It’s such a disturbing and frightening time in so many other places around the world right now. The past weeks have been especially terrifying for the Burmese people in Myanmar. More brutality. More death. More uncertainty. More and more displaced people are on the run, fleeing for their lives. The spiritual question on the minds of many is, what is the relevance of faith and one’s relationship with God in the face of such horrors and challenges? What is the role of prayer when we all we are experiencing is oppression, deprivation, and suffering?
This week, in the chapter I’m reading from my book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times,” I share some biblical answers to these extremely important questions. In it, I talk about how the Apostle Paul encouraged other followers of Christ who were facing great suffering, deprivation, and even death in their day. His teaching is both reassuring and practical for all those who looking for more strength, courage, and confidence to sustain them throughout their long dark night, whenever and wherever it comes.
Though you may experience much suffering in this life, nothing can separate you from the love of God which comes to you through Jesus Christ. This kind of love is nothing less than God’s presence with you through his Holy Spirit, who consoles you in your suffering and enables you to live, to love, and to experience the love and support from other brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s enduring love and presence also guarantees that no matter what happens in your life, suffering and death are not the final chapters for followers of Christ. Once this life is finished, you will spend eternity in God’s loving presence.
Suffering. It’s so often unfair, unjust, and wretched. No one wants to suffer–ever! Yet, everyone suffers, and suffering is nothing new, particularly for those who seek to honor God and serve him faithfully. Jesus himself suffered horribly in order to fulfill his mission.
As hard as it is to hear or accept, suffering was promised to all his followers, as well. But here is our hope: so was his glory.
In this chapter, I talk about the promise that those who share in Jesus Christ’s sufferings will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17). So many questions arise from this simple statement. For example, what kind of suffering did Paul have in mind? What did he mean that followers of Jesus will share in Christ’s’ glory? Why is this message so important for all followers of Christ, especially for those facing persecution, oppression, disease and possible death?
Not all questions can be answered definitively, nor is it clear how normal human suffering relates to suffering for Christ. Yet, the witness of the New Testament is clear that suffering is a certainty in life, greater suffering awaits those who follow Christ faithfully, and our great hope lies in trusting God to make all things right one day and to reward those who choose to live by their faith in the midst of their suffering.
My prayer is that God will speak to you through this video to give you more hope, strength, and courage to face whatever you must face in these very difficult days.
In this third chapter, I talk about three types of responses to the COVID-19 crisis: there are the
• positive-thinkers, and
• overwhelmed observers.
Which type of person best describes you? Which kind of person do you want to be?
On your own, you may feel very weak and afraid sometimes, especially when you are suffering so much. Yet, the biblical writers teach that if you put your faith in God’s working in your life, you can expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. God will bring good out of your experiences, which God defines as our becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
In times of crisis, many of us instinctively respond with a Fight, Flee or Freeze response, which can lead to poor decisions and ineffective leadership. So, how can we go beyond these instincts to make good decisions, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit?
In this second chapter of my book, I talk about my struggle to discern the will of God when I was conducting leadership workshops for ministers in Myanmar, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, back in March 2020. Through this difficult time, and in many situations since then, I have seen the wisdom and effectiveness of a “both-and” approach to decision-making, which I explain in the video.
I pray that each one of these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day, and that God will use these videos to strengthen and encourage you in many ways to live better by faith in the midst of your hardships and suffering.
NEW VIDEO SERIES ON TRUSTING GOD IN TROUBLED TIMES!
(Produced in ENGLISH with BURMESE subtitles)
I’m very happy to now be able to share with you my most recent book, “What We Can Expect from God Now: Seven Spiritual Truths for Trusting God in Troubled Times.” I originally wrote the book to offer a biblically-based perspective on how to live by faith in the COVID-19 crisis, but the spiritual truths are relevant in any time of uncertainty, hardship, and suffering. In this eight-part video series, I will be reading the entire book, chapter by chapter, as well as offering some additional words of encouragement each week.
In this first video in the series, I read Chapter One and talk about the impossibility of understanding all of God’s ways with our limited human minds. However, when Jesus opens our eyes, we can see God’s presence among us, and we can reach out to receive and benefit from all that God offers to us. I hope these videos will strengthen and encourage you in many ways. I pray that these spiritual truths will help you to experience more of God’s loving presence and the power of the Holy Spirit’s power from day to day.
This video was inspired by conversations with Burmese people inside of Myanmar, who feel powerless to stop the oppression, to keep their country from becoming a completely failed state, and now, to stem the advance of COVID-19, which has recently begun to spiral out of control. Hundreds of people are dying every day in Yangon alone, and COVID has spread to 90% of the townships throughout the country. The junta is increasingly shutting off access to oxygen and pharmacies for the people. Many are just waiting for someone in their family to get sick and die.
No one knows how long these crises will last or how much suffering they must endure, just as many others throughout the world live under the constant threat of abuse, exploitation, or unbearable hardship. While many are praying, watching, and waiting to see how God may intervene to help, at times it is easy to feel hopeless. It’s precisely in such moments that Jesus’ offer to help carry our burdens is so relevant and needed. Jesus’ presence, in and among us, is God’s great gift to comfort, strengthen, and encourage all those who follow him, especially when there seems to be so little hope for our circumstances to change.
Ahlone, mingalarbar. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor with another spiritual word of encouragement for my friends in Myanmar.
This is a horrible time for all of you. I know very well that your suffering is great. As I listen to the news and talk to so many of you, I know that many of you feel very frustrated and are discouraged. Every day is a living nightmare. You may be praying to God for help, but the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. More and more people don’t have enough food to eat. Just today, I got another message that more and more people are dying due to COVID. It’s hard not to feel hopeless sometimes.
If that’s how you’re feeling, Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew are especially for you today. As Jesus was spreading the Gospel and teaching people about God’s love and God’s ways, at one point, he turns to the crowd and says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
As you know, out in the villages, you can easily find carts being pulled by animals. When there are two animals, they are usually joined together by a common yoke—which is often a wooden frame that goes over the necks of both animals. By being yoked as one, they move together and work together, and the result is that their work is easier than if just one of them had to pull the cart by itself.
The spiritual meaning or image is clear. Jesus knows very well how heavy our loads can be and how tired we can get trying to carry them. And so his message is a word of encouragement for those who believe him and who put their trust in him. If we will take on his yoke, then we don’t have to carry our load by ourselves anymore. He will always be with us, and his presence will be an abiding source of strength for us. And furthermore, compared to trying to go through life without God or trying to handle all our stresses and problems in our own strength, Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light.” Life is not easy and light, but putting Jesus’ yoke on us, submitting to his ways, trusting him, following his ways make it easier for us to find our ways through this life and to handle the darkness when we come into it and have to face it. He also said that he is “gentle and humble of heart,” he says, and if we are willing to learn from him, we will find rest for our souls.
For me, my relationship with God through Jesus, is my absolute lifeline. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious, which is in the past five or so months has been pretty much every day, the best thing I can do is to reach out to God, not just to ask for deliverance from my enemies and problems, but to simply connect with the Source of my life. I may get away by myself to pray or meditate on Scripture, or I’ll step out into Nature or look at the stars at night, just to remind me that I have a Creator and that there is still some beauty left in the universe.
Another way that I like to experience Jesus’ presence is by meeting with other followers of Christ. The idea is this, as Jesus is in me, so he is in them, so that when we gather together in Jesus’ name, his Spirit truly is present among us. And that’s what I experience.
This past week, for example, I joined a dozen colleagues from Myanmar for a prayer service online. We read Psalm 143 together, and each person shared how the psalm had spoken to them and had given them encouragement. We listened to one another and prayed together. And at the end, even though on the outside, things were still very dark and dangerous throughout Myanmar, everyone who was there felt stronger and encouraged because of our time together. And that was just one experience of the week. Every day, I’ve had many other such experiences with brothers and sisters in Christ who are going through tough times; but what we all have in common is that we share the yoke of Jesus Christ. We look to Jesus for guidance. We look to God for help, not just to solve our problems but to be our source of strength to face our problems.
The spiritual truth from these verses is this: When so much has been lost and the future is frightening and uncertain, you still have a hope that cannot be taken away from you. In the midst of so much that you can’t control or change, the presence of God through the Spirit of Jesus is the one solid rock you can stand on. Keep praying for God’s deliverance and intervention, but in your time of watching and waiting to see what will happen, don’t forget to also keep reaching out to Jesus. He’s the one abiding source of peace and strength that you can draw on to help you through the night.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day, as I have been.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
Today, I’m going to talk about a spiritual practice that has been very helpful to me when I feel so powerless and angry, especially in those situations where someone I care about is being treated unjustly or being mistreated, and when I feel so limited in my ability to help. This is the second short video (6 minutes) in the current series, “Light in the Darkness.” I’m creating these videos in support of the Burmese people who have been suffering greatly in Myanmar as a result of a political coup on February 1, 2021. (Video is in English with Burmese subtitles.)
I’m not there in Myanmar facing danger every day, the way that so many of you are, but every time I hear about another killing, or that one of my students is fleeing through the jungles to escape capture, or that refugees don’t have enough food or medicine, I want to do something to help. But, in so many cases, there’s nothing I can do. I feel so frustrated, frustrated. I feel angry. I feel helpless.
At such times, I’ve learned how important it is to be willing to accept my powerlessness, to lament, and to reach out to God for comfort and help.
In Psalm 137, we find a great biblical example of lament. The ancient Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonian army and forced to live in a foreign country. It was miserable for them. They hated it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And we get this picture of masses of exiles, sitting down by a river, just weeping with sorrow, and shaking with rage.
Listen to just a couple of the verses from this psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion [their homeland]. … O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
I used to wonder, how could such violent words be in the Bible? But after all that’s been happening lately in Myanmar and in many other places around the world, I think I understand better now. The Israelites had to get all all their sorrow and grief and rage out of their system. And they had to reach out to God to help them, and to reach out from a place of emotional honesty.
When Mindat was under attack, recently, I was so upset and angry. I kept looking for ways to do something, anything that I could to help. Yet, it seemed like there was nothing I could do. I had watch helplessly as people were being hurt and people were fleeing for their lives. I could feel myself almost getting frantic in my desperation, but then I remembered what I’m supposed to do when I feel this way.
So, I found a quiet place. I took a deep breath. As painful as it was, I let myself feel my powerlessness. I didn’t stop caring, but I reminded myself that I have to accept my limitations. I have to wait until God shows me what I can do; and until then, I have to rely on God or someone else to do what I cannot.
Well, as I began to let go of what I could not control or do, I began to feel more peace. And with greater peace, I began to feel more strength. And little by little, I didn’t feel so powerless anymore.
The spiritual truth behind this practice is this: When we feel so much distress and pain, and our lives have been so wounded, and when we feel so overwhelmed and consumed with fear or despair, we need God. We need God’s help. We can’t face these things on our own. And so, we need to cry out to our Creator, who is the Source of our life. We need to cry out to the one who can renew our life when we feel as if we are about to lose it. We need to sit with our power-lessness. We need to lament, and we need to wait for God’s power-fullness, which comes to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As the Apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God, so that he may life you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7, NRSV) Amen.
Trust this. Let go of your powerlessness. Lament. And then reach out to God, reach out to Jesus Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the life that you can’t get in your own power.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့္ ကိုယ္ ကို ဂရုစိုက္ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
ျမန္မာျပည္အျမန္ ျငိမ္း ခ်မ္းပါ ေစ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
Truth 5: Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God.
I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night more often than usual. I just can’t seem to sleep as well as before. Sometimes, it’s a bad dream. Other times, I can’t get out of mind the people who are suffering from war, hunger, or looming economic collapse. One very early morning this past week, I woke up feeling empty and drained. I had hit a wall. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time, trying to pray, trying to go back to sleep, trying to decide if it would be better just to get up. It was going to be a hard day.
So far in this essay series, we have emphasized the hopeful messages in the Bible for those who are suffering or facing crisis. There are many reasons to be encouraged in spite of our circumstances. As Christians, for example, we can look for God to actively lead and guide, to produce character and hope, or to use us to help others in some way.
But what do you do when your darkness is just dark? What if you can’t see anything good coming out of your suffering? What if you expect only more of the same—more uncertainty, more loss, more pain? Or, what if you just don’t have any more energy to try?
Spiritual Truth 5 Remember—nothing can separate you from the love of God. (Hebrews 2:18; 13:5; Romans 8:19-28, 38-39)
“Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,” says the Lord.
Hebrews 13:5 NIV
These words from Hebrews are usually interpreted as a promise of God’s ongoing presence and provision. And rightly so. This is why we don’t panic in hard times. This is why we keep reaching out to God for help in our times of need.
At the same time, the promise of God’s abiding presence is also meant to remind us to look beyond this life’s troubles. The Apostle Paul taught us that all creation is groaning, waiting for the redemption of the world. Likewise, we, too, are groaning, looking eagerly for the day our bodies will be completely delivered from suffering, decay, and mortality. (Rom. 8: 19-23)
In other words, sometimes, we must wait for heaven to find the relief we are longing for. As Paul explained, this is the very definition of Christian hope:
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
To Paul, the most important gift of the Christian faith is not how much God can fix or improve our earthly lives. Rather, our most treasured possession is our eternal bond with our Creator, our Father in Heaven, which comes through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If this bond of love is secure, and it is, then no matter what happens to us in this life, we’re going to be O.K. We have an amazing, wonderful relationship with God that extends throughout eternity that no one can take away from us. By God’s grace, through faith, we have a precious and secure hope that can carry us through the darkest of days.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks rhetorically. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35). The answer, of course, is, No. No one. Nothing.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 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.
Romans 8:38-39 NIV
The power of prayer
As I lay in bed on that difficult morning not long ago, not knowing when I would find the motivation to get up,the prayers from Psalms 61 and 62 kept coming to my mind. “Lord, you are my rock…. Lift my feet to the rock that is higher than I.” Whenever I feel so empty or sad, what helps me the most is reaching out to God. I may not have many words to pray, but I keep asking him to do something inside my mind and heart that I cannot do on my own. I pour out my heart to God.
In moments like these, I am not praying for solutions, healing, or even deliverance. I’m just looking for some comfort, maybe renewed strength, or just an ability to feel some joy again. And answers come. Not usually right away. I need to listen and respond to the still, small voice of the Spirit; and in time, help comes. I follow the prompting to open my Bible, get up and go for a walk outside, reach out to good friend, talk to someone who loves me, or turn my attention to someone who needs my love or help in some way. Or, maybe I find the freedom to just sit with my sadness and not feel compelled to try to make myself happy, as I wait for the Holy Spirit to restore my peace and joy.
The one to whom we have entrusted our lives for salvation, whose sufferings we share throughout this mortal life, is also the one who is able to comfort us in our time of trial.
Because [Jesus Christ] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
And when we do not know what to pray or we can’t find the words, Christ’s Spirit prays through us and for us. Paul put it this way:
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
What are you doing when you feel low and are struggling to strength or motivation to get up and get going ? As the COVID-19 crisis continues on, how are you reaching out to God to help you through the darkest days?
Pour out your heart to God. Pray in the Spirit. As Christ prays with you and for you, you will come to realize that you are not alone, not abandoned, not hopeless. Even though you may not know what to say or ask for, the Spirit will transform your tears, gasps, and grasping into requests that fit with God’s will for you. You may not feel bubbly happiness every time, but your mood is likely to shift. You will be able to cope again. Your peace will return. Your ability to love others will re-emerge. And joy will not be far behind.
Contemplate the photo above. What do you notice? What do you feel? Meditate on the words of the Psalmist:
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I…
For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah
Psa. 61:2; 62:2, 5-8
Whatever painful experiences you are going through are simply not the final word in your life. Christ is. The Lord’s love and presence will not spare you from all suffering or from death, but he can and will hold you securely in his loving arms for eternity.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To read this essay in Burmese and certain Chin dialects, go to “Resources in Burmese” in Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries’ Resource Library, or look for it on my Facebook page, later this week.
I created this essay series in response to the COVID-19 global crisis, though the biblical teaching is applicable in many troubling situations involving human suffering. Each essay expands on the practical suggestions offered in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-90.
Truth 4: Expect to share in Christ’s sufferings. Expect to share in his glory
In many places around the world, Christians suffer for their faith. It comes in many different forms, from mild to intense, from subtle to overt. Christians are routinely subjected to rejection and marginalization in social settings. Sometimes, they are also victims of more serious attacks, such as false accusations, hatred, opposition, physical abuse, and are sometimes even killed. No one wants to suffer like this, but, at the same time, sharing in the sufferings of Christ has been considered a privilege by Christians in every generation. It’s also expected.
The good news is that sharing in Christ’s sufferings is also the pathway to our glory one day.
Spiritual Truth 4: Expect to share in the sufferings of Christ. Expect to share in his glory. (Romans 8:14-18, 29-30; Phil. 2:5-8; Luke 22:42-44; Heb. 5:7; 12:1-2)
Children of God share in Christ’s sufferings
We are never commanded to suffer or to share in Christ’s suffering in the Bible. Rather, the Apostle Paul talks about it more as an expected experience for those who faithfully follow Jesus. For example, in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
(Romans 8:14, 17, NIV)
And, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul points to Jesus as our role-model. He writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
(Phil. 2:5-8, NRSV, emphasis added)
We are not supposed to seek suffering, but we are called to follow Jesus. With faithfulness to him will come suffering for us. Why? Because when we say yes to God, there’s often a cost. When we say no to temptation, we might have to live with unfulfilled desires or feel we are missing out on something we want to do or experience. When we choose holiness and godliness, we may be left without our crutches and the (false) comfort they bring. When we devote ourselves to serving Christ and the Gospel, we and our families often have to make sacrifices. When we hold firm to our faith in Christ among nonbelievers, we may have to endure their hostility, rejection, marginalization, or worse.
Jesus knew the costs of devotion to God’s will very well. So, he made it clear what the call to discipleship means:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
(Luke 9:23-24, NRSV)
We can no longer follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, as his original disciples did; and none of us can die with him on the cross. Jesus was not asking for that. He was calling us to follow him on the path that leads to life. He was teaching us to relinquish our attachment to serving ourselves and living life in our own way, and instead put him at the center of our lives and devote ourselves to serving him and the Gospel, accepting that suffering will come with our calling. In this act of “losing” our life, we will save it.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus famously prayed,
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours be done. An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly….
The writer to the Hebrews interprets the story this way:
Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
What does this mean? Since we know Jesus went right from the garden of Gethsemane to the cross, within a matter of hours, in what sense were Jesus’s prayers heard? He was not saved from death, at least not from the painful ordeal of the cross, prior to his resurrection. Jesus, the most faith-filled and faithful human being who ever lived, who was also the Son of God, was not spared from suffering and death, even though he poured out his requests for deliverance in prayer. Why not?
He was not spared, because it was not God’s will to deliver him. God chose the Son to die for the sake of saving the world. That was more important than sparing Jesus from suffering.
Jesus, in his obedience to the Father, accepted this fact. He submitted to the will of God. And, so, “he was heard” by God. In his hour of trial, he received from God what he needed to fulfill his calling. Jesus’s anguished prayer was not in vain. Though his prayer to be delivered from his suffering was not granted, he received strength to face his suffering.
We will share in his glory
When this life is over, and our all our suffering is finished, we will inherit the fullness of God’s salvation with Christ. All we see that we were indeed children of God, led by the Spirit of God. This will be our moment of glory.
As so Paul can say with confidence:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
(Romans 8:18, NIV)
We do not deserve this glory, nor can we glorify ourselves. Rather, our glory comes from God’s glory being revealed in us. By grace, the Father made us his children. He gave us the ability to put our faith in Jesus Christ. He enabled us to pick up our crosses daily. His Spirit taught us, empowered us, and led us. And by his grace, he enabled us to say, Yes to God, Yes to Jesus, and Yes to sharing in Christ’s suffering along the way. By God’s loving work in our lives, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all glorified, and so are we. Consequently, Paul could say:
For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
In the west rose window of the Chartres Cathedral, we gaze upon Christ sitting on the judgment seat in heaven. What do we see? What does a glorified body look like? If we look carefully, we will see his nailed-pierced hands and gaping gash in his side, with blood flowing from all his wounds. In some way we cannot fully understand, Christ’s shed blood covers the sins of the world for those who put their faith in him. We deserve condemnation, but we will be forgiven. We expect punishment, but our Judge will greet us as a self-sacrificing Savior.
Look at the stained glass window, pictured above. Jesus’s palms are open, showing that he will be there in heaven to welcome you. His wounds reassure you that he has paid the price for your sins. You are beloved by the Father. You are being conformed to the image of his precious son, Jesus Christ. You are indeed a child of God, in whom the Holy Spirit is now working and will continue to lead, guide, comfort, and strengthen you throughout this life. Then, one day, when you arrive in heaven, you will share in Christ’s glory.
None of us wants to suffer for our faith. But if following Jesus faithfully means sharing in his sufferings, what will you choose? Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He’s your Lord and Savior. The writer to the Hebrews gives this fitting word of exhortation:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [the Old Testament heroes of the faith], let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and … run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV, emphasis added)
May God give you the grace and strength you need today to face your fears and your suffering, to continue on the path of faith and faithfulness, and to fulfill God’s will for your life.
[To read this essay in Burmese and certain Chin dialects, go to “Resources in Burmese” in Faith, Hope, and Love Global Ministries’ Resource Library, or look for it on my Facebook page, later this week.]
This essay series was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. Each essay expands on the practical suggestions offered, “Trusting God,” chapter eight in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.
Truth 3: Expect God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and lovingly restore your hope through your suffering
Ahhhh! When can I get out of this house? When is life going to go back to normal?!
Currently, some 95% of Americans are required to stay at home. Globally, billions are on some form of lockdown. For some people, it’s been OK. For most people, even if they welcomed a nice break from their normal life, are feeling more and more stress as the crisis continues with no end in sight. After weeks of living in close quarters 24/7, loss of work, fears of what’s to come, the pressure is mounting. Last week, protests started springing up. The people are taking to the streets. All this on top of 2.5 million (verified) people who have been infected, and over 160,000 deaths in just a few months so far.
In such times, what are Christians supposed to think, feel, and do?
Under different but equally difficult circumstances (such as beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment), the Apostle Paul famously said, “Now, these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). So, what does faith look like today? Where can we find hope? Where is love?
When I look around, I am deeply grateful for the action-takers among us. The heroism and dedication of countless doctors, medical workers, researchers, and other public servants, some of whom are literally risking their lives to save others, is humbling and inspiring. Furthermore, the creative expression from artists, musicians, and poets; the compassion and generosity of rich and poor alike; and the kind, thoughtfulness of so many individuals comforts and encourages me.
Then, there are the positive thinkers, who are refusing to be imprisoned in their hearts and minds, even if their bodies are locked down. These inspiring, glass-half-full folks are seeing opportunities everywhere and are making the most of them—more time with family, space for creativity and music, quiet and rest, reading and reflection, communication with friends, and so forth. They are learning new things and finding meaningful ways to show Christ’s love to those near and far.
However, for multiple reasons, not everyone can be an action-taker or a positive thinker. For those hit hardest by the coronavirus, lockdowns, or closure of businesses, there is a great deal of pain, fear, and loss. Some feel like Job, whose children were suddenly killed and health destroyed. All he could do was sit on the ground, weeping or calling out to God, grappling with a tragedy beyond comprehension. A growing number of people globally are grieving the unexpected death of loved ones or the shutdown of their lives and livelihood. They perceive no rhyme or reason in their suffering. They have no idea what hit them or where to go from here.
If this describes how you’re feeling, please know that, sometimes, in the midst of our suffering, we just can’t rise above our distress or despair. Sometimes, we cannot be hopeful, no matter how much we may want to be a positive thinker. And it’s OK. Faith in God doesn’t always mean being upbeat and emotionally stable. Faith in God is not just for the action-takers and positive thinkers. Faith includes trusting that he’s holding you even when you don’t have the emotional strength or wherewithal to hold on to him.
But there is hope.
Spiritual Truth 3: Expect your loving God to strengthen your faith, build your character, and restore your hope through your suffering. (Romans 5:3-5; 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 1:8-9; Lam. 3:22-24)
In the biblical book of Romans, Paul does not offer an explanation or defense of God for human suffering, but rather focuses on how a loving God works through human suffering for good. He writes:
We…glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5, NIV
Paul knew very well that when any of us suffer extensively, we can easily reach our physical and emotional limits. We may reach out to God for help, but when we’re not healed or our suffering persists, we may despair, panic, or want to abandon faith in God. But it is at just such a low point that many of us have been wonderfully surprised by God. We may unexpectedly feel peace. We may suddenly perceive his love through the kindness of those around us. We may find new motivation and power to finally put aside the sin that has been controlling our lives. We may unexpectedly see beauty in something or someone just when we may have lost hope of ever feeling that way again.
Through these kinds of surprising touches from God, our faith in God is rekindled. Our ability to persevere faithfully in the midst of our suffering increases. Our encounter with the goodness of God refines and strengthens our own moral character. Our spiritual vitality is renewed. We perceive God’s love for us in a fresh way. We see Christ’s love being expressed through us, and we feel purpose, meaning, and joy. Hope suddenly springs up within us again—now, not because we have been healed or delivered from our troubles, but because the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see God’s loving, caring presence in the midst of our circumstances. Right when we were about to give up—or actually had given up already—God touched us.
As the Holy Spirit works in our lives in the midst of our suffering, we will realize that we are not abandoned. We have somewhere and someone to go to in our darkest hours. We may weep, wail, confess sin with a broken heart, or simply shuffle along in grief, as Israel did after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (586 BC) on their way to captivity in Bablyon. Yet, with them, we will reach a point where we also can say with Jeremiah, the prophet:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:22-24, NIV
Are you experiencing overwhelming loss, hopelessness, or fear right now? Or, if not you, then surely there is someone you’re living with or whom you care about, who is. If so, this is not an easy place to be. But there is hope. There’s a bigger reality than what you are perceiving and experiencing at the moment. God may not be delivering you from all your trouble or distress, but that doesn’t mean God is irrelevant. On the contrary, it’s in your powerlessness and despair that God can produce some good in your life that would not be possible under different circumstances.
In the context of talking about human suffering, the groaning of creation, and our sometimes inability to even know how to pray, the Apostle Paul offers these words of perspective and hope:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Romans 8:28-29 NRSV
And what is the good God has in mind?
The “good” is not necessarily your healing, prosperity, or anything else that you be asking for in your desperation. The ultimate good that God produces through your suffering is to make you more and more like Jesus Christ, God’s son—more and more full of faith, hope, and love.
Your greatest desire will probably always be for relief from your suffering or for some miracle in your life. Mine usually is. Yet, none of us knows what God will or won’t do. Are you willing to live with that uncertainty, yet keep reaching out to God? Are you willing to let go of expecting God to act as you want him to act, and yet never quit expecting him to work through your suffering for good, according to his priorities and values? This is our faith. This is our hope.
This essay series, “What We Can Expect from God Now?” was created in response to the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. It focuses on how believers can better trust God in troubled times. The essays expand on the practical suggestions offered in Chapter eight, “Trusting God,” in The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005), pages 184-190.