When you're up (success/joyful), you think you'll never be down (failure/discouraged), and when you're down, you think you'll never be up. (Steve Brown, When Your Rope Breaks)
I think most of us, if we were being honest, would say the author is spot-on. When we are at life’s extremes it feels like we will never be otherwise–whether at great highs or great lows.
There was a point in my ministry when I felt the Lord directing me to take some time to continue my preparation for ministry through more formal education. After much prayer and seeking the counsel of godly men I trusted, my family and I were off to seminary, some two thousand miles away. On a Tuesday night our friends of many years helped finish packing our moving truck. Though there were many tears shed, we were excited about what God was doing, and was going to do, through this next chapter in our lives. My mentor and his wife put us up for the evening and shared in our excitement.
The next morning as we sat around the dining room table enjoying breakfast and reminiscing over the years together, my wife received a phone call from the sellers of the house we had purchased near the seminary. I could see a look of shock come across her face. I jokingly said, “What? Did the house burn down?” She just looked at me and nodded “yes.” All of a sudden our joy was replaced with confusion, doubt, horror, and fear. Here we thought God was in this decision, and this is what we get? Has this chapter closed before it even began?
We need only watch thirty minutes of the nightly news to see that this is not unusual or something strange. It is, to be sure, part of the human experience. And to say this is not to exclude Christians. Followers of Christ get cancer, have miscarriages, feel the sting of a marriage that ends in divorce, and know the heartbreak of a wayward child.
A passage that has been a source of great encouragement to me recently is Luke 22:31–32.
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31–32 NASB)
Pain in our lives is a ministry of sorts to us, and in turn, allows us to minister to others in greater ways. In this passage we see three assurances related to this “ministry of pain.”
Before considering the specifics of the passage, we ought to understand why Luke includes this in his Gospel. Luke addresses his writings (including the Book of Acts) to Theophilus. Much has been debated about who Theophilus was, but it is safe to say that he was struggling in his faith. Whether he was a believer or not at this point is immaterial. It seems this man was looking around at his world and the fledgling Christian church wondering, “Is this the real thing? Is Jesus truly the Son of God? The Redeemer? I look at His followers and all I see is persecution and hardship. Can this truly be of God?” Luke intends to show Theophilus and us, among other things, that what he was seeing was exactly in God’s design.
The immediate setting in which this statement from Jesus was made is important, too. This is coming near the end of Christ’s earthly ministry; just before His crucifixion. The disciples have had three amazing years of following their Lord and learning from Him. Jesus foretells of His impending betrayal and death. True to form, the disciples start positioning themselves as to who was the greatest among them. Then Jesus puts forth some strong words: Their idealized world is about to come crashing down. But there was hope.
Let us now consider three assurances related to the ministry of pain from Luke 22:31-32.
1. Be assured that Satan wants to destroy you, but he is not invincible. (v.31)
One of the undeniable truths about the spiritual warfare in which Christians will engage throughout this life is that Satan wants to leave his mark on you. Paul describes this in clear terms in his letter to the believers in Ephesus. He writes
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (Eph 6:10-13; emphasis mine)
Satanic attacks are real. Satan is real. Many Christians seem to fall on one extreme or the other. Either looking for a demon under every rock, so to speak, or else acting like there is no such spiritual battle taking place. Both positions are unhealthy and unbiblical. Earlier in that same letter, the Apostle summarizes the sources of struggle in life to be Satan/demonic, the world, and ourselves. (There are times when pain and difficulties come directly from the hand of God, but that is a topic for another time.)
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to** the prince of the power of the air**, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph 2:1-3; emphasis mine).
Knowing the source of your struggle, of your difficulties, can be of great help. The Bible offers different responses to different situations. Sometimes we are told to resist (James 4:7). Other times we are told to flee (2 Tim 2:22).
In Luke 22, Jesus specifies that what is coming Peter’s way originates with Satan. The description our Lord uses is startling. As the disciple learns, Satan wants to “sift you like wheat.” Two thousand years later this phrase leaves no room for misunderstanding. Jesus is warning Peter that Satan is coming after him, and it’s going to be harsh and brutal. What event in Peter’s life was Jesus talking about? We are not told specifically, but I believe a good argument could be made for Peter’s denial (v.34). This was a monumental point in Peter’s life and in his ministry. Even in his writings we can still catch the aroma of that fateful event.
But even in these words of warning come words of comfort and encouragement that we should cling to even today. Jesus prefaces his statement with “Satan has demanded.” A better translation for the word “demanded” would be “has obtained through request.” Satan is in no position, nor does he have any authority, to demand. The NASB seeks to represent this by supplying the word, “demanded permission.” God is sovereign; Satan is not. The prince of darkness is a finite being, as are his legions of demons. This is very reminiscent of what we see in the first chapter of Job when Satan is granted permission to strike Job in various ways. Is he powerful? Absolutely. But ultimately he is under the all-powerful hand of our (and his) Creator.
What is Satan’s chief point of attack? Faith (“…that your faith may not fail”, v. 32). Why faith? Because that is the vital point for the Christian. Think of the times you have stumbled in your walk with Christ. Whether it was disobedience as you followed after your own lusts/desires, or the world and its system was pitted against you, or Satan impaled you with a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7), our response to these attacks will all come down to faith. Are we settled in our faith that God is a good God, a loving God, an all-knowing, all-powerful God? Is He really going to bring about good in this most difficult situation (Rom 8:28)? At the end of the day, will your faith rest in your ability to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps apart from the Spirit’s enablement, or will your faith be in a God who seeks your best and will do all things for your good and His glory?
The writer of Hebrews underscores the importance of faith in that great chapter we often refer to as the “Hall of Faith.” (Heb 11) We are presented with numerous examples of those who have gone before us who showed simple faith in a mighty God. The writer prefaces his journey through the Old Testament saints with the statement, “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Heb 11:6). Do not be surprised if Satan’s attack seeks to distract you from keeping your eyes on our Savior. As Martin Luther once penned in that glorious hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,”
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
Satan is a defeated foe, but he’s like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet 5:8). Be alert and on guard, but not overwhelmed.
2. Be assured that Christ has not abandoned you in your time of crisis. (v.32a)
The next words from our Lord are some of the most comforting words in all of Scripture. Having just told Peter that Satan wants to savagely rock his world, Jesus counters with, “but I have prayed for you.” I don’t know about you, but I love it when others pray for me when I am in a tough spot or going through some difficulties (including my own disobedience). I don’t mean the all-to-often flippant, “Oh my. I’ll pray for you,” but the promise of prayer from someone you know will indeed pray for you. Or even better, when that person stops and prayers for you in that very moment. Now imagine, the King of Glory, the very Son of God praying for you! He prayed for Peter, and I believe He prays for us even today. We know that the Holy Spirit prays for us, who is fully God.
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-27)
This is not, as some have claimed, the Spirit praying through us with some ecstatic prayer language, but rather the third person of the Trinity praying for us. We don’t always know how we ought to pray, but God knows perfectly. I’m not sure Peter was fully grasping at that moment the importance of this affirmation from Jesus, but I have no doubt that he reflected on it in the years to come.
What does Jesus pray for? As stated above, that Peter’s faith would not fail. If this sifting truly is Peter’s upcoming denials some might be tempted to say, “But his faith did fail.” On the contrary, his faith might have faltered, but it did not fail. If it had failed we would not have the Peter of the second chapter of Acts who stands before thousands and proclaims the righteousness of Christ and the sinfulness of the hearers. We would not have the Peter of the fifth chapter of Acts who, after being imprisoned for Christ’s sake and proclaiming his Lord before the religious leaders, boldly stating, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Nor would we have the Peter who penned the two God-breathed epistles that bear Peter’s name and deal largely with those under persecution.
I find it interesting and worthy of comment that in Christ’s prayer Peter is not removed from the trial, he is not spared the pain, but rather he is protected in the midst of it. This seems to be the normative way God works in our lives, sanctifying us to be conformed more to the image of Christ through our struggles. It is God telling Paul, though the Apostle made three requests, that He would not remove the “thorn in the flesh” (which was from Satan), but that His grace was sufficient for Paul in enduring the trial. One of the things that bolsters our faith in the face of difficulties, when we are in dark valleys, is knowing that our Lord has already walked that path. As the writer of Hebrews tells us
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)
In the words of Jesus we see the assurance, the very promise, that Peter will indeed remain in the faith and will come out on the other side of this “sifting like wheat.” Our Lord tells Peter, “…and you, when once you have turned again…” This is the promise of ultimate perseverance. Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, and it does not. Not only does he make it through, but there is meaning in his pain, which brings us to our final assurance.
3. Be assured that there is purpose in the pain. (v.32b)
While no one likes going through difficulty, we certainly feel undergirded when we know with all certainty that we will survive the affliction. We might even feel emboldened when we know that this struggle will aid us in becoming a better person–or better, more conformed to the image of Christ. But it’s a virtual capstone when we are assured that our pain has purpose that touches others for their good. What is the purpose of Peter’s pain, according to the statement made by our Lord? To strengthen others. “…and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (emphasis mine) There would come a time when Peter, who seemingly is the leader among the disciples, would need to come alongside the others and be the support they would need. God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that this Satanic attack was how this grace was to be instilled in Peter. Sure, Satan meant it for harm, but God meant it for Peter’s good, and the good of the other disciples.
We do not always know or understand the purpose in our pain and suffering, especially when we are in the midst of it. Sometimes we can see where God uses it in our lives and the lives of others. So often it is used to deepen the faith of others as they see God working in our lives. But there is no guarantee of this. This is where faith in God and in His very character comes flooding in.
You know, sometimes when we are ill a doctor need only suggest rest, or perhaps some medication, and it will result in the desired outcome. There are other times, however, when more drastic measures are called for; we might need to “go under the knife.” So it is with our sanctification. God knows exactly what we need and when we need it. Sometimes He sanctifies us through a rightly spoken word from a friend or in a sermon we just heard. But sometimes we are in need of a good “sifting like wheat.”
“There are certain graces which are never produced in Christians, to a high degree, except by severe temptation.” (Charles Surgeon, from his sermon “Christ’s Prayer for Peter”)
This prayer, and the “sifting” itself, clearly made an impact on Peter’s life. As he writes to believers who were about to enter into some extreme persecution, he gives them both words of warning and encouragement–much like his Master had done for him.
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet 5:8-11)
I would be amiss if I did not mention Peter’s immediate response to Jesus’s words. Peter says, (and we get the sense it was almost before Jesus had finished speaking), ”But he said to Him, ‘Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!’” (v. 33) Luke begins Peter’s response with the word, “But”; that is, contrary to what Christ just said. We want to reach through the pages and put our hand on Peter’s shoulder and whisper, “You might want to think about this before your speak.” So, there is Peter being his brazen self once again. No doubt he meant well, and likely believed the words he was speaking. Unfortunately, Peter’s pride still needed to be broken. Would Peter go to prison and die for the sake of Christ? Yes, in the final analysis, but not in the early morning hours when the sifting would occur. The reality was far from Peter’s self-confident promises. Peter will deny Christ and is broken, just as Jesus said he would (v. 34, 62). He goes back to fishing and fails at that, too. Then Christ restores Peter and charges him with the care of others. (Jn 21)
What would a local church look like if we ministered to other through our own failures and pain? If the grace and mercy shown to us led us to demonstrate grace and mercy to others? It’s a high calling, to be sure, and does not come easily. It requires humility, trust, closeness, time, and authenticity. “Playing church” never fosters this kind of closeness, nor could it. The Apostle Paul knew the value of suffering for the local church quite well. As he wrote to the church in Corinth, who saw Paul’s struggles and pain as a sign that he wasn’t in God’s will, he redefined and realigned the purpose of suffering as the “ministry of pain” (my words, not Paul’s).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor 1:3–4)
If you are reading this and do not know Christ as Savior I want you to know there is meaning in your pain and loss, but it’s not likely where you are looking. Jesus came and suffered real sorrow and real pain to redeem sinners like you and like me, and to give purpose to our lives. I remember reading once, “God never wastes pain.” I believe that to be true. It’s become a kind of mantra for my wife and me. We have had our share of pain over the years, and we continue to live with the remnant of some. In all these, God’s grace has been sufficient. I know my God prays for us. We have seen some of the purposes of these struggles in our lives and in the lives of others, but not in every instance and not always immediately. Do you have failure? Do you have pain (physical, emotional, spiritual)? Jesus calls you to Himself. He may or may not remove the pain, but rest assured He has purpose in it.
Allow me to end these thoughts with words from that great hymn, “God Moves in Mysterious Ways,” written by William Cowper in 1774. Cowper was no stranger to pain and doubt, but through it all, he pressed in hard to a sovereign God. (This is not the hymn in its entirety, but rather select verses.)
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
The house fire, which was caused accidently by the previous owners while moving out, was a blessing from God. The house was restored at no cost to us down to the studs, which gave us a virtually brand new house that we easily sold two years later. ↩︎