Pain Does Its Work, and Grace Takes Over
Written in Mid-2005
Written by Ajith Fernando while travelling abroad
I left home on a trip abroad feeling very discouraged and hurt because of some problems. This is normal in the Christian life, and these are emotions I must not deny. Sorrow and pain must be permitted to do their work. They
- deepen our commitment and mould our character, especially teaching us patience;
- lead us to confess sin and show the fruit of repentance;
- prepare us to face greater suffering;
- bring us closer to suffering humanity;
- make us more effective ministers; and
- increase our joy by causing us to depend more on God and his grace than on earthly things and ourselves.
But we cannot go on living life overwhelmed by our problems. Once discouragement and hurt have done their work we must return to the normal Christian life which I like to define as “being overwhelmed by grace.” Now, this perspective may come soon, or it may take days or weeks to return. But till it returns we must struggle with God like the psalmists did in many of their laments.
Grace must soften our hearts so that more grace can enter in, making us gracious and taking away that destructive attitude of anger that looks at life saying, “I have been wronged.” Such anger is an enemy which we must fight with utmost dedication, for it takes away the thing that makes discipleship so worthwhile: the joy of the Lord. The sorrow may remain. But the joy of the Lord can coexist with sorrow, pain and tears. It cannot coexist with bitterness. Anger also takes away our anointing for we act in the flesh and not in the Spirit. This makes even the good things we do useless from God’s perspective—wood, hay and stubble which will be burned away at the judgement (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
Grace also takes away our cynicism which looks at life with the attitude that says, “There is nothing sincere and genuine in life.” The gospel tells us that sin has affected every sphere of life, and that everything on earth is in need of redemption. But it also tells us that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). So we must replace cynicism with hope in grace and a burning ambition to apply that grace to every situation in life.
We mourn the ravages of sin, but we do so with a heart softened by grace. Jeremiah shows this heart. He thundered angrily over sin but was also known as the weeping prophet because he wept in love for the wicked and hypocritical people who rejected his message. Mourning and weeping? Yes! Cynicism? No!
The sin and hypocrisy in the church and the world are terrible. But we always reckon that grace is greater than sin. So we cannot afford to let cynicism rule us, for the last word is with God, not with sin.
On this trip I realised that I needed to retreat into God’s presence and receive his healing. One of the things which help us to return to the attitude of being overwhelmed by grace is exposure to the simple, but beautifully profound, truths of Christianity. God did that to me during my retreat through the book, Out of my Mind, by Joseph Bayly (Zondervan). He had a column by the same name in the now defunct Eternity Magazine. It was my favourite monthly reading in my early years in the ministry. Three of Bayly’s sons died aged four years, three weeks and eighteen years. Each of his other four children ended up in ministry. He was known as a prophet to our generation, but his writing oozes with the deep grace of God learned through suffering.
Bayly reminded me that, in the life made beautiful by grace, there are some things which are normal but which the world despises. We must accept these things as basic to the Christian life and not be overly upset by the more negative ones among them. Here are some of those things:
- a simple trust in Christ and an enjoyment of his love which causes us to be thrilled with life;
- sacrificial love for others including our family members;
- suffering for our principles;
- following the way of the cross even though the world sees it as going down on the status scale;
- proactively seeking to bring people to faith in Christ because that is their only hope for escaping eternal damnation and finding eternal salvation;
- accepting every disappointment and hurt as a means used by God to bless us;
- opposing wrong, however out of step we may seem with the rest of society;
- studying the challenges to Christian thinking in contemporary society and formulating responses to them so that Christians will be warned and armed to face them and non-Christians will be challenged to change their minds;
- refusing to allow the sham values of our superficial, media-dominated society to influence our values, lifestyle and methods.
These are the things I must pursue and make my goals in life. Sadly even many Christians are pursuing things that really have more to do with earthly honour than the will of God. I can assure you that earthly honour will not satisfy your soul. They think they can be satisfied through things like the following:
- status and earthly power;
- climbing to the top of the ladder in sports, in the arts, in academics or in our professions in order to prove how capable we are;
- earning money and acquiring other earthly possessions;
- revenge and overcoming and humiliating enemies; and
- proving that they are right and those who opposed them were wrong.
God made us humans with eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). We are too exalted to be satisfied with mere earthly honour. Only the joy and peace of the eternal God can truly satisfy our souls. John Wesley said, “O what a pearl of what great a price is the lowest degree of the peace of God.” It is a treasure so valuable that it is worthwhile sacrificing everything in order to obtain it.
Let’s “have done with lesser things” and let our lives be consumed by the pursuit of God, of his wonderfully loving nearness, of his joy and peace, and of his service. And, so that we will not be sidetracked and deceived by the powerful forces at work in this world, may we feed ourselves daily with the truths of God which challenge the sin, hypocrisy, cynicism and anger of this age.