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Joy Comes in the Mourning

Last week, I stumbled across one of the most depressing songs I’ve ever heard on the interwebs. It’s called ‘My Least Favorite Life” by Lera Lynn. I’ll be honest – I found myself identifying with parts of the song. In a world marred by sin and its consequences, there’s an underlying human restlessness. This restlessness is universal in the sense that it affects every human soul regardless of age, race, social stature and other constructs.

Until We Find Rest

On top of this default condition of human restlessness, there’s added sorrow and groaning as results of poverty, opulence, wars, lost relationships, deaths of loved ones, and sicknesses as life goes on. Often we are left stumped by such circumstances and find ourselves utterly helpless. In order to forgo these circumstances some of us seek release in the form of alcohol, drugs, sex and violence. Most of us try escaping these realities by keeping ourselves busy, joining meditation groups, yoga classes, and taking vacations. Yet, we find ourselves in deep dumps of disarray having found no real cure to the messiness of life. We seek joy and peace in the wrong places and lead empty lives hoping the gaping holes to be filled by instantaneous pleasure and fatal success.

I think the first step to finding lasting rest is to realize our radical fallenness and our inability to help ourselves. Because we are imprisoned by our sinful wills, all our attempts to manufacture joy out of our miseries prove to be fruitless - in fact, Scripture tells us that we can do nothing apart from God. Secondly, we ought to realise that we aren't entitled happiness as human beings. The world tells us we are, but because of sin, we deserve nothing from a Holy God - everything we have that is not part of our instant condemnation is a gift from God. The third and most vital step is to recognize there’s hope outside of ourselves, namely in Christ Jesus. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. He intervenes in human history to redeem a people to the praise of the glory of His grace. In Him is Life, and that life is the light of all mankind. He not only came to seek and save the lost but also to give them rest. He invites us to cast our troubles upon Him. He yearns:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” 

If we truly recognize this invitation is not from a mere man but from the Sovereign and triumphant God of the Gospel, we will faithfully lay down our burdens on Him who is able to keep us from stumbling. This is why we ought to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. Having a personal relationship with the God-Man and falling in love with Him is really the only solution to all of our fears, anxieties and restlessness. When we do, as Augustine writes, “our restless souls will find rest in Him” - For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things.

Jacob You Worm

Theoretically, as Christians we understand this – that lasting joy is only to be found in God. But in reality, we often falter when dealt with pain and loss in our lives. We are eloquent in Christian vocabulary and are swift to quote Scripture at will. However, often there is a gaping disconnect between what we claim to believe and how we react when trials come. I think it is because we have a very man-centered theology. We let politics, feelings and ourselves dictate what we get out of Scripture instead of reading it as it is - I find myself erring in this area very much so. We forget that the written revelation is mostly about God, so we insert ourselves into the text and instead focus on carving out what it says about us. This paves way to a theology where man becomes big and God small. When our selves become the focus, God is reduced in our mindsets – and this creates self-loathing Christians who crumble at the sight of suffering.

We understand and affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone but deep within prevails a warped sense of having earned salvation. If and when we come to grips with our inability to saves ourselves from what Jonathan Edwards calls “the bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit”, we will see salvation as it is – a gift from God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is 100% the sole work of a righteous God who chose to show mercy to a treacherous people who deserve nothing but wrath. If we presume any contribution on our part towards the redemption we have, not only do we diminish the work of sovereign grace but also leave room for self aggrandizement. This sense of self-reliance proves detrimental when trials arise because is impossible to discover God’s strength in all of its fullness without discovering our total abject poverty and weaknesses. Only upon realisation of this truth can we truly taste, see, and derive from the strength of the omnipotent God.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. 

The God we serve chooses the weak, says Paul: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong so that no human heart might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27). We see the same pattern in God’s merciful covenant with Israel too. Not because Israel had any quality that earned divine favour but because God chose to love them despite their unworthiness.

““For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” 
Abram, a pagan from Ur of the Chaldees, was brought out of darkness and into marvelous light – not because he had any qualifier but because of God who has mercy. And this precise, monergistic covenant is why as God’s people, we can trust in Him amidst chaos. It is the kind of God we worship as Christians – a God of love and grace, a God of mysteries, a God who pursues and uplifts the weak. To Israel He says,

"But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 
fear not, for I am with you; 
be not dismayed, for I am your God; 
I will strengthen you, I will help you, 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. "

Sadly, we have a hard time understanding this grace, don’t we? That’s why we spend all our lives pretending to be strong when in reality, we are hopeless apart from God. We are worms in comparison to our Maker. What is a worm? A worm is a creeping or burrowing invertebrate animal with long, slender, soft body and no limbs. All of us are worms – inferior to the task. Imagine this says Alistair Begg: “You’re a worm down on the ground and the lawn mower is coming. What can the worm do? What does that the worm need? It needs a pair of eyes to see its extremity, a pair of knees that will stoop to its predicament and the Hand of God that will pick it out of the potential disaster". That’s exactly why we should humble ourselves under His mighty hand so at the proper time He may exalt us; that is we are called to cast our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:6-7). Only He is able to dramatically transform a worm into a threshing sledge so we can rejoice and glory in Him during troubled times.

"Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
15 Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge,
new, sharp, and having teeth; 
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
and you shall make the hills like chaff;
16 you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away,
and the tempest shall scatter them.
And you shall rejoice in the Lord;
in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory"

Not only is He able to pick up and transform the worm, He is also able to make rivers flow on barren heights, turn desserts into pools of water and plant pines in the waste land so that we know that the hand of God has done this (Isaiah 41: 17-20) And He can transform our hearts and minds even when He chooses not to transform our circumstances. But our problem is we create sandy strongholds for ourselves and reduce might of the God who is Sovereign not only over creation but also over the human heart. Instead of standing firm in the grace of the Omnipotent God, we resort to standing in our own abilities, our constitutions – that is why we crumble. That is why we need the God of Scripture exalted and preached from our pulpits: A Solid Rock under our trembling feet amidst shifting sand, a mighty God at whose hands we can find rest even when our walls keep tumbling down. 

Though You Slay Me

I turned 26 in June. Looking back, I see the mighty hand of God at important junctures of my life; most of them pain induced. All major turnarounds in my life have been a result of disciplining at the hand of God, for which I am grateful. During the foolishly arrogant and sinful days of my youth, my father used to say that I will change when something happens to break my heart. His departure broke my heart, and without divine interventions such as this in life, I would have been lost in my sins and trespasses. My life is a testament of God's habit of picking up strays and straightening them so He is glorified.  Although painful, the disciplinary process continues to this day and thanks be to God, I have been able to find joy in this process of sanctification. One of my favourite hymns puts it this way:

“I thank Thee more that all our joy
Is touched with pain;
That shadows fall on brightest hours;
That thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide
And not our chains

For Thou who knowest, Lord, how
Our weak heart clings
Hast given us joys, tender and true
Yet all with wings
So that we see gleaming on high
Diviner things”

More spiritual progress is made through tears and failures than success and laughter. The psalmist speaks of this very peculiarity when he says “It was good for me to be afflicted, so I might learn His decrees” (Psalm119:71). Scripture speaks of suffering as a mark of sonship: "..God disciplines whom He loves and chastises everyone He accepts as His children" (Hebrews 12:5-6). It upholds us (Psalm 119:92) and brings us great assurance to continue in the path of obedience even in our miseries. God also calls us “therefore to consider it pure joy, whenever we face trials of many kinds because the testing of our faith produces perseverance and perseverance finishes its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4). Isn’t it comforting to know that our temporary afflictions under the sovereign hand of God is a means to conform us to the image of the invisible God?

More often than not, God ordains sufferings in our lives to prevent us from being conceited, as in the case of Paul. The apostle explains the thorn in his flesh in terms of God’s purposeful intervention in his life: “So to keep me from becoming conceited...a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corin 12:7). It’s as if God gave Paul the gift of a handicap to keep him in touch with his limitations. How dreadful must self-exaltation be if the apostle required such restraint? That God intervened in Paul’s life at the deepest level of his physicality in order to ensure that he understands that actually in the experience of weakness and inadequacy, that his greatest usefulness was to be found. He asks God to remove this weakness three times to no avail. And it’s in this context that Paul expounds the paradox of grace: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corin 12:10). Unfortunately, we don’t like staying in the desert long enough, or sit under cloudless skies long enough.

( Mannar, Sri Lanka. Picture Credit: Shanthan Felix. )

Suffering also reveals to us what we truly love in this world. The onset of heartbreaks, sicknesses and traumatic tragedies clarify things in ways nothing else do.. What we do when sorrows like sea billows roll, magnify the highest treasures of our hearts. We tend to run to temporary ailments and escapes when Christ Jesus isn’t our highest desire. “Sin is what we do when our hearts are not truly satisfied with God”, says Piper and we resort to fleeting pleasures of sin when tested. “The Lord is testing you to find out whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your soul” says God to Israel (Deuteronomy 13:3). If we truly believe that all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28), we will embrace and rejoice in our sufferings because nothing is out of order under the sovereignty of God. 

Finally, God uses suffering in the lives of His children in order to display His glory. We see it in the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers as he later explains the experience in light of God’s greater plan: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). The very same purpose is seen in the blind man Jesus heals: “..said Jesus, that this happened so the works of God maybe displayed in him” (John 9:1-4). All true men of God are broken – they’re mosaics. They look like they’ve been strapped together and welded from different parts. They look like stain glass windows where all the glass has been smashed and patched back together – so that the beautiful light that shines through them belongs to the Light of mankind. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” - why?  “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” says Paul (2 Corin 4:7-9). Suffering, like all things ultimately serves to bring Him glory.

Yes, pain and suffering crushes, breaks and reduces us. But the beautiful part is that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us in our darkest hours. When we are spiritually, emotionally and physically drained, God comes to help us in our feebleness. So we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3); we mourn and weep knowing that we have genuine hope (1 Thes 4:13). We remember the goodness of God in our lives (Psalm 63) and we long for His courts (Psalm 84). By faith we look forward to a city not built by hands (Hebrews 11:10) while embracing the life we have and serving Him with all we have. So in perfect submission to our Sovereign God, we find perfect delight in distress. Because we know “weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Sorrowful yet rejoicing because joy comes in the mourning.


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