One tough marathon

B2B_North-Brother5-1-1030x413Over the weekend Bonny Hills, where we live, was filled with people and festivities. Saturday featured the Back to Bonny’s community events with market stalls, historical displays, music, dancing, surf carnivals, a gala dinner, and more. Sunday saw another lesser-known event passing through our village. A crazy event really—the Beach to Brother Marathon.

This is no ordinary marathon. It’s a combination of 5km, 10km, half marathon, team marathon, and personal marathon, all in one. But the distinctive of this event is the terrain. It begins at Town Beach in Port Macquarie and continues on coastal trails, on beach sand, around back streets, on single tracks, and ends by climbing a mountain.

That’s the crazy bit. If it’s not hard enough to complete a ‘normal’ marathon, this one finishes by climbing 500 metres in only 3.7km of track. That’s an incline of more than 13.5 percent. We’ve driven up North Brother a number of times because it affords spectacular panoramas from the summit. The drive is 5 kms and it seems like an endless incline. And that’s only 10 percent incline and in a car! The run is even steeper, and it’s the last thing people do.

Why do they do it? I don’t know! But I suspect that a win for all involved is simply to finish. To be able to say they’ve completed the Beach to Brother.

The Bible describes life as a marathon. The focus for Christians is to get to the end and receive the prize. I’ve been looking at the Letter of James lately, and we read this in chapter 1 verse 12:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

In the context of persevering under trials, James says it makes sense to keep going. It makes sense to endure when things get really tough. It makes sense to keep going in the face of opposition and difficulty. And it’s the prize at the end that makes sense of it all.

If this life is all there is, and it’s too hard to keep going, and the pain is overwhelming, and the suffering relentless, then it makes sense to give up. Surely avoiding pain and difficulties and trials is the smart thing to do. Why struggle if you don’t have to?

But, if this life is not all there is, if Jesus has risen from the dead, if there is a judgment to come, if faithfulness to God counts for anything, if trusting in Jesus is our only hope, then stay the course, keep on going, endure until the end. This makes abundant sense. God has promised a crown of life to those who love him. Do you love him?

In ancient times those who finished the marathon received a crown, more like a wreath. It would be an honour to wear such a prize, but it wouldn’t last long. By contrast God promises a crown of life. Keep going until the end because death is not the end. It may be the finish line in this marathon we are running, but there is life to follow. And this life is eternal in nature.

There’s something else about the Beach to Brother that gives me cause for concern. It doesn’t get easier as you go along. It gets harder, and the toughest part is at the end. I suspect this too could be a warning for those who follow Jesus. If we are going to stay the course, not give in to temptation, and continue to put Jesus first, then the toughest paths may well be yet to come. Perhaps your life has been pretty easy until now. If so, don’t let the past be a predictor of the future. Maybe you’ve been doing it tough for some time, then stay focused, it’s not over yet.

Most entrants to the Beach to Brother do the race as a team. There are transition points along the course where you can pass to another runner. A smart move, I reckon. The team runs for the prize together. That sounds more my scene—so long as I could get a flat stretch of beach! Another lesson for Christians: Don’t try and navigate life’s trials on your own. God gives us brothers and sisters. Following Jesus was never intended to be a individual event. We run together, support each other, and draw our strength from God who gives us the power of his Holy Spirit. Stay in touch with your support team and don’t stop until you reach that finish line.

Suffering well

I’ve got vague memories of reading this book back in January/February this year. This isn’t a slight on the book, because I’ve only got vague memories of doing anything in that period! The early cancer months are something of a blur. Last week I read Suffering Well: the predictable surprise of Christian suffering by Paul Grimmond (again?). It’s a topic I felt I understood pretty well. The suffering bit anyway. Not so sure about the well. It was natural that I’d gravitate towards a book like this, as I’ve felt the last couple of years have been shaped by suffering of many kinds. A life-threatening car accident, cancer, serious illness in hospital, having our dreams of ministry in Darwin dashed. So what is God doing? What am I to learn?

The title sounds like an oxymoron – predictable surprise. And I think it is. It comes as a surprise only if we don’t grasp God’s word on this topic. If we soak ourselves in the Scriptures then there is something very predictable about suffering. God tells us to expect suffering. We live in a world subjected to futility and frustration. It’s been that way ever since the first man and woman decided to try and live without God.

20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (Romans 8:20-22)

And there’s a specific suffering for those who are following Jesus. We’re warned to expect that we will suffer and be persecuted for our allegiance to Jesus.

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,  (Philippians 1:29)

 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  (2 Timothy 3:12)

Suffering Well begins by highlighting the prevailing views about suffering and God in Western society. This is the cultural environment in which we experience suffering and it’s the tape that plays in our heads as we grapple with understanding our experiences. It goes something like this:

In our brave new world, suffering means that God is immoral and that Christians are immoral. Our only hope is a world freed from the Christian God, in which humanity invents its own understanding of right and wrong, guided by reason alone.  (p28)

Grimmond calls us to think from the Bible’s perspective about human suffering. He shows that the way to handle suffering well is to see through God’s eyes and to follow Jesus, whatever comes our way.

This book isn’t a theodicy, but it does show us God’s character in the face of suffering. We’re reminded that God is God and doesn’t have to give an account to us. However, God is revealed as a God of justice and a God of mercy. He can be trusted even when we have no specific explanation for our difficult circumstances. God’s character is shown most clearly in his willingness to personally embrace the suffering of our world. God became one of us and experienced the problems of injustice, sickness, death, persecution and betrayal. Jesus took on human sinfulness and paid the ultimate price on the cross, that God might offer us free forgiveness. These famous words reveal a God who can be trusted, even with suffering:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)

This books focuses on showing that the New Testament has more to say about suffering for Jesus, than it does with discussing cancer, AIDs, warfare and famine. I found this confronting, as I often find myself focusing more on my sickness than on how I’m being treated as a follower of Jesus. Like many modern Christians, I’m tempted to say that I haven’t experienced much specific Christian suffering or persecution. But the big questions are, ‘What might keep me from persevering as a follower of Jesus?’ ‘Where are the threats to my faith?’ It’s worth contemplating carefully these words:

The great danger for Christians living in the West, is not physical death at the hands of persecutors, but the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises, crouched at our door waiting to devour us.  (p97)

Sickness, suffering and death are the realities of our world. Christians will continue to be reviled because they trust in a persecuted, suffering Saviour. The key to suffering well is to keep our eyes focused upon Jesus. He’s the one who died for our sin and who was raised to life to be the ruler of God’s new creation. In Jesus, there is genuine hope for the future – hope for our futures – a future free from all suffering. For those trusting in Jesus, nothing can separate us from sharing in the fulfilment of this hope.

This book pushed me to refocus my thinking about suffering. It said it would – and it succeeded! There are a couple of issues I’d like to see explored further. The first is the link between general suffering in this world and the impact this can have on continuing to trust Jesus. My experience was that the weakness of my body, being confronted by my own mortality, and the feelings of grief and depression, all contributed to a personal crisis of faith in the early months of this year. The second issue is the question of links between specific sin and suffering. I confess to being unsatisfied with most explanations of James 5 and the links between sin, confession and healing, but these can be explored further on another occasion.

Overall, I found this a helpful book. It is full of Scripture and it models the way we should seek to live – by listening to God’s word. It calls us to look to Jesus, to follow him come what may, and to trust God in life and in death.

Whenever suffering comes along – of whatever kind – the right way to deal with it lies in staying true to Christ.  (p112)

You can find this book at Matthias Media.

Consider it pure joy

Sickness, loneliness, trouble at work, struggles in marriage, financial pressure, wayward children, car accidents, overlooked for promotion, slandered, mocked, imprisoned, persecuted. Who wants a piece of that… any of it? And yet James writes in the Bible:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…  (James 1:2)

What was he thinking?! And he doesn’t simply say, look on the bright side, cheer up, things will get better. He says to consider it pure joy (or all joy) whenever you face trials. And he doesn’t restrict the range of trials. I take it this covers pretty much the full spectrum of nasty things that could happen to you. How do you adopt such a view of life? And is this any different to the power of positive thinking?

Perhaps we need to consider the meaning of joy. The temptation is to equate joy with happiness or a bubbly personality or a permanent smile. But joy runs deeper than an emotional response. It has to do with contentment and trust and confidence. In James’ words he calls us to a thinking response more than an emotional response. He’s not telling us how to feel about the trials we’re experiencing, he’s telling us how to think about our circumstances, to consider it pure joy when we face various trials. But why?

…because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:3)

The experience of facing trials puts our faith to the test. It shows up what’s real and not real. Theoretical faith is no faith at all. Genuine faith is shown by it’s action, it’s fruit, the changes it produces. And the real test is perseverance, keeping on when things are tough, and finishing the race.

Sadly, I know a number of people who have claimed to have faith in God, who’ve claimed to be Christian, who have said most of the right things… but when pain and difficulties and trials have come along their faith has proved wanting. Perhaps they were presented with a false picture of God – one where he’d remove anything undesirable – and it didn’t stand up to their experience. Maybe they hadn’t really come to the point of trusting God at all. When life is good, when we’re healthy, wealthy and happy, it’s easy to think we’re in control and not bother trusting in God.

Trials of various kinds give us the opportunity to live out our faith, to demonstrate a faith that works. I would never have planned it this way, but my experiences with cancer over the past year have given me many reasons to examine my faith and look again to God. Will I trust God with what I do not like? Can I be contented and joyful in the midst of painful chemotherapy? Can I count it as pure joy to have an ‘incurable’ lung cancer? Please note, I’m not saying that the cancer is a good thing. God is sovereign over all, but he teaches me that cancer, disease and death is part of this cursed world that he will ultimately restore. I don’t go looking for trials, but they will come and the question is how I respond when they do.

I’ve had a number of people say to me that they’ve been observing my faith more closely since I’ve got sick. They’ve heard me preach and teach and counsel people over the years, but now they are watching how I respond personally? Is my faith really real? Does it stand up? Will I persevere or turn away? My prayer is that I will persevere as my faith is tested and consider it pure joy when I face these and other trials, because of what God is doing through them.

One of my problems is that I’m so short sighted. All I can see is the immediate trial. Right now, it’s the effects of chemo: the headaches and nausea and rashes and fatigue. Another time it’s the struggle of a difficult relationship, or the criticism of others, or my disappointment in myself. God is calling me to get the bigger picture, to grasp his perspective. James continues…

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  (James 1:4)

The God who reveals himself in the Bible doesn’t promise health and prosperity… in this life. He doesn’t say that he will remove all our suffering and take away all our pain… in this life. But we can be confident that God is at work in all situations. He is growing our faith muscles against the resistance of trials and difficulties. He is strengthening us to persevere through the trials, that we might become mature and complete in him.

Do I always have this perspective? Sadly, no. Sometimes the end is hard to see behind all the hurt and the pain. And at these times God promises to help.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5)

This is a wonderful promise. When we’re blinded to the truth of God at work in our lives, we should ask God for wisdom to see things more clearly, to see things through his eyes. And he promises to give generously. God knows it’s hard, he knows it hurts, he knows we’re weak, and he doesn’t find fault. He gives us the wisdom needed to be able to count it pure joy.

When I was younger I remember singing the song, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. It’s a great song, but I think this second verse means more to me now than it did back then…

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

And so I will pray…

Heavenly Father,
Please give me the wisdom to see things your way.
Please help me to look beyond my current circumstances,
to be reminded that you are working within me,
to strengthen my faith,
to enable me to persevere,
and grow into maturity.
I ask that you will help me consider it pure joy as I face my trials.
Amen