Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: Suffering

Wesleyan Covenant Prayer: “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”
A Message on James 1:2-4
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Jan. 17, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

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The book of James in the Bible can be a difficult book to read. It’s not necessarily because of big, sesquipedalian words or deep theological concepts, but because James doesn’t mess around with the information he wants to get across.

He just kind of hits you in the face with it. For example, he warns us that the tongue is like a fire, one that cannot be tamed, and that it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8b). Gee, James. Tell us what you really think, would ya?

The scripture we read today from the first chapter of James, right at the beginning of the book, he does that as well. He says something that seems to be counterintuitive and… well… wrong.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

I beg your pardon? Say what? Be joyful when we have trials? What kind of logic is that? It doesn’t make sense. When we’re having troubles, when we’re suffering, and we’re supposed to be joyful? You gotta be kidding…

And yet… that is what James is saying. Here’s The Message paraphrase: “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”

I think that the line of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer that we are studying today, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering,” echoes what James is saying in his scriptures.

The apostle Paul, who became an expert on suffering after choosing to follow Jesus, tells us that “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:3b-5

King David, who was known as the man after God’s own heart, also went through periods of suffering (especially when King Saul was trying to kill him). David wrote in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”

Peter, the disciple also known as Simon, who Jesus told would become the rock that the church would be built upon, wrote “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Paul wrote this in the book we know as Philippians : “For he [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” Philippians 1:29

Back in 1940 C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled, The Problem with Pain. (I highly recommend it, by the way.) In it he talks about why he believes God allows humans to suffer. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

I agree with him. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe he allows it. And I think that suffering is one way that God uses to get our attention.

When everything in our lives is going good, when we are healthy, have loving relationships, and maybe even have some money in the bank, then we tend to forget about God. He gets bumped down our priority list, pushed to the back of the cupboard and covered up with other things.

Oh, we still believe in God, but in the back of our minds we start to believe that we don’t need God. Things are going great, God. I got this.

But suffering refocuses us on God. We painfully come to the realization that we do, indeed, need God. Suffering moves God to the top of our priority list, moves him from the back of the cupboard to being out on the counter. Pain reminds that we are a broken people, that we aren’t as strong as we think we are, and that we need a savior. We need help.

Although thankfully it is rare, there is a medical condition that some people have that prevents them from feeling pain. Known as “Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP),” or congenital analgesia, these people simply can’t feel pain. They can’t even describe it because they don’t feel it.

I have to admit that having such a condition sounds appealing at times, especially those times when we are hurting. But the reality is that CIP is life threatening. People die because of this.

For example, say a child has a cavity which causes a toothache. A normal child would feel the pain that creates and alert the parent, who would get the child to a dentist and have it taken care of. But if a child has CIP then he/she does not feel the pain and thus doesn’t know about the cavity. That cavity can get infected but again, not feeling pain, the child isn’t aware of it. And then that infection can spread to the point that it kills the child. Not a pretty picture.

I think that can be a good metaphor for our spiritual lives. If we don’t feel pain, if we don’t suffer, then we don’t turn to God.

Food tastes better when we’re hungry than when we’re full and not hungry, doesn’t it? A glass of ice water is much more refreshing when you are thirsty, isn’t it? A roaring fire in a fireplace feels much better when it’s cold outside, doesn’t it?

Suffering reminds us that we need a savior.

Now don’t misunderstand me and think that I am saying that suffering is a good thing. No. What I am saying is that because we live in a fallen world, each person will experience suffering in their life. Even Jesus tells us that “In this world you will have trouble.” My point is that when we as Christians do suffer, it is an opportunity for us to grow closer to God and to glorify God in our suffering.

“…whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy…”

“Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

John Wesley knew about suffering. As a matter of fact, his best selling book, Primitive Physic, was a book of home remedies for various ailments.

But his lifestyle also included self discipline almost to the point of suffering. For example, he tried to eat no more than six ounces of meat per day. That’s not much. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant and ordered at 6-ounce steak, what they bring to you is not very much. And for Wesley, that was per DAY, not per meal.

He fasted twice a week. He took cold baths (and in England that meant REAL cold) not only because they were therapeutic but because he could give to the poor the money he would have spent on coal used to heat the water. He wore simple, plain clothing, didn’t believe in having lots of fancy furniture, and pretty much gave away all his money.

He got up at 4 a.m. every morning and went to bed at 9:30. He wrote letters, wrote sermons, had conversation with others, met with small groups, prayed, preached twice each day, read voraciously, and travelled a lot.

Many years ago Samuel J. Rogal wrote about Wesley’s daily activities and how much he traveled. It is estimated that between 1748 and 1790, John traveled a total of 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons. Now 225,000 miles is a lot of miles, but when we remember that most of that was on horseback it makes it even more impressive. (I don’t think I would have wanted to buy a used horse off the man because the odds are that it would be pretty much worn out.)

Even in his 80s he kept a rigorous schedule, even though his body was starting to show the strain. He wrote in his journal, when he was close to being 87, a self-assessment of being “an old man, decayed head to foot. My eyes are dim; my right hand shakes much; my mouth is hot and dry every morning; I have a lingering fever almost every day; my motion is weak and slow. However, blessed by God, I do not slack my labour. I can preach and write still.”

Many of the places where Wesley preached he caused so much anger towards him that he was forbidden from preaching there again. Mobs ran him out of many of the places he preached and tried to cause him physical harm.

He had failed relationships with women and also marriage, with he and his wife never divorcing but living separately from each other.

And yet as part of his covenant prayer, he wrote, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Are you willing to continue to proclaim God’s glory when your life is falling apart around you, or you are seriously ill, or emotionally spent? When you are suffering or having a hard time, are you willing to “consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing”?

That is my challenge to you this week. Praise God in your sufferings. In this world we will have trouble. Jesus tells us that. But the troubles don’t have to win. Endure hardships with optimism, knowing that Jesus died for our sins and that no matter what this world throws at us, as believers in Christ and children of God we are promised that something better is coming.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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