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 Outer Darkness

“And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

Darkness is not what it used to be. For thousands of years, once the sun set, most light was gone. The moon might provide some light; perhaps one could use a few candles, oil lamps, a fire, or some such thing to provide some light and heat. Otherwise there would be all-encompassing darkness, the absence of light. These days it is hard to find places where such darkness can be experienced: we have light everywhere and seemingly at all times. This makes it more difficult to imagine just how truly “dark” darkness is.

There is a reason that “darkness,” throughout time and in different cultures, represents something painful, distressing, unknown, fearful, or something that causes apprehension. Light is almost never associated with evil or anything negative; darkness seems synonymous with such things. We have a built-in understanding that there is not much good in “dark,” and plenty of which to be afraid and which we do well to avoid.

Jesus understands these things; He knows how God is light, source of all that is good and holy (John 1:4-5). In God there is light and no darkness at all: nothing evil, carnal, leading to misery and despair (1 John 1:5). If God is light, then those who follow after God should be in the light (1 John 1:7); this means that darkness, as the absence of light, is an image for all of that which is apart from and hostile to God (John 1:5, 1 John 1:6). To be in darkness, therefore, is not good; how much worse, then, would it be to find oneself in the “outer” darkness?

Jesus speaks of this “outer darkness” three times in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. Each instance involves a person or a group of people who have incurred God’s displeasure; each time Jesus says that there “weeping and gnashing of teeth” takes place. What is this “outer darkness”?

Jesus never comes out and explicitly identifies what or where this “outer darkness” is. We gain a clue from the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth: in Matthew 13:42, 50, Jesus says that those who cause stumbling, those that do iniquity, and the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire after the Judgment, and “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

On a literal level, this makes no sense: fire provides light, and we would expect no light in the “outer darkness.” Then again, the very idea of “outer darkness” seems strange on a literal level! All of this is for good reason; Jesus is not speaking literally. He is using different images to express the same terrible fate: the place we call hell!

When we think of “hell,” we normally associate it with a fiery furnace or some such thing where the disobedient and condemned suffer. These images in Matthew 13:42, 50 certainly suggest such a thing, but we must be careful about literalizing the idea. After all, Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as well as the “fiery furnace.” They are both illustrations!

Jesus does well to describe hell in terms of the “outer darkness” for the reasons we’ve already described: darkness is the absence of light, and if God is light, then darkness is the absence of God. We find far too many people presently living in darkness (cf. John 1:4-5, 9-10, 12:46), already in a sense separated from God. At death that separation becomes more acute: they will find themselves, by their own choice, in the “outer darkness,” a representation of full and complete separation from God the Creator, the Source of Light and Life.

It will not be pleasant there, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Such are the responses to suffering and pain! We must be careful to not allow our imaginations to get the better of us; what the condemned experience and why it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth is not specified, and much damage has been done by believers who seemingly gleefully describe the sorts of tortures and miseries they imagine await the condemned. No one should feel any joy on account of the existence of the outer darkness or that anyone will dwell there.

Perhaps the greatest surprise about the “outer darkness” are those whom Jesus says are going there. In Matthew 8:10-12, He says that it will be the “sons of the kingdom” who will be cast there, and by that He means those participants in the covenant between God and Israel who were not truly faithful to God. In Matthew 22:9-13, the one cast into the outer darkness was a man invited to the wedding feast without wearing the appropriate garment, understood as one supplied by the one providing the feast. Finally, in Matthew 25:24-30, it is the servant of the Master who was given the one talent and who buried it who is cast into the “outer darkness.”

In all of these examples, it is not pagan unbelievers or loose sinners who are cast into the “outer darkness”; they are people who believe in God, even many who will believe in Jesus as the Christ! Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as a way to warn believers against complacency and self-satisfaction. Whoever thinks that merely because they mentally accept the idea that Jesus is the Christ means they will automatically be saved will be sorely disappointed. Whoever feels that since they were raised in a Christian environment and by virtue of their lineage and cultural identity they will enter the resurrection of life will find themselves far from God. Whoever believes that others should work in the vineyard of the Lord but feel they are exempt will receive the censure of Jesus and eternity in the outer darkness!

Such does not mean that pagan unbelievers or loose sinners are off the hook; as we have seen in Matthew 13:42, 50, other passages address the condemnation awaiting others who are disobedient to God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ warning is appropriate. Yes, God is the light; God is the source of good things. We all want to identify with the light and to receive those blessings. But if we want to be in the light, we must walk in the light (1 John 1:7): we need to follow after Jesus, conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to His. If we are not conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions (all three; not just one or two) to those of Jesus, the truth is not in us; we’re deceiving ourselves, confident of our presence in the light even though we walk in darkness. If we are found in the darkness on the day of Judgment, we will find ourselves permanently in the outer darkness!

What a terrible fate to go into the outer darkness! It is not something we should wish on ourselves, our loved ones, or even our worst enemies. Thankfully, no one is forced to go to the outer darkness; we all have the opportunity to leave the darkness and share in the light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Let us heed the Savior’s warning and seek to walk in the light as He is the light!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Humans understand that physical death, pain, and suffering are the curses we must all at times endure. But that does not mean that we like it. And it certainly does not mean that we enjoy it when we endure it or have to watch loved ones endure it.

There are many reasons that we mourn. We mourn when a loved one dies. We mourn, in a sense, when beloved things, situations, or circumstances are ended. Children grow up. We get older. We might have to move away. We deal with our own emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We have to watch spouses, family members, friends, and others endure emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We may understand it is all a part of life, but it is not pleasant. They’re not events to which we look forward. We “feel” for all those who mourn.

That is why it is natural to think that it is quite a stretch to say that those who mourn are “blessed,” or fortunate or happy. Most people under those circumstances would not consider themselves very fortunate. Those who look upon them would not consider them fortunate. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if a few heads turned when Jesus uttered this line, and if a few people seemed a bit incredulous at such a declaration!

Jesus understands that the statement is controversial and completely ridiculous in terms of conventional wisdom. But that is partly why He said it–He wants people to think about their conditions in life, and to see things in a different light.

In what perspective, however, are those who mourn fortunate? Jesus provides a bit of an answer here in Matthew 5:4–those who mourn shall be comforted. When He makes a similar declaration in Luke 6:21, 25, He indicates that those who weep will one day laugh, and those who now laugh will one day weep and mourn.

One could attempt to figure out what Jesus means by saying that they shall be comforted, whether He has human or divine comfort in mind, when that would come about, and under what circumstances. But Jesus does not provide detail; perhaps the details would get in the way of the point. The point is not that there is some inherent merit in mourning but is really a matter of perspective.

When one is mourning, one is plumbing the depths of human pain and suffering. In a very real sense, when one is mourning, the only way to go is “up”–to return, at some point, to life. And, as the Preacher noted in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, there is wisdom, experience, and growth that takes place when one walks through the vale of mourning, suffering, and pain. We learn just how fleeting life can be. We perceive how the pleasures of this world are fleeting and are nothing on which to depend. We have to come face to face with the brutal realities of evil, pain, suffering, and death, and we walk away the wiser for it. Comfort will come, be it through time, friends, God, or a combination of those and other factors. Those who mourn are fortunate not because they are mourning, but because for them things can only get better. It is when we emphasize laughing and the positive that we get into some trouble, for if we are enjoying opportunities of mirth, where else is there to go but downward? When we mourn, we can hope for and look forward to better days. But when we experience better days, to what have we to look forward? At best, a continuation of good days. But even then, we live with the fear and apprehension of what we know is most likely going to happen–darker days are ahead.

We should not imagine that Jesus is really saying that we should look forward to opportunities to mourn, or that we should really enjoy those opportunities in life we are given to mourn. Instead, we are to understand that mourning is a part of life, one that can lead to growth and a renewed appreciation for the gifts of God, life, love, friendship, and the like that we all too easily take for granted. When we mourn, things can only get better; when we laugh, things can only get worse. Let us be prepared for the vicissitudes of life; if we are currently mourning, let us take comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and let us all appreciate the bountiful gifts of grace and mercy that God has given us through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Powerful Temptation

Again, the devil taketh him unto an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said unto him, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.'”
Then the devil leaveth him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him (Matthew 4:8-11).

Satan has tried to get Jesus to satisfy His great physical hunger and to test out God’s promises. Each time Jesus has rebuffed him with Scripture. So now, in the third temptation (the second in Luke’s account; Luke 4:5-8), Satan attempts to seduce Jesus with one of his greatest tools– the desire for power.

No generation has ever lacked people who are willing to go to any length to get even a small portion of what Satan promises Jesus. History books are filled with the names of people who have used brute force in an attempt to conquer the world– Ramses the Great. Nebuchadnezzar. Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Napoleon. Hitler. For every such character there have been a hundred petty rulers who dreamed of something greater, and vast multitudes of the poor and dispossessed who dream of such power.

And here Jesus is– with one action, He could best them all. One could argue as to whether Satan, the Father of lies (John 8:44), would have really given Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world or not. One might even dispute whether it is within Satan’s power to give them. Yet to do so would be to blunt the force of the temptation. After all, if Jesus knows that Satan will not give the promised result or cannot do so, it is not much of a temptation. As the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), he is likely well able to deliver on his promise.

Not a few men would have quickly fallen on their knees, including many of the Jews of Jesus’ own day. Ironically, this is His chance to be the “Messiah” of the Jewish imagination. What will He do?

This is a real test for Jesus. It shows everything that He is about. And, as before, He is about confidence in God. He tells the Evil One to be gone, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13. God is the only One worthy of true worship– prostration and service. God’s call for Jesus is the only important call. God’s purposes cannot be accomplished through Satan’s vehicles (Romans 1:16-17)!

Think for a moment about what Jesus is really doing here. With one quick action, all the pain and suffering could be gone. He would receive honor, glory, and power. Millions would be at His disposal for whatever purpose He desires. Rome, Persia, India, China, and all others would bow down before Him. Fantastic wealth and luxury would be His. But when He dies it would all go away, and humanity would never receive reconciliation with God.

Instead, He chooses to follow God’s call. He will soon go back to Galilee. He will live out His days as a peasant. During His life He will be an object of scorn and reproach. Despite doing good He will receive mockery, abuse, and ultimately a humiliating death as a common criminal (Philippians 2:5-8).

But then God raised Him in power and granted Him authority that Satan could never provide– authority over heaven and earth, the Name that is above every name (Matthew 28:1-18, Philippians 2:9-11). Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is able to provide true life and salvation for all who come to God through Him (John 6:53-58, Romans 5:5-11, Hebrews 12:2). Through His blood an eternal Kingdom is established, one that can never fade (Colossians 1:13, 2 Peter 1:11).

Therefore, Satan offered Jesus the imitation, and He preferred to suffer in order to accomplish the reality.

We do well to heed Jesus’ lesson here. Too often we follow after the imitation– the idols of the world, and many times the specific idol of power– and think that we can accomplish God’s work through that imitation. It never has been and never can be. God’s purposes are accomplished through Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom; it manifests a specific disinterest in the governments of men (Romans 1:16-17; 13:1-7). Too many reach after power and abuse it on national, corporate, familial, and even individual levels. We must instead focus our efforts and stewardship on the eternal Kingdom and God’s purposes in it (Matthew 6:33). We must be willing, as Jesus was, to forsake the temporary pleasures, satisfaction, and honor of this world and to suffer loss and indignity in order to receive eternal glory and honor (Romans 8:17-18).

The Apostle John lists the three means of temptation that Satan uses: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions (1 John 2:16). Thus Satan successively tempted Eve into sinning: the appearance of the fruit, its perceived health benefit, and its ability to make wise (Genesis 3:6). We all know what resulted (Romans 5:12-18). Satan attempts to do the same with Jesus: the desires of the flesh (bread), the desires of the eyes (power), and the pride of life (testing God). But this time Satan fails. Jesus stands firm and gains the victory over him, empowered by the revealed Word of God in Scripture.

Jesus, the embodiment of Israel, has endured His “Elijah moment.” He set out in His exodus into the wilderness and experienced the temptations of the wandering and yet proved faithful to God. It is right for the angels to minister to Him, for it is time for Jesus, having overcome the Evil One, to minister to others. The Gospel of the Kingdom can now be proclaimed by the One who overcame the temptation to compromise and to give up what is eternal for what is fleeting. Let us praise God for the victory and the Kingdom we can share in the Son!

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

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

The House of Mourning

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

The Bible exposes the vast gulf between the perspectives of human beings and God. Humans tend to focus on the short-term and that which seems beneficial in the short-term: pleasure is always preferable over pain, and that which is easy and comfortable is valued over what may be more difficult and painful. Humans also tend to forget that their perspective and views are limited and, to at least a small extent, self-delusional. God, as author of our present reality, takes the longer view, fully understanding the limitations of mankind. We always do well to learn more from Him.

This gulf is evident in the ways people look at feasting versus mourning. If you asked most people which was better, to go to the house of feasting or the house of mourning, the answer would be the former. Feasting is fun– it provides all kinds of short-term benefits, can allow one to at least temporarily forget the future, and to enjoy the good life for at least a little while.

The house of mourning, however, is much more painful and difficult. In the house of mourning, we must confront our own mortality. In the house of mourning, we come face to face with human limitation and weakness: we are not as strong as we would like to think we are, and there is not one person among us for whom it would be impossible to be dead in a matter of moments (cf. James 4:14). In the house of mourning, we have to come to grips with the pain of separation and losing those whom we know and/or love. In the house of mourning, all of our pretensions are stripped away from us. We can feel like Adam in the Garden, trying to hide his shame/nakedness from God (Genesis 3:8-10).

The house of mourning, therefore, is extremely uncomfortable. It is little wonder why many people avoid the house of mourning at all costs– it can really put a damper on the “good life”!

If we stop and think about it, however, we can see the wisdom in the words of the Preacher. Even though man has attempted to fend off his weakness and mortality for generations, man remains weak and mortal. And this creation, which God declared to be “very good,” (Genesis 1:31), has been corrupted by man’s sin (Romans 8:20-22). Therefore, this world is fundamentally in “dis-ease,” for things are not exactly right with the world. This world is not an easy and comfortable place.

Therefore, it is good for us to become uncomfortable with our present existence. It is not a bad thing for us when we are confronted with our own weakness and mortality. It is good to be reminded that we are as a vapor and will not last. The pain of separation, while difficult. reminds us that this world should not be our home (cf. Philippians 3:20-21, Hebrews 11:14-16).

Man in his arrogance and self-delusion attempted to build the Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-4); Jesus, the God-man, in His humility and love died on a cross so that man could be reconciled with his God (Romans 5:1-11). Man, in his arrogance and self-delusion, thinks he is the greatest power in the universe and serves the works of his hands. God, in His love and mercy, created all things and has allowed us to participate with Him in His eternal plan in Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:11). But we cannot participate in that plan while constantly living in the house of feasting– we must come to grips with the house of mourning and our own weaknesses and limitations. When we can learn the humility that comes from the awareness of our fragility and complete dependence on God, then we can become most effective servants of God for His Kingdom.

There is a time for the house of feasting and a time for the house of mourning, but indeed, it is better to go to the house of mourning. Let us come to terms with our own weakness and mortality, serve the Living God, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Death

But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

Death is a “four-letter” word in our society. It is a topic that most people avoid. We all know that it is out there, and we realize in the back of our minds that it will happen to us and the ones we love someday– but we never think that it will be today. But we do not want to think about it at all until it happens, and then we are expected to quickly forget about it and move on. There is no room for death in a society where this life is all that is prized.

Nevertheless, death is a natural process, as natural today as being born and being alive. And we would do well to consider it and be prepared for it.

Some people take the verses above from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 and reason that it is sinful or improper for Christians to grieve and mourn for the dead. That reasoning is inappropriate and quite dangerous. As we will see, we should not mourn the death of a faithful Christian like those who have no hope mourn their dead. Nevertheless, when someone whom we love dies, we suffer the pain of separation. That pain is real and should not be denied. In fact, that pain is quite healthy, for it reminds us that this world has been cursed with death, and that this type of separation is not the ideal at all (cf. Genesis 3:19, Romans 5:12-18). It is another reminder for us that this world is not our ultimate destination, and the pain we experience should lead us to obey God so that we may never again have to suffer the pain of separation and loss (Revelation 21:1-22:6).

It is still true, though, that the Christian should look at death and dying differently than others. The Christian has hope for a future beyond death. His Lord has suffered like he has, and has even tasted death (Hebrews 5:7-8), and God raised Him from the dead in power on the third day (Matthew 28). Death is a powerful force; what man alone can subdue it? Yet, through the firstfruits Jesus Christ, we have the hope of that wonderful final day, on which will come to pass the saying that is written,

Death is swallowed up in victory.
“O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law: but thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54c-57).

For too many people in this world, death is the end. For the Christian, however, death is only the beginning. When a faithful child of God dies, we mourn and sorrow for our pain at the loss of a beloved friend and brother/sister, but we take comfort in the hope of spending eternity with them before the Father who loves us and the Son who died for us (Revelation 21:1-22:6)!

The somber reality of death is not meant to paralyze us, causing us to constantly fear or rue each passing day. Instead, the reality of death is to be our catalyst for action. No one is guaranteed even the next breath (James 4:14). In an instant, your life, or the life of someone you love, may end. This should lead us to appreciate the blessing and gift of life, and we should refuse to take even one second of it for granted. We can take the best advantage of our lives by living every day as if it were our last– as far as we know, it very well might! Let us appreciate all the gifts that God has given us, especially the gift of His Son. Let us not be the sad souls who put off obeying Jesus one time too many, and meet our God unprepared. Let us no longer try to deny or hide from the reality of death, but live in hope of the resurrection to come!

Ethan R. Longhenry