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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Believing and Trusting God {when life hurts} {May & June HBC Women's Ministry Small Group}


As I sit down to write this post, the date is April 23, 2015.  My small group met for the first time 8 days ago, and for the past 8 days, I have been praying that God would tell me exactly what He wanted me to prepare for our small groups in May and June.  I don’t want to simply give my ladies “Julia’s thoughts and opinions”.  I want to prepare a discussion that is centered on God’s word and His truth.  Today, God answered my prayer.

I had just put Addy Jo down for a nap when my phone rang.  It was a friend of mine who wanted to share with me how God had used her.  This sweet friend is absolutely beautiful on the inside and out.  But she has never believed it.  Much like me, she has struggled with insecurity and anxiety for all of her life, even after she was born again.  This struggle has gripped her tight and has kept her from seeking out friendship and enjoyment in life.  She had found a comfort zone where she poured into her family but hid herself from the rest of the world in fear that she would be judged and looked down on.  When she attended things like church, she kept to herself and didn’t talk to anyone.  She was always scared that she would say the wrong thing and look bad. 

So imagine my surprise when I looked down to see her name on my phone.  And for an hour she poured her heart out to me about how God had used April’s small group discussion (Believing that I Am Who God Says I Am) to stir a change in her.   She was finally starting to see herself as God saw her….as redeemed…as chosen…as loved…as beautiful….as precious…as a woman who is cherished by God….as a woman who God want to use for His glory.  And use her is exactly what He did!

God placed a woman in her path who is going through some struggles in her marriage…struggles that would make anyone want to throw their hands up in the air and call it done…struggles that leave you feeling betrayed, unwanted and unloved…struggles that my friend had experience with.  And because my friend had started believing that she was valued and that God wanted to use her, God overcame her insecurities and anxiety and she offered words of life to this lady.  My friend shared with this lady the message of 1 Peter 3:1-2 and about how God could use her to show the love of Christ to her husband….God could use her to bring her husband to repentance and the saving knowledge of Christ.  My friend told her that she was precious in the sight of God and that He loved her.  She told her that she was beautiful and eventhough her husband had let her down, God never would. My friend invited this lady to church and to small groups and she has been praying for her.  Now I am praying for her.  And I hope that those of you who are reading this will be praying for this lady and her husband.  Our God is able! I believe with my whole heart that God can save this man and their marriage. 

After hearing this lady’s story, I knew exactly what God wanted May’s small group discussion to be about.  So here it is:

Disclaimer:  this Bible discussion was developed with born-again Christ followers in mind.  However, much of it applies to unbelievers as well.  If you do not have a personal relationship with God and you feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit while reading this, please, do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions.

In case you missed my last two posts, you can read them by clicking on each link in red below:

Becoming Me {Believing that I am who God says I am} {part 1}

Becoming Me {Believing that I am who God says I am} {part 2} {April HBC Women's Ministry Small Group}

Believing and Trusting God {when life hurts}

LIFE is HARD…spouses break their vows to each other…loved ones die…houses burn down…jobs are lost…disease, cancer, and disabilities seem to be on the rise…cars crash…planes disappear into the ocean…natural disasters take lives and homes…governments let their people down…I could go on and on and on.

With the potential for so many “bad” things to happen, it’s pretty much impossible to exist and not suffer in some way or another in this life.  And when we do suffer, the first thing we tend to do is point the finger….sometimes at other people…sometimes at ourselves…but we usually point our finger at God. And the pointing usually leads to questioning Him and His love for us. 

God Loves You

The truth is, we live in a broken world.  When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the forbidden tree, sin entered our world.  Our world was cursed.  The consequences of the first sin can be seen and heard just by turning on the television or radio, stepping foot into a hospital, or opening the newspaper to the obituaries.  The ultimate consequence of our sin is death, and after that, eternal separation from God in the pits of hell.  But God, in all of His love for us, sent Jesus to pay the price for our sin. He died an ugly but beautiful death on our behalf.  The only person that has ever walked this earth without sin took our blame upon His shoulders.  Does God love you? You bet He does. 

“God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. “ 2 Corinthians 5:21

So why the difficulties in life?

A mature believer in Christ realizes that God loves them despite the difficulties they face in life.  They understand that God never promised them a life of ease and comfort, nor did He promise them a life without pain.  That life was forsaken in the garden of Eden when sin entered the world and spiraled into brokenness.  However, He did promise us that our pain, difficulties, and suffering would not define us or destroy us.  Jesus has won the victory for all of us. 

John 16:33 ESV
 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Romans 8:35-39 ESV
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Bottom line:
 We live in a sinful, broken world.  And that sin affects us all.  Bad things happen to people whether they are born-again believers or unrepentant murderers.  When we encounter difficulties, it is important that we do not doubt God’s love for us.  His love for us was shown on the cross of Calvary.  I don’t like to attribute human words/emotions to describe God but I wonder if He feels like we slap Him in the face when we doubt His love for us. I wonder if He feels the same way I feel when my children say things like “you’re mean” when I have sacrificed so much for them and loved them unconditionally.  Ouch. 

God loves us.  But difficulties will come, I can promise you that.  And they come for all sorts of reasons.  But God’s lack of love for us is not one.

As a Christ follower, I think it is important to identify the reasons why we experience difficulties so that we can discern what to do in each instance according to Scripture. We need to ask Jesus for His understanding of our difficulties and conform ours into His because our interpretation will shape our emotions, perspective and decisions.  Likely, if our interpretation of our struggles is wrong, then our actions that follow will be as well.

I have already mentioned “the ultimate” reason that we encounter difficulties, which is that we live in a fallen world.  And living in a fallen world means that we will face difficulty for many different reasons.  Let’s take a look at the reasons (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

1.When Difficulties are a Result of our own Sin:

Numbers 32:23 ESV
“…behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.”

Galatians 6:7
“…for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

When we find ourselves in the midst of suffering or difficult circumstances, I think it is important to look inward and examine ourselves.  Could our struggles be the result of our own sinful doings? That seems like an easy question to answer.  Yes, a lot of our problems we bring upon ourselves. However, it seems that we tend to lay the blame on everyone else or we place the blame on God without hesitating to consider that our difficulties might be a result of our own sinful acts.  You know that saying, “stick your hand in the fire and you’re going to get burned”? Well, that’s how it is with sin.  If we dabble in sin, we will likely be dealt the consequences of our sin.

For example: if a person smokes a pack of cigarettes everyday, they will probably develop lung cancer or some sort of lung condition. If I’m a lazy mother and I let my young child play in the middle of a busy street, my child will probably get hit by a car. If I break the law and run a red light, I might have a wreck and die.  If I spend my resources carelessly, I will have financial problems. 

Now obviously, people get diagnosed with cancer even if they haven’t ever smoked a cigarette, children can get hit by cars even when they are being watched closely, people have wrecks even if they obey the law, and a person can have financial issues even if they are good stewards of their money.  But right now, I am addressing difficulties brought on in a born-again believer’s life when he or she is living in sin. So what do we do when we realize that our difficulties are a result of sin in our life?  First, we have to realize it.  A born-again believer who is sensitive to the Holy Spirit knows when he/she is doing wrong, whether it be a one-time occurrence or an habitual sin or cycle of addiction.  But sometimes we ignore the prompting of repentance by the Holy Spirit.  To get us to listen and repent, God will use deep conviction, the rebuke of friends, sermons, the quickening of Scripture., etc. We realize that we cannot get away with unrepentant sin and walk closely with God at the same time. So we turn to God with a repentant heart, turn away from our sin, and are restored in fellowship with God.

With that being said, even after we repent of our sins and are forgiven, we still usually have to take responsibility for the crime. For example, a murderer who calls upon the Lord for salvation is forgiven.  However, he will still have to accept responsibility for his crime and serve time in prison or even face the death penalty if that is his earthly sentencing. But praise be to God that His blood covers even the most horrible offenses.  The murderer who is now born again has a home prepared for him in heaven.  Wow! Are you still questioning God’s love for you?

2. When Difficulties are a result of God’s Discipline

Reason #1 works hand in hand with reason #2.  You see, even born-again believers are prone to wander from God because we still deal with our fleshly desires.  And when we resist returning to God with repentant hearts, He disciplines us. I discipline my children out of love.  God does the same for His children.

Before we go any further, I think it is important to point out that when God disciplines us, it is not in order to condemn us but to correct us. There is a big difference between punishment and discipline. Jesus has already taken on our condemnation and punishment for us.  God’s disciplining us is not to be looked at as retribution, meaning, God isn’t “making us pay” for the sins we commit.  God’s discipline is to be looked at as “corrective measures” and not “punishment”.  Like I said, Jesus has already taken the punishment for us so when we feel the hand of God’s discipline on us, we shouldn’t say, “God is punishing me for my sins, and He’s condemning me.”  Instead, say, “God is correcting me, because He wants me to repent and turn away from my sin as He wants what is best for me.”

Hebrews 12:5-8 ESV
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

Proverbs 3:11-12 ESV
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of His reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Hebrews 12:9-11 ESV
Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

3.  When Difficulties=God’s Equipping of Us

God’s disciplining of us isn’t always a result of sin.  Sometimes the Lord disciplines us because He is training us for something.  Just as a soldier is trained for battle by vigorous mental and physical exercise, the Lord trains us in preparation for the different callings He places on our lives.  This kind of discipline calls for perseverance and faith in the One who knows what He is doing.  

God is sculpting us into holy vessels, and the process can be painful… more painful for the person who resists the sculpting.  But oh, what beauty will emerge when we let God sculpt us!

When we think about this kind of discipline from God, we should think about this verse:

James 1:2-4 ESV
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

You see, God’s equipping of us means that He wants to use us. I take great comfort in knowing that He loves and values me enough to let me take part in His plans.  But I haven’t always….

In the past, I have been guilty of getting caught up in my troubles and failing to realize that God was trying to mold me….to mold me for His future purposes. God brought my husband and I through some pretty difficult circumstances the last 5+ years in ministry, and I became bitter and resented God for our trials.  I failed to realize that He was preparing and equipping us for where we are today.  I fought Him the whole time but I am so thankful that He didn’t give up on me!

But looking back, I wish that my faith had been stronger.  I wish that I had trusted God 100% with our future and our ministry.  I wish that I had realized then that God was equipping us for His purpose, but I can’t go back and turn my wishes into reality.  God used that time of doubt and bitterness in my past to teach me to trust Him completely with my future and to let Him equip me in the here and now for whatever else He has in store for my future.    

How willing are you to let God train you for His purpose? Do you fight it? Do you even recognize that’s what is taking place?

4. When Difficulties=Testing of our Faith and/or God getting our Attention

1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV
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.”

When God tests our faith, it is for our benefit.  God already knows how much faith we have. We are the ones who often have an inflated view of our faith in God. We can talk a big talk but when put under pressure, we clam up, panic, run away, blame God, throw pity parties, etc.  God also tests are faith to get our attention.  Like the old hymn says, “Prone to wander…Prone to leave the God I love”, we all find ourselves wandering away at times.  During these times, God will test our faith to draw us back to Him.

These tests of our faith come in all sorts of various forms but they usually fall under two different categories:
1.     testing of our faith through the results of living in a broken world
2.     testing of our faith through custom-made difficulties created by God

Now, I’ve already spent a lot of time on all the different reasons why we experience difficulties in this broken world and a lot of them overlap each other. Essentially, every difficulty that we face in this life is a testing of our faith. I haven’t mentioned that God can and will create problems to test our faith

I can think of one custom, made-by-God problem in the form of a whale swallowing a man named Jonah.:

Jonah 1:17 ESV
And the Lord appointed[d] a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

God literally used something “big” to get his attention. All of you have probably heard the story so I won’t replay it for you but after Jonah was swallowed up by a custom made problem, he found his faith to be small.  God put him to the test and got his attention.  

Jonah 2:3-4 ESV
“For you cast me into the deep,
  into the heart of the seas,
  and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’

5. When Difficulties=Temptation/Attacks from Satan

Some Christians believe that Satan is behind every problem they encounter.  It’s easier to blame Satan than to own up to problems that we create ourselves or to face God’s rebukes or to accept our difficulties as God’s equipping of us.  This imbalance is dangerous because when we blame everything on Satan, we do not leave room for the work of the Holy Spirit to change us and mold us. But it swings the other way as well.  Some Christians focus solely on those reasons and do not give enough credit to the devil for difficulties.

Take a look at these verses:

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me…” (2 Corinthians 12:7)

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10:10)

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  (1 Peter 5:8)

Yes, spiritual warfare is occurring all around us. There is a battle waging but Jesus has already won the victory.  Still, Satan is seeking to take as many people as he can down with him. He is a master deceiver. He is a liar. Satan can and does attack believers through the unbelieving world….He incites our fleshly desires within us…He attempts to deceive us with the lies of  “worldly wisdom” through the unbelieving world…He attempts to deceive us with a false Jesus and a false gospel through false Christians.  Satan can even physically afflict us, or ones that we love, with illness, crimes, disasters, persecution and the like. (just think about Job) In all these ways, Satan tempts Christians away from their calling….He tempts them from carrying out The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)….from being vessels that Jesus uses to reach the lost.

2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV
“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”

We need to stand firm against Satan and his demons inciting us through the world. When fleshly desires rise up in us, it is our values and our beliefs that cause us to decide whether we will follow those desires. At Salvation, God begins to give us new desires based on new beliefs and values. Satan knows he must strike at our beliefs and values if he is to tempt us. He tempts us with lies…lies about what is right and what is wrong; lies about what is valuable and what is not. He has enslaved the world with his lies and he proceeds to tempt us through his lies. When we accept those lies in our minds and hearts, we fall into the temptations of Satan.

For over five years, I let Satan convince me that I wasn’t “good enough” to be a pastor’s wife…that I needed to just focus on my husband, kids, and my home and leave most of the “ministry stuff” to my husband.  Satan was deceiving me and hindering me from doing the work of the Lord.  He was hindering me from using my gifts for God. 

Are there any lies that Satan has been whispering into your ear? How do you guard against his scheming?

“Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;  and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:10-18)

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you.” (James 4:7-8)

“Do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:27)

6. When Difficulties=The Cost of Following Christ

2 Timothy 3:12 ESV
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

John 15:18-20 ESV
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you….”

Honestly, I do not understand how people can read the verses above, or the rest of the Bible for that matter, and come away thinking that the life of a Christian is full of rainbows and butterflies.  This is why I consider the “prosperity gospel” to be complete heresy (contrary to Christian doctrine).

In case you are unfamiliar with this false gospel, Wikipedia defines it like this:

            Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success) is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will increase one's material wealth…the doctrine views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, He will deliver his promises of security and prosperity. Confessing these promises to be true is perceived as an act of faith, which God will honor. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God's will for his people to be happy. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith.”

I cannot even begin to describe how sick to my stomach this makes me…to think about all of the people being led astray by the notion that God wants us to be rich and self-sufficient.  I’m not going to take the time to try and disprove this heresy, because I’m already getting off track, but I will encourage you to go read your Bible and find out who God really is and the purpose He has for your life.  

God wants us to thrive while we are here on earth.  However, our definition for “thrive” does not always match His definition.  The kind of thriving He wants for us is available when we look to Him to fulfill all our needs, carry our burdens, and carry us through our difficulties.

Stasi Eldredge puts it like this:

Christianity is not a promise to enjoy a life without pain nor to be given a shortcut through it.  It is a promise that pain, sorrow, sin--ours and others’--will not swallow us, destroy us, define us, or have the final word.  Jesus has won the victory.  And in him so have we.”

The truth is, if everything in my life was just peachy and I never had to face persecution, difficulty, failure or loss, I would be tempted to feel like I didn’t need Jesus.   I would need Him, of course, but I would probably feel like I could handle things on my own. 

No, life isn’t perfect; not for anyone. God isn’t sitting around like Santa Claus waiting to give out presents to those who believe in Him. 

But what He does give us when we surrender to Him is eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  And when we do face persecution for His name, He gives us strength and power and peace.  We can have joy knowing that no matter our circumstance, He loves us and is with us.  We can have hope knowing that our reward is in heaven. 

John 16:33 ESV
I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Matthew 5:12 ESV
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

1 Peter 4:12
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

 “If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

God is Sovereign

As I said before, this is not an exhaustive list of reasons why we encounter difficulties in this world, but this will help you think a little clearer about the hard times that you have faced and will face in the future.  I hope you have gotten past questioning God’s love for you and blaming Him when trouble comes.

I hope that you realize that we serve a Sovereign God. There is not anything that happens in our lives, good or bad, without God’s permission. God does not cause evil or bad things to happen to us but He may allow them. I know that can be hard to swallow.  Beth Moore put it like this:

I’d go as far as to suggest that the deeper we have loved God, the deeper the potential for devastation when He doesn’t intervene as we know He can.”

No matter what we face in life as born-again believers, we have to trust that God knows what He is doing and that He works “all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  We may not understand everything this side of heaven, but God never asked us to.  He just wants us to trust Him. 

The remedy for suffering should always be the same: Flee to the cross. If suffering comes in a loving form of discipline from God when you have been living apart from Him, then flee to the cross in confession and repentance and receive Christ’s forgiveness. When God is equipping you for the future, flee to the cross and trust that He is doing a good work in you.  When your faith is being tested, flee to the cross for strength to stand.  When Satan tempts you, flee to the cross and look to Him who is truth rather than believing Satan’s lies.  When you do not know the reason why you are suffering, flee to the cross and ask God for understanding, clarity and wisdom to respond in the way He would have you to. 

In conclusion: Yes, life is hard, but there is a joy available to all believers that we can have despite hardships we face.  I don’t just want to be happy when things are going my way.  I want to have a peace that surpasses all understanding.  I want to have joy despite my circumstance.  The only way that you or I will have that kind of joy is if we walk hand in hand with our Savior daily, fully trusting Him every step of the way. 

2 Corinthians 4:8-10
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We will always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Isaiah 40:31
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.”

Nahum 1:7

“The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; He knows those who take refuge in Him.”

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