Thursday, 10 September 2009

Sorrows and Hope

A.W. Tozer has said “the people of God ought to be the happiest people in all the wide world!” (A.W. Tozer, ‘Who Put Jesus On the Cross’, p.117). Having looked at the hope of the Christian, I absolutely affirm this. I would also add, however, that the people of God are probably those who have the most sorrows too.


In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes the statement that this generation are like children sitting in the market-place and calling out to others “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn”. (Matthew 11:17). He is comparing the ministry of John the Baptist with his own. John’s ministry was a call to repentance, which should lead to mourning over sin. The ministry of Jesus was to give us hope through the gospel, and thus lead to joy and dancing. The mass of people however neither responded to the call to repentance, or the proclamation of the gospel. I believe this statement shows that unless we truly mourn over our sin, we cannot truly understand or appreciate the good news of the gospel that we can be saved from our sins.

The second beatitude that Jesus taught his disciples was “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Our reaction to coming into the presence of God must surely always be a realisation of our sinfulness, when we are confronted by the awesome holiness of Almighty God. We will follow the example of Simon Peter, who reacted to the miraculous catch of fish by falling at Jesus’ knees and saying “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Whilst we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, because we do have a great high priest in Jesus (Heb 4:16, 14), yet we will mourn over the continuing presence of sin in our lives. This is not something that vanishes the moment we believe. Sanctification is a progressive work. Charles Spurgeon said “I believe the holier a man becomes, the more he mourns over the unholiness which remains in him” (C.H. Spurgeon, Sermons Vol 16 p.221). In his letter to the Romans, I believe Paul is talking about this fact when he says “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Despite the fact that we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph 1:14), we still have to wage a daily war with our sinful nature, putting to death the misdeeds of the body (Romans 8:13). This presence of our sinful nature, alongside our new nature created by God, causes us to groan, and to wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies when finally our sinful nature will be destroyed. At the resurrection of the dead, “the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). This is when we will truly be comforted, as promised by Jesus.


Not only does the Christian feel sorrow over the continuing presence of our sinful nature, but the Christian will feel a heightened sensitivity to the evil in the world in which we live. Having moved from death to life, and from being an enemy of God to being reconciled to a Heavenly Father, the fact that we continue to live in a world which neither acknowledges Him or glorifies Him makes us “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). After recounting the famous list of heroes of the faith, the author of Hebrews goes on to say “They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13-16). And again, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Philippians makes the definitive statement that “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Jesus confirms our alien status when he prayed for his disciples “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15). Whilst we do not belong here, we have a work to do here which God prepared in advance for us to do, which is to proclaim the message of the gospel with which we have been entrusted, for the sake of His glory.

So being aliens and strangers in the world, we will find it difficult when godliness gives way to immorality, when God gives people over to sexual impurity, shameful lusts, and a depraved mind. (Romans 1:24,26,28). We are in a similar position to Lot, living in Sodom and Gomorrah, “a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)” (2 Peter 2:7-8). Maybe it is a mark of how hardened we have become by the world that we can often watch the news and be unmoved by terrible stories of sinfulness.


Faith in Jesus Christ will often result in persecution, as our faith leads to us becoming aliens and strangers in the world. The message of the gospel is offensive to the world. As Jesus Himself says to His disciples, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:19-20). This persecution is probably the most difficult to endure when it comes from the family of the believer who reject Jesus Christ. Again, the words of Jesus demonstrate the nature of this conflict: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34-36). Jesus is not saying here that he hasn’t come to bring peace, for He is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), but rather that when someone becomes a believer, it will create conflict within the household where there are non-believers. This conflict is at its most intense in the muslim world, where many believers have been disowned by their families, or worse, killed, for their faith in Christ. Let us remember to uphold our brothers and sisters in prayer who suffer persecution from their families for the sake of Christ. Let us especially remember the comfort provided by Christ, that “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).


The world in which we live has been corrupted by sin. Whilst the world which God created was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), no-one looking at the world today can make the same comment. Death and decay exist everywhere. All of us will one day die – unless Christ returns before then. All this is the consequence of the sin of Adam, when the serpent’s words “You will not surely die” when speaking to Eve about the results of eating from the fruit of the tree of life were shown to be a lie. Death is so contrary to God’s original plan for the world, that it is no wonder it horrifies all of us. Jesus Himself was moved with compassion when he learnt of the death of his friend, Lazarus – and the Bible tells us “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

Yet, thank God, we can have hope, for Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). We have been promised an eternity with our Lord, and because of the promise of the resurrection, we can say “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). Jesus has won the victory over death, and because His resurrection is the firstfruits of our future resurrection, we can have hope for the future.

Yet, the death of family and friends who are unbelievers must surely cause us sorrow upon sorrow. What hope then? After my mother-in-law recently passed away, we continue to hope that in her last hours, as we prayed for her, that she turned her heart to the Lord, for the alternative is too painful to contemplate. Let us never cease to pray for our loved ones who are yet to believe and trust in Christ. I always remember the testimony of a friend – a Christian friend of hers was talking to her about her faith in Christ, and then in tears practically begged my friend to believe in Christ, as she did not want her to suffer the consequences of unbelief. This show of compassion and love by her friend was used by the Holy Spirit to bring her to repentance and belief. Maybe we can all learn from the honesty of the Christian witness here.


I believe that as we grow in Christlike character, our sorrows will grow. Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). Matthew Henry reflects that not only was it His last scene that was tragic, being made sin for us and enduring the sentence sin had subjected us to, but His whole life: “He had nowhere to lay His head, lived upon alms, was opposed and menaced, and endured the contradiction of sinners against Himself. His spirit was tender...We never read that He laughed, but often that He worn and macerated was He with continual grief that when He was but a little above thirty years of age He was taken to be nearly fifty (John 8:37). Grief was His intimate acquaintance; for He acquainted Himself with the grievances of others, and sympathized with them, and He never set His own at a distance; for in His transfiguration He talked of His own decease, and in His triumph He wept over Jerusalem. Let us look unto Him and mourn”.


As my Christian walk continues, I grow more and more convinced it is necessary to hold 2 seemingly contradictory viewpoints in tension. If one of these is overemphasized at the expense of the other, this is where I have fallen. For example, being saved by faith and not works, and yet demonstrating our faith by our works. Needing to continue in our faith, yet being reassured that no-one can snatch us out of His hand. The call to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and Paul’s exclamation that “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:8-9).

So with sorrows. Whilst we feel the sorrows of the world, the flesh and the devil, yet we are a people of hope (see earlier study). And this hope is greater than any sorrows. Paul summarises this in his letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”. (2 Cor 4:16-18). And later when recounting his troubles, hardships and distresses he says he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).

Let this be our prayer, that no matter what sorrows may come our way, we will continue to rejoice in our Lord, for His mercies far outweigh anything and everything. And as Tozer said, let us be the happiest people in the world!

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