Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How God uses difficult times to mature the Christian

Colossians 2:1-3 "For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."

The importance of understanding the place of difficult times in Christian spiritual maturity
When you begin to read the New Testament epistles or letters, you are struck more and more how Paul or the other writers will purposefully make known their trials and sufferings. Take for instance the opening verse of today's post: Paul did not try to hide his situation of being under house arrest in Rome nor did he try to appear "macho" and "separated from the pain" of his circumstance.  If anything, his suffering and circumstances ended up being at the heart of his life and ministry, per the Lord's calling (compare Acts 9:16).  This seems to cut across the grain of the 21st century conception of a blessed Christian life being equal to no pain, worry or hardship. How do we make sense of Paul's insistence on his readers knowing about his plight? Let's look at some cross references in both his other epistles and other New Testament letters to find the answer.

1. Galatians 4:19 "After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you."

This statement is from the earliest of Paul's letters. When he wrote these words, he had just completed his 1st missionary journey in Acts 13-14 and had declared, defined and defended the Gospel he was preaching at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Already Paul had to deal with constant verbal and physical attacks from opponents who were bent on silencing his attempts to proclaim the Gospel in the Galatian region. As Paul and his fellow laborers stated during the course of that missionary journey in Acts 14:22 - "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

2. Philippians 1:27-30  "Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me."

Paul wrote Philippians very close to the time he would had composed Colossians. Interestingly enough two intriguing statements about the relationship of suffering to the Christian's maturity emerge. First we see that in either knowing about suffering or undergoing it, their tends to be a dependence upon Christ that is cultivated. The sensitivity to the destiny of those who persist in their rejection of Christ is heightened, causing the Christian to be burdened for them while greatly assured of their own faith in Christ.  Secondly, suffering is part of the Christian's calling. 2 Timothy 3:12 for instance records Paul writing: "Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." The Apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:21 "For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps." Thankfully we are told the purpose of God's Sovereign inclusion of suffering in the Christian life in 1 Peter 5:10 "After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you."

3. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-4 "For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts."

Here again we see Paul making known all that he underwent in suffering for the Gospel. Here in 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses his sufferings as proof of his commitment to the Gospel and for the advancement of his readers. Such information is not meant to garner sympathy nor to elicit praise from his readers. If anything, Paul is informing his readers that God uses such sufferings to put an exclamation point on the fact that it is worth living for Christ in this world. 

I find it interesting that when looking at Colossians 2:1, the word translated "struggle" is a greek word "agona" from whence we get our word "agony". To live for Christ is a joyful agony, we could say. Why? Because as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison."

Closing thoughts
So in closing out today's post, what did we observe regarding how God uses suffering to mature the Christian? I see three reasons from the above observations in the New Testament letters:

1. Strengthen the believer's confidence. Galatians 4:19

2. Sharpen the believer's calling. Philippians 1:27-30

3. Certify the believer's commitment. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-4

Certainly two other passages can be mentioned to demonstrate the reality of these observations: James 1:3-4 and 1 Peter 1:6-7. May God strengthen His saints in these up and coming days.