Weathering the Storms of Life

Dr. Brian Allison

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Life is Difficult

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), the Russian novelist, historian, and dissident thinker, was deported from Russia in 1974 because he had spoken out against the prison and forced labour camps in the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of the appalling conditions and treatment given in these camps. From 1945 to 1953, he was imprisoned because he had criticized Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) openly in a letter. From 1953 to 1956, he was exiled to Siberia. During the period of imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn apparently had reached a point of both physical and emotional exhaustion. In his own words, he was ready to die. He had given up all hope of surviving. Now, during that time, he was engaged in hard labour, being sustained by a starvation diet, shoveling relentlessly for twelve hours a day under the blazing sun. He was on the verge of actually quitting, and as a result would suffer the fatal consequences of resistance and insubordination. Solzhenitsyn recounts that at that critical moment in his life, a fellow worker, who was also a fellow Christian, came up beside him and with a cane drew the symbol of a cross in the dirt and quickly erased it, and then returned to his work. Solzhenitsyn affirms that when he saw that symbol of the cross, a renewed hope flooded his mind, inspiring him to persevere. He insists that this symbol of hope continued to propel and encourage him so that he was able to endure, not only during that critical period in his life, but also during the subsequent days of his stay in the prison camps. Solzhenitsyn persevered during his time of tribulation.

The Scriptures teach that we, as Christians, should be, "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer" (Rm. 12:12). This verse presents three interrelated truths. The first truth refers to future blessing – "rejoicing in hope." The Christian has the hope of the resurrection, of glory, and of eternal life. This hope should inspire him or her to press on toward the eternal goal. Now, before this hope is actually realized and experienced, the Christian must pass through various trials and difficulties. Accordingly, the second truth of this verse refers to enduring hardship – "persevering in tribulation." Further, as we recognize the need and challenge to handle trials and difficulties in order to eventually secure this hope, the Christian should adopt spiritual means by which perseverance may be enhanced and facilitated. Hence, the third truth of this verse refers to the actual means by which the hope may be reached – "devoted to prayer." In this chapter, we shall consider the second truth of this verse – "persevering in tribulation."

Tribulation in the world

The Christian life is characterized by tribulation. This fact, I'm sure, is self-evident, but I do think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of it. Scott M. Peck begins his popular book, The Road Less Travelled, with the poignant words: "Life is difficult." Life is certainly difficult because life contains much tribulation. The Greek term from which this word 'tribulation' is translated can also be translated 'affliction' or 'distress.' Now, the basic idea is simply that of suffering – suffering that may consist of either physical pain or emotional distress. For instance, I know a family who is presently experiencing these two aspects of this kind of suffering. The son has been physically maimed through a car accident. He is now a quadriplegic. And the parents and the other siblings are feeling the emotional distress over this accident. This family is certainly undergoing tribulation.

Jesus said, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). Experiencing tribulation is inescapable. To live in this world is to have suffering in your life, especially if you are a Christian. When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were returning to the places in which they had made Christian disciples, they were "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God'" (Acts 14:22). Further, we read, "So that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions [i.e., tribulations]; for you yourselves know that we have been destined [or appointed] for this" (1 Th. 3:3).

Tribulation means unhappiness

So life is difficult. You will feel the pressure of trying to provide financially for your family. You will feel the stress of trying to raise a family in a permissive and promiscuous society. You will feel the distress of trying to work with belligerent co-workers. A life characterized by tribulation means a life filled with many moments of unhappiness. The other evening I was watching a T.V. documentary called 'In the Name of God.' The documentary focused on a charismatic branch of the contemporary church. One episode presented a charismatic preacher who was preaching that the goal of the Christian life is to be happy. He proclaimed that God wants Christians to be happy; to be laughing all the time. Wrong! God's primary goal for the Christian is not to be happy, but rather to be holy; and as a result of being holy, he or she may also enjoy a measure of happiness. If life is tribulation, then life will inevitably be unhappy (though many personal moments of happiness may be experienced); but even though we are unhappy, we should always be joyful. God never promised happiness to us, but He does provide joy for us. Joy is not happiness. Joy entails being content and satisfied in the midst of tribulation. Tribulation will make you unhappy (for you will feel the pain), but you are to count it all joy even when you do "encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (Jas. 1:2).

Accepting that life is tribulation

The pursuit of happiness should not be the Christian's first priority. Now, as a Christian, if your basic belief is that you should be happy, and thus your main goal is to be happy, you are setting yourself up for inevitable and continual misery and disappointment. For instance, when life becomes unhappy for some reason (e.g. unemployment, abandonment, abuse, etc.), you may begin to question the love or goodness of God; or may even unjustifiably wonder if you have sinned or offended God in some way, and hence you may begin to feel very guilty. Again, "in the world you have tribulation," and when you realize and accept this fact, you will be better able to realistically address the issues and challenges of life. We must accept that 'life often stinks.' We must accept that life is often unfair. We must accept that life is often painful, and ask God to give us grace to deal with them.

Is one of your main goals that of being happy, pain-free, distress-free? Do you make such statements as: "If only I could just make a bit more money...If only I could just buy a few more things...If only I could be able to take that six week vacation...If only I could just pay off the mortgage..." Is your primary goal that of being happy? If so, you have the wrong goal. You are setting yourself up for continual misery and disappointment. Your goal should be that of holiness. You should be pursuing the goal of being more Christ-like, focusing not so much on your feelings (wanting to feel good), as on your actions (actually doing good). Do you see life as characterized by suffering? Do you feel that God should not bring any suffering into your life, that as a Christian walking in faith everything should be 'a bed of roses' – no problems; no difficulties? The prosperity Gospel teaches that God does not want you to hurt; that God does not want you to suffer; that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy. That's a lie! Sometimes God wants you to suffer; not because He hates you, but because He loves you – "for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Hb. 12:6).

You may have many times of happiness in this life, but far too frequently you will have times of unhappiness, of tears, of grief, of pain. May I kindly say – "Get used to it." You will then more readily accept the hard blows that life does throw your way. When you understand that God has appointed Christians to tribulation, unhappiness will become easier to adjust to, and your Christian experience will be less confusing, especially as you try to reconcile your faith and your relationship to God with the stark realities of daily living. We need to remember that this present life is temporary and is passing away. We are waiting for the coming eternal life, and then we will be continually and eternally happy. In heaven, there will be no sorrow, no grief, no tribulation. This present life is only a stepping stone, a mere preparation for that future life. We also need to remember that the sufferings of this life are relatively small in comparison to the glory that will be revealed in us. We read, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us" (Rm. 8:18); and again, "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17f.).

Responding to tribulation

One may respond to tribulation in one of two ways. First, negatively, one may whine, scream, rant, rave, raise his or her fist to God, get angry, question what the Lord is doing, etc. He or she may complain, saying, "I am reading my Bible, I am praying, and still the world is crashing down around me." Second, positively, one may grit his or her teeth, pull back the shoulders and stand firm; trusting and resting in God, and believing that God has not abdicated His throne, that He is still the Sovereign One Who knows the end from the beginning. How do you respond to the tribulation in your life?

I had the opportunity to visit a family (mentioned above) suffering tribulation. These Christian parents really encouraged me. Even though they were going through a personal and family tragedy, they were resting in God; accepting what God has brought into their lives; trusting God for His provision. In their faith, they refused to buckle under the weight of suffering, but were continually casting their cares upon God, knowing that He cares for them. Being tested at the point of faith, they were persevering through the fires 'with flying colours.' We need to learn to bow to the sovereign will of God. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and "blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb. 1:21). The Christian's response to tribulation should be sheer perseverance; not pouting and throwing up the hands like spoiled little brats, thinking that God ought to respond to his or her every demand or whining. As with Job, the Christian must courageously and submissively say, "Though He slay me [if God is pleased to do that], I will hope in Him" (Jb. 14:15).

When physical illness comes to your home (and it will), when family or personal loss visits your home (and it will), when unemployment visits your home, when your possessions or your home becomes damaged, you should not bemoan and whine, but rather you should rise to the challenge, trusting in God, knowing that you have been destined to these tribulations. Now, I know that this is a bitter pill to swallow, but God is pleased to give grace. I am not saying that we should not cry, or that we should not be sorrowful, or that we should not grieve. Of course we should legitimately express ourselves in these ways when occasion warrants, but we should not appear as defeated people. We weep, we cry, we wet our pillows, but not as those who have no hope because we know that there is One in glory Who loves us, Who cares for us. By His grace, we spiritually hear His voice and we can press on, knowing that on the other side of the darkness, the gloom, the pain, the hurt, and the suffering is the Lord, the Comforter of His people. Do you believe that?

Tribulation has a spiritual design

God has a spiritual design for allowing this tribulation in the lives of His people. First, God wants to produce proven character in His people. We read, "And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint" (Rm. 5:3-5a). Having gone through the fires of testing, with the dross being burned, you will then display the very character of Christ. Ruth Scales writes, "There is no gold without the refiner's fire. There is no steel without the heat of a blast furnace. There is no statue without the hammer and the chisel. There is no diamond without the cutter's tool. There is no forceful life without the tribulation of the world."

In a Time magazine article, "What It Takes to Reach the Summit" (March 6, 1989), John Skow tells about Stacy Allison and Peggy Luce, who were the first women to ascend the summit of Mount Everest. Stacy Allison had failed to ascend the summit on different occasions, and such failure brought about a great deal of disappointment in her life. Having finally ascended the summit successfully, the following question was asked her, "In reaching Mount Everest's summit was there any unexplored places in your character that you discovered?" Allison responded, "Getting to the summit didn't. Winning's easy. Not getting there the year before did." Self-discovery came to Allison in her failure to reach the summit. In her failure and disappointment, she learned determination and resolve, and her character developed. Perseverance produces spiritual character.

In the Weekly Reader magazine (October 1987), there is an interesting article called "Leeches." Reportedly, a young boy by the name of Donnell McLucas had his finger cut off by a grocery cart. A doctor sewed it back on, rejoining the vessels and the nerves. However, the finger turned purple, rather than a healthy pink. The blood was not flowing to the tip of the finger. There was no blood circulation. Accordingly, the doctor decided to put leeches on the tip of the finger in order to suck out the blood. He did that for a number of days, and as the leeches sucked, eventually the blood circulation returned. This story has spiritual application. God is pleased to bring 'leeches' (i.e., problems, disasters, afflictions, etc.) into your life that literally suck the happiness out of you in order to keep the spiritual circulation going, in order to get the spiritual life revived. Thank God for the 'leeches'. He wants to produce spiritual character.

Second, God allows tribulation in our lives because He wants to prepare us for eternal blessings. The Scriptures read, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (Jas. 1:12). The end of God's testing is the glory of eternal life. Thus, we read, "And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it" (Rm. 8:23-25). We have the hope of the resurrection, the hope of glory, the hope of eternal life, and it is that hope that is ever drawing us forward, inspiring our faith and causing us to persevere through the trials which are the necessary gateways to the fulfilment of our hope. May God strengthen you and grant you grace to press on.

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Persevering Through Trials

My wife and I have a friend who was very discouraged at one time. The main reason for her discouragement was that life had apparently become one great big disappointment for her. She professed that she was experiencing one problem after another. Apparently, there was no let up; and seemingly no relief in sight. The series of problems had worn her down. She wanted 'the world to stop' so that she 'could get off.' She did not want to go on; she wanted to quit. Suicide became a viable option. Can you identify with this woman? Do you seem to have one problem after another, and life just does not seem to get any better; and you wonder when it will all end, when things will improve, when you will get just a short season of rest and peace? I suppose that at these times, it would be very easy to blame God, saying, for instance, "God, where are you? God, how long do I have to go through this?" I suppose that at these times, it would be very easy to get upset, not only with the circumstances, but with God Himself. I suppose that at these times, it would be very easy to wonder whether Christ has let you down. Perhaps you have a problem now and you are praying continually, and even weeping profusely, and yet there has been no change to date; there just doesn't seem to be any 'light at the end of the tunnel'. Perhaps, in a moment of weakness, your faith has faltered, and thus you have wondered whether God really cares for you, or whether Christianity is even true. How are you responding to life's trials? How have you responded this past week, this past month, this past year, to life's trials, especially to that steady stream of trials? Are you persevering?

Trials are times of suffering

James 1:12 reads, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." The natural and necessary response to trial should simply be perseverance. A trial, Biblically speaking, is an experience of suffering through which one's allegiance or loyalty to Christ is tested. So, for instance, you may have a trial in being out of work. You may wonder how the bills will be paid; you may wonder how you will make ends meet. You may go to God and ask Him to 'come through' for you, but His answer may be delayed. Now, you may respond with anger and complaint or you may respond with patience and trust. Again, you may have the trial of being rejected. Someone may have abandoned you; someone whom you trusted very deeply, someone to whom you were deeply committed. Consequently, you may go to the Lord in prayer and lay your case before Him, but the answer may be either delayed or in the negative. Accordingly, you may respond with anger and complaint or you may respond with patience and trust. Again, you may have the trial of being physically ill. You may wonder whether you are ever going to recover. Your body may be racked with pain or with disease. You may pray about the situation, with no apparent improvement, but rather you may become worse. Now, you may respond with anger and complaint or with patience and trust. So, a trial is an experience of suffering through which your allegiance, your loyalty, to Christ is being tested.

Persevering through trials

There are two basic responses to trial. First, you may buckle and fold or, second, you may bear up and persevere. The latter response is the Christian one – "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial." I know a Christian brother who has been serving the Lord faithfully for many years. There is never a moment in his life when he is free from physical pain. Yet, every time I see this brother, he has a smile on his face; he, indeed, is persevering through trial. Now, the question is this: How does one persevere? How does one bear up when the suffering comes? How do you endure the distress? First, if you are going to persevere, then you must realize that trials are part and parcel of the Christian life. Expect them and, as a result, prepare for them. Do not be surprised when the trials come, especially in rapid fashion. Do not scratch your head and inquire, "What in the world is happening?" Remember, "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Do not think that life must run smoothly and be hassle-free. The Scriptures read, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation" (1 Pe. 4:12f.). So, if you are going to persevere through trials, realize that trials are here to stay; you cannot avoid them.

Second, if you are going to persevere, then you must commit yourself and your situation to God. You should realize that God is in absolute control. You should confess that He is the sovereign Lord of glory, and that He knows the end from the beginning. You should acknowledge that you need His help, and that you cannot help yourself. God is the faithful Creator. Hence, you should self-consciously entrust yourself and your situation to Him, knowing that He will undertake for you. And be prepared to wait for Him as long as He wants you to wait, even though everything seems gloomy and hopeless. Even though God seems to be distant and not to care, still patiently wait. When God seems farthest away, be all the more determined to entrust yourself to Him, realizing that when you do not know, He does know, and that He is worthy for you to commit yourself to Him. We read, "Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right" (1 Pe. 4:19). God will do what is best for you.

Third, if you are going to persevere, then you must pray and continually be on your spiritual guard for any failing, faint-heartedness, or weakness in your commitment and resolve to press on (and thus prove faithless to Jesus Christ). Jesus instructed His disciples, "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation [i.e., trial]; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt. 26:41). We are to watch and pray lest we be tempted. We are to engage in these spiritual activities before the testing comes in order that we may be buoyed up and thus enabled to endure when the testing actually comes.

You may ask, "Why must I even undergo trial? Why must I suffer?" Trial is God's way of determining your spiritual worth and genuineness – "for once he has been approved..." Trial is God's proving ground; He wants to reveal the kind of spiritual 'stuff' of which you are made. Suffering is God's way of sifting the wheat from the chaff, and thus establishing whether we are a bona fide Christian or not. So, God allows these testing times in order to prove the reality of your faith, and thus reveal whether you are a true child of God. A slogan on a TV commercial advertising a Chevrolet product reads: "Tried, tested and true." That slogan can be raised over every true child of God. God will prove the genuineness of your faith. We read, "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pe. 1:6f.). Those who truly love God will persevere. God's refining work is not an expression of demonic cruelty, but of divine love.

Persevering through trials brings reward

These who persevere through trials, and thus demonstrate the genuineness of their faith, are called blessed – "Blessed...who perseveres under trial." To be blessed is to be divinely favoured. Hence these perseverant ones are those who ought to be rejoicing. They will be the recipients of God's goodness. They are blessed because of what they will receive, having been afflicted and having persevered – "he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." Those who endure life's testing will receive the fullness of eternal life in glory as a gift and reward. They will reign with Christ. The gift will make the suffering all worthwhile. We read, "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us [when Jesus returns]" (Rm. 8:18). Similarly, 1 Peter 1:9 reads, "Obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls."

We can be assured of the gift and reward of eternal life (which, in one sense, is God's response to our faithful suffering) because He has promised it; and this promise, in turn, should give us the incentive and encouragement to press on to secure it. When I was about 7 years old, I was shopping with my mother in New Toronto. We met an acquaintance who was rushing off somewhere. He assured me, "If you are here when I return, I will give you a gift." I waited and I waited, and finally my mother said, "Let's go." Yet, I still waited. He finally turned up, and I will never forget what he gave me. He gave me a little plastic statue of an RCMP officer. I had that statue for years. He assured me that he would give me a gift. Therefore, I persevered in waiting for him (even to the chagrin of my mother). Promise propels perseverance. Similarly, God has promised to give us a gift. He has promised us a glorious future life with Him if we endure life's trials. His promise should provide us with incentive and encouragement to 'hang in there.' God knows our weakness; He knows our proneness to 'throw in the towel,' and so He endeavours to buoy up our spirits and to encourage our hearts to rest on His promise(s) so that we might persevere, knowing that 'it will be worth it all when we see Jesus.'

Pressing on through trials

The gift or reward of eternal life will be given to you after the genuineness of your faith has been approved of God. The obvious implication is that the whole of life will involve God's proving, refining work. Life itself is one long probation. That may not be very encouraging, but it is true. The whole of life will be peppered with trials and conflicts. You need to be faithful. There will be times when you get tired; and you will say such things as: "Lord, how much longer? How much longer do I need to deal with that obstinate, ridiculous individual? How much longer do I need to work that second job in order to pay the bills? How much longer must I deal with those rebellious children? How much longer must I deal with that wife or that husband whose thinking is irrational? Lord, how much longer?" God's response to you is this: "Just keep going, with this assurance that 'faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass'" (1 Th. 5:23b). I was speaking to a Christian brother this past week who had just finished a very tiring and difficult day. I encouraged him, "When it seems that you cannot hang on any longer, remember that God is hanging on to you." God indeed is faithful.

What is your trial? If you do not have one now, you will. I am not trying to discourage you; I am trying to prepare you. Do you have a trial at present? Maybe it is that difficult relative who keeps 'getting under your skin,' 'driving you up the wall.' Maybe it is that wayward son or daughter? Are you saying, "How much longer can I take this; it is just wearing me down"? Maybe it is spiritual dryness. Perhaps you have felt so distant from God the past little while, and you are wondering when He will revive your heart so that you can pick up your Bible and read it again. Maybe you are anticipating a reduction in financial income, but the bills, no doubt, will continue to come in. Remember these words: "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." Press on, my weary friend; press on my beleaguered saint. God will help you to reach the finish line. He is faithful. Trust in Him.

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A Troubled Heart

One fundamental characteristic of human experience is that of a troubled heart. Is your heart troubled – a heart that is disturbed? Maybe this past week you were betrayed by a colleague or a friend. Maybe recently you had a fight with a loved one. Maybe your health is deteriorating and the prognosis is bleak. Recently, I spoke to a young married man who had undergone corrective surgery which turned out to be unsuccessful. He must have surgery again. He is unemployed and has various family difficulties. It was clear that he had a troubled heart. How is your heart right now? Well, Jesus has some comforting words specifically designed for troubled hearts. He encouraged His disciples, "Let not your heart be troubled; [you] believe in God, believe also in Me" (Jn. 14:1).

Separation produces troubled hearts

Jesus made this statement to His disciples as He was delivering His final discourse to them, prior to His crucifixion. Here we have words of instruction, as well as encouragement. There are a number of possible reasons why the disciples had troubled hearts at this time. They may have had troubled hearts because Jesus had previously predicted His betrayal by one of them – "When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.' The disciples began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking" (Jn. 13:21f.). Or, maybe the disciples were troubled because of Jesus' announcement of His imminent departure from the world – "When therefore he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, '...Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You shall seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, I now say to you also, "Where I am going, you cannot come"'" (Jn. 13:31,33). Or, a third reason for the disciples' troubled hearts may have been Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial of Him, which may have implicated all the disciples – "Simon Peter said to [Jesus], 'Lord, where are you going?' Jesus answered, 'Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you shall follow later.' Peter said to Him, 'Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.' Jesus answered, 'Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a cock shall not crow, until you deny Me three times'" (Jn. 13:36-38).

It seems, especially in light of what follows this statement referring to troubled hearts, that the probable reason for the disciples' troubled hearts is Jesus' announcement of His departure from this world; and so Jesus further disclosed, in response to the reaction to His announcement, "In my Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn. 14:2,3). Jesus states here the goal of His departure – He must go and prepare dwelling places for His disciples; as well as the purpose of His departure – He would come and take them to Himself and transport them to heaven in order that they would be with Him forever.

So, Jesus uttered comforting words to His troubled disciples, which, no doubt, the disciples needed to hear on such an occasion. To use contemporary language, the disciples experienced separation anxiety, having heard these stinging words of Jesus' departure. That's a painful experience – the pain of separation. In 1979, about 2 years after we were married, my wife and I decided that I should pursue further education in the United States, and that (for practical reasons) I would have to go alone. So, I went to the States, and she went overseas to Scotland to be with her family. That was a difficult experience. We both experienced the anxiety of separation. One night I bolted up out of my sleep, having had a nightmare, and dashed down the hall to make a long distance phone call. During our separation, my wife kept secret that she was desperately ill while overseas. Her doctor in Scotland insisted that she not return to Scotland again without her husband. So, the disciples experienced separation anxiety. Jesus was their leader. They had accompanied Him for over 3 years. They had committed themselves to Him. They had sacrificed all in order to follow Him. As one commentator has stated, "They had burned their boats and had blown up their bridges to follow Him." Jesus was now leaving them behind. How would you feel? When a beloved and well-respected leader leaves his people, there is the pain of separation.

Jesus experienced a troubled heart

So, feeling the weight of anticipated separation, the disciples were troubled; and Jesus, filled with compassion, and sensitive to their needs, spoke tender words to them – "Let not your heart be troubled." This term 'trouble' simply means to be upset, to be disturbed; or, if I can put it this way, it means to be churned up inside. It is the absence of calm and steadiness. You can have a troubled heart and yet not be worried or fretful. A family member may be very ill. Because of your attachment to him or her, you may feel very upset and bothered, wanting him or her to recover. Love demands such an emotional response. Yet, believing in the sovereignty of God, and entrusting that loved one to Him, worry or fret need not be your experience. You, in faith, should know that God will accomplish His will and do what is best.

A troubled heart is that state of mind to which peace answers. For instance, John 14:27 reads that Jesus assured His disciples, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. [As a result] Let not your heart be troubled [the same term], nor let it be fearful." Now, interestingly, in the Gospel of John, this term is found 6 times, with 3 of the references describing Jesus' own experience. For instance, we read, "When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled" (Jn. 11:33); again, Jesus said, "Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour" (Jn. 12:27); and again, "When Jesus had said this, he became troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me'" (Jn. 13:21). Underscoring the integrity of Jesus' humanness, John recorded that Jesus Himself was troubled. He was churned up inside, inwardly disturbed. The Son of God, the Lord of glory, the King of kings had a troubled heart. If I could put it another way: Jesus lacked total inner calm and peace. You say: Impossible! My friend, let your reason bow to the written infallible Word of God. Don't let personal theology supplant and cancel out the recorded truth of the Bible: Jesus had a troubled heart. I find this truth peculiarly comforting and consoling. Accordingly, this is a critical point: A troubled heart does not necessarily mean that you are sinning or that you have a sinful disposition. There are those who teach that if you experience anxiety or feel fear then you are sinning. Remember, Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish of soul. He was overcome with anxiety. Jesus has felt the depth of emotional pain. He can thus understand and sympathize with us in our pain. That is comforting. And so, with compassion, Jesus exhorted His disciples, "Let not your heart be troubled."

John 14:1a may better be translated 'stop being troubled' or 'cease from being troubled'. Thus, what is presupposed is that the disciples were in a troubled state, that is, emotional disturbance had set in. Now, Jesus did not simply request that they cease from being troubled, but He lovingly exhorted them to cease from being troubled. He thus placed some measure of responsibility on them to address and correct their troubled state. Jesus encouraged them to harness and handle their emotions; and that is what He calls us to do also. Thus, Jesus here implies that we can have some measure of control over our emotions, and not allow them to run amuck. I know that some of you may not believe that. You may say, "But it's my emotions. I just can't get a handle on them. I can't help but act this way." My friend, that is not true. You can decide your behaviour. It is a 'cop out' to complain, "Well, I blow my stack; I can't help it. You know that's just the way I am; it's my temperament." Granted, temperament is a factor in determining behaviour, but we need not be slaves to our temperaments and emotions. The grace of God can even overcome the weaknesses of our temperaments, though it may not be easy. It is possible to get a hold of ourselves, and not be out of control or frantic. Do you have a troubled heart? Are you churned up inside, lacking a sense of calm and steadiness? Did you have a confrontational meeting with the boss? Did you receive a bad medical report? Did someone betray you? Was your mate unfaithful to you? Jesus calls you to peace.

Belief in Christ quells a troubled heart

So, Jesus encouraged the disciples to harness their emotions, to get hold of themselves. He thus proceeded to give direction on how they might do that. He did not simply leave them with the exhortation, but He gave them some instruction on how they could conquer their troubled hearts. He implored, "You believe in God, believe also in Me" (14:1b). Jesus instructed that belief in God should provide the grounds or basis for believing also in Him. He said, in effect, "Because it is a fact that you believe in God, then because I am His Son, I want you also to believe in Me." The disciples believed in God, but the pressing current matter was whether they really believed in Christ. One of the themes in the Gospel of John is the necessity of belief in Jesus; and here Jesus endeavoured to encourage and strengthen the faith of His disciples. With this exhortation, Jesus implied His oneness with the Father. We have Christ's divinity implied here. To believe in Christ is to believe in God. Our belief in God necessitates belief in His Son.

So, Jesus calls His people to believe in Him. Throughout this Gospel, He endeavoured to provoke faith in Himself. For example, we read, "Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'" (Jn. 6:29). Now, interestingly, prior to Jesus' utterance of the words in our text, John 14:1, the disciples had already expressed faith in Him. In John 6:69 we read, "Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God." And yet Jesus later exhorted them to believe in Him because the exigency of the situation mandated an affirmation of faith. Here is an important principle: In distressful times and during perplexing situations, your faith may wane. I am not saying that your faith will inevitably wane. There are those who have prepared themselves for that dark hour which has, or will, come upon all of us. But for some, in that distressful or perplexing hour, your faith may wane; and you will need to hear the exhortation to believe in Christ as the source of hope and as the means of deliverance. Is your faith waning? Does your faith need to be strengthened so that you can lay hold of the promises and know His peace?

Belief must acquiesce in the words of Christ

Belief in God and Christ is the answer to a troubled heart. There is no deep psychotherapy here. Quite often the troubled heart reveals an unbelieving heart. Your troubled heart may be the result of doubting the goodness and faithfulness of God in the hour of trial. Faith is the answer to our anxiety and fear. As one Bible commentator writes, "The call to put away fear, is the call to put faith in God." And Jesus here invites faith in Himself because belief in His person is the basis for belief in His words. In so far as you believe in Jesus, you will believe in His words. To put faith in the person of Christ should lead you to rest in the words of Christ; and if you do not believe in Him, then you will not rest in His words; and His words are that which actually communicate comfort, peace, and joy in the hour of need. Accordingly, notice the connection between Christ's words and His peace. He assured, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). It will be Christ's words that will give you peace and calm during your hour of darkness. Through His words you will learn to rest and trust in Him. And so, having invited His disciples to believe in Him, Christ shared comforting words. He assured, "In my Father's house [i.e., in heaven] are many dwelling places [i.e., there is room enough for all who will come]; for I go to prepare a place for you" (Jn. 14:2). Christ further promised to return personally and to take them to heaven. Again, with the imminent departure of Christ, these are the words which the disciples needed to hear.

My Christian friend, these may not be the particular words of comfort which you need to hear right now in order to help your troubled heart, but if you are going to receive peace and comfort, then you too will need to hear some comforting words. Hence, you should meditate on Christ's own words and the words of Scripture with full faith. A troubled heart becomes a trusting heart through Christ's comforting words, which results in a peaceful heart. One time I had a troubled heart, having come aside to examine my own heart in the presence of God and in the light of His Word. I discovered that I was not where I want to be spiritually. God, in His goodness and mercy, was pleased to reveal more of the iniquity and evil that lurk within; and my heart was troubled. While I was meditating, the Lord directed me to 1 Samuel 10:9 – "God changed his [Saul's] heart." If God can change one heart, then He can change another. With this verse, my troubled heart was comforted. God desires to comfort your troubled heart too. He is abundantly able to meet your need. Won't you trust and rest in Him?

~ 4 ~

The Dark Moments of Life

We recently witnessed the funerals of some of the innocent children who were slaughtered by the child molester, Thomas Hamilton, in Dunblane, Scotland (March, 1996). As I reflected upon this tragic and evil event, I became regretful. I was unsettled because I thought that these children died so young – they were only five and six years old. They will never have the opportunity to enjoy and experience the various aspects of life – never will they know the thrill of a first date; never will they know the excitement of a graduation; never will they know the joy of owning their first car; never will they know the happiness of getting married and having children. Such thoughts made me melancholic.

Now, some view human suffering and death, especially premature death, as a mystery. How does one really explain it? Charles Lamb (1775-1835), the English essayist and critic, called premature death the "riddle of destiny." In his poem, "On an Infant Dying, as Soon as Born," he writes:

I saw wherein the shroud did lurk

A curious frame of Nature's work;

A flow'ret crushed in the bud,

A nameless piece of babyhood,

Was in her cradle-coffin lying;

Extinct, with scarce the sense of dying:

So soon to exchange the imprisoning womb

For darker closets of the tomb!

She did but ope an eye, and put

A clear beam forth, then straight up shut

For the long dark: ne'er more to see

Through glasses of mortality.

Riddle of destiny, who can show

What thy short visit meant, or know

What thy errand here below?

Life entails seemingly meaningless, dark moments which evoke the question: 'Why?' Do you ask yourself that question? I recently heard that an innocent mother was shot down in her own drive way with her child witnessing – in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why? An eighteen year old man was shot to death because someone wanted his wallet. Why? A thirty six year old executive, being faced with the possible charge of extortion, committed suicide. Why? The other day, a young girl ate under-cooked hamburger and contracted chronic kidney disease. Why? Life consists of seemingly meaningless, dark moments.

God orders the dark moments of life

Behind the dark moments of life lies the inscrutable wisdom of God. Behind the meaningless suffering and death of this life, there is a divine providence. The Scripture reads that the Lord God says, "I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these" (Is. 45:6b,7). God orders the good, as well as the evil (i.e., destruction and tragedy). He ordains prosperity, as well as brings about misfortune. He is the God of providence. He superintends all the affairs of life, although He uses means. The providence of God clearly has a dark side. A number of years ago, my wife was carrying our first child. We were ecstatic. When she moved into her second trimester, she experienced complications, and as a result we lost the child. That was a difficult experience. My wife understandably became depressed; and yet we realized and acknowledged at that time (although we did not fully understand) that everything happens according to the will and plan of God. Even in our confusion, we realized that God is sovereign. We realized that He orders affairs according to the good pleasure of His will and that our response must be one of silence and faith, knowing that He ever remains God.

God is indeed a God of the dark moments of life – "creating the darkness... creating calamity." When rough times come, when stressful times come, there may be a tendency to say, "Well, it is just bad luck, or it is the cruel finger of fate." However, the rough times and the stressful times are not the result of bad luck, nor the result of the cruel finger of fate; nor are these times necessarily an expression of God's punishment for our personal sin and immorality. I was talking to a young man whose life started to go wrong. He was encountering one problem after another, and he concluded that God was punishing him. Just because problems and difficulties come into your life, it does not necessarily mean that you have sinned. It means that God has His plan and His purposes, and that they will be fulfilled. God does not have to give an answer to us, because He is God. When things go wrong in your life, do you believe that God is punishing you? When your prayers are not answered according to your liking, do you doubt God and wonder whether He really cares for you?

The Biblical perspective on these calamities and misfortunes, which comprise the fabric of life, is to realize that they are the result of God's wise and inscrutable will. The brothers of the Biblical character Joseph sold him into slavery. He was then taken to a foreign land, Egypt, by people he did not know. While serving in Egypt, he was thrown into jail on trumped up charges. If you had been Joseph, how would you have explained all these bad things that were happening to you? How did Joseph explain them? Joseph had the right perspective. In explaining to his brothers why these apparently bad things happened to him, he said (now having been appointed a ruler in charge of the food supply during the famine in Egypt), "And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here [by selling me into bondage], but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Gn. 45:7,8). Again, Joseph explained (attempting to allay his brothers' fears of reprisal), "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid" (Gn. 50:20,21a). Why is God pleased to use evil in order to achieve His purposes? I am not sure, but He does. God has His reasons which are known only to Himself. Yet, again, we read, "If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?" (Am. 3:6).

God's tool for the dark moments of life

Although the Lord sovereignly orders all things, He is pleased to use means in bringing about the various calamities in our lives. Satan and his demons are directly responsible for much of the evil and tragedy that befall us. God permits Satan and his demons to have access to us, though their actual influence is limited by Him. So, the apostle Paul says, "And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself. Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness'" (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Even our Lord Jesus Christ, in the days of His earthly existence, was not exempt from the providentially ordained satanic onslaught. After His baptism, He 'was driven' into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. At the end of His earthly ministry, Satan entered Judas who betrayed Christ, which resulted in affliction and crucifixion.

Now, God is not the author of sin, but He uses sinful people, as well as evil acts and events to fulfil His purposes. He uses the evil which is already evident in His fallen creation to fulfil His plan. He cannot perform moral evil, yet He superintends the whole of history, in its manifold aspects, in His infinitely wise, and ultimately inscrutable, way, by interweaving the various elements of His fallen creation in order to achieve His will. Of course, with the fact that God uses evil for holy designs, we are unquestionably faced with a mystery. On the one hand, we have divine providence and, on the other hand, we have human responsibility. The two truths seem in conflict – a seeming paradox. It is ultimately unexplainable that God works through human responsibility to fulfil His will.

This paradox is even seen in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. The apostle Peter pronounced, "Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst just as you yourselves know – this Man, you delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men, put Him to death" (Acts 2:22f.). Men killed the Lord Jesus according to God's sovereign plan, and yet they were still responsible; that is a paradox. We must hold both those truths in tension: the providence of God in ordering all things and the moral responsibility of people who act and choose in the free exercise of their wills. It is like two railroad tracks running parallel beside each other. Theoretically, they do not converge; but from one perspective, standing in between them and looking into the distance, they seem to converge. Similarly, these two truths converge – are reconciled – in the mind of God.

Accepting God's dark moments of life

In knowing that God sovereignly reigns, we need to bow to the dark providence of God, whatever that dark providence may be – whether cancer, or the loss of a child, or the persistent torment in the mind. We are neither to defiantly challenge Him or to faithlessly question Him, nor to angrily react to Him. Our response should be one of humble acceptance. Further, we need to respond maturely. We should do all that we can do, within our means and ability, to address and resolve the situation. The providence of God does not mean that we must become fatalists. Yet, having done all that we can responsibly do, we must then entrust ourselves to God, declaring that He is sovereign. A few years ago, I was working in a Christian institution. I disliked various aspects of the job. I sought another ministry. I tried different ways to get out, yet God shut every door. I remained there for six years. I realized that God wanted me there; He had something to teach me. I had to yield to His providence. God had to humble and break me so that I would learn to bow to His dark providence.

All forms of suffering, for the believer, are under the supervision and control of God. For instance, God allowed Satan to afflict Job. Job suffered physically – he contracted skin boils, elephantiasis. He suffered psychologically and emotionally – the man was bereft, he was confused. He suffered spiritually – he became embittered with God. Now, there is a religious design to all this suffering. The furnace of affliction, the anvil of pain, is God's way of bringing about spiritual and moral perfection. He is molding and refining us into the image of His Son.

Reactions to God's dark moments of life

At this juncture, there are at least two concerns that may arise. First, maybe you are saying, in light of what has been said, that this aspect of the providence of God seems to make God unjust, cruel, and insensitive. I remember a young man reacting to this teaching, saying, "If the Christian God is this kind of a God, if He is the one who creates the darkness and calamity and circumstantial evil; if He allows millions of children to starve, hundreds of thousands of fetuses to be aborted, and innumerable injustices to be committed against the homeless and the oppressed, then I want nothing to do with this God." Is that what you have been thinking? God has an answer for you; He says, "Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker – an earthenware vessel among the vessels of the earth! Will the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, 'He has no hands'? Woe to him who says to a father, 'What are you begetting?' Or to a woman, 'To what are you giving birth?'" (Is. 45:9f.). We need to be very careful how we evaluate and judge God. We need to be very careful that we do not evaluate and judge God according to our limited, faulty, and tainted understanding. We need to be very careful that we do not place demands and expectations upon God to conform to our standards, as if He does not know what He is doing. He is God, and our response is to put our hands over our mouths and bow to His dark providence.

The second reaction that is often raised against this teaching of God's dark providence in the Christian's life is that such a teaching denies the truth that God is a God of love. Doesn't God care for people? Doesn't He care that people are being killed in Sri Lanka? Doesn't He care that children are starving in various parts of Africa? Doesn't the Christian Bible teach that God is a God of love? Love is often severe. Parents do not spank their children because they hate them, but because they love them. Parents sometimes must exercise discipline, and sometimes harsh discipline, not because they hate their children, but because they want the best for them. Similarly, "Whom the Lord loves He disciplines" (Hb. 12:6). We may not always understand the reason for the Lord's disciplining; it may not always make sense to us. Yet, what we do not understand now, we will understand later, and then we shall praise and glorify His holy name.

Resting in the God of the dark moments of life

Consider your work situation, or your family situation, or your relational situation, or your financial situation. Is the situation a bit rough right now? It is not that God is not listening to you or that He does not care. It is in the midst of one's pain and suffering that one comes to acknowledge God to be God. When everything in your world seems to argue against any humble and accepting response to the calamities of life, but rather encourages you to raise the defiant fist to heaven and to ask God to give an answer; and yet, in spite of the dark providence, you can still bow the knee and acknowledge Him to be God, then at that point you have entered into the reality of faith and of worship; and not only do you have God, but God has you. William Cowper (1731-1800), penned the following words which sum up well this dark side of divine providence. He writes:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill,

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

As we look at our world, we realize that it has 'gone mad.' It has become chaotic, and yet behind all the chaos and confusion, God is fulfilling His inscrutable purposes. This should be your confidence and consolation, my Christian friend – "I am the LORD, and there is no other. The One forming the light and creating the darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity. I am the LORD who does all these."

A Prayer

Father, we confess that we do not understand Your mind. Therefore we must walk in faith. Father, forgive us if we have tried to bring You down to our level, implicitly expecting You to give us an answer that is appeasing and acceptable to us; asking You to give an account of the things that You do in our lives; falsely believing that the suffering and pain are a result of Your disfavour or Your punishment. Father, forgive us for not walking in faith and saying again, even as Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right." Father, forgive us for becoming angry and embittered when our marriages have not gone well, and when our children have been rebellious; when we have experienced seasons of dryness of soul; when we have felt the burden and pressures of life while working with various irritating and obnoxious co-workers. Forgive us, Father, for becoming upset and questioning Your goodness when our dreams have not been realized and our desires have not been fulfilled; and in the self-deception of our minds, thinking that our anger and our upset, in some sense, will cause You to respond to us, as if You need our love and our allegiance. Forgive us, our Father; and by Your grace, and through Your grace, grant that we may understand Your sovereignty in our lives. Teach us what it means to accept the dark moments of life, bowing to Your providence, knowing that You are God and beside You there is none else. Give us some understanding, our Father; and, short of understanding, strengthen our faith. For we pray in Your Son's name, and for His sake. Amen.

~ 5 ~

The Silence of God

God can withdraw His gifts (not His objective gifts of justification, sealing, adoption, etc.) for reasons known only unto Himself. He can withdraw the subjective gifts of peace, joy, comfort, etc. for a season, in accordance with His inscrutable purposes. When God is pleased to withdraw His gifts for a season, the result can be an unsettling sense of forsakenness, of feeling alone. This sense of abandonment by God is a spiritually painful experience for the Christian. God has become silent. Do you know what the silence of God is like – having enjoyed the warmth of His nearness in terms of joy and assurance, having felt the comfort of His presence, and then to feel His absence?

Now, you may know that God loves you. You may know that He cares for you. You may know that He will continue to provide for you; and yet you may have the indescribable experience of feeling alone. You may still profess the God Who created you and Who saved you, and yet that grace of His presence may be withdrawn; and you consequently say in your heart, "Where is God?" I believe that this is the experience of many Christians, although they would not readily admit it. John Bunyan (1628-1688), the Puritan preacher and writer, experienced the withdrawal of the favourable presence of God. In his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he writes:

This temptation lasted for about a year and all this time I had to give up Bible reading and prayer, for it was then that I was most distressed with these blasphemies. There would be sudden thoughts to question all that I read. Or again, my mind would be strangely snatched away that I could not remember so much as a sentence that I had just completed.

I was also greatly troubled when I attempted to pray during this time. Sometimes I have felt Satan behind me, pulling my clothes. He would also continually be at me in the time of prayer to "get it done, break off, make haste, you have prayed enough, stay no longer." Sometimes also he would cast his wicked thoughts into my mind; for instance, that I ought to pray to him.

And when my thoughts wandered away, and I tried to fix them upon God, then the Tempter with great force presented to my heart and fancy the form of a bush or a bull – that I could pray to one of them. And he so got hold my mind that it was as if I could think of nothing else or pray to nothing else but to these.

Yet there were times, too, when I had some strong feelings of the presence of God and of the reality and truth of His gospel. And at such times, my heart poured itself out with inexpressible groanings. My whole soul was in every word. I cried out with terrible pangs of pain to God that He would be merciful to me, but it was no good. I thought at once that God merely mocked at these prayers, saying as the holy angels listened, "This poor simple wretch keeps after Me as though I had nothing else to do with My mercy but to give it to such a one as he. Alas, poor soul, how you are fooled! It is not for such as you to have favor with the Highest."

Bemoaning the silence of God

That was Bunyan's experience. And maybe this is your experience. Maybe you have reached the point where you do not feel like reading your Bible or praying. Maybe the Tempter has come and has put wicked thoughts into your mind, even blasphemies, and you are wondering what in the world has happened; you may even wonder whether you are 'losing it,' or whether you will, at the last, become an apostate. Are you experiencing the silence of God? This was the disturbing experience of the Psalmist, as recorded in Psalm 42. This Psalm records that the Psalmist was apparently exiled from Jerusalem; he was away from temple worship, but we are not given the reason why. He was now residing in the northern part of the country, the place where the Jordan River rises, near Mount Mizar.

In this distant land, the Psalmist longed for the worship of God. He longed for God's presence. Now, God's presence was identified with the temple in Jerusalem, and so, in longing for the presence of God, he thus longed for the temple where God was pleased to manifest His particular glory. So, he exclaimed, "As a deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?" (vss. 1,2). The Psalmist hungered and thirsted after fellowship with God. He was separated from God geographically and communally, as well as personally and experientially, with the emphasis being on the latter. This separation anxiety brought about inner pain to him. He bemoaned, "These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival" (vs. 4).

The Psalmist was in deep pain not only because he was separated from God, but, more so, because God seemed to be separated from Him. God had distanced Himself; He was 'nowhere to be found.' There was no visible tokens of His favour and blessing; no clear evidences of His grace or mercy. God seemingly had forgotten him; and in his anguish, the Psalmist cried out in despair. God had become silent to Him. And it was this excruciating fact that his enemies 'threw in his face.' So, he grieved, "My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (vs. 3). His own heart remorsefully confirmed the truth of his enemies' taunts concerning the divine absence – "I will say to God, my Rock, 'Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?' As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (vss. 9,10).

Again, do you know what the silence of God is like? When I was going to seminary, I had an opportunity to preach in Ottawa. The morning service went fairly well; the congregation responded positively. I was to preach again in the evening. That afternoon I had lunch with the elderly pastor of the church. In talking with him, we slipped into talking about 'personalities' (that is a dangerous thing!) – "Did you hear about this man...Did you hear what so and so did...etc?" It was nothing less than gossip. Such talk entails criticism and fault-finding. I knew at the time that my behaviour was wrong. I knew that the Lord was displeased. This belief and understanding were confirmed that evening – when I later stood up to preach, there was a terrible sense of the withdrawal of God. I stood in the pulpit alone. My heart could have cried out, "Where is your God?" Certainly, Satan was mockingly asking that.

Maybe Satan has come to you and has whispered in your heart, or has spoken through unsuspecting people, "Where is God?" Maybe you have felt the oppression of the enemy, and it has weighed heavy upon you. Maybe your husband or your wife continues to be a source of aggravation and irritation, and you have come to God and have prayed to Him, pouring out your heart before Him, and yet there has been no change; and you hear that question ringing in your mind, "Where is God?" Or, maybe the financial negotiations in which you had been busily engaged, trying to stabilize the present situation, broke down, even though you diligently sought the Lord about it, and in that moment of weakness you hear that question resounding in your mind – the whisper of the Tempter – "Where is God?" Or, maybe that bad habit that you continue to struggle with, which has often overcome you, became a serious matter of prayer and discipline, and yet its power seemed to increase, rather than decrease, and, falling again, you heard the Tempter mockingly ask, "Where is God?" And God is deathly silent.

Despairing because of the silence of God

The experience of the pain of God's silence – the absence of His felt-presence – may result in gloom or depression. The Psalmist uttered in soliloquy, "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?" (vs. 5a). The man was obviously overwhelmed; he was overcome by the stressful situation. He was confused. And, as a result, he slipped into depression. Accordingly, he talked to himself. Do you know what that is like? You are so disturbed, you are so upset, that you begin to talk to yourself – "What is going on? What is the problem? What is happening? Get 'hold of' yourself." That is a desperate situation, but self-talk can be quite medicinal during times of confusion associated with despair.

Outward circumstances, conflictual relationships, and spiritual upheaval can cause inner anguish, despair, or anxiety. For instance, a number of years ago, I worked at a Christian school, and I had a run-in with the administration. It was a conflictual relationship. For a while, I was rather anxious and disturbed, similar to that of the Psalmist. The experience of despair, depression, or inner disturbance is not wrong per se. Such reactions are a natural human response to the stresses and difficulties of life. For instance, the Lord Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, was burdened and stressed out to the point of sweating, as it were, great drops of blood. Our Lord was in great anguish of soul because of His circumstances. So, the experience of depression, despair, or anguish is not wrong per se; but what is wrong is the fact that one may fail to confront and overcome such emotional and spiritual darkness. Here the Psalmist was honest with himself and with his condition. He did not deny his despair. He did not allow spiritual pride to deny that he was hurting, that he was struggling, but he courageously responded to his plight.

Responding to the pain of the silence of God

First, the Psalmist challenged or confronted the despair – "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?" (vss. 5a,11a). He tried 'to get hold' of himself. The man challenged his emotions. I know a Christian lady who was feeling somewhat depressed. Her response was something like this, "I feel like being depressed. I want to remain depressed. There is some kind of strange pleasure in being depressed. Right now I like being self-piteous. I like feeling sorry for myself." Is that your experience? Do you say, "No one else is going to feel sorry for me, so I may as well feel sorry for myself. No one else is going to pay attention to me, so I may as well pay attention to myself." That is pride and self-centredness. It is simply sin.

Second, in confronting his despair, in seeking 'to get hold' of himself, the Psalmist sought to acquire a right focus or perspective. The Psalmist self-consciously encouraged himself to place his hope and trust in God – "Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence" (vs. 5b). Though he did not feel the presence of God, he considered the person of God; resting in Who God is and what He has done. He made a self-conscious effort to focus on God, to have a right perspective. We must remember that regardless of our circumstances or situation, He is God and He deserves the response of trust and hope. Is that your response? That is what John Bunyan did. He continually tried to turn his attention to God, even though that was painful, for Satan took advantage of that holy effort to implant blasphemies in his mind.

Third, in actually hoping in God, the Psalmist specifically remembered the goodness and love of God, and that, in turn, fueled his hope – "Therefore I remember Thee" (vs. 6b). He did not feel God's presence, but he deliberately made recollection of Him. Accordingly, in your spiritual exile, take pains to remember God. In remembering God, the Psalmist could triumphantly say, "The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime" (vs. 8a). He did not say this because he 'felt it;' he said it because he knew it, because he remembered Who God is, and what He had done, and what He could yet do. So, in your spiritual exile, when God seemingly has put you on an island, separate from His grace and His mercy (in terms of knowing His peace and His joy), you need to remember what He has told you in the light as you, for a season, must walk in the dark.

Fourth, in remembering God, the Psalmist realized that this 'dark' situation had come from the hand of God. God brings calamity and tragedy into our lives (Is. 45:7). The Psalmist realized that the sovereign Lord had brought this situation into his life – "Deep calls to deep at the sound of Thy waterfalls; all Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled over me" (vs. 7). He, no doubt, could say, "It was God Who caused this flood to come in to my life; it was God Who allowed my footing to slip. It is God Who has overwhelmed me." And, thus, he said, "I will say to God, my Rock, 'Why has Thou forgotten me?'" (vs. 9a). Now, no reason is given as to why the Psalmist had to go through this painful experience. It does not say that he had sinned and that God was punishing him. It does not say that God was teaching him a lesson. No reason is given, and yet the Psalmist bowed to the sovereignty of God, recognizing that God had ordered it. Do you? When it seems that God has distanced Himself from you, when it seems that God is not answering your prayers, when it seems that God does not care, allowing you to go through some difficult situation – dealing with that irritating co-worker or that unkind spouse – do you realize that they are God's breakers, His waters, rolling over you? Do you realize that it is coming from the hand of God, and that He is not obligated to give you a reason? If we understand that the withdrawal of God's presence has been ordered and ordained by Him, then that understanding should give us comfort. Even though we may be confused as to why God has allowed it, just knowing that He has allowed it can give us comfort. The silence of God has been the experience of God's people throughout history. Even the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 details this fact, providing us with comforting insight. We read, for instance:

God, who is most wise, righteous and gracious, frequently allows His own people to fall for a time into a variety of temptations, and to experience the sinfulness of their own hearts. This He does in order to chastise them for sins they have committed, or to teach them humility by revealing to them the hidden strength of evil and deceitfulness remaining in their hearts. His purpose is also to cause them to realize their need to depend fully and at all times upon Himself, and to help them to guard against sin in the future. In these and other ways His just and holy purposes are worked out, so that all that happens to His elect ones is by His appointment, for His glory, and for their good (ch. 5, sec. 5).

Fifth, the Psalmist, in recognizing the sovereign hand of God, was in constant prayer, persevering until the Lord would command His lovingkindness. This psalm is laced with prayer – "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God...O my God [he moves from a somber soliloquy to solemn prayer], my soul is in despair within me...And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life" (vss. 2a,6a,8b). During your dark night of the soul, when God is pleased to withdraw His felt-presence (again, for reasons known only to Himself), and knowing that at the appointed time He will command His lovingkindness, you need to be in constant prayer until He again reveals Himself. You need to pour your heart out to the Lord. At this point, self-help books will not assist you; contemporary psychological techniques will not assist you; even the reading of your Bible may not assist you – not when God has withdrawn Himself. It is not a psychological or emotional problem; it is a spiritual issue. And at these times, you simply need to resign yourself to the truth that God is God, that He is sovereign; and when He chooses, He will return and then you will again see His glory.

Can you identify with the Psalmist in feeling distant and separated from God? Is that your situation? If it is, then I feel for you because I have been there, and it is a terrible place to be. I know what it is like to turn everywhere to find comfort, and to discover that there is no comfort. At that time, you long for a moment of peace and rest from the upheaval of your mind and the agitation of your soul, and there is no peace or rest to be found. My Christian friend, hope in God. Follow in the faithful steps of father Abraham who hoped against hope, trusting in God. God will command His lovingkindness at the appointed time. When He has tried you, you will come forth as gold. You need to persevere. Do not stop praying. He hears your cry, and He sees your tears. When He has brought you to the point where you are more humble, and you are more willing to serve Him, then He will return, and you shall again praise Him. So, be encouraged. Be of good cheer!

~ 6 ~

The Mercy of God

My wife and I had the opportunity to attend a friend's wedding reception. We were sitting at a table with a very delightful family. We warmed up to one another in just a matter of minutes. In the course of our sharing together, this family disclosed to us some of the misery through which they had together persevered. As a sufferer of leukemia, the father was informed that he had only two to six weeks to live. The doctors subjected him to intensive chemotherapy, but after he had suffered two strokes they had to stop that treatment. The mother suffered from uterine cancer. Apparently her state is stable right now. She also had lost a baby at birth and, later on in life, their eldest son was killed in a car accident. Indeed, this family has endured much misery.

Misery is the condition of great suffering or distress. The complication of misery is that it often leads to despair; and despair may lead to a desire for death. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), in his poem, "Two Voices," writes,

A still small voice spake unto me,

"Thou art so full of misery,

were it not better not to be?"

Have you ever been in such an emotional (-spiritual) state? The tragic national story of the experience of Sue Rodrigez continues to press upon my consciousness. She suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease. She requested mercy killing; she sought mercy killing; she eventually secured mercy killing. Her misery was so great that she eventually desired death. The human condition is the story of human misery – persistent unhappiness, bitter disappointment, severe loss, dashed dreams, broken hearts, etc. If such is your present experience, then you may find the message of Psalm 86 helpful and comforting. In this Psalm, the Psalmist begins with a plea for mercy, "Incline Thine ear, O LORD, and answer me; for I am afflicted and needy. Do preserve my soul, for I am a godly man; O Thou my God, save Thy servant who trusts in Thee. Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to Thee I cry all day long" (vss. 1-3). This plea for mercy sets the tone for the whole Psalm. So, the Psalmist concludes, "Show me a sign for good, that those who hate me may see it, and be ashamed, because Thou, O LORD, hast helped me and comforted me" (vs. 17). Every plea for mercy presupposes the condition of misery. C. H. Spurgeon (1836-1892) once said, "Misery is the master argument for mercy with God."

Mercy is reserved for the helpless

God's mercy is the main, and often the only, recourse to which we may apply when we are in our state of misery, and thus we need to adopt a disposition similar to that of the Psalmist – a dependent disposition. We need to come to the Lord in our weakness and cast ourselves upon Him. Rather than having a bulldog mentality which says, "Well, I am going to put down my head and vehemently pump my legs, and barge through the trying situation;" we need a submissive mentality. Rather than having a carnal self-confident attitude which says, "Well I have been able to work myself out of a mess in the past, and this is just another challenge. There are still clever ideas and new schemes that I can employ in order to get over this difficulty;" we need a humble attitude. Do you have the mentality of a bulldog or the attitude of carnal self-confidence? If so, then you will not plead for God's mercy, and thus, most likely, will not receive it. The plea for mercy presupposes a recognition of one's own inability to really handle the trying situation. It means that you will have to admit your weakness, your need. It means that you will have to conclude that you do not have all the answers, nor the adequate resources. It will mean that you will have to admit that you are not as tough as you thought you were, nor as sophisticated as you would deem yourself to be.

Some people exclude themselves from the mercy of God because they will not humble themselves and admit their weakness and helplessness. People's egos are often too big; personal pride often runs very deep. For these people to admit their weakness and helplessness is too humiliating, too degrading; their polished image would be tarnished. So, these proud, self-sufficient people pontificate, "I have been able to weather it in the past; I am sure that I will be able to do so again today or tomorrow. What, me say 'Die;' me throw in the towel; me raise the white flag? What, me grovel?" Yes, if you want God's mercy. You need to be man or woman enough, to recognize that you are weak, that you are in need, regardless of how humiliating and degrading it may be.

I was speaking to a young man last week and he confidently said to me in our conversation, "God helps those who help themselves;" to which I responded, "God helps those who cannot help themselves." In my second year of seminary, I entered into perhaps one of the darkest periods of my life. It was a time of great emotional upheaval and spiritual gloom, which persisted for some time. The internal struggle was fiercely intense. I did not share this struggle with anyone. I felt that I couldn't. I suffered alone. On one occasion, the pain had become so intense that I simply cast myself prostrate on my study floor, and cried out to the Lord for mercy. I came to realize that the Lord allowed that period of darkness to enter my life because He had some spiritual weaning and whittling away to do. In my study, I was confronted with my brokenness, and thus realized my absolute dependency on God. The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.

Mercy is received through prayer

Further, the plea for mercy necessitates the context of prayer. The Psalmist petitions, "Make glad the soul of Thy servant, for to Thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul...Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; and give heed to the voice of my supplications!" (vss. 4,6). Prayer is the demonstrable posture of dependency. Prayer is the visible acknowledgement that we cannot help ourselves, that God is our only recourse, and that we must cast ourselves on Him for mercy. Moreover, as with the Psalmist, we should pray consistently and constantly. That spiritual darkness and emotional upheaval into which I entered in my second year of seminary persisted for months, and some aspects of the ordeal persisted for years. At times, I felt that my mind was in torment. I turned to different self-help resources; I read different books; I explored different solutions – seeking for some relief. I listened to many sermons – waiting to hear the voice of God – and day after day, week after week, month after month, I came up empty-handed. I continued to cry to God, saying, "Lord, how long?" Yet, through prayer, God finally answered. God has His timing and when His servants have been tested and further refined through the fire, then He responds in His mercy, and He visits His servants with joyful deliverance.

Do you know what it is like to be spiritually broken? Or are you are still living on the outer edge of the faith? You will know very little of the full life of God until you have come to the point of being broken; because it is in your brokenness that God is pleased to surprise you with His healing and His felt-presence. God does indeed hear the cry of the afflicted. His ears are attentive to the prayers of the needy. At His appointed time He comes and blows out the testing fires of the furnace and leads His people beside the still waters, and they finally rest in His green pastures. Again, prayer is the context of pleading for the mercy of God.

Praying confidently for mercy

We can be confident that God hears us when we pray, even though the answer may be delayed. The Psalmist confidently prayed, "For Thou, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee...In the day of my trouble I shall call upon Thee, for Thou wilt answer me" (vss. 5,7). God will eventually come and deliver His people because He has pledged Himself to the welfare and care of them. God Word's encourages us to keep praying, to keep persevering, because we will eventually get through the darkness to the other side to His joyous, glorious light. Are you in agony of soul now, and possibly suffering alone? Is your mind now tormented with a pain that seems to be beyond the reach and grasp of any possible comfort that you may presently apply? Is your misery tearing you apart, being of such a nature that you feel that you cannot share it with anyone because they just would not understand what you are actually enduring? Be encouraged; you are not alone, even though you may feel alone. God does hear the cry of the afflicted, and He is moved by their affliction. Remember that we have a great High Priest Who sympathizes with our weakness; therefore, we can pray confidently.

Now you may say, "But I do not deserve God's mercy. I am not worthy of His mercy. I am not worthy of His attention and care. Why would God be interested in me?" In response, I think of the account of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) to whom a mother appealed, asking for the pardon of her son. Napoleon answered her, "Well, this is his second offence and thus he deserves death. Justice demands death." This pleading mother retorted, "Justice demands death, but I plead for mercy." Napoleon replied, "He does not deserve mercy." To which the mother responded, "Sire, it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and I am asking you for mercy." Napoleon capitulated and gave her son back to her. Mercy is never deserved; it is graciously granted. We ask God for mercy, not because of who we are, but because of Who He is – the embodiment and expression of love. There is mercy for you, if you want it. We serve a merciful God.

The basis for confident praying for mercy

The basis on which we can plead confidently for God's mercy is the personal possession of a proper picture of God. The Psalmist affirms, "There is no one like Thee among the gods, O Lord; nor are there any works like Thine. All nations whom Thou has made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; and they shall glorify Thy name. For Thou art great and doest wondrous deeds; Thou alone art God" (vss. 8-10). The Psalmist had a proper picture of God and that instilled confidence in him. He had a 'big God.' For the Psalmist, absolutely nothing was too challenging or too difficult for his God. How big is your God? In these verses, the Psalmist sets forth the incomparableness of God (vs. 8); there is no one like Him, absolutely no one. He is in a class all His own. The Psalmist sets forth the sovereignty and the majesty of God (vs. 9). He created the nations, He created the worlds; all peoples will come and worship before Him. The Psalmist sets forth the power and the immensity of God (vs. 10). He is great and does miraculous works; and so he concludes that God is unique and unrivaled. When you have a proper picture of God – a big God – you will pray confidently, and hence you will hang on until God 'comes through' for you. Are you hanging on? Now you may have to hang on for years, but He will 'come through.'

Mercy to meet all our needs

So what is your particular misery? Maybe you have a physical misery. Well, there is mercy for you. My mother recently underwent her second knee replacement surgery. She apparently has a low tolerance for pain. She experienced a real ordeal in rehabilitation trying to endure the pain. In the beginning stage of therapy on her second knee replacement, the medical team, for some reason, would not give her any strong pain medication in order to dull the pain so that she could comfortably endure the therapy. She found that experience very trying and taxing. Subsequently, another doctor arrived on the scene and prescribed a strong pain medication in order to dull the pain a little. She felt relief, and gained courage to persevere through the therapy. My mother inquired, "Well, why couldn't they have done this before?" Humanly speaking – this particular doctor wasn't around. Divinely speaking – it wasn't God's appointed time. Maybe your misery is emotional. Well there is mercy for you. I referred above to a family which has endured much misery. But what encouraged my heart in hearing their story was the testimony of the mother who said that God had seen her through the ordeal, that He had strengthened her, that He had helped her. Losing one's children is undeniably painful, yet this mother experienced the comfort of God. Maybe your misery is spiritual. Well, there is mercy for you. This past year I taught a Christian young man who is from South Africa. When he came to Toronto, he personally embraced "a theology of suspicion." He questioned many aspects of the Christian faith. He wrestled with doubt. He couldn't even read his Bible. He had difficulty praying. God brought him through some trying experiences this past year. To my delight, I found a note in my box from him at the end of the Spring semester. This young man shared with me that God had worked in his heart, and now he is able to read his Bible. That's good news! God is a God of mercy. What is your particular misery – physical, emotional, spiritual? My friend, there is mercy at the Fount for you. Come and drink. As the Psalmist confidently asserts, "In the day of my trouble, I shall call upon Thee, for Thou wilt answer me" (vs. 7). Thank God for His mercy!

~ 7 ~

Looking for the Consolation

I recently received a brochure from Wildwood Travel Inc. It is an agency that, in part, organizes trips to the Holy Land. I found it interesting that on the front of the brochure, there is the inscription: Israel is Waiting. The natural interpretation is: Israel is waiting for you to visit it. Yet, as I considered that statement, I could not help but see the prophetic significance of it, namely, different ones in the land of Israel are still waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the King to come to Zion and to restore all things. In fact, throughout history, many Jews have been waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the King to usher in His kingdom. As Christians, we know that the King has already come. About 2000 years ago, Christ the King was born in a stable (or a cave) and was placed in a manger. But even then, when the Messiah King entered into time and history, there were those in the land of Israel who were waiting for Him. In Luke 2:25, we read, "And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous [i.e., he externally conformed to the Law of God] and devout [i.e., he was a pious man], looking for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him." The statement that I want us to concentrate on in this chapter is: "Looking for the consolation of Israel."

Living in a state of expectancy

This phenomenon of 'looking for the consolation of Israel' is variously described in the New Testament. For instance, in Luke 2:38, we read, "And at that very moment [Jesus having been brought into the temple as a baby to be presented to the Lord] she [Anna, the prophetess] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." Later on in this Gospel, we read the account of the burial of Jesus – "And behold, a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council [i.e., the Sanhedrin] a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action [to crucify Jesus]), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God" (Lu. 23:50). The phrase 'waiting for' is a translation from the same Greek word that is also translated 'looking for'. This phrase 'looking for', as used in Luke 2:25, conveys the idea of expecting or anticipating, and thus, waiting for. Now, this notion of 'looking for' denotes at least one of two meanings. First, for example, I am an individual who is very time conscious; maybe I am too obsessed with time. I recently left the house without my watch. Subsequently, I returned home to look for – to search for – my watch. That is not the sense in which the phrase is used here in Luke 2. Second, I recently thought that a particular letter would be delivered. I was looking for – anxiously expecting – an acknowledgement of receipt of a parcel that I had sent. That is the sense in which the phrase is used in Luke 2.

Simeon was waiting expectantly for the consolation of Israel. As Christians, we too ought to be in a constant mode of expectancy; and such should be the case for at least two reasons. First, generally speaking, God has promised full redemption at the return of Jesus Christ. We have yet to enter into the full experience of God's glorious salvation; and so, as Christians, we are to be eagerly awaiting that full experience. We should joyfully anticipate Christ breaking through the clouds to gather His people and to usher in the new heavens and earth. Titus 2:11-13 reads, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for [same Greek term] the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Christ Jesus." We find similar language in Jude 21 which instructs: "Keeping yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously [same Greek term] for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life." So, as those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus, Christians should be living in a state of expectancy. We ought to be living in a mode of waiting for the second advent of Jesus Christ, that is, looking for the final consolation of Israel. I spoke to a Christian young man a little while ago and he cannot wait to leave this world. He was disturbed that he must continue in this world which he considers to be evil and wicked. He is waiting for God to take him home, or for Christ to come; and that should typify all believers. Are you in a mode of expectancy? Are you looking for the consolation of Israel?

The second reason, specifically speaking, why we should be in a constant mode of expectancy is that God has promised His continual supply of grace and mercy. God has promised to meet our every need, to address our every concern, to respond to our every anxiety. He has promised, and therefore we ought to be looking for it. As you wrestle with that angry disposition, you ought to be in a mode of looking for God's grace and mercy in bringing inner peace and meekness. As you wrestle with your nagging prayerlessness, you ought to be looking for God's grace and mercy in bringing renewed devotion and commitment. As you wrestle with the absence of compassion and kindness, you ought to be looking for God's mercy and grace in bringing sincere love. Not only has God promised to give us grace and mercy for our hour of need, but He is even prepared to grant His presence, which assures that those needs will indeed be met. Thus, Christians, in other words, should be living in faith and hope. Psalm 101:1,2a reads, "I will sing of lovingkindness and justice, to Thee, O LORD, I will sing praises. I will give heed to the blameless way. When wilt Thou come to me?" The Psalmist inquired, in effect, "Lord, I am waiting for You. When will You visit me?" And this cry should be constantly on our lips, "Lord, when will You come to me? When will Your grace find me out and Your mercy overtake me? When will You visit me, Lord? Will it be when I turn to meditation? Will it be when I bow the knee and I enter into prayer? Will it be when I demonstrate that act of love (for God is present in the act of love)?" Is this the cry of your heart?

You should not become weary; and I suspect that some who are reading this chapter may be. There is a tendency to become weary when you have to wait. You need patience. God wants you to wait because during the time of waiting, your heart is being prepared for His visitation; and there is no divine visitation without preparation. The longer one waits, the more spiritually hungry, and even the more spiritually desperate, one often becomes. And in that desperation, in that hungering, one may become impatient. But the watchword is: Wait! God has His appointed time. It may not be at your expected hour or time, but He will come because He is faithful and good. He is waiting for you, as you are waiting for Him. I encourage you, my weary Christian brother and sister, to 'hang in there'. Persevere. He will give that daily provision, that desired guidance, that needed help. Philippians 4:19 promises, "But my God shall supply all [not simply some!] your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus." Do you believe that? As a child of God, born again of the Spirit of God, do you believe the Word of God, that God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory? He will! What are your needs? What do you want God to do for you? Come boldly to the throne of grace that you might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (see Hb. 4:16). God delights in blessing His people. Have you grown weary? Press on a little longer.

Expecting the comfort of God

Again, many Jews were looking for something specifically at the time of Jesus' birth – "Looking for the consolation of Israel." They were looking for God's comfort. Now, it is a special kind of consolation or comfort in view here. We are considering redemptive consolation or comfort. We are looking at deliverance or relief from the ravages of the pain and suffering which ensue from sin and its consequences. Consolation, of course, presupposes pain and suffering – pain and suffering that manifest themselves in mourning. Generally speaking, the backdrop of Luke 2:25 is the Fall into sin by Adam and Eve, which resulted in pain and suffering for the whole of creation. When Adam and Eve took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God pronounced to the woman, "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children; yet, your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gn. 3:16). Then God spoke to Adam, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat from it'; cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gn. 3:17-19). So, because of sin, we have pain and suffering in the world. Even from the dawn of creation, there has been this hope, this anticipation, that there would be deliverance and relief from pain and suffering, and thus from mourning, which sin has brought about. People have been looking for consolation. It is interesting that with the birth of Noah, a few generations after Adam and Eve, there was the belief that here was a saviour. We read, "Now he [Lamech] called his name Noah, saying, 'This one shall give us rest from [lit. comfort in] our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed'" (Gn. 5:29). So, even from the beginning of history, there has been this anticipation of consolation with the deliverance from sin and its consequences. That is the general backdrop to Luke 2:25.

Specifically speaking, the backdrop of Luke 2:25 is the turbulent and tragic history of Israel. Israel's history was marked by war, bloodshed, disaster, and oppression. As a nation, it was constantly attacked and subdued by invading nations – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Thus, the nation was in constant need of help and deliverance; and thus in constant need of redemptive consolation. This need of redemptive consolation is a constant theme in the prophetic writings when reference is made to the coming of the Messiah. For instance, Isaiah 40:1,2 reads, "'Comfort, O comfort, My people,' says your God. 'Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the LORD'S hand double for all her sins.'" Again, this particular comfort should be understood with respect to the pain and suffering that has ensued from sin. Recall that Israel experienced judgement, and was sent into captivity, because of covenantal unfaithfulness to God. Israel experienced all these eroding sociological pressures and misfortunes because of its transgressions and iniquities. But God promised redemptive consolation. So, again, Isaiah 52:7-9 reads, "How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, 'Your God reigns!' Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, they shout joyfully together; for they will see with their own eyes when the Lord restores Zion. Break forth, shout joyfully together, you wastelands, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem." In addressing the eroding sociological pressures and misfortunes of Israel, God first of all addresses the sin problem. He would redeem His people, and restore them to Himself, which would result in consolation, peace, and restoration.

Jesus Christ brings comfort

Jesus Christ is the great Deliverer. He redeems. He brings relief from oppression, from pain, from suffering, even that which sin has produced. That was true of Israel, and that is equally true of us. God came to Israel with consolation with the birth of the Son of God, and He comes to us today with that same consolation. My Christian friend, I know I need not say this, but it is always good to be reminded – Christ is your consolation! He is the great Comforter. Thus, we read the prophecy concerning Christ, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favourable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified" (Is. 61:1-3).

You too have inherited the pain and suffering from the curse of God because of sin. You too know what it is to experience the ravages of sin in your life. For instance, you may know what it is to be disappointed (e.g., being betrayed by a friend, or rejected by a colleague, or let down by a family member). And thus you need consolation. You may know what it is to be oppressed (e.g., facing an employer who is insensitive and demanding of you). And thus you need consolation. You may know what it is to experience misfortune (e.g., maybe this past year you were forced to file for personal bankruptcy). And thus you need consolation. Or, you may know what it is to experience tragedy in your life (e.g., maybe a loved one has died in a car accident). And thus you need consolation. Maybe you are experiencing the pain of loneliness. Many Christians are lonely. I was speaking to a young man who shared with me his testimony; and one of the things that had stalked and haunted him is this chimera of loneliness; to the point where he had attempted suicide on two or three occasions. Are you feeling lonely, smiling on the outside, but weeping inside? Jesus Christ is the Great Comforter; and He will come to you. Are you looking for the consolation of Israel?

Christ offers, and will communicate, to you His support, His encouragement, and His rest. The Scripture reads, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Mt. 5:4). This past year there were various times when I felt a bit discouraged and I am just amazed at how God's consolation came; and it came at some of the most unexpected times. For instance, one morning I went into the office, feeling a bit discouraged, and I found a note on my desk from a member of the congregation. It was a note of encouragement, indicating that the person appreciated the fellowship and the ministry. You see, He comes in different ways, at different times, and in different manners in order to comfort His people. God has bound Himself to bring comfort to His people. His heart weeps for you, and He knows exactly what you are going through. Take heart, my Christian friend. He cares for you. He not only communicates that comfort and support, but He Himself comes; and His very presence actually provides that comfort and support. Recently, a group of us entered into prayer; and in the midst of prayer, God spiritually came. Oh, how wonderful it was – God revealing Himself in the depth of the spirit, making known His goodness and the warmth of His love.

My final word is to my non-Christian friend. I am particularly concerned about you. God has a word for you. You too have pain and suffering in your life – physical pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain; and you may be doing everything possible to lessen and numb the pain; or to escape the pain by activity – by becoming absorbed in sports, by pursuing some hobby, or by some other undertaking. Though you are running away from the pain, though you are trying to cover up the pain, you know that deep down inside there is an emptiness and a fear. You fear life. And more than that, you fear God, and one day you will stand before Him and you will have to give an account to Him. It is appointed unto people once to die and then the judgement (see Hb. 9:27). And what will you say in that day? What will you answer to God, my non-Christian friend?

Right now you know the pain of your guilt, shame, and fear. But I tell you that Jesus Christ is the Comforter, and He is able to take away that pain, if you are willing. Here is what you need to do. You need to be honest about the condition of your own heart; that you cannot do it on your own, nor save yourself; that the God Who created you demands the submission of your will; that your life does not belong to you, but rather belongs to Him; and He wants it now. You need to confess your sin and you need to believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour. As a result, He will save you from your sin, and He will comfort you. Won't you come? The Comforter is waiting. The great Burden-bearer is waiting for your burden, your pain, your suffering. Come to Him. Are you looking for the consolation of Israel? He has come! Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

~ 8 ~

A Future and a Hope

Is it a difficult time for you? Maybe you are saying: "What is God doing in my life? What is there to look forward to? It seems that I am having problem after problem. It seems that the pressures do not let up." Or maybe you are asking, "Why is He allowing that son (or daughter) to challenge me? Why is it that I continue to hear bad news from overseas? Why is it that God has now seen fit to reveal to me something very hurtful and abusive that took place in my life many years ago?" Although you may ask yourself these kinds of questions, remember that God is ever faithful and good. Never forget that truth when life does not seem to make sense. When things seem to be going awry, remember that God is still in control of your life and to Him everything makes perfect sense.

Jeremiah 29:10-14 provides us with the proper perspective on life, especially when the dark and gloomy days come; and they will come, if they are not already here. It reads, "For thus says the LORD, 'When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and bring My good word to you, to bring you back to this place [Jerusalem and Judea]. For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,' declares the LORD, 'and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,' declares the Lord, 'and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.'" Jeremiah dictated this prophecy some 600 years before the coming of Jesus Christ. Israel had sinned grievously against the Lord; and by way of judgement, God sent His people into captivity. He brought them under the domination and oppression of the Babylonian nation. But all was not bleak, nor hopeless, for God had a plan for them.

God has plans for His people

God is in control, and has clearly set out how matters will unfold for us; therefore, we need not be concerned – "For I know the plans I have for you" (29:11a). As previously mentioned, God is sovereign; our lives are in His hand. He has an invested interest in His people. He is personally attached to us and has determined how our lives will progress. Therefore, we are not to fret or become anxious, even though our lives appear to be chaotic and directionless; God is in charge. Our heavenly Father is steering the ship and He knows the port in which we are to find rest. You may think that your life is filled with uncertainty, but God says to you also, "I know the plans that I have for you. I know exactly how your life will unfold. I not only know it, I have determined it."

God's plans for His people are good

God's plans for His people are ultimately good – "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope'" (29:11a,b). God's plans for His people are characterized by peace. God is concerned about the well-being of His people. The plans that He has laid out are plans that ultimately involve contentment and satisfaction, and not trouble, difficulty, or misery. There will be a future and a hope for you; that is, there will be something wonderful to which you may look forward, even though your life, at present, may be characterized by pain and trouble. That is good news. God has resolved to bless us. It is predetermined (i.e., He knows exactly what He is going to do); it is set out before hand. God asserts, "I know the plans..." He is the One who knows the end from the beginning; and not only does He know it, He has also determined it. That should give you assurance; that should give you confidence; that should give you peace of mind, even though your life right now may be like a roller-coaster.

When God says that He has plans for our welfare and not for our calamity, for our future and hope, we should remind ourselves that He is not necessarily talking about material and physical prosperity, though this 'welfare' may include that. God's blessings span the whole gamut of human experience. We are also talking about emotional and spiritual prosperity. Maybe you are struggling now with fear or morbid shyness. God says, "Listen, I know the plans that I have for you, you are going to have a future and a hope. You will ultimately experience courage and peace." Maybe you are struggling in your Christian walk right now; maybe you are in a period of spiritual darkness, overwhelmed with guilt, sensing that God is far away. Well, God says, "I have plans for your welfare." And maybe it will be a deepening of your prayer life; maybe it will be the acquiring of a deeper thirst for, and demonstration of, holiness.

Be encouraged because the God of love is the One Who has these plans. Do you see what that means? Again, because He is the God of love, His plans must be good. Now that is a simple truth, but how often we forget it. How often we think that God is not for us because life seems to be a bit difficult and unpleasant, and we have begun to shed some tears. But Jesus Christ is the "same yesterday and today, yes and forever" (Hb. 13:8). As the God of love, He comes to His people in kindness and provision.

God's plans for His people often involve suffering

Though God's future plans for us necessarily entail ultimate good, suffering and pain may precede the fulfilment of those plans, and actually prepare for their coming and disclosure – "For thus says the LORD, 'When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, I will bring you back to this place'" (29:10). Again, Israel had sinned against the Lord Whose "eyes are too pure to approve evil...and cannot look on wickedness with favour" (Hab. 1:13). Because God is holy, He is a God of judgement. He chastised His people, and He said that they would go into captivity. There would be a period of suffering; but after they had been chastised, God would fulfill His good word in bringing them back to their land. The point is this: God, though meaning and purposing good for us, is pleased to allow misfortune, difficulty, and pain to come into our lives. However, one should not draw the conclusion that God does not care for him or her, or that He is not in control of one's life, or that He is not guiding. When things go awry at work and your employer 'gets on your case', you ought not to draw the conclusion that God no longer takes an interest in your situation. When you hear some tragic news concerning a friend, or even a bad report concerning your own health, you ought not to draw the conclusion that God has abdicated His throne, that He is no longer evidencing an invested interest in your life.

In the mysterious ways of God, this period of suffering and pain has the spiritual design of preparing us for the blessing. Sometimes we may fail to recognize that; and not only do we draw wrong conclusions, but we also may lash out at God, and we may question Him concerning His wisdom and goodness. We may defiantly demand an answer from God for why He seems to be treating us in a poor way. Yet, continue to remember that often the suffering is a prelude to the blessing. No doubt, you have often heard that 'there is no crown without a cross'. God is pleased to wean us of our pride. He is pleased to wean us of our self-righteousness. He is pleased to wean us of our selfishness and hypocrisy. And when He has achieved that end, according to His pleasure, He will come with a blessing. It was true of Israel and it will be true of us. Some verses that are very precious in this connection are found in Psalm 119: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word" (v. 67). What is the Psalmist saying? It is because of the pain and suffering – for example, that relationship that did not work out, or the tragedy of a son who overdosed on drugs, or the hurt of a separation – that a believer makes his path straight. The end of affliction is obedience. Again, we read, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes" (v. 71). The Psalmist did not react to his adverse circumstances; he did not bemoan his trying situation; he did not cry out, "Lord, what are you doing?" No, instead he praised God's wisdom in his personal suffering. Often, God needs to get our attention, and that may be painful for us. Again, we read, "I know, O LORD, that Thy judgements are righteous, and that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me" (v. 75). The Psalmist realized that what had happened to him was necessary, though he may not have fully understood it. Do you realize that there is this spiritual design to your suffering? God-ordained suffering is not designed to weaken your faith, but rather to strengthen it by driving you to God for comfort and relief. Think about why you may be having difficulty with a friend or with a husband or with an employee; or why you may be going through financial problems. Have you ever thought that God may be trying to get your attention? He is pleased to make you hurt for awhile that you might turn to Him, not because He hates you, but because He loves you and He wants all of you; and He will not settle for anything less. God wants all of you, or He will have none of you.

Your confidence during this time of suffering is that God determines a set time for the suffering. For example, Israel went into captivity for seventy years. Similarly, God appoints the duration of suffering for you; and there will be different times of suffering. A time of suffering may be for 3 or 4 years; or it may be for 1 or 2 weeks. We think of such men as Luther, Augustine, and Bunyan who went through periods of deep spiritual suffering before the light of freedom and peace came. God is pleased to eventually come to restore and to prosper. Wasn't that true of Job? When we turn to the book of Job and read the opening chapter, we discover that Job was the wealthiest man in the East. What did he have? He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen and 500 donkeys, and 10 children. The Lord was pleased to bring excruciating suffering into his life. The Lord removed all his possessions and destroyed his children. And, yet the words of Jeremiah 29:11 could have been spoken to Job: "For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope." And so, at the end of his ordeal, after the appointed time of suffering had concluded, we read that the Lord gave double back to Job: 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 oxen and 1,000 donkeys, and 10 children (the first ten did not utterly perish; their souls continue to exist).

God expects His people to seek the fulfilment of His plans

With this promise and assurance to bless with a future and a hope, God expects His people to seek Him for it during the time that they are waiting for it – "Then you will call upon Me [during this time of waiting] and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you" (v. 12). Notice that the action referred to in this verse should not be viewed as following chronologically to the action referred to in verse 11 (i.e., God knowing His plans for His people) – that is, the actual calling and praying do not come after God's knowing. The 'then' of verse 12 may be translated 'and', so that the calling and praying of God's people should take place during the time of waiting in which God definitely knows what He is going to do. So, God has planned good, and we are to seek that good. And in the mystery of God's purposes, one reason why He is pleased to promise and offer us goodness and prosperity is so that we may actually seek it. God offers and promises prosperity in order to encourage us and to open up our hearts to seek that prosperity. His promise should become our propulsion, our motivation. God expects His people to seek that which He has promised. For example, God wants to increase the membership of the Church; He delights in spiritual converts. Accordingly, He wants us to seek Him for it. Do you believe that? When God invites us to call upon Him, He simply wants us to cry to Him. The point is that we must recognize that He is the source of our goodness and blessing. Further, when God invites us to pray to Him, He simply wants us to come in total dependency upon Him, knowing that unless He moves, nothing significant will happen; and it is in prayer that we have power with God because prayer is union with God.

Do you see the progression as we move from verse 12 to verse 13? God does not simply want us to come and ask for His blessings, He wants us to come and seek the Blesser. God does not want us to come simply for the sake of what He can give us, but He wants us to come that we might embrace the Giver – "And you will seek Me and find Me [not simply the blessings, but Me!], when you search for Me with all your heart" (v. 13). There is a parallel meaning between verses 12 and 13. In verse 12, it refers to 'calling' and 'praying', but in verse 13 it refers to 'seeking', but the two verses refer to the same activity. This concept of 'seeking' entails these two elements of 'calling' and 'praying', and thus defines the very notion of 'seeking'. For example, with respect to 'seeking' entailing 'calling', Proverbs 1:28 (which is a Hebrew parallelism – that is, the second statement echoes the first) reads, "Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me;" again, Isaiah 55:6 reads, "Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near." Further, with respect to 'seeking' entailing 'praying', we read in Zechariah 8:21,22, "And the habitants of one will go to another saying, 'Let us go at once to entreat [i.e., to pray] the favour of the LORD, and to seek the LORD of Hosts; I will also go.' So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat [i.e., to pray] the favour of the Lord." Accordingly, when the Scriptures teach us to seek God, it is instructing us to call upon and to pray to Him.

We are to seek God's presence. Again, not only are we to call upon and pray to God for His blessings (i.e., His favour), but we are also to call upon and pray to Him because of Who He is. We should come to God not simply because of what He can give to us, but because of what He means to us. We should come to Him for Himself. Now, this is something we choose to do. You choose to call upon God; you choose to pray. It is not primarily a matter of feelings; it is a matter of commitment. We are to be committed in seeking God for His blessings, and we are to be committed in seeking God for Himself. Do you see how we are to seek Him? – "And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (29:13). You will only spiritually and personally find God when you earnestly pursue Him as precious treasure. I suspect that some who are reading this chapter want to find God; and your heart is crying out to Him. You want to draw closer to God; and yet you may have the wrong understanding that this spiritual experience will just happen, that in some sense God will magically show you His mercy, regardless of what you are doing or how you are living. No! Only when you assume the responsibility of diligently searching for God, will you know the joy and power of His presence. A number of months ago someone gave my wife and me a sizable cheque in order to finance my continuing education. My wife put the cheque away in a very good place. It was so good that we could not find it! She hunted high and low. She gave undivided attention to the search. She was preoccupied with it. She finally found it. That is what God is saying to us: when we search for Him with all our hearts, then we will find Him. And the good news is that God allows us to find Him.

We have the assurance that we will find God, that we will discover Him, when we pursue Him sincerely and intensely – "And I will be found by you" (29:14a). That is, we will truly know His presence, and thus His favour. We will experience the happiness which He has planned for us. When my son was about 5 years old, we went to the Canadian National Exhibition. At one point, he saw something that captivated his attention. While he was captivated, I was slipping away, but I did not take my eyes off him. He subsequently turned around and discovered that I was not there. He was petrified, and he cried out, "Dad!" And immediately I let him find me, responding to his desperation and his fear. And that is true of God towards us. In calling upon Him in your desperation and fear, in your need and pain, God is pleased to let you find Him. And in finding Him, you find His favour – "'And I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,' declares the LORD, 'and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile'" (29:14).

Do you want God and His prosperity? Do you want to experience God's presence and favour, or are you just expecting to receive these blessings because God is supposed to be good? How is your prayer life? Are you calling upon Him? Are you turning around, as it were, in your desperation and need, and crying, "Father!"? Are you seeking Him with your whole heart? If you are, then this is God's word to you: You will most definitely find Him, and in finding Him, you will find your all in all. That is good news!

~ 9 ~

Trusting in God

Do you trust in God? The story is often told of a young man or woman who refuses to fully surrender to God, who refuses to totally give up his or her present selfish way of life, who refuses to be completely committed to the Lord, because they fear what may happen if they do. They fear that God will send them somewhere that they really do not want to go. They fear that God will have them do something that they are really going to hate; and so they do not cross over the line in surrendering themselves completely to the Lord. Why is this? The person who thinks in this way clearly evidences that he or she does not really trust in the Lord. Again, do you trust in God, or do you doubt His goodness and faithfulness? Many Christians struggle with trusting the Lord; and as a result, they also struggle with anxiety, worry, and feelings of insecurity. In 1981, I was unemployed. I remember laying in bed late one night worrying about our financial situation and what the future may hold. In talking with my wife at that time, she said with concern, "That is not like you; you never worry about money." However, at that point I was not trusting in the Lord; and that is why I was worrying. Trust is a spiritual key to peace, calm, and joy.

Hezekiah trusted God

The story of king Hezekiah provides us with an appropriate picture of what it means to trust God. We read in 2 Kings 18:5,6, "[Hezekiah] trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him. For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses." What a testimony concerning king Hezekiah! King Hezekiah was incomparable among the kings of Judah in terms of trusting in the Lord. His trust in God was his distinguishing mark. As believers, Hezekiah stands as a portrait of trust for us. If we want to understand trust, if we want to learn what trusting in God means, and hence experience the benefits of trust, we can do nothing better than to study the Bible account of king Hezekiah.

Hezekiah was 25 years old when he began to reign, and he refused to rely upon foreign nations for any help against invading enemies, especially the formidable enemy of Assyria. We read, "And the LORD was with [Hezekiah]; wherever he went he prospered. And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him" (18:7). The Assyrians were the dominant nation at this time. They had destroyed and subdued various peoples. Now, in the fourteenth year of the reign of Hezekiah, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, entered Judah with a massive army, and he began to seize the cities. Hezekiah pleaded with Sennacherib to withdraw from his land. He even presented a large ransom fee to Sennacherib. The Assyrians, however, did not withdraw. Subsequently, Sennacherib sent a large army to Jerusalem, under the direction of Rabshakeh and others, demanding unconditional surrender. Hezekiah refused. Why? He trusted in God. Seemingly, Hezekiah was renown for his trust in God. Even his enemies acknowledged this trust. For instance, Rabshakeh warned, "Nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD" (18:30); and again, he said, "Thus you shall say to Hezekiah king of Judah, 'Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you saying, "Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria'''" (19:10).

What is trust?

Trust is simply, and generally, a firm or assured belief. For instance, I have the firm belief that my living room floor will hold my weight when I walk across it. I believe it so strongly that I do not even think about it. Trust is resting on a fact as true. Now, to trust someone means to place your confidence or assurance in him or her. For instance, if I share some sensitive issue with you (assuming that I trust you), I have the confidence that you will not betray me, that you will not repeat what I have shared. Again, to trust someone is to rely on that person to be faithful. For instance, my wife does our banking. When I get my cheque, I give it immediately to her (in fact, most weeks I do not even see my cheque). I implicitly rely on her to be faithful in looking after our financial affairs.

Now, it is self-evident that, as Christians, we are to implicitly, as well as explicitly, trust in God. We should be confident that God will do us good. We should rely on the fact that He will remain faithful to us. We should realize that God will never let us down; that we can always count on Him to 'come through' for us, even when the situation is drastic and desperate, or even when the situation seems bleak and hopeless. So, for instance, when you make that social blunder, and you wonder what the reaction will be, and you fear that people will misunderstand you, you need to trust in God. Or, when you cannot afford to pay out any more money to have your car or stove fixed, and you wonder how you will manage financially, you need to trust in God – you need to have the confidence that God will 'come through' for you. Or, when you have that reunion with friends or relatives with whom you are on shaky ground, you need to trust that God will undertake and look after the situation.

Trusting in God to deliver

Hezekiah's trust in God had a specific focus. He had the confidence that God would deliver him from a grave situation, that God would help him at a critical time. In short, Hezekiah trusted in God to provide for him and to protect him. We read that Rabshakeh threatened, "Nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, 'The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria...But do not listen to Hezekiah, when he misleads you, saying, "The LORD will deliver us"'" (18:30,32). Again, remember that Hezekiah was faced with what appeared to be an insurmountable problem. There was a massive military machine arrayed against him and his people. So, again we read the threatening words of Rabshakeh, "Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the lands, destroying them completely. So will you be spared? Did the gods of those nations which my fathers destroyed deliver them? Even Gozan and Haran and Rezeph and the sons of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, and of Hena and Ivvah?" (19:11-13). How could Hezekiah even dare defy and resist this power? Was he a mad man? No. Hezekiah trusted in the Lord even in the face of what appeared to be an insurmountable problem.

In your life, you will find what may appear to be insurmountable problems. Maybe that is your experience right now. In your life there will seem to be numerous enemies that are arrayed against you. You may be able to count them right now. You need to trust that God will deliver you. A member in my congregation recently shared with the church about the difficult situations she observed in returning to her native Sri Lanka; and yet she bore witness to the faithfulness of God. She trusted in God. She shared how God protected her and gave her peace. Human problems are not problems for God. Indeed, 'our extremities are God's opportunities.' God is pleased to reveal Himself as the Sovereign One so that we might worship and praise Him.

The evidences of trusting in God

There are clear evidences of trusting in God. First, trust is seen in immediately turning to the Lord when a problem or difficulty arises. We read, "And when king Hezekiah heard it [what Rabshakeh had said concerning the intentions of king Sennacherib], he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth and entered the house of the Lord" (19:1). For Hezekiah, prayer was the first recourse in time of trouble; he resigned himself to God. Again, we read (when Rabshakeh had gone away, having delivered the message of threat, and then returning with a similar message), "Then Hezekiah took the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it, and he went up to the house of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD" (19:14,15a). Again, prayer was his first response to apparent calamity or crisis. He did not trust in himself, nor in his own resources. D. L. Moody (1837-1899) wrote, "Trust in yourself, and you are doomed to disappointment; trust in your friends, and they will die and leave you; trust in money, and you may have it taken from you; trust in reputation, and some slanderous tongue may blast it; but trust in God, and you are never to be confounded in time or eternity."

What is your first recourse when a crisis comes? When that difficulty comes, how do you respond? Do you pick up the phone and call a friend? Do you try to get in touch with your husband or your wife? Do you notify the accountant? Do you turn to Mom or Dad? Do you rely on your own resources and strength? If you really trust in God, if you are convinced that He will 'come through' for you, then your first recourse will be to talk directly to Him. Immediately turning to God demonstrates the very fact that you do trust in Him. My wife, on different occasions, converses with an elderly saint on the phone, sharing various concerns. Sometimes, as she is sharing, this elderly saint will say, "Let's just pray about this matter right now on the phone." This is a woman who really trusts in God.

God honours our trust in Him. He responds positively to us when we immediately turn to Him in prayer. So, we read, "Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah saying, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, "Because you have prayed to Me about Sennacherib king of Assyria, I have heard you"'" (19:20). The same can be true for you. When you immediately turn to God in prayer, demonstrating your trust in Him, He may be pleased to hear you. Often, He does not hear us because we do not really believe that He does hear us. We may make such requests as: "God, change the attitude of my husband;" or "God, provide me with seven hundred dollars to pay this outstanding bill;" yet, we may have no confidence that God will answer. Remember, God is the God of the impossible. God says, "For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me will be lightly esteemed" (1 Sam. 2:30). We honour God through our trust in His name, believing that He can do what His word reveals that He can do. "He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who [diligently] seek Him" (Hb. 11:6b). What do you want God to do for you?

The second evidence or indication of trusting in God is acting or living in such a way that demonstrates your confidence in Him. It is not enough to 'talk the talk,' you must demonstrate by how you live and by how you act that God is going to 'come through' for you. So, concerning Hezekiah, we read, "Then he sent Eliakim who was over the household with Shebna the scribe and the elders of the priests, covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz" (19:2). Isaiah was a representative of the Lord – the one who authoritatively spoke God's Word. Hezekiah, knowing this truth, sent a delegation to him to present the grave situation in order to evoke compassion, because he believed that God could really help him. He acted; he responded in accordance with his trust.

Now, trust did not exclude the personal experience of pain. We further read, "And they [the delegation] said to him [Isaiah], 'Thus says Hezekiah, "This day is a day of distress, rebuke, and rejection; for children have come to birth, and there is no strength to deliver'''" (19:3). We should understand that trust in God does not exclude one from feeling life's pressures, stresses, and duress. Hezekiah recognized that he had a serious problem, and he was deeply distressed; and yet it is said of this man that there was no king who trusted God like him. So, you can trust in God with your whole heart and still feel the pressures of life; you can even feel like you are going to snap, and yet still cleave to God. Wasn't that Job's situation? He became a broken man, and yet he professed, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Jb. 13:15a). Trust is simply the proper response to life's difficult, stressful, and pressure-packed situations. Trust does not exclude the experience of pain. It simply helps us to foster a proper attitude in handling the pain.

Trust secures God's deliverance

So, Hezekiah acted on the basis of his trust. He applied for help from God. We further read that he said to Isaiah, "Perhaps the LORD your God will hear all the words of Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to reproach the living God, and will rebuke the words which the LORD your God has heard. Therefore, offer a prayer for the remnant that is left" (19:4). Again, Hezekiah's trust was honoured; God responded. We read, "And Isaiah said to them, 'Thus you shall say to your master, "Thus says the Lord, 'Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed Me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land. And I will make him fall by the sword in his own land'"'" (19:6,7).

Because Hezekiah trusted in God, God delivered him. That is God's way. Could it be that often you do not experience the deliverance that you desire in your life because deep down inside you do not trust God? Be honest now. You believe in Him, you acknowledge Him, but deep down inside you are not resting on His promises and grace. If you trust in God, you will act or live in such a way that clearly reveals that you are resting on His promises and grace; that you are relying on the faithfulness of His goodness. In other words, if you are trusting in God, you will live in such a way as if your problem is His problem. Often when problems arise and difficulties come, we are overwhelmed; and we are stretched even to the point of breaking, because we think that we need to fix it, or that we need to bring about change. We feel the burden of the responsibility to 'get things right,' and it is that sense of responsibility to 'get things right' – to fix things – that we find so burdensome. What I am suggesting to you is this. If you trust in God (and I am not advocating personal irresponsibility; we do have a role to play), then you will live in such a way that God is sovereign, in absolute control, and that He is responsible for resolving your care or concern. You will consciously entrust yourself and your situation to Him. To really trust in God will mean that you release the problem and give it to Him, believing that He is able to find a way out of no way. Again, you must acknowledge that your problem is now His problem, and rest in His sovereignty. Those who do not trust continue to hold onto the burden, and God will let them do that. However, the moment of trust – firmly believing that God will 'come through' for you – is your moment of release. Your responsibility is to do what is right, and then leave the consequences to God.

My wife and I know a couple who went through a period of financial straits. They had difficulty paying their bills, and they were expecting a rather heavy bill at the beginning of the following month. The wife was greatly concerned about where they would get the money to pay this bill. Her husband tried to reassure her, saying, "Listen, I do not want to hear that doubt any more. God has never failed us in the past, and He is not going to start now. What we need to do, because this is what He is looking for, is to trust Him that He is going to deliver us." God honoured that trust. Within a week, a cheque was received to put towards the bill. That is God's way. If you honour Him, He will honour you. That was the case with Hezekiah. Do you trust in God to deliver you? Maybe you have a financial problem. Maybe you have an emotional problem. Maybe you have an employment problem. Maybe you have a relationship problem. Maybe you have a problem with your children. Maybe you have a problem concerning what the future will bring. Are you fretting and stewing about it? Have you come to the point of saying, "Lord this is your problem. It is your responsibility, and I will not worry about it any more"? Do you trust God? If you do, then you will do at least two things: you will immediately pray about it, giving it to God (and you may need to do that a few times); and you will live and act as if you are demonstrating the reality that He is able to 'come through' for you. God will bless you in your trust of Him. Trust is the key to your peace, calm, and joy. A. B. Simpson (1844-1919), founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, writes:

How often we trust each other,

And only doubt our Lord.

We take the word of mortals,

And yet distrust His Word;

But oh, what light and glory

Would shine o'er all our days,

If we always would remember

God means just what He says.

~ 10 ~

Strength in the Presence of God

I burned out in 1985. I had a very grueling schedule. I was a full time teacher, teaching about six courses; I was a part-time pastor, having responsibilities consisting of preparing two messages each week, counselling and visitation. Further, I was also pursuing graduate studies. Moreover, we had recently received a new addition to our family, namely our daughter, Sarah. As a result of that grueling schedule, and that busy life, I began to sink. I was emotionally drained and exhausted. I was mentally dull and pessimistic. I was physically tired and weary. I was spiritually weak and dry. The result was that I resigned from the pastoral ministry. I had had enough. I had burned out. Is that your present situation? Do you feel like you are burning out? Do you lack any desire to carry on and deal with the daily issues and confront the challenges of life? Does the future look bleak to you? Do you no longer care about much? Are you just plain tired? Possibly, you do not want to give any more effort and energy to that particular project. Or, you do not want to give any more effort and energy to that relationship. Or, you do not want to give any more effort and energy to that critical situation. You are just too tired and weary, and you have had enough. When I was in that particular situation, when I passed through the 'valley of weeping', what helped and restored me was rediscovering God: His will and the worship of His name.

Psalm 84:5-7 reads, "How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the highways to Zion! Passing through the valley of Baca, they make it a spring, the early rain also covers it with blessings. They go from strength to strength, everyone of them appears before God in Zion." Now to appreciate the meaning and personal applications of these verses, we need to understand the main message of the Psalm. The main message is the formal worship of God; coming before God in His holy temple. So, we read, "How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O LORD of Hosts!...How blessed are those who dwell in Thy house! They are ever praising Thee...For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand outside" (vss. 1,4,10a). The (historical) theme of the Psalm is the eventual meeting at Zion (or Jerusalem) in order to worship God.

Psalm 84 has three main divisions. The first major division deals with greatly desiring the place of the worship of God (vss. 1-4). So, for instance, we read, "My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD" (vs. 2). The second major division deals with steadily moving towards the place of the worship of God, (vss. 5-7). The worshiper passes "through the valley of Baca," making his way to Jerusalem. The third major division deals with actually arriving at the place of the worship of God, and personally engaging in formal worship (vss. 8-12). So, for instance, we read of the pilgrim actually worshiping. "O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!" (vs. 8); again, "I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness" (vs. 10b).

Strength arises from worship

Though this Psalm refers to a specific historical, formal situation, we may approach it from a more spiritual vantage point. The key idea of Psalm 84:5-7 is that the inner strength of the believer is commensurate with, and determined by, the desire for, and the experience of, the worship of God – "How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the highways to Zion!" This verse is a Hebrew parallelism. The second statement of the verse conceptually echoes, or is relationally tied to, the first statement. Accordingly, one's strength in God is associated with having within one's heart the highways to Zion. The phrase 'in whose heart are the highways to Zion' simply means a heart which seeks or strives for the presence of God. Here is a person who naturally and spontaneously turns to, and longs for, God in worship.

Thus, the teaching of this verse is that the one who longs for worship, the one who knows and experiences the presence of God, is the one who will experience inner rejuvenation and transformation. In the presence of God and through the worship of His name, one experiences inner grace. So, for example, we read, "Thou wilt make known to me the path of life; in Thy presence is fulness of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forever" (Ps. 16:11). E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a well known Methodist minister, preacher, and devotional writer. In one of his books, he shares an autobiographical note concerning a time when he felt burned out. He lacked spiritual and emotional power. He was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He describes his experience as looking into a deep, dark chasm that was ready to swallow him up. At that time, he decided to go to an evening Church service, and he slipped inconspicuously into the back pew. As soon as the preacher began to speak, Bounds knew that he was speaking to him, that God was personally encountering him. Bounds reports that he was impacted by the presence of God. Through the preaching, he entered into the worship of God. He left that service revived; and from that moment on, he prayed regularly to God that his own preaching would have the same therapeutic effect in the hearts of his hearers. True worship revives.

So, inner strength derives from true worship, from encountering and communing with the living God. Similarly, the absence of true worship results in inner weakness, debilitation, and exhaustion. Are you feeling weak? Are you feeling drained and weary? What is the extent and quality of your worship of God? Could it be that you are feeling weak, weary, drained, and even overwhelmed, because you have not been worshiping? One is empowered to address the challenges and issues of life by being in the presence of God. Make your primary spiritual goal that of worship.

God grants strength through worship

God Himself is the source of this inner strength. He Himself provides it. He imparts and communicates this strength in the very worship of His name – "How blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee [i.e., rooted in Thee, generated from Thee]" as he or she seeks the presence of God. We are wholly dependent on God for needed strength. He chooses the moment when He will give strength. He also chooses the extent to which He will give strength. Being strengthened in God is thus wholly a work of grace. It is not primarily a matter of human grit (though human intensity and perseverance serve God's purposes). It is not primarily a matter of human determination (though the human will is not inconsequential in securing God's blessings). It is not primarily a matter of mechanically applying practical formulae or carefully following self-help steps (though an active strategic approach is beneficial). It is primarily, and ultimately, a matter of God Himself radically moving and revealing Himself, and granting His strength. So, we read in Psalm 18:30ff, "As for God, His way is blameless; the word of the LORD is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him. For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God, the God who girds me with strength, and makes my way blameless? He makes my feet like hinds' feet, and sets me upon my high places. He trains my hands for battle, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. Thou hast also given me the shield of Thy salvation, and Thy right hand upholds me; and Thy gentleness makes me great. Thou dost enlarge my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped." Christian, do not look to people to give you strength (though they can be helpful). Do not become dependent upon people; the arm of flesh will fail you (Ps. 118:8,9; 146:3). Further, do not look to behavioural techniques and exercises to give you strength (though they have their place). Do not become dependent on these behavioural means; they too will eventually fail you. But rather, look to God to give you strength because He will never fail you. Be dependent upon God alone to see you through.

God's imparted strength is durable; it is firm, able to counter and reverse the various forms of depression, grief, and sadness, as well as the debilitating responses to the stressful circumstances of life. Thus, the Psalmist presents an illustration, "Passing through the valley of Baca [i.e., weeping], they make it a spring, the early rain also covers it with blessings." He teaches that God-imparted and God-rooted strength is unflappable, as well as has a medicinal, invigorating effect on one's surroundings. These empowered ones passed through this valley and transformed it; and they did so because of the strength which they were experiencing. These ones positively changed their environment. Obviously, we must understand this statement to be a figure of speech. The point is that these ones who were strengthened by God, in turn, communicated strength to others. They thus became sources of grace to others. Accordingly, in his own sorrow and depression, the apostle Paul could state, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3,4).

Strength gives way to more strength

God-rooted, worship-derived strength need have no end, but rather can multiply – "They go from strength to strength, everyone of them appears before God in Zion." Perhaps a better translation should read thus, "They go from strength to strength, appearing before God in Zion." As you worship, as you desire and seek fellowship with God, you will experience incremental, even exponential, strength. You will grow in internal power in so far as you experience God's presence. The extent and intensity of one's participation in the true worship of God is proportional to the measure and extent of the experience of inner stability and fortitude (i.e., spiritual change). What a message of hope and victory! How often in this past year have you put off worship? How often have you said, "I know that I should pray;" or, "I know that I should read my Bible, and meditate on and memorize Scripture"? You, no doubt, have had the best intentions, but you have had no resolve or commitment to action; and as a result, you have forfeited the blessing. It is in actually worshiping God that you go from strength to strength.

Practically speaking, what does it mean to go 'from strength to strength'? It may mean, for instance, that you will grow in your willingness to deal with a family issue and bring it to resolution. It may mean that you will grow in hope in order to handle the tough issues of life. It may mean that you will grow in your commitment to action by evidencing integral and honest behaviour in your place of employment. Again, it may mean that you will grow in your determination to fulfil your conjugal responsibilities to your husband or your wife. It may mean that you will grow in your commitment to please God by nurturing your devotional life and expanding your Christian service. It may mean that you will grow in tenacity to endure persecution and opposition; and we could multiply the examples of what it means to go 'from strength to strength.' The point is, in your faithful commitment to the worship of God, you will feel more in control, with a deeper trust and faith in the Lord. Many Christians lack solid faith and trust; they do not know what it is to rest in Jesus Christ. True worship addresses and helps solve this too common spiritual problem. In truly worshiping, God is pleased to pour more grace into your heart so that you can be continually and progressively empowered to face the challenges and problems of life. You will be able to address these matters courageously. Worship justifies your existence as a Christian. Live triumphantly in God's presence.