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About this series
Overcoming the Pain of Your Past
Pain. It is part of the human experience, and one of the things that helps us grow to maturity. But for some of us the pain we have experienced feels crippling. Broken promises, dysfunctional families, damaged relationships and rejection keep us from experiencing the abundant life Jesus promised. Sometimes it's a challenge just to get through the day, let alone to extend love and strength to those around us. The Bible, however, offers great hope for pressing on. From the book of Ephesians, learn who you really are and why the pain of your past doesn't have to obscure God's plan for your future.More from this series
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.”
King David, was an Old Testament example, sins with Bathsheba, commits murder. What happens? He suffers. His kingdom is ripped away, he’s humiliated as his son, with all His concubines on the roof, disgraces him. He runs for his life, his world is never quite the same. He is forgiven, God does restore, but lots of bad things happen in David’s life because David was sinful and stupid.
He was a king; he was wise; he knew better. He made some small, bad decisions about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He gave into his flesh, then instead of owning it when he blew then he tried to cover it up.
Now, all I want you to know is that sometimes we get very upset at what’s happening in our life, some of the really bad things that have happened to us in relationships, in our finances, in issues in our life, with some of our children, with some of our parents, okay, at work – the reason we’re suffering is we’ve made some sinful or sometimes just stupid choices and you sow and then your reap. But you never reap in the same season that you sow.
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.”
Satan is alive and well. You’ve got the classic Old Testament picture of Job. Job didn’t do anything wrong. Job didn’t even know what was going on. I bet if Job would have had the book of Job while he was going through it he would have done better! I mean he didn’t get in on that little conversation between Satan and God and, “Have you looked at my servant Job?” and all that.
All he knew was, “I’m walking with God, I love God, I’m righteous,” bam, bam, bam, bam! I mean it was just like, if he went into the, “What did I do to deserve this?” pity party mode he’d have been in bad trouble. But you see, Job’s real issue, we’ll learn in the end of that book, was an issue of some very subtle arrogance and pride.
But Job was a righteous man. He suffered unjustly. He didn’t do anything wrong except love God, live a pure life, be a righteous man, and in so doing exposed the evil of the world for what it was so much so that he got the attention of the author of evil who was given permission, by God to buffet him.
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. In a fallen world little patios, over time with people, over decade after decade, the concrete begins to give way.”
And we’ve all heard of stories of five people out on a patio, bam, you think they’re evil and God is punishing them? Some evil in the world is because there is a fallen world, it’s like the spiritual radioactivity. Bad things happen to good people in a fallen world; good things happen to bad people in a fallen world.
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! The closest people to Jesus, right, the eleven apostles and then the apostle Paul, eleven of the twelve take the gospel to the world, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, love God, have faithful prayer lives, are doing the will of God, turn the world upside down, and eleven of the twelve get martyred. And the other one ends up on a rock writing books about the future.
Now, put that in your prosperity gospel pipe and smoke it! Now I’m serious. Are you saying that Paul didn’t believe enough, you’re saying that the disciples didn’t love God enough, you’re saying that if they would only…?
They did exactly what God called them to do. First 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.”
Did you ever think that sometimes you’re suffering for being a good, godly, wonderful Christian, doing exactly what God wants and He’s going to use suffering as a grace gift to do something deep in you and something amazing through you? A la Joni Eareckson Tada and others?
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. Three of them don’t feel very fair to me. I mean, when I sin and do stupid stuff and I suffer, I’ll be honest with you, I get it. And I just try and repent really fast.
But I have had big struggles. When I or, what’s worse, at least in my world, when people I love suffer, when people I care about… and I can’t control… which none of you have that issue but some of us do.
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.
In our last session, we looked at chapter 2 verses 11 to 22 and that context, 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, I know I’m in prison, it’s really hard, I love you Thessalonians but there are the few, the proud, the Marines, and me, Paul. I can do it.”
I mean some of us go through suffering like that. We just buck up. His second option is not, “Oh it’s deterministic. Whatever will be will be. I guess God is sovereign, the world is the way it’s going to be, my response doesn’t matter, I just will passively endure this.” That’s not his.
It’s not the prosperity lie of, “If you all just believe hard enough and I believe hard enough, then somehow I’m going to get out of all of this and everything will go great for you and great for me.” That’s not it.
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. I mean this is theology. This is unknown truths up until this point. The Church and his role in the Church.
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.”