After their marriage broke up, Yvonne and Raymond Bailey, both 22, met at a pub in Stafford, England, to discuss divorce arrangements. Then Raymond drove Yvonne to his mother’s house on his motorcycle. On the way, they crashed and were taken to a hospital. When the nurses heard about the impending divorce, they put the couple in adjoining beds, determined to patch up the marriage, as well as the patients. “It worked,” beamed Mrs. Bailey.
What seems bad can be good. Who would believe that a motorcycle crash could save a marriage? Sometimes the toughest experiences in life produce the best results.
This isn’t a popular message if you are looking to Christ for an escape from life’s problems. It is a revolutionizing insight into Christian living — if you are willing to make it your own.
Take a look at the Apostle Paul’s experience. Then apply these three basic lessons to your life.
Lesson one: The way of Christ is the way of a cross.
Don’t be surprised when you run into difficulty. It is easy to be a Christian if you see Christ ushering you into a life of ease. There are enormous promises of God’s Word to those who put their trust in Him. However, coupled with those positive promises is the startling realization that the Christian life is not easy. This life involves the cross. Being a Christian is the most wonderful lifestyle you can choose; at the same time, it is one of the toughest!
Paul is writing from prison in Rome. Periodically, in his various letters, he reminds his Christian friends of the sufferings he has experienced. In one letter to the church at Corinth, he validates the genuineness of his commitment to Jesus by listing the difficulties he has faced. He talks about greater labors, far more imprisonments with countless beatings leaving him near death. He writes:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
Christian living is no escape from trouble. Jesus promises you that you will have troubles in this world. We can be so pious when we sing songs such as “Gladly the Cross I Bear.” Then we walk out of the sanctuary to complain about the difficulties we face as Christians. Suffering is a basic component of Christian experience.
When Paul describes these sufferings he is not talking about the results of his sins. That’s a different type of suffering. Today you may be facing unbearable problems as a result of your rebellion against God. That is not suffering for the sake of Christ. Jesus is interested in you at your point of need. He wants to help you bear that kind of suffering. We are not talking about suffering for stupid mistakes. You and I have made our share, haven’t we? Paul’s experience was specific suffering because of his commitment to Jesus Christ. This kind of suffering he could have slid out from under, as can you and I.
A teenager once described to me the actions of some of her friends experimenting with alcohol and drugs. She told me of the pressures she was facing to adapt to their lifestyle. She described the temptations which she has faced. It is not easy to be a Christian teenager who, with God’s help, is willing to swim against the stream. That is suffering for the sake of Christ. Suffering for the sake of Christ is when you are exposed to the sneer, the jeer, and the scorn which wouldn’t be there if you simply buckled under and adapted, compromising your Christian testimony.
Suffering for Christ is when your family budget begins to feel the pinch of your sacrificial giving to His work, when you could spend your tithe on yourself, finding relief from economic strain.
We here in the United States hardly know what it is to suffer for Jesus in a physical way. Ours are the more subtle tortures of social pressure. I could introduce you today to some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world who bear on their very bodies the marks of their sufferings. I am told that here in our own presbytery, pastoring one of our Vietnamese churches, is a man whose back is permanently scarred from beatings by the communists. He and others like him pay a severe price for their trust in the Lord.
If, at some point, you face unpleasantness in the face of serving Jesus, thank God instead of copping out. Thank Him for the privilege of paying that small price which comes to the one willing to stand up and be numbered as a disciple.
Do you resent the cost of your discipleship? Are you surprised when you face the pinch? The pattern of the early church was to rejoice in difficulties. The latter part of the fifth chapter of Acts describes the apostles taking a beating for their faith and then being charged not to speak in the Name of Jesus. Luke writes:
They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:40-42).
How easy it is to live the Christian life until you confront the cross. Charles G. Finney wrote:
“There are many professors who are willing to do almost anything in religion that does not require self-denial. But when they are required to do anything that requires them to deny themselves — oh, that is too much! They think they are doing a great deal for God, and doing about as much as He ought in reason to ask, if they are only doing what they can do just as well as not; but they are not willing to deny themselves any comfort or convenience whatever for the sake of serving the Lord.
“They will not willingly suffer reproach for the name of Christ. Nor will they deny themselves the luxuries of life, to save a world from hell. So far are they from remembering that self-denial is a condition of discipleship that they do not know what self-denial is.”
The way of Jesus Christ is the way of the cross.
Lesson two: What seems bad actually can be good.
Instead of complaining about his circumstances of imprisonment, Paul shares with his brothers and sisters at Philippi these words:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (Philippians 1:12-14).
Paul could have complained about the heavy weight of the cross. Instead, he expresses joy in what he sees being accomplished as a result of his impossible, difficult circumstances. Instead of his imprisonment destroying his ministry, the exact opposite is happening. Positives are being produced. The grim realities are working to spread the Gospel.
Now, before I develop this theme at any greater length, I think I know what you are saying. You are probably, inwardly recoiling from me, feeling that I am describing some weird, masochistic, spiritual experience.
If that is your reaction, let me say this, as candidly as I possibly can. I am not suggesting, nor is God’s Word, the Bible, suggesting that everything that happens to a believer is good. That just isn’t the case. My topic this morning is “What Seems Bad Can Be Good.” To be thrown in prison as an innocent person is bad. To lose a child, snuffed out as he or she is beginning to realize their human potential, is bad. No parent, no brother or sister is going to call that good. To lose a job and experience a knock-out blow, economically, with the bank calling your loan, is bad. I am not naive enough to stand up here in front of you and call that good. To have one of your children get hooked on drugs, or get pregnant out of wedlock, or contract AIDS, or be bloodied by divorce is not good. That’s bad.
So before I sound somewhat romantic in developing the theme that what seems bad can be good, let me make a clear, contrasting declarative statement. It is this: What seems bad can be bad.
At least two of the people leading you in worship this morning have experienced suffering which is bad. Ken Medema, whose offertory music was so wonderful and who will make, I am sure, such an insightful musical response to this message, is blind. Don’t think for a moment that I am going to say that his blindness is good. The pastor who is wrestling with this passage of Scripture cannot possibly, adequately describe how much I love my daughter Suzanne and the torture that Anne and I experience in her loss. I call death to cancer bad. I am no Pollyanna.
But there is a spiritual fact of life that God can take the very worst of circumstances and use them for the good. Far from hurting the cause of Christ, suffering can actually spread the Gospel. Instead of destroying you as a human being, it can enhance both your quality of life and the viability of your witness for Jesus Christ. How?
First, your sufferings for Christ stimulate public interest.
There is Paul in prison. He is chained to a soldier. What a miserable experience for a saint. Saints like to be alone, don’t they, where they can be in silence and meditate? Some of the greatest literature of the world has been written from a jail cell, where a person has long periods of time alone. Gandhi had that experience. Martin Luther King had that experience.
Ironically, Paul didn’t. He was not able to hide in a closet, apart from the world, with hours upon hours of time for prayer and meditation. Yet, what an exciting opportunity he had as an evangelist. He had a captive audience, hour upon hour. Then the guard was changed, and he had a new person chained to him with whom he could share the validity of his relationship with Jesus Christ. The Roman guards became so interested in the Gospel that they spread the word around.
There is a great power in the witness of a consistent Christian life. You may be bound by the most unsympathetic companions. By your life, some of them will be won to faith in Jesus Christ. Henrietta Mears stated it so succinctly. “Your obstacles may become your pulpit.” The Christian who works for Jesus Christ, when everything is against him or her, stirs others up. Paul writes, “… it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:13).
Second, suffering for Christ authenticates your witness.
What we want to see in our politicians is what stand that person will take when that particular issue is no longer popular. Is he a phony? Or is he real? There is something refreshing about a person who is willing to pay the price of conviction.
How easy it would have been for Paul to slide out from under his imprisonment, saying simply, “I’ve pushed this issue too far. It would be better for me not to appeal my case to Rome, soft pedal my convictions for a while, and slip off into a community where I can preach the Gospel with greater freedom.” Unwilling to compromise, he authenticated the validity of his commitment. He made it evident that his difficulties were because of a new Lord called Jesus Christ.
You and I can show how seriously we take our commitment to Christ as to how we respond when the going gets tough and the pressure is on. Difficulty for the sake of what you believe helps you face the reality of who you are. It brings you a deeper understanding for your need to depend upon the Lord. When you pay the price of your convictions, you become a much more whole person, and people begin to take you seriously.
People respect you when they see you as a person who is willing to pay the price of your commitment to Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “… it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”
Third, your suffering for Christ will encourage other believers to a new zeal.
They will become less timid in their commitment. That is what happened at Rome. Paul writes, “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”
The date is July, 1960. The place is Moscow, Russia. The setting is the obscure First Baptist Church packed to overflowing on a Tuesday evening.
It took me several days to get information as to their meeting place. The taxi driver didn’t want to let me off in front of the church with the plain facade. Never would I be the same after worshiping with those believers who paid such a price for their witness. It cost many of them jobs, positions, and even family relationships to publicly express their faith in Jesus Christ. Etched on my memory is the glow of determined faithfulness to Jesus Christ which radiated from these suffering believers. Little did they realize, nor did I, that thirty years later, even after some of them were dead, their faith would prevail and the atheistic, Marxist ideology, so controlling at that time, would crumble.
No, I could not look to the future and dream that within my lifetime such a drastic change could take place. I would have been astounded back in 1960 if you had told me that by now it would be easier to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ in a Russian public school classroom than it is here in the United States. What challenged me then was not that Marxism would ultimately be discredited. What energized my faith then was that men and women in the most difficult of circumstances were willing to even increase their suffering, jeopardizing, and some even losing, their jobs, by publicly attending church and witnessing to their faith in Jesus Christ. That kind of commitment to the Truth is contagious in contrast to that flabby, political, self-centered, personal aggrandizing religion that asks first and foremost, “What’s in it for me? I will accept Jesus if you guarantee me physical health, material prosperity, and social popularity. That kind of religion inspires no zeal.
It is men and women who have suffered for their faith in the Lord who have challenged me to grow in my faith. The heroes of Hebrews 11 are authentic heroes. They followed the Lord in the most difficult of circumstances, most of them dying before they saw the earthly fulfillment of many of God’s promises. Their example challenges the best in me. It tells me, “God’s payday is not always Friday.”
My heart can be puzzled and broken, screaming out in protest to the pain of the unrealized potential in this life, the unfulfilled dreams I had for my loved one. And yet, dare I say it: What is bad and seems bad can, if I allow it, be good. For, in spite of the unrelenting pain, there is a deepening process going on inside of me. And it can in you. My suffering is making me more sensitive to the sufferings of others. And so can yours. Pain is producing in me a greater empathy for your pain. And your pain can produce a greater empathy for that of others.
After all, God could have transported you and me into heaven immediately upon our coming to faith in Jesus Christ if His will was to remove us from the suffering of this world. No, He has allowed us, with intentionality, to stay in this world to identify with Jesus in His sufferings and to feel the pain of others in a way that can convey faith, hope and love. Let’s never minimize what God can do in and through us through suffering.
Lesson three: When you really love Christ, it’s contagious.
Years ago, when I worked for Norman Vincent Peale, he wrote a book titled Enthusiasm Makes the Difference. In it he described the contagious nature of enthusiasm. Some will cynically latch on to this principle, developing a phony lifestyle of enthusiasm so as to sell a product. You’ve observed the salesperson fresh out of a positive-attitude training course who snows you with a synthetic gusto.
That’s not the contagious enthusiasm which marked the life of Paul. His was a steadfastness of purpose and commitment born out of joys and sorrows, good times and bad. His was the steady adherence to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord. That steadiness of commitment is what was contagious. He was concerned that Jesus Christ be preached.
Instead of sitting in a corner of a prison cell, weeping over the sad circumstances of life that brought him to this incarceration, he sang hymns of praises to God. He impressed his jailers at Philippi, over ten years before, with the sincerity of his faith (remember that jailer who came to faith in Christ). Now he writes from Rome where this same steady commitment was continuing to bear fruit. This all-absorbing interest bends all circumstances to its service. That is why Paul could say, “I have learned how to be abased and how to abound.” He had the assurance that he could do all things through Christ which strengthened him. Everything was filtered through this purpose.
Christian history is marked by men and women who refuse to let anything else get in the way of their service for Christ. There is an old story of a Scottish martyr. His name was Patrick Hamilton. His steadiness of commitment to Jesus Christ, even when he went to the stake for it, touched so many hearts that one observer said, “If ye burn anymore, ye should burn them in low cellars, for the reek (smoke) of Mr. Patrick Hamilton has infected as many as it blew upon.”
Years ago, Billy Graham told a group of us young pastors, “As long as you are willing to burn yourself out for Jesus Christ, the world will come if for no other reason than to watch the flame.”
The problem is that so many of us Christians are more like ice water than fire. We have been so coddled by our society, so privileged by our circumstances of life, that our lack of suffering has squeezed the passion out of us, making us impotent in our service of the Lord.
We have allowed ourselves to become so in-grown, so protective of our own territory. You will never find a greater rivalry than you will find between ministers. No arguments can become harsher than those over theological subtleties. No wars are fiercer than religious wars. No jealousies go deeper than those directed to one who seems to have the blessing of the Lord upon his or her life and ministry.
Paul expresses such enthusiasm to communicate the gospel of Christ that he is willing to put aside these petty rivalries. He tells about how some have taken advantage of his imprisonment to build their own reputations, proclaiming Christ in a spirit of partisanship. He writes about those who have served Jesus faithfully, urged on by his afflictions to be more faithful in their witness.
Paul calls not to an intolerant fanaticism. He talks about an inclusive love of Jesus Christ which is willing to major on majors and call all persons brothers and sisters who have pledged themselves to the Risen Christ and are leading men and women to trust in Him.
I urge you to an openness of life which sees the reality of Christian commitment. I urge you to a vulnerability in which you expose yourself to the potential pain which will come from being His servant. I urge you to a reevaluation of life in which you will put first things first, going for broke with Jesus.
There is no limit to the impact which can be had here in Newport Beach and throughout our country, as you and I are willing to shed our defensiveness and self-protective armor to be expendable for the Lord. Will you shoulder your cross, finding in the process the positive results of a difficult but contagious faith?