Suffering


xiAs I was speaking with the pastor of my sending church this week, he told me about  another missionary from our church who was facing religious liberty challenges in her part of the harvest field, China. Many Christian workers from the West have had to make the hard decision whether to remain in their ministries there or make other plans due to increasing persecution.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the word “sinicize” (it was new to me.) According to reports, President Xi Jinping announced last spring his new five-year initiative to sinicize all religions, especially by forcing allegiance to Communism. Persecution of Christians, including imprisonment, is on the rise and house churches are being threatened.

But here’s the sentence that caught my eye in this article that details the situation: “Experts say the new wave of persecution comes as the country undergoes a religious revival.” The very definition of a paradox, but it has happened many times before.

The shell of Communism is crumbling and in its place we’re seeing huge numbers of people coming to Christ. Just as the first-century church blossomed during persecution, China is experiencing the same thing over the past several years. While religious liberty is being tightened and even rejected by the government there, the gospel is taking off.

The Bible encourages followers of Christ to get along with their civil governments and model cooperative citizenship as long as obedience to the Lord is the priority. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we’re commanded to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Peter wrote the same idea.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  1 Peter 2:13-17

We should be grateful for the measure of religious freedom we have in America and should speak up for the God-given (not man-given) right to freely worship for all people and all faiths. We should pray for our brothers and sisters in China and elsewhere who are being denied these rights. But we should never get the idea that the gospel cannot go forward unless it is unshackled from government regulation. It will go where God ordains it to go, regardless of the godliness or godlessness of any given governmental system. He decides – not man, not Satan, not Xi Jinping – only God.

Keep in mind as you read this final verse that it quotes a brutal tyrant who ruled Babylon and had severely mistreated the nation of Israel. God dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism by sending him into a season of insanity and taking him off the throne. When he was finally restored, he was praising God and his words apply to China right now:

All the peoples of the earth
    are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
    with the powers of heaven
    and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
    or say to him: “What have you done?”   Daniel 4:35

Flag of France (1)This weekend has seen another outpouring of heart-wrenching sympathy for those who have been slammed by the hateful fist of terrorism. All the political disagreements have bubbled to the surface again, as they always do after senseless violence, with little headway toward true solutions. All it seems we can do is brace ourselves for the next attack, wondering when and where it will occur. Coping in this era of a globally-conscious, 24-hour stream of tragic information, uncertain of tomorrow’s headlines, proves to be a challenge. Yesterday it was France. We don’t know who will need peace and comfort when terror strikes next. Social media, though, has emerged as a way for many to respond to our violent world, and as I read posts from this weekend, I’m left wondering a few things.

  1. I wonder, when someone says something like, “My prayers are with ______ tonight”, exactly what that means. I am all for prayer. One of the main goals in the ministry I have is to encourage people to pray, so when I see so many offering their prayers for those in need, I know that’s a right response. It just seems possible that prayer can be a culturally acceptable activity (or claim of an activity) after senseless murder. It can make us feel better, but wouldn’t we want to make sure our prayers are actually effective when offered? The Scriptures make it plain that some prayers are effective and some are not.
  2. I wonder, for some of these responding to tragedy with prayer, where their desire for God is in the rest of their lives. God is the only right and true Judge of the heart and of the validity of these prayers, not me. But if one’s worldview and promotion of values is opposed to what is clearly revealed in the Bible, why pray at all (or say that you do?) I would hope that if we see the need to pray in times of loss and suffering, that the pressing need for prayer would be a regular soul-response. If God is worthy to be sought, He is worthy constantly, not only in time of need.

“pray without ceasing” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

 

Francois Hollande, President of France

Francois Hollande, President of France

3.  I wonder, as we pray for families who have suddenly lost loved ones to terrorism this week, if our prayers include the leaders of nations who must make crucial decisions to try to protect their people from future attacks? Since protecting citizens is a God-ordained purpose of government, do our prayers include wisdom for the right policies from our leaders?

“for he (the human authority) is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4

Our prayers should be with the people of France right now. And Syria. And other places that have been touched by terrorist acts in recent days. We should be praying for repentance from those doing the killing. But prayer is never meant to be exclusively a knee-jerk reaction to disaster. It is meant to be communion between people and God, done His way with His guidelines. We don’t get to make those guidelines. And if we reject the true path of prayer (taught at length all through the Scriptures) we do it at great peril to ourselves. No matter how therapeutic it might make us feel.

hoganEarlier today, Maryland heard from her governor, Larry Hogan, that he has cancer. The outpouring of care and prayer on sites like Facebook is encouraging. Reading supportive post after post, especially from lawmakers who are sharply divided with him politically, is an encouragement to the heart. Many are praying and public prayer vigils are being planned in every county. It’s interesting how people instinctively know that turning to the Great Physician in times like this is the right thing to do. How it would heal our troubled land if we turned to Him more than in days of suffering, yet I’m struck that there has been enough residual faith left in our collective culture that prayer is still a positive option for so many. Thank God for that.

Prayer for Governor Hogan’s health is altogether appropriate right now, regardless of your political view. The priority of 1 Timothy 2:1-4 is unchanging – for our leaders’ health as well as their wisdom and spiritual condition. Take several moments and follow that biblical mandate to pray for our governor and his family. The cancer he has can respond to aggressive chemotherapy. God is always able.

Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford will need our prayers, too, as he assumes more responsibility in the coming days. lt gov rutherford

Also, a site has been set up for one week for well-wishers to send a personal message to Governor Hogan. You can find it here until June 29, 2015. These comments will be collected and given to him as he recovers from treatment.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4

navy yard shootingIt happened again. Someone with a deranged way of looking at the world has killed more innocent people – this time at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. A dozen people didn’t come home yesterday. Many others will have a traumatic memory they didn’t want or ask for. But it happened again.

What is sad is that it will happen again. And again. If we see the world as it really is, we know evil exists and people suffer. How do we as believers face this kind of challenge? How can we send our kids out the door every day, knowing that our communities are not completely safe?

The title for this entry might be impossible. Evil like this is illogical and doesn’t make sense. But we need to acknowledge some things from God’s Word, our unchanging source of answers, even in the most confusing times.

First, whether we can see it or not, God is in control of everything. Can he stop evil things from happening? Yes. For his purposes, he does it all the time. We might be shocked how often he restrains evil around us. But sometimes he doesn’t and when that happens, he still has his reasons.

Think about it. What was the greatest crime of all time? What was the most unfair miscarriage of justice and cruel treatment of an innocent man? The crucifixion of Jesus. And here’s what the Bible tells us about that evil act – “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Acts 4:27, 28

God has his reasons for allowing evil to get the upper hand sometimes, but he is still in control. Second, because of this, we can trust him. Paul dealt with all kinds of evil every day, sometimes to the point of death, and how did he look at it? “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God…” 2 Corinthians 1:8, 9

Third, we know this world is temporary. We shake our heads often and wonder how people could be so heartless and violent. I saw a Facebook comment today about the shooting that just said, ”When will this stop?” According to Scripture, not until Jesus comes to be the final Judge and make everything right. In the meantime, here’s a great attitude to adopt: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion (or possession, inheritance) forever.Psalm 73:25, 26

So, on days such as these, we grieve. Our hearts break because of the effects of sin on our society. We brace ourselves for what will be on the news tomorrow that we can’t know now. But God is already there, controlling it within his plan and timing. With faith in that, I’m fine to send my daughter to school tomorrow.

Have you noticed that attacks on Christianity don’t seem to let up?  Even in America, the home of the free, every group other than Christians either get a free pass or get openly promoted. And the Christian church’s response? Usually, it’s a call to make the world change.

Funny, the Bible doesn’t tell us to do (or even expect) that.

“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  John 15:20

“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”   2 Timothy 3:12

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”   Acts 14:22 

“You yourselves know that we are destined for [these afflictions].”      1 Thessalonians 3:3

There are dozens of other verses.

The first-century church stands in stark contrast to the American Christian attitude that we deserve better treatment than what our culture is giving us. When Jewish leaders demanded that Peter and John should stop teaching in Jesus’ name and authority, these two men went back to the church and reported it. These believers stood at the same crossroads you and I do when we’re wronged by our society. What to do?

They (as a solid biblical example for all believers in all time periods under all human authorities) prayed. Look at the content of this prayer very carefully:

“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

   “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
   and the peoples plot in vain? 
The kings of the earth set themselves,
   and the rulers were gathered together,
   against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:24b – 30

Key thoughts in this prayer are acknowledging the control of God; admitting that it is normal for human leaders to “gather together against” the Lord; asking God to allow the gospel ministry to continue to be spread in the midst of the persecution (not necessarily the removal of it).

Maybe most significantly is the belief expressed that God superintends the thoughts and actions of governmental leaders (even evil ones) to carry out His will. Pilate and Herod committed gross sin in the unfair treatment and murder of Jesus, yet these early Christians knew this sin was predestined by the Lord to bring about His purposes. In the same way the threat to Peter and John by the Jewish rulers was somehow in His plan. This prayer displays a huge amount of faith and strength. But it is a faith placed first on God Himself rather than human effort to derail the persecution.

American Christians today should warm up to the idea that as bad as things are in our world and as uncomfortable as this culture may make us, that could be the very thing God wants to happen. There’s no need to be surprised at this treatment.  It was promised.  It’s what we signed up for. Our prayer should be that the good news of salvation in Christ can be shared in the middle of all this mess.

 

It’s good to be back after a little hiatus from this blog!

A common theme at “The Paphos Paradigm” is a call to pray for leaders according to 1 Timothy 2:1-4.  That passage encourages us to pray for all people, but specifies “kings and all in authority”.   There are many categories of human authority that go beyond governmental offices, and one of those is law enforcement.  Let me urge you to remember those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe and keep our society orderly.  Pray for them spiritually.  Pray for their families who watch them drive away each day knowing they may face a life-or-death situation.  Pray for split-second decisions they must make to apply the right amount of force to resolve problems.  You can think of many more requests, I’m sure.

Even be thankful for that speeding or parking ticket that reminds us the truth from Romans 13:4 – “for it [human authority] is a minister of God to you for good…” 

I’m mindful of this now more than ever since last week.  Thursday, a friend of mine who worked as a wildlife conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commissionwas shot and killed while arresting someone for spotlighting deer and poaching.  David was a good guy who loved the Lord and loved his job. 

The full story is here if you’d like to read it.  Please pray for the Grove family and the many who were touched by David.

Would this murder have happened if he had been prayed for more?  Obviously God is the only One who can answer that, but we all should be reminded from now on to remember these servants in prayer.  They serve us and, according to Romans 13:4, are God’s ministers to us.

Thank God for these who answer an important call of our society and sacrifice so much to keep order.  And thank God for David Grove.

President Barak Obama

Yesterday President Obama and Vice President Biden came to Beckley (the town I was born in) to eulogize at a memorial service for 29 West Virginia coal miners who died three weeks ago in an explosion.  I’m told my great-grandfather worked that mine many years ago and I have closely followed the developments there since the disaster occurred. 

There are times when community tragedies are bigger news than others.  There may be bigger issues to consider, such as mine safety, that work their way into the overall story.  When we, as a nation, see the images and feel the loss and pain of a town full of strangers, we grieve along with them.  That’s our national conscience at work. 

And it’s our national conscience that needs the words of our leaders to comfort at times like this.  Our president and vice president were present to express the nation’s sorrow and bring some sympathy to this hard-hit community.  It was the right thing. 

The texts of the remarks of Obama and Biden are inspirational, respectful, somber yet hopeful.  Biden, who has experienced the personal loss of a wife and daughter in an accident, had great credibility and ethos in his speech.  Their words let the miners’ families know how most of us in America felt. 

But the remarks also reminded me again that we must pray for our leaders according to 1 Timothy 2.  Not only are we told in this passage to pray “for kings and all those in high positions” (verse 2), we are also told why.  “God our Savior desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (verse 3b, 4). 

When leaders address a memorial service or prayer breakfast, sometimes even a floor speech or national address, they may include spiritual themes.  The danger is that what they say is believed to be true by many undiscerning hearers, even if their words are not biblical.  We shouldn’t wish for our leaders to leave God out of their public speeches (although some in America would love that), but when God is invoked we should pray that true things are said about Him as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.  

It matters what we say and believe about God and our leaders can play a crucial didactic role for the country when they refer to God and spiritual matters. 

Examples from Sunday’s service in Beckley include this comment by President Obama: “We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now.”  This feeds the idea that we are all God’s children (another common belief) and simply by the fact that we are created, live and die that we all go to heaven.  That has no support from the Scriptures.  The fact is that we don’t know if all of the 29 miners are with the Lord, but those of us remaining here have a choice left as to what we will do with Jesus and His gospel of salvation – a fact the president can’t say out loud in our pluralistic structure. 

Vice President Joe Biden

Biden stepped over the line when he said, “To paraphrase a communion hymn in my church, I have a wish for all of you, all of your families:  May He raise you up on eagle’s wings and bear you on the breadth of dawn, and make the sun to shine upon you.  And until you’re reunited with those you lost, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.  For you know this band of 29 roughneck angels watching over you are doing that just now, as they sit at the right hand of the Lord today — and they’re wondering, is all that fuss about me?  (Applause.) ” 

Anyone grounded in the Scriptures will see several red flags of error in that paragraph.  There may or may not be a reunion with these family members in eternity.  We don’t become angels when we die and we most certainly won’t sit at the right hand of the Lord.  Those are just three of several flags.  These comments simply are not grounded in the truth of the Bible.  They may sound good to our world that grasps for purpose and meaning in a time of grief, but how helpful is it to reinforce unbiblical notions?  

An example of an appropriate spiritual thought at this time was made by Obama:  “If any comfort can be found, it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls.”  Seeking God at a time of mourning is right and good, but it cannot be a God of our making and our mental comfort level. 

One of the main reasons the Church is in this world is to teach.  If God desires all to be saved and know the truth, His didactic plan is through the Church.  

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) 

We should pray for a day when a leader hands a speech back to a speechwriter for a revision for the only reason of removing an unbiblical thought, or better, change the thought to a biblical one.  How is that going to happen?  Only by the church taking our Bibles and running toward our culture with the truth, sharing the gospel in all of its fullness and power.

Pastor Tim Webster and the folks at Uniontown Bible Church in Union Bridge were the first church in Maryland to financially support us as missionaries to politicians with Capitol Commission.  What a great church they are with vision, authenticity and dedication under the strong leadership of godly elders. 

Tim, Lara, Rebekah, Nathan and Mark Webster

On February 5, Pastor Tim’s wife, Lara, went home to heaven after her cancer diagnosis about a year ago.  Through her illness, she kept a blog letting us know of her battle and keeping us well-informed with prayer requests.  It was an honor to lift up this dear family during that time.  Her sweet spirit and care for her family was evident in her testimony of grace during difficult days.  She encouraged me to trust Jesus more.

You can see this family’s testimony for yourself here.

On Sunday, February 21 at 6:00 p.m. there will be a service celebrating Lara’s life at Westminster High School.  Would you pray for this church?  Pray for Tim and the kids – Rebekah, Nathan and Mark.  Pray in the weeks and months to come for their adjustment, for their faith, hope and love to deepen.

These words by the nineteenth-century pastor Octavius Winslow are a comfort:

It is solemnly true that there is a “time to die.” Ah! affecting thought- a “time to die!” A time when this mortal conflict will be over- when this heart will cease to feel, alike insensible to joy or sorrow- when this head will ache and these eyes will weep no more- best and holiest of all- a time “when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality,” and we shall “see Christ as He is, and be like Him.” If this be so, then, O Christian, why this anxious, trembling fear? Your time of death, with all its attendant circumstances, is in the Lord’s hand. All is appointed and arranged by Him who loves you, and who redeemed you- infinite goodness, wisdom, and faithfulness consulting your highest happiness in each circumstance of your departure. The final sickness cannot come, the “last enemy” cannot strike, until He bids it. All is in His hand. Then calmly, confidingly, leave life’s closing scene with Him. You cannot die away from Jesus. Whether your spirit wings its flight at home or abroad, amid strangers or friends, by a lingering process or by a sudden stroke, in brightness or in gloom, Jesus will be with you; and, upheld by His grace, and cheered with His presence, you shall triumphantly exclaim, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me: your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” bearing your dying testimony to the faithfulness of God, and the preciousness of His promises. My time to die is in Your hand, O Lord, and there I calmly leave it.

The Christmas season has turned into some Christians’ best opportunity to whine that we’re being treated exactly the way Jesus says we would.

It’s as if we’ve been given some license to get in others’ faces just because they don’t agree with us.  Yes, it’s sad the word “Christmas” gets intentionally left off store signs and advertisements.  It’s sad schools have “Holiday” parties and concerts.  Yes, our culture has lost reverence for the real meaning of the season.   But why get mad at the world for acting like the world?

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”  1 Corinthians 2:14

How should we respond to all this?  Here are a few verses to think about in the next five weeks:

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  2 Timothy 3:12

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Matthew 5:10-12

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”  Philippians 1:29

This is probably the most convicting verse on the topic of being wronged.  The attitude is incredible and blows me away every time I read it:

For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.”  Hebrews 10:34

Each time you and I feel slighted for our faith this season, we need to find a way to shine as lights in this dark world by absorbing the hurt and showing why Christ causes us to think and act differently. 

so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world”  Philippians 2:15

Use times of disagreement with our world to be a generous, gracious testimony.  Ask the Lord for wisdom when you get into a problem situation.  He’ll give you the right answer at the right time.  Let’s leave the anger and whining to others.

Remember, you can’t spell “Happy Winter Festival” without w-h-i-n-e-y.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!