To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.
What is the barrier between us and God?
Our sinful, selfish, decaying flesh.
This flesh keeps us from God. The God of light, truth, love. The God who embodies and is light, truth, and love.
Our sin – our wicked flesh – blinds us to this glorious God and His truth and righteousness.
This flesh – this suit in which we live – is the barrier between our souls and the Spirit of God. Indeed, even our souls are corrupted when they are attached to this flesh, and are destined to perish.
But God, in His goodness, called into being our souls which did not exist (were dead). He called them into life in Christ.
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
Now that our souls are alive in righteousness, the unrighteous flesh (which is not us anymore) must be put to death.
How does that happen? The Spirit of God puts to death our flesh.
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
However, this is God’s work, not our own.
God may employ many tools for the accomplishment of this refining process. A common tool He uses is suffering.
To clarify, suffering is something that entered the world because of Man’s sin – rebellion against God. Suffering was not a part of the original creation.
However, our redemptive God can use even the mess we’ve made for His glory and purposes. He can use the suffering – which is a result of our sin – for transformation.
In Christ, I have become one with God in spirit and soul, but my flesh is still a daily obstacle to my closeness with Him.
My flesh is a barrier.
And my autoimmune and neurological disease is eating that barrier away.
I recently learned that I have Lyme Disease (which is both an autoimmune and neurological illness). This discovery connected a lot of dots for me. I am thankful to finally better understand what’s going on, and I hope for recovery (or something close) someday. And yet…
I have seen God accomplish much in me and in the lives of others through this suffering. More than I ever saw accomplished when my mortal body enjoyed some semblance of health (“semblance”, because I’ve dealt with various health issues for most of my life).
At almost any opportunity I received, I would exalt my flesh (and…still often do, when given the opportunity).
“My, I’m such a hard worker.”
“Don’t I look good.” (…After makeup.)
“I’m so dependable.”
“I’m so strong.”
My friends, that was a problem. Maybe I wasn’t walking up to everyone and praising my own virtues to their face. In fact, I even attempted to feign (or internally manufacture) humility when complimented and praised for my external virtues. But my heart was (and still is) so filthy. And God knew that.
Our qualities – strength, dependability, etc. – come from God. Every good and perfect gift is from above. (James 1:17)
It was God who chose to make us capable, strong, powerful, beautiful. Which should remind us that He is capable, strong, powerful, and beautiful, and He could take away any and all of these gifts from us in an instant if He so chose.
He took much of this from me.
My already horrible skin (which I covered up with makeup) worsened.
I became more weak, tired, faint. (For more of my story and symptoms, check out my health blog.)
I became less dependable, and reached a point where I could barely function or even move. (And still am often there.)
Gone was the Kate with “go power”. The Kate with “a future”. The Kate with “promise”. The “hardworking” Kate. The “respectable” Kate. The “financially generous” Kate. The “social” Kate.
Gone were the idols.
(At least…many of them.)
This disease – which cost me income, image, and the ability to socialize very much – has brought me to a place with Jesus in which I have never been before.
In my teens, I would often talk with Him. And I still did through some of the darker, more recent years of my life. But I drifted. Our relationship wasn’t the same.
And even in the years in which I had talked more frequently and at more length with God – and more faithfully read Scripture – I still had idols. So many of them. Even when I was more “spiritual”.
Jesus never left me. He was never distant. But I can see Him a little more clearly now. And I long to see Him face-to-face with a passion which, honestly, I’d lacked for most of my life.
In fact, for much of my life, I was terrified of heaven. The unknown. And in the back of my mind, I harbored the fear that I might not actually end up in heaven.
Sometimes, these fears still stop by for a visit.
But today, I have more confidence in the power, the presence, and the faithfulness of Christ than I have had for probably most of my life.
Why? Because I know Him more closely.
My confidence is more in His power than in my own. I cannot save myself or keep myself saved. It is He – the Good Shepherd – who keeps me. He holds on tightly and will not let go.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.
In Christ, we are already declared perfect and righteous. Paul is appealing to Christians (“as many as are perfect”) to have the attitude of pressing on toward the goal. Of laying hold of that for which we were laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
How does this happen? Generally through suffering.
So…what is suffering?
One definition, according to Merriam-Webster:
: pain that is caused by injury, illness, loss, etc. : physical, mental, or emotional pain
To summarize, suffering is – or involves – loss. Even the words “injury” and “illness” can generally fit within the category of loss.
Your broken leg costs you your place on the football team.
Your Fibromyalgia costs you your job or your social life, or both.
Suffering, then, is generally a result of loss. And loss generally marks the death of something.
What did my suffering put to death?
And…yes…also much of my happiness and pleasure. (But I found a sweeter replacement – joy.)
What else did my suffering put to death?
Some of the barrier – the fleshly veil – between me and God.
The idols were hindering my relationship with Him.
Through suffering, the veil of this flesh was – and is – being whittled away.
Suffering is often a bridge to sanctification and a closer walk with God.
What is the enemy’s advice? He counsels us to lump on this barrier between us and God – the fats and foods and frivolities of life. The flesh. He knows that this “animal” barrier will dull our minds (as it did mine) and cause us to worship our bellies rather than our true King.
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.
The stomach – like the brain – is full of neurons. But these neurons of the stomach and brain are hungry for natural food and thoughts. While dedicated to serving the whims and commands of these neurons, we do not honor the Source of all things – Jesus Christ and the Father. In fact, we often “reason” Him out of existence and make our appetites (lusts, pleasures, pride, etc.) our gods.
Our flesh is, essentially, an animal. It stoops down to the ground rather than looking up.
Suffering, if we will let it, puts to death the senseless but sensual, retarded but reckless part of us, and awakens us – brings us to life and victory and power – in the Spirit of God.
In Christ, the death of one existence (the flesh) transports us to life in another (the Spirit and the spiritual realm).
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
The spiritual things of God are only appraised by those who have the mind of Christ.
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom [my interjection: human wisdom is a component of the flesh], but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
But a natural man [fleshly man] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:11-16
Ever been in a situation where you shared what God was teaching you, or how He personally blessed or encouraged you, or what the Spirit was revealing to you, only to be called “crazy”, “emotional”, or “imaginative” by someone else? Even by a professed believer?
The things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to the natural man, because they are spiritually appraised. Moreover, the one who lives and walks by the Spirit is appraised and understood by no one (except, perhaps, those walking by the Spirit of God).
The more we are tied into the flesh – the comforts, securities, lusts, and pleasures of this life – the more blind we tend to be to the things above, and even to the stunning and piercing reality of the immanence of God (His presence everywhere).
The more intensely and obsessively we focus on the desires of the flesh – the “rings” in our lives – after the pattern of the pitiable creature Sméagol in Lord of the Rings- the more oblivious we are to higher purposes – like destroying the rings.
We become so enamored with significance and security that we desperately seek the rings of life for the fulfillment of these cravings, never concerned that we might be doing so at the expense of the greater good – for ourselves or others.
We were actually made to desire significance, security, and sufficiency. We were created to desire identity, safety, and provision.
The problem is, we seek those things in every place but God. And we were made to seek them in God alone.
When we seek protection and identity in the rings, we invite toxic influences (the Nazgûl and Sauron, or what have you) into our souls and existence.
The ring (the flesh and its desires) can’t hide us. In fact, ultimately, it only makes us more vulnerable, sick, and weak.
And in the end, the ring brings death.
What happened to the poor, abject creature who was myopically bound to the ring?
He met his destruction in the flames.
All flesh (rings) will be destroyed.
If we are bound to the flesh, we will be destroyed.
If, in Christ, our identities are separated from our flesh, we will live.
See, the thing is, everyone is going to experience fire.
Those who choose to be bound to their flesh and not to Christ – who do not wish to repent and be restored to God through Jesus Christ – will be destroyed in the eternal fire.
Those who choose to be severed from their flesh now walk through the fire in this life. Their flesh gets burned away now.
That’s what’s happening with my Lyme Disease. It is a gift, to burn away that which is not me anyway. It’s the old me. 🙂
I’m not saying that if we’re not constantly suffering, we’re not saved.
In Christ, we are severed from our flesh already. We are new creatures regardless of the degree of suffering we endure.
But if we are in Christ, we will suffer in the flesh, and our sinful ways will be put to death. We can expect this if we are truly His.
In Christ, we are no longer our flesh. We are not identified with it. But it must be burned away. Paul made it clear in Romans 7 that his sinful actions which he hated were no longer being committed by him, but by the sin which dwelt in him.
The sin lived on in his old, rebellious flesh, but he himself (his soul, united with the Spirit of God) had already been made a new creation.
This suffering – this loss – looks like bondage to many (and, to be honest, has often felt like that) but it is actually freedom.
In reality, the illusion that the things of this life can satisfy is bondage.
Financial success, physical health, and romantic relationships can only be completely enjoyed and correctly used when they are second to the Source who gives them – when they are “hated” in comparison to our love for Jesus and His Father.
A lot of us think that we put God first because we go to church, pray our prayers, and read the Bible.
We say “Amen” to things and vote conservatively.
We bring our checklists to God, hoping He’ll approve
And He says “That’s not what I want. I want you. I want your heart. I want you to know Me. I want you to put Me first. Not your man-made religion. Not your law or festival keeping. I want you to talk with and listen to Me. Wrestle with Me. Weep before Me. Cry out to Me. Wait for Me. Know Me.”
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
He doesn’t delight in our busyness.
Wait! You say. Busyness is a virtue!
Diligence is a virtue. But busyness for the sake of busyness is not.
Diligence does not always equate to busyness, nor busyness to diligence.
The times in my life where I was the furthest from God were often the times in which I was the most busy, not the least.
Martha stayed busy, but Mary was content and unashamed to be still and sit at Jesus feet and learn from Him.
Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better thing, and it would not be taken from her.
Suffering often affords us the opportunity to rearrange our priorities.
We’re doing all these things, thinking God is impressed.
But God doesn’t want our doing without our being.
He tells us to cease striving and know that He is God.
“Cease striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Why are those two things said in the same breath?
Cease striving…and know that I am God?
Because when we strive, we think that we are God. We think that God’s work depends on us.
We think that if we’re just faithful and active enough, we’ll ensure that God’s plan gets carried out.
My friend, I cannot say it enough. God does not need us.
Does He use us? Indeed He does. But He doesn’t have to.
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”
Jesus can use anything and anyone He wants to accomplish His purposes. And He doesn’t need anything or anyone in order to carry out His will.
Many Christians have so busied themselves with programs and activities that they no longer know how to be silent and meditate on God’s word or recognize the mysteries that are in the Person of Christ.
For the longest time, I was fretting because of my illness. Afraid that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish all that I should.
What kind of faith is that?
I was afraid that I might not be able to accomplish my goals and desires, even the ones that were “for the Lord” (at least supposedly).
In my illness, I’ve often had to stay home. I haven’t been able to work much at all outside the home for quite some time. Even learning coding (something I had really enjoyed and was initially rapidly picking up) became incredibly mentally challenging.
It was very difficult for me to give this up, but it reached a point where I had no choice.
Even writing has been difficult, but God’s strength has been supplied in this endeavor. His power has been perfected in my weakness.
There’s a message in all this.
God is using me – but not in a superhero Kate kind of way.
He’s had to pull away the sense of status, coolness, smartness, or whatever other cocky notions I might have had – or wanted to have – about myself.
Before I found purpose in my suffering, it had to become evident that I had nothing to offer but my weakness. My nothingness.
It is in our weakness that the glory and power of God is displayed.
When our flesh gets in the way, we become a distortion of His love and truth. We have to die to ourselves and blend with Him – with His light. We have to fade in the presence of His light.
It is then – when we have decreased and He has increased – that the offering of our lives is truly purposeful.
People (sometimes) remember the mess that we were – or they observe the mess that we are – and they see that we have been used in spite of that.
And that is testimony. It testifies to the power and reality of God – a loving and redemptive God.
He takes over in our weakness, and His glory is displayed through us.
God doesn’t want us to be strong for Him. He wants us to be strong in Him.
Our college educations (including theology/divinity school), our incomes, our job titles, our “intellectualism” are nothing to God. We can’t impress Him.
When all of these prestigious social identities (“intellectual”, “educated”, “wealthy”, “successful”, “powerful”, “spiritual”, “smart”, “cool”, “social”, “healthy”) are stripped away through suffering (be it financial problems, sickness, relational struggles, etc.), we have an opportunity to turn to the true Source of identity, sufficiency, and significance.
Is this a Source of identity that most people will recognize as valid? No. Not until Christ returns. But that’s okay. We don’t have to be recognized and validated by everyone – only One. (Easier preached than practiced, I know.)
Suffering – The Transforming Bridge
In suffering, we have an opportunity to turn away from the darkness of the flesh and renew our vision in the spiritual Light of Christ.
Sometimes God pulls us aside to sharpen and refine us. It usually hurts, and it can be embarrassing because it compels us to be still and go against the grain of the culture (even the “Christian” culture), which often praises busyness above all else.
Stay tuned for subsequent posts in my series on Suffering.