"Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." --Romans 5:3-4
This is Memorial Day weekend; this Sunday, we will be honoring two members of the congregation I pastor who died in the past year. I remember my mother’s family down in Tennessee used to call the holiday “Decoration Day” since wreaths or flowers would be taken to the cemetery to decorate the graves of relatives who had passed on. Sorrow, of course, inevitably accompanies this weekend as we remember those who are no longer with us. Allow me to recommend one of the best books I have ever read on the subject and some of the themes the author develops in his work.
The book is called Don't Waste Your Sorrows by Paul Bilheimer. It is all about how God uses suffering, sorrow, and trials in our lives to accomplish His purposes--and how we ought to respond to these times in our lives. The main premise of the book is that God uses times of sorrow, pain, trial and difficulty to shape our character and to prepare us for our future role in the Kingdom of Heaven. He argues that this is the only way to understand the reality that not everyone who prays for physical healing in this life receives it in this life. Either God is an uncaring Father who has the power and capacity to heal all of those who are hurting, and chooses not to, or there is some superior strategy for allowing the pain and suffering to continue. Pain, suffering and sorrow are all the fruit of sin and selfishness that plague the human condition. We have invited this on ourselves through our self-absorption and disobedience. But God can redeem the suffering and sorrow if we will allow Him to.
Bilheimer claims that the ultimate purpose of the Lord in this life is not to fully display His power and control of the universe by healing all disease and ending all suffering--although He could do that if He chose to. Instead, the purpose of God is to teach all of us, His Bride the Church, the lessons of agape love so that we may rule with Him for eternity. What is agape love? Many of you know that the Greek language, in which the New Testament is written, has more than one word for love. Agape love is the love that God manifests--it is His very being. This love, which is willing to die for another and can selflessly give without the selfish need to possess, must be the all powerful principle of the universe and the ultimate foundation for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Right now, we are selfish people, to a greater or lesser degree based on how much the Spirit of God has produced the image of Jesus in our lives (one of His main purposes.) There is no love without self-giving. There is no self-giving without pain. Even God cannot love without cost. Bilheimer explains that "decentralization" (his word for the decrease of our selfishness and the increase of God's love in our personality; what John the Baptist meant when he said "He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease"--John 3:30) can only occur when suffering, sorrow and pain force us either to look to God or to fall back on bitterness. If we become bitter or resentful, according to Bilheimer, we are wasting our sorrows. Suffering, pain or trials give us either the capacity to expand with empathy for others who also suffer or it shrinks us to the point that we have nothing to offer others except an embittered spirit.
If God's whole purpose was simply to take us all to glory to be with Him, He would probably do it immediately. But God wants to prepare us to rule with Him in an eternal universe, a rule administered through and marked by His character. Progress in developing a godly character and agape love is impossible without tribulation. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit." (5:3-5) Self-pity and resentment are a waste of the opportunities God gives us through trials and suffering. It is natural to resort to these feelings--and that is the whole point. It is part of our nature, a nature that the Lord wants to transform through His Spirit working within us so that we act in love and not bitterness. Of course, it is not easy or natural to live this way. And we are not called to be masochistic and to thank God for the suffering, pain, trials and sorrow. Rather, we thank God that He is using these to make us more like Him in His selfless love. It is only through brokenness that selfishness can die--and that is why broken people who forsake bitterness are most to be trusted in the Kingdom of God.
There is a beautiful little story in the Old Testament that portrays the truths I have been writing about in this reflection. As Solomon was building the temple in Jerusalem, he ordered that all the stones for the structure be cut and prepared elsewhere so that "there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house" while it was built. (I Kings 6:7) About this verse, one Bible scholar has written, "All true believers in all ages are the living stones in that heavenly Temple, and God is preparing them in His quarry down here, amid the noise and tumult of earth, each for his or her place in the Temple above. Rugged and shapeless are the stones to begin with; no wonder that the blows of the hammer fall heavily, that the chisel is sharp, and the polishing severe before the stones are ready."
Quarry stones are insensitive, but living stones are not. We hurt. And God is infinitely compassionate. But God cannot shape us without suffering and pain. He will always use broken people to advance the Kingdom of God. Our response to this process is the critical component of the preparation. Lord, give us the grace to trust You and not become selfish and bitter. That response is not easy--and we need Your help desperately! In Jesus' Name, Amen.