This month, our meditation has been excerpted from the book entitled, Bound to Be Free, compiled by Jan Pit. In the following short quotation from Pastor Samuel Lamb (deceased; imprisoned for over 20 years, and persecuted for his faith in Jesus Christ, by Chinese Communist Authorities), there is fodder for reflection and perhaps application:
It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71)
...if you suffer as a Christian do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:16)
A suffering Christian should never boast in his suffering. Some people suffer as a result of their sins. Their suffering has no room for boasting, but actually it is 'good' for them to suffer because through their suffering God calls them back to Himself.
I have been in prison for my faith for more than twenty years. During those years, I experienced a lot of suffering and persecution. I asked the Lord daily to help me to remain faithful to Him whatever the pain and sorrow might be that day. Praise the Lord, God answered my prayers. I am not boasting in this, because I did not do it by myself, but by the One who gave me strength.
If I would have relied on my own strength, I would have disowned Him thirty times, or even three hundred times. Let him who suffers because of sin repent and return to God. Let him who stands firm for Christ boast in the Lord.
A moment of introspection: Persecution, suffering, tribulation, and woes seem distant to some Christians, and all-too-present to others in our broken world today. As the apostle Peter stated, "if you suffer as a Christian"; not all Christians suffer physically or emotionally, psychologically or spiritually because of the hatred of the world toward Jesus Christ and His Church. Some Christians suffer because of the frailty of the human body, and its many possible malfunctions. Other Christians suffer because of sin in their lives. As Rev. Lamb opined, "Let him who suffers because of sin repent and return to God," and "A suffering Christian should never boast in his suffering. Some people suffer as a result of their sins. Their suffering has no room for boasting, but actually it is 'good' for them to suffer because through their suffering God calls them back to Himself. God's Word likewise says both that "...it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17) and "But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler." (1 Peter 4:15) On our own, we tend to make mistakes; we try to alleviate the suffering or avoid it completely. But Marcel Proust (in his "Remembrances of Things Past") asserted that "We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full." Not by avoiding it if it comes, or by shunning its lessons.
It is perhaps a natural thing to want to work to avoid suffering. But Thomas Merton saw suffering from a different vantage point; he said "The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt." On our own, in our own strength, we often find our plans thwarted or mis-directed. Robert Burns' famous poem entitled 'To a Mouse' wrote the following famous lines:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
Gang aft agley, For promis’d joy!
Pastor Lamb rephrased and re-directed this sentiment--saying that, "If I had relied on my own strength, I would have disowned Him thirty times, or even three hundred times." Suffering is common to us as humans; persecution for our belief in Jesus Christ is also normal. Rather than relying on our own strength to ease or lighten our suffering, our response to suffering would better be, "Help me, Lord, to remain faithful no matter what happens today; give me the strength to withstand even greater suffering for Your name." Rely on the Lord's strength, as the apostle Paul did: "For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9) Later in that same letter, Paul acknowledged that he struggled with a "thorn" and sought resolution from the Lord: "So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) The apostle Paul would have agreed with Ben Strong, who said "You don't know why stuff like this happens, but it does. And you can't really do anything to change that. You can change how you react to it, but you can't change the past. And you need to remember that God is always in control." (quoted by Mark Moring in "Split-Second Courage, Ongoing Faith." Christian Reader, Vol. 37, no. 1). God is in control; rely on His omnipotence to change things.
Helmut Thielicke said of our Savior, "Jesus Christ did not remain at base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world's suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down to us in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live, where we contend with our anxieties and the feeling of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure with us. He understands everything." (Christian Reader, Vol. 37, no. 1) His strength is sufficient; His grace is sufficient; His love is sufficient--to ease the suffering and give us hope in whatever situation or suffering we might find ourselves (Jeremiah 29:11) if we suffer for righteousness' sake. This hope may not remove us from the suffering; yet His grace is sufficient. Saint Teresa of Avila (1516-1558) remarked, "Alas, O Lord, to what a state dost Thou bring those who love thee! Yet these sufferings are as nothing compared with the reward Thou wilt give for them. (From "The Interior Castle" , The Sixth Mansions, ch. 11, sec. 6) This is hope, in situations where hope seems nonexistent.
But suffering will come, and has a purpose, according to Pastor Lamb, who said "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn Your decrees. (based on Psalm 119:71). In Pastor Lamb's view, suffering helps to understand God's Word and, more clearly, its application to our lives. An anonymous writer added the following, "When a founder has cast his bell he does not at once put it into the steeple, but tries it with the hammer, and beats it on every side, to see if there be a flaw. So when Christ converts a man he does not at once convey him to heaven, but suffers him to be beaten upon many temptations and afflictions, and then exalts him to his crown. As snow is of itself cold, yet warms and refreshes the earth, so afflictions, though in themselves grievous, keep the Christian's soul warm and make it fruitful." God's Living Word offers each of us hope despite the temptations and afflictions: "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:12)
Samuel Lamb summarized for us, from his own experience: "I have been in prison for my faith for more than twenty years. During those years, I experienced a lot of suffering and persecution. I asked the Lord daily to help me to remain faithful to Him whatever the pain and sorrow might be that day. Praise the Lord, God answered my prayers. I am not boasting in this, because I did not do it by myself, but by the One who gave me strength." God's Word says that "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16) May we learn from Pastor Lamb, and rely on the strength of the Lord to see us through the valleys of the shadow of death. He is faithful. In His all-sufficient faithfulness, may we too be found steadfast under trial.