How to get through hard times

The book of Lamentations is only five chapters long, but contains some incredibly powerful, emotional language. We often sing the words of Lamentations on Sunday mornings.

Lamentations contains exactly what you’d expect – laments. It is a series of five sad and beautiful poems, like funeral songs, portraying the capture, fall and destruction of the city of Jerusalem. It often personifies the city and its people and reflects the kind of passion and heartbreak that someone would have after the death of a beloved spouse, or a parent for their child.

These dirges were written by the Prophet Jeremiah, a man tasked with bringing messages from God to the people of Judah during the transition from the last good king, Josiah, until their captivity and fall. He was told to speak out warnings against backsliding into sin and idolatry, but was rarely listened to and often abused. He would often stand before the people, warning them that if they didn’t change God would discipline them. He told them to prepare for the difficult days that were coming. He predicted who would conquer them and how it would come about. He stood before the king and the people, begging them to stop fighting against their enemies, accept God’s discipline, and go quietly into exile, so less people would be killed. And each time dozens of false-prophets and false-teachers say exactly the opposite and the rulers and the people listen to them instead. He had a heartbreaking ministry.

A picture that might help you understand what’s going on as you read the book of Lamentations is of the prophet Jeremiah sitting on the side of a hill, pen in hand, praying, writing, weeping, yelling, and defeated. He’s just watched the people of Jerusalem slaughtered and starved by their enemies after a great siege. He’s witnessed wealthy people die from hunger in the streets, and women stoop as low as to cannibalize their own children.

He’s seen the ruin of Jerusalem’s walls and gates, now nothing but charred rubble remains. He’s witnessed the destruction of the most beautiful buildings, and worse, the pillaging of the temple of God as His enemies break down and carry away the doors, walls and pillars which were made of precious metals, rip down every piece of art that King Solomon had decorated it with, and watched in horror as the holy vessels of the temple were carried away to Babylon as plunder.

Good God, Bad Things

His heart is breaking, and He’s crying out to God. He’s writing something that will be sang, read, and memorized by believers for generations to come – not only by Israelites, but by all of God’s people as they face trials and pain. It’s not just emotive, but instructive. How do we deal with pain, agony and frustration.

And so I’ve pulled out a middle section that tells us a lot about how we should approach difficult times in our life.

“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.’ Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.” (Lamentations 3:1-20)

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? The “He” that Jeremiah keeps referring to is God. One commentary I read said, “These verses are a reversal of the image of God as the caring, protective, and providing shepherd from Psalm 23.”[i] It really is.

Jeremiah knew why all of this suffering had come because He was the one who told people it would come if they didn’t stop sinning against God. He knew it was coming and couldn’t prevent it. It wasn’t his fault, but He couldn’t change anyone’s mind. He didn’t want it to happen and didn’t deserve it, but everyone around Him did. And it crushed him knowing that it was God who did it. The Babylonians were merely the tools God chose to use to enact His will.

How do people of faith deal with the knowledge that everything that happens is God’s doing? If we could blame someone else, then maybe we could direct our anger. Blame the devil. Blame society. Blame my own weakness. Blame someone. It’s really hard for people of faith to know that God is in control of everything, knows everything, is all powerful, and all good – and then have terrible, horrible things happen to them or someone they love. He’s God, right? And so comes the old question, “If God is good, then why do bad things happen?

In my devotional times recently I’ve read about the worldwide flood that destroyed all but a few people, the book of Job where a man suffers terribly and complains to God for many, long chapters, the book of Lamentations, the part in Acts where Paul (the greatest missionary) and Barnabas (the most encouraging guy ever) have such a strong disagreement over a young man’s failure that they end up not speaking to each other for a long time, and the part of Revelation where it “the Beast” is given the power (by God) to “make war against the saints and to conquer them”, lead them into captivity, and kill them. The middle part of the chapter says, “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (Rev 13:1-10).

Yeah, I bet.

Is it Okay to Fall Apart?

That’s tough to read and even harder to understand. What do we do with this? God gave me a bit of a reminder of what this feels like as I felt my own battle with depression rear its ugly head this week. Fatigue, short-temper, low motivation, and questions about everything come by the shovelful, but few answers do.

The world is a rough place. People don’t meet our expectations, and let us down, again and again. Friends turn to enemies, folks you’ve confided in stab you in the back. And then circumstances remind you of your own limitations, throw your troubles back in your face, and open up wounds you though were healed over. We turn on the news and see thousands of people slaughtered by terrorists and cowards bowing to the pressure they are bringing. Christians all over the world are slandered, oppressed, and even killed for their faith. Economic issues, ecological disaster, war and rumours of war. False teachers gain tens of thousands of followers and good teachers burn out and quit. And it’s getting worse. Add to that daily temptations, pressures, fears and responsibilities and it gets pretty overwhelming.

What do we do during those times? Is it okay to fall apart? Do we need to stick on the happy face, pretend everything is ok, sing songs like “God will make a way” or “God is good all the time” and pretend to be happy about it? No. I don’t think we do.

There’s a place for Lament in this world – a lot of place for it. There are times we should be sad, heartbroken, and overwhelmed. Jesus was. Isaiah 53:3 describes Jesus as one who was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…”. He wept over Jerusalem and his lost friends, cursed the blind Pharisees, was in so much agony that He sweat drops of blood the night before his crucifixion (hematidrosis) – and when he turned to his friends for support, they were asleep.

Jesus lamented, and so can we. But how? How do we do it? What do we do? And, perhaps, more importantly, how do we do it right? What process can we use to guide ourselves through it?

How to Get Put Back Together After Falling Apart

I believe that’s why God kept bringing me back to Lamentations 3. Let’s keep reading what Jeremiah says.

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve. Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lamentations 3:21-40)

Intentional Thinking

The first thing we see Jeremiah do is to change his thinking. There are some incredibly depressing verse in Lamentations, and this is not the end of them. But we see here Jeremiah choosing to intentionally “call to mind” some important truths. In a moment of great despair Jeremiah makes a wilful transition in his attitude and outlook at the situation.

These remembrance come in very rapid succession.

First he remembers that God’s love is “steadfast”. That’s an important word. The Hebrew word HESED can be translated “covenant love” or “loyal love” and it is the reminder to him that God’s love isn’t based on emotions or on the actions of His people, but on a covenant promise He made to them many years before. He’s like the loving husband who has promised to be faithful and loving to His adulterous, abusive, horrible wife. His love is not based on how much the wife loves Him back, but by the covenant that He has made with her: I will love you, you will be mine forever.

That’s critically important for us to remember during dark times too. We don’t have a fickle God that chances His mind, but one that keeps His promises. He will never cease to love us and show us love because His love is bound up in a covenant to us. Something we remember every time we have communion – the sign of God’s covenant with us.

Second, He remembers that they God’s mercies are “new every morning”. I quote this to myself all the time. What I’m looking at is not the end of the story. Here we see Jeremiah calling to mind the promises of the past (God’s covenant love) and also the future. This is not the end of days. This isn’t the end of the story. God is good. He has done good and He will do good. He promises restoration. Tomorrow is coming. Today it is dark and cold, but the sun will rise tomorrow.

In every time of suffering there is always hope. God promises restoration, healing, and blessing. Yes, the floods come, but so does the rainbow. Yes, the fall of Jerusalem comes, but so does its restoration under Nehemiah. Yes, the crucifixion of Jesus comes, but so does the door to eternal life. Yes, death comes, but so does heaven. Don’t judge the world or your life by the middle of the story. God has new mercies every morning, and His light will always come. (Tweet This Quote)

Third, he says, “The Lord is my portion”, and it is a reminder of his priorities. Jesus said it this way:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

In other words, destruction, loss, and theft is going to come to everything in this world, and if it is what you love, you will be constantly in sorrow. But if your heart is fixed on the love and presence of God in your life, then you will never lose it and no one can take it from you.

Jeremiah was weeping over the loss of the stones, gems, gold, silver, homes, and everything else that made up the city of Jerusalem. He wept over the loss of the city. He hurt for the people, but he was more moved by the loss of the city of God. But, for a moment, he reminds himself that as important as Jerusalem and the Temple are, it’s only important because it is the place where God chose to make special. Jeremiah didn’t want the furniture of the Temple – he wanted the presence of God.

It’s something that we need to remember as well. Loss will come, and pain, and frustration, but if our heart is fixed on seeking the presence of God through a relationship with Jesus Christ – that He is our “portion” – then we will have a much better perspective on what is happening to us.

Intentional Waiting

Next Jeremiah moves from Intentional Thinking to Intentional Waiting. This is, perhaps, even harder than intentional thinking. It’s one things to change our minds, it’s another thing to act on what we believe.

Verses 25-30 are a portrait of a person who has decided to stop fighting against what God wants to do and to wait for Him to finish what He wants to do. He pauses his activity, stops making plans, stops trying to make his own way, and willingly takes upon himself the yoke of suffering and frustration to let it do the work it must do in his heart.

We want God to build our character, teach us patience, grow our faith, open our eyes, give us compassion, soften our hearts – we pray for that kind of stuff all the time – but are we willing to allow God to actually do what is necessary to make it happen?  God needs to strap the yoke of suffering onto our backs to till the soil, break the stones, and make our heart ready for what God wants to plant there. That work will make us sore, expose our weaknesses, and strengthen our muscles. We must submit willingly to allow what we are suffering to be used by God to strengthen us. It’s hard, but Christians who have gone through these times learn to be thankful for the experience of suffering because they know that God uses it to grow them in ways they never would have otherwise.

Paul said it this way:

“…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

There’s a path there. How do we experience God’s love, go beyond shame and fear, have hope and faith in God? It comes through suffering.

Jeremiah watched the city of Jerusalem kick against what God wanted to do and refuse to learn how to live under God. In Lamentations we see the picture of someone who willingly submitting themselves to what God wants to put them (or their family friends, church, and nation) through – humbly. He’s not happy. He’s doesn’t want it to happen. He wishes it would never have happened. But he submits to it because he knows God loves Him and knows what is best.

Jeremiah asks us who follow God to bears the yoke of suffering willingly, possibly even alone, to prostrate ourselves before God (to put our “in the dust” – bowing before God withour mouth shut), and willingly choose (like Christ taught us and demonstrated) not to fight our own battles but to give our “cheek to the one who strikes” and be willing to have our ears “filled with insults”, because we trust that God will fight our battles for us.

That’s not easy, but it is something that faithful Christians have learned. We kick against God and hurt ourselves. We make our own plans to get out, and we cause more troubles. We try to take control, and we make a mess of it. We choose to fight our enemies and punish those who insult us, and we end up creating more pain and heartache – and we never feel at peace.

Until we relent to God’s plan, God’s way, God’s training ground of suffering.

Examine Ourselves

In verse 40 we see the final exhortation from Jeremiah, spoken allowed to anyone who would listen, and all the generations who would come after:

“Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!”

The suffering comes because of sin. Jeremiah isn’t perfect – he’s a sinner too-  and so, after turning his mind and his will over to God, he does what all believers must do and says, “Ok, let me look inside and see what’s wrong with me and make myself right with God.”

I read something from JC Ryle that I want to share with you. Remember, this was written well over a hundred years ago:

“Let me counsel every true servant of Christ to “examine his own heart” frequently and carefully as to his state before God. This is a practice which is useful at all times: it is especially desirable at the present day.  When the great plague of London was at its height people [noticed] the least symptoms that appeared on their bodies in a way that they never remarked them before. A spot here, or a spot there, which in time of health men thought nothing of, received close attention when the plague was decimating families, and striking down one after another! So it ought to be with ourselves, in the times in which we live. We ought to watch our hearts with double watchfulness. We ought to give more time to meditation, self-examination, and reflection. It is a hurrying, bustling age: if we would be kept from falling, we must make time for being frequently alone with God.”[ii]

Not all the problems of the world are your fault, or mine, but we are certainly contribute to the sin we find in this world. Someone can hurt us, completely out of the blue – totally unforeseen, totally not our fault – and it can cause great suffering. But that doesn’t gives us the exception to not examine ourselves. Is the grief I am experiencing exacerbated by my own bitterness and negative attitude? Am I hurting because of my own pride or prejudices? How have I contributed to what’s going on? What do I need to make right before God?

Throughout scripture we are told to examine ourselves so that we can be right with God – which is the most important thing. Get right with God and get right with others. That summarizes the entire Bible. And that takes a good deal of self examination.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul gives a list of ways that Christians are meant to respond to persecution and suffering at the hands of others and it is a powerful list of ways we can examine ourselves before God.

He starts with: “Let love be genuine.” and then goes on to show us what genuine love looks like:

“Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

That is a convicting list of attributes which I know I don’t love up to. But it’s a list of ways that we fall short before God and contribute to sin in this world. It’s a list of ways that we break God’s laws and make ourselves (and those around us) miserable.

And so, after turning our hearts and minds over to God, we examine ourselves for sin – and we, once again, repent and ask forgiveness. And then we pray.

A Prayer

Here’s an example of the kind of prayer we can pray as we work through suffering and lament:

“God, I feel great pain, anger, sadness, frustration. I know this isn’t all my doing. This is a sinful world and I’m being sinned against. But I also know that my sinful, selfish heart is making it worse.

What’s more is that I know that this is your doing. You allowed this to happen to me. It hurts, but I trust You and believe have a purpose for it. I will stop fighting against what you want to do, stop taking control of it, stop thinking too much of myself, stop believing myself to be to special to experience pain. I will stop blaming you and start trusting you. I’m still angry, but in my anger I won’t sin, and I will continue to bring my pain to you.

God, you’ve brought great suffering to my mind and body. My relationships are in pain. My soul is not at peace. But. I know you know all of this and I choose to call to mind and have hope in the knowledge that you love me with a covenantal love – you promise to love me no matter what – and there is nothing I or anyone else can do to remove me from that love. Your love is steadfast. Your mercies never come to an end. Though it is dark today, I will wait patiently for your morning, and I will not waste this suffering by complaining – I will allow you to till the soil of my heart using this pain.

God, I’m not very patient, but you are teaching me patience. My character needs work, and through this pain you are building it. I asked for hope, and you are giving it to me. It’s not what I want – but it’s what I need. You are the great doctor who knows how to heal, the great vinedresser who knows what branches must be cut off.

I choose now to lay myself before you, mouth in the dust, and to trust in your ways. I want my love to be genuine, to abhor evil and to cling to what is good. That comes only from you, and by your discipline. No one loved more than you, Jesus – and no one suffered more than you.

Help me to have zeal in worship and services. To be patient and hopeful during tribulation, to be constantly in prayer. Help me serve and help others, even during my time of difficulty, just as you served others – even performing miracles – during your arrest and crucifixion. Help me to bless my persecutors, to learn how to be joyful, but also how to weep with those who need me to weep with them. I know that only comes when I can feel their pain – and that only comes when you bring that pain to me.

Kill the pride in me and help me associate with the lowly – and I realize that means that you must knock me down and make me lowly. Help me live peaceably with all, even if that means I don’t get my way and have to suffer for the sake of peace. Let me trust you to pay back wrongs, and take from my heart all of the feelings of vengeance that come there. Instead, help me to do good to my enemies. Let me never be overcome by evil, but to always overcome evil with good. You are that good. You are my treasure and my portion forever.

In Jesus Name, Amen.”

[i] The New American Commentary, F.B. Huey, Jr.

[ii] Warnings to the Churches #4, JC Ryle