Tag Archives: lament

God wants me to be happy, not angry, and never to doubt? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 4]

28 Mar
Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

In 1 Timothy 3:12 we read that “all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  Woah.  Maybe God doesn’t want us to be happy, and only cares about us becoming godly or holy, even if it takes us being persecuted? How are we to understand this?

Does God want us to be happy?  It sure seems like he would, right?

In this series of posts we’re fact-checking common phrases Christians believe, and in this post there are two phrase: “God isn’t interested in making you happy; he’s interested in making you holy.”  VERSUS “God always wants me to be happy.” Which is it? This takes some explaining.

First of all, God is most interested in our character, in our heart.  And sometimes going through trials is the way to get to our heart.  But as we have seen in previous posts in this series, the trials we go through are not necessarily from God.  The world is broken and fallen, and we will have troubles in this world.  God can redeem those struggles, though, as we strive to follow him in middle of our troubles.  And he promises that he will be with us always.  The result is that we do often grow in godliness during difficult times. 

But can we grow in holiness through joy and plenty and comfort?  Yes.  That’s why a life of spiritual practices and habits is so important.  God calls us to pursue practices like prayer, biblical meditation, silent listening, generosity, and disciple-making all the time, not matter if life is going great or if it is really difficult. 

So the phrase “God isn’t interested in making you happy” is wrong.  God DOES want us to be happy!

Remember the festivals in Deuteronomy?  God embedded happiness and celebration in the life of the nation of Israel.  Ecclesiastes talks about enjoying life.  Philippians says “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  And James 1:2-4, says “Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds.”

It is very hard to feel joy in the middle of the pain. 

Is there a difference between happiness and joy?  Can we be joyful while being unhappy? 

Happiness is fleeting.  Joy is a choice.  It can be hard to distinguish the two.  Especially for those who struggle with anxiety.  “Consider it joy?”  This means that you can use your mind to control your emotions.   Happiness is an emotion, and emotions do not always tell you the truth.

So we need to remember verses like Psalm 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” 

The song “Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns speaks to this when it envisions God saying to us, “if your eyes are on the storm, you’ll wonder if I love you still, but if your eyes on the cross, you’ll know I always have and always will.”   

Isn’t that so similar to the lamenters in Psalms?  In the pain they turned and ran to the Lord rather than running away from him.  And when they ran to him, they brought all their pain and doubt and anger to him.

And that is a great lead-in to the next phrase we’re fact-checking:God is not OK with doubt and anger.

We’ve referred to James 1 already.  Take a look at verse 6.   “When he asks he must believe and not doubt”?  Wait, is doubt wrong?  And later in verse 19, “be slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.”  So doubt and anger are wrong?  Or are they?

Read the psalms, the laments.  In them you’ll find gut-wrenching doubt and anger.  Raw pain. 

That means we can also declare that this is a false idea.  God is absolutely okay with doubt and anger. 

Saying that God is not okay with doubt is potentially dangerous, making it seem like a good Christian should never struggle with doubt. There is a sense in which God doesn’t want us to doubt.  He wants us to trust in him.   We should have faith in him.  But even then, we have to remember the promise of 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, he is faithful for he cannot disown himself.”

In Mark 9:17, we read a fascinating story that relates to doubt.  The disciples were trying to cast a demon out of a boy, but to no avail.  The father of the boy brought him to Jesus to help.

Notice the father’s response to Jesus: “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” We all doubt, and we all get angry.  Remember that there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God.  But God’s gracious love for us should also not be an excuse to just stay in our doubt or anger.  Instead, God’s grace should motivate us, make us grateful, to trust in him and allow our anger to subside.  If you have an anger problem that keeps popping up, and you can’t control it, I urge you to get professional help.  It’s not okay to be angry and damage people. 

How to walk through pain [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 5]

15 Mar
Photo by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

How should we respond in the midst of pain?

The psalmists often lament, crying out their complaint to God as to why he is not answering their prayer.  This is why we are fact-checking statement about dealing with difficulty. The post you are reading is number 5 of 5. If you’re starting here, I encourage you to go back to the first post, as we fact-checked statements like “God helps those who help themselves,” and “This too shall pass,” finding that we Christians are too quick to dole out these mantras and can actually increase a person’s pain. Many going through hard times are actively seeking God, remaining faithful to God, even if it seems God has grown silent and is nowhere to be found. So what can we say to people that will help them?

First of all, we need to check out motivation and pause before we say or do anything. Remember that difficulty is called difficulty because it is difficult.  We struggle.  We feel anxiety, panic, stress, and fear.

Perhaps the best initial response is simply to give the person a hug, and affirm that you love them and are here for them. Then pray for them, out loud, right then and there. You don’t need to make any statements about the pain going away. Just like the lamenters in the psalms do, just ask God to be there.

Then listen. Allow the person to talk. We Christians would do well to practice the discipline of empathy, learning to mourn with those who mourn, as Paul says in Romans 12:15.

As difficult as it can be in those situations, the proper response is to continue to trust in God, following the way of Jesus. 

It is okay to try to encourage someone with the phrase, “this too shall pass”, but be empathetic to remember that the person is struggling, and it might not pass. These statements are proverbial, meaning they are generally true, but there are exceptions.  And those exceptions are what we need to be very attuned to.  People and their struggles don’t fit neatly into categories. 

It is okay to try to point someone to God in the midst of their struggle, but remember that they might have been seeking God already for days, months, and all they are feeling is distance.  In those moments, it is okay to lament, to complain to God, saying “How long O Lord, are you going to make me wait?”

My wife recently heard someone speak about losing their child.  They said they turned to their spouse at that moment and said, “This will forever change us.  How we move forward in this will determine exactly what changes it makes.”  This couple decided to pray hard and regularly for God to grow them and teach them through this pain that will be with them forever.  I can tell you, as we know them on the other side of their pain, that that is exactly what happened.  There are other situations where I’ve seen pain, and people have simply just asked God to remove it.  Sometimes he does, but sometimes it is not removed.  Some people battle for years with bitterness and anger and negativity. How we walk through difficulty matters. We are not promised it will be taken away.  We are not guaranteed to be able to handle it on our own.  Sometimes stuff happens because our own choices, or because of others’ choices.  Sometimes stuff happens because of how poorly we handle it or how badly we respond to other’s actions.  Stuff happens because we live in a fallen world with sickness and disease.  Through it all God is here.  He hasn’t left.  Let’s invite Him into our mess and ask him to change us and grow us to be more like Him, even as we do the work to make things different in the midst of it.

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

Image result for lament

Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

How to lament: keep holding on to God

20 Dec

This week we have been studying Psalm 126 which reminds us that when you plant seeds of sorrow, God can give you a harvest of joy.

In my previous post, I talked about the difficulty of gardening, and how the psalmist uses that as a metaphor for life.  But after all the clearing, tilling, weeding, and watering, when you finally get to reap a harvest, what happens?  You are bursting with joy!

In the garden of life, this process might actually occur quite rapidly.  You sometimes receive very quickly an answer to your prayer of lament, for example, and that fills you with joy and even laughter.

But other times the answer to your prayer requires long months of waiting.  Remember Jesus’ parable of the widow who went before the judge, in Luke 18?  The widow had an adversary, Jesus said, and she wanted help from the judge.  Because she was a widow, in that society it meant she was in a fairly unprotected position.  Normally her husband would help, but as a widow, her recourse was to ask the judge to intervene.  Jesus doesn’t tell us the specifics of the problem the widow was having with the adversary, but he doesn’t need to describe the situation.  What he wants us to know is that the judge wouldn’t hear the widow’s concern.  He dismissed her.  So she came back, and the judge dismissed her again.  This went on for days, until finally the widow wore the judge down, and he helped her.  Jesus’ goal, Luke tells us, was to teach the disciples to pray and not give up. We call that prevailing prayer.  And sometimes lament can feel like that.

One of the most common refrains in the psalms of lament is the anguished question: “How long, O Lord?”  Just like gardening can take a lot of hard work, and require a lot of patience, prayer of lament is sometimes an act of prevailing before the Lord, going back to him over and over.

Sometimes you don’t see the answer to that prayer until after you pass away.  In those cases, God answers it posthumously.

This psalm reminds us that lament is like that.

Lament latches on to God and it doesn’t let go.

That kind of clinging to God is easy for some of us.  Hard for others.  If you have a more independent personality, you might struggle with asking God for help.  You don’t ask hardly anyone for help.  Most often you can figure it out on your own.  And when I say that, please do not read me as accusing you of being arrogant.  Instead yours is a genuine concern not to impose on others.  It is a concern to take responsibility for your life, which is good.  And so you rarely ask for help.  Let me say to you that you need to learn to lament.

Or maybe you are the kind of person who is well aware of your lack of ability, and maybe you have gotten tired of lamenting, asking God for help.  You can feel like all you do is lament, and it is getting you nowhere.  Like the image in the psalm, you are sowing seeds of tears, but unlike the image in the psalm, you are not harvesting joy.  You feel like giving up.

No matter where you are in your relationship with God, I encourage you to lament.  And to hold on.

 

What to do when life is hard and filled with tears

19 Dec

Related image

A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting.  It is a monster of a tiller.  You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding.  It is a workout.  Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above.  It is a scene.  But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces.  Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.

Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?

In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent.  It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.

We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:

  1. Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
  2. Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament

There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections.  That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”.  In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.

So let’s look at each section.

Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory

The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile.  The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off.  They lived in Babylon for 70 years.  Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.

My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.

But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”

Imagine the wonder of that moment.  For 70 years they were in captivity.  You are taken into captivity.  If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity.  Think about what happens in 70 years?  Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.

We talked about this last week.  The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was.  And now they get to return.

And they are laughing and singing.  They are praising the Lord!

You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song.  Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.

So the psalmist is excited.  But his joy turns to lament.

Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament

He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place.  In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.

Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.

We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year.  When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds.  And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.

But tilling is only the beginning.  Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs.  Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding.  Day after day after day.  Week after week.

To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster.  Our soil is astoundingly rich.  And we get regular rain.

In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless.  How do you know if rains will come?  Will this be a waste?

That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles.  They will not only be doing physical, real farming.  They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God.  For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.

That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.

What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?

It could be parenting.  Grand-parenting.  Reaching out to neighbors and friends.  You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.

It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.

What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life?  What is hard?

Think about what you are praying for.

Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?

When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament.  Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow.  You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work!  I need you to intervene.”

Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior.  The land was in bad shape.  They wanted God to come and save them.

That is what Advent is all about.  Advent means “the coming”.  In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus.  And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming.  He came once and he said he is coming again.

In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world.  Do you need God to enter your world?  Perhaps you’ll consider lament.

What is a song of ascent? (the next U2 album?)

18 Dec

Image result for song of ascents logo

For years the rock band U2 has been hinting that they are going to release an album called Songs of Ascent. What might “Songs of Ascent” refer to?  Why would U2 think of that title?

As the years went by, U2 changed directions a bit, first releasing an album called Songs of Innocence, and just this month, a companion album titled Songs of Experience.  Might there by a trilogy in the works, and Songs of Ascent is forthcoming?  Time will tell.

While there is no U2 album called “Songs of Ascent,” when I first heard they were considering that title, I took interest because there are psalms of ascent in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.  I wondered how these psalms might have sparked U2 to consider an album with that title?  So what are these songs of ascent?

During Advent 2017 at Faith Church we are learning to lament, and the psalmists are guiding us.  During this third week of Advent, we are studying Psalm 126.

Here it is.  Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

What do you notice first?

That it is short?  That there is no author named?  Both true.

What I want us to focus on is its subtitle: a song of ascents.  What is that?

An ascent is an upward movement.  We ascend the stairs.  I know, we don’t normally talk like that.  It sounds kind of fancy to talk like that.  We tend to say simply, “go upstairs”.  But that is what the word “ascent” refers to, a moving upward.  In Acts 1 we read about Jesus ascending to heaven, and thus we celebrate his Ascension Day.  On that day, Jesus, we believe, physically ascended, flew through the sky, upwards, to heaven.  His disciples, we are told, looked up and watched him fly higher and higher, apparently, until they could see him no longer.  That is an ascension, a movement upward.

So why is this called a psalm of ascents?

Actually all of Psalms 120-134 have this title, “A song of Ascents”.  The Hebrew word for “ascent” could refer to stairs, and even specifically the stairs leading up to the temple.

So the title could be translated “song of the stairs.”  Scholars tell us that these songs of ascent were used in worship in the temple, maybe sung by priests standing on the stairs.  Maybe even as people were ascending those stairs to enter the temple.  Scan through Psalms 120-134 and what do you notice?  They are all very short, and thus could fit well within the short amount of time it would take for people to walk up stairs.

If that is true, that the psalms of ascent were used in temple worship, then perhaps we could say that songs of ascent are a kind of preparatory songs to help people get ready to worship.  You can envision groups of priests and worshipers singing these songs together.

But scholars also tell us that these songs of ascent were used as pilgrimage songs.  There were a couple feasts each year in which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Scholars believe that the pilgrims would sing together as they journeyed on foot or on the backs of animals, on their way to the city.

Almost certainly, this group of songs of ascent was written after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  That is the same time period as Psalm 85 last week.  In fact, psalm 85 and 126, as I think will be very obvious, are often grouped together because they are so similar.

Take a look at the text of the psalm again.  Read it through a couple times.  What do you notice?

My first thought when reading Psalm 126 was, “Wait…Is this a lament?  The word ‘joy’ is repeated four times.  Laughter is mentioned.  The people proclaim, ‘The Lord has done great things for us.’ How is this lament?”

Just like last week in Psalm 85, what we see in Psalm 126 is an eruption of joy because the Lord has restored their fortunes in returning some of the people of Israel from exile in Babylon back to Palestine.  But right there in the midst of joy is also lament as they realize how far they as a nation have to go in order to keep the restoration going.

So this is a lament.  Starting with our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how this song of ascent is crafted and how we can learn more about lament from this psalmist.

How lament can bring beautiful restoration

14 Dec

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Throughout this second week of Advent 2017, we’ve been talking about restoration from Psalm 85.  We’ve seen how God is at work to bring restoration and revival.  We’ve also learned our responsibility to work alongside God.  It can seem too hard sometimes when the restoration is going to require lots of sacrifice and effort.  So we lament.  We ask God to help.

And when we participate with God in the work in restoration and revival, a beautiful thing happens.  The psalmist describes in his final section of Psalm 85, verses 10-13. 

Verses 10-13 are some of the most amazing words in the whole Bible.  Worth printing here for sure.

Love and faithfulness meet together;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed give what is good,
    and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
    and prepares the way for his steps.

These final verses point us to the future.  They are an assurance that God will restore and revive.

Look at how the psalmist portrays the renewal of the land.  He envisions the promised land that had become a waste land return once again into the promised land.  And it is God who does it.

What we read in this section continues the psalmists flow of thought started in verse 9, where he describes the God’s glory dwelling in the land.  A logical next question is, “What will happen when God is in the land?”

Normally I would look to the next verses, 10-11, to tells us what will happen when God is in the land, but they are a bit cryptic.  Poetry is beautiful, but it can also be hard to decipher.  Do you see all the figurative language there?  It is delightful poetry, but it is not clear as to what it means. Love and faithfulness are made out to be like people who meet each other.  Righteousness and peace as well, compared to lovers who kiss one another.  What is the poet trying to say?

Perhaps he means all these qualities to be flowing from God, as his presence will be in the land when his people fear him.  Maybe.  But I think the psalmist is being a bit more creative than that.  Follow me here.

I think that in the first line of verse 10, love represents God because in verse 7 he had already called for God to show the people His love.

Then I think, still in that first line of verse 10, that faithfulness represents people who fear God because in verse 8 the psalmist calls them faithful servants, and verse 11 faithfulness springs from the earth, the domain of people.

Now go to the next line, and I think the word righteousness represents God, because in verse 11 righteousness looks down from heaven.  Then peace represents people because in verse 8 he promises peace to his people.

To summarize, if my poetic interpretation is correct, verses 10-13 describe what happens when God and his people are in right relationship.  It is beautiful.  There is restoration and revival of the land.  In verse 12 this impact is beheld as the waste-land has been transformed and bears a harvest.  The psalmist sees a time in the future when the land is restored and revived.  Verse 13 once again depicts righteousness, once just looking down from heaven, now going before God, preparing a way for him.

And so in Psalm 85’s lament, we come full circle.  Restoration in the past shows the psalmist his immense need to lament for continued restoration in the present, which, if it results in obedience and faithfulness, will lead to ultimate restoration between God and his people in the future.

Yes, lament is right and proper when things are so bad there is no where else to turn, when the bottom rots out.

But lament is also right and proper when God has begun to restore us, and there is much work to do to keep the restoration going.

Lament. Call for him to help.  Follow his lead.

As you look at your life, do you see how God is at work restoring you?  Maybe you see areas that still need a lot of work, areas that feel like they are too much, too difficult?  If so, lament!

Cry out to God!  Tell him how you feel.  You can be brutally honest with him.  Ask for his revival and restoration in your life, in your family, in our church, in our community, in our country and world. Always hold before you the beautiful vision of restoration that is possible when God and people are in right relationship.

Lament to God, ask his help for full restoration and revival, with a determination to obey him and to work hard for the restoration and revival.