Living life from the center of the story

I’ve often wished I could crawl into H.G Well’s time machine. Perhaps you have too, but our bodies anchor us to the present. Moving back in the past or getting a peak at the future is only available in science fiction.  Yet while we are physically bound within the limitations of time, our thoughts, emotions, and choices are not.

For instance the Christian is to be grateful that his sins of the past have been forgiven (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Likewise, he is to live his life with the end in view.

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:13-15).

You and I tend to live our lives from the center of our story. Such a temporal perspective will cause us to feel trapped by our circumstances. For instance, when things are going well, that’s great; but when things are difficult it’s easy to get discouraged.

When we read about biblical characters it’s easier for us to see the end of the story.

Here are a few examples:

  • We know that Moses will be used to split the Red Sea, and victoriously lead the Israelites out of Egypt; but we forget that he cared for sheep in the desert for 40 years first.
  • We read the letters of Paul, and know that they have ministered to millions of people, but we forget that they were written when Paul was facing beatings, danger, toil, and hardship (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

We live life from the center of the story, but our thinking is not trapped there. We must learn to set our eyes on the end of the story. When life is challenging today, remember God’s promises for tomorrow. Here’s one:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Is my pain and suffering God’s will for my life?

Those who teach a prosperity gospel leave little room for the place suffering has in the will of God for the believer. Granted, most of us would like a life without pain or difficulty. We would like to keep suffering at arm’s length if we could.

But two Biblical characters reveal that suffering may be a part of God’s will for all those who live in this fallen world: Jesus and Paul.

700 years before he was born, it was prophesied of Jesus:

Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Isaiah got even more specific in an often overlooked verse a little later in the chapter.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief. . . (Isaiah 53:10).

Ponder this: At some stage in his earthly life, Jesus’ human eyes fell upon that phrase.  It was the will of the Lord to crush him. Perhaps this was the stimulus for his remarkable submission in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus understood the will of God, and he realized that it involved suffering.

Jesus wasn’t alone in this understanding of suffering. Think about the first message the apostle Paul received upon his conversion. Ananias brought a message that must have seemed confusing at best; nevertheless, it had come directly from the Lord.

Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine, to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:15-16).

This should bring us hope. Does God want what’s best for us? Certainly.  See Psalm 84:11. Is he a loving and protective Father? Absolutely. See Psalm 91:1-4. But sometimes what is best for us might include a path we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. Sometimes that path might be the way of suffering, but it is a path we will not walk alone.

Jesus and the multitude

Jesus ministered to people groupings of various sizes. He interacted with the multitude, a small band of disciples, and then a select group of three disciples (Matt. 9:36; Luke 8:1; Mark 9:2).

What might we learn from examining Jesus’ interaction with these various groups?

There is no question that the multitudes were drawn to Jesus. Word spread rapidly in the Galilean villages of his abilities, and people came to see him.

But I believe we stop short when we only see Jesus’ ministry to the multitudes. Jesus looked at the masses of suffering people and felt something.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36 NLT). 

The word compassion translates the Greek word splanchnos. This is a word that sometimes refers to the bowels or kidneys. In this context some have translated it as “a gut-level compassion.”  Jesus saw hurting people and felt deeply for their desperation.

But Jesus not only felt something, Jesus did something. He encouraged the disciples to pray for more workers (9:37). He divided them up and sent them out (10:1-5). He prepared them for how difficult the task would be (10:5-42).

His compassion moved him to pray, think, plan, and make a difference. The point is: Jesus’ compassion was a thinking compassion. He didn’t just look at the multitudes and have a lump in his throat and a pain in his stomach. He looked, felt, and did.

How might we walk like Jesus in this matter?

Communication technologies have given us a window into the suffering world like never before. Through the internet you can see starving children in Mozambique, homeless families in Calcutta, orphans in Pakistan. When was the last time you did a Google image search on this kind of material? Or is your internet usage limited to checking the stock market, the home team’s stats, and chatting about the meaningless.

If Jesus had been born into our generation, I believe he would have studied the poor and hurting of this world. He would have felt deeply. He would have planned carefully. And he would have acted with urgency.

Jesus looked upon the multitude…and had compassion.

Help another and help yourself…

Heard an insightful statement the other day.

When you help dig someone out of a hole you find a place to bury your own problems.

Mel Johnston gave the counsel years ago, but it’s really good if your challenges seem great and your burdens seem heavy. Rather than always looking for help, try looking to help. This seems to be one of God’s intended purposes for the suffering we go through. Note the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer (2 Cor. 1:3-6)

Did you capture the phrase? So that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves were comforted by God. The word affliction in that passage comes from the word pressure. It can also be translated anguish, burdened, persecution, tribulation, trouble. Do those words describe your world? If so, Paul says, look to help another.

The advice sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. Perhaps you need to turn your gaze from inward to outward. Don’t just look at your own struggles; look to help someone else with theirs.

Who knows, you might discover that when you help dig someone out of a hole you find a place to bury your own problems.