Suffering

What God is Doing When We’re Not Looking

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2-wonderful-counsellor

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We read a scripture last week from the Isaiah 8-9 and I want to take this week to revisit one of those verses. Open up to Isaiah 9:6-7 and let’s read it together again. Last time we emphasized verses 1-5, as we discussed God coming as the child Jesus, making Himself the answer to the troubles of this world, the light shining in the darkness, the Saviour for those who cannot save themselves. This time I want to look at another of the titles that Jesus is given. Let’s read it together:

“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. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

This passage is one of the most famous in the Bible for a lot of reasons, one being how specific it is in speaking of God coming as a child, but also because it is so jam-packed with descriptions of how God intended to save His people. I gave you some of the backstory last week, which I won’t rehash here, but it’s no wonder, in light of how terrible things had gotten for Israel and for the rest of humanity, that people have turned to these words for hope.

For centuries God’s people have turned to this passage, especially during the seasons of Christmas and Easter, because it reminds us that when things get difficult, we are not alone, God has a plan, our Saviour is real and present, God loves us, and we have hope because our Rescuer is greater than any of our trials.

Is God Distant?

But our hope isn’t just for someday. One thing I’ve noticed is that even though some believers trust Jesus is their Saviour and that they are going to be with Him in Heaven, they think that right now, there’s not much that He’s doing for them.

They find comfort knowing that God is in charge, that Jesus loves them, that His Bible is full of really good stuff, and that sometimes He even answers prayer and performs miracles, but they figure that most of the time, when things aren’t going too badly in the day-to-day of normal life, that God isn’t really doing much.

Usually Christians frame their faith by believing the most amount of energy expended on the relationship comes from them. God sits in His Throne Room, Jesus Stands in the Heavenly Temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in us… but it is we who say our prayers, go to church, sing the songs, do good deeds, take communion, read the Bible, share our faith, ask and grant forgiveness, build churches, set boundaries, choose our jobs, go to work, eat food, raise our kids…. Sure, we do it by reading God’s word, and when we get stuck, we pray and God answers, but most of the time we see Him like a good friend; someone who is good to talk to, who cares about us, who we can call on for help, but who has their own house, their own problems, and a million other things to deal with – so as much as we know we can call on them anytime, we don’t want to overstep any boundaries, strain the friendship, or come across as needy.

I think a lot of people have felt this way. I know I have. It’s easy for me to see Jesus as King on High, Great Teacher, Creator of the Universe, Saviour of the Whole World… but it’s been hard to see Him as the ever-present “friend of sinners” “who sticks closer than a brother” (Luke 7:34; John 15:14; Prov 18:24; 7:4). What does that even mean and how does that work?

Wonderful Counsellor

I’ve done some thinking and reading about it and one thing that helped me understand this better was this name in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counsellor”, so let’s take that apart a bit.

The first thing you should know is that people argue over where to put the comma. Some translations say “…his name shall be called wonderful, counsellor, mighty God…” and others say, “…his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God.” I don’t think it really matters a terrible amount, and I only bring this up to remind you why it’s important to thank God for all the amazing bible translators who put their time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into deciding on what to do with that comma. Whichever way it goes, both are appropriate titles for Jesus. He’s “Wonderful” in His own right and a “wonderful counsellor”.

Advocate & Advisor

That’s what I want to study a bit today. What makes Jesus a “wonderful counsellor”. To do that, let’s start by look at what the word “counsellor” and see what it means.

The main way that the word “Counsellor” is used in the Old Testament is to describe someone who gives advice and recommendations. You’d have the king, and he would be surrounded by advisers, elders, prophets, oracles, and friends who helped him remember the law of the land, gave him the relevant news about what was happening, what had been done throughout history, and give warning and guidance with decisions. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, gave counsel to his people and rulers of other nations.

Of course not only kings need counsellors, proverbs talks a lot about the importance of everyone having good counsellors in their life. (Prov 15:22; 27:9)

In the Bible, God is seen as the ultimate counsellor who gives direction to those wise enough to ask for it, and even frustrates the counsellors who oppose Him (Ps 33:10-11). Isaiah says, “This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”

Jesus, in the New Testament is presented as a great counsellor and advocate for the people who came to Him for hope, healing, wisdom, and knowledge. It says He knew what was inside of men (John 2:25) and that in Him is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). The Bible says another reason Jesus is such a good counsellor is because He’s felt our weakness and has faced the same temptations we face every day, but did it perfectly (Heb 4:15-16). Who better to turn to?!

Near the end of Jesus time on earth, before His crucifixion during the Last Supper, Jesus told His followers that He would be leaving them. Not just in death, but after rising He would leave again and send them a Counsellor that would be even better than He. The word that Jesus uses here is translated “Helper” in the ESV is from the Greek word PARACLETE, which can is also translated “helper, advocate, encourager, comforter and [our word today] counsellor” He says,

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7-15)

So, let’s put this all together. In the Old Testament God is the perfect counsellor who guides and gives wisdom to those who ask, and who inspires people to write the scriptures as the guide for faith and life. In the New Testament Jesus comes as the God-Man who experiences the worst of humanity, but navigates this world perfectly, making a way for us to be in perfect union with the Father. Jesus, though He could have, didn’t put Himself on the throne and rule like Solomon, taking one problem at a time, but instead did something better by ascending to Heaven and sending His Holy Spirit, who is God and knows God’s thoughts, to take residence in the hearts of believers so we have full access to Him at all times.

The Bible says that we are never alone and never need to lack wisdom, because we have access to our Advocate and Counsellor, the Spirit of God, at all times and in every place.

That’s the first important truth we need to grasp. All believers have access to not only the word of God, but the person of God, who will lead us, guide us, correct us, convict us, enable us and help us daily. This is what pastors usually emphasize. God is with you, Immanuel, all you need to do is ask, and He will give you what you need.

What You Don’t Have To Ask For

But I want to keep going on that, because a Wonderful Counsellor doesn’t just sit around in their room and wait for us to come to them. Most do. A friend will call up and see how you are doing, but usually respects your boundaries and doesn’t try to guide your life too much. A psychologist or psychiatrist may be very smart and helpful, but they usually stay in their office and don’t move into your house. That requires a Wonderful Counsellor and it’s something exclusive to Jesus. I want to show you a little bit about how this works.

There are things that your Wonderful Counsellor will do for you that you don’t even have to ask for. There are ways that He is involved in your life that you sometimes don’t see or realize, but are just as active and meaningful as when He answers prayers or works special miracles.

I want you to turn with me back to a section of scripture we talked about a few weeks ago which I haven’t been able to shake and I think gives us a very practical way of understanding how our Wonderful Counsellor works even when we don’t ask.

It’s in Hosea 2.

Now, we don’t have a lot of time left to take this apart, but as we read it I want you to remember that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the living illustration of God and His people. As Hosea’s wife left him to go and commit adultery with other men, so the people of God broke their covenant with Him and worshiped other gods.

This passage shows how God intends to do everything in His power to save His beloved people from the damage they are causing to themselves. The interconnections are incredible, and I wish we had time for them, but for now, what we see in chapter 2 is God telling Israel, through the prophet Hosea how He’s going to deal with their adultery. He has the right to divorce them and walk away, but instead, He has a plan – and it’s a remarkable plan. His plan is to use circumstance to turn her around. Notice that God says almost nothing until the very end. All of His counsel, his wisdom, will come without her asking and through events that will happen in her life. Let’s go through it together and I’ll point out a few things about how God counsels us without us ever asking.

God Allows Our Sin to Affect Us

“Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no mercy, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully.”

What we see here is God letting the nation’s sins catch up with them. He’s not going to hold back the evil anymore, but let them have what they want. He doesn’t bring the warning himself though, but instead sends her illegitimate children to do it. The results of their sinful actions rise up against them and they will see what life is like when God pulls back His hand of protection. If they want to live like demons, then they can experience Hell. As they turned away from Him, so He would turn away for a time, to allow their sins catch up with them. This will force them to see that the life they have chosen only results in pain, that the gods they worship are false, and that when they walk away from God, evil follows. Even in this there is mercy as He says He could do far worse – take everything away – but he won’t.

Sometimes God does that to us. You and I can’t even begin to process how much He does to hold back the full results of our sin and the sin of this world! We lust in our hearts, steal from others, rip people off, murder them with hate, make our own selfish plans, and so much more – and without us seeing it or ever thanking Him, God actually keeps us from blowing up everything in our lives. But sometimes, our Wonderful Counsellor chooses not to stand between us and the full consequences of our actions and, for our own good simply lets our sin catch up with us so we can experience the results.

I saw a sign this week that said, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” That’s very true, and our Good Father and Wonderful Counsellor spends a lot of time protecting us from our own bad decisions and the bad decisions of others. It’s called common grace. But sometimes, He lets our sinful hearts have what they want and it often feels terrible and produces great suffering.

God Takes Away Freedoms

“For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’” (vs 5-7)

The adulterous woman says, “I’m going to leave and go party with the bad guys. They’re great! They give me so much!” This is a people who not only believe they are getting away with their sin, but actually prefer it. They steal something or cheat someone and get away with it, and think it’s awesome. They have a sinful habit that the keep going back to, but no one knows and they feel good about it. They fill their minds with garbage, but still think they’re good parents and influences. They are filled with jealousy and hatred, but are able to put on the front where others think they’re super nice. It’s all working out.

What does God do? “hedge up her way with thorns” and “build a wall”. In verse 9 and throughout the passage it says things like , “I will take away my grain when it ripens and my new wine when it is ready.” You can’t party with the demons and give offerings to Baal if you don’t have any wine and grain. They see it as a famine, God sees it as an act of mercy. Sometimes God causes all our work to come up fruitless, no matter how hard we try, because He knows that the results of our labours will lead us away from Him and be used to harm ourselves and others.

Sometimes God takes things away so that we can’t access them anymore, because they are leading us to sin. We lose our job, the computer crashes, our car breaks down, we run out of money, no one will hire us, our health fails and we can’t go anywhere… and then we complain that God isn’t blessing us. I believe that scripture teaches that sometimes – not always but sometimes – this happens as an act of mercy that keeps us from sinning further! That tragedy blocks us from being able to go after and access our sin, and forces us to live without it.

Has that ever happened to you? Where bad circumstances made it so that you weren’t able to even get to your temptation or vice, and you had to live without it? That tough time was a mercy to teach you something! Maybe you’re a prideful, controlling, jerk, who got hurt and was forced to learn humility. That was a gift from your Wonderful Counsellor.

God Exposes Our Shame

“Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.”

As I’ve already said, there are times when our Wonderful Counsellor allows our sin to catch up with us and it brings suffering to us. And there are times when God takes away our freedoms to keep us from sin. But sometimes, the only way to deal with the darkness is to expose it to the light.

Here we see God causing sinners to feel deep shame and embarrassment by not only letting them get caught, but exposing their sin to a lot of people. A good Bible word would be “humiliation”. God humiliates them.

Sin, by its nature, loves darkness, and so do sinners. This is why Jesus and the Bible talk so much about darkness and light. We read in Ephesians 5:11-13, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…”

What’s the first line of our passage in Isaiah? “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.”

Problems, fears, temptations, and sin shrivel when they are exposed to the light, which is why Satan works overtime to make you afraid to share your temptations with others, make you feel like you are alone so you never share your struggles, make you believe there is no one you can trust, and gives you a thousand reasons why you should keep your troubles and sinful habits a secret. He ingrains hypocrisy into each one of us until wearing our mask feels more natural than not. He can’t take away a Christian’s salvation, He can’t turn a child of light back into a child of darkness, but He works overtime to convince them to keep as much of the darkness in them as possible – and then convinces them that they need to keep that darkness a secret.

But sometimes, as an act of mercy and divine discipline, God refuses to let us keep it in the dark. He forces it into the light. Someone catches us in the act. Someone hacks in and exposes our internet history and what sites we’ve signed up for. We get sick and someone goes through our personal belongings. We have a breakdown in public. Or as someone else tries to get free, they exposes our own dark secrets.

And we feel deep shame, regret, fear, and humiliation. That isn’t God punishing us. That’s our Wonderful Counsellor helping us to bring light into a dark place. Sometimes the only way to break through our fear and stubbornness and addiction is to drag us kicking and screaming into the light so everyone can see who we really are and what we’ve been hiding. As long as it’s a secret it has power over you, but once it comes to light, it loses its power and you can get help and healing. Jesus came to shine light into the darkness.

Listener Questions: Can We Know God? Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? (Carnivore Theology Ep. 72)

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We couldn’t find Chad, so we wandered down to the mailroom to look for him — and decided to stay and answer some questions: Can We Know God?  Should We Suffer More? How Different Should Christians Be? If God Wore a Superhero Suit, What Would it Look Like?

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Book Recommendations:

Knowing God – JI Packer

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Life Sucks Then You Die

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Habakkuk 3 - Life Sucks Then You Die

Please open up to Habakkuk 2, and as you get there let me give you a quick reminder of what we’ve covered so far.

Quick Review

Habakkuk is a book that show us a conversation between God and one of his prophets about the incredibly sinful things he’s seeing around him. His whole nation was corrupt and He wanted to know what God was going to do about it.

Habakkuk’s first question was one that we’ve all asked, “Why are all these bad things happening to us and what are you going to do about it?” God’s answer was, “I see the bad that is happening and my plan to deal with it is to discipline my people by destroying their city and sending them into captivity.” Habakkuk then asks the follow up question, “Ok, God, I know that you are good and just and hate sin, so how can you use people as utterly sinful as the Chaldeans to punish Israel – which though sinful, isn’t nearly as bad as they are? It seems unfair that you would use a greater evil to correct a lesser one.”

Then, as we ended last week, Habakkuk closed his mouth and went to sit and wait for God’s answer. Today we catch up with the prophet, sitting in the watchtower, waiting for God explain how God uses evil to bring about good. But as happened last week, God’s answer wasn’t exactly direct.

Let’s open up to Habakkuk 2:2-4 and read the first part of God’s answer to Habakkuk. But once again, realize that God isn’t about to give a direct answer. No, instead He’s going to get to the heart of the issue instead.

“And the LORD answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

The Disparity Gospel

Habakkuk really strikes close to our hearts, doesn’t it? We all suffer. We all want to know the answer to Habakkuk’s questions, right? We’ve all wondered Why God would use destruction to build people up, why He would use physical or mental illness to bring about spiritual health, why God would crush someone before making them well, why God would ordain (or plan out in advance) that His people would suffer. Why is that the way the world works? Surely there must be a better way!

I titled this message “Life Sucks and Then You Die” to be a little provocative, but also because it’s sort of true. Life does suck a lot of times, doesn’t it? Suffering and evil isn’t something that we usually talk about out in the open, is it? I’m supposed to be up here giving you the good news, aren’t I? My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” and tell me I spend way too long telling people how bad they are and how bad the world is and not enough time telling them the good news. They’re probably right, but I think it might be because God has set me up as a counterbalance to the prosperity gospel.

I think I might be preaching the Disparity Gospel. Not as in my job is to bring you to despair… Disparity means “lack of parity” or “lack of equality”, a “lack of fairness”. Where the prosperity gospel preachers say that God wants you to have your best life now and that if you follow him all your worldly dreams to come true, I preach the disparity gospel that reminds people that this world isn’t fair and has a lot of suffering and inequality in it. The wicked prosper, the righteous suffer. Good deeds are punished, and criminals run free. Healthy people suddenly drop dead, and people that abuse their bodies for years continue on. It’s not fair.

And as I read Habakkuk, I’m reminded how unfair, disjointed and frustrating life is. But that’s close to our hearts too, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I stood up here and said that life is always great, that the life of a believer is always happy, and that Jesus wants you to have your best life now – because that’s just not true.

Yes, without question, God made this world a good place. James says that God is not the author of evil or temptation, and that every good thing in this world is a gift from above. God fills this world with light and hope. He is the glorious one who makes this life worth living. (James 1:13-17)

The book of Ecclesiastes, as hopeless and frustrated as the author is, continuously reminds us that the normalcy of life is still good. We work, we live, we play, we sing, we dance, we eat and drink, and we live under the brightness of the sun. There is a lot of good in this world, and we are right to rejoice in it.

It proves that the curse of sin that came through Adam and Eve is not complete. God has given us common grace and abundant love. Much of life is good and wonderful and even happy. But – not always. Sometimes life kicks you in the shins. The question is, during those times, how are we going to respond?

The Dangers of Avoiding Suffering: Some Examples

Part of studying Habakkuk is to realize that suffering is normal and it’s good for us to accept that and then bring our big questions about suffering and evil to God. Habakkuk is just asking a normal, human questions.

We all hate suffering, don’t we? I know, that’s a weird question to ask. No one likes suffering! No one wants to suffer. But let me make a quick point here before we dig into the scripture: That I think we’ve forgotten that suffering has an important role in this world. We are right to be joyful and happy during the good times – but I think we’ve forgotten that God’s good plans for us sometimes include times of suffering.

The society around us disagrees completely. In fact, they disagree so profoundly, that people are literally killing themselves in an attempt to completely eliminate suffering from their lives.

Let me give you an example: The New York Times published an article recently that said that the death rates of young white adults in the US is climbing. We have better and more access to medicine than any time in history, but now these young people are dying faster than they have since the 1970s. Why? Because of drug overdoses and suicides. Here’s a quote:

“Rising rates of overdose deaths and suicide appear to have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites.”

In other words, the amount of people that are being saved by new medical technology from diseases are cancelled out by those who are dying from overdosing on drugs or committing suicide.

They want to avoid pain so much that they are literally killing themselves.

Or consider the rise of abortion and euthanasia (or doctor existing suicide) in Canada. Instead of caring for babies and the elderly, our most the vulnerable citizens, we have decided to get rid of them instead. The thinking is that if the existence of the baby causes any form of suffering to the mother – including physical, mental or financial – then it should be killed. We avoid suffering via murdering someone else.

And, if the “quality of life” of an elderly person isn’t up to their standards – in other words, if they are suffering in any way they feel is too much – whether that’s physical, emotional or financial – then they should be allowed to kill themselves to alleviate the suffering. Our society is fleeing suffering at all costs – even the cost of human lives.

Consider this: There’s also the growing epidemic of addiction to prescription pain killers. What do we do if we get a headache? Grab a pill. If our back hurts? Grab a pill. The thinking is that pain is always bad. We should always avoid pain. Even Christians are caught up in this. We avoid alcohol, smoking, even caffeine, because we see them as potentially addictive and dangerous – but then we go to the doctor and he gives us a jar of narcotics which we munch down with delight because it helps us avoid pain.

And of course, I have to mention the utter stupidity of the Government of Canada considering the legalization of marijuana. There are people in Canada who want to be allowed to take a drug that is known to alter their senses, deadens their brain, and affects their memories. I read a while ago that they’re even looking into perfecting a pill that works by eliminating bad memories from the brain altogether. Take the pill, wipe out the bad memory.

And this idea of fleeing suffering at all costs goes even further. We’re completely losing our ability to judge right and wrong anymore. We can’t tell anyone that their sin is hurting them and others, because we might offend them – and to cause anyone any kind of emotional pain, even if the motivation was to help someone, is becoming tantamount to a crime.

Do you know what you call someone who can’t feel pain? A leper. It’s a disease. We need pain in our bodies so we can know when something is wrong. Feeling pain is part of being healthy. When we can no longer feel pain, it’s a big problem. We bump into things, cut ourselves, even break a leg, and we won’t know it. We need pain in order to live in this world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should go looking for suffering. Nor am I trying to say that all suffering is good. If someone is violently attacked, has a crime committed against them, becomes terribly ill, or is treated unjustly, even God feels pain for that person. He suffers with the suffering. I’m not saying that we should get rid of Tylenol and reject medical help when we go to the hospital. I’m certainly not saying that people who are in pain are closer to God, or worse, that we should cause ourselves pain so we can be closer to God. That’s a heresy called “asceticism”, and it’s addressed in scripture as being wrong.

No, what I’m saying is that we live in a society that will do anything to avoid any kind of pain, and that’s terribly unhealthy!  And when we avoid pain at all costs, we miss out on the benefits that come from when God prescribes suffering as a treatment for our spiritual condition. We need to feel the pain so we can know that there’s something wrong with us.

When our first reaction to any kind of pain – physical, emotional or mental – is to turn immediately to anything that will remove that pain as quickly as possible, we do ourselves a disservice.

Suffering & Pain Serves Us

Let me give a few examples:

A friendship or a marriage goes through a rocky patch where there is a lot of arguing and painful conversations. One of the common reactions is to leave the relationship, get a divorce, and find someone else – and then repeat the problem with them. However, God’s will isn’t for us to evacuate when the difficult times come, but to draw closer to Him, and work through the pain to get to the other side where there is deeper love, more respect, a better friendship, and a higher level of understanding for each other. Leaving the pain of working through a difficult relationship time robs us of the joy that was mean tot come later when we worked through it. (I’m not talking about abuse situations!)

Or here’s another example of going through suffering so we can come out better on the other side: God gives us a passion to do something. Say it’s go to the mission field, switch careers, or quit our job and be a stay at home mom. We feel the tug in our heart, and believe it’s God’s will – but it’s going to be hard. It means financial struggles, a total life change, a whole bunch of uncertainty, and perhaps even some very difficult conversations with people who won’t understand. Our natural reaction is to try to avoid the pain – to dip our toe in, realize how hard it’s going to be, and then quit before we get started. Or start doing it, and then compromise our integrity or God’s plan to make it easier. Our refusal to go through the pain of that transition robs us of the blessing of fully obeying God and doing what He has called us to do.

One more example: Say we have a personality issue that we don’t see: we are impatient, or easily angered, or lazy, or lustful, or addicted to something. And God works it out in our life that that area of our life suddenly becomes a huge problem for us. Suddenly life starts to suck, everyone around us seems to be our enemy, and nothing is going right. Our first reaction is to dig into our addictions, avoid the pain, and blame everyone around us. But that’s not what God’s doing. No, He’s trying to show you that your impatience, or anger, or laziness, or lust, or addiction, is growing in you like a cancer, and that it’s going to take your life someday.

And so, like a healthy body, He sends a shot of pain into your life so you can register that something is wrong. And that pain is meant to force you to reevaluate things so you can see clearly and address the issue. It forces you to go to Doctor Jesus to see if He can do something about it. You wouldn’t have come to Jesus otherwise, right? You needed to feel that pain before you would come to Him so He could fix it.

That’s what I’m talking about sometimes God uses suffering to give us a new perspective on life and drive us to Him so we can receive the healing we need.

That’s what he was doing for His people during the Babylonian exile. They were a sick nation that didn’t even know how bad off they were. They were on the edge of spiritual death, and so God caused them pain so they could feel how bad off they were. That pain drove them to despair, but it also drove them to God.

“So He May Run”

In verse 2 God says to Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.”

Remember the context: God is sending the Chaldeans to wipe out the city and drag everyone into exile for 70 years. So here we see God doing something very kind for His people. He’s giving the people a chance to get out while they still can. Now, that sounds like He’s giving them a chance to avoid the suffering, but it’s not. What God is doing is telling them to accept the suffering that will come because they are leaving their homeland because God has decreed it. He’s giving them a chance to decrease their suffering through obedience to His word.

Like a skilled surgeon, He’s both inflicting a wound and doing pain management. He tells them to accept the pain of leaving their homes and accepting God’s discipline for their sin, but to leave the town now so they didn’t have to go through the horror of the siege.

God does the same for us now. He puts us into this wonderful world, but then tells us not to get caught up in the joys of it too much. He tells us about the effects of the curse of sin and how to be free from the curse. And then, He gives us the same choice He gave to the people who would listen to Habakkuk’s prophecy: accept the pain and suffering of this life, allowing it to change us into what God wants us to be, or refuse, pretended it’ll be fine, try to avoid the pain, eat, drink and be merry, and then feel the full weight of his wrath.

Either accept God’s plan to use suffering to drive you to Him now, or feel the full weight of greater suffering in hell later. Avoiding the pain of this life is not only physically dangerous, but also spiritually dangerous! If we refuse to allow the pain of guilt and conviction of sin, or the sadness, grief and anger that comes when we are affected by it, we deaden ourselves to the great revelation that God wants to show us! That temporary pain is meant to cause us to hate sin and want righteousness, hate immorality and want good, to flee evil and desire the presence of God. If we avoid feeling guilt, shame or grief, then we will not come to God for relief.

Evil Conquered and Enslaved

But here’s something else. God does something even better. Not only does he use the suffering to bring us to knowledge of sin and desire to be saved, but He actually makes all that suffering work for our good! Nothing is wasted in His economy. That’s why Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 that Christians…

“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.”

        Read Romans 8:35-37:

“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.”

What does it mean to be “more than a conqueror”? It means that the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, and slaughtering we face all day long won’t just be eliminated – but will actually serve us. Jesus is the conquering king that not only kills the evil in this world and gets rid of our enemies, but actually turns the enemy into our servants! Total, utter, victory! All the schemes of the devil, all the suffering he tries to inflict, not only come to nothing – but end up working out for the good of God’s plan!

It’s a mind boggling thing to process, I know, but it’s amazingly true. Habakkuk asks, “God, how can you use a greater evil to punish a lesser one?” and the answer we read throughout scripture is that God is so utterly perfect that He can even suffering and evil as His servants to bring about goodness and righteousness. The Chaldeans evil will work for good.

Again, this is most perfectly seen in the cross of Christ as humanity committed the worst atrocity imaginable, viciously murdering the perfect Son of God. And yet God used that worst of all evils, and turned it into the greatest good, the greatest gift imaginable. Listen again to Isaiah 53:3-5:

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

Conclusion

So that’s my message for today, and something we all need to remember when suffering comes. So here’s the two things we talked about today:

First: Remember that suffering is an unavoidable part of this world – no matter how hard we try to run from it. Our instinct is to avoid pain at all costs, but that’s not only unhealthy, but doesn’t work for our good in the long term. If you are suffering today, or know someone that is suffering, I want you to remember that suffering is normal, it comes with this world, you are not alone, and it is only temporary. God desires to walk with you every step of the way.

Remember Psalm 23: God doesn’t just keep us in green pastures and still waters. It is in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that we learn that we need not fear evil, and know the comfort of the Good Shepherd. It is sitting at the table in the presence of our greatest enemies that we are covered with God’s blessed oil.

Second: Remember that God allowed this suffering for a purpose. If it’s something you brought on yourself, then it’s there to teach you something about yourself. If it’s something that happened to you, completely beyond your control, then it was given to you by God. I realize that takes a lot of faith and maturity, but it’s absolutely true.

Allow the pain of your suffering to force you to go to Doctor Jesus for help. Allow your suffering to drive you to God. Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That means that no matter how bad it feels now, the good that comes after will be exponentially better. Don’t waste your suffering by trying to deny it or avoid it.

If you go to God with your pain, He will do something with it. He’s going to use this terrible, frustrating, difficult time for His glory, your good, and the good of others. He promises to do that! Get into the watchtower and watch for what God will do through this time in your life. You are, right now, surrounded by people who can tell stories of how they have suffered in their life, and how God brought them through it, and how God used it for His glory and their good.

Why, God, Why?

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Habakkuk 1 - why God why

The Charge of the Light Brigade

There’s a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan that gives a great illustration of waht we’re talking about today. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a squad of soldiers who have been given the task of tracking down a paratrooper who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen. One of the main themes comes out as they argue with each other about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

At one point in the film, as they are marching along yet another difficult path, they are once again questioning whether or not saving one man at the price of so many is a reasonable order to follow. Shouldn’t they be fighting the enemy instead of risking? Shouldn’t they be somewhere else? What makes Private James Francis Ryan so important that we have to risk our lives for him?

As they walk along, talking together, one of the men quotes a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which goes: “Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.” Another soldier looks over and says, “What is that supposed to mean? We’re supposed to die, is that it?”. The Captain of the squad replies, “He’s talking about our duty as soldiers…. We all have orders, and we have to follow ‘em. That supersedes everything.”  The questioning solider asks, “Even if you think the mission is [completely messed up]?” And the captain responds, “Especially if you think the mission’s [completely messed up].”

The Lord Tennyson poem that was quoted in the fictional movie was written following a real, historical event known as The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Tennyson had read the account of the battle in the newspaper and, as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote a few verses. Each stanza tells a different part of the story, and paints a heartbreaking picture of a group of cavalry soldiers who, because of a miscommunication in the chain of command, weren’t set to pursue a retreating Russian battery, but into a full, frontal assault against a well prepared artillery group.

Let me read the first few verses of the poem:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Asking Why

Is that how it’s mean to be for Christians? “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die…” Are we allowed to ask God why? Because, to be honest, a lot of what goes on in this world seems like “Someone blunder’d”. But even a person of great faith, with long-standing trust in God, sometimes asks themselves, “Why, God?”.

We certainly ask this on a global scale every time we read the news:

  • Why is there so much wrong in the world?
  • Why are You allowing people to murder children?
  • Why would you let North Korea have nuclear capabilities?
  • Why is there so much sickness and death around us?
  • Why isn’t the world more fair?
  • Why don’t you just wipe out all the terrorists, abortionists, pornographers and evil?
  • Why do you allow famine, plague, and natural disaster?
  • Why do You allow false teachers into your church?
  • Why won’t you send revival to our town, city or nation?

And of course, it’s not just global, it’s personal:

  • Why did you make me how I am?
  • Why did make my children to be the way they are?
  • Why is my family suffering like this?
  • Why can’t I find a job?
  • Why would let me befriend, date, or marry this person if you knew they were going to hurt me?
  • Why won’t you take away this temptation, addiction, struggle?
  • Why does it have to be like this?

We have spiritual questions too:

  • Why do good people suffer while evil people are prospering?
  • Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
  • Why, when I’m doing my very best for God, do I experience such terrible treatment from others?

Historical Background

This is what Habakkuk is all about. The short book of Habakkuk gives us a chance to listen in on a conversation that a prophet is having with God during a time of great difficulty around him. He wants an answer, not just for Him, but for everyone. He was likely a priest, or a worship leader, in the temple, and he wants some kind of answer that he can bring to the people that keep coming to him and asking him what God is doing.

His world was a mess. Habakkuk lived during the time after King Josiah while the Prophet Jeremiah was alive. If you’ve done any reading in Kings of Jeremiah, then you know that it was some bad times. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, after years and years of rebellion against God, had already been nearly wiped out and taking into captivity by the Babylonians, and God was about to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

God had sent prophet after prophet – Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Naham, Zephaniah, Jeremiah – to warn the nation that they needed to repent or they would have to be disciplined. King after king rejected the prophets and continued to worship foreign gods, harm God’s people, reject God’s laws, and make alliances with pagan nations. The temple was desecrated, the political officers and religious leaders became more corrupt and people slipped into more and more sin.

There had been some bad kings in Judah, but also some good ones. Josiah was the last, good one and reigned for 31 years. After him came a steep slide that Habakkuk had courtside seats to watch.

After Josiah died, his son only reigned for three months before being overthrown by the King of Egypt, putting his brother Jehoiakim on the throne. Jehoiakim was such a fool that he banned the Jeremiah from speaking to him, and when he sent a scroll outlining God’s message to him, Jehoiakim burned it. Then the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Egypt, sieged Jerusalem, and took Jehoiakim captive.

Habakkuk’s Prayer

Habakkuk’s homeland was a nightmare, and he did what all people of faith should do when they are times of such difficulty and confusion – He prayed.

Let’s read Habakkuk 1:1-4:

“The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”

King Josiah had made some great reforms, getting rid of pagan worship practices among the people and restoring the Law of God as the rule of life, but after he died in battle defending his people, the nation’s slide had been both precipitous and disastrous. King Jehoiakim was nothing like his father Josiah. He was brutal, unjust and seemed only to care about how big he could build his palace. He was so bad that he actually killed the Prophet Uriah for criticizing him (Jer 26:23) – not even the most wicked of kings had been so evil.

Look at the words Habakkuk uses: “violence, wrong, destruction, strife, contention, wicked…” Every level of his nation and life was corrupted, and he had been praying for a long time – and it only got worse. Certainly, he wasn’t the only one praying. There were others, no doubt, who were asking the same questions. But as he prayed, asking, “Why, God, why?”,this priestly worship leader, was given the chance to hear an answer.

Why Do you Tolerate Wrong?

His main question is found in verse 3: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”

He was saying, “God, I see it, and I know that you see it — so God… why aren’t you doing anything?”

Habakkuk was a good theologian! His book is quoted multiple times in the New Testament. He knows God. You can hear him saying, “God, I know you’re there, and I know you have power, and I know you hate evil, and I know you love your people, and I know that you answer prayer, and I know you’ve done miracles in the past, and I know that you have a plan… but I can’t see you doing anything! It really feels like you are being idle. Are you just standing there watching your people drown in sin, sorrow and pain? Are you like a lifeguard that refuses to get in the water to save a drowning man? Why won’t you do something? Are you asleep? Are you gone? Don’t you care?”

Have you ever asked questions like this? I know you have, because we all have. I have – many times. We get sick, or depressed, or someone we care about is hurt, or something terrible happens on the news, and we start out thinking, “Yeah, this is just a temporary thing. Most of my life is pretty good. I’m sure this will pass.” But it doesn’t. And it gets worse. And worse. And then more bad things happen. The pain is relentless, the loneliness is crushing, the temptations are overwhelming, the confusion is staggering, and it all seems totally hopeless, so we turn to God and say, “Ok, God… now’s the time to act.”

This feeling is so common that we read it over and over in scripture. David, more than a few times, cries out in pain and questions God:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps 13:1)

“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46)

The Apostle Paul writes, describing his life on the road as a gospel preacher, not as one full of amazing joys, but that he feels as fragile as a clay pot. He says,

“…we have this treasure in jars of clay… We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Habakkuk has been praying, and God’s not doing anything. He prays for peace and experiences only war. He prays for renewal and revival and sees only more sin. He cries out for the end of the violence, and it only gets worse. He prays for justice and is faced with more corruption. “The wicked surround the righteous” and “justice never” happens.

But is just biblical times, right? It’s not like Christians ever feel this way, right? We’re all passed that now! Health and wealth for everyone, right? Of course not.

I’m reminded of a song that deeply touched my own heart when I was going through some tough times. It’s called “Praise You in This Storm” by Casting Crowns. The first line echoes what I think we’ve all felt at times: “I was sure by now, God You would have reached down, and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say ‘Amen’, and it’s still raining.” I prayed. I trusted. I waited. And it’s still raining, God.

We cry out with Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”

It’s Right to Ask

First, I want to let you know that even though it may not feel like it’s doing anything, prayer is still the right place to start. David felt alone, afraid, surrounded and perplexed – so he called out to God to help him. Paul felt pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down – but he brought it all to God. Habakkuk felt like his whole world was falling apart (and it was) – so his response was to cried to God to stop the pain and to give him some hope.

Humans need to bring our biggest questions to God. Where else can we bring them? When it comes to ultimate questions, like why things are the way they are, where else can we bring them other than the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the One who knows beginning and the end? It’s right and good for us to ask these questions.

The world doesn’t do this. The human response to pain and suffering is fight or flight. Either wage war on that which is causing problems, or run away and hide from it. The spiritual response is the one that we are reading here – to stop and ask God, “What is going on here? Are you seeing this? What are you going to do about it?”

The world doesn’t believe God gets involved. They don’t see God getting involved in the affairs of men and therefore believe that He either doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. God isn’t working the way they want Him to, and so they dismiss him as absent. It’s easy to see why though. Most of us aren’t mature enough to really see God stepping into the world on a daily basis.

  • Where is he when babies are murdered and teen girls are victims of human trafficking?
  • Where is God when a corrupt government slaughters its citizens?
  • Why doesn’t He speak when the atheists cry out “God is dead!”?
  • Why would he allow his people to be murdered by the hundreds by Islamic terrorists or his churches to be burned to the ground?

Doesn’t he care?

The world concludes that the lack of God’s direct interference in stopping these evils means that God is either powerless or non-existent. But what is the Christian response?

Our response is to listen to God, and to read His word, and pray. What we do is to bring the question directly to Him and seek an answer to the question: “God, why is this happening?”

God’s Answer

Now, In a moment I’m going to read God’s answer to this question, but I warn you, you’re probably not going to like it. What God does for Habakkuk is what He does for all of us at these times, if we let Him – He takes our eyes off of ourselves, and gives us a view of the bigger plan God has for the world.

Remember verse 3, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” Well as Habakkuk stood, praying and weeping, asking God these questions, God’s response was to scoop him up and give him a helicopter ride, thousands of feet above his little city. He gives Habakkuk something else to “see” and “look at”; a heavenly perspective of what is happening. God has not be idle. It’s an answer to Habakkuk’s prayer – but not the one he wanted.

Let’s read from verse 5:

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

God didn’t owe Habakkuk an explanation, but in His grace, He decided to give him one anyway. God’s answer to Habakkuk was to give him assurance that God was absolutely at work in all that was happening, that He hadn’t been idle and he hadn’t forgotten them, and that there absolutely was a plan at work – but that plan was on a global scale and had infinite complexity.

God’s answer to Habakkuk’s prayer for peace and the end of violence and corruption wasn’t to magically bring peace, but to deal out ultimate destruction. Verse 5 says, “Look… and see; wonder and be astounded…. I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”

“See, Habakkuk, the reason your so confused is because your view is so finite. You are too small to comprehend what I’ve been doing, and what I’m about to do. There’s no way you’d be able to figure this plan out, and so I’m going to show you a piece of it. Yes, I’ve seen the error of my people’s ways. I’ve seen the corruption of their justice and religious systems. I’ve seen their sin and rebellion, and I intend to deal with it. ”

And the way God is planning to deal with it is a way none of us, especially Habakkuk, would ever have prescribed. He plans on taking the most pagan, evil, corrupt, self-centred, arrogant, nation in the world, led by a egomaniacal emperor named Nebuchandezzar, as a hammer to crush the wills of me people. The entire goal of the Chaldeans, who were closely associated with the Babylonians, was simple: take over the world by ruthlessly enslaving everyone in it.

God describes their brutality to Habakkuk in no uncertain terms. They are bitter, hasty, dreaded, fearsome, fierce, scoffing, devouring. If Habakkuk was complaining about the violence he saw now – just wait a few years until the Babylonians come through town. They will bring violence and terror with them like he’s never seen.

And history records that’s exactly what happened. After King Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin lasted only three months before Nebuchadnezzar kicked him out and appointed 21 year old Zedekiah to rule. He would be the last King of Judah.

He survived 11 years, surrounded by war and international conflict. Finally, he saw that things were getting too intense and called for the prophet Jeremiah’s help. Jeremiah told him that defeat was inevitable because God had decreed it. His counsel was that the king should surrender peacefully to Nebuchadnezzar (thereby also surrendering to God’s inevitable plan to discipline the nation) so it would be easier on him and the people. Zedekiah refused to relent and decided instead to try to defend the city against the huge Babylonian army. The response was one of the most brutal sieges in history. They killed his family, tore out his eyes, burned the palace, destroyed the buildings, tore down the walls of the city, killed thousands, took many prisoners, and left the poorest to die, starving in the streets.

That’s was the answer to Habakkuk’s questions. When he asked, “Why don’t you do something?” God’s answer was, “I am doing something. I’m going to make it way, way worse.”

Conclusion and Christ

We’ll get back to the conversation next week, but let me close with a few thoughts: Habakkuk was right to ask the question, “Why, God, why?”, but He had no right to presume that the answer was going to be a pleasant one. Sometimes God’s plans seem extremely difficult to us. Sometimes the Lord of the Universe works to accomplish His purposes in ways that are too hard for us to understand or believe.

We must be willing to say with the Prophet Isaiah said,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Tennyson said of the soldiers at the Charge of the Light Brigaded, “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”. That’s not what Christians believe. We are allowed to ask why. God encourages us to. Over and over in scripture we read about people who have their doubts about what God is doing, but take their doubts to God. To doubt is not the same as to stop believing. Warren Weirsbe said,

“A doubter questions God and may eve debate with God, but the doubter doesn’t abandon God…. Unbelief is rebellion against God, a refusal to accept what He says and does.”

That’s the difference. A Christian comes to God with their pain and their questions, and with the expectations of answers and comfort. And God is happy to respond by strengthen their spirit. But a Christian does not presume on the way God will answer their prayer. Sometimes the answer is the miracle we want, but more often it’s something we would never have seen coming, or ever desired. Sometime God’s will for us is more suffering, more pain, more frustration, more difficulty? Why? To break us.

He knows that the only way we are going to hate our sin, hate the sin of this world, and finally and totally trust Him, is if we go through the valley of the shadow of death. He knows that’s the only path that will lead us to find freedom in Him and through which He will receive the most glory.

This is most perfectly seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Paul was preaching to a group of Jewish people one day, they mocked his message about Jesus. No doubt they said things like:

  • God would never come to earth to be one of us!
  • God would never send the Messiah just to die!
  • The Messiah would never identify with sinners!
  • There’s no way that God loves sinners!
  • God would never place the curse of sin upon Himself!
  • There’s no way Jesus, the man who died on a Roman cross was doing God’s will.
  • How could a condemned man be doing the work that would save people from sin and death forever?
  • God doesn’t raise the dead!

And Paul’s final words, after sharing the message of salvation by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was to quote a form of Habakkuk 1:5,

“Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” (Acts 13:41)

The lesson for us today is to remember that warning. It is ok for us to be astounded by God’s plan for our lives, and even troubled by it. But are we willing to relent and let God do what God wants to do? Remember Zedekiah? Jeremiah warned him to surrender! Stop fighting God and just accept what He is going to do. It will go better for you and everyone else if you quit fighting God! If you fight God, you will lose!

My encouragement to you is the same as Jeremiah’s and Paul’s. Relent to God. Talk to God, like Habakkuk did, and ask God why – and then when you get off your knees, trust God’s plan and do what He says – even if it’s something extremely hard like having to go through a long time of suffering. Maybe for a while, the only good thing you will have is the memories of what God has done in the past. Let that be enough for now.

Believe He knows what He’s doing and that His plan is better than yours. Stop fighting Him and all the ways he wants to save you, and start trusting Him. Exercise your faith by being willing to go where God wants you to go, even if you don’t want to. He will go with you. He will be with you every step of the way, and He won’t waste a moment of your pain.

Then, later, perhaps much later, you will see what He has been doing, and then you will be able to say, “God, you’re plan was good. I don’t understand all of it, even now. I would never have chosen it. But your plan was good, better than I would have come up with. I scoffed your plan, I fought against it, but you kept with me. God, you are faithful, and I’m learning to trust you. Help me learn from this and keep trusting you.”[audio

How Do I Deal with Discouragement? (Reading the Beatitudes Forwards, Backwards & Inside-Out) (Burning Questions Series #3)

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Burning Questions 3 - Dealing with Discouragement

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.

Conclusion

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).