by Dr. Ray Pritchard
Scripture: Job 23:10Of all the questions that trouble the people of God, none is greater than the question posed in our title.
Sometimes it is asked in other ways:
Someone even asked this question: Why does the death of Len Hoppe hurt so much? (For the benefit of those outside this congregation, I should mention that Len Hoppe was a much-beloved former elder of our church who died of cancer just a few days short of his 43rd birthday.) That's a fair question. It's been almost exactly two years since he died. Looking back on those traumatic days, I remember the outpouring of prayer that we all raised up on Len's behalf. Despite our prayers and despite excellent medical care, he died two years ago this week. When I saw Roberta and the children over the Christmas holidays, it occurred to me that Len's death is just as much a mystery now as it was two years ago.
Last Tuesday morning Pastor Bob Schmidgall of Calvary Church in Naperville died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 55. I had met him several times and respected him as a man of God. I treasure a very kind letter he wrote me several years ago. When I heard that he had died, I recalled those words of Scripture, "You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning-though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered" (Psalm 90:5-6). The next day someone told me that he had heard Pastor's Schmidgall's death announced on WMBI, but he only heard the part where the announcer said that the pastor of Calvary Church had suddenly died. He thought they were talking about me. And the thought comes-it could have been me. Why Pastor Schmidgall and not me? I don't know the answer to that question.
The question before us focuses on another mystery: the connection between God's goodness and our pain. In thinking about where to turn in the Bible to find help on this topic, my mind was drawn to a simple statement in the book of Job where the afflicted saint declares his faith in God. His words have endured across the centuries because they speak for everyone who has spent some time in the furnace of suffering. Some of you are in the furnace right now, others have just come out, and the rest of us will be there sooner or later.
Here is Job's simple statement that sums up an enormous amount of spiritual truth: "He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold" (Job 23:10). From these words I would call your attention to five important truths which if properly understood will help you hang onto your faith while living in the furnace.
I. God sees you even though you may not be able to see him.
Job begins by affirming his confidence that God sees him in his pain: "He knows the way that I take." It is not an uncommon experience for believers to lose the conscious sense of God's presence during the darkest moments of life. We wonder where God is when we are walking through the pain of divorce, or the crushing burden of having our friends turn on us, or the heartbreak of watching a loved one die. Even the Lord Jesus cried out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).
It's not wrong to feel that way and you have not sinned just because you have lost the sense of God's presence. Job said, "I've got a case to present to the Lord if only I could find him. I've looked high and low for God but I can't find him anywhere. I've searched in every direction but he is nowhere to be found." Then he rose to a higher level of faith and declared, "I can't see him but it doesn't matter because I know he sees me."
Someone said it this way, "God's hand is invisible but he has an all-seeing eye." Do you recall the story of Hagar who fled from the household of Abraham and Sarah? Pregnant and alone, she wandered in the barren desert. The Lord found her near a spring and told her to go back to Abraham and Sarah. He also told her to name her son Ishmael, which means "God hears," because the Lord had heard of her misery. She replied with one of the wonderful statements of the Old Testament, "You are the God who sees me" (Genesis 16:13). She actually gave God a name-El Roi-which means in Hebrew-the God who sees.
Here is a name of God for those going through trials-El Roi-the God who sees. You may not see him but he sees you. He knows what you are going through.
II. Spiritual growth is a journey, not a destination.
Notice how Job puts it-"When he has tried me." I've underlined the word he to emphasize that Job understood that God was behind his sufferings. You may say that it was all Satan's doing, but that's not the whole truth. It was God who brought up Job's name in the first place when he said, "Have you considered my servant Job?" (Job 1:8). And it was God who set the limits on how far Satan could go in tormenting Job. That's why Job keeps saying, "I want to talk to God face to face about all this." Satan may have started it, but God set the rules of the game.
"When he has tried me." This speaks to the fact that suffering is part of God's process to bring us to spiritual maturity. Write it down in big letters: We all have to do some furnace time sooner or later. You say, "But it's hot in there." You're right about that. "It hurts." It sure does. "It seems to last forever." That's definitely how it feels inside the furnace. "I don't like it in there." Neither do I. But none of those objections matter in the end.
What is God trying to do when he allows his children to go through hard trials and deep suffering? There are several answers to that question. First, God is trying to purge us of sin and to purify us of iniquity. Second, God uses suffering to test our faith. Will you still obey God in the darkness? Will you serve God when things aren't going your way? Will you hold on to the truth when you feel like giving up? Third, God uses times of difficulty to humble us. When things are going well, we tend to get puffed up about our accomplishments. But let the darkness fall and we are on our knees crying out to God. Fourth, God definitely uses hard times to prepare us to minister to others. He comforts us so that we may comfort others. I know many Christians whose greatest ministry has come from sharing with others how God helped them through a time of crisis. Fifth, I believe God uses hard times to prepare us for a new understanding of his character. In the furnace we discover God's goodness in a way we had never experienced it before.
This week someone wrote me a note and described several traumatic events of the last two years-including the death of a parent and a very painful divorce. He said that he was glad to see 1997 end because it had been filled with so much pain. The whole year he had been living on the brink. But that's not bad, he said, because out on the brink of life he discovered the grace of God. "I have learned I am a person desperately in need of grace," he added. Hard times are a gift from God to help him see how much he needs the Lord. His pain has taught him that he is like a helpless baby, totally dependent on the Lord.
On one level we all know that's true. It's just that we forget it until life falls apart all around us.
III. Your trials will not last forever.
The text says, "I will come forth as gold." Looking back from our position, we may not see how great a statement of faith this really is. Job has lost everything-his property, his prosperity, his position in the community, his children, and his health. His wife turned against him when she encouraged him to curse God and die. Here is this man sitting on an ash heap, scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery. He is a broken and ruined man. Yet in the midst of his pain he declares, "I will come forth as gold."
How can this be? He saw something his three friends didn't see. He understood with the eyes of faith that what God was doing had a purpose. All these terrible things were not meant to destroy him, but in the end to improve him.
We may rightly wonder how tragedy can improve a person. This week I read a bit from my book of Puritan prayers. There I found the statement that our trials are sent by God for our spiritual improvement. For some reason that struck me with great force. When God wants to improve a person spiritually, he puts him through great trials.
Job compared it to the process of refining gold. Even though this took place thousands of years ago, the basic process has hardly changed at all. You take raw chunks of gold ore-pieces of stone flecked with tiny bits of gold-and put them in a hot furnace. The heat causes the stone and dirt to melt and rise to the surface where they are skimmed off so that the only thing left is pure gold. It obviously takes enormous heat to do that, but it's worth it because in the end you have pure gold, unmixed with any impurities.
Something like that is at work in your own life through the trials you endure. The hotter the fire, the more the pain but the quicker the gold comes forth. In the end you will be both approved and improved by God. Your trials are not wasted nor are they random acts of fate.
This may not seem very comforting when you are inside the furnace. If that's where you are this morning, little that I can say will help you. Even to promise that it won't last forever may seem empty when the flames are leaping around you.
I can't tell you when your trials will end, but I do know this much: He's an on-time God. You can't rush him, but he's never late either. When the appointed time has come, the fierce heat will dissipate and the gold of tested character will come forth in your life.
But what about those people whose trials never end in this life? I must admit that I have known some very fine people whose whole life has seemed to be one heartbreak after another. When I see such a person, I never think, "They must be very carnal." Instead I think to myself, "There must be a lot of gold there."
Here's another piece of good news. For those who know Jesus Christ, death is the end of all suffering. This week I ran across a marvelous statement of this truth: "God has an eternity to set right what has gone wrong." That's why the Apostle Paul could say that our trials aren't worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). Whether you live or die, if you are a Christian, your trials will not last forever
IV. Faith is a conscious choice to obey God in spite of your circumstances.
Note how Job states his case in verses 11-12:
My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside. I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.
Here is a man in dire straits-far worse than most of us will ever be-and in the midst of his pain he makes a bold declaration: "I'm still serving the Lord. As bad as it's been, nothing can cause me to turn away from God." I ask one simple question: Where does that kind of faith come from?
To me that's a crucial question because as I compass my own heart I'm not so sure that I would be as strong as Job under those circumstances. How does a person stay strong when life tumbles in around him? After some years of thinking about this, I have concluded that the people who survive great trials understand that faith is a conscious moment-by-moment choice. More specifically, they also understand that faith is not based on how you feel at any given moment. For years I tended to view faith as an emotion-if I felt good, if things were going well, if I found myself in a great worship service, then faith was easy for me. There's only one problem with that concept-it won't work when you don't feel good or things aren't going well or your friends have turned against you or the preacher is boring. Feeling-based faith won't cut it when life crashes in on every side.
In those moments of desperation you've got a choice to make. It's exactly the same one Job made. He said, "My feet have followed his steps" and "I have not turned aside." Now listen to the next sentence: I'm sure Job didn't feel like following God after all the tragedies he had endured. But he did it anyway. That's why he survived-and that's why we still talk about him today.
This week I received an e-mail from Mabel Scheck-one of our senior adults who has been battling cancer for several years. Mabel has been part of this church for over 50 years. Not long ago the doctors told her that they had done all they could, which means that every day from here on out is what you might call Bonus Time. Recently the doctor took a scan and discovered that the biggest tumor has started shrinking so they will continue treatment. This is how Mabel put it in her message to me:
Not sure how many more treatments there will be but whatever the Lord has in store so be it. He is in control at all times and has always been. God is indeed a loving God.
That's not the testimony of a person dying of cancer. It's the testimony of a child of God living by faith.
A few weeks ago I talked with a lifelong friend in Alabama who has been battling cancer for several years. Right now the cancer is in remission but the doctors have said that the cancer almost certainly will return again. Many people have prayed for his complete healing. When I chatted with him just before Christmas he said that he'd been pondering his own situation from a new perspective. Which is the greater miracle, he wondered, to be healed from cancer or to be given the grace to stay faithful even if he isn't healed completely?
Faith comes in many different varieties, but the faith that wins in the end is faith that chooses to obey God in spite of the outward circumstances.
V. God is God and He has the absolute right to do whatever he wishes.
There is one final secret of Job's steadfast faith. In verse 13 he declares concerning the Lord, "But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases." That brings us once again to the first rule of the spiritual life: He's God and we're not. Until we understand that, we're going to be unhappy because we'll end up fighting against God.
This week I've been reading a biography of Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision, the Christian relief organization that has helped millions of people around the world. [Note: the book is called This One Thing I Do and is co-authored by Franklin Graham and Jeannette Lockerbie (Word Books, 1983).] As I read the book it struck me that he was an unlikely man to found and lead such a large organization. He didn't have much education, he butchered the King's English, and he lacked many social graces. In fact, he called himself a second-rater. When asked the secret of his life, he said that in his early years as a Christian he had prayed, "O God, I give you the right to set the agenda for my life. From here on out, you're going to run the show. And you can change that agenda any time you want. But I pray that you will be pleased to use me for your glory in any way you see fit. Amen."
Now that's the kind of prayer God can answer because it's based on the truth that God is God and he has the absolute right to do whatever he wants. Many of us are unhappy today because we're fighting God at the point of his sovereignty. We've never surrendered our agenda to his control.
Someone sent me these words by the contemporary Christian singer Wayne Watson:
"Let God be God! Even when it makes no sense.
Even when it makes you angry."
That strikes me as a profoundly biblical statement.
What should you do when you find yourself in the furnace?
1. Seek a quiet heart.
2. Listen for God's voice.
3. Look of God's fingerprints.
4. Stay faithful to God no matter what.
Above all, don't take matters into your own hands. That only makes things worse.
I close with this thought. God has wonderful things to teach you in the furnace if only you will listen and learn. We'll all do some furnace time because that's part of God's plan for our spiritual growth. You can't escape the furnace but you can use it for your own spiritual improvement.
Back to the Original Question: If God is good, why do I hurt?
And that brings me back to the original question: If God is good, why do I hurt? I think the first part of that question is the key. Is God really good?
More and more I am convinced that this is the fundamental question of life: "Is God good and can he be trusted to do what is right?"
If the answer is yes, then we can face the worst that life has to offer.
If the answer is no, then we're no better off than the people who have no faith at all.
In fact, if the answer is no or if we're not sure, then we really don't have any faith anyway.
Sometimes you choose to believe because of what you see, often you believe in spite of what you can see. As I look at the world around me, many things remain mysterious and unanswerable. But if there is no God, or if he is not good, then nothing at all makes sense.
When we hurt, we really have only two choices:
If you are hurting today, you may feel as if you have come to the end of your endurance. I pray that you will hang on to the Lord. If you turn away from him, things can only get worse.
Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission 100 years ago. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion, when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such an agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: "I can't read. I can't think. I can't pray. But I can trust."
There will be times when we can't read the Bible. Sometimes we won't be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can't do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
Fear not, child of God. No one knows what a day may bring. Who knows if we will all make it through this week? But our God is faithful to keep every one of his promises. Nothing can happen to us except it first pass through the hands of a loving God. If your way is dark, keep on believing. When your furnace time is over, you will come forth as gold.
© Keep Believing Ministries
There is No Growth Without Struggle by Dr. Ray Pritchard
When hard times come, when trials fall upon us, or we seem to fall upon them, when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune knock us to the ground, what should we do? Remember these two words. Pray and stay. .. Our trials are not sent to make us fall. They are sent to cause us to soar by grace. They are not meant to defeat us but to be the means to a greater spiritual victory. They are not intended to make us weaker but to make us stronger...
Where is God At Times Like These? A Meditation in The Wake of a Violent Atrocity by Msgr. Charles Pope
One of the great mysteries to believer and non-believer alike is the mystery of evil and suffering. If there is a God who is omnipotent and omniscient how can he tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where was God yesterday when the shootings in Connecticut occurred? Where is God when a young girl is raped, when genocide is committed, when evil men hatch their plots? ...
The Boys of Bethlehem by Dr. Ray Pritchard
I want to ask a question that I can't fully answer, but it is one that we all think about in different ways and at different times. If the angel knew about the impending massacre at Bethlehem, why did he warn Mary and Joseph and not the others? What shall we say about the other boys of Bethlehem? And what about their parents? Were not those babies precious to the Lord also? Does the Lord hear the wails that arise from the little town of Bethlehem? ...
How Can a Holy God Ordain Evil to Exist? by James Pruch
When the Virginia Tech shootings occurred, people asked, "Where was God?" When the shooting happened in Omaha, people asked, "Where was God?" My belief is that God was right there, in the midst, crying with the victim's families and friends and justifiably angry at the shooters. That is but one level of God's emotions. On another level-outside of our capacity to understand-there was God, willing everything that happened on those days according to the counsel of his will. ...
Where Is God When I am Hurt? By Timothy Paul Jones
In Jesus Christ, God lived among us. God experienced from our perspective. And, on the cross, God was violated, humiliated, abandoned, abused (Isa. 53:3-7). In the words of the Apostles' Creed, "He descended into hell." And, with God's people in every age, Christ cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). ...
What Should I Do When Trials Come? by Steve Brandon
I hope that you would get beyond, "survival mode," which simply seeks to endure until the trial is done. Such a response, though natural for us, fails to see God's purpose for you within your trials. My heart is that you would see God's purposes in the trials in your life and respond appropriately when they come.
Bearing Life's Burdens by Rev. James Mattek
I'd like to have you picture the burdens of life as being like stones. Every time we don't deal well with life it's kind of like we're adding another stone to our burlap sackóbefore you know, we've got quite a burden.
Who's to Blame for Human Suffering?
I daresay that if the innocent suffer they do so because one of us -- you or me or some other thug -- now or in the past has set their pain in motion. If the innocent continue to suffer they do so because we have yet to take responsibility for their pain; we have yet to take sufficient responsibility for their relief.
More Articles on Suffering
Suffering | General Sermons | Lectionary Sermons | Spiritual/Moral Articles | Malankara World Journal | Malankara World Library
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