Will faith overcome all? In the long run, yes, by His mercies! However, now we have to endure many hardships. The Old Testament saints had faith, but they also had great hardships:
· Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:36-38)
Faith did not deliver them from misfortune, but they were heroes of the faith.
Here’s how Paul described the heroic Christian life:
· But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11; ESV)
According to Paul, we need such afflictions in order to make us more like Jesus. And the afflictions aren’t just a momentary sting. Paul claims that our lives “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” We are “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.”
Yet the same Paul proclaims the very opposite:
· Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
How is it possible that we are “always given over to death” and yet we can experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” – the joy that comes as we trust in our Lord?
· May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)
Evidently, we can experience blessedness even as we experience suffering. Jesus also presents us with portraits of these two extreme – suffering and joy:
· Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)
However, this is a peace that accompanies the most profound tribulations:
· Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:32-33)
How can peace coincide with great tribulations? It comes through what we know and understand. Jesus taught us to “take heart; I have overcome the world.” This is a truth that we must embrace if we are to have peace.
Nevertheless, I must confess that I am not experiencing much peace now as my blood pressure has been skyrocketing. My heart is beating so hard that I cannot sleep. I think of my grandmother and father who both had experienced a series of strokes, which eventually took them down. I am terrified, but my eyes – not my feelings – are on my Lord.
Following the Lord is no guarantee against severe trials. Job, the most righteous man on the earth had experienced the worst trials. Even Paul had to suffer a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from becoming proud (2 Cor. 12). In Psalm 119, King David wrote about all of these perspectives – the suffering, his obedience to the Lord and love for His Word, and even the blessedness of those who abide by His Word:
· Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! (Psalm 119:1)
· Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble. (Psalm 119:165)
This is perplexing. Despite David’s claim that the faithful experience “great peace,” it seems that he is not experiencing this peace:
· My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word! (Psalm 119:25)
· My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! (Psalm 119:28)
· Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. (Psalm 119:39)
· My eyes long for your promise; I ask, “When will you comfort me?” For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? (Psalm 119:82-84)
· I am severely afflicted; give me life, O LORD, according to your word! (Psalm 119:107)
· Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. Psalm 119:153
Is it possible to reconcile these seemingly contradictory verses found within the same Psalm? Yes! They work together. The Bible assures us that we can experience God’s peace in the midst of the worst afflictions. Elsewhere, David describes his suffering and also his blessedness in the same breath:
· If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life. (Psalm 119:92-93)
We often find this curious association of suffering and peace in the lives of the martyrs. The martyr Stephen must have been experiencing great pain as he was being stoned to death. However, this did not deter his confidence and faithfulness:
· And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60)
Stephen’s heroic martyrdom was not unusual. They were common in the early church. “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (edited) records:
· All the martyrdoms which God allowed to happen…were blessed and noble. Who could not admire their honor, their patience, their love for the Lord? They were whipped to shreds till their veins and arteries were exposed, and still endured patiently, while even those that stood by cried for them. They had such courage that none of them let out a sigh or a groan, proving when they suffered such torments they were absent from their bodies – or rather that the Lord then stood by them and talked with them. By the grace of Christ they despised all the cruelties of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by the suffering of a single hour. The fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them, because they fixed their eyes on their escape from the eternal unquenchable fire and the good things promised to those who endure – things ‘which ear has not heard, nor eye seen, nor the human heart imagined’ but were revealed to them by the Lord. They were no longer men, but had already become angels. In the same way, those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured dreadful torture. Some were stretched out on beds of spikes. Others were subjected to all kinds of torments, all in the Devil’s attempt to make them deny Christ. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/polycarp/
· The heroic Germanicus encouraged the weak by his own endurance, and fought bravely with the wild animals: when the Proconsul tried to persuade him to cooperate for the sake of his own youth, he drew the wild beast towards himself and provoked it, in order to escape more quickly from this wicked world.
Paul had written that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20). While he wrote this in regards to our sins, I think it also applies to our suffering so that when suffering abounds, grace abounds even more. This had been the lesson Paul had learned in regards to his afflictions:
· But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
We regard suffering as an enemy and a threat. However, in God’s hands, they become friends bearing healing medicine.
Sometimes, I am frightened and wonder what’s going wrong. However, I remind myself that I am in His lovingly protective hands:
· What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)
I will, therefore, trust in the Lord even as I pass through strange and often incomprehensible valleys of the shadow of death.