Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

Sin and human suffering

I shared a few months back on the topic of God and our suffering and I want to pick up on this theme again this morning – this time with a focus on the role of sin in our human suffering.

There are different understandings of where suffering comes from:

  • For instance, some say it’s only in our minds and if we can just get our minds to think straight that will solve the problem (Christian Science).
  • Others say that we suffer because of karma. That is, you get what you deserve in this life, in part, based on what you did in your former life (Hinduism).
  • Others say that the forces of good and evil are equal and locked in a never ending fight which causes us to suffer (Dualism).

But as Christians we confess that –

1. Human suffering and death are rooted in sin

We learn from Scripture that the sin of Adam and Eve brought suffering and death (Genesis 3). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Scripture also teaches that we all sin, so we are all a part of the problem (Romans 3:23). And we are also taught that all who sin die, so we all experience the suffering that sin brings (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

But not only this sin has opened the door for powerful forces of evil to rule this world, so that Satan is now called “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19). And even the non-human creation is disordered and broken due to sin as we read in Romans 8:20-22.

So suffering and death are symptoms of sin’s work and presence in the creation and in our lives.

2. But how sin and suffering are connected in our individual lives is complicated

How many times have you asked, “Why am I going through this suffering?” “What did I do?” We often think, “If I do good I shouldn’t suffer. It’s only when I do bad that I should suffer.” We think life in this world should be fair. But this isn’t how the fallen world works.

It can be true that when you sin, you will suffer immediate and specific consequences for itProverbs 10:4 tells us that “a slack hand causes poverty . . ..” If you don’t work, you will suffer lack. As a general rule, there are consequences. In Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 those who abused the Lord’s supper experienced sickness and death as a specific judgment from God for what they did. (See also John 5:14)

But not always!!! Yes, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7) but you may not experience the consequences or full consequences of your sin until the final judgment.

So there’s no automatic one-to-one correlation between your sin and your specific suffering in this life. There might be at times, but more often than not, I think, there isn’t.

Scripture talks about this when it asks, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (i.e. Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1). And we all know of people who are notoriously evil who live the good life and those who are relatively innocent who suffer greatly.

Here are some examples of the latter from Scripture:

  • Joseph suffered due to the sin of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and also due to Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him of sexual assault, which got him thrown into prison (Genesis 37-40)
  • Job’s suffering was terrible, but God specifically said it was not due to his sin. God described him as “a blameless and upright man” in Job 1:8
  • Jesus said of the man born blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
  • And of course, Jesus, the sinless one, was murdered on the cross.

Luke 13:1-5 says, “There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Jesus does not accept that much sin brings much suffering. There’s no one-to-one correlation between our sin and our suffering in this life.

As Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches us, life isn’t fair. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Rather, we are all caught in a complex web of sin where our actions affect each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even though our sin might not cause us specific suffering, it can cause others to suffer. For instance the drunk driver who walks away unharmed from an accident, but in the other car several people are killed. And in just the same way the sins of others can cause us to suffer

Think about it we’re all affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. We are born into a world full of sin and suffering. As I said before, Potiphar’s wife sinned, but it was Joseph who went to jail (Genesis 39). And if someone commits adultery, many people’s lives are wounded, not just those guilty of the sin. We have to acknowledge that we have all have sinned in ways that have damaged others and in turn we have suffered because of the sins of others.

3. But there’s hope!

Suffering is real. It’s not an illusion. But it isn’t linked to an endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. Nor is it woven into the fabric of the way things are. And because this is true, God can bring an end to suffering. God is able to overcome it.

In the present, God can use suffering to accomplish his purposes. As Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline (or times of difficulty and suffering) seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God can transform suffering to bring about his will. For instance, God used Joseph’s suffering. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4-5). His brothers did evil, but God brought good out of it. In like manner, God used Jesus’ suffering to bring us salvation.

And the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will bring an end to suffering. It’s hard to even know what life would be like without sin and suffering, but we have a portrait painted for us in Isaiah 25:6-8. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . ..”

On that day, we will say, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, referring back to Isaiah 23, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Suffering is not the final word. Sin, suffering and death will be no more.

4. Victory in the midst of our current suffering

Suffering will end, but until then we will still suffer in various ways. We live in the time of the “already and not yet.” The kingdom of God has come, but it’s not yet all the way here; redemption has come, but it’s not yet all the way here. We have the reality of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life by the Spirit of God. But not the fullness of it. This comes when Jesus returns, when evil is defeated and when all things are made new, including our bodies.

Until then Christians suffer the same kinds of things everyone else does. Paul says in 1 Corinthian 10:13 that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (NRSV). And Christians will also suffer in ways that are not “common” to all people – persecution for our faith.

We must beware of teachings that diminish the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we don’t have God’s power working in and through us now. And we must beware of teachings that exaggerate the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we need not suffer now because we are saved. One version of this is the so-called health and wealth gospel. Such things await the fullness of the kingdom.

Even though suffering will continue for now, Christians can experience victory in our suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “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.”

Since we know that God can use our suffering for good and we have hope for a future without suffering, we can have joy by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering (James 1:2-4, Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3-5).

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Mark 7:24-31

The literary structure of Mark 7:24-32

We’re back in the gospel of Mark, looking at the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in chapter 7:24-31.

Last week Jesus discussed with the Pharisees and his disciples the topic of what truly defiles someone – not extra Scriptural rules of ritual impurity, but the moral impurity of our hearts. In this story Jesus is in a land that’s unclean, dealing with a woman who was considered unclean and he casts out an unclean spirit from her daughter.

Let’s first look at –

The story

24And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus leaves where he has been in Galilee and goes north into new territory, somewhere around the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman A

This would have been the southern part of the Roman province of Syria or what we call today Lebanon (ancient Syrophoenicia).

And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know . . .

It looks like Jesus is once again looking for some solitude and rest. He’s been involved in heavy ministry for a time now – healing, teaching and having to argue with opponents. So perhaps he thought that in this Gentile area he could take a break. He wouldn’t be known here. There wouldn’t be mobs of people clamoring after him.

. . . yet he could not be hidden.25But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.

Jesus was found out!

Some from this area had traveled to Galilee to receive ministry from Jesus, as we saw in chapter 3 (v. 8), including casting out demons (v. 11). Perhaps they spread the word when they went home and now it has gotten out that Jesus is in their area.

In any case, this unnamed woman finds Jesus and falls down at his feet. Her daughter is demon possessed. We aren’t given any more details about how this manifested itself, physically or mentally. The focus of the story isn’t really the daughter, it’s on the mother and Jesus.

26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.

According to the way things were at this time, she had three strikes against her:

  1. She was a woman and social contact with a man who was not a part of her family could be seen as scandalous
  2. She was a Gentile, not a Jew; not a part of God’s people
  3. She was a Syrophoenician, from a people who were bitter enemies of the Jews.

But none of these obstacles stopped her.

And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

“She begged” can also be translated as “she kept begging.”

And according to Matthew’s version of this story it was so persistent and thus annoying that the disciples ended up begging Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:23). This is quite the scene with everybody begging Jesus. Not very restful!

Jesus responds to the woman with a parable.

27And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus is drawing on common sense experience. Everyone knows that the children are fed first, and then the dogs are fed. The application is that Jesus is focused on the Jews, God’s chosen ones who have waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled. This is what his ministry is about (Matthew 15:24). Focused ministry to the Gentiles will come later.

Now, this parable has been taken in the wrong way and it has upset some people. But Jesus is not saying that Gentiles are dogs. There’s little or no evidence that this was a common way that Jews spoke of Gentiles (Mark Nanos – Paul’s Reversal, 2008). And besides, Jesus uses the word for “dog” that means pets or puppies (and this is how the woman takes it, house pets – v. 28).

The point is not a difference in kind – Jews are children and Gentiles are dogs. The point is a difference in timing, first the Jews, then others. This is made clear by the word “first,” a chronological marker. This is what Paul meant, when he said in Romans 1:16 that he preaches the gospel “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

[Jesus has ministered to Gentiles already. But this is the only recorded story of Jesus helping someone outside the boundaries of traditional Israel. Perhaps this is why he raises this issue. There are some parallels with Elijah’s healing of a Gentile woman’s son (1 Kings 17:8-24)]

28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

First, notice that she addresses him as “Lord.” This is the only time someone does this in Mark’s gospel and it shows her understanding of who Jesus is.

And then she shows her intelligence and wit. She gets his parable, which the disciples usually do not. And then she goes on to make her own point. Even though the dogs eat later, sometimes the children drop crumbs and thus the dogs eat at the same time as the children. So based on Jesus’ own parable – it should be alright for her not to have to wait, but to receive some bread even now.

This woman reframed the discussion is such a way that allowed Jesus’ concerns to be acknowledged, but also allowed her to receive her request.

  • She isn’t asking for Jesus to neglect Israel, or to take anything away from them.
  • She’s just saying, “Since you’re already here in Gentile territory, why not a crumb?”

29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”

Jesus, the one who always bests his opponents in argument, is here bested by her.

Her statement shows her humility. She accepted her place as not-yet one of the elect; and not-yet the focus of Jesus’ ministry. And her statement demonstrates her bold and persistent faith. She did not allow Jesus’ “no” to stop her. But continued to make the case for her daughter.

In response to this humility and faith, Jesus readily healed her daughter, and that from a distance. (Perhaps having to do with concern about purity with entering a Gentile home).

v. 30 confirms the miracle –

30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

 Our story ends with v. 31 –

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

What do we learn from this story?

What about us?

1 . Be open to opportunities to minister to others. It wasn’t Jesus’ timing to minister to her. He was trying to get away from people and crowds, so he could rest. What does he do when he’s found out? He allowed his privacy to be invaded; he gave up some of his time of rest.

And we need to be open to this as well. You have one thing scheduled, and it’s a good thing. But someone comes along who needs help. Be open to this.

Also, it wasn’t Jesus’ focus to help her. God sent him to minister to the people of Israel (Matthew 15:24). She’s not a part of Israel. What does Jesus do? He raised the issue with her, but then he responded when he saw her humility and faith.

Things don’t always work according to our plans. In my church in Portland we worked at setting up a weekly meal for neighbors so that we could get to know them. We wanted all kinds of people to come. But it turned out that only the homeless came. We had not really planned on this; it wasn’t our focus. And I had no skills in this (although one of our workers did). But it opened up a season of ministry to this population in our area.

The same happened with immigrant Congolese Africans. We never sat down and said, “Hey, let’s begin this ministry.” It wasn’t our focus. But God gave it to us.

We need to be open to the opportunities that God brings across our path even if it’s not our focus or timing.

2. Approach God like this woman did.When you pray, learn from her. She was successful. What did she do?

She approached Jesus with humility:

  • she fell down at his feet
  • she accepted that she’s not-yet part of the elect and has no claim on him
  • she calls him “Lord,” an expression of submission.

Also, she approached Jesus with bold, persistent faith

  • she searched Jesus out while he was in hiding
  • she kept begging
  • she called him “Lord,” also an expression of faith
  • after Jesus said no, she responded boldly
  • and she knew that for him, casting out a demon was only a crumb – a small thing for him to do.

In your prayers, approach God with humility and faith.

3. Know that Jesus is able to help. As we saw in the story, he wasn’t able to stay hidden, but he was able to help.

He’s the Messiah and Savior. And he can take care of us. He can come through for us.

He overcame the power of the evil one in this mom’s daughter – as if it were nothing! From a distance. Without even saying a word. And he’s more than able to deliver us from all the powers of evil and sin that confront us.