For though I be free from all men, yet have I made
myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
- 1st Corinthians 9:19 -
I’ve been out of work for more than a year; out of work consistently for longer than that. I’m in debt. At 37, I am in the last place in the world I thought I’d be. I was a millionaire through my twenties; a paid writer in one form or another since I was 24. Life was good. I felt secure. I felt God had provided me with some tremendous blessings. I’ve been a devoted Christian since the age of 23 and believed that God was rewarding me for that.
But that was then. As of right now, ‘then’ seems like an eternity ago. I am not naïve enough to think I’m alone, or to think my situation to be the worst possible scenario. I know all too well that there are those that suffer much greater turmoil than me. But knowing that, and assimilating it are quite different things. The economy is bad. Some say the worst economy since the great depression. There are millions out of work, the numbers are climbing and there is currently no end in sight. There are people with children losing their homes. There are children starving and worse still, there are countries like Uganda and Sudan where women and men, little boys and little girls gather under the cover of darkness, huddled together, praying that bands of well armed rebels hell bent on expanding their armies, don’t find them; drug them; put a gun in their hands and place them on the front lines of a war they neither understand nor believe in.
But what has that to do with us? We don’t see it unless we’re looking, or if by chance our national correspondents give us a blurb about it between the slow car chases, and the extended reports on what dress was worn by which starlet to the Oscars. We’ve got our own problems; our own interests; our own headaches. After all, isn’t it all about us?
We all have dreams; aspirations; goals we desire to accomplish in our lives that are always very important to us. We all want validation; accolades; appreciation. Or at least I do. I want the perfect job; the perfect spouse; the perfect child and the perfect house. I don’t want to worry about money, or security, or the safety of my family when I’m not there to protect them. I just want the anxiety and fear that haunts me daily to disappear without a trace. I work much at that – perhaps too much. For that dream always seems tied to a stick a foot or so in front of my face – always maintaining its distance; always just out of reach. And even when I do accomplish a goal, I dare say I don’t even take the time to appreciate what I’ve been given, before I’m off pursuing the next thing I want that seems just out of reach. For some reason the goal keeps changing. For some reason, what I have is never enough.
What’s the answer? Where’s the key? I’m a Christian after all. Isn’t it God’s promise that I’ll be happy? Hasn’t He assured ME that if I follow Him I will have peace of mind? Hasn’t He promised ME the desires of my heart? Where is MY peace? Where is MY resting place? There’s just one problem with all of these questions: the fact is, it’s just not about ME.
Epictetus said, “If you wish to be happy, the first thing you must do is accept the things that are not within your power to control”.
But as Christians we have a greater obligation still. We must not only accept this, we must knowingly and willingly submit to the will of another. We must know that if we do (and we will) have to endure suffering, it may or may not be something that we could’ve avoided. We will certainly suffer for our wrong doings. If you cheat on your spouse, you will suffer the consequences of that action. If you lie, vandalize, or steal, the same rule applies. But it is also likely that we will suffer for right doing.
In John chapter 9, we have this account:
1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? 3 Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. 4 I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Christ clearly tells us here that not all suffering is a result of sin. And in this same moment, He makes plain to us just what the roll of a servant is – to “work the works of Him that sent Me”. He tells us that while He is in the world, He is the light of the world.
In Matthew 5, He tells us what our commission is:
5:14 “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Christ has quite literally passed the torch. We are to emulate Him. We are to “be about our Father’s business”. Not once in thought or deed did our Lord ever act selfishly. Every single thing He did from womb to grave was the work of the perfect servant. Is this something we can ever accomplish? No. But we can aspire to it. And in aspiring, God counts us as perfect. It is the effort, and not the result that God regards. But the effort must be pure and sincere. And He knows whether it is or not.
In 1st Corinthians 9:19, Paul says, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more”.
Paul was a “servant unto all”. I am hard pressed to find a person today who has suffered as much as Paul did in his service to Christ. Who by his own account was, “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” – 2nd Corinthians 11:24-28
And even if I do find that person, their suffering is often followed by complaints, depression, and repetitious yammerings of “Why me?”.
I submit to you that this is who we are. This is the commitment and the job that we have embraced, that we might, “obtain a better resurrection”.
Our life is not our choice. We have submitted to the power of another. We have given our lives to a cause infinitely greater than ourselves, and declared to God as did Isaiah, “Here am I; send me”.
The only question is: Did you mean it? Are you willing? Our Lord & Savior, and all the prophets and apostles knew and embraced one uncompromising truth that set their lives on a permanent course. They knew that they were not here for their own happiness. They were not here to make THEMSELVES safe, and content, and free from strife. They were journeymen; ambassadors; messengers of the King. They were, and are here for a singular purpose: to gather the lost and bring them home. For will He not “leave the 99 to go after the one”?
If you must suffer shipwrecks, or poverty, or blindness, or starvation, or embarrassment, or scourging, or mocking, or bonds and imprisonment, or weakness, or thirst, or torture for the Kingdom of God, if only for just one; just one singular soul that has wandered off, lost in a place they know not, without a map to find their way back, ARE YOU WILLING?
If you can answer that question affirmatively; if you can look to the sky and say with purity of heart, “Here am I, Lord; send me”, then what is suffering, but a means to an end; proof that you’ve fully committed yourself to your Father’s work? What is it other than a confirmation that you’ve perhaps gotten the enemy’s attention, and have irritated him to the point of retaliation? With that perspective, James' statement in chapter 1 makes a good deal more sense to me.
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; 3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. 4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” – James 1:2-4
Did he just say that we should “rejoice”?? And make no mistake, temptations are what cause us to suffer – either by falling into them, or by resisting them. But don’t lose the end result. The end of the statement declares that if patience has her perfect work, we will “be perfect (mature) and entire, WANTING NOTHING.”
I have found through my life that expectation is the mother of discontent. Make yourself at home with the reality that suffering is a part of servitude, and you will find it much easier to embrace when it comes upon you. Make it a habit to celebrate what you have, rather than mourning what you desire; to accept what you’re going through as part of a journey, rather than complaining about how bumpy the path is.
When you come upon suffering, ask yourself, “Is there something I’ve done to cause my current situation? Is this suffering a reaping of something I’ve planted?” If it is, repent, get on your feet and get to correcting it. Rejoice that God has given you the wisdom to see the error of your ways, and that even in our failings, it is not that we’ve failed, but how we handle our failure that goes to our testimony!
It is no great achievement for anyone to act with confidence and faith when times are good. Faith is not required when there is no trouble, or trial. But if non-Christians, who in my experience are always watching, see you operating in times of trouble without desperation, without anxiety, without fear of the unknown, wholly founded in your faith and walking with the same confidence you were when times were easy, well then that, my friends, is a potent testimonial. They will begin to question what it is you have. They will begin to wonder if perhaps they’re missing something. And that one that wandered off might just begin to meander back. And that is what we are here for.
And if you search yourself and find that your suffering is not due to your own actions; if you can not chase the fruit to a root, then know that your suffering is wholly due to your alliance with Almighty God. Your suffering has purpose. It is necessary. And you may not have a clue as to why, but ours is not necessarily to know the ‘why’.
God in all His wisdom will let us know when the time is right and that is to the King’s discretion. If you can grab that; if you can hold onto the faith and trust that you have in Him, then you are one step closer to the peace of mind that He promises us. We are not masters, but servants. And servants do as they are instructed, no matter what the request.
It is a tremendous time for Christians right now. Many are suffering; many are afraid; many are searching for meaning. This is not the time for fainting. It’s not the time ground teeth and chewed nails. It is the time for resolve and a recommitting of your faith. He has made us to be comforters; wise counselors, healers and guides. Get your eyes off of yourself. Look around at the work He’s provided for you. Stop giving power to the things that seek to imprison you. Look not to them; don’t give them sway. For it was when Lot's wife looked back that she suffered the destruction of Sodom.
Look to how you can serve another and soon you will find your problems don’t seem quite so daunting. Keep your eyes on the King and on the tasks He has given you, and peace and joy will creep up on you in such a way that you’ll hardly notice, until you find yourself smack dab in the middle of them, wondering how you got there. But what does the “how” matter at that point? He has fulfilled His promise. Doesn’t He always?