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When You've Been Good and Life Goes Bad

True followers of Jesus will have troubles, and they will endure.


God's Word teaches us there are three sources of trouble in our lives. Number one is the most general and most often experienced: You and I live in a fallen place among a fallen race, so trouble happens. I have a friend who says if we only knew how desperately wrenching the fall of man was, we would be surprised anything good happens at all. With that perspective, any time something good does happen, we recognize it's God's grace and lift our hearts to thank him for a little relief in the midst of a tough world.

The second source of trouble is self-inflicted. The trouble comes because we choose to sin, and we reap the consequences of those choices. As Paul wrote in the New Testament: If a man sows to the flesh, he will reap the corruption of the flesh.

But there's a third, and it's the one I want to talk about now, because it's in this kind of trouble that followers of Jesus are most vulnerable. It's the kind of trouble that comes when you've been good and life goes bad. Some people think if they come to Christ and start following him, he will carry them home on flowery beds of ease. But then life gets in their face, and it's confusing. I'm a follower of Jesus. How could this possibly happen to me?

You start following Jesus, and two of your best friends bail on you. Maybe as a wife you say, "I'm going to get a grip on being a godly wife," and you make commitments about being supportive and cooperative and gracious and a team player and doing what God would have you do in your relationship with your husband. So you start living that out, and it gets worse at home. You start living for Jesus at the office. You don't play those games any more, and you're straight for him on contracts and relationships; and you miss a promotion because you're a follower of Jesus.

We are vulnerable in moments like that. We think, Jesus, where are you? I give my life to you, and this is the thanks I get? We're tempted to bail out on him. Maybe our hearts become embittered and our worship becomes muffled.

If you've ever had trouble from being a follower of Jesus, then you're in good company. Think back in the Old Testament to Joseph. What a good guy he was. His father asked him to go find his brothers, who were taking care of their herds in a far and distant land. His brothers hated him. They put him into a pit and sold him to a slave train on its way to Egypt. He became a slave in Egypt, and he was sold into Potiphar's house. Nice reward for going the extra mile.

In Potiphar's house, Potiphar's wife sought to seduce Joseph daily. Since Potiphar was high in the political ranks and wealthy, he probably had his pick of the land, so this may have been a very attractive woman. Joseph was young. His hormones were full. He was away from his family. God seemed to have betrayed him, and there was nobody checking up on him. Every day, Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him. One day she grabbed him. He ran. And God's going, Way to go, Joe. You're my kind of man! Joseph gets three years in the slammer. Lord, hello?

Or think of Jesus, the best man who ever lived, who walked in righteousness and lived intently, focused on pleasing his Father in heaven. He ended up dying on an instrument of ancient torture in one of the worst kinds of capital punishment this world has ever known. And then he says to us: Take up thy cross. Follow me. Maybe some of us are saying, "That's exactly what I don't like about being a follower of Jesus—the trouble." Get a life. I would rather have trouble following Jesus than live in this world full of all kinds of trouble without him.

The issue is not whether or not as a follower of Jesus I'll experience some problems. The issue is how I will deal with that when it happens.

Jesus knows your trouble.

So we want to go to the Word of God and see how we can deal with this. Open your Bibles with me to the beginning of Revelation to one of the seven letters Jesus wrote to seven of the early churches. Let's see what Jesus says about the trouble that comes to a follower of him: "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this: 'I know … '"

So that's number one. Jesus knows. He said: I know your tribulation. I'm well aware of your trouble. Don't let that fly away on you. That's huge. You're not alone. Jesus knows. Not only that. Jesus came and suffered and was tested in every single way that we are. He doesn't just have an intellectual knowledge of trouble; he has an empathetic knowledge, so, as the writer of Hebrews says, we might come to him and find grace and mercy in our time of need. Jesus knows your trouble. Don't forget that.

After I spoke at a conference, a couple came up to me, obviously shaken, and said, "Could we talk to you?" We got off to a side room and sat down. As the wife began to bawl, her husband told me in a quivering voice about their teenage son, who was committed to Jesus Christ. They were proud of him. He was an influence in his high school and a leader with his youth group and had so much potential. They said, "Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, he was driving with a group of friends, was in a head-on collision, and immediately was killed." As the wife gained a touch of composure, she said, "We talked to our pastor about this, and he told us God didn't know about that."

I wouldn't want to face trouble if I didn't know Jesus knows and understands, and he has felt it all before. Please know this: Nothing escapes his attention, not even your trouble.

Jesus knows your poverty.

The text goes on to say, "I know your tribulation and your poverty." In that ancient culture in Asia Minor, when someone came to believe in Jesus Christ, that meant marginalization on every front—economic marginalization, family marginalization. Most of the believers in this church at Smyrna would have lost their jobs, or nobody would shop at their little stand along the side of the street anymore, because they were followers of Jesus and wouldn't worship the idols of the day. They were literally impoverished because they followed Christ.

Today in places like the former Soviet Union and China and Cuba, there are believers who have committed to Jesus Christ and have been totally marginalized. We had a student come to Moody from the former Soviet Union. I remember Nina glowing one day. I said, "Nina, why are you so excited?" She said, "I got an A." I said, "Great. Way to go." She said, "No, no, no. You don't understand. All of my life in Russia every class I took I failed. I got straight Fs in Russia, because I was a follower of Christ." The church in Russia is a peasant church, because they've been marginalized for following Christ.

Jesus says, "I know your poverty." Some of us are impoverished. Maybe some of us have lost jobs, but we also may be impoverished in emotions or in some other aspect of life for following Christ. But keep reading. What does it say in the parentheses? Jesus says, "I know… your poverty (but you are rich)." Jesus wanted them to get the definition straight. If you don't have anything in this world but you have Jesus, you are rich.

We think being rich is about our portfolios and our cars and our houses and the group we run with and the clubs we belong to and the vacations we can take. Jesus says that's a wrong definition. That's nice frosting on a cake, but you're not rich if you don't have Jesus. And if you didn't have anything and had Jesus, you would be rich. Watch your definitions.

One of our students who came to Moody from Belarus in the former Soviet Union is now back there ministering. Marty and I have had the opportunity on more than one occasion to be back in Minsk, Belarus, with him and his mom. His mom lives 58 miles out of town in a tiny, backwater village. The first time we went there, we were the only foreigners to have shown up in 60 years. It is now my favorite stop in Belarus. We go off the road and drive down a long, twisted, dirt path. All of a sudden this village is there with little shanties and shacks. At the end of the dirt road, just before a curve, is a two-bedroom shack with a little garden out to the side and a dilapidated, tiny barn behind the garden.

As we pulled up our van and started to climb out, Victor's mom came running out. I wish we had a picture of her. She had a babushka tied under her chin, a ruddy face, and was beaming with joy. I thought it was because she was going to see Victor, and that was part of it, but all she could talk about was Jesus and heaven and how much she loves the Lord and what the Lord means to her. She never stopped beaming with joy. She's got a little garden, a kitchen, and another room that is divided by a sheet on a rope to make a living room and a bedroom. In her dilapidated barn, she has one pig, which she raises all summer to eat all winter. That's her portfolio. That's one rich woman.

If, as a follower of Christ, you lose and you're impoverished in some way, you're rich, a child of the king. If you've got him, you've got enough.

Jesus knows your enemies.

Jesus goes on to say—and I like this one a lot—I know your enemies. Do you like that? You can go to all the people who are making you trouble and say, "Jesus knows about you." Jesus says, "I know… the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan."

The early church at Smyrna was not persecuted by the Roman Empire. That didn't happen until about the third century. Up to that point, the Roman Empire protected Christians. It was the Jewish community, the religious sector of their day, that persecuted them.

Do you find it interesting that sometimes trouble comes from where we'd never expect it? You might expect trouble for being a follower of Christ from some all-out pagan. But sometimes they understand more than some of the religious folk. Some of you have parents and family that have been religious for a long time. When you became a follower of Christ, you thought they'd stand up and cheer, but instead they put pressure on you.

About a year and a half ago, the Southern Baptists were planning to send 100,000 young people to Chicago for the summer. They were going to feed the homeless. They were going to help rebuild some neighborhoods. They were going to tell people the good, liberating news that Jesus died that people might live. I thought, This is what Chicago needs. I was excited. I picked up the Chicago Tribune one day, and the front page had an article about the opposition to these kids, coming from the Council of Churches. They wrote a letter to the head of the denomination basically saying, "We don't want your young people in Chicago. We don't need your young people in Chicago." A chill ran down my back when I read, "What these young people will promote stimulates hate crimes." Jesus says: I know your enemies. I know the source of their opposition.

Jesus says, "Do not fear."

Jesus says in verse ten, "Do not fear what you are about to suffer." It's those "what ifs," those question marks we worry about. If I keep following Christ, what about the future? Jesus says: Don't fear. In Hebrews 13, Jesus says: I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. Therefore, you don't need to fear what anybody does to you. Don't fear.

There are some elements in this verse we need to talk about to try to get a grip on what the nature of some of this trouble is like and what the source of it is. Jesus says, "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil … " Ah, that's the culprit. Throughout Scripture, we see God often permitting Satan to move in the realm of a Christ-follower's life. Even the apostle Paul said: I have this thorn in the flesh, and it's a messenger from Satan in my life. Satan has one target: to deface and discredit the glory of God on this planet, and that's the followers of Jesus. He doesn't need to target anybody else.

Think about Job. In Job chapter 1, God is sitting in heaven. Satan comes before him. Evidently Satan has some access. In Revelation, we hear that Satan is the accuser of the brethren, so there are times when he accuses you to God. That's why you ought to be happy that Jesus says he is your advocate. He sticks up for you when Satan accuses you. So Satan comes before God, and God says: Where have you been? He says: Traveling to and fro across the face of the earth. And this is what I love. God says to Satan: Did you see my man Job? I would love God to say that about me: Hey, did you see my man Joe while you were down there? Satan said: I did. Then Satan slandered the worthiness and character of God before all the angelic host when he said this: I saw Job. But the only reason he's a righteous follower of you is because you're good to him. If you stop being good to Job, he'll curse you.

Here's the point of the slander. Before all the angelic hosts and all the spiritual realm, Satan said to God: You are not worthy to be worshiped and praised regardless. And God says: Let's see. But God restricted Satan's attack on Job's life. He said: You can do this much and no more.

If you're worried about Satan's intrusion into your life or his forces troubling your life, know this: God stands as the sovereign sentinel at the gate of your life and lets nothing in that he doesn't give permission to and that he cannot turn to his ultimate glory, your good, and the gain of the kingdom. That's why Romans 8:28 says, "All things work together for good." God guarantees that. Maybe Satan or his hordes get in, but only by God's permission and with restriction.

You know about Job's trouble. His wife has had it right up to here. She says, "Curse God and die." That's exactly what Satan wanted Job to do to prove God was not worthy to be worshiped regardless. Later in the book, Job says, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him." And Job passed the test.

Jesus says, "Be faithful."

There's one more thing Jesus says to this church: "Be faithful." Hang in there. Don't bail. In fact, he says, "Be faithful unto death." Even if your loyalty to Jesus as a follower means you face death itself, do not be intimidated.

Little did this church know, when they got this letter penned by John through the revelation of Christ, that their own leader, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, mentored by the apostle John in the church at Ephesus, would lead the way in following this word from Jesus. The Jewish population who so resisted the message of the true Messiah finally pressured the government enough to arrest Polycarp. In order to be a loyal member of the Roman Empire, you had to say, "Caesar is Lord." Most early Christians, rightly so, refused to say that. By the time Polycarp was 86, the empire had begun to persecute Christians who wouldn't say that.

Polycarp heard this was in the works and fled to a little village miles away from Smyrna, but he was found. A captain knocked on the door with the troops behind him. Polycarp opened the door. He was so well respected that the captain pleaded with him, "Just say, 'Caesar is Lord.' You don't even have to mean it. Just say it. We don't want to do this to you." Polycarp said, "He's been my God 86 years, and he has never betrayed me yet. How can I now betray my Lord and my Savior Jesus Christ?" They led him back to Smyrna, tied him to a stake, and set it on fire. Unwaveringly he gave his life, because he would not deny his Lord.

In the southern half of the nation of Sudan, Christians are mercilessly dying. Men are lifted on crosses in village squares and crucified to mock the Savior they worship and adore. Troops are coming in, loading Christians into flatbed trucks, driving them into the desert, and dumping them there with no supplies so they will fry in the desert. For one crime—that they are followers of Jesus.

A friend of mine said one of his best friends happened to be in the capital of a country like that, where all the parents had been killed. The pattern is to kill the parents, make the kids into Islamic converts, and then sell them as slaves. He said he was walking through the capital of this country, and about 40 kids whose parents had been killed stood in the town square. The priest of the mosque came out, stood on a platform, and with a bullhorn told these kids to bow down to Allah and repeat a prayer of conversion after him. All the kids went down except one. The kid looked eight or nine years old.

The mullah got angry and said, "You bow down. I told you to bow down. If you don't bow down, I will kill you." This child said, "I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I cannot bow down." The mullah motioned to the guards, and they plowed him down. The kid dropped dead in a pool of blood. As soon as the kid dropped, eight other kids stood up. He said, "I'll kill all of you." They didn't move. Four of them were murdered. Finally in anger he said, "You're not worthy of death. Sell them all into slavery." That happened within the last year on our planet. Children said, "Even if it means death, I will not renege on Jesus. I'll take up my cross and follow him." Be faithful even unto death. Don't bail.


Jesus throws in a hint at the end of the letter. He says: If you are faithful even unto death, when you get home I will give you the crown of life. Heaven. Had you forgotten? Did you and I think this world would be a friend to grace, this fallen world that crucified the one we follow? Did you expect that in this world we would have all our comfort and joy and happiness? Friends, I have to remind you of something. This is the short, nasty, brutish world, and the best is yet to come for those who follow Jesus.

At the end of the Book of Revelation, Jesus wins. He writes: The day is coming, and it's guaranteed, when I will wipe away every tear and there will be no more sorrow, neither dying. I will dwell with you, and I will be your God, and you will be my people, exempt from the troubles and trials of this adventure in this planet that we walk. If you forget you are destined for the world to come, that you are a child of the ultimate kingdom, you will bail. You'll fold every time. Don't forget: this is the world that crucified Jesus. What do we expect?

© Joseph Stowell
Preaching Today Issue #228
A resource of Christianity Today International

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Joseph Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of numerous books, including Jesus Nation (Tyndale).

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Sermon Outline:


Jesus was good, yet was crucified.

I. Jesus knows your trouble.

II. Jesus knows your poverty.

III. Jesus knows your enemies.

IV. Jesus says, "Do not fear."

V. Jesus says, "Be faithful."


Heaven is waiting for us.