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




Responding to Unpleasant Realities

I have been experiencing some health-related complications. I’m having to adjust to some new and unpleasant realities and the adjustments are not easy. As one who has been blessed with good health for most of my 77 years, I admit I am spoiled. I am strongly “tempted to complain, to murmur, and despair,” as the old song says.

But then, I read about the sufferings of the apostle Paul, as I did the other day. My momentary, light afflictions are minuscule compared to his. He described  being repeatedly threatened, beaten, starved, shipwrecked, and imprisoned (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). In these verses you can read about the multiplied dangers to which he was subjected in his missionary labors. By comparison, my troubles are but minor inconveniences.

Yet they are my troubles and I must learn how to cope with them. I want to do that in a way that pleases God and does not diminish my testimony as a Christian. I have been learning to do a few things to help me respond Christianly to life’s difficulties.

I have found myself reviewing and reciting promises God has given his people for times such as I am facing. One such promise is 1 Peter 5:7 — “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” It is a comfort to remember that God cares for me, he really does. In praying this promise back to the Lord I remember his faithful provision  and guidance in the past. He has cared for me in the past. He will be faithful to do so in the future.

Another response is to recall the attributes of God. Naming the characteristics of God in prayers of praise and thanksgiving deflects my attention away from my problems. This trains my mind to concentrate on God’s goodness, whether or not I understand his ultimate purposes. Often the scripture I am reading on a given day will show me some aspect of God’s nature. As I am reading, I pray that scripture back to him in praise. Sometimes I write those verses in my journal and refer to them again and again in my praying.

One example is Isaiah 57:15 — “For this is what the high and lofty One says — he who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” I love that verse because it magnifies God’s transcendent majesty, coupled with his willingness to be near to humble people who seek him. He is holy, he is eternal, yet he is also open to a relationship with folks like us.

Another thing, I want to resist the temptation to complain. If it is true (and it is) “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28), then complaining is an insult to God. If he has a purpose in my suffering, then I must accept that and “do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14). The context of that verse says that “God works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). It may be hard to see God’s good purpose in my circumstances, but I am given this promise so that I will know that he is at work in my life, even when life is hard.

These practices, remembering God’s promises, meditating on his character, and avoiding complaining, do not make our problems disappear. But they represent attitudes that contribute to our peace of mind and that meet God’s approval.

The Lord willing, I will undergo an operation in a few weeks. I fervently hope that it will provide some relief and improve my health. Whatever the outcome, I want to respond to life in a way that glorifies God and honors Jesus Christ.

If you have read this far, I assume that means you care enough to pray. Please pray for Connie and me, that we may “enjoy good health and that all may go well with” us (3 John 2). We appreciate your prayers.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

When Life is Hard

Historical scholars tell us that first century Christians were often misunderstood, slandered, persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. They were accused of disloyalty to the political establishment of the Roman empire. This is the background to the letter written by the apostle Peter to the provinces of Asia Minor.

His words in 1 Peter 1:6-16 are just as relevant today as when he wrote them. We are given guidance on how to respond when life is hard. He tells us that difficulties in life (such as the present pandemic and civil unrest) are temporary, “for a little while,” as the Lord sees our lives (v. 6). We wonder when life will return to “normal.” Peter wants us to know that God has his own timetable and his timing is perfect.

He also says that trials are purposeful. God has something he wants to  accomplish in the troubles that reach us. Peter compares the suffering of a Christian to a gold miner who brings his ore to a refiner so that the gold may be purified and alloys and impurities can be removed. The fires of testing (v.7)  refine our faith, so that we may glorify the Lord and be prepared for his return.

At Jesus’ revelation, Peter says, those who patiently endure affliction because of love for Jesus, will receive rewards of praise, glory and honor. This is a motivation for us to live holy lives (v. 15). In this context, holiness means to be set apart for God, separate from the world, and self-controlled.

“Therefore, with minds that are fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (vv. 13-15).

Some people have the mistaken idea that following Jesus is a guarantee that they will escape suffering and trouble in this life. Peter’s letter tells a different story. Sometimes God uses life’s hardships to accomplish his higher purposes in our lives. He wants to put his holy character on display in us (vv. 15-16). He wants us to behave as strangers and exiles in this world, living in expectation of Jesus’ return.

Charles Colson told of being hospitalized for surgery. As he recovered, he took walks in the corridors, dragging an I.V. pole along with him. He met a man from India, a Hindu, whose two-year-old son had had two failed kidney transplants and was now blind for life.

When he learned Colson was a Christian, he asked if he became a Christian would God heal his son. He said he had heard things like that on religious television programs. Colson wrote, “When I heard that I realized how arrogant the health and wealth gospel sounds to suffering families. Christians may be spared all suffering, but little Hindu children go blind. One couldn’t blame a Hindu or Muslim or an agnostic for hating such a god!”

“I told my Hindu friend about Jesus. Yes, he may miraculously intervene in our lives. But we come to God, not because of what he may do to spare us suffering, but because Christ is truth. What he does promise is much more — the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. … If that man does become a Christian, it won’t be on false pretenses.”

The fact is, we are called to live for God, whether or not the Lord relieves our pain, ends the pandemic, or restores the American economy. We love and serve Jesus not because he gives us easy, comfortable lives. It is because he has a higher purpose: he wants to make us like himself. “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner


A Song for Dangerous Times

A Song for Dangerous Times

“If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you” (Psalm 91:9).

The extravagant promises of Psalm 91 are puzzling to anyone who faces trouble. And who doesn’t? What are we to make of assurances that if God is our refuge, we need not fear plague and pestilence, destruction and disaster? Are these sweeping promises to be understood as some version of word of faith prosperity theology? Are these verses examples of pious escapism?

In the world I inhabit, the world as it is today, people of faith do in fact, fall victim to night terrors (v.5), deadly diseases (v. 6), untimely death (v.7), natural and man-made disasters (v.10), and various other troubles. My memory ranges over 47 years of pastoral ministry. There have been countless instances where I have been called to be present in the lives of people who loved the Lord but who faced disasters, dangers and death.

The author of this psalm is realistic in his poetic assessment of the world as it is. He names the threats: snare, pestilence, arrow, plague, war, disaster, dangerous predators. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come,” wrote John Newton. His life was a testament to the fact that people of faith are not immune from the troubles of the world.

In these circumstances, the inspired writer directs our attention to our Creator. In the world, as it is, he wants us to know God as He is. He invites us to live in close relationship to God, sheltered under his wing of protection.

The names of God reveal aspects of his character: “Most High” — supreme, exalted ruler over the universe; “Almighty” — all-powerful, all-sufficient One; “The Lord” — Yahweh; the self-existent, personal, covenant-keeping God; “My God” — the majestic God of eternity, the sovereign God of creation. These names are a call to worship and trust him, in all circumstances.

The titles of God (refuge, shelter, fortress) remind us to think of him as our security and protection: soft, when it needs to be, like a mother bird’s sheltering wing, hard, when it needs to be, like a warrior’s armor. The psalmist would have us stop and think about God when we face life’s troubles.

If you read Psalm 91 again, think about it in light of world events, interminable war, natural disaster, refugees from genocide and poverty, political turmoil, suspicion and fear, economic disruption, assassination, and especially, religious persecution in various parts of the world. The plain fact is, God’s faithful ones do not always escape trouble.

You might be brought up short and puzzled until you read verse 15. There the Lord promises, “He will call on me and I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble.” This is a key to understanding how to apply the beautiful promises of the psalm. The author looks at the world as it is and to God as he is, and he brings them together. There is a resolution in verse 15.

This is a Christian philosophy that sustains you in the boardroom when the manager says, “Clean out your desk and turn in your keys. This is your last day on the job.” This is a worldview for the hospital room when the doctor brings bad news and the outlook is bleak.

“I will be with him in trouble,” not necessarily escaping it. It is the presence of the Lord in the time of trouble that gives courage and hope. Two biblical illustrations come to mind. In the book of Genesis, Joseph endured many troubles. There we read, “The Lord was with Joseph.” In the New Testament book of Acts, The Lord Jesus appeared in a vision to the apostle Paul at a time when he was discouraged and lonely, “Do not be afraid…for I am with you.”

He says the same thing to you and me: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5-6).

The deliverance so boldly promised in Psalm 91 is for those who take refuge (v.2) in God, who make the Most High their dwelling (v. 9), who love him (v. 14), and who call upon him for salvation (v. 15). It is for those who say with faith, “My God in whom I trust” (v. 2).

It is not a blanket escape from the threats and risks of living in a dangerous world. Rather it seems clear that the writer sees and wants us to see another dimension, that of eternity. In the book of Romans, we are given a Christian interpretation of Psalm 91: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37). “In all these things” we learn to recognize and rely on God’s presence with us. In persecution, trouble, or even death we will not be forgotten or forsaken.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner






Read it! Over and Over Again

Read it! Over and Over Again

There is more than one way to profitably read the Bible. A friend of mine recently set out to read the Bible through in one month. He committed himself to a schedule of reading 54 pages a day.

Several years ago my wife enjoyed reading through the Bible in three months with a group of friends. They met weekly to discuss what they were learning and to encourage each other to finish well.

Many Christians make it their goal to read through the Bible in a year. The benefits of such comprehensive reading plans are significant: grasping the storyline of redemption history, prophecy and fulfillment, the centrality of Jesus and the cross, foundations of Christian theology, and developing a God-centered worldview. There are many additional benefits.

Some prefer to read the Bible more slowly, allowing time for meditation and application. This is good too. Another friend, Keith Roberson, has devoted himself to a mastery of the psalms. He has enriched his spiritual life by exploring the theology of the psalmists, gaining a deeper understanding of worship, and recognizing the psalms as responses to life’s circumstances.

In recent months I have been reading some of the shorter books of the New Testament all the way through in my daily quiet time. As I read I write down impressions that I can carry with me through the day or thoughts I can share with others to encourage them. Here are a few reasons to spend time in one book of the Bible and to read it over and over.

  • To notice repeated words and themes the writer emphasizes (such as “suffering” in 1 Peter)
  • To memorize key verses in the book (to help a suffering friend you might want to memorize 1 Peter 4:12-13 or 19)
  • To hear a fresh word from God from familiar words you have read many times before (Here’s an example: Suffering may cause some to doubt God’s goodness. No. “The Lord is good.” 1 Peter 2:3)
  • To know God as the book describes him (I recently counted 13 attributes of God in 1 Peter alone; a rich meditation)
  • To think more deeply about difficult passages and to be motivated to study them thoroughly (1 Peter 3:19 has that mysterious phrase about Christ preaching to the spirits in prison. How long has it been since your pastor preached on that text? Maybe you should study it for yourself!)

It is said that the famous expositor G. Campbell Morgan decided one day to spend less time reading books about the Bible and to invest more time reading the Bible itself. He determined that he would not preach through a book of the Bible until he had read it through consecutively forty or fifty times.

Marinating our minds with a single book of scripture, as my friend Keith has done with the psalms, is not so we can boast of acquired knowledge, but so we may love the Lord who is revealed in his Word and be better equipped to bless others by sharing it (1 Peter 3:15).

Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen. (from The Book of Common Prayer)

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner