Last time we discovered that thankfulness and gratitude are key to managing suffering. This helps us in natural ways, but also gives opportunity for God to work supernaturally in our lives in the midst of difficulty. Jesus suffered for us (dying on a cross, 39 lashes) so he is no stranger to pain. He endured because of the joy awaiting him (Hebrews 12:2). Part of that joy was for us to come to know God through him. He didn’t bemoan his situation. When we refuse to practise negativity in the midst of difficulties, our hearts are ready to receive the supernatural help to get through situations that are near impossible. God gives his grace, and in the midst of it, that grace can even bring joy.
When I wrote my earlier article on suffering, I only partly understood what it really means. My understanding was incomplete, even though I had met Christians who had suffered greatly in northern Kenya, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland. I understood key aspects of successfully living through suffering. My article suggested that most of these keys included attitude, gaining a refined identity as children of God, ministering comfort toward others, humility and realizing that God will somehow make sense out of the suffering. Through these things the Holy Spirit would develop in us a deep perseverance, as well as character and hope (see Romans 5:4). All of this is true; scripture implores us over and over again to not give up in the face of difficulty. However, I still didn’t truly understand the paradox of joy and suffering. I have been pondering the issue of suffering for years. Many people have, which is why it’s the number one topic in Nicky Gumbel’s book Searching Issues.
I had just returned from my first mission trip to Kenya in 1993. I attended an evening service in Toronto with a friend who had journeyed with me through some of my own difficulties. My then-pastor Dale, had preached on Hebrews 12:1-3: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Most people would have focused on our cheerleaders in heaven (the great cloud of witnesses), or perhaps the encouragement to not give up (run our race with perseverance, and not losing heart). This again gives us good reason to not give up. Never, never give up (I’ve given up too early many times in the past). Yet I was drawn to the phrase “for the joy set before him he endured the cross.” Joy? In the cross? In suffering? I also had heard of persecuted Christians who showed joy at surprising times but I wasn’t yet ready to read the stories. I was afraid to hear their stories but I needed to read them. I remember going up for prayer to Dale’s wife, Linda. I asked her that I may understand what joy and suffering meant, and to understand joy in the context of the cross. I don’t think she understood what I really wanted, but she did pray (albeit with a perplexed look on her face).
When I studied in Tyndale Seminary, I took a New Testament course called Prison Epistles (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon). The Apostle Paul wrote these letters while he was under house arrest in Rome. I remember Paul often writing about joy in the midst of the letter to the Philippians. It’s known as the book of joy. Joy, or rejoicing is mentioned 16 times in this letter! Yet, this is the apostle who endured so much persecution (read 2 Corinthians 1:8, 4:8-12, 6:4-5, and especially 11:16-33). Paul was no wimp. He suffered out of love to reach as many people as possible. Yet in that time, God gave him the grace of joy. I remember I had a brief flash of insight when I was writing the final exam in the Prison Epistles course. It was about the paradox of suffering and joy – and I believed that Paul’s statement of being content in all circumstances was the key. I still sought the core of that inner contentment – what was it? What came to me was a very small, but bright intuitive flash – the centre of that joy, that contentment was trust. Pure and deep trust in God, no matter what. Since I was still working on that part of my life, I didn’t get to expound on my discovery. Paul’s contentment is made plain in Philippians 4: 10-14 (Message Version):
“I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.”
That trust is something I saw in the eyes of the people in Shantinagar, Pakistan. I remember seeing them as glowing, shining stars for Christ: humble, loving, full of radiant love. I saw the same thing through the eyes of missionary Heidi Baker. She is an apostle of radical love. She and her husband head up Iris Global, a huge movement of missions, mercy and radical lovers. She approached me once in a women’s conference and gave me roses. I remember the deep love of Jesus that poured out of her. Here is one person who so completely loves and trusts God that she never says no to him. She laughs out of joy, simply because she is so filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Heidi’s husband Rolland is just as amazing as his wife. I got to meet Rolland while at an Iris conference hosted by Iris Virginia (Richmond/Williamsburg). I began my relationship with this community in June 2014, and continue to correspond, visit, pray with and minister with these folks as much as I can. I am awaiting my fourth visit in September. My second visit was for this conference and I was given the opportunity to receive lots of ministry. Heidi had declared on the first night that some people needed to receive God’s joy in order to be used effectively for the gospel. I didn’t quite walk into that crowd at the altar, but I wasn’t far from them. I should have been closer. I was often sad and still grieving the loss of my only full-time job; and I still missed the Nelson, British Columbia community I came to love while I was working there. I had given my loss to God, but I didn’t yet have the joy/trust to overcome my loss. Heidi asked for Rolland to pray for all who were depressed. Many wept deeply. Sometime during that evening, someone had prayed for me, and I went down. I spent a long time on that carpet, weeping almost as much as the poor people on stage.
The next night, I stood between the Iris book table and a pole in the church lobby with my new friend Ryan. Ryan was a philosophy student at Boston University and is brilliant (as Rolland himself is). While Ryan and I discussed and debated, Rolland tried to touch us many times on the arm or shoulder (he was deeply filled by the Holy Spirit, and wanted to share with us). Rolland giggled and had a mischievous glint in his eye. Sure enough, Ryan and I laughed and giggled as Rolland prayed for us. I hugged a supporting pole in the church lobby and didn’t want to fall on the floor. There was no carpet, this was hard tile! It was also difficult for me to get up! It didn’t matter. Rolland was relentless and we received (although we did not fall down).
The next evening, much of the crowd didn’t return, since Heidi had gone on to another conference, far away from Richmond. But Rolland and Mel Tari were still there. I was able to actually say hello to Rolland, and when I asked him how he was, he said, “Hi, I’ve come looking for revival, have I come to the right place?” Surely he must have been joking, but I prayed for him anyway! What a privilege (I was to get the same honour of praying for Heidi only four months later in Toronto)! That night, holy laughter broke out in the meeting between the worship time and the sermon. Rolland didn’t want to wait, and it seemed the right time to change the ‘usual format’ of the service. He invited people up to the front to receive. He jokingly called himself “Doctor tee-hee;” for he really does have a Doctor of Ministry degree (as Heidi has a PhD). I ran up and stood right in front of him, so I ended up being one of the first “hit.” Rolland thrust his microphone into my stomach and down I went. It took me ages to get up later, so I sat at his feet while he talked. While I was on the floor, the rest of my sadness poured out. I was at peace.
You would think that Rolland would then speak on the theological nature of joy, or of God’s love. But, no. He gave a sermon of pure gold. He spoke on holiness and sin. He spoke on what we desperately need in the church – repentance; and of all that keeps us from leading a holy life. Perhaps we were able to hear Rolland more clearly because we had already received ministry. Yet through it, I remembered Rolland’s words when he was praying for people earlier, “That the joy was necessary as God was preparing us to die.” What did Rolland mean by that? Death of self? Perhaps! Many times our own selfish nature gets in the way. Or maybe he meant about inevitable suffering that comes in ministry and when you’re an outspoken Christian? I had a sense that was what he meant. The following day, I asked Mel Tari to pray over me that I would become fearless. He smiled and said, “I’d like to pray for you to come into your destiny instead.” And so Mel did. By the end of the conference, and weeks afterward, I had a lasting taste of what the ‘Joy of the Lord’ meant (Nehemiah 8:10). It really is about trust, child-like trust that is intermingled with contentment. It is deeper than a feeling, but includes emotion. It is love, trust, and joy that is not connected to circumstances. Happiness is connected to circumstances, joy is not. I finally could understand joy. I guess that meant that I was now prepared for suffering, but rather, what came in the wake was more subtle refining. Some of this was: preparation for future ministry, learning to live on no income of my own, pouring out many volunteer hours in pastoral care (at Kingdom Culture and other places).
I am praying about attending a future Iris Harvest Mission School, and have been reading their required list for over a year. I found more teaching on suffering and joy through Surprise Sithole’s biography, Surprise in the Night. As I mentioned in my last article (Growing in Gratitude: Paradox and Ministry), Surprise has an amazing way of seeing all of life through joy, despite the tremendous suffering he has endured. He can still have a “good day” every day. Rolland shares in his doctoral dissertation the five values of Iris: God can be found, dependence on miracles, humility/going to the least of these, being willing to suffer and rejoicing in the Lord. He ties the last two values together when he says, “the joy of the Lord is not optional, and it far outweighs our suffering. In Jesus, it becomes our motivation, reward and spiritual weapon. In his presence is fullness of joy, and with Paul we testify that in all our troubles, our joy knows no bounds (2 Cor. 7:4). It is our strength and energy, without which we die.” (Rolland Baker, Toward a Biblical Strategy of Mission. P 112)
That extreme dependence on God puts one in a good place, because then God can give us the grace, and the joy we need as we trust him. This trust isn’t harmed if you’re deeply suffering, because you’re already rooted into his unshakeable grace. Neither is it harmed if you’re in preparation and want to run ahead but know you cannot. You’re stuck in the place of trusting and waiting on God – for his hand in provision, direction and ministry. He is the same God, but through this experience, he changes you and his glory inside you begins to shine out of you. Why do many persecuted Christians seem to smile in the midst of such torture? The glory within them leaks out. Their eyes are focused on Jesus, and they become even more filled with grace, and that’s what the persecutors see. How are these people carried? By deep and sure grace. Strange joy in the midst of horrible circumstances. Now that I understand, it’s impossible to ignore. Lord Jesus, help us to learn from those of us who lead the way in shining for you. May we shine for you as much as these people shine in persecution and even death.
Rolland’s wife Heidi shares a vision she was given of at least a million needy children. Her voice clip is included in Jason Lee Jones’ song “Song of the Martyr” (which is on his cd, Face to Face). The children from Heidi’s vision were from all nations. Jesus said to Heidi, Go give them something to eat, but Heidi was overwhelmed. Then Jesus took a piece of his broken body and said to her, “Because I died, there will always be enough.” I believe it was about more than just enough food and enough gospel message. Heidi took the piece of flesh and it turned into bread, and the bread multiplied over and over. She was also shown that she would drink the cup of suffering, but she would also drink the cup of joy. Joy is necessary to overcome; after all it is rooted in deep trust! Below I have posted a video of Jason Lee Jones singing a special song about some of the martyrs. This is a live version, rather than the version on his cd, Face to Face (which I highly recommend) May you be as impacted as I was.
Next time we will explore growing in our identity in the midst of transition.
Jason Lee Jones “Song of the Martyrs”
Jason’s website is: http://godbreed.org/ He is one of the leaders of the Iris base at Savannah Georgia, USA.