We Rejoice in Our Sufferings: Finding Right-Now Purpose and Joy in Suffering

In what does the Christian have to rejoice? What reason do we have to find joy?

The answers are endless. But when you ask questions like these against the backdrop of a dark and sinful world where unimaginable evil and suffering occurs, it can be harder to give an answer. For example, how does the mother who lost her child in a car accident rejoice in God? How does the father who loses yet another job find joy in God? How does a child of divorce rejoice in God when he has to pack up his life and move between two different worlds every week? Suffering and evil seem like an insurmountable roadblock to real and lasting joy in God.

One of the answers we give as a reason we can rejoice in God in the face of suffering is our hope for future glory.

“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pt. 1:3-6).

There is genuine hope in the future glory of God’s presence for all who stand in Christ today. Paul’s view of the eschaton is so stupendously glorious that he considers some of life’s most painful sufferings as feathers when compared to the weight of walking in God’s glory. On that day when sin and suffering are cast into a sea of fire never again to haunt us, we will look back on our hard trials as soft pillows as we bask in the glory of our God of infinite pleasure and joy.

So, if you are a Christian today, you have hope that will crush any despair created by suffering. You have hope in a future reality granted by the Lamb who was crushed for our iniquities. Suffering has committed suicide in the suffering of Christ. Suffering simply cannot stand up against the hope of the justified in the future joy of God’s glory.

All of this is true. But what about today? The “hope of the glory of God” is reason to rejoice in what is to come. But in that day, there will be no suffering. What about now, when sin and suffering still persist? What about the Christian who is not only suffering right now, but the one who is suffering right now precisely because he is a Christian? Can we find joy even in this sorrow-filled world?

Paul’s answer is a resounding, “Yes!” He writes, ‘Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).

Notice, Paul doesn’t say we can rejoice someday when suffering is over. He says there is a path to real joy right now in the depth of our suffering. I am convinced of the Christian worldview’s handling of evil and suffering because Romans 5:3-4 exist. Contrary to a naturalistic or nihilistic worldview, which see suffering as an inevitable and meaningless by product of world with no maker, suffering through the Christian lens is never meaningless. God uses it and even sends it to create and produce.

In this case, suffering produces endurance, character, and shameless hope. God uses suffering in the life of the Christian to make him or her more like Christ. Suffering is not the end of the story, nor is it an unfortunate and random by-product of spontaneous combustion. Suffering is part of the story of God’s redemption of the world.

Suffering is not sovereign, nor is it eternal. It is a temporary result of the fall under the sovereign wisdom and power and grace of God. Remember, Christian, that the God who will one day crush suffering forever, wields suffering today for your good and for your joy.

Those who have received God’s love are no match for the worst this world has to offer. The gospel produces fearless, courageous, joyful saints, even in the darkest night of suffering.

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their sons, Jude and Jack. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.


Practical Lessons From Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane is both a place of sorrow and triumph for a person traveling through the Gospels. It is a place of sorrow, because he sees the focus of the Gospels, Jesus, “being in agony [as] he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). This Jesus that he has witnessed perform many miracles and healings, while proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God had come, is now suffering under the burden of the sin of all those who he would save. He watches this same Jesus drink the cup of the will of God down to the last drop.

Yet, it is a moment of monumental victory. Christ faces his supreme temptation of disobedience of the Father with obedience to the will of the Father. As Adam fell in the original garden, the greater Adam is victorious in his garden. The person reading the gospels goes on to see exactly what that will is: nothing short of the salvation of those who would believe on him by the death of Jesus taking upon himself all of the wrath of God. There are a few important lessons to learn from Christ’s time in Gethsemane.

  1. God’s will for you probably does not always include earthly prosperity.

One of the common distortions of the truth of God is that he always wills that you have earthly success. One of the reasons that this is a true misrepresentation of God’s character is found at Gethsemane. Christ prayed there that the cup he was about to drink from would pass from him. Yet, Christ prayed that what God had willed be done. What God had willed for Christ is that he suffer torture and death by crucifixion. By this example, it is obvious that our prayers should not be, “Lord, please give me success in my earthly endeavors.” This is a violation of Christ’s example here and in Matthew 6, where he taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

Part of the good news of Christianity is that God works together good things for all those who love him (Romans 8:28). We could probably express this teaching like this: A lack of a perfect life means that God has planned for you something greater than a perfect life, assuming you are his. Whether, then, it is prosperity or hardship that God sends to you, sing his praises with joy, for, no matter the earthly circumstances, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

  1. Violence to other people has no place for followers of Christ.

There was a battle won in Gethsemane, and it had nothing to do with physical struggle. Jesus struggled against a greater enemy than that of man. Jesus struggled with the temptations of Satan and the weight of an unimaginable spiritual burden, and Christ overcame those enemies triumphantly. Yet, when the religious leaders entered the garden to take Jesus, he did not lift one hand against them. They came for his life, and he did not defend it. In fact, when one of his disciples tried to attack one of those leaders, Jesus rebuked him. Yet, somehow people seem to forget Jesus’ meek and mild nature.

There seems to be a growing idealization of violence among Christians towards others they do not agree with, especially against Muslims. Many people fantasize about what they would do if a jihadist walked into their room. They fantasize about violence to that person. They plan to do violence to those who want to do violence to them. This is categorically contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that harboring this anger and hatred is as if you have murdered him (Matthew 5:21-22) and commanded his disciples to not resist the one who is evil (Matthew 5:38-42). This romanticization of violence against others is abominable and deplorable. Christianity is not a religion of violence against others. It is a religion of violence against violence against others.

  1. Trusting God means submitting to his authority.

Jesus prayed an impassioned plea that he might not drink from the cup that was coming to him. Yet, God did give Christ the cup, and Christ did drink it. Christ evidently, in his desire, did not want to take of the punishment of the cross. Yet, despite this, he humbly submitted himself to the will of the Father. Jesus regarded the Father’s authority as greater than his own desire to be free from the cup of death.

This is trusting God: placing your desires under the authority of the Lord. He is good, and his decrees are good. Your opinion of the best life for you will often be different from God’s declaration of what is actually your best life. There is only one way to live your best life now, and it is by submitting to the authority of the Father.

Gethsemane is the place where Christ sacrificed his will to the plan of the Father. In that plan, he reconciled his church to himself. He extended unmitigated grace to his beloved. He vindicated his name in righteousness. He promulgated his glory for the whole world to see. Yes, in Gethsemane, we see love in humility, and we see a model for the kind of self-sacrificing, dependent life to which Christ calls his followers.

Avery Thorn is from Belmont, MS. He is a junior at Blue Mountain College, where he is a Biblical Studies major and a History minor. He is a member of Belmont First Baptist Church. He has a passion for preaching and studying Scripture. Avery’s hobbies include exercising, music, politics, reading, writing, and making and enjoying coffee. You can follow Avery on Twitter @Avery_thorn.

The Light Hiding Behind a Dark Psalm

light-bulb-light-oldPsalm 88 is one of the darkest psalms in the Bible. I know this because when I read it at the beginning of our staff meeting the other day, you could feel the mood of the room shift from lighthearted laughter to solemn silence. The room fell quiet as I read the anguish of Heman the Ezrahite. Even our jabs at the psalmist’s name were quickly forgotten as we listened to him pour out the depths of his soul.

The first section of his lament is representative of the entire psalm:

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Psalm 88:3-7)

The psalm grows darker and darker. In many psalms of lament, there is a positive rise at the end where hope in God reigns supreme over all the sorrow that fills the psalmist’s heart. But Psalm 88 is different. There is no final declaration of hope in God. There is no victory song to sustain the soul in the waning hours of the night. Psalm 88 ends like this:

But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88:13-18)

The psalmist cries to the Lord, but there is no answer. There is no sign of the morning sun after the dark night. The man feels alone in his depression. He doesn’t even feel the Lord’s presence. In fact, according to the psalmist, it is the Lord himself who has been active in his suffering. At the end of the day, this man is left with nothing but darkness. And there is no prospect for seeing the light again.

I’ve never suffered from deep and dark depression. So, it is easy for me to carelessly and insensitively scoff at this man and his cries and confessions. There is great danger in interpreting the Bible through your current emotional state. But it is impossible to not filter the Bible through your current emotional state. That’s why when I approach Psalm 88, I’m a little impatient with the extended lament. However, if I were experiencing a season of seemingly endless suffering, my encounter of Psalm 88 would be much different. I can imagine that many people in the trenches of piercing affliction can perfectly identify with the poetic groaning of the psalmist in Psalm 88. We must be careful not to allow our emotions to determine our hermeneutic. But we must be sensitive to our emotions and allow the objective meaning of biblical texts to speak into our lives.

Whether you can identify with Psalm 88 or not, it seems problematic that a true believer could write such strong words that implicate the Lord. How do we deal with Psalm 88 and the lack of hopeful crescendo? What do we do when we are left in the pit to weep in the darkness of our depression? Here are three basic observations about Psalm 88 that help us see the godly nature of such a dark song.

1. It is helpful to see the vivid experiences of God’s people

This is one of the reasons I love biographies. Seeing how Christians throughout history have dealt with various issues and experiences is instructive and comforting for us as we journey through different seasons of life. Seeing a deeply afflicted brother pour out his heart gives language to our own afflictions and let’s us know we are not alone. In the words of William Plumer, “If we knew more of the religious experience of God’s people, we should be less apt to think our trials peculiar.”

2. Our suffering, though painful for us, may be healing for others

Much like Job and other psalmists, the pain they experienced was real and they may have never received an answer for their suffering. But millions of people have been comforted by their experiences. Plumer comments, “Some suffering on earth is designed to instruct and comfort others. That which to us is a dirge may be to others a song. How deeply afflicted Heman was, yet how consolatory is this Psalm to God’s people of successive generations.” So, if you’re feeling dirge-y, someone someday will be singing over the ashes of your suffering. Encouraging, right? Seriously, your suffering is not meaningless. It may blossom into a song of hope for others. There is beauty in your affliction.

3. Christians are not immune from suffering and are never hopeless in suffering

It’s an obvious point, but it is helpful to remember that being in Christ does not grant us immunity from suffering. Much like Job’s friends, we want to connect all of our suffering to sin in our lives. While some suffering definitely flows from the consequences of personal sin, the biblical witness is clear that not all suffering is the result of sin. Again, Plumer is helpful:

It is no new thing for good men to have many and great troubles. When floods of ungodly men, waves of sorrow and terrors roll in upon us, let us remember God has carried others through as sore trials. It is sad indeed when we have no respite from grief, when the clouds never break away, when refuge seems to fail. But no trials can come that will justify us in failing to make God the depository of our sad tale.

The one small gleam of light shining from Psalm 88 is less about the disposition of the psalmist’s cries and more about the direction. When you suffer, do you cry out to God or complain to your family and friends? Heman the Ezrahite, through searing pain, lays his soul bare in a desperate cry to God. Psalm 88 is drenched in humility and God-centered dependence. Even though he feels that God is infinitely distant, he still cries out to him for refuge. In the hopeless night of your deepest suffering, where do you turn?

The only one who can and will sustain you in the darkness is the Christ who is light bursting into the darkness of a sin-ridden world. And the Christ who sustains is the Christ who suffered. While I can hardly identify with the psalmist of Psalm 88 in this season of life, Christ can fully identify with Heman. If you read Psalm 88 with tears of identification, know that Christ looks into your situation and says, “I’ve been there.” The light hiding in the darkness of Psalm 88 is the beauty of affliction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything said of Heman in Psalm 88 could be said of Christ on the cross. The floods of God’s wrath was released on Christ and they did not cease. But through his suffering we find salvation.

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

The God Who Suffers to Set Things Right

Question-About-Suffering1One of the biggest questions that we all must face in life is the meaning of suffering, if any meaning even exists at all. No one can escape the clutches of suffering. It is a mutual enemy we all must face in one form or another at one time or another. The presence of evil and suffering remains one of the primary philosophical reasons people reject Christianity. Theism doesn’t necessarily have to be rejected, because in Deism, God is not personal, so it is likely he could create a world of chaos and step back to let it destroy itself. This just wouldn’t be a god anyone would want to know.
In my conversations with non-Christian friends, particularly millennials, I am more and more hearing things like this: “Sure, God may exist, but if he creates a world where such horrible suffering is possible, then I want no part of him.” So, adopting Christian presuppositions, they are saying they don’t want God on his terms. Of course, the problem is they are only seeing half of the story.

We can all admit there is something horribly wrong with this world. But many of us fail to see that much of what is wrong with the world is found within our own hearts. So when we sneer at God for not just eliminating suffering and evil once and for all, we fail to see two things.

First, we fail to see that in order for God to completely wipe out suffering and evil, he would have to wipe all of us out! The sad and scary truth is that we are naïve if we think we are not capable of committing horrible atrocities.

Second, we fail to see that God in fact has acted to completely wipe out suffering and evil through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, he used suffering and evil to eliminate suffering and evil. But no, he goes even further. God doesn’t just use suffering and evil. God absorbs suffering and evil in order to eliminate suffering and evil. A God who suffers for you is a God you can trust in the mystery of suffering and evil.

There is something horribly wrong with the world. How can we reconcile the existence of a personal, good, and sovereign God with senseless evil and suffering? The Christian worldview, otherwise known as the gospel, teaches that God comes into this messed up world and suffers at the hands of evil men in order to set things right.

There is a great scene in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov in which two of the characters are talking about the dreaded and pervasive reality of suffering. Dostoyevsky was a Christian, and he uses this conversation and the words of Ivan specifically to communicate how Christianity speaks to suffering:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Only the Christian worldview can communicate such real, vivid, and existential hope in the face of great suffering. Suffering is only justifiable if, in the words of Tolkien, “every sad thing comes untrue.” Because of Christ, every sad thing will come untrue. Every evil will be swallowed up in the goodness of Christ. Every suffering will be eclipsed by the satisfaction of Christ.

11751958_1209158262442953_3486622930933138849_nMathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.

Throwback Thursday: Jonathan Edwards on the Suffering of Christ

christ-on-crossI have often heard fellow Christians say that when they need a good reminder of God’s love or the sacrifice of Christ, they watch a movie like The Passion of the Christ. “Whenever I watch Jesus suffer the way he did, it reminds me of just how much God loves me,” they say. Reenactments of the crucifixion are graphic and realistic (as realistic as possible) depictions of the means of the salvation of the world. When we see the blood and the brutality, we have before our eyes a semblance of the physical suffering of Christ.
I will not deny that watching The Passion of the Christ is emotionally moving. I will also agree that Christians need to be reminded of God’s love for sinners often. However, watching a movie will not even begin to scratch the surface on the sufferings of Christ.

There is a common error in the minds of many Christians regarding the suffering of Christ. They think that Jesus’ physical death was far worse than any other death in the history of the world. It is said that no one physically suffered the way Jesus did on the cross. And so, when they need a reminder of God’s love, they reflect on the physical sufferings of Christ.

But the reality is that there have been deaths in the history of the world that were worse than the death of Christ, physically speaking. Countless believers throughout history have been burned at the stake, drowned, and mutilated. Even recently we have seen 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded for their faith in Christ. So, Jesus’ death was not necessarily the most brutal or worst death in history. Tim Keller even makes the point that “there have been far more excruciating and horrible deaths that martyrs have faced with far greater confidence and calmness” (The Reason for God, 28). But why is this the case?

The physical sufferings of the cross, while great, pale in comparison to the spiritual suffering of the cross. It was not the physical pain of whips and nails that led Jesus to weep and groan in the garden of Gethsemane. Instead it was anticipation of a far greater suffering that was to come. Jesus, the Son of God, was not only about to bear the wrath of man through crucifixion, he was about to bear the wrath of God through taking the punishment we deserve. Keller observes, “Jesus’ sufferings would have been eternally unbearable” because in his death he lost the “infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity” (The Reason for God, 29).

The physical pain and suffering of Christ was nothing compared to his experience of his Father’s abandonment. No one captures this better than the great theologian Jonathan Edwards. He is abundantly clear on the importance on distinguishing between the physical and spiritual sufferings of Christ on the cross.

The sufferings which Christ endured in his body on the cross…were yet the least part of his last sufferings…If it had been only the sufferings which he endured in his body, though they were very dreadful, we cannot conceive that the mere anticipation of them would have such an effect on Christ. Many of the martyrs have endured as severe tortures in their bodies as Christ did…yet their souls have not been so overwhelmed (“Christ’s Agony” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2).

While it is possible for people to suffer the way Christ suffered physically, it is impossible for any of us to suffer as much as Christ did spiritually. He essentially experienced hell for all who would believe in him.

So, if you are a Christian who needs reminded of God’s love, look to the cross. If you are struggling to reconcile God’s love with your own suffering, look to the cross. In the cross, God himself suffered in the place of sinners like you and me. This puts his tremendous love and experience of suffering on full display, not because he died the most gruesome physical death of all time, but because in his death he bore the full wrath of God, which is the most excruciating form of suffering.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba.

Christmas Joy From Cell 92 at Tegel Prison

nazibarbedwireThe Christmas season is a time when even the Scroogiest curmudgeon can strain out a smile. All of the trees, lights, carols, gifts, and family gatherings birth smiles and laughs that get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. Still yet, for some Christmas is just another reminder of absent joy in the midst of a joyful season. When others are smiling, you are sitting in the ashes of suffering and sorrow. Maybe you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Maybe you or a loved one is suffering with cancer. Maybe you are single and the holidays are a vibrant picture of the depths of your loneliness. The point is, the expectations of a joyful heart at Christmas are often lacking when satisfaction is sought in the pleasantries of the Christmas season. When joy is sought in the things of Christmas, there is sure to be disappointment, especially when tragedy strikes.
The ultimate question for many this Christmas is not how many gifts to buy or how much food to make, but how genuine joy can be found when all you feel is sorrow.

An answer to this difficult question can be found in the joy that Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in his only Christmas at Tegel Military Prison in Nazi Germany in 1943. Bonhoeffer had been arrested just five days after celebrating his father’s 75th birthday basically because the Gestapo did not like anyone in the Confessing Church or in the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence agency). Bonhoeffer belonged to both. Little did they know, Bonhoeffer was conspiring with others in the Abwehr and Nazi Army to kill Hitler.

On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested at a neighbor’s home and taken to Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Here is a short excerpt from his early experience in prison:

For the first night I was locked up in an admission cell. The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell, I had to pick it up from the floor…The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time, since then I have heard it every day from morning till night (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 437).

The agony of being unjustly imprisoned and enduring the hardships that comes with being a prisoner of war was enough to make anyone, even the joyful theologian Bonhoeffer dreadfully sorrowful. However, as time went on, Bonhoeffer began to influence everyone at Tegel with the gospel of Christ. Bonhoeffer became known as an incredibly generous, charitable, and cordial prisoner. His natural inclination to pastor never left him and he became a pastor to prisoners during his time at Tegel. He seemed to have an unnatural capacity to rejoice despite not only being imprisoned, but also despite the fact that Hitler was denigrating and destroying the Germany he once loved so dearly. All in the world for a German pastor like Bonhoeffer was bleak, but there was a glimmer of hope shining within him that prisoners and Nazi guards alike noticed.

What was it that caused Bonhoeffer to find joy in the midst of such suffering? A Christmas prayer that he wrote for the entire prison gives us some insight:

O God,
Early in the morning do I cry unto thee.
Help me to pray,
And to think only of thee.
I cannot pray alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with thee there is light.
I am lonely, but thou leavest me not.
I am feeble in heart, but thou leavest me not.
I am restless, but with thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but
Thou knowest the way for me.

For Bonhoeffer, and you and me, true joy is not found in circumstances or celebratory traditions. True joy is found in God, even in the difficult circumstances that he brings. Bonhoeffer found joy at Christmas in prison because he cried to God for help to think only of him! Darkness, loneliness, and weakness filled his heart, so he craved and sought God’s presence. How appropriate was this Christmas prayer. Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Christ. Christmas is the celebration of a King who became a peasant; God who took on flesh to suffer and die in the place of his people.

So, if you are weak and feeble this Christmas, debilitated by disease, separation, loneliness, or despair, seek and find joy in Jesus, the one who perfectly identifies with your suffering and weakness. Christmas joy, like the kind seen in cell 92 at Tegel Prison, Christmas 1943, is found in the fact that God came into a world where Nazi’s rule, cancer kills, and sin destroys to touch us and later die for us to redeem all that is broken. Whatever you are going through this Christmas, know that joy can be found in a King who would lay in a cradle and later hang on a cross.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

A Story of Sin, Suffering, and Sovereignty

We all love a good story. Children, adolescents, young adults, old adults and everyone in-between all love a good story. But it is not just any kind of story that sparks our interest. We love stories that captivate us; stories that strike our imaginations; stories that surprise us. Stories that include ironies or coincidences are always entertaining. And if there can be a “Cinderella” effect then that just makes it even better. One recent Cinderella story that made it to the big screens is The Pursuit of Happyness. In this movie, Will Smith plays a man by the name of Chris Gardner. This is the true story of a man who went from homeless to multimillionaire. The movie portrays him as a hard-working guy whose luck had run out. He worked as a medical salesman, selling medical equipment that was outdated. He barely made enough money to care for himself, his wife, and his son.

Throughout the film, Gardner’s wife leaves him, he loses his apartment, and he at one point in the movie ends up being homeless with his son—even sleeping in a public bathroom one night. I am not certain how much the movie actually aligned with what really happened, but the message was clear: Chris Gardner materially had nothing. During this time of real struggle, Gardner was accepted into an internship with a stockbrokerage firm. In the end, Gardner ends up being the only one out of the many interns to start working for the brokerage. Today he is a multimillionaire and the CEO of his own stockbrokerage firm. We love these kinds of stories, which is why they make it into books and onto screens.

The story that culminates in our passage today seems to present itself as a rags-to-riches story and it seems to be chock-full of coincidences. However, we will see that this is not the purpose of the story at all. The Joseph story has been called one of the most artistic and most fascinating of the Old Testament biographies; and for good reasons. In it we see the ultimate Cinderella story. If you thought Cinderella or Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness went from rags to riches, then the story of Joseph will blow your mind. This is the story of a poor shepherd boy who goes from being nearly murdered by his own brothers to second in command in the most powerful empire the world had seen!

However, the story of Joseph does not serve the same purpose of Cinderella or The Pursuit of Happyness. We are meant to admire Chris Gardner after hearing his story. However, we are not meant to marvel at the rise of Joseph from the ditch to the throne. Instead, the way this story unfolds in Scripture causes us to marvel at God’s absolute sovereignty instead. We see glimpses of this throughout the story, but it is at the end, where we will pitch our tents today, where we see the mysterious glory of God’s power and sovereignty.

At the end, after all the crazy turn of events; after all the sin of the brothers and Potiphar’s wife; after all Joseph’s suffering; and after Joseph’s rise to power and his salvation of his family and the Egyptians, it is God who is the main character. And it was God who was behind and above the events in the Joseph narrative. This story teaches us a few important truths that are brought out in Genesis 50:15-21. The thrust of this passage is that God is absolutely sovereign over all sin and suffering for the purpose of salvation.

God is Absolutely Sovereign in Suffering

The first thing this passage and the entire Joseph narrative teach us is that God is absolutely sovereign over all things. If a movie of the life and times of Joseph was created, we would marvel and point and nod and smile at the countless coincidences. That is how the natural man would initially interpret these events. As we are reading the story, it is easy to think something like this: “His own blood sold him into slavery only to be saved by him in the end? Classic!”

But Joseph knows better. And we know better.

The statement Joseph gives tells us a lot about who God is and how he works in our world and lives. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (v. 20). This is an interesting and important theological truth for us to understand. Despite the evil done to Joseph by his brothers, we see in the end that God is not a helpless bystander watching Joseph’s life with an all-knowing eye. God is actively working all things together for Joseph’s good.

This passage indicates that God does much more than use bad things for good. God’s absolute sovereignty in this passage indicates that God actively “means” all things, even evil things, for good. There is intent involved. God sends evil and even causes evil while remaining totally set apart from it for the good of his people and the glory of his name. In the end of Joseph’s story and all of your stories, God is totally in control.

Joseph’s brothers are now at the feet of their younger brother whom they had mocked, despised, and sold, and the revelation that it was God who sovereignly brought all of those things to pass is presented to them. This begs the question, why? Why did God intend the sin of Joseph’s brothers for good? For what purpose did he effectively cause Joseph to suffer? I see two primary purposes in God’s sovereign action in the suffering of Joseph that serve as a shadow of the greater reality of the suffering of Jesus.

Salvation of Life Through Suffering

God’s sovereignty in the suffering of Joseph served for the salvation of life. In verse 20, Joseph says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” This is not the first time we see this in the story of Joseph. Back in Genesis 45:5, Joseph tells his frightened brothers, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” The active God-language in this passage reinforces the point of the author that God sends suffering for the purpose of salvation.

It is through Joseph’s suffering that his people are saved from the famine ravaging the land. Through suffering, God sent Joseph to Egypt in order to save the ones who attempted to murder him. As magnificent and glorious is the grace of God in his salvation of life in his sovereignty over the actions of Joseph’s brothers, Psalm 105 teaches us that God’s sovereignty stretched even further. “When he summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave” (Ps. 105: 16-17). Again, God is not sitting on the bench watching these things play out in Joseph’s life. He actively sends suffering for the purpose of saving lives. Such is the mysterious and glorious grace of God.

The Sovereignty of God in the Suffering of Christ

The theme of God’s sovereignty in suffering for a pointed purpose is weaved throughout Scripture and is on fullest display in the cross of Christ. In the life of Joseph, man designed for the purpose of evil while God designed those same things for the purpose of good, particularly the good of the salvation of those who would otherwise starve. Likewise, in the cross of Christ, men designed evil, namely the crucifixion of the innocent and righteous God-man. However, God designed the death of his Son for good, namely the eternal good of guilty sinners and the eternal glory of his own name.

Oh, don’t miss the glory of Jesus in the story of Joseph! The righteous suffers for the guilty and God turns evil plans for ultimate good. Salvation comes through suffering. That’s the pattern. That’s the agenda. Joseph was a righteous man who suffered on behalf of his people, so that one day Jesus would come from the tribe of Judah to be the righteous Lion who would be slain for his people under the sovereignty of God. God’s active sovereignty in suffering is not divine abuse, but is grace and love unfathomable. It is a grace and love that leads his people to sing,

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

God is absolutely sovereign over all suffering for the purpose of salvation. This is the story of Joseph. This is the story of Jesus. Where are you found in this overarching story of God’s salvation of sinners through the suffering of his Son? The ultimate question from Genesis 50:15-21 becomes, “Are you found in the blood of the One who suffered under God’s sovereignty?”

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

Hope and Comfort in the Midst of Persecution

I have recently been considering how I would respond to intense persecution. In light of the rapid change in the shape of American society and culture, and the public’s view of Christianity, it is likely that persecution of Christians in America will increase before it will decrease. What will this look like? I do not know. But it is entirely within the realm of possibility that Christian churches and leaders will face fines, imprisonments, and maybe more in the future. From time to time I ask myself, “Will I be willing to boldly face increasingly harsher persecution?” Or maybe a better question, “Is there any hope and comfort in the present and future for those facing persecution?”

Reflecting on Daniel’s vision of the goat and the ram in Daniel 8, Lutheran scholar Andrew Steinmann states,

The little horn in Daniel 8, representing Antiochus, who would persecute God’s people during the Greek era, is a foretaste of the greater persecution by the little horn in Daniel 7, representing the Antichrist, who wages war against the saints throughout the church age until Christ returns. By demonstrating how God would deliver his people form Antiochus Epiphanes, the vision in Daniel 8 offers hope to Christians throughout the church age, who must face the Antichrist’s persecution and corruption of the Gospel (Daniel, 390).

With all eschatological (end times) prophecies in Scripture come confusion, debate, and disagreement. However, there are two clear and primary things to draw from the visions found in Daniel 7 and 8.

(1) God’s people will face persecution

In Daniel 7-8, there are visions of harsh persecution that will afflict God’s people. There are mild forms of persecution that all of us experience in one way or another. You may be ridiculed for your faith at work. You may be shunned in various ways in your family. However, some Christians abroad face harsher forms of persecution. People are actually put to death for their faith in many countries. Daniel 8 foretells of a figure who would persecute God’s people during the Greek era. Most conservative scholars see this figure as being fulfilled in Antiochus Epiphranes. And this figure prefigures the Antichrist who will come to persecute God’s people until Christ returns. Persecution is clearly part and parcel of the establishing and fulfilling of the eternal kingdom of God.

(2) God is in control of persecution

The theological truths that communicate hope and comfort to those being persecuted in the vision of Daniel 8 appear to be that, although this passage communicates times of persecution and corruption, God is all knowing and in control of all things, including the persecution of his people.

How does the reality of persecution and the sovereignty of God provide comfort to those who are being persecuted?

Specifically regarding comfort and seeing Daniel as a whole, I think its important to look at the overarching themes of Daniel when communicating the truths in Daniel 8 to those in difficult situations. Mainly, we see that no matter what happens, God is in control and ultimately those who who belong to him will persevere. In Daniel this is portrayed in the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, as well as in the various prophecies about coming persecution from antichrist figures. God sovereignly rescued his people from persecution. Another theme of comfort is that God sets and removes rulers and will ultimately dethrone all earthly rulers to rule his eternal kingdom.

Nevertheless, the message of Daniel 8, and all of Scripture for that matter, is to persevere. Those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). The response of God’s people in the face of persecution must be perseverance. This means that in and through all persecution, we must place our trust and faith in the One who knows all, sees all, and who works all things in his sovereign grace for the good of his people. This sovereign God will one day righteously judge all.

No amount of persecution will stop God’s purposes from coming to pass. God plans all things and he always fulfills what he plans. The persecution led by Antiochus Epiphanes did not prevent the Messiah from coming to redeem humanity. Likewise, the antichrist’s persecution will not be able to stamp out the gospel. His people will persevere through faith. God’s sovereign goodness is our only true hope and comfort in the midst of persecution. Take hope in the fact that God will never leave his people in the midst of the harshest persecution. Take comfort in the fact that God sovereignly works all things, including persecution, for the good of his people and the renown of his name.

In the words of Steinmann, “God’s salvific plans cannot be thwarted” (390).

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

Radical Faith in the Face of Ruthless Suffering

This semester I am taking a course entitled, “Interpreting Daniel.” It is what you would expect–a verse by verse exegetical examination of the book of Daniel. The book of Daniel is a theologically rich and full book. Truly one semester is not nearly enough time to adequately pursue all of the issues in Daniel.

I wanted to share just one of the many things that have both alarmed and captivated my heart and spurred me to greater faith in Christ. This particular insight came from an unsuspecting place in Daniel.

3Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility,4youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.5The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.6Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.7And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.
8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.
–Daniel 1:3-8, ESV

Let’s break down what is going on here. The king of Babylon, who had recently conquered Judah and taken its people into exile, ordered Judah’s finest to be specifically brought to him. He clearly has a desire to assert his self-proclaimed glory by showing his dominance reaches to the heights of Judean society.

The king orders for “youths without blemish” from the Judean nobility to come to the king’s palace to be indoctrinated with the “literature and language of the Chaldeans.” They were ordered to eat specific food and drink specific wine, food and wine that came from the king himself. While this on the surface seems like a walk in the park compared to what the word “captivity” typically connotes, the next few verses highlight the sinister intentions of the king and his ruthless brutality. “And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego” (v. 7).

In years past, I would have thought very little about the brutality of this captivity, and surely would have belittled the significance of the name change. However, after further study it is clear that Daniel’s captivity was indeed as bad as one would assume, maybe worse.

Consider what Daniel and his friends likely endured as a result of exile.

1. Daniel and his friends were torn from their families

These young men were specifically chosen from Judah’s finest, and in the process were ripped away from their families. Being taken into captivity was like the Gestapo storming a Jewish home and dragging mother and daughter into one train car while throwing father and son into another.

2. Daniel and his friends were likely castrated.

The fact that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among the “chief of the eunuchs” seems to indicate that they themselves had been made eunuchs. It was not uncommon for the king of Babylon to castrate men of conquered nations, so it is likely that Daniel and his friends were castrated when they were taken captive.

3. Daniel and his friends were robbed of their identity

Daniel, Hananiah, and Mishael, and Azariah had names that reflected their faith. Their identity was found in being part of the people of the one true and living God. When the king of Babylon brought Daniel and his friends to his palace, he not only had them trained in Chaldean culture, but he also renamed them, not simply because he didn’t like their names, but as an exercise of theological dominance. He renames these four Judean young men after his gods. He is essentially desiring to wipe out their religious affiliation. He wants their to be no semblance of the God of Judah. The king of Babylon had conquered God’s people and now he wanted to show that he had essentially conquered their God. He had no place in Babylon and the king wanted this name change to reflect what he arrogantly felt was a certain reality.

4. Daniel and his friends were teenagers

The king of Babylon called for those who were “youths without blemish.” Based on the historical context, conservative scholars have placed Daniel’s age at the time of being taken into exile at around 14. Daniel and his friends were barely teenagers when they were taken into Babylonian captivity. This is alarming and disgusting to think of fourteen year-olds suffering such cultural and theological dominance, and physical brutality at the hands of one of the most ruthless men on the face of the earth at the time.

So, to this point we are given a picture of four young teenagers who were torn from their families, castrated, culturally and theologically dominated, robbed of their identity, and treated as property by a ruthless king with uninhibited power. Yet, after all of this, we are told that these young boys were resolved to fully devote themselves to God. They remained faithful in the midst of severe persecution, suffering, and abuse in a place where their God was seemingly dominated by a ruthless human king.

If anyone had a reason to doubt God’s goodness it would have been these teenagers. However, Daniel and his friends clearly trusted the sovereignty and goodness God despite their circumstances. They did not “defile themselves” with the king’s food and drink. Even though they would have reasonably been broken down after what they had been through, they demonstrated strength in weakness that only God can provide.

These boys have taught me that our circumstances do not determine our attitudes toward God. God’s self-revelation determines this. God has declared himself to be good and sovereignly faithful to fulfill all of his promises to his people. We trust this because he has said it is so, not because our circumstances may seem to tell us otherwise.

The fact that Daniel unashamedly and boldly trusted God over and over again throughout Daniel after initially suffering such atrocities is truly amazing. I am amazed at his faith. I am amazed at his resolve. I am amazed at his unhindered trust in God. He did not allow his circumstances to dictate his theology. Instead, his theology rooted him in something much greater than his circumstances.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.

Morning Mashup 06/11

Think Before You Post – Much wisdom in this blog post on blog posts. Before you tweet, post, publish, email, or even send a text today, check out these social media guidelines from blogger Kevin DeYoung. As a blogger, this was especially helpful to me.

10 Lessons from 10 Years of Public Schooling – Tim Challies on the dilemma of whether Christian parents should send their children to public school. While Christians line up on both sides of this debate, Challies represents in this article the position that public school is a viable option for Christian parents to consider.

The “Sacrament” of Suffering – Here is a unique perspective on suffering offered by Thabiti Anyabwile which I found compelling and helpful.

How Are Women Saved Through Childbearing? – This perplexing passage (1 Tim. 2:15) will make you want to pull your hair out. There are many interpretations given. Here is one offered by John Piper, which originally came from British Anglican scholar, Henry Alford. It is worth your consideration.

Committed to Marriage, Committed to the Church – This article is particularly helpful for young married couples. Commitment to one another in marriage should lead to deeper commitment to the local church.

Michael Sam and First Take: Maybe Tolerance Goes Both Ways – I agree with Jon Akin’s reflections on ESPN’s First Take. It has become my favorite sports podcast and is the only one I listen to daily.

The Future of Evangelical Reflection on Same-Sex Orientation – Denny Burk reflects on Matthew Vines’ reflections on Sam Alberry’s reflections on Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian. Yeah, just check it out. All of this discussion over same-sex orientation, behavior, and relationships is much-needed. I’m glad these discussions are taking place.

Napoleon Dynamite Cast Reunites – “Gosh!”  The cast from “Napoleon Dynamite” reunites to unveil a statue to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the film that made awkward humor fanatics go wild.

Misplaced affections need to be replaced by the far greater power of the affection of the gospel. –Thomas Chalmers