“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
This is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is lamenting, or complaining, that he is alone. He feels forgotten. That even God is hiding on him. He’s been attacked by his enemies, has run away in defeat, and is now left alone with only his own resources to work with and only his own terrible, inner thoughts as company. And, it seems, he’s been there for a while. It feels like he’s been forgotten “forever”. (Psalm 13)
Loneliness at Christmas
There are a lot of people these days who know how this psalmist feels. Christmas is only a few days away and a lot of people are in the full swing of the holiday season. Trees and decorations are all up, the radio is playing holiday music, the TV is playing Christmas movies, the Nativity Play is tonight, Christmas Eve service is around the corner. It’s at this time of year you get to ask people the very weird question, “How many turkey dinners have you had so far?” and for a lot of people here the answer is usually more than two.
When you ask people on the street their favourite part of Christmas, or even just “what is Christmas all about”, you’ll usually get the answer, “Time with my loved ones.” Most of society doesn’t recognize the “Christ” part of Christmas anymore, but they’ve certainly been conditioned that this time of year – usually from about Thanksgiving to New Years – is about making excuses to spend time with family and friends doing something special.
But it’s not like that for everyone. While many people are taking time off and flying and driving all over North America to be with their families and friends, others are not so blessed. Part of the problem with making the holidays all about family is that those without family are often lost in the shuffle, forgotten, and their feelings of loneliness can get very intense.
I saw a heartbreaking post that went viral online a couple weeks ago. There was a woman in Tulsa who posted this to Craigslist under the heading “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas”: “I have nobody and would really like to be part of a family. I cook and I can cook dinner. I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts! Let me be part of your family.”
That’s sad, but the response to her plea was even sadder. She had to quickly take down the post because many of the responses she got were very negative. She was accused of trying to trick people, others calling her a “parasite” trying to prey on a generous family, and one person told her to go kill herself. Such is the risk we take when sharing our feelings online – and such is the nature of how toxic the internet can be.
One article about the post this week said how this is a reminder of the “loneliness and social isolation acutely felt during the holidays, particularly among [those] who have no family or have become isolated from relatives.” This problem is increasing as fatherlessness and divorce are common, children move farther away for school and work, life has gotten so much busier, and fewer people are having children at all. According to the article, fewer and fewer people are even feeling the need to visit their relatives anymore.
It’s quite well known by now that some governments around the world have said we are having a loneliness public health crisis. Australia and the US have official government agencies dedicated to ending social isolation. And the UK, after doing a yearlong study on the problem even created a government position known as the “Minister of Loneliness” to try to help their nine million citizens (14% of the population) who suffer from loneliness.
A Universal Problem
Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”. The gist of the article is that if we can solve the loneliness problem, we’ll save a lot of tax-money because loneliness has connections to things like early death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide. One shocking statistic I read is that according to the 2016 census “for the first time in recorded Canadian history, one-person households are the most common household type in the country.” Another amazing statistic was that “being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A 2008 study apparently said that “loneliness is contagious”. It said that “every additional day of loneliness per week led to about an extra day of loneliness per month for those in the social network.”
Of course, this all costs tax-payer money in a country with public health care, but it also costs businesses money too. Everyone, in the western world anyway it seems, is trying to fight a “war on loneliness” with everything from prescription drugs, free bus service for seniors to go do things, an international summit’s on isolation, encouraging people to play online video games, asking doctors and social workers to give people a ‘social prescription’ to take dance lessons, and giving them companion animals or even companion robots to keep them company. They’re throwing everything they can at the problem to try to ward off the crippling despair that seems to be growing in the nation.
Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, may experience the problem differently but there’s no segment of the population that doesn’t feel it. Seniors seem to feel it worse than the rest, but teens have some deep feelings of isolation too – even as they are surrounded by friends or family.
Pastors aren’t immune to this either. You’d think that a group of men dedicated to Jesus and His people wouldn’t feel lonely. But that’s not the case. You might think that if you just went to church more, served the community more, kept busier with work, or just invited more people out, that you’d never be lonely – but that’s not true. The busiest, most diligent, friendliest, most godly men I know are also some of the loneliest.
Why Loneliness Hurts
The North American world has tried almost everything to combat this epidemic of loneliness in society, but it’s only getting worse. I don’t want to speculate as to the myriad of causes because I’m sure you can all come up with a dozen off the top of your head. But I want you to consider for a moment the danger of loneliness and the root causes of it. And, clearly, it’s far more than just being sad or bored. It’s a far deeper issue – so much so that it affects every part of life. We just talked about how it’s linked to depression and suicide and even has the power to infect others. That’s a powerful influence.
And I think it comes down to three things: Loneliness isn’t an end in itself. Loneliness leads to three even more powerful problems: Lovelessness, Joylessness, and Hopelessness.
There’s a big difference between being alone, being isolated, and being lonely. One can be alone and still feel loved, joyful and hopeful. If you’ve ever had the flu or a bad cold and have been stuck in your bed, even sent away from the family so they don’t catch it too, you know what it’s like to be alone, or isolated, but not feel lonely. People are avoiding you, but not because they don’t love you. You lie there miserable, but you still know you’re loved, feel joy that they’re around you and not sick themselves, and have hope of feeling better to join them.
Being lonely is different. You can feel lonely while in a crowd. You can feel lonely while smiling and serving people. You can feel lonely while sitting across from someone you love. Loneliness can be like an infection, a disease that latches onto your soul and won’t let go. For some people, loneliness is like a wave that crests on them out of nowhere. While for others it’s an enemy that crouches in the corner of every room just waiting for a moment of silence, a distraction-free moment, to strike and cripple – which is why they are always listening or watching or doing something.
I think that’s what the psalmist means when he says, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” He’s tired of listening to his own bad thoughts – and back then he didn’t have an iPod to plug in or a radio to turn up.
He doesn’t feel love because his enemies have overcome him. He doesn’t feel joy because everything’s gone wrong and there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it. No one has come to help – not even God – and that is leading him into a very dangerous place: hopelessness. You see, loneliness doesn’t end with feeling lonely. Once you feel lonely, it’s not a far journey to believing that no one loves you… which means you think you’ll never feel joy… which means life is only pain… which, if that thought process isn’t interrupted, if there is no other “counsel” for their “soul”, it will ultimately lead to the feeling of utter hopelessness.
Hal Lindsey once said, “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.” That’s why loneliness hurts so much.
But why is loneliness so powerful? I want you to consider Genesis 2:18. It’s the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” I’ve mentioned this many times, but remember that God said this before the Fall of Man. The world was perfect. No sin, no problems, no bad weather, no bad news. Adam is standing in the Garden of Eden, has been given a meaningful job and an abundance of resources, and is standing in the direct presence, in the very glory of God Himself – and God says, “There’s something wrong.” “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
That reveals something. The fact that the presence of God Himself and the perfect environment of Eden wasn’t enough to combat loneliness tells us something very meaningful about the power and danger of loneliness.
What’s the Solution?
I think secular society is starting to figure this out, which is why they are trying to fix the problem. But they simply do not have the resources – because loneliness cannot be fixed by giving someone a dog, making them go to a community centre lunch, medicating away bad feelings, or giving them access to the internet so they can post on social media or play video games online. That’s like trying to treat cancer with a Band-Aid. The problem is deep, and so the treatment must be deep.
Humans were not designed to be alone. And that loneliness isn’t merely a sociological problem – it’s an existential one, a spiritual one. Our greatest problem is not a physical or sociological problem and therefore it cannot be solved by man-made ingenuity. Our greatest enemy is not economic or political or familial or even mental or emotional. Our great enemy is the spiritual problem of sin and our spiritual enemy called Satan. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pe 5:8), and just like a lion he doesn’t take on the strongest member of the pack, instead, he chases the herd until the weakest fall behind, until the ones who cannot run well, or who are immature, or injured, get left behind, become isolated, alone, and then feeds on them. Loneliness isn’t just miserable, it’s deeply dangerous.
And therefore, since the problem is spiritual, the only solution must be spiritual. And our spiritual solutions are found in Jesus.
We’ve been lighting advent candles for the past month and doing readings about those candles. Do you remember what they stand for? Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope – all surrounding the Christ Candle. Why? Because having Christ at the centre of our lives is the only way to solve our greatest problems. Jesus’ greatest gift to us is not to solve our worldly problems. When He inaugurated His kingdom He didn’t save us financially, politically, or physiologically. If Jesus would have come to give everyone health, wealth, and worldly peace – a lot of people would have been happy. But they would have still been suffering from the effects of sin – broken relationships with God and each other, a spirit that longs for wrong things, and ultimately death and judgement before a holy, wrathful God who would send us to Hell. We should be very thankful that Jesus’ solutions weren’t worldly ones, but spiritual ones – because our greatest issues are not physical, but spiritual.
I want to show you something from another Pastor named Paul Tripp for a moment because in an advent message he gave recently he absolutely hits the nail on the head.
Come back to Psalm 13. Look at how this lonely man responds. Start at verse 3,
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” He turns to God and says, “God, look at me, listen to me, and please answer me. You are my Lord and my God and I know that you’re the only one that can keep this loneliness from dragging me into death, the only one who is going to keep the enemy from claiming victory.”
And certainly here Christians can say the same thing about our spiritual enemy.
He says to God, “Light up my eyes!” Another translation says, “Make my eyes clear!” He’s saying what we’ve been saying about Jesus in our study of the gospel of John. He is the source of light and the only one who can bring light in the darkness, who can restore sight to the blind. Psalm 19:8 says,
“…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”
In his moment of weakness, he’s turning to the word and promises and person of God.
Listen to Ephesians 1:15–21,
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
What is Paul’s prayer? That the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened by knowing the hope that is found in Jesus. Hope comes from knowing our souls are secure in Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus as saviour and friend. Peace comes from knowing that Jesus is victorious over our enemies. And love comes from knowing that God loved us while we were unloveable. As Romans 5:8 says,
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This is why we come to God and says, “O Lord my God, light up my eyes…”
Look back at our passage in Psalm 13. What is his conclusion? How does the Psalm end? At the beginning of this short psalm, this man is almost overwhelmed with loneliness and grief. He’s almost lost hope. But he turns to God and asks for light in the darkness. What happens in verses 5-6?
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
What we see here is that God has answered his prayer. What did God do? Send friends? Conquer his enemies? Give him abundance of wealth and health and power? No. This man’s problem was a spiritual problem, and God solved it with spiritual power.
God shone a light in the darkness and said, “Here. See the truth.” And in that moment this lonely, hopeless man says, “Wait. What am I saying. I’m not alone. God is here. And God is trustworthy. And God’s love never fails. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’m sitting here right now alive because He saved me. Sure, I got pounded, but I’m still here, and God is still good. The story isn’t over. God is always victorious and His people always win in the end. And when I think of all the ways that I’ve been saved and blessed up to this point I can see that I’m not at the end of my rope – in fact, I can see a lot of ways that God has “dealt bountifully with me.”
It reminds me of another passage we studied recently that said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (1 Cor 4:7-9)
In verse 6 we read something amazing. He says, “I will sing to the Lord…” From loneliness and hopelessness and joylessness and fear and feeling forgotten and unloved – to “I will sing.” How does that happen? Did his circumstances change? No. Did his enemies get conquered? No. Did he get a windfall of money or some new weapon? No. What changed? What takes a person from “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” to “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”?
There is only one thing. God answered the prayer for Him to “light up his eyes.”
Let’s turn to one more place in scripture; to Isaiah 9:2-6, a passage we read every Christmas because it’s a prophecy about the birth of Jesus and what He would do. Ever wonder why baby Jesus is usually glowing in nativity pictures? Isaiah 9 is why.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
What is that light? It’s Jesus.
“You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this room, right now, there are people who know this truth, have seen this light, and have met the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace”. There are people here who have lived on both sides of this psalm – and who still struggle on both sides. I can tell you today that the solution to your problem of fear, sadness, hopelessness, joylessness, and loneliness is not a worldly solution. I think, deep down, you know this because you’ve tried it.
You’ve tried to distract it away with work and entertainment. You’ve tried to control it with schedules and exercise and rules. You’ve tried to medicate it away with pills and food and porn and alcohol. You’ve tried to ward it off by serving people, going to parties, staying busy. You’ve tried to find your solution in another person – a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – and whether they’ve let you down or they continue to try, they are simply not enough, which is why you blame them or push them away or cling to them so hard that you suffocate them.
It doesn’t work because the only solution to your loneliness is to have God Himself light up your eyes, to restore you to Himself through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to go from hopeless and lonely to singing about “steadfast love” is to, like the advent wreath, have the light of Christ at the centre of your life.
When doing any kind of experiment or making any kind of change, you need to establish a “baseline”, a starting point that serves as the one, known point of measurement that everything else will be compared to. Whether you’re studying climate change, time zones, altitude, typography, medicine, or physics, you need somewhere to start. You couldn’t do physics if the force of gravity or the speed of light changed from day to day. You couldn’t perform medicine if you didn’t know what healthy looks like. If you’ve ever tried to write a note on a piece of paper without lines, you know how wonky and wobbly your words get without them. You need a baseline to start with – something to compare everything else to.
Please open up to Hebrews 12:1–2. I’m reading out of the English Standard Version and before I begin I want you to notice the heading that the editors have given this section: “Jesus, Founder and Perfecter of Our Faith”. The “founder” of something is the one who originates something, initiates it, establishes it. It comes from the word “found” where we get the word “foundation” meaning “bottom” or “base” or the “lowest part”. The word “perfecter” is the word meaning to make perfect, make complete or totally finish.
This passage will speak about Jesus as, the “Founder and Perfecter of our faith”, meaning the One who came up with the plan of salvation, who set the rules for salvation, who laid the groundwork for salvation, and who became the foundation, the baseline, the bedrock of salvation. But Jesus is special. He not only established the rules and laid the foundation upon which everything stands – but He actually came and lived by those rules, walked the earth as a human being, faced everything this world has to offer, and did it so perfectly that it can never be done better.
Think of the NHL. There’s a big difference between the person who invented hockey, the coach of the team, and the individual players, right? If you had a competition between the guy who invented hockey back in 1875 and even an average player today, there would be no contest. The “founder” of hockey could never keep up. Even if the contest was between the coach and the player it might be a little more of a contest but the player would still dominate.
But each has a role. The league sets the rules so everyone knows how to play. The player has natural talent and practiced skills in order to play the game. And the coach studies the rules, observes the game, and critiques and organizes the players they can learn and grow beyond what they would be able to do for themselves. But none of them are perfect. Hockey coaches and players compare themselves to Scotty Bowman, Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, but none of them were perfect.
What makes Jesus amazing, and what we are going to talk about today, is that Jesus not only sets the rules but plays the game perfectly and knows exactly how to coach everyone to do the same. Jesus is who we compare everything we understand about God, salvation, and life as a human being to. He’s the prototype, the standard, the baseline, the foundation, the founder, and the perfecter.
The preacher of Hebrews, as he is trying to encourage believers who are going through hard times, after giving a whole list of examples of people who remained faithful through difficulty, says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In other words, as great as the examples of other believers like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Gideon are, they are neither the founder nor the perfecter. They didn’t write the rules and they all blew it big time – and more than once. They are as much examples of God’s faithfulness to sinners as they are examples of people who kept the faith.
So, who are we to look to so we can understand how to “run the race set before us”? Do we look to Moses who took 80 years of training and then messed up in the end so that even he wasn’t allowed to see the Promised Land? Do we look to Gideon, who, though he followed God into great victories actually ended his life as a self-glorifying apostate who turned away from God and led the people into false worship practices? No. We look to Jesus who not only founded but perfected our faith.
I’m not a runner, as you can tell, but I like the illustration of “the race” that he uses here. Think of one of those Ironman Triathlon races. They need to know which way to go so they don’t get lost, how to pace themselves so they don’t waste energy, how to manage the ups and downs so they don’t get hurt, what to eat and drink, how to press forward when their body hurts, how to dress so they don’t chafe or carry extra weight, and so much more. Imagine if they had a video of someone who had run the race perfectly, and then was given the offer to have that person coach them, even to run and swim and bike alongside them?
Who should we compare our lives to in order to see if things are going right or wrong, for how to deal with what’s happening, and who should we ask for help when we don’t know what to do? We look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” He’s wrote the rulebook, established the path, walked it perfectly, and offers to walk with us as we do it ourselves
How This Affects Me
Now, before we get into the Heidelberg section of the message today I want to tell you why this point of theology is such a big deal – especially to me right now.
Lately, I’ve been struggling a lot with the kindness of God. The Bible, especially the psalms, talks a lot about God’s “lovingkindness” (Isa 63:7, Ps 69:16). The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and we know that one of the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13 is that love is “kind” (vs 4).
You all know a lot of my story (and my story of late) so I won’t get into it, but over the past while here I haven’t really felt like God has been very “kind” to me, my family, some of my friends, the church, other people I hear about in the world. Now, I totally believe that God is “loving” and “good” and “just” and that all things work out “for the good of those who love Him” (Rom 8:28), but sometimes that doesn’t feel like “kindness”.
A good king can send a soldier off to die in a war for the sake of the kingdom, depriving a family of their father, but for the greater good. A good coach can make an athlete workout until their body hurts or until they get sick and literally can’t get up. A good martial arts instructor can give their student a swift kick in the guts, doubling them over in pain, as part of their training. I understand that. God as good creator, good king, good coach, the founder and perfecter of faith, allowing hard things, difficult things, painful things – loss and suffering — for the sake of His name, His glory, His kingdom and His people. I get that, I really do.
But it’s hard to see that as “kind” and it’s been a real struggle for me lately. And Satan has been chipping away at my faith and trust in God because I allowed that doubt, that thought, that confusion, to dominate my mind. It led to resentment with God, anger with God, distrust of God. It affected my prayer life. It’s been a struggle and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it – my counsellor, mentor, friends, other pastors – and they’ve all tried to help, but I’ve been stuck.
What really helped was a message I heard this week from a man named Doctor Paul Tripp who spoke at The Gospel Coalition Conference about the danger of viewing God through the lens of our circumstances instead of viewing our circumstances through the lens of God. He talks about times when because of what we are going through, we bring God into the court of our judgement and judge Him as being unfaithful, uncaring and unkind – which is an inversion of the proper theological process.
“It’s tempting, when you are going through dramatic things that you cannot escape to… let those function in your mind and heart as a way of understanding God. Danger! Danger! Danger! You don’t ever allow your experiences to interpret who God is. You let who God says He is interpret your experience. And that’s warfare.”
Now, I don’t want to re-preach his sermon because I hope to share it with you all one day, but I want you to know that’s the war-front I’ve been facing for a long while now. In my fatigue and sadness and anger, I have, too many times, fallen into the temptation of inverting my theological process. Something bad happens to me and I say, “Since I feel bad, and God knows and could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem, God must, therefore, be unkind.” That’s inverted theology.
What I’m supposed to do, what a Christian is supposed to do, is, when the difficult times come, is to speak the gospel to myself, speak truth to myself, speak the Bible to myself, and let the surety of who I know God has become the tool that interprets what I’m going through.
“Since I know God is kind, and I know God could do something about it but hasn’t taken away my problem even if I feel bad, God must, therefore, be doing something kind – even if I don’t understand it.”
I was getting it the wrong way around.
Heidelberg Catechism LD16
This is one of the advantages of going through this section of the Apostles Creed as taught in the Heidelberg, especially during the season of Lent when we are turning our minds to the sufferings of Christ. In my temptation and confusion of saying “God must be unkind because my life hurts right now” what I was really saying was, “Something has gone wrong with God, or my understanding of God. He’s not who I thought He was. Something is out of control. This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. This goes against the rules, this isn’t the way the race is run, the coach is wrong about this one.”
But is it wrong? If Christians go through suffering, does that mean something has gone wrong with God? Is this how the race is supposed to go? The invitation of our scripture today is to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” to see if that’s what happened to Him. Because if it’s normal for Jesus, the One whom I’m following and who did it perfectly, then it must be normal for me.
Let’s look at the questions in the Heidelberg for the Lord’s Day 16, questions 40-44 and see what it says there about what we’re talking about today.
Question 40 says,
“Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?”
and the answer comes,
“Because of the justice and truth of God satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.”
We’ve talked about that a lot. Why did Jesus have to die? Because “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and there was no other way to pay them.
Question 41 says,
“Why was he buried?”
and the answer comes
“His burial testified that he had really died.”
That makes sense.
Then, having what Jesus went through, Question 42 says,
“Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”
and the answer comes,
“Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life.”
There’s more to say here, but for our purposes today I want you to notice how personal the Heidelberg makes these theological statements, reinforcing the truth that since Jesus is the founder and perfecter, the baseline and the model, of our faith, then it makes sense that we will go through what He went through and our experience will have a purpose because His had a purpose.
Question 43 gets even more personal saying,
“What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?”
Almost sounds selfish, doesn’t it? Sure, sure, Jesus died on the cross and saved me from Satan, death and hell and has invited me into an eternally glorious relationship with Him and the Father forever in the perfection of paradise…. but what else do I get? The answer comes,
“Through Christ’s death our old nature is crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves to him as a sacrifice of thankfulness.”
This is straight out of Romans 6 which we’ve already talked about. Jesus died so that the sinful nature within us could be destroyed and so we could live free from the curse.
But now look at question 44,
“Why is there added: He descended into hell?”
Why would the Apostles Creed, the oldest and most trustworthy creed in Christian history include the line “He descended into hell?” This is a question that theologians have been arguing about for a long time and I don’t want to get into that argument right now, but I want you to notice how the Heidelberg’s answer applies to what we’re talking about today.
Why do we need to know that Jesus went through hell? The answer given is,
“In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which he endured throughout all his sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
In short, Jesus went through hell to found and perfect our faith. He went through hell, took the full weight of the wrath of God against sin, so we wouldn’t have to. He made salvation possible through His blood and suffering. That is the foundation, the bedrock, of our faith. But He didn’t just found our faith, He perfected it. In other words, He went through the sufferings of Hell so that, when we are in our greatest times of sorrow and temptation we can know that Jesus has faced worse than us, has taken those pains upon Himself, and has offered to walk with us through them until He delivers us through them in the end.
Suffering is Normal & Necessary, but not Ultimate
That’s the lens through which we are to interpret our difficult circumstances. Why did Jesus have to die and be buried? To save us. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Not only to save us, but to show us His love, commitment, and that suffering in this life is normal and necessary, but not ultimate.
Suffering is normal. That means everyone will face it. If God in human flesh, the most perfect being to ever live, faced suffering and taught that his followers would suffer, then it must be normal. God the Father loves Jesus His Son more than anything else, cares for His Son more than anyone else, and would never cause His Son to go through any unnecessary sufferings, He would never be unkind to His Son, and yet The Father put Jesus through great suffering for His whole life. That means the suffering was not only normal but necessary.
Hebrews 2:1 says it this way,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
But even though that suffering was normal and necessary, it was not ultimate. Jesus came to suffer and die, but that wasn’t to be the end of the story. It says that Jesus founded our salvation through suffering, but one doesn’t stop building at the foundation. One lays a foundation in order to build something. Why did the Son of God lay the foundation of salvation? In order that the Son of God might “bring many sons to glory”! Christ’s sufferings were normal, they were necessary, but they were not ultimate.
And so, since Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith, the baseline, the model, the one who ran the race perfectly, the coach who can show me how to do it, then, when I am going through something difficult in my life and I start to ask myself, “Is this normal? Has something gone wrong? Has God lost control? Has God become unkind?” I must look to the baseline – look to Jesus – and interpret my circumstances and understanding of God through that lens. To let who God says He is, how God says He operates, how He operated in the life of His Son Jesus, interpret how I see my trials, temptations, and sufferings.
How to Endure
Look back at the text of Hebrews 12:1-2 one more time. It says,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
“…Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” The cross of Christ represents the greatest suffering, the greatest injustice, the worst series of hours in human history. We talked about them a couple of weeks ago. How could Jesus endure such terrible things? Because He had his eye on the joy set before Him. He despised the shame and sufferings of the cross, He disregarded them, thought little of them, in comparison with the joy of what would happen through those sufferings.
He would win the souls millions, maybe billions of the people He loves and establish His Kingdom on earth. He would show the perfection of His holiness and set the perfect example through them. He would glorify God through His obedience and humility and conquer Satan, death and Hell once and for all. He would usher in the birth of the church. And by going through those sufferings He would be raised up to glory (Phil 2:5-11).
But not only that. Not only would He be raised up to glory, but all those who would follow Him. He was founding, paving the path, for His followers to achieve something they could never do on their own. He was making possible something that no one could ever attain. He would obey the rules so well, run the race so well, and be awarded such a prize that anyone who believes in Him would be automatically considered a winner of the race too.
This is easy to forget when we focus on our trials and sufferings. It’s easy to interpret God through the lens of our sufferings instead of interpreting our suffering through the lens of Jesus.
Conclusion: Romans 8:18-39
Let me close by reading one of my favourite passages of scripture which says this so clearly to those who are going through difficult times. How is it possible to go through suffering? How can we endure? The same way Jesus did – by keeping our eye on the joy that is set before us. Turn to Romans 8:18–39 which speaks of all these things – suffering, endurance, the life of Christ, struggles with faith, Jesus’ glorification, and ours, and our trust in God.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”