I had a good friend when I was little; her name was Paige. We would ride bikes all over town together, and I would sleep over at her house as often as possible.
I also had a swing set in my back yard. This was one of those old, metal swing sets, a bit on the rusty side, and it’s legs were not anchored to the ground. This increased the danger of the swing set, thus increasing the fun. The goal, of course, was to swing as high as possible so as to pull the legs of the swing set off of the ground, only to have them fall back to earth with a resounding thud, thus making the swing you were on twist and shake wildly. Great Fun. Loved it.
One day nearing the end of summer, Paige and I were swinging and goofing around in the hot summer sun, and to this day I’m not sure which one of us came up with the idea, but started talking about broken arms and legs. We decided that our goal was to break something. So from that point until the end of the summer, we worked hard every day to break something. We would purposely try to jump out of the swing set and land wrong so as to break something. Paige would have me ride my bike over her wrist, but the weight wasn’t enough to even make a fracture. (In fact, last year Paige actually broke her arm and sent me a picture over Facebook, with the title “I finally did it!”) We tried absolutely everything we could think of to achieve our goal. Day after Day. No luck.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Odd Ducks!”. But you see, we had a method to our madness. Paige wanted a broken arm to both get out of doing her school work that fall and to get everyone to sign her cast. I wanted a broken leg because I thought that a broken leg would stop other evil things from happening. I thought a broken leg, though itself a form of suffering (but not in mine or Paige’s eyes), would prevent suffering in another area of my life.
There is no one on this earth that welcomes suffering. In fact, many of us are afraid of suffering. We’ll do anything–anything-, even try to break our leg–to ward off suffering, tribulation, or persecution. We’ll follow the crowd, not standing on our Christ-given convictions. We’ll pretend all is well, when life is crumbling around us. We’ll pray to God to keep us happy, healthy, safe, financially stable, and then when tragedy or difficult times come, we’ll turn away from Him in a flash.
But suffering is a part of life here on this earth. I spoke to a friend a church this morning, who is the youngest of six siblings. He had to attend the funeral of a sister-in-law last Sunday. He said, essentially, that he sees much more loss in his future as they continue to age and as life continues to march on. The suffering of losing a loved one.
But what does Jesus say about suffering, about tribulation, about persecution?
We see a clear picture of his answer in Revelation 2:8-11. This is the second church, Smyrna, that Jesus addresses in his messages to the churches in Revelation. The verses are below:
9 “ ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
I don’t know that we know much about the church of Smyrna. I couldn’t really find much in my Bible Study materials. But clearly from what we read here, this was a church that was suffering. Not only was it suffering, it was going to suffer. Poverty, persecution, slander, imprisonment, testing…..and possibly much more. This was a church under fire. And what is a church made of? People, so these were individual people who were under fire, who were suffering. The words are clear here: it was a dark time, a hard time for the church of Smyrna.
But I find it remarkable, the very first words that Jesus said: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.” With those very words, he established His authority as ultimate in being able to speak to their suffering. Because He, Himself, had died. He had died and had come back to life; was resurrected. Therefore, He had all the authority in the word to speak straightforward to this group of suffering people.
Another thing I find remarkable is that He assures them that He sees and knows. He has not turned a blind eye to their suffering. O, sometimes in the midst of suffering, in the midst of evil, it seems so very much as if God does not see or know. As if He is blind to all that comes against us. But even though we may not sense Him, we have assurance in scripture that He does see and know: “I know your tribulation and your poverty……”
And then we come to verse 10: Do not fear what you are about to suffer! The audacity of that statement!! Here is a group of people who have already suffered greatly, and yet Jesus tells them plainly that more suffering is on it’s way, and that they should not fear it! Not fear it?? If one already knows the dark days of suffering, those days are not easily erased from the mind. And to be told that more suffering is on it’s way, is almost too much to bear! And yet Jesus says “Do Not Fear what you are about to suffer….”
There is a side of me that wants to argue with Jesus here. That wants to say “Do not fear what I am about to suffer?” That wants to say, “Isn’t enough, enough?” That wants to say “My Jesus, if you know that suffering is coming, why do you not do something to stop it? Is anything too hard for God?” And honestly, these are all questions I have thrown at Jesus, in my praying, in my writing. In my work with hurting people. How do we not fear suffering? How do we embrace it? Why would we not do everything within our power to stop it??
But then I am gently re-reminded, like in the conversation at church this morning with my hurting friend who knows he has more loss to face in the upcoming years, that suffering is a part of life on this earth. No one is immune from it. It is universal. Believers and non-believers, Rich and poor, old and little children. It is inescapable, because we live in a fallen world. Because, like verse 10 says “The devil……” There is evil in this world. We are not immune.
But, just as Jesus opened his message with authority and hope in declaring Himself as the first and last and as the one who died but now lives, he goes on to give this congregation more hope. “Be Faithful unto death,” he says, ” and I will give you the crown of life.” This life He speaks of is eternal life. It is life lived eternally with Jesus and God the father. It is life where wrong is made right, where suffering is no more.
Jesus ends his message to this beleaguered church with this: “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” I did some research into what was meant by the “second death”, and honestly I still do not understand it. But I do understand what “The one who conquers will not be hurt” means. It takes me right back to Romans 8, specifically verse 37:
In all these things…in suffering, in tribulation, in persecution…..we are MORE than conquerers through Him who loved us. Yes, our natural tendency is going to be to fear suffering. Our natural tendency is going to be to ward off evil and bad things just like I wanted to break my leg to prevent the bad things from happening. But we must remember, ultimately, the one who conquers; who is faithful to the end; who does not give up but presses forward; who establishes His trust in Christ and does not run away even in the face of suffering; these will be even MORE than conquerers. Much more. Through Him who loved us. Through Christ’s love. And we, who believe, will someday receive not only the Crown of Life, but life eternal in our real Home, forever with our God.