How Shall We Respond to Suffering?
2008-08-10 Lamentations 5 How Shall We Respond to Suffering?
Have you ever considered the consequences of your actions? Whom do they affect? Is it just you? Is it those around you? Can you believe that the actions you take may well have consequences, positive or negative consequences, for future generations?
In Bowmanville was a 60 year old woman who was the legal guardian of her great grand-daughter. Yes, she was a great grandmother at 60. She had her first child, a daughter at 15, out of wedlock. Her daughter also had a child at 15, out of wedlock. Her granddaughter dutifully followed in their footsteps and had a child at 15, out of wedlock.
We can be sure, that all those years ago, in the passion of the moment, she did not consider how her actions would influence not only her daughter, but also her granddaughter and her great granddaughter.
Her family is an example of the sins of one generation passed onto following generations.
That’s precisely what the people are confessing to God in this last chapter of Lamentations.
They’ve confessed to God that their forefathers have sinned, and they have persisted in that sin. But now they are aware of their sin, and they are confessing everything to God. They are confessing and repenting.
The only way to break the cycle of sin is through confession and repentance.
But getting to the point of confession and repentance is difficult sometimes and for some people.
In Israel’s case, the destruction of the nation was what finally brought them to it.
No manner of impassioned preaching to bring them to their knees, God had to humble them completely.
In this series, we’ve seen the terrible punishment dealt by God. We’ve heard their cries, felt their anguish.
And now, more clearly than ever before, the people of Israel, of Jerusalem bring their sorrow to the Lord.
In a way, this prayer might seem incredible.
Jeremiah and the other prophets of Israel gave numerous warnings, which they ignored. Jeremiah told the people that the fall of Jerusalem came from God. God is the one who is responsible for their present suffering. The logical thing would be that the people would turn away from God.
It said, earlier in the book, that God was like an enemy to them. Here they are turning toward their enemy!
When bad things happen to us, what is our initial reaction? Do we pray? Do we confess? Do we repent? Do we search our lives to see if there is any wicked ways in us? Don’t we think differently now? Don’t we feel that we belong to a different covenant, one that should protect us from all God’s wrath, all God’s punishments?
Well, yes, that is certainly true, but the consequences are still there. We still have to deal with the fall-out of sin, whether our forefathers, or ours or of original sin.
And yet, we who are living on this side of Jesus’ birth are uncomfortable with the notion that the experiences we have are linked to our activities. There is a link, but it is not always as obvious as Job’s friends would have us believe. We can’t always say, “Because of this sin, this punishment is the result.”
Nor is all that the main point of this chapter; it is merely the background of this chapter.
This chapter is about the willingness to turn toward God in all circumstances, particularly the most desperate circumstances.
Again, our natural tendency might be to turn away from God, to run away from Him. And yet, as Jeremiah has made abundantly clear in this book, as well in the book that carries his name, the whole point of Israel’s horrific experience was to bring her to her knees, so that she’d turn back to God.
So, if you are going through a tough time, there’s a reason for it. If you are not going through a difficult time, be prepared, because a difficult time will come upon you one day, probably when you least expect it. Are you prepared? Will you know what to do?
When faced with extreme difficulties, there is only one reaction.
Start pointing the blame on everyone else!
When faced with suffering in this life, the only thing we do is pray.
Jesus Christ, on the night that he was betrayed, took his closest companions, went to a quiet place, asked them to pray, then went to a place alone and he prayed. His prayer was anguished, passionate, and heartfelt. He prayed so intently that his sweat was like drops of blood. Perhaps some of us are praying like that, even now.
Prayer brings us to God. He is our gracious and loving Father. He is able to take everything and use it for our good. Nothing happens by accident. Nothing takes God by surprise.
Too often, we can become myopically focussed. Myopia is the technical term for nearsightedness. We get so consumed by our lives, by our pain, by our experiences, our drives, our wants, our needs, whatever, that we lose focus, we fail to see the big picture, the things that are far off in the distance.
For example, we cannot know if our present or future suffering will bring blessing on our descendants. We don’t know if our present or future suffering will be part of God’s orchestration that brings us into contact with someone else who is suffering, who needs to hear a kind word. Remember Pastor Bob DeMoor’s sermon about the four small things that are wise? Remember his illustration about the stroke patient who was in hospital so that he could reach out and bring the gospel to someone who needed to hear it, someone who could only receive it from someone who was in his same situation?
Our suffering might never benefit us, but it might benefit others.
Here’s another example. Friday afternoon it rained at our house. Sure, the lawn needed it. But all of a sudden, I saw another reason for the rain. Soon after the rain stopped, our yard was covered by a murder of crows. They were hopping all over the place, gorging themselves on the worms that pushed themselves to the surface to escape drowning.
All of a sudden, it hit me like a load of bricks. God, in His sovereign power, was caring for His world. By sending the rain, He fed his crows. It’s kind of silly, sure, but I realised that there is so much more going on than I can possibly realise. All I can do is try to be as faithful as I can with what God has given me. All you can do is be as faithful as you can to what God has given you. Prosperity is not the only gift from God. Punishment, discipline, difficulties, yes, even suffering is a gift from God.
How shall we respond to suffering?
Listen to the instruction given in James 5:13-20, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
There is incredible power in prayer. It unites us with God. In prayer, we’re connected to the Trinity, we pray to the Father, and at the same time that we’re praying, the Holy Spirit is moving our hearts, giving us words, giving pure expression to the situation we’re in. We pray in the power of the Son, Jesus Christ, whose precious blood was sacrificed in the cursed punishment of the cross. Jesus also prays for us, pleading our cause before the Father.
When we pray, we’re not the only ones involved! God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit participate in the prayer with us! How then, can we neglect praying? Praying is one part us, three parts God! Of course, it is powerful and effective! And we pray not in our righteousness, but in the righteousness of Christ!
But prayer is not merely an individual activity! In Lamentations, the entire community lifted their hearts up to the Lord. James echoes that practise by telling us to pray with others! We call on the elders. We call on one another. We call on the church.
But that can only happen when we have the proper attitude toward God and toward the experiences we have. If we erroneously think that God is punishing us because he is mean and vindictive, we’ll not turn toward God. But if we think that our experiences are loving discipline, meant to draw us closer to God, part of his perfect plan, we’ll turn toward him.
We are the body of Christ together. God has built us to be together. Together, not apart, we make up the body of Christ. So, like a body, we need to pull together. That’s what we do in the congregational prayer. That’s what we do in our prayer services. That’s what we need to do more often.
We’re proud people. We don’t easily share our burdens with others. Do we ever confess sins to each other? I can’t do that! What will people think of me? Oh come on, no one is perfect, no one is fooled by our masks. Let’s get real!
But there’s another, deeper reason why we don’t share. There’s danger for abuse. People will not honour our confidences. People will use our confessions against us. But that’s the risk we have to take. How do you think David got enemies? His enemies weren’t just from other nations! They were from his own people! His own wife despised him for the way he worshipped God!
But it was a risk David was willing to take, because as James tells us, the prayers of a righteous man is powerful and effective! Why should we allow our fears of unrighteous people deprive us from the powerful prayers of the righteous?
James tells us the truth. Elijah, for all his mighty deeds, was a man just like us. He was no different. He was no more spiritual, holy, gifted. He simply trusted God. He obeyed God. He turned to God in his time of trouble. And he found God, in the gentle whisper. He too suffered from myopia. He thought he was the only faithful one. And yet, God informed him that there were 7000 faithful Israelites.
Be encouraged! Not only did God not spare his Son from the suffering of this life, God also restored everything to Him. We, who suffer, suffer with Christ, fulfilling Christ’s suffering, sharing in Christ’s suffering. We who suffer with Christ will also be raised with Christ.
Be encouraged! This too shall pass! Be encouraged! Christ, who suffered and is raised, is with you! His Spirit is in you. You can face anything, through Him! Lift up your hearts unto the Lord. Amen.