Theology While Suffering

Thou, O LORD, abidest for ever; Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, And forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; Thou art very wroth against us (Lamentations 5:19-22).

The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians, along with the exile to Babylon, upon the people of God can hardly be overstated. These events would completely rattle every aspect of the common theology and worldview of the day. In the ancient Near East, blessings and conquest meant your god was happy with you; plagues and defeat meant your god was angry with you. And yet here Judah experiences plague, pestilence, violence, complete devastation, and even exile, which to many would have meant as much a separation from the god of their land as much as it mean separation from their country. Formerly, even when things looked bad, the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem remained; now, even that was gone. The complete humiliation of Judah posed major theological challenges: if YHWH is the God of Israel, how could YHWH allow these things to happen? Was YHWH powerless against the Babylonians and their god Marduk? If YHWH is punishing us, why does He do so in ways that give the other nations reason to blaspheme His name and thoroughly disrespect Him? How can YHWH be our God and care for us when we have been brought so very low?

God provided a lot of warnings to the people beforehand through the prophets; God would again speak to the people to comfort and encourage them after the events took place. There is less written from and about those actually experiencing the event and its immediate aftermath: some of the psalms seem to come from this period (e.g. Psalm 44), and we get some indication of events from the book of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-44:30). Yet it is the voice of Lamentations which provides a moving and visceral response to these tragic events. The author of Lamentations describes what happens, and understands why the tragedy was necessary. Nevertheless, the author wrestles with the pain, suffering, misery, and the question of God’s presence and concern for His people.

The book of Lamentations is a masterpiece. Its author, over its first four chapters, expresses the pain, anguish, and distress of Jerusalem and its people, and does so using acrostic patterns (each verse or couplet of verses begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). Yet it is in the fifth chapter that the author breaks out of the convention and pours out his soul before God. He pleads for God to see their reproach and describes their humiliation (Lamentations 5:1-18). Yet, in all this, he remains convinced of God’s existence and authority (Lamentations 5:19). He wants to know for how long YHWH will continue to turn away from His people and abandon them to their humiliation; he asks YHWH to turn back to His people so His people will turn back to Him and all may be renewed (Lamentations 5:20-21). The author recognizes the present distress, and concludes with his understanding of the situation: YHWH has rejected His people and remains angry with them (Lamentations 5:22).

It comes as no surprise that Lamentations is not one of the more popular books of the Bible: it is not a happy book. Lamentations is full of the types of things which we humans generally seek to avoid: pain, distress, misery, suffering, and the attempt to try to make some sense out of why it happened and where God is in the midst of the pain. We know that there might be a time when we might experience something of the sort, but we certainly do not look forward to it. We would rather continue to live as we are living, seek to focus on the happier parts of life, hope we avoid as much suffering as we can, and trust that if suffering comes we will somehow find a way through it.

But then moments of suffering come. Perhaps we will be fortunate and be able to endure them without too much distress. But what will become of us if we experience a time of intense suffering far beyond anything we might have imagined? Doubts and fears will arise. Hope might be extinguished; despair may turn to cynicism. The confidence held in one’s view of God and how one looks at the world might be strongly shaken. Many in such a condition, even if they recover physically, never do so emotionally and spiritually.

This is why it is important to understand the value of strong theology even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even on account of suffering. We can see this from the author of Lamentations. He has seen and experienced terrible evils which most of us can only imagine with dread and terror, terrible things done by the pagan nations against the people of God, and yet his faith is firm and resolute. He recognizes that God remains sovereign and in control. He has perceived that God is angry with His people and punished them and he does not seek to find fault with God because of it. He is able to maintain the hope that God will turn back toward His people and renew them as of old.

When we do not maintain that strong theology while suffering, we will be tempted to fall away. The same distress which the author of Lamentations rightly understands to be God’s chastening is understood by others as the consequence of turning away from the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-19). While many Jews remained faithful to God in Babylon, we will never know how many others could not handle all the distress and pain and the challenge to their worldview and just assimilated into Babylonian culture, assuming that since the Babylonians were successful, their gods and perspective were clearly right, and their former belief in YHWH was wrong. Such people have been made invisible historically, no doubt swept up in every successive change of empire and belief in Mesopotamia. They attached themselves to the way of the world; their fate will be as the world.

Times of suffering will come. Our faith will be tested as through fire (1 Peter 1:3-9). Perhaps our sufferings will be manifestations of God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-11). Perhaps our suffering will come on account of our trust in God in Christ (cf. Luke 6:22-23). Or maybe our suffering will not come with an explicit reason; it will just be. That suffering may be so severe as to shake our confidence in everything which we used to believe was true. How will we respond to such distress and calamity? Will we be able to maintain our confidence in God and His goodness toward His people? Will we find a way to maintain our hope despite our distress and pain? At that time we will perhaps gain a better appreciation for the message of Lamentations, and seek to take refuge in the same hope which sustained the author of Lamentations even when it seemed that there was no hope left. Let us stand firm in God and trust in Him in good times and in bad, when suffering or well, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Folly of Alcohol

Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath complaining? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; They that go to seek out mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, When it sparkleth in the cup, When it goeth down smoothly: At the last it biteth like a serpent, And stingeth like an adder. Thine eyes shall behold strange things, And thy heart shall utter perverse things. Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea, Or as he that lieth upon the top of a mast.
“They have stricken me,” shalt thou say, “and I was not hurt; They have beaten me, and I felt it not: When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again” (Proverbs 23:29-35).

The Scriptures are filled with the wisdom of God. It is not as if His creation can “pull one over” on Him. He understands the actions of men and their consequences all too well. This understanding is fully on display as Solomon addresses the matter of men and their conduct with alcohol.

I have never understood the appeal of the night of drunkenness. One goes and drinks beverages that do not really taste good in order to receive a buzz that leads to regrettable actions and words, some of which may even be remembered, and then terrible feelings of nausea and pain the next day. And many then look forward to the next time that they can go and get drunk!

It does not make a lot of sense– but it is irrational behavior; we should not expect it to make sense. Many, no doubt, do so because of peer pressure. Others have become addicted. For too many, however, it is simply a way to have fun, to escape the cares of this world for a while, and/or to numb the pain of life.

Yet, as Solomon indicates, there are good reasons why drunkenness is sinful and a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). Woes, sorrow, contentions, complaints, wounds, and physical difficulties come to those who drink too much. Many a drunken brawl has led to injury. Vision is impaired. Foolish things are said, either entirely in jest or because the one drinking has let down his or her guard. Foolish games and adventures are attempted. Injury, shame, illness, and even death can result from the folly of alcohol!

It is disconcerting how accurately Solomon portrays the hopeless drinker in Proverbs 23:35. He suffered abuse and yet did not feel anything; he has experienced all the things which Solomon mentions; and yet his first impulse it to seek the drink again, as if somehow that will solve everything. Such is folly. Alcohol does not make one better and it does not make life any easier– it is truly and literally an escape, and it is always far better to resolve whatever challenges life may pose than it is to attempt to wash it all away in some alcohol. Alcohol can only make problems worse, not better!

Drinking affects a lot more than just the person drinking. His or her entire family could be terribly impacted. Not a few girls get drunk and are pregnant before they are sober. Many parents, spouses, and even (God forbid!) children must find ways to get a drunken relative out of jail. Those who start down the path of alcohol often find that they lose everything that is really important, and all just to get that next drink! And this says nothing about other families and people impacted by alcohol– all of the families grieving for lost loved ones who died because a drunkard got behind the wheel of a car and got into an accident.

Solomon well compares drinking to “serpents” and “adders.” Yes, wine may go down smoothly, but it comes with a “bite”! We can profitably extend the image a little further. What happens to those who hold snakes and work with snakes? There likely are many who are more proficient at it than others and who are better able to handle them, but everyone at some point who handles them will almost certainly get bitten. So it is with alcohol– even if we think we could “handle it responsibly,” at some point we will almost certainly cross the line and get “bitten” and be drunk and sin.

The folly of alcohol, therefore, is like the folly of handling poisonous snakes. It is simply most profitable to avoid both! Let us avoid getting burned and bitten and abstain from alcohol!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Encouraging Words

Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad (Proverbs 12:25).

Contrary to the feelings of many, no man is an island. No man (or woman) is entirely impervious to their environment or their circumstances.

We all go through times in life when our hearts are heavy. The reasons for heavy hearts are legion. Loved ones may hurt us or betray us, or we invest a lot of our emotional time and energy in their distress. They may pass away. We may be hurt by the words or actions of people around us. We may lose a job, develop a debilitating illness, or be in the midst of a very stressful period in life. Many times we allow the influences of the outside world and its continual panic to get us down.

Whatever the reason the distress is quite real. It is not as easy to live with a heavy heart as otherwise (cf. Proverbs 18:14). There is less motivation to engage in the simple functions of life, let alone anything else. It is hard to concentrate. It is hard to be civil and put on a false face in front of others. And it is especially difficult to “keep the faith” and believe that better times are ahead.

There is a natural tendency, in such circumstances, to retreat. It seems easier to not feel at all than to feel distress.

But the “unfelt life” is not really life at all. We all enjoy the highs/peaks of life. If there are highs/peaks, there must, at some point, be lows/valleys. We all experience them; we all have to live through them.

Yet there is something that makes it all just a little more tolerable, and that is a “good word.” Can we all not think of times when we were in distress (or perhaps just stress) and someone took out the time to encourage us and to build us up? Have we all not had experiences where we were laid low but the strengthening words of another lifted us up?

Words of affirmation and encouragement always have value. Little wonder, then, that God commands believers through the Apostles and others to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25, Jude 1:20). Words of encourage sustain and uplift in times of distress and trouble. They reinforce us in the good times. There is no circumstance in which truly encouraging words cannot provide some benefit!

But for there to be good words there must be people who understand their value and are willing to freely provide them. Encouraging people are always in the minority; there is a superabundance of critics, cynics, and pessimists. Nevertheless, we all know the superior value of having a “Barnabas” in our life than the pessimists and cynics (cf. Acts 4:36-37). If we understand the value of having a “Barnabas” in our lives, how much more should we then strive to be the “Barnabas” for our fellow man!

There are few things that we can do that have a more lasting impression on others than to be there for them in times of distress with good words of encouragement, affirmation, and strength. Let us be a “Barnabas” and speak good words to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

He Does All Things Well

And they were beyond measure astonished, saying, “He hath done all things well; he maketh even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak” (Mark 7:37).

Jesus has entered the Decapolis and healed a deaf man with a speech impediment (Mark 7:31-36). The Decapolis was a more Gentile region known for Greek culture, and its residents can clearly see the power that is present in Jesus. They declare, quite rightly, that He, Jesus, has done all things well.

The depth of the truth and reality of that statement, however, was not known to them. Jesus is the Word made flesh, the exact image and representation of God on earth (John 1:1-18, 14:9-10). As the Word He is responsible for the whole creation (John 1:3, Colossians 1:15-17), the very thing declared “very good” at its inception (Genesis 1:31). As God, Jesus is all but expected to do things well!

While the Gentiles of Decapolis perceive that Jesus does all things well, the Jews of Galilee and Judea fail to understand that (cf. John 1:11). He has done many more miracles in their midst, and yet so many refuse to believe! They seem convinced that God will act in an entirely different way. What Jesus has done and is doing does not match their desires and expectations. Thus they reject the One who is doing all things well.

It is easy to rail on the Jews about how they did not perceive the Messiah in Jesus, but it is easy to understand why they believed as they did. From their perspective, it was hard to see how God was doing “all things well.” They were God’s chosen people. Their forefathers, despite their idolatrous ways, lived in a free and independent state. They are not committing idolatry anymore, and yet now they suffer under the imperious hand of Rome. As indicated in Psalm 44:1-26, many Jews wanted to know why. It did not seem to make any sense. And then here is Jesus, and He’s not helping the cause they want helped.

Yet God is doing all things well in Jesus of Nazareth. He is doing the Father’s work and accomplishes God’s eternal plan for salvation (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). Through Him God is setting up the Kingdom that transcends all other kingdoms, even Rome (cf. Daniel 2:36-44). God holds out the promise of eternity in His presence with all good things (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).

We have been told in Romans 8:28 that, “we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.” If we are truly God’s people, even in our lives, God is doing all things well.

It is easy for us to protest this idea, just as the Jews did in terms of Jesus. It can be very, very hard at times to see how the things going on in our lives and in the world around us could be considered “well.” There is suffering, pain, evil, crisis, and distress. In and of themselves, such things are not good. They are here because sin and death are here (Romans 5:12-18). But this does not mean that God is not doing all things well. We reflect Jesus through our suffering since He suffered (1 Peter 2:18-25). The time will come when we will perceive how God has done all things well even when we did not understand it. It will be a time of blessing and praise.

God is Almighty, and He does all things well. It is for us to trust in Him even when we cannot see it. Let us be willing to trust even in the most difficult times, having confidence that in good times and bad, God is doing well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Receiving Good and Evil

Then said his wife unto him, “Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Renounce God, and die.”
But he said unto her, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

No one enjoys pain, difficulties, and suffering. We all would much rather enjoy the good life, pleasures, and success. We often believe that we “deserve” to obtain the good things, and we do not “deserve” the bad things.

When pain, difficulties, and suffering come, we have an impulse to blame some higher authority. Many people blame God for their problems and difficulties. They do not understand how God could do evil to them, or, at least, allow the evil to be done to them. Where is God when there is pain and misery and suffering?

But notice, if you will, how one-sided we humans tend to be. While many will blame God for their failures or pain or suffering, who “blames” God for the fact that they are successful and healthy and prosperous? Many will claim that God does not exist on the basis of the existence of suffering, but no one in his right mind will argue that God does not exist because people find success, prosperity, and health. Job’s wife never imagined to tell Job to let go of his integrity, curse God, and die while their children and possessions remained! No– when people obtain prosperity, success, and health, they may very well praise and thank God for it.

It is easy for people to have such “immature” views and ideas about God. We know for certain that God does not tempt anyone with evil (James 1:13), and provides a way of escape from any sinful situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). But there is no guarantee that the life of the believer– or the life of anyone– will be free from pain, suffering, and misery. As we live our lives, we will receive both good and evil. If we are willing to honor and praise God when we receive that which is good, why should that change if we receive evil?

No one is saying that evil is desirable or pleasant, but it has its place in our fallen, broken world. Evil reminds us regarding the fundamental “dis-ease” that we should have while living on earth– this is not what God intends for the creation (cf. Romans 8:19-23). We must feel the “heat” of the law of sin and death at work in the world (Romans 5:12-18). If we did not experience discomfort, we would get rather comfortable on this planet and forget about Jesus and His sacrifice, just as the Israelites forgot about the LORD their God when they received the land of Canaan and enjoyed it!

Furthermore, human character is not developed through success and prosperity. Maturity and growth do not come from success and pleasure but from failure and suffering. Success and prosperity easily lead to belief in self-sufficiency and arrogance; trial leads to patience and growth in faith (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). Job could only truly learn to appreciate all of God’s blessings when he suffered great misery in life, and it is the same with us. We only appreciate health when we suffer illness and pain. Success is sweeter after experiencing failure. Those best suited to handle prosperity are those who know how to live contented lives in poverty (cf. Philippians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 6:8).

It can be guaranteed that we will receive both good and evil in life. Let us remember that through times of health or illness, prosperity or poverty, happiness or misery, God is there, He loves us, and desires for us to seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6). Let us hold fast to God whether we receive good or evil!

Ethan R. Longhenry