Part 3 of 12
From Carefree To Careworn
In December of 2013, Darlene was Christmas shopping with a friend. They decided to fit in an appointment at a clinic, since they were already in town. Over a two-year period, Darlene had made visits to the doctor to have tests run on a lump that would not go away. Doctors kept telling her there was nothing to worry about, that it was just fatty tissue. But Darlene had been experiencing more discomfort than normal and so she figured that while she was out shopping, she could have it checked out.
A test was run and the doctors showed some concern so Darlene acquiesced to a biopsy on the spot.The test results came back inconclusive. According to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Darlene asked them to do a core biopsy, while her friend stayed and sang praise songs in her ear. Within a short amount of time, Darlene’s whole life changed.
The second biopsy showed that the lump was indeed cancerous. In one second, she went from carefree shopping to careworn concern. Darlene called her husband who was traveling to a preaching engagement and he returned at once. More tests were run and surgery was scheduled on the twentieth of December. Everything moved very quickly and Darlene was home by Christmas Eve with a whole lot of question marks about and fear of her immediate future. “I was good,” she says, “and I wasn’t good at the same time.”
You will know Darlene by her full name: Darlene Zschech. As the former worship pastor of Hillsong Church, she fronted up to 20 of the live recordings they completed. She brought her music, over time, to the international level, where songs like “Shout to the Lord,” “Victor’s Crown,” and “Jesus at the Centre” are now sung in churches all around the world.
I watched an interview with Darlene shortly after she had been cleared of cancer almost two years later. The host asked this question, “Did you ever ask ‘why me?’” She began to reiterate all the good things Darlene had done: leading worship, pastoring a church, traveling to countries to share the gospel, writing worship songs, and faithfully raising her three children. What she was asking Darlene is a question every sufferer asks.
Darlene mentioned that there were times she wondered why God had allowed this suffering in her life and that she did struggle at times with her faith. “One minute I was great, and then one minute I was sobbing…I was back and forth,” she honestly answered. But “in the midst of the fire, it doesn’t change who He is…None of us knows how many days we have…Whatever days I have…I want to live them intentionally. I want to live the life of Christ.”
How Could A Loving God…?
Why is it that bad things happen to good people? When believers are faithfully fulfilling their calling, how can God allow such suffering to His precious ones? Take these, for example:
- When I was a child, the TEAM missionary dorm parent reversed his van and accidentally backed over his young, crawling baby. The child died instantly and eventually, so did the parents’ marriage and ministry. Grief swallowed them whole.
- A friend of mine, who wanted a whole houseful of children, had three miscarriages in a row. Later, after endometriosis began to plague her on a monthly basis, she had to undergo a hysterectomy, ending her dreams for more children.
- Sandy and Neil were missionaries in Wamena, a growing town in the interior of Irian Jaya. Neil was doing his job as an MAF helicopter pilot and one day he never came home. His helicopter had crashed into a mountain; no one knows what happened. His grieving wife and two children were forced to leave the field.
- A childhood friend of mine married a young Australian brain surgeon. After just a few months of marriage, Allie’s husband was diagnosed with a severe brain tumor. He died within the year.
I could go on and on and on listing example after painful example. You could too. Suffering is no respecter of persons. It does not play favorites. “No man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not…This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all…” (Ecc. 9:1-3).
The host who interviewed Darlene Zschech asked her if she questioned why God had chosen cancer as her lot. This question is common to all those who undergo suffering. You see, her question centers around the belief that many people hold: if I am faithful to God, He will not allow bad things to happen to me. But then their belief system is shattered, because despite all the good things they have done, despite all their faithful actions, despite their love for God and their intimate relationship with Him, something terrible does happen. And it is the God who loves them, the God who can do something about the situation and chooses not to – this God is the one that ordains the “something terrible” in their lives.
A person is left reeling. “Why me?” she cannot help but ask.
By Way of Review…
We are embarking on our third installment in a series I am entitling Unwavering Trust: Faithfully Navigating the Storms of Life. All of us struggle with trusting God at one time or another. That is why it is imperative that we know how to handle storms in our lives. Otherwise, when the floods rise and the skies grow black, we will be inundated with fear; fear, by the way, that has the potential to capsize our faith lifeboats.
Hezekiah, one of the few good kings of Judah, is our main protagonist, showing us by his life example what it means to trust God fully. In our first week, I sought to prove that the calm before the storm is the place in which we build our foundation of trust. When the storms hit, it is too late to begin constructing. Last week, we compared the two nations of Israel and Judah. Sadly, we saw the nation of Israel fall due to their imploding sin and rebellion. By contrast, Hezekiah stood tall when Israel collapsed because his foundation was built on truth. By way of review, here are the two principles of trust we have studied so far:
- A life of trust is built on intimacy, identity, and integrity in the calm before the storm.
- Trust is the feeling of security that comes from resting one’s identity on the Word and the Person of God.
Today, we dip our toes tentatively into the deep, dark pools of suffering. We will, by no earthly means, cover this topic completely. I could write one hundred pages a day for one thousand years and still barely skim the depth of life’s pain. I only bring this topic cautiously to the table because Hezekiah’s biography finds him blind-sided unexpectedly by a great affliction. How he manages his distress is a testament to his trust in God.
Suffering drips from disparate veins. No two types of sorrow are similar nor can misery be measured in length or breadth. What is horrific suffering to one person may barely be note-worthy to another, but one thing is for certain: everyone suffers. Because I know this to be true, I think it is important to look at suffering from multiple viewpoints. Today, besides Hezekiah’s suffering bed of illness, we will also hear from Joni Eareckson Tada, Bob Sorge and Larry Crabb, men and women who are experts in living grace-filled, although pain-filled, lives. We will also scratch the story’s surface of the first human sufferer ever: Job.
Before we begin to dredge the next verses in Hezekiah’s life, would you take a few moments and read 2 Kings 20:1-11, 2 Chronicles 32:24, and Isaiah 38:1-22? Again, we have a significant amount of text to plumb, but you will be happy to note that there is a lot of cross-over between these passages.
A ‘Writing’ of Hezekiah
If you read the suggested text, you will have seen that Kings and Isaiah mirror each other quite a bit. 2 Chronicles 32:24 is different in that it gives the shortest summary of the events we will soon ponder. The bare facts are all laid out succinctly, “In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. He prayed to the Lord, who answered him and gave him a miraculous sign.”
There are four bare-bones points with which I want to set our proverbial stage.
- You will see here that the suffering Hezekiah endured was actually a life-threatening illness. God often uses suffering to teach us spiritual lessons about Him, about us, and about how we interact with others in this world.
- Hezekiah’s response to that suffering was prayer. That response, in itself, was a testament to Hezekiah’s trust-life.
- God answered him. These three words are full of hope and encouragement for any sufferer.
- God gave him a miraculous sign, something that helped solidify Hezekiah’s faith.
There is an awful lot more to this story, but I want you to notice these four conflicting facts with me; conflicting because they are spoken in a very detached, understated, and sterile manner. Their succinct mention is totally at odds with earthly reality, for we all know that facing death is an event packed with soul-rending emotions; there is nothing about pain that is easy to explain away. Based on the reality of life’s hardship, you have to understand that Hezekiah’s prayer was probably a desperate one, a cry full of bitterness and sorrow. God answering that prayer is another fact stated far below the impact it should have. The thought that the God of the universe deigns to bend His listening ear to His creature’s pitiful cries is revolutionary at best and faith-provoking at the least. Additionally, receiving a death-defying answer to prayer, along with a personal sign of promise, is far from sterile; it is supernaturally miraculous.
I could teach quite a bit from this short verse, but not in a heart-moving, emotionally-riveting, life-changing way. Hezekiah’s story only becomes real to us because of a journal that Isaiah found in the king’s archives. This gripping account sutures emotional flesh to the bare-bones facts of the Kings and Chronicles, who do not include his personal memoirs. I, for one, am so grateful that Isaiah, the prophet, did. That precious journal, though it was written after the fact, remained as true to the emotions of the moment as if he were still in it. And it becomes to us the needle that stitches the sterile, emotionless facts of Hezekiah’s suffering to his raw heart and storm-tossed faith.
This devotional may find you attempting to navigate a season of intense suffering. My dear one, please do not disengage from God. Do not numb your emotions to your pain, listing your tender spots as bare facts before God and others. Feel the freedom to follow Hezekiah’s lead, writing down the facts, but also journaling your struggles before God. In the process, I know that your hurting heart and head-filled faith will be knit together by the reality of an answering God to a desperate intercessor. And, like Hezekiah, your journal will become a testament that God hears prayers and heals hearts.
In Those Days
All three accounts of Hezekiah’s suffering begin with these words, “in those days Hezekiah became ill.” What do these words mean? Where are they placed in history? What do “those days” lead to? These are just a few of the questions I have tossed around over the last week.
So many dates are given throughout these 13 chapters detailing Hezekiah’s life; dates that are paired with other kings and should provide a skeleton as to a basic timeline. What I have discovered, however, is that the Bible’s dates do not add up. Furthermore, most scholars and commentators I researched cannot agree as to what “those days” really are.
Since I am a pretty black and white person and I desire to be as accurate as is humanly possible in portraying Scripture, I have spent countless hours trying to figure out the order of Hezekiah’s life based on given biblical dates and historical events. After all of that research, I am sad to tell you that I still do not really know the accurate answer to my question. If biblical scholars cannot agree, I guess I will have to acquiesce that Hezekiah’s timeline will remain shrouded in quite a bit of mystery.
Most everyone agrees that Hezekiah’s illness came before Sennacherib’s attack, although all three biblical biographers place it after. This solid thesis has come about because of one of the promises God gave to Hezekiah when He answered his prayer. Where people’s opinions differ is about the actual dates. There are two camps of thought. Some scholars place this illness at around 713/712 B.C. due to dates given in Kings and Isaiah. Others place this illness in 701 B.C. because that is the fourteenth year that Hezekiah reigned after he was given fifteen more years to live.
For what it is worth, I personally lean toward the camp that puts this illness and Sennacherib’s attack around 712 B.C. After he was giving fifteen more years of life, I believe he was attacked again later in 701 B.C., an event which we will be studying in just a few more weeks.
I share all of this with you because I think it is important to realize that we cannot be dogmatic about minor things, like whether every date lines up or not. Whether this came first or that came first is not life-changing. The most important part of Scripture is the actual message so, instead of bringing you a completely accurate timeline (it appears impossible to connect all the dots), I will be focusing on the message within the timeline.
With that said, remember that in “those days,” Hezekiah was a good and faithful king. Within one month of taking the throne, and in his subsequent years, he overturned the spiritual climate of his nation. He purged the temple, demolished high places and banned idolatry from the land of Judah. He taught his people how to worship, even offering up sacrifices from his own personal coffers in a generous attempt to lead by example. He listened to the prophets’ warning. He took heed and stood tall when the nation of Israel, under King Hoshea, fell like a ton of bricks.
But notice what happened. Despite Hezekiah’s good works and faithfulness, despite his proactive stance against idolatry, despite teaching his people how to worship, despite his generous example, despite even standing tall while Hoshea fell, he still experienced tremendous suffering. “In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death” (2 Ki. 20:1; 2 Chron. 32:24; Isa. 38:1a). It did not seem to matter that he had been faithful; God still sovereignly allowed this godly king to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And isn’t this true in all of our lives? One day, life is trekking along at a normal pace. All systems are go. We are happy and content, enjoying our relationship with God and our service to others. And then we receive that horrifying phone call and our life changes forever.
One day, Darlene Zschech led her congregation in worship and then a few days later, while out Christmas shopping with a friend, she decided to make an appointment at a cancer clinic to get a lump checked out. Within mere hours, her entire life changed.
At the age of 17, with her whole life in front of her, Joni Eareckson one day decided to dive into the water. The bottom was more shallow than she anticipated and she struck the bottom with her head, crushing her spinal column. Within seconds, her entire life changed.
Though Bob Sorge was experiencing a spiritually dry season, he had no idea what would fan the flame for God. A deep cry arose in his heart to know God deeper and God’s answer was to give him a physical infirmity that handicapped him. One day, he was a worship leader in his church. The next, everything he had lived for was in jeopardy and he had absolutely no clue why devastation and debilitation was hitting his life (Bob Sorge, The Fire of Delayed Answers, p. 99-100).
Life was not all peachy for Naomi, since a famine induced her family to move to Moab, but it was manageable with her sons and daughters-in-law around her. However, one day in Moab, her whole life began to fall apart: her husband died and not too long after, so did both of her sons. Within just a few years, her entire life was changed (Ruth 1:3-5).
Job was the greatest man among all the people of the East. He was godly, had a great family, and was rich in land, cattle, and servants. But one day, after a consultation between God and Satan, Job lost all of his children, his livestock, servants and wealth. Within just a few minutes, Job’s life changed forever (Job 1:13-19).
Suffering is no respecter of persons nor is it measured by what is visible to the naked eye. Physical agonies can be excruciating, especially when experienced over a long time. Emotional hardship, like an unfaithful spouse, can also be termed suffering, despite the invisibility of the wound. Another type of invisible suffering is psychological, where the mind is tormented by fears and unknowns. But there is one other type of hurt, which, in my opinion, can be the most painful misery of all: spiritual suffering. When God seems distant, there seems to be absolutely no hope at all.
The Lord’s Will
When those breath-grabbing, heart-stabbing moments fall upon our once-peaceful lives, we are so often struck with fear. Actually, everything is paralyzed – our limbs, our speech, our will; everything except our bullet-train thoughts that thunder along the track of our out-of-control emotions: What is happening? we desperately plead. What have I done to deserve this. What is going to happen? Will she die? How will I manage without him? And our thoughts run to and fro like the energizer bunny on steroids.
The biggest problem we have in these faith-revealing moments is the Unknown. We have no idea why God has allowed the suffering and we have no idea what the final outcome will look like. Death looms. Marriages break. Children run away. Friends betray and we have no idea if God willed it to us for our personal refinement or whether we have sinned and are being disciplined for our own good (Heb. 12:10). It is a scary frontier, this frontier of Not Knowing.
And wasn’t that Job’s biggest problem? He was sure he had not sinned, even though that was the same recurring theme in all of his friends’ “encouraging” discourses. God would not answer him about whether refinement was His ultimate goal, so he was left completely in the dark about God’s purposes. That was suffering enough.
But that was not the case with Hezekiah. While he lay on his deathbed, Isaiah, the prophet, went to him and told him God’s will, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover” (Isa. 38:1b).
What a blow! To know that God was taking him out. No longer would he have an opportunity to do good. No longer would he set a godly example. No longer would he worship at the temple. No longer would he teach his children…..Ah, but that was the biggest blow of all! Because, you see, Hezekiah had no children.
Hezekiah lay on a bed of physical distress because he was very sick. He experienced a profound Job-like suffering because he did not have any idea what the outcome of his illness would be. Then his suffering deepened even more with those staccato, hopeless words from Isaiah. For now he knew the outcome, but instead of alleviating his stress, knowing greatly intensified his sorrow.
He sorrowed over the loss of fatherhood; never would he spend precious minutes with his son showing him the kingly ropes. He pined for the loss of lineage; never would he bounce grandchildren upon his aged knees. But he also grieved mightily for his nation. With no heir to take the throne, would the nation of Judah be torn apart by usurpers trying to capture the seat of leadership?
Not knowing, for Job, was an intense form of suffering. But imagine knowing your future: knowing your child will be paralyzed, knowing your family will go bankrupt, knowing your house will burn, knowing that you are going to die. I wonder if the suffering that would explode from the bombshell of knowing would be ever so much worse than your faith taking a blind-sided hit. I wonder if not knowing the future is actually God’s very severe mercy.
Might not the knowing shipwreck your faith on the shoals of gut-wrenching and jagged fear? Have you read through the writings of the major and minor prophets lately? Jeremiah’s complaint is captured in chapter 20, “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer. 20:7-9). God told Jeremiah the future, but when Jeremiah proclaimed judgment, he was persecuted. However, if he chose to hold it in, his soul almost imploded from the weight of the Lord’s conviction.
Or how about Jeremiah’s angst in the book of Lamentations: “Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me…He has handed me over to those I cannot withstand…This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit…My groans are many and my heart is faint” (Lam. 1:12, 16, 22). This segment of Scripture was written after the fall of Judah had come about, but Jeremiah knew for years what was going to happen in the future and he suffered under its weight.
Ezekiel’s prophecies hold a similar burden, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yoruself” (Ez. 33:7-9). Ezekiel seemed to be in a lose-lose situation. If he passed on the Lord’s warnings, the wicked man probably would not turn, and he would be judged. Ezekiel would have seen that coming, but if Ezekiel just could not pass on such condemning news, that man would die and Ezekiel, himself, would be held liable by God.
We looked at Habakkuk quite a bit last week so you might remember his pain at knowing the Lord’s will. The Lord’s answer to his complaint about injustice was to tell him the future; that He was going to bring the Assyrian army against Judah to judge and purge the nation from sin. “My God, my Holy One, we will not die,” Habbakuk cried out. “You have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish…Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?…Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy” (Hab. 1:12, 13, 17)?
For anyone, even great prophets of God, called-out, faithful followers of Jehovah, it is incredibly hard to know the future and walk trustingly on the pathway of Knowing.
Knowing and Trusting
My devoted time with God this morning was spent in Matthew 20:29-34. The story is a very familiar one, retold in Mark 10 and Luke 18. In Matthew’s account, two blind men were sitting outside of Jericho, heard Jesus was coming, and began to shout out for His mercy. They were shushed by the crowd, but Jesus engaged them and healed them.
What struck me, in light of what I have been studying and writing, is Jesus’ perspective. Twelve verses before this incident, Jesus took his disciples aside and told them the Lord’s will for him, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Mt. 20:17-19)!
Do you understand what is happening here? This blunt statement about the Lord’s will for Jesus is actually the third such-mentioned prediction of Jesus’ future suffering in the book of Matthew. Jesus knew why he had come to earth; he had come to die. “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…” (Isa 53:10).
But instead of freezing up in fear, he kept obediently walking toward Jerusalem. Instead of curling up into a useless ball, he kept warning and encouraging and training (see Mt. 20:1-16, 20-28). And instead of spewing his hurt and anger out upon his disciples, he kept telling them the future so that one day, when they were blind-sided by suffering, even though they should have been walking confidently in the Path of Knowing, they could remember and be fortified anew by the truth (Mt. 20: 17-19). Most of all, instead of feeling sorry for himself and becoming absorbed in his own pain, Jesus kept on serving those for whom he had come (Mt. 20:29-34).
Jericho was Jesus’ last known city on the way to Jerusalem, his last stop on the way to suffering. Jesus knew where he was headed, knew what was in store for him, but he still stopped, listened to, and touched those who were marginalized (v 32-34). He still showed mercy to blind men, both to those blind physically and spiritually (v 30, 31). He still dialogued with them about the state of their hearts (v 32). He still had compassion on them and he still chose to heal (v 34).
How could he do this? How could he put aside his own impending agony and focus on hurting men and women? What strengthened his emotional tendencies enough to fortify his faith? In short, how did Jesus keep trusting the Father who desired to crush him?
Answers to these questions abound in the Scriptures, but two concepts stand out to me; first, the concept of joy. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
Did you see that word ‘joy?’ What kind of joy is meant here? I believe the joys Jesus anticipated were two-fold. I think he was looking forward to future reward, which gave him strength. That reward was the presence of his Father and the pleasure of once again sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. Reunited. Restored to one another. Reconvening at the throne room in heaven.
The other joy he anticipated is the second concept that explains why Jesus could trust God. It is found in Hebrews 2:10, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”
The second reason to keep trusting, even though he knew his horrible future, was for you and for me. He knew that he could not enjoy relationship with his Father – his first priority – if he was not entirely obedient. And the Father’s will was to bring you and me into glory with Him. Jesus was the only one who could make that happen. So Jesus knew the future. It was bleak, but then it wasn’t. For Jesus also knew the future beyond his immediate future.
Jerusalem was Jesus’ frightening, suffering future. God willed it and Jesus chose to obey with whole-hearted, unwavering trust, because he knew the joy he would enjoy forever, both with his Father and with his brothers: the family of which you and I are an integral part.
God does not usually reveal the future to us. Most of us would struggle mightily to trust Him with the Knowing Path. But there are times when He chooses to lift the curtain of subsequent suffering just a tad. We may come to know ahead of time God’s will to crush us. How do we handle this?
I submit to you that we handle it like Jesus. We trust God in the knowing because we also understand the future joys that are set before us after our immediate God-willed futures. Streets of gold. A heavenly reunion with all the saints – past, present and future. No more tears or pain. The nail-scarred hands of Jesus reaching out to welcome us home. The words, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” And the face of our beloved Father smiling with infinite pleasure down upon our gratefully, humble and beseechingly earnest ones. (I am weeping as I write this. ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come!’)
You and I can also trust because we are helping Jesus to bring many sons to glory. That is our great commission, right (Mt. 28:18-20)? We can move forward into our seasons of suffering because we are part of Christ’s family. Who knows, but that our suffering is the very vehicle God will use to bring another wandering child home?
The joys of heaven and the treasure of a calling. These two rewards strengthened Jesus to trust God’s hard will on his journey to anguish and they can fortify you as you walk in your Lord-willed path of suffering.
Try God’s perspective on for size. Write out some verses about your coming heavenly reward and about your current earthly calling. Speak them over your troubled soul and pray them over your children. Pray that God would give you Christ’s perspective and believe that you are living your life to bring God glory. Putting on the mind of Christ can become one of your highest aims and it can transform your fear of suffering into the joy of soaring (Isa 40:31).
By the way, the Pathway of Not Knowing can be negotiated with incredible trust from the same godly perspective. But we will get to that a little later
Arguing with Deity
Back in the king’s palace, Isaiah informed Hezekiah of God’s decision. It was an executive order issued by the Creator of the universe. God’s will: non negotiable, unchallengeable, sacrosanct and untransferable. After all, who argues with Deity?
Well, my friend, I believe faith might.
I have incredible confidence that a true worshiper who has the ear of God, who loves Him with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, who desires to serve Him and bring Him glory, just might do a little arguing with God about his God-willed situation.
Abraham argued with God. After a nice time together, three unusual visitors got up to leave the meal around Abraham’s tent. The Lord reasoned with Himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do (Gen. 18:17). As an aside, what He was about to do was destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their grievous sin (vv 20-21).
Scripture says that Abraham remained standing before the Lord while the other two men turned away (v 22). He then began to negotiate with the Lord about the destruction of Sodom, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked” (v 23)? He argued with God – very reverently, of course – about the amount of righteous people that would prevent the Lord from carrying out His will (vv 24-32). Whether he changed the Lord’s will or not, we do know that the Lord promised that He would not destroy the city for the sake of ten righteous people and we also know that He arranged a miraculous exit for Lot, his wife and two daughters (ch. 19).
Moses argued with God. In Exodus 32, Moses was up on the mountain with the Lord receiving the commandments, while Israel was down in the valley already breaking them. Out of His deep anger and hurt, God told His people that He was not going to take them into the Promised Land. They could proceed, but He was not willing to go with them.
Moses beseeched God to change His mind. He prayed that God would relent and go with them, for what else would distinguish them from all the people on the earth? God’s will had been spoken (Ex. 33:1-3), but Moses argued with Deity. And amazingly enough, God relented His will (Ex. 33:14).
Ananias argued with God. Saul had been struck down by God on the road to Damascus. He was holed up, completely blind, in the house of Judas on Straight Street. The Lord came to Ananias and told him to go and lay his hands on Saul so his sight would be restored (Acts 9:11-12). God’s will for Ananias seemed to include some possible future suffering, at least Ananias thought so, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints, in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name” (Acts 9:13-14). Of which I am one, he probably simultaneously thought.
Instead of obeying immediately, trusting God without any questions, Ananias argued with God over His request. Did God strike him dead? No! He reiterated His mandate, “Go!” and then he gave him even more information about the future. “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Instead of shutting down Ananias’ concerns, God engaged them and gave Ananias more revelation that further alleviated his fears.
If you can believe it, even Jesus argued with God. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus went to Gethsemane with his disciples. He asked them to sit with him while he drew apart to pray for a little while. Three of his closer friends went with him and he asked them to stay and keep watch with him. Why? Because his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death (Mt. 26:36-38).
He went a little further into the garden by himself and Scripture says that “he fell with his face to the ground and prayed. ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (26:39). He returned to the disciples and scolded them for not even being able to pray for one hour (v 40). Then he went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (v 42). He returned to his sleeping friends, but he left them a third time to pray, saying the same thing to his Father (v 43).
I believe each of the statements recorded were a summation of his resistance and capitulation, but imagine with me all that went on in between the “please take this cup from me,” and “not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus did not acquiesce easily. Luke gives us more insight into the argument that was going down in the garden. While Jesus was praying with God, he was so sorrowful that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Lk. 22:44). Do you understand this? Jesus was arguing with his Father and had so much anguish in his heart that he was sweating blood. This was not a gentle skirmish with a casual opponent. This was an all-out battle of wills between a Father and His son: “Please, Abba, don’t make me do this.”
But in the end he did. After arguing it out with his Daddy, after crying and weeping, after sweating bloody anguish, after looking ahead to the joy that was set before him, and after reminding himself that he was bringing many sons to glory, he bowed his own will before the will of his Father.
As a result, dear one, you and I have the freedom to do the very same. We can negotiate reverently with God as Abraham did. We can plead for God to change His mind like Moses. We can question God like Ananias, as long as we have a submissive, ready-to-obey-if-the-answer-is-go kind of heart. And we can beg for God to take our cup from us as long as we do His will when the answer is a definite “no.”
Sweet woman of God, suffering is not an end to a relationship with God. It is a beginning, a new door, a realm of possibilities. Do not think for a second that God will not listen to you if you struggle with His will. If Jesus struggled to do God’s will, I believe you have some heavenly permission to spar with God.
Struggle! Talk to God about your pain! Argue it out, basing your requests on His glory and covenant love. God is a good God and if He does not choose to lift suffering from off of your shoulders, your relationship with Him will deepen considerably because you have, in faith, wrestled that suffering through. Be a warrior woman and negotiate, plead, question, and argue with Deity. Read the Psalms; they are filled with arguments with God. Use some of David’s words to give your heart struggles winged flight.
But always remember this: His desire will be done. You can join up with Him and His sovereign will in the end or walk away and lose out on the best Friend you could ever have. Love for God always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). God loves you and you love God, but sometimes that love is only fully realized after faith wrestles the pain through. You see, Paul pled with the Lord to remove a thorn in his flesh three times. He argued it out with God, but in the end he boasted in his weakness, his suffering, because God’s grace was sufficient for him. His power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
And isn’t this boast-in-God, perfecting end the inevitable working out of a struggling faith? To find our faith is bleeding out. To fearfully touch Jesus’ garment in the hopes that something will change. To have to tell him the whole truth about our weakness. To find that our faith – small as it is – has somehow healed us. To know that there is peace. And to realize that we can be free from our suffering (Mk. 5:25-34), even in the dead-center midst of that same suffering. Because faith, truth, peace, and freedom look a lot different when God’s grace becomes sufficient for you and for me.
A Throne In The Dirt
Darlene Zschech tells a sweet story about one of her ministry trips to South Africa. This particular one found her and her worship team at an orphanage in Johannesburg. A young four-year old boy caught her eye and she began to try to connect with his heart. He was completely unresponsive, staring blankly with sad eyes glazed over. All of her teammates tried to get him to smile, to no avail. Darlene wondered what kind of trauma he had endured to be so despairing at the tender age of four.
She recounts what she attempted as a last-ditch kind of effort. “So in the dirt, into his gorgeous, perfectly formed little ears, I started to sing, “Jesus Loves me.” It only took minutes for his stunning, tear-filled eyes to look up, and it was like our hearts connected right there and then. We were building Jesus a throne in the middle of the dirt” (www.premierChristianity.com/Blog/Darlene-zschech).
What does it mean to build a throne in the middle of the dirt? How do you and I go about drawing heaven down to earth for those who do not even know God? And how does suffering help build Jesus a throne?
These questions – or other ones like it – cross my mind often in the midst of stressful trials. Ultimately, suffering is supposed to bring God glory. Somehow, in the midst of my pain, arguing with God, and struggling submission to His will, I am to be a tablet upon which God can write His merciful grace. My life – suffering scars and all – is to be a living, breathing example of trust.
Romans 12:1 shows us generally how to be that example, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’ mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” Our bodies, whether broken by suffering or healed by grace, are to be living sacrifices. This means that our lives are not our own; they are offered up to God to do with as He pleases. In this process of offering our very scattered minds, our recalcitrant wills, are undulating emotions, our varied personalities, and our scarred physical frameworks to God, we engage in worship; we build Jesus a throne in the dirt of our painful circumstances.
Darlene connected with an unresponsive little boy through the medium of song. This is what most of us think of when we conjure up the word worship. But worship is so much more than this. We sell worship short – and our very abilities to build Jesus a throne every day of our lives – when we curtail worship’s varied activities.
Job was tested beyond normal human measures. In one day he lost his oxen, his donkeys, his sheep, his camels, most of his servants, and all of his children. Wealth, family, livelihood – all taken from him in just a few moments. “The thing that is stunningly amazing is that Job survived his ordeal without the aid of written Scripture, without the support of godly friends, and without anyone who could speak the prophetic word of the Lord to him” (Bob Sorge, The Fire of Delayed Answers, p. 24).
How did he respond to all the affliction God allowed in his life? He built a throne for Jesus in the dirt. He got up, tore his robe, and shaved his head (Job 1:20). He fell to the ground in worship (v 20), saying, “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” (v 21). And he did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (v 22).
Not a song passed his lips as far as we know, yet Job responded in a worship scene the like of which I have never personally seen. Worship involved tearing his robe and shaving his head in abject misery and pain. Worship fell to the ground. Worship spoke truth over his situation. Worship acknowledged God as sovereign over his pain. And worship was a choice not to blame God, not to charge Him with wrongdoing, and not to sin by building a wall between him and God instead of a throne.
In chapters one and two of the book of Job, he makes statements about his suffering that reveal absolute trust; the second one being, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble” (Job 2:10)? But seven days later, after he has suffered from painful sores and sat on an ash heap with his three best friends, after he has had time to ask God the really hard questions, he begins to spew utter misery from his heart.
He curses the day he was born (ch. 3), declares that his life is futile (ch. 6) and that he has no hope (ch. 7). He cries out that he has no arbiter before God (ch 9) and begs for God to tell him what charges there are against him (ch. 10). He speaks of God’s greatness (ch. 12), his own integrity (ch. 13), and his dying hope (ch. 14). He rails against his miserable comforters (ch. 14), pleads for death (ch. 15), and accepts the truth that his breath is offensive even to his own wife (ch. 19). He decries the apparent long life of the wicked in comparison to the righteous (ch. 21) and complains that God has hidden Himself away (ch. 23). He acknowledges God’s power (ch. 26), questions God’s justice (ch. 27) and seeks God’s wisdom (ch. 28). He recalls all the blessings in his past (ch. 29), looks around at God’s judgments (ch. 30), and looks ahead to God’s justice (ch. 31).
As you look at the contents of my last paragraph, you may begin to determine that Job is schizophrenic; after all, he is both questioning God and blessing Him in alternate breaths. But, my friend, he is not. He is merely attempting to state his case before his God (Job 23:4), attempting to figure out what on earth went wrong. The problem is that he cannot seem to find Him (Job 23:8-9). God appears to have hidden Himself away and that is the crux of Job’s problem, as it is so often with you and me.
Life is rolling right along, until one day we are blindsided by a storm. In the darkness of our suffering, all light seems to recede, including the light of the glory of our Lord’s face. We feel alone and abandoned. We want to scream at someone, cry out for someone to take all the pain away, but no one seems to answer, least of all our heavenly Father. Our faith flags and we begin to doubt the love of God, which drives us into deeper and deeper despair.
We are left with two choices. We can abandon God and die a little bit every day – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Or we can do the unexpected, the unusual, the unlikely: we can argue it out with God. Of the two choices, the second one feels unspiritual, but I submit to you that it is actually the faith-based one.
A dying faith numbs. A living faith begins to excise the wound in the Presence of the loving Surgeon. A dying faith hunkers down for the duration, hoping to hang on until the storm passes. A living faith takes step after tiny step toward the Light of hope, despite the fact that each limping stride is pure agony. A dying faith turns tail and runs. A living faith crawls, if it has to, through each fear-filled foxhole to the safe Bunker. A dying faith is self-centered and self-protective. But a living faith is pure worship, exaltation of the One who lovingly made it possible to make a choice to choose Him, even in the midst of the storm.
I see Job’s angry outbursts and cries for justice as a profound engagement of God, one which many believers refuse to even think is politically correct, let alone godly. Job complains about God’s heavy hand in one verse (23:2), then pleads to be with Him in the next (23:3). He desires to state his case to God (23:4-7), but expresses his frustration that He is not able to be found (23:8-9). And one verse later, he utters these amazing words, “But he knows the way I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (v 10).
What is Job doing with his faith? He is attempting to stretch it to grasp a God whose ways surpass the way he works, and whose thoughts think way beyond the way he thinks (Isa. 55:9 – MSG). His finite mind cannot hold God’s justice on one side and His love on the other. So his faith has to open like a bud stretching toward the sun, far enough that he can comprehend a God who is personal, but sometimes, oh, so silent. And how does it open? Much like a butterfly’s wings do: through struggling and waiting and stretching and wrestling.
What would it take for you to engage God like Job did? To scream out your pain honestly before His heavenly courts? To choose to trust Him completely even though you have no idea what is going on? I submit to you that it is going to take some suffering to light this candle of warring faith. And maybe some suffering over the long haul or at a high degree of heat. Long-term, intense suffering will either fell you to the ground in faithless self-pity or it will make a worshiper out of you.
Just like it did with Hezekiah. For when the choice to run from God or to engage the God who ordained his illness crossed his path, he chose to build a throne for Jesus in the unlikely dirt of his palace sick bed.
The Suffering Worshiper
Two seemingly unrelated stories have come together in an odd way for me this week in my devotions: the healing of two blind men and Jesus’ hard-fought submission in the garden of Gethsemane. Both of these stories demonstrate worship, but in very unique ways. First, let’s take a look at the healing of the blind men.
This story is found in Matthew 20:9-34. I brought this account to the table earlier today to demonstrate Jesus’ submission to God in spite of knowing that it was His will to crush him. Now I want to look at the two blind men, because I believe that their choices in the midst of their suffering precipitated Jesus’ healing; they chose to build a throne for Jesus in the dirt of Jericho.
“As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
“Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Jesus said to (them), “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (Lk. 18:42). Immediately they received their sight and followed him.”
Without getting too far away from Hezekiah, which I may have already done, I want to highlight the journey of these blind men. In my journal on the day I mediated on this passage, I entitled my devotionals Blind Men Worship, for the concept of worship is what stood out to me. There are movements of faith in these two blind men that can open our own eyes to worship in vistas, perhaps unknown.
Faith shouts aloud. All the blind men had to know was that Jesus was passing them by and they began to cry out for him to stop and help. In the middle of suffering, a crying-out type of faith is pure worship.
Notice what they were crying, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.” Despite not being able to see Jesus’ face, they knew his reputation and his character. Obviously, they had heard about his miracles and compassion and to these two characteristics of the Messiah, they appealed. The Pharisees would not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the prophesied Son of David, but two blind beggars had enough spiritual insight to state what should have been obvious to religious leaders. In their cry, they spoke respectfully, “Lord,” they acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and they appealed to His merciful nature. Knowing God and appealing to His character and ways are sure-fire ways to connect faith to worship.
Despite the rebukes heaped upon them, they continued to cry out to Jesus to hear them and have mercy. Even when the going gets tough, when crowds mock our persistence, faith finds a way to persevere. A persistent call for help is another name for worship.
When Jesus asked them what they wanted him to do, they knew the answer immediately. Of course, they wanted to see, but Jesus made them state it out loud. It took faith to humbly ask for their deepest desires. It took courage in the face of ridicule and possible embarrassment to verbalize their innermost longings. But that is the way of trust. Faith speaks out loud the truth of the longing heart and on the way, bares the heart to the Object of worship.
Notice that Jesus did have compassion on them and reached out to touch them. Then he stated an amazing truth: “your faith has healed you.” They did receive their sight, but instead of running home to get a job or tell their friends, they began to immediately follow Jesus. Their lives were forever changed, but they chose to align themselves with their Healer. This tells me that not only were their eyes healed, but their hearts also. They had faith to believe God could cure them from their physical blindness, but their faith covered more ground than they counted on: it healed their spiritual blindness as well. Worship believes God for healing; not just physical healing, but emotional and spiritual healing as well. Additionally, true worship does not focus on one’s own needs; instead, it follows wherever Jesus leads.
Shouting out loud to God. Acknowledging His ways and character. Seeing beyond the visible to the spiritual implications and naming them in the heavenly realms. Persevering in faith despite opposition. Naming deep-seated longings. Believing God to do the impossible. Getting up out of the suffering circumstances and following wherever Jesus leads. These actions – and many more – are ones that you and I can take as we decipher what it means to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice of worship.
The Garden of Worship
The other story that hinges on this same theme occurs on Jesus’ last night with his disciples before he was betrayed and killed. I spent a lot of time in this story already today, but I just want to draw out some highlights that pertain to this worship theme. You can read the story again in Matthew 26:36-46.
When Jesus arrived at the Garden, he told his disciples to sit there while he went to another part of the garden to pray (v 36). Taking three of his closest disciples with him, he showed his true heart, becoming sorrowful and troubled (v 37). He admitted to them that he was sorrowful to the point of death and asked them to keep watch with him (v 38). On his own, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed if the cup could pass from him, but he ended with these words, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (v 39).
He returned to his disciples and rebuked them for not watching with him for one hour. He then exhorted them to watch and pray so that they would not fall into temptation (v 40). He went away a second and a third time, repeating the pleading, submitting process (v 42-45). God did minister to His son in the form of an angel, but he still continued to agonize, bleeding drops of blood (Lk. 22:43-44). Eventually, the war came to an end and he began his walk to the cross (v 46).
From the beginning of that night, when he only knew God’s will in his head, until the end of the night, where his head and heart stepped into God’s will, Jesus engaged in heart-felt worship. Prayer to his Father was worship. Being real to his three closest disciples, showing them his sorrowful and troubled heart, was worship. Asking them to keep watch with him, to pray for him, was an invitation to join him in worship. Struggling with God’s will, wrestling through his rebellious emotions, and surrendering to God; not once, but three times, was full-out worship.
Far from disowning His son and becoming angry with him for struggling through this emotional suffering, God allowed Jesus to engage with Him as a man naturally would. I humbly submit to you that God was even pleased with the process. The fact is that He lovingly formed our bodies; He knows we are but dust. He also knew personally the breadth of the sacrifice Jesus offered to even come down in the form of a man. So in the midst of Jesus’ horrific mental anguish, God sent an angel from heaven to minister to His precious one. This was the heaven-come-down moment of worship, the place where Jesus’ heart and God’s connected. This was the moment when God acknowledged the cost of Jesus’ worship; He knew how hard it was for His son to sincerely worship Him in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23-24).
But notice that Jesus cried harder after the strengthening ministry from heaven than before. This was the time when he sweat those great big drops of blood. And in this truth, there is an incredible thought to ponder, “Perhaps we’re meant to learn that the richest hope permits the deepest suffering, which releases the strongest power, which then produces the greatest joy. Maybe there is no shortcut to joy. Maybe God sometimes frustrates our desire to experience Him in order to deepen it” (Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams, p. 45). Jesus was perfected through his suffering, the author of Hebrews says (Heb. 2:10), and that perfecting process ensued as Jesus suffered, wept, and worshiped.
Hezekiah’s Bed of Worship
Hezekiah knew that his days were numbered. Isaiah had just told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was so: “You are to put your house in order, because you are going to die” (Isa 38:1). When you know God’s will for you is not all beds of roses, what is your response? Do you run from the God who seems to be afflicting you or do you cry out your pain on His shoulder? Do you allow your heart to become embittered or do you open up that heart for the Surgeon to begin cutting? Do you charge God with wrongdoing or do you build a throne for Jesus in the dirt of your suffering?
My friend, if you choose to engage God, even if it is messy and extremely ugly, I believe that you, like Hezekiah, will become a God-worshiper.
Darlene learned that worship changed everything, “Right from that first biopsy, I just had to play worship music because it changes the atmosphere…Like a mother with her babies, worship gathers your faith and helps gather your heart and pulls it into a safe place and give it the strength to declare truth. Worship is such a nurturer of our deepest places…” (Darlene Zschech, www.youtube.com).
In your suffering, do you need a change of atmosphere? Does your faith need a jump start? What soothing balm is needed in your deepest places? I propose that learning to worship, not steeping in more theology, will begin to gather the edges of your tattered faith that lies like driftwood in the shallows of affliction. If you need a place to declare truth, read on, for with Romans 12:1 as our general guide on worship, and with the examples of Job, the blind men, and Jesus as our guide on how to worship, we will begin to flesh out Hezekiah’s story. A story, I need to add, that details what worship looks like and how it motivates a person to engage his God.
The twenty-two verses in Isaiah 38 are packed so full of good, solid, practical meat: examples of prayer, principles on answered prayer, information on God’s promises and so much more. What I am most concerned with, however, is how Hezekiah’s choices shine a beacon of light on trust, which is our main theme over these ten weeks.
Because it will take me awhile to work my way through this chapter, I want to give you the acronym up front. Otherwise, you may lose the cohesion of my main thrust as we proceed through Hezekiah’s illness, response, and healing.
Worship is a(n):
W – Weeping Prayer
O – Open Soul
R – Repeated Intercession
S – Strengthened Faith
H – Humble Walking
I – Invigorated Love
P – Praise-filled Life
Let’s dive in and see how Hezekiah, once again, shines brightly in his example of trust in the midst of his God-willed storm.
As soon as Hezekiah received his death sentence from the Lord, via Isaiah’s prophecy, he had two choices: curse God and die, which was Job’s wife’s advice (Job 2:9), or engage God with his pain. The first option would have shown Hezekiah’s deep distrust of God, but Hezekiah chose the second option and began to talk to God honestly and vulnerably.
After Isaiah’s volatile news, Scripture says that Hezekiah turned his face to the wall (38:2). Many scholars have drawn varying conclusions from this action of Hezekiah’s, conclusions that seem off the wall to me (get the pun?). He was self-centered and felt God was being unfair to him (ESV Study Bible notes). He was simply facing the temple (NIV Study Bible). He was sulking like king Ahaz had done at one time in the past (Expositor’s Commentary) or he was displeased (Tyndale).
If you think about it, as a person of royalty, he would never have been alone. I am a mother of three and I am rarely able to get alone, especially if my four-year-old is in the house. The fact that Hezekiah was ill tells me that people would have been in and out of his room a lot, much like at a modern-day hospital. A prophet doesn’t visit the palace everyday so imagine the stir his trip to Hezekiah’s room must have made.
Why did Hezekiah turn to the wall? It’s pretty obvious to me. Being sick and weak and having no way to be alone, Hezekiah turned his face away to hide his emotions. He had just received a death sentence. Of course, he was upset. Of course, he was sad. And yes, he might have felt like sulking. Any normal human being would have. After all, he was only 39 years old and was being cut down in the prime of his life (Isa. 38:10).
But look at what he did with his emotions: he prayed to the Lord (38:2). “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes,” Hezekiah reminded God (38:3). Was Hezekiah perfect? No. Was he completely blameless? No. But what he alluded to was a pretty good track record with God: doing what was right in God’s eyes, removing idols from the land, trusting in God, holding fast to Him, not ceasing to obey Him, and keeping His commands (2 Kings 18:3-6).
His reminder to God of his walk with Him was actually quite biblical. He was not boasting, but justifying an Old Testament dispensation that temporal rewards follow legal obedience (JFB Commentary). For example, in Exodus 20:12, honoring one’s parents led to a long life in the land. Even Solomon was told, “if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did…I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever…” (1 Kings 9:4-5).
If you will recall, Hezekiah’s legal righteousness seemed to bring about good results earlier on. Remember that after his long list of godly characteristics in 1 Kings 18, the author tells us that the Lord was with him and gave him success in whatever he undertook (v 7). Success followed godly living.
This is why Job’s friends could not understand his stance of integrity. Something bad was happening to him and they assumed he had ticked God off somehow. Additionally, if a woman could not conceive, the same conclusion was on everyone’s minds: she sinned and God was punishing her. Reminding God of his pious walk with Him was not an action of manipulation; it was a godly action based on years of precedence. Godly people all through the ages reminded God of their faithfulness in order to receive the answers to their prayers (Solomon in 1 Kings 8, Ezra in Ezra 8, Nehemiah in Neh. 13:22, 31 and David all through the psalms).
When his prayer to God ended, Hezekiah wept bitterly (38:3). After baring his heart to the Lord, he could not hold in his emotions any longer and he broke down (NLT), weeping as he prayed. His prayer was punctuated by painful tears (MSG).
Oh, my heart aches as I read these words because I, too, have wept painful tears. I have cried out to the Lord so many times; literally, with tears punctuating my timid requests. I have trotted out my faithfulness to God, reminding him about the things I have sacrificed to do His will. And, according to many of my commentators – and many people in the church – this approach means that I am being self-centered and sulky before God?
Folks, if we cannot bring our honest, raw emotions to God, to whom do we turn? If we cannot be vulnerable before our Maker, where else do we go? He knows our hearts anyway. Why would we fake joy in His presence? Don’t we do a disservice to the God who keeps count of all our tossings, puts all of our tears in His bottle, and writes them down in His book (Ps. 56:8 – ESV) by pretending they do not exist?
Job was honest with his emotions, raw in his approach to God, but he knew the healing power of crying out because he knew his intercessor. “Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend” (Job. 16:19-21).
Job discovered something I wish the modern church really understood: Jesus is intimately involved in weeping prayer. He mourned in the garden of Gethsemane in the same way – crying bitterly to his Father. He did not have an advocate or intercessor; he had only his “tears…for food day and night, while men said to (him) all day long, ‘Where is your God’” (Ps. 42:3)? Because of his lonely trial, he understands the lonely travail of a person pregnant with sorrow. He further understands that the delivery of tears and agony at the feet of God are a cleansing, cathartic, and painful type of worship. He understands and gets involved in this messy worship process by interceding with us before his Father.
Pouring out tears. Pleading with God. Advocate on high. My intercessor is my friend. All of these words are poignant reminders to me that worship is inherent in weeping prayer.
Listen to David’s words in Psalm 116, “For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed; therefore I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’ And in my dismay I said, ‘All men are liars’” (vv 8-11).
Belief prompted David to spew out his pain. Belief evoked a cry of dismay, a scream of injustice. Belief precipitated an honest assessment of affliction. And what did God do? He delivered him in order that they could walk on together in the land of the living.
Deliverance. Tears. Stumbling. Walking before God. Belief. Speaking truth. Being honest. Again, these words are not anti-God; they are the very essence of worship to God.
And look at the final outcome of weeping prayer: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him” (Ps. 126:5-6). Not only are tears a cathartic, honest appraisal of one’s pain, they are a planting. When we cry out to God through gritted teeth and eyes squeezed shut to block out our stark realities, God promises us that, in time, we will reap a harvest.
Sowing in tears. Carrying seed to sow. Returning with songs of joy. Reaping. Carrying sheaves. My friend, do not ever let anyone tell you that crying in pain to God makes you emotionally unstable. Hezekiah clearly shows us that worship begins by turning our sad faces to the wall of our circumstances, praying out of the depths of our injustice and weeping bitterly before the Lord.
Recently, the Lord has placed two young mothers in my life; mothers who seem to desire nothing but a couple of hours away from their little children and my life-on-the-other-end-of toddler kind of advice. As we were sitting and chatting this past week, the subject of home-service came up. How did I handle little ones on the road? What kinds of possessions should be stored? Does the mother always have to make an appearance in the church? And the questions went on and on.
I answered some of their questions out of my eighteen years of missionary kid experience and now, sixteen years of adult missionary experience. But one thought I punched home to them: their greatest mission field is their family. If churches have to take a bit of a back seat over the emotional well-being of their children, so be it. If their marriage is a little frayed around the edges due to the never-ending meetings, they need to say a big fat “no” to outside expectations for a while. I assured them that if their emotional situations are explained clearly, folks will understand, and if they don’t, well then, they have done the right thing before their family and before God. This advice was a bit shocking to them, but I’ve lived a little by now. I know, looking back, what is a priority and what it not. A relationship with God and faithful service to my family is the main priority. Fulfilling everyone else’s expectations is definitely not.
You see, being a missionary is hard! That’s why there are many missionaries who do not last very long on the field. Always living in a foreign culture; even your own seems foreign after being away for so long. Rarely knowing grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, but being on intimate terms with folks from a dozen or so different cultures, who at any point, could be called back to their respective continents at a moment’s notice. Always dealing with foreign bugs and animals…and many of them in the house. Often having locals laugh at you for messing up how you pronounce their language; never mind the hours it took you to get to that point. Having colleagues, as well as the people to whom you minister, misunderstand where you are coming from. Always seeking to balance the expectations of supporters, prayer partners, extended families, well-meaning friends, mission leaders, mission organizations, churches and pastors along with the requirements of personal family members, without losing a bit of yourself in the process. Always being on display and having every motive questioned because people have invested their hard-earned money into you and your ministry.
I understand people’s perspective, their generosity in giving and their desire for accountability, but understanding does not make the scrutiny less difficult. Being a missionary is just plain hard!
After growing up overseas for most of my formative years, I am well aware of the pedestal on which many missionaries are placed. That is why, when my husband and I were called into full-time missions in 2004, I began writing e-prayer journals and devotionals to our supporters. It was imperative for me that people know the real me. My struggles. My victories. My faith-wobbling crises. And my deep love for God and His Word. All of my writing over these last fourteen years has been a journal of vulnerability, an honesty before God and man, a pure, unabated bridge of worship from an open soul to the ever-hearing ears of God.
And we have lost supporters as a result of being honest. One man, who dropped our support this past year, said that reading our prayer reports was like reading the account of a family struggling with cultural and familial events; not the victorious triumphs of a church planter. But I ask you, where else does worship flow from? If not from struggling with cultural and familial events, then from where else? My life and its trials are the only fodder from which God can solicit worshipful expression.
As a mom, washing dirty dishes is an offering of my hands. Cleaning dirty toilets is my living sacrifice. Taking care of my God-proffered little ones is my holy, God-given ministry. Speaking gently to my helper and showing interest in my foreign neighbors is a pleasing act before God. In every little thing I do, whether in word or in deed, I can do it all unto God as a means of worship. Even the writing of this devotional, drawn from my everyday up-and-down experiences with God, is an act of service. Choosing to be faithful in flinging open the door of my soul in humble vulnerability is my spiritual act of worship (paraphrase of Rom. 12:1 and Col. 3:23-24). Dear one, an open soul is one of the greatest means of worship you can offer God and others. And Hezekiah shows us how.
After he recovered from his illness, Hezekiah journaled about the feelings he experienced lying on his deathbed. Listen to these words. They are precious in their soul-baring honesty:
“I said, ‘In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?’ I said, ‘I will not again see the Lord, the Lord, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world. Like a shepherd’s tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me. I waited patiently till dawn, but like a lion he broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me.”
I wonder if Hezekiah’s “supporters” and “prayer partners” would have continued to think he was a good investment if they had read this raw appraisal of his feelings. You see, people like to hear that life is good and ministry is effective. They don’t want to admit that life is often very bad and consequently, ministry slows to a creeping crawl. The only restorative thread in this dichotomy of God’s goodness and life’s cruelty is a pure and trusting communion that ascends to God from the depths of an open soul. Not always pleasant or even very godly, but exceedingly honest.
Hezekiah complained to God that the age of thirty-nine was too young to die. He was in the prime of his life, for goodness’ sake. How could he be effective from a grave? He urged God to reconsider the robbing of his godly potential; he had so much more to offer.
Not only was his age a concern, but he would miss out on a family and seeing God work through his lineage. No child was yet on Hezekiah’s horizon; he would never hold a baby in his arms or have the opportunity to pass on God’s truths to a new generation. He told God that his witness to others about God’s faithfulness would never come to pass. He would never again see the Lord work in the land of the living and he could never again be a living testament to the fact that he was successful only because God was with him.
He felt transient and expendable like a shepherd’s tent. Raised canvas one day and pegs pulled up on the next. The matting that was God’s ongoing masterpiece (Eph. 2:10) was being rolled up like a weaver’s cloth. God was literally cutting him off from the creative loom, making an end to all of his dreams and hopes. He waited for hope to dawn, but God came at him like a lion, ripping and tearing at his body.
Have you ever felt this way? Robbed of your potential. Cut off from goodness. Unable to see the Lord working in your circumstances. Discarded. Expendable. Attacked and abandoned. Of course, you have; everyone has at one time or another. This is the crisis of faith. This is the normal consequences of living in a broken world.
What you do with those feelings demonstrates your level of trust in God. You can numb those feelings and your faith will begin to slide into auto-pilot. You will praise God with your mouth, put on a happy face, sing His praises, while your belief in the goodness of God will die a slow death on the inside. Your faith will crumble into dust under the pressure of your faith’s split personality.
Or you can face the God who tears at you like a lion. You can offer up the deepest parts of your rage and hurt to Him, knowing in your head that He cares for you, but being honest about the struggle in your soul that wars against that same head-knowledge. Facts do not a complete faith make. True faith, true trust, stems from wrestling with God until the hip of unbelief is dislocated. Then a new woman with a new name emerges from the conflict to face the rising sun, limping from her painful encounter with the loving savagery of heaven into her God-given, God-determined destiny (see Gen. 32:22-31).
I tell you the truth: the realistic, evocative, often-raging faith-limper is the one from whom God accepts the open soul as pure worship. David was in the slimy pit, where he cried out over and over for help. He waited patiently for the Lord, who eventually lifted him out of his circumstances, put his feet on a rock, and gave him a firm place to stand (Ps. 40:1-2). But a lot of worship occurred in that slimy pit because David engaged God with his pain.
My friend, do not discount the painful interaction with God from the slimy pit. In light of God’s miraculous deliverance, I believe His actions reinforced the fact that David’s struggle constituted miraculous worship.
Job argued with God about his circumstances. Sitting in an ash heap, feeling the sting of his friends’ disapproval, and crying out like a child in his bewilderment, Job did not recant his faith in his Redeemer. He kept struggling and wrestling. He refused to disengage his heart from his trust, though it hung at times by a mere thread. He combated the temptation to give up hope, to give in to his friends’ false theology and to give out a good piece of his mind in anger toward his miserable comforters. But what he did not do was numb his feelings; he directed them in a sometimes-angry, sometimes-confusing stream of vulnerability from his open and bleeding soul to the compassionate ears of his heavenly Father.
And what was the outcome, my friend? “The Lord answered Job out of the storm” (Job 38:1). Never dismiss the fact that God is listening. Even in the middle of a desert, the Lord found a pagan woman. He spoke to her and assured her of His ever-watchful eye. Hagar came to know the God who saw her, El Roi, and in the process of the abuse, the struggle, the tears, the running, and the last-ditch energy expended to cry out, she saw the One who saw her (Gen. 16:13-14).
God enlarged Job’s perspective about His goodness, about His power, and about His ever-loving concern on all that He had made (Job 38-40:2). Job knew one thing when the Lord’s first lesson ended: he knew he was unworthy of the Lord’s great love and compassion (Job 38:4-5), but God was not done answering his precious sufferer. He began to speak two long poems about animals that dealt with the moral issues Job had raised (Job 40-41). Job was reminded that he could not vindicate himself. Only the power of God can right all wrongs and illuminate dark paths. Job, in his finite humanness could not run the world; only God could, and the sufferer who bares his heart to God can know this final truth to overrule his tempest-tossed faith. Job’s vision of God was expanded to retrofit his sense of injustice and he repented of his unbelief and distrust (Job 42:1-6).
Dear one, do not discount the screaming, blaming interaction with God from the top of a lonely ash pile. In light of God’s incredible revelation, I believe that God constituted that struggle as incredible worship and it is documented as an example to you and me.
Opening up honest dialogue with God is hard; no doubt about it. It requires time and precious emotional energy. Inevitably, it leads to more pain in the wrestling process; not just anguish over the circumstances, but the pain of coming face to face with the reality of circumstances juxtaposed with the reality of a loving God who does not seem to care. That fight, just like the wobbling, immature struggle of a newly-emerged butterfly, feels contradictory. But my friend, without the struggle, a butterfly cannot do what it was put into the dark cocoon to do: fly above its circumstances on wings strengthened by the melee. Likewise, without the struggle of an open soul, a believer can never do what she was created to do: fly above her painful circumstances on the wings of trust.
Recently, Timmy and I took a friend to the airport to catch her flight. Since we were close to the mall, we decided to find a free playground to romp around in out of the pollution and polish off a couple of chicken nuggets as a fulfilling way to end a good morning. As Timmy and I were walking up to the mall, my four-year-old was counting “big” motorcycles.
“One…two…three,” he said. (It struck me as humorous that he was having trouble finding motorcycles, since there was a whole parking lot to our right filled with them. There must have been literally hundreds of motorcycles to choose from.)
“Seven…eight…” he continued. Finally, after filling out the quote of his fingers with a loud “ten,” he sighed and said, “After ten, my brain just hangs up.”
This is just a simple melodramatic take on counting, but his attitude, though very humorous, is very similar to many believers’ take on suffering. They count the strikes coming against them, “one…two…three,” keeping track of them on their lips with each retelling to a friend and in their hearts as bitter stone after bitter stone piles up. By the time the tenth trial has stormed against their lives, their brain just hangs up. They literally cannot take any more and their faith withers on the brown vine of their troubling circumstances.
I love Hezekiah’s response, though, in the midst of his suffering. First, he chose to weep out his prayers to God (weeping prayer). Then he opened up his soul to his Best Friend in vulnerable dialogue (open soul), but his worship-filled stance did not stop there. Instead of throwing in the towel – or as Timmy would say,”hanging up his brain” – he chose to keep on engaging God, “I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid (Isa. 38:14).
In Matthew 18:1-8, Jesus tells a story – the parable of the persistent widow – for one purpose: to show his disciples that they should always pray and not give up (v 1). In a certain town there lived both an ungodly judge and a widow that kept coming to him with a plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary’ (vv 2-3). The judge kept refusing her case, but finally decided to get her justice so that she would not wear him out with her continual coming to him (vv 4-5).
Jesus’ take on the story was that if an ungodly judge would grant justice for that persistent woman, why would we ever think that a just and compassionate God would not do the same for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night. He will not keep putting them off, but will see that they get justice, and quickly (vv 6-8). And then Jesus ends his parable with these words, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth” (v 8)?
Obviously, God wants us to persevere in asking for our needs to be met. Justice is a big issue with God. Through this parable, He tells us that He will not keep putting us off when we are persistent in prayer, especially about matters of justice. But often we give up too easily. We pray for a while and when the heavens seem closed to our pleas, we assume God is not working on our behalf. But this parable assures us that He is. His rebuke at the end is a rebuke to you and me. Will we give up too soon or will we continue to pound on heaven’s door, begging for God to right our wrongs; suffering being one of those wrongs?
Hezekiah, in this fourteenth verse, is a precursor to the persistent widow. He describes his intercession to God in many different ways, each of which is a lesson to those who are crying out to God without hearing an answer. Let’s break this verse down a little bit.
Intercession is as varied as the individual. Three types of birds are mentioned here: the swift (swallow), thrush (crane), and the mourning dove. From small to big, their vocal sounds are incredibly different. (I listened to all their sounds on youtube because I really know nothing about the calls of birds.) The swallow has a very high-pitched sound with rapid chirpings all crammed together. The thrush is the most varied with lower sounds coupled with quick high trillings. The crane, honestly, sounds like a turkey call. And the mourning dove, the most common, I think, sounds like a lower-pitched coo.
What is my point in all of this? Hezekiah describes his pleas to God in metaphorical bird language, meaning that his cries to God are all over the place. Sometimes, he is high-pitched and crying out, like a swallow. Other times he is angry-sounding like the crane. Maybe his intercession takes on sweet, melodic lines when his anxiety is not at fever pitch, but then when his despair overtakes him, he can utter nothing more than a mournful coo.
Hezekiah states a truth here that many of us forget: God hears all kinds of prayers uttered from all kinds of emotional platforms. Just like no bird call is better than another, no one prayer is more pleasing to God. He welcomes our intercession, no matter what it sounds like.
Intercession does not always make sense. Hezekiah says that sometimes he chirps like a swallow or a thrush. In this context, that word ‘chirp’ “describes the senseless gibberish of a sick person” (CWSB Dictionary). Hezekiah is admitting that even in the delirium of fever or incredible angst, a person’s cries can be considered intercession. Even when he did not know what to say, or how to say it, God accepted his confusing words winged toward Him as intercession.
Paul’s words in Romans 8 would have been quite an encouragement to Hezekiah, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (vv 26-27).
There are times when we have no idea what to say to God or even how to say it; everything sounds like senseless chirping to us. But the Spirit helps us when we are too spiritually weak to make any sense. We have no idea how to pray, no idea what God’s will is in our suffering, and no idea what Scripture to claim, but the Spirit does. He groans intelligibly to God, even when our groans seem unintelligible because God knows the Spirit’s intention to pray according to His own will. Even our hearts are known by God. We do not have to make sense; we just have to ‘chirp’ out in the heavenly realm and the Spirit takes our senseless gibberish and translates it before the Father with the same passionate groaning that He knows is in our hearts.
My friend, if you feel that your prayers do not make any sense, be comforted. God sees your heart and knows your pain. The Spirit does too, and He groans toward the Father’s ears the very request that the Father desires for you. The Spirit makes up in spiritual clarity what our voices are unable to do. Be encouraged, dear one. Even senseless gibberish from our tongues become God-willed, specific prayers when the Holy Spirit translates it to the Father. His will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10).
He persevered in intercession. Tyndale says that the NIV “cried” actually can be translated “I keep chattering on.” Instead of running away, Hezekiah kept bringing his cause before the Lord. He continued to intercede to the Lord, to the point where his eyes grew weak looking to the heavens (v 14c). Even when his cries became weak, Hezekiah continued to pound on heaven’s door, telling him that he was troubled and asking for God to come to his aid (v 14d).
“The only way to flee from God is to flee to Him,” says Tyndale. Hezekiah was at a point in his life where he had no energy to stand, let alone flee. He was suffering. He was dying. His only hope was to keep bringing his case before God, like the persistent widow brought her case before the judge. What a lesson this is! When there is no strength to stand or fight, strength can still be found to flee in the heart to God.
Never give up, my friend! God is watching over you like he watched over Hezekiah. Keep persevering in prayer, knowing that God hears you and sees your tears (Isa. 38:4). “Weakness, far from excusing prayerlessness, is a call to prayer” (Tyndale Commentary).
Intercession is God-focused. Hezekiah prayed long and loud. He prayed unintelligibly and clearly. He prayed without ceasing and now we see that he also prayed with God as his focus, “My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens” (v 14c).
With all that was going on around him, Hezekiah’s focal point was his God’s face. Just like the psalmist, he lifted his eyes to the hills because he knew the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth, would help him out (Ps. 121:1-2). He lifted his eyes to God, whose throne was in heaven. Just like the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their masters, so his eyes looked to the Lord his God, until He showed him his mercy (Ps. 123:1-2).
It is easy to be distracted by all that is seen, by the tyranny of the urgent. What is urgent is prayer, but the tyranny of the now – suffering, persecution, trials – seem to blot out what is more urgent. Hezekiah shows us that, no matter what appears to be the predominant attraction, it tyrannizes those who do not put urgent things first. We are to seek first God’s kingdom and then other things will be added to us if they are in God’s will (Mt. 6:33).
Intercession demonstrates our needs. Hezekiah cries out these words, “I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid” (v 14c). Though much of the king’s groanings may have been pure emotion, though he may not have clearly stated his desires, in this final appeal, he is quite clear. He is troubled, the NIV says, but the word is much stronger in the ESV. It means “anguish, oppressed, abused and distressed” (ESV Strong’s). Hezekiah felt it was very important that God hear how he was truly feeling.
After he shared his heart, he stated his prayer request: he desperately needed God’s help. He begged God to come to his aid. He wanted God to be his pledge of safety (ESV), his security (NASB). He begged God to undertake for him (NKJV). In essence, he was asking God to be surety for him, to assure him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would be restored (See Ps. 119:122a “Be surety for Your servant for good” – NKJV).
This was a big ask, to have God promise that He would come through for his suffering servant. But I submit to you that God honors the intercessor that asks big. Listen to these verses:
- “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Mt. 21:22)
- “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (Jn. 16:24).
- “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)
- “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him” (1 Jn. 3:21-22).
For sure, doubt stands in the way of answered prayers as do wrong motives and a disobedient lifestyle. But my friend, if these things are eradicated from your intercession, God is quite clear that He will hear you. Will He answer exactly the way you intend? Not necessarily. I think the principle here is that you will not always receive what you ask for in the way that you pray, but if you never ask, you can be sure that you will never receive.
So ask. Hezekiah interceded for really big things in his life. He wanted healing. He wanted more years of influence. He wanted a child. He wanted a sure promise from God and do you know what? God answered his prayers – all of them – and more.
Dear one, you may be laying on a bed of affliction. You may be fighting some fires you cannot seem to put out. Do not give up! Hezekiah’s life shows us that worship is not some pious prayer shot toward the heavens once or twice. No, worship can feel debilitating in its longevity, but it will not paralyze a faith that keeps weeping, keeps focusing on God’s goodness, keeps interceding, keeps asking for needs to be met, keeps seeking God’s glory, and keeps praying, even when the mouth can no longer speak audibly from desperate weakness.
God hears the cries of an exhausted warrior. He sees the heart of a weak child and I believe He longs to answer the prayers of a persevering intercessor. But when He comes to answer you, dear one, will He find any more faith left in your life (Mt. 18:8b)? Let your faith ring out – howbeit weakly – like Hezekiah’s did: “Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord…” (Lam. 2:19) And then watch and see what God will do to answer the prayers that ring equally from His heart.
Darlene Zschech remembers her first day of chemo, and not with a lot of fondness; it was so confronting on a lot of levels. But she had a friend, a devout prayer warrior, who felt led to put together a book for her. This friend searched the Scriptures for verses that pertained to Darlene’s situation and then compiled these, along with prayers and encouraging words, into a book of God’s promises. Darlene took that precious book into her chemotherapy session with her and continued to do so over the next 20 weeks.
Even when she had to go into surgery, Darlene was told she would have to leave the book behind. She told the nursing staff that while she was conscious, she would not let go of her book of Scripture. They would have to wait until she was knocked out to remove it from over her heart. Darlene said that she didn’t just read those Scriptures, she would speak them aloud over her life and body. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBnN2a_kEO).
She encourages others who are suffering to find Scriptures and have them close to them at all times. That way, “at any time (they) can quote the Word and bring (their) experience up to what the Word of God says, not try to change (their) theology down to where (they) feel” (www.premierChristianity.com/Blog/Darlene-Zshech). The Word of God became for her – as it can for you – a strong foundation upon which her suffering faith could rest.
We’ve seen how worship can include weeping prayer, an open soul, and repeated intercession, but all of these actions may lead only to a stagnant faith without a lit flame. This next worship step is where the flame of faith is ignited. Hezekiah’s faith is strengthened by God’s involvement in his suffering circumstances.
You will recall that the last words uttered to him were a death sentence. Isaiah came to his inner chamber and told him that he was to put his house in order for he was going to die. He would not recover from his illness. At that point, we can presume Isaiah chose to leave the palace and Hezekiah began to weep and pray, beseeching God on many points.
Even before Isaiah had left the middle court of the palace, God gave him another word (2 Kings 20:4a). He said, “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David” (2 Ki 20:5-6).
Isaiah complements the account in 2 Kings by filling out this incredible Word from the Lord with additional promises. Hezekiah asked, “What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the Lord” (Isa 38:22). Isaiah answered, “This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: Shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or shall it go back ten steps?”
“It is a simple matter for the shadow to go forward ten steps,” said Hezekiah. “Rather, have it go back ten steps.” Then the prophet Isaiah called upon the Lord, and the Lord made the shadow go back the ten steps it had gone down on the stairway of Ahaz (2 Ki 20:9-11).
As I read this account the very first time, I was struck by the sheer supernatural presence of God over this part of Hezekiah’s story. All that happened seemed too good to be true. It is easy, when reading miraculous accounts in Scripture, to think, There is no way something like that would ever happen to me. Hezekiah was someone really important. That is why God acted in this manner, but I am not very important. I have never seen God work this way on my behalf. God must not love me the same way that He loves significant players like Hezekiah.
I want you to know that this kind of thinking plays right into the hand that Satan tries to deal you. He would like nothing better than for you to think you are worthless in comparison with others. His goal is to make you feel unloved and insignificant. Those feelings, then, will put a wall between you and God that will only continue to grow to insurmountable levels unless you break down that unbelieving wall with truth.
Truth, then, is the key to strengthening faith. And the process of finding truth in God’s Word and applying it over your life is nothing less than pure worship.
Hezekiah’s prayer and God’s consequent promises are not precedents. In other words, you cannot plug rote actions into a formula and hope that God will always respond in the same way. God’s ways are much higher than our ways and He will not be manipulated by worshipful actions stemming from ulterior motives.
However, God’s character does remain the same and His promises are a forever-guarantee. So, in the midst of suffering, you can know this to be true: grabbing onto the character and ways of God and asking Him to show you a promise from His Word is His desire for you. After all, the goal of worship is to glorify God. Nothing will bring Him more glory than to have His suffering worshiper cling to His name, His character and His ways. Nothing will ignite a worshipful moment than to speak His powerful words over your life and painful circumstances. Not only do these actions glorify God, but they strengthen your faith to bed-rock firmness in the interim.
If what transpired between God, Isaiah and Hezekiah cannot be considered a guaranteed precedent, what can we take from these verses? Are there principles about suffering and faith that can be assimilated into our walks with God? I believe there are. Let’s look at a few of these incredible principles.
God speaks to us. I know this may seem such a trivial point as to almost be laughable, but I also know from personal experience, that this truth about God’s ways is doubted by almost every believer at one time or another.
With head turned toward the wall and soul turned toward heaven, Hezekiah wept and prayed. He begged for a longer life and for a child to take his throne. He pleaded for more time He sobbed out his feelings of abandonment, but dear one, do not disregard this fact: he had no more guarantee that God would answer him than you and I do. All he knew came from his experience with God and from the experience of godly ones that had gone before him – Abraham, Moses, David. He prayed in hope and in faith, just like you and I do today.
God longs for relationship with you. And what quality relationship does not involve quality communication? The fact is: God desires to speak to you. From the first relationship – Adam and Eve – God has clearly shown that wants to walk and talk with you in your “garden” of life. “Throughout the Bible, God always made sure His children could discover Him and know His will. He was lovingly intentional about it. Deliberately strategic. While His primary method of communion shifted from one age to the next, His purpose did not…Our Father’s goal has always been to reveal Himself in every age” (Priscilla Shirer, Discerning the Voice of God, p. 41).
Hezekiah had a good relationship with God; remember, God was with him. So he knew from experience and from his knowledge of the Word, that God desired to reveal Himself to Hezekiah. Banking on that with all of his hope and faith, Hezekiah worshiped by opening up dialogue with his Almighty God.
How those two words ring in my spirit. And they must have in Hezekiah’s as well, for in his journal, he wrote these words, “But what can I say? He has spoken to me…” (Isa. 38:15ab). Yes, he had hoped in his heart for the heavens to open. Yes, he had prayed and laid out his needs before God, but the first thing Hezekiah began to praise God for – almost as if he was surprised – was that He had listened and responded.
You need to know this truth; you need to stake your faith upon it. God desires you and He desires to speak with you.
But sometimes the only way He can get your attention is to allow some type of suffering into your life. “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).
David knew this truth by experience. “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I obey your word (Ps. 119:67). “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” Ps. 119:71). “I know, O Lord, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75).
You see, suffering’s detour brought him back to the Word. As he came to know the God of the Word better, he could see that his affliction was a part of God’s severe goodness. And as he rested in the character of God, he chose to obey the Word of God. All of it – from the choices in the affliction to the triumphant declaration of God’s faithfulness – all of it, was worship.
Hezekiah called out to God because he knew God. He asked for big things because his God was a big God. And he sat with eyes wide-open in tremulous awe that the God of the universe saw his tears and heard his prayers and spoke to him. The audacity to ask, the desire to connect, the awe at God’s response – all of it, was humble worship.
God welcomes our dialogue in regard to His power. This is a difficult principle to explain and I do hope that I can get my thoughts out to you clearly. I do not want you to think that I believe in the health and wealth prosperity gospel, that if I just believe hard enough, and live a good enough life, and trust God to my maximum ability, that I will receive whatever I want. To a person on their sickbed, some would say, “If you just believe, you will be healed.” Or when that person is still on their sickbed after the anointing prayer, “You must not have had enough faith.” This is not the type of faith I am talking about or even believe in.
But there is an equally audacious principle buried in this passage that runs like a thread throughout the Bible. After God gave His promises to Hezekiah, through Isaiah, Hezekiah asked a very provoking question, “What will be the sign that the Lord will heal me and that I will go up to the temple of the Lord on the third day from now” (2 Ki. 20:8).
That word ‘sign’ is the basis of this principle of God. It means a “signal…as a flag, beacon, monument, omen, prodigy, evidence, etc…mark, miracle, (en)sign, token…a distinguishing mark, banner, remembrance, miraculous sign, omen or warning, proof, standard” (ESV Strong’s). This word was used most often to describe awe-inspiring events, like God’s work to bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, miracles verifying God’s message. Often this word marked circumstances demonstrating God’s control, a promise to remember or an event to occur in the future (CWSB Dictionary).
Signs were a big deal in Scripture.
- A sign was put on Cain so that he would not be killed (Gen. 4:15).
- A rainbow became a sign to all mankind that God would keep His promise never to destroy the earth again by a flood (Gen. 9:12).
- Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and man (Gen. 17:11).
- God gave Moses a sign before He sent him to retrieve HIs people from Egypt: they would all worship God on that same mountain (Ex. 3:12).
- The plagues were called signs (Ps. 78:43).
- The blood on the doors signified God’s protection, that His angel would not kill those protected by the God-endorsed sign (Ex. 12:13).
- The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a sign that the Lord’s law was in the Hebrews’ mouths (Ex. 13:9).
- The hammered censers placed as a covering on the altar was a sign to Israel (Num. 16:38).
- Rahab asked her guests for a trustworthy pledge or sign that they would save her from destruction, a scarlet cord became her sign of safety (Jos. 2:12, 18).
- David asked for a sign of God’s favor (Ps. 86:17).
- Jonathan spoke a sign before he and his servant attacked the Philistine army (1 Sam. 14:10).
- Many of the prophets acted out signs about what was to come in the future (Isa. 20:3, Ezek. 4:3).
- The disciples asked what the sign would be for Christ’s return (Mt. 24:3).
One of the most interesting scenarios actually involved Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz. Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but could not conquer it. Then Aram allied with Israel and Ahaz and all of his people were very shaken at this turn of events. Isaiah was told to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool and say to him, “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid…” These kings had plotted Ahaz’s ruin, but the Lord told him it would not happen; they would not conquer Judah. In fact, God told them that within 65 years, Israel would become a shattered people themselves. Then he spoke these famous words, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (Isa. 7:1-9).
On the heels of all of those promises, the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” Ahaz refused to ask for a sign because he did not want to put the Lord to the test (Isa. 7:10-12).
Then Isaiah spoke, “Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah – he will bring the king of Assyria” (Isa. 7:13-18).
There is so much I could study here, but the main point I want to gather out from all of this is: trust must be absolute. God gave a promise to Ahaz and told him to stand in faith. He then asked Ahaz to remember that promise with a mark, a sign. Nothing was too big. He desired to lavish His divine pleasure on Ahaz.
Putting the Lord to the test is refusing to trust him and his past faithfulness unless He would prove HImself trustworthy all over again (like the Israelites over and over in the desert). But God invited a sign. He told Ahaz to ask for a sign of His faithfulness. Not only did Ahaz refuse to trust, but he refused to obey. Because of his lack of faith and disobedience, God’s proffered sign of pleasure turned into a sign of great displeasure.
What do we learn from all of this? How do signs play into our walk with God? Obviously, Scripture is full of godly people asking for signs from God. Not only does this seem to be allowed, but it is proffered by God on many occasions. He chose signs. He told people to ask for signs. He set up signs as covenant reminders. Surely, if God is proclaiming signs as a means of a trusting faith, if history is purporting this sign-asking, sign-watching, sign-keeping lifestyle as a precedent, then why shouldn’t we as well?
Hezekiah did not even think twice about his request. When the promises came down from God, he asked for a sign. Not only did Isaiah give him a sign, but they conversed about what would be the harder sign for God to fulfill. Odd, don’t you think? Or is this normal, faith-driven behavior?
I submit to you that God welcomes our faith-driven trust. He gave everything to Hezekiah exactly as he asked. He made the shadow go back ten steps on Ahaz’s stairway (2 Ki. 20:11), meaning that He literally turned back time to prove His word to Hezekiah. When God speaks something over you, I think He desires that you stand firm in your faith or not at all. Ask for a sign, especially something that is from God’s Word. You and I would know that “something” as a promise of God.
While I meditated on this passage a couple of weeks ago, the Lord brought something very difficult into my life. I wrestled with the Lord over this matter for over a week. In the end, I reiterated again the truth that God was speaking over me. I knew it in my head; I had just been doubting it in my heart. Emboldened by Hezekiah’s response, I asked God for a sign and whether you believe it or not, He gave me one from Scripture. For future reference, I know that when this sign occurs, God is asking me to take my next step of faith. That sign was a promise of God that the Holy Spirit highlighted for my particular circumstance. It was nothing weird or radically heretical; it was a Word from God’s love letter to me, specifically attuned to my points of suffering. And unlike Ahaz in his refusal to obey or ask, I am standing firm in that faith-promise. Looking. Watching. Waiting. And wouldn’t you know it, worshiping.
God does what He says He will do. After Hezekiah worshiped God because of His desire to speak, he spoke these odd words, “and he himself has done this” (Isa. 38:15c). After looking at a few other translations, this began to make more sense to me. Look at the NCV: “The Lord told me what would happen and then made it happen.” And the NKJV, “He has both spoken to me, and He Himself has done it.” What is Hezekiah alluding to here? We studied what God said, but what did He do?
This is such a huge principle; please do not miss this. God did two things: He spoke to Hezekiah and then He brought those things to pass. In layman terms, He made some promises to Hezekiah and He fulfilled His promises. Look at the monumental nature of some of these promises:
- I will heal you (2 Ki. 20:5)
- On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord (2 Ki. 20:6).
- I will add fifteen years to your life (Isa. 38:5)
- I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city (Isa. 38:6).
These are huge promises. Now am I saying that if you ask God for healing, He will always heal you because He promised that to Hezekiah? Am I saying that healing will come in three days? Will you receive fifteen more years of quality life? Will He deliver you from the enemy of death and sickness?
No! I am not saying these things. Those were specific promises made to Hezekiah on the Judah-Assyrian kingdom agenda. So what am I saying?
Dear one, what I am trying to tell you is that your relationship with God is unique. You can ask for God to work uniquely in your situation. You can beg Him for answers that will bring Him the most glory through your specific pain. You can entreat God for your own personal promises, words directly illumined by the Holy Spirit, that speak directly to your suffering. You can take God up on His Word because it is His love letter to you. And as you do all of this – searching the Word, dialoguing with God, waiting in hope – you will be engaging in worship.
Expect God to speak. Anticipate His answer. Watch hopefully for a Word of promise perfectly attuned to your need. Believe that He has your best interests at heart and seek to love Him just a bit more as you come to understand more of His character. Then you will be able to worship as David did, “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Ps. 119:92).
Precious believer, if God says it, then you need to believe it. He will do what He says He will do. Rest in His promises like you would rest in the arms of a Lover, for He surely is. He will treat you with the love He desires to shower upon you – the treatment of the salve of His Word – in spite of your suffering.
Darlene Zschech faced her chemotherapy treatments and surgery with the promises of God literally on her heart and in her mouth. Hezekiah faced his illness full-on with the promises of God and a supernatural marker, a sign, to buoy up his trust. This full-on, deeply-engaged, yet child-like standing on God’s Word, is integral to a strengthened faith. The actions of trusting God and standing on His Word are none other than pure, bonafide worship.
Joni Eareckson Tada shares her thoughts about healing services while she lies in bed, disabled and unable to care for herself. The speaker thunders out over his audience, “You, too, can experience His healing power. Rest your faith on His promises!” Joni wonders what other disabled people are thinking as they watch the program. Why are my prayers going unanswered? Does God heal supernaturally today?
She ends her chapter on this topic with a central thought, “To me, there is one thing that seems to be a common element in those who take extreme positions on divine healing. A lack of humility. On the one hand you have people telling God what He must do, and on the other hand you have people telling God what He can’t do…Who am I…to dictate terms to the master potter and tell Him that He has to heal me right now?…He can do as He likes. He is God…” (Joni Eareckson Tada, A Place of Healing, p. 57, 68).
Pride tells God what He can or cannot do. Pride also shakes its fist at a God who chooses to allow suffering to continue, despite desperate prayers and unshakeable faith to believe for healing. You see, God desires that we seek Him, the Giver of Gifts, not just the gifts that He can and does generously dole out. Suffering very quickly reveals the motives of the heart. If the main goal of the sufferer is healing, she is not first and foremost interested in the Giver, but only the gift. If, however, suffering refines the motives of her heart, that woman’s worship of the One True Gift-Giver can arise from her broken body, mind or soul that is intensely afflicted.
I believe one of the main reasons for any kind of suffering is for a pain-filled heart to learn the lessons of suffering-taught humility. Before David was afflicted, he went astray. Full of pride, he went his own way. But the affliction taught him humility; part of which was to obey God’s word (Ps. 119:67).
Before David was afflicted, he was not completely convinced of God’s faithfulness. He did not know God’s laws were right. But afterwards, humility spoke out and said, “Your laws are righteous and in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75). If pride was still lurking in David’s heart, he could not have submitted to the affliction as being God’s best for him. Only humility submits itself to the hard-but-loving discipline of the Lord.
In next week’s lesson, we will see that removing pride from Hezekiah’s life was God’s biggest goal in his time of illness. His illness was to be the refining fire that burned away the dross of arrogance.
So what did Hezekiah learn about humility in his affliction?
Humility is a long-term response to submitted anguish. As Hezekiah revisited his time of sickness, he agreed with God about His concerted effort at refining Hezekiah’s pride. He said, “I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul” (Isa 38:15c). Notice that humility came out of the anguish. It was a lesson learned in the fires of suffering.
Additionally, notice that his submission was a lesson he was committed to activating for his entire lifetime. You can always tell if a lesson has truly been learned if recurring ungodly behavior does not keep coming back to haunt you. According to Hezekiah, his poignant lesson was so integrated into his faith that it would positively affect his trust in God for the rest of his life.
Humility sees God’s best in the suffering. But that is not all Hezekiah learned about humility. In his reflective writing, Hezekiah told God, “Lord, your discipline is good, for it leads to life and health” (Isa. 38:16ab – NLT). Good? Really? That is not the attitude most of us take in the middle of our hardships, is it?
God employs suffering as a very effective tool. Discipline, as the NLT Bible translates this verse, is the instrument of a Father for His child. It is often very hard to admit, but suffering teaches its students that God’s agenda is best. And I might add, the longer a person suffers will greatly increase either the character of submissive humility or the angst of anxious doubt. If God’s way is embraced, meaning that there is actual rejoicing in our sufferings, then suffering should produce perseverance, which then should produce the character quality of humility. Character should then produce hope (Rom. 5:3-5). And hope, folks, is very healing. Hope is life and health and peace; it is a restored soul.
Humility attributes credit to God. Verse 16 ends with these words, “You restored me to health and let me live.” In looking back on his miraculous healing, Hezekiah gave credit where credit was due. He knew that only the Lord could restore health. It is only by God’s timetable that each day is given to us to live. Tomorrow may be the end, but this moment, this breath, is a gift from God. Humility stands before each rising dawn with head bowed in gratitude. It is only by grace that we stand.
Humility recognizes the personal benefits of suffering. Hezekiah rounds up his humble walk before God with an amazing statement, almost an epitaph of sorts. “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish” (Isa 38:17ab). The NLT states this much more simply, “It was for my own good that I had such troubles.”
The cleansing work of suffering moves a person from pride to humility. Along the way he will begin to submit to the refining process. He will come to see that God does have a plan for all of the pain; he might even give all glory and credit to God. But this final step – recognizing the personal benefits – is a hard-fought move.
We can sometimes see God’s kingdom agenda, if we look really hard for it. We might even be able to wrap our minds around the fact that God seems to be working a greater good, though it seems to be in spite of us. But to be able to say that the suffering is for our own good, that there is some personal benefit to all the pain, is very difficult. This final step of submission brings the pride low and lifts the soul high. It is only a true worshiper – one who worships in spirit and in truth – that can sincerely voice his gratefulness to God for the personal treasures that can be picked out of the painful sores of trials.
Hezekiah was brought to full submission by his almost-death experience. He was changed inside…for a lifetime. He had learned his character lesson and stood with heart bowed and pen uplifted to praise God for working all things for good. This process – from pride to abject humility – became an anthem of praise that Hezekiah spoke over the sorrows of his life. From the inside-out, Hezekiah knew he was different and as a result, he began to worship differently.
Darlene Zshech’s worship lifestyle morphed into something better as well. She writes of her time of suffering, “My battle with cancer changed how I worship…This time it was like worship gave my soul a way to bring praise, when in the natural, I just couldn’t find it” (www.premierChristianity.com/Blog/Darlene-Zshech).
That’s what humility does: allows the Spirit to breathe out praise through pain-clenched teeth, all the while saying, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
It is no coincidence to me that in a devotional studying a life of trust, the subject of love would come up. Love is the fulcrum on which all angles bend. It is the plumbline from which the threads of trust hang. It is the theme from which Stephen Curtis Chapman sings: “The most important thing is love…everything else comes down to this/Nothing any higher on the list than love/It’s all about love/ This is the reason we were made/To know the love of our creator/And to give the love He’s given us away/Yeah, the Maker and the Father/And the God of everything/Love, love love/It’s all about love.” (Song title: All About Love)
Love is what is first doubted when suffering descends. We cannot comprehend being held by a loving God, while that same God, who says He loves us, holds a season of suffering with our names on it. It’s not only incomprehensible; it feels downright hateful, if we were honest.
But as has been said before, God’s thoughts and ways are not like ours (Isa. 55:8). So it stands to reason that His love is also unlike our love. He equates refining with love, discipline and punishment with sonship and holiness (Heb. 12:6, 10). His kind of love prays for enemies, for those who inflict pain upon us (Mt. 5:43). Out of love, He waits until a friend dies so that people will believe in God and see His glory more clearly (Jn. 11:3, 14, 40). God’s love requires complete obedience (Jn. 14:15) and exclusivity, even to our own disadvantage (Jn. 21:15). God’s love sent His only Son to die so that others might be brought into His love (Rom. 5:8). His love allows us to go through hardships so that we can fully understand that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:38-39). God’s love is servant-minded, abdicating self so another can live his faith (Gal. 5:13).
God’s love seems contradictory and when compared to the world’s standards or our own sense of justice, it is. The thought that suffering comes from loving intention is foreign to our minds. That God would orchestrate events that would bring heartache seems downright unloving to our hurting hearts. But God brings it on nevertheless.
And in the hurting, questioning, confused darkness of “unloved-ness,” we begin to engage God in ways we never have before: with honesty, with deep searching, and with cries for love. When we are flat on our backs or moving slowly through pain-filled steps, we are more apt to listen. We have the time to try to understand God’s ways, or at least, to wrestle with the faith that feels like it’s slipping through our fingers.
God does not love us less when He says “yes” to anguish in our lives; He actually loves us more than we know. The anguished cry emitting from our bleeding souls is the connection God desired all along. And in that woeful, longing desperation, God meets us. He wraps His loving arms around our shriveled belief system and soothes our withered broken places. He heals. He loves. He moves. And He restores.
We want physical healing and circumstantial change. God wants a heart alive to Him, beating in time with His, and seeking Him with every ounce of energy. His desires usually trump ours and aren’t we glad? For as His love seeps into our woundedness, it begins to heal us in ways that are more important than visible changes. You see, my friend, God’s ultimate healing is the restoration of our souls.
Instead of well bodies, God wants upright hearts. In the place of perfectly-running circumstances, God desires our utmost joy in His presence. God is our Redeemer and listen to what He says out of His great love for us, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea” (Isa. 48:17-18).
As our Redeemer, He often teaches us what is best for us through suffering. As our Lord, He directs us in the way we should go through painful discipline. His desires for us revolve around obedience, even in the midst of suffering. As we obey, as we seek His face, as we grapple with our tattered image of Him, our souls are renewed. We come to understand peace like a river, flowing deep and clean through our chaotic responses. We experience the righteousness of God, imputed to us, that keeps rolling over our dirty places, cleansing them and making them whole.
Hezekiah came to understand the inside healing of his soul, naming three blessings of his God-ordained affliction. Here are his words, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back” (Isa. 38:17).
Our benefit: From His deep well of love for us, God allows affliction, not for vengeance or punishment, but for our benefit. Hezekiah was clear that the benefits were his. He learned something from his illness, something about himself and about the ways of God. He changed inside as a result, moving from pride to humility. The benefits were not just physical, although God chose to heal him from sickness. The benefits were internal, healing mind, will, emotions, faith and trust; in other words, soul and spirit.
Life: God could have let Hezekiah die. His days of influence on this earth would have ended. But God did not. He delivered Hezekiah from death, from the pit of destruction, as he calls it. Look what Hezekiah’s reasoning brings to mind. It is the love of the Lord that kept him from death. And my friend, it is the love of the Lord that keeps you breathing day-in and day-out. Every day is a gift that shows God’s love, even in the midst of suffering.
Forgiveness: Even Job had to repent of some of his attitudes and beleaguered concepts of God (Job 42:5). While he did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing, he still struggled with errant beliefs and had to lay those before God in confession in order to experience the benefits of repentance.
There is no mention of Hezekiah’s sinful words or actions in any of these accounts, and yet he states that God’s love was clearly shown in His forgiveness of Hezekiah’s sins. This might have been a general gratefulness for forgiveness, but based on how I respond in times of suffering, with all of my attitudes that need adjusting, I am fairly sure Hezekiah had some confessing to do.
A huge reward of suffering’s teaching is that gratitude for simple things is far more profound. These three blessings that Hezekiah pulled out of his seemingly unloving circumstances, demonstrates his new understanding of the love of God. God afflicts us for our benefit. He saves us from destruction, causing us to be grateful for the life He has given us. And God’s forgiveness is one of His most loving actions toward us.
In psalm 85, David begs God to restore him, to refrain from anger and revive him and his nation. He asks all of this so that his people may once again rejoice. He pleads for God to show His unfailing love and grant his salvation. But on the heels of this desperate prayer for soul-healing, he speaks clearly about his choice to listen and obey what God will say. He does promise peace to his people, his saints – but they must not return to folly. His salvation is near to those who fear him, so that his glory may dwell in the land (Ps. 85:4-9). And then come incredibly loving words, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven” (Ps. 85:10-11).
You and I have a choice in the midst of our suffering: we can belly-ache, complain and grow bitter toward God, or we can seek Him for all His worth and grow closer to Him than we ever thought possible. In the first option, we may experience physical healing, and if that is our greatest desire, we may even experience some happiness. But we probably will remain spiritually sick on the inside.
If we make the second choice – the choice to be faithful to God in the midst of suffering, to engage Him as our only Lover, and agree with His good plans for us – we may not experience physical healing, but our souls will be radically healed. The affliction will benefit us in the way that God intended. Our faithfulness, coming from a renewed soul, will highlight the Father’s love for us. His righteousness will kiss us with peace. Our faithful lives will spring forth evergreen from this world’s unlikely sod, and God, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings. He will look down upon us with fatherly pride and rejoice in our reverence and submission. Our souls will then leap and dance like cavorting calves in a meadow – all because of God’s love and our restored adoration refined in the fires of suffering (paraphrases of Ps. 85:10-11 and Mal. 1:2-3).
Hezekiah ended his contemplative writing before God with worshipful praise. “For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living – they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness. The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord” (Isa. 38:18-20).
These words are a bold reminder for us to ask big things of God. It elevates our petition to pray for impossible actions. Hezekiah was not shy in his intercession and as a result, God answered him in miraculous ways. One principle we can take away from Hezekiah’s example is that we worship the God of the impossible (Lk. 1:37).
One other take-away from Hezekiah’s illness and consequent journaling, is the precedent of example. Many biblical people engaged in deep intercession reminded God of His faithfulness in the past. They cited His work in freeing His people, His miraculous wonders, His deliverance, as a reason to work the same outcome for them. Habakkuk did it, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab. 3:2).
In Hezekiah’s final words of praise, he worshiped God by saying that he would be faithful. He would continue to praise. He would tell his children about God’s faithfulness. And he would sing of God’s saving work all the days of his life.
The physically dead can no longer praise God, but nor can those who are spiritually dead. Numbness is not worship. Bitterness cannot seek the good of another; it is too busy wallowing in self-protection. Only the living can glorify God in their words and actions and the ones who are truly alive are the ones that have learned to worship in the midst of their suffering.
Who Are you?
As I look at my page count, I am suddenly aware of how dangerous it is for me to have two weeks to write on one topic. I apologize; I have written a mini-book. Kudos to those of you who have hung in there on this incredibly important topic of suffering. Along with this main theme, we have explored many relevant threads: pain, God’s seemingly veiled presence, trust and worship.
And what is worship? “Worship is the vehicle that God has given us to declare His greatness. Worship is more than a song, but songs help give our worship a voice and take us where we need to be – in God’s presence” (Darlene Zschech, source unknown). Darlene’s great take on worship leads us to our culminating principle for the week: A person who trusts will respond to suffering with worship.
Hezekiah has taught us through his near-death experience that worship is not always as cut-and-dried as it seems. Worship is weeping prayer and an open soul. It involves repeated intercession and stems from a strengthened faith. It is humble walking as a result of invigorated love. And yes, for sure, it is a praise-filled life.
As I have meditated on some of these hard truths these last couple of weeks, the Lord has put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Ps. 40:3). This song is entitled Heal Me. Ironically enough, the pollution has gotten the best of me and I am struggling with laryngitis so cannot record this for you as I would have liked. Like Darlene Zschech, I worship best through music and have found that God often solidifies what He is teaching me by helping me put melody to Scripture. Read through these words and think deeply about what worship really looks like. Meditate also on God’s description of healing.
Verse1: Yesterday all was well / Every cloud had a silver lining as far as I could tell/But today is different, pounding rains have come/Blurring my faith’s clearest vision, blotting out the sun/And now it’s dark, cold and drear/I can’t feel Your Presence near//
Chorus: Please heal me. Restore my soul/Let me live in Your grace that makes me whole/Spread Your love over all my sin and shame/Let me rest in the hope of Your name/Lord, heal me//
Verse 2: In the prime of my years/I’ve been robbed of my potential, leaving behind dark fears/Through the night I’ve waited for the dawn to rise/But I find the heaven’s closed to all of the tears that fill my eyes/And now my strength’s almost gone/I have no heart to carry on//
Bridge: For the dead cannot praise You/The lifeless cannot bring You glory/The grave cannot hope in faithfulness / It’s the living that will praise You/The forgiven that will bring You glory/The saved that will sing Your faithfulness/You are faithful, O Lord/You are faithful, O Lord.
This song is a reminder that healing is not always physically obvious. Healing is restoration of the soul by breathing in His presence. It is living in God’s grace and having His love spread over our sin and shame. Soul-healing is resting in the hope of God’s name. And weeping, crying-out, seeking, grappling, wrestling prayers and shrill cries are the vocal sounds of worship in the midst of suffering.
When you and I choose to worship in the midst of our afflictions, we are connecting our hearts with heaven. “Every day of our short lives – even every hour – has eternal consequences for good or ill. Eternity – and the way we’ll live in it – is somehow being shaped by our moment-by-moment responses to the life we have before us to live right now” (Joni, A Place of Healing, p. 108)
A.W. Tozer once said, “I want my life to be lived as a head-to-toe hallelujah.” Even if my body is broken, even if my heart is bruised, even if my life is fading, in my death-bed or sick-bed, through cracked lips or swollen, I want to worship God with a resounding head-to-toe hallelujah.
With all that we have learned today about the breadth and scope of worship, would you say that you also are a worshiper? Do you live your life as a head-to-toe hallelujah. Who are you really when the storms rage and flood waters rise?
Darlene Zschech answers this question in the aftermath of her cancer storm. “That’s who I am; I’m a worshiper” (www.growthwac.com).