Finding Meaning in Suffering

As a participant in my church’s intercessory prayer ministry I am reminded regularly of the sufferings of fellow Christians. The church has a prayer room with cards that record the needs of the congregation. Members of the prayer team come to the room during the week to pray for the sick, for the church and its leaders, and for our community and nation.

There seem to be many people who battle cancer and its effects. Words like chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and remission show up quite often on those prayer cards. For some, it seems to be a life and death struggle. They depend on the church for emotional support and for prayers for their physical healing.

Several years ago I was counseling a woman who was angry at God because her husband had died of cancer. She refused to let go of her bitterness. She would not trust in any God who would allow suffering to continue.

Like some who argue for atheism, the problem of human suffering was, for her, an obstacle to belief in a God who is kind and good. This was an intensely personal issue. The suffering and death of her husband seemed pointless and without justification.

I’m not sure how my words may have influenced her thinking. It takes faith to believe that human suffering may accomplish a God-given purpose. Romans 8:28 is not a panacea, but a promise that for those who love the Lord, even bad things, like cancer, can, in God’s providence “work together for good.”

Earlier this year I read a book entitled God Meant it for Good, by R.T. Kendall. It is a retelling and interpretation of the story of Joseph the son of Jacob (Genesis 37-50). In his youth he was hated by his brothers. They sold him into slavery and he was transported to Egypt where he was subject to years of unjust treatment and imprisonment. Kendall makes the point again and again that God had a purpose for the trials Joseph had to endure.

Joseph’s character was refined and developed by his sufferings. The Lord was with him in his in his difficulties. In God’s time he was released from prison. In God’s plan he found himself in the presence of the Pharaoh who promoted him to second in command in Egypt! In that position he was able to save many lives, including those of his own family. He forgave his brothers saying, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

This is not to imply that suffering is good. Of course not. But it is a recognition that God is able to turn suffering inside out and use it to accomplish a good purpose. As a pastor I have heard people say things like, “I would never have wished this upon myself, but I wouldn’t trade anything for the spiritual growth I have experienced through these circumstances.”

In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller wrote, “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways.”

The God of the Bible entered our world of suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. He experienced the worst depths of cruelty and pain. He identifies with us in our sufferings. He promised, “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). He knows how we feel.

Keller added, “Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection in pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceed ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and god-forsaken. Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”

Is it enough to know that God has an unseen purpose in our sufferings? Is it enough to know that he understands our present sorrows and pain? Perhaps not as we see things now. Christianity does not provide an easy explanation for our sufferings. But faith in Jesus promises resurrection unto eternal life. It promises a new creation and the restoration of all things. Then there will be no more death when he makes all things new. Surely that will be enough.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

A Prayer for America

In a famous letter to his wife Abigail,  dated July 3, 1776, John Adams encouraged the celebration of Independence Day “by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”

Let Adams’s words (he was a devout Christian), remind us to pray for America on this national holiday. How should we pray for our nation? I can think of several important prayer requests: for our governmental leaders, for the healing of divisions, for the 2024 elections, for freedom to express our faith, for protection from all enemies, foreign and domestic, for forgiveness of our nation’s sins against a holy God.

The Book of Common Prayer provides us with a beautiful prayer for the nation. If you are inclined to join me in this, I humbly recommend that you use it as a guide to your praying for America today.

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with a spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now, having prayed, go enjoy your barbecue and fireworks, which President Adams also recommended for the celebration!

May God bless America.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Where Does Morality Come From?

Everyone in our culture would agree that some things are wrong. Human trafficking, sexual abuse of women and children, and mass murder are obviously immoral. Lying is considered wrong. Who wants to be deceived? Stealing is wrong. “That’s mine and you have no right to take it!”

C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that this sense of right and wrong is universal. Everyone agrees that there is a morality that ought to govern human behavior. If someone says, “Everybody has the right to define right and wrong for himself or herself,” Lewis would disagree. He would argue that an absolute standard of right and wrong is a “clue to the meaning of the universe.” He would say that there is a moral authority that, like the law of gravity, must be obeyed if human civilization is to exist.

Diplomats and international treaties raise the issue of human rights. We are rightly appalled by reports of genocide, religious persecution, and tribal warfare. Most people would say they are against violent repression of minorities by more powerful majorities. But who gets to define human rights? Who can say what is right and what is wrong? Where does morality come from?

If the answer is that morality is the product of evolution, that won’t work. Advocates of an evolutionary worldview that encompasses everything say that evolution is based upon the “survival of the fittest.” They concede that nature is cruel and violent. If predatory violence is natural, then where do love, generosity, and altruism come from? How can natural selection produce a sense of human dignity, value, and human rights?

Does it originate in society? Does morality exist because it is a social construct, created by us to maintain an orderly world? In this view the people who write the laws get to define what is best for civilization. But what if those who write the laws decide that a segment of the population should be exterminated, or enslaved, or forced into exile? If “society” is the final arbiter of right and wrong who is to say that an oppressive government cannot suppress dissent with imprisonment and firing squads?

Many Christian thinkers, like C.S. Lewis, have made the point that apart from God, there is no explanation for the existence of morality. If God does not exist, there is no basis for kindness, love,  and working for the betterment of humanity. If there is no God, there is no meaning for human life, no human dignity.

The fact is, morality depends upon the fact that God exists and that he has spoken. His moral law (an awareness of right and wrong) is written into the heart of every human being. The fact that some people (and cultures) suppress that fact does not change its truth.

“Indeed, when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness . . .” (Romans 2:14-15). This says that all people and cultures have a sense of right and wrong “written” in their hearts, even if they do not obey it. It comes from God.

Even people who do not like to acknowledge God’s authority in their own lives, keep on making moral judgments about others’ lives. They operate as though some things are obviously right and some things are wrong. Why? Because God has put it in their hearts and put it in his written word.

In fact, God’s moral standard, summarized in the ten commandments and in the teachings of Jesus, is the real basis for human worth, dignity, and value. It is the source of morality. This universal moral sense is a pointer to the existence of God.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Not Where, but Whom

The highlight of my visits to the Holy Land was always the Garden Tomb. It is a  place of quiet reflection and prayer. The garden surrounds a first century gravesite that was discovered in the late 1800s.

My first time there was on a Sunday morning over forty years ago. A minister led an outdoor worship service attended by hundreds of people from all over the world. He faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Christ, emphasizing the resurrection of our Lord, from a tomb like the one before us in the garden. That worship service left a lasting impression on me.

The site was made famous by a British military officer, General Charles Gordon. He was taking a year-long retreat from his duties in 1883. He was a well-known and successful soldier and also a devout Christian. During that year in Palestine Gordon did research on various sites associated with the ministry of Christ.

He became convinced that a rocky bluff on the north side of Jerusalem was “the place of the skull,” or Calvary, or Golgotha, the place where the Lord was crucified. His writings about the place influenced many others to agree with him. Indeed, observers could see in the rocky face of the cliff what looked like the eye sockets and mouth of a skull! Visitors today are shown the same formation in the cliff. Ever since, the hill has been called “Gordon’s Calvary.”

Nearby is the tomb cut out of the rock in the other side of the same hill. This matches the description in John’s gospel: “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid . . . the tomb was nearby” (John 19:41-42). The New Testament tells us that this was outside the city of Jerusalem. “Jesus suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy” (Hebrews 13:12). The Garden Tomb lies just outside the city wall of Jesus’ day.

While there have been many such tombs unearthed in the region, few could fit the biblical requirements: proximity to Skull Hill, outside, but close to the city of Jerusalem as it was in the first century, and the appearance of the tomb itself.

Another supposed site of the Lord’s crucifixion and burial is covered by an historic church maintained by priests representing Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Coptic traditions. Its buildings are furnished with religious artifacts, symbols, and icons. This ancient burial place was identified by pilgrims in the fourth century. It has the weight of tradition to support its claim to authenticity. It has testified to the resurrection of Christ for more than 1500 years.

Multiplied millions of pilgrims have come to this ancient place to worship and remember the sufferings and the resurrection of Christ. This testifies to the timeless significance of the resurrection and its importance for believers century after century.

But what really matters is not the place of the resurrection, but the person who was resurrected. Not where, but whom. Disagreements about the location of Jesus’ tomb will fuel religious debates for a long time to come. No one can say with absolute certainty where Jesus was raised from the dead.

What is certain, however, is that it happened. In the words of Peter Walker, “As far as believing Christians are concerned, the historic reality of the Resurrection itself is a fixed point in their faith. Without it, they would not be Christians.” He added, “No Resurrection, no Christianity!”

Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith.” If Jesus did not rise from the dead there would be no Christian faith and there would be no hope of eternal life or resurrection for us.

I, for one, am glad for the empty tomb, whichever one it was. It is as the angel said to Mary Magdalene, ‘He is not here, for he has been raised!'”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Made for Community

We were never intended to go it alone in the Christian life. We were made for community. There are some things we can only learn in community with others. Words like grace, forgiveness and love have meaning only in a context of relationship with others.

The Lord’s prayer teaches us that we are meant to pray with other believers. The personal pronouns in the prayer are plural. The first person singular (I, me, my) is completely absent from the prayer. “Our Father” has meaning only when expressed in fellowship with others. Community is part of an essential theology of prayer.

Albert Mohler, in his book on the Lord’s prayer, The Prayer that Turned the World Upside Down, wrote, “One of the greatest problems in prayer is that we begin with our own concerns and our own petitions without regard for our brothers and sisters. Many of us falter in prayer because we begin with the wrong word: ‘I,’ instead of ‘our.’ Jesus reminds us that we are part of a family, even when we pray . . . we are in this together.”

Tish Harrison Warner, in Liturgy of the Ordinary, wrote, “Jesus sent his Spirit to a people. The preservation of our faith and the endurance of the saints . . . is a promise that God will redeem and preserve his church — a people, a community, an organism, an institution — generation after generation, and that even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Paul knew that. That is why he wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership (fellowship, community) in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-4).

Paul was in a helpless situation. He was a prisoner in Rome, not knowing if he would survive or be martyred. He was separated from his friends in Philippi. Fortunately he was not alone. He had a friend from Philippi, Epaphroditus, there with him to assure him of the ongoing concern of the community of faith.

Do you have a church family to surround you with concern and prayers when you are in need? Are you invested enough in the lives of other Christians so that you pray for them? The Christian life was not intended to be lived in isolation. We were made for community.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Pray for Your Pastor

He may have distracting mannerisms. His grammar may be faulty. His life experience may be limited. He may not do things the way the former pastor did them. His inadequacies may be magnified because he is a public figure. For one reason or another, he may become a target for unfair criticism.

There is a better way. Prayer is that better way.

Jonathan Edwards wrote, “If some Christians that have been complaining of their ministers had said and acted less before men and had applied themselves with all their might to cry to God for their ministers — had as it were, risen and stormed heaven with their humble, fervent, and incessant prayers for them — they would have had much more in the way of success.”

Usually church folks have high expectations of their pastors. This is because they are preaching the most important message the world has ever known, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Congregations have a right to expect their pastors to be faithful to that gospel and to teach the word of God, explaining its meaning and helping them to apply it to their lives.

If a pastor is doing this with integrity, he deserves to be supported in prayer, despite human limitations. Love covers a multitude of inadequacies.

E.M. Bounds wrote, “The preacher must pray; the preacher must be prayed for. It will take all the praying he can do, and all the praying he can get done, to meet the fearful responsibilities and gain the largest, truest success in his great work. The true preacher . . . covets with great covetousness the prayers of God’s people.”

Paul did not hesitate to ask for prayer support. To the believers in Rome he wrote, “Join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Romans 15:30). He wrote to the Ephesian Christians, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19). He asked the Colossians, “Pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3).

He sent the Thessalonians a pointed reminder; “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). He told the believers at Corinth that their prayers would be a practical help in his ministry:  “On him (God) we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers: (2 Corinthians 1:11). If the apostle Paul was so dependent on the prayers of others, certainly our pastors need them as much or more.

I know how this feels. In my more than fifty years as a pastor trying to provide spiritual care for God’s people, the responsibility could be crushing. I felt my human weakness. I felt acutely the need for prayer support. It was always an encouragement when someone sent a note to say, “Pastor, I am praying for you.”

That is why I am praying for my pastors. I hope you are, too.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Three Ways to Deal With Doubt

Take sides with faith. That’s what the distressed father did when he brought his demon-possessed boy to Jesus. He exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)! He put his weight on the faith side of the scales. He did not have perfect faith. He admitted his doubts and fears. But he committed himself to the faith side of the proposition; “I do believe!”

The celebrated evangelist Vance Havner wrote, “We are too inclined to doubt our beliefs and believe our doubts. We ought to believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts.”

The father of the troubled boy was honest. He faced and confessed his doubts. Instead of surrendering to doubt, he committed himself, in faith, to Jesus. He asked the Lord to deal with his doubts. He took sides with the Lord Jesus. He was saying, as did the hymn writer, “My heart has no desire to stay where doubts arise and fears dismay.”

Here are three things to do when your faith is imperfect and doubts trouble your mind.

  1. Come near to God.  There is a wonderful promise in James 4:8 — “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” God will come close to you if you do what James, in this context, says to do: submit to God, repent of sin, and humble yourself before him. Doubts arise when fellowship with God is interrupted by sin. Communion with God is restored when we confess our sins.
  2. Preach the gospel to yourself. Paul reminded himself that he had trusted in  Christ for salvation. This meant that he had participated spiritually in Christ’s death and resurrection. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Remind yourself of this truth when you are attacked by doubts.
  3. Worship God. Whether you feel like it or not, acknowledge God’s goodness, generosity, kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and love. Train your mind to praise him for his attributes, his power and his wisdom. When Jeremiah’s world was crumbling around him, he turned fear into faith. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Someone has said, “Feed your faith and your doubts will diminish.” Here are three ways to feed your faith. They will help you to believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

The Church at its Best

Some people are disappointed in the institutional church, and not without reason. Church life can be messy, with denominational differences, power struggles, theological compromise, misplaced priorities, and leadership scandals. There are as many faults in churches as there are sinners in churches, and we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Churches are as imperfect as the people in them.

A friend once told me he had given up on organized religion. I asked him if he preferred disorganized religion!

It would be easy to get discouraged if it were not for the fact that Jesus Christ is the head of the universal church, which is his spiritual body. If local churches are unfaithful, or divided, or unwelcoming, or hurtful, the remedy is to remember that the true church is the body of Christ. Local churches are at their best when they are centered on him. They can descend into disfunction if they ignore or forget the headship of Christ.

When Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, he emphasized this fact. “He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). A body without a head is powerless, grotesque and dead. William Barclay wrote, “Jesus Christ is the guiding spirit of the church; it is at his bidding the church must live and move.”

Some practical implications are spelled out in Colossians chapter 3. Jesus is to be central to everything in the life of the church. That is why the letter to the Colossians is filled with references to Jesus. Believers have been raised from spiritual death with Christ (3:1). Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (3:3). Christ is our life (3:4).

“Christ is all and in all” (3:11). Because the Spirit of Christ indwells all believers, there is no place in the church for division, discord, rivalry, and cultural, racial, or social barriers. When the head controls the body, it will be what it was designed to be. That is why Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15). He added, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17).

The author Rita Snowden wrote about her visit to a small town near Dover, England. She was having tea in the late afternoon, when she became aware of an overwhelmingly pleasant aroma filling the air. She asked the waiter about the source of the scent, and she was told that it came from the people passing by. He explained that those people worked in a perfume factory down the street and were on their way home. When they left the factory, they carried the fragrance that had permeated their clothing during the day’s work.

That is an illustration of what the church could be like when it is centered on Christ. We church members should be people who allow ourselves to be permeated with the attributes of Christ. Then when we go out into the world, the fragrance of the Lord goes with us. When the church gathers for worship, everyone will sense the aroma of his presence.

That is the church at its best.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Memories of Mom

Mother’s Day found me remembering my mom, Magdalene Amstutz Faulkner. She was fine musician and a college music teacher. She had high standards for herself and she held her students to those same standards. “Trifles make perfection,” she would say, “and perfection is no trifle.”

Many were the nights I went to bed as a boy hearing her playing the piano, the music of the world’s great composers. She sought to achieve excellence in piano performance in the same way as her hero, J.S. Bach, pursued it, for God’s glory alone.

She worked hard at piano performance. Occasionally there were classical music recitals at the college in which she would perform.  She also composed arrangements of familiar hymns which she would be called upon to play for church meetings.

Mom loved the Bible and she read it daily. She read through the entire Bible many times. She taught a ladies’ Sunday school class for many years. As any good teacher knows, she learned and grew herself by studying the word of God in preparation for teaching.

When I was young, my mother reminded me regularly to read the Bible for myself. She and Dad sought to have a time of family devotions every day in which they read the Bible and prayed with my brothers and me.

Mother was a “world Christian” long before that term was coined by missiologists. She cared deeply about the worldwide expansion of the gospel. She loved and prayed for missionaries whom she knew, especially her two brothers. She followed a regular system of praying for different regions of the world on different days of the week.

She was unflappable. When my brothers and I were worked up about something, she would remain calm and even-tempered. She would respond with, “Rave on. You don’t worry me a bit!” Her gentle disposition was one of the qualities I admired about her.

She valued books. She was never without a book she was reading. If she had a chance, she would tell us about something she had read in a book of history, or a little-known fact she had discovered from reading a biography. She was a lifelong learner.

She was approachable. I always felt I could talk to my mom about what was going on in my world and in the world at large. She would respond with wisdom, humility and good sense. I do not remember her having much interest in reading the newspaper, and I know she did not watch tv news very often. But somehow she  was aware of trends and people in politics, and she shared her views when she was asked about them.

I regularly thank God for my mother and her example to me.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Not a “One and Done”

Not long ago I was made aware of an article that appeared in the April edition of Franklin Graham’s Decision magazine. It featured my son-in-law, John Mark Eager and The Mailbox Club, the ministry he directs. It is an international mission reaching children with the gospel and providing discipleship materials to help them grow in their faith.

The story in Decision highlighted The Mailbox Club’s plans to offer free follow-up to children who attend vacation Bible schools across America this summer. VBS programs in many churches are coming soon.

I am writing to suggest that you contact the VBS coordinators in your church. Let them know about The Mailbox Club and what they have to offer. The website, www.tmc4kids.org, has information about how to enroll kids in a systematic plan of age-appropriate discipleship training for children.

It is easy to see sample Bible lessons and to learn how to use them to engage the church in follow-up with children. The Decision magazine article is available for you to read at The Mailbox Club website too. Look for it in the upper left hand corner of the home page.

The choice between no summer follow-up and high quality, biblically faithful discipleship is an easy one to make. There is no cost to your church and The Mailbox Club will send out automatic monthly reports.

VBS should not be a “one-and-done” event. It can and should be the beginning of a growing relationship children have with the Lord Jesus.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

PS — Please forward this to ministry leaders who care about reaching kids with the good news.