Most of you know that my family has been going through a tough time lately, but I know we’re not alone. Many people here today are going through difficult, confusing, painful times. It’s been heartening for us, as a church family, to spend time talking to one another about the struggles we’ve been having, and quite interesting that many people seem to be running towards the same place in scripture when they need comfort. A few people have told me how much Psalm 23 has been comforting them lately, and really, throughout their lives.
Please open up to Psalm 23 and let’s read it together:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
You can see why this is such a powerful and meaningful psalm. It’s because it takes the situation out of our hands and places it in God’s. It’s an admission that we’re not in control, we’re not strong, we’re not smart, we’re not wolves or bears or tigers – we’re sheep and we need to be taken care of.
When we read Psalm 23, we admit all that, and then give it over to God. God lays us down, God restores us, God leads us. God protects us, God comforts us, God conquers, God anoints and heals and serves us.
When do realize our need for the shepherd most though? In the green pastures by the still waters? No. That’s when we end up wandering off, thinking the world is easy.
It is in the Valley of Shadow of Death and the Presence of our Enemies that we really lean into God, when we clutch Him harder, when we realize that we are only sheep – and as our view of God grows, as our nearness to the shepherd grows, the darkness and the enemies no longer seem as big or as dangerous, because the Shepherd is there with us.
Difficult times cause us to think about where we find our comfort and hope, don’t they? I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort and hope lately. Where do I find comfort? What brings me hope? And the truths of my answers have been tested. I might say that I trust the Shepherd, that I believe in prayer, that His Word is my light and guide, that Jesus is my hope – but it’s not until I’m walking in the shadows, surrounded by enemies, that the truth of my heart is revealed.
Where we Turn
When the shadows fall, the enemies surround, the world turns against us, nothing works out, and everything goes out of whack – our relationships, our health, our work – it is natural for us to look for comfort. We want something that will make us feel better. We want something that will calm us down when we are frenzied and anxious, or energize us when we are down and depressed. We want something to repair our soul when it feels bruised and beaten, to take away the pain that we feel in our minds and bodies.
But, more often than not, it is not to our Shepherd that we turn first, is it? Instead, there are many other places we go for comfort. We turn to money, possessions, riches, luxury, financial security. We figure that if we have enough money or stuff, then we’ll feel better. If we get the nicer phone, nicer car, nicer tv, nicer food, nicer vacation, nicer tools, nicer house, that we will feel better. And that’s what ads sell us – buy this and feel better about yourself, your relationships, your future, your past, your present. We think that if we get enough piles of money then nothing can hurt us. Banks try to sell us that. Financial security equals comfort.
Or we turn to exercise and medicine. We work on our bodies, eat right, exercise, drink lots of water, take vitamins, go to the doctor to get pills to balance our hormones and body chemicals, thinking that if we can be super healthy and perfectly juiced, then we will no longer have fears or pain. We will be strong enough to fight off sickness and enemies, we will be beautiful and therefore popular, we will be able to run away from danger or save people we love, and most of all, we will live forever. Pursuing bodily health isn’t bad, but the motives behind it aren’t always good – sometimes it’s driven by fear and the desire for more comfort than it can provide.
Some people turn to stubbornness and control. Psalm 2:1-3 says,
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”
They think that controlling all aspects of their life, and everyone else’s, will bring them comfort. All they need is the perfect plan, the perfect calendar, the perfect to do list, and for everyone to simply do everything they are told, and then everyone will be happy. If we write enough laws and rules everyone will be content. If we buckle down hard enough, dig in our heels hard enough, grit our teeth hard enough, then we can take control of our world and bend it to our wills, and then we will all find peace. It’s a lie we tell ourselves all the time.
Some turn to other people as their source of comfort. They believe that politicians, scientists, religious gurus, celebrities, their spouse, their kids, their friends, or their community group is going to save them. Those people are all they talk about, and their entire hope is in them and their plans. And when they inevitably fall, it’s utterly devastating – but instead of learning from their mistake, they simply find another flawed human being to put their hopes in. These people, no matter how bright they are, aren’t solid foundations, but are as Jude 12-13 says,
“These are hidden reefs… shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
Others turn to worldly pleasure, distractions, entertainment, food, pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Life is hard, everything is out of control, our emotions are a mess, our thinking isn’t helping, and there is no way to fix any of it – so why bother? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Our culture is built on this concept and it’s destroying the foundations of our society. We are literally entertaining and distracting ourselves to death. Pharmaceutical companies sell pills that have nothing to do with health, but simply treat bad feelings. Stores have more entertainment food than actual food. While teens die of fentanyl overdoses and the media declares an opioid crisis, the Canadian government legalizes marijuana so that more people can get high. Our culture is obsessed with non-marital, no-commitment, purely animalistic sex – even though sexually transmitted diseases are growing in record numbers. And they’ve created phone apps to assist their hook-up culture to be more efficient. And the government has made sure that there are no laws against abortion so that no one accidentally has a baby and a family as a consequence.
Our modern, Canadian, culture is built on the concept of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and it’s destroying our bodies and our souls.
Our Only Comfort
The first two questions of The Heidelberg Catechism address this very issue – the issue of comfort. They are a summary of the rest of the catechism and start with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Christian, what do you turn to when you face the valley of the shadow of death, when you surrounded by enemies? Christian, what do you hold as the source of your greatest hope, knowing everything else is going to let you down, your celebrities, your chemicals, your doctor, your exercise, your body, your friends, your riches, your security, is all going to fall apart – so what is the one comfort, the one thing that won’t fall apart in this world or the next? What comfort will give you an anchor through all the storms of this life and never leave you, even after you die? What thought, what truth, can you build the entire foundation of your life on that will never shift, shake or move?
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
Though this is not a quote from the Bible, each line is very biblical, and you can see some of the verses in the footnotes I provided on your handout. It breaks down into four great comforts.
I Am Not My Own
Perhaps the worst feeling we can have is loneliness. We can go through a lot of difficult things if we know that someone has our back. We can face injustice and fear, insurmountable odds, and terrible dangers, if we know someone is on our side. But when we feel alone, our strength fades quickly. A Christian’s first comfort is that we are not our own, but belong to someone – to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-10 says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”
Titus 2:13-14 says, “…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession…”
The word “redeemed” means “to be bought back”. We were slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, captured and enslaved by death, and Jesus loved us so much that He bought us from our slave owners at a great price. He traded Himself for us so that we could be His.
A Christians’ comfort comes from the knowledge that we are not our own, we are not alone, Jesus bought us because He wants us to be with Him. God is not against us, God is for us, because we belong to Him. So He does for us what we would do if we bought something precious. We would clean it up, protect it, cherish it, display it so others can see it, and use it as a way to show off.
That’s what Jesus does with us. He takes our spiritually dead body out of the muck of sin, restores us to life, cleans us up, gives us new clothes, new armour, and then helps us to become something that He uses to show His glory off. When people look at us they think, “Wow, that person is so different! They know Jesus and look at them! Jesus must really be someone special!”
Payment for Sin
Our second comfort comes in that our sins are perfectly and totally forgiven. Not some, not most, not just the past ones – all of our sins forever were placed on Jesus as He hung on the cross and took the wrath of God against them. 1 John 2:1-2 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Propitiation means “the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift”. To do wrong, to break the law, means to incur judgement and wrath. The only thing that appeases the wrath of God our Judge against for the wrong we’ve done is punishment and death. Romans 6:23 says “the wages of sin is death”. Jesus offered Himself to pay that wage so we wouldn’t have to. He substituted Himself for us. He assumed our obligations and all the wrath God had against sin was poured out on Him instead of us. And therefore all our sins are dealt with. Martin Luther called it “The Great Exchange”.
Therefore, when we think that God is punishing us is wrong. To believe we need more punishment is to take away from what Jesus did on the cross. To try to punish others for their wrong is to say that Jesus didn’t suffer enough. To think that God is holding our sins against us is to say that God didn’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice. To try to impress God with good works or religion is to say that what Jesus did in His life and on the cross wasn’t good enough.
One of our greatest comforts, especially when Satan is telling us that God hates us, that He’ll never restore us, that He has had enough of us, is to remember that our sins are fully paid for by Jesus – all of them – and we have been set free. There is no longer anything separating us from God, and nothing we must do in order to make ourselves worthy of it, and anyone who says differently is a liar. All that must be done is to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf. He has done everything necessary for our salvation and there is nothing standing between you and God’s forgiveness except yourself, your pride, and your false notions.
Our third comfort comes in that we are protected, or preserved.
2 Thessalonians 3:3 says, “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”
And Romans 8:28, when talking about the trials of life says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Psalm 18 begins, “I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies.”
So, we are not our own, we were bought with a price by the blood of Jesus, and therefore He is the one who preserves and protects us. He is God and that means that everything that happens, whether we think it’s good or bad or otherwise, happens because He allows it to happen – and there is nothing that anyone can do that is beyond His control.
We read stories like Joseph being sold into slavery and put in prison, or Daniel being set up by his enemies and thrown into a lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to an idol and then thrown into a fiery furnace, all the difficulty and pain Paul faced on his missionary journeys, and of course all the sorrow and rejection Jesus faced – and we are reminded that even though things get very difficult, everything happened for a reason and brought fruit for God’s people to bring God more glory.
God has the power to preserve us from any danger that will come – the power to get us through any trial that we are currently facing – and the power to turn even the worst parts of our lives into victories for Him. There are so many stories of people who go through hard times or have been in really bad places, but realize after they turn to God and start to trust Him, that He used it all for so much good. There is great comfort knowing that everything that happens to us will be used by God to help us grow stronger, more faithful, to grow His Kingdom, and to bring Him glory. No valley, no matter how dark – no enemy, no matter how strong – will not be overcome, turned into light, and used by God if we trust Him with it.
And the fourth comfort we see in question one is our assurance.
2 Corinthians 1:20-22 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him [that is Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Since our salvation is not something we can buy or get by good deeds, it is therefore not something we can lose. Since Jesus establishes it, it is firmly established and unable to move. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30) on the cross and is called the “Amen” in Rev 3:14. Here we see that our salvation is an “Amen” too, an “it is so”, a total completion. We are anointed, sealed, and guaranteed, not by our own actions or our own strength – but by the Spirit of God. There is no way we can lose our salvation, no way God will turn His back on us, no one that can ever take it from us, and nothing we can do to remove ourselves from His hand. I recommend you read Romans 8 for more about this.
This is where our eternal comfort lies – in that Jesus loves us, died for us, protects and preserves us, uses everything to help us, and will never, ever, ever leave us, even unto death.
Nothing we try, and no one else, can or will give us that kind of comfort. There is no amount of money that gives us that kind of hope, no chemical that gives that kind of joy, no human being that gives us that kind of promise, which is why Christians turn to Jesus. He is the only and best comfort in life and in death.
Guilt, Grace and Gratitude
And now look at question 2: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” How do I get access to this type of assurance, this hope, this comfort? The answer is a summary of the rest of the catechism. Some have broken it up into 3 simple words that you need to know: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What must I know?
“First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
This is what we’re going to be talking about for the next year or so. First, we must understand our guilt. The Bible says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) If we think we are going the right way, we’ll never ask for directions. If we think we’re healthy, we’ll never ask for a doctor. We will not ask for forgiveness unless we know we are guilty. We need to realize how deep our sin problem really is.
Once we confess ourselves a miserable sinner, we then need to know how to be delivered from those sins. The simple answer, as I’ve been saying, is to confess your sins to Jesus and to believe that He died for your sins and rose again to prove He has conquered them. There’s a lot to know about that – and we’ll cover it in the coming months – but that simple truth is where everything starts. Will you admit that you are a sinner and trust that Jesus did everything to pay for your sins so that the wrath of God against you could be appeased?
And third, once we have realized our guilt and accepted forgiveness, the natural thing to do is to give thanks. Such an awesome truth should change our lives. Every kindness we receive deserves gratitude, right? Someone does something nice, we feel like we want to say thank you and do something nice back. If we go to the doctor, we pay for his services. So, even though we’ll never be able to pay Jesus back, how much more should our lives be changed by the knowledge of our salvation. We were headed to an eternity in Hell, now we are invited to an eternity with God. Our response should be a godly life of thanksgiving that honours Him, right?
This is what we’ll be talking about over the next while – the problem of sin, the solution to the problem in Jesus, and how our lives should change as a result.
We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Mental Illness and Depression, something that is all too common in our community. We’ve talked about what Depression is, what causes it, and a bit of what it’s like to live with it. Last week we talked about the stigma of depression and how hard it is to be honest with people – even in the church – about what you are going through.
But if there’s one thing I want to make clear today it’s that Jesus knows what you are going through. A couple weeks ago I said that it’s possible that Jesus Himself faced true depression and I want to take a little time today to explain how important that truth is.
In Hebrews 4:14-16 we read this:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Many people who are going through a time of suffering and pain have a hard time praying. They feel like their prayers bounce off the ceiling, that there’s no way that God can understand what they are going through, and if He does, that He doesn’t care. Those are natural feelings that the Bible spends a lot of time arguing against.
The argument in this passage is that when we are in a “time of need”, what we really need is to “receive mercy and find grace to help”. No one would argue that. When we go through hard times, that’s what we want – mercy, grace and help. But where are we encouraged to turn to? “The throne of grace.” What is that? God’s throne. Before that throne stands a High Priest, a mediator, a go-between, between us broken, human sinners and the Perfectly Holy Creator of the Universe.
This is a big deal. We can’t come to God on our own because our sin prevents us. If we saw God, we’d die. We need someone who can talk to God, and who God will listen to. Who is that? Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, never sinned, and therefore can stand in the presence of God. And so He has promised to be our mediator, our facilitator, between us and God.
But there’s still a problem. How can Jesus know what we’re going through? He’s Jesus, after all! He’s God’s Son, a perfect person from two thousand years ago. How can He relate to what we’re going through? It was the same with the Old Testament priests. They lived a totally different life than the average person, so how could they pray for anyone? They don’t know what we’re going through!
Scripture says, “…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.” The teaching here is that Jesus actually knows exactly what we’re going through, has faced that same problem, that same temptation, that same situation, and yet navigated it perfectly. He literally knows how we feel, what thoughts are racing through our heads, and what it’s like to live surrounded by sin while living in this failing, human flesh. He gets it. He knows what it’s like to face what we are facing.
And to illustrate that today, I would like you to turn with me to Luke 4:1-13.
“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.”
Before we get into taking this passage apart, I want to talk briefly about the nature of temptation.
If you’ve ever worked with addictions then you’ve probably heard of the acronym H.A.L.T., standing for Hungry, Angry, Lonely & Tired, and is a tool meant to help people recognize when they are at their most vulnerable so they won’t relapse. The Christmas Season is a major problem time for a lot of people with addictions, and is similarly a peak-time for spiritual troubles and temptations.
The first letter stands for Hungry. If you’re pinching pennies but are used to spending, or trying to stop the habits of sugar or alcohol by dieting, then you are going to feel hungry. It’s not just food though. It’s about something within you being drawn towards something. You have a craving, a hunger.
The next letter stands for Angry. If you’ve had some bad experiences over the holidays, or you’re back at work and people around you are grumpy, or you’ve been putting things off and need to catch up and it’s not going well, then you could be feeling angry. When we get angry we are more likely to go to our vices to gain control.
The L stands for Lonely. Maybe you had some wonderful times with your family over the holidays but now they’re gone and you feel lonely. Feeling alone can drive us to do foolish, dangerous things just to distract us from our loneliness.
The next letter stands for Tired. The dark and cold, the freezing rain, shoveling, and all Christmas shopping, planning and preparation, the long hours of partying, and then having to get back to work, can leave a person pretty tired.
And that’s just post-holiday stuff. Many of us have other stresses and issues in our lives that have been going on for a longer time and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of relief in sight. Plus some have pre-existing mental and physical conditions that leave you open to feeling miserable even on good days. There are lots of times that we feel extra hungry, angry, lonely and tired.
When those triggers occur, and it all starts to pile on, we tend to be much more open to falling for temptation. These times are when Satan really likes to turn up the heat. It is during Jesus’ weakest time, during His 40 day fast in the desert, that Satan piled on the temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Do lions take on the biggest and strongest prey? No. They pick off the weak ones because they are easier. As Jesus said to His friends, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)
Turn there with me to James 1:14-15 and let’s talk a little about what temptation is and how it leads to sin. It says this: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Breaking this down simply, we read three important things. First, temptation has to do with “enticement” and “desire”. I enjoy fishing and it is absolutely true that you cannot catch all fish with the same bait. Some like worms, some like spoons and spinners, others want it to float at the top of the water or sink to the bottom. You change the bait depending on the fish you want to catch.
Similarly, though temptation is universal (1 Cor 10:13) different people have different desires. Not everyone is tempted towards the same things. When stress or fear or longing or hunger or anger or loneliness – or whatever trigger – comes, we all turn to different things for comfort. Christians are taught to turn to Jesus, and most believers do, but we also often find ourselves turning to other things as well – either instead of or along with, Jesus.
Some turn to material things, using shopping as their comforter, while others turn to alcohol or drugs, coffee, food or sugar. Some turn to wrath, yelling and controlling behaviour as they shout out their injustices and try to take control from God, while others push people away, putting on the headphones, wallowing in their mood, growing more fearful or bitter. Some turn to books, movies or video games, distracting themselves with entertainment, while others turn to pornography and sex for instant distraction and gratification. Some turn to gossip and slander, knocking others down so they can feel better, while others prefer lying about their emotions by pushing the bad feelings down and pretending everything is ok.
We all have these desires within us, and these desires make up our temptations. They are, in a very real sense, our ‘functional saviours’ that replace Jesus as our “go to” for protection, comfort, help, and hope. They don’t work, and often make things worse, but we still go to them.
So that’s the first part, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. Here’s the thing: These desires aren’t always sinful. Technically, deep down, those desires are universal and given by God to be best fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t want alcohol, food, bitterness, video games or porn –we want to feel safer, happier, comforted, but those sins are a quick fix.
Which brings us to the second part. Next it says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin…”. Having desires isn’t sin. Sin is part of a process. When the desire stops being for the good God has for us and moves to formulating the plan of how to get what God wants us to have without Him, we sin. When plan to and then turn to someone or something other than God – where it is a fantasy in our heads or a chemical in our veins – we are sinning and causing ourselves spiritual damage.
Here’s how it works: Something happens and we are hit with the desire for love, comfort, protection, safety, fulfilment – and then God offers us Himself as the answer. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) And we say “No, that takes too long, that’s not how we want to do it, you’re not doing it my way.” And we turn away from Him and come up with a plan for how to get our desire fulfilled without Him. That is sin.
And as it says at the end of the verse, “…and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” When we turn away from the Author of Life and try to find what we want outside of Him and His plan, we are walking the path of death, which is why we feel worse after we have done it. Sure, sinning works for a moment, but when our head clears, and we can hear our God-given conscience again, we feel guilt, shame, fear, dread…. which awakens a desire for peace, comfort, safety, which leads to a new temptation – a new opportunity to turn back to God, or try again with our sin. And the cycle continues.
With that all in mind, let’s turn back to our passage in Luke about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and take it apart a bit so we can see how He really does know what it’s like to walk in our shoes – so to speak.
Sent By His Father
The first thing I want to notice is that Jesus was sent into a time of suffering and temptation by God the Father. If we back up the timeline a bit to what was happening just before the temptation in the wilderness we find ourselves at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. It says in Luke 3:21-22:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Fast forward to Luke 4:1-2 and we read:
“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.”
After the wonderful, peaceful, riverside moment where the whole Trinity is present, full of loving, affirming words – Jesus was sent into one of the most difficult times of His life. The same story in Mark 1:12 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It’s the same word as when Jesus “drove out” the merchants in the temple (Mt 21:12), or when Jesus was forcibly driven out of his home town so they could throw Him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). This was God’s idea, and there was no choice in the matter. WHAM! Sudden suffering.
People with depression know this feeling, as do many of us who have been through difficult times. It comes out of nowhere, unprompted, and unasked for. One day you’re having a good day by the river, and the next you are starving alone in a wilderness, surrounded by darkness, dread, the snarling of wild animals (1:13), and non-stop evil voices. Jesus knows how that feels.
Jesus Was Weak
Next I want you to notice that Jesus was weak. He was in the desert wilderness alone for over a month. He ate nothing and was hungry. He had no special clothing to protect him on cold nights, and nothing to sleep on. The ground was hard, rocky and hilly, the sand blowing in his eyes. Hungry, lonely, tired… for sure. And not for one night, not for a week, but for over a month. And not just natural problems to battle, but also spiritual ones. The word “tempted” indicates that the temptation from Satan was continual, unceasing, night and day. The three temptations were just a final culmination, the last stabs, of Jesus’ terrible time.
Jesus knows what it is like to be weak.
Let’s turn our attention to the attacks. First, we see Satan attack Jesus’ identity and mission. The words of His Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”, may have seemed pretty far away after a few weeks in that demonic wilderness.
And so Satan attacks Jesus’ identity – who Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3). Jesus, you are crazy to think you are the Son of God. You’re just a man. You’re not who you say you are. You’re not even who you think you are. You’re a fraud, a fake, a fool. Do something to prove to who you really are. Prove it. Do something to remind you of the good old days when you had everything. Do something so you can feel good, feel important, feel better, feel powerful…
Then the devil used his hunger against Him. God had sent Him there on a mission to combat Satan and Jesus would need all of His spiritual strength. One way humans concentrate on spiritual things is by fasting – removing the distraction of worldly things so we can concentrate on spiritual things. This is what Jesus was doing. Satan knows this and wants it to stop. He says: “Don’t you want something to eat? The road is long and hard and you are hungry. There’s no law against bread. Just this once, just for now, no one will see. Tell your spirit to be quiet and give in to your body’s cravings. It’ll help you. I promise. Since your body wants it, you have a craving, a desire, why not? It’s just a bit of bread. You have the ability to do it, you’re alone, I won’t tell anyone. Actually it’s really Your Father’s fault for putting you in this situation. You deserve bread. You wouldn’t be hungry if it wasn’t for Him and this messed up world. Use your power for yourself. Be selfish.”
Jesus knows what it is like to have your body work against you, to be hungry, to hear a thousand excuses as to why you should tell God to get lost and just give in to the thing that you know will fill the void for a moment.
Attacked His Mission
Next Satan attacks Jesus’ because He’s tired. He attacks His mission.:
“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.’” Aren’t you tired of this fight? Don’t you wish there was an easier way? Don’t you wish you could just give up? God’s way is too hard, it doesn’t make sense, it is just plain cruel. I’m giving you the easy way, the right way. Why suffer needlessly? I can give you what you want. You don’t have to do all the hard work, Jesus. You don’t have to spend years being attacked, misunderstood, mistreated, and suffering. You don’t have to wander lonely places, gather slow-witted followers just to have them turn on you and leave you to be arrested, falsely accused, and then murdered in the most brutal way humans have ever come up with. Why go through all that? I’ll give you the easy way out. I’ll give you everything you want, all the whole world, for free… just bend your knee a little. Just say that I win and I’ll make you a king under my command. Give up. Say it’s too much. Tell God His way is unfair, too hard, and bow to me.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to just want to quit, to be so exhausted you just want to take the easy way out. He knows what it’s like to wonder about the plan of God and to look at a hard life of discipline, and to have Satan offer an easier alternative.
Attacked His Theology
Next Satan attacks Jesus relationship with God. Verse 9:
“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.’”
Satan can quote scripture better than anyone, and knows how to twist it. He can misinterpret God’s Word, spin it to his own ends, and seek to convince people that God has said something He has not and permits something he has forbidden. He is a liar, the father of lies, and lies are his native language (Jn 8:44). This is why we need to work so hard to interpret it correctly, because when we are weak, Satan will throw all kinds of half-truths, mixed up verses, and out of context scripture, to help convince us to do his will instead of God’s. He’ll even use well-meaning, but biblically illiterate Christians, to give you good-sounding advice.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be surrounded by liars who can quote religious language and Bible verses, but who are only trying to lead you away from God.
Attacked His Trust in God
Along with this came the temptation to stop trusting God. He says: “How can you trust a God who would put you through this, Jesus? Maybe He’s left you? Maybe you’re on your own. Look around. You are alone. And look at those people down there. Here you are, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God, and they don’t even know who you are, and you know it’s only going to get worse. They don’t love you – and I don’t think God loves you either. How could He? He sent you to this miserable wilderness alone, with no food, no water, no help, no clothes, no nothing – so that you could take me on! No warning, no help, no nothing. That’s unfair.
I know how hard this is for you. I know how badly you want to quit, even now, and you haven’t even hardly gotten started yet! I’ve got years to hurt you, your family, your friends, your followers, and then I get to turn the whole world against you. I have years left to make your life hell.
It’s not my fault though. I’m just doing my job. It was God who put you here in your weakest state, and then invited me to come and attack you non-stop. He delivered you into my hands! What kind of Father does that? He doesn’t love you.
You know what you should do? You should do something to force Him to prove that He cares. You should do something drastic and dramatic that makes everyone take notice. You should make God prove He loves you, force Him to do something. Make Him fulfill His promises to you. You should try to kill yourself. You should jump off this building and make God catch you. Then everyone will know how much pain you are in. Then, if God really wants to save you, He’ll be forced to intervene or let you die and bring you to heaven – either way you win.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to think like this – and so do many people who go through depression. I’ve been down this road and thought these same things. It’s exhausting.
As much as it pains me to do it, we need to leave it there for this week. Next week I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these temptations, and how He faced the symptoms of depression.
But for this week, I want you to know one thing: Jesus knows how you feel and what it’s like to go through what you are going through. I may not know exactly what you are facing, but Jesus knows every detail, and has been there. He’s lost friends, been betrayed, been hurt, angry, broken, and in physical pain. He’s lived without money or a home, been attacked by enemies, prevented from sleep, and attacked by demonic forces.
My hope for you today is that knowing this will spur you to have new and deeper conversations with Jesus in prayer, knowing He can sympathize with you – that He loves you and has experienced your pain, and is experiencing it even now. He is not a far away God, but one who knows your very heart, and has been touched by it.
Pray to Him as a friend, as a brother, as a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer, who offers you real help and real hope, because He’s been where you are, has achieved victory over it, and offers to teach you how.
*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.”
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As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
(Psalm 42-43 ESV)
That’s psalm, epitomizes what we’re talking about today. It’s the song of a man who is battling deep, dark depression – a popular and important subject that still resonates with people today. Another poet, this time a Spanish poet from the 19th century, St John of the Cross, called this kind of depression a “Dark Night of the Soul”. It’s a period of spiritual desolation, of isolation from God and a detachment from the world. Everything is dim or dark, there seems to be no more sun.
The psalmist is not David, but “the sons of Korah”. They were Levites, priests of God, employed to be worship leaders in the temple. Their task in life, for generations since Moses, was perform and produce music to be sung in worship to God.
But now this worship leader was far from Jerusalem and the temple worship on Mount Zion. He felt himself cut off from all he had known and everything he was meant to be. He felt cut off from God himself. It says he’s writing this psalm “from the land of Hermon, from Mount Mizar”, which is almost 200Km away from Jerusalem. It’s been theorized that he’s either a traveller far from home, a captive of an enemy nation leading him out of Israel, or one of the priests following David as he was fleeing Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s revolt. I prefer the theory that that he’s a captive of an enemy nation, likely the Babylonians, because as we read the psalm we see him being mocked his enemies.
Whatever the reason he’s had to leave, this priest is terribly homesick. He’s been walking away from the place he desperately wants to be – walking for 47 hours, according to Google maps – and has reached the range of Mountains known as Hermon. He climbs and climbs until he reaches the top of Mount Mizar and takes a look back toward his beloved Jerusalem, now a dot on the horizon.
Of Two Minds
What struck me the most about this psalm was how this Son of Korah almost seems to be arguing with himself. His heart and mind and soul are wrestling with what is happening to him. His feelings and thoughts are all over the place. He’s doing what we talked about last week – trying to take every thought captive.
It reminds me of the scenes from Lord of the Rings where the creature Gollom is arguing with his alter-ego Smeagol. His angry, bitter, evil self is having an argument with the small remnant of good that’s left in him. It’s an amazing scene and something that I think about often, especially when I’m having an argument with myself, or trying to take my out of control thoughts captive.
Psalm 42 starts with a declaration of desperate need: He’s been on a long journey, up a mountain, far from home – driven by his enemies to go faster than he’d like – but his greatest desire isn’t for something to quench his natural thirst. His greatest need is for something to quench his spiritual thirst. If I’m right about his context, then he’s dirty, thirsty, depressed, and surrounded by enemies mocking him by saying, “Where is your God?”, “He can’t deliver you! You’re ours now! And we’ll never let you go! He’s deserted you! Ha Ha Ha!”
In his mind, as they mock and taunt he’s thinking, “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” Oh, how he longs for the days when he would sings songs of praise with the God’s people in God’s temple! But now he can’t – and he’s not sure he ever will again. Has God forsaken Him? These trials are too much for him to bear! Where is God now? Physical suffering, emotional suffering, spiritual suffering, relational suffering… he’s feeling it all at once, and his hope is failing him. He’s gasping inside. His spirit is desiccated. He’s desperate for anything to quench this drought.
And then another voice enters into his mind: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
As we said last week, this world is desperately seeking a way to fix their problems without having to turn to God. They put their faith in technology, medicine, politics, and a dozen other places that they hope will finally bring them peace, hope and everlasting comfort. This world offers many, many false cures for our deepest spiritual problems – and at their source, all of our problems are spiritual, by the way.
The psalmist’s real issue wasn’t that he was far from home or surrounded by enemies. There are lots of people inside and outside of scripture that were far from home and under terrible circumstances – but still had faith, hope and peace – think of Paul and Peter worshipping in prison. What was this man’s problem? He was losing hope. He was spiritually weak and getting weaker. Dry and getting dryer.
We can face anything in this world if we are able to continue to remain spiritually strong and hold on to hope. It is when that hope fails us that the physical, emotional, relational, issues begin to crush us.
The world doesn’t get this. They want to solve our spiritual crises with physical treatment — medicine, exercise, diet, technology. And while that can sometimes help – it is not an ultimate solution. A broken spirit needs to be treated with spiritual medicine. We need the doctor of our souls.
And so, what does our Son of Korah do when he feels his spirit drying out to the point of breaking? He begins to apply spiritual medicine. He takes hold of his thinking, tells himself what he must do, and reminds himself of who God really is.
Three times over Psalms 42-43 he says these words, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Preaching to Ourselves
Over and over he puts the brakes on the depression train by repeating that phrase. He takes hold of himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” “Whoa brain! Hang on! Ok, the pity party has lasted long enough. Hang on. Let’s lift our heads up a minute and take stock of reality. Let’s stop being driven by our body, our emotions, our circumstance, and take stock of what’s really going on here.”
The great preacher, Marin Lloyd Jones, addressed this very thing in his book, “Spiritual Depression”. I’m going to read a large section because I believe it is so helpful:
“I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us. Do you realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.”
Then he quotes the section of Psalm 42 we just read and continues:
“Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why are thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’ Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience….
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: “[Why are you cast down, O my soul?] What business have you to be disquieted?” You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘[Hope in God]’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.
And then you must go on to remind yourself of God: Who God is, and what God is, and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil, and the whole world, and say with this man: [‘I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’]”
That is exactly what this Son of Korah is doing in this Psalm. He’s taking hold of himself. He is preaching to himself. He’s defying himself. He’s taking captive the thoughts in his mind, evaluating them for truth, and then dismissing the lies. God hasn’t left him! God isn’t against him! He can praise God wherever he is. God has proven that He will save – even if that means he must suffer on earth and then be delivered to heaven. God is still His God and that will never change! God is good! Good is good!
Steps to Battle Spiritual Discouragement / Depression
Last week we took a look at Psalm 37 which gave us five steps for battling discouragement – and I’ve spent a lot of time on step one, taking control of our thought life because if we don’t get step one right nothing else works. As long as we allow our thinking to get out of control and listen to our emotional pain, physical pain, and our spiritual enemies who place terrible thoughts in our minds, then none of the other steps matter.
Step one, from verse, one was: “Fret Not Yourselves”. Do you remember that?
Let’s turn to Psalm 37 and discuss the next four steps which all flow out of the first.
Step 2: Trust in the Lord
“Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (vs 3-4)
There’s a lot going on in these two verses, but let’s just do a fly-by and grab the big theme of “Trusting in the Lord.” Once you take control of your thought life, it is imperative that you fill your mind with truth. That’s what the Son of Korah did, right? He says to himself, “Hope in God!” It’s an action of faith and belief to stop oneself and simply say those words: “Hope in God”, “Trust in the Lord”.
Ask yourself some questions:
- Has God let me down?
- Does God love me?
- Does God know more than me?
- What has God promised me?
- What is the truth?
- Could my thoughts be deceiving me?
- Is there anyone better, stronger and holier for me to trust in? Where is the better place for me to put my trust than God? Myself? Other people? No way. I will “trust in the Lord.”
Get into Romans 8 and read it over and over again: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
Step Three: Commit Your Way
“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” (vs 5-6)
After we put our hope in God and his Son Jesus Christ, after we’ve chosen to trust Him, place our faith in Him, the next, obvious step is commitment. Choose, come hell or high-water, that He will be your foundation, your strength and your shield.
The Hebrew in this section is really neat. It can be translated “Roll on Jehovah’ road.” Roll your heavy burden from yourself and place it on another. Like the story of Sisyphus we so often roll our burdens up a hill only to have them roll back down to where we started, because we didn’t have the wisdom to try to roll them anywhere helpful. We keep rolling the rock, rolling the rock, rolling the rock, up the hill, up the hill, up the hill… but we have no ultimate destination for it. We’re not taking the burden anywhere – we’re merely carrying it.
The Psalmist says, commit yourself to rolling your rock over to Jesus so He can take it. Part of trust and commitment is making the choice to allow Jesus to deal with your problems His way. “Trust in Him, and He will act” , the psalmist says. That’s always true. He will act. He may not do it the way you think is best – but He will act. He will give you healing, or patience, or comfort, or choose to build your character and faith through suffering so that you gain many rewards in heaven. He is always doing something. Will you commit your way to Him or will you try to roll your rock all by yourself?
In Proverbs 3:5-8 we read the wisdom:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”
Let’s read that backwards, like we did last week: If you feel broken in your flesh and dry in your bones. Then turn from evil, fear the lord, stop being wise in your own eyes, get on God’s path, stop thinking yourself smart enough to fix your problems, and trust in the Lord.
Step 4: Be Still before the Lord
Step four is the hardest one, for a lot of people.
“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”
You’ve taken control of your thought life. You’ve preached to yourself and decided to trust in the Lord. You’ve committed your life to Him and are choosing to give Him your burden. You’ve rolled your rock to the foot of the cross. Now what?
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” Ouch, right? Christian Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had a great quip where he said:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
That’s funny, but there’s some truth in there, isn’t there?
That’s hard. It’s one thing to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross, it’s another thing to decide to sit there and patiently wait to see what He’s going to do with them.
Now, keep in mind, this isn’t simply sitting alone in a room. We are sitting “before the Lord”. We are not alone. We are able to have a calm resignation that we know that what is happening to us is in the hands of God. Our spirit is quiet, our temperament is settled on God.
This isn’t something that comes naturally to those of us who have been told that action is the answer, and being proactive is always the best. No, over and over in scripture we are told that it is best to put our trust in God and then to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
- “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:26)
- “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
Listen carefully to the words of Isaiah 30:15-18,
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill. Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”
There is a great lesson for us in these verses. Israel, over and over, turned away from God and put their faith in treaties with other, larger nations – only to be destroyed. They put their faith in the size of their own army – and they were defeated. They put their faith in pagan gods –only to be left desolate.
“The LORD waits to be gracious to you”. Isn’t that an amazing verse?! He’s waiting for you, but you’re running around like a fool, panicked and fretting, putting your faith into everything but the One who can help you – and you end up left hurting and alone.
Over and over and over and over we make the mistake of going everywhere else but God first. When will we learn to fall upon the strength of God first, and then “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”?
Step Five: Refrain from Anger
Let’s close with step five where we almost come full-circle.
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
Why would the Psalmist put this in here? He’s trusted the Lord, committed his path, put his burden down, and is being still and patient before Him, waiting for God to act? Where does this anger come from? To whom is it directed at?
The answer is twofold: Anger at God and anger at the evil that is affecting him. He’s reminding Himself not to get angry at the situation – again. Why? Because he’s human and we are constantly going through cycles of testing and trusting, faith and failure, worship and anger. We are unstable, cyclical creatures that have to keep going through this process over and over. What an amazingly patient God we have!
He’s telling himself, again, to stop fretting – that’s step one again! And to not get mad at God for taking too long or not doing it his way – that’s steps two to four. He’s reminding himself that whenever he takes things into his own hands and acts out of a lack of faith, lack of trust and out of anger against God or against evil – he messes it up. He ends up doing something evil himself!
Matthew Henry says this,
“If thy heart begins to rise at it, stroke down thy folly… check the first stirrings of discontent and envy, and do not harbour any hard thoughts of God and his providence.”
That sounds a lot like, “Take every thought captive”, doesn’t it?
When we are angry at God, it’s usually because we think we know better than him, that we deserve something we’re not getting, or that He is being unfair.
Do you know better than Him? No. He is wiser than you.
What do you deserve? You deserve Hell, damnation and judgement – that’s it. Anything beyond that is grace – and His grace has been abundant. Your anger may stem from a lack of thankfulness for what you do have!
Is He unfair? See questions one and two! You don’t know what’s going on and you don’t deserve whatever good you have. If God was fair, He wouldn’t have sent His innocent Son to die on behalf of condemned sinners. He wouldn’t have accepted his death as payment for our sin. He wouldn’t have told us right from wrong and given us a hope and a future. No, if He was fair, we’d all be in hell.
I encourage you to meditate on the scriptures we’ve gone through over the past couple weeks, and have a few conversations with yourself – and with God. Pick up Psalm 37, Psalm 42-43, Romans 8, and read them again and talk to God about the ways that you need to grow in faith and patience. Ask Him how you have sinned in your anger against Him and evil, ask repentance, and then ask for grace. He will forgive you, and then He will grant you wisdom and peace, just as He has promised. (James 1:5; Phil 4:7)