daily Broadcast

Overcoming Unjust Suffering

From the series Unstuck

In this message, Chip presents four specific possibilities for why we might suffer. Sometimes we suffer for doing the RIGHT thing and we may wonder if God is aware of what's going on. Not only does He know, but there are some very important things He wants us to keep in mind when we're suffering unjustly.

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Message Transcript

Some of you probably have had some experiences where you’ve been stuck. When something unfair, unjust, difficult, painful – if God is good, if God is loving how can there be so much evil and bad things happen to, at least from our perspective, really, really good people?

And let me first say, this side of heaven, I don’t think you’ll get any cookie cutter, nice, clean answer to that question. But what I can say is the Bible is very clear and tells us that there are clearly four possibilities of why bad things happen, some just and some unjust.
And at the end of the day he’s going to teach us tonight about how to respond to unjust suffering.

I want to give you a framework. I don’t want to just jump into unjust suffering. I want to give you a framework of when really bad things happen we often just jump to, “It’s not fair.” And they happened to us or they happened to other people.

So, I want to give you a biblical framework of why suffering occurs, from Scripture. There are four possibilities.

Number one is what I call, “just suffering.” Suffering may be the result of our own sin and poor choices. We don’t like this one but Galatians 6 verses 7 and 8, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren, God will not be mocked. As a man sows so shall he reap. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”

Now, all I want you to know is that sometimes we get very upset at what’s happening in our life, the reason we’re suffering is we’ve made some sinful or sometimes just stupid choices and you sow and then your reap.

And it’s very interesting, I mean I know we all have high levels of denial and we all are very good at blame shifting and saying “They did it and they did it and they did it.” It really helps to at least start off and ask the question when you’re in a really, really tough situation, “What part of this do I need to own? God, is this…?”

Because there is a real quick solution to that. You confess your sin and you repent and you’ll always find a loving, merciful God that wants to restore and to repair.

The second reason that people suffer. Suffering may be the result of spiritual attack.

Ephesians 6:10 through 12 says, you know, “We don’t battle against flesh and blood but against rulers and powers and principalities and evil forces of wickedness.”

Some of you are going through very difficult, painful times that aren’t fair and it’s not because you sinned, it’s not because you did anything wrong, in fact, often it might be because you’re doing a lot right.

So, when you’re going through things you need to ask some diagnostic questions, “Lord, is there something that I’m aware of or maybe I’m really aware of and it’s my choices or some things I’ve done?” And if the Spirit says, “No, no,” you check that out and then it’s, you need to ask, “Is this spiritual attack?” Because you respond to different kinds of suffering with different biblical responses.

The third Scriptural indicator of when suffering may occur is because we live in a fallen world. Genesis chapter 3, sin enters the world. Imagine sin entering the world like a major coup. And this major coup, imagine this major coup is a lot like the atomic bomb of sin happened in Genesis chapter 3, and our first parents rebelled against God, sin entered the world, it separates man from God, it separates man from himself, it separates man from his wife, and even what happens, the creation even begins to groan.

Romans 8 tells us that there is fallout. So imagine that as an atomic bomb going off and then for centuries there are these clouds of radioactivity. You know? Bad things happen to good people just because it’s a fallen world.

We get the example in John 9 of, here’s a blind man. Whose fault is this? His or his parents’? What does Jesus say? Neither. A sovereign God in a fallen world has purposes of unjust suffering.

Or I think it’s Luke 13, the Tower of Siloam. Jesus is preaching and a runner comes in and we get the story, “Did you hear about this tower that fell on these people?” And Jesus said, “Do you think that they were more unrighteous than others?”

And what He was saying here is that all of us need to understand in a fallen world where there is sin, He says, “We will likewise if we don’t repent,” but He said, “You know something? That wasn’t God’s judgment on those guys who happened to be at that tower, at that time.
In a fallen world things rust… in a fallen world wood rots.

If your expectations are that a good God is going to make everything come out right and the world “it ought to be in a certain way,” you will live with unrealistic expectations for the rest of your life.

The fourth reason the Bible says that suffering may occur is, are you ready for this, the result of doing good. So, you have just suffering for when we sin, you have unjust suffering because of spiritual attack, you have unjust suffering because of a fallen world, and here sometimes you suffer for doing exactly what’s right.

Acts 3, Peter steps up boldly and preaches and he ends up in prison! Acts 5, he preaches again, he gets beat up!

Peter says, “If you suffer for doing evil this is not commendable to God. But if you suffer for doing good this finds favor,” do you hear that? This finds pleasure in God’s eyes. “For you have been called to this purpose for Christ also suffered for you leaving you an example that you might follow in His steps, who when He suffered didn’t revile back but entrusted His soul to the faithful Creator.”

And so, all I want you to get is that there are at least four reasons. Maybe there are more but those are the big, clear ones in Scripture of why we suffer.

And so what I want you to see is the apostle Paul is going to give us a model for how to respond to suffering. How do you respond to suffering?

Now at first glance you’re going to look at this and if you read it very quickly you would say, “How in the world is this a model for suffering?”

One, we need to make sure that we get the context. Ephesians chapter 2 verses 11 to 22, what we learned is there is this miraculous lack of hostility, one new man, unity, and in this unity the very presence of God, that the Jew and Gentile in the supernatural community called “the Church,” His presence and His power dwells.

And then he opens chapter 3 with a, “Therefore, in light of this new supernatural community called ‘the Church’ where when, in unity, we are together the Spirit and the presence of God dwells,” he says, “I,” now he’s going to talk about a little suffering, “Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ, for your sake of the Gentiles,” and you notice I put a “dot, dot, dot,” because God’s prisoner is Paul. He’s God’s prisoner. He’s not Rome’s prisoner, he’s not Nero’s prisoner, he’s God’s prisoner.

Now, what I want you to do is you’ve got to see the structure. If you don’t see the structure of this passage it will feel like some of Paul’s writings. And some of Paul’s writings like verse 2 through verse 12 is one sentence.

This guy couldn’t pass an English course if his life depended on it. This is a run on sentence. And he gets filled with the Holy Spirit and he just gets on a roll. But what you need to understand is verse 1 is the opening sentence and verse 13, the very last verse, is his reason for writing everything.

He says, “Look, I am a prisoner of Christ Jesus,” skip down to verse 13. “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are for your glory.”

And so very interestingly, Paul doesn’t say that the answer to suffering is to macho up, “I can take it, don’t worry about it."

His second option is not, “Oh it’s deterministic. Whatever will be will be.

By contrast, Paul’s answer to unjust suffering is sound, biblical doctrine concerning God’s program in human history; concerning God’s divine, sovereign purpose in his life; God’s ultimate purpose in Paul’s life in ministry.

And in this low emotion, high content answer he’s going to say, “Understanding unjust suffering is about not getting God to change your circumstances but beginning to understand how your circumstances are a part of His divine plan and you responding to that plan.

And so with that, I want to walk through the text and part of this, by the way, since you’re not Gentiles in the first century, you’re not going to have a lot of liver, quiver, emotional moments in the next eight or ten minutes. Okay? I mean, we need to explain what’s he saying in verses 2 through 12, right?

And if you were a Gentile you’d be on the edge of your seat, “Wow, this is us, I can’t believe this, He did this, you mean,” by the way, when the word “mystery” comes up I’ll have you circle it. But the word “mystery” doesn’t mean “mysterious.” This word simply means this: Something that was previously unknown, like a secret.

And Paul is actually going to say there was a secret. There was a secret that was hidden in God. And there was a secret that from the foundations of the earth was part of the plan. But no one knew about the secret and God didn’t tell anybody His secret, and he’s going to say, “I got to be the one to share the secret,” or the mystery.

And he’s going to say, “Don’t feel sorry for me because I’m in prison. I actually have had an unspeakable, unimaginable privilege in this tiny, little thing called time in light of all eternity. Don’t get discouraged. It is an unspeakable privilege for me to be granted the gift of suffering on your behalf.”

And what he does so contrary to our American worldview, he looks at his suffering through the lens of, “What are God’s purposes and what is God trying to do and what’s my little role in it?” instead of, “What are my purposes and what are my agenda and why doesn’t God fix it soon?”

Does it make sense? See it’s a very different paradigm. So let’s look at it together.

God’s secret plan, are you ready, is the Church. His secret plan. Every time the word “mystery” comes up I want you to circle it. Paul, I think, is kind of excited because when he gets excited he has these long sentences. He forgets to stop. I can identify. There are days I think maybe Paul talked really fast too.

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you.” That word “administration” is a stewardship of trust. “Surely you have heard about the amazing thing that God entrusted to me.”

Well, what is that? “That is the mystery made known to me by revelation as I have already written briefly. In reading this then you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery,” or, “the secret of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations, as has now has been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets this mystery is that through the gospel, Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.”

Now, most of us in this room are Gentiles, alright, and we’ve got a couple thousand years of history. We don’t even fathom how radical this is and what occurred. But here’s what he’s really saying, “Don’t be discouraged, I’m a recipient of revelation from God about His secret plan, the Church, what a privilege.”

Wow. I mean, hey, you know, “You guys are all uptight because I happen to be in, this cell for a while and I’m in prison. Don’t be discouraged!” You understand that in all the past history of all mankind it hasn’t been revealed. The word for “revelation” there means “being laid bare.”

“And here I am, not just one tiny, little human being but a murderer, a persecutor of the Church, a sinner and an alien far from God who hated Him and killed His followers, the unspeakable glory and riches and privilege He has allowed me to be the bearer or the steward of this secret, unimaginable thought of Jew and Gentile having direct access because of the work of Christ on the cross and His resurrection and this brand new game plan for all the future called ‘the Church.’” Different perspective.

Next, he’s going to say that Paul’s role in God’s game plan is a servant or a minister. So first he says, “Don’t be discouraged because He entrusted this secret, this mystery to me and now this is my role, I got to be,” what? “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given to me.”

Would you circle “gift,” “grace,” “given.” Is Paul’s focus on his chains? Is Paul’s focus on his circumstance? Is Paul’s focus on, “This really isn’t fair after all that I’ve done for you, God?”

“I became a servant of the gospel by the gift, grace, given me,” how? “through the working of His power.” And then he kind of does this sober, self-evaluation. He goes, “Although I’m less than the least of all God’s people,” and he’s not blowing smoke here, people. This isn’t false humility.

I mean, he’s going, “Let’s see, how many people were trying to snuff out the Church and were killing people? Hmmm, let’s see, ooh, I think I was the one.” And when he looks at Him and he thinks of all of God’s people and he, I think he’s marveling at God’s grace. I think he’s overwhelmed with this sacred stewardship. I think he’s thinking, you know, later he would write that this suffering isn’t to be compared with the glory that will follow.

See, I think Paul had this unbelievable, highly focused eternal perspective that just colored everything. And so notice he goes on to say, “I am the least of all of God’s people, this grace was given me to,” do two things, one, “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery for which ages past was kept hidden in God who created all things.”

Would you circle the word “grace” and “given again.” What I want you to do is I want you to look at Paul’s role and his perspective and see words like “grace given,” “grace gift,” “grace given.” And this privilege to preach the gospel. He doesn’t care where he gets to preach it from.

And then where he says, “To make plain,” we get our word “photon.” He says, “I got to photon, I got to photo-ize, I got to bring to light, I got to be the conduit,” so he says, “Don’t be discouraged, I had the privilege of transmitting the supernatural grace even though I was a murderer.”

And then he moves from this secret plan that’s the Church and just, you know what he’s doing? The goal is that they won’t be discouraged and they get a perspective on suffering but what’s he teaching them? Truth.
And now he’s going to say the purpose of the Church is education and access. What he’s going to say is this supernatural community of Jew and Gentile connected to Christ, the head and this Savior and he’s going to have this, this bride that he’s preparing and he’s going to come back and he’s going to say, “This Church has a purpose in this little time on the earth.”

And he says it’s going to educate a certain group, and it’s a very unusual group. And it’s also going to provide a new access that’s not going to be about bulls, or goats, or temples, or priests, or ritual, or rules. You’re going to have access.

Notice what he says here, the purpose of the Church. His intent, very interesting that translates one little word, it’s “hina.” It means a purpose clause, in other words, “For this purpose,” it’s very, very clear.

He says his intent was that now through the Church, “The manifold wisdom of God,” and the word “manifold” is like the variations of layer, upon layer, upon layer of the all-knowing, all-wise, how wonderful God is, “should be made known,” to whom? “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” he’s speaking of angels, “according to His eternal purpose, which He accomplished in Christ our Lord, in Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom,” it means with courage, with boldness, with freedom of speech, “and with confidence.” And the word “confidence” there, means “right of access.”

And so he says, “Don’t be discouraged. I have the privilege,” listen to this, “the privilege of suffering for Christ that angels may learn things about God that they could never know without the Church and so that we, as His followers, could draw near with a level of intimacy and access like never before.”

When the apostle Paul thinks of this mystery that he’s a steward of, his role of preaching it and bringing it to light, and the ultimate purpose… I mean, can you imagine that it’s just a regular Joe trying to kill people one day, getting knocked down, meeting Jesus, taking seminary in Arabia somewhere, feeling like you were lost and getting humbled over here, getting picked up by Barnabas and saying, “You know what? I think you’re worth something, yeah, I think God’s got a plan,” and then you end up with this little church in Antioch where people are first called Christians, and you’re just praying and fasting with a handful of guys and God says, “Set apart for me! Paul and Barnabas!”

And he goes on this missionary journey and all of a sudden he goes on one, and two, and three [different trips], and he ends up in jail, and if we were in jail we would be telling God, “This is unfair and I stepped out and, I’m doing this for you and I don’t understand why you’re treating me like this and…”

And now two thousand years we look back, so we get thirteen books of the New Testament written by who? And where did he write the majority of them? Can I go on record to say I’m glad he was in prison?

Can I go on record to say that the gift of suffering for the sake of the Church and the gospel was to my benefit and yours, and to theirs, and that Paul is giving us a model of why not to be discouraged when injustice [happens], and life’s not fair in a fallen world, where there is spiritual opposition, if indeed there is an all-sovereign, all-knowing God whose purposes cannot be thwarted, and He will use suffering as a grace gift in your life, even when people do it with such evil intent, if you don’t bail out on the process.

And in the midst of your suffering He may produce an intimacy with Him that you could have never known, and He may produce a testimony and a conduit of grace through you, that others may have never seen.

Now, what we need to ask is, “What is the timeless application of that truth to us in the twenty-first century?"

There are four principles to remember when you’re suffering unjustly.

Number one, we are not victims. It’s so easy to get there, isn’t it? “How could this happen to me? This is so unfair.

Pull back the lens. Paul, does he say, “I’m a prisoner of Rome?” Does he say, “I’m a prisoner of Nero?” He says, “I’m a prisoner of Christ.” Isn’t that interesting? He said, “I’m in these chains because of Jesus.” It’s not the false accusations of the Judaizers, it’s not the Roman government, it’s not…

He said, “I’m here,” because here’s what Paul knew: God is absolutely sovereign. That means He’s in control. God is good; and God is loving; and God is all wise. And good means He always has your best in mind, sovereign means anything that comes into your life is either decreed or allowed by Him, wise means He brings about the best possible end by the best possible means for the most possible for the longest possible time.

So, if there was an easier, gentler, better way for His will to be worked out in your life you would be experiencing that kinder, gentler way than what you’re getting.

So, if He’s all wise, good, sovereign, faithful, and all-powerful and can do whatever, whatever you get in your life and whatever I get in my life, a sovereign God has either allowed or decreed for my good. It’s a faith issue.

And He wants you and me to remember when you have unjust suffering, when you’re a child of God, you may be going through a rough time, but you are not a victim. You’re not a victim. You’re His son, you’re His daughter. “For you have need of endurance,” the writer of Hebrews would say in chapter 10 verse 36, “for once you have done the will of God you might receive what He’s promised.”

And the word “for you have need of endurance,” that word “perseverance” or “endurance,” is hupomeno. “Hupo” means to be under, “meno” means under be stress or pressure.

And what happens, as we’ll see, under stress or pressure and difficulty that is so unfair, what do you do when you’re experiencing that? You either get bitter and mad and close your Bible and whine and become a victim or, in tears, you usually say, “I don’t know where I need to read right now but I think the only place I can really go is the Psalms.”

And you cry your way through the Psalms. And you recognize that other people have been here before and God understands.

And if you get around a place like this there are some people that have lived longer, and they have “hupomenoed” their way through losses and pain and injustice, and isn’t there a tenderness and a sweetness and a maturity and a love to their life that you’d really like to have. Can I tell you how they got it? It wasn’t because they had everything go right.

The second principle is that until we understand what God is up to in the world we will never understand what He’s up to in our world.

See, unconsciously what we have done to the gospel, by and large, is we’ve basically made God our self-help genie and said, “This is my world, this is my agenda, and I want these biblical principles and of course I love you, Jesus,” but the goal is, “make my life work and make it work well! I want to be happy! I want to upwardly mobile, I want to be healthy, want my kids to be great.”

All those desires are fine. But here’s the deal, unconsciously, I’m the center of the universe and God is my servant. What’s wrong with that picture? Everything.

There are a lot of people that are very upset with God because He’s not “fulfilling promises” and they’ve believed and done certain things and…

Guess what? It’s His world. It’s His story. I think you put those together you get “history.” It’s not your story. It’s not my story. You know what the apostle Paul realized? “I’m a murderer. You know what I deserve? I deserve to go to hell is what I deserve. And by the rich mercy of the Savior, He not only forgave me but allowed me to be a steward of the secret that’s been hidden in God before all generations, and I get to be a conduit and I’m going to whine about being in chains and, for this little time knowing that forever and ever and ever I’m going to be with Him?”

See, when you begin to understand what God is up to in the world, then you begin to reinterpret your world. So, what’s God up to in the world? I mean you can jot this down. He’s up to Matthew 28 verses 19 and 20. That’s what He’s up to.

He’s up to lost people being found, He’s up to found people growing to maturity, and He’s up to mature people reproducing their life. That’s what God’s up to, for every single person on the face of the earth.

So, how does this suffering impact the Great Commission? How does this suffering impact my network and people who don’t know Christ? How does this suffering impact those who do know Christ and are watching me go through it? How does this impact God reproducing the life of Christ in me?

See, the apostle Paul is always asking, “What are you going to do with forever? And why are you here? And what’s your role in why you’re here?”

The third principle here is that until we understand our role in His plan, from verses 7 through 9, we’ll never, we’ll forever be frustrated with God’s failure to fulfill our plans.

Let me say that again. Until you understand your role, in other words, what are you supposed to do? What are you called to do? What are you gifted to do? What’s your mission? What’s your calling? Why did He put you on the earth?

I mean, more than just a generic, love people, share the gospel when I can, get a good job, raise a good family. Okay, yeah.

Now, specifically. What are you here for? What assignment has your name on it? What Paul was saying is, “I understood my role as a servant. Mine was very,” he said what? “I’m to preach and I’m to make plain this administration of this mystery.”

God’s agenda, not my personal peace, comfort, happiness, or prosperity is what I need to understand, and then I need to understand what’s my role in His plan rather than how do I convince God to fulfill my plan?

And, boy, that’s a game changing truth. And, by the way, I think it’s a journey. I think as you mature He shows you, shows you, shows you.

I can remember a really difficult, very, very difficult five or six years ago in my life trying to discover what my role is. And you know when you hit your late forties and fifties you think you’re supposed to have this figured out.

And I knew, in general, I knew I was supposed to teach God’s Word but what context, and where, and how did it work? And I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t teaching God’s Word anymore but I was in ministry, and I was in all these budget meetings, and my joy was gone but all the issues of reputation and what it would look like if I left, and my ego and insecurities, and fears, and I took a big step of faith but finding that big step of faith… it was dark. I mean it was just dark.

And all I knew was, “Okay, I’m supposed to teach your Word, but God, I don’t know exactly where. I don’t know exactly how.” And then it got real clear, “It needs to be, it needs to be in a local church.” And then, “It needs to be in a local church that’s hostile to the gospel. It needs to be in a local church…”

But it was a two-year journey. And part of that, I’ll never forget. And I won’t embarrass him, but there was a fellow in Atlanta who became a brother and a life coach. And you know how when you process everything you look at everything negatively and it just, parts of it seem very unfair and… I was learning to own my stuff. And I’ll never forget the whole paradigm shift.

We were sitting in a, it was a country club that he belongs to. And he said, “Well, Chip, did you ever just consider that God has given you the gift to suffer? Did you ever consider that maybe you’re trying to figure out why this, why that, and you’re supposed to do this. Did you ever just consider that maybe He just entrusted to you the grace-gift of suffering right now for Jesus’ sake?”

And I remember I didn’t have a good answer. But in my mind I’m thinking, “I will guarantee you, I’ve thought a lot, but that thought has never crossed my mind.” And then, thank God for Scripture memory, Philippians 1:27 comes to my mind, “For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake experiencing the same conflict, which you saw and now see to be in me.”

And I just remember thinking, “I don’t have to figure it all out, and I don’t have to figure out what blame is me, or I don’t have to find someone else, or some circumstance, and it was just like, “You know what? What if there are times where…” isn’t that what Paul said? “I got to suffer for Your glory. I went through this for You.”

I don’t see him saying, “Well, the Romans had seventy-six percent on this, and I think the Judaizers were about twenty-three point four percent a part of this. I probably had a bad attitude, I’ll take one or two percent of the problem and…”

I mean, that’s how [my mind] works. I’m always trying to figure out and control, and he just said, “I’m suffering.” What if that very thing that you’re begging God to take away is the very thing that’s the greatest gift for what you need right now?

And instead of resisting, and pulling away, and asking, and struggling, and blaming, and trying to figure it all out, you moved into it, and said, “I’m going to refuse to be a victim. And I’m going to get up today, I’m going to understand… so what’s Your role for me in this big world that would really honor You?” And you start asking those questions, it changes your whole perspective.

Finally, until we grasp the extraordinary privilege and the eternal impact of suffering for good, we will squander the greatest opportunities God will ever provide us to glorify His name and commune with His heart.

Sometimes these difficult times are this window where God could mold your heart, and allow you to hear His voice, and to build character and endurance, and a capacity that could never happen otherwise. You know, it’s that old picture of the piece of coal: that it takes all that time, and all that pressure, and that coal over time, becomes a diamond.

I wish there were an easy way. I wish I had six easy steps, four easy steps, something you could repeat nine times a day and you would just, poof! come out like Jesus. I’d sell it. And I want you to know I’d give at least ten percent of it away, maybe more. I’m teasing. It just ain’t so, people.

But there is part of us that is yearning somehow, and looking for some silver bullet, something that takes all the suffering away, or cleans it all up, rather than embracing it and saying, “Suffering is not a curse in a fallen world. It’s a stewardship and a privilege to reveal God’s love and power, and to experience intimacy with Him.”

His promise at the end of the Great Commission, do you remember what it is? “And I will be with you,” how long? “always.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if we recalibrated all of the issues and realized that’s actually the goal?

That you would actually recognize and experience Him with you, always. Because you become like who you hang with. And in your suffering, and when He’s with you, you become like Him.