Suffering

“Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life.”
Revelation‬ ‭2:10‬ ‭NLT‬‬

The Smyrnaean church was really experiencing some hard times. Jesus could see what was coming in their lives and warned them, through John, that the persecution and tribulation would be intense. So intense in fact, that some of those in the Smyrnaean church would face death. Others would be imprisoned. And all because they believed the Truth, God Himself. Of course, all this suffering would strike fear into even the strongest, and most committed, men and women amongst them. So Jesus’ message starts once again with “Don’t be afraid“. Our wonderful Lord fully realised that the intersection between the natural and the spiritual will sometimes induce fear amongst human beings. I’m reminded of the first thing Jesus said to the disciples when He was walking on the sea of Galilee. In Mark 6:50 we read, “They were all terrified when they saw him. But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Take courage! I am here! ”. I’m sure the Smyrnaeans were themselves just as terrified, if not more, because some of them would be facing death. But the Lord loved these people and had a message for them that would have strengthened them through their persecution. He told them that it would only be for ten days.

For some, the idea of being tested for our faith is rather daunting. Someone once asked the question, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be sufficient evidence to convict you”? Beyond all reasonable doubt? But why would God allow us to be tested in the first place? Perhaps there are times when we go through the motions of being a Christian, but deep down we have lost our way. Our faith is perhaps weakening, or may even have reduced to a level of non-existence. In the past two years, Christians have been quite severely tested, at least here in the UK. Tested by the Covid lock downs that have shut our churches, and forcing us to depart our comfort zones and grapple with new technology, such as Zoom and YouTube. Removing from us the option of seeing our friends in person, and warming a pew on a Sunday morning. We may not have been through the physical pain and suffering the Smyrnaeans experienced, but the outcome may have been the same. When us Christian pilgrims are faced with the reality that there is a cost to our faith, some will decide that the price is not worth paying. And consequently they will disappear from the spiritual radar and fall away from the faith. In my locality, some Churches of Scotland are having to close because the congregations are no longer numerically viable. One of the reasons is that the numbers of attenders hasn’t recovered to the pre-Covid levels. Thankfully, other churches are thriving, the stronger for the testing experience.

For the faithful perseverers, there is a “crown of life”. It is there stored in a safe place. We each have one lined up for us. Our names are written on them. They are precious and far more valuable than any amount of gold and precious jewels would be. James 1:15 picks up the theme as well, “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him“. 

So what does a “crown of life” look like? Here are a few thoughts. The crown imparts life, as we read in our verse today. Also it is a crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4), a crown of righteousness, (2 Timothy 4:8). It is imperishable and will never wear out (1 Corinthians 9:25). It is a crown of joy (Philippians 4:1). And it is the prize for staying true to our calling (Philippians 3:14). I can’t wait to get mine, and I know it will be a perfect fit. And there’s one just for you, my reader, today. If …

Dear Lord. We thank You for Your encouragement, always there for the asking when we go through a time of tribulation. I pray for the strength to stand firm in my faith day by day. Amen.

Suffering

“I, John, am your brother and your partner in suffering and in God’s Kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled to the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus.”
Revelation‬ ‭1:9‬ ‭NLT‬‬

It must seem a bit harsh, being punished for preaching the Gospel. Why would the recipients of such wonderful “Good News” want to not only reject the message but exile and imprison the messenger? I have this humorous picture of an alien being (think ET) looking on and scratching its head, finding such behaviour so strange and incomprehensible, that it might feel that such an apparently intelligent race of humans was perhaps not quite so intelligent as it first thought. The alien might have been correct with its superficial assessment, but it would have to dissect cultural mindsets to find out what was really going on. It would have to start at the beginning, with the fall of man. Someone would have to tell it about the ejection of satan and a third of the angels from Heaven. The story of the dark and negative influences that have shaped humanity over the years would have to be told. It would have to understand that mankind prefers to live in a dark, sinful place, (well most of them anyway). And after all that, I can imagine that our alien friend might start to realise why Good News would, to many, not be good news at all. 

We enlightened pilgrims have grasped the Gospel message with all our beings. And we hang on to it because “we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Through the Gospel we are energised. Empowered. Resourced. We therefore cannot stop sharing what we have found. And neither could John. In both cases we face into a world that has largely rejected God. A sceptical world. A world where sinful people, under the influence of the devil, try their utmost to undermine and rubbish God and His children, us pilgrims. The hostility to the Gospel in our age is just as prevalent as it was in John’s day with one exception. We, at least for a time, cannot be imprisoned for sharing the Gospel. But the current direction society is taking may change that. I heard today of a primary school teacher who suggested that her young pupil asked her Sunday School teacher the following question – “If God exists, when is He going to apologise for all the bad things He has done?” So sad that a new generation is being corrupted by the very people who should be introducing them to God. Instead, their young minds are being polluted with wrong ideas and concepts. And doubly sad that the primary school teacher will one day stand before God, called to account for his or her words. Thankfully we have good people able to lovingly right the wrongs being committed to those so young. We need to look out for opportunities to push back the lies of the enemy.

John was exiled to Patmos, and there he was suffering. And he was aware that there were others of his generation who were also suffering. Such distress is still with us today, and we think of our brothers and sisters imprisoned and exiled, abused and suffering, all for the sake of the Gospel. In places like North Korea, China, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, India, Pakistan, and so on. John was aware that he was called to endure the suffering he was experiencing, and I’m sure he did so with patience. He was aware of the reward coming his way, in his not-too-distant future. 

We pilgrims may not be suffering for “preaching the Word of God”  but we face ostracism and exclusion in other ways. And we endure it with “patient endurance“, as John did. Because we love God and His ways. Because we cannot hold within us the wonderful Good News entrusted to us by our crucified Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Dear Lord. We thank You that You have entrusted so much to us. We pray that as we continue our journey through the corridors of life, Your Spirit goes with us, and You keep us safe from the evil one. Grant us more opportunities, we pray, to share Your message of hope, Your Gospel, with our fallen world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Depression

“Lord, You are the God who saves me; 
   day and night I cry out to You.
May my prayer come before You; 
     turn Your ear to my cry. 
I am overwhelmed with troubles 
     and my life draws near to death.”
‭Psalms‬ ‭88:1-3‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Oh dear! This is not a cheery Psalm. This is not the sort of psalm that would be chosen for reading on a dark, cold and wet morning in Scotland, as today. The heading in the NIV version attributes it to the Sons of Korah, and in particular to Heman, the Ezrahite. There’s quite a bit known in the Bible about this man and his family, and he had a reputation for being a Godly and wise songwriter in the time of the kings David and Solomon. But he was human like everyone else and was suffering. From what, we don’t get much of a clue from his writings, but suffering he was. The heading to this Psalm says it is for the “Director of Music”, with a tune, “The Suffering of Affliction”. Why would anyone want to sing this Psalm? But sing it they did, and here it is located in the Book of Psalms, a collection of 150 individual writings, forming the prayer and songbook of the Jews. But enough waffling! What relevance has this Psalm in our pilgrimage through life?

The first thing that strikes me is that Heman isn’t afraid of laying out before God his predicament and feelings. No suppressing of emotions here. We so often feel guilty if we spend time thinking about negatives. And it is true that by doing so we can enter a downward spiral, increasing our depression. Laying out our negative emotions and feelings before God, however, is different. It brings a sense of relief because in faith we know that God can change things. God will encourage us, put His loving arms around us, ending up carrying our load for us.

The second thing is that the issues Heman seemed to be facing into are no different to what we experience today. Those people who maintain that the Bible is a historical book with no relevance to today are mistaken. In his Psalm, Heman talks about his friends and neighbours, his lifetime of troubles, of his fears about death – all issues that are familiar to us.

Thirdly, Heman knows that God is there for him. Three times in the Psalm he calls and cries out to God, touching base with His loving Heavenly Father, in the midst of his distress.

We don’t know the outcome was after his emotional and desperate cries, but I have the feeling that, having laid out all his problems, Heman found the relief he needed. A difficult Psalm to read, but one in which it is comforting to know that others struggle with life’s issues just as we all do. And we all have a remedy in the presence of our loving Creator God.