Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts on prideful suffering and humble prosperity

The suffering of Job and the cosmic battle that ensues with satan is commonly seen as a testing of Job’s faith. What I think we sometimes forget is – or at least I sometimes forget – that it is not only in suffering that our faith is tested. In fact, we see in scripture many times, many examples of men (and women) who faced similar testing when exalted to powerful positions. I can think of Daniel, David, Solomon, Joseph, and Deborah, to name a few.

In the lowness, humiliation and helplessness of our suffering, we are often ‘forced’ to think like servants of God and others, and to depend only on the strength of the Lord to sustain us. It is a test that we would not curse God and die, or become embittered in our circumstances, like Naomi, who asked to be called (Mara) instead of trusting God. It is a proof of our faith when we do not shrivel up and give up, but instead, like Joseph, Ruth, and Daniel, continue worship and obey God in each lowly station, and to serve others in love, regardless of their treatment and attitude toward us.

In their periods of earthly exaltation, Joseph, Daniel and Deborah used their high positions of honor to serve others and to worship God. These are rare examples. These are people, who by worldly standards, are not bound, because of their position, to show concern for the good of others who are of lower status, to be in want of material need, or to be dependent upon another – even a Holy God.
Is this not also a difficult test for us? When we are blessed and honored, to be drawn away from God?

In the movie “The Devil’s Advocate,” Al Pacino’s character repeats the same quote a couple of times, including at the very end of the film. He says, “Vanity, definitely, my favorite sin.” This is the temptation that he appeals to repeatedly to hook Kevin Lomax.

Similarly, John Piper writes, “Satan is a liar and a murderer because he is totally self-centered. So he cares nothing for man, except where man’s prosperity can draw him away from God.”

Prosperity and exaltation in this life, just like suffering and lowness, are simply circumstances in which we might be tempted to draw away from God.

At one end of the spectrum, we feel forsaken and forgotten by God, and ruled by our emotions, we start to believe those lies. We believe that somehow we've earned the right to acceptance by God, when His acceptance and love toward us is based completely on unmerited favor. When be believe this way, we soon start to treat our relationship with God in such a way that our lives start to become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, ultimately, God has other plans and His sovereignty ends up ruling in the end. As believers, we know that only Jesus Christ has been completely forsaken, on the cross, when He paid the full penalty and experienced the full weight of God’s wrath upon Him. Our “feelings” of forsakenness are only temporary and mild in comparison and ultimately – not true. This delusion of self-pity is in fact a form of pride.

On the other hand, when we feel triumphant and have been exalted into great positions of responsibility and power, it is so easy to draw away from God then too, but with a slightly different twist on our self-justification. In vanity, we start to believe that we earned it. It was because of our own merit, our strength, our own willpower, etc., that we have succeeded above others. We forget that our exaltation and strength is found only and completely in the Lord himself, and not of ourselves. Every gift and talent that got us where ever we are today was given by God to us as stewards -- not to Lord it over others, but to serve others and to use to worship God. In fact, God in His ultimate sovereignty trumps our vain pursuits and many of us end up back at the ground zero of humiliation and lowness before too long.

Both of these types of circumstances, though on opposite ends of the spectrum, cause us to focus on ourselves. In both situations, when we focus on what we are attaining and have done or what we have sacrificed or put up with, we are making it all about us, and not about God.

Yet, I would offer even yet another type of suffering pride of which we might be cautious. Many martyred saints, venerated in the Catholic Church, wrote lengthy diaries of great and gory details they endured in suffering for the faith. (As a side note: I mention this specifically because the account of Perpetua was read in our church this past Sunday). Out of the period of martyrdom in the early church, many false teachings arose including Gnosticism and Montanism, to name a few. With regard to the martyrs' extreme suffering, some churches started to exalt certain people as more spiritual because they had suffered the most severely. Imagine the poor souls under this teaching who would seek ways to be persecuted and willingly submit themselves to torture and gruesome suffering – so that (in vanity) they would be more Godly or be set up as closer to the Holy Spirit than their brothers and sisters.

As usual, I can't help be think of the Greatest Commandment and how it applies in both (all three) of these circumstances: Matt 22:37 Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'

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