Pain, Gain — God’s grace for His children

“My purpose in writing is to encourage you and assure you that what you are experiencing is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm in this grace.” (1 Peter 5:12)

If you were struggling through a hard place and you received a letter with these lines—would you tear it up in anger? Who wants to hear such words in the middle of tough times?

But wait, child of God. The tough times we walk through—whether you want to name it fire, flood, terrifying wilderness, or Valley of Weeping—are all bathed in God’s grace. And we walk, always wrapped in His love and grace.

This is the shining hope of the Scriptures from the beginning, when God chose a people as His own, to the revelations of the future: The heavenly Father disciplines everyone He loves, so that we grow up with the strong and godly character He means for His children to have.

And there’s that word: discipline.

Discipline is training, forming, instruction, and exercise. It’s cutting out what has to go, and toughening and strengthening what we desire to increase. We’ve all see the phrase on athletes’ shirts: “No pain, no gain.” We have no trouble accepting that statement. But when we apply the principle to our spiritual lives, we shrink back, much preferring the mantra, No pain, abundant gain!

But just as that does not work in the training of an athlete, it does not work in our faith training.

The Father uses tests and trials—from the little, day-to-day irritations to life-threatening persecutions—to build endurance and faith and patience and godliness in us.

That is the working of His grace for us.

And so, would you think me crazy for rejoicing when I walk through a terrifying wilderness?

Hope watches and waits for the manna of grace in the wilderness.

It is the hope I have as my church denomination goes through a purifying fire. Yet God’s grace is working—I see it in the body and in individuals. I hold this hope for myself as I tell Jesus I want to love as He loves, but I know the training for such great love will be pain and hard places. Yet how else will I learn? Pain, gain. Discipline, growing up in godliness.

Even Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). When we talk of the “suffering” of Christ, we think of Him hanging on a cross—but have you ever read the Gospels and thought about the suffering He lived? Hear the loneliness in the words, “Foxes have holes, but I have nowhere to lay my head.” His closest friends often didn’t understand Him. Remember the tears He shed over a city that absolutely refused to hear His message. Think about what it must have been like to be rejected by the religious establishment, that entity around which all of Jewish life revolved. He went back home to visit, but people talked … you know how that goes … And that final night in Gethsemane when He knew what lay ahead—I wonder if He had any idea of the brutality He would endure even before the cross. As He stood before Pilate, bloody and beaten, do you think the human part of Him was tempted to just give it up and abandon the mission? He could have been out of the whole mess with just a wave of His hand.

And so I watch my big brother, who came to show me what living in the kingdom of light is all about, and I want to grow up to be like Him.

Oswald Chambers writes in My Utmost for His Highest:

Thank God that He does give us difficult things to do! His salvation is a joyous thing, but it is also something that requires bravery, courage, and holiness. It tests us for all we are worth. Jesus is “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10), and God will not shield us from the requirements of sonship. God’s grace produces men and women with a strong family likeness to Jesus Christ, not pampered, spoiled weaklings.

I don’t want to be a pampered, spoiled weakling.

For too much of my life, I’ve just run away from hard times, and looked for safe places to hide.

But I am now more afraid of those seeming “safe” places than I am of the wilderness or the Valley of Weeping.

Because it is in the places of complacency and self-assured security that we are in great danger of being devoured by the roaring lion who is prowling about, our enemy, the devil.

Just before Peter wrote the lines of encouragement about God’s grace, he alerted us to the danger of being devoured by that lion. N.T. Wright says the word “devour” is “far more than simply ‘eat;’ it implies that the lion will simply gulp you down in a single mouthful. No time to protest or struggle. You’ll be gone.”*

Well, you can imagine, I do not want that.

I much prefer the wilderness, even with its desert and poisonous snakes and scorpions—where God’s grace will grow strength and endurance and godliness in me.

.

 *from N. T. Wright’s “The Early Christian Letters for Everyone”

 

Psalm Prayer:

My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise renews my life.
(Psalm 119:50)

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© Elaine Starner 2015 Photo credits: Thanks to Claire Pridgeon, Paul Stutzman, Lana Turner, and Mary Jane Smith for sharing photography I’ve used on this site. (Click on each name to see more.)

He goes before us

Their youngest son went for a walk one day and never came back. The only thing that was found was a piece of clothing belonging to the boy—smeared with blood.

Can you imagine a harder place? The boy’s parents had no clue as to what had happened to their child, but that bloody coat indicated violence. Yet a body was never found, nor was a perpetrator of the crime ever suspected, accused, or punished. They spent many years grieving and wondering.

And I’m sure the father, especially, had many questions for God. His life up to that point had been anything but peaceful. There had been so much turmoil. He knew and believed God’s promises, but his path had been through many deep valleys. Had he not suffered enough? Why had God allowed this to happen now? This was too much to bear. It was such a staggering blow that he lived his life in constant and deep mourning. Can you imagine the prayers, the tears, the questions, the sadness?

I wept when I read the end of the story. I was very familiar with it, because this is the story of Joseph and his father, Jacob. Yet reading it this time, I was touched like never before.

I wept not in sadness, but in relief and thankfulness.

You know the end of the story. Jacob discovers that God has had a hand in his life all along. Joseph says, “God has gone ahead of us, setting the stage so that I can save us all.”

But oh! the hard places Jacob had to walk through!

There are so many Scriptures that tell us that God holds the lives of His children. He not only walks through everything with us (remember Jesus’ words, Take courage. I am here.), but He has a plan and He uses everything that happens to achieve His plan.

Two years ago, I joined a small group who decided to read the Bible through in four months, reading the Scriptures in chronological order.  (Let me, right now, recommend this to you. Benefits and blessings will come that you cannot imagine. And if you’re still following this site at that time, we may do it together. This series on hope will be over by then, so I’m thinking about doing the Bible Read-Thru here, from January to April …. ) Reading the Bible through in this way makes so many things clear:  God has a plan for His creation. He is in control and carrying out His plan. And He has a plan for each one of us, too, and is carrying that out also.

But in the hard places we hurt and cry and struggle. We need those bridges of hope that we can trust to take us forward.

I want to pull out just two passages today that always speak peace to me. They’re taken from very different contexts. The first is written to people who are in the middle of terrifying opposition and great suffering. The second addresses a people on the verge of a wonderful new life.

…trust your lives to the God who created you, for he will never fail you (1 Peter 4:19)

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water…a land where food is plentiful and nothing is lacking (Deuteronomy 8:7,9)

Our hope knows that in the good times and in the most terrifying times, our lives are safe in His hands because He has a plan for us and He is bringing us to the place He promised.

Always, no matter what things look like from our earthly perspective, He is working according to His plan and promise.

 

 

Psalm Prayer:

My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise renews my life.
(Psalm 119:50)

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© Elaine Starner 2015 Photo credits: Thanks to Claire Pridgeon, Paul Stutzman, Lana Turner, and Mary Jane Smith for sharing photography I’ve used on this site. (Click on each name to see more.)

How hope stays alive

They were being thrown to the lions. Literally. Beheaded. Ostracized from their former comfort zones. Having to meet and celebrate in secret.

How could James write to these Christians, This is your opportunity for great joy?

We read further for the answer: Because you KNOW … (James 1:2)

How did they know? When our lives take unexpected, painful twists, how do we know ?

How can we know with a certainty that will make it possible to hold on to our peace and our hope even while we’re suffering physically or our hearts are breaking?

There have been two tragedies in my small corner of the world in the past week. Two huge upheavals that affected many lives.

I cannot hide in clichés or offer panaceas or glib recitals of Scripture.

But I hear Jesus saying in the storm to scared-to-death disciples, “I am here.”
(Matthew 14:27)

I hear Him say that to me, in the midst of turmoil.

I hear Him say that He is the Great Shepherd of our souls.

I go back to that psalm of comfort, Psalm 23, that assures the flock that the Shepherd supplies everything we need. And there is the line that even when surrounded by our enemies, the Shepherd prepares us feasts, anoints us with healing, and pours out blessings until our cup cannot hold them all.

When we are in a hard place, it’s difficult to taste the feast. When we are completely drained and exhausted, the overflowing cup of blessings might seem like a mirage. When our wounds are raw and gushing blood, the healing feels impossible.

But in the middle of everything that seems to work against us, the Great Shepherd of our souls—who died to give us this life!—is still shepherding us, still providing for us, and yes, even pouring out blessings.

Hope knows this.

And our hope lives on that Truth and Way and Life.

 

 

Psalm Prayer:

My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise renews my life.
(Psalm 119:50)

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© Elaine Starner 2015 Photo credits: Thanks to Claire Pridgeon, Paul Stutzman, Lana Turner, and Mary Jane Smith for sharing photography I’ve used on this site. (Click on each name to see more.)

Good things out of hard places

Did you notice the big gap in last week’s talk of a full life and much joy? I left out numerous verses about “great joy.” There’s James 1:2 that says when we meet trouble, we have an opportunity for great joy. Peter writes that there is wonderful joy ahead, even though now we are in terrible suffering. And Jesus– well, Jesus tells us to be happy and leap for joy when people hate and mock and curse us.

It almost seems as though the greatest joy comes out of the greatest suffering.

This week’s meditations are very hard to write. For one thing, every heart bears its own pain. I have no idea what suffering you are going through. I understand the suffering that I’ve walked through in my own life; I can identify with those of you going through similar hard times. But there is so much trouble in the world that I know nothing of. The fire you are now walking through is likely very different from the flood that threatens me.

Yet I believe in God’s promises to all His children. And everyone of us, in whatever culture or time of life we are, needs this bridge of hope to take us forward: God brings good things out of hard places.

We do not hold that hope simply because we like to be optimistic. Oh my, no. Even the greatest optimist can be flattened by great tragedy or suffering or persecution. We hold this hope because we believe that what God says is truth. Our hope knows. 

The series this week has also been difficult because…well, we’ve only got a week! Entire libraries have been written on pain and suffering; what can we hope to cover in seven short posts?

Hope. At least, a glimpse of this great hope we have as children of God.

Because our hope has heard the promise that no matter what storms are battering our ship, God works in the storm.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Romans 8:28)

And He brings good things out of hard places.  

 

Psalm Prayer:

My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise renews my life.
(Psalm 119:50)

*

© Elaine Starner 2015 Photo credits: Thanks to Claire Pridgeon, Paul Stutzman, Lana Turner, and Mary Jane Smith for sharing photography I’ve used on this site. (Click on each name to see more.)

On love — and fullness of life and joy

I do not want to post these thoughts. This meditation is written for me. If you want to come along down this scary path, you may. It might remind you to pray for me now and then. And you may find something that helps you too.

And if you want to skip this one, feel free to do that. Because it’s longer than normal. And it might seem a little disjointed. That’s the state of my thoughts as the battle goes on.

So here we go.

There is a verse about joy—complete joy—that I have not yet touched. And I haven’t included it thus far because of that constant war between my old self with allegiance only to me and my new self with its allegiance to the Spirit.

The old self doesn’t want to think about this verse because it would mean I have to change and grow—and I’m certain the learning is going to be painful. Wouldn’t it be much easier just to sit in my old habits and complacency?

We find that there is talk in Scriptures of being made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. (Ephesians 3:19)

Wow. I try to imagine what it would be like to live with all the fullness of life and power God can give. I’m guessing it’s beyond anything we can imagine.

And I want that. I want a life like that!

Look at the context of that hope: First, the Spirit starts imbuing my life with His strength. Christ makes His home with me and I learn to trust Him. My roots go down deeper and deeper into God’s love and I’m kept strong.

And I start to understand God’s love. Even though it’s so great I’ll never understand fully, I start to see the depth, the vast proportions of it.

Then I will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God…

This full, abundant, overflowing life seems to be all tied up with God’s love.

Uh-oh.

This brings me back to that passage I’ve been avoiding. John 15:9-12.

Jesus says, “I’ve told you all these things so you will be filled with overflowing joy. My joy.” And the key to this overflowing joy seems to be to obey His commandment: Love each other as I have loved you.

There’s the rub.

I want the complete, full life. I want the overflowing joy.

I just don’t want to love like Jesus loves.

That is, the old me doesn’t want to.

Because…because …

Loving like that is hard. I would have to learn a lot about loving, and I’m pretty sure God will have to prune me a lot if I agree to learn to love His way.

It’s easier just to stay in my own kingdom and live the way I want, rather than live under this guiding rule of the Kingdom of Heaven.

But I don’t want to live in my own kingdom, according to my own rules. That never ends well.

I am reluctant. Okay, I’m afraid. I am afraid to acquiesce. I am afraid to submit completely and say to the Spirit, “Make me over completely. Teach me how to love like you do.”

But why am I afraid?

Living according to the Spirit brings life and peace.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…

Ah. The first three fruits listed—those things I so desire—all wrapped up together, intertwined, interdependent. All come because the Spirit has the power to rewire me.

Then you will be made complete with fullness of life and power from God… ALL the fullness!

and

You will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!

Love each other in the same way I have loved you.

I know where my allegiance, my love, and my longings lie.

It’s just this part of me, Lord, that holds back and says I can’t, I don’t want to…after all, look where loving led You.

Living according to the Spirit brings life and peace … love, joy, peace …

I take comfort reading further in Ephesians 3—and finding that You can do things in me that I can’t even imagine. And I also depend on 2 Corinthians 3:17-18. Your Spirit brings freedom and is daily changing me, making me more and more like You.

To love like You.

Bringing me that fullness of life and power and joy and peace.

Amen.

 

Psalm Prayer:

You will show me the way of life,
granting me the joy of your presence
and the pleasures of living with you forever.
(Psalm 16:11)

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© Elaine Starner 2015 Photo credits: Thanks to Claire Pridgeon, Paul Stutzman, Lana Turner, and Mary Jane Smith for sharing photography I’ve used on this site. (Click on each name to see more.)