THE CHRISTIAN RACE AS AN OBSTACLE RACE
THE CHRISTIAN AND SUFFERING
"Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: And ye have forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons, My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art reproved of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness. All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous: yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness" (Heb. 12:4-11).
PERSEVERE! Keep running! Hold out to the end! Do not give up or be disheartened! Never look back, but press on towards the mark! With the same freshness as you began at the starting-point, remain steadfast until the goal. Only thus is it possible to gain the prize in the arena, only thus to be crowned. This is the message of the whole Hebrews letter, especially of Hebrews 12.
God is the heavenly Umpire of the race. In His infinite wisdom He has placed obstacles in our way, not indeed to hinder our course, but to test our devotion, to keep us earnest, watchful and persevering, to strengthen our spiritual energy.
Thus the runner's race in the' arena of faith is an "obstacle race." There are difficulties and sufferings. Hindrances block our way. But everything is overruled by the perfect love, wisdom and power of the Divine Umpire. And the harder the conflict, the more glorious the prize for the victor!
Suffering must be regarded from the viewpoint of eternity. Only thus can one recognize its high value. Suffering is not something superfluous or even something that disturbs or restricts our real life and eternal profit. "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord" (v. 5). We must pay due regard to all the dark mysteries and perplexities of life, for in all of them, in the last analysis, we find-GOD!
He who does not view suffering from God's standpoint, feels himself hindered by difficulties and extremities. By him suffering will be regarded as mere ballast to keep him steady in the race, and indeed it will actually work itself out as such in his life. Therefore it is essential for the runner in the "arena" to have the right vision of the God-intended meaning of his sufferings, even if he does not understand all His purposes in detail. Only then can the sufferings be changed into a help instead of a hindrance, into an encouragement instead of a discouragement. The difficulties of life will support him in his struggle forwards. That which otherwise appears to paralyse gives him new power. That which seemingly holds him back will really help him to hasten forward. That which presses him down helps him in fact to look up. "Let us look up unto Jesus."
Hebrews 12, in the verses just following the opening exhortation to run in the race, shows us in only a few sentences, but in mighty fullness, the blessing of suffering (vs. 5-11). This is done in a sevenfold manner.
In the obstacle-race of faith the true believer:
sees in the difficulties of this life proofs of the Fatherhood of God: (Heb. 12:5a,6b,7b,8); regards distresses and trials as ways of the love of God: (Heb. 12: 6a); trusts in the midst of all suffering in the infallibility and fruitfulness of all the decisions of the wisdom of God: (Heb. 12:10a); reckons, in the whirl of events, with the ordering hand of the all overruling government of God: (Heb. 12:7a); subjects himself without criticism, even in inexplicable darknesses, to the sovereign authority of God: (Heb. 12:9); values suffering as a necessity of education, so that our lives are being changed into the image of the holiness of God: (Heb. 12:10); estimates the darknesses of life as God's means of reaching the bright eternal goal of God: (Heb. 12:11b).
I. True faith sees in the difficulties of this life PROOFS OF THE FATHERHOOD OF GOD. Sufferings bear witness to our sonship. God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not?" (v. 7). Where discipline is lacking, true fatherhood is wanting. If our earthly fathers, who gave us our bodily life, had to discipline us, how much more God, the Father of spirits, who gave us our intellectual and, above all, our spiritual life?
Therefore it would be wrong and pointless if we should complain by asking: Why does God allow us, His own children, to suffer so much? On the contrary, just because we are His sons, God cleanses and educates us. Not in spite of His fatherhood but because of His fatherhood is His discipline necessary. Thus the sufferings of His children are no ground for disappointment but rather for certainty and thankfulness that He, the eternal God, in Jesus Christ His Son, has become our father. Sufferings are indeed the very proofs of our nobility and standing as belonging to God's family. God speaks to us "as unto children" (v. 5a): He treats us "as sons" (v. 7): He scourges every "son" (v. 6). "Otherwise ye are bastards and not sons" (v. 8). The word here used in the original language for "to scourge" is related etymologically to the Greek word for "child" (Gk. paideuein, derived from pail, child, boy, girl: Matt. 2:16; John 4:51; Luke 8:51,54). It means "to bring up someone as a child" and, when necessary, "to punish" as a child.
And, with all this, keep in mind that you are not the only son who is being led through dark valleys. God scourges "every" son (v. 6). Thus nothing very extraordinary is happening to you. This, too, may help you not to over-estimate your sufferings. "Knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren who are in the world" (I Pet. 5:9). This makes us careful and reserved in weighing our own burdens, and it can at the same time encourage us, for if the others have been able by the power of the Lord to endure in difficulties and sufferings, then I can do likewise. I am not alone, but find myself marching in the midst of a multitude of brothers and sisters who are treading the same path and running in the same obstacle race as myself. Their heavenly Father is also my heavenly Father and He will bring us all to the goal.
2. True faith regards the distresses and sufferings of this life as WAYS OF THE LOVE OF GOD. "For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth" (v. 6). Sufferings prove that God is interested in us, that He is moulding us, that He loves us. "Yea, He loveth the peoples; all His saints are in Thy hand: and they sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words" (Deut. 33:3).
What a most astonishing fact! the Almighty God is interested in our infinitesimally small life! This should suffice us! All the love of our heavenly Father concerns itself with advancing our sanctification and blessing us on our way through time to the land of eternity.
God's heart "loves" us
We are His elect.
God's band" holds" us
We are under His protection.
God's mouth "teaches" us
We possess His living Word.
At God's feet we are resting
We enjoy His peace.
Thus every child of the heavenly Father can be confident even in suffering. He knows that "nothing can separate me from the love of God" (Rom. 8:38,39). Yea, even more: All things, and especially the difficulties, are a proof of His love.
Therefore the runner in the race is not discouraged by obstacles. He trusts the love of God and presses on to the goal, unburdened by cares and sorrows.
Cares are therefore a contradiction of our standing as children of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus warns so emphatically against all fear and anxiety, that one might rightly call this part of His discourse a real campaign against the spirit of worry. The Christian should avoid worry for seven reasons:
(I) Cares and worries are useless. With all your worrying you are not able to add a single cubit to the length of your earthly pilgrimage. Our earthly pilgrimage is, so to speak, many thousands of miles in length but we cannot even add as much as a yard to it (Matt. 6:27). The translation "stature" is not clear because it could lead to the idea that the size of the body is meant. But the Lord wants to point out here that we cannot do even the smallest things. If, however, we could add a cubit to our tore that would be an astonishing and remarkably great thing. "It would also not at all be desirable, so that nobody would wish or take much care and thought to be able to do it. For this reason the text in question can be understood only in the sense that the length of our earthly pilgrimage is meant. A cubit here would indeed be something very small. We cannot lengthen our life even for a few minutes however much thought or worrying we might take.
(2) Cares and worries are injurious. They are unnecessary and foolish hindrances. For if one worries one experiences each difficulty twice: the first time in one's imagination and the second time in reality, the first time in expectancy, the second time in the actual event. But once would suffice! " Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34). Therefore: "Never worry worry till worry worries you. Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you."
(3) Cares and worries are unworthy. The lilies of the field and the fowls of the air do not worry and yet are looked after. Art thou not better than they? The pictures used by the Lord are very apt.
Food and raiment are the main objects of worry. The fowls refer to food and are a picture from the animal world; the lilies refer to raiment and are a picture from the plant world. Sowing and reaping is men's work, while sewing and spinning is especially women's work. All these points of view are summarized as follows:
the question of food and raiment,
the picture from the animal world and the plant world;
sowing and reaping and sewing and spinning,
the sphere of men's and that of women's work
all this unites in the impressive harmonious demand: "Be not anxious for your life" (Matt. 6:25). Worrying is a denial of the nobility of man. For man is better than a flower or an animal. He is the crown of creation and destined for a kingdom.
All worrying is undignified. He who worries is forgetting his high calling, as well as the willingness and power of our great God to help. He is forgetting God's all-sufficiency and perfect wisdom as well as His eternal love.
(4) Cares and worries are unfilial. It being already true from the viewpoint of creation, that man, as man is much higher than the plants and animals, how much more must it be true from the viewpoint of salvation! As children of our heavenly Father we can happily and thankfully trust that: "Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things" (Matt. 6:32). The spirit of worrying in a child of God means, therefore, that he is leaving his heavenly rank out of account. It belongs to the privileges and obligations of a practical realization of our standing as sons of God that we happily trust our Father.
(5) Cares and worries are earthly. They direct our questionings and thoughts far too much to things here below (food and raiment); but the attitude of mind of the believer should have a heavenly direction: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33).
(6) Cares and worries are idolatrous. They concern themselves too much with the question of having or not having earthly things. And that is a service of Mammon. In the Sermon on the Mount the Greek text leaves out the definite article "the" before the word "mammon," thus purposely treating this word as a personal name. "Mammon" is, so to speak the name of a god as Apollo or Diana are names of heathen deities. "No man can serve two masters (two gods): God Jehovah and false god Mammon" (Matt. 6:24).
(7) Cares and worries are heathenish. "For after all these things do the Gentiles seek" (Matt. 6:32). The spirit of worrying represents an attitude of mind which is foreign to the kingdom of God. It lowers the thinking of the redeemed to the standard of that of the unredeemed, so that though he lives in the kingdom of grace, he behaves himself as one who is outside, like a heathen.
For all these reasons cares and worries must be avoided by the Christian. "Cast all your anxiety upon Him; for He careth for you" (I Pet. 5:7).
In his pithy manner of expression Luther once said: "Oh, that we could learn this sort of `casting'! But he who does not learn it will remain a man downcast, outcast, cast off, cast behind, cast away."
On the other hand living faith will recognize the truth of that other saying of the great Reformer:
To count out money from an empty purse,
To bake bread from the clouds,
This is the art of our God alone.
He makes all things out of nothing
And He doeth it daily.
Two passages of Scripture express strikingly opposite aspects of truth. Both refer emphatically to the question of providing for the outward life. The second is given in the chapter immediately subsequent to Hebrews 12 and thus is in a certain, indirect connexion with our chapter (Heb. 13:5). The first is the most positive and the other the most negative sentence of the whole New Testament. In a very small space the first passage contains five affirmations and the second five negations. Here is the first passage:
"God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound unto every (lit. all) good work" (II Cor. 9:8). In the Greek the root word for "all" occurs five times in this one passage (pasan, panti, pantote, pasan, pan).
The other Scripture reads: "I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee" (Heb. 13:5).
In both cases it is hardly possible to give the literal order of the Greek words in the original text, especially in the second passage. The first part of this sentence contains a double and the second part a triple negative, so that the sentence contains a fivefold negation, as if the text should read: "Not will I fail thee! Nevermore! No! Never and by no means will I forsake thee!"
Thus these two Scriptures show in their harmonious contrast, positively and negatively expressed, the same precious message:
Will God give me all things which are necessary and good?--Yes! Five times yes!-" All grace! In all things! Always! All sufficiency! All good work!"
Will God ever forsake me?-No! Five times no!-" Never! Nevermore! Never and by no means! In no circumstances!"
Therefore: "Have faith in God!" His love and His faithfulness rule over our life.
The obstacles in the race are appointed and overruled by His perfect Divine wisdom. All arrangements in the racecourse are made by Himself Who is both our wise and just Umpire and our loving heavenly Father.
3. True faith trusts in the midst of all suffering in the infallibility and fruitfulness of all the DECISIONS OF THE WISDOM OF GOD. Earthly fathers, even though they may be very experienced, and full of love and wisdom in the selection of their methods of upbringing, can, nevertheless, make mistakes. They must always act only within a certain more or less restricted horizon of their outlook and are always liable to error common to man. The best and highest they can do is to take all their decisions according to their best knowledge and conscience. But the heavenly Father never makes mistakes. His discipline never errs. In His loving treatment of His children He never takes a wrong measure. Everything is chosen to serve His ends. Everything is planned to reach the great, ideal goal, and this goal is indeed the highest possible, namely to transform His child into the image of His own holy nature. "For they verily for a few days chastened us as seemed good [or meet] to them; but He for our profit that we may become partakers of His holiness" (Heb. 12:10). Thus faith can rest not only in God's love but also in His wisdom. Faith knows, "I am God's child and not His counsellor" (Tersteegen). Even when I am in the midst of tribulation and trial and see no way out, I can say: His hand holds me fast. My Father rules over everything and He knows!
Be still, my soul: The Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Katharina von Schlegel (Tr. Jane L. Borthwick).
The whole situation is however completed, and becomes a matter of actual comfort and help for troubled redeemed ones, when they remember that it is not only the perfect love and wisdom of the Father which rules here but also His Divine omnipotence. Our heavenly Father wants to help, knows how to help and is able to help. This trinity of Divine powers gives us, in their working together, the guarantee that, in spite of the difficulties and hardships on the way, at the end everything will come out for our good. In fact, looking at the matter from God's point of view, we can say that, because everything is under His overruling hand, everything is profitable and good even today.
4. True faith reckons in the whirl of events with the ordering hand of the ALL OVERRULING GOVERNMENT OF GOD. The leading thought of our passage in Hebrews 12 is, no doubt, that the sufferings of the redeemed have a deeper meaning than their outward appearance (Heb. 12:11), that with all the activities of the enemies, God in reality is the acting One, that although the persecutors of the Christians aim at their destruction, the real God intended aim in all these events is their glorification, their "profit," the "peaceable fruit of righteousness." "What ye endure is for your upbringing" (v. 7a): "God dealeth with you ... for your profit" (vv. 7 and 10). For "afterward" suffering, even the suffering of persecution of which the verses under consideration chiefly speak, will give to those who are exercised thereby a peaceable fruit of righteousness (v. 11). This means that God overrules even the actions of His enemies. They thought evil against us but God meant it unto good (Gen. 50:20). God uses the aims of the godless to reach and attain His own Divine aims. He acts in a mysterious veiling of Himself in such a manner that even faith can recognize it only to a limited degree. In all the manifold single events He never loses His outlook over the whole. He is not only the God of all collectively, but also the God of each individual. In all the great events He never forgets the small matters, in the universal history never the personal life-story, in the course of centuries never the happenings of seconds. He holds all the reins of events in His hand, in all the complicated network of happenings of time and space, of men and history.
Faith can therefore take the actions of unbelievers as being sent to him from God. They would not have been able to place the disturbances and obstacles in our racecourse if they had not been allowed to do so by the heavenly Organizer of the contest, and if the mighty Divine Umpire, in a mysterious, yet most effective way, were not acting Himself behind and in all their endeavours.
This gives us a remarkable sense of independence of man and of superiority in all the changing scenes of life. "So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God" (Gen. 45:8) were the words of Joseph to his brethren, although he knew perfectly well what had happened and although he had just presented himself to them with the words: "I am Joseph, your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt" (v. 4). Three times he stated: "God did send me before you" (v. 5), "God sent me before you" (v. 7), "God meant it unto good to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive" (Gen. 50: 20). Thus faith, in the last analysis, accepts nothing from the hands of men; faith accepts all things from the hands of a great, loving, almighty, ruling God, including all the difficulties and losses, even the injustices which he has to suffer. "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord has not done it?" (Amos 3:6). Here we encounter a mighty secret of God's world-government, the power of which we have to recognize obediently and trustfully, although we cannot understand with our human intellect the various detail connexions and relationships of His plan. It makes us extremely happy thus to know that: "Everything which reaches us in life must first have passed before God."
For this reason the Scriptures never speak of a mere "permissive" will of God. God is never a mere spectator. His attitude is not passive in the happenings of this world, but definitely active. He is not beside the events, but in them. He is not only the One Who lives above the world, He lives also in the world: "for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). This was not stated by the apostle in a purely spiritual sense, as though thereby he meant exclusively believers; no, he is speaking here of men in general as the creatures of God, in fact even of heathen also.
God's eternal plan for the Kingdom governs our life. All the happenings of human history are scaffolding for the happenings of the history of salvation. Heaven and hell, angels and demons, faith and infidelity, church and world, great and small, the general and the personal things of this life, everything must serve, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, to fulfil the will of God. He ruleth and doeth all things well.
For this reason we know that "to them that love God, all things work together for good, to them who are the called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8: 28). In this verse is expressed the servitude of all earthly relationships to the will of God. Everything "worketh together" (literally). All earthly things serve heavenly ends. By means of all things, even by means of "the worst things," the "best" shall be reached, i.e., the transformation of the redeemed into the image of Christ the Redeemer, so that they may become "conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the Firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29).
It is expressly declared, however, that this happens only in the case of "those who love God." For "earthly things must be known before we can love them; but Divine things must be loved before we can get to know them" (Pascal). And not in vain are these who love God characterized at the same time as those "who are the called according to His purpose." This means to say: An eternal plan governs our life. Our short life on earth lies between two eternities: the eternity before the time of the world, with its Divine election, and the eternity after this world, with its glorious perfection. All the circumstances of time have been considered and allowed for in God's eternal planning. If therefore all the happenings and relationships of time here below serve together to work out the final realization of the Divine plan, this means that no circumstances which appear from time to time are unprepared for, or mere coincidences, or even matters of chance in each existing situation, but are rather evidences of the eternal forethought in the counsel of our gracious God. Thus our assurance of faith that everything temporal is but a link in the chain of the eternal, is founded on a firm rock. And confidently reckoning with the omnipotent government of a loving God and Father we can pass along even dark and dangerous roads in life without anxiety or fear.
5. True faith even in inexplicable darknesses subjects itself without criticism to the SOVEREIGN ROYAL AUTHORITY OF GOD. This is also emphasized in our passage in Hebrews: "Furthermore we had fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?" (Heb. 12:9). This means: it is a condition of real life to be subject to the Father of spirits. To subject oneself and to live are two things which belong inseparably together. Should we not be able to bow to the disciplinary and educational measures of our heavenly Father without contradicting, without inward rebellion, and with thankful, quiet and happy hearts? Are not His thoughts infinitely higher than our thoughts? (Isa. 55:8-9). Is He not able to judge the situation better than we, He living in the High and Holy Place, on His eternal throne in the heavenly heights? But we live in the plains here below, in the narrow and deep valleys of this earthly life and therefore we can have but a restricted and very small horizon. May it not be that many things which here appear to us to be utterly senseless and meaningless will be revealed to us in eternity as being most meaningful and of the greatest importance?
Does He, the Divine Organizer of the race, not know better what arrangements are necessary and profitable for the runner than the runner himself, who is always only one individual participant in the contest, but can never have the complete survey of the whole? Is therefore the racer not under the obligation simply to acknowledge the superiority and authority of the Divine Umpire and, without any arguing, to undertake the running with all its arrangements and obstacles, just as this race by the heavenly Organizer has been "set before him"?
But if we complain and worry and distrust our heavenly Father, it means that we regard Him less and give Him less reverence than we did our earthly fathers. For our earthly fathers we did trust, even if they sometimes corrected us. And is it right to rebel against our heavenly Father if He takes us into His school of discipline and leads us through difficulties and trials only in order to further our spiritual life, and, indeed, to show us in the very experience of suffering His loving-kindness and care?
Moreover He is far superior to all earthly fathers. They were our fathers after the flesh; but He is the Father of spirits. Therefore He, our heavenly Father, is as much superior to our earthly fathers as the spirit is more than the body and as the inward spiritual personality is more than the external bodily appearance.
Therefore away with all grumbling! All spirit of complaint and dissatisfaction is rebellion against God. God is always right. "Love your destiny, for it is God's way with your soul." Even if a thousand enigmas surround you, even if you can see no way out and everything appears senseless, faith can wait. God's books must be read backwards, that is, from the end to the beginning. But having once reached the goal, looking back, we shall see that all darknesses of our path will have become radiantly bright.
Until eternity dawns God dwelleth in darkness. The nearer the priest came to the centre of the symbolical dwelling-place- of Jehovah in the tabernacle and approached the throne of grace, that is, the ark of the covenant with the mercy-seat, and the shekinah, the darker it became round about him. The Outer Court was without roof and illuminated by the natural light of the sun: the Holy Place was lighted by the subdued light of the lampstand in the totally enclosed room. The Most Holy Place was, however, absolutely dark. "The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness" (I Kings 8:12; cf. Ex. 20:21). The meaning of this is as follows: The nearer a man comes to God, the more he approaches The Great Mystery. God is the Eternal One, the Absolutely Different One, the great Superior One. Absolute infinity is of His essence. No human intelligence can fathom the depths of His Divine being. Before Him we can only acknowledge our own smallness and humble and bow ourselves. In His presence we can only recognize and wonder at His Majesty, keep silence, and worship.
God "dwelleth in the light unapproachable" (I Tim. 6:16). His earthly symbolic dwelling-place was meant to bear witness to this fact. In the symbolic language, however, of tabernacle and temple His invisibility could be represented only by the lack of all created light. The absolute eternal light could only be expressed by mystical symbolical darkness.
In the eternal city of God His face will be seen (Rev. 22:4; Matt. 5:8). Therefore when that time has come the heavenly Holiest of Holies will be no darker, without illumination, but filled with streams of light (Rev. 21:10,11,23). "For the Lord God giveth them light" (Rev. 22:5). "For we shall see Him even as He is" (I John 3:2). "Then shall I know even as also I have been known." This will be a marvellous experience both in respect to God's general counsel of salvation and with regard to His personal, often so mysterious, ways by which He has led the individual.
One thing especially will be revealed: God's dealings with us in suffering were always designed to be a help to our spiritual growth.
6. True faith values suffering as a necessity of education, so that our lives should be changed into the IMAGE OF THE HOLINESS OF GOD. The heavenly Father chasteneth us for "our profit" in order that we might be "partakers of His holiness" (Heb. 12:10). "Needs are often needful because many things prosper only in times of need." God's measures to help must sometimes be onerous or even severe. For it is true that "Small trials often make us beside ourselves, but great trials bring us again back to ourselves." It was when the prodigal son "came to himself" that he said, "I will arise and go to my father," and this was caused by hunger (Luke 15, 14-18).
In all times of "visitation" God is endeavouring to "visit" us. He is seeking us and is striving to persuade us, the fugitives from God, to return home, to come back to the Father's house. In this sense even the disappointments in life are intended to awaken us out of all illusions into which sin has led us, for instance, as if we ourselves were so important and as if in our life earthly things were the true values that really matter.
The sufferings of this world are a means in the hands of God for the realization of His plan for man's redemption. Precisely the fact that the earth cannot give what man seeks and desires, delivers him from his false expectations and stirs up his yearnings for Paradise lost. The disappointments in the earthly thus help to make man free to long for the heavenly, so that at the end of the way he can confess: "Behold, it was for my peace that I had great bitterness" (Isa. 38:17).
Thus the obstacles in our race are intended by God's purposeful love to further our inner development, to strengthen our spiritual muscles, to give us opportunities for victory, to help us to be more and more transformed, in character and conduct, into practical accordance with the holy nature of the eternal goal. Finally:
7. True faith estimates the darknesses of life as God's means of reaching the BRIGHT, ETERNAL GOAL OF GOD. "Pressure raises up!" The "afterward" will soon be the present. "All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous, but grievous: yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness" (Heb. 12:11).
To be sure, even the Christian feels the sharpness of difficulties. They are real to him also. They "appear" to be troublesome, and the Bible does not blame us for feeling so. The things of God are always far too natural than to make unnatural demands on human faculties and possibilities. The Bible never goes so far as to require of the Christian to disregard his trials and to look upon them superficially, as though difficulties were no difficulties and distresses no distresses. If the Christian were expected to do this, trials would have no meaning for him and would in fact be no longer "trials" and consequently without any fruit and effect. No, if God's strokes brought us no pain, they would no longer be a help for us to overcome our sins. But just because they hurt, they help us. The Scripture uses even the very strong word "scourgeth" (Heb. 12:6). The Greek word used here, mastigoi, is related to the word for "whip" (Gk. mastix). Compare Acts 22:24; Heb. 11:36.
Of job we read that before he uttered those wondrous words, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21), he had felt and expressed his deepest sorrow and pain after having received the news of the catastrophes. Indeed he had shown his mourning and grief quite openly: "Then job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground" (v. 20). It may be that this sense of the sharpness of the sufferings may even dim for a time the spiritual vision of our heart. And we know that the heavenly High Priest has understanding for even this, for He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb. 4:15). The agonies of trial sometimes may blur our inward sight. But he who keeps on trusting will experience finally that the ways of God with His own are never to be compared with one having to go into a dark cave, or into some subterranean labyrinth with endless, unlit, black passages which, so to speak, swallow us up and hold us captive without any way out for ever; the ways of God are rather to be compared to passing through a narrow, and often indeed long, tunnel, which at first leads downwards into darkness and depth, but at the other end, "afterward," leads up into sunshine, all the more glorious and brilliant.
This "afterward" is often experienced in anticipation while we are yet on the way. Sufferings are seeds to bring forth the fruit of peace and righteousness. He who is exercised and practised in hardships will harvest the "fruit" of this seed-sowing. Great peace enters his heart; true righteousness fills his standing and his state. Thus he acquires a "fruit" which as to the state of his heart is called "peaceable," and with respect to his standing and practical state in life is called "righteousness."
Every time we stand the test, we further our spiritual progress. God's angels minister to us after every victory (cf. Matt. 4:11). Growth in sanctification increases our joy.
The peaceable fruit of righteousness grows on the apparently crooked and wild tree of tribulation. This heavenly fruit as to its character is "righteousness" and as to its taste "peace." God works in us a practical righteousness of life and walk which is based upon the righteousness of our standing which we have received through faith in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:9).
Righteousness produces peace, holiness, purity, and joy. The character of the new life is righteousness, its inward harmony and enjoyment peace.
Perhaps the expression "peace" as the fruit of righteousness looks back to the first verses of Hebrews 12, where the arena of faith is mentioned. At the end of the race, when the battle is won, we shall enjoy the fruit of righteousness in peace.
Light after darkness,
Gain after loss,
Strength after weakness,
Crown after cross,
Sweet after bitter,
Hope after fears,
Home after wandering,
Praise after tears.
Sheaves after sowing,
Sun after rain,
Sight after mystery,
Peace after pain,
Joy after sorrow,
Calm after blast,
Rest after weariness,
Sweet rest at last.
(Frances Ridley Havergal.)
All the apparent hindrances in life are thus in reality furtherances. Should we not therefore, in the midst of tribulation, be "in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live"? (Heb. 12:9). This means to "live" in the deep spiritual sense of the word. "Life," not meaning merely "being" in the sense of just existing, but rather as being filled with strength, joy, real meaning and purpose, yea, a being filled indeed with God and Christ.
"Tribulation does not destroy faith, but confirms it. Tribulation is not the messenger of the wrath of God, but rather of His goodness. Tribulation does not exclude us from our fellowship with God, but rather prepares us for the full enjoyment of His grace in His presence."
Faith therefore believes against all human reasonings to the contrary. Faith knows that while God sometimes appears to be only the taking One, He is in reality always the giving One. Indeed, just in taking and by taking He often is giving. But He gives after His own fashion, which is often very different from ours. And then He often fulfils our expectations by apparently disappointing them. His ways are wiser than ours; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:9), and He is always right. For this we shall one day praise Him eternally.
Mary wept by the open grave of the Lord. She saw her loss. Not even the dead body of her Master was there any more. And yet that very empty tomb was the proof of the resurrection, the sign of victory, and, had she rightly understood the situation, it would have given her abundant reason for triumphant joy. But how wonderfully "afterward" her lamentation was turned to jubilation! (Matt. 28:8). "Mary-Rabboni"-how much is contained in those few words! (John 20: 16). And after she had understood the real meaning of the empty tomb, think how this knowledge made her to be a witness to the resurrection, a proclaimer of the mightiest triumph of life, a joyful testifier to the victorious power of the Risen One! (Luke 24:10).
Thus for the redeemed everything has a twofold aspect: Nature and faith. From the natural point of view we often see only the loss; faith, however, sees the gain. From the natural point of view we see death, but faith sees resurrection and life.
Nature sees the tomb, faith the resurrection. Nature looks woefully back into the treasures of memory, faith looks forward to the coming glory. So faith becomes joyful expectancy and hope. It is waiting for the day of redemption and our being clothed upon with the body of glory.
Then the day of the true, real "afterward" will have come. The goal will have been reached for which we strove in the arena of faith. And when the crowns and prizes have been bestowed, the runner in the race will praise the Captain of his faith especially for the difficulties which He, the great Umpire of the race, in His wisdom and love had placed in his path. Truly there had been many obstacles in his way, sometimes even hindrances which seemed to overcome him; but in reality all these hindrances had been like obstacles in an "obstacle race," especially ordained by the organizer of the race. And our heavenly Umpire never makes a mistake. He places the "obstacles" in our way in order to test the spiritual strength and energy of the runner, to exercise him, to strengthen him, and thus to bring him all the more surely and with all the more glory to the winning-post.
Then the day of eternity will dawn, the day which knows no evening or sunset. Its sun will arise, the heavenly light will shine forth, and everything will be radiant and clear in the full and everlasting daylight of God's glory.
Then we shall worship Him who guided us here below. We shall praise Him for all His ways with us, admire His wisdom and enjoy His never-ending love, and the vision of His face will be our everlasting delight.
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