Episode 1. A Light at the End of the Tunnel
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Suffering is not a lot of fun is it. Nobody looks forward to suffering, and yet, it’s pretty certain that storms will hit. Well, when they do, there is a confidence that God wants you to have in …
Suffering is not a lot of fun is it. Nobody looks forward to it, and yet, it’s pretty certain that storms will hit our lives. So, when they do, there’s a confidence that God wants you to have in your heart. A confidence, in Him.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THAT
Suffering is bad enough, but if while you’re suffering, your so-called friends can’t even stand by you and encourage you and comfort you, well that is just the pits.
Worse still when loved ones – a wife or a husband, instead of encouraging you, they take the opportunity to say, ‘I told you so or You’ve only got yourself to blame … well, at that point, you just want to pack it in.
This isn’t a game hypotheticals, this is real life. This happens all the time. In fact it seems to be a favourite game that some people love to play. When he’s down, when she’s down, instead of giving them a hand up, let’s kick ‘em where it hurts.
I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty good handle on my faults. It turns out that every strength we have, is a double-edged sword. It’s both a strength, and, if we’re not careful, it’s a weakness as well.
Say you’re a strong leader type of personality, then you’re great to have around because you can help the rest of us crash through obstacles that we, without you, simply wouldn’t have been able to get through. But at the same time, as a leader, you can be a quite domineering and controlling person.
Or lets say you’re one of those great encouragers, who will hang in there with someone for as long as they need, then you’re a fantastic friend to have in a storm. But there’s every chance that you’re not very organised, not an on-time sort of a person – simply through the fact that you’ve been made to hang in there with people for as long as they need you.
Yep, every strength is a double-edged sword. It’s both a strength, and a potential weakness. So few people understand that. And as a result, when things aren’t going well for us, they’re quite adept, it would seem, at seeing our faults and pointing them out to us. ‘Well, maybe the reason you’re having this problem in your marriage is because you’re such a strong personality. It must be your fault’. Or … ‘Well, the reason you’re having this problem at work is that you’re just not good at time management. You have to get better at sorting out your priorities and hitting the deadlines you need to hit’.
You see how easy it is, to find the fault side of our strength, when people are looking for answers. They think they’re helping us, but they’re only making it worse. I have a friend like that who constantly needs to point out my faults to me, as though somehow he’s an impartial, expert psychotherapist. And when he gets into that mode, I sit there and I think of all his faults – faults that I don’t point out to him – because he’s my friend and he has a whole bunch of strengths as well.
I know what you’re thinking – been there, done that, got the t–shirt, you know exactly what I’m talking about. There is a time and a place for friends to point out each other’s faults and weaknesses and limitations in a constructive way. But that time and place is not when they’re suffering, it’s not when the devil is chasing them around the kitchen table with a pick-axe, it’s not when God is leading them through a wilderness experience. Right?
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been spending some time with Job, a righteous man, a good man, whom God chose to test, by letting the devil go after everything he had. His family, his possessions, his health, his reputation – one by one, God allows the devil to strip them away from Job, to see what lies beneath. To see whether Job truly is this great man of faith, or whether he only trusts God while his faith is propped up by all the blessings that God has heaped on his life.
And Job, as it turns out, had three friends, just like the ones we’ve been talking about. Their names were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. While Job was crying out to God – asking Him why, and praying to God for relief, these three guys tried to tell Job, basically – it was all his fault. Listen to what Eliphaz says to Job:
Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. (Job 4:6-9)
In other words, Eliphaz is saying to Job, ‘Come on Job, it makes sense. God never punishes a good person or a righteous man. Obviously, you’ve must have done something wrong and that’s why your life is falling apart’.
Yeah, right! With friends like that, who needs enemies? And you see this chapter after chapter throughout the book of Job, these so-called friends – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – needling and criticising Job, rubbing salt in his wounds. I know you’ve been there and I know that one day, you and I are going to be in that place again.
Because our friends, and our loved ones they are not perfect, they are weak, fallible people just like you and me. They can’t always see what’s going on. They don’t always have the spiritual or the emotional maturity to perceive what God is doing in your life – or the faith they need.
Listen, friends and family are good. God blesses us with those people and that’s a wonderful thing. But when the chips are down, when God is putting your faith to the test, then it’s in that place that we need to get close to Him and hear His voice and trust in Him. Peter the Apostle puts it like this, 1 Peter 1: 6 – 9:
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Listen, friends and family are great, but there is no substitute in a storm for God Himself. That’s why God tests and strengthens your faith through trials and through suffering.
DARK NIGHTS OF THE SOUL
Dark … nights … of the soul. I wonder what that means to you. I can tell you what it means to me. There have been those nights, over the years, when I’ve lain in bed, with fear racking my very being. Whether it was over a relationship issue, or my job, or finances … whatever it was … I could only sleep in fits and starts, because in the middle of those dark nights, things seemed so bad, so hopeless, that the despair consumed my whole being.
I remember one such night in a hotel when I was travelling for business back in February 1995, it was so bad, that I came this close to taking my own life the next morning. I remember it as though it were yesterday.
Fortunately, most of us tend not to have too many of those dark nights, but when you’re in the middle of a patch of suffering in your life, they become very real. And it’s no good saying to someone, ‘Well, you know, if you believed in God, everything would be fine. You wouldn’t feel like that.
Well, Jesus did. That night that He went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, we’re told that:
He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ (Matthew 26:37-39)
Even Jesus was deeply grieved – even unto death. That right there, is a dark night of the soul. And, just as is always the case, when you’re having one of those, His friends were of no use to Him.
I remember back to those times in my life and God put some really, really good people around me. I thank God for them. But it seemed that nothing that they were able to do or to say, could touch my soul deeply enough to make a difference.
You look back on Easter – you hear the old, old story of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and the trials and the beatings and the crucifixion and then the resurrection – and sometimes it’s easy to imagine that those things don’t have anything relevant to speak into our lives for the rest of the year. We go through Easter the ritual, but then we put it back in the cupboard and forget it for another year.
But for me, somehow, knowing that God understands my suffering, not just because He’s God and He knows everything, but because He’s actually been in my shoes. And He’s lived His own dark night of the soul, well that’s a huge comfort. It means I know that I know that I know that I’m talking to a God who totally gets it. Who doesn’t judge me in my pain, but whose heart aches for me. That’s a huge thing.
Now I wouldn’t wish a dark night like that on anyone. Not even on my worst enemy, yet they’re an absolute inevitability. I had the privilege and the pleasure to catch up with a man who is one of the giants in my life. He was the Pastor of the first church that I attended after I became a Christian. His name is Phil. And he showed me a photo of himself as a young man.
He was lying on a stretcher, after a car accident in which he’d been badly burned by an exploding fuel tank. After rolling in the dirt and the dust to put out the flames, he was unconscious, bandages all over him. He had not been a Christian all that long, and he was telling me what it was like to be there in the hospital, alone, doctors and nurses talking about whether he’d make it or not, and the septicaemia that was attacking his open wounds, the skin grafts that he would need.
Phil was a trained surveyor, and as he lay in that hospital bed in that dark, lonely place – a dark night of the soul if ever there was one – He spoke of God’s presence. He was thinking about the rest of his life, if he had much of it before him, and he came to the conclusion that God didn’t want him to be a surveyor for the rest of his life. It was in that place that he decided to become a pastor.
Now, many years on, at the retirement end of 40 plus years of pastoring, he can look back on a life in which he has touched so many people, so many lives with the love of Christ.
Those dark nights are often very important times in our lives, where God can connect with us in the most amazing way. Where our hearts, wounded and raw with pain, are open to receive something incredibly powerful from God.
We’ve been travelling a bit of a journey with Job, and it was a terrible time for him. Back in the Old Testament book of Job, we see how God gave the devil permission to strip everything away from the man. He was a good guy, a righteous man, who honoured God in everything he did.
Yet, God allowed his faith to be tested by letting the devil strip away one by one, each of the blessings that God had given him. His children, all his possessions, his wife, his friends, his reputation, even his health – he suffered in every sense of the word. He gets to a point finally where he says this to God, Job chapter 10: 1 to 4:
I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favour the schemes of the wicked? Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see?’
Pretty direct, don’t you think? He is telling God exactly what he thinks and feels. He’s laying his perspective right out there, in front of God. I think sometimes we think that we have to sanitise it for God, that somehow, before we go to God we need to put on our Sunday bests and put a smile on our face and go and tell God how rosy things are.
But in the midst of those dark nights, things aren’t rosy. They don’t look rosy, they don’t feel rosy and putting on a false face for God is just about the dumbest thing that anyone can do.
I want to encourage you in the middle of those places to pour out your heart and your soul to God. Tell Him exactly what you think; exactly what you feel. I want to encourage you today, that in the midst of your despair, your God is the one constant on whom you can rely. He is the one person who is faithful beyond all others.
MY REDEEMER LIVES
A few years ago, Hillsong released an awesome worship song called ‘My Redeemer Lives’. It’s bouncy and happy and clappy and upbeat. It kicks off with these lyrics:
I know He rescued my soul, His blood has covered my sin
I believe, I believe
My shame is taken away, My pain is healed in His name
I believe, I believe
I’ll raise a banner, ‘Cause my Lord has conquered the grave
My Redeemer Lives, My Redeemer lives …
And the song goes on from there. It’s an awesome worship song. If you go to YouTube and search for it, you’ll find a whole bunch of young people with bright coloured t-shirts on, dancing and waving their hands and singing the song. I think it’s awesome.
But the very first time those words were uttered in the Bible, ‘My Redeemer lives’ was by a guy named Job, and that wasn’t the context. As we’ve seen all along in this series of messages, Job wasn’t all happy and clappy, Job was suffering terribly.
This good and godly man was tested by God as the Lord unleashed the devil into his life, and the devil took away each of Job’s blessings, one by one by one, even right down to his health, until he had nothing left.
Job was in huge pain, he struggled with God, and asked God what was he doing and why was this happening and when it would end? Just like you or I would have. Job was getting desperate, and as we’ve seen, even his friends, instead of encouraging him, were needling him and blaming him and rubbing salt in his wounds – undermining his confidence in God.
So, just in case you hear those words, My Redeemer Lives, and you’ve sung that great Hillsong chorus and you’re thinking happy clappy, let me share with you exactly what was going on for Job, in the verses leading up to this famous declaration that My Redeemer Lives. Just soak in these words and see the picture of devastation and destruction that he’s painting here for us. Job chapter 19, beginning at verse 8:
God has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped my glory from me, and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree. He has kindled his wrath against me, and he counts me as his adversary. His troops come on together; they have thrown up siege works against me, and encamp around my tent. He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me.
My relatives and my close friends have failed me; the guests in my house have forgotten me; my serving girls count me as a stranger; I have become an alien in their eyes. I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him. My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family. Even young children despise me; when I rise, they talk against me. All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I have loved have turned against me.
My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. (Job 19: 8-25)
I mean, his life had completely been destroyed – everything is gone. The only thing that could be worse is that he could be dead, although, having said that, he muses elsewhere that, that might indeed have been a better outcome.
Now if you or I were crying out those terrible words, if you or I were summing up our terrible pain and our loss in those very words, what conclusion would we come to? How would we draw all that litany of disaster together and summarise it? I suspect that many a man and many a woman would come to the conclusion that there’s simply no hope left.
And yet at the end of all that he says, ‘Wow! I wish all this were written down for others to see and to know – because in the middle of all this disaster, I KNOW THAT MY REDEEMER LIVES!’
What a conclusion to come to! What a man of God! How did he get to that place? How can he come to such a conclusion?
Well, here’s the answer. Job was a man who lived his life for God. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. His heart was set like flint toward honouring God with everything he was and everything he had. Right at the beginning of the book of Job chapter 1, verse 1 this is what we’re told:
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
That’s the thing. When we get our lives in order before the storm hits, then when the storm comes, while it still hurts, while we still have questions for God – why and how long being the two most common – whilst we will certainly have friends who misunderstand us and make it worse; deep, deep, deep in our hearts, we will be able to declare in the face of every demon that hell can muster and throw against us, we will still be able to declare with boldness and an uncommon courage, that MY REDEEMER LIVES.
And that’s what counts. When everything else fails, this one thing stands: My Redeemer Lives. And that counts for everything. That’s what matters. In fact it’s the only thing that matters.
Perhaps, you’re going through a tough patch at the moment and if not, we both know, don’t we, that the next tough patch is out there somewhere, just waiting for us to catch up with it.
So let me encourage you with this: when the suffering begins, worship God through every moment, thank Him, bless His name, draw close to Him. Because He is there to travel through every moment of it with you. And come what may, no matter how terrible it gets – may you stand up and declare, My Redeemer Lives.
So far, as I look back on the most difficult days of my life, all the dark nights of the soul, what I know is this: my record for surviving them so far is 100%. Hey, that’s not such a bad track record is it? And I’d hazard a guess that you too have a perfect score – a 100% track record for surviving your worst days.
The other obvious truth is that those days will always pass. They did for Job. Have a listen to how it all ended, Job chapter 42, verses 10 and 16:
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
In other words, God gave Job double for his trouble, and allowed him to live to a ripe old age. So is God going to give you and me double for our trouble? I really don’t know. Sometimes He does, other times He doesn’t. But what I do know is this: God’s blessings are greater than anything that we can imagine, and He always finds ways to bring His blessings to pass in our lives.
Is God going to allow you and me to live to a ripe old age and full of days? Again, I don’t know what His plan is for you or for me. But this I do know – that as we persevere, as we get out of bed every morning and do our best to honour Him and to bless others – Jesus is away preparing a place for us, for you and for me, in our Father’s house. So that we can spend eternity in His Presence and behold His glory. Feast on His glory for ever and ever and ever amen.
That, you’d have to say, is not such a bad ending. In the meantime, I can tell you this, beyond any shadow of a doubt, ‘My Redeemer Lives’. How about yours?