When Things Don’t Get Better

Chances are, if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had at least one moment in your life where everything was going wrong, across the board.  You had difficulties with school, money, jobs, family, and anything else that could go wrong was indeed going wrong.

I’ve had plenty of those moments.  And I have plenty more of those moments to come.  While we don’t want to be depressingly pessimistic, we also want to be realistic and say that sometimes life just stinks.  And, as Christians, what we need to hear is not how to fix it.  What we need to hear is not “10 Steps to Financial Happiness.”  What we need to hear is not self-help.  What we need to hear is what God says about enduring through the trials of this life as believers in Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we have three struggles that we face until we go to be with the Lord: Sin, suffering and persecution.  The goal of this post is to address what God’s Word has to say to us when our fight with these struggles doesn’t seem to be getting better.  So let’s get started.

Do you ever feel like you’ll never change?  You know that Jesus is Lord and that you are forgiven through faith, but you just can’t seem to get past a certain sin?  Maybe it’s lust.  Maybe it’s greed, or pride, or gluttony.  Maybe it’s a bitter attitude.  And no matter how much you pray about it, no matter how many times you confess the sin before the Lord, as you live, day in and day out, nothing seems to change.  You turn away from sin, genuinely desiring to follow Christ, trusting Him to forgive you, only to go right back to it.  And in grief and despair, you wonder if this is ever going to get better.

Good news, friend: Jesus has promised that you will change if you are in Him.  My favorite verse in all of Scripture is Philippians 1:6.  Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, while he’s in prison, encouraging them to continue in the faith and to work for the advancement of the gospel.  And in the opening verses, he unleashes one of the greatest promises in God’s Word: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Our salvation depends on God.  When we say we have put our faith in Christ for salvation, we are saying that we depend on Jesus to save us.  That our eternal life, our righteousness, our forgiveness, our adoption as God’s children…this all depends on Jesus.

But for some reason, we have the attitude that once Jesus becomes my Lord and my Savior, it’s up to me to do all the work.  That I should be holy because that’s what makes God happy with me.  Here’s what we need to understand: You were adopted as God’s beloved child long before you obeyed any of His commands.  Coming into a relationship with Jesus transfers you from a position of being under God’s wrath to being covered by His steadfast, covenant love.  So my holiness is not an attempt to gain God’s love or acceptance.  I have been accepted through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  Now I obey because in Christ Jesus, that’s who I am.  I have a new identity, a new Lord, a Savior who has covered me with His righteousness, and a Father who delights in me.  All of His commands are given for my joy and to bring me closer to Him.  I don’t act holy because I want God to be happy.  I act holy because, quite simply, that’s what I want to do.  I hate sin.  I love Jesus.  So, in Christ, I’m striving to be who I am.

Now, what happens when we struggle, I mean, really, really struggle to be who we already are in Christ?  If you turn over a few pages in Philippians, you’ll see Paul writing about perseverance in the Christian life.  Look at Philippians 3:12-14.  Paul writes these words:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made that own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.  But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Paul later writes at the end of Romans 7, detailing his struggle with sin: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The writer of Hebrews exhorts in Hebrews 12 to “consider Jesus,” and to remember that we’ve been given a kingdom in Him, a kingdom that will not end, to remember that we have brothers and sisters that have run the race before us.  We find encouragement from Christ, who is the “author and perfecter of our faith.”

So what do we do?  We hold God to His promises, we submit in repentance and faith, and we confidently keep living, knowing that God is faithful.  We may fail God a million times, but He has not, and will not fail us, no, not even once!  Because God has promised to make us holy, we can get up in our failure, trust Him with unwavering faith, and pursue Him.  And when we fall down again, we can do the same thing.  Over and over, until one day, whether it be in our death or in His return, Jesus finishes what He started, making us just like Him, rescuing us eternally from the presence and power of sin.  So get up, struggler.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.  Rest in His promises. And follow Him.

Not only do we struggle with sin, but we also suffer.  Suffering affects all of us, godly and ungodly.  We’ve all experienced the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the betrayal of friends, etc.  In this world, tainted by sin, suffering is inevitable.  And as Christians, we know we will suffer.  To follow Christ is to suffer, not just in persecution (which we’ll talk about soon), but in the daily living of life.

So when everything in life seems to be going downhill, what do we do?  Once again, we fix our eyes on Jesus, and go to His Word.

James 1:2-4 says “Count it ALL JOY, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God is able to use the most awful thing in our lives to bring us closer to Him and make us more like Christ.  Personal example: I had a “plan” of what my life would look like after graduating from Montevallo.  To put it simply: God’s plan was not my plan, and, as it always does, God’s plan won out.  It was hard!  Really hard!  I was mad at God, and I didn’t understand why things weren’t going “my” way.  I had to hear the Father remind me that He did not save me so that things could go my way, but so I could go His way, and that His way is ALWAYS best.

God cares way too much about us to allow us to live safe, comfortable, easy lives for our own glory.  Instead, in Christ, He calls us to embrace suffering, persecution, and a daily dying to self to live an unsafe, unpredictable, and hard life for His glory and the advancement of the gospel.  When we suffer for the cause of Christ, we shout, “Worthy is the Lamb!”  When we go through hard times, we can proclaim to a lost and dying world, “God is more than enough for me.”  We may say it through tears.  But we can, and we should, say it.

There are false prophets that will preach “health, wealth and prosperity” to Christians (Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, among others).  Brothers and sisters: please do not listen to them.  The idea that if you follow Christ, you will not suffer is not from God or His Word.  It is a lie from the devil Himself.  There’s nothing wrong with health, wealth or prosperity, so please don’t hear me say that if you have those things, you’re not obeying God.  However, when we start to expect those things in this life from God as the reward for following Him, or we start to idolize those things…that’s when we’ve fallen into sin.  The gospel does not declare the worth of health, wealth and prosperity…the gospel declares the worth and glory of Jesus Christ even if I have no health, no wealth and no prosperity.  If we lose everything in this life, Jesus Christ, as my Savior, Lord, and Friend, is more than enough for me, for all eternity.

This moves us into the third point: dealing with persecution.  In 2015 America, we are not yet suffering like millions of brothers and sisters around the globe.  We are not yet being put to death.  But that day could come.  And in some way, we are persecuted.  We’re told to keep our faith private (impossible).  We’re mocked, openly, even by those in government.  We’re misunderstood and harassed, and, at times, threatened with the loss of jobs and businesses.  So what do we do?

Here’s what we don’t do:  We do not pray for a Christian president.  We do not pray that “those people in Washington will come to their senses.”  We don’t ask for God to cleanse out the unbelievers under the guise of praying for revival.  We don’t pray for God to protect us from ISIS.  Our hope is not in the king who reigns, but in the one true King who will reign forever and ever.

We ask God to give us stronger backs so we can carry what will come to be a heavier cross than the one we bear now.  We ask God to give us courage to not back down or water down the truth of His Word.  We pray that God would give us the strength to stand up to evil like ISIS, to, in the face of imminent death, continue to hold fast our hope and confession: that Jesus Christ is Lord, that I am trusting Him, that He is my salvation, and nothing in this world, not ISIS, not cancer, not any government, can keep me away from Him.  We pray to have the resolve and the faith of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in the face of evil, persecution and death, never backed down and stood up for the truth of God’s Word, with faith in Christ, with a desire to do nothing but glorify God and bring others to faith in Him, so that the gospel may advance.

We pray to have the faith of the 21 brave believers who lost their lives to ISIS last week, beheaded for believing and following Jesus Christ.  We resign ourselves to Christ, to God’s will, and to His glory, no matter what that means for us.  When we pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” we take that to mean that at whatever cost, we want God’s name to be known, not ours.

It may not get better.  Jesus never promised that it would.  But He did give us a great promise in John 15:18-19.  He tells us that if the world hates us, it’s because they hated Him (18).  He says that this persecution is a sign that we are His (19).  He says that He has chosen us out of the world (19).  And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, He promises to be with us, every step of the way.

Wrapping up, we need to know one thing:  It may not get better.  At least not here.  While we should see increasing victory over sin, we won’t know the fullness of holiness until we are with Christ.  While we enjoy and thank God for the good times of this life, we know that all of the evil and sadness won’t be wiped away until Christ’s return.  While we know that God will always have victory over His enemies, persecution will define the Christian church until Christ’s return.

But a day is coming where God will eternally overcome all sin, all suffering and all persecution.  It is His Word that gives us hope.  Peter writes in 1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

And as we wait for that day, we do so with patience, with hope, and with resolve to live for God’s glory until He comes.  We hold fast in hope, that what we have in Christ is more than enough.  We agree with Paul in Romans 8:12–“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Hold fast, brothers and sisters.  Do not give up.  Keep fighting sin.  Keep following Jesus.  Keep trusting in Him as Savior.  Keep fighting the good fight of faith.  Keep counting all your suffering all joy.  Keep proclaiming the reign of Christ and the truth of His Word in the face of persecution.  And know that whatever we experience in this life is not worth comparing to the glory that’s coming.

Father, may you grant us the grace to hold on to Jesus.  May we keep following Him, even as we struggle to obey you as we want to.  May you finish what you started in us.  May you give us the grace and the faith to keep resting in the finished work of Christ as our only hope before you.  May you give us encouragement and grace in suffering, knowing that you do use it for our holiness and your glory.  May you give us the strength and the resolve to endure persecution as faithful followers of Christ.  May you be glorified in our lives, whatever they may bring.

God bless,

Neal E.

Mourn Well

Although we’ve now moved into February, today’s post finishes up a series from January talking about Godly emotions and attitudes.  We wrap up with how to mourn well as a Christian.

Mourning is a part of life.  We cry when our loved ones die.  We cry when life changes unexpectedly, and there’s seemingly nothing we can do about it.  We weep for the lost around us, those who don’t know Christ.  We weep over sin in our lives.  We mourn.  But how do we do it in such a way that God is glorified by it?

In John 11:17-44, Jesus Himself shows us how to mourn with Godly sorrow over the loss of a loved one.  In this passage, He does something we would not expect.

Jesus has learned that his friend Lazarus has died, so He goes to Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters.  He comes to comfort them and be with them, but, as we also know, He’s come to raise Lazarus from the dead.  So Jesus, it would seem, would be okay.  There would be no need for Him to mourn, because He knows that this is temporary.  He even says it in verse 11, right before our passage starts: “After saying these things, he (Jesus) said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.'”  Jesus is fully aware that this is not the end for Lazarus.

And yet, when we get to verse 33, we find Jesus “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”  Jesus is literally a few minutes away from raising Lazarus from the grave, and yet, Jesus is still greatly troubled.  And then we come to verse 35, the shortest verse in all of Scripture: “Jesus wept.”

Jesus wept.  The King of all creation wept at the loss of His friend.  Here Jesus shows us that He really is fully God and fully man, as He both weeps over the death of His friend and, as God, overcomes death.

So what can we take from this?  Three things:

1) Death is not part of God’s good design.  If we go back to Eden, the punishment for sin was death.  We read in Romans 6:23 that the “wages of sin is death.”  Christ, in His weeping, understood the horror of the fall, of the death that has come to God’s creation as a result of sin–both physical death and spiritual death.  Isn’t this a beautiful image?  The God whom we have sinned against weeps over His fallen creation.  The holy God of the universe has compassion on His sinful creatures.  And in Christ, He’s done something about it.

2) Death is not final.  Jesus, in verse 43, yells inside the tomb and cries, “Lazarus, come out.”  Here we have a small picture of the victory Christ wins over death.  At the end of the book of John, we see the risen Christ, eternally conquering death for those who turn and trust in Him.  Paul describes the resurrection of the believer in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22–“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”  If we are in Christ, that is, we are submitted to Him as Lord, trusting Him to help us follow Him, and we trust in Him for salvation, we will conquer death as well.  In Christ, there is no eternal death.  And one day, death will be no more: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”–Rev. 21:4

3) Until that wonderful day comes, it is okay to weep, even as we trust God’s promises.  Here’s how we mourn in such a way that it honors God:  We weep while believing the promises of God.  Jesus wept, while knowing that Lazarus’ death was temporary.  He wept as He went to the cross in our place, knowing that He would be raised from the dead.  And we weep now, truly and genuinely experiencing loss, angry and broken at the fallen world around us and the sinful flesh within us that caused it.  But we are also hopeful, believing the promises of God: that for those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no eternal death.  We remain hopeful, looking forward to the day where we, the body of Christ, and the rest of the world, are finally and fully redeemed.

Christian, if Jesus wept, you are most certainly free to weep.  The hope of the gospel does not take away the legitimate pain we feel at the loss of a loved one, or at the suffering we experience in this world.  But it does give us assurance that death, sin and Satan do not have the final word.  Jesus does, and He has declared victory for everyone who trusts in Him as Lord and Savior.  That victory will not be fully realized until He comes back.  Our hope is not in having “our best life now,” but in the life that is to come, where we are with Jesus forever, where our love for Him and joy in Him is complete, where we are just like Him, and sin and suffering are gone forever.

My grandmother on my dad’s side passed away this week.  I didn’t know her all that well, but I had the joy and privilege of meeting her and spending time with her before she passed.  And while I don’t know much about her, I know that she trusted and loved Jesus Christ, and I know that she is with Him now.  So while there is great sadness over loss, and sorrow that she is gone, we rejoice in the hope of the gospel.  We mourn well, trusting God in good times and in bad.

Lord, in the hard times that this life brings, in the midst of intense suffering, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, persecution, or just tough life circumstances, may we trust in your promises.  May we find in you, Jesus, the freedom to weep, to mourn, to grieve, all the while trusting that you are still God, and that one day, we will see you, and all of our loved ones in Christ.  May we “always be ready to make a defense for the hope” that we have in you, a hope of eternal life, a hope of salvation, of perfection, that one day will be fully realized when you come back.  Hasten that day, Lord.

God bless,

Neal E.