Suffering

God In Our Waiting

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Paul once said he had learned the secret of contentment, but he never had to shop at a grocery store. Everyone has their hang-ups, and this is one of my many. Every time I walk through those automatic doors and grab a shopping cart (or “buggy” where I’m from), I know I’m entering a minefield of frustration and impatience.

It's like the engineers who designed the shopping carts didn't consult with the engineers who designed the width of the aisles to allow two shoppers to pass with ease. Some shoppers seem to think their carts are holograms and can be walked through as if they were immaterial. As I shop, thoughts run wild in my head:

Why do five people need to be looking for spices the moment I need to be? Who had the bright idea of putting water pitcher filters in the hardware section? Who goes through self-checkout with 35 items at DMV-level speed?

My shopping experiences sometimes morph into moments of inner rage. I don’t want to be this way.

I want to be grateful I get to shop for food at all, with little concern about having enough to pay for what I need.

I want to see people as God sees them, but then someone forgets how to use their credit card in front of me. It’s a trivial example of a deeper reality of my humanity.

Waiting is not easy.

ALREADY, NOT YET

Paul wrote, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). Many theologians have ascribed Paul’s reflections here to the Christian experience. Regardless of what Paul specifically meant in this instance, the sentiment itself could describe how Christians often feel.

We are thankful for the gospel’s promise of adoption and grace extended toward sinners like us (Eph 1:5-6), but we are discouraged when our flesh continually presumes on the riches of his kindness (Rom 2:4). We love the thought of receiving “new wine,” but this old wineskin of a body seems to be the wrong place for it (Mk 2:21-22). We live as a “new creation” right here and now (2 Cor 5:17), but a day will come when we are made new, indeed, sinless (Rev 21:5).

Here lies the already-but-not-yet reality of the Christian life, and the answer is not very satisfying: wait.

Why does God make us wait, specifically as it relates to the presence of sin in our lives? Isn’t he aware of how much we hate waiting? Hasn’t he seen us on the interstate or getting off a plane? We’re living in a push-notification, fast-food, tweet-able, convenience-store world; isn’t it about time he catches up with the rest of us and stops the waiting already? Hasn’t it gone on long enough?

Our microwaves and two-day shipping services have conditioned us to believe that waiting is wasting. But God never wastes our waiting.

LEARNING THROUGH WAITING

In fact, it’s only through our waiting that God can teach us certain aspects of himself. There is a reason God has not eradicated the reality of sin yet in us. To make us wait is not to punish, so much as it is to demonstrate and instruct. There must be something redemptive about waiting, as difficult as the tension might be, for God to deem it necessary for each of us.

Psalm 130 is a window through which we see the goodness of waiting and the “okay-ness” of the already-but-not-yet tension that marks Christian living. This psalm is recognized by Bible scholars as one of the seven Penitential Psalms. It's found right in the heart of the Songs of Ascent, a collection of laments, praises, and prayers that frame a sort of “pilgrim’s progress” toward right worship of God.

There's an emphasis on both the individual and communal aspects of sin and penitence. Therefore, this psalm has something pointed to say both to the Church at large as well as to the individual Christian when it comes to sin and hardship and how they relate to our waiting. In particular, it offers four reminders for the person facing sin and hardship.

1. God meets our misery with mercy (Ps. 130:1-2)

Our Father loves us too much to shield us from being brought to the depths. He is not like the over-protective parent who works tirelessly to keep his children free from struggle. We cannot know we are empty until we truly feel it. He will never coerce us into the wrong decision; rather he knows that it is in the depths that his children abandon all attempts at quick fixes and self-help, and turn their gaze upward.

This first stanza is the first of three instances where the Psalmist uses both “LORD” (Yahweh) and “Lord” (Adonai) to describe God. “Yahweh” was considered too holy of a name to speak when referring to God, and “Adonai” was often used in its place.

But the two names have specific and differing points of emphasis regarding the character of God. “Yahweh” is often used in Scripture to point to the covenant faithfulness of God toward his people, while “Adonai” is often used when describing the power and sovereignty of God.

In verses 1-2, God’s faithfulness (Yahweh) and God’s power (Adonai) remind us that God is both faithful and sovereign in hearing our prayers. Our prayers do not fall on apathetic ears or into incapable hands. He is attentive to our cries for help from the depths of our sin. He mercifully ordains our misery, that he might display his power and faithfulness to us.

2. God meets our confession with forgiveness (Ps. 130:3-4)

One of the main reasons many Christians struggle with confessing wrongdoing is that it is simply humiliating. We feel more exposed than the Emperor with his new clothes, like a tabloid will be telling the world in bright and bold letters what we have done.

But as the psalmist recognizes, we are all exposed in the end. Why should we fear confession when we have all fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23)? In verses 3-4, God’s faithfulness (Yahweh) and God’s power (Adonai) remind us that God is both faithful and sovereign in spite of our personal sins.

When we confess our sins, God clothes us with the garments of salvation (Isa 61:10). It is only through the way of confession that we come to understand being forgiven. And even more so, God allows us to go through the difficulty of confession “that [he] may be feared.” When we confess our sins, God will manifest his forgiving power in our lives, which will spark worship in our hearts.

3. God meets our hope with promises (Ps. 130:5-6)

Our only hope of being rid of the battle with sin once and for all is if God makes it so. It is hopeless for us to attempt in our own selves to finally eliminate sin. God must intervene, and therefore we must wait.

The psalmist says in our waiting for the Lord, we must hope. The way Scripture talks about hope is not the same way the world talks about hope. The world’s hope is frail. It's quasi-confidence, with little to bank on other than chance. I hope the Bears win tonight. I hope I have studied enough. I hope life slows down soon.

But the Christian hope is not a shot in the dark. It is grounded not in sheer luck, but in a person. And not just any person, but Yahweh and Adonai Himself. God’s faithfulness (Yahweh) and God’s power (Adonai) remind us that our hopes aren’t hanging in the air. God not only hears us and forgives us but he has also given us his Word to form our hope.

He is worthy of being trusted with our hopes because he will do what he says he will do. His Word itself is power (Rom. 116), and therefore guarantees it.

4. God meets our world with redemption (Ps. 130:7-8)

The hope we're guaranteed is redemption. God’s faithfulness (Yahweh) and God’s power (Adonai) are not only applied to us in an individual sense but in a communal sense as well. Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior, but he’s more than that. He is also our shared Lord and Savior.

Sin has affected us not only as individuals but also as a community. The Fall ushered in a host of fault lines and distortions in our hearts and in our world. But through the cross, redemption is available to those who trust in him.

And, get this: it’s coming for the world God’s people live in, too. There is “plentiful redemption” available to the community and the nation of Israel, an inside-out “making all things new” that we await (Rev. 21:5).

AND NOW WE WAIT

Waiting isn’t easy. No one said it would be, not even Jesus. “I do not ask that you take them out of the world” (Jn 17:15).

Jesus’s plan for our growth is not escaping or fleeing—it’s going through the refining fire. It’s being exposed of our inabilities, confessing our need for God, trusting that his Word is worthy of our hope, and anticipating the work he intends to do in us and around us. It’s all bound up in the psalmist’s words: “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits.”

Perhaps our best shot at living a life of gospel witness is to choose the way of waiting. To slow down and ignore the shortcuts, to stay the course and fight our sin, to hold fast to his Word, and to endure in the world he is making new. Like watchmen in the black of night, we know our task during the dark is hard, but the dawn of morning is on the way.

The waiting will be worth it.


Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.

Suffering Doesn’t Have to Keep You from Giving Thanks

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“How’s Jesus treating you today?” I asked her, taking a seat at her bedside. Hospice had recently brought in a hospital bed to make it easier to help her in and out. That word—hospice—signaled to all of us that in the eyes of medicine, the end was near. It was just a matter of time.

To most people, it didn’t seem like Jesus was treating her well at all. But she saw things differently.

It took her a moment to answer. Her mind was alert, but her speech had been severely impaired by the pressure of the tumor in her brain. “I know Jesus loves me,” she said, “because he sent you to visit me.”

HUNGRY FOR GRACE

Amid suffering, her eyes had become finely attuned to recognize the grace of God. My friend was on her deathbed, yet she had the clearest sight of anyone I knew.

She was so hungry for grace that she was ready to recognize and receive any gift that came her way. She could easily have rejected the little gifts—like me of all things!—because they weren’t the gifts she really wanted (like healing and wholeness).

She had become adept at recognizing streams in the desert. Her context of disease, suffering, and impending death did not deaden—but rather, amplified—her ability to receive the grace God was lavishly pouring out on her. How is this possible?

HOW GRATITUDE IS CONNECTED TO SPIRITUAL HEALTH

In Romans 1, The Apostle Paul connects gratitude to spiritual health:

"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images" (Rom. 1:21-23, emphasis added)

Spiritual decay begins when God is no longer recognized as the gift giver. When we separate God from his gifts, the gifts eventually take his place. Ceasing to give thanks is the beginning of this long downward spiral away from God. Ingratitude leads to spiritual death.

On the other hand, gratitude leads to spiritual vitality. Show me a grateful person and I’ll show you someone who is growing spiritually. Gratitude—hunting for grace and saying “thank you” when you find it—is a discipleship issue. A life of following Jesus should be increasingly marked by gratitude.

THANKSGIVING IN THE CRUCIBLE

The first followers of Jesus took it as a given that discipleship is worked out in the furnace of suffering. Peter reminded his flocks to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Jesus himself promised a crucible, not a coddling, for those who follow him (see John 15:18-20).

This difficult setting for a life of discipleship isn’t obvious to all because a tension exists in our mind between gratitude and suffering. We find it difficult to believe that a young mother dying of cancer could find anything to be grateful for. We wonder at her ability to draw closer to her Savior at the same time she draws closer to her death.

Scripture, however, reminds us that gratitude best finds its meaning in the face of suffering. Thanksgiving regularly holds hands with lament, a reality understood by the psalmists. Over half of the psalms include lament—or giving voice to the reality that human life is regularly marked by the presence of suffering—such as:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5).

In light of who God is—“my salvation and my God”—the downcast poet calls himself to hope amid turmoil, to rejoice amid tears, and to give thanks amid lament. Gratitude must come even, or perhaps especially, when it doesn’t make sense; a reality understood by Abraham Lincoln.

WHY THANKSGIVING IS CONNECTED TO LAMENT

On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the famous Thanksgiving Proclamation, marking the last Thursday of November as a national day of prayer and repentance. He wrote this proclamation at the height of the Civil War, within two weeks of one of the bloodiest battles in American History.

The juxtaposition of thanksgiving and tragedy doesn’t seem to make sense. But Lincoln understood the deep connection between gratitude and lament. He saw gratitude as lament’s counterbalance and knew that the way forward for a broken nation would somehow walk the narrow road between the two. Neither could be left out, for thanksgiving without lament would become naive optimism, and lament without thanksgiving would degenerate into hopeless cynicism.

Thanksgiving makes true lament possible because it anchors tragedy, brokenness, illness, pain, and suffering in the person of God. Without God, lament can never find resolution or meaning because it’s detached from an object: someone to whom we can lament. Thanksgiving is the formational practice of thanking that very same Person, providing a relational context where Godward lament makes sense.

PRACTICE THANKSGIVING

A life of following Jesus is a life increasingly marked by gratitude. If you want to become more like Jesus, say “thank you” more often. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” wrote Paul (1 Thess. 5:18). But how?

The foundational work of thanksgiving is to hunt high and low for grace and, having found it, to say “thank you” for it. We can train ourselves to “give thanks in all circumstances” by implementing habits of gratitude, such as:

Say “thank you” more than “you’re welcome.” Jesus called his disciples to exercise hospitality toward those we wouldn’t normally invite to our table, especially those who can’t repay us (Luke 14:12-14). In this instance, it would be easy to see ourselves in the role of benefactors: giving freely from our abundance. But what if Jesus wanted us to see that even in our acts of generosity we should have eyes to see grace coming towards us rather than going out from us? Even in our generosity, God is the one extending undeserved grace to us: “…and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:14).

Say “thank you” for difficult things. God is constantly trying to train us to see his hand in all things. We are at risk of missing his work when we limit the ways we think he can act. That flat tire you had when you were already running late for work? Say “thank you.” The conflict at work that keeps you up at night? Say “thank you.” Could you even say “thank you” for a marriage on the rocks? For losing your job? For a cancer diagnosis? James would say so: “Count it all joy, my brothers, 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” (Jas. 1:2-4).

Say “thank you” to others regularly. Write thank you cards. Speak words of affirmation. Making saying “thank you” a regular practice. As you practice saying thanking those around you, you will find yourself regularly on the hunt for grace in the lives of others. Not only that, but you will teach others to say “thank you” when they may never have thought to do so.

Keep a running “thank you” list and review it regularly. This is one of the easiest ways to train yourself to hunt for grace: every morning (or evening), write down at least one thing you’re grateful for. At family meals, rehearse aloud even the smallest graces of God—warm food, shelter, sleep, chocolate, good music, friends. Finding things to be grateful for in the mundane is the training ground for grateful disciples.

GRATEFUL FOR GOD’S GRACE

Gratitude is a recognition and affirmation of the grace of God. There can be no spiritual maturity without thankfulness.

As you pursue a life of discipleship, practice saying thank you in the mundane things, in the difficult things, and even in the unexpected situations. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to start.

May you find yourself—even when despair seems right—inadvertently and unconsciously “giving thanks in all circumstances” to a God who is constantly pouring his grace out on you.


Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 21 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.

The Hazardous Work of Discipleship

I was slumped over my computer triaging my inbox when a knock broke my concentration. “There’s a guy asking to speak to a pastor. He’s . . . well, he’s crying. Can you go talk to him?” I said sure and inhaled a long, slow breath as I prayed over what lay ahead. He was sitting with his back to me when I arrived. I recognized him. He thanked me for seeing him, his head slightly bowed like he was in the principal’s office.

He wasn’t sure how it happened. Things had gotten out of hand, one thing had led to another, and somehow he had spent the night in jail. The details were fuzzy. Their flesh wounds were not.

“Something’s got to change with me,” he said. But he had no idea what that meant. “I don’t want it to go on like this. What do I do?”

This is the hazardous work of discipleship. This is the part no one prepares you for.

I intentionally say it’s the hazardous work of discipleship, not the pastorate, because sooner or later every disciple-maker finds themselves in conversations they weren’t prepared for. These conversations are loaded with questions that don’t have easy answers and are smeared with the filth of sin.

In times like these, disciple-makers need something substantial to grab hold of and to offer to drowning disciples. Flimsy Christian phrases about seasons of life and God having a plan won’t do. When someone’s life is falling apart, we need to offer robust truths that stand the test of time—truths like those in Psalm 124.

Dangerous Discipleship

Written by David likely after a time of great onslaught and suffering, this psalm “better than any other describes the hazardous work of all discipleship and declares the help that is always experienced at the hand of God,” wrote Eugene Peterson.

The first five verses declare the dangers of discipleship:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us; then over us would have gone the raging waters.

Where would we be without God? In every time and place, the church has faced physical or spiritual persecution, and sometimes both. Beatings, torture, marginalization, spiritual warfare, lust, greed, death; these are commonplace among God’s people.

What believer has not known a threat that rose so steadily and powerfully around them that they thought they might be carried away by the flood? What believer has not known the suffocating pressure applied by people bent on demeaning or destroying their character?

But it is in these moments, at just the right time, that our Lord comes to the rescue. “Imagine what would have happened if the Lord had left us, and then see what has happened because he has been faithful to us,” wrote Charles Spurgeon. If it weren’t for an almighty, all-powerful God we would surely be carried away by the raging waters; we would surely be swallowed up.

“This psalm, though, is not about hazards but about help,” Peterson writes. “The hazardous work of discipleship is not the subject of the psalm but only its setting.” The psalm now turns to what happens in such a hazardous setting.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

After calling us to look back and see the Lord’s rescuing hand, David beckons us to celebrate our escape by magnifying the Rescuer.

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!

When all our friends and help have evaporated and all hope is lost, then God breaks the snare and sets us free. Our deliverance comes by the hand of God, so we must thank him properly, for he snatched us out of danger like a helpless mouse in the snake’s fangs or a bird who narrowly escapes the snare. “We rob [God] of his due if we do not return thanks to him,” wrote Matthew Henry. “And we are the more obliged to praise him because we had such a narrow escape.”

Spurgeon, in his commentary on these verses, lingers on the bird and snare imagery:

“Our soul is like a bird for many reasons; but in this case the point of likeness is weakness, folly, and the ease with which it is enticed into the snare. Fowlers have many methods of taking small birds, and Satan has many methods of entrapping souls. . . . Fowlers know their birds, and how to take them; but the birds see not the snare so as to avoid it, and they cannot break it so as to escape from it.”

We are helpless, like a caged bird, as much as we wouldn’t like to admit it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was a poet born to emancipated parents in June 1872. He went on to become one of the first influential African-American poets in America. In his poem titled “Sympathy,” he writes of the desperation of being another man’s property:

“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore — When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!”

Though we are not enslaved to other people today, we have all been slaves to sin (Rom. 6:16). But if you are in Christ, the gate of your cage has burst open and you have been set free! Spurgeon writes,

“Happy is the bird that hath a deliverer strong, and mighty, and ready in the moment of peril: happier still is the soul over which the Lord watches day and night to pluck its feet out of the net. What joy there is in this song, ‘our soul is escaped.’ How the emancipated one sings and soars, and soars and sings again.”

Brothers and sisters, rejoice at your rescue and freedom in Christ! God has snatched you out of the darkness and brought you into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). He has grafted you into his family, making you his very own son or daughter (Rom. 11:17). Who is this God who rescues sinners and adopts them as his own?

The Lord Who Made Heaven and Earth

Recently I was teaching a class on what the Bible says about immigrants and refugees. My wife walked in a few minutes late after dropping our kids off, so she sat at a table in the back with one other woman. We paused for discussion and they got to talking.

My wife discovered the woman was here as a refugee after fleeing persecution for her Christian faith in Eritrea. We asked about her family. One of her brothers-in-law is in prison for his faith; the whereabouts of her mentally ill brother are unknown, she told us through tears.

The next day my wife wanted to text her and let her know we’re praying for her. But what do you say in a situation like this?

My wife sent her Psalm 124 and told her we were thanking God that she escaped and was able to come to America. The psalm meant so much to the woman that she read it to a group of Eritrean ex-pats who pray regularly for their country, then they prayed the song for their loved ones back home.

The final verse of Psalm 124 tells us, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yahweh, the great “I Am,” is our rescuer. He is our strength and shield, our shelter from the storm. He is the omnipotent, omniscient one who created heaven and earth. He is not a weak god incapable of saving but an Almighty God with whom all things are possible (Matt. 19:26).

This is who our help is in! Our Creator is our Rescuer. “He made heaven for us, and he will keep us for heaven,” Spurgeon wrote. He will not abandon us forever, though for a short time we may suffer. This is the God—the truth—to whom we point desperate disciples in times of great need and trouble. This is the truth to whom we point ourselves when in desperation or despair.

When we praise the God who made heaven and earth, we start to see our lives in the proper perspective. We begin to realize God is shaping and forming us through our suffering into men and women who look like his Son. When we worship God as Creator, we increase our trust in God as Comforter.

Grayson Pope (M.A., Christian Studies) is a husband and father of four, and the Managing Web Editor at GCD. He serves as a writer and editor with Prison Fellowship. For more of Grayson’s writing, check out his website or follow him on Twitter.

Why Does God Permit So Much Evil?

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God has all power and all knowledge and is second to none. No equals and no competitors. The fact that evil is rampant in his creation is no surprise to him. It’s there only by permission. Fromtime to time, evil may seem to be running wild, but in fact it’s always on a leash. And we should be grateful that we’ve never seen how bad it could become.

Exactly why God allows evil in his creation, he doesn’t bother to tell us, and he doesn’t need to. He is God. We can’t understand everything about God, but we have enough information to satisfy many of our basic questions. In many cases, God chooses to let us go through whatever evil or trouble we may be facing at the moment. He could have prevented it and allowed us an easy skate, rather than the tough slog some have to endure. He could end it entirely but probably won’t until he’s through using it for his purposes.

An Intruder in God's Good Creation

If we take a close look at both the Old and New Testaments, we notice something interesting about evil’s presence in the world. It is considered an intruder into God’s good creation but is allowed to prowl about for a time, and with a considerable degree of freedom. Yet it’s always within bounds.

Sometimes it may look as though it exceeds all limits, and whereas good often seems to run out of steam, evil seems never to tire. But just when we think God’s hands are tied, he yanks the chain and brings it to heel. He is ruler of all. Evil is evil and good is good, but whereas God never uses good for evil purposes, he often uses or blatantly exploits evil for good purposes. He does this by turning it upside down and inside out.

The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are wonderful illustrations of evil being exploited for good. One of the clearest pictures comes to us in the account of Joseph. Young Joseph is mistreated, violently abused, tricked, kidnapped, enslaved, falsely accused, and imprisoned. Yet every time he is kicked and abused, he is mysteriously bumped up one more rung of the ladder. He moves from the deep hole in the beginning of the story to the position of the prime minister of Egypt at the end.

God used all the evil directed toward Joseph as raw material to construct not only his preservation from starvation and death but also the rescue of those who abused him as well as the salvation of the entire nation he served. As Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

This pattern presented early in the Bible became the blueprint for how God has chosen to deal with evil in his realm for the rest of history. He may permit a certain amount of wickedness to occur, but he always reserves the right to twist and use it for his own purposes. We see the same design in the New Testament.

What we see in Genesis continues throughout early church history, through the centuries of the martyrs, in the subsequent eras of the church, and up to the present day. This is God’s will for the remainder of time until he brings down the curtain and calls humanity to final judgment. After every tiny scrap of evil is dealt with in the complete justice and fairness of God, he intends to recreate a new heaven and new earth where evil is no longer even a possibility—where only goodness and righteousness will exist.

The manipulation of evil for good ends is one of the most exciting aspects of God’s program on earth. He uses the bad things around us in ways we couldn’t possibly expect. He brings good out of the bad not in spite of it but because of it.

The Grand Master

Let’s examine a very earthly and human analogy of this. For example, it’s common practice to exploit the intentions of others for our own ends in a variety of ways. Consider the game of chess. As the competition progresses, the better of the two players cleverly ascertains his opponent’s game plan. He has two options. He can block and frustrate the plan immediately, or he can so arrange his own strategy to account for it, to absorb it. In this way, while his opponent is cheerfully fulfilling his own scheme, he’s also unwittingly fulfilling that of the superior player.

Just when he thinks he’s about to proclaim victory, he’s suddenly checkmated. The game is over.

So it is with God. He’s the Grand Master of chess, who can at any moment impose his own plan over ours (or anyone else’s), so that no matter what, he can bring the game to his own decreed conclusion. We may deliberately live a life of rebellion and selfishness, discarding his will at every point, or we may live a life of Spirit-empowered obedience and self-sacrifice. Whichever course we take, he wins in the end. By scripting his own plot to overarch ours, he allows us to fulfill our plans but ultimately to bring about his will. In this way, evil is both exploited as well as judged, good is rewarded, and God is the victor.

Of course, this is not a perfect analogy, since there are no exact earthly parallels to how God’s nature and sovereignty are involved in human life. God is entirely unique and profoundly mysterious. He is revealed to us only in part. As I said, this revelation isn’t everything we want to know, but it’s enough to grasp the basics of what he wants us to know. The main point of comparison here is that the superior being uses the activities of the inferior for his own will.

Over the years, our family has discovered that some of the best things that ever happened to us came as a direct result of the worst things that ever happened to us. If we take the apostle Paul seriously “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), then we’ll eventually see how God still writes his superior, more sophisticated script over all others.

No matter what evils befall us, good (even excellence) may be brought out of them. This is one of God’s favorite things to do. This point is too important to pass over lightly.

And we need to remember, just as it is Satan’s purpose to take all that is good and turn it toward evil ends, so it is God’s purpose to take all that is evil in the lives of those who love him and turn it for good. The commandeering and exploitation of evil for good is one of the most powerful aspects of God’s strategies on earth. He skillfully manipulates the bad things around us in ways we couldn’t possibly expect or imagine.

A Truth We Need to be Fixed in Our Minds

We need to fix this truth in our minds. Between now and the final act of history’s play, God has determined to allow evil to roam about on a chain, not free to do anything and everything it wants, but to do much that we wouldn’t want. Evil will always be an intruder and an invader. As long as we dwell on this planet, we’ll always live in occupied territory. Evil will be relatively free (within God’s prescribed limits), but it will always be under the ongoing judgment of the Ruler of all things. Each and every day he will choose to exploit what evil determines to do and to turn it toward his good purposes.

Again, evil will continue to accuse, blame, abuse, misrepresent the truth, destroy, and pillage, but it will remain on a leash. It will never be totally free and will do no more than it’s allowed to do. God defeats it handily, takes it prisoner, and redirects it to bring the good he intends.

Why do I repeat myself? Simply to underscore this critical point: whether people choose to do evil or good in this life, God has decreed that he will write his will into the script of human history and bring it to its conclusion in exactly the way he has purposed.

We can oppose God’s will and do the most terrible things, or we can do everything in our power to try to please him. In either case, he’s able to enter into our own worldly troubles and sins and in some mysterious way bring out of them ultimate good—both his and ours. Without doubt, evil, and all those who love it and are given to it, will face judgment and destruction. But it is to God’s glory that we turn from it and live.


Taken from Resenting God: Escape the Downward Spiral of Blame, (c) 2018, Abingdon Press.

Dr. John I. Snyder is author of Resenting God and Your 100 Day Prayer. As an ordained Presbyterian pastor, John has served congregations in the United States and planted churches in California and Switzerland. He is the advisor and lead author for theology and culture blog Theology Mix (www.theologymix.com), which hosts 80+ authors and podcasters and visitors from 175 countries. He received his Doctor of Theology degree magna cum laude in New Testament Studies from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He also has Master of Theology and Master of Divinity degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

The Blessing of Being Wrong

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“YOU’RE WRONG!” Several middle school students I once ministered to competed in regional debate tournaments twice a year. They were well prepared on the topic of debate: they knew the rebuttals and oratory tactics to land their points, and how to demonstrate the logical flaws in their opponents’ arguments. Neatly dressed and armed with little index cards of research—and cut-throat for winning the competitions—these students were preparing for debating and defeating contrasting world-views.

When it was time for a tournament, I would famously offer any student debating in the competition $20 in hard cash if they would, in the midst of their debate, stand up, point at the other side, and yell “YOU’RE WRONG!” and then quietly sit down again, thus ending the debate.

Whether they wanted to avoid the scolding and potential embarrassment of losing the tournament for such a brash tactic, or whether they were unsure of my ability to pay, I don't know. But no one ever took the risk.

Hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” is an awakening. I for one don’t like it. But I need to hear it. “You’re wrong!” forces me to look at my situation or point of view and assess where I may have missed a turn. Sometimes, being told I’m wrong leads me to hunker down into my convictions and stand my ground. No matter what, it’s always an awakening moment. There’s a blessing in being wrong.

Painfully Aware

The poet of Psalm 120 had a moment of awakening: “In my distress I called out to the Lord.” The weight of discovering he’d been wrong was startling and traumatic; it crushed his soul. He felt misery and anguish, a blend he called “distress.” Before we can appreciate the psalmist’s awakening, we have to understand his story.

Three times a year the Hebrews were required to leave their homes and journey to Jerusalem holy days of festival celebration. Their pilgrimage was an embodiment of the life of faith. Moving to Jerusalem was “ascending the hill of the Lord,” all the while asking, “Who can do this?” (Ps. 15; 24). As they traveled, a liturgy took shape to remind and provide “a guidebook and map” for the journey of faith, as Eugene Peterson would say. This liturgy was captured in fifteen Psalms—Psalms 120-134—affectionately known as the “Psalms of Ascent.”

Every so often I realize that an important date is so quickly approaching that unless I shift into high gear, there is simply no way I’ll be prepared. I’ve never waited to buy Christmas presents until Christmas Eve, but there have been a few close calls for birthdays and other holidays. The thought of missing the date gives me a much-needed awakening.

I imagine there were some busy Jewish families that would share that moment of sheer fright when they realized the festival was merely a day or two away. Pulling together a few essentials and getting out of the house was hectic and hurried. The frustration of living so far away and making the journey is heard in the psalmist’s cries: “I have stayed in Meshech . . . I have lived among the tents of Kedar,” as if to say, “I am so far from the city, so far from God’s place, so far away from being who I should be.”

The journey to Jerusalem was hard and perhaps painful, but necessary. Realizing our distance from God can get us moving. We hear “YOU’RE WRONG!” and realize we’re so far in the wrong direction that unless we get moving right now, we’ll never catch up. Welcome to repentance.

Becoming aware of his distance from God was the only way the psalmist could be changed. Awakening to his reality was the only way he could be moved. This is exactly what God wants for us.

The Refreshment of Repentance

Repentance is described by many as an emotion. We often hear of repentance in terms of sorrow, anguish, or contrition. While the awakened sense of wrongness that comes with repentance does bring true sorrow, repentance isn’t merely an emotional response. In the psalmist’s case, there is anger at his own decisions, disgust over his apathy, and desire for a new life. But his emotions don’t tell us he’s repenting. His actions do.

The singular verb, “called,” of Psalm 120 tells us how to respond to God when awakened to our sin. It directs us to action. After hearing “YOU’RE WRONG!” he realized the sinfulness of his hometown had worn off on him, and he called out for help: “In my distress I called to the Lord.”

Left to himself, he’d always be stuck, always be distant from God, always among those who love war. That was the painful realization of his heart and soul. He longed for peace, for justice, and for nearness to God.

Repentance must be an action for us too. We have restitution to make, changes to implement, steps to take. But repentance cannot and will not be real and refreshing until we make the first step—crying out for help.

So many self-help systems are geared around willpower; washing your face, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and other simple strategies. But growing near to God though takes another path—helplessness. The false notion that “God helps those who help themselves” falls short. God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so they cry out to him in desperation.

The refreshment of repentance is not in the actions we take or the sorrow we feel. The refreshment of repentance starts with the awareness that “YOU’RE WRONG!” coupled with the cry “GOD, HELP!” We can’t fix our wrongness but we can cry out for help.

Promised Reprieve

The full opening verse of Psalm 120 speaks for the whole: “I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me.” He was wrong and weary, misguided and messy. Far from home and far from God. Yet God answered him. This is the blessing of being wrong. But it’s only for those who are aware they are wrong and need some help. God answers those who realize they’re wrong and cry out to him.

What resounding hope and help this is for stagnated and sedentary disciples like you and me! No matter how wrong we are, no matter how painful the awareness of our sinfulness, God is there to meet us when we cry out. He’s there to bring a blessing when we are wrong.

Instead of self-importance or righteousness or religious performance, all we have to offer God is a cry for his help. He meets all our weakness with all his strength. This is the promise for those of us who hear, “YOU’RE WRONG!” and answer, “Yes, it’s true! God help me!” For those who will cry out in need and desperation for help and rescue from their sin, God promises he will answer. His answer gets us moving. His grace silences the shout of “YOU’RE WRONG” and tells us “Come, home!”

What are we waiting for? The loving, open arms of the Father are open to us. Let’s allow the painful awareness of our sin to urge us to cry out for his help, and let’s start on the road to God. He’ll not only meet us on the way, but he will also bring us the whole way there.


Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and That Word Above All Earthly Powers. He writes personally at jwritebol.net. You can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.

How to Cultivate Communal Comfort in Your Suffering

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Suffering powerfully highlights what has always been true—we were not created for independent living. Suffering reminds us that God’s grace doesn’t work to propel our independence but to deepen our vertical and horizontal dependence. The strong, independent, self-made person is a delusion. Everyone needs help and assistance. To fight community, to quest for self-sufficiency, is not only a denial of your spiritual need; it’s a denial of your humanity. Suffering is a messenger telling us that to be human is to be dependent.

My friend TobyMac so wonderfully captured with these words: “What does it look like to admit your need and open the door to God’s warehouse of provision?” Consider these seven steps.

1. Don’t Suffer in Heroic Isolation

There’s nothing noble about bearing down and suffering alone. In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster. Everyone has been designed by God for community. Healthy, godly living is deeply relational. Worshipfully submissive community with God and humble dependency on God’s people are vital to living well in the middle of the unplanned, the unwanted, and the unexpected.

The brothers and sisters around you have been placed in your life as instruments of grace, and as I’ve said before, they won’t be perfect instruments, they won’t always say and do the right things, but in the messiness of these relationships God delivers to us what only he can give.

In my own suffering I’ve had to fight with the temptation of self-imposed isolation. I know I need the presence and voices of others in my life who can say and do things for me that I could never do for myself, and I know that the relationship I have with these people is God’s gift of comfort, rescue, protection, and wisdom. Are you suffering in isolation?

2. Determine to Be Honest

The first step in seeking and celebrating the gift of the comfort of God’s people and experiencing how they can make the invisible grace of God visible in your life is to honestly communicate how you’re handling what you’re going through. Honest communication is not detailing the hardship you’re going through and letting all the people around you know how tough you have it. Complaining tends to drive people away and to attract you to other complainers, which is far from healthy and helpful. Rather, every sufferer needs to be humbly honest about the spiritual battle underneath the physical travail so that brothers and sisters around you can fight that spiritual battle with you.

And don’t worry about what people think of you. Remember, you don’t get your identity, peace, security, and rest of heart from them but from your Lord. No one in your life is capable of being your messiah; people are tools in the hands of your Messiah, Jesus. It would be impossible to fully communicate the depth of the comfort, strength, and counsel I have gotten at crucial moments of spiritual battle from the dear ones God has placed in my life. Are you humbly and honestly communicating to others about how you’re handling your hardship?

3. Let People Interrupt Your Private Conversation

You have incredible influence over you, because no one talks to you more than you do. The problem is that there are times when it’s very hard to say to ourselves what we need to hear. The travail of suffering is clearly one of those times. It’s hard then to give yourself the hope, comfort, confrontation, direction, wisdom, and God-awareness that every sufferer desperately needs.

So you need voices in your life besides your own. You need to invite wise and loving people to eavesdrop and interrupt your private conversation, providing in their words things you wouldn’t be able to say to yourself. And don’t take offense when they fail to agree with your assessments; you need these alternative voices. They’re not in your life to hurt your feelings but to give you what you won’t be able to give yourself, and that in itself is a sweet grace from the hand of God. Who have you invited to interrupt your private conversations?

4. Admit Your Weakness

Doing well in the middle of hardship is not about acting as if you’re strong. God’s reputation isn’t honored by our publicly faking what isn’t privately true. The grave danger to sufferers is not admission of weakness but delusions of strength. You see, if you tell yourself and others that you are strong, then you won’t seek and they won’t offer the enabling and strengthening grace that every sufferer needs. And remember, the most important form of weakness that we all face isn’t the physical weakness that accompanies so much of our suffering but the weakness of heart in the midst of it.

Determine to be honest about your weakness, and in so doing, invite others to be God’s tools of his empowering and transforming grace. When you suffer, you view weakness either as an enemy or as an opportunity to experience the new potential that is yours as God’s child. Is your habit to admit or deny weakness?

5. Confess Your Blindness

This side of eternity, since sin still lives inside us and blinds us, there are pockets of spiritual blindness in all of us. As you walk through your travail, there may be inaccuracies of belief, subtle but wrong desires, wrong attitudes, susceptibilities to temptation, wrong views of others, struggles with God, and evidences of hopelessness that you don’t see.

So in love, God has placed his children in your life to function as instruments of seeing. They offer to you insight that you wouldn’t have by yourself. Because they can see what you don’t, they can speak into issues in your life, and by so doing be not only instruments of seeing but also God’s agents of rescue and transformation.

It’s humbling but true of every sufferer that accuracy of personal insight is the result of community, because sin makes personal insight difficult. Since we all have areas where we fail to see what we need to see, we need to welcome those whom God has sent into our lives to correct and focus our vision. How open are you when those near you help you see things in yourself that you don’t see?

6. Seek Wise Counsel

It’s dangerous to make important life decisions in the midst of the tumultuous emotions and despondency of suffering. Often in the middle of hardship, it’s hard to see clearly, to think accurately, and to desire what’s best. The shock, grief, and dismay of suffering tend to rattle the heart and confuse the mind.

When you are suffering, you need to humbly invite wise and godly counselors into your life. I’m not talking here about professional help, although that’s good if necessary. I’m talking about identifying the wise and godly people already in your life who know you and your situation well, who can provide the clarity of advice, guidance, and direction that is very hard to provide for yourself.

Don’t be threatened by this; it’s something we all need, and wise sufferers welcome it and enjoy the harvest of good fruit that results. Have you invited wise and godly counselors into your life to help you decide what would be hard to decide on your own?

7. Remember That Your Suffering Doesn’t Belong to You

2 Corinthians 1:3–9 reminds us that our sufferings belong to the Lord. He will take hard and difficult things in your life and use them to produce good things in the lives of others. This is one of the unexpected miracles of his grace. When it seems that my life is anything but good, God picks it up and produces what’s very good in the life of another. Every sufferer needs to know that the comfort of community is a two-way street. Not only do you need the comfort of God’s people, but your suffering positions you to be a uniquely sympathetic and insightful tool of the same in the lives of others.

Your suffering has given you a toolbox of gospel skills that make you ready and equipped to answer God’s call to be an agent of his comfort in the lives of fellow sufferers. God calls you not to hoard your suffering but to offer it up to him to be used as needed in the lives of others. And there’s blessing in taking your eyes off yourself and placing them on others, because it really is more blessed to give than to receive. Have you hoarded your suffering, or seen it as a means for bringing to others the good things that you have received?

Yes, it’s true that the God of all comfort sends his ambassadors of comfort into your life. They’re sent to make God’s invisible presence, protection, strength, wisdom, love, and grace visible. So welcome his ambassadors. Be open to their insight and counsel. Confess your needs so that God’s helpers can minister to those needs. Live like you really do believe that your walk through hardship is a community project, and be ready for the good things God will do.


Content taken from Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn't Make Sense by Paul David Tripp, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Paul David Tripp is the president of Paul Tripp Ministries, a nonprofit organization. He has been married for many years to Luella and they have four grown children. For more information and resources visit paultrippministries.org.