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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 about how to respond to unjust suffering.
And so what I want you to do is pull out your notes with me, if you will, and I want to walk through because 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.
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 you 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?
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.
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. 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.
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?
They did exactly what God called them to do. First Peter would write and say, “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’s 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.
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.
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’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.
So let’s look at it together.
God’s secret plan, are you ready, is the Church. Every time the word “mystery” comes up I want you to circle it.
“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you.”
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, 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. 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.”
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 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.
Notice what he says here, the purpose of the Church. 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 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.
See, it’s like he gives us a whole new set of glasses to think about suffering.
The apostle Paul’s perspective on suffering, at least from my perspective, is radically different than how my mind ever goes. And I’m glad for Paul, and if I was a Gentile I think we’d be high-fiving one another; I would not be discouraged, that Paul is in prison but it’s okay by me, and it’s okay by Paul, and it’s okay by God.
But, you know what? I got news for you. He didn’t solve my problem.
And I think God has something in this passage for those of you to break out of being stuck, about the pain of some unjust suffering.
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. I gave generously and now I’m upside down financially. We were committed, we were in church, we took them to church, we put them in a Christian school and how in the world could my son or daughter go off and do what they did and this is unbelievable.”
Or, “God, we have walked with you and we had this dream together and then my wife got cancer and she was dead, and now I’m alone. God, where are You? How could You?”
It’s very easy to become a victim. 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 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.
At some point I had to decide, “Is God good or capricious?” And when I began to read through the Old Testament, I read Genesis and I’ve always been kind of a numbers person so, you know, Abraham gets so many verses and, you know, Isaac, he didn’t get a whole lot of verses but he’s pretty important. And Joseph gets thirteen chapters. One guy gets twenty, twenty-five percent of the whole book?
And the story of Joseph is: God chooses a man, He has a purpose for a man, in His sovereign purposes He allows this man to be betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused, after falsely accused, forgotten in order to rise to the second most powerful position in all the earth, to save all of the promises and the agenda of God of hundreds of years past, and what would happen in the future.
And here’s what I can tell you, suffering stinks and it’s really hard. But the phrase, as you study Joseph’s life, is this little phrase, “And the Lord was with Joseph.” “And the Lord was with Joseph.” “And the Lord was with Joseph.” And you see this attitude of trust because he keeps helping people.
Joseph understood that God was in control. Joseph forgave his brothers. Did he have to go through the process of wounds and hurts and betrayal?
Were there nights where he is looking out of the bars and going, “You know, what’s with these guys? I told them what would happen, they forgot me.” I mean, what a raw deal!
But there is a reason why God gave him thirteen chapters. And it’s why almost every core doctrine is in the book of Genesis, the seeds of it. It’s because He wanted all of us to know that when you walk with God there are going to be times where you get betrayed by people who love you. There are going to be times where you end up in a pit. There are going to be times where you are falsely accused. There are going to be times where you help people and you are forgotten and you’re not rewarded.
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 the goal is not for your life to turn out someday. All you gotta do is make it to maybe one o’clock today and then after one o’clock today you pray maybe you can make it ‘til dinnertime.
And then the nights are terrible. And that digital clock, you know, it’s 1:11, 2:04, 3:03 and you have those nights. And you put on worship music and you wonder, at times, whether you’ll ever, ever make it through this.
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.
We’re going to see 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.”
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?”
Third principle here is that until we understand our role in His plan, from verses 7 through 9, we’ll forever be frustrated with God’s failure to fulfill our plans.
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? 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.
There was a fellow in Atlanta, and I’ll never forget the whole paradigm shift. 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…”
And you know, 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, “God, this isn’t fair, it’s evil, it may have spiritual attack, it sure has some bad people that have done really harmful things to me, and I want to be a Joseph and I want to lean into this, and I’m going to lean into a sovereign, good, loving God and I don’t get it all, but I’m going to trust that You mean it for good, and so I’m going to get up today, and I’m going to praise You, and I’m going to choose to rejoice.
“And I’m going to get up today and 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.
You know, it’s that old picture of the piece of coal: that it takes all that time, and all that pressure, and I think if I get it right, that coal over, becomes a diamond.
I wish there were an easy way. I wish I had six 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. It just ain’t so, people.
But there is part of us that are 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.”
And it is not fair. But 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.