“THEY PREFERRED AFFLICTIONS TO SINS”
It is good for a pastor to visit the mission field and to take note of what believers in other places are up against. It is good for any Christian who can to visit the mission field, so long as he does not burden those he is visiting by his presence. You see, that which is arrayed against believers is not exactly the same in each country, in every locale. In some places, believers face certain kinds of afflictions, while in other places they face different afflictions in their daily struggle to live for Christ and to represent Him faithfully. In one part of Africa, the affliction one faces at the prospect of becoming a believer in Jesus Christ is the loss of family, the loss of place in the community, perhaps even the loss of a place to live. In another part of Africa, the affliction one faces at the prospect of becoming a believer in Jesus Christ is the loss of your life.
The one constant that every human being faces in life is what is called affliction. Afflictions are the various difficulties of life, the different hardships that one encounters, the experiences that cause pain and suffering in various degrees, and the aspects of life that are frustrating, or painful, or dangerous, or just wearisome. One common characteristic of afflictions is that they are oftentimes avoidable. For example: You work six days, long hours each day, and you have one day each week off. Your day off is Sunday. However, church is on Sunday, so you are faced with a dilemma. Either you experience the affliction associated with going to church when you are really tired and feel like resting, or you avoid the affliction by staying home and spending the day relaxing. A little boy seeks to avoid the affliction of doing his chores around the house by going down the street and playing with his friend. However, when his mom asks him if he did his chores, or if he did his homework, he tries to avoid the correction associated with neglecting his chores by lying to his mom. It is amazing how easy it is for us to avoid even very slight afflictions by committing sins.
To repeat what the missionary recently told me when he indicated that a Christian from the USA taught his people how to stay home from church, when you are troubled with a bad headache. Either you suffer affliction by attending the midweek service with a really bad headache, or you stay at home and set an example for the African Christians to follow when they get headaches. Of course, the problem is that you still have the headache at home. So, in her efforts to avoid affliction by staying home from church, the American Christian did not really avoid all that much affliction, did she? She also taught African Christians to prefer sin to affliction.
This evening I want to bring to your attention the Christian way of dealing with afflictions. It may be confusing for some of you, in light of the fact that the American way of dealing with afflictions is typically not the Christian way of dealing with afflictions, even though the Americans who typically deal with afflictions incorrectly profess themselves Christians. However, by the end of the message I trust you will see a clear distinction between the Christian way of addressing afflictions and the wrong way of dealing with afflictions.
The message is divided into four parts:
First, WE CONSIDER THOSE AFFLICTIONS MENTIONED IN THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
Though the primary concern of Hebrews chapter 11 is to recount the conduct of those who demonstrated their faith, there is much overlap when it comes to demonstrating a living and God-honoring faith and dealing with the afflictions one faces properly.
Consider, first, Abraham. In Hebrews 11.8-10, we are told of Abraham’s faith and the obedience that his faith produced. As we read the passage, consider the afflictions Abraham had to endure in order to obey God, in leaving kith and kin, in traveling from lush and fertile Ur of the Chaldees to the Promised Land, in transitioning from a settled life to the life of a nomad, and in leaving a place he knew to journey to a place he did not know:
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:
10 For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
Then there is Hebrews 11.17-19, where God directed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, his only son. Think that entire chapter in his life was not an affliction that most professing believers would not have completely avoided? Think again as I read.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.
What Abraham would have missed had he chosen sin over affliction.
Now look at Hebrews 11.24-27, where we read of Moses.
24 By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter;
25 Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;
26 Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.
27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.
Here we are specifically told that Moses suffered avoidable affliction. Remember, he could have kept his mouth shut and remained a member of Pharaoh’s household. However, just like Abraham, Moses preferred affliction to sinning. Abraham would have sinned had he not heeded God’s call. Moses would have sinned had he chosen to endure the pleasures of sin for a season. He did not fear Pharaoh’s wrath, but by faith obeyed God, preferring affliction to the more immediate comfort offered by sin.
Third, there was Rahab. In Hebrews 11.31 we read, “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.” You know the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies sent to Jericho. She hid those men at great risk of her life, choosing instead to exercise faith. Did she suffer affliction? Yes, in the form of mental anguish, and there was the prospect of torture and death if she had been discovered. However, she chose to exercise faith rather than continue in her sinful and idolatrous lifestyle.
We finish in Hebrews 11.32-38 by reading of a number of others:
32 And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,
34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:
37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
We will not take the time to examine the afflictions of each of these heroes of faith. However, keep in mind something you might not have considered before. Each example of faith referred to in this passage shows the affliction that was endured in order to live by faith, in order to do right, in order to obey God. In short, each is an example of someone who chose affliction rather than committing sin.
Next, AFFLICTIONS IN THE LIFE OF THE APOSTLE PAUL
As we consider the Apostle Paul, I would like you to ponder what he says about afflictions versus what he says about sins, as a way of seeing which of the two he believed should be avoided and which should be endured:
First, the Apostle Paul’s experiences with and estimation of afflictions. In Second Corinthians 11.23-29, Paul was writing to counteract the influence of false teachers who were seeking to influence the Corinthians. In this passage Paul describes a number of his experiences in the gospel ministry:
23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.
29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?
What a catalog of afflictions that Paul could easily have avoided had he chosen to serve sin rather than serving God. Notice his estimation of the suffering of afflictions in the Christian life, in Romans 8.18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Afflictions, then, are not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, if Paul is any guide.
While Paul deals with afflictions as a necessary part of the Christian experience that must be coped with, his attitude toward sins is markedly different. Notice the emotion that comes through in Romans 7.24 at the conclusion of Paul’s discussion of his own personal struggle with sinning: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” To Paul, sinning was a very big deal, indeed. Is his entire life following his conversion not a testimony to the fact that while he never claimed to be sinless, he did consciously choose affliction over sinning? In this respect, he was no different from Abraham, Moses, Rahab or any of the others in Hebrews 11. Like them, he chose affliction over sinning.
Third, AFFLICTIONS IN THE LIFE OF THE SAVIOR
Allow me to state the obvious, that Jesus is different from you and me, in that He is the eternal Son of the living God, and that not only did He not commit sin or experience sinfulness in any way (being the Holy One of Israel who Isaiah saw in His glory in Isaiah chapter 6), but that being impeccable, He could not have sinned. He is, however, fully man. In His humanity, He suffered afflictions. Having declared what orthodox Christians have confessed in various creeds for sixteen hundred years, let us now look at two sets of afflictions that the Lord Jesus Christ could have avoided but did not:
First, when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. We are told in Matthew 4.1 “Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” That was an avoidable affliction. We are told in Matthew 4.2 that He “fasted forty days and forty nights.” That, too, was an avoidable affliction. Then, of course, Satan tempted the Savior. That was certainly an affliction. Yet it was an affliction that was not responded to by sinning, as is so often the case with mortal men, and was not avoided by sinning, as is also the case with mortal men.
Then, when Jesus suffered the death of the Cross. Please turn in your Bible to Hebrews 12.2, where we read of our Lord’s great affliction on the cross of Calvary:
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.
4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
Did Jesus suffer terribly on the cross of Calvary? Was that not the most grievous of afflictions? Yet He endured such affliction in order to please His heavenly Father, in order to procure our salvation by His blood, in order (in other words) to do right. Look to verses 3-4 once more. The writer to the Hebrews is using Christ’s experience in verse 2 to prompt his readers so they will not falter when they are afflicted. He observes that they have not yet died rather than sinning, verse 4, and showing that the Christian is to choose to suffer rather than sinning! It is not likely that someone actually does this who has never thought of doing this. This is where the mental toughness and determination of the child of God comes from, that leads to choosing affliction rather than sinning.
Finally, IN THE LIVES OF THE CHRISTIAN EXAMPLES AND MARTYRS
In Hebrews chapter 11, we saw that those listed as examples of faith preferred afflictions to sinning. I am not saying they enjoyed afflictions, by any means, but that they preferred suffering afflictions to committing sins. That same pattern was evident in the life and inspired writings of the Apostle Paul. Then, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ certainly chose afflictions and was not touched in any way by experience with sin.
Do you begin to see it? There is a pattern with God’s people and with God’s Son. They choose affliction rather than sin. Why is that so? The answer to that question is another sermon entirely. However, suffice it to say that affliction does not separate you from close communion with God, while sin does. As well, holiness will always choose affliction over sin, by its very nature. Then there is love. Love will suffer affliction rather than choosing sin against God, Who is love.
In this last point, I would like to share with you several examples of Christians suffering affliction rather than sinning against God. Some are Christians you have heard about, while others are Christians you know. I am not making any claim of sinless perfection for any of them, but simply cite examples to show how they chose affliction over sin. Here is a very short list that could be expanded to thousands of examples, had we the time:
First, there is Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His story is in Acts chapter 7, where he suffered martyrdom rather than pass on the opportunity to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
How about John Bunyan, who suffered the affliction of twelve years in the Bedford jail, rather than violate his Christian convictions? While in that jail, he had to earn a living to support a blind daughter. All he had to do to secure his release was sign a piece of paper. However, so earnest was he in his commitment to endure affliction rather than commit sin that he urged the jailor to take off his hand if he ever saw him reach for the quill to sign the document that would guarantee his release.
Next, there is the Chinese evangelist John Sung, the first Asian to earn a PhD from Ohio State University, who literally preached himself to death rather than seek medical treatment. Why so? He insisted on striking while the iron was hot, preaching his heart and soul out immediately before World War Two. John Sung’s legacy lives on in China to this day, and in the Philippines, and in Singapore.
Third, there is Ben Griffith, who was operated on for prostate cancer on a Monday and sang his customary solo before Dr. Hymers’ sermon the next Sunday, while wearing a diaper, with sweat pouring off his face as he gripped the pulpit. The song he sang was “I’d Rather Have Jesus Than Anything.” He did not have to suffer that affliction. He could have stayed home and recuperated. His pastor urged him to stay home. However, he insisted on being at his post and serving God, come what may. He was not going to let something as insignificant as pain to interfere with his ministry.
My final example is Dr. Kreighton Chan, my personal physician. Born with very bad kidneys, he spent his first seven years in the hospital, going home only for Christmas. His health improved somewhat and he graduated from medical school, coming to Christ along the way at the age of 19. Then, several years ago, his mother donated a kidney to him and the transplant was performed on a Tuesday. Sure enough, Dr. Chan was on the platform at his church the next Sunday, reading from the Bible and leading the congregation in prayer, as is his custom during Sunday services, with a tube draining fluid from the incision in his lower back, despite his pastor urging him to stay home to recuperate. Criticize him if you want to, but I will not criticize him. He chose affliction rather than sin.
Do these examples horrify you? Perhaps your understanding of afflictions in a Christian’s life is somewhat amiss. Let me help you by showing you just three passages from the Bible that may provoke some serious thought about your relationship to God and this matter of afflictions versus sins.
Turn to Hosea 5.15: “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.” Interesting, is it not, the part afflictions can play in the life of a sinner turning to Christ?
Turn to Jonah 2.2: “And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” It was in the belly of the whale that this backsliding servant of God cried out to God. Affliction so very often serves the believer well, bringing the real issues of life into sharp focus and clarity.
Finally, turn to Mark 4.17: “And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word’s sake, immediately they are offended.” The previous verse indicates that by all appearances the person described in this parable responded to the gospel and was saved. However, affliction or persecution that arises for the Word’s sake exposes the false professor’s true condition.
You need to understand that personal comfort is not the be all and end all of the Christian life. Examples ranging from Abraham, Moses and Rahab the harlot all the way to the Savior, the Apostle Paul, and too many Christians down through history to count (even believers that you know) show that they preferred affliction to sin.
Though afflictions are painful, irritating, frustrating, aggravating, and a whole bunch of other things, afflictions are not immoral. Sin, on the other hand, is always wicked. Therefore, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, and for his own sake, the believer in Jesus Christ prefers affliction to sin. This is where contemporary evangelicalism shows itself to be so different from Biblical Christianity. Evangelicals would be horrified that a pastor would suggest that people attend church even though they have bad headaches. Evangelicals would be mortified that a Christian man would risk pain and discomfort in order to do his duty and be faithful to his ministry.
Spurgeon had it right, I think. He went to Mentone, France when he was so overcome by physical ailments that he could not continue his ministry. He did not avoid afflictions, but exercised wisdom when his afflictions overwhelmed him to do his best to recuperate. Then, during his final trip to Mentone, his afflictions overwhelmed him and he passed to glory.
May I say that no one typically has any business drawing conclusions about your choices concerning afflictions as they related to your physical health and well-being, as they relate to your life of service and ministry for Christ’s sake. Such matters are usually between you and God alone. However, since we are epistles known and read of men, and since we are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses, and since God is the heart-knowing God, it is your great honor and privilege as a child of God to prefer afflictions to sins, as those who have gone on before us have done.