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Habakkuk’s Lament: How to Keep from Drowning in the Deep End of Life

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[cross-posted from www.ArtOfTheChristianNinja.com]

Lifeguard Training

My kids have been in swimming lessons for quite a while. I took them when I was a child, as most people do, but I’m nowhere near as good at swimming as my kids are. Even my littlest, Eowyn, knows more strokes and techniques than I do. To be totally honest, I only ever made it to the third level – which they called “RED” at the time – because I failed it over and over and over. Eventually my mother got tired of paying for me to fail and said, “Well, you won’t die if you fall out of the canoe, so I guess that’s enough.”

Our intention, right now anyway, is to have all of our kids take enough lessons that they will be certified lifeguards and instructors. Ethan has already completed Bronze Cross and has First Aid and CPR, training – which is good, because that allows me to eat as much poutine as I want, with total impunity, knowing if I choke on a cheese curd or keel over with a heart attack, Ethan will be there to save me. Eventually, I will be surrounded with children that will not only be able to save me, but also teach others how to save their poutine loving fathers.

As I’ve watched my children develop in their swimming abilities, I’ve seen them take on bigger and bigger challenges. At the beginning of their training, the instructors have them jump into the shallow end of the pool, always within arms reach, and then hold them up by their tummies to practice their strokes, whispering nice, encouraging words in their ears the whole time. They tread and splash for a few moments and then sit on the side and watch others do the same. It’s very sweet.

However, as the lessons continue, it gets a lot less sweet. My boys, who have been doing this for a while, come home from swimming lessons with some very interesting stories. I’ll ask, “What did you do today, son?” and they will relate quite a grueling regimen of exercises. Long gone are the days of tummy holding and whispered encouragement.

“Well dad, during my three hour class, we started with an hour of book work, memorizing acronym after acronym after acronym, and then moved on to oral and practical quizzes. Then we were told to get in the water and swim 24 laps in under 12 minutes. After that, they told us to tread water in the deep end for five minutes – but THIS time, they dropped a 10 pound weight to the bottom of the deep end and had us retrieve it and then tread water while passing it around to each other. Then it was time to practice some rescues, which means dragging my classmate’s limp bodies out of the pool over and over – and if I didn’t do it perfectly I would have to do it again. And when we finally got them out, it was time for ‘land rescues’ where we practice saving people from choking, bleeding, passing out, having a stroke, and more – sometimes as they attack me! Oh, and by the way, the test is next week and if I make one mistake –their head goes under water, I misdiagnose, or I take my eyes off of them – I fail immediately and have to take the class all over again.”

Drowning in The Deep End

To their credit, my kids rarely complain about the work they are required to do during their classes. They know that what they are learning is important and that it takes dedication and skill to do it right. And of course, my response as a Dad is never to say, “Oh, that’s too bad! I wish they would take it easier on you.” No way, It’s “Good! I hope next week is even harder! That’s building some character! Now drop and give me 20!” (It’s a tough life at my house…)

Now, would any of us here criticize the instructors for being too hard on the students? Sure, we can’t take the toddlers and drop them in the deep end, tied to 10 pound weights, right? That’s not only inappropriate, but probably illegal.

But if we are going to give people the title of “LIFEGUARD” and give them a little piece of paper that says they are “LIFESAVERS”, then I think it’s right that they be rigorously trained and tested!

It’s no different in the Christian faith. I don’t say this lightly, but most Christians do not have a very strong faith. There are a lot of folks in our churches that are content to spend their lives paddling around the shallow end of the pool. They’re like me when it comes to swimming lessons: they think they know enough not to drown, but that’s it.

The problem is that this world isn’t a good place right now for people who don’t know how to swim in the deep end. The issues that are pressing against us are incredibly complex and go far beyond our human ability to contemplate, let alone, attempt to address. We are living in the deep end right now and there are a lot of people who call themselves believers that are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t know what to do when the waves of change crash against them and they are pulled down into the riptide of popular culture. As they sputter and flounder, they do foolish things like trust their emotions and seek wisdom from pagans. They don’t know how to pray or read God’s word and are leaving the church in droves.

It is my deepest desire that we don’t make that mistake. Even our little church out here in the middle of nowhere feels the crash of the waves of change and the pull of popular culture. We can’t avoid it – so we’d best be prepared. Not just for ourselves, but so we can help save others.

When we or someone else at our church gets nailed by crisis – whether that’s crisis of health, finance, or faith – don’t we want to be a group of well trained lifeguards that know our stuff and can jump in and save them? Rather than being like the untrained and useless masses of people that simply stand on the sidelines muttering how they wish they could do something, but not knowing how – or worse, throwing stones at the one that is hurting, hoping it might help.

It is my belief that the issues that strike the deepest part of our hearts are addressed by God in His Word. God may not answer every question that interests us, but He has certainly answered all the ones that we need to know. That’s why we need to know God and His Word. Because we and everyone around us – our children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and enemies – have big questions, and most of us are ill equipped to give any answers.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about having a bunch of pat answers under our belt so we can be the smartest person in the room or win debates with unbelievers. No, far more important is that we need to know these things so we can know God.

The problems of this world, those that happen inside and outside us, make so much more sense when we know in our heart, soul and mind that God is always good and always just. As long as we wonder if God cares about us, wonder if He even sees the problem, wonder if He’s punishing us, wonder if He’s being unfair, unjust or unkind, then we will forever live in fear and doubt. Uncertainty about God creates a life filled with anxiety.

That’s the normal life of the pagan, the atheist, and the immature believer. They live in anxious fear. They always feel insecure. Below their feet is shifting sand. They try to find security in all sorts of places: politics, money, healthcare, military power, personal relationships, new technologies, scientific progress, counsellors, teachers, entertainment, religion… but the problem is that every foundation they try keeps changing! Almost nothing the same as it was 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. So they live in fear. It’s only a matter of time before the next wave hits, their foundation fails again, and they are set adrift on seas that they can neither navigate nor swim.

Have you felt this? All hell breaks loose around you, and you realize that your foundation is uncertain. Life gets very unfair and you realize that the things you thought were going to get you through, simply let you down. That’s life in the deep end. We all feel it, but I don’t want any of you to drown. No believer should live in constant fear that God has forgotten them or is going to abandon them. No believer should be crushed under the weight of this world. No believer should feel like they will drown in their sorrows.

Yes, we will feel the fear. Yes, we will feel the burden. Yes, we will feel the pain of loss. Yes, we will feel the frustration. But when those feelings come, believers have access to something greater, an off switch to the emotional roller coaster. We know that our lives are built on the unchanging Word of our immutable God, who always keeps His promises, and will always see us through.

Habakkuk’s Follow Up Question

Last week we talked about Habakkuk’s first question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” and this week we are going to look back at the conversation to see that Habakkuk isn’t done with his big questions yet. God just dropped a bomb on him saying that his plan to take care of the sin of the nation is to have the people and the cities utterly wiped out by the Babylonian army, and so now we get to the follow up question:

“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?

You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:12-17)

Start Humbly

There’s a lot of emotion in this section. As I said, these are HUGE questions. They get to the deepest part of humanity’s problem with evil, and seek to understand the most complicated details of God’s plan of salvation.

But I want you to notice something first. I want you to see something critically important. If there’s one thing you get out of this sermon, let this be it: Habakkuk begins his prayer with humility and faith. There is no doubt that Habakkuk believes God is greater and more righteous than he is. He may have no idea what’s happening or why, but his prayer starts in the right place. This is where we must start as well. We must not start our prayers thinking we are equal with God, that we get to argue with His Word, or that can come up with a better plan. We are not there to debate or negotiate. Whenever we come to prayer or study, we must come humbly, or we will have wasted it.

“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

Certainly, Habakkuk is BOLD in his prayer, asking huge questions of God, but he does it in a way that is humble and trusting. Look how many titles he uses for God! He uses God’s names, “YAHWEH” and “ELOHIM”, or “LORD” and “God”. He knows He’s addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He’s not talking to “the big guy in the sky” or “his buddy Jesus”. He’s not coming to the conversation as an equal. He knows what he’s doing is audacious. He’s asking GOD to explain himself! That’s ridiculous on its face, but such is the God we love and serve to allow us to approach His throne of grace! He is the Father and He wants to talk to his children, but He’s also GOD.

Next he calls God, “My Holy One”, intimating a personal relationship with Someone who is not only unique, but special to Habakkuk’s heart. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a term from Deuteronomy 32:4, which calls God “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” He sees the Lord as the highest Judge in the highest court, who is perfect in His decisions.

That’s where Habakkuk starts his prayer – on His face before God – and it’s where we must start our prayers. Yes, we can be angry, confused, broken hearted, weeping, pacing, broken, on our knees our shouting aloud. All of those feelings are represented in the prayers of scripture – even the prayers of Jesus. But while we pray, our hearts must be humble.

I believe that if we want answers to big questions, if we want comfort from God in the midst of our trials, then we must come to prayer with the right heart. We start with the belief that God is our unmoveable rock, the worker of our perfection, the upholder of our justice, and the keeper of our faith. It’s personal, and it’s humble.

If we start our prayers thinking that God is weak, out of control, or unfair, then our whole prayer life and relationship with Him will be skewed. Instead of finding comfort, we will be hardening our hearts to Him! But if we come in humbly, knowing who God really is, then even if we have deep hurts, doubts and questions, we’ll at least be in the right place to ask and start to find answers. During these tough times, when questions abound, check your heart before you start to pray.

Lamentations

If you believe in God, then I know you’ve shared these thoughts with Habakkuk. Everyone has. We look at ISIS running around harming more and more people and we say, “God, who is going to stop them?” We look at abortionists and think the same thing. Or pornographers: “They drag their hook through campuses and catch young women and men, gut their souls, and walk away smiling. How long will that last, God?” We look at the global church and see it grow more dysfunctional as it fractures and falls away from the faith of our fathers – and then watch as atheist churches take their place – and wonder how much worse it can get.

We look to our own lives and our own problems with sickness, death, trial, temptation, work, finances, relationships, and everything else – and when we finally hit our knees, our prayers sound very much like these words from over 2500 years go. Nothing is new under the sun.

The Bible word used to describe this type of prayer is “Lament”. We would use the term mourn or grieve, and it’s something we’re not very good at as a culture. We tend to run from our problems or pretend they don’t exist, rather than face them and let them break us down. We’ve lost the ability to lament, and it shows in our culture. Jesus lamented, as did many of the faithful in the Bible, and faithful people that have come since. They faced the difficult things in their life and let their hearts break, so they could bring the pieces to the One who could put them back together.

Today, instead, we usually pretend our heart isn’t broken, make excuses for it, pretend to be healthy, or medicate our feelings away. It’s terribly unhealthy. We need to lament things.

Now, lamenting isn’t just feeling sad. “Lamenting” has a more formal meaning and goes beyond emotion. What it means is that we take our heartache TO Someone who will listen, and, hopefully, do something about it. The Bible is full of laments, most often songs – which means they’ve been given some thought and inspiration. A lament isn’t merely raw emotion, but are the well-considered, meditated upon, thoughts of a believer, brought before God.

It’s not that raw, emotional prayers are bad. David’s psalms sometimes seem very raw and emotional, as though they were written in the middle of a battle – and perhaps some of them were – but Habakkuk’s writing here (like many other laments in the Bible) is of incredibly high quality, with well chosen, deeply poetic words.

That doesn’t take away from the heartache. Perhaps it even adds to it. He may have chewed on these thoughts, this prayer, this lament, these questions, for a long time. He prayed these thoughts over and over, finding new, better and and different ways to express his grief to God. And since this is inspired scripture (listen carefully), God HIMSELF was working with Habakkuk on this prayer poem. These are words written by Habakkuk and God given to believers to help us express the intense feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for.

Habakkuk’s Questions

Let’s go through Habakkuk’s prayer verse by verse and take it apart a bit so we can see how much it often reflects the prayers of our own hearts

In verse 13 we see Habakkuk’s follow up question of “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” The rest of this section expands on this question. God, how can you use an evil nation like the Babylonians, who are doing more evil than we are to discipline your people? That seems unfair. They get blessed with more land and victory – even though they are worse than us! How can You, the perfect Judge, stand there and allow a greater evil to swallow up a lesser one?

In verse 14-15 Habakkuk uses an illustration that we understand today. He says to God that it almost feels like there’s no accountability in this world. Like we’re all just evolved animals doing whatever we want – that the real rule of life is simply survival of the fittest. The biggest fish rules the pond. Is that how Your world is supposed to work? That doesn’t make sense at all! Aren’t you the God that defends the widow and orphan, helps the helpless, frees the captive? Then why are we living by the law of the jungle right now? The Babylonians are clearly the more evolved and stronger than we are! They are going to chase us, catch us, gut us, eat us and then smile. And are you there… just watching?

In verse 16 Habakkuk keeps arguing his case for why this doesn’t make sense. He points out to God that to make it worse, this wicked nation then turns to give the credit to demons and false gods! Actually, it’s even worse than that. The picture here is of a fisherman catching a fish and then giving worship offerings to HIS NET! He’s giving all the credit for his great victory to his fishing rod. How ridiculous! God, that’s how stupid Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are! They don’t even know who to thank for their victory! They put their faith in demons and horses and spears rather than the One who Created the Universe! God, you don’t even get the glory! And to make it even WORSE… after they’ve slaughtered us little fish… they will be richer and more comfortable. God, this nation will NEVER turn to you because all the evil plans they come up with are doing so well!

And then verse 17 really strikes home: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” I can imagine that there are a lot of people living in in the world right now who have prayed this prayer – and it has echoed through ages past. The persecution and genocide of Christians around the world now, the Jews during World War 2, the African slave trade, the Acadians… and it goes on throughout history.

God how long, exactly, are you going to let this go on? This can’t last forever. It just can’t! Can it? This seems totally backwards. This seems so wrong. Evil is winning and good is losing. The victory is going to demons and fools. You get no glory, no praise, and the faithful are punished. This is so confusing. This is heartbreaking. The pain is excruciating and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. How can you stand it?

In some ways, though we’ve never been through the extreme persecution of some, we’ve all asked that question, right? Do you realize how much differently this prayer would have gone if he wouldn’t have started out humble? These are not accusations. These are big questions, but they are not accusations against God. This is a person with deep hurts and confusion, pouring his heart out to God. I know many of you have been in this situation.

Sitting in the Watchtower

Habakkuk ends his prayer in 2:1 by saying, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”

“Ok, God. I’ll be quiet now and listen. I’m going to watch for your answer.” We could learn a lot from that. How often do we pray and then forget to listen?!

He trusts that God, His ROCK, won’t let him down, but will make His will known. Habakkuk’s plan is to go to the watchpost, sit in the tower, and wait for what God will do. He knows Babylon is coming and will see them from the tower. He will witness firsthand the fulfilment of prophecy, the justice of God. But, as he watches for what God is doing… he’s also waiting to see what God will do.

Context

Remember last week’s helicopter view of life that God gave him. Now we see Habakkuk choosing to find a higher vantage point where he can watch not only what God is doing, but what He will do. God has given him a bigger perspective of life, and now that’s the lens he’s using to see the world.

God does that sometimes for us too. We come to him in prayer, we lament before him, and He raises us up higher, shows us some scripture or gives us a special message from a friend or a sermon, that allow us to see more of what is happening. And then He gives us a chance to chew on that knowledge for a while.

We are left to meditate on what God has said, and it requires discipline for us not to slide back down to the ground and forget all that God has shown us from higher up. What we must do is choose to climb the tower and wait for God – again – but now from a different perspective. We climb the tower and look out for what God is going to do. How will He work this out for my good and His glory? In what ways will He use this? How can this make me or others more Christ-like? This is God’s plan, and though it hurts, I’m going to watch and wait.

Remember the back story. King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to get some advice. Jeremiah says he should surrender to Babylon so that they don’t get slaughtered. That’s God’s GRACE in action! That message was God saying that He would be merciful even as He was punishing them, if they would only accept what He is doing. Yes, they would still go into captivity, but He would do it more gently. All Zedekiah had to do was relent to God.

If Zedekiah were up on the tower with Habakkuk, perhaps he would have made a better decision. Instead, like a fool, he chose to fight against God’s plan. He didn’t have the helicopter view. He wasn’t in the tower. He wasn’t listening to God. He didn’t see God as sovereign. He didn’t believe God was his rock. He didn’t trust God’s plan. Instead, he fought God’s plan and that choice brought terrible pain and misery to everyone around him.

Concluding Reminders

That’s as far as we’re going to get this week. We’ll pick up God’s answer next week, but I want to just remind you of a few things that we’ve learned today.

First, remember that Christians have a responsibility to take their spiritual training seriously. This world is a terribly deep and treacherous pool and we will drown if we don’t make the decision to learn how to swim well and help others. Get into God’s word, stay in prayer, and do the works of a Christian. Yes it’s hard. But as Paul said to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)

Second, it is good for us to bring our heartaches to God, but we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place. Don’t start your prayer with a laundry list of requests. Start as Jesus taught you to start your prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mat. 6:9) God is your Father, God is in Heaven, God and his name is to be hallowed (or made high and worshipped exclusively). Start your prayers there.

Third, don’t be afraid of Lamenting. Lamentations are important – it is one of the ways that we show that we are relenting to God’s plan. It is good to bring our grief to God. It is good for us to wait for him because He will come. Isaiah 30:31 says, “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” And when He does come, trust that He will raise you up to a heavenly perspective of what is happening. And then, when God has shown up, climb the watchtower and wait to see what He will do next.

That’s where I’m going to leave it today.

how do I deal with discouragement? (Reading the Beatitudes Forwards, Backwards & Inside-Out) (Burning Questions Series #3)

[cross-posted from www.ArtOfTheChristianNinja.com]

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burning-questions-3-dealing-with-discouragementThis World is Getting Worse (And There’s Nothing We Can Do About It)

Last week we said that this world is not our home. Has anyone felt that they just want to get off this planet and be with Jesus this week? To reach our final destination:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

We all have times like that, don’t we? When we are suffering, discouraged or in pain – or watching someone we love that is suffering, discouraged or in pain – it is a constant reminder to believers that we aren’t where we are supposed to be. Hebrews 13:14 echoes what we talked about last week with Augustine’s two cities: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

That’s one of the feelings that happens when hard times come, isn’t it? We feel that way, don’t we? Our feelings of “This isn’t right! It’s not supposed to be like this!” are actually fairly accurate. You’re right – it’s not. The original intention of this place we call “Earth” was that we would be happy, productive, free and walk in the presence of God. But because of the effects of sin, we are not happy, productive, free and connected to God. No, instead we are unhappy, work much harder than we should have to, are bound to temptation and destruction, and there is a veil between us and God.

That’s the bad news – but it’s true. And there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no technology we can build, no pill we can take, no food we can eat, no politician we can elect, no doctor we can see, no scientist we can fund, that will be able to make this world all better. Sure, God has put some amazing people on this earth who have done some amazing things to help bring peace, healing, humour, comfort, and wonder to more and more people – but they’re all just a stop gap. For every medical breakthrough, there are a thousand more diseases. For every scientific innovation, there are a million unanswered questions. For every great politician, there is a despotic dictator. For every comedian there is are a hundred naysayers. For every Mother Theresa there is a terrorist or suicide bomber. For every family willing to pursue adoption, there are hundreds more who would rather kill the baby instead.

I’m not saying this because I’m a pessimist – I’m saying this because it’s true. Those outside of these walls, who believe in the “triumph of the human spirit” or “the amazing potential of mankind” are only fooling themselves into believing that there is a bright day in the future where we will have conquered death, disease, famine, plague, and natural disasters. It’s a pipe dream. This world, for all its joy and wonder, is a terribly messed up place – and there is nothing we can do about it.

The Question of Discouragement

And so, today’s question become extremely pertinent: “How do I keep from getting discouraged when I continually fail in certain areas of my life?” I appreciate that question, but I want to expand it a little further to simply asking the question: “How do I keep from getting discouraged?” Whether it’s personal failure that we bring upon ourselves or a natural disaster that happens to us, I believe the response is fairly similar, so that’s what I want to address today.

Turn with me first to Psalm 37:1-9 we can find a very practical list of ways to react when we become discouraged. Let’s read the whole thing together and then, over the next couple weeks, we’ll take it apart into five different parts.

As a quick intro, this Psalm is written as a sort of proverb set to music. It’s chock full of practical truth about how things are supposed to work. They are in alphabetical order (in the Hebrew language) and each build upon one another. One writer in the 16th century said, “They hang together not unlike many precious stones or pearls, which are strong on one string in one necklace.” (Amyrald):

“Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.”

So the five steps we see there are “Fret not”, “Trust in the Lord”, “Commit your way to the Lord”, “Be still before the Lord.”, and “Refrain from anger.” We’re going to talk about the first one today.

1. Fret Not Yourself (Take Control of Your Thinking)

The first thing that the Psalmist tells us to do when we come face to face with evil – which for him are evildoers, but it could just as easily be the evils of temptation, sickness, struggle, tragedy, heartache – is to “Fret not yourself because of evildoers…” This has everything to do with preparing our mindset before the tragedy comes – or steeling ourselves against it when it arrives.

For the Psalmist, the problem is “evildoers”. He says, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” In other words, he’s looking at wicked people doing wrong things, and yet they are still prosperous. This theme happens a lot in the psalms as the good guy bemoans the fact that he’s being good and suffering, and yet the bad guys are all having a great time. It bothers him greatly, so here we see him talking to himself and also talking to others about it. He’s taking control of his out-of-control thinking.

This is the first thing we have to do for ourselves too when evil comes upon us. This is the first step in the battle against discouragement – to take control of our thought life. This is actually found quite a lot in scripture.

  • Psalm 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
  • 2 Corinthians 10:5 says we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ”.
  • 1 Peter 1:13 says, “…prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
  • Last we read Colossians 3:2, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
  • (Also Romans 12:2, Mark 7:20, Philippians 4:8)

This is a practical action, a step of obedience, that we are given to do in scripture, given to us to combat the temptation to become discouraged. These are active commands, something we are supposed to do. It doesn’t just happen – it’s something which we must choose to participate in.

As an exercise in how to do this, to take control of our thoughts, turn with me to Matthew 5 and let’s read one of the most famous passages in scripture, called the Beatitudes. These are a great source of encouragement, and a great place to find right-thinking about the difficult times that we face in our lives.

Reading the Beatitudes Forwards, Backwards & Inside-Out

But I want to do something a little different today – I want to read them forwards, and then backwards, and then inside out.

Starting at verse 3, forwards we read

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now let’s read that backward: “The Kingdom of Heaven is for people who are poor in spirit. It is the poor in spirit that are blessed.”

Now let’s read it inside-out: “Wretched are those who believe they are spiritually self-sufficient, for theirs is the kingdom of Hell.”

That puts a different spin on it, doesn’t it? What is a sure path to discouragement? To believe we are spiritually and emotionally strong enough, in and of ourselves, to deal with what this world has to offer. How can we feel wretched? By trying to attain the Kingdom of Heaven by our own strength.

To gain the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must realize that we cannot, ever, be strong enough to deal with the weight of the world on our own. Sin is too big, the troubles of this world are too big, and our personal problems are too much for us. We are designed to need God, need Jesus, and need other believers. Once we realize that and seek out other sources of strength outside ourselves, we will begin to see blessing and understand “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.

Whenever we feel like we can handle it, that we don’t need God or our Christian family – we need to take that thought captive and realize it for what it is – a demonic temptation toward the pride of thinking we are sufficient, and a ploy to get us alone so we can be attacked more easily. Don’t fall for it.

Mourning & Denial

Forwards, verse 4 reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Backwards that reads: “To feel the comforting of God, one must feel sorrow.”

Inside-out that reads, “Wretched are those who deny the tragedy of sinfulness, for they will be troubled.”

Discouragement comes to those who are unwilling to admit that they are sinners that do evil for which they will accountable for. If you walk around believing that nothing is your fault, everything bad is someone else’s responsibility, that you never make mistakes, and that if everyone would just listen to you then life would be better – then you are setting yourself up for a world of troubles.

However, when we allow ourselves to mourn, grieve, and accept the fact that sin is real in this world, and in our own hearts – that our personal sin is a contributing factor to the suffering of this world – then we can finally come to the place where we will turn to God for comfort. As long as we are living in denial that anything can go wrong, or that anything is our fault, then we will never accept the comfort of God.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so discouraged because things keep going wrong around me, and I’ve got nothing to do with it! Everyone around me is always wrong. I’m surrounded by incompetence. I deserve better!”? That’s a person who refuses to mourn for their sin and will never feel the comfort of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. It’s only when we admit we are sinners, that we are guilty of sin and responsible for our actions, and that we need forgiveness – when we mourn our sin – that we will be met by the amazing grace of Jesus.

We must take this thought captive – that we are faultless – and come to God for forgiveness.

Another side to this, more obviously is that in order for us to feel the need for God’s presence, we must feel His absence. Sometimes God will put us through times of grief, that drive us to mourning, so that we will understand what life without Him is like.

Take this thought captive as well – when we think that God is punishing us through suffering, remember that He already punished Jesus and that that which we are mourning is meant to drive us to God, not away.

Meekness & Self-Centeredness

Verse 5, when we read it forwards says: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Reading it backwards we see: “The ones who will gain the most, are the ones who are willing to give up what they think they deserve.”

Reading it inside-out we read: “Wretched are the self-centred, for they shall be empty.”

This is kind of the opposite of the first one. The first reminder was that we shouldn’t be alone but this is the flip-side. Sometimes when discouragement, troubles and disaster comes, it’s really easy to get self-centred. Everyone wants to know what’s going on with you, you are the centre of attention, they’re reading your posts on Facebook, you’re getting phone calls, visits, emails, nice cards, flowers, casseroles. It’s easy to start to get used to it and think you deserve all that you are getting – that the universe revolves around you. Ironically, the attention we sometimes get when we are in the midst of suffering, can puff up our pride.

Have you ever met a “drama queen”? This is a person who is in the habit of creating and responding to situations in an overtly overdramatic, melodramatic, exaggerated way. Something goes a little wrong – they forget to pay their credit card on time, their favourite tv show is cancelled, they have a fender bender, someone gives them a negative comment – and the curtain rises and the performance starts!

Their lip quivers, the tears roll, the vague Facebook posts start flowing, “People are so rude! I’ve never been treated so rudely as I was today! Who do people think they are?”

They call you up and start with “You’ll never believe what happened to me today!” And then start to tell you of the many, horrible things that occurred that day. The only issue is that they ALWAYS have problems and all of them are huge! Everything is about them, all the time. The world revolves around them and their problems. They don’t know what to do with themselves if they’re not the center of attention and getting pity from as many people as possible!

The word “meek” means someone who is “gentle and humble”. So long as we have the world revolving around us – there is no way that we can inherit it from the One whom it truly does revolve around. (Tweet this quote) Put it this way – when we are using our sufferings to draw attention to ourselves and puff up our pride, we are wasting our sufferings, because we they are meant to draw us to our knees, build our humility, and cause us to be more dependant on God.

The other side of this is that we end up forgetting that other people have problems too. Sometimes our problems make us blind to others. A meek, gentle, humble person who is going through a hard time – is still concerned for others. It is the meek who God promises will inherit the earth, because even in their suffering, they are still thinking about how they can love others.

So, we must take captive the thought that our suffering is a way to gain attention for ourselves and forget about others. When we dwell, only on our own sufferings and refuse to help, serve, and pray for others, or draw closer to God, we are on the path of spiritual destruction. We are wasting the suffering, and can’t help but end up feeling discouraged.

Wretched are the Uncommitted

Let’s do one more Beatitude. Skip down to verse 11.

Forwards it reads: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Backwards that reads: “They persecuted all the prophets in the Bible, all the ones who believed in me before you. Because of your relationship with Me, they are going to falsely accuse you, speak evil of you, persecute you, and hate you. The only way you will be able to rejoice and be glad in these times is if you remember that your blessing and reward is in heaven, not here on earth.”

Inside-out that reads: “Wretched are the uncommitted, who drop their relationship with Jesus when it becomes inconvenient, and who think the Christian life is an easy ride, for their destination is Hell.”

Again, as I said, this is about right thinking. A friend of mine reminded me this week that all of the apocalyptic, end times, Revelation parts of the Bible are there to remind us about our ultimate goal—to experience the presence of God in Heaven.

Scripture reminds us that people are going to hate us, Satan will attack us, our bodies will fail us, the nations will be at war, the very ground beneath us will shake and break up – and it is all a reminder to us that we are not home.

Last week I reminded you that we are “aliens and sojourners” in this world. Even this environment around us is toxic. Our home is in heaven, but we’re not there yet. This life is merely a fraction of all eternity, and even though it feels all-encompassing now, the suffering we will endure only a moment in time.

If our Treasure is truly in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), where moths and vermin cannot destroy it, and where thieves cannot break in and steal it, then – and only then – can we rejoice in our sufferings. Why?

Because suffering causes us to press closer to God, depend more on Him, long for His presence, weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, share in the suffering of others, see the poverty of our spirit and desire the Kingdom of Heaven, hunger for righteousness instead of worldliness, show mercy because we have received it, and because it is a way for God to clear our minds of all the fluff and nonsense of this world.

As Romans 5:3-5 says:

“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

But even more than all that, when we think rightly of our sufferings, we realize that we are being made more like Jesus, who suffered more than all of us, so we might be free from suffering forever.

Don’t waste your suffering. Don’t allow it to discourage your faith – instead, allow it to push you into the arms of God, so you might know the hope that comes from God’s love poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Unfortunately we’re going to have to pick up the other steps of Psalm 37 next week, because we’re not going to have time today. I think it’s really important that we cover this first part of “taking every thought captive” or “fretting not” because it is so critically important that, when suffering and discouragement comes, that we begin with right thinking about it. That’s the most critical first step.

So we’ll end there for now, but until we come back next week, I encourage you to read the rest of the Beatitudes forwards, backwards and inside-out (to practice right thinking) and meditate on Psalm 37:1-9 (for practical ways to combat discouragement).

attacked on all sides (Passion Week Series)

[cross-posted from www.ArtOfTheChristianNinja.com]

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passion-week-tuesdayA couple weeks ago we started a series going through the final week of Jesus life His resurrection on Easter Sunday. We’ve already covered the events of Palm Sunday and Monday where we saw the Triumphal Entry, the Cursing of the Fig Tree and The Cleansing of the Temple. Today we will talk about what happened an even more eventful day – Tuesday.

Many people call the this time in Christ’s life “Passion Week”. It is so named because of the passion Christ showed during His march toward the cross to pay for the sins of His people.  It could be argued that it was during Passion Week that Jesus preached the most stirring, emotional, difficult, and controversial teachings of His entire ministry. But He wasn’t the only one showing passion – so were His enemies.

Royal Rumble

I’m a child of the 80s and 90s, so the events of Tuesday remind me of when I used to watch the Royal Rumble during WrestleMania as a kid. For the uninitiated, the Royal Rumble is when they take a whole bunch of very large men, dressed in tights and other forms of weird clothing (and who call themselves “wrestlers”), stick them in one ring and let them pretend to beat the tar out of one another until one man remains. The rules were that two men would start in the ring and then every couple of minutes they send in wrestler after wrestler, 28 more, until one man stands victorious.

That’s what Tuesday is to Jesus. He’s taking on all comers. We read about group after group lining up to try to trick, trap and publically scandalize Jesus through all sorts of devious questions. But when the day comes to an end, He’s the only one standing.

Mark 11:20-13:37 give us the events of events of Tuesday, but I would like to park on the section where Jesus is confronted in the Temple, starting in verse 27. Before we dig into any application, I want to look at the attacks that come against Jesus, and who from:

“And they came again to Jerusalem. [that is, Jesus, His Disciples, and probably a growing group of followers] And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him…”

What we see here is the group called “The Sanhedrin”, which was the Jewish executive, legislative and judicial council. It consists of 70 members, plus the High Priest. Now, this wasn’t the entire Sanhedrin, but probably a delegation sent from it. They met every day (except on Festivals and the Sabbath) and had a lot of power in Jerusalem. They were the ones to whom all questions of the Mosaic law were finally put.

To understand what’s going on here, picture Jesus walking into church only to find a delegation of lawyers, judges and politicians, sent from the Supreme Court of Canada, standing in his way. Remember, Jesus had just caused a major scene the day before by throwing out the merchants and money changers from the day before. This was a group of powerful, angry men who were sent to question Jesus regarding His actions.

The First Volley

We already know from verse 18 that this group was planning on killing Jesus, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it since they were afraid that the crowds would turn on them if they did. Jesus was still immensely popular. They needed to turn the crowds against Him before they could eliminate Him.

“…and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?’” (vs 28)

Jesus has only taken a few steps into the Temple, surrounded by a group of disciples that is growing every minute, when these men stop Him and ask Him for His credentials. There’s almost no doubt that after Jesus’ actions of the day before, they had convened a council to try to figure out what to do with Him, and they had come up with a plan: publically discredit Him so most of the crowds would stop following Him, capture him during the night when no one was watching, and then trump up some charges against Him – a plan that eventually succeeds, with Judas’ help.

Their first attempt was a well-laid trap. They wanted Jesus either to publically admit that He believed He was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that His authority came straight from God so they could accuse Him of blasphemy which was punished by death – or say that everything was by His own authority so they could accuse Him of being a megalomaniacal fanatic.

But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they couldn’t care less about what authority Jesus speaks and performs miracles by and so He turned the question back on them to expose their cowardice. Verse 29:

“Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.’ And they discussed it with one another, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?’—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (vs 29-33)

He reveals their motives and weakness to everyone around, and then Jesus goes even farther. Keep in mind that they aren’t in a private place with only 12 disciples and the delegation from the Sanhedrin. They are surrounded by a large, and ever growing, crowd. Jesus was already very popular, and now he’s in a Title-Fight with some of the most educated, influential and powerful people in their whole culture.

Remember high-school when kids would start to pick on one another, and then one would push the other? It wasn’t too long until the whole school found out and came running. Imagine Jesus vs The Sanhedrin. That would draw a crowd.

The Parable of the Tenants

“And he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (12:1-6)

It’s almost impossible for the crowds and the delegation to miss the point of this story — this is a parable of judgement. As soon as Jesus says the word “vineyard” they know that Jesus is talking about all of Israel, because it was a well-known metaphor in the Old Testament.

Jesus uses this story to not only to illustrate the tension between Him and the leaders of Israel, but to break it wide open. This story is a condemnation of all of them, and a prophecy of what would happen in only days.

The Landlord who planted and owns the vineyard is God – and it’s a good one. It is protected by a stone wall, built by the owner himself. He cultivated it and made it fruitful enough to need a winepress. He set up a tower as a lookout for trouble and a shelter for those who gathered the grapes. The owner of the land knows what He’s doing, and has created a great vineyard.

He steps aside and leases it to some tenants to run for a time. He’ll be back, but until then He wants them to care for and grow His vineyard – which should be pretty easy since He’s already done all the hard work. All they have to do is keep it up.

And they do. They sit back and enjoy the fruits of the owners labour. Sure, they had to pull some weeds, but it was the owner’s wisdom and strength that made it grow so well.

And when all the grapes were ready to be picked, and the owner comes back to collect some, the tenants won’t give it up. Those who remember the story of the cursing of the fig tree know what the fruit is meant to represent here: worship and obedience.

They want the grapes. All of them. The tenants, who here represent the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious rulers, won’t give them up. They want the worship that is due to God. They want the praise. They want the power. They want the glory. They want to be obeyed. They want to have what God is rightfully due – the worship of His people.

God sent His angels, prophets, kings, judges, to tell them to give up what is only for Him, but they won’t have it. Finally God sends the Messiah, the very Word, the voice of God, the face of God. The One whom Hebrews (1:3) calls “…His Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” And soon, they would reject and kill Him.

Jesus looks them in the eye and knows their heart. He looks at the leaders of Israel and knows what they have been plotting. He says in verse 7:

“But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” (vs 7-10)

The Sanhedrin, the elders, teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the entire crowd catches on. Jesus says that “the vineyard”, which represents all the promises God made to Israel, will be taken from them and given to non-Jewish people. He will come and wipe out the Temple, the Sacrifices, and the Old Laws, and give the entire blessing “to others”.

Why? Because they rejected Him. He offered salvation – a sharing of the fruit – if they would humble themselves. But they saw Jesus as a stone that was in their way, that needed to be removed so they could build what they wanted to build. Jesus said, “No, I’m not in your way… I’m the cornerstone… and unless you build on me, everything you build will fall apart.”

If you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke you can read even more parables that Jesus told them, where He speaks of God as an enraged King who will dispatch His troops to destroy the leaders of Israel and invite gentiles into His wedding feast. Over and over Jesus issues warnings to the people and the Jewish leaders that they are on the edge of hell, and warns them against rejecting God’s plan of salvation through God’s chosen agent – Him.

See their reaction:

“And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (vs 12)

Exasperated and defeated, they walk away – but they’re not done. Their cronies are going to spend the rest of Tuesday playing the same hand over and over, trying to discredit Jesus and make him trip over his words. Just like in the parable, they are going to throw fist after fist, stone after stone, trying to get Jesus out of their way so they can take over the vineyard – but it’s not going to work.

Attack after Attack

“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” (vs 13)

Next they send in the B-team of wealthy businessmen try to discredit him – the movers and shakers of the community. They thought they had come up with a great trap about paying taxes to Rome, where they thought they could get Jesus arrested as a traitor for saying not to pay taxes, or rejected by the people as a Roman sell-out by saying you have to support Rome. But it doesn’t work and they scurry away defeated.

Next they throw out a Hail-Mary by sending in the least credible of their ranks – the wealthy, aristocratic, smart-mouthed, materialist-minded politicians: “And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question…”. (vs 18) But their question, which was about who would be married to whom after the resurrection, is so ridiculous, and so poorly framed, and so unbiblical, that Jesus easily points out to everyone that they knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God”. (vs 24)

Finally, we see one man, a scribe, which we would call a Lawyer, who had been impressed with Jesus’ answers, come up and asked: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (vs 28) Jesus answers Him, and they have a discussion about the importance of loving God and loving our neighbours, and it goes well, but this man still lacked something. He knew the right answers, was an expert in the scriptures, and understood God desired not only obedience but love – but had not yet put His faith in Jesus. “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (vs 34)

I think Jesus spoke tenderly to him, rather than with the intensity He had been showing defending Himself to the other groups. This lawyer was almost there, but had yet to take the step of faith in Jesus that would lead Him to the Kingdom. And Jesus was pleased with Him, but wanted Him to know that He wasn’t there yet.

Mark says at the end of verse 34: “And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

“Ding-ding! Knockout! Presenting the undisputed, heavyweight champion of the woooorld!” Delegations from every Jewish leadership group had come to Jesus with some incredibly tough questions, and He faced them all down. Their efforts had been fruitless and they had been the ones who ended up looking foolish. Their hatred grew and they would have to come up with a revised plan for how to kill Jesus.

And that plan would be handed them on a silver platter in only a couple of days as one of Jesus’ own followers, who had had enough, came to them to sell Him out.

Application

When I think of what applications we can pull from what was going on in Jesus’ life on this Tuesday, I can see two important things for us to remember:

First, Jesus knows what it’s like to be under attack from all sides. Remembering that helps us in our prayer life.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

The people and families in our little church are under attack these days – and from many different angels. Jesus was challenged about all sorts of matters from all sorts of people, so we are also being challenged. Some are struggling with physical temptations to sin with their bodies. Others are being attacked by their family and friends. Some are under spiritual oppression that is trying to drive them into a dark place. Some are feeling it financially. Other are beset with fears of loss, confusion over the future, anxiety over decisions, or the pressure to be perfect.

The first application I see here is to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hit on all sides. He was tired, had only ever done good and told the truth – but they were still attacking Him. Why? Because He was Son of the rightful owner of the vineyard. Just like you are.

If you’re a follower of Jesus, then you are going to be under attack. You are a son or daughter of the king, and you are hated by His enemies. In His final meal with the disciples before He is arrested and crucified, Jesus says to them,

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

And that’s the second thing to remember. No matter what came at Him, Jesus overcame all of His adversaries. Even in the end when they crucified Him, He came back from the dead. There was no temptation, no clever trick that, no theological or religious question that he couldn’t perfectly answer.

The message of the world is “Try harder, work more, be better, and you will over come the world.” The message of Jesus is, “I have already overcome them all. Trust me. Listen to Me. Follow my Words. Those who are in my Kingdom are already victorious.”

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…. If God is for us, who can be against us?…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  (Romans 8:28, 31, 37)

That requires us to depend on Jesus. To put down our own wisdom and strength and pick up His. He is stronger, wiser, kinder, more loving, and more helpful than anything else we can turn to. Not only does He know exactly what you’re going through, but He’s been through it Himself, and He knows the way out — and He’s willing to share it with you, if you’d only submit yourself to His Lordship and listen. He will forgive you because He loves you. He will guide you because He is good.

To the scribe He said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” because he had knowledge but had not exercised faith. I implore you to allow your relationship with Jesus to take that eighteen-inch journey from your head to your heart and to make Him your true Lord and Saviour – in all areas of your life. Go to Him with everything.