LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

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God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

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Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.