Thursday, November 21, 2013

Forgiveness and suffering

I write a lot about suffering here, probably because suffering is a Biblical reality that I find missing from much Biblical teaching.

(aside:  I am no masochist.  I don't write about suffering because I like it.  I write about suffering because I think there is a lack of solid Christian teaching on the subject--not that I am claiming to be solid, but an attempt at teaching is better than no teaching in an area that most people don't care to broach.  I write about suffering because Christians who are suffering need to know that it is a normal part of life on a fallen earth and does not mean that God doesn't love them.  I write about suffering because some Biblically uniformed people seem to think that the existence of suffering is somehow a proof against the existence of God.  But I don't write about suffering because I like to.  I don't like suffering any more than anybody else.)

One theme of the Bible is this:  you will be refined through suffering and trials.  It's stated over and over.  Off the top of my head, I can give you Romans 5:3-5, 1 Peter 1:6-7 and James 1:2-4.

This may not be our favorite or most marketable truth, as Christians.  But the Bible clearly tells us that we will suffer.  Jesus himself said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world." (from John 16:33)

Honestly, I have not met many people who are worth knowing who have not suffered.  Suffering tenders people, deepens their ability to have compassion.  God uses suffering to make our spirits beautiful.  When we suffer, we learn things we could never learn in any other way.

I have always dreaded suffering, good results notwithstanding.  I am a Big Chicken.  I do not like pain.

Philippians 3:8-10 (ESV) says,   
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

It does exhilarate me to think of casting aside "all things" as rubbish for the greater good of knowing Christ.  I am not sure how to do this, and I am quite sure that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit I am utterly unable to accomplish it. Still, the idea appeals to me.

However, sharing in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death... that scares me a great deal.

Suffering for Jesus makes me think of Christians in countries where it is illegal to be a Christian.  It makes me think of being thrown into prison, starved, beaten, tortured.  Because I have a pathologically vivid imagination, I will spare you the details of all the things it makes me think of.  Suffice it to say, it scares me to death.

I may be called to suffer like that.  Some people are, and some people are not.  But we are all called to suffer for Christ, and there are other, more every-day ways that God accomplishes this in us.

For instance, the other day I was reading and thinking about Ephesians 4: 32 (ESV),
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. 

Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  What does that mean?  How did God in Christ forgive me?

In Christ, God forgave me by bearing the consequences of my sins Himself, in His own human body that He indwelt in order to accomplish the task (see Philippians 2:5-11).  He did not simply say, "Whooops!  You made some mistakes, but no big deal. I'll just forgive you, and you can start over with a clean slate, don't worry about it.  It's no big deal.  It doesn't matter."

It does matter.  Our sins are a very big deal, an offense against the perfect, holy, almighty Creator of the Universe.  Our sins do not just vaporize and blow away in a gentle breeze.  It was not, could not be, that easy.  To free us from the consequences of our sins, Jesus had to bear the consequences Himself.

Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.   

This means that we forgive others, as Christ did, by suffering the consequences of their sins.  We bear the brunt.  We suffer what the person who hurt us should rightfully suffer.  And we do it because it's what Jesus did for us; it's the pattern He laid down.  We, like Jesus, must hold out mercy and self-sacrifice to our enemies, rather than demanding vengeance.  We must suffer, like Jesus, and entrust our souls to God, believing with all the faith He has given us that God Himself will take care of the ending.

This is very hard.  It is unpalatable.  But it is what the Bible says. 

It is hard, but we have opportunities all the time.  We don't have to wait for the government to make  Christianity illegal and throw us into prison.  We can share in the suffering of Christ every time someone wrongs us and we choose to absorb the hurt with forgiveness.

And as we trust God, He will make all things right.  As He raised, restored and glorified Christ, so He will raise, restore and glorify all of His children after we have struggled to learn, to trust, to take up our crosses and follow Him.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jesus, the Incorruptible

In Bible study on Tuesday, we studied Matthew 8.

An image has hung with me since then: the image of Jesus reaching out to the leper, touching him and healing him.
"When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.  And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”  
(Matthew 8:1-4 ESV)

This is the first vignette in the chapter, and it is burned into my mind.

Just a few pages back, Jesus said,
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." 
(Matthew 5:17-20 ESV)

And here, in Matthew 8:3, Jesus reaches out his hand to touch a leper, an act that would have appeared radically daring and perhaps even "illegal."  Leviticus 13 describes the laws about leprosy which include:

1.  The process by which a priest declared a person to be "unclean" because he had leprosy.  This involved a careful visual inspection, and (depending on what the visual inspection turned up) sometimes included a time when the sick person was "shut up" for seven days, after which the priest examined whether the disease had progressed.

2.  The life of a leper.  A person with leprosy had to wear torn clothes and let his hair grow wild (presumably, this was so that he would be easily identified so people would know to stay away from him).  He had to cover his upper lip (to avoid spreading his breath or saliva, and thus his germs?).  And he was required to call out, "Unclean!  Unclean!" wherever he went, so people would stay away from him.  He was to live alone, and he was to live "outside the camp."  People knew not to touch a leper, because a leper was unclean, and anyone who touched a leper would also become unclean.  Those who were unclean had to live separated from society.

People in the Jewish nation grew up with a morbid dread of leprosy and the shame, uncleanness and isolation that it brought.

Of course, God did not give the laws about leprosy to oppress lepers.  God gave these laws to keep His chosen nation healthy, to prevent the spread of a contagious illnesses among His people.  One of God's promises to Israel was that if they obeyed His laws, He would protect them from diseases (Deuteronomy 7:15).  He gave them laws that would protect them from diseases if they obeyed.  God revealed many of His laws specifically for the protection of His people, for their own good (Deuteronomy 10:13).

But Jesus did not need the physical protection afforded by God's law.  Jesus was God Himself, the perfectly holy one.  Jesus could not catch leprosy.  So when the leper approached him--desperate, humble, and full of faith--Jesus did the unthinkable, the unimaginable.  Jesus said, "I am willing.  Be clean." And He reached out His hand and healed the man with a touch (Matthew 8:3).  The leper was cured immediately, and Jesus was unaffected by the disease.  Jesus was fine, as He had known He would be.

This has been brewing, marinating, swirling around in my head: the wonder of who Jesus is, what He was able to do when He took on flesh and walked the earth.

Today it occurred to me that this story was a foretaste of Jesus' ultimate mission to save sinners from eternal damnation.  In microcosm, Jesus took up the infirmity of a leper.  Because of His perfect holiness, Jesus was able to make the man clean without bringing uncleanness on Himself.  But the real spiritual fulfillment of this foretaste came to pass at the cross.

On the cross, Jesus bore all the collective sins of mankind.  They soaked into His soul and permeated his spirit.  He experienced all of the guilt, shame, remorse and despair that all of us have ever felt and will ever feel.  He bore these sins to the depths of hell, and then He emerged victorious, untouched, unblemished and perfectly clean.

Only Jesus could do this.  Only Jesus.  Only Jesus could touch our sins--be covered with them, weighed down with the weight and the ugliness of all our wretched uncleanness so that God the Father Himself had to turn His face away--and still remain pure and perfect.  Only Jesus could undertake this massive challenge and fulfill it with a complete, decisive, devil-thumping win.

Only Jesus can take the unclean and make it clean.  He did it for the leper, and He did it for my sinful heart.  He can do it for everyone who comes to Him, and He promises, "...whoever comes to me, I will never drive away." (from John 6:37, NIV)  

He can do it for you.