Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Suffering and Spiritual Growth

What about suffering? Is there any benefit to it? Absolutely. Suffering is often God's way of perfecting us. Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered. James wrote that suffering leads to endurance, which results in maturity in Christ; therefore we should rejoice in it (James 1:2-4). Thus, much suffering has redemptive value. But what about the mental and emotional suffering we've been discussing? Is that suffering also redemptive? Once again, Jesus our friend sets the pattern" He experienced suffering of all kinds so He could identify with us and we would know He understands our plight (see Hebrews 4:15-16). He learned obedience through suffering (see Hebrews 5:8). God brought Him to human maturity not through memorizing a few truths, but through a day-by-day process of learning to obey even when it didn't seem to make sense. He promises to be "with us" in the midst of our suffering (see Isaiah 41:10-13). We never need fear being alone. One of my client I'll call Robert demonstrated the redemptive aspects of suffering after he came to me in deep anguish. As a child, he suffered harsh discipline and even abuse. This led him into the homosexual lifestyle. He told me that because of his long-term childhood abuse, "I rejected God's ordained gender for me. I believed I was a woman trapped in a man's body. I considered myself to be an abomination to God rather than a son." He often called himself a "sideshow freak" and didn't think God could possibly look on him, let alone love him. Over time, he grew into an adult who sinned habitually in the homosexual lifestyle, breaking the commandment of God. He told me, "The sin in my life led to emotional withdrawal and attempted suicide. This put me in the hospital many times where I suffered hopeless thoughts and feelings, convinced I was incurable." The idea that he was truly a woman in a man's body was actually reinforced by counselors, psychiatrists, and hospital staff. One Christian psychiatrist told him he was hopeless and should simply reconcile himself to his condition. He kept trying, but real purpose, love, peace, joy, hope, and faith eluded him. He was deeply depressed and suicidal when I began to work with him Robert's freedom came through a process. He and I met one hour per week for a year. Each time we met I would ask him to give me a report about what the Lord was teaching him through the Scriptures that week. One session Robert exclaimed, "Jesus really likes me. This past week He said that to me through His Word." He reported two passages were especially helpful, Psalm 73:23-24 and Isaiah 58:11. Believing that God can help. For the first time, at age forty-five, Robert began to believe God could help him, and even do the impossible of enabling him to overcome his obsession with feeling like a woman inside. He began to see that nothing was impossible with God. He told me later, "I believed the lies that my problems were far too great for the Lord and that I was so wicked that the Lord would never want to have a relationship with me." Satan had bound him in a terrible prison of lies that could only be broken by the truth of God's love and Jesus' fellowship in his sufferings. He entered a steep battleground, but at the end emerged whole and renewed. The strangest part of the story is that Robert's father was a pastor and denominational leader. For years, Robert saw his father's religion as superficial. Inside the home, the father was angry and abusive. The effect on Robert was that he believed salvation was something external, never reaching the inner man. I spent much time convincing him that Christ cared about everything in his life and that He wanted to be a part of every aspect of his life, to transform him into the image of Himself. One day, Robert gave me a letter in which he described the transformation that was underway. It said, in part, "The Lord is repairing the gate of my heart, rebuilding the walls, removing the obstructions to the fountain, cultivation the garden, cleansing the sanctuary, taking His seat in the throne room, fortifying the armory, and filling the treasury. For the first time in my life I have hope. While I cannot say right now that I am fully restored, I am growing in faith and have peace and joy for the first time in my life." Robert is being renewed in his mind as he lets the Holy Spirit control his life. Robert now knows he is a man and feels he is a man. Some questions. Using Robert as the example, let's ask some questions: Did God send suffering to Robert because he was a vile sinner? No, he was a child when these things began happening. Did God inflict him because God ceased to love him? No, rather He used Robert's suffering to lead him to Himself and to that love. Did God tell Robert he didn't have enough faith? No, instead God led him to real faith. God used Robert's suffering in a redemptive way. Robert was responsible for his sin before God, yet God did not condemn him, but rather used that sin to bring conviction and lead Robert to real faith and a real relationship with Him. Through Jesus his friend and counselor, Robert saw that his suffering has a purpose in the eyes of God. It was profitable and good for him, not something to be ignored or brushed over as worthless pain he should strive to escape as soon as possible. Dr. Ken Copley is available for counseling, conferences, and local church meetings.

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