I had a great friend in college named John. Although John was a business major by trade, he enjoyed having “deep-thoughts time” regularly throughout the semester. (Even if those deep thoughts came at 2:00 A.M. when I had a test the next day.) Probably most of these talks came from sleep deprivation, but one of them still stands out to me.
I don’t get to read much while in seminary. I should rephrase that; I don’t get to read much outside of what my professors tell me to read. For those that know me, that fact truly hurts me deep within my soul. However, in the time driving back and forth from Delaware and Chadds Ford, I’ve made time not to read but to listen to audiobooks. One book I’m going through is Mark Twain’s autobiography. And in this book, there is a moment where Mark Twain complains about Twain’s editor for a different book. During this monologue, Twain casually comments, “If we should deal out justice only in this world, who would stand?” But even within that thought is so much truth; we cannot survive in a world of only justice.
Have you ever noticed that history classes seem to focus almost exclusively on war? Yet we could never list every war in human history because there are simply too many. Violence and conflict have characterized humanity since the beginning. For this reason, peace has been called “humanity’s eternal, elusive dream.”
Throughout history, God’s people have faced injustice, suffering, disease, pain, loss, poverty, threats, and loneliness. Job lost everything, and his friends blamed him. Joseph was sold into slavery and was imprisoned. David was chosen to be Israel’s king, but Saul sent an army to kill him. Daniel was taken captive and sent to a foreign land, and when he was caught praying he was thrown to the lions. Mary lived a godly life, but her family abandoned her when she became pregnant. Our trials and struggles may not rise to these levels, but we all face times when we just don’t understand what God is doing and why He allows evil and wicked men to threaten and harm us and those we love.
Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (Psalm 88)
In today’s culture, it’s almost impossible to be disconnected. Unless you plan on going off the grid (might I suggest the Mid-West if you did), you will leave your footprint in the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of the internet has kept us connected with even acquaintances; but with all of this, why are we such an unhappy society? Even with our friends close to us, we feel the crushing weight of loneliness every day. We are a culture driven by depression.
Even in Psalms, we find people crying to God for deliverance. Particularly in Psalm 88, we see a man full of trouble (V. 1), put in a pit (V. 6), rejected by friends (V. 8), with darkness as his only friend (V. 18). The psalmist even sees God as the one who put him in this situation. And with a surface level reading, this Psalm seems to be without any redemption
But God, in the very beginning of the chapter, is called “God of my salvation.” Because of that, the psalmist daily cries to the Lord, knowing where he can find lasting hope. Even when the author knows who put him there, he knows who will bring him out.
You may feel hopeless with so much fighting against you. You may feel betrayed by your friends, alone in this technological age, and depression is your only friend. You may even ask, “Why would you do this to me God?” The biblical authors faced the same sadness that we face today.
But the Gospel gives hope of ultimate happiness and forgiveness. Because despite who we are, God sent his Son to die for our sins, and we have the hope of a future promise: “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.” (Revelation 21:4)
You may feel alone, shunned, rejected, and hated today. Life on earth is a pilgrimage that brings tears, but the Gospel presents a Savior who will personally wipe your tears away.
Now that I’m older, I tend to romanticize my childhood. Back then, we didn’t have to worry about bills, or jobs, or in my case Greek. Now we usually worry about our IRAs, but then our biggest worry was having the right Capri Sun in our lunch. In all junctures of life, our satisfaction captivates our decision-making. We think our biggest problem is building bigger barns, when our problem is so much deeper.
In the book of Philippians, Paul had every right to lack satisfaction, because he writes this letter while in prison. Even then, Paul explains, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity” (Philippians 4:10). From a prison cell, Paul is thankful for the Philippians concern for him, but it doesn’t stop there: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11-12). In both his lows and his highs, Paul says that he can be satisfied.
But how is this possible? Does Paul just have a stiff upper lip, hoping to find brighter days? Even in his suffering, you can see Paul’s excitement: he’s using language as if he’s been initiated into a secret society. So often our response to our circumstances is inward focused: in our lows, we blame others; in our highs, we congratulate ourselves. We think our biggest problem is our contentment when really it’s ourselves. We try to please ourselves with friends, money, and pleasure but are still left wanting more. The Rolling Stone’s song has truly become our mantra.
Despite of who we are, we have the answer in Paul’s secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). When we look to ourselves for contentment, we’re always left wanting. But in Christ, we can finally find true satisfaction, or as one of my professors has said: “We find ourselves outside ourselves.”
We are always looking to meet our own expectation. But if we look to ourselves, we will fail every time. We can have satisfaction, but that is only through looking heavenward. It is there that we see our Savior who has made satisfaction for us on the Cross.
Do you like to pick favorites? On one level or another, it's unavoidable for us: we have our favorite sports team, our favorite restaurants, our favorite TV shows. But on a personal level, we even do this with people: we choose our friends, we spend time with those we connect with, and so on, and so on, and so on. Sometimes when we reach that personal level, we can become disconnected from those that are different from us.
I think this personal disconnect was present in Acts 10. In this chapter, we find radically different people: Cornelius and Peter, a Gentile and a Jew. Both have different customs and social positions. This divide was present when God set apart the Jews from the Gentiles (Leviticus 20:26; Amos 3:2). Even Peter recognized this divide: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation" (Acts 10:28, ESV). This was not a command given in the Old Testament, but the custom of the Jews to stay away from the Gentiles.
But after Peter has a vision (V. 9-16), here he is, coming to Cornelius' house and proclaiming, "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34-35). So what has changed? Didn’t God divide them to begin with? Peter quickly explains that he is an eye witness to the death and resurrection of Christ (10:36-41) and that he is commanded to go and share (10:42-43). In truth, the resurrection of Christ has shifted the paradigm from one nation to all nations.
When you see this story, you may want to write it off as inapplicable: we leave it only as a question about race. But on many other levels, you could face this same problem that we all do. Are you disconnected from people that are different from you? Do you avoid people with different socio-economic status or political affiliation? In our fallen condition, we all are bent toward favoritism; we look for those that agree with us, and we like to keep it that way.
But the Gospel has transcended all economic, political, or cultural barriers we create. Thankfully, we have hope that despite our own partiality, God doesn’t pick favorites. Although we are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). If anyone has a right to partiality, God does; yet he gave us his Son to take the punishment of sin on our behalf. And God commands us to look outside our own personal barriers we make and bring this same hope to all people.
Do you feel like you pick favorites? We all do sometimes. But thanks be to God that his impartiality can melt our own partiality.
Where did we get the idea that God wants to spoil our fun by calling everything we want to do “sinful”?
Who told us that God sees everything we do only so He can punish us every time we step out of line and leave us full of regret and shame? In the Bible, God reveals Himself as the God of peace, the God of love, the God of encouragement, the God of endurance, the God of hope, and the God of all grace (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 13, 1 Peter 5). God is the source of all good things both for today (peace, love, encouragement) and for the future (endurance, hope). And God is not stingy with His grace and blessings. Paul prayed and pronounced a benediction (good word) for his fellow believers in Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15). This verse is a blessing we can still pray for one another. God desires His children to be completely spiritually satisfied and filled with complete joy and perfect peace so that His daughters and His sons overflow with hope.
Yet there are times when even the best of us struggle with a lack of joy, peace, and hope. We battle with various levels of discouragement, shame, disappointment, regret, apathy, and depression. Perhaps we suffer even more when those we love battle their own hopelessness and emptiness. In those times we desperately need a way out, and Paul’s prayer offers something better than a mere natural, man-made pleasant distraction. God promises an eternal, abundant hope that is the sweet anticipation of a wonderful future regardless of our present circumstances. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit work together to graciously give us more than we can even ask or imagine.
God the Father and His precious promises are our source of abounding hope. Our confidence in the promises of God result from what we know about the character of God and how He has lovingly cared for His people throughout history. Since the moment of creation, God has revealed Himself as trustworthy, loving, kind, compassionate, and good. God the Son is the object of our belief, producing true joy and lasting peace. If we desire to be full of joy and peace leading to overflowing with hope, we must abound in faith. The salvation we have already received and the promised complete restoration of all things are the only trustworthy foundation for a hope that will not disappoint. God the Holy Spirit supplies the power that sustains our abounding hope. No matter what anyone else promises, we should not try to find eternal hope anywhere else, even our own strength.
So how do we obtain God’s abounding, eternal, and abundant hope? First, we must recognize that half-hearted or fleeting hope does not come from God. If we have been relying on any false promises of hope, we must repent and look with faith to God. Second, while spiritual discipline is out of favor these days, the habits of prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship, caring for others, etc. remain the time-tested path to increasing hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and all the other characteristics of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Third, we must humbly be open and available to God’s grace. We may be surprised in the way that God chooses to increase our joy, peace, and hope. God’s timing, circumstances, trials, and blessings may not match our requests and desires, but His promise of abounding and abundant hope are as true today as they have always been and always will be, and are better than anything we can ask or imagine.
In Exodus 14, the people of Israel are fleeing Pharaoh. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, the LORD is delivering His elect people from slavery in Egypt. God is doing the "impossible-according-man" so that "[his] name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). Despite God's display of power and love, the people are facing two terrifying prospects. In one direction, they see the menacing horde of Pharaoh bearing down on them. In the other direction, they see a dark and formidable sea. According to human reckoning, if they go back they will die by the hand of Pharaoh. If they go forward, they will be drowned in the sea. Predictably, the people begin to grumble against God and his servant Moses. "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?... For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14:11-12). However, through the mouth of Moses, God declares, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14). Then, God parted the Red Sea, brought his people through on dry land, and destroyed the Egyptians. After seeing his salvation, "…the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
This text has rich applications for us today. I want to highlight one application for every Christian and one for church planting specifically.
First, the application for every Christian: You cannot accomplish salvation by your own strength—you must be silent. Israel looked in front and behind them and saw no human means of salvation. Every true believer comes to a point in his or her life when salvation seems impossible. Things are too dark on all sides. Morality isn't enough; hard work isn't enough; ceremonies aren't enough. Rather than grumbling at our situation, God says to us: “The LORD will fight for you and you have only to be silent.” Don't fall into the pessimism of the world which says that your situation is impossible. Don't fall into the optimism of false religion which says that you can work your way out by human strength. Rather, fall into the arms of Christ who can sustain you. "You have only to be silent"! The Lord Jesus Christ fought for you on the cross as he bore your sin; he fights for you now as the Mediator in heaven through the power of the Holy Spirit; he will fight for you as he comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Second, the application for church planting: You cannot plant a church by your own strength—you must be silent. In ministry, it is easy to fall into pessimism. You look at the tasks ahead and they seem impossible. It seems impossible to gather enough people to launch public worship. It seems impossible to lead people to Christ in a world that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into worldly optimism. Church planting becomes a business proposition where God doesn't even need to show up. You must simply network in the community, do outreach, tell people about the work, find a good meeting place, and be charismatic. If you do "A" then "B" will inevitably follow. Though it's always hard, businesses are started and sustained every day by unbelievers without prayer. False religions and cults grow and prosper without the Holy Spirit. How do we avoid pessimism that says planting a church from scratch is impossible? How do we avoid worldly optimism that says it is just a marketing scheme? The answer is Exodus 14:14: “The LORD will fight for you and you have only to be silent.”
God has done the impossible in the accomplishment of our salvation in Christ. He parted the Red Sea of sin and brought us through on dry land; he defeated Satan, the Pharaoh of this world, and will ultimately destroy him on the last day. We also see that God does the impossible in his application of salvation in the world. God does the impossible as he calls sinful people like you and me to himself. God does the impossible as he raises up new churches to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, disciple children, send out missionaries, and care for the marginalized. God does the impossible as he gathers teams to plant new churches around the world every day. We must be silent! Yet, being silent doesn't mean that we are inactive. God parts the waves and calls us to walk through on dry land.