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Thanksgiving in Suffering

By November 26, 2023Sermon Notes

The largest question for humans has always been what to do with suffering.

Some have developed entire religious/life systems built around dealing with this problem, like Buddhism.

Since life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire, if you eliminate desire, you eliminate suffering, so the path forward, Buddhist practice, is designed to deal with the problem of suffering.

Other systems have attempted to deal with suffering by denying its existence, like Christian science, or Hinduism, where sickness and evil are a kind of illusion or unreality.

For the atheist suffering is simply a fact of living in an impersonal, uncaused and ultimately purposeless world of cause and effect…there is no ultimate meaning in pleasure or pain…whatever is, just is.

For most people, the strategy is simpler…try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure as much as possible…it has little to do with religious or philosophical systems and more to do with dealing with life as it comes at me today.

But even then, there remains for every human, a belief behind their behavior…is their purpose in my pain (and in pleasure) or not?

The suffering increases when the purpose behind the suffering decreases…and the opposite is true as well.

I was watching a film about a Soviet official, who gave the west key information at the height of the Cold War, in order to try and divert nuclear disaster.

He was caught, imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed.

His mental anguish matched or surpassed his physical suffering when he believed that his efforts had accomplished nothing…other than more pain for himself and his family.

A turning point was when he found out his efforts had impact on international security, possible averting war…suddenly the same suffering, found meaning and that changed everything for him.

His pain was still painful…but it was pain with purpose.

Today, you heard from two in our congregation who have practiced gratitude in the face of suffering.

Their practice of thanksgiving is based on a belief in purpose…that belief in purpose is centered in their faith in God.

Their faith in God empowers their gratitude in the midst of pain.

Last week we focused on Belief, Life and Certainty.

Today, we look at how that certainty empowers gratitude in the midst of difficulty and suffering.

Even as John’s focus of certainty was on Jesus…who he is and what he has done.

So too, our focus of gratitude in suffering is on Jesus.

Hebrews 12 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. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

The author of Hebrews and his original readers were up next in the faith arena…”We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.” he wrote.

These witnesses, mentioned in the preceding chapter, had finished their race, and their lives had given evidence of the faithfulness of God to sustain them to the end.

This didn’t mean they thrived at every single point…they certainly did not…but their lives gave evidence of God’s enduring faithfulness.

Now, for us, the original author and readers of this letter have joined that large group of witnesses. They have finished their race.

And God’s word speaks to us, we are up next…we are surrounded by an even greater cloud of witnesses…and additional 2000 years of them.

This passage doesn’t indicate that those who have gone before are looking at our lives from some heavenly grandstand, as if they don’t have something better to do.

The word “witness” is the word that we get martyr from.

The meaning is that their very lives, bear witness to the faithfulness of God.

Some were killed for their faith, literally giving their lives…others, lived long lives, but they also “gave their lives for their faith.”

They were just martyrs of the long, slow type…like Paul wrote, “I die daily”

Meaning, he gave his life, day by day, for the glory of God and the good of others…he was a living sacrifice.

In track field events you are said to be “up next” or “on deck”(next after next).

When you are on deck you better be getting your sweats off, getting squared away for your turn…to jump or throw.

When you are up next…well, it’s time to go…your turn.

In chapter 11 the writer tells the stories of God’s faithfulness (and the varying degrees of human faithfulness) of the ones who had finished their race.

When he wrote this letter…he and his readers were up next.

You and I were, in a sense when this was written, we were on deck…now we are up next.

God’s word for us now is.

Terry…you are up next…you have a great could of witnesses who have finished…they give evidence of God’s faithfulness…that is meant to empower your faithfulness.

12 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.

Just as the track athlete sheds their sweats and other things that might hinder them…we are to continually shed the sin that hinders our race.

We spent weeks talking about this in 1 John…so I will leave it at that.

That is the negative (throw off sin)

Then the positive…we are to run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

This perseverance is a word that means to finish well despite difficulties.

To run hard for a time, without finishing, is not biblical endurance.

Failure along the way is normal, discouragement along the way is normal…finishing is essential.

Mess up. Get up. Move on.

How is our race described?

It is described as being “marked out for us.”

We do make many choices in our lives…those choices have tremendous or sometimes terrible impacts…but in terms of the race we are called to run, it is chosen for us.

Much of our lives are not tied to our choices…but to what has been chosen for us.

You didn’t pick your parents, our granddaughter Norah didn’t decide to be born with a rare disease…the many things that are sometimes called “Sovereign foundations” that make you, you…were picked for you.

Tolkien’s famous dialogue, in the “Fellowship of the Ring” between Frodo and Gandalf gets at this reality.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So, we are to run by throwing off what impedes us, with a heart to finish, with faith that this path has been chosen for us.

We can ruin the race by sin.

We can fail to finish the race well by lack of endurance.

And we can sit down in despair because we don’t like the race we have been given to run.

Or we can run with endurance, the race marked out for us.


2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

There is so much there to instruct us, but let’s focus on our main theme for today.

Gratitude in suffering.

When you compete, you look somewhere, and you cannot truly “fix your eyes” on more than one thing at a time.

You can look around at others, you can look behind you, or you look at the goal.

We are told specifically how we are to run this race with endurance.

We fix our eyes on Jesus(this means our hearts, minds, perspective…keep reorienting to him)…He is the originator and completer of our faith. He is our certainty.

And as we look at him, we “see” that he endured the cross, he dismissed its shame for the joy set before him.

He, unlike us, could have opted out at any time…he could have chosen to not go to the cross.

He actually had the power to stop what other humans were doing, he had the power to control outcomes.

He didn’t enjoy the cross…he didn’t disconnect from suffering by eliminating desire…he didn’t become passionless.

His death is called the “passion of Christ.”

He fully engaged all of it.

He agonized in the garden in his body and mind over his coming suffering.

He went to the cross for the joy set before him.

His certainty of purpose didn’t eliminate suffering…but it did transform it…it is instructive for us.

So, we are to look to him as we run our race and what do we see?

He didn’t love the pain of the cross…crucifixion was not the joy set before it, it was for joy that he endured the cross.

What was his Joy?

Look at John 15, Jesus is instructing his disciples in the face of his impending arrest and death.

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

His joy was obedience to his Father…to do the will of the one who sent him.

John 6:38
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

His purpose was the will of God, this was the joy set before him.

That will, of course, meant our good…our salvation.

We too, then, were the joy that sent him to the cross.

Pain always hurts. Mental. Relational. Physical.

But pain without purpose destroys.

There is another approach that humans have taken to pain…apart from some kind of denial or disengagement.

They can try to “Invent purpose” in an attempt to decrease suffering…make up meaning.

“Everything happens for a reason.” I have heard more times than I can count.

Some mean they have faith in God by this statement, but many offer it as a contentless sort of “hail Mary”

Throw the long ball, time is running out, I don’t have real faith in God…but there must be purpose…the universe, fate…whatever.

“Everything happens for a reason”…what reason? Who makes it so?

Who exactly brings this suffering to a purposeful end…the universe, fate, you>

If you invent your own purpose, it will not prove to be a strong foundation for your life…it is wishful thinking.

We “Consider” Jesus not our own constructions of purpose when we are tempted to grow weary and lose heart.

We look externally to him, not internally to our own resources.

Paul wrote, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will have the necessary courage so that Christ will be highly honored in my life…whether I live or die.”

We look to Christ for purpose in suffering…and our joy, like his joy…is to come from a life of faithfulness.

The Lord’s purpose was the will of his father.

Our joy, our purpose, Jesus said is likewise found in surrender to the will of God.

This is not passive resignation.

This is passion empowered trust…our desires are not to be eliminated but reoriented to what matters the most.

This won’t make pain, painless…but it will stop pain from being purposeless…hope need not drain from your life.

I’ve seen people live and die without hope and I’ve seen them live and die with hope.

We don’t just need purpose for the end…we need purpose all along the way.

For the Buddhist is not just the “bad stuff” that is the problem.

Existence itself is suffering.

When you are enjoying the day, or your family, or a moment of happiness (last weekend, family gathered)…this too is fleeting and therefore not to be trusted…even your pleasure is a kind of suffering…because it is fleeting.

When we are in some kind of pain…life can become unbearable hard…life is, at that moment, suffering.

But when we are experiencing great joy…we can see the shadow lurking behind the sunshine…”yes, but this will not last, this joy cannot be trusted.”

So, the Buddha was right that neither joy nor sorrow were to be trusted in that sense…but he was wrong about the solution.

The solution is not detachment but faith in Christ.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. John 14

Purpose in pain and pleasure are found in faithfulness to the run the course marked out for us.

We can be thankful in suffering…we don’t have to like what we are going through.

Jesus himself, asked for another way…we can do the same.

But then, he did, what we must do…”Not my will, but yours be done.”

What other way is there? Any other way is without purpose, and ultimately leads to despair.

Faith in God’s faithfulness is what empower our faithfulness in all things…even in, especially in, suffering.

But this does not mean we are just “sucking it up”…Jesus for the “JOY” set before him, endured the cross.

It is not endurance for endurance…but endurance for joy.