A Crushed Spirit, who can bear?

I have been reading through the Book of Proverbs in the Bible and have been noticing the term crushed spirit. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:23) “The human spirit can endure a sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” There was also a verse in Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who crushed in spirit.”

We experience a crushed spirit when we find ourselves in the valley of despair due to circumstances that involve a loss of hope. Moses was so discouraged in his leadership responsibility that he asked God to take his life. (Nu 11:10-15) Job grieved the loss of his children and loss of his health so much so that he cursed the day of his birth. (Job 3:1-26) Jeremiah faced such opposition from his contemporaries that he cursed the man who brought his father the news of his birth. (Jeremiah 20:14, 15) Hannah deeply grieved her inability to have a child. (1 Samuel 1:1-16) Tamar lived a desolate life after she was raped by her step brother. (2 Samuel 13:1-21) Naomi was filled with bitterness because of the loss of her husband and two sons. (Ruth 1:1-20) And Hagar was in despair because her son was dying. (Gen 21-15-16) We could cite many more biblical examples of people with crushed spirits because of the overwhelming nature of their suffering. Many of you are experiencing such pain and loss that happiness and hope seem gone forever.

There are some things in Scripture that will help us when we find in ourselves with such a crushed spirit:

First, realize that this state or condition is temporary. It is called the dark night of the soul, not the dark month or year of the soul. This doesn’t mean we “get over it,” but that we are not made to withstand such intensity of grief or hopelessness for very long. We usually find a way of coping and learning to live with our affliction. When I was first diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer about 2 1/2 yrs. ago, I was overwhelmed. I still have cancer, but I have learned to cope and even flourish in my affliction. This is why I am writing this, to help you cope.

We have already mentioned Proverbs 18:14, that “the human spirit can endure in sickness…” God has given to humanity a sustainability and a will that naturally desires to survive and not die. Obviously there are exceptions to this in the case of those whose despair and hopelessness, guilt and shame, drive them to suicide. Judas is probably the most famous biblical example of this. The sadness of Judas’ self-destruction is found in the fact that he did not need to go that route. Unlike Peter, who was also in despair for his three-time denial of Christ, Judas did not seek the forgiveness that Jesus would have given him. This is what is so sad about all suicide; it does not need to happen.

As an aside: “Suicide rates have risen to their highest since WW II. The odds of dying from a suicide or opiate overdose — the diseases of despair — are now higher than that of dying from a motor vehicle accident.” (Michael Gerson, Daily Herald, September 6, 2019) This is why we have suicide prevention hotlines so that people with crushed spirits and in depression and despair can talk to someone and find help. Such crushed spirits need people in their lives. They need friendship and a sense of belonging, not increased isolation. They need someone to whisper “I care, and am here for you; I am worried about you, so how can I help?” And part of this help is the counsel not to ignore the spiritual life and soul-issues, and turning to God who will never ignore the brokenhearted.

Second, God is near us in the darkness. We mentioned Psalm 34:18 that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Also, in Psalm 147:3, 4 we read, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of stars and call them by name.” Did you hear that? The God of the stars is also the God of the brokenhearted. He is transcendent in power and glory. He is also immanent in humility and suffering. He is near, and in my suffering I can say, by faith, if not by feeling- He is here!

That is what Pastor Martin Niemoller preached to his skeleton-like congregation huddled together for warmth in Dachau’s cell room 34 on December 24, 1944: ” God, the eternally wealthy and Almighty God, enters into the most extreme human poverty imaginable. No man is so weak and helpless that God does not come to him in Jesus Christ, right in the midst of our human need; and no man is so forsaken and homeless in this world that God does not seek him, in the midst of our human distress…. You need not go search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the Man who, as a babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in the manger…. Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, “Thou art with me; thy rod and staff comfort me. (Ps 23:4)

Third, in your despair use the key of Promise. People who know me know that I love John Bunyan’s English classic Pilgrims’ Progress, which is a great allegorical story about the journey of the Christian through life. In the story, there is an episode where Christian (the main character) and his friend and fellow-traveller, Hopeful, are captured by the Giant Despair and his wife, Gloom, and thrown into the dungeon of Doubting Castle. The Giant beat them everyday and threatened them with death. He even left rat poison in their cell hoping they would commit suicide. Just as Christian was actually contemplating ending it all because of all the doubts he had about God’s love for him and all the shame he felt for his disobedience, he remembered something. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Key of Promise which had been given to him when he became a follower of Prince Jesus. This key could unlock the door of any Castle of Doubt and with it the pilgrims made their escape.

Likewise, when we find ourselves in the dungeon of despair we should learn to make use of the rich promises that God has given to all of us who are his children. The only way out of despair is to trust what God has said. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of things we do not see.” (Heb 6:1) God is our Father and he has covenanted himself to us in Christ and has promised that in the face of everything that life can throw at us; nothing in life or in death, will ever be able to separate us from his love. (Rom 8:39) Do you believe this? I didn’t ask whether you feel that this is true, but do you BELIEVE it? You must, though everything around you screams the opposite! You must never let go of God’s promises.

Though darkness hides his lovely face, I trust in his unfailing grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the ‘whelming flood. When all around my should gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. On Christ, the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand… (Edward Mote, 1797-1874)

May those of you with a crushed spirit find hope and comfort in Christ today.

 

The Goodness of Affliction…

As much as we hate to admit it, there is a redeeming factor to suffering. In fact, we could say that in some cases suffering is life-changing. A classic example is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writings probably did more to reveal the corruption and emptiness of the Soviet Communist system than any single political factor. He said of his time spent in a Soviet prison camp:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617)

Psalm 119:71, 72 “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.”

Job 23:10, 12 “But he knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold….I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.”

In these verses we have the experiential testimony of two more sufferers; the Psalmist and Job. I have read and pondered these verses for years and am just now coming to understand what they mean.

The goodness of affliction is known (experienced) when God’s Word reveals to us who we really are, and becomes more precious to us than all our investments and more necessary to us than our next meal.

One cannot know such goodness without affliction and one cannot benefit from affliction without God’s Word. Do not distain your suffering, but embrace it for you will nourish your soul there. Truly, it is “God’s megaphone.” (CS Lewis)

Justice or Wisdom?

One of the reasons why our suffering can become unusually difficult is because we often look at our situation through the single lens of God’s fairness and justice. We are told that righteousness and justice are the very foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14), but that is not always evident when we look at our world or at our own difficulties. Perhaps we are not tempted to curse God and die like Job’s wife counseled her husband, but it is hard not to question God’s fairness especially when we suffer. Is it really worth serving him and trying to be an upright person? There seems to be plenty of people in this world who do not love God and yet they look like they are healthy and flourishing. Does he really care for me?

In my last read through of the book of Job, I zeroed in on a truth I had not before noticed. It wasn’t a truth found in the raging argument between Job and his friends, who essentially threw Job under the bus of God’s retributive justice. Their singular theme was that people suffer because they have done something wrong and are being punished for it by a God of justice. Their counsel, was pretty simple: “Job, fess up and repent and God will have mercy and restore your health and prosperity.” (11:14; 22:21-23)

Neither was my attention caught by a truth found in the argument of the younger man, Elihu, who also suggested that God was just but that Job’s suffering was remedial. In other words, God uses suffering to wake us up, to save us from walking the wrong path, to correct us, and to lead us to repentance. (36:16)

All of these arguments were not wrong in themselves, but were wrong in their application to Job’s situation. Neither these men nor Job were privy to the context of Job’s suffering that was introduced to us at the beginning of the book. They did not know what took place in the secret chambers of God’s wisdom. Hmmm… could it be that we also fail to accurately assess a situation because we do not know what lies beneath or behind it — the wisdom of God?

The truth that caught my attention was found in Job 28, often called the Great Interlude. The entire chapter is about wisdom (the book of Job is considered wisdom literature) and is the entry-way that leads to God’s appearance in chapters 38-41. And guess what? When God does show up, he does not defend his justice but displays his wisdom!

Application: Let us not believe that my cancer or your suffering have been allowed by God as a punishment for some sin that we’ve committed, or else you and I would have died a long time ago. God is not our enemy, but we do have one. In the book of Job he is called the Accuser, and he wants us to curse God and die, or to question the fairness of God, or his care for us.

We have a choice here and I choose to trust God for his great wisdom. “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom 11:33) Yes, I believe that God is just and fair, but I also believe that his judgments are unsearchable. How can I even begin (like Job and company) to challenge the way God runs the universe or ask why he has allowed something to enter my life that seems to run contrary to his love, mercy, and justice? In the face of his unfathomable wisdom, I have no place to stand; no footing from which to argue. Instead, I must fall down and worship, like Job eventually did (42:1-6), and submit myself to his unfathomable wisdom.

This is not a pathway of resignation nor is it merely the passive acceptance of things over which I have no control. Submission to the unfathomable wisdom of God is based upon the reality of my relationship with God through Jesus Christ. My place to stand* is based upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the establishment of an eternal relationship with the God of the universe. I may never know or comprehend all that is happening to me, but I believe that Jesus is my Redemer and God is my Father. Therefore I trust that nothing will ever come into my life that has not first passed through his Fatherly hand.

Thus we need to understand our suffering and hardshp through the bi-focal lens of God’s unfathomable wisdom and his great love for us in Christ.

Though darkness hides his lovely face, I trust in his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. His oath, his covenant, his blood, support me in the whelming flood, when all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay. (Edward Mote, 1834)

*It should be noticed that Job also had a place to stand; a place that grounded him in the face of all he did not know or understand. See Job 16 and 19.

Could I Endure Torture?

I wanted to share with you some thoughts about an article I read in the most recent Voice of the Martyr’s magazine. Ashamedly, I have often become inured to a lot of the stories I hear about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. However, the Lord used this particular article to stir my heart and I wanted to share that with you.

The article was titled “Do Not Fear” and the author wrote about two people in Muslim countries who were arrested, interrogated, and jailed for their Christian faith. The first was a man by the name of Hussein (not his real name), who was a leader of a house church. He was arrested and jailed, and became very anxious about what he would say at his coming interrogation. Would he break and reveal the names of other Christians? As he obsessed about this in prayer, he was overcome with the sense of God’s presence with him in that solitary cell. “I was in the presence of Jesus, and I was praying more boldly and confidently (recognizing) that Jesus had brought me there for a purpose. To hear God, like you hear water or anything else, I heard God…Jesus said to me, ‘There is no need for you to say anything because I am going to tell you what to say. Why are you afraid?'”

Hussein is still in prison, but he has experienced the favor of some of his guards and been given some amazing opportunities to share the gospel with other prisoners, especially some who will probably be executed.

The second account was about a woman named Shani, whose husband had already been arrested as a leader of a house church. For three months she had no word as to his whereabouts or even what the charges were that were filed against him. She knew her husband would not break, but could not imagine herself ever being arrested or interrogated. One night she prayer, “Dear God, please don’t allow them to find me. I can’t handle torture. I can’t handle a jail cell. You said you would not give us more than we can handle, so please make them not come and arrest me.” Have you ever prayed a similar prayer about something you feared?

The very next morning she was awakened by the police who arrested her and carted her off to jail. She remembers saying to the Lord, “Whatever happens now, God, it’s your fault.” That night they came and pulled her out of her cell into the interrogation room. A man sat across the table from her and angrily began to question why she evangelized; why she talked to Muslims about Jesus and what she and her husband hoped to gain from this illegal activity. Suddenly she felt a peace come over her as she looked at the man and said, “I have a right to evangelize and I am happy to do it. This is a commandment from Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to hear this good news. You need to hear this good news. God sent me here to tell you about Jesus. You are a poor man. I feel bad for you. You don’t have peace, you don’t have joy, you don’t have hope. You don’t even know why you are alive. The only way to truth is Jesus Christ. You are an interrogator, but one day you are going to stand before the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ, and he is going to examine you. Without him, you have no hope. And Jesus is going to ask you why you did these things to his servants.”

She couldn’t believe she said all that and neither could the interrogator who sent her back to her cell and told her he would deal with her later. In her cell that night she felt she had made a serious mistake and decided she would apologize to the interrogator the next time and take it all back. Two more times she was dragged before the same man with the intent of apologizing to him, and each time the Holy Spirit led her to share the gospel with him. On the fourth night, he came to her cell and said, “How did you know that my life is so crazy? I’ve tried everything in my religion and I could never seem to be happy. I learned from you that the only savior is Jesus Christ. When you were talking in the interrogation room, that really wasn’t you. I saw myself in God’s presence. Please help me to be saved.”

The article concludes by saying, “Maybe you have prayed prayers like Shani’s: Lord I can’t handle cancer. Lord, I can’t work for this difficult boss one more day. God, I can’t handle a rebellious teenager. Lord, I can’t endure the betrayal of my unfaithful spouse or the possibility of parenting alone. Shani told God that she couldn’t handle arrest…yet three times this seemingly timid, fearful woman shared the gospel with her interrogator.” And a fearful Hussein was given the comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit as he faced his tormentors.

So, it is really not about us and our fears, or about whether we could endure torture or suffering for for our faith or whether we would lose our courage, is it? It is really about the power of the Holy Spirit working through us in situations that we would never chose for ourselves. “It is about the Holy Spirit giving us the words to say or the ability to forgive or an opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for us.” This is why the Bible tell us on 366 occasions “don’t be afraid.” As Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of VOM, once said, “366 times, not merely 365, to account for leap year.” DON’T BE AFRAID!

Thoughts on the Book of Job

Quite honestly, the Book of Job is a disappointment! When we suffer, we go to Job to find answers for why and how to cope. However, all we get are a bunch of grumpy old men arguing, some young guy giving his two-cents, and God showing up and blasting everyone. Then we’re back to where we started, as if nothing happened in the first place.

Reading through the book again, as well as reading a recent book by John Walton and Tremper Longman III, “How to Read Job” (IVP, 2015), I have seen some themes often hidden by our expectations. The book is really about the Wisdom of God, which is why it is included as Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. The Wisdom of God is compared with the wisdom of the world based upon experience and observation (revealed by Job and his “friends”). The challenge of the book is whether we will trust God’s Wisdom even though we do not understand what is happening to us or going on around us.

The book contains challenges to how God runs the world. If it is God’s standard operating procedure (SOP) to bring prosperity and blessing to people who are righteous, then isn’t he creating a world of “mercenaries” who worship and serve him just to get rewarded? What would happen if God took away those benefits (thus Job’s first trial)? Would people still love and serve him? One can see that this is not just a question about SOP, but an implication that God might not be worthy of worship just for who he is. Hmmm…good question. Is my love and service for God based upon a quid pro quo (this for that)? What about the times of drought and despair when I feel like there is nothing in it for me? Do I still trust in his Wisdom?

The second challenge to God’s SOP comes after Job has already begun to suffer. It questions why God is ganging up on a righteous man when, in fact, he is supposed to bless the righteous. This challenge is replicated over and over again in the Psalms as the writers struggle with why the righteous suffer while the wicked are the ones who seem to prosper.

“These two challenges set up the focus of the book (Job) as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not a good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not as good policy for righteous  people to suffer (they are good people, the one’s who are on God’s side). So what is God to do?” (Walton and Longman, p. 15).

Thus God is assailed both coming and going. To put it in a sanitized version of a colloquial expression: He is darned is he does (bless the righteous) and darned if he doesn’t (therefore, allowing the righteous to suffer). Will Job still maintain his righteousness (integrity) even though there is nothing in it for him and God’s ways seem so incomprehensible? Will we? That seems to be the biggest issue that needs to be resolved both in the book and in our lives.

“The entire debate between Job and his friends and then God’s showing up at the end and restoring Job’s fortunes, shows us that God does not run the world by justice (at least as we understand it), but by His Wisdom. ‘I am God, who is supremely wise and powerful, so I want you to trust me even when you do not understand.'” (Walton and Longman, p. 16)

As the world cries out for justice and mercy in the face of so much suffering, we are called to trust in a God of Wisdom who is working out his purposes behind the veil of our finite understanding. “Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will…Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain; God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.” (William Cowper) Someday…

Toward a Theology of Suffering…

Many of us recognize the first Sunday of November as more than an opportunity to get an extra hour of sleep the night before. It has been set aside as Prayer for the Persecuted Church Sunday. In fact, I will be leading a prayer service at Wheaton College on Sunday at 8 pm; an event sponsored by World Christian Fellowship (Phelps meeting room, south end of lower level of the Beamer Student Center, for those who would like to come). This has motivated me to share some principles I have gleaned from Scripture about suffering. I do so for two reasons: First, to help you build a theological framework in which to deal with what some have called the Problem of Evil; Second, to help you construct a place to stand for your own faith when you face suffering or see it played out in the suffering of other followers of Christ.

These principles could be summed up in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Suffering is Not for Nothing, in which she wrote, “I see [suffering] as a necessary part of the sovereign and loving purpose of God, even as a gift to be received, then offered back as a sacrifice, capable of being turned into something beautiful.”

You may not agree with her conclusion, but you must respect her suffering. Here are my principles:

  1. The presence of suffering in this world does not need to be problematic for the Christian’s faith. In reality, it can be seen as a proof of God’s existence. If God did not exist there would be no standard by which to judge whether an action was good or evil. God is the ultimate reference point and apart from Him good and evil cannot be defined. (Rom 7:7-12)
  2. In many cases evil and suffering are redeemed by God to produce something of value. Imagine the shape of morality in a world where there was no pain, only pleasure. (2 Cor 4:16-18; James 1:2-4)
  3. What satisfies us most when we suffer are not intellectual answers to our questions, but the experience of the personal presence of God. (Job 42:3-5)
  4. Given our self-seeking and rebellious natures, suffering is the only way by which God could arrest our attention and graciously motivate us to begin seeking after His help. Truly, pain is God’s “megaphone.” (Gen 3:16a; 4:1; Lam 3:19-33)
  5. Suffering for the Christian does not imply punishment, but presents an opportunity for learning and drawing near to God for His sustaining grace in the midst of our crisis. (Rom 8:1; Heb 12:5-11; 4:15, 16; Ps 119:71)
  6. God allows evil to exist, but has limited its effect. While this is not the “best of all possible worlds” because of human sin, it is also not as bad as it could be because of God’s common grace. For the honest seeker, this creates what we call “the problem of the good.” (Rom 8:20-23)
  7. Our suffering may serve the purpose of showcasing God’s glory before a watching universe (John 9:1-3; 11:4; Job 1, 2) and as a witness to the Gospel (Acts 9:15, 16).
  8. While we do not know why God permits suffering to accomplish His purposes, we do know that there was a principle established at the Cross; evil is overcome through the suffering and death of Christ. It is the “deeper magic,” which turns tables on the evil one. Victory is not through violence or revenge, but through suffering; life comes out of death. (1 Cor 15:50-57) [Look at the example of the Apostle Paul, where the persecutor became a devoted follower; this should cause us to pray specifically for the “beloved enemies” of the gospel.]
  9. Suffering is not only a part of the human condition in a fallen world, but also what a follower of Christ should expect as a means spiritual development and of reaching a fallen world with the gospel. (Matt 5: 11, 12; 20:27-28; Phil 1:29; 2 Cor 4:8-10; James 1:2, 3; 1 Peter 4:1, 2; 2 Tim 3:12)
  10. In the coming Kingdom of God, ALL EVIL will be overcome and the incomparable GLORY AND GOODNESS OF GOD will reign, FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN (Rom 8:18; Rev 20:11-21:4)