Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”? It’s about a group that invades other people’s dreams so they can plant ideas. It’s a cool movie. One of the cool parts is that they end up going deeper and deeper as they make the person fall asleep within their own dream so they can start a new dream within the dream – and then they do it again – a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s a cool concept.
I recognize that my sermon series has been a little like this lately. We’re at the tail end of a series on 1 Corinthians, which recently launched a mini-series on Stewardship, but now, we’re coming into the Easter Season and I need to pause the Stewardship series so we can prepare ourselves for Easter. In the movie going this deep into inception wasn’t a good idea and almost caused a bunch of people to die – so I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.
Please open up to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. But first, I want you to watch this:
Carman’s story is like many that are in the church today, not just youth, but a lot of people. Coasting along in the faith, serving here and there… as he said, “Christianity is just what we did.” That sort of faith, if you can call it that, doesn’t really hold up for very long and invariably leads to drifting from God and the church, what Christians have historically called “backsliding”.
But then something happens. In Carman’s case, his mom got sick. He was faced with the suffering, and eventual death of a loved one. At that moment, in the face of suffering and death, all the questions that he had been pushing aside came rushing at him, whether he wanted them to or not, and he was forced to evaluate where he was with God, ask himself who God is, and whether or not he was going to trust Him. I know some here have faced this moment of crisis too.
The reason for human suffering and what happens after we die has been a topic of debate since almost the beginning of time — and after thousands of years of discussion, we are obviously nowhere near a consensus. Religious leaders, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all spent time, energy and much ink giving their opinions, but people are as divided as ever.
And, though I don’t want to assume where you’re at today, though I do know many of you, my guess is that even in this room there are a myriad of perspectives, and we know a lot of people that hold different beliefs. Some grew up with religious background that told them from an early age that there is some sort of force outside them that controls everything, will judge their actions, and send them somewhere after they die. Others have a view where suffering is all in the mind, there is no judgment on our deeds, and everyone gets their own perfect afterlife. Maybe you know someone who believes in reincarnation.
Or perhaps they are more like the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking who died this week. He suffered from ALS for most of his life, was on the edge of death many times, and when he was asked about his beliefs about God he said,
“I believe the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either.”
In 2011, he said,
“There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
It’s possible there are those here or among our friends that take this nihilistic view of the universe, believing that nothing happens and that everyone else is simply believing fairy tales because they don’t want to think about simply disappearing.
Some people love talking about these sorts of subjects and are open to new ideas, others are rock solid in what they believe and will never change – but more often, I find, people these days take a more agnostic view where they simply say they don’t know why bad things happen or what will happen after death and don’t think anyone ever will. Often, these sorts of people work pretty hard to distract themselves from having to ever think about suffering and death at all.
A lot of people are in that state – which we could simply call denial – but they can’t stay there. Death and suffering are all around us. We can’t actually escape them. I just conducted a funeral yesterday and it’s in moments like that, when we are faced with the suffering and death of someone that we knew, someone who was close to us, who had an impact on our lives, that we are forced to contemplate why they went through what they did and what happens next. Did their life matter? Did their suffering have a purpose? Is there a reward for the good they did and justice for the wrongdoer? Is there a place that is free from pain or do we simply disappear into the ether? It is in the moments where we are confronted with death that we are given the opportunity to wonder what happened and where they are now. To wonder about their condition. Which, in turn, forces us, if only for a fleeting moment, to wonder about our own condition, about how we will face suffering and what will happen to us when we die.
Many people aren’t comfortable with this subject, but it’s something that Christians talk about a lot – or at least they should. We’re coming up to the Easter Season which is all about moving from the dead of winter to the new life of spring, of fasting and prayer during lent to mourning the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, to the celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The stories of Jesus in scripture are stories of Him being surrounded by spiritual and human enemies, sickness, oppression, and death, and overcoming them all. And part of our mission in the world is to go out and minister to those who are weak, suffering and who have come face to face with death. Christians don’t run from these topics, we run towards them, just as Jesus did.
A Vacuum of Knowledge
Let’s read our passage today in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
This passage is a microcosm, a summary, of the Christian view of suffering and death. Many here are Christians. I am a Christian pastor. We are in a Christian church. And Christians have a very specific, very defined, view of suffering, death and the afterlife, something that we have been sharing and proclaiming and comforting ourselves with for literally millennia.
But this hasn’t always been the case. At the beginning of Christianity, as the Gospel of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the Roman world and beyond, there was a lot of confusion. They, like us here today, had many, many views on why things happen the way they do and what happens after death. They had as many religions and philosophies as we do. And so, as the message of Christianity spread a lot of teaching and clarifying had to be done.
What we just read was a message sent from the Apostle Paul to a Christian church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. According to Acts 17, the Apostle Paul had been through their city, had told them the story of Jesus, about His life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection, and had planted a church there in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t able to stay long. Within a very short time, a group of Jews rose up that opposed Paul and his message. They spread lies about him, formed a mob, threatened violence, attacked the house they were staying at, shook them down for protection money, and then ran Paul and Silas out of town. Paul didn’t have time to teach the Thessalonians everything they needed to know, and that vacuum of knowledge left them in trouble.
They were like many people today. They had heard about the One, true God. They had learned that God has a standard for the world, a moral law written into His Word and into the consciences of men, and that we have all broken it. They had learned that every human being has sinned, that we all stand guilty, and that in our hearts we all know that we have done wrong — and that this God, the Creator of all things, will judge our deeds.
But they had also learned about Jesus. They had learned that, as the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says, that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him, wouldn’t perish, but would have everlasting life.” The Thessalonians, in Paul, had met a man who had seen and spoken to the risen, Lord Jesus, and he had invited them to look into the evidence themselves. They had learned that on the cross Jesus had taken the punishment for the sins of everyone who would turn to Him, that He literally traded Himself for them, took their punishment, wiped out their sins, and offered to them a new life with Him guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. As a result of this message, they felt the conviction of their sins, asked forgiveness of God, and accepted Jesus as their Saviour and their God.
But then Paul left, abruptly. I would imagine that for a time it was all good. Everyone was excited about their new life, new faith, was celebrating and worshipping Jesus and sharing His love — but then someone in the church got sick. They were prayed over, they expected a miracle, but then, instead of seeing a miracle, that person kept suffering, got worse, and died. This put the believers into crisis — the same crisis that many people feel today.
They had been told that Jesus loves them, that God is all-powerful, that all good things come from Him, and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life — but they just watched someone they care about get sick, suffer, pray for help, and then die. Maybe you’ve felt this way too, even asked the same questions. What happened? Was their faith not strong enough? Was the story of Jesus a lie? Where was God in all this? This was a crisis of faith. People started to turn away from God and the church and wrote to the Apostle Paul, begging him for an answer to what had happened. If God is so good, why do bad things happen? If God is powerful, then why didn’t He fix everything and stop our friend, our family member, from suffering and dying? If Jesus gives eternal life, why do believers die? What went wrong? Is it all just metaphors and stories? They were bewildered and they had lost hope.
Where Our Hope Lies
And so Paul writes to them these words. He says,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
He starts by saying, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep”. Their bewilderment and hopelessness, their confusion and panic, the loss of their faith had come because there was something they didn’t know. This is the danger of choosing not to think about it, being willfully ignorant, of not studying the word or believing lies. The vacuum of knowledge or false knowledge causes us to be confused, open to lies, and hopeless when we are faced with suffering and death. We become a target for our spiritual enemies, false teachers, and our own temptation to simply make things up – and there is no comfort in that.
But the Bible says that there is a truth, there is a sure hope, there is an answer to the deepest questions, “Why do people suffer and what happens after we die?”, and it’s an answer that needs to be shared by someone who already knows it. That’s why Christians share the gospel. We know something that others don’t. We know how God’s goodness, His power, and His plan, work in the face of human suffering and death. And it’s our job to share it.
The end of verse 13 says tells us why this knowledge is important: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. There’s an important truth there: everyone grieves. Both Christians and non-Christians grieve. The natural, human response to suffering and death is grief. But there are two different kinds of grief. There is a grief with hope and grief without hope. Most of the world’s religions and philosophies give very little hope. They present a judgemental god who is eager to toss people into Hell who don’t follow his rules. They present a cruel or powerless god who has neither the authority nor the inclination to help anybody. They present a chaotic universe that has no order, no reason, no meaning. Or they simply present, utter, darkness – no hope. It is only the Christian message that presents hope in the face of suffering and death because it is the only one that presents the truth, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
Verse 14 says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” In short, our Christian hope comes in the knowledge that God is good, God is loving, and God is in control. Christians know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our birth, life, sufferings, and death are all known to a good God who loves us. But how do we know it’s true? How do we know He’s good? Because of the birth, life, sufferings, and death of Jesus. We find our hope in knowing that God deals with us as He dealt with Jesus.
God sent Jesus to be born to a certain family at a certain time. So were we. God allowed Jesus to see both good and bad in His life, to face joys and sufferings, friends and betrayal, purpose and grief. He does the same with us. God set the date and appointed the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus sufferings and death were God’s idea, His plan to save us from the beginning of time. In the same way, the events of our lives, the sufferings we face, and the moment of our death are known to God.
But more than this, and in this lies our hope, God rose Jesus from the dead. God’s power brought Jesus from the grave, conquering death. He was seen by hundreds, maybe thousands of people. When Jesus died His disciples were completely distraught: hopeless, bewildered, listless, afraid. But seeing Jesus alive had such an effect on them that they dedicated their lives to sharing that message with as many people as they could — even at the cost of their own lives. They knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus had died and is now alive – and they staked their lives and their eternities on it.
In the same way, Christians stake our lives, our hopes, and our eternities on Jesus. Just as His sufferings had a purpose and He rose from death, so do ours, and so will we. First our spirits to heaven, and then our bodies later. This is where we find hope.
As Romans 8 says,
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My hope for you today, and for the rest of this season, over the next few weeks, is that as you face suffering, grief, and death – as you are confronted once again with bad things that are happening to yourself and those you love, that you will open your hearts and minds to the Gospel, to the message of Jesus, to the comfort of knowing Him. That you will not grieve as those who have no hope but will be able to accept that Jesus knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, has great compassion for you, and invites you to walk with Him. You don’t have to be perfect or cleaned up, or anything — His grace is available to you right now.
My hope is that you will come to trust more and more, even when the world gets dark, that in this place, at this moment, and no matter where you go from here, that Jesus has given a purpose to suffering, that He knows them all, that He has conquered death, and that you will know beyond the shadow of a doubt – and be able to share with others – that eternal life and perfect hope is available to all who would turn from their sin, ask His forgiveness, and trust in Him.
The tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX took everyone by surprise, causing grief, sadness and a lot of questions to flood our souls. But maybe the biggest question for Christians is: Where was God in Sutherland Springs?
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
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What is depression and how does it differ from sadness? How can sufferers, friends, and churches respond to those facing depression?
Al reminds us that life sucks and gives some depressing reflections on Advent joy.
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?
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)
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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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.
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.”
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.