Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through the book of Habakkuk. This short book captures a conversation that the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk had with God during a time of great trouble in his nation.
Everything around him was falling apart – the people were fighting one another, violence ruled the streets, and the judges and lawmakers were corrupt and wouldn’t deal with it. And when a good person finally did stand up, the bad ones would strike him down. If you’ve ever seen the new Batman movies, or watched Gotham on Netflix, then you know what Habakkuk was going through. Think of him as one of the worship leaders in one of the churches in a Gotham City without Batman.
But, instead of donning a black cowl, Habakkuk did what believers do, and starts to pray. His first prayer is a cry for help that contained a very important question: “Why?”. “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look idly at wrong?” (1:3) God’s answer is that He has not been idle, and has been working out a much bigger plan than Habakkuk could conceive. God’s response is to give Habakkuk a vision of what’s going on, giving him a helicopter ride high above his problems, the city’s corruption, and even Israel’s massive issues. He gives the prophet a global view of what God’s been doing and will do next.
God’s been raising up the Chaldeans, who will later become the Babylonian Empire. God’s plan to deal with what all of what Habakkuk has been complaining about, is to have a powerful enemy rise up and swallow God’s people whole, destroying Jerusalem, and dragging them off into captivity.
This wasn’t exactly what Habakkuk had in mind when he had started praying, so he asks a follow-up question in verse 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” In other words, “God, why would you use a more evil nation to punish the lesser wrongs of your own people? That doesn’t seem fair.”
God’s answer to that question comes in an intense section we call the “Woes against the Chaldeans”. His answer, in short, is that no one will be getting away with anything. All sin will be punished, justice will be done, and everyone will get what’s coming to them.
Habakkuk’s prayer started with, “How can you look at sin and not do anything?” And God’s answer is, “I am about to do something – but you’re not going to like it. I’m about to pour my wrath out against sin. That includes all the people you were complaining about in your nation and all those who come against you.” God would use the Chaldeans as a rod of discipline against His children so they would stop doing evil and come back to Him and His Law. And then after, God would turn His righteous wrath against all the wrongs of the Chaldeans. “Don’t worry, Habakkuk, the violence and sin will be dealt with, justice will be done, and no one will be getting away with anything.”
Covering these woes has been an intense experience for me – and I wonder if it has been for you too. Going through this section has been both convicting and difficult. It’s hard to talk about these topics sometimes, but it’s important that we don’t gloss over them in favour of seeking more pleasant topics. I think it is critically important that we come face to face with the sins that surround us and that are inside us or we will never feel the need to come to the Saviour. People who aren’t sick, or don’t know they’re sick, don’t seek out a doctor.
As we’ve been talking about these woes, we’ve covered some big topics. We talked about God’s hatred of sin and the extreme lengths He will go to do deal with it. We’ve talked about how sin starts with pride, which leads to the dangers of addiction, which then, as the sin leads to deeper sins, turns us into greedy and out of control consumers who only think of ourselves.
That’s what these woes are all about – confronting out of control sin with hard truths. A Woe is simply a pronouncement of judgement, a warning against a person who doesn’t realize how dangerous their situation is. They think they’re going along fine, but the trajectory of their sin is leading them to destruction. The prophet pronounces a woe against these people because their sins have been seen by God, and God is going bring judgement against them – but not fire and brimstone from the sky. No, most of God’s plan is to let the natural consequences of their actions bring the judgement against them. Certainly, God would be the guiding hand, but none of that which comes upon them would be spectacular.
The first woe, found in 2:6 was against their greed. “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” Their greed had gotten out of control, which caused them to take things that wasn’t theirs. They took what other people had so they could have more. This gave us a chance to talk about our own out of control spending and debts, and how dangerous it is to live a life as a “slave to the lender” (Prov 22:7), instead of living with Jesus as our Lord.
The second woe, which we covered last week, was against their self-security. “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!” (2:9) God was telling them how foolish it was to believe that destroying their relationships with the people around them in favour of gathering more wealth would make them safe. This gave us a chance to ask ourselves some important questions about our own sources of anxiety and the foolish and selfish ways we try to mitigate or moderate them, instead of trusting God to meet our needs.
Woe 3 & 4: Self-Centredness
Today we’re going to talk about the third and fourth woe, found in 2:12-17. Let’s read it together:
“Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.”
Both of these woes have something in common, which is why I’m covering them both at the same time. They are both woes against self-centredness.
If you remember the previous sermons, we talked about the downward spiral from pride to sin to addiction to greed. The natural outworking of a life of addiction and greed is self-centredness. We start to believe that the world revolves around us and exists to meet our needs and bring us pleasure. Our addictions and greed make us start to see the world and people around us as objects rather than gifts.
This certainly happened to the Chaldeans (or Babylonians), and we’ve talked about this before. They consumed all they could within their own borders, and then decided to move further out. They weren’t content with what they had, but wanted more and more – at any cost. They didn’t see the world as a gift meant to share, but an object meant to be owned. They didn’t see the people around them as fellow humans, but as enemies who stood between them and that which they desired. Their pride in believing they were their own gods fueled their addictions, which bled beyond their borders, eventually driving them to take over almost the whole world and become one of the largest empires in history.
The third woe says, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (2:12) The fourth says, “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (2:15) Notice the similarity there – the exploitation and consumption of their neighbours.
Their need to fuel their addictions and greed has them reaching beyond their borders to get more. But instead of asking for more, or partnering with others to build mutually beneficial relationships, they simply take. They use brute force to get what they want, taking everything in their path, destroying anyone who gets between them and the object of their desire. All that they have, their whole city, is built on “iniquity”, which is simply the word for “sin” or “wrong”. All they had was dripping with the blood of those they had taken it from.
And the next woe is the natural, next step. The Babylonians were famous for their wild drinking and sex parties. The picture here is that of the enemy nation coming into town, taking over the houses, lands and cities, and then corrupting those around them. They did this in two ways: First, by inviting those who they didn’t kill to join them in their sin and second, by forcing the ones who wouldn’t into addiction and sexual slavery.
This was especially condemning because Israel had a lot of laws about drunkenness, sexuality, and indecency. Their scriptures are full of bad examples of people who got drunk and naked and brought themselves and many others a lot of trouble. Noah, Lot, and Samson got drunk, naked and in trouble.
Babylon was a nation of people dedicated to their own self-pleasure and anyone who wouldn’t join their party was either killed or exploited.
Our Babylonian Culture
This all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? But does it still happen today? It’s tempting to get into a diatribe against the pride, addictions, greed and exploitation that is happening at a national level. Most of us know about alarming rise in binge drinking, drug addiction and pornography use among young people – that leads directly into fueling of what is now being called the “Rape Culture”. Countless articles have been written about how rampant violence and drug addiction is in the pornography industry and the terrible amount of human trafficking and abortions that are happening to keep the sex industry going.
It’s getting pretty Babylonian out there, folks.
We’ve been reading about the insane interest that Canada is taking in legalizing marijuana. We live next to Ottawa, which has for the past five years had “Sexapolooza”, which, though sold to the public as a “consumer trade show”, is simply a public celebration of pornography, cruelty, perversion and sexual exploitation. Abortion could be considered the highest form of violence, and Canada is guilty of murdering three hundred babies every day. We compound our appetite for lust with murder.
And, just like fighting against the Babylonians, we know what happens to anyone who doesn’t fall in line, right? You either join the party by choice or by force – or you’re in trouble. Behind the alcohol, drug and sex trade are people with lots of guns, money and influence. Beware anyone who tries to get in their way.
Our Own Self-Centredness
But I don’t only want to talk about the ills of our nation today – I want to make this much more personal. We may not be able to change the path of the nation, but we can certainly examine the sins that beset our own souls. Self-Centredness, or the belief that the world exists to serve you, is something we all suffer from.
Kay Arthur, in her study guide on Habakkuk says,
“The proud, evil lifestyle of the wicked begins with greed, which in turn leads to self-exultation, which cuts off others. Then, because self is exalted above others, what else would you expect? Violence and bloodshed. Not only do you steal what others have so that you can have more, you abuse anyone who gets in the way of self! Drunk on self and power, you then seduce your neighbours for your own sensual satisfaction. And why not? The idols you worship don’t condemn you! And God, if there is a God, doesn’t notice or get involved in the affairs of mere men!”
This isn’t talking about the excesses of the Babylonian Empire, it’s talking about you and me. We are, every day, faced with the decision to choose to love people or love things. Most of us don’t even think about it. We finish the milk, take the last cookie, and we don’t even think of anyone else. We buy our clothes, buy our groceries, order our coffee, use our cell phone, eat at a restaurant, head off to work, drive our cars, watch our tv shows, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others.
Why? Because we are self-centered. Instead of loving people and using things, we use people and love our things. Philippians 3:19 condemns people like this saying,
“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things…”
What that means is that our desire for earthly things like wealth, possessions, comfort, and pleasure, causes us to override our love for God and others. God says that we should love others sacrificially, but our belly-god just keeps crying out for more until we feed it. Like the Woe to the Chaldeans, if we live self-centred life, driven by our appetites, then our end will be destruction.
A Christian, like Jesus, thinks of God first, and then others second. This concept is all over scripture, and it is presented as a very big deal. How we see ourselves and how we treat others, is directly connected to what is going on in our hearts and our relationship with God. Listen:
Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He answered in Matthew 22:37-40:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In Philippians 2:3 Paul implores the church to work together saying:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
In James 4:1-3 we read that all of this self-centredness comes from the desires of our heart:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
And in 1 John 4:19-21 we are told that our love for others is directly connected to our love for God:
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
This is pretty serious. Our treatment of others shows our relationship with God. 1 John 2:9 says: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
Remember, Jesus said, “…if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15) and “…in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
Jesus was very serious about how we treat each other. Our relationship with God doesn’t merely exist between us and Him. Making Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour means asking God to change us from self-centred people who worship our stomach and idolize self into people who put God first and others second. “We love because he loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Examples of How We Exploit Others
But, as I said, we all struggle with being self-centred. So much so that we don’t even know that our most regular, mundane activities have ripple effects that impact people both nearby and far off. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and so I want to give you a quick rundown of the kinds of things I mean. (This may get a little weird, but I hope it helps you see my point.)
Remember how I just said that “we finish the milk, take the last cookie, buy our clothes, groceries and coffee, user our phone, eat at a restaurant, head to work, drive our cars, watch tv, visit our websites, and head off to bed without even the passing thought that every single one of those actions has repercussions on others”? Well, they all do.
Let’s start with the milk and cookies that we finished. Where did the milk come from? Who bought it? Was there more? It may just something as simple as drinking the last of the milk, but if we live in a home with other people, then even the smallest actions have ripple effects. The people around us are a gift from God and we are to treat them as such. Not only that, they are also our primary learning ground for how we interact with the world. Our home and family is where we learn how to show love, share, and deal with conflict. It’s also where we learn what happens when we are greedy, or self-centred. Parents and families have the responsibility to help each other grow into people who know that God is the boss, Jesus is Lord, and we don’t exist merely for ourselves.
Next, in our little scenario, we put on our clothes, get in the car, buy some groceries, and grab a coffee. I want you to consider the effects that those actions have on others. Where did bananas, chocolate, tuna and shrimp you bought come from? It’s not only possible, but likely, that they were picked by child or slave laborers. Did you know most of our cell phones, the rubber in our tires, the diamond on our finger, and the clothes on our back can be tied directly to slavery and human rights abuses? Some of the people that picked the fruit on our counters, cotton in our clothes, and cocoa for our Valentine chocolates, and the beans for our morning coffee were stolen from their families, sold as slaves and are never paid. Others who made our electronics were kept in prison-like conditions and worked so hard that some companies have taken to installing nets in high places to curb the rampant suicides among their workers.
Next, we head to work. Of course, these interactions are full of ways that we can be either be self-centred either or show our care for others. What kind of worker are we? Do we show respect to the employer and our fellow employees? Do we steal from work? Do we abuse the vacation and sick-day system? What kind of e-mails do we send? Do we waste other people’s time?
Next, we go to the restaurant for lunch. Again, where did our food come from? Is it a company that respects the environment? Do they respect the local economy by buying from local farmers and producers, or are they ruining lives by putting them out of business? Did we even consider how the company treats their employees? Or are we perpetuating a system that underpays the delivery people, cooks, staff and managers? We just want a hamburger, but what is the human cost required to fill our belly? Does it even cross our minds?
After we’re done at the restaurant, in our little scenario, we finish up work, go home, watch TV and surf the web. We may believe we are merely passive in this process – after all, we don’t produce the shows or the internet content, right? We just and watch. However, I want you to remember what we learned about Babylon.
God’s woe against them was that anyone who didn’t join their party would be forced into addiction or the subject of violence. I want to read that verse again:
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” (Hab 2:15)
What was their end goal? Drunkenness and sexual sin.
Viewing Pornography is Exploitation
Every time we witness a sexual act on the TV or the Internet, we are perpetuating a culture of abuse. Babylon used violence and alcohol to entice and force people into performing lewd acts. Our culture and media producers do the same with drink, drugs, money and threats.
I’m not going to get into the abuses that young people, especially young women, suffer in the movie and tv industry, because that is incredibly well documented and we get to witness the destruction of their souls every day in the newspapers. Every day we sacrifice more of our mothers and daughters on the altar of entertainment.
No, what I want to talk about, briefly, is the sex industry. The picture of Babylon is a picture of prostitution, pornography and human trafficking. All around the world, men steal or lure women and children into the sex industry with both promises and threats. Some they flatter, others they intimidate, but it’s always for the same goal – to exploit them.
Addiction is extremely common among prostitutes and pornographers. It not only masks the pain, but oftentimes, the perpetrators will purposely get the girls addicted to drugs and alcohol so they can control their captives. And then either tie them up in legal contracts or literally tie them up with chains so they can’t escape. (“Porn Fuels the Rape Culture“. “Pornography and Human Trafficking” (also here). “19 Year Old Commits Suicide After Shooting First Porn Scene“. Porn Destroys People, Families and Communities. Also check out Porn Harms.)
Remember their motives: Get them drunk so they can look on their nakedness. Listen closely: every time you look at pornography – every time – they are perpetuating a system that destroys lives. One reason people keep falling into the trap of porn addiction is because they think it doesn’t affect anyone else. That is a demonic lie! It hardens our hearts, destroys our marriages, ruins our ability to love, turns women into objects, and perpetrates some of the worst crimes imaginable against people we should be protecting, not exploiting. (Read/Watch this)
Anyone who has ever used a prostitute or looked at pornography is guilty of the same sins as Babylon – self-centred exploitation of others. Every is another excuse for the pornography machine to grab another young women or child and do it again. They make billions of dollars every year – even off their free sites. Even if you’ve never paid a cent for it, your attention to that website, tv show, or magazine, drives the industry.
I could keep going on this all day, but I think you see my point. This world makes it extremely easy to be a self-centred person who exploits others for their own benefit. We do it every day. Why do the banana and coffee slave owners, abusive technology companies, evil corporations, and pornographers keep getting away with it? Because most people don’t know, and most of the ones who do, don’t care.
Let me close with this: God ends each woe with a prophecy about what will happen to these people. He pronounces His woes and then concludes with, “Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the
“Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…. The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!” (Hab 2:14, 16)
This is a reminder that God is going to deal with these sins once and for all. He’s been showing His patience, waiting for His people to come back to Him, but that patience is limited. “The cup in the Lord’s right hand” is the cup of divine retribution. One day, He will pay back everyone for their wrong.
For some, that payment will be made by Jesus Christ. The Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has looked into our self-centred hearts and though He has judged us as sinners, has also made a way for us to be free from the consequences of our sin. Jesus came and lived as sinless man who could die in the place of sinners. God poured out all of His wrath and hatred against sin onto Jesus.
No one will get away with anything – but for some, who believe in Jesus Christ – the payment for their sin has been made for them. He died for our sins. That’s the Good News. We are terrible sinners, but we have a wonderful Saviour. God was willing to trade the perfection of His Son for our imperfection, so we could be with Him forever.
However, others will not accept this gift, and they will pay for their own sins. God’s hatred of their exploitation of others will be upon their heads. All the shame they made others feel, they will feel. All the pain they inflicted – physical, mental, and emotional – will be brought down upon them. Every tear they have caused someone else to shed will be held against them. The hell they put their captives through will be their home for eternity.
Human Traffickers won’t get away with what they’ve done. Abortionists won’t get away with murder. Doctors that kill their patients for money instead of treating them won’t get away with it. Those that manipulate the system for their own benefit and ruin opportunities for others, won’t get away with it. All sin will be dealt with. God has seen it and deal out perfect justice.
I invite you today to realize you are a sinner and turn to God for forgiveness in Jesus name. And then, as you walk with Him, He will change you from self-centred, to Christ-centred – and you will learn how to live for God and others instead of yourself.
How Do I Deal with Discouragement? (Reading the Beatitudes Forwards, Backwards & Inside-Out) (Burning Questions Series #3)
This World is Getting Worse (And There’s Nothing We Can Do About It)
Last week we said that this world is not our home. Has anyone felt that they just want to get off this planet and be with Jesus this week? To reach our final destination:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
We all have times like that, don’t we? When we are suffering, discouraged or in pain – or watching someone we love that is suffering, discouraged or in pain – it is a constant reminder to believers that we aren’t where we are supposed to be. Hebrews 13:14 echoes what we talked about last week with Augustine’s two cities: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
That’s one of the feelings that happens when hard times come, isn’t it? We feel that way, don’t we? Our feelings of “This isn’t right! It’s not supposed to be like this!” are actually fairly accurate. You’re right – it’s not. The original intention of this place we call “Earth” was that we would be happy, productive, free and walk in the presence of God. But because of the effects of sin, we are not happy, productive, free and connected to God. No, instead we are unhappy, work much harder than we should have to, are bound to temptation and destruction, and there is a veil between us and God.
That’s the bad news – but it’s true. And there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no technology we can build, no pill we can take, no food we can eat, no politician we can elect, no doctor we can see, no scientist we can fund, that will be able to make this world all better. Sure, God has put some amazing people on this earth who have done some amazing things to help bring peace, healing, humour, comfort, and wonder to more and more people – but they’re all just a stop gap. For every medical breakthrough, there are a thousand more diseases. For every scientific innovation, there are a million unanswered questions. For every great politician, there is a despotic dictator. For every comedian there is are a hundred naysayers. For every Mother Theresa there is a terrorist or suicide bomber. For every family willing to pursue adoption, there are hundreds more who would rather kill the baby instead.
I’m not saying this because I’m a pessimist – I’m saying this because it’s true. Those outside of these walls, who believe in the “triumph of the human spirit” or “the amazing potential of mankind” are only fooling themselves into believing that there is a bright day in the future where we will have conquered death, disease, famine, plague, and natural disasters. It’s a pipe dream. This world, for all its joy and wonder, is a terribly messed up place – and there is nothing we can do about it.
The Question of Discouragement
And so, today’s question become extremely pertinent: “How do I keep from getting discouraged when I continually fail in certain areas of my life?” I appreciate that question, but I want to expand it a little further to simply asking the question: “How do I keep from getting discouraged?” Whether it’s personal failure that we bring upon ourselves or a natural disaster that happens to us, I believe the response is fairly similar, so that’s what I want to address today.
Turn with me first to Psalm 37:1-9 we can find a very practical list of ways to react when we become discouraged. Let’s read the whole thing together and then, over the next couple weeks, we’ll take it apart into five different parts.
As a quick intro, this Psalm is written as a sort of proverb set to music. It’s chock full of practical truth about how things are supposed to work. They are in alphabetical order (in the Hebrew language) and each build upon one another. One writer in the 16th century said, “They hang together not unlike many precious stones or pearls, which are strong on one string in one necklace.” (Amyrald):
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 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. 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. 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! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.”
So the five steps we see there are “Fret not”, “Trust in the Lord”, “Commit your way to the Lord”, “Be still before the Lord.”, and “Refrain from anger.” We’re going to talk about the first one today.
1. Fret Not Yourself (Take Control of Your Thinking)
The first thing that the Psalmist tells us to do when we come face to face with evil – which for him are evildoers, but it could just as easily be the evils of temptation, sickness, struggle, tragedy, heartache – is to “Fret not yourself because of evildoers…” This has everything to do with preparing our mindset before the tragedy comes – or steeling ourselves against it when it arrives.
For the Psalmist, the problem is “evildoers”. He says, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” In other words, he’s looking at wicked people doing wrong things, and yet they are still prosperous. This theme happens a lot in the psalms as the good guy bemoans the fact that he’s being good and suffering, and yet the bad guys are all having a great time. It bothers him greatly, so here we see him talking to himself and also talking to others about it. He’s taking control of his out-of-control thinking.
This is the first thing we have to do for ourselves too when evil comes upon us. This is the first step in the battle against discouragement – to take control of our thought life. This is actually found quite a lot in scripture.
- Psalm 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
- 2 Corinthians 10:5 says we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ”.
- 1 Peter 1:13 says, “…prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
- Last we read Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
- (Also Romans 12:2, Mark 7:20, Philippians 4:8)
This is a practical action, a step of obedience, that we are given to do in scripture, given to us to combat the temptation to become discouraged. These are active commands, something we are supposed to do. It doesn’t just happen – it’s something which we must choose to participate in.
As an exercise in how to do this, to take control of our thoughts, turn with me to Matthew 5 and let’s read one of the most famous passages in scripture, called the Beatitudes. These are a great source of encouragement, and a great place to find right-thinking about the difficult times that we face in our lives.
Reading the Beatitudes Forwards, Backwards & Inside-Out
But I want to do something a little different today – I want to read them forwards, and then backwards, and then inside out.
Starting at verse 3, forwards we read
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Now let’s read that backward: “The Kingdom of Heaven is for people who are poor in spirit. It is the poor in spirit that are blessed.”
Now let’s read it inside-out: “Wretched are those who believe they are spiritually self-sufficient, for theirs is the kingdom of Hell.”
That puts a different spin on it, doesn’t it? What is a sure path to discouragement? To believe we are spiritually and emotionally strong enough, in and of ourselves, to deal with what this world has to offer. How can we feel wretched? By trying to attain the Kingdom of Heaven by our own strength.
To gain the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must realize that we cannot, ever, be strong enough to deal with the weight of the world on our own. Sin is too big, the troubles of this world are too big, and our personal problems are too much for us. We are designed to need God, need Jesus, and need other believers. Once we realize that and seek out other sources of strength outside ourselves, we will begin to see blessing and understand “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
Whenever we feel like we can handle it, that we don’t need God or our Christian family – we need to take that thought captive and realize it for what it is – a demonic temptation toward the pride of thinking we are sufficient, and a ploy to get us alone so we can be attacked more easily. Don’t fall for it.
Mourning & Denial
Forwards, verse 4 reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Backwards that reads: “To feel the comforting of God, one must feel sorrow.”
Inside-out that reads, “Wretched are those who deny the tragedy of sinfulness, for they will be troubled.”
Discouragement comes to those who are unwilling to admit that they are sinners that do evil for which they will accountable for. If you walk around believing that nothing is your fault, everything bad is someone else’s responsibility, that you never make mistakes, and that if everyone would just listen to you then life would be better – then you are setting yourself up for a world of troubles.
However, when we allow ourselves to mourn, grieve, and accept the fact that sin is real in this world, and in our own hearts – that our personal sin is a contributing factor to the suffering of this world – then we can finally come to the place where we will turn to God for comfort. As long as we are living in denial that anything can go wrong, or that anything is our fault, then we will never accept the comfort of God.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so discouraged because things keep going wrong around me, and I’ve got nothing to do with it! Everyone around me is always wrong. I’m surrounded by incompetence. I deserve better!”? That’s a person who refuses to mourn for their sin and will never feel the comfort of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. It’s only when we admit we are sinners, that we are guilty of sin and responsible for our actions, and that we need forgiveness – when we mourn our sin – that we will be met by the amazing grace of Jesus.
We must take this thought captive – that we are faultless – and come to God for forgiveness.
Another side to this, more obviously is that in order for us to feel the need for God’s presence, we must feel His absence. Sometimes God will put us through times of grief, that drive us to mourning, so that we will understand what life without Him is like.
Take this thought captive as well – when we think that God is punishing us through suffering, remember that He already punished Jesus and that that which we are mourning is meant to drive us to God, not away.
Meekness & Self-Centeredness
Verse 5, when we read it forwards says: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Reading it backwards we see: “The ones who will gain the most, are the ones who are willing to give up what they think they deserve.”
Reading it inside-out we read: “Wretched are the self-centred, for they shall be empty.”
This is kind of the opposite of the first one. The first reminder was that we shouldn’t be alone but this is the flip-side. Sometimes when discouragement, troubles and disaster comes, it’s really easy to get self-centred. Everyone wants to know what’s going on with you, you are the centre of attention, they’re reading your posts on Facebook, you’re getting phone calls, visits, emails, nice cards, flowers, casseroles. It’s easy to start to get used to it and think you deserve all that you are getting – that the universe revolves around you. Ironically, the attention we sometimes get when we are in the midst of suffering, can puff up our pride.
Have you ever met a “drama queen”? This is a person who is in the habit of creating and responding to situations in an overtly overdramatic, melodramatic, exaggerated way. Something goes a little wrong – they forget to pay their credit card on time, their favourite tv show is cancelled, they have a fender bender, someone gives them a negative comment – and the curtain rises and the performance starts!
Their lip quivers, the tears roll, the vague Facebook posts start flowing, “People are so rude! I’ve never been treated so rudely as I was today! Who do people think they are?”
They call you up and start with “You’ll never believe what happened to me today!” And then start to tell you of the many, horrible things that occurred that day. The only issue is that they ALWAYS have problems and all of them are huge! Everything is about them, all the time. The world revolves around them and their problems. They don’t know what to do with themselves if they’re not the center of attention and getting pity from as many people as possible!
The word “meek” means someone who is “gentle and humble”. So long as we have the world revolving around us – there is no way that we can inherit it from the One whom it truly does revolve around. (Tweet this quote) Put it this way – when we are using our sufferings to draw attention to ourselves and puff up our pride, we are wasting our sufferings, because we they are meant to draw us to our knees, build our humility, and cause us to be more dependant on God.
The other side of this is that we end up forgetting that other people have problems too. Sometimes our problems make us blind to others. A meek, gentle, humble person who is going through a hard time – is still concerned for others. It is the meek who God promises will inherit the earth, because even in their suffering, they are still thinking about how they can love others.
So, we must take captive the thought that our suffering is a way to gain attention for ourselves and forget about others. When we dwell, only on our own sufferings and refuse to help, serve, and pray for others, or draw closer to God, we are on the path of spiritual destruction. We are wasting the suffering, and can’t help but end up feeling discouraged.
Wretched are the Uncommitted
Let’s do one more Beatitude. Skip down to verse 11.
Forwards it reads: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Backwards that reads: “They persecuted all the prophets in the Bible, all the ones who believed in me before you. Because of your relationship with Me, they are going to falsely accuse you, speak evil of you, persecute you, and hate you. The only way you will be able to rejoice and be glad in these times is if you remember that your blessing and reward is in heaven, not here on earth.”
Inside-out that reads: “Wretched are the uncommitted, who drop their relationship with Jesus when it becomes inconvenient, and who think the Christian life is an easy ride, for their destination is Hell.”
Again, as I said, this is about right thinking. A friend of mine reminded me this week that all of the apocalyptic, end times, Revelation parts of the Bible are there to remind us about our ultimate goal—to experience the presence of God in Heaven.
Scripture reminds us that people are going to hate us, Satan will attack us, our bodies will fail us, the nations will be at war, the very ground beneath us will shake and break up – and it is all a reminder to us that we are not home.
Last week I reminded you that we are “aliens and sojourners” in this world. Even this environment around us is toxic. Our home is in heaven, but we’re not there yet. This life is merely a fraction of all eternity, and even though it feels all-encompassing now, the suffering we will endure only a moment in time.
If our Treasure is truly in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), where moths and vermin cannot destroy it, and where thieves cannot break in and steal it, then – and only then – can we rejoice in our sufferings. Why?
Because suffering causes us to press closer to God, depend more on Him, long for His presence, weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, share in the suffering of others, see the poverty of our spirit and desire the Kingdom of Heaven, hunger for righteousness instead of worldliness, show mercy because we have received it, and because it is a way for God to clear our minds of all the fluff and nonsense of this world.
As Romans 5:3-5 says:
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
But even more than all that, when we think rightly of our sufferings, we realize that we are being made more like Jesus, who suffered more than all of us, so we might be free from suffering forever.
Don’t waste your suffering. Don’t allow it to discourage your faith – instead, allow it to push you into the arms of God, so you might know the hope that comes from God’s love poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately we’re going to have to pick up the other steps of Psalm 37 next week, because we’re not going to have time today. I think it’s really important that we cover this first part of “taking every thought captive” or “fretting not” because it is so critically important that, when suffering and discouragement comes, that we begin with right thinking about it. That’s the most critical first step.
So we’ll end there for now, but until we come back next week, I encourage you to read the rest of the Beatitudes forwards, backwards and inside-out (to practice right thinking) and meditate on Psalm 37:1-9 (for practical ways to combat discouragement).