Part 1a of 6
Matthew 11:2, Luke 7:18
A Homicide Where?
I just returned late last evening from a six-day vacation at the beach. By the time I got the dirty clothes out of the suitcases and found my overnight container, it was too late to check the email I had virtually ignored the whole week. It was a good thing too, for the news I would have received would have kept me up all night.
This morning I did open up my inbox, but only two emails arrested my attention. The first was a prayer announcement from our home church in the States detailing two requests that had come in. The first was a prayer for healing and the other was an announcement of someone’s death. That ‘someone’ is familiar to me, but the announcement was stated so casually that it did not even register in my heart. Then I saw another similar email with this heading “Linda Brandt Funeral Update.”
I gasped as the news rocked me. What! How could this be? What is going on? I read the complete email with dread hardening into sorrow in the pit of my stomach. Linda had been found dead at her home in Cumberland Country the day we left for vacation. Her ex-husband had shot her, shot himself and was confined in the hospital at the time.
Do you understand what this means? While I was expectantly gathering up my family to go to the airport for a week of rest, Satan was alive and well in the modern world. As I was winging my way to a resort in Southern Thailand for a time of relaxation, evil was winning in Pennsylvania. As I casually splashed in the pool with my sons and played Monopoly Deal in between meals I did not need to cook, a woman was murdered. Folks, while I was enjoying life, Linda’s life was wickedly snuffed out.
The juxtaposition of the truths of these good and evil situations playing out in my life simultaneously still grabs at my throat as I am writing these words many hours later.
I met Linda three years ago when my husband and I spoke at our home church during our home assignment. I had never seen her before – this often happens as we are gone from the States for years at a time – but was grateful she felt comfortable enough to come up and ask me some questions. One of those was a request that I get some Thailand material to her, since she likes to collect material from around the world. I said, “Yes, for sure” I could make sure she had some when we returned in 2021.
That opening conversation moved into deeper waters, waters that included the story of her abusive marriage, her ugly divorce, and her continuing issues with an ex-husband who was incredibly cruel to her. It is not uncommon for people to share with me after I speak at their church; maybe because I am quite vulnerable in what I share from the pulpit, but I am still eternally grateful I had the opportunity to encourage her, comfort her through the Word, and pray with her.
That Sunday morning, she immediately signed up for our e-prayer update and began to regularly receive prayer requests and praises from our family. Additionally, she often went out to my blog and worked her way through my longer sets of devotionals. Over these past years, she has been one of my most prolific responders. She not only read my blogs, but regularly replied to them, often sharing what parts of those devotionals meant something to her. Along the way, she continued to lay her hurts vulnerably before me, asking me to pray for this court date or that fear. I barely knew Linda in person, but I am honored to say that I know her quite deeply through a very slender connection – this thread we call email – which has knit two hearts together on opposite sides of the globe.
Recently I received an email from Linda with the words “God is my strength” as the header. I submit a small portion of her email to you as a salute to her humble acknowledgement of the coexistence of great pain in the presence of a great God:
“This is an update in my walk with God. God is my strength. My ongoing divorce is going back to court again. Satan is working on Ron overtime. I cling to God with prayers, daily devotion and attending church almost regularly.
This part of your message inspired me. I keep trudging on toward God.
If Satan can intimidate you by sheer force, if he can pull the wool over your eyes, he has won most of the battle. If he can wield a smokescreen that distracts you and causes paralyzing fear, he has the upper hand. If he can divert your attention away from the spiritual realm and keep you focused on the physical realm, he can keep you from the only place where your victory can be found.”
As you may be able to discern, Linda wrestled with big questions. Why did I have such an awful marriage? Why does my husband seem to hate me so much? How do I make it another day? Why doesn’t God change my situation? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Her honesty was very refreshing for me. I didn’t necessarily have the answers to these questions, but I did pray as I wrote the words God seemed to lay on my heart each week. I prayed that God would somehow use a word, phrase or concept that was especially meaningful to me to open the eyes of her spiritual understanding and move her closer to knowing God just a little bit better.
As I reflected back on this latest email from Linda, I caught the connection she unknowingly made. What inspired her from Hezekiah’s story and my take on his faith was a heavenly perspective. Satan was working overtime to veil her eyes with tears by pounding her life with discouraging circumstances. She realized as she read my blog that if her focus was on her unchanging circumstances, she would miss the greater glory of God’s perspective. Her unanswered questions, her trudging through the muck and mire of this world, could literally pale in the light of a look into the heavenlies, if she made that choice.
I believe Linda made that choice in tiny small increments every day. I know this because Linda let me in on the inner wrestling of her heart. Three years of emails have allowed me to walk beside her as a comrade-in-arms. A wave of longing rolls over me even now as I consider that this very moment all of her unanswered questions, her angst about unanswered prayers, are now either answered by God Himself or have been made completely trivial in the light of God’s glory and grace. Her victory is now a reality and I have a stabbing craving to know Jesus, know His answers, know His rest with the certainty of Linda’s present reality.
My whole time with the Lord this morning was a passionate cry for answers. God, what do I do with Linda’s death? Why does evil always seem to win? Why can’t people be promoted with honor and not disgrace? Why does promotion in Your economy always seem to involve suffering? And there were a lot more statements I angrily fired at God.
God’s answer, as always, was a look toward the facts of His Word. Everything is really under God’s feet (Heb. 2:8a). All authorities and powers are subject to Him, but my worldly reality was standing in the way of acknowledging this truth, so God showed me a little phrase at the end of verse 8: “yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.” Yes, Lord, this is so. Some things just do not appear subject to you. Evil. Circumstances that never seem to change. Death. Abuse. Hypocrisy. Suffering. All of these realities seem to loom too large. They seem to be exempt from the “everything” clause that is supposed to be subject to the Father.
God’s answer to all of this angst was the beginning of verse 9, “But we see Jesus…” Jesus suffered death so that by grace we might not have to. Linda is in heaven. She is no longer subject to the wicked powers that rampage this earthly landscape. Truly “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54) and Linda is one of the recipients of God’s grace who is reaping the rewards of the suffering Savior. He became perfect through suffering Himself so that he could bring “many sons (and daughters) to glory” (Heb. 2:10a).
Linda was ushered into glory. That is a joyful thought and yet it brings up more questions for me, questions that may hang in the balance for a very long time, questions that may go unanswered for all my known years on this planet. How do the survivors move on? How is the presence of Linda Brandt filled in each loved one’s soul? When will justice be leveled on the perpetrator? How will God ever work this horrible tragedy for good? Why did this happen in the first place?
I stood in the shower between two worlds, questions pouring out of me toward heaven while the water of this earth poured over me. The picture of the three women going to the tomb of Jesus came into focus in my mind; that one where the angel spoke to their grief, “Why do you look for the living among the dead” (Lk. 24:5)?
I understand the concept the Linda is no longer among the dead; she is living. All of her questions have been muted by the glory of a heaven I can only ache for. And yes, by the blood of Jesus, I am also very much alive in a world that is slowly dying out. I know that, but in a very real sense, I am still walking a daily death-march among the dead while Linda walks the streets of gold. I have to learn to continually die to self. I still have to deal with suffering and pain, with hypocrisy and evil. I must learn to surrender to a living Lord I cannot see. I often have to wrestle with the silences of heaven and the dark souls of the night. You and me both, we walk precariously between the living and the dead.
As Monk is sometimes known to say, “It is both a blessing and a curse.”
The blessing is that we have been rescued from ultimate death and have a glorious, eternal destination. The curse we face is the continual trudging through the valleys of this world made up of dry bones, asking the question that God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live” (Ezek. 37:3)?
You and I are caught between these two worlds: the world where bones are dried up, hope is gone and we are cut off from the inflow of God’s perpetual insight (Ezek. 37:11) and the world where questions are answered. When bones come to life, when graves are opened, when God’s Spirit breathes into existence a vast army, dead bones know that the Lord has spoken and done the work of revival. They know exactly what God is doing, despite the myriad of questions asked over a lifetime of pain (Ezek. 37:10, 12-14).
But I am still struggling with the sense of unsettledness in my own land. I am wrestling with the knowing that is promised. I am still left grappling with the surety that God has done it, that He is completing the good work He has promised (italicized phrases borrowed from Ezek. 37:14 – NIV). I guess a good portion of my faith is still made up of some dead, dry bones. I need a Spirit-breathing exercise. I need a soul-revival because friend…
…I am still left with a host of unanswered questions.
The Conundrum About A Thundering God
Three weeks ago I completed a twelve-week study on the godly life of King Hezekiah. It was a much-needed study for me, a raw look into what trust is, and is not, in the life of a believer. All along the way, I was tendered by the Lord’s juxtaposition of my life and the real-as-life story of this great king; God somehow managed to mirror the events of my history in the pages of biblical history. But all along the way, I knew that last lesson was coming. I knew God was going to move in a mighty way to save Hezekiah and change his claustrophobic circumstances. My heart throbbed with hope that God would do the same for me, yet balked in unbelief at the improbability of that same hope.
Sure enough, when I finished writing that last devotional, The Thunder of Heaven, detailing God’s miraculous rescue, I was left with a very bad taste in my mouth. God, why do you not act in the same way for me as you do for Hezekiah? Why do you not work to change my circumstances? Am I the only one praying day after day without getting answers? What is wrong with me? Do you not love me as much as others? These questions have haunted my waking thoughts for years and they are not going to go away just because I will them to. They need to be addressed and then laid to rest, once and for all. Honestly, my friend, I still need a soul-revolution.
It is no accident at all to me that God placed this horrific, anguish-inducing email in my inbox on the very morning I was preparing to kick off another devotional series on unanswered prayer. You see, for the last three weeks, I have been wrestling and studying, praying and reading for one purpose: I want to know God’s perspective on this topic. I need to know His perspective so I can stop questioning from a standpoint of niggling doubts and start trusting God more fully.
I am confident in my head that God answers prayers. I have lived this reality so many times: praying and receiving; even not praying and being blessed by a providential God with the answer I would have sought had I been on the spiritual ball. God is obviously a prayer-answering God, but there are some prayers in my prayer journal – I know you have them too – that God chooses not to even address. They pull and tug at my faith like the wind whipping around storm-tossed, tattered sails. They are a canker sore in the painful center of a praise-filled mouth. They are a malignant tumor growing insidiously in the midst of a healthy, abundant walk with God.
Why does God choose to answer some prayers but leave others to fester like an infection imbedded in my belief system? How do I reconcile a loving God with a seemingly unloving response? More than that, how do I navigate an impassioned, abandoned, hands-raised-high kind of trust-walk with God when something so huge sits like an elephant between us? I must know these answers so I can surrender these questions to a very comfortable and final rest.
You may be wondering where all of this heavy-duty turmoil comes from. Would you believe it if I told you it was God-ordained? In fact, it was during the last week of writing about Hezekiah in my free time that God brought me to the proverbial wall in my devotional reading in Luke. That wall was the prison wall that held Jesus’ loved one, John the Baptist, captive. Even his close family ties with the Son of God did not free John from the incarceration thrust upon him nor answer the myriad of questions he must have asked from that dank prison cell. The pall of John the Baptist languishing in a cell, sending his disciples to question the Savior, shadowed my heart even while I triumphantly ended Hezekiah’s story with his miraculous escape due to the Thunder of Heaven.
And that is the conundrum, isn’t it? God answers some prayers, but seems to ignore others. You raise four good kids, but one goes off the rails. A husband of a friend of yours comes to know the Lord, but your own husband continues in unbelief. Your business fails, your wife leaves you, the cancer remains in your body, despite the most persevering attitude in prayer that you can muster.
You have faith as small as a mustard seed. Why does it not grow into the tree of answers you desperately need? Why is the mountain not removed when you speak out in God-honoring belief? Why is God strangely silent when you need Him to thunder on your behalf? Where is God in all of this suffering confusion anyway?
These questions – and many more – will provide the framework for this next study. Never have I come into a devotional series less prepared. Never have I begun to write on a topic with more trepidation. Never has an ocean of uncertainty driven my typing fingers more relentlessly than in this series.
Honestly, I have no idea where this devotional will lead. I have thought it through a lot and have a basic framework on which to hang my concerns, but I do so with a cautious, I-hope-I-am-on-the-right-track kind of attitude. Humbly I bow my questioning heart in the presence of a sovereign God, but I do know one thing: I have enough faith to ask. Job asked. John asked. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Habbakuk asked. Linda Brandt asked, so I will too. I pray that God will show me some answers and that they will be enough to quell my anxious heart – for me and for you as well. Oh, God, please bind my wandering heart to Thee!
In all of this series – more than that, in all of my life – I want to glorify God. Even in all of my questioning, I want to bring honor to my Lord and Savior. I want to trust His heart when I cannot see what His hand is doing. I want to yield my questions, as unanswered as they may remain, to the overarching omniscience of God. I want to be able to speak in Job-like surety, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job. 13:15), though unanswered prayers hang like a drought over a dry, cracking faith or answered prayers rain down like a deluge of providence. Most of all, I want to be counted worthy by the One whose opinion most counts to me: my beloved Lover and the ever-faithful Guardian of my soul.
Linda, wherever you sit right now in the grandeur of heaven, I trust you can see our dead bone-like arms rising in tribute to you, to your life, to your questions that are now answered. I can only imagine what it must be like for you right now and my soul aches with the longing to know as you know and be fully known as you are fully known. Honestly, my imagination struggles to stretch itself over the confines of my earthly knowledge, so for now, I will keep my hand to the plow and continue to write.
I will continue to pray. Pray that God will use these wandering devotional thoughts to point someone heavenward. Pray that my questions will be answered somehow, either in retrospect or in living my life forward. And I will continue to worship. Though worship is wrung from a sobbing heart or mirrored in a grateful spirit, may these devotional thoughts be glorifying and honoring to God.
I dedicate this series on unanswered prayer to Linda. Her questions have given voice to the countless women in her situation, but now she has been promoted to glory through suffering; she has been counted worthy of the sufferings of Christ. I pray that I will one day also be counted worthy of the Lamb that was slain. May my life bring power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise to that same Lamb (Rev. 5:12).
Maranatha, Lord Jesus! Quickly come! Until then, count us worthy of your “well done” in the walled-in places of confusion and suffering. Count us worthy of walking in unanswered angst while seeking your ever-loving face. Precious Savor, count us worthy of your patience and devotion. We love you, sweet Lord; we love you.
Nuts and Bolts
With that very long introduction out of the way, I want to show you the direction in which we will be moving over the next six weeks. But I will warn you, I feel very different about this devotional set than I have about others. In all the years past, the Holy Spirit tapped my shoulder about a specific passage or topic and I studied it to death. Then I wrote from the perspective of clearly knowing where God was leading, clearly seeing the steps to get there and clearly fleshing out the passage linearly until I reached the very clear end goal.
This passage and topic are very different. I know God has led me to this passage and I have studied it to death, but honestly, I am not exactly sure where God is leading. I do not clearly see the steps to get there nor is there a linear, sequential set of stepping stones to reach the goal. In fact, the end goal is also a little obscure.
What I do know is that I am beginning with a lot of questions that I hope God will answer along the way, but I have a sneaking suspicion that He will not answer them clearly. I also think He will create more questions along this journey than He will answer, but I believe the end point is that it will not matter. He will be sufficient; He will be all in all. He will not change my circumstances, but He will change me in the process – my priorities, my desires, my “want to”, and my perspectives – and that is the most complete answer of all.
The Passage – We will be following John the Baptist’s story pretty closely as he sits in his prison cell and wrestles with his circumstances. Our main text will come from Luke 7:18-34, but I will also be dipping into Matthew 11:2-19, 14:3-13 and Mark 6:17-29 to fill out the portrait of John’s story.
In meditating on this topic, the Lord also led me to five other prison stories of biblical characters who will become very familiar to you: Joseph, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and Silas jailed together, and Paul incarcerated on his own. These stories have been very enlightening to me, especially as the stories unfold regarding the reason for their prison sentences and their responses to their unique jails.
However, this topic is not just about prisons per se; it is really about unanswered prayers. At its core, we are dealing with times when God seems silent, when the heavens turn to brass, and when we are left wondering what on earth is going on. Consequently, we will also be studying the story of Job and others in Scripture who prayed and did not receive what they asked for.
The Titles – Each week I have tried to encapsulate the main idea in a simple title. Each of these titles will deal with a successive section of Luke 7:18-35, but more than that, they will deal with a core dilemma in this matter of unanswered prayer. Hopefully, the titles will help you remember what each part of the passage is trying to teach you.
The Acronym – After walking through the Hezekiah series on Unwavering Trust, you are now very much aware of how much I like acronyms. To be honest with you, I have a pin board above my desk with all the acronyms from this previous series push-pinned in clear view. These twelve acronyms plus others the Lord has used to convict me are at the ready so I remember to obey. Most every day, I work through one of the acronyms to help me remember what God has already taught me and to apply it in my every-day situations.
I do not write acronyms to be cute or oratorially correct. This is the way my brain works to remember the Word of God. Since I am literally passing on to you what God is showing me, I just thought I would pay-forward the acronym in case you learn in the same manner as I do.
Instead of giving you a different acronym for every lesson this time around, we will be working together to fill out only one acronym over these next six weeks: W.O.R.T.H.Y. This acronym is based on two passages of Scripture that speak to suffering. The first is Acts 5:41, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” The second is found in 2 Thess. 1:5, “as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (italics are mine). It is very clear that suffering, of which the confusion of unanswered prayer is a very real part, is of great worth in God’s sight. I pray that my attitude of “woe is me” can be shifted to “counted worthy” by the time these truths burrow down into my soul.
My Perspective/God’s Perspective: A lot of the reason that we struggle with God’s apparent silence has to do with our perspective on the situation. I am convinced that if I knew what God already knows, I would not doubt Him at all, but the problem is that I live by faith, not by sight. Part of my agenda in sifting through this controversial topic is to clearly define my perspectives and match them to Scripture. If I am more clear about God’s perspective and priorities, it will not only change my outlook, but it might change my heart as well.
The Questions: A lot of questions will be asked throughout this series. I know many of them will not be answered, but I do believe it is important to flesh out the cries of the soul before the only One who knows the beginning from the end. I have distilled the cloud of confusion hanging over my head into six main questions. These are not a comprehensive study on the whole topic of heaven’s silence, but hopefully, they will condense many of your questions into a manageable few. These questions will drive our study of unanswered prayer and hopefully, some of them will be answered in a raw-but-real, definitively vulnerable, non-patronizing yet heart-lifting sort of way. In case you want a sneak peak to get your own mind percolating, here are the six questions:
- What do I do with a God who will not answer my prayers?
- What do I do with my doubts?
- What do I do with the mystery of God?
- What do I do with the requirements of discipleship?
- What do I do with my crisis of faith?
- What do I do with God’s promises that do not seem to come to pass?
With the basic nuts and bolts of this series out of the way, let’s dive into our topic at hand. Before we start, I am going to go before the Father once again and do some praying. I feel like I need all the divine help I can possibly get.
Our series begins in a dungeon. John the Baptist’s unanswered questions do not float effervescently from a man calmly holding his next meal of locusts and honey in his left hand while he baptizes sinners in the Jordan River with the other hand. No, his cries are tormented, agonized, and despairing, because through no fault of his own, he has wound up in Herod’s prison. At the beginning of our long quest for answers, he is sitting in a dank prison cell with an enormous pile of rank, putrefied questions heaped around him; his faith is literally suffocating with the stench of them all.
We would not be able to decipher the truth of his awful predicament by looking solely at our target passage because Luke begins to describe John’s wrestling match with faith in very dispassionate terms, “John’s disciples told him about all these things” (Lk. 7:18). If you never cross-referenced this same story in Matthew, the soul-wrenching cry, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Lk. 11:19) would never make any sense. I am grateful for the clear location sighting of John in Matthew 11:2, “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples…”
Knowing that a real man, John, cried out for real answers from a real prison cell brings his jarring question into a more real and manageable clarity. Understanding that John questioned his cousin, his Messiah, from a dungeon of despair, brings my questioning of the Savior out into the freedom of the open. I am in good company, for although I have never been confined to a physical prison, I can imagine what John must have experienced:
- He felt captive. Freedom was a pipe dream since his world consisted of drippy, mold-infested walls and rotting hay. The shackles bound him to the wall and curtailed his steps across his tiny cell. Blue sky and hot sunshine were an iron grate, but might as well have been a lifetime away. He was stuck; more than that, his whole life was out of his control. I cannot even get my own food or take a walk. Is my life going to end in this stinky cell? Just kill me now. Why allow me to keep waking up day after day to the same four walls, to this darkness of the soul?
- He felt used up. All that preparation, all those sermons, all that spiritual wisdom and discernment and for what? To rot in a cell with all of those teaching gifts and preaching abilities going to waste. He could not even muster enough energy to yell at the mice eating his food, let alone thunder with the power of the Almighty. I have so much potential, he might have thought. Is my influence completely done?
- He felt abandoned. As day after day passed with no relief, less and less friends came to visit. Maybe everyone is beginning to forget about me? Where are my friends? I am so lonely. What good is my life anyway? No one will even remember me. Not only did his disciples come around less and less, but he must have felt that God had abandoned him too. God, I did all of my ministry for you. I prepared the way for the Messiah. Have you gotten everything out of me that you wanted and now you are just going to leave me here completely alone?
- He felt hopeless. Hours turned into days. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months and still nothing happened. His circumstances remained unchanged. As he began coughing from the dampness of the cell, as the manacles continued to chafe his skin to blistered bloodiness, as his skin grew dirty and his hair grew long, he could feel himself weakening. He body was breaking down. His tears began to eat away at his resolve and he could feel his spirit, his faith, spiraling down into despair. What is there to hope in? Where is the Messiah? Why is He not working on my behalf? Can Jesus really love me at all and leave me to die in this cell?
- He felt insignificant. For a while, he had been the sensation of the age. For a few brief moments, he had stood in the limelight. Everyone had talked about him; his name was a household word. Now the spotlight shone very clearly on his cousin and different disciples and he was rejected and forgotten. What was the point of all that talking if no one really listened anyway? Why stand for truth if truth only gets you in trouble? How insignificant must I be if all it takes is a few months in prison to undo all of the influence I had wielded through my preaching? Will anyone even remember me if I do? What does my life amount to, really?
- He felt ignored. Who knows how many times he pleaded his innocence? Every time he went before Herod, he must have begged for mercy. But no one was listening to him. He was languishing in his prison, unseen, unheard, and unsung. Is there no one who cares? I was in the right. I was being faithful. Why can’t anyone acknowledge the injustice of my situation? Why is everyone disregarding my very real dilemma?
- He felt sad. Tears streamed down his face. Sorrow welled up in his heart. He mourned the losses: loss of freedom, loss of friendships, loss of ministry, loss of reputation, loss of opportunities, and so much more. Why am I so downcast? I feel like my soul is weeping. Does God not care? Does He not love me? Do my tears really water my jail floor in vain? I am overcome with sorrow, stricken with grief and no one will ever hear the hurt in my heart.
- He felt bored. I’ve heard it said that boredom is the devil’s playground so can you imagine what a man with John’s potential must have done with nothing to do. He would have thought and wondered, reminisced and possibly even regretted his strong stance. Boredom began to play with his mind, tease his emotions and dance annoying circles around his faith. The prison sentence might not have been so bad compared to all that wasted time. Boredom might have been the heavier cross to bear. I can’t remember what day it is. How long has it been now? My slate-pen broke so I cannot even keep track of the passing of days on the walls? I’ve sung every song I know, quoted the entire Torah, meditated on all my sermon notes. What is there left to do? O God, am I losing my mind?
What does a man in prison do with all of those long hours and sleepless nights? No longer can he run to his next ministry appointment to avoid processing a hurt. No longer will he use pleasures to numb the ache of his soul. No longer will he be able to depend on his friends and family to comfort, soothe, advise or guide. He is alone.
Alone with his restless thoughts.
Alone with his withering soul.
Alone with his regrets and recriminations.
Alone with a quivering, struggling, fearful faith…
…that begins to come apart at the seams. That trembling faith begins to ask previously unknown, formerly unprocessed, presently unrivaled questions that relentlessly pour onto the center stage of his heart like molten lava waiting to erupt.
That dungeon was a powder keg to John’s faith, but he was not alone. Joseph suffered in his own prison, as did Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and Silas. Add to these honored prison sufferers such names as Dietrich Bonhoffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Brother Yun, and Meriam Ibrahim.
All of them experienced the horror of a dungeon, but know this: you don’t have to be in a physical prison to feel its familiar walls closing in on you.
The Sufferer’s Dungeon
David suffered many times in horrible dungeons of despair. Notice the familiar prison mentality: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord, my God…” (Ps. 13:1-3a). Notice that he felt used up, abandoned, hopeless, sad and ignored.
Then there is the prison of the forsaken: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent” (Ps. 22:1-2). He felt used up, abandoned, hopeless, sad and ignored.
Or the panting thirst of a parched prison, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’…I say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’ (Ps. 42:2, 3, 9) He felt abandoned, sad, and captive.
David experienced all these prison feelings on the outside of a real dungeon.
Gideon understood what a suffering dungeon can do to the psyche. He was approached by an angel who said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” Gidoen completely ignored the angel’s uplifting salutation because of a prison mentality, “But sir…If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian” (Jdg 6:12-13). Gideon felt captive, abandoned, hopeless, insignificant and ignored.
Gidon experienced all these prison feelings on the outside of a real dungeon.
Job never entered a jail, but he was imprisoned in his circumstances just the same: “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure…Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (Job 3:20-21, 23-26). Notice that he felt captive to life, used up, abandoned, hopeless, and ignored.
Job experienced all of these prison feelings on the outside of a real dungeon.
You, like David, like Job, may never have endured a true prison cell, but have you ever felt captive to your circumstances? Have you felt used up by others, abandoned by your family, or hopeless on the dead-end street of your never-ending pain? Have you experienced the sorrow of insignificance, the grief of being ignored? Have you struggled with the day-in, day-out rut of boredom in the calling you thought was supposed to be your “big break?”
If any of these feelings have crossed your pathway like a black cat on Friday the 13th, you will understand the prison mentality. All maturing Christians, at one time or another, feel abandoned and lost. Circumstances crowd the soul like moldy walls. Tiny grated windows let in only the barest of sunny optimism. Friends begin to step quietly away like the ocean receding from the shore. Church leaders judge motives. Counselors dispense advice. Those who once sat in comforting silence become miserable comforters, one and all (Job 16:2). All of these prison consequences evoke pain, but none of them chafe the soul like the loss of the Divine, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” This blighting of the spirit is often called the dark night of the soul, a time when God seems to be silent, when it feels like the disciple’s proverbial timer is ticking down on hope.
A Common Thread
Every sufferer’s dungeon has a commonality; beside the suffering, that is. The common ground is the common question. You see, Gideon’s dungeon was the very real oppression of the Midianites, an oppression that destroyed homes, families and livelihoods. But what were his questions? “Why has all this happened to us? Where are all God’s wonders?” In essence, Gideon asked God why He would not answer their prayers for deliverance?
David’s destiny started off with an anointing to be the second king of Israel. But then he was thrown into a prison of sorts, relegated once again to the pasture to take care of sheep. Not able to bask in the glow of Goliath’s defeat for very long, he was forced to run for his life from his best friend’s father. For years he was chased all over the wilderness dungeon by the very king he was supposed to replace. What were his questions? “Why have you forsaken me? Why have you forgotten me?” Did he really feel abandoned or was he more struggling with the fact that God was not answering his prayer for his circumstances to change?
Job’s dungeon was an ash heap, where he scraped excruciating sores that would not go away. He was imprisoned by the failure of friends to truly understand his integrity- even his wife turned her back on God and Job. But the biggest dilemma for Job, his cry for understanding was in a prison where he shuddered in the aftermath of injustice. “Though I cry ‘I’ve been wronged! I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice…Why do you pursue me as God does? Will you never get enough of my flesh? Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days” (Job 19:7, 22, 24:1)? To summarize Job’s prolific amount of questions, let me just say that he was really asking God why He would not answer His prayers for absolution.
One of the most soul-numbing dungeons I ever endured was the suffering that came about when my eldest son, David, began to have health issues at two weeks of age. After seeing countless specialists, running innumerable tests, and studying everything I could get my hands on, there was still no improvement in David’s quality of life. This dungeon incarceration went on for over two years. I spent those years literally screaming for God’s help. Sleep-deprived, help-deprived, care-deprived, I launched my tirade toward the heavens, Where are you? Why have you left me to handle this ordeal on my own? What if David dies? How will I live with the fact that I could not save my son? Don’t you care, God? What if I do not make it? Those years were a horrific dark night of the soul, where God would not answer my prayers for healing, would not answer my prayers for wisdom, would not answer my prayers for guidance. He literally went dark like a submarine out of sonar range.
Yes, I wanted healing. Of course, I desired wisdom. For sure, I desperately needed guidance, but my biggest prayer in all of that anguish was, “Why are you not acknowledging me?” If you truly loved me, if you truly cared, you would answer this well-meaning, unselfish prayer for my firstborn. I studied my heart to see if I was in sin. I checked my relationships to see if there was unforgiveness. I did a spiritual check on all of my disciplines. As far as I knew, there was absolutely no reason for God to remain silent, but He did. For. A. Very. Long. Time.
My intent in this devotional series is not to study the depths of suffering. That would probably entail a lifetime of study and writing. With that said, here is my caveat: I believe it is important to acknowledge that there is a deep kind of suffering that stems from the angst of unanswered prayer. We mourn in dank cells. We grieve between prison walls. We chafe against dungeon shackles. In short, when God goes silent, our souls begin to hemorrhage.
We believe that we need answers. We are positive that we need change. And because there is only One sovereign God who can speak new worlds into being, who can revive dead bones, who can calm unrelenting storms, we know His is the only door we can eventually knock on for any hoped-for transformation. So we beg and we cry. We barter and we bribe. We weep and we suffer in the prison of anxious waiting. All because God chooses, for some reason, not to answer our desperate cries.
Is God Sleeping On Your Watch?
What, I ask you, do you do with a God who will not answer your prayers? This is the question on the table today.
Does His silence mean He has truly forgotten you? Does He not care what happens to you? Are you the last priority on His mind? Is He really the Alpha and Omega, the eternal, omniscient One, the Creator of the whole universe, or is He a souped-up version of Baal, an impotent god with no power?
One time Elijah summoned all the Israelites to meet him on Mount Carmel. The four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah were issued a VIP invitation. Elijah challenged them to a godly duel. If Baal would answer by fire, lighting up the sacrifice on the altar, then all the people would acknowledge him as god. But if Jehovah answered with fire and consumed the sacrifice, then He would be considered God. The people said, “What you say is good.”
So the prophets of Baal went to town. They called on the name of Baal from morning until noon. “O Baal, answer us! They shouted.” Scripture says there was no response; no one answered. So they danced around the altar they had made.
Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed. Noon came and went and they continued their frantic calling until the evening sacrifice. There was still no response. No one answered; no one even paid attention.
Elijah took that as his cue. He repaired the altar of the Lord, dug a trench around it, filled it with a lot of water and prayed a simple prayer, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” With that, fire came from heaven and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the soil and all the water. The people cried, “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!” (1 Kings 18:16-19).
Clearly, God is not like Baal. He is far superior, monumentally more glorious, infinitely more powerful. And He appears to answer specific prayers. So, if power and might are not the deterrents for miraculous answers from heaven, what are?
Some Whys Behind The Silence
I do not presume to know the mind of God. I will not stand on a soapbox and give you reasons for why God chooses to act in the ways He does. I had better clap my hand over my mouth rather than take that prideful stance. However, God Himself, has given us His Word, which details many reasons why He does not answer prayer. If you are struggling with a God who seems to ignore your requests, check your heart against these prerequisites first. Sin is not always the reason for heaven’s silence, but that does not completely negate it from the running. Pray this prayer of David’s as you carefully read over the following list, “Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind” (Ps. 26:2).
God may choose not to answer your prayers if…
- Your prayers are laced with hypocrisy. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Mt. 6:5). If your prayer is full of self-display and vain-glory, you can know that God will probably turn a deaf ear to the prayer you wing heavenward.
- Your motives are skewed. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (Jms. 4:3). If you pray for a rebellious child to turn from his erring ways so that people will stop questioning your parenting, you’ve got yourself some wrong motives. If you ask for favor on a certain ministry opportunity just so that you will be highlighted, your motives are very inappropriate. Always ask God to show you your heart. Your motives may be standing in the way of God’s miraculous answer.
- Your heart is double-minded. “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jms. 1:6-8). If you ask God to bring a loved one to the Lord, but you tell everyone who will listen how horrible that person is, how far he is from grace, how impossible of a job his salvation becomes, you are double-minded. God wants our faith to connect wholly with our lips; what we say should reflect what we believe. If not, our prayers may ascend no further than our ceiling.
- You refuse to be reconciled with a brother. “Therefore, if you are offering our gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). God is very concerned with our relationships. If there is an unresolved issue between man and man, there is an unresolved issue between God and man. Make peace with a wounded sister as soon as possible.
- You refuse to forgive. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:23-24). I once read that unforgiveness is the number one sin in the church. Maybe that is why God’s favor is resting on other nations right now. The Western church needs to learn how to forgive so that their prayers can be heard.
- You refuse to obey God. “If anyone turns a deaf ear to the law, even his prayers are detestable” (Pr. 28:9). King Saul disobeyed God when it came to offering a sacrifice. He then tried to inquire of the Lord later, but God would not answer him (1 Sam. 28:6). If God has tapped you on the shoulder about something in your heart, do not be surprised at the lack of response from heaven if you are choosing not to respond to God’s last word.
- You do not adopt God’s heart. “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Pr. 21:13). God has a very special place in his heart for the oppressed and the needy. If you take advantage of a weaker brother, God may choose to disregard your pleas when you are weak and needy yourself.
- You refuse to let God’s lordship suffice. “Give us a king to lead us…they have rejected me as king…When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam. 8: 6, 7, 18). If you have knowingly stepped out from under the absolute lordship of God, you may have exempted yourself from God’s answers. Repent and return to His authority so that the line of communication can once again be opened.
- Your marriage behavior is dishonoring to God. “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7). Single women, you are off the hook on this one. Phew! But married women, this passage is not just addressed to husbands. A disrespectful attitude toward a marriage partner can result in God’s silence on your behalf.
- You do not have the right Christian spirit. “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them” (Lk. 9:54-55). Things happen in ministry that are unjust and unfair. You may be treated poorly, but your response is very important to God. What is His heart on the issue? What would He do in your situation? Leave the wrongs in God’s hands and respond with graciousness. If you do not, your prayers may be ignored.
- You are asking out of God’s will. “Do not be yoked with unbelievers…What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever” (2 Cor. 6:14, 15). If you are praying for an unsaved husband to come to know the Lord, you may be asking from a heart that is not aligned with God’s will. I am aware that people come to know the Lord in the middle of their marriage years, but for a woman who married an unbeliever knowing God’s will, asking for a spouse’s salvation may be like asking God to bless her sin. She knew God’s will and went ahead with her decision. This is a heart situation that really needs to be addressed before the Lord. Has repentance for disobedience taken place?
- You are asking contrary to the laws of nature. “Epaphras…is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God…” (Col. 4:12) / “Father, I thank you that you have heard me…I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (Jn. 11:41-42). A prayer that is answered contrary to the laws of nature, like raising the dead to life in John 11 is a miracle. Can God work miracles? Certainly, but I believe that most prayers are answered within the confines of the normal rules of this world. Strength for a trying situation. Grace for a trying person. Help in a trying circumstance. God does not usually take us out of the circumstances through a miraculous deliverance, but walks with us through it.
- You expect God to always heal. “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up…” (Jms. 5:15). Think about it. If God healed everyone that was sick, there would be no death, no one in wheelchairs, no cancer etc. God will not always answer this prayer. Timothy struggled with a health problem. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. God may choose to heal some people, but not everyone will experience healing. This is a logical fact. Your expectation that God will answer this prayer for you may involve some pride or presumption on your part. He just can’t heal everybody.
I know this is not a complete list, but I hope that it has given you some fodder for thought. If you have been thrown into a dungeon of despair, if you are experiencing a prison of silence, if you are struggling with prayers that are seemingly unheard, you would do well to check your heart. The list above will give you a start, but I do believe that it is imperative that you follow David’s good advice, “when you are on your bed, search your hearts and be silent” (Ps. 4:4). Ask God to reveal to you if any of these requirements for answered prayers are being blocked by some wrong behavior or insidious attitude. God will often use the silence of heaven to get you to your knees where you can be silently surrendered to His surgical knife. That time spent under the Master’s scrutiny may be enough to unlock your heart to repentance and the downward flow of God’s felt presence once again…
…or it may not. The rest of this devotional will address the times when the heavens seem like brass and sin in your life is not an issue.
The Dilemma of Silence
The difficulty with the silence of God, with His lack of response to our pleas, is in the cognitive assumption that there is a change in the relationship. If a good friend withdraws from you unexpectedly, it is usually an indication that there is something wrong. She may be going through an unexpected difficulty, extra stress, or a pressing priority, which causes her to withdraw the time she would normally invest in the relationship to deal with another matter. Or we may have somehow damaged a relationship and that friend, out of a sense of feeling unloved, has retreated in pain or as an unconscious act of punishment. Silence usually indicates an inner turmoil over the “stuff” of this world or an inner woundedness. We withdraw into ourselves – into silence – to feel safe or to manage the stress of our lives more safely.
The problem comes when we take that mindset into our relationship with God. In our humanness, we project our perspective about earthly relationships onto God. If He is silent, we respond out of our earthly outlook. We may believe He has a pressing matter that demands His attention, something more important in the kingdom that diverts His intimate energy beyond our relationship. We may also believe we have somehow angered Him by some ungodly word or deed and He is closing up shop, punishing us, because of our thoughtless behavior.
Both of these perspectives – and there are many more – lead to an inner turmoil because at the core, the main issues center around love. If God has other more important matters demanding His attention, His love for us seems diminished by His scrutiny elsewhere. But if God responds in silence due to our inability to be godly, then He cannot really love us for who we are, but for what we do. Both of these perspectives cause unending questions. Both of these perspectives lead to deep soul-pain because both of these viewpoints are deeply rooted in the law.
The Law at Work in Our Perspective
Our human perspective grows from the soil of this fallen world. That soil nurtures the fleshly part of our feeling, thinking, and doing. Paul spoke to this dilemma often in his letters. “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Rom. 8:21-25).
What does Paul mean? He is speaking to the dilemma of a spirit made alive by the presence of Jesus Christ while the soul is still steeped in the soil of this fallen world (1 Cor. 15:47). When Adam and Eve ate that life-changing apple, their spirits died to the open movement of the Holy Spirit (Gen. 3:3-5). Where before they had enjoyed God’s intimacy, God’s perspective on everything, the Fall changed the trajectory of intimacy and connectedness forever (Gen. 3:7, 23-24). We are now born into sin. Intimacy with God is not automatic; our spirits are dead to Him. God’s perspective on life is not our first thought; our minds are veiled to His priorities. The only way to truly come alive to God is to be transformed in our spirits by the work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:5).
Because of the cross, the way to intimacy and connectedness is again made possible. A sinner, a person steeped in the perspectives of this world, is moved to surrender to God (Rom. 10:9). Jesus, in the form of the Holy Spirit, takes up residence in his spirit, bringing it to life and ushering it into the intimacy of God. From that day forward, the Spirit works in us to sanctify our soul and body, to flood the rest of the flesh with the Light of Life (Rom. 8:2). This sanctification of our mind, will, emotions, and personality will continue until the day we die, but it is a process that requires our participation with the Divine (2 Pet. 4:13): we need to renew our minds through the perspectives of the Scriptures (Rom. 12:2). This, in turn, will purify and transform our will, emotions, and personality, working to align all of our being with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).
What I am trying to say is that simply put, our mindset on silence may be badly skewed. Our perspective about life, about sin, about self and about God is steeped in the soil of this dying earth so it stands to reason that our perspective on God’s silence is also very unsanctified. Paul stated that in our inner being we delight in God’s law – that’s the spirit – but that there is another law in our body. This law – the law of the “stuff” of this earth, of sin – wages war against the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our minds, which is the gift of grace. If grace does not win the war, we are then made prisoners of the law of sin when it begins to work all throughout our body.
How does this law mentality play out in our day-to-day interactions? In studying the Scriptures where questions are flung desperately to the heavens, I have identified five different laws at work in the petitioners’ perspectives. For want of more clever terms, I am calling these imprisoning mindsets the Law of Worminess, the Law of Pittedness, the Law of Otherness, the Law of Deservedness, and the Law of Indebtedness. Pray your way through these five laws carefully to see if they unearth any negative surprises in your perspective on God’s unanswered prayers.
The Law of Worminess (Ps. 22)
We do not know when David wrote this psalm. It could have been during his times of running through the wilderness to escape being murdered by the demon-oppressed King Saul. It could have been when Absalom, his son, overthrew the city of Jerusalem and he was forced to flee again for his life. The questions could have been spoken at either of these dark moments in his history with Yahweh, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning” (v 1).
In this psalm, David emotes a tremendous amount of pain God’s direction. The basic issue in David’s heart is expressed quite succinctly in verse 2, “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent” (v2). David is most concerned with God’s lack of answer. The silence from heaven on his behalf is deafening, causing him to feel forsaken, far from God, and utterly abandoned.
There are breaks-outs of great faith in this psalm (which we will study in later weeks), but I want to concentrate on one really low moment. The Passion Translation articulates this so well that I cannot pass up on its poignancy, “But look at me now; I am like a woeful worm, crushed, and I’m bleeding crimson. I don’t even look like a man anymore. I’ve been abused, despised, and scorned by everyone! Mocked by their jeers, despised by their sneers, as all the people poke fun at me, spitting their insults, saying, ‘Is this the one who trusted in God? Is this the one who claims God is pleased with him? Now let’s see if your God will come to your rescue! We’ll just see how much he delights in you!’” (22:6-8)
David calls himself a “woeful worm.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot think of very many positive things to say about worms. They are super low to the ground. They seem very tiny and insignificant. They make a very easy meal for birds. They have to leave their holes and head for the surface every time there is a rain or they will drown. My son tells me that they eat dirt and excrete the same dirt – not so exciting, if you ask me.
Our American idioms have an equally negative outlook on these hermaphrodites:
- “To open a can of worms” means that a situation, once begun, is likely to become problematic or have a negative outcome.
- “The early bird catches the worm” is spoken about a person who rises early and will have success as a result, but notice that the worm is devoured to make the idiom even work.
- “To worm your way out of something” means that you have managed to disentangle yourself from a situation, usually in a cunning way.
- To call someone a “worm” means that he is a low-life and has no backbone or courage. He is the lowest of the low, fit only to crawl on his belly at the foot of his betters.
In calling himself a worm, David lets us know that he is dealing with an inward enemy, not just an outward one. Look at some of the accompanying words this man of God uses and see if you can identify what the Law of Worminess is all about: crushed, abused, despised, scorned, mocked, jeers, sneers, poke fun, and insults. If the word that came to mind is SHAME, you would be right on the money.
Not only is God not answering his prayers, not only are the heavens silent (v 2), but everyone around David somehow knows about his inner crisis of faith. They are targeting him for his beliefs, belittling him because of it. He has the angst of feeling forgotten and ignored coupled with the taunts of those who say he is just ridiculous to trust in God. In short, they shame him in really abusive ways because he prays to a God who will not answer.
Shame is a toxic emotion, one that Satan uses to bind and imprison you. It causes you to cover yourself, worried that whatever is seen will be so repulsive people would just completely reject you if they knew the real person inside. Shame distorts every perception – about you, about your history, and especially about your God. It “binds, numbs, disconnects, and destroys. Nothing seems to erase the ever-present feelings of worthlessness” that run rampant through the soul. “Shame can attach itself to other emotions, drives (such as hunger and sex), or needs (such as security, love, or attention” (Celestia G. Tracy, Mending the Soul workbook, p. 125).
David knew he was loved by God, but in the silence of the day and the suffocating darkness of the night, he really struggled. The fact that “all who saw” him mocked and insulted him deepened the pain he felt into shame. His perception about himself as God’s beloved was in jeopardy (“We’ll just see how much he delights in you” – v 8). He felt worthless and completely isolated, two very clear indicators of shame, by the way. On top of how he felt about himself, his perspective about God was covered in shame. He was enduring mockery for trusting in God, for praying that the Lord would rescue him, for asking for deliverance, and for banking on God’s great love (v 8 – NIV).
At this dark point in the psalm, David feels about as low as he can go: as small as a helpless, useless, insignificant, worthless and dispensable hermaphrodite. David feels like a woeful worm. Something has shifted in David’s perspective. The silenced voice of God kicked off this faith crisis, but the shame from his peers pounded the final stakes in the ground. David has always known who God is. He has always trusted that God can do what He says He can do, but in this honest moment, David’s faith-boat has run aground on a deserted island. He is marooned in a law mindset, completely forgetting the grace that has always been his for the asking.
The Law of Worminess says he is bad, that he must have done something to make God stop talking. Shame tells him that God is busy elsewhere and cannot be bothered with his trifling requests. The law of shame weights down his perspective like barnacles on a sunken treasure chest. The treasure is in his soul. It is as close as his heart, the hope of glory, yet he just can’t access it.
Have you experienced David’s scorn because of your faith? Have you endured mocking because of your trust in God? Even if no one outside of yourself speaks in this way to you, do you conjure up feelings of shame out of your own past, your own sense of worthlessness, your own unmet needs and desires? Is the Law of Worminess at work in the members of your body, waging war against the law of grace God desires to put in your mind, making you a prisoner? Remember shame attaches to everything. Why would it not somehow influence your perspective about God and His ways?
Read on for God’s healing gift of grace that covers the stench of this law, but for now, know that God will rescue you from your body of death-like worminess. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ your Lord.
The Law of Pittedness (Ps. 88)
Psalm 88 is the most depressing hymn in the whole psalter. Written by a son of Korah (this tip will become important later), Heman the Ezrahite, this psalm is lacking something all other psalms have: moments of hope. The words do not ebb and flow with moments of praise or thanksgiving. They do not alternate between soaring faith and crushing doubt; they are mostly just pure, unadulterated doubt. Heman writes these words to the tune “The Suffering of Affliction” (NLT prologue to the psalm) and suffering is all we really gather from this painful look at Heman’s circumstances. If Psalm 22 rises from the murky waters of shame, this psalm gushes from geysers of hopelessness.
Listen to some of the descriptors Heman uses to illuminate his soul’s ache: troubles and death (v 3), no strength (v 4), corpse (v 5), forgotten, cut off from care (v 5), lowest pit, darkest depth (v 6), anger, engulfed (v 7), and these are just the first few verses. Heman, as we will continue to see, is in a bad soul-way.
The questions Heman asks are the boldest I have seen in my study. “Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness” (vv 11-13 – The Passion).
All of these questions come from a deep pit of depression, but the real question that encapsulates all of Heman’s feelings in one verse are these, “O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me” (v 14 – The Passion). Heman underscores his anger at God’s seeming rejection with many audacious comments. “I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me” (vv 5-7). He goes on to blame God for driving his friends away (v 8). He complains that God is angry at him (v 16), that God’s terrors have paralyzed him (vv 16), engulfed him completely (v 17). Never, except in the book of Job, is there such an audacious pointing of the finger in the very specific direction of the Divine.
What is underwriting all of this blame and anger? I think the answer is simple, because I have felt all of Heman’s feelings. I, too, have been overwhelmed by the “floodwaters” (v 17) of God. I, too, have blamed God for my loneliness. I have also felt cut off from God, like He did not care one iota for what went on in my life. I have interpreted my negative circumstances to be the response of an angry God. The answer, simply put, to what is going on under each emotion’s surface is hopelessness. One statement in particular stands out to me in this psalm, “I am in a trap with no way of escape” (v 8c – NLT). No way out. No way up. No way around and no seeming way through.
Have you ever felt like this? There is a woman in my extended family right now in this predicament. She has suffered through a divorce in her past and currently lives alone, far from any family. Recently, she went to the hospital for an infection. She had struggled for close to two weeks and when she decided to go for help, she could barely walk. She was kept in the hospital for three days and then released with a walker. Currently, she is at home, but has lost the will to live. She is depressed and because she is angry at God, she is hopeless. She seems to be trapped in her circumstances with no way of escape. Currently, she is struggling with what I’m calling the Law of Pittedness.
Heman mentions quite a number of debilitating circumstances. He talks about soul-trouble (v 3), which indicates a deep-seated pain in his interior; his emotional life is coming apart. It seems like he iss having some serious health issues too, especially if talk about the grave was so forthcoming (vv 3-5, 10-12, 15). Additionally, he is having some real social issues. His friends have been taken from him; in fact, he has become repulsive to them, he says (v 8). Verse 18 even indicates that there has been a loss of loved ones as well.
On top of all of these health, soul, and social issues, he feels the distance from God very keenly. Day and night (v 1b) he is crying out to God, praying to Him (v 2), but God seems to be hiding His face from him (v 14). He won’t acknowledge Heman’s cries. He won’t empathize with his pain. He won’t answer his prayers and Heman is bereft. Here is the key: he is so bereft that he is angry with God.
His grief has been unheard for so long that he falls into a pit of hopelessness. That hopelessness, over time, becomes calcified in a shield of anger. There’s no one else to blame. The God who is supposed to be big enough to handle all of his concerns won’t even talk to him. What does Heman do with a God who is silent, who does not relieve his suffering, and who won’t even acknowledge him when he prays over and over (Heman prays to God over and over – see vv 1, 2, 9, 13)? He feels that he has no recourse but to give up and die, to slip unseen, unheard, unknown, into a pit of death. The last line of this psalm is heart-tugging in its poignancy, “the darkness is my closest friend” (v 18c).
In Psalm 22, we saw that David struggled with an inner law, a law than overrode the law of grace. I termed it the Law of Worminess, the law that was whispered into David’s ear by Satan that he was somehow bad. Innately, he was somehow unacceptable to God, so God would not answer him.
Heman’s words about the pit and death and darkness tell me something different about his belief system. He is not filled with shame necessarily; he is filled with fear. Shame is working throughout his statements because I see worthless feelings running rampant, but more than that, Heman is fearful of life, of death, of both the known and the unknown. He fears trouble and ostracization. He fears God’s wrath and overwhelming power. He fears loneliness and the inability to change his circumstances. He fears grief and rejection, affliction and God’s sovereign will that ordains even more trouble, despite his faithfulness. He fears being loved because he’s afraid that if he reaches out and touches someone’s heart, God will take that loved one away. He fears punishment as a reward for obedience. There’s so much fear in this psalm, but more than anything, he fears losing God in the process, yet he is so afraid of the will of God that he feels it is safer to have one closer friend instead: the darkness.
The Law of Pittedness is so consumed with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ that a person living in that belief system is figuratively encased in a pit of fear. He will always feel like his life is sorrowful. He will always imagine himself one wrong move away from destruction. He will always cry out to God and feel rejection, because is so scared God won’t answer in the first place. This law is a pit of despair, but more than that, it is a pit lacking spiritual strength (v 4), any light of truth (v 6), any revelation from God (Ps. 143:7cd); it is a place where the spirit fails (Ps. 143:7b).
Have you experienced Heman’s debilitating fear? Does your belief system become paralyzed when God chooses not to answer; not because you feel bad about yourself, but because you are afraid that God just doesn’t like you at all? Are you struggling, not just with God rejecting your prayers, but with the belief that He is not answering because He is rejecting you? Is the Law of Pittedness at work in the members of your body, waging war against the law of grace God desires to put in your mind? Fear undermines friendships, marriages, governments, and nations with its insidious law-like ramifications. Why would it not somehow influence your perspective about God and His ways?
We will study how God’s healing gift of grace covers the deep-seated tendrils of this law, but for now, know that God will rescue you from your body of dark, hopeless pittedness. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ your Lord.
The Law of Otherness (Ps. 73)
This psalm is very different than the other ones I have mentioned. It was written by Asaph about a very specific dilemma that he had. His questioning began when he looked around at the people in his sphere of influence. The godly around him did not seem to be a problem for his faith, but the ungodly definitely were. Asaph admits to envy (v 2), which is a refreshing testament in a man of such influence and integrity.
As he gazed at the surrounding people, whom he terms arrogant and wicked, he is frustrated at their prosperity (v 3). “They (seem to) have no struggles. Their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills” (vv 4-5). Consequently, they are proud and violent. Iniquity runs rampant in the streets and they clothe themselves with violence. Their minds devise all kinds of wicked schemes and they speak with malice toward others. More audacious yet, they oppress others and mock God with arrogant statements, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” (v 11).
Asaph is experiencing a crisis of faith, one that has almost caused his feet to slip and lose his foothold on God’s truths (v 2). As Asaph he looks out with the Law of Otherness guiding his perspective, he asks this question of God, “Have I been foolish to play by the rules and keep my life pure” (v 13 – The Passion). The NIV states his angst in a declarative fashion: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.” When I read this verse, I summarize it in very simple terms, God, I have been following you faithfully. Why are you not being as good to me as you are to them?
The Law of Otherness is very interested in what God is, or is not, doing for others. When I am steeped in this kind of thinking, I see others getting away with murder and still experiencing God’s blessing. I think to myself, Why is God giving me trouble and them blessing? Does God really love me so much less than a person who is corrupt and evil?
Linda Brandt asked me many questions about God’s sovereignty in this regard. “Why was her ex- husband being so cruel? Why weren’t the police listening to her side of the story? Why was her ex getting away with taking her to court over and over for more money? Why would he put a restraining order out on her?” None of the circumstances seemed to make any sense. The bad guys were winning and the good guys were losing. Didn’t God care?
Asaph must have prayed that God would invoke His justice on the corrupt. God did not answer. He prayed that their oppression would not affect him. It did affect him, because God did not seem to hear. He prayed that God’s people would not be bullied by these loudmouths who have no fear of God (v 8-9 in the Passion), but God’s people were oppressed. In fact, God stood by and did nothing. What was Asaph to do with a God who would not act on behalf of the righteous? He struggled mightily with the horror of seeing sin not only overlooked, but well thought of, by heaven. It was enough to cleave his faith in two.
The Law of Worminess is run by shame and the sense that the petitioner is somehow bad. The Law of Pittedness stems from fear and the perspective that God does not really love the one asking anyway. This law, the Law of Otherness, rises out of a deep sense of discontentment, a lack of deep rest in the goodness of God. Discontentment builds upon discontentment until the whole belief system is skewed by strains of bitterness.
My struggle is not with the ungodly of this world. I get the fact that they do not know God; they have an excuse for living with a poverty of spirit; they are unbelievers, after all. My wrestling match with God has been over believers who claim the Lord as their Savior, but live like the world. As I look out on the church, on the Body, on people who speak out of both sides of their mouths, I am appalled! I am angry! I am decimated by confusion!
Why does God allow such hypocrisy in His church? Why does He not defend His glory? Annanias and Sapphira were believers who were killed instantly for one lie? Why is the church allowed to be so complacent these days, completely without judgment and recrimination? Why do the innocent suffer abuse and the Christian abusers walk free, unpunished? Instead they are “justified” in God’s eyes, “free” because of the cross, and “blessed” because of grace.
Like Asaph, I burn with indignation at God’s seeming injustice. What is the point of being faithful, I ask, if the good are oppressed by those God allows free reign. As you can see, I struggle with the Law of Otherness. I wrestle with inequity. In my belief system, there runs a strain of Asaph’s refrain, “Have I been foolish to play by the rules and keep my life pure” (v 13).
This looking-out investigative stance and internal self-talk is an extension of the law. The law tells me that if I do something good, I should be rewarded. If I am faithful, I will be blessed. However, in God’s economy of grace, the Law of Otherness falls limp. God says all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. All people deserve death. You cannot earn salvation or mercy or blessing or reward; you cannot earn grace.
When you pray a prayer about how others are behaving and that prayer is not answered, it is easy to lapse into the law. Comparing how God treats other people is a one-way road to discontentment. And far down that road, there will be a turn straight into the parking lot of bitterness. When Christians pray for God to work in their circumstances, to free them from oppression or injustice and God does not answer, it is easy to harden the heart against God’s goodness.
Have you experienced Asaph’s sense of injustice? Do you find your heart backing away from a God of grace because of His seeming lack of response on your behalf? Does your prayer for God’s blessing seem unheard in light of those around you enjoying the rays of Sonlight while walking in the shadows of sin? Is the Law of Otherness at work in the members of your body, waging war against the law of grace God desires to put in your mind? Discontentment leads to bitterness and bitterness blocks God’s intimate working in your life. Why would discontentment not influence your perspective about God and His ways? My friend, it surely does, for this law of bitterness and envy slaps away the hands of a God extended in grace.
We will study how God’s healing gift of grace roots out the bitterness of this law, but for now, know that God will rescue you from your body of meditative discontentment. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ your Lord.
The Law of Deservedness (Job)
In the Law of Otherness detailed above, remember that Asaph was so concerned about how the wicked seemed to flourish despite their evil behavior. It was as if God was saying, “Go ahead.” His problem, as he looked out, was that the wicked were benefiting from God, while his faithfulness was rewarded with trouble. He was concerned with justice: the wicked seemed to receive no consequences while he received only suffering. This led to a deeply skewed perspective of God and his circumstances.
Job also experienced deep suffering. His first test involved the loss of all of his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, children and most of his servants. It was horrific to experience such devastation in one blow, but Job responded with worship, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:20-21).
His second test was even more personal. The Lord allowed Satan to afflict Job with painful sores all over his body. He took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes. The unsightly appearance of her husband coupled with the loss of everything else in her life, was too much for Mrs. Job. She told Job to curse God and die! His response: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:7-10).
Job’s story is so familiar to all of us that we just skip right over the horrific situation in which Job found himself. Some commentators believe Job suffered more than anyone else in this world, excluding Christ. Job’s three friends felt so bad for him that they sat with him for seven days, speaking not a word, “because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11-13). But that is where the compassion ended.
After those seven days, Job erupted in a spewing display of honesty (Job 3:1-26). Cursing the day of his birth, he shocked his friends with the turmoil that was in his heart. He cryptically alluded to God as the One who had made him suffer, “Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in” (Job 3:23)? His friends are shocked at his seeming arrogance toward God and his final words do not help his cause, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (Job 3: 25-26).
And that’s when his friends showed their true colors. That is when their perspective on Job’s suffering revealed the depth of their skewed thinking on the issue of deservedness.
Eliphaz is the first friend to answer Job’s outburst and his words are hard. Listen to just a few of them, “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it” (Job 4:7-8). What is Eliphaz saying? Simply put, he is linking Job’s suffering to some sin in his life. He cannot conceive of a God who would “punish” His children unless they deserved it.
Bildad, in chapter 8, makes an ever more painful statement, “When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin” (Job 8:4). In other words, “Your children died because they deserved it.” Just imagine the thrust of their sharp words into Job’s gut. This was a man who had his children purified after every party. He would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (Job 1:5). I cannot conceive of his pain at Bildad’s wounding remarks.
Zophar added fuel to Job’s internally raging emotional fire. He agreed with his friends that Job could not be innocent, that he had sinned so much that God had so much to forgive in Job’s life that He had even forgotten some sins (Job 11:6). He began to scold Job, “If you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame…” (Job 11:14-15a). Notice the attachment of shame to Job’s already-aching heart.
These three friends, and I use the word loosely, attacked Job from a law mindset. In those days, as in ours, people believed in the Law of Deservedness. Some people called it the Law of Retribution or Return. In other words, you get what you deserve. If you are experiencing difficulty, it is because you somehow did something so bad that you earned a response from God that looked like punishment.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were not the only ones who looked at the world through the lens of this law. Even the disciples believed in the Law of Deservedness. In John 9, they were walking along with Jesus and saw a man who had been blind from birth. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (Jn. 9:1-2)? In other words, the eye-for-an-eye mentality was so imbedded in their view of God that sin was the only option for his blindness.
Those who have this perspective on suffering are strong law-followers. They look into other believer’s lives and judge them left and right. “Well, if he had just been a better parent, his child would not have run away from home,” or “Yes, they are experiencing a lot of trauma lately. I wonder if they are even Christians.” If the Law of Worminess is linked with shame, the Law of Pittedness with fear, the Law of Otherness with bitterness, then this law is linked to sin. “There must be something evil in that person’s life.”
Maybe you have never spoken those words about someone else’s difficulties, but perhaps you have spoken them over your own life. “I don’t understand what I am doing wrong, God. I have confessed and confessed my sins, but my circumstances don’t change. I have even gone to the altar over and over to make sure I am saved. Why won’t you answer my prayers? I’m trying to do it your way.”
Have you experienced Job’s friend-induced angst? Do you find yourself repenting over and over for something you cannot even name? Do you really believe that God does not answer your prayers because your heart is black with sin? Is the Law of Deservedness at work in the members of your body, waging war against the law of grace God desires to put in your mind? The perspective that God is giving you something that you deserve because of your bad choices and former lifestyle will shut down your prayer life, if not your hope. Can you not see that this “I am so sinful” attitude greatly influences your perspective about God and His ways?
We will study how God’s healing gift of grace cleanses you from the hopelessness of this law, but for now, know that God will rescue you from your body of deservedness. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ your Lord.
The Law of Indebtedness (Ps. 42-43, 44, Job)
Bear with me, please, as I flesh out this particular law. It will take a bit of time, but that time is needed, for it is such a prevailing mindset in our lives and in the lives of the whole church body today. So much Scripture deals with this thought of indebtedness; much of Job, in act. And I think you will find what God has to say on the topic to be rather shocking. So with this confusing introduction, I will do my best to work through these thoughts clearly and concisely.
We are going to look at three different psalms written by the “sons of Korah.” If you are not aware, the Korahites were the portion of the Kohathites that descended from the three sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah and Abiasaph (Ex. 6:18, 21, 24). They were an important branch of the singers of the Kohathite division (2 Chron. 20:19). Many of the psalms were written by this group of worshipers: 42-49, 84-85, 87-89).
Psalm 42-43: Psalm 42 and 43 appear to go together, despite being split in two. This poem is a “lament of a temple singer exiled in the north near the rising of the Jordan, who longs to be back at God’s house…” (Tyndale Commentary). It is a sad, but beautiful, cry of longing for the way things used to be. This musician speaks of the desert-like conditions of being removed from the temple. He remembers his ministry there with tears and weeping. He speaks of his downcast soul often, but it is juxtaposed with hope in God. Back and forth this singer flip-flops between hope and discouragement.
One such discouraged moment lends itself to the heartbeat of the singer’s questions, “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy” (42:9). Later in chapter 43, a similar refrain rings out, “You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy” (43:2).
Do you see the intimacy backed up against the confusion? He calls God his Rock and his stronghold. He even uses the intimate word “my” – my Rock, my stronghold. That is what makes the pathos of being forgotten and rejected that much worse. He has known God very personally, but feels rejected by God.
This was a man who had experienced a unique closeness to God. He loved worship times when he used to lead the procession to the house of God (42:2-4a). He was a man of praise and thanksgiving (42:4b). His relationship with God had appeared to be intimate and sweet, “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8). His desire was to be brought into God’s presence once again where he could serve at the altar of God, his joy and delight (43:3-4). Even the cry of pain, “Why have you forgotten me?” is coupled with the assertion that God is his rock and stronghold.
Don’t you see the irony? Can’t you hear his bewilderment? The fact that he had enjoyed such sweet fellowship with God only to be exiled to and abandoned in Israel left him weeping. The knowledge that God had ordained this banishment to an ungodly nation, where he was oppressed by deceitful and wicked men (43:1), left him downcast and disturbed deep in his soul (42:5, 11, 43:5). He could not hold both of these truths about God: that He was a loving, intimate God who led His children into suffering, both in their circumstances and in their seemingly estranged relationship with Him.
Psalm 44: This maskil of worship explores the same dichotomous themes as the two songs preceding it. Verses 1-3 detail the amazing acts of God on Israel’s behalf: how he drove out the nations and planted them, crushed the peoples and made their fathers flourish (vv 1-2). This son of Korah acknowledges that they could not have done it on their own; it was God who helped them obtain the victory (v 3ab). God’s right arm and the light of His face had worked on their behalf (v 3c). Then this singer ends with this sweet phrase, “for you loved them” (v 3d). God’s movement on Israel’s behalf came about out of His deep affection for them.
He then moves into a more personal refrain, “You are my King and my God” (v 4). He recognizes that God is the One who helps him push back his enemy and trample his foes (v 5). His bow and sword do not bring him the victory; only God does (vv 6-7). So he breaks out in praise to God, making his boast in Yahweh (v 8).
Remembering God’s past exploits leads to confusion. Talking about his personal walk with God brings him to anguish, for the very few lines are pain-filled and anxiety-ridden, “But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies” (v 9). His people have had to retreat. They have been plundered by their adversaries, devoured like sheep and scattered among the nations (vv 10-11). His people have been sold and all the surrounding nations scorn and deride them (vv 12-14). This singer states that his disgrace hangs heavy on him; his face is covered with shame (v 15-16).
These statements do not just list facts; they are an agonized accusation, for woven throughout these eight verses is God’s part in their pain. You have rejected us. You have humbled us. You made us retreat. You gave us up to be devoured. You sold your people. You have made us a reproach and a byword. You. You. You. God was supposed to be their victory-bringing, peace-keeping, land-giving God, yet he was at the head of the captivity line, leading them into exile. It was too much to bear.
On top of the realization that God had ordained all of his pain and suffering was his protestation of innocence. “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness” (vv 17-19). Do you see his dilemma? His faithfulness had been rewarded with crushing; his devotion had been compensated with darkness. What on earth was God doing?
He continues to protest his innocence to God because he had not forgotten God’s name nor engaged in idolatry. God would have surely known this was true since he knows the secrets of the heart. But here he was facing death all day, feeling like a sheep being led to the slaughter (vv 21-22). And the most painful aspect of all is spoken in four simple words, “Yet for your sake” (v 22a). He had endured all of this for God’s own sake. Surely such a sacrificial attitude should emote God’s compassion rather than His seeming punishment.
The psalm ends with a pathetic plea, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (vv 23-26). God is strangely silent. Is he asleep? Is He deliberately looking away. Has He forgotten their misery and oppression? Worse yet, is He trying to end his life?
This sufferer knew that God could very capably change his situation. Good grief, every Israelite had internalized the story of how God had cut a way through the Red Sea and brought His people through the wilderness safely into the Promised Land. Joshua’s exploits at Jericho were common table talk. God was clearly able, a powerful God who acted on behalf of His children…because He loved them. So why wasn’t God acting on his behalf? Did God not love him for some reason?
Instead of victory, he had been handed defeat. In the place of freedom, he was a captive. Far from enjoying his own land, he was exiled in enemy territory. A (his knowledge of God) plus B (his current circumstances) did not equal C (the way God should be treating him). Didn’t God owe him something? He had been faithful and true and loyal. Didn’t that count for anything?
Gideon: Gideon struggled with this same chasm in his faith that he just could not cross. The only difference was that his people had not been faithful and the Lord gave them over to oppression by the Midianites. God’s people had to hide in caves so that they would not be killed (Jdg. 6:1-2). One day, while Gideon was threshing his wheat in a wine press to hide his work, an angel appeared to him. “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior,” the angel said (6:12).
Gideon almost laughed from the irony of the situation. Mighty warrior? Really? He was trying to eke out a bit of wheat so that they could eat, but having to sneak around like he was a thief. And what did God mean? That He was with them? How could that be? And so Gideon questioned the angel, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian” (6:13).
This “least” son of Joash (v 11, 15) could not reconcile the evidence of his reality with the words coming out of the angel’s mouth. If God was truly with him, why was he suffering? If God was truly the God of wonders and miracles, why was He not working? And here’s the unwritten question, “If God truly loved him, why had He abandoned him and put him under Midianite oppression?”
Job: This godly man from Uz would have agreed with Gideon’s words, for he was blameless and upright before God. Not only that, but he feared God and shunned evil. As a result, God blessed him with children, wealth, servants, and flocks. Scripture says that “he was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:1-3). God even spoke well of him, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).
Yet one day his whole belief system came crashing down. All his children were killed, along with his flocks and servants. His livelihood was wiped out and on top of that, his life was endangered by horrible sores and pain. Job cannot reconcile his present circumstances – obliterated wealth, destroyed family, endangered reputation, judgmental friends – with the God that he had worked so hard to obey. Nothing added up and so he began to wrestle with God, asking question after question, laying out his case before God:
- “Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties” (Job 3:23 – NLT).
- “At least I can take comfort in this: despite the pain, I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (Job 6:10).
- “If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you” (Job 7:20)?
- “Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain” (Job 9:29)?
- “Yet my friends laugh at me, for I call on God and expect an answer. I am a just and blameless man, yet they laugh at me” (Job 12:4 – NLT).
- “Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy” (Job 13:24)?
- “My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart…if I say…to the worm, ‘My mother’ or ‘My sister,’ where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me” (Job 17:11, 14b, 15).
You know I could go on and on, for Job and his friends struggle with each other and with God for thirty-seven chapters. Thirty-seven chapters of angst and pain, questioning and grieving, begging to be heard while enduring the silence of God. It is painful to read on a good day, but when your own confusion is prodded by a similar faith crisis, Job’s twisting and turning on the rope of his painful circumstances becomes raw and real. Your questions begin to mirror this struggling servant of God; your soul-turmoil finds solace in Job’s vulnerable suffering.
Prison Comrades: I mentioned earlier that the Lord had led me to five stories of men suffering in prison just like John the Baptist. I will be weaving their stories throughout our study of John, for, as I have found, there is a lot of good theology that emerges from captivity.
Joseph was a godly young man who did his chores faithfully, addressed sin consistently and heard from God regularly (Gen. 37:2, 5ff). Yet he was hated by his brothers and eventually sold into slavery for a mere twenty shekels of silver (37:28). Though he was a slave, he was put in charge of Potiphar’s house, but when his owner’s wife took a fancy to him, he was thrown into a dungeon for saying “no” to her tempting offer (39:20). In prison, he was elevated to a leadership position, enough that he was able to circulate among the other prisoners (40:6). He interpreted two dreams but had one request, “remember me…mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (40:14-15).
Joseph was obedient to his dad and alive to the Spirit, yet he was sold into captivity. He was faithful to God and turned away from sin, but was thrown into prison. He served God faithfully in his prison circumstances, yet he was forgotten. Where was God? Did he not see Joseph’s faithfulness? Why would God reward Joseph’s obedience with more suffering? What could Joseph do with a God who didn’t play the indebtedness game as expected?
Jeremiah was a prophet of God. For years he had served God with a listening heart, giving out His doomsday messages to a people who would not listen. Yet he was faithful for close to forty years in a ministry where he received rejection and ridicule constantly. After all of his obedient service to God, he was arrested, falsely accused, beaten and thrown into prison for a very long time (Jer. 37:13-16). The king approached him secretly to find out Israel’s future and later moved him another type of captivity in the courtyard of the guard (37:21), but later changed his mind when officials falsely accused Jeremiah again (38:1-4. Though he seemed to believe Jeremiah, he allowed him to be put into a cistern, where Jeremiah sank down into the mud (38:5-6).
Jeremiah was obedient to God, faithful to Him and to his calling for close to forty decades. Yet over and over, he experienced rejection by men and God Himself. The One Jeremiah was serving, allowed, even ordained, Jeremiah to experience the pain of prison. Not a cushy prison, mind you, but three different places of captivity where the conditions alone could have killed this prophet (37:20, 38:9). Jeremiah loved the Lord. He was faithful and obedient. Why did God respond with torture and hardship?
Peter was a disciple of Christ and later became a great leader in the New Testament church. He had walked with God, talked with God, denied God, and been restored to a revolutionary newness of faith. All through the book of Acts, Peter is seen as a pillar of the church. Yet, despite his faithfulness, despite his intimate relationship with Christ, persecution hounded his footsteps. Herod arrested many believers, intending to persecute them. James, the brother of John, was put to death with a sword. This pleased the Jews, so Herod arrested Peter as well during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Peter was put into prison and guarded by four squads of soldiers with the intention of bringing him out for a public trial after the Passover (Acts 12:1-4).
Didn’t God owe Peter a better life than this? Why didn’t his faithfulness count for at least a prison-free, persecution-free life? What good it is to be obedient to God when suffering is the reward? These are questions Peter may have faced while chained between two guards, awaiting a trial and possible death.
Paul and Silas were incredible pioneers on the frontier of the New Testament church. They traveled all over the known world of that day, telling others about Jesus and bringing them into the Way. One day, while they were on their way to pray, they were met by a girl who was demon-possessed. Filled with compassion for her, Paul commanded the spirit to leave her and it did. Instead of being thankful, her owners were angry. They stirred up the crowd, which brought the Roman soldiers running. These two men were stripped, severely flogged, thrown into prison, and fastened to stocks (Acts 16:16-24).
Here these two men were doing God’s work in God’s way: preaching, teaching, praying, healing, and casting out demons. They did not have impure motives; they were not in the ministry for their own glory. As far as could be seen from outward appearances, there was no prevalent sins in their life. In fact, they were filled with the Spirit, as were all the leaders of the new church movement. Why would God bring persecution, torture even, into their lives at the precise moment of their faithfulness? It is as if God punished them for being obedient.
Paul had a penchant for getting himself into prison. In Acts 21, knowing full well that Jerusalem would not welcome him (see Acts 21:10-11), he sailed there anyway. After encouraging the body of believers through his report about what God was doing among the Gentiles, he was asked to purify himself to pacify the questioning Jews. He agreed to their request, but after the seven days of purification were over, some Jews saw him at the temple, stirred up the crowd, and tried to kill him (Acts 21:31). The Roman troops took over at that point and put him in chains (22:29). The rest of Paul’s story in Acts reads like a Country Song: he stood trial before the Sanhedrin (23:1-11), before Felix (24:1-26), who wanted a bribe so kept him in prison for two years (24:27), before Festus, (25:1-13), and before King Agrippa (25:13-32). He appealed to Caesar so was sent to Rome, where he was placed under house arrest (27:1-28:16).
Again, I ask you, what had Paul done to deserve all of this suffering? In Acts 21, we see Paul preaching and encouraging, sacrificing his personal desires for the sake of the church, and preaching to everyone (He gives his testimony four times while on trial). He was faithful, both to his calling and his God, yet he suffered tremendously. Is God a sadist that He likes to see His children hurt? Or is there something else at work here?
And then there is John the Baptist, our main protagonist, who is languishing in prison as we begin this study. John was the cousin of Jesus, the forerunner of the Messiah. He baptized Christ in order to kick of His own ministry. This man of God preached a gospel of repentance and fulfilled prophecy (Mt. 3:2). His was the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mt. 3:3). It was John who spoke these incredible words about Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn. 3:30). Why was he in prison? Because he told the truth to Herod, that he should not marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herod actually wanted to kill John for that, but he was afraid of the people (Mt. 14:4-5).
If there ever was a man that Jesus should have helped, it was John. They were related, for goodness’ sake. From the time of John’s birth, he was destined to highlight the ministry of Jesus, which he did responsibly and joyfully. Only to find himself wasting away in a prison for doing the right thing.
If I went into a bank and deposited money, I would expect an equal return on that money or possibly, even a return with interest. If I do my job to the best of my ability, I presume that my salary would reflect my work. I assume that I would receive what I earned and maybe even a bonus. If I invest the time into a disciple, I sincerely hope that there is growth in that individual. Why is this? Why do we expect something for what we do? It is called the Law of Indebtedness.
Have you experienced this sense of outrage at God when things go very badly, despite your godly behavior? Are you struggling in your suffering because you thought obedience procured blessing? Do you feel, down deep in your soul, that God owes you something for your faithfulness? Is this cost of discipleship too much for you, the cost that in this world you just might have trouble (Jn. 16:33), even if you are doing the will of God? Is the Law of Indebtedness at work in the members of your body, waging war against the law of grace God desires to put in your mind? The perspective that God does not love you because He is not blessing you is a strong deterrent to seeing your way through the darkness into God’s truth. Can you not see that this “God owes me” attitude greatly influences your perspective about God and His ways?
We will study how God’s healing gift of grace cleanses you from the hopelessness of this law, but for now, know that God will rescue you from your body of indebtedness. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ your Lord.
A Quick Catch-Up
A lot of words have already been said and a lot more are to come, so I think it is important to review just a bit. In order to solidify what we have learned so far, I am going to put the nuggets of the past pages into a table. Hopefully, this will help bring everything into clarity.
In Psalm 22, David was badgered by shame perpetuated by others and by his own psyche. The words, “I am a worm” came out of his mouth (v 6a) because men around him scorned him and God would not answer (v 2a). The impression that David had of God was that He was just too busy to take care of the trouble he was in; “there was no one to help” (v 11b). Instead of the “delight” that should have been between him and God (v 8d), he felt like he was too bad for God to take any interest in him. David wrestled with the Law of Worminess.
Though a bit harder to detect, in Psalm 88 Heman struggled with fear. It was buried under words of depression and hopelessness, but threaded all through his belief system nonetheless. He did not just allude to the fact that God was angry with him; he states it outright, “Your wrath lies heavily upon me” (v7a). He blames God for most of the problems he is in: hopelessness, darkness, trouble, grief, deadness. With darkness as his closest friend (v 18b), his belief that he is completely alone and beyond hope demonstrate that God is out to get him. Heman struggled with the Law of Pittedness.
Asaph does not even beat around the bush in Psalm 73 as he states unequivocally, “my feet had almost slipped…for I envied the arrogant (vv 2-3). Discontentment with God’s seeming unfairness leads him to the conclusion that God is truly unjust. His whole being cries out to God, “I am less than all the people you do not call to account. Do you really have knowledge of what is going on” (v 11)? His conclusion is that he is foolish to have played by God’s rules, for God will not answer his prayers anyway, probably because He turns a blind eye to all the evil in the world. Asaph fought with the Lord over the Law of Otherness.
Even the most godly of men struggle with God sometimes, as Job’s story shows us. He did nothing wrong and he protested his innocence for countless chapters, yet his friends were certain sin was at the root of his troubles. Job never said, “I am sinful,” but he spent an entire book trying to prove this statement false: “I will not deny my integrity. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live” (Job 27:7-8). The words “God is not merciful” did not breach his lips to my knowledge, but he sure felt like God was out to get him, “He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. God has made my heart faint; the almighty has terrified me” (Job 23:14-16). The Law of Deservedness had Job all tied up in spiritual knots.
The sons of Korah, Job, Gideon, and our comrades in prison were all faithful, but still God moved against them. Every one of them was clapped in prison – or prison-like circumstances – as a seeming punishment for their godly behavior. Gideon could not reconcile the fact that God was with him in his oppressive situation; God did not seem good because the circumstance was not good. The singer of Psalm 44 would have agreed with Gideon, “You crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness” (Ps. 44:19). All of these men, including John the Baptist, may have struggled with disillusionment over the goodness of God; after all, He was not treating them as their faithfulness deserved. These men, and many of us, draw a line in the dirt with God over this Law of Indebtedness.
Don’t these laws lie hidden in the members of our body just like Paul described in the book of Romans? Shame, fear, discontentment, sin and pride lie dormant in our souls, but drive our entire perspectives on God. We feel worthless, beyond hope, inferior, sinful, and mask our faithful protestations with pride, but these value systems in our hearts skew our perspectives on God’s love, justice, mercy, goodness and care. Just like these honest singers and prophets and servants who have unveiled their hearts in great vulnerability before God, we obey God, but we expect a return on our godly investment. We presume that our reward would be indicative of our hard work. We sincerely hope that God would behave toward us the way we are behaving toward Him and others. But God’s spiritual economy just does not get our law-abiding memo…
…though there are many Christians, who believe this way.
The Prosperity Gospel
When my eldest was pretty young, I could not keep his attention for anything. I read a book one time that talked about this little girl that kept wandering off of the path to chase butterflies. She got into all kinds of trouble because she was so distracted by her surroundings. I thought to myself, Did this writer know my son? I took that story to him as an elementary-age boy and he seemed to understand that concept. Ever after, when he would wander from the task at hand, I would remind him that he was off chasing butterflies. That mental image seemed to work to bring him back to the pathway we were currently traversing.
I give you this story from my memory lane to prepare you for the butterfly I am going to chase just briefly. I do not have the time to flesh out how all of these other laws show up in our day-to-day lives, but I can expose one: the Law of Indebtedness, which shows up as the prosperity theology about God. Bear with me for just one moment as I meander down a trail chasing this one flitting-but-pervasive thought. I hope it will be enlightening for you to see how sneaky some of these laws can be as they cross our paths each day.
I do need to be careful as I write about this; careful not to slander and judge, but I do think this mentality needs to be addressed. Not because I have it all together, but because I definitely do not! I struggle with this same sense of entitlement, that God owes me more of a quality life than I am receiving from His hand. Of all the laws I have written about in this devotional, the Law of Indebtedness is my biggest downfall. And honestly, I think I am in good company.
There are many camps in the church today, but one of the biggest and most attractive camps are those that preach a prosperity gospel. If you have not heard of this title, you may have heard of the health and wealth gospel, or the success gospel, or seed faith. These titles define a religious belief among some Christians who say that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them. Faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s own material wealth. I do not normally quote anything from Wikipedia but this quote is pretty on the money, “Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity (prosperity_theology). Their simple answer to God’s silence is a lack of faith on the petitioner’s part. This perspective is prevalent, but is it biblical?
Now for the evasive butterfly…In doing some study and research for this series, I listened to a sermon entitled Seasons of Silence. As I was listening along and taking notes, I found myself gaining hope. What I heard really ministered to me. I wrote down copious statements that seemed to pertain to my circumstances and the silence of God in my life. I could feel my heart lifting in response to the preacher’s statements. Expectation seemed to pulse through my faith and I could feel my soul agreeing with what I was hearing. Yes, that sounds good. That’s the way it should be. But part of me struggled too. Listen to some of the statements that caused me to go ‘hmmm:
- “If you will keep doing the right thing, you will come into a time where God causes you to be seen.”
- Just as God hid you, He will bring you out into the open.”
- The reason you’re hidden is because you are valuable.”
- “Favor is already in your future.”
- “There are blessings that already have your name on them.”
- “God is about to launch you.”
- “Keep being faithful. Your appointed time is on the way.”
There are other numerous quotes by this mega-million-dollar preacher, sayings like “When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance,” “Faith activates God,” and “Let go of yesterday. Let today be a new beginning and be the best that you can, and you’ll get to where God wants you to be.” These quotes are attractive because they appeal to the self-made person we all want to be and therein, lies the great deception. Instead of “making self”, we are to be God-made.
After I finished listening to this sermon, which used very little Scripture, I might add, I read over my notes. The further I read through my page of hopeful scribblings, the more I could feel my emotions deflate like a balloon in the humidity. Why? Because I knew in my spirit that many of the preacher’s quotes flew in the face of Scripture. It sounded too good to be true because it was too good to be true.
The fact is that God may never cause you to be seen in a public way; He may never choose to have you serve in the open. Tabitha faithfully ministered to the poor by making clothing, but it was only her death that brought her any mention in the Scriptures (Acts 9:36-39). Favor is always in your future with God, but favor may have nothing to do with opportunities, finances, health or any other number of things you may desire. In fact, favor with God brought an unanticipated pregnancy to an unmarried woman and almost led to a broken engagement with her intended (See Lk. 1:30). Yes, God has blessed you, but He does not promise you material blessings; instead, He promises to be with you (Heb. 13:5). God does have good plans for you (Jer. 29:11), but they may be small and behind-the-scenes – like picking up grain in a field for a mother-in-law (Ruth 2:23) – not a glorious launching with loud trumpet fanfare. Jesus began His ministry bombarded by massive temptation while fasting in a wilderness (Lk. 4:1-13). Faithfulness pleases God so yes, you should be faithful, but the truth of the matter is: your faithfulness may not reap an “appointed” kind of tangible blessing. You may need to learn contentment in the cache of spiritual blessings God has already promised you (Eph. 1:3).
The sure truth of the matter is that the Lord is to be your treasure, your very great reward (Gen. 15:1). He is to be your greatest blessing, but this series begs the question, is He really enough for you? Grace answers a resounding, “Yes!” It is only a person’s clutching, groping, fleshly adherence to a ‘what’s mine is mine’ attitude, that keeps her bound to the law.
Remember what Paul said about the law? All of us want to do what is right; we want to please God and obey Him with our whole heart. But there is a law at work in the members of our bodies, waging war against our minds and imprisoning us in our members. Honestly, we are truly wretched! We need Someone to spring us from our prisons of shame, fear, discontentment, sinfulness, and disillusionment; we need God to open up our prison doors and set us free. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ. He does redeem us from captivity to the law by making us a slave to God’s law (paraphrase of Rom. 8:21-25). The first step in this release from our law-inducing prisons is to change our perspective.
(Due to the length of this first lesson, I have decided to truncate my thoughts on the Sufferer’s Dungeon. You can read Part 1b next week, where I will give you the practical application on our focus question. I realize this ending is rather abrupt, but did not think anyone would hang in and read a 55-page document. Come back next week for good news that may help you transform your perspective about the silence of God.)