Learning to Obey Through Suffering
There’s so much pain and confusion in the Church today, and we certainly weren’t aided by President Trump’s comments this past weekend. I praise God to hear a President say what he did. It is true; it is vindicating; it is necessary. But at the same time, it frustrates me to wonder why he didn’t say these things back in March.
With that, one revelation that was particularly betraying was when he called on the governors to acknowledge what you and I have known since Day 6 of creation: that the Church is essential. Unfortunately, by appealing to them, he acknowledged that because we are the “United States” – and not the “Autocratic State” – of America, the individual governors have more authority over their State than Trump does. So while the President may have waxed his eloquence a few months late, it also rubbed salt in the wound of many, because it brought to mind the question we’ve been asking for weeks on end: why are the doors of church buildings still closed?
I know that the answers to the question are varied and testily debated, but at least in my mind, it’s straight-forward: it has little to do with the coronavirus and much to do with the Bible.
That is, the Bible has told us to be subject to our governing authorities (Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-14). The caveat is that if the government tried to silence the message of the gospel (an act not yet carried out), we would be forced to serve the higher law: obedience to Christ above obedience to this earthly government. However, following that same logic, when the message of the gospel is not outlawed, and when we can fully obey both God and our government (despite certain hindrances), we are called to do so despite the cost. After all, when the Spirit inspired Paul and Peter to write those words, I do not think He had the First or Second Amendment in mind. He had His Kingdom in mind. He knew that there would be great injustices and abuses that would at times impede the ministry of the Church. Yet being a God of order, He placed us under the authority of the government, and has called us to be obedient to Him by being obedient to them.
Now, that is not to undermine what a difficult time this has been. I don’t know a single Christian or Pastor that wants to keep from meeting in person. We missed Easter; that was devastating. We will likely miss Pentecost; that is just as gutting. That doesn’t even take into account the friendships and relationships, the power of singing together and approaching the Bible and prayer with each other. It doesn’t touch on how heart wrenching this has been for Christians, but as Ephesians 6 says, our issue is not with flesh and blood. God knew how difficult this time would be, and yet He brought us into a unique puzzle: the gospel has gone out in perhaps greater force and availability during this time, and yet certain aspects of the Church have been unavailable to us. In that way, we cannot categorize this as persecution, but we certainly can say that we’re suffering.
So what can God be teaching us?
– There are several things, but here are some to chew on. First, we have a disturbingly American way of reading the Scriptures, as we tend to read the Constitution into places it doesn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong: America is the greatest, freest country on planet earth, and we are blessed beyond measure to live here. The Constitution has perhaps done more for this world than any other political document in history, and it would be a tragedy for us to lose our rights However, the point of this blog is not to talk politics but Scripture. As such, we must remember that the Constitution – however Biblically influenced – is nothing more than a government document. It is not the Bible, and we see that in that fact that where the Bible breathes spiritual life, the American ideal has served to breathe material life. And that prosperity has come at a cost: it has closed our hearts to parts of Scripture.
Our prosperous American lifestyle has made the Psalms nearly unapproachable, because we don’t know how to suffer on a wide-scale level. Letters like 1 Peter or Hebrews – with an equal emphasis on suffering – are unrelatable. After all, the heart of the Bible was written not to defend what we in the USA have, but to speak to those who will likely never taste it.
Whether easy or not, Scripture has bound our hearts and hands: until the government makes an effort to silence Christ, we are called to civil obedience. Again, let’s not undersell how hard and painful that is nor fade into the background. But on a personal level, let’s also take control of the dialogue and move it away from what Trump or Inslee or Trudeau or some other mortal, morally failing, term-bound government character says. Instead, let’s turn to find what God says, because if we take our frustrations and pains and – yes – our sufferings to God during this time, we will find that He may have very well breathed new life into those Scriptures we otherwise couldn’t experientially understand.
That is, while we eagerly search the Bible for references against government corruption, we can turn the eyes of our heart to passages like 1 Peter 1:6-7. It says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”. Or what about James 1:2-4? – “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”.
Now, I use those two as simple backdrops against the myriad of passages that should be bursting with flavor during this time, because you may have already relied on those in particularly dark times in the past. However, we’re called into a unique time of applying these verses. How do I mean? - The book of Hebrews says of Jesus, “He learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Those words have always stuck with me as an unusual expression. Should it not be that Jesus suffered because he was obedient? – Why is it phrased the opposite way, then, that he learned obedience through his suffering?
Well, the simple answer, of course, is that during his life, Jesus suffered in horrific ways. From his temptation to the Pharisees to the sluggish minds of the oft-foolish disciples, to the betrayal, false trial, and crucifixion, Jesus lacked no suffering. We must not forget that he was fully human, and it would have been real that at each turn, he would be tempted toward something that would take him away from his God-glorifying mission of the cross. And so what we see is that, yes, he suffered because he was obedient, but his obedience was proved genuine because he suffered. With that, scroll back up to those references to James and 1 Peter, and we can see our Hebrews passage better explained: while we may suffer for being holy, we suffer in order to be made holy. Christ was always going to be obedient, but his suffering tested and proved his obedience real.
When I think on that, it strikes me what a blessed time we find ourselves in today: we haven’t been stopped from proclaiming Christ, but we have been brought into a time of suffering. We’re aching, hurting. Some are finding themselves in the grip of depression. Some are fighting that blackened enemy of loneliness. Kids are home when they should be out, and many friendships are lost. Marriages may have taken a hit, and wallets are so light that people are worried about tomorrow.
We have undoubtedly been brought into a time of suffering like we’ve never experienced, but that should push our eyes and hearts ever back to those gracious words of God: that we may consider this joy, because it is producing in us a genuine faith, that – should persecution and martyrdom hit our shores – outweighs an eternity of American freedoms.
Traveling back to those references above, here’s another angle: the culture into which the Scriptures were written was not 21st Century America. It was to poly-theistic, Caesar-worship, anti-Christian Rome. The Bible was not written to be a back-up document defending the freedoms of the Constitution. It was largely written as an exhortation and encouragement to those who faced corruption, hardship, and death. It was written to breathe eternality into those whose lives were forfeit, and in that way – even in bloodshed and suffering – it popped color into a grayscale world. It’s so fitting that when Jesus asked Peter if the disciples were going to turn away, he did not respond, “You have a pretty good structured morality that has bought us unprecedented political freedoms. We’ll hedge our bets and stick with you”. No. He said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The Constitution may ensure political freedom, but the Bible breathes eternal life. It would be a greater tragedy to lose that truth than to lose our civil rights. Therefore, we must always be careful not to approach this situation with an eye more toward a government document than Scripture. The ideal of the Bible includes governmental freedoms, but the point of the Bible is obedience to Christ whether those exist or not.
Today, we weep daily at the loss we have suffered, but – for now – we keep the doors of Churches closed because we’re obedient not first to the Constitution but to Scripture. It is hard; it feels like a gray area, and the tide may quickly turn. But it is clear: until the gospel becomes the target, we are called to submit. On that journey, however, God has graciously afforded an opportunity to walk the footsteps of our Savior by learning obedience through what we suffer.
So do you see what I mean about how this has precious little to do with politics? – I don’t fear this virus. I don’t fear the government. I do fear God, and He commanded us to be subject to our government in civil matters. God knew these commands would bring suffering to all generations, but He also knew that the result would be an obedience that produces a faith “more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire”.
In working overtime to take advantage of this virus, the powers of evil played into God’s hands of unlocking our hearts to the parts of His Word that our affluence had silenced. I pray we never have to choose between the two, but I’d take that over our civil rights. Wouldn’t you?
Barbara Jean zylstra
5/28/2020 08:02:58 am
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My name is Bryan Lanting. I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, and I am presently serving Mt View CRC as their pastor. I am married to a wonderful wife named Sydney, and both of us are loving life, loving Lynden, and loving the Lord!