Trusting God in the Face of Suffering

mp3 Audio: Trusting_God_in_the_Face_of_Suffering.mp3

This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois by Fr. Joseph Gleason.

Transcription and formatting by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services


Gospel Reading: 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Our God is One.

Have you ever had a frustrating morning? Do you get out of the right side of the bed? Everything starts fine. You start with a good attitude, and then the wheels start falling off before you even get out of the room. You have some place that you need to be in a hurry, some place that you really need to go, and it just seems like nothing is going right.

You can’t get the water hot to take your shower, and you have to keep going to re-light the water heater. Then you go in to get a little bit of breakfast, and you thought there was some breakfast there, but somebody else ate it; so now you’ve got to make something when you thought there would be something ready. Then everything just keeps going wrong.

Finally, just in time, you have like a minute left or you’re going to be late. So you go to your dresser to get your car keys, and, “Where are my car keys? They’re not even there! Who took my keys?” You scramble around, you look, and you get a little frustrated.

[You] lose your temper a little bit. You’re looking under everything. You’re looking by your desk, or, if you’re a girl, you’re looking through your purse just trying to find those keys, and they’re nowhere to be found. You know, “I’m late now. I’m late! I did everything I could do. I thought I knew where I had left them, but everything else went wrong. I got to this point, and I couldn’t find my keys.”

Finally, like five minutes later, you find them. So you race out the door, and you’re just praying, “Lord, what did I do wrong? Why did this have to happen to me?”

Not five miles down the road, you come upon a 30-car pile-up. There [are] people dead. There [are] ambulances and all kinds of flashing lights coming to the scene. You just bow your head and say:

God forgive me for complaining about losing my keys. If I had found my keys in time, if everything had gone ‘right’ this morning, I would be dead right now. Thank You for hiding my car keys. I’ll be late to my appointment, but I’m alive. I’m okay. What I thought [were] bad things happening to me – that was a gift of God! He was protecting me. He was saving my life, and I just didn’t see it at the time.

I will tell you the story of three people in Scripture: Joseph, Ruth, and the Apostle Paul.

Joseph

Joseph was a good son and a good brother, but his brothers were very jealous of him. They didn’t appreciate him. They didn’t appreciate the gifts that God had given him. The hatred burned within their hearts so badly that they finally made up their minds to kill him.

But at least some semblance of sense prevailed in one of the brothers, and he said, “Look, let’s not kill him. Let’s just go easy on him and sell him as a slave. Instead of putting him to death, let’s let him be a slave for the rest of his life in some foreign country and never see his family again. That’s better than killing him.”

We read in the Psalms about him being a slave for so many years, about him being in prison for so many years. It says in the Psalms that the iron of those chains entered into his very soul [CF Psalm 104 (105, MT):18].

I’m not just talking about being kidnapped for a weekend.
I’m not even talking about nine months of being captured, and caught, and imprisoned, and then finally released.
I’m talking about twenty years of your life unjustly enslaved, unjustly imprisoned. It wears on you so hard that the iron of your chains finally enters into your soul.

But you know the rest of the story. While [Joseph] is in prison, he interprets some dreams correctly, because the Lord gives him the interpretation. One of those men talked to Pharaoh and said, “Pharaoh, you had these troubling dreams. I know somebody that can help you.” By the grace of God, [Joseph] does help Pharaoh, and Pharaoh responds by raising him up in power to second place in the entire kingdom.

Through that new-found power that he has, knowing that famine is coming, for the next seven years, he works as a leader in Egypt to store up lots and lots of food. Through that food that he stores up, he brings the nation of Egypt itself to great power as people trade in their land, their possessions, and their money for grain over the seven years of drought. And he brings salvation to his father and to his brothers, the very ones who had sold him into slavery! They don’t starve to death, because their brother, whom they had sold into slavery, saved up enough food so that they could eat.

Eventually, his father Jacob dies, and then the brothers are in fear thinking, “He was nice to us while Dad was alive, but now that Dad’s gone, he’s going to take revenge on us.” Joseph told them not to fear. He said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. He is the one who sent me ahead of you so that many lives might be saved” [CF Genesis 45:7]

Half-way through the story, Joseph’s story seems hopeless.
Joseph’s story seems senseless.
It seems unjust.

How could such a righteous person be allowed to go through that kind of suffering? Why would God permit something like this?

God didn’t just permit it. He sent [Joseph] into it! It humbled him. It purified his soul. Ultimately, it was the path of suffering by which he walked to bring salvation to God’s people. This is a precursor of Christ Himself. “You meant it for evil. God meant it for good.”

By the end of his life, you don’t get the picture that Joseph had any regrets. You don’t hear Joseph grumbling, whining, complaining, and saying, “Lord, why did you let me go through that? I can’t believe you let me – ME! – go to prison and slavery. That’s just not right!” You don’t hear any complaints. All you hear from Joseph’s mouth is praise, thanking God, glorifying God, giving God recognition for working a great miracle through his own hands because of the suffering that he had endured.

Ruth

Look at Ruth. Don’t skip to the end of the story, to the happy parts. Take just a minute to put yourself in her shoes in just the first few verses.

She’s a Moabite woman. She is born outside of God’s people, raised in a nation where they sacrificed children to the pagan god Chemosh. Already, the deck is stacked against her. She’s raised in the midst of filth, idolatry, wickedness.

Because of another famine, because of another case where God withholds the rain, Naomi and her sons find themselves no longer living in Israel but living in this foreign land, the land of Moab. This [is the] land of people that are the descendants of Lot’s incest with his daughters.

Ruth marries one of the sons of Naomi. He works for years. He takes care of her. Then he dies.

Have you ever lost a loved one? Your husband? Your wife? Your child? Your parent? Your grandparent? You know what that feels like.

Can you imagine her anguish? Can you imagine her desolation? Now, her mother-in-law Naomi says, “There’s nothing left for me here. I’m going back home.”

Ruth and the other girl Orpah, both of them say, “You’re not going back alone. We’re going with you. Both of us. We are going to follow you back to Israel. We want to be with you, Naomi. We love you.”

Naomi says, “No. No, girls. This is your home. You were born here. Your family’s here. You’re from here. You stay here. You find some other man to marry. I don’t have any other sons, and even if I could bear a son now, would you wait twenty or thirty years until he was a man to provide for you?”

Upon hearing this counsel, Orpah hugs her mother-in-law and goes back into Moab, and we never hear from her again.

Ruth says, “I will not leave you. Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God. Wherever you go, I will follow.” [CF Ruth 1:16-17].

She follows Naomi back to Israel, and they don’t find themselves with any great land, or riches, or name. No!

She doesn’t even have somebody to go and bring food so that she has something to eat. She has to work hard gleaning.

Have you ever gleaned? See, they didn’t have eight-row John Deere tractors 3,000 years ago in ancient Israel. Harvesting alone was hard work. Harvesting meant that you’d go out with a big blade, and you’d chop down wheat, and you’d carry these bundles of wheat. You’d go back. You’d thresh it. The chaff blows away. You’d have this grain left, and you’d scoop up the grain, and you’d grind that into flour. After you’ve ground that into flour, then finally you can make bread out of it. It was a lot of work to go from harvesting to food. Gleaning was even harder!

See, harvesting, you’re going to a field that’s full of grain. Gleaning means somebody else has already gone over the whole field to harvest the grain. You come to that field, and you cover every square inch of that field just seeing if they left something, trying to find a spare cob of corn, or a spare green bean, or in this case, some spare grain that the harvesters had missed.

So she has to work extra hard gleaning, looking all over this field for any grain that is dropped, any grain that has been missed, any grain that was left behind so that she can pick this up and take it back and thresh it, [let the] chaff blow away, get the grain that’s left, take it back home, and pray to God that it’s enough so that she and Naomi can have something to eat – and not just something to eat but something to save.

You only get a harvest once a year, and it has to last you for twelve months. She was working her fingers to the bone just so they could survive, just so they could eat something.

To have your beloved husband die, to go live with your mother-in-law in a foreign land that you didn’t grow up in, and to have to work your fingers to the bone just to get a tiny loaf of bread on the table – does that sound like a good life? Does that sound like what you want for yourself and your wife and your children? Does that sound glorious? Does that sound easy?

Do you ever hear Ruth complain? Do you ever hear her say, “Woe is me! I don’t deserve this. God is just not being good to me.” You see, God was very good to her.

You all know this story. There was a practice in Israel at the time that if an Israelite man died and left no children to his bride, the next of kin could marry her and raise up children in the name of the Israelite who had passed away.

There was a very good, godly man named Boaz. By the grace of God, Ruth came to glean in Boaz’s field. That’s how they met! This gleaning that seemed so cruel, and unjust, and tough: That’s how she met Boaz!

She was gleaning in his field, and he saw this beautiful woman gleaning in his field. He said, “I’m going to protect her.” He told her, “You don’t go to any other field. You glean here, and I am going to tell all the men who work for me not to touch you.” He showed himself honorable. He protected her.

Then he even told the people harvesting, “Every so often, just drop a bundle of grain, and just leave it.” He lightened her burden. He didn’t embarrass her by going right up to her and handing her all of this food, but he made sure that there would be plenty of food there for her to glean easily.

Fast forward to the end of the story. He takes her as his bride. She again finds love. She again finds a husband. This time, she’s not a Moabitess in Moab. She is an Israelite in Israel worshiping Israel’s God, and God blesses her womb with conception. She bears a child, and not just any child! It is a little boy named Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David.

If she had not lost her husband, she never could have married Boaz. If she had not left Moab and gone to this foreign land called Israel, she wouldn’t have met Boaz. If she hadn’t been gleaning in the fields, working her fingers to the bone just to eat, she wouldn’t have met Boaz. But because, by the grace, and love, and mercy of God she met Boaz, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Jesus Christ Himself.

That’s right! By going through just a few short years of suffering, Ruth, the Moabitess, becomes and ancestor of God.

I doubt if she ever complains about that. I bet she is pretty happy about the mercy, and the love, and the care that God showed to her by putting her through those experiences so that she might arrive where she did.

Saint Paul

Now, let’s look at the great Apostle Paul. He is great. He is a great example of repentance.

Here he had been persecuting Christians, and now, he is preaching Christ to the nations.

He’s a road warrior for years traveling everywhere. He endures great suffering. He’s been whipped. He’s been scourged. He’s been imprisoned. He’s been stoned and left for dead. He’s been bitten by a viper and not hurt by it. He’s seen great visions of God. God has lifted him up and shown him glorious things in heaven which are so amazing that it is not even allowed for them to be spoken on earth!

In today’s Epistle that Subdeacon Jeremy read to us, we read something else. He says, “A messenger of Satan was sent to buffet me” [CF 2 Corinthians 12:7]. “To buffet me” means “to beat me up.”

Have you ever felt like Satan paid a visit, or the devil paid a visit to your house? Have you ever felt like maybe a demon or two were assigned for a while to come buffet you and beat you up physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, with your relationships? Well, whether demons have been assigned to you or not, it says in Scripture that one of them was assigned to Paul.

It was so bad that the Apostle himself three times begged God, “Take this away. It hurts too bad. This is more suffering than I can bear. I don’t know how to stand up under this. Please, please, take this away.” And God said, “No. Don’t ask again.”

If we stopped right there, we might say, “Is God without power? Is He a weak God? Is He unable to save?” No. We know that can’t be right. At the very name of Jesus, the demons flee! At the sign of the Cross, they tremble. At the word of Jesus, a whole legion of demons departed a man and drowned 2,000 pigs in the sea!

This little measly demon that is persecuting, and buffeting, and beating up Paul would be no match for Jesus Christ. Jesus would not even have to lift His little finger for that demon to depart.

So it is with every problem in your life – every bout of the flu, every stomach pain, every bad report from the doctor, every pain in your back, every nasty phone call from a relative or a friend, every time you look at the bank account and there’s just not enough numbers in it to get you through. Every time something difficult happens, Jesus would not even have to lift His little finger to make that problem go away.

“Well, if He’s not lacking in power, is He lacking in love? God who is Love? Has He forgotten me? Does He just not care? Is He not willing to take away this pain that I feel so deeply? Please, make it stop!”

Paul was suffering greatly at the hands of this demon that had been sent to beat him up. He asked God three times to take it away, and God said no.

But if it’s not because God lacks the power; and it’s not because God lacks the love, and the tenderness, and the mercy, and the care; then why would He say no? Why would God send this messenger of Satan to buffet him? Why would God not make this messenger of Satan go away?

Paul gives us the reason. Paul said, “This was a sign to me so that in the midst of all of these glorious things that I am experiencing – these revelations from God, these visions of heaven, these miracles that are happening at my very hands, 2/3 of the New Testament coming out of my own hand – this messenger of Satan was sent to buffet me so that I might be humbled, so that I might not have pride. If I experienced all these glories of God, the glories of His Church and His saints, and this messenger of Satan were not sent to buffet me, my pride would rise up and I would think, ‘I’m Paul. I’m awesome. Look at me! I’m the greatest of all the Apostles. Yeah, John, you write five books of the Bible. Right. I wrote like nearly three times that many. Yeah. I know, Stephen, you were stoned in Acts Chapter 7. That was all well and good, but do you realize how many times I’ve been stoned for Christ? I survived it! You didn’t.'”[1]

See, that is the danger: When glorious things, wonderful things happen to you, there is a temptation. The devil wants to put a hook in and get you and say, “Okay, that’s great. You pray all the time. You know the Scriptures backwards and forwards. You worship all the time. You bring lots of people into church. Great! Be proud of it!”

What was the very first sin? Pride. 

The greatest and most beautiful archangel of all – the glorious, holy, godly Lucifer – was in heaven with God, with the angels in glory beholding the Uncreated Light. But somewhere, he got hold of a mirror. He made the mistake of looking in it, and he said, “Wow. I’m fantastic. I’m wonderful. Look at me! Wait a minute. There’s millions here under me, but there is One up here that’s sitting in a more glorious spot than I am – the throne of God! I will rise up on the heights. I will sit in that chair. I will be like the Most High.” Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”

The devil doesn’t have to get you to commit adultery.
The devil doesn’t have to get you to steal anything.
The devil doesn’t have to get you to beat your kids or your wife.
The devil doesn’t have to get you to bow down in front of some pagan idol.
All he has to do is get you to be his child and to repeat his original sin. 

Pride is death! Humility is life!

This is humility. Pride says, “I don’t care that I’m a creature. I want to be raised up, and I want to be like God.” Humility says, “I’m already God, and I am going to humble myself to death on a cross just so I can save My people because I love them so much.”

If you want to be like God, then humble yourself. If you want to be like the devil, then have pride.

God knew that pride is what killed Satan. God knew that pride is what killed Adam and Eve. God knew that pride was at the root of every single sin, every act of fornication, adultery, murder, theft that had ever happened in the history of the world.

And God saw the danger that would occur if pride got its hooks into the soul of the Apostle Paul. God loved the Apostle Paul, and God had mercy on the Apostle Paul. Because He loved Paul, because He had mercy on him, He wanted to save him from death. Because He wanted save Paul from death, He wanted to save Paul from pride. Because, in His mercy and love, He wanted to save Paul from pride, a messenger from Satan was sent to buffet him.

You may not know the reason for whatever suffering you endure in life, but remember:

For those twenty years that Joseph was in prison and a slave, he didn’t know why. He found out later.

For all those years that Ruth was grieving for her dead husband and gleaning her fingers bloody in those fields just looking for something to eat, she didn’t know why.

Until the third time that Paul asked God, he didn’t understand why he was having to endure getting beat up by a demon.

This is the difference between trusting your Father in Heaven and grumbling against your Father in Heaven. He has not yet given us to know why, but He has shown us His heart on the Cross. He has shown us how much and how deeply and how eternally He loves us. He has given us these examples in sacred Scripture.

I forget exactly how the saying went, but there was this one particular African tribe, and they had a habit. Not just one or two, but everybody in the tribe, when they were walking down the road, if they stumbled or tripped and hit their toe on a rock, before they continued on their journey, they would turn around and thank the rock. They wouldn’t cuss at it. They wouldn’t become angry. They would say, “Thank you, rock, for protecting me from whatever it would have been that I would have run into had I gone on my way faster. Thank you for delaying me so that I am protected from whatever evil is ahead.” Then they’d continue on their journey.

See, with that kind of mentality, they wouldn’t get so upset when they couldn’t find their car keys. You’d look and hunt and then realize that,

“Maybe God is protecting me from something. I’m not going to get mad about it. I’m still going to look for them, and as soon as I find them, I’m getting in my car. I’m just going to thank God. I don’t know why that happened this morning. I’m not going to get frustrated over it, because I believe that God is watching over me every second, every minute, and He is protecting me not just from stuff out there, but from the sin in here – inside me. He knows if I need to be buffeted so that I might be humbled. He knows if I need to go through some difficult times so that I learn something important about the spiritual life.” 

It makes us really think carefully about Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (NKJV).

“Are you telling me that the person that abandoned me, that has never forgiven me and left this wound in my heart – are you telling me that that was for my good?” 
All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose!

“Yeah, but you don’t understand. When I was a child, I was abused. You don’t understand how brutally!”
All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called. . .

“But one time, we ran out of money. I had to go three days without food, and we didn’t have any running water, and there was no electricity, and I was sick. . .”
All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. What part of ‘all’ don’t you understand?

“But how could it be for my good?”
Joseph didn’t know how when he was in prison. Ruth didn’t know how while she was gleaning. The first couple of times, Paul didn’t know how that demon was helping him.

Now, it’s not automatic. Notice [that] it does not say, “All things work together for the good of everybody.” If you don’t love God, it’s not going to work for your good.

You’re going to grumble. You’re going to complain. You’re going to curse God. You’re going to die, and we will not be able to say that all things worked together for your good. It’s not automatic.

All things work together for the good of those who love God. That’s the magic. That’s the key. If you fill your heart with such a gratitude, such a love for God, such a trust in His goodness and care for you, then any grumbling and complaining will just disappear. It will evaporate.

Any difficulties you go through: Instead of being upset about them, you’ll still hurt. You’ll still pray for relief, and God eventually will send it, but in the meantime, you will just trust, “This must be a Joseph year. It feels like I am in prison. Thank you, Lord. I don’t know why yet, but thank you, Lord.”

“Man. I feel like I’m gleaning like Ruth.”
Well, praise God! You’re about to meet Boaz!

“I feel like a demon is attacking me!”
Well, maybe that’s because God loves you just as much as He loves Paul. He’s not going to let you fall into pride any more than He was going to let Paul fall into it, because God doesn’t want you to die. He doesn’t want you sin. He doesn’t want you to turn your back on him. God in His wisdom knows – we point at the Cross again – God knows what good can come from suffering if it is directed and received in love for the Father.

“Does that mean that we should seek out all the suffering that we can get?” Absolutely not. You don’t go hunt for it. You don’t go look for it. But when it comes, and it will, you simply trust God. You love God. You fill your heart with gratitude to God for his care for you; and you pray, trusting God that, in His good time, when He knows you’re ready, that he will bring comfort.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Our God is One.


REFERENCES

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:7 (NKJV from Orthodox Study Bible): And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me lest I become exalted above measure.


This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 15, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois by Fr. Joseph Gleason.

Transcribed and formatted for publication by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services offers full-service secretarial support to Orthodox clergy and communities.

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9, Fr. Joseph Gleason, Joseph, Pride, Ruth, Saint Paul, Suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

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