Sharing Your Suffering: 3 Things

A little more than 5 years ago I was afflicted with a disease that causes constant pain. The skin on my feet, hands, and parts of my legs hardens and constricts the muscles and joints. The constricted tension causes the nerves around those areas to become inflamed. This disease also causes sinus blisters in my nose that sometimes restrict breathing and cause relatively frequent migraines. In short – this disease thing stinks. Sometimes I have a limp, sometimes I can’t see straight, sometimes I just hurt, but it is always present with me. A silent thorn digging into my body with extreme patience and fury.

Like most people, I don’t like to admit weakness. I can be a proud man and want to be strong. So I seldom let people know that when I am in pain. I’ll smile and push through the pain, letting people forget that I am the way I am. I’ll try to hide my slight limp. I’ll squint my eyes or look down at the ground in order to keep the bright lights from hurting my head. I know that I’m not the only one who does this. Many people hide their pain from those they love. Whether it is physical pain or emotional, people don’t like to show real pain. But why? Why hide it? Perhaps, if they forget I have this affliction, maybe I can forget too? Maybe if they can’t see it, it will hurt a little less? Maybe I am afraid to burden them with my own trails? I know not why we hide our afflictions from the people we love, only that we do. So here are three things that result when we try to hide our brokenness and three things you can do to change that.

Results of Hiding:

  1. When we hide our affliction, we are robbing ourselves of grace. The grace of God covers us and His grace is, indeed, enough. However, in His infinite mercy, God has given us a tremendous support system to dispense grace in this life. The community of the faithful is to be a group in which we can bear our burdens out in the strength of a group that share a common love for one another. So, to hide our pain is to forego this benefit from the community of faith.
  2. When we hide our pain, we deny others the freedom to express their own pain. No individual thinks that they are perfect. No matter how arrogant a person may be, there is not a person who genuinely believes they are perfect. The problem is that people often think other people are perfect. Sin has taught us to think that other people are better off than we are. Sin causes us to think that other people are perfect and we need to be perfect as well. But, people need to know that you are not perfect. People need to know that it is ok to be broken. They need to see it modeled. When you share your brokenness with the community, you are granting the community permission to not be perfect. They will follow your lead.
  3. When we hide our failures, we fail to grant grace to others who are struggling as well. Being a perfect person helps no one. They will not see Jesus if you are perfect. Rather, they will see Jesus if you are broken. The reality is that: when you are perfect, you are passively sending a message to those around you. You are telling them that they cannot be imperfect. Yet, when you are being redeemed by the working of the Holy Spirit in your life, then people can see the victory over the failures. They can see that broken people can be rescued. Sometimes the best thing you can do is prove that you aren’t good enough.

What to Do:

  1. Admit your frailties one to another. It is not earth-shattering to know that if you will admit your struggles, others will too. But be prepared. Honesty also brings criticism. You must be prepared to grant grace to those who will not grant it to you. Perhaps they’ve not yet learned to give up perfection. Be honest about your pain. Sure, no one can hurt or think less of you if they don’t know. But no one can help you or encourage you either. Further, you may find out that you are a source of strength to others because of your brokenness.
  2. Live in open and honest community with others. This is basically a restatement from number 1, but a necessary one. You need other people. Introvert, extrovert, or whatever. You need people. God designed us this way and you must take advantage of it! Living in honesty community with others is difficult. It means when you ask someone, “how are you?” you really want the answer. When someone asks you, you are honest in your response. Brothers and sisters should not leave things to lay unanswered. Instead, believers seek reconciliation, restoration, and love with one another. This is honest community. Sometimes it is frustrating and difficult because we hurt each other, but it is always grace giving and the result is always love.
  3. Submit to the wisdom of others. When I was first afflicted with my disease, it was rough. I often had to use a cane to walk and found it difficult to accomplish tasks that I was assigned. I was working on a house for a missions group with a team of about 20 and my foot was essentially useless. On my crew were two students who knew my stubbornness and knew my own weakness. They insisted that I sit when I was limping, and that I stopped working when they saw I was hurting. After the trip I spoke with a doctor who told me that they probably saved me some severe nerve damage because they forced me to sit. Since then I have learned to trust those who know me. They know my weaknesses better than I do, so when they address something, I listen.

Maybe you don’t have a disease or struggle with something that causes you physical pain. There are still struggles you deal with. Depression, anxiety, dark feelings, and the like are all too common among believers. Yet, I believe if we are honest with one another, we will often find victory over the darkness. Though the struggles will not necessarily disappear, you can find greater victory by engaging in the community of faith.

Are there any tips you would add? How do you deal with struggles?

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Brief Thoughts: Philemon 4-5

4I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

Philemon was a house church leader in Colossae. His prominence among the community of faith was one that held sway and influence over a number of brothers and sisters in Christ. So Paul begins his instruction to Philemon by reminding Philemon of their mutual relationship. Though Paul is in prison and Philemon is in comfort, they share a shepherding relationship in the church. Confrontation looming, Paul seeks to remind his brother, Philemon, of that relationship.

Paul begins to approach the issues that need addressing by praising God for the good Philemon has done. Invoking the authority of God and, thereby, passively reminding Philemon of God’s position in their relationship. Paul’s reminder to Philemon in verse 4 is a not-so-subtle attempt to remind Philemon that he is being brought before God. Anytime someone says they have been thanking God for you, it ought to make you examine yourself to see if there is anything God is going to correct. This is especially true when a man such as Paul reminds you that he has labored over you in prayer. As a student wanting to please his teacher, so Philemon must have had some desire to please Paul, the great missionary founder of the churches in Asia.

The reason for gratitude over Philemon is the news of his love and faith. Philemon has made sacrifices for the community. He voluntarily gives over his home and time to the work of the Lord. This is a unique sacrifice that should not be overlooked. While Philemon may or may not be an elder (scripture does not tell us if he held the title pastor), he is the host of the church. Hosts don’t get time off. Hosts surrender their own space so that the community can meet in their home. If someone else is tired or sick, they can stay home and just skip for the week. But the host cannot. So Philemon has shown himself to be loving and faithful.

Moreover, Paul is probably referencing even further dedication to the love of the saints and the provision of their needs. It is, no doubt, with great joy that Paul prays in gratitude for Philemon. His constant care and love for the church has made its way to Paul’s ear. Paul, who founded the churches of Asia and dealt specifically with riots, rejection, and all sorts of pitfalls, must find extreme delight in those who carry on the work when he is gone.

Take note that Paul is particularly struck by his love toward “Jesus and all the saints.” Philemon is gently reminded that his love for Jesus is good and that it extends to ALL the saints. Not merely those of high social standing or those who are in particular positions of prominence. The love of Jesus must extend through the hearts of His disciples to everyone. Jesus’ own words explain this even further in Matthew 25:31-40 when He speaks about the final judgment and the day that the King will say to those who are condemned that they have failed to provide for the least and therefore have failed to provide for Him. Loving the lowest in society is loving Jesus. There is no hierarchy in the Kingdom of God. There is only one King and He made himself lowest (C.f. John 13). We are to follow His example and be as He is.

The gospel is the great equalizer. Titles of “slave” and “master” are no longer applicable in the context of the gospel. Philemon’s relationship to Onesimus has transformed from slave to brother. To what extent does the gospel change society’s structure? To what end does the gospel defy the social morae’s of the time? In every way! The gospel defies injustice and demands that believers live above the base morality of society. When a believer is confronted with injustice they make war against it. Believers do not submit to the unjust luxuries of society no matter how integrated they may be. Slavery was an integral part of society in the first century. No matter how easy it made life or how dependent on slavery the economic structure may have been, Christians are called to live the gospel! That means there can no longer be slaves. The gospel must transform all of life. We should not be surprised if the gospel requires great cost from those who believe. After all, we are all once slaves, now free.

Philemon 3; Brief Thoughts

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This simple greeting is so commonplace for Paul that our eyes sometimes fly right past it. Take a moment and look carefully. It is one of the most powerful and revealing greetings a heart can muster. Paul proclaims “grace and peace” (v.3). This opening greeting declares the intent of Gospel communication. Grace and peace. Paul has some strong words for Philemon. They are words that Philemon may be troubled by and tempted to reject. So Paul initiates his letter declaring that unmerited favor. Grace… that gift of life that cannot be measured by currency or value. That priceless free gift that costs us nothing and because of which we give everything. Paul begins by assuring the heart of Philemon: grace is found in this message.

Married to grace is peace. For indeed, peace is found chiefly in unmerited favor. Peace is something that is only available in complete surrender, in complete reliance on grace. Peace can only truly be found in the receipt of grace. Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, has taken your sins, died on the cross to pay the penalty for those sins, and has risen to overcome death. In His death, anyone who believes in Him is free from sin and, in His resurrection, all believers are given a new spiritual life that will go on for eternity! An eternity of peace with God… because of grace. We who were slaves to sin shook our fists in God face as enemies (Romans 5:10). God, “being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6). Trust in Christ to find peace.

Grace and peace. These words so often evade our homes and our work. These character traits seem ever one step beyond our hands. Beyond our work. Beyond our ability. Yet, they are available and are at hand in one moment of dependent surrender. This is difficult for humanity – surrender. It does not come easily to our rebel souls. It is counter to our nature. It is counter to our intuition. Indeed, we all are runaway slaves who need grace and peace from our master. And yet, through surrender to Christ, comes grace and peace. Grace and peace.

The second half of the verse reasserts the magnitude of Paul’s letter. Paul speaks directly for God, delivering his invocation of grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” His authority is not found in his experience, though vast; nor his wisdom, though great; nor his fortitude, though considerable. His authority to write these words comes from the Lord, Jesus, master of all. He uses the word “Father” so you would understand the love of God. He uses the term “Lord” so you would recognize that Jesus is your King and master! What a great and powerful Lord He is! Grace and Peace await us. Submission to a loving Father who rules over all, from whom all grace and peace come. What joy!

Paul’s beautiful invocation would certainly pierce the soul of any Christian. Slaveholding Christians must recognize the inconsistency of serving a master who voluntarily sets them free while insisting on the captivity of their own fellow man. The Lord Jesus Christ has set you free from bondage and has given you freedom. This freedom was not granted because you have been good or made the right choices. Rather, the grace and peace of Jesus Christ transcend your own rebellion to bring freedom to your soul![1]

[1] This same sentence is addressed in similar language in “Thinking through Ephesians; a short devotional journey” by J. Novis Elkins.

Philemon 1-2; Brief Thoughts

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

Paul and Timothy write to Philemon to encourage him to welcome Onesimus, the runaway slave, as a brother in Christ and to free him from slavery to sin and death. As they have been freed in Christ, so the gospel is one that should set every man free from slavery both spiritual and physical. In this simple letter, Paul endeavors to engage Philemon as a brother and encourage him to voluntarily forgive Onesimus and make him a brother, no longer a slave. Whatever offense Onesimus has caused, Philemon needs to be able to forgive it and do what is right. That is to say, Philemon needs to be able to forgive the past and free the slave – because that’s what the gospel does.

This greeting identifies Paul as a victim of circumstantial wickedness (imprisonment for Christ) like Onesimus (a victim of slavery). It also sets Paul apart from Philemon. Paul was alone with only Timothy to support him. Indeed, he had been abandoned by many! Contrary to Paul, Philemon is surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul even lists, specifically, a “sister and a “soldier.” A family member and a protector. Whereas Paul is condemned by soldiers of a wicked government, Philemon has a soldier of Christ in his home! Whereas Paul has only Timothy to console him, Philemon has an entire church! The stark contrast between luxury and prison cannot be lost. Paul is clearly making a point by asserting the blessings of Philemon. It is as if Paul is saying, “you have no reason for complaint about property, condition, or company.” It is no great thing for Philemon to release a slave in order to gain a brother.

Further, Paul knows that others are watching Philemon and he is reminding Philemon that he has the eyes of others upon him. The church that he labors to serve as a “fellow worker” is the very audience to which he is attempting to model Christ. So it stands to reason: if Philemon wishes to display the freedom of Christ and the love of Christ in his own actions, then it follows that he should forgive Onesimus and set him free. Paul’s greeting serves as both a loving salutation and a gentle reminder of the responsibility of one who leads the church.

Finally, Paul’s greeting to Philemon passively asserts the truth that no one in the church should compartmentalize their lives to allow un-forgiveness. Philemon is a part of a community. That community meets in his home and is intimately acquainted with him. Philemon cannot avoid them or live hypocritically before them. This is the nature of a healthy church community. A healthy church is one in which members of the body cannot hide from each other. They cannot simply pretend that they are holy and pursuing Christ in all areas of life and then simply go home and do as they please. Healthy communities engage each other on a level that does not allow for isolation and compartmentalization.

Unfortunately, compartmentalized faith is all too common in the modern western church. Men will serve as bastions of holiness in their church community while living a debauched life away from that community. Women will put themselves pillars of godly womanhood when present in their church, then they will gossip and slander others when away from the community. In a healthy church, this should not happen. A healthy church is in contact with each other in all spheres of life. The eyes of the church community are all looking out for one another and are helping to urge one another on towards unity. There is no hiding when you have surrendered your life to the exposing light of Jesus Christ. Love exposes our failures and redirects us to love one another through a personal connection.

Do you have a community like this? Philemon was held accountable by loving brothers and sisters. Such accountability would, no doubt, give him the support and love to forgive Onesimus and bring him into the community. Do you compartmentalize your faith from your everyday life? Strive to serve and love others in a transparent community of faith! Surrender your privacy so that you might delight in the community of Christ.

The I pastor strives to live in this sort of authentic community. If you live anywhere near Brazoria, TX, come join us as we struggle to live transparent lives worshiping the King of Glory together! We don’t always get it right, and we are far from perfect. Come walk this life in community. More info available here: www.sgfbrazoria.org

Philemon 1a; Brief Thoughts

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus…

The letter to Philemon is set against the backdrop of slavery in Colossae. Philemon was a man who owned at least one slave who had run away. After escaping from his master, the slave Onesimus met Paul and was taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Having become a redeemed saint, Paul urged him to return to his former master as a brother in Christ and rejoin the household of Philemon. There is much to be seen in these 25 simple verses. Much that can be examined and delighted in. Leadership lessons, conflict resolution, and how to handle societal injustices are all present in this letter. Much more than can be convicting and troubling to our modern sensibilities. One truth rings throughout these simple verses – the gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything.

To enslave a man or woman is to deny the soul. Slavery is a vicious attack on humanity. God created man and woman in His image that they would live in harmony and rule together over the earth, not each other. Slavery denies this harmony and insists on perverting the very design and image of God. The gospel, on the other hand, sets people free. Mankind has sinned against God, insisting that we can be righteous on our own and chose to reject Him as God. In doing so, we have become enslaved to sin. We are incapable of being righteous on our own and are in need of rescue. God rescues us by sending His own Son, Jesus, to take our punishment and die in our place. Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died so that anyone who trusts in Him will be saved from the wrath of God. In Him is life and you can have that life today as a free gift from God! He will set you free from the bondage of sin and death and change you from slave to son. You have only to confess that you have sinned against God, trust that Jesus Christ’s righteousness covers you, and follow Him.

The greeting:

Paul identifies himself to Philemon as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” This is unique among Paul’s titles. This is the only letter in which Paul emphasizes his relationship to the world’s system. In every other letter, he emphasizes his connection and relationship to God. In Ephesians and Colossians, he refers to himself as an “apostle.” In Philippians, he calls himself a “slave.” Outside of the prison epistles, his favorite titles for himself are “apostle” or “slave.” Yet, here in Philemon, he sets the tone of his letter by referring to himself as “a prisoner.”

Two things are evident in his self-ascribed title. First, Paul needs no pretentious title or an authoritative position in order to reach out to Philemon. He has the authority because he has earned it by suffering for the name of Christ. Second, He does not need to remind Philemon of His devotion to the Lord. Instead, he purposefully identifies himself by his circumstantial position. Paul is in prison. He is a victim of an unjust system that imprisons and enslaves people.

By pointing out that he is in prison, Paul establishes himself as a victim of circumstance. He is free in Christ Jesus and is no longer a citizen of this world, but he is still in submission to the laws that govern the land. So he is in prison, though he should not be. His imprisonment in unjust, yet he remains in such an unfortunate circumstance. Philemon must note that Paul is a victim of worldly evil and the circumstance that wickedness has wrought.

Slavery is a greater evil even than religious tyranny that imprisons a man. Indeed, the world enslaves people but the gospel sets them free! Like Paul, Onesimus was a victim of circumstance wrought by societal wickedness. He is returning with this letter in hand to submit to the circumstance he finds himself in. But, the gospel changes everything! Onesimus was once a slave, now he must be counted by all believers as a brother! Philemon must not engage in the wicked practices of this life and must, instead, live out the gospel by setting the captives free” (Isa. 61:6). As a follower of Jesus Christ, Philemon is an agent of the gospel and must live that gospel out in this life, defying the circumstance that he finds himself in. Paul lives above his imprisonment, so Philemon must deny his slave ownership in favor of brotherly love and gospel freedom and Onesimus must live above his enslavement.