Ok, just for fun we’re going to start today with a True or False test of some random questions I found around the internet:
- Approximately one-quarter of human bones are in the feet. (True – 52 bones in the feet and 206 in the whole body.)
- In ancient Rome, a special room called a vomitorium was available for diners to purge food in during meals. (False – It was the name for the entranceway to a stadium, nothing more.)
- A slug’s blood is blue-green. (True)
- Sir Paul McCartney’s middle name is James (False – James is his first name, his middle name is actually Paul)
- The Guinness World Record for most fingers and toes at birth is held by an Indian man born with 14 fingers and 20 toes in total. (True)
- The ‘black box’ in an airplane is black. (False – it is orange.)
- Centipedes always have 100 feet. (False)
Truth and Philosophy
I know this sounds like I might be stating the patently obvious, but truth is important. Going a step further I will state something else that seems obvious: believing that truth exists is important. When you look up the definition of “truth”, but first, definition is the one we usually understand: a truth is something that corresponds with facts and reality. It’s accurate and exact.
Most people, if you sat them down over coffee and talked face to face with them, would agree with those statements. Truth is important, believing in truth is important, and truth is something that represents accurate reality. A lot of people still find these things so obvious that they are unnecessary to even state, but there is an ever-growing contingent of people that no longer believe that there is such a thing as truth. From mainstream media to politics to religion, the mere existence of truth is being debated in all circles of our lives.
The problem here is that the concept of truth is a philosophical one. A good scientist wants to conduct his research without bias. A good news reporter wants to tell a story that corresponds to the facts. A good politician wants to make decisions based in reality. A good theologian wants to learn about God without importing their own preconceptions.
But the philosopher’s job is to go deeper, which is why Philosophy is called the mother of all sciences. (Theology is the queen of all sciences by the way.) Where a scientist seeks truth, a philosopher has to ask, “What is truth? Why is truth important? How can we even know truth exists?” Big, huge, complicated concepts that have captured a lot of attention recently and have been used by a lot of people as a way to dismantle seemingly rational arguments from the inside out.
Someone will stand up and say, “I have evidence that this is true and I have a hundred people to back me up.” And for whatever reason, someone else disagrees with them. Maybe they don’t like the implications of the truth, maybe it forces them to change something or give something up that they don’t want to, and so they disagree. Now this person has a choice. They can either try to find more evidence that counters the other person’s claim, and therefore produce a better, more consistent, more realistic truth – or they can dismantle their argument with philosophy.
They’ll say things like, “You may have a hundred people that agree with you, but I have 10,000 that agree with me.” Does the number of people that agree have anything to do with the actual facts? No. Even if get 10,000 people to believe a lie, that doesn’t make it the truth.
Or they’ll say, “Your truth is only true for now. People in the past didn’t believe that, and people in the future won’t believe it either.” People use this one all the time. Historians say… futurists say… but does the opinions of historians or futurists make the truth any less true? No, but it seems persuasive.
Or how about, “That’s true for you, but it’s not true for me, because I have something that negates your truth. My feelings and my perceptions cancel out your truth.” This is a big one too.
When is an Apple an Apple?
Let’s do a scenario for fun:
A science-type-man goes to a science-type-conference and wants a guaranteed win, so he decides to present something simple that everyone can agree on. He lifts up an apple and says: “I present this apple. This apple is red, crunchy, smooth and delicious.”
That seems like something everyone can agree on, but it doesn’t work. Why? Well, let’s ask the question: is what he has said, true?
Well, unfortunately, they’ve already made a mistake. “Delicious” is an opinion – which will be immediately grabbed onto by their detractors. “You can’t tell me what is delicious and what isn’t! Your opinion is biased! How can we believe anything you say if you believe apples are delicious! I don’t like apples! With your obvious bias, how can we believe it’s red or crunchy either!?”
So the man apologizes and tries again. They say, “I’m sorry. You’re right. Ok, this apple is red, crunchy and smooth.” Someone else stands up and says, “I’m colour blind, and so is my whole group of friends. We cannot see red, and therefore it is not only wrong but offensive to say that apple to be red because there are people who are biologically unable to see it that way! Plus, how can you be sure that everyone sees it as red, maybe some people would call it green! Colour is a construct of the human mind!” The colour-blind side starts to grumble loudly so the man tries to explain, “Yes, I know you don’t see it as red, but let me explain how colour works. This isn’t my opinion it’s based on how light waves reflect off of the surface…” And before he even finishes the leader yells, “Oh, this coming from the guy who thought that all apples are delicious! Your conclusions are bunk and your bias against colour-blindness is hateful. ”
Fearing potential for violence he backs off. “Well, at least we can agree that this apple is crunchy and smooth.” Someone else yells, “I have an electron microscope and I have seen what an apple looks like at an atomic level! It’s not smooth! It’s all rough and bumpy! His science is wrong!”
Someone else cries, “And compared to eating rocks or hard candy, that apple is nowhere close to crunchy!”
“Yeah”, someone else says, “I’ve been eating apple fritters at Tim Hortons for years and there’s never been a single crunch!”
The scientist sputters for a moment and says, “Yes, but I’m not talking about apple fritters!” Another person yells, “He hates apple fritters! He hates Tim Hortons! He’s against Canada!” Three-quarters of the room stands up in disgust and walks out on the presentation. Only a small group is left now, and most of them aren’t very happy.
The man lets out a deep sigh saying, “Ok, so, we can’t agree that it’s smooth, or crunchy, or red, or delicious….. then can we simply agree that this is an apple.” A Sunday School teacher in the front says, “It was an apple that tempted Eve in the garden. We shouldn’t be eating apples.” And walks out.
Another says, “Well, that’s your opinion. I was watching a documentary last night and they said that there are over 7500 varieties of apples throughout the world, and some varieties of pears and other fruits that look like apples… did you know that?” The man says, “No, I didn’t.” To which the reply comes, “Well, then how can you possibly even know that’s an apple?” At this point now, he’s not even sure.
That’s a fictional story, but it represents a very real thing happening in our world today. There is a philosophical war against truth, and it all sounds very, very convincing. And there are a lot of emotions wrapped up in it, and so people take it very personally, and that makes it very hard to keep talking about truth because it can offend people. But we cannot simply give up the fight for truth because when we do that, we give up the very foundation of our lives. If we stop believing in truth, then we will have nothing to stand on.
And turning now to a spiritual reality, that’s exactly where Satan wants us – foundationless. We are much easier targets for temptation if we don’t believe in truth, if we cannot state truth, if we do not know the truth. We are much easier to manipulate, to trick, to confuse, and to use for nefarious schemes, if we don’t have the truth within us and have not built our lives on the solid foundation of the truth.
Answering With Truth
Open up to Luke 4:1-13 and let’s read the passage we started studying last week again.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
This is our last sermon in this depression series. Last week we looked at this text from the perspective of learning that, when you are sad, grieving, or truly depressed, Jesus really does know what you are going through. He’s felt what you are feeling and experienced the same weakness. We coupled this with the passage in Hebrews 4:15 which says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” We talked about how Jesus can “sympathize with our weaknesses” and “in every respect has been tempted as we are”, but how did He do it “without sin”?
The answer is complicated, but today I want to talk about one way, which is that He knew and used the truth.
There is Something Greater Going On
I don’t want to go through all the temptations in detail again today, but consider how Jesus answered Satan when he said, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” He was attacking Jesus’ identity, using His hunger against Him, trying to get Him to show some weakness. His statement was a manipulation of the truth. Of course Jesus is the Son of God, and of course, He has power, but Satan stated it as doubtful… “how can you really be sure that apple is an apple?” Satan suggested a course of action to Jesus that was actually doable and would have satiated Jesus’ physical hunger. It almost seemed like a caring plan.
Sure, Jesus was hungry, but there was something greater going on. Jesus knew what Satan was trying to do and answered with truth: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus was quoting part of Deuteronomy 3:8 which says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
The real truth, the full truth, is that sometimes God leads us into the wilderness, into difficult places, and makes us hungry on purpose because He knows that is the only way we will be humbled enough to turn to Him. So long as we are fed, fat, and happy, we rarely turn our attention towards God or the condition of our souls. And so there are times when God makes us uncomfortable, hungry, longing, desperate, pleading – so that we turn to Him, and so we can know that He is the provider. We need to know that life isn’t about feeding our stomachs, but about feeding our souls, and that requires us coming to God. If we get distracted by pleasures, then we could lose our immortal soul.
Jesus said it this way to his disciples in Mark 8:34-37:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?”
Satan will come to you in your depression and whisper all kinds of temptations to you meant to make you hate your time in the desert, to do anything to distract yourself from your hunger, thirst, and discomfort. He wants you to concentrate on your hunger, on your longing for bread, on just removing that bad feeling.
Whereas, Christians, because of God’s Word, have a totally different perspective of suffering. The truth is that the road of hunger, suffering, and the cross is often exactly what we need to walk in order to learn how to humble ourselves and depend on God, how to pray, how to find Jesus.
So when you are grieving, sad, or going through depression, don’t be so short-sighted to only seek out worldly comforts to make the bad feelings go away. Drinking, drugs, entertainment, and more are always at your fingertips and will feed your hunger for a moment – but what if something greater is going on and there is something better for you. What if you are not meant to simply live from distraction to distraction? What if this time is Jesus asking you to take up your cross, follow Him, and find true life?
And for those who are walking with those who are facing depression and sadness, don’t try to fast-forward it or deny it. Don’t stand there and offer them bread when God wants them to wait for what He has prepared for them. Don’t be like Job’s wife and say something like, “Why are you waiting on God? All suffering is bad. Curse God and die and get it over with.” (Job 2:9ish) Maybe this is a long road they must walk so they can be humbled in spirit and learn how to depend on Him and His Word more.
Resolve in your mind to believe the truth that in your suffering, or theirs, that something greater is going on.
There is Something Worse That Can Happen
In the second temptation Satan said, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
Satan here tempts Jesus to give up His mission and not go through all the suffering His life would bring. He offers a “better plan” that fast forwards what God wants to do, but gets rid of the hard parts. The idea here is that the worst thing in the world is suffering and everyone should try to avoid it.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6, which I will read more of here,
“It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (vs 13-15)
The idea here is that there is something worse than going through some human suffering. There is something worse than depression. There is something worse than physical and emotional pain. That that is to have God angry at us. Jesus said it this way to his disciples in Matthew 10:28:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus had just given a warning about how bad it was going to get for those who faithfully followed Him. There would be rejection and pain. They would be delivered to courts, flogged in public, even in the synagogues. They would do nothing wrong, but they would still be dragged before governors and kings to face trials and punishments. And all this would be part of God’s plan so they could witness to more and more people about salvation. Jesus tells them to consider how much evil He has and will endure – and know that they will face even more. You think I came to bring peace, but you will know more pain than peace in this world. Even your family will turn against you. (Matthew 10:16-38)
No doubt, fear filled their faces, because they knew what Jesus said always came true. And Jesus’ response to their fear was twofold. Of course, we know He said things like, “God knows what you are going through. He is with you. You will be rewarded…” But along with that He also said, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In other words, there are worse things than floggings and rejection. It is far worse to face God’s wrath. Obey Him first.
This is something we don’t talk a lot about, but it’s really important. When you are facing depression, and even when you are not, you will face all kinds of temptations to make it easier despite what God wants to do with your life. Satan will offer all kinds ungodly, unbiblical, unhelpful of ways out of your pain. He will lie to you and tell you that you deserve temporary relief, that God won’t mind, that it doesn’t matter because He’ll just forgive you anyway.
A Christian’s response must be, “That’s a lie. Sin always has a cost. It always echoes farther than I imagine. There is no such thing as a safe sin. Yes, this hurts, but there is something worse than this – I don’t want to face my Father’s wrath against my sin. I don’t want to face the discipline He will have to do to break this temptation. I have committed my life and soul to Him. It was my sins that made Jesus die for me. It was my sins that nailed Jesus to a cross. I don’t want to add more. I will not give up my faith for a moment of relief, especially since the pain will only come back again. No. You’re a liar. The truth is that there is something worse than pain – and that is turning my back on God, His Son, His Spirit, and His Word.”
In the third temptation Satan “took [Jesus] to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Satan quotes the Bible. The Bible is the source of truth. Remember my apple illustration? Satan is an incredible liar and manipulator of truth, which is why we need to listen to the voice of God and know our Bibles. He will tell us the truth so we can combat Satan when He shows up as an angel of light.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15,
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”
This world is full of liars, so we must know the truth well, and listen to the one who will always speak the truth to us – and that is the Holy Spirit in prayer.
Jesus here quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, which says in full, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”
The command to not test God is all over scripture. It was at Massah that Israel accused Moses, and therefore God, of bringing them out of Egypt just to kill them with thirst. They were ready to kill Moses and then go back to Egypt because they had lost their faith that God would take care of them. This was after all the miracles they had seen in Egypt, after seeing the pillars of fire and cloud lead them around, and after they had literally just been fed by miraculous bread that fell down from heaven. God had already demonstrated His ability to care for them, but now, because they had gotten thirsty, they doubted if God was even real or not. They had lost their faith, so they demanded that Moses prove, once again, that God was real. They demanded of God to prove once again, that He was real. They were testing Him.
This is another temptation for people who are facing difficult times, especially people of faith. While they are feeling God, God’s presence is unquestioned. They say grace at mealtimes, tell people how blessed they are, thank God for parking spaces and all sorts of small kindnesses. They talk about Jesus and pray to Him with ease.
And then suffering comes, depression sets in, grief and sadness take up residence in their heart and home. Now it’s harder to find things to thank God for. They feel hungry, angry, lonely, tired, despondent, attacked, afraid, even suicidal. They turn to their Bible, but it only reads as a list of demands they can’t fulfill and promises that God doesn’t seem to be good for. They can’t find hope, and all their old, favourite verses seem trite and powerless.
And it’s in those times when Satan comes in and gently says, “Maybe God isn’t real. Maybe you made it all up. Maybe it was a phase, a good idea, but really, it was just an emotional high. How can you be sure He’s real, that He’s listening, that He cares what you do.”
This is the Devil’s way of trying to destroy your foundation. “If there is no God, then all of your strength, your hope, and your truth goes out the window. God’s Word is fiction and can’t help or bring light. God’s people are idiots who are believing a lie. God’s Spirit doesn’t exist and you really are alone. There’s no such thing as good or bad, sin or righteousness, heaven or hell – all you have is now and how you feel in this moment. You are foundationless, hopeless, truthless.”
And so you want to get God to do something spectacular to prove Himself. Now, He’s asking you to come to Him humbly, to wait on Him, to trust Him, to listen to Him, to continue to take up your cross and walk faithfully, to endure suffering so you can build character and spiritual strength, to pray to Him in your heart, to be with Him and allow His presence be enough for you, to get quiet enough to listen to His still, small voice…
But that’s not what you want. You want a spectacle. You want a display. You want Him to perform for you, to dance for you, to show off for you. You want to command Him to do as you will. You want to be God and for Him to be your subject. You want Him to be your magic genie, your Santa Clause, your rich uncle… not your God.
And so, I caution you during your time of depression, not to put God to the test. Don’t listen to the voice that tells you God isn’t real and that the only way He could be is if He would do whatever you say. That’s arrogant, idolatrous and demonic. Instead, allow this time of suffering to humble you, to drive you to your knees. Don’t fast forward it. Don’t deny it. Don’t resent it. God is doing something in and through it. He won’t waste it.
He promises that if you will trust Him, He will use your suffering for your good, your churches good, and His glory. But you must trust and believe. I cannot do that for you. No one can. I cannot make you believe, nor can I make you stop fighting God in your Spirit and submit to Him. You must do that. It is you who must put down the sin that has entangled you. It is you who must choose to read, believe, and speak God’s Word when Satan tempts you. It is you who must resist the devil so He will flee from you (James 4:7). It is you who must get quiet and listen to God’s voice, pray to Him, and come to the church for help. It is you who must choose to be honest about your struggles, your weakness, and your temptations. It is you who must choose to drag it into the light. No one can do that for you. God can show you the truth, I can tell you the truth, your friends can tell you the truth, but it is you who must choose to stop believing the lies and embrace the truth. As you do that, you will experience the presence of God. He is there.
*Sorry, no audio.
Tattoos & Human Branding
I don’t have any tattoos, but I know lots of people who do – and a few that don’t have one yet but want one. As far as the Bible goes, there’s no problem with getting or having a tattoo, so long as it’s not done in as part of a pagan religious ceremony (Lev 19:28) or done in a prideful way, to show off and attract attention to your body (1 Peter 3:3-4). If you can do it in a tasteful, humble way, is profitable and helpful, that honours your body as God’s temple, and is an act of worship that brings glory Him glory, then go for it! (Eph 5:4 Col 3:8; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 10:23, 31)
As funny as some of these are, I want to take a minute to use it as an illustration. All of the people we saw in those pictures made the choice – however misguided that choice may have been – to go and get their bodies marked, but human branding has been around for a long time.
People would brand their slaves as their own property, brand thieves, brawlers or other undesirables with letters on their skin marking their crime. The practice even occurs a few times in the Bible. God marked Cain so people wouldn’t kill him (Gen 4). Ezekiel had a vision of men dressed in linen walking through a town destined for destruction marking the people who lamented their sins so they would not be destroyed (Exe 9:4). In Revelation it speaks of two different marks, those marked by God for salvation and those who take the Mark of the Beast (Rev 7:3; 13:16-17). Paul speaks of the scars on his body, from beatings, stonings and lashings as marks that point to his faith in Jesus (Gal 6:17). And it was seeing the marks in His hands side that brought doubting Thomas to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 20:27).
The marks of Jesus are often called the “Stigmata”, from which we get the term “stigma”. Last week we spent some time looking at a biblical view of depression. It was by no means comprehensive, but I think we covered some of the basics, and I hope it was helpful to you. I was surprised how much feedback from last week’s message, both locally and after I posted it on the internet. I got hits and messages from all over North America. I even received an email from someone in Mexico.
The comment I heard repeated most often, including from my new friend in Monterey, revolved around stigma. Multiple people thanked me for simply not making them feel badly about struggling with depression or mental illness. Being a person suffering from mental illness like depression is bad enough, more than a few Christians I know have recently admitted some bad stories about letting people at church know about their struggles, and then having that knowledge used against them.
They come to their friend, their church, their family, to share a small part of one of their deepest struggles – that for a long time they have been in a daily battle against their own brain, that has made them feel anxious, sad, fearful, hopeless, and like an utter failure – and instead of getting love, acceptance, support, and prayer – they get stigmatized, branded, tattooed with a label. Most often in the church, that label is “Lazy” or “Faithless”.
Instead of coming alongside this person and patiently bearing their burdens with them, they accuse them of not having enough faith, not praying enough, not reading the bible enough, not understanding enough theology, not worshipping enough. They throw out quick answers like, “Have you done your devos? Reading the Bible and praying always cheers me right up!” or “You should listen to more worship music.” or “You need to stop drinking coffee, you’re your vitamins and do some exercise, and then you’d be happy.”
The implication to those quick answers is that the person’s problem is their fault – as though this was something they chose, or there’s something they are not doing that if they would just do, then their sickness would go away. That’s a ridiculous notion that we would never apply to any other sickness, would we?
I don’t intend to repeat last week’s message about the importance of realizing that they are suffering from a mental illness, meaning that they are literally sick, and that part of their body is broken (their brain chemistry) and outside of their control. And I don’t intend to try to convince you how bad it is by telling you a bunch of horror stories from my life or anyone else’s – please just believe me that however bad you think it is to be clinically depressed or suffer from mental illness, the reality is that it’s probably worse. But after hearing from more than a few people relate stories of how much pain they have been caused by people in the church, and saying that they are literally afraid of telling other Christians about their struggles, I feel there’s a couple topics we need to cover.
People Usually Fear / Hate Sickness
Today I want to talk about how God uses sickness and suffering for our good and His glory. Essentially, what we’re talking about is a building a theology of sickness.
People who are sick are often treated very badly by their fellow man. Maybe it comes from our inherent fear of death, so we distance ourselves physically and emotionally from anyone who is suffering. Maybe it comes from our belief that all suffering and sickness is bad, and therefore we need to avoid it at all costs. Maybe it comes from thinking that anyone who is sick or suffering is being punished by God, or has lost faith, and therefore we need to stay away while God deals with them. Whatever the case, being sick, whether with a mental or physical illness, has often come with stigma – they are marked as outsiders and shunned.
Even though the Old Testament is full of commands to care for the poor and be merciful to the suffering (Deut 15:11; Micah 6:8), and they did have medicine and physicians (Job 13:4; 1 Chron 16:12; Jer 6:22) it was often believed that anyone with any kind of handicap, from birth defects to blindness to leprosy to the flu to losing life or limb in an accident, was being punished by God for their sins, and was therefore shunned from the community.
From ancient times until today one way that societies have dealt with their weak and sick is to lock them away, forget them, or simply kill them – and this is on both ends of the spectrum. In some ancient cultures, if a baby had any kind of defect at all, it was policy to leave it out in the open until it died so that it’s weakness wouldn’t impact the family or the nation. In some cultures today girls are seen as weaker than boys, so they murder baby girls in favour of having more boys.
Since we have the technology to look inside the uterus before the baby is born doctors can diagnose all kinds issues a baby might have. Most of these issues are non-life threatening and are very treatable, but often end in abortion. For example, the rate of Downs Syndrome children has rapidly declined these days, not because there are less of them, but because they are murdered before they are ever born.
In the proudly liberal United Kingdom, famous for their open-mindedness and tolerance, they have a law that says you can abort a “disabled child” up to the day it’s born. Because the term “disabled” isn’t defined well, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women have aborted their baby because it had a cleft lip. Why? Because people hate, shun, stigmatize, and reject sickness.
And we do it on the other end of the spectrum too as we take the sick and the elderly, push them out of our society, remove them from our media, lock them away in homes to forget about them, charge them enormous fees to care for them, and then, when they are rejected and alone, and feel like a burden to everyone around them, the lawmakers, doctors and insurance companies offer them euthanasia (Greek for or “The Good Death”). Like Coke, Pepsi or Nike, they find a young, pretty spokesmodels like Brittany Maynard to be their advocate and make suicide seem like a wonderful thing that everyone should consider, and then do what they can to eliminate other options.
One recent example of this comes from the story of Stephanie Packer, a mother of four who lives in California which recently legalized doctor assisted suicide. She has an auto immune disease that forms scar tissue on her lungs which makes it hard to breathe. She was told she wouldn’t live until age 32, but she’s already a year past that. She’s been in treatment for a long time, but when her doctors switched her expensive chemotherapy drugs, her insurance company informed her that they refused to pay for them. She then asked if they would cover the cost of the drugs that would put her to death. They said yes, and that it would only cost her $1.20. The same thing happened to a 64-year-old woman in Oregon who was given the choice between paying for a $4000/month drug to help her get better, or a $50 drug that would kill her.
Humanity hates and fears weakness, sickness, and death, and we will do everything we can to remove it from our minds, hearts, homes, and country. Christians need to be better, but too often we’re not. Instead, we, in our own ways, mark those who are sick, hurting, or weak, as undesirable outcasts that need to be treated by specialists, and only hang out with people who are strong, helpful, and that contribute to our wellbeing.
Think about it. I’ve heard so many times that people want friends that will help them grow, a church where they will be fed, spouses and partners and friends that will strengthen them – but they never, ever, ever mean someone that is sick or hurting. They always mean that they want to find someone who is strong, smart, and healthy, that will build them up. They never meant that they want to be surrounded by people that are sick, weak, afraid, confused, struggling, and in constant need.
But let me tell you the God’s honest truth. The place your faith will grow most, where you will be challenged most, where you will be tried, tested and refined most – is among the lust, hurting, and sick.
I hear Christians ask all the time about how they grow more spiritual, get closer to God, deepen their prayer life, learn more about the faith, be more dependent on scripture, hear the Holy Spirit, and become more like Jesus – and that’s a good thing. But the answer isn’t just “read your bible, pray every day”, avoid bad things, and you’ll grow, grow, grow. No, what will really, truly cause you to become desperate for the presence of God is to come face to face with weakness.
Sickness as a Gift
The Bible says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and one way we become more humble, and thereby gain more grace, is to be faced with sickness – in ourselves or someone else.
- Physical, emotional and mental weakness will stop you in your tracks and force you to evaluate your life and faith.
- Whether you are the one who is ill or the one facing the illness, it will test the strength of your marriage, your friendships, and the bonds of your church and family.
- It will require you to admit you have problems and that you need help, opening up your heart to the ability not only to admit physical and mental problems but ultimately spiritual ones.
- It will force you to stop depending on yourself and humbly accept the help of God and others.
- It will force you to see your own weakness, and even your own mortality, and realize your time on earth is short.
- And it gives others an opportunity to care for you, thereby helping them grow.
- It will cause you to talk to God in ways you never have before– whether in anger, sadness, fear, or faith.
When you or someone you love is in pain your prayers get a lot less general. Gone are your prayers for a nice meal, a happy life, and to bless everyone around you –because now you realize what it means to come to God and say:
“Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name.
Bring your kingdom soon, because I hate this world full of sin and death.
May your will be done, because I am utterly at a loss for what to do.
Give me this day my daily bread, because I am weak, tired, and all of my energy is spent – I need a miracle of provision from you if I’m going to make it through this day.
Forgive me my sins, because I realize now how worldly I have been and how much I have sinned against others who just needed my love and comfort. How I wish I had been more merciful to them, because I could use their mercy now!
Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, because people are saying and doing so many stupid, selfish things to me and the one I love, and I don’t need any more bitterness in my heart, God. I don’t have the time or energy to argue. I just need to find a place to know your life.
God, lead me not into temptation – because I’m tempted to give up, tempted to quit, tempted to go to evil places for a moment’s comfort, tempted to lash out at the one I’m supposed to be caring for and the ones that are caring for me, tempted to push people away, tempted to stop worshipping, stop praying, stop asking for help. God I’m so very tempted.
I need you to deliver me from evil, because all the time I can feel the presence of the evil one around me, and as I battle this illness on so many fronts – I need your spiritual protection so there’s at least one battle I don’t need to fight because you are doing it for me. Protect me, God.
I recognize yours is the kingdom, and I am but a humble citizen.
I recognize that yours is the power, because I feel so powerless.
And yours is the glory, so help me to somehow bring you glory in this as you make me more fit for your kingdom.
Forever and ever, even now, even in this time, even as terrible as this feels today – amen, so be it, I relent, I give it all to you.”
In Sickness You Meet Jesus
To my fellow Christians, I remind you that it is when you are face to face with the weak, the sick, and the poor – which includes those who suffer with depression – that you are closest to Jesus, and have the greatest opportunity to bless him. Turn with me to Matthew 25:31-46 and consider the words of Jesus:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We will not be saved because of our compassion and mercy towards those brothers and sisters who are hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned, but we will do it because we are saved. Listen carefully: Your understanding of your salvation and all that Jesus has done for you is demonstrated in how you treat those around you, especially those who are difficult – like the sick, the poor, the estranged, or your enemies.
A Christian understands from what they have been delivered. They know that in the eyes of a perfect God they were deplorable, wretched, sinners, enemies of God. Before we are saved by Jesus, the Bible says we have all the attraction and benefit of a rotten, stinking, enemy corpse (Isaiah 64:6; Eph 2:1-3). Humanity became sick with sin and succumbed to it completely. Jesus didn’t come to meet us in hospital room, or our deathbed, he came to our grave. We have the smell of death and rotten deeds all about us – as unattractive as possible – and yet, though there was not anything good about us, God sent His only Son to take the punishment for our sin so we could be reborn as one of His people (John 3:16; Eph 2:4-5).
He stepped into a land of madness, sickness, death, betrayal, and hatred – a world completely bent away from Him – and stayed out of love. We insulted Him, He healed our wounds. We hated Him, and He exercised our demons. We broke every law He gave us, used the body He gave us for sin, rejected the prophets He sent us, corrupted the Word He spoke to us. He wept over us, prayed for us, fed us, calmed our storms, took the cross for us, sent us His Holy Spirit, and invited us to be part of His family. And even though we continue to get it wrong, sin like crazy, spit in his face, refuse to listen, obey, pray or do what He asks, even though we keep erecting idols in our hearts – He keeps walking with us, forgiving us, helping us, sitting with us, weeping with us, mourning with us, and reminding us of why we can still have hope.
We are never more like Jesus, and we never see Jesus more, than when we are serving, helping, and loving people who are suffering – and that includes people who are facing depression and mental illness.
Next week I hope to give some practical tools, but I that’s where I want to leave it this week. But let me challenge you to some reflection:
First, is there anyone in your life that you have stigmatized, marked as an untouchable because they are too weak, sick, sad, or frustrating? Has God called you to serve someone, visit them, feed them, help them, welcome them, clothe them, but you have said no, because like the pagan world around you, you don’t want to, are too lazy, too afraid to be touched by weakness, sickness and death? I beg you to repent. Ask forgiveness of those you have marked as outcasts because of your own selfishness, fear and sin, and then go and be Jesus to them – and meet Jesus in them.
And second, to those who have been marked by sin, who bear the scars of depression, anxiety, sickness and pain. I challenge you to change your perspective on your suffering to see that you are not being punished, and God has not left you. You have been given to your church and your family as a gift by which we are able to see Jesus. You have been given something that forces you to grow closer to Jesus, to depend more on Him, and to have a greater faith than many people will ever experience – if you allow it to drive you to Jesus and not from Him.
Consider how you can say the words of 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, which have been echoed by so many faithful believers throughout the centuries: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We like doing things ourselves, right? I think almost everyone here today takes pride in the skill and abilities they have, what they can accomplish, and how, for the most part, they don’t really need anyone’s help to get by. Sure – as I said last week – some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses and need for God for spiritual things, but when it comes to practical things – like home repair, cooking a meal, fixing a car, building a shed, manipulating a computer, or making clothes – we’re still pretty fond of the fact that we don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Being a do-it-yourselfer is good. Actually, in scripture, God praises the one who learns skills and then applies them with diligence. It’s not only those who know the Bible and practice spiritual disciplines that get kudos, but God also shows His pleasure with those who work hard at growing their business, playing music, build, manufacture, teach, explore, or make art. During the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35, God called on all people who knew to spin yarn and linen, work metal, grow plans and herbs, carve wood, and more.
There were a couple of men in particular that God blessed to be able to do all kinds of practical things. It says,
“Then Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” (Exo 35:24-29)
Sometimes Christians look at men and women who know lots about the Bible, or write, or are able to preach, or teach Sunday school and assume that’s what God wants all believers to try to live up to – but it’s not true. God needed a lot of skilled workers to build His temple and serve His people, and Bezalel and Oholiab were specially gifted by God to be craftsmen. And it’s the same in today’s church. We need all kinds of people in this world, this community, and this church.
If they would have said, “Since I’m just good at doing artistic stuff and am not a priest or a lawyer or a holy man, then I can’t work for God.”, they would have been disobeying God. All the time that these men spent alone in their sheds, planning, carving, pounding, moulding, and polishing – and apprenticing others how to do the same – brought glory to God and helped the worship of the entire nation of Israel.
And the priests would be sinning if they were to look at them and say, “I can’t believe you’re wasting your time banging metal together and weaving strings! You shouldn’t be an artist or hunter or shepherd or politician or soldier – you should quit all that and start doing important things!”. That would go against what God built and asked them to do.
God has given skills to some people that others will never have – because He decided they should have them to use them for His glory and the good of humanity. Many of Jesus parables aren’t based in the spiritual realm but in the practical side of life. He tells stories about farming, banking, housekeeping, construction, wine-making, baking, fishing, management, and law – and we never get a hint of Jesus disparaging or minimizing any of these occupations. It is the priest and the religious expert who get blasted by Jesus, not the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Working in The Spirit’s Power
Why am I telling you this? Well, first, it’s important, but I also think it relates to our passage in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Let’s read it and then I’ll riddle it out for you:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The simple message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He is required to do all by Himself.
If you remember Paul’s story you will recall that Paul was a skilled guy with some of the best training the ancient world had to offer. Before he ever knew Jesus, his name was Saul, and he was already a formidable intellect, an unmatched student, and a force to reckoned with. He spoke multiple languages, had memorized huge quantities of not only scripture but also secular teachings, and was one of the most skilled lawyers in the world. He was a powerful speaker and no one could match his devotion or his resolve. He had the ferocity of a shark, the skill of a fox, the wisdom of an owl, the memory of an elephant, and the determination of a pit-bull. People feared getting on the wrong side of Saul.
When Jesus turned Saul’s world upside down, he became Paul the missionary. And did Paul still use his great powers for the sake of spreading the gospel? Sometimes, yes. He gave unparalleled speeches before great worldly counsels, brought wisdom and insight to the apostles, and figured out more theology than almost anyone ever. Even the Apostle Peter said that some things in Paul’s writings are so complicated that they require a great deal of study and effort to understand (2 Peter 3:16). He was a true genius.
And yet, if you remember the story of Corinth, when Paul came into town the first time, he wasn’t he mighty man of God we might think he was. No, he was a man at the end of his rope. Saul the powerful persecutor had become Paul the broken and persecuted. He was alone, exhausted, rejected, afraid, and perhaps even ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But God had met him in a special way, had strengthened Him, encouraged him, and told him to keep preaching.
Paul’s message to the Corinthians wouldn’t be like his message to the Athenians or the Jews, or anyone else. Instead of turning all his mental and intellectual powers towards convincing people about the truths of Jesus’ claims to be Lord, God and Saviour, he decided to keep things very simple and leave the convincing up to God.
When Paul came into Corinth, he had only been an active, traveling missionary for about 4 years, but he had learned some valuable lessons during that time. One main thing he learned was that he needed to speak to people in a way they understood. He tells the Corinthians later that
“I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law… that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor 9:19-23)
Paul learned the importance of contextualizing his message to his audience. Which was one reason he made the decision not to “proclaim to [the Corinthians] the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom”. As we’ve said before, that would have been a distraction to them.
But he had learned another lesson too: that the success of his work wasn’t dependent on his intelligence or abilities but on God’s blessing. His missionary journey had broken him down, and as he taught the Corinthians, he didn’t sound like one of the greatest teachers in the world – instead, he was weak, fearful, and even trembling. He didn’t use a lot of arguments and illustrations and human wisdom (what he calls “plausible words of wisdom”), which would have impressed them, but instead, he abandoned all of that and “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.
He didn’t talk about the idols in town and draw illustrations from them. He didn’t give them history lessons or impress them with poetry and quotes from great philosophers – which he certainly could have, and that’s how the most popular teachers spoke. Instead, he kept it simple: Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, and the only way of salvation. He lived a perfect life, died at the hands of sinners, and rose again to conquer death, hell and sin, and offers forgiveness to anyone who would turn from their sins, and believe that He is their Lord, God and only Savior.
I’m sure there were many discussions and many challenges, but instead of trying to impress them with his great knowledge, win them with powerful arguments, twist them in circles with his intellect, he simply talked about Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save sinners.
He left the persuasion up to the Spirit of God. If God wanted the Corinthians to become Christians… if God wanted to plant a church in this pagan town… if God wanted to turn people in this crazily sinful city into disciples of Jesus… then God would have to do it.
Paul would be obedient and preach – but He wouldn’t try to do anything else. Not only was he was too tired and broken, but he had learned that if he tried to do it in his own strength, it would blow up in his face – especially in Corinth, the seedbed of Satanic influence. If he used his own strength, then maybe they would become disciples of Paul – but not Jesus. He wanted their “faith” to “rest not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” And so he left the persuasion of souls up to God, by leaving any demonstration of power up to the Holy Spirit.
Working With God
And so, I say again: The message today is that there are some things in this life that God offers to partner with us on and some things that He needs to do all by Himself.
God doesn’t need us to do anything. He is perfectly capable of doing whatever He wants, but sometimes He prefers to accomplish His will through His people, so He invites us to work with Him. He gives us skills, abilities, gifts, time, energy and opportunity – and then says, “Ok, go do the thing I just set up. I’ll go with you to make sure it works.”
It’s like when your three year old wants to help you build something. You buy the pieces, do the planning, make the measurements, organize the equipment, and figure out the best time to do it – and they hold the flashlight, pound in the final nail, or get to paint a little part of it. And then later, they can tell all their friends, “See that thing over there? I built that!” Are they right? Of course not. But what does mom or dad say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think God is like that sometimes. He does 99.99% of the work, and then says, “Ok, now, I’ll do this last part with you. Go build this thing. Finish this up. Talk to that person. Draw that picture. Make that meal. Give them that book. Fix that thing.” And it takes a bunch of our energy and effort and time, but we finally finish, and then, when something incredible happens as a result, we sit back and think, “Wow, see that over there? I did that!” Are we right? No, of course not. But what does God say? “Great job! What a big help you were! Do you want to do something else together?”
I think it’s like that when we partner with God. Christians who walk with God a long time start to realize this and more and more turn the glory back to God. They realize that it wasn’t them that did anything, but God working through them. They may have partnered with God in obedience, but it was really God who gets the glory.
That’s similar to what Paul was doing. He knew that he was supposed to preach and teach. It was his job and he was using the skillset God gave him. Just like Bezalel and Oholiab were good at arts and crafts, so Paul was good at talking. He was called and built for that purpose, and would be disobeying God if He didn’t do his job.
But He knew that whatever happened, it was God’s show. He knew that the more he depended on his own abilities and strengths, the less God would shine through Him. The more they saw of Paul, the less they would see of Jesus. And so he resolved, especially in his weakened state, to show as little of Paul, and as much of Jesus, as possible.
Things Only God Can Do
We have to realize, as Paul did, that there is nothing of eternal we can do without God, and there are a lot of things that are completely outside of our control. And, if we want God to act (to demonstrate His Spirit and His power), then we need to stop trying to do it for Him.
It would be like the three year old taking the pencil out of the adult’s hands and saying, “I’ll plan out this project.” Or taking the skill-saw away and saying, “Stand back, dad, I’ll cut this wood.” Or saying, “Get out of the kitchen. I’ll figure out how to make Thanksgiving dinner myself! Last year you made something I didn’t like, so this year I’m going to do the whole thing on my own.”
That’d be crazy, right? A toddler can’t do that. They’d get hurt, hurt someone else, ruin the project, and likely burn down the whole house. “Here, let me wash that phone for you.
“Here, use this wrench to cut that wood.” “Here, let me decorate that car for you.” A child absolutely needs to depend on the adult to get the job done right and safely.
It’s the same with us. There are things that we simply cannot do, that require a demonstration of the Spirit, and a movement of the power of God. And if we try to do them, we just mess it up! There are a lot of things that I could list, but consider these for a moment:
As much as we want to argue and convince people that we are right, we cannot change people’s hearts – only God can do that. Faith is a gift from God, not a skill we can teach. The Gospel and all its implications can be defended and explained, but it takes God changing a heart before it will be embraced.
Or pride. We cannot kill the pride within us – only God can. We can pretend to be humble, but even then we start to get prideful about how humble we are! Only God can truly humble us.
We cannot remove fear from ourselves. We can do all manner of worldly things to try to control fear or even ignore it – but we cannot remove it. Only God’s perfect love can drive out fear.
We cannot stop worrying, and we cannot take away anyone else’s worry. We can give someone money, but we can’t remove worry from their hearts. We put someone in a safe place, assure them of their security, but nothing but a miracle from God can remove their worry.
We cannot generate love for someone, or make ourselves be able to truly forgive someone. We can chose to perform loving actions, and choose to forgive, but only God can ignite a love within us so strong that it overcomes our own hatred, bitterness or selfishness.
We cannot learn to hate our sin – that requires a miracle from God. We will make excuses for our sin, say how much we need it, explain it away, or bury it in a dark place so only we can see it. Even if it makes us sick, destroys our family, hurts our body, and destroys our minds, we can’t make ourselves hate it so much that we want to be free of it. Only God can do that. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can show us how hateful sin is. Unless God does that, we – and anyone we are praying for – will stay in their sin.
Let me give you two quick applications:
First, in all you do, partner with God. Sure, we can work with our hands, serve our family, fix something, and do a million other things without even thinking about God – and the unbelieving world does that all the time – but we can also do those things in partnership with God, which makes them an act worship and gives them everlasting value. That’s why scripture says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Col 3:23), “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17) When you acknowledge the presence and the partnership of God in whatever task, it will bring a new meaning to all you do.
Second, and more importantly, realize that you are also utterly dependent on God for everything in your life. Don’t live as a “religious Christian” for spiritual things, but a “practical atheist” the rest of the time. You will not be able to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power if you are trying to do everything yourself and fix all your own problems. You are designed to need God, therefore stop being too foolish or prideful to ask.
It’s not your job to hold it all together, to be strong for everyone, to fight the good fight alone, or pull up your own socks. The more you exercise your control, the less you are giving to God. The more you work in your own strength, the less you will get from God. The more you try to figure it out in your own wisdom, the less wisdom you will get from God. If you’re trying to calm the storm, then you’ll never turn to Jesus who can do it for you. If you’re trying to make everyone safe and secure, you’re refusing the help of the one who can actually protect you. If you’re trying to plan your future without talking to God, you are performing a hopeless task.
There’s a great line in a song from Casting Crowns that says, “I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.” That’s a great line and an important truth. It’s not your job to hold on by your own power – what you need to do is acknowledge that in order to see God’s power at work in your life, you need remember that you just need to be held by Him.
One would think that it would be universally true that no one likes looking like a fool, but that’s not really the case is it? There are countless websites, YouTube channels, gifs, tv shows and blogs that are solely dedicated to watching people do foolish, dangerous, stupid or ridiculous things – and they get thousands, even millions of hits and earn the content creators quite a lot of money. It would seem that today, acting like a fool, is not only popular but quite lucrative. Just the other day I watched a video where a guy filled a swimming pool with 1500 gallons of Coca-Cola, threw in some mentos and ice to make it cool and bubbly, and then proceeded to jump in. And then, just for good measure, they included some “tech destruction” by ruining a $2000 dollar flying quad-copter camera by crashing it into the pool. It made no sense.
Every single comment I read, from top to bottom, was about how stupid and wasteful it was – and yet, last time I looked, they had almost 5 million subscribers and the video had 22 million views. Foolishness, silliness, and stupidity, it would seem, is quite a popular pastime.
I’m not going to say that I’m immune from it. I’ve done some stupid things in my life. Sometimes to impress people, other times because I simply wanted the experience. I once drove my father’s car 212 km/hr down a long, steep hill on a highway out of town. That was dumb and I could have died. I once helped duct-tape a friend to a lawn-chair and throw him in the back of a car so we could take pictures of him in various, sketchy, locations. He still bears the scars from how tightly we taped him. Another time I ate nothing but Little-Caesar’s Crazy bread for three straight days, just to see what would happen. Actually, nothing happened and I enjoyed every minute of it.
That’s one kind of foolishness, and it seems to be one that a lot of people enjoy, but maybe there’s a different kind of foolishness that isn’t quite so popular; a feeling that no one wants to experience, and where even the most extroverted YouTuber dares not go. The section of scripture we are going to look at today uses the word “folly” and “foolish” a lot, but it certainly can’t mean “silliness”, “goofiness” or “simple stupidity”.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and let’s read it together and then take it apart a bit to see if we can understand what God is trying to teach us here.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The Mines of Moria
The word for “foolish” or “folly” here both come from the same root word, MOROS. The word “folly” is actually the word MORIA, and if there are any Lord of the Rings fans here you’ll remember that word. It was the underground mining city where the Dwarves dug too deeply to extract more and more treasure from the earth until they accidentally awoke a demon called a Balrog. Their foolish greed literally drove them to dig their own tunnel to hell. In Tolkien’s made-up language MORIA means “Black Abyss”, but there’s no doubt Tolkien intended a double meaning for Christian readers who had studied the concept of the deeper meaning of folly in the Bible.
If you recall, the wizard Gandalf, was the guide for the group and was trying to get them to the Land of MORDOR to get rid of the ring, was something of a Christ-figure throughout the books. He didn’t want to go MORIA because of what had been awoken by the dwarves – the evil, or utter foolishness, of a society dedicated to an all-consuming greed – embodied in the danger of facing the Balrog.
As they try to sneak their way through the mines, everything inevitably goes wrong (just as Gandalf thought it would) and they are forced to make a break for the Bridge of Kazad-Dum, the very long, straight and narrow bridge to safety, without any kind of rail, spanning a great fiery chasm, where they would all have to cross single file. (Sound familiar?) It was on this bridge that Gandalf was forced protect those under his care by having them cross first and then turn to confront the demon, shouting “You Cannot Pass!”, breaking the bridge in half, sending the Balrog tumbling into the chasm, saving his friends.
Now, let me nerd-out a little bit more because Tolkien digs really deep her into his Christ-figuring. Before he breaks the bridge he shouts out some very specific warnings at the demon. He says, “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the shadow! You cannot pass.”
Most people think it’s strange that the good-guy, Gandalf, would be a “servant of fire” and a “wielder of a flame”, but when you dig deep, you see here that this is no mere occurrence of fighting fire with fire. In Tolkien’s universe, The Secret Fire is the “Light of Creation that burns at the centre of the earth” and “Anor” is the name of the sun. He’s looking at the demon and saying, “Your dark fire, your destructive ‘flame of Udun’ (which is Tolkien’s version of Hell), will do you no good against me because I have access to the greater powers of light and creation.” [Or in today’s vernacular: “Hey demon, you better check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”]
This whole situation here, without question, is meant to show us a picture of salvation through Jesus Christ. They journey through a land of foolishness who releasing all the powers of Hell in their greed leading to a battle between a demon and the One who has the power of the Light of Creation.
It’s basically the beginning of the Gospel of John in storybook form!:
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:3-5)
Jesus says in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.”
But that’s not where the Gospel of John’s opening chapter ends. By the third chapter, we read about the cost of what it takes to bring the people trapped in the black abyss of MORIA, the land of total foolishness, back into the light. It requires the only One who has lived in perfect light to go into the darkness, do battle with sin and evil, and cast the darkness itself into the abyss? How? By living a perfect life, and then dying in place of foolish sinners.
In John 3:13-21, Jesus says,
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
I have no doubt that’s what Tolkien was illustrating in this scene in Lord of the Rings. Gandalf had to die at the hands of the Balrog so his followers could escape the deep dark of MORIA.
But if you’ve seen the movie, or read the books, you’ll remember the last words that Gandalf said before he slid into the abyss: “Fly, you fools!”.
Interesting last words, aren’t they? His final message was to call them fools and command them to “fly”, or “run”, or “get out as fast as you can”. Why? Let me read it to you,
“With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone. The fires went out, and blank darkness fell. The company stood rooted with horror staring into the pit. Even as Aragon and Boromir came flying back, the rest of the bridge cracked and fell. With a cry Aragorn roused them. ‘Come, I will lead you now!’ he called. ‘We must obey his last command. Follow me!’”
Here we see the disciples, lost, afraid, alone, in the dark, and frozen with fear. It was the final command of their saviour that got them to move. “Get out of this dark place as fast as you can. Get away from the land of Darkness. Fly from the land of Foolishness. Do not stay a moment longer, or your enemies will find you again. Remember, you fools, that you must flee this danger, not stand in the darkness. I have saved you at the cost of my life! Why do you stand there in the darkness waiting for the enemy to surround you? Fly, you fools!”
Aragorn takes up the charge and leads the group out of MORIA. Perhaps he is the figure of the Apostle Paul here, taking up the commands of Jesus and reminding the disciples to obey their Lord as he does. In fact, later in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul says just that, telling them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
Jews and Greeks
With that picture in mind, let’s go back to 1 Corinthians 1 though and talk about that deeper form of foolishness I hinted at before, but let’s remember the context. It says in verse 22,
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…”
The Jews and the Greeks both hated the idea of looking like fools. Not the silly, goofy kinds of fools we see on YouTube, but the kind of fool that no one wants to be. For the Jews, a fool was a sinner who had no access to the power of God, where a wise man was righteous and lived with God’s blessing. All through the Bible, we see demonstrations that the only way a Jew will change their minds is if God Himself comes down with fire, lightning, plagues and miracles. And even then, it doesn’t last long until they need to see more miracles.
That’s something they continued to request of Jesus. When He came back to the town of Cana where he had changed water into wine, he hadn’t stepped two feet into town before they came running up to him asking for another miracle. His reply was a frustrated,
“Will you never believe in me unless you see miraculous signs and wonders?” (John 4:48 – NLT)
After feeding the 5000 and walking on water to get to the other side of the sea of Galilee, the crowds caught up to Jesus and “said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” In other words, “What does God expect of us? What great deeds must we do? What laws must we obey? What impresses God the most?”
“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
All God requires is faith in Jesus. The works-oriented Jews couldn’t accept this. God must want more than just believing in Jesus as Messiah? He must want more than faith? What about circumcision, keeping the festivals, washing hands, going to the temple, making sacrifices…? There’s no way that God merely wants us to believe in You as Messiah, Jesus?
“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?'”
We’ll believe you only if you do a powerful miracle again. Feed us again like you did yesterday. Do something spectacular and then we’ll believe you.
That’s why Paul says that Jews demanded signs. They weren’t going to change their beliefs unless they saw a work of power.
For the Greeks, the worst kind of fool is the one who is taken in by a liar; the fool who listens to the wrong teacher or puts their confidence in the wrong place. Athens, the greatest city in Greece was named after Athena, the goddess of wisdom. No Greek ever wanted to be the fool who reported wrong, ridiculous, outrageous things that no one else could understand or believe.
For them, the concept of the Almighty, Invisible God coming down in the form of a dirty, human, baby, was impossible to believe. That God would choose to live and work and sweat as a man, get hungry and thirsty and tired, was ridiculous. That a Creator would become one of his Creations was insulting. And perhaps worst of all, that that the God/man would die, and then somehow be raised from the dead, was borderline insane. Believing, teaching and sharing Christian beliefs made you sound like a crazy person.
Afraid to Look Like Fools
And yet, that’s the gospel; “…a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This stumbling block became a problem in the Corinthian church and echoes the same problems that many churches, and many Christians, have today.
They become ashamed of Jesus and ashamed of the true gospel, so they change their beliefs to make themselves look less foolish for believing it. They are afraid to look like fools in front of their family, their friends, their culture, their workmates, their teachers or fellow students. They don’t want to look foolish to the scientific community, or even other religions, but instead of completely giving up on their faith, they change it to sound less foolish.
In Corinth, they were pressed on all sides to compromise. They lived in a pantheistic culture, with many gods, and yet the Bible teaches that there is only one. So they compromise a little to allow for the existence of other gods alongside their own.
The other temples had incredibly popular forms of worship that included ritual sex, prostitution, orgies, homosexuality, and other perverse things. And yet God was very clear about the rules for sex. But they thought that if they compromised their sexual integrity, perhaps it would be easier to get people to come to church.
The other religions in town had ecstatic performances with crazy exhibitions. The attendees would start drinking and the worship leaders would put on a huge display with instruments and dances, and stripping, and screaming, and blood, and more. Madness was an important aspect of their worship – and it was quite a show to behold.
And yet Paul tells the Corinthians that Christian worship services are to be orderly, respectful, one person speaking at a time, and then only those who have the spirit of God upon them and know what they’re talking about. He tells them that if they have no idea what’s going on in church, to save their questions for when they get home so that others aren’t distracted. That’s a HUGE difference! What a weird service that would be to all the newcomers! Every other temple and religion around them gets a good show, some crazy performance, and some sensuous perversion – and we have to sit here politely, sing some songs and listen to people take turns talking? No way, God! No way, Paul! That’s not how our culture worships!
So, to look less like weirdos, and more like the world around them, they changed things. But not just the way thy performed their worship services, they altered the very core of their faith. They didn’t want to sound silly to the intellectuals, so they compromised on the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t want to seem closed minded, so they compromised on how salvation works and allowed other teachings like following the law, or having special knowledge, or a crazy experience, to be required for salvation alongside belief in Jesus.
In that short, two-year period when Paul had gone from Corinth to Ephesus, the fear of looking like fools to the people around them had gripped them so tightly that they had compromised almost everything so they could fit in. They changed the gospel. They ignored or altered God’s expectations. They refused to confront sin. And, to look cool and popular with the people of Corinth, they even tried to build bridges towards the other religions in the hopes of showing how similar they were. Does that sound familiar – because it’s still happening today.
And so, with a cry Paul seeks to rouse them saying, “Come, I will lead you now!… We must obey Jesus’ command. Follow me!” And what was Jesus’ command? A lot like Gandalf’s: “Fly, you fools! Run from sin! Don’t compromise the gospel. Don’t stay in the darkness MORIA. Don’t dwell in the land of fools. Don’t try to build bridges to the demons. Don’t befriend the orcs. Only a fool would do that. Fly! Get out of the darkness. Don’t dwell here anymore! You have been saved and are now children of light – live like it! (1 Thess 5:5)”
Christ The Power and Wisdom of God
But, in a great twist of irony, Paul never tells them that seeking great knowledge, deep wisdom and spiritual power is bad. No, we are meant to seek these things! But that all that they are seeking is truly found in Jesus! He tells these people who are thirsting for power and wisdom, not to stop searching, but to search where it may be found – in God.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?”
He’s asking the question: “Where do you intend to turn for more wisdom or learning or than God can provide you? Where will you find the one who can debate with God and win?” “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
He asks them to consider what they know about God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
It’s almost a challenge to find a better plan than the one set out by God through our salvation through Jesus Christ. I defy you to find a better, more comprehensive, more gracious, more powerful, more wise, more helpful, more all-encompassing, more hopeful message than the message of Jesus. Everything that the world has come up with – all of its religions and medicines and solutions– fall utterly short of what God has provided in Jesus Christ. You may feel like fools in your culture, the ways of the enemy, the ways of the world, are what is truly foolish.
You WILL Look Like a Fool
And so the simple conclusion today is this: Remember that if you are a follower of Christ, then you are going to look like a fool to the world and they will mock you. The Christian salvation message doesn’t make sense to those whose hearts are hard towards God.
One last Lord of the Rings reference (I promise). When the company gets out of MORIA they end up with the elves – the immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings – and the king of the elves, the wisest of all, says, “If it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.” His Queen quickly corrects him saying, “Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life. Those that followed him knew not his mind and cannot report his full propose…”
I read you that to say, that when you are following Jesus, even the wisest person in the world may consider you a fool – because sometimes God chooses to make us look like fools as He works out His full purpose in our lives, and in this world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and be fully accepted by the world. You cannot follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and not end up being considered a fool by some. By following Him you have made yourself incompatible with the way the world acts and thinks.
You will speak differently, have different priorities, and relate to people differently. You will use your time differently and see your work differently than those around you. They will be driven by different desires than you. You will sacrifice things that they would never consider giving up, and you will do things that they would never consider doing. And they will call you stupid for it. They’ll call you a doormat, or a bible-thumper, or a goody-two-shoes, an idiot, or a weakling. They’ll call you a fool because in their eyes you are one.
You have to remember that the closer you walk with Jesus, the more foolish you will look to the world around you. You have to be ok with that. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words, God people get mocked and mistreated. They always have and they always will.
In John 15:18-19 Jesus said this,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Don’t be surprised when following Jesus, sharing the Gospel, believing the Bible and obeying God makes you look foolish and causes the world to mock, persecute and hate you. That’s how it’s always been. Jesus was the most perfect, most loving, and most just man ever – and they mocked Him and killed Him. It’ll be the same with you. So remember you’re going to look like a fool when you follow Jesus, but God’s foolishness is wiser than any man’s wisdom. Don’t be ashamed of it. Jesus is the power and wisdom of God and the one way by which we are saved.
When crisis hits – whether it happens to us, our family, our friends, or we just hear about it on the news – our first instinct is to ask a lot of questions. Why did it happen to me/us? What will happen next? Is it over now or will it get worse? How far do the effects reach? Who is going to fix it? What needs to be done? How can I make sure this never happens again?
If you live with a Christian worldview, then the questions go even deeper. Was this a spiritual attack or simply the result of living in a fallen world? What is God trying to show me here? What does the Bible say about this? How have believers dealt with this in the past? What is my responsibility here? Who should I tell this too, and who should I not?
I think part of the reason that crisis brings questions is because humans have an instinct to try to understand and control everything around us. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. When God first created us He told us to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over [it].” God is the Creator and Owner of the universe, and He has made us managers of it. Implicit in that divine command is the need to understand our world and exert our energies to control what’s going on. So it’s not a bad thing that when something bad happens we want to understand as much as we can and then try to deal with it. Doing so is our God-given nature.
However, when sin came into the world it corrupted everything – including our God-given our curiosity and management duties, now, instead of working with God to discover more about His nature as it is found in creation, and then partnering with Him to accomplish His will, we believe that we can know everything there is to know without His input and can solve all our problems by ourselves.
This is why, though problems abound and questions flood our minds, many of us do not pray. Our inherent sin has told us that we are alone, that we can’t trust God, that we don’t need God, and that we can do a better job of fixing our problems without him.
The book of Habakkuk is all about a man of faith asking questions and seeking solutions during a time of crisis. Like some of us here today, Habakkuk looked at his nation and saw some hugely troubling issues. The number of faithful people was shrinking and paganism was taking over the land. The people weren’t working together for a greater good, but instead were more divided than ever. Violence ruled the streets
He looked to the religious leaders to do something, but they seemed both powerless and corrupt – and any of the good ones were ignored. He looked to the politicians, judges and lawmakers to do something, but they only cared about keeping their own power and lining their pockets. If a good person finally did stand up and challenge the system, it wouldn’t be long until the bad guys would corrupt him or eliminate him. Habakkuk was losing hope that his people would ever find a way back to living good lives of Godly peace and prosperity.
Habakkuk was getting angry and had had enough. But, instead of doing what so many of us do, where we start trying to find a way to control and fix the problem, Habakkuk started to pray.
The book of Habakkuk is a record of Habakkuk’s prayers and God’s answer to them. Habakkuk asked some huge questions, the main ones being: Why is this happening to us and what are You going to do about it, God?
God’s answer was that He had been at work raising up the Chaldeans, later called the Babylonian Empire, to be His weapon against evil in the land. They would come in, decimate the nation, wipe out almost everyone, and drag the rest off as slaves. This would be how God would discipline His people and force them to re-evaluate their lives.
Habakkuk’s follow-up question was to ask how that could be fair? Why would God allow a much worse, pagan nation to conquer His chosen people? God’s answer was that no one would be getting away with anything. The corruption in Israel would be rebuked, punished and then the people would be restored – and later the Babylonians themselves would be destroyed.
What happens next in chapter 3 is remarkable, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
Habakkuk has just asked some huge questions, and God has been good enough to answer him – but the answers were not what he expected. No doubt, Habakkuk wanted God to work some miracles, change people’s hearts, send the Messiah to replace the corrupt leaders, or just zap all the bad guys with bolts of lightning. God’s answer wasn’t what He expected at all, but involved an evil nation, the death of his countrymen, the destruction of God’s temple, the loss of everything He owned, and the requirement to be dragged off into slavery for 70 years. He would die well before any Israelite would come home.
How Do You React?
How would you react? Or, more accurately, how do you react? I ask that way because this isn’t a theoretical question – you’re all living this right now. You currently live in a world where you are surrounded by bad news, and on occasion, that bad news hits you directly. You know that this world is full of poverty, corruption, violence, death, misery, starvation, and evil – but it’s not too hard to pretend it doesn’t exist as long as you stay pretty healthy, keep paying your bills, talk to your friends, and watch the occasional funny movie or video on YouTube. It’s easy to pretend that it’s all someone else’s problem, until it suddenly isn’t.
All of a sudden you’re the one who is in pain, facing financial struggles, is treated unfairly, has been a victim of violence, comes face to face with mortality, or has been touched by evil in some way. Suddenly it’s not just on the news, but it’s at your work, in your home, in your bedroom, in your body.
So, how do you react? Of course, as I just said, our first, instinctual reaction, is to ask a bunch of questions. And a Christian turns to God for answers to those questions, and we believe Scripture reveals to us many answers to these questions: Where did evil come from? How should we respond to crisis? What is God doing about the problem of sin? How can we live through it and come out better on the other side?
The whole series has been answering those questions, but we’re not done yet. The next questions is this: How are you going to react to God’s answer? .
A favourite atheist reaction is to use the misery of the world as a proof that God doesn’t exist or to question His goodness. After all, if God is good and wise and holy and loving, then how can bone cancer and tsunamis and ticks exist? Or, as Habakkuk asked, “God, if you are good and wise and holy and loving, then how can evil Israelites and evil Chaldeans and Babylonians exist?” Or as we ask today, “God, if You are good and wise and holy and loving, then why do that bad thing happen?”
A Christian reaction is to bring these questions to God, read His answers in the Bible, and then listen to His answers as He speaks to our spirit. My intention right now is not to rehash the last nine sermons and try to convince you to bring these questions to God, but instead to get you to ask yourself how you react when God answers your prayers in ways you don’t expect.
Habakkuk’s Relenting Prayer
Habakkuk gets it right. He hits his knees, asks some questions, and then waits for some answers. When God shows up and tells Him what’s going to happen, it’s not even close to what he expected, but what does he do next? He relents to God’s will and continues to pray.
Let’s read his prayer together and then we’ll take it apart a bit, but first I want you to notice one thing… this is a song meant to be sung by God’s people year after year. The words “according to Shigionoth” and “Selah”, and the comment at the end about instrumentality tell us that this isn’t a one-time prayer for one man during a crisis, this is a prayer given by God to His people to remember and sing for ages to come. This isn’t just a historical song, there is something here for us today.
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.
O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah) His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. (Selah) You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.
You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. (Selah) You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3 ESV)
I Have Heard and Remember
This prayer has only one theme: Habakkuk’s relenting to God and His plan.
The first section is an introductory phrase where Habakkuk turns the whole problem over to God. Do you remember the very first verses of Habakkuk? He asks these opening questions: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” At the very beginning of his final prayer we see that Habakkuk has received his answer. God has heard, God is at work, and God is not idle.
The implicit accusation behind “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” is that God is seeing all the evil going on around him, but not doing anything. And now, after hearing from God, Habakkuk’s prayer begins… and I much prefer the NIV’s translation here:
“LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.”
Habakkuk, as he prays, is remembering and talking to God about what He has learned about how God does things. He’s processing how God operates in this world, the reminder that God is patient and kind, but also has a great wrath against sin. And while that knowledge blossoms, he’s recalling some of the times that God has chosen, because of his wrath against sin, to put his people through difficult times, and then later, restore them with acts of His great power. After talking to God and hearing His answer, He’s now convinced that God has been doing exactly what He’s always done – being patient, offering salvation, and then judging evil. This is Habakkuk’s prayer, relenting to God’s plan.
He has gained wisdom. He no longer believes, as some do, that God’s perfect will must always be happiness and comfort for everyone, but sometimes – as we’ve learned in Pilgrim’s Progress – that He sends His people through the Slough of Despond, and requires them to face the fiery darts, before they reach the Hill of the Cross. Wisdom knows that the straight and narrow path a pilgrim must follow always leads over the Hill of Difficulty, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, across the streets of Vanity Fair, and past the Giant Despair before they can reach their rest in the Celestial City.
Habakkuk now knows this, and has decided not to fight it – and as He does, the stories of scripture come flooding into his mind:
- He remembers the fear and awe that came upon the people as the earthquakes and lightning and smoke poured out of the mountain, as God descended during the giving of the Law. (3:3)
- He remembers the pestilence and plagues that came upon both their Egyptian enemies and upon Israel when they broke God’s law. (3:5)
- He remembers how great nations feared the people of God because He was with them. (3:6)
- He remembers how God used His power even over nature – turning the Nile to blood, crushing the perusing armies in the Red Sea, and making a dry path through the Jordan River for his people to come to the Promised Land. (3:8)
- He remembers how, though they have been at war for so long, that when they have been faithful, God has always defended them in miraculous ways; even stopping the sun in the sky – but has brought terrible justice and wrath upon the whole earth; from global floods to plagues to enemy armies – when His people broke their covenant with Him. (3:11, 15)
Habakkuk says in verse 16, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”
He’s not denying his disappointment, nor his fear, at what is coming. He’s not looking forward to seeing God’s wrath come upon His people, and he knows that it’s going to be a terribly hard road. BUT, he says, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” In other words, “God, I trust you. I know how you operate. I know that you don’t always do things that are comfortable for me. But I also know that you are just and good and that in the end, all evil will be repaid. I may not look forward to the immediate future, and I know it’s going to be hard, but I look forward to your end game, where all of Your enemies are brought to justice.”
Palm Sunday Application
The application, or rather, the final question today is this: Can you pray that prayer with Habakkuk? All through this study we’ve read how the Bible makes the case for the importance of bringing our questions and fears to God in prayer. We’ve seen how God’s plan of salvation often leads through difficult times, and how our response needs to be to run to God, not away from Him. And we’ve even had God explain how His long-term plan is to bring salvation to believers, wrath against evil, and glory to Himself.
But, are you willing to relent to God and have Him save you His way?
Today is Palm Sunday. It is on this day that Jesus came into town, riding on a donkey, fulfilling Messianic prophecy and declaring to all of Jerusalem that He is the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Messiah, the Saviour. That’s why they called out “Hosanna! Save us!” They knew what Jesus was doing.
But within five days the citizens of this same city would be shouting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” What changed? Part of the reason was that He refused to save them the way they wanted to be saved. He was supposed to come in and use His divine power to overthrow the Romans, set up a new kingdom, and distribute their wealth to the Jews. But He didn’t.
Instead, He came and preached against the Jews! He preached against the religious elites of the day, pronouncing woes upon them and calling them blind guides. He preached against the hypocritical worshippers who had turned the temple into a shopping mall. He taught that they were supposed to pay taxes to Caesar! He said that God doesn’t prefer the rich and happy, but the poor, the humble and the outcast! He said that Jerusalem would be encircled by armies and then destroyed. He said it was never His intention to create a worldly kingdom, but a spiritual one – and everyone who followed Him would be persecuted and hated. He said the only way for anyone to be saved would be to believe that He, the Son of God, had to die on an accursed Roman cross, taking the punishment for their sins.
That wasn’t what they wanted. They didn’t want to admit they had a sin problem. They didn’t want a suffering saviour. They wanted worldly comfort, not spiritual salvation. Jesus wouldn’t save them the way they wanted to be saved – and so they turned from laying palm branches before Him and shouting “Hosanna in the Highest” to trading him for the terrorist Barabbas and shouting “Crucify Him!”.
The Final Prayer
Let’s close by re-reading the final part of Habakkuk’s prayer, but as you read it, I want you to ask yourself: “Can I pray this prayer honestly?”
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”
If you can pray that prayer, then praise God, because that’s an uncommon faith.
But if you are struggling to pray that prayer today – knowing honestly that you would prefer God save you on your terms rather than His – then let me encourage you to do a few things so you can grow in your faith and trust in God’s plan:
- Start praying that God would increase your faith, teach you to trust Him, and show you how He provides for you in ways you’ve never seen or expected.
- Get into your Bible so you can know what He has done in the past and let that inform for you how He works.
- Surround yourself with people that will help you grow in your confidence in God. Get into a good church, join a small group, find a study group.
Parable of the Rich Fool
Let’s begin today by reading “The Parable of the Rich Fool”:
“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-34)
This section opens up with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of his father’s inheritance. Maybe he’s been ripped off, maybe he’s being greedy – we don’t know. But Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with the inheritance, but instead – as usual – gets to the real problem in verse 15. He says:“Take care, and be on your guard against all
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
As usual, Jesus flies past the presenting problem and gets to the heart of the issue, which was covetousness. Covetousness is simply a desire to have something for yourself that is currently possessed by someone else – so they won’t have it anymore. It could be something they own, their social status, their financial position, their wife or husband, or anything else that they have and you don’t. You want it so badly that you wish you had it and they didn’t.
Jesus goes past the presenting problem – the issue with the inheritance – straight to the actual problem: this person is breaking the 10th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Covet”. His problem wasn’t the lack of inheritance. He had a sin problem which showed a heart problem: He wanted something that someone else had and it was causing trouble for him and everyone else around him. His family was fractured, his relationships were strained, and he was in a state of anger and jealously because he wanted what his brother had. Think of it this way: it had gotten so bad that he was willing to run up to Jesus, interrupt Him right in the middle of His talk, and shout out “TELL MY BROTHER TO DIVIDE THE INHERITANCE WITH ME!” There’s more going on there than a simple dispute over a will – there’s some massive personal, relational, and spiritual problems in that statement.
Tying Them Together
So let’s tie this together. First we have a man running up with the presenting problem of an inheritance squabble, which Jesus quickly diagnoses as a spiritual problem with covetousness. Then Jesus tells the story of a wealthy farmer who reaped a great crop and decided to use the proceeds to buy himself a comfortable, hedonistic life. In that story, Jesus has God Himself confront this man and call him a “Fool”! Why was he foolish?
Both the covetous man and the Rich Fool had the same spiritual problem: greed. Their priorities were out of whack and it was causing them to miss the big picture. They though that life consisted of “the abundance of possessions”, which was foolish. What good would that inheritance or bigger barn do them when they came face to face with God!
That abundance of possessions wouldn’t be a blessing to them, but would actually be used as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. The bigger their pile grew, the less they needed to trust God. The more they accumulated, the greedier they became. And finally, as greed took over their heart, they would declare, “Everything is mine and I can do with it as I wish! I choose not to share! I will use it all for my own pleasure!”
And so Jesus warns, through His teaching and His story, that everyone listening needs to be careful about how they view the things of this world. Jesus seems to say, “Don’t be like this fool who interrupted my teaching time, or the fool in the story. Instead of worrying so much about the things you can accumulate during your short time on this planet, make sure you are right with God, so that your eternity is secure!”
The Root of the Problem
If you’re following along in your Bible, there’s probably a chapter division after verse 20 – as though the next section is separate from the one we just read. In my Bible there’s a big space and then the next part is titled “Do Not Be Anxious” and seems to be starting a whole new thought. But I want you to notice the first word that Jesus says next. What is it?
“Therefore”! That means that whatever came before – the interruption by the person with the inheritance problem and the “Parable of the Rich Fool” – are directly tied to that which is going to come after. So let’s read that:
“And he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!
And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:22-34)
Jesus says, “Therefore”, and digs deep into the root of the problem. Why was the covetous man so desirous of his inheritance? Why was the Rich Fool so focused on keeping all that wealth for himself and not using it to bless others as God intended? Jesus gives the answer over and over: Anxiety – another word for worry, or simply, fear.
He uses the word “anxious” over and over, then in vs. 29 He uses the word “worry”, and then in 32, he changes it to “fear”. Jesus ties anxiety, worry and fear, directly to the problems of greed and covetousness. Why did the man want his inheritance and the Rich Fool build bigger barns? They was worried they wouldn’t have enough.
The man’s anxiety over money, caused him to be covetous of his brother who had more, and that anxiety drove him to argue with his brother and make a public scene in front of Jesus and His followers.
Woe to the Self Secure
Now, turn with me to Habakkuk 2:9-11 and let’s get into the second of our Woes to the Chaldeans. Listen to how similar this woe sounds to what Jesus has just been talking about.
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.”
The first woe, which we talked about last week, was against Chaldea’s greed. This second woe is against their sense of Self-Security.
Let’s take this apart a bit and see how it ties into what Jesus has been saying:
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house…” That could be restated: Woe to him who gathers an “abundance of possessions” without regard toward being “rich towards God”. Evil gain is merely possessions that are gained in a way that God doesn’t authorize.
The next part is “to set his nest on high”. The word “to” tells us the reason that they went after their “evil gain” was to take their “nest” (or their home or nation) and “set it on high” where they would be “safe from the reach of harm.”
Do you want to learn something neat?
The Greek word for “worry” that Jesus uses in Luke 12 is the word METEORIZOMAI, the root of which is where we get our word “meteor”. It’s a compound word from META meaning “beyond” and AER which means… “air” – Meteor: “Beyond the air”. It simply means something “lifted high in the air” or simply “a thing high up”.
Jesus says, “do not worry”, and the word picture is that of a person who feels they are high up in the air, holding on to nothing, no ground to stand on, freefalling.
What phrase does Habakkuk use to describe what the Chaldeans are trying to do “set their nest on high”, which could be literally translated “place their nest in the heavens”.
In their pride they wanted to get their nest, their home, their nation, as high as possible – set it in the heavens, where it would be above everyone and safe forever. But the consequences were dire.
These people were driven by not only greed, but anxiety, worry and fear. They wanted to pile up their abundance of possessions so they could be safe. Their anxiety and desire for self-security drove them outside of their borders to take, by force, the wealth of other nations – so they could be safe, high up in the air, beyond anyone’s reach.
But remember what a woe is! It is a pronouncement of judgement and warning against a self-satisfied person who doesn’t realize their dangerous condition. They think they’re doing just fine, and yet their fate has been sealed. Habakkuk pronounces woe to them because “you have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.”
In their worry and desperation for self-sufficiency and security, they – like the man who wanted his inheritance – have actually hurt themselves. Instead of gaining more security, they are in a free-fall of worry and are cutting themselves off from other people. Their covetous and greedy hearts told them not to trust God’s provision or be a good neighbour who builds security through friendship and cooperation. No instead, they told God to get lost and then coveted, pillaged, robbed and overthrew their neighbours, driving away anyone who would be their friends, because they felt they would be safer that way. They weren’t secure in the heavens above everyone – they were in a free-fall of anxiety: their life securely affixed to nothing but air.
The man that addressed Jesus had, almost without a doubt, ruined his relationship with his brother, family, and his friends and neighbours too. As covetousness and greed took over his heart, his relationship with God declined, and all he could think about was getting his money. Then, to seal the deal, Satan played the fear card: “What if you don’t get your fair share? What if you don’t have enough? What if something happens? Where’s your security, your nest egg? What’s going to keep you safe? You could starve! You could be out in the street, cold and naked! You need to get that inheritance!”
But, ironically, as Habakkuk’s woe says, all of their hoarding of the abundance of possessions at the cost of the people around them didn’t bring them safety. In fact, he says, in doing so, “You have forfeited your life”. That’s the woe. They thought they were safe – but they weren’t. All of their security was merely an illusion.
And worse, in the same way as we read in Jesus story, their possessions actually worked against them to become the very thing that God uses as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” It’s the same! The woe against the Chaldean’s self-security is the same message that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Luke: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions…. Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God…. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So, what does this mean for us today? It occurred to me this week that this series of messages on the Woes to the Chaldeans come at a very appropriate time of the Christian calendar. These woes revolve around pride, greed, addiction and covetousness – which are all summed up in Jesus’ warning about getting our hearts right in regards to wealth and possession – is coming during the season of Lent, the historical season where Christians purposefully remove worldly things from their life so they can concentrate on spiritual ones.
This problem with being possessed by our possessions is a common one. The church fathers knew that, which is why they created the season of Lent – a time of forty days of fasting before Easter – so we could takes some time to evaluate the things in our life that are pulling us away from God. Jesus talked more about wealth, money and possessions than anything else, because He knew that it was going to be a problem for us.
We just sang Amazing Grace a couple days ago at Jennifer’s memorial, and in that song it says, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come…”. This world is full of “dangers, toils and snares” and it is so tempting for us to take our eyes off of God and start to believe that we need to build our own security. It’s easy to start to think that the best thing to do in this world is to accumulate an abundance of possessions, get what we can, and keep it to ourselves so that we will be secure. Sure, we’ll share a little of the extra – but not at the expense of our security. That’s just crazy talk! Lent forces us to re-evaluate our relationships with our wealth and possessions.
Go back to Jesus words in Luke 12 and see how he takes apart every single one of our anxieties over security.
Worried About “The Economy”
In verse 22 he addresses our anxiety about our basic needs, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.” Safety, food, and clothing. Jesus says, don’t spend so much effort worrying about this for two good reasons: First, because life is more than food and second, because God knows what you need.
We still get worried though right? And so we gather more money, more clothes, more retirement savings, seek more wage increases, more pension payments.
What’s the biggest concern when we’re voting in a new government? The economy: Let the government kill the babies, murder the sick, teach our kids to be sexual deviants, ignore the staggering suicide and addiction rates, kill the environment, attack marriage, and outlaw religion – All I care about is “How much money am I going to get and will I still have a job next year.”
Jesus implores us to realize that life is so much more than the economy!
Worried about “Death”
Next in 25 he addresses all the anxieties we give ourselves about trying to cheat death. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” All of your fussing and complaining and fighting and worry – is that actually going to add an hour to your life? Do you know when and how you’re going to die? Nope! You could have an aneurysm right now and drop dead. You could be hit by a bus crossing the street. You have NO IDEA.
It doesn’t stop us from worrying though, does it? We need more vitamins, more diets, more fads, more trips to the doctor, the chiropractor, the naturopath, more locks on the doors, more security systems, more borders, more police, more military – anything so we can feel like we have taken control and can ward off the spectre of death for a little more time.
Anxiety destroys our soul! It drives us to do things that destroy our relationships with God and others. We turn into covetous people that want what others have because we think they are safer than us. Why should they have it and not us? Bitterness and jealousy set in. We become the Chaldeans who, instead of partnering with others in sacrificial friendships where we meet each other’s needs, we see others as competitors that need to be vanquished – or better, eliminated so we can take what they have. Have you ever hated someone simply because they had something you felt you needed or deserved? Have you ever wished someone to be gone, dead or fired so you can have what they possess? That’s anxiety and greed driving you to sin.
The Real Problem is Faithlessness
But Jesus goes even deeper. The man showed up with an inheritance problem and Jesus answered him by pointing out his covetousness – and then turns to the crowd and goes one step deeper. The real issue isn’t covetousness. It’s not even anxiety. The real issue is faith.
Coupled with His statements about anxiety is a question of faith. Jesus says, “Don’t be anxious about life, food or clothing” and then says, “Consider the ravens… consider the lilies… of how much more value are you than the birds… or grass?” That’s a question.
Do you believe that God finds you more valuable than a bird or a flower?
If the answer is “No, God cares more about birds and flowers than He does me.”, then you’d better get to work making your nest and getting it full of stuff. You’d better make big piles of fertilizer so you can have lots to eat, because God won’t do it for you!
But, if the answer is, “Yes, God cares way more about me than the birds.”, then I guess you’d better show it by living His way. The birds just do what they’re told and God arranges the world to care for them. The flowers simply open their leaves and accept God’s rain and sun as He deems fit to give it to them. Do you believe that God can do the same for you? Do you believe that God is caring enough to give you what you need, when you need it? That’s a faith question. Your anxiety dissipates as your faith in God’s care for you grows. If God doesn’t care about you, then you’re in trouble. If God does care, then you need not fear.
Jesus says in verse 32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s pretty great. Jesus calls them – and us – His “little flock” and then reminds us that God’s plan isn’t just to help us with living in this world, but plans to give us the entirety of His Kingdom to enjoy! Does that not remind you of Psalm 23?
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want… He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul…. [He] prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. [He] anoints my head with oil…” It’s His house in which I will dwell forever.
I guess the question is: Are you part of Jesus “little flock”, and if so, do you trust the Shepherd?
A Lot of Questions
Let me close with this: Woe to those who find their security in themselves, seeking evil gain for their house, trying to set their nest on high where they can be safe – because in doing so you have forfeited your life and your soul. If you believe that you can remove your anxiety through the abundance of your possessions, then you are in real trouble. God calls you a “fool”.
And so, my encouragement to you today, and the application for this sermon, is found in verse 33-34: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
No, this doesn’t mean that you need to sell everything you have. Jesus isn’t asking you to sell everything you have and live in a cardboard box. He’s telling you to hold what you have in loose hands, not tied to earthly things. He’s saying that we need to evaluate what we have to see if we are being greedy or covetous, or if we have our security in our possessions rather than God. What this means is that you need to evaluate your heart for the things in your life that are separating you from God.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I have that is simply there to give me a false sense of security?
- What do I currently possess that I got using resources that God gave me to care for someone else? (Is someone hurting because I decided I wanted something else in my big barn?)
- Do I know someone who is legitimately needy, but chose not to help because I was afraid that God wouldn’t provide enough for me if I did?
- Does God have access to everything I have?
- Where is my treasure?
- Where is my heart?
- Would I choose Jesus if it meant living in poverty?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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