Suffering’s Role in Spiritual Growth
There is a very important, and little understood principle, to be addressed in this post. The principle can be summarized as the following:
The strength of the natural man must be broken in order for a spiritual creation born of the seed of Christ to be revealed in us.
Whenever a man is strong in a natural sense, the development of the spiritual man is inhibited. I would include here an excerpt from a previous writing titled The Shattered People that speaks of this principle.
All of us are like the seed of an oak, or even the seed of a grain of wheat. The life within the seed is there with all of the potential to grow into the pattern of that which it came from. Yet the outer shell restricts this life from coming forth. Even as a seed must fall into the ground and die, being subjected to freezing, flood, heat and pressure, resulting in the outer shell being broken open, so too must the lives of the saints be subjected to great stress in order for the life of Christ to be revealed. Christ Yahshua said we had but two options: we can fall on the Rock and be broken to pieces, or the Rock can fall on us and scatter us like dust (Matthew 21:44).
Recently, the Spirit revealed this truth of the necessity for brokenness in a most poignant way. I know of a man in his sixties who has been a child of God nearly forty years. There was much hardness in this man’s life, and the outer shell of his natural man greatly constricted the flow of the Spirit within him. He was prone to speak very cutting and hard words to members of his family, wounding many of them.
About a year ago this man had to undergo major surgery, and he nearly died. After his surgery he was left in a very weakened state physically, mentally, and emotionally. His natural strength was abated. In his weakened condition the Spirit was able to move in his life and to express qualities of meekness, gentleness, humility and love. In his vulnerability and weakness he expressed many words of regret about his past hardness, and the failures of his life. He called up family members, and with tears he spoke of his regret over his hardness, and he asked forgiveness of those whom he had hurt.
Over time this man’s strength began to return, and as it has the former hardness that was a characteristic of his natural man has also returned. He has returned to speaking hard and injurious words to those around him. As I contemplated this I saw clearly why the Spirit must bring all of God’s children to places of brokenness. We all “have this treasure in earthen vessels,” even the very life and Spirit of Christ. Yet this life will be as a bottle of precious and costly perfume that has never been opened if we protect it and do not allow it to be shattered. The scriptures give us a beautiful picture of this.
While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head.
Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Alabaster is a white, marble-like mineral that people used to store ointments in. While the alabaster vial remains sealed and unbroken, the contents are completely hidden, closed off from the world. When Mary broke her alabaster vial we are told that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” If we want our environment to be filled with the fragrance of Christ, then we too must be broken vessels.
I recently received correspondence from another saint who has embraced a surrendered life in recent years. She was directed by the Spirit of Christ to make many radical changes to her life, and they have proven costly. Where she formerly had financial security and a settled life, she now has to look to Yahweh daily for her provision and she has moved about from place to place. Eventually the Spirit led her to move back to her hometown where her parents and family live.
In moving back this sister encountered much censure and criticism from family members who are Christians, but who have not come to the same degree of surrender to be directed by the Holy Spirit. As is the case with most Christians who are led by their soul, her family members led comfortable and outwardly successful lives. When these ones viewed her life, they saw the recent changes as being negative. She was reproached as one who is deceived, deluded, or has taken a wrong turn in life. Yahweh used the criticism and judgments of others to teach her meekness, gentleness, forgiveness and longsuffering. Rather than defend herself, she chose to bear the offenses patiently.
Many of these offenses came from her father. He expressed his concern to his daughter that she was in much error, making known his disapproval of her decisions, and the lack of wisdom in the course she had now embraced. Rather than commending her for taking up her cross to follow Christ, she was subjected to judgments that she was less spiritual than other members of the family. These criticisms hurt, for this woman loved her father and desired to have a close and loving relationship with him.
About a year ago this woman’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, or a similar form of advanced dementia. His mental decline was very rapid and he was soon wandering off and getting lost. His mind was reduced in its capacity to reason, to argue, and to determine his own way through this life. At the same time that his mental powers were in decline a transformation began to take place in the way he related to others. The former criticism that had marked his relationship with his daughter was replaced with a spirit of love and appreciation. A sweet, simple love exuded from his innermost being as he daily interacted with her. This man remained full of love until his death some months later.
What occurred in both of these examples I have listed is that the inner nature of Christ began to be revealed through individuals whose natural powers had formerly remained unbroken. As the strength of the Adamic man was weakened, the inner life of Christ was able to come forth free of those restraints that had formerly bound it up.
The truth revealed in these things, and corroborated by the testimony of Scripture, is that the natural strengths of man are very often a hindrance to the release of the Spirit within our beings. It is necessary for every man to enter into a weak condition in a natural sense in order for the power of Christ’s divine life to be revealed in and through them. The apostle Paul makes this very argument.
II Corinthians 12:7-10
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
People of God, consider how contradictory the attitude of Paul is with that manifested by the world and the church today. Paul said, “I will rather boast about my weaknesses.” What do men boast about today? Do they not boast about their strengths? Yet, it is these very strengths that hinder growth in conformity to Christ.
Consider some of the many things men identify as their strengths today. The ability to earn a prodigious amount of money is one of man’s chief strengths. Having wealth accumulated, much property, investments, and money in the bank gives a man a sense of power and achievement. Some men boast about their intellect. They may have excelled in college, or earned advanced degrees; They may be highly knowledgeable in certain fields of endeavor, or have a great capacity to reason logically, and this gives them a sense of empowerment. Other men are strong physically. They have an athleticism that gives them a sense of invulnerability, of endless strength to accomplish whatever they set their minds to do.
In every such instance where a man comes to rely in, and operate from, a position of natural strength, there always exists the potential of conflict with the spirit. When a man has found that his natural strengths have carried him far in life, he very often will judge that these same natural strengths will bring him equal success in the kingdom of God. This is great error. Whenever Yahweh sets forth to accomplish anything, it must be by the following principle:
“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says Yahweh of hosts.
Truly, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing.” Among the last recorded words of Christ to His disciples before He ascended are the following:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
Some who heard these words might have wondered, “What is wrong with the power we already have? Are not our wealth, our physical strength, and our mental powers of the soul adequate? Cannot we look to our natural strengths as we labor to be Christ’s witnesses?” It was certainly the pattern of the Jews in that day to carry forth all their religious duties through the power of the natural man, for the Spirit had not yet been given.
Sadly, even after the Spirit has been given, a majority of Christians continue to operate on the basis of a soulish power. Much service to God is performed in the power of the natural man. The soul of man is guiding and directing, and the natural powers of man that are looked to in order to accomplish every task. The results are predictable.
Men who operate out of their natural strength will fall short of the mind and will of the Father. Man’s ways are not God’s ways. Look at the focus the church has placed upon prosperity, wealth, and worldly success today and it is evident that the soul of man is guiding. The church is seeking to manifest an image of power, success and strength to the world. The church seeks to meet the world head on from a position of strength, yet the Son of God came in much weakness.
When men are strong in natural things, they are weak in spiritual things. This is why we find so few great people on this earth embracing the meek and lowly walk of a disciple of Christ.
I Corinthians 1:26-29
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.
I have observed in my own life that natural strength does not promote spiritual growth. In those seasons of my life when I was earning a good salary and had much money to spend, my tendency was to make decisions for myself. I felt empowered by my success, and the result was a spiritual malaise. Rather than drawing closer to God, I found that I was pressing in less to His presence.
Yahweh knows our tendency to forget Him when we are full and experiencing abundance. Therefore, He will lead His willing people through wilderness places where the abundance is gone.
I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of drought. As they had their pasture, they became satisfied, and being satisfied, their heart became proud; Therefore they forgot Me.
If I had been a physically strong man, I am confident that this too would have been a great hindrance to my spiritual growth. Physical strength would have engendered in me a carelessness about spiritual things. Yahweh in His wisdom and mercy permitted me to be born with brittle bones. From the time of my childhood I was more easily injured than other children. I was not athletic, and this natural weakness caused me to adopt a more humble attitude toward those around me than I would have had otherwise.
One of the greatest areas of natural strength men must overcome is the power of their mind. Men are naturally prone to rely heavily upon their own ability to reason as they pursue a course through this world. As Christians, such reliance upon natural reason will stymy spiritual growth. Christians, even after they have been born of the Spirit of Christ, still retain the ability, and tendency, to think as natural men. This tendency to operate from a natural wisdom must be cast down.
I Corinthians 3:18-19
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.
What does Paul mean when he says we “must become foolish”? The natural man esteems things that God does not. Look at the world around you. Look at what is promoted on television and in all forms of media. A pursuit of material abundance is one of the chief tenets of worldly wisdom. Try to get as much of this world as you can. Seek a comfortable life. Enjoy as much pleasure as possible. Pursue popularity. Live large. Be filled and happy. This is the wisdom of the world. Yet the wisdom of Christ speaks in this way:
And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.”
The wisdom of God esteems that which the natural man despises. The natural man seeks to walk in strength. The spiritual man boasts in his weakness, for then the power of Christ can be revealed in him. There are a multitude of ways in which Yahweh can bring His sons and daughters to experience this necessary sense of weakness. In the passage we previously looked at from the apostle Paul, he was writing about a thorn in the flesh. This thorn was some type of physical affliction that was very humbling. Yet, Paul acknowledged that there were other things Yahweh brought into his life, and ours, to produce in us this same sense of natural weakness so that we would look to the power of Yahweh to sustain us.
“Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Has Yahweh brought you to a place where you are insulted and reproached? Does this not cause you to perceive your vulnerable position in this world? Those who are popular feel empowered by their popularity, yet those who are insulted are weak by comparison.
Have you been brought to experience various distresses? Perhaps you have distressing circumstances in your finances. Maybe the distress is in learning of some serious medical problem you are facing. Whatever the experience, distresses come into our lives to help break down the natural man so that the life of Christ can be revealed in us.
Are you persecuted for your obedience to Christ? It is certainly difficult to find that the Christian religious system holds you in contempt, or has declared you to be deluded and a heretic. When ministers close the doors of their churches in your face, and you find you have no place among them, there is a sense of being alone in this world. This isolation drives us closer to our heavenly Father. The same is true when we face persecution from the world, from governments, and the courts of the land.
Paul said he had learned to be content with difficulties. All disciples of Christ will be led into difficulties. Yahshua said that there is an afflicted path that leads to life. His invitation is to take up your cross and follow Him. All of these experiences are designed to provide us with a favorable environment for spiritual growth. We grow best when our lives are difficult.
Consider now why Christ told those who would be His disciples that they must give up all they possess. Our possessions give us a sense of security, of strength. How many people wrap their homes, cars, and possessions around themselves as a security blanket? These worldly possessions enable them to feel comfortable and protected. Yet, what man needs to grow spiritually is a sense of his vulnerability in this world. When we are weak we look to God constantly. When we are weak we are cognizant of our need for God to come through for us each and every day, lest we be overcome and perish. When we are weak we look to God to perform that which we cannot accomplish in our natural strength. When we are weak we trust in God’s thoughts more than our own. Therefore, God chooses for His children to experience much weakness in this world.
When a man or woman comes to Christ they must lay aside the natural order of their former life. Whereas they previously sought to live life from a position of strength, they must now embrace weakness. Rather than relying upon their natural abilities to carry them through life, they must now look to the Spirit of Christ to direct their steps and empower them for every task.
Because natural strength is such a detriment to spiritual growth, Christ will ALWAYS lead His disciples to experience much weakness in this life. We often read or hear about in the news of some young person who has had much fame and fortune at an early age. These ones have been overcome by their natural appetites and sinful impulses. They have fallen into a lifestyle of sexual immorality, of illegal drug use, or drunkenness, or even theft. Has not the church fallen into deception when they would desire to have the same wealth, affluence and popularity as these ones who have made shipwreck of their lives? I thank God that He has chosen for me an afflicted path, for had I the experience of many of these young movie stars and singers I would surely have strayed far from the path of life and lost all thought of God.
When you and I surrender our lives to be led of the Spirit in all things, Christ will upset the normal course of our lives. In some way, indeed in many ways, Yahshua will produce weakness in a man or woman. Some who were formerly financially secure will find themselves emptied of worldly possessions and wealth. Some who were physically strong will find themselves made weak. Some who were accounted as wise in this world will be brought into circumstances where they are judged to be fools. As we follow Christ we will find that weakness becomes our companion.
Weakness produces for men and women the proper environment for spiritual growth. The fruits of the Spirit grow abundantly in the fertile soil of an Adamic life that has been brought to poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control…
Does not weakness act as a catalyst in the promotion of these spiritual fruit? Do you not find it easier to act and speak in a patient, kind, and humble manner when you are approaching others from a position of weakness, rather than strength? Are not the rich prone to pride and haughtiness? Are not the strong tempted to bully those weaker than themselves? Yahweh will abase His sons and daughters that they might find it easier to manifest the fruits of the Spirit.
Considering these things, we should think it not strange that in yielding our lives to Christ to follow wherever He would lead that we are soon brought to poverty, illness, injury, weakness, or reproach in this world. Christ existed in the form of God. He had great power, glory and authority in the heavens. Yet He became weak to prove the excellency of the power of God in mankind. Yahshua knew hunger, poverty, reproach, and the injury of the cross. Yet as He accepted these things He showed forth the power of love, peace, patience, humility and every other divine attribute of the Father.
II Corinthians 13:4
For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.
Surrender your life to Christ to be directed by Him and you too will be brought to weakness that you might find the power of God revealed in you. This is a principle of the kingdom of God.
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