Growing in Faith: Adversity Shapes Us

Good morning and welcome to Journey Church.  My name is Phil Human and I’m one of the pastors here at Journey.  Today we are finishing up our series about growing in our faith.  And let me re-cap for you what we’ve talked about so far.  And sometimes people say – I’m glad you recap – we weren’t able to make every week, it’s good to know what we missed.  And other times people say thanks for re-capping.  I was here last week but wasn’t sure what you were trying to say, and so – now I get it….  And so, either way – here we go.

Week 1 – Spiritual Growth requires efforting.  It is a collaborative effort, between you and God, to grow your faith.  It will not happen without effort.

Week 2 – Spiritual Growth cannot be hurried, and cannot be delayed.  – Now is the time to tend to your faith.

Week 3 – Take out the trash in our heart that competes with God for the affections of our heart.

Week 4 –  Clothe ourselves with Godliness by having a Vision of what the new kind of human God is turning me into, and using the means of time honored spiritual disciplines, like prayer, bible reading and fasting.

Week 5 – the Spiritual importance of obedience.  If you want to grow in your faith, do what God asks you to do.

Now these past five weeks we’ve placed an emphasis on intention – of effort – of being proactive in our faith journey.  Obey – do it.

But today we’re going to wrap up the series by talking about the more re-active part of growing in faith.   Today we are speaking about the transformative power of adversity. 

Pain, adversity, unfavorable circumstances, even suffering – are not wasted in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Rather, we are assured through our faith in Jesus, that even the most painful things in our lives can be used to shape us and mold us into the kinds of human beings we really want to be – should we allow them to do-so.

Pain, suffering, adversity – these are not things any sane human being seeks out for themselves. Nor should we.  We don’t get to choose when these seasons come upon us.

Some of you are in these seasons right now – others are in a season of things going really well and you are like – don’t jinx me Phil!  I’d advise you that no one in this room will be able to say, “What the Bible has to say about suffering doesn’t apply to me.”  Because even if things are golly gee right now- they will not stay that way.

Jesus himself assures us that in this life we will have many troubles.  And when they come we can rest – assured – that as we rely on God, he will fold them into our lives in such a way as to somehow be – not only bearable – but refining;  re-defining.

Now this topic of pain and suffering is not an easy topic. In fact – if you were to ask people – even people in this room, perhaps, why they do not believe in God – the answer could very well be – because of this issue.  Why would God allow suffering and pain in this life?  What kind of God can be trusted who would allow a child to die of cancer?  Can such a God cannot be trusted – one might ask?

Now I must confess that in the twenty minute sermon no one can answer such a question thoroughly – and I’m not sure it can be fully answered in a twenty hour sermon. But I’ll give it a shot if you want it…

But I will say this – God never shields himself from that question.  God never shies away from the subject – I meant he first book of the Bible – Genesis – the second half of the book is dedicated to a man who survived a murder attempt – sold into slavery, wrongly accused and imprisoned – and it ends with that man – Joseph, declaring – it took him the better part of his life before he was able to look backward and say – what man meant for harm God used for good.

Did you know that most scholars would say the oldest book in the bible is the book of Job?  And what does Job address?  It addresses the issue of why do good people suffer.  And you how it ends?  Job says – my whole life I heard about God.  But now that I’ve lived through this season – I’ve seen him with my own eyes.  Job declares – God used it somehow – somehow God didn’t allow my pain to be wasted.

Half the psalms – the psalms give voice to our emotions – half of them are written by people who are enduring a difficult season and are crying out sometimes lashing out to God asking – how long – where are you when I need you?

And all but one of those psalms end on a high note.  There’s one psalm – Psalm 88 – that ends with the words – darkness is my closest friend.  Psalm 88 is the only Psalm that doesn’t end with some kind of high note.

Now if we’re the one helping God compile the books of the Bible – I think I might have suggested – hey God let’s take this one out of here – this one isn’t making you look too good.

But God says – no way!  Life is filled with Psalm 88 moments – when life just kicks you so cruelly that you gasp.  There will come times in life that can only be Psalm 88 seasons – times so dark you feel utterly alone and abandoned by God.  And those people need to know they aren’t the first to feel that way – and even then, they are not alone.

Because the Lord is our Shepherd.  And he walks with us through the valley of the deepest hurt.  And Jesus knew great pain.

One thing we must say about God.  When Jesus left heaven and became a man he did not spare himself the pain of life.  He did not go easy on himself when he became human.  He tasted pain and suffering on every level.

He felt the pain and sting of rejection.  He felt the sadness of loneliness.  The sting of betrayal.  The sorrow of injustice.  He felt the powerlessness of poverty.  And he grieved – deeply grieved – the death of loved ones.

In fact – the Bible describes Jesus as – a man of sorrows.  Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus…

He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.

Your savior, ladies and gentlemen.  A man of sorrows and deepest grief.

This might surprise some people who think that Christians should be stoic in the face of grief and suffering.  You know – We know they are in a better place and to live is Christ but to die is gain and therefore – no need for all the crying.

“Keep a stiff upper lip.  Don’t let it get to you.  Don’t let it bother you.  You know everything is going to be okay, so no sense crying.”

But Jesus was no stoic.

When we read through the Gospels – the books of Matthew Mark and Luke and John – we read about three different times that described Jesus weeping.  Just weeping.  Sobbing with sadness.

He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, his friend – the brother of his friends Mary and Martha – just wept – Even though – now listen to this – Jesus wept at the tomb – he fully felt the sadness of losing a beloved friend – even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the tomb.

He wept – even though he knew that everything was going to be okay.  Knowing what the future help didn’t keep him from fully feeling the sorrow of the moment.

Another time Jesus wept was in the garden of Gethsemane – On the night he was betrayed.  Jesus wept knowing that he was about to carry the sins of mankind on his shoulder – about to endure separation from his father – death on the cross – Jesus wept.

Again – listen – he knew he would die – and he knew he would rise again – and yet – he weeps.  He knows that everything is going to be okay someday, and yet in the moment – the most human human who ever lived, deeply grieves.

See, Christians are not stoics.  In fact – following Jesus will make you more susceptible to grief because faith awakens you to other people and their problems and their pain.  It hurts you to see people in poverty or need.  It moves you!  And it should.

No – Jesus doesn’t call us to be a stoic in the face of pain – in fact if you look at Job – he loses everything – and tears his clothes in grief and wails and cries out to God and the book of Job says that in all of this Job sinned not.

Neither, by the way, does Jesus call us to be cynical – to say things like – Why are you surprised by the pain you are in?  You think you’re special?  Life is filled with pain – deal with it.  Get over it.  What do you expect?  Just Pick yourself up and move on.

Jesus never acts stoically or cynically to suffering.  He above all people know that in the end it will be okay – it’s going to turn out okay – but in the moment – he feels deep grief and sadness in his soul.

Check out how Peter – who was also well acquainted with grief – and would one day be executed upside down on a cross – he writes this in his first letter to the church.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 

1 Peter 1 NIV

Notice verse 6 – suffering and joy co-exist at the same moment.  It’s possible to be able to rejoice even in the midst of grief and adversity and suffering and pain.  They can co-exist.

May it never be that we allow ourselves to think that being a Christian means we don’t feel – Through Jesus we feel more than ever!  But – as the Apostle Paul tells us – having come to know that Jesus loves us, and how much he loves us, equips us to be able to deal with adversity – He writes…

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 

2 Corinthians 4

Faith in Jesus allows us to stand up under the pressure of adversity without being destroyed by it.  It allows us to stick our tongue out at suffering – albeit through tears.

Sometimes God uses seasons of adversity to help us grow in our faith.  Let me mention three ways that adversity can help us grow.

  1. Let suffering crowd you to the cross.

Suffering has a way of humbling us all.  Of waking us – shaking us free – from the illusion that “I can handle this.”

There is a voice in all of us that wants us to believe that I can do this.  I can handle this.  And when things are going swell?  It feels like maybe we really can be the master of our own destiny!

But then one day Psalm 88 punches you in the gut and you realize that the voice is wrong.  We weren’t built to go it alone.  We can’t go it alone.  We need God to be real and we need him to care.

And though we don’t get to choose when we enter these kinds of seasons – we do have a choice in how we respond to them.

Suffering shoves us around – but we can make a decision now that we will be shoved closer to God and not further away from him.  Let suffering crowd us to the cross, where we find Jesus – suffering – to ensure that we will never have to suffer alone.

There is a third time when the bible tells us that Jesus wept.  It’s found in Matthew 23, as Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem – the week before he would be crucified.   He looks out over the city and he begins to weep over them.  How I long to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling.

It is God’s desire to gather us close to himself.  To provide for us, even in, especially in the difficult times.  Are we willing?

Allow seasons of suffering to crowd us closer to God.

I’ve shared my story before, but I think it’s worth repeating for those who don’t know this part of my story.  I didn’t grow up going to church.   It wasn’t really on our radar – until one day – my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  And as she laid in a bed in Nyack Hospital, wondering if she would live or die – a pastor from town came to visit his sick daughter who was sharing a room with my mom.  The pastor dad prayed for his daughter – and the girl said to her dad – he dad – before you leave will you pray for my roommate?  No one has been by to visit with her.

And he prayed for my mom – and after he left – my mom said that she looked up into heaven and said, God if you let me live, I’ll go to that man’s church.  And she did survive cancer, and she did go to that man’s church.  And she brought me too.

And here I am, and I don’t know everyone I’m talking to this morning.  But I do want to let you know that if it weren’t for cancer, I wouldn’t be delivering this message to you today.

Not all suffering easily connectable dots – like my story.   It would make it a little bit easier to deal with seasons of pain and suffering if they did.  But the point is that in her pain my mom looked up – and she found God.  And so did I.

She let suffering crowd her to the cross.

  1. Adversity shapes us in ways that good times cannot.

We are talking about growing in our faith.  And the truth is that how we handle And suffering has a way of revealing fractures in our faith.

Many people – perhaps you too – would readily admit that much of what they learned and needed for success in life came to them through their most difficult and painful experiences.  Though you wouldn’t ever stand up and say you are grateful for the difficult time itself, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything.

Sometimes God allows us to experience suffering as a tool to perfect something in our character.

James 1:2 says, Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance, perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

I read about the fruit of a sycamore tree this week – it’s kind of like a fig – tree – and the deal is that the fruit of the sycamore tree needs to be wounded – it needs to be bruised or nicked – before the fruit will become ripe.

And sometimes, likewise – there is fruit that can be born in our life that can only be ripened by hardship.

Here’s a quote by an author named Paul Little,

 “God knows there are things to be accomplished in our character that can only be accomplished through suffering.  To shield us from suffering would rob us of the greater good.”

Now – when you are in the middle of a season of suffering – you are not likely to pray to God – thank you for not shielding me from the greater good.”  And that’s why it’s important that we learn to pray, even now – and if you have it in you to pray this –

“Lord, please make sure that this pain I am enduring is not wasted.”  Lord, please use this pain to shape me into who you want and need me to be.  I give you permission to refine me and redefine me according to your will.  Please Lord, don’t allow this season to go to waste.”

  1. Adversity softens us to the needs of others.

It’s one thing to tell someone you care about them.  It really is something entirely different to say – I’ve been where you are.  I have more than an idea of the kind of pain you are living through.

When we emerge on the other side of the season of suffering, we emerge as different people.  We are more compassionate.  More caring.  We feel the pain that others are experiencing – we cry more easily.  Our hearts are more tender.  We are softer people.

And we will be better – if we allow ourselves to be crowded to the cross – we will be changed and shaped and softened and we will be able to love others in a manner we never knew we could.