Victorious Suffering

Acts 9:1-16; John 21:9-19; Revelation 5:1-14

Central Baptist Church, Lowesville, VA

22 April 2007

No one likes to suffer. The few who do are ones we call mentally ill, suffering from masochism. Our health insurance industry understands pain as the critical cry that gets attention. The lawsuit system often behaves as though pain and suffering are evils that must be eradicated. With all our loathing for pain and suffering, how do we deal with tragedies like those witnessed this week? How do we come to grips with the mass murders on the Virginia Tech campus, the hostage killing at NASA in Houston, and the tragedy of the Blue Angel aircraft crashing into a South Carolina neighborhood? Where is God amid our pain and suffering? Can God transform suffering into realistic victory?

While the Bible speaks of suffering, we donít normally like its answers—at least not those on the surface reading level. Take the story of Saulís conversion. Here was a man who had been the instigator of much pain and suffering among the believing community. He had stood by and watched in consent at the stoning of Stephen. He had assumed the role of persecutor of believers, dragging them captive to Jerusalem. He was on his way to Damascus with official sanction to persecute believers there. Now the part of the story we like. God intervened, halting this persecution against believers in Damascus.

The story does not end there, however. Ananias is called by God to witness to this man who was promoting death. Ananias was enjoined to go pray for Saul, healing him from his blindness. Ananias was no more ready to take up this charge than I would be. He knew Saulís reputation. He did not want to be the next to suffer at Saulís hands. Who would willingly walk into such an obvious trap?

Godís response to Ananias seems a bit odd. I would expect a word of comfort. I would expect to hear that Saulís life had been turned around. I would expect God to comfort Ananias with the assurance of protection in face of the dangers looming ahead. Not so. There is no assurance that Ananias would be granted safe passage. Rather, he is told that Saul has seen a vision of Ananias healing him. Saul has been chosen by God as a instrument of the gospel before the Gentiles. He is also called to suffer. ďI myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.Ē

Now for the really strange part of the story—Ananias obeyed, and Saul gave his life to serve Jesus Christ. Were they madmen? Is this not insanity? If I called you to follow me to torture, prison, whippings, beatings, stonings, how many of you would not run away or call the authorities on me? This is not the way we understand an appropriate gospel presentation. While we talk about Godís love, grace, forgiveness, and peace, the gospel message to Paul initially expressed persecution, suffering, and pain. Saul was healed, baptized, ate, and began preaching the good news. What a strange conversion story. ďCome to Jesus to be healed, persecuted, and transformed from persecutor to one suffering for Christ!Ē

Then again, we overlooked part of the story. In another telling of the story in Acts 26, Jesus reminded Saul of the pain of kicking against the goads (sharp sticks used to direct oxen). Jesus did not simply call him to suffering, but from one mode of suffering to another. From the suffering of struggling against Godís will, Saul was called to something more purposeful and meaningful—I am still not sure I get it.

When Katrina struck, I was privileged to be on one of the disaster relief teams working in Slidell, LA. I met John there. John is a big man. It would take three of me to hug him all around. John and his wife were asleep in bed when a large pine tree crashed through the roof to land in bed between them. The bedroom was destroyed, but somehow the tree missed both John and his wife.[1] Amid pain, destruction, and loss, John knew he was not alone. Godís presence granted strength.

In Revelation, we find description of a scroll to be opened, but no one is worthy to unseal it and read it. Then a voice announces the long-awaited Lion of Judah! John turns to see the lion, but there is a lamb, instead. Rather than simply a lamb, this one had been slaughtered. The cry of heaven is that it is in this slaughter and death that the lamb became worthy of all praise and enacted the ransom of Godís people from the world over. John expected a warrior king, leading the marching hosts of heaven to battle the enemy. Instead, he is shown the slaughtered lamb of God, not only redeeming Godís people, but completely victorious—even over death!

For John, the rules were changed—perhaps for us as well. In winning the ultimate victory over death, the Living Lamb now declares life for all the faithful, even, or especially, for those who suffer and die under the name of Christ Jesus. Death, suffering, and pain are not the enemy, for they have already been conquered.

I still donít like it. I may not be addicted to pain killers, but I donít like pain. I am bothered by sore throats. I do not enjoy muscle stiffness, aching joints, or watching others grieve because of acts of violence, disease, hunger, or separation. I am reminded all too much of my own vulnerability to pain and suffering. It might have been me, my family, or my friends. My life might be just as disrupted by the unexpected and unforeseen. In the resurrection of the Lamb, however, I am called to empty myself, placing my all into the hands of the One who likewise suffered and remains victorious.

Peter was still suffering over his past mistakes. He was still in anguish over his denial of Jesus. Jesus was not concerned. Preparing breakfast for the small gathering, he then spoke with Peter of love, forgiveness, grace, and suffering. Peter was fully aware of his weakness this time around. When Jesus asked three times if he loved him, Peter could only declare that he really liked Jesus. He was afraid that he might once again slip and fall under condemnation. While Peter assumed a new humility, Jesus called him over and over to care for the others. Then Jesus reminded Peter of vowing to die for him in that brash incident before the trip to Gethsemane.

ďWhen you are old, someone else will take you where you do not wish to go. Follow me.Ē This is a haunting call to discipleship. It is a disquieting call to reassess all we deem of so much value in life. It is the call to assume that life will bring suffering upon us, a suffering that we will be powerless to halt, avoid, or deny. It is a call to submit to the example of Christ Jesus in the face of turmoil, pain, and suffering. Jesus lay his life in Godís hands, and as the slaughtered Lamb is now arisen and worthy of all our praise.

Is it just too much to accept this striking reversal on suffering? Do we have the courage and faith to claim in suffering the path to ultimate victory? God does not call us down a path that Jesus was not willing to follow. While our own dose of suffering may not match that of Christ, he vows to lead us into the victory beyond. Will we follow into a victory that transcends suffering?

—©2007 Christopher B. Harbin


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