In this sermon, Greg shares how God uses afflictions to form our character, if we have a vision for God’s ultimate goal of life and set aside the common goal of the pursuit of happiness. A vision to know God and live in his love will motivate us to enter into training that will shape us to love God and others. This training moves us beyond the never-ending chase of happy so that we might find joy in all things.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, Paul says that in a physical competition, we train for the reward and glory of winning a race. How much more should we be pouring ourselves into training to know Christ? If we want to excel in anything, it requires discipline. If we have a vision of the true purpose of life, if we see the ultimate end of all things, then we will enter into the kind of training that will form our character to fit that end. This requires faith, a seeing of what is not yet seen, as we read in Hebrews 11:1. The vision of the future that we see drives us to be disciplined. We do not know exactly how that vision will play out, but what we see of the things that God has for us will influence us to enter into that discipline.
According to the focus scripture, our faith gives us access to God’s grace, which involves divine mercy and empowerment. Paul says we “boast” in two things. First, we boast in hope of “sharing the glory of God,” the radiance of God’s other-oriented love. To “share in the glory of God” simply means to reflect God’s other-oriented love. This was, and is, God’s ultimate goal in creating the world. In the end, God intends human beings and everything else to reflect and participate in the eternal other-oriented love that God eternally is. Every aspect of creation will reflect God’s love in its own unique way, and creation as a whole will be like a giant cosmic mirror reflecting and participating in the radiant love of God.
This is why John said, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2). Only when we are like him can we know him fully as he is. We know him as we participate in him.
Secondly, Paul says that he also boasts in his afflictions. He’s not embarrassed by them; instead he embraces these afflictions because of what afflictions can produce. Affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. In short, Paul embraces his afflictions, and even finds joy in his afflictions because these afflictions help to transform him into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
Our capacity to experience peace, and even joy, in the midst of suffering completely depends on the attractiveness of our vision of Christ. This is also reflected in Philippians 3:8. When our character is fully compatible with Christ’s character then we can see him and know him as he truly is.
Paul longs for this conformity with Christ to the point that he trains for it. He’s training for the prize of knowing Christ both in his glory and in his suffering, of partnering with God to help this groaning creation give “birth” to God’s eternal kingdom, of being able to love others the way Christ loves him. For Paul, this prize was all-important.
Our challenge is that we don’t talk about character today. In previous generations, character development was a primary topic of discussion. Now, the purpose of life is to be happy, as the pursuit of happiness is what causes people to invest in anything they do. The pursuit of virtue has been set on the back burner. The good life means that we avoid suffering. To be happy is to suffer as little as possible. Therefore, when we suffer, or are even inconvenienced, we can’t give thanks. To the degree that suffering is experienced as nothing but an interruption to being happy, we are unable to make room for that suffering to shape our character.
God’s purpose is to share his own joy with us. Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). So long as we’re chasing happiness, trying to have our best life now, we will fail to find the joy that comes from getting all our worth and identity from God for free, the joy of having our life and fulness in Christ, and the joy of being transformed by God’s love into the loving image of Jesus Christ. If we pursue the happiness dream, we will miss the Kingdom dream because we will fail to see how God uses suffering to form us into Christ’s likeness and to further his purposes in the world.
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