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The Purpose of Problems

November 4th, 2018

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

A serendipitous event last week brought a scripture to my attention. The event was a water leak that happened in the men’s washroom above my office at the church. Most of the damage is repairable, but it did leak down on some of my personal books I have amassed over the years. Before you ask, let me say that it was clean water – the first question in my mind! – and that things just got wet. We say that a good mind is like a sponge, that soaks up the knowledge of books. But I have learned that books can be like sponges as well, and they can absorb a great deal of water!

I have downsized my library several times over the years, and there are still some books that I need to re-read more often. Like friends, the older ones are the better ones for many reasons – perhaps only for the fact that they resonate with something within us that harkens back to a younger time in our lives, times when life was newer and we were too.

But this hidden blessing, that resulted in some of my books getting absolutely drenched, also did something good. In the clean up I looked through a few of these old literary friends this weekend that I probably would have let sit on my shelf for a much longer time. And, again, like old friends they held forgotten wisdom. Many, if not most, are out of print how, so the titles are unimportant, but they reminded me of truths that I had not thought of lately.

One of these authors, writing on dealing with problems, reminded me that one of the reasons that God allows problems in life is that they keep us humble, they keep us real, they keep us from becoming arrogant and proud. That is exactly the thought that Paul shared above – that God had blessed him with great spiritual experiences, but to prevent him from becoming conceited God had also entrusted to him a “thorn in the flesh,” a nameless physical malady that kept him humble and dependent on God.

We do not know what this thorn was – the speculations have been endless, from some recurring malarial fever, to arthritis, to some eye problem (which scriptures seem to hint at – see Galatians 4:13-15, 6:11 – perhaps a physical weakness due to his stoning at Lystra where he was presumed to be dead – see Acts 14:19-20). Some of the more cynical around us have supposed that it was his wife – but the scriptures are not clear about whether he was married at all and most seem to think that he was not. But, even if an eye problem was the most likely, this thorn has been left unnamed so that Christians through the centuries could identify with him on this principle.

We all seem to have something that God gives us to keep us humble, to keep us real. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), and we do not want the Almighty to be opposed to us. So we ought to embrace these weaknesses which we all have with a little more understanding. The slightest amount of success in life can turn us to very annoying egomaniacs – annoying to ourselves as much as to everyone else. God’s grace is sufficient for us, and He will give us the grace to bear up under the challenge, the grace to smile in pain, through the tears, through the disappointments, and even to laugh at ourselves.

So my soaked books were not completely ruined and brought enduring truths to my attention – another problem that helped me spiritually. Better a wet book that is read than a dry one that sits on a shelf.

To parlay this analogy one step further, I remember a quotation from when I was a teenager: “You are the only ‘Bible’ that some will read.”¬† We could go a step further, that you and I are the only books that some will read, so we should also not spend all of our lives on “the shelf of life.” We need to get down and open our pages or share our thoughts and lives with others so that we can bless them with whatever means we have at our disposal.

So share the hope of God that is found in the midst of limitations and problems. Anything that keeps us humble and real is a good thing for our spiritual lives.

Daily Devotions, Dealing with Difficulties

Looking Up when Life Seems Down

October 4th, 2018

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (James 1:2)

Blessed are you when people insult you… (Matthew 5:11)

James and Jesus grew up in the same household, both mothered by Mary. James, we assume, was the son of Joseph, the righteous man, the carpenter of Nazareth. Jesus, his older and his half brother, was the son of Mary born of a miracle of the Holy Spirit. Joseph had the sinful human nature we all have. Jesus did not, but had only the nature of the pure and holy mind that Adam and Eve had before sin entered into their lives. Jesus is our Lord, and James is our older brother and fellow believer in the faith.

But apart from these differences – as significant as they are – the two men grew up side by side. It is interesting that when they both began their ministries – Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount and James in his epistle – with emphasis on perseverance¬† through trials. Can we not see the attitude of their mother Mary in this matter? Though Christ’s source of inspiration was surely the Spirit and not His mother Mary as a primary source, still can we not see her in even His words – if not the source then certainly a living example of their truth?

What an influence she must have been for God. When the angel came and announced her miraculous pregnancy, he said, “You are highly favored. The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:28-30). She humbly accepted the role that God had given her to play in the redemption of the world from sin: “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Could she have seen, in those moments, the future respect and admiration that believers would pay to her in the centuries to come? It seems unlikely that she could absorb all of this. She claimed it by faith, however, that what the Lord gives to any one of us to do – no matter how humble, how difficult, or how humiliating – will turn into blessings for others.

There lay before her years of insinuations about the birth of Jesus – rumors, judging, criticisms, and insults. We cannot forget that these same people of Nazareth rejected Christ when He came as an adult and as a Teacher. It was of Nazareth that Christ repeated the proverb, “Only in his home town and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Matt. 13:37). And the record of scripture is that Christ “did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Matt. 13:38). So the witness of scripture is that these people of Jesus’ home town were in general petty, critical, and faithless people.

And there it was that God put Mary and Joseph. We should not forget Joseph in this matter. An angel had appeared to him also, only in a dream, but it was enough for him to also know that he had been visited by God’s special messenger. But who else would have understood this matter of Mary’s pregnancy and of Jesus’s birth? Did not his friends say unkind things to him and about him? It would seem only reasonable that they had both endured and persevered in this difficulty of insinuation and rumor.

The lesson of these passages is that what we endure is not nearly as significant as how we endure it. Hardships make some people better and make other people bitter. It depends on the attitude we take on as we endure them. If we have no hope then we will respond in the same angry and ungracious manner in which we perceive that we have been treated. If we have the faith and hope of God, however, then we can say that these things can in God’s hands lead on to blessings, in us and through us to others.

The attitude that should be our response to all things that God has entrusted to us is the one of both Mary and Joseph – I am the Lord’s servant. Do in me and through me whatever You wish for Your glory, O God. Of Paul, Christ said, in the days leading to his conversion, that he had been like a stubborn farm animal, kicking against the goads of his herder. Rather than kicking, we should say, So be it unto me as You wish, O God. That is the faith and the hope that can turn insults into benedictions, and difficulties into opportunities for spiritual growth.

Daily Devotions, Dealing with Difficulties