Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thought Experiment #2: Light Momentary Affliction

Paul was, in his own words, a former blasphemer, persecutor and ignorant opponent of Jesus Christ.

That’s not Paul being humble. That’s simply factual.

Acts 8 tells us that before his encounter on the road to Damascus with the One he was persecuting, Saul ravaged the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women to have them imprisoned.

Later he explained to Timothy that his wickedness was not overlooked by God, but rather he was a recipient of God’s great mercy:
“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
I’m stuck on that little couplet there: “perfect patience”. What does that tell us?

Perfect Patience

For one thing, it suggests some time elapsed between Stephen’s martyrdom and the day the Lord Jesus responded to Saul’s blasphemy, persecution and ignorant opposition by revealing his glory and stopping Saul in his tracks. Bible Hub and Christian Bible Reference Site both estimate about three years passed, though we cannot be precise. And Luke seems to indicate that it was the death of Stephen that triggered Saul.

Not that God’s sovereignty was strained by Saul’s obsessive and destructive vendetta against believers. No mere man can frustrate God’s purposes. Not even in the short term. The verse that follows Luke’s description of the havoc caused by Saul says this:
“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
The Lord may have exercised perfect patience in not immediately removing Saul from the scene when he blasphemed and persecuted, but God also accomplished his purposes through Saul’s actions even as he opposed God. The effect of Saul’s efforts was to spread the gospel he hated even faster and further afield.

So to those who oppose God today, I say good luck with that.

In Raging Fury Against Them

Still, we would be unwise to minimize the suffering endured by members of the church during the period in which the Head of the Church displayed his perfect patience with their persecutor. Later in Acts, giving his testimony before King Agrippa, Paul is more expansive about the terrible things he did:
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
Paul also talks much later about being persecuted and being “given over to death” as light momentary affliction that prepares for us “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.

I can’t get my head around that. I’m terrified of pain. Physical, ongoing pain with no definite end in sight? I can’t even imagine. I don’t really aspire to suffer for the name of Christ. More like I aspire to aspire.

How can such physical suffering be “light” or “momentary”? And yet this is what the word of God says.

And we read that believing men and women were dragged off, locked up, threatened, tortured and even put to death for the name of Christ while he displayed his patience with Saul.

Greatly Invested

Those who have not walked with God long may wonder if that was entirely fair to the people who suffered.

But that little phrase, “perfect patience” tells us something else. It tells us God was eager to deliver his people from persecution. He was eager to make things right. Patience, let alone perfect patience, is not found in those who don’t care; those who are disconnected or uninvested emotionally. It is only necessary for those who delay responding either because there is nothing they can do (something never true of God), or more often because there is a greater good in view — a good that cannot be realized unless justice is deferred. And there was, in Saul’s case, a greater good to be realized in waiting patiently than in acting to prevent him.

When you are both infinitely caring and fully capable of solving every problem encountered by those you love with a mere word or thought, it takes perfect patience NOT to intervene on their behalf.

Standing at the Right Hand

I believe the Lord cares so much about his people that he had to hold himself back. I think that’s where the perfect patience comes in.

We are talking about the Almighty, so I’m not trying to be frivolous with human imagery here, but even the body language of the glorified Son of God tells us that the suffering of his saints matters immensely to him. I know this because we read over and over again that God has seated the Lord Jesus at his right hand in heavenly glory:
  • Mark says, “The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.”
  • Paul tells the Ephesians, “[God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”
  • The writer to the Hebrews says, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
According to Charles Spurgeon, the very same psalmist that wrote, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’ ” also penned these words:
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
Scripture says he is seated, but Stephen, in his dying moments, saw him standing. And to make sure we don’t miss it, the Holy Spirit tells us twice.

We stand up when it matters. I think the Lord does too.

We must not for a moment trivialize the emotional investment of the Lord Jesus in the suffering of his people, or imagine that allowing Saul the latitude to persecute the church suggests that the Lord does not care about human suffering.

The Perspective of the Sufferer

But few of these first century Jewish Christians who were imprisoned, beaten, tortured and died could have been expected to know that their suffering had a much greater end in view. They didn’t yet have many of the scriptures with which we are often comforted today. Perhaps some of them didn’t know quite how much their Saviour cared.

So, another little thought experiment then: What if you could know? What if you knew precisely what good God would bring from your suffering?

For instance, what if you knew for certain that your testimony during a six month stay in jail for standing up for your faith would be instrumental in leading five people you loved to the Lord? Would you do it? I know you would.

What if that testimony would save only one person you loved? I still think you would.

What if it was someone you don’t know, but you were guaranteed that your suffering and separation from your loved ones for a matter of days and months would be used to bring that person an eternity of blessing? I think many Christians would gladly do it, even if they didn’t know the person at all.

The Weight of Glory

I don’t know much about how those first century Christians lived and died, but I suspect if they knew the guilt building in Saul over the way he had treated the Body of Christ in any way contributed to his near-instantaneous conversion and to his subsequent almost superhuman commitment to the service of God, they might have said, as Paul later did, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death”.

They may have said something similar anyway.

Saul, after all, became the apostle Paul, pretty much the most effective missionary in the history of the Christian faith, and the author of much of the New Testament. The church today owes its understanding of the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to his perfect patience with Saul of Tarsus.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling my difficulty with suffering is less about the amount of actual pain involved, or even the precise duration of the pain. It’s more about my inability to see the potential good God might create from it.

I think Paul could use the words “light” and “momentary” about affliction because he could see and feel the weight of glory that came as a result of it.

I’d like to see what he saw.

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