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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

 

 

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I shared a few months back on the topic of God and our suffering and I want to pick up on this theme again this morning – this time with a focus on the role of sin in our human suffering.

There are different understandings of where suffering comes from:

  • For instance, some say it’s only in our minds and if we can just get our minds to think straight that will solve the problem (Christian Science).
  • Others say that we suffer because of karma. That is, you get what you deserve in this life, in part, based on what you did in your former life (Hinduism).
  • Others say that the forces of good and evil are equal and locked in a never ending fight which causes us to suffer (Dualism).

But as Christians we confess that –

1. Human suffering and death are rooted in sin

We learn from Scripture that the sin of Adam and Eve brought suffering and death (Genesis 3). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Scripture also teaches that we all sin, so we are all a part of the problem (Romans 3:23). And we are also taught that all who sin die, so we all experience the suffering that sin brings (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

But not only this sin has opened the door for powerful forces of evil to rule this world, so that Satan is now called “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19). And even the non-human creation is disordered and broken due to sin as we read in Romans 8:20-22.

So suffering and death are symptoms of sin’s work and presence in the creation and in our lives.

2. But how sin and suffering are connected in our individual lives is complicated

How many times have you asked, “Why am I going through this suffering?” “What did I do?” We often think, “If I do good I shouldn’t suffer. It’s only when I do bad that I should suffer.” We think life in this world should be fair. But this isn’t how the fallen world works.

It can be true that when you sin, you will suffer immediate and specific consequences for itProverbs 10:4 tells us that “a slack hand causes poverty . . ..” If you don’t work, you will suffer lack. As a general rule, there are consequences. In Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 those who abused the Lord’s supper experienced sickness and death as a specific judgment from God for what they did. (See also John 5:14)

But not always!!! Yes, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7) but you may not experience the consequences or full consequences of your sin until the final judgment.

So there’s no automatic one-to-one correlation between your sin and your specific suffering in this life. There might be at times, but more often than not, I think, there isn’t.

Scripture talks about this when it asks, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (i.e. Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1). And we all know of people who are notoriously evil who live the good life and those who are relatively innocent who suffer greatly.

Here are some examples of the latter from Scripture:

  • Joseph suffered due to the sin of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and also due to Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him of sexual assault, which got him thrown into prison (Genesis 37-40)
  • Job’s suffering was terrible, but God specifically said it was not due to his sin. God described him as “a blameless and upright man” in Job 1:8
  • Jesus said of the man born blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
  • And of course, Jesus, the sinless one, was murdered on the cross.

Luke 13:1-5 says, “There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Jesus does not accept that much sin brings much suffering. There’s no one-to-one correlation between our sin and our suffering in this life.

As Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches us, life isn’t fair. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Rather, we are all caught in a complex web of sin where our actions affect each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even though our sin might not cause us specific suffering, it can cause others to suffer. For instance the drunk driver who walks away unharmed from an accident, but in the other car several people are killed. And in just the same way the sins of others can cause us to suffer

Think about it we’re all affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. We are born into a world full of sin and suffering. As I said before, Potiphar’s wife sinned, but it was Joseph who went to jail (Genesis 39). And if someone commits adultery, many people’s lives are wounded, not just those guilty of the sin. We have to acknowledge that we have all have sinned in ways that have damaged others and in turn we have suffered because of the sins of others.

3. But there’s hope!

Suffering is real. It’s not an illusion. But it isn’t linked to an endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. Nor is it woven into the fabric of the way things are. And because this is true, God can bring an end to suffering. God is able to overcome it.

In the present, God can use suffering to accomplish his purposes. As Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline (or times of difficulty and suffering) seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God can transform suffering to bring about his will. For instance, God used Joseph’s suffering. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4-5). His brothers did evil, but God brought good out of it. In like manner, God used Jesus’ suffering to bring us salvation.

And the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will bring an end to suffering. It’s hard to even know what life would be like without sin and suffering, but we have a portrait painted for us in Isaiah 25:6-8. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . ..”

On that day, we will say, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, referring back to Isaiah 23, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Suffering is not the final word. Sin, suffering and death will be no more.

4. Victory in the midst of our current suffering

Suffering will end, but until then we will still suffer in various ways. We live in the time of the “already and not yet.” The kingdom of God has come, but it’s not yet all the way here; redemption has come, but it’s not yet all the way here. We have the reality of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life by the Spirit of God. But not the fullness of it. This comes when Jesus returns, when evil is defeated and when all things are made new, including our bodies.

Until then Christians suffer the same kinds of things everyone else does. Paul says in 1 Corinthian 10:13 that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (NRSV). And Christians will also suffer in ways that are not “common” to all people – persecution for our faith.

We must beware of teachings that diminish the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we don’t have God’s power working in and through us now. And we must beware of teachings that exaggerate the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we need not suffer now because we are saved. One version of this is the so-called health and wealth gospel. Such things await the fullness of the kingdom.

Even though this is true, Christians can experience victory in our current suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Since we know that God can use our suffering for good and we have hope for a future without suffering, we can have joy by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering (James 1:2-4, Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3-5).

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We have all experienced suffering; some more than others. And some of you are going through difficult situations right now. I think it’s good for us from time to time to remember together what the Scriptures teach with regard to our suffering. Let’s look at two particular questions, ‘Where is God in our suffering?’ and ‘Why does God allow us to suffer?’ And we begin with the second.

Why does God allow us to suffer?

There are, at least, four themes in Scripture that are relevant to talking about this. 1. Love involves the risk of suffering. It was God’s purpose in creating us that we might freely choose to love and serve him. This is the glory of humanity, that we are like God in being able to choose and to love. Yet this carries with it the risk, and in our case the reality, that we will choose to hate God and not serve him. This is the bane of humanity, that we have done just this.

We know that God allows us to choose because the Scriptures teach that God’s will is not always done. (Acts 7:51; Ezekiel 18:31-32; Isaiah 63:10; Luke 7:30). That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray to God, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6:10. And that’s why even though God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” most do not – 1 Timothy 2:4. God is permitting us to choose to love him or not.

And this is where our suffering comes from. God created this possibility and we have chosen it. And so we all suffer. And this world that we were meant to oversee is broken and causes us to suffer as well. So we’re in a situation where, although God is all-loving and all-powerful, he limits himself to allow us to choose. As Joshua 24:15 says, “choose today whom you will serve.”

Now, I believe that just as we would say in our human relationships of love, that love is worth the risk and the pain that comes with it – so in relation to God. That we are made like God, able to choose and to love, and that some choose love is, I believe, worth the suffering that has come with this.  

2. God can bring good out of our suffering. Although it was not God’s will that we choose sin and thus suffer, he can nevertheless accomplish his plan by using our suffering for his own ends. That’s how great God is.God can teach us and others through the suffering we go through. God can lead us into a greater depth of trust and relationship with him through these experiences. God can redeem and transform our suffering.

  • The Israelites in the wilderness suffered hunger and only had manna to eat. Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “he let you hunger . .  that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
  • Joseph was sold into slavery and was also put in jail. But God used his suffering for good. As Joseph said to his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” – Genesis 45:5.
  • Paul’s life was in danger due to persecution, but God used this experience to teach him to “rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead” – 2 Corinthians 1:9.
  • And supremely of all, God used Jesus’ suffering and death to provide salvation for the world.

God can use suffering for good. That’s why James can say, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:3-4. (Also Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:10-11.) The author of Hebrews even says this about Jesus in 5:8, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Also 2:10)

Paul says comprehensively in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God orchestrates things in such a way that for his own, God can use even our pain and suffering to bring good into our lives.

3. Our suffering is temporary, our blessings will be much greater and eternal. We are a part of a bigger plan that includes deliverance from suffering and also great blessing. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “. . . no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Revelation 21:3-4 speaks of this,  “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” We will have new, resurrected life in God’s presence in the fulness of joy forever and ever.

Paul, a man who knew about suffering, tells us that it’s worth it to suffer in this age, because of the blessings that are to come. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. And again he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” – Romans 8:18.

Now, don’t think that because of what has been said, that suffering and evil have now been explained and we should set aside our distress about the evil that happens in the world and the pain we personally suffer. No! Suffering is truly terrible. We live in a world where people are abused and raped, where children are murdered, where the holocaust happened and other genocides and senseless wars of death and destruction; where tsunami’s wipe out whole cities and earthquakes indiscriminately kill both the evil and the good.

When we see such evil in the world, as Christians we need to admit that 4. Some things aren’t explainable, at least in this life. We can say that the risk of love is worth it, that God will bring good out of our suffering and that by comparison in the end it will be worth it. But we say this all by faith. And many don’t have this faith and don’t see it this way at all.

We have to admit that there’s mystery involved in how God orchestrates his creation. And we are not in a place to understand or easily explain what God allows. This is, I believe, the message of the book of Job. So many people read this book and think they’ll get an answer to the question, “Why did God allow Job to suffer?” But the book doesn’t give a neat answer! God simply tells Job that he’s in control of a complex and powerful creation, and in a way that is beyond human understanding. As the Lord says to Job in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” We as humans will not understand why and how God does all that he does, at least in this life. And so we have to trust God in all this. We have to trust that the God we know to be just and merciful is doing what is right and good.

And then we come to our second question –

Where is God in our suffering?

And the answer from Scripture is that God is with us in our suffering. It certainly doesn’t always feel like this is so. It can seem like God is absent. As the psalmist says in Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Who hasn’t felt this way?

But yet we are taught that God is with us. As the Lord says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” And he says in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God is with us to watch over us, to encourage us, to comfort us and to strengthen us. And not only this, God has come to be with us through his Son. He sent him to this earth, whose name is Immanuel or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God did not stand far off and aloof from us. God has walked in our shoes. God is with us.

And God knows our pain and suffering. As the psalmist says in Psalm 56:8, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (NLT). God cares about us; God loves us. And not only this, God knows our pain and suffering through his Son. Jesus suffered with us and for us in his life and in his death on the cross. God knows first-hand what we’re going through. His innocent Son was slandered, treated with contempt, tortured and murdered in a particularly cruel way.

God has not left us alone. He is with us as we experience the pain of suffering. And he suffers with us, until that day when all things will be made new.

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Series on baptism

Today’s message is about applying things we’ve learned about baptism to our lives when things get really difficult. The title is “Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters.”

I would like to begin with a Scripture reading from Psalm 69 (vs. 1-3; 13-17).

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.

In this Psalm we encounter “the waters” once again. In this case they refer to times of chaos, turmoil and evil in David’s personal life circumstances.

We all know, of course, that we will face deep waters throughout our lives. Even though we have passed through the waters of baptism, the waters will continue to confront us.

And they become personified in all kinds of ways in various people and circumstances in our lives. Here in Psalm 69 David’s enemies are the embodiment of the waters. We saw this supremely in Jesus where he calls his suffering and death a baptism or water experience in several places.

We will all continue to have times of suffering, grief, persecution and testing. And along with Jesus we can say that these are additional water baptisms, or baptisms of suffering – where we go through the deep waters of life; where we are inundated by the deep.

Now, my point today is that if our times of suffering are in fact water baptisms, then, I believe, we can learn something from our literal water baptism that can help us get through these additional baptisms of suffering. We can learn something that will help us navigate the deep waters we encounter, so that in David’s words, “the deep does not swallow (us) up.” But rather by God’s grace and power we can pass through to the other side.

So here are two things to remember when the floods come.

1. God is able to defeat the waters

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – pictured in our water baptism – so he can continue to do so, no matter how they come at us. And we need to remember this.

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes the deep.

  • Psalm 65:7 speaks of God as the one “who stills the roaring of the seas; the roaring of their waves . . .”
  • Psalm 89:9 says of God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”

In the same way, God is able to still the seas for us– the churning, destructive, chaotic, forces of evil in our lives

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes all the hosts of the waters.

  • Psalm 89:10 says, “You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” – referring to the creation.
  • Psalm 74:13-14 says – “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” – referring to the parting of the Red Sea.

In the same way God is able to defeat Satan, for us – that ancient serpent, who tests us and seeks to destroy us. As Paul says to the Romans in 16:20, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

It is an essential defining quality of who our God is, to say that God can defeat the waters and all their hosts.

So, we need not fear the waters! Not because they are not fearful, they truly are, and without God, we are without hope.

No, we need not fear the waters because our God is the Lord even over the deep. As Psalm 93:4 says, “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!” The waters are mighty, but God is mightier. And so we should look to him in faith and hope as we go through our difficult times.

2. God will bring us through to the other side

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – portrayed in water baptism – so he can continue to deliver us. We need to remember this as we go through trials in our lives.

  • He might do this by lifting us up over the deep, and then setting us on dry ground, as with Noah
  • Or he might do this by parting the sea so that we can walk though it to the other side, as with Israel

 However God does it, he will not allow us to be swallowed up, but will deliver us and bring us to the other side. Isaiah 43:2-3 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He will be with us and he will save us.

David testifies to this in Psalm 18:16-19, again from his personal life experiences. “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me . . .”

We don’t know when he will do it, but we have this promise in 1 Peter 5:10 – “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” And this gives us hope, even in our difficult times. God will bring us through to the other side.

Finally . . .

The other side of the deep waters will sometimes be the other side, that is, our death and going to be with Jesus and then the life that is to come in the new creation. And with regard to this, we can have strong confidence and hope that even the deep waters of death must submit to our God. Just as they did for Jesus, so they will for us – because Jesus goes before us and we are following in the path he has made.

  • We look forward to the day when Satan will be fully defeated. As Isaiah 27:1 says, “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
  • And on that day there will be no more deep. Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
  • And on that other shore, as Revelation 21:4 says, there will be no more death and no more tears.

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The book of Lamentations consists of 5 poems of lament, or expressions of sorrow and mourning that come from great suffering. The context for the book as a whole is the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BC by the Babylonians. This judgment of God for Israel’s unfaithfulness was long foretold, but here having been experienced, the full impact of the grief and pain are expressed. It’s possible, but not certain, that the prophet Jeremiah wrote this book, which is why it shows just up after the book of Jeremiah in our Bibles.

Our text, in chapter 3, is the first part of the the third poem. This whole poem is an acrostic where every 3 lines of text begin with the 22 successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This passage contains an amazing expression of hope for the future, from a person who knows suffering and hopelessness, which can help us to know how to think more clearly about our own hope for the future, no matter what our context might be. Let’s begin with the writer’s –

Great suffering and hopelessness

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

God’s judgment is described as affliction, wrath and darkness. And it is relentless.

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

These verses speak to his lack of health, his suffering and how he is like someone who is in Sheol, the realm of the dead, which is a place of darkness.

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.

There is no way out from his suffering and God is not answering his prayers.

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,
a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me
as a target for his arrow.

He is like a person mauled and torn apart by a wild animal, like the target for an archer. 

13 He drove into my kidneys
the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the object of their taunts all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness;
he has sated me with wormwood.

He is full of arrows, he is shamed and full of bitterness. Wormwood is a plant with a bitter taste.

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

He has no peace, he can’t remember what happiness is, and his endurance is gone. This is a person who knows what hopelessness feels like, as he says in v. 18, my hope has perished. Then the poem goes on to talk about –

Finding hope again

 19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

He gives a brief prayer for God to remember his suffering, because he can only remember it and be overwhelmed by it. But v. 21 begins in a different direction. This is where he remembers who God is, and this gives him hope.

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

Remembering who God is, gives him hope. Specifically two qualities are mentioned:

  • “steadfast love” – which can be translated as kindness, faithful love or great love.
  • “mercies” or compassion. It is the love that a parent has for a child.

And then God’s “faithfulness” in giving this steadfast love and mercy is highlighted:

  • God’s steadfast love “never ceases”
  • God’s mercies “never come to an end”
  • “They are new every morning”

This is his portion or allotment in life. God’s ever renewed love. He has lost everything else – his city and home were destroyed and no doubt he had family who were killed. And yet this is enough. As v.24 says, “’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”

A word of hope for us

Now I can say with great confidence that I have not suffered as much as the writer of this poem has. And I thank God for that. But precisely because he has suffered so much, he has the ability to speak to us. For if he can find hope in God in his circumstances, surely we can as well.

Whether we are being disciplined for our sins, as was the case here with Jerusalem, or God is just letting us go through hard times to train us and build our character, or we are experiencing good times God’s steadfast love and mercy and his faithfulness in giving these is what sustains us. It is the basis of our hope for the future.

This is the text I first shared with you when I came 9 years ago; my first sermon as your pastor. I told you that our hope in that time of transition was not in me, or in you, or in our circumstances, but only in God. And so I end by saying the same thing to you today.

As your pastor I now commend you into the hands of our God who faithfully gives you his steadfast love and mercies day by day. And I encourage you to have a strong hope for the future, because of who God is.

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Well, there’s nothing to celebrate in the two announcements we’ve just heard. It’s all sadness upon sadness. Yes, we have been through a really hard time.

The title this morning is, “Why, God?” Why do you allow us to go through such difficulties? Asking God why in times of trial is a biblical practice. Here are some examples from the book of Psalms:

  • I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me?” – Psalm 42:9
  • Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? – Psalm 10:1
  • My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? – Psalm 22:1
  • Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction . . . ? – Psalm 44:24

God allows us to go through really hard times as individuals and as congregations. So difficult that it seems like God is far away, while we suffer and struggle. But I want to encourage you this morning, by reminding you of five things about the God we serve.

1. God loves us

To be more specific, God loves Cedar Street. Paul says in Romans 8:32 – He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Paul’s point is that if God has already given us his Son to die on the cross to show his love for us, we can be sure that his love to us is secure and will continue. If he has already given that which is most precious to him, he will for sure show us his love in lesser situations.

And just because we are going through hard times doesn’t change this. Paul goes on to say in Romans 8:35, 37 – Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Brothers and sisters, don’t fear. God loves us in the midst of our trials.

2. God knows all about our situation

God has not been caught unaware by any of this.

It may seem like God is far away, as the Psalmists say, because of our troubles. But God knows every detail of what is going on, and every detail of all the pain that has been experienced by each one of us. The psalmist writes in Psalm 56 about his trials, talking about his enemies – 5All day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. 6They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps . . .” He has some serious problems.

But then he goes on to say to God, 8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” God knows all about it. In the same way, God knows all of our sleeplessness, all of our tears, all of our distress. They are in his book. There is a careful record of our pain and suffering.

Sisters and brothers, don’t be afraid. God knows what we are going through.

3. God is in control

Let me read some excerpts from Isaiah 44:6-8 – Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel . . . “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? . . . Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it?”

God has a plan from of old. That’s why he can declare what is yet to come. And it includes each one of us in this congregation.

Don’t think that God is scrambling or that God has to scrap his purpose and plan for us. God knew we would be here today, going through what we are going through. And God is so great that he can even use the actions of those who oppose him or our own failures to accomplish his plans. You can’t thwart God, you can only decide if you want to be a part of what he is doing and be blessed, or not.

I believe that going through our recent difficulties has conditioned us and put us in a place to be able to receive what God wants for us.

Don’t be overwhelmed. God has a purpose and a plan in all this.

4. God always works for our good

A part of God’s plan is that he uses our pain and suffering; he redeems it so that good can come of it. Paul says in Romans 8:28 – And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

God’s heart and purpose is that good can come of our trials, for us and others.

Don’t be afraid. God can bring something amazing out of all this.

5. God is able to handle things

Jesus said in Mark 10:27 – “All things are possible with God.”

When we are in a trial, it’s hard to see this. All we see is the bad. We want to say, “yes, God you can accomplish anything, but look at this and look at that.” But God is able to accomplish all that God purposes. And so we should pray, “God we know you can do it. Bring forth your will.”

  • Can not the one who created all things out of nothing bless and help us?
  • Can not the one who brought a group of slaves out of the empire of Egypt save us?
  • Can not the one who raised Jesus from the dead bring new life to us?

In all of this I am encouraging you not to fear. Or to say it positively, Have faith in God!

We can’t always answer the question why God lets us go through things. But we can answer the question of who; who our God is. We serve a God:

  • who loves us
  • who knows all about our pain
  • who is in control and has a plan
  • who always works for our good
  • and who is able to accomplish his will

And so because of who God is, we can move forward in faith.

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We are in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 today. It seems especially appropriate to share on this passage and its message, given that a number of our congregation are going through some real times of testing and hardship right now. Let’s look at this Scripture and see what God has to say to us this morning.

“3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

5For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, producing in you an endurance of the same sufferings which we also suffer. 7Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

8For we do not want you to be ignorant, sisters and brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

Let’s break this down into four points.

1. Paul talks a lot about going through hard times in these verses

The word “affliction” shows up four times. It means “trouble that inflicts distress” due to the outward circumstances of life. It can also be translated “trouble” or “tribulation.” It also refers to “inward experiences of distress.” The pain that we have because of our difficulties.

The word “sufferings” occurs four times, once as a verb. It means “that which is suffered or endured.” It can be translated, “to be in pain.”

In these verses Paul is referring specifically to suffering because of his ministry – suffering lack and being persecuted. In v. 5 he talks about how “we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” as he and Timothy fulfill their calling to preach the gospel. Later in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 we get a taste of what Paul is talking about: imprisonments, beatings, near death encounters, including being stoned; being shipwrecked, adrift at sea, exposed to dangers as he traveled, exposed to the cold; often hungry and thirsty.

But also v. 4 broadens the scope of what’s being talked about in these verses to include “any affliction.”

In our verses, he is giving thanks to God for a specific deliverance. v. 8 mentions  “the affliction we experienced in Asia,” that is, in the Roman province of Asia in what would be Western Turkey today. We don’t know specifically what he’s talking about, but probably the Corinthians do.

This is what we know. In v. 9 he says, “we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” And in v. 10 he called it a “deadly peril.” He thought for sure he and Timothy were going to die. The result was that “we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (v. 8). Now notice he was not just burdened, he was “utterly burdened,” weighed down, or crushed. So much so that he had no strength to deal with it and had no hope of living. So this was really intense testing he was in.

And certainly sometimes we feel “utterly burdened beyond our strength” by the circumstances of life that we are in. So much so that we think we aren’t going to make it. That is, we too can have despair; we can give up hope. This is a part of the inward pain that such suffering and affliction bring to us. This is what trials can do to us.

2. But also these verses say a lot about God’s mercy and comfort

v. 3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” This whole passage is blessing God for God’s mercy and comfort.

The title that Paul gives to God, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” doesn’t just point to God as being merciful and comforting, but to God as the source of our mercy and comfort.

God’s mercy is seen in that God delivered Paul from his trial. He didn’t die. God’s comfort has to do with God’s help in the midst of his trial.

The word “comfort” here can also be translated “encouragement,” or “consolation.” In its verbal form it means to give strength, to give hope; to lift another’s spirits; to ease their pain and sorrow. And this is a real theme in vs. 3-7. The root word shows up 10 times.

Paul is saying that he has experienced this from God. God comforted him in his desperate trial. In v. 4 he speaks of him “who comforts us in all our affliction” and talks about being “comforted by God.” He experienced God encouraging him and giving him strength. He experienced God’s presence and love which allayed some of the pain he was going through.

He also teaches us in v. 5 that God’s grace is sufficient to our need. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so though Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” He is saying that if we have many afflictions, we can have a corresponding measure of comfort as well.

Well, just as God comforted Paul, God will comfort us in our sufferings too. God is there with us and for us in our hard times. God can encourage us, let us know that he loves us, strengthen us and hold us up, so that we endure (v. 6). And so, like Paul, we should look to God to do just this.

Paul also makes the point in the verses that –

3. God can use our sufferings for good

He can redeem our afflictions. This shows up in two ways in our passage:

1) Paul talks about how, because he has suffered and been comforted by God, he can now give comfort to others who suffer. v. 4 – God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

Suffering equips us to minister to others; to help and bless others who are enduring suffering. And through such comfort we strengthen them to endure, as Paul says in v. 6.

2) He talks about how God used his trial to help him grow in his faith. Specifically to teach him to rely fully on God. v. 9 – “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

His situation was beyond anything that he could take are of, and since it involved him dying he had to look to the one who can raise the dead. Death isn’t fixable by human means, only by God. He has to learn in a new way what full reliance on God meant.

Now, none of us like to go through trials.

  • But it is true that often, we minister most effectively when we are in the midst of trials or have gone through deep waters. As here we are enabled to minister comfort to others.
  • And it is true that often, we grow in our faith the most when we are in trials. As here we are taught to rely on God more fully.

And so although we pray to be spared trials, we also pray to be effective ministers to others and to grow in our faith. Although we pray to be spared testing, we also pray, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done.

So we don’t want trials, but we have to trust God to sort through all this in terms of what is truly best for us from the perspective of our faith and of eternity, and what will bring glory to his name and advance his kingdom purposes.

We also learn in this passage –

4. How to respond to those who are suffering

1) Like Paul, we can comfort others with the comfort God has given us in our times of suffering. Again, v. 4, God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

We can share how God has been faithful to us. We can encourage them to hang in there; to look to God for help. We can ask what practical things we can do to ease their burden. But most of all we can simply be present and express our love. Love is more powerful than evil or whatever evil we find ourselves going through. Love is what truly comfort and heals.

And God uses us when we do these things, to give his comfort to people in need.

2) Like Paul asks the Corinthians to do, we can pray for others, for deliverance from trials, both now and in the future.

v. 11 says, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” Paul is speaking of future ordeals he will no doubt go through. And by the help of their prayers he wants God’s deliverance from these. This is what he means by “the blessing granted to us.”

Now, Paul was not always delivered. According to tradition he was eventually killed by Emperor Nero. So this praying is subject to God’s will, of course. But nevertheless he asks for prayers for deliverance so that he can continue on with the ministry that God has given to him. And we can pray the same for those who are going through hard times.

William Higgins

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