(Romans 5:3-5 NKJ)
And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Today is Thanksgiving Lord’s Day. And in the tradition of thanksgiving, it is good to think of the blessings God has given us throughout the year and to give thanks to Him.
2020 has been very difficult because of Covid-19. Everyone in the world has been directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic. Many have suffered, some more than others, but in the midst of this chaos and the great uncomfortable change, are we still able to give thanks? In today’s passage Romans 5:3-5, apostle Paul says we are to exalt in tribulations. Exalt means ‘to be confident’ and ‘to boast’; and to be full of thanksgiving and joy in tribulations. Apostle Paul explains that tribulations bring about perseverance, and perseverance brings about proven character, and proven character brings about hope. And hope does not disappoint.
In a year coloured and stained by Covid 19, it is timely to reevaluate our faith. When God calls us, it is often the beginning of hardships and suffering? Suffering is not negated just because we believe in Jesus. Let us learn from the tribulations, hardships and thanksgiving of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
God promised to bless Abraham if he obeyed and went to Canaan (Genesis 12:1-10). So Abraham left Haran in obedience and came to the land God promised. If we were Abraham, what blessings would you have expected when you reached Canaan? A warm welcome from the inhabitants? A place to stay & to be well taken care of? These are the blessings I would have expected. Instead, the Canaanites were hostile calling him a Hebrew, meaning a vagabond from across the river and Abraham had to go all the way down to Negev, the southernmost place of Canaan. What was worse? Instead of plenty, a famine came.
To escape the famine, Abraham had to go down to Egypt. But if he left for Egypt, wouldn’t he be going against God’s will? God told Abraham to go to Canaan, not Egypt. He was in a dilemma. Famine in Hebrew = raav = means to be hungry, to starve. It means bankruptcy in today’s terms.
But what did Abraham do when these things happened? He built an altar (Genesis 12:7). Building an altar is an act of giving thanks to God, worshipping God. Abraham believed in God’s promises and gave thanks first before he received anything. He was able to go through sufferings because he understood God’s will for the land of Canaan. Like the Garden of Eden, Canaan had been cursed by sin, and it was God’s purpose to save and redeem the land.
God’s purpose for Abraham’s sufferings is to allow him to believe in God’s covenant and to live the life of the covenant. Let us summarise Abraham’s troubles:
• Famine strikes Canaan and Abraham goes down to Egypt (Genesis 12:10)
• Abraham and Sarah were in fear of their lives (Genesis 12:12-13)
• God intervenes, and by the grace of God, they came out with much wealth from Pharaoh. God brings great plagues on Pharaoh and his house (Genesis 12:16-17,20).
• Abraham returned to Canaan (Genesis 13:1-3)
In Genesis 15:13-15, God gave Abraham the Covenant of the Torch. Abraham had just gone through going down to Egypt, nearly losing his life, God judging Pharaoh and returning with much wealth. Now with this covenant, God seems to be repeating the same plan for his descendants (Genesis 48; Psalm 105:37; Exodus 12:7-12; Numbers 33:1). The exodus is the great redemption story foreshadowing what will happen when the Messiah comes. God made Abraham live through it first, so he could believe in the covenant.
Likewise, when we are going through suffering in our lives, God is also revealing His covenant to us:
• Firstly, God is making us into His covenanted people who live under His covenant.
Through our lives, God allows us to see & understand so we can believe, and in turn, we can share His covenant with many others. Abraham was probably able to believe in the covenant more, after his experience.
• Secondly, it is a process of training our faith.
When Abraham went down to Egypt because of the famine, it was a life and death decision. He probably was not thinking about his faith or God’s covenant. In addition, because Sarah was very beautiful, Abraham lied that Sarah was his sister because he was feared being killed and Sarah would be given over to Pharaoh. But God intervened and saved Abraham, assuring him of His presence and love. Through this suffering, God allowed Abraham to understand and experienced His love. Being assured, Abraham was able to build altars in worship & thanksgiving everywhere he went. May we too experience that God who saves, wherever we go.
Isaac was scammed and bullied from the wells he built. But he learned to obey and to relied on God’s help. During the famine, Isaac sowed in the land and reaped a miracle increase of 100-fold (Genesis 26:12-13). God was teaching Isaac that obedience will bring blessings and success that the world cannot explain. Instead of focusing on the famine which is bankruptcy in today’s terms, his focus was on following God and God blessed him. I pray that that kind of blessing will be given to you at the end of your suffering and hardships, such blessing that you could not even imagine.
Jacob also went through much suffering. He had deceived his brother and father and was on the run. If you were Jacob, would you think God was with you or not? Yet, God allowed Jacob to hear His voice at Luz. He assured Jacob of His presence. How comforting it must have been for Jacob to hear that God was still with him in spite of what he had done.
From there Jacob went to Laban’s house. God being with us does not mean a comfortable life. At Laban’s house, Jacob suffered through 20 years of hard labour. He was deceived and scammed by Laban multiple times. Jacob must have questioned whether God was truly with him. But through those 20 years, God allowed Jacob time to repent, to let go of his human greed, human wit and human ways. The final test was at River Jabbok. As he wrestled with God, Jacob was finally able to completely depend on God, and not on his own strength, knowledge or experience.
When Jacob ran away from home, he was a fugitive. But he returned with a new name Israel and 12 sons. God had turned him into a nation over those 20 years. That was why Jacob also built an altar in worship and thanksgiving to God.
That is why it is important to give thanks for our Elijah young adults, Timothy youths and Gabriel Sunday school, our children, and to pray that God will use our children to save this nation, save the next generation, and even the world.
Joseph was sold at 17 years old. When he met his brothers again, he was 40 years old. In between those years, he suffered hardships as a slave and prisoner. But God used those years to prepare Joseph to become a type of Saviour, foreshadowing Jesus Christ. God taught Joseph to understand God’s will and to forgive, and thus becoming part of God’s work.
What kind of hardships are you going through today? May we realise that God is with us, and knows what we are going through. When we believe this, we can give thanks. Please do not punish yourself by thinking: I am going through this hardship because of my stupidity and foolish mistake. God knows how foolish we are (Romans 8:28). Instead, let us pray that whatever hardships we are facing today will cause us to become a better version of ourselves.
Suffering in the covenant is a process of fulfilling God’s will. It is an opportunity for us to repent. And a time for us to draw closer to God and really understand who He is. It is a time to confirm that God is with us, and wants to bless us.
In closing, let us read Psalm 136:1-26.
(Psalm 136:1-26 NKJ)
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. 2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods! For His mercy endures forever. 3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever: 4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His mercy endures forever; 5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens, For His mercy endures forever; 6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters, For His mercy endures forever; 7 To Him who made great lights, For His mercy endures forever– 8 The sun to rule by day, For His mercy endures forever; 9 The moon and stars to rule by night, For His mercy endures forever. 10 To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn, For His mercy endures forever; 11 And brought out Israel from among them, For His mercy endures forever; 12 With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, For His mercy endures forever; 13 To Him who divided the Red Sea in two, For His mercy endures forever; 14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, For His mercy endures forever; 15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, For His mercy endures forever; 16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, For His mercy endures forever; 17 To Him who struck down great kings, For His mercy endures forever; 18 And slew famous kings, For His mercy endures forever– 19 Sihon king of the Amorites, For His mercy endures forever; 20 And Og king of Bashan, For His mercy endures forever– 21 And gave their land as a heritage, For His mercy endures forever; 22 A heritage to Israel His servant, For His mercy endures forever. 23 Who remembered us in our lowly state, For His mercy endures forever; 24 And rescued us from our enemies, For His mercy endures forever; 25 Who gives food to all flesh, For His mercy endures forever. 26 Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven! For His mercy endures forever.
Psalm 136 records God’s mighty acts. I encourage you to write your own Psalm 136 of your life, listing all the wonderful things God has done for you since birth to this very day. Keep “For His lovingkindness is everlasting”, which is the same ending for every verse. And substitute the first part of each verse with your own life story. Through this exercise, may we be able to see more clearly & realize how God has walked with us all the way from the beginning. And give grateful thanks. May God open up our eyes to see what He is doing in each of our lives today!