have a couple choices to make.  We can wallow in our suffering; in self-pity, drawing attention to ourselves (which does not glorify God) or we can use what we are experiencing to help others; to give glory to God…to make more of God and less of ourselves. It is all a matter of faith.  If you truly believe that God is sovereign then you know that life is not about you.  The world does not revolve around you and me. And as I thought about that I even struggled to write these words to say to you tonight.  I didn’t want this to be a therapy session for me or something to portray me as some hero of the faith. So please don’t look at me as some kind of hero for not falling apart or for not being angry, because if you were in my home on Friday afternoon when we got home, you would have seen a person falling apart…still asking questions; emotionally raw.  I am no hero…I’m a child of God.

What we need to remember, my friends, is that God does not delight in the pain of his children.  God does not take pleasure in the suffering of his children.  The Good News in the midst of pain and suffering is that God has overcome suffering through Jesus Christ.  If we make suffering about us then we fail to proclaim this Good News to the world.  But…if we embrace suffering to the glory of God then we shift the focus from us and highlight the conquering and glorious King; drawing others to Him.  If you are looking inward; focusing on your own suffering, then you fail to see the awesome love of God.  Like I said, life is not about you and me.  So we might as well point to the one who it is about…God, for God is indeed in control. And that is my prayer each and every day; that I remember who is in charge and who it is that should be glorified.

As I close my portion of this talk, allow me to share one more paragraph with you from our book: How has God allowed you to suffer? Have you lost a home? Received a startling diagnosis? Been plagued by self-doubt or troubled relationships? Longed for a dream that evades you? Suffering is inevitable. You know it; I know it. We also know that how we respond says much about us. Will we be teachable through the dark moments and difficult seasons? Will we allow God’s Spirit to humble and transform us through our pain and disappointments? Will we allow our suffering to multiply what we have to offer others?
[Anonymous (2012-09-20). Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God’s Everything (pp. 111-112). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

In this sin-torn world we live in suffering is a reality; we can’t escape that.  And to deny that is foolish.  But the the bigger reality that we all can take great joy in is that God has overcome the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the one who suffered more than anyone can possibly imagine…and he did all that just FOR YOU and FOR ME.  We won’t suffer like Jesus did, but we can use our suffering to glorify God like Jesus did.  So in the meantime…do not let Satan use your suffering for his purposes but rather let God use your suffering for His purposes; to draw people to Himself.  Make more of God and less of yourself and know true healing; healing that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  For through faith in Jesus Christ you will know a life ABSENT of suffering.  And that is what it is all about; proclaiming that Good News in the midst of a world of suffering.

May GOD be praised, always and forever.

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The pastor -|—