The questions in this small group guide relate to the sermon from Jan. 31, 2021. If your group has not had a chance to listen to the full sermon related to this discussion guide, they can find it in our sermon library. Rev. Adam Hamilton preached this week’s sermon.
Lord God, if we ask, “How was your week?” some of us may say, “It was great.” And some of us might say, “It was really hard.” And in a few weeks or months, we might switch answers. That’s the reality of our human life in this ever-changing world. And that’s why we need you, and out faith that your love and concern for us never changes. Guide us by your Spirit as today we reflect on the reality of suffering, and the ways you work with us through both the great and the difficult days of our lives. Amen.
- Pastor Adam said, “Our loss of faith in God in the light of suffering comes when God does not meet our expectations–God doesn’t do what we think God should do, and what, in places, it seems like Scripture promises God will do. So we find ourselves disappointed with God, angry with God or rejecting God altogether. Those who reject God because of suffering, and those who attribute suffering to God, start with the same assumption–if there is a God, God must control everything, and therefore, suffering either proves there is no God, or proves that God is not kind, or suffering is something God is causing as part of God’s plan, a plan that we simply don’t understand just yet.” Have well-meaning Christians ever expressed any of those ideas to you, maybe trying to explain one or more painful experiences that caused you suffering? When have you felt anger, disappointment or frustration toward God?
- Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Matthew 26:36-39, 45-47. How can the Bible’s clear record of the apostle Paul and Jesus himself praying earnestly for one result, yet not receiving what they asked for, shift some of the assumptions the pastor listed in his sermon about how God works? When have you heard preachers or others suggest that if you just “have enough faith,” God must give you whatever good outcome (e.g. healing, restored relationship, new job) you ask for? Do you believe Paul or Jesus just needed more faith?
- Read Philippians 4:6-9. Paul wrote this letter in prison (cf. Philippians 1:13-14), knowing Rome might execute him or set him free (cf. Philippians 1:20-26). His words were much more than just religious “happy talk.” With every reason to be anxious, he instead urged prayer, peace and a focus on what is good and beautiful. Do you ever wish he’d said, “Bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions—and God will make sure everything comes out just the way you want”? Instead he wrote that God’s peace “exceeds all understanding.” Often, even in situations far short of what Paul faced, worry and anxiety seem like the only “reasonable” attitude. Discuss how wanting total understanding, to explain everything logically, may at times rob you of peace. How can you let trust reach beyond intellectual knowledge without devaluing your mind?
- Read Hebrews 11:33-12:2. Some of Hebrews’ examples of faith had happy results, some met tragic earthly fates. Frederick Buechner said God’s grace means, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.” * God was with all the faithful, and their full reward was in “a better country…a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Hebrews 11:39-40 said we may need to wait for eternity to receive all God’s promises. Waiting is hard. When have you had to wait longer than you wished for a divine promise to come true? Are there promises you are still waiting for? What helps you to keep trusting as you wait? How can you as a group help one another “fix your eyes on Jesus” every day in every situation?
- Read 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18. The apostle Paul knew firsthand about physical pains (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; 12:7-10). The physical toll of those sufferings likely made his words very personal when he said, “Even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day.” In Christ he looked beyond the worst to the “eternal stockpile of glory” Jesus offered to all of us by moving steadfastly through the worst that hatred and evil could do to the triumph of resurrection. He focused on the things we can’t see which are more enduring than what we can see. How much daily focus do you give to keeping your physical self well and strong? How much to keeping your relationship with God strong? What changes, if any, can you make to allow God to renew the person you are on the inside every day to sustain hopes you hold that remain out of sight right now?
- Pastor Adam said, “I do not expect God to exempt me from suffering. Neither do I believe God sends suffering. Suffering is a part of life–natural disasters, sickness and even those actions by which humans hurt one another. But here’s what I do believe: That God walks with us through the suffering, through the adversity and pain. That even amid tragedy, God works through the grief and suffering. He doesn’t intend them, but he does use them by influencing and working through us. We can turn from God in our suffering, or we can turn to God. We turn away and all we have left is the tragedy. We turn to God and we have hope. I’d end with the words of promise from Isaiah 61, where the prophet described how God would work among the exiles.” Read Isaiah 61:1-3. How can trusting God’s promise to work in, with and through us even in sadness and loss allow God to form each one of us into an “Oak of Righteousness”?
Lord Jesus, when you walked the earth as one of us, you did not exempt yourself from suffering—far from it. But with infinite creativity and the power of love, you transformed the suffering into a vehicle to offer salvation and hope to every person. So, whatever we have to face that we’d rather not face, we ask you to work through it, through us, to bring good from even our hardest experiences, and to turn us into Oaks of Righteousness who live with our eyes on you and on that better, heavenly country to which your are leading us. Amen.
* Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (Revised and Expanded). HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 39.