Friday, October 03, 2008

The Kingdom and Hardship

“Anyone signing up for the Kingdom of God has to go through plenty of hard times” (Acts 14:22, The Message).

Last summer I had the privilege of spending a week with a group of Christians from a predominantly Muslim country. The visible Kingdom in which they live is governed by both a constitution and Islamic law. My week with them allowed me to experience what citizenship in God’s Kingdom means, how it transcends the geographical borders of the United States and the country in which they live and worship.

Among this group was a 36 year old man, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, a husband and father. About two months ago I began receiving emails asking for prayer for this brave man. He had been told to present himself to the police. He complied with this order and was subsequently placed under arrest. He remains imprisoned today though no formal charges have been filed against him. This kind of thing is not new to him. His own father, a pastor, was put to death by the government in 1990.

Living in God’s Kingdom is a hard and risky business for many around the world.

This will sound strange to us, but one of the ways heaven comes to earth is through our experience of affliction. Of course, it isn’t always this way. The Kingdom of God is made real in acts of service and compassion, when we work for justice and alleviate suffering.

But the New Testament is also clear that “we must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” What does that mean?

Maybe it simply means that we are never more fully aware of God’s ruling presence than when our own capacities for managing life are exhausted and spent. That’s what hardship does to us. It exposes our limitations. The crust is rinsed from our eyes and we see clearly that we’re not in charge of much. And once we see that, we’re more likely to see what we had previously missed: grace is all around us. God is at work governing our lives. The Spirit quietly brings about the purposes of God that were hidden from us. In short, we’re living in another Kingdom – the one where God rules.

We are often too quick to conclude that our hardships are evidence of God’s absence. “If God were truly in charge of things, this wouldn’t be happening” – or so we think. Be vigilant against this flawed reasoning. The hardships you are facing today stand before you as an open door, a way into the Kingdom of God. The pain you feel right now is an invitation to grace. Come on in.

Lord Jesus, you humbly learned obedience through what you suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Teach us to do the same. We are inclined to resent hardships. We work hard to fix them. We try hard to escape them. Help us instead to live through them and in them show us your grace. Strengthen our confidence in your ruling presence in this world, we pray. Amen.

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