Have you ever found yourself feeling lonely and abandoned? If so, well…you’re actually in good company. The bible is full of characters who experienced just that. One of them is the apostle Paul.
Today, Paul is celebrated as a hero of the faith, and rightly so. The former persecutor of Christianity became the man who wrote two thirds of the New Testament. His accomplishments for the cause of Christ are formidable, including pioneering churches all over the then known world and giving intellectual gravitas to theological principles. What a legend.
Yet despite his ‘success’, Paul was a lonely man. He often found himself isolated and misunderstood. For example, his most encouraging friend Barnabas left him in disagreement because of the latter’s cousin John Mark (Acts 15). On another occasion, Paul writes about his dear friend Demus who forsook him in order to pursue a selfish agenda (2 Tim 4:10). These are just two incidents of many.
Paul was clearly hurt by disappointments like this. He was human after all. Yet, there is never any sense of him moping around in self pity. He simply got on with serving God and fulfilling his calling in life, such was the measure of the man. You’d have to wonder if those who deserted Paul might not have done so if only they’d realised the magnitude of Paul’s influence both in time and eternity? Of course, hindsight is helpful…but foresight is far better.
I am personally grateful for the people in my life who’ve stuck by me when others haven’t, especially in times which were challenging and lean. Faithfulness is a virtue that is grossly underrated in 21st Century living. So many people just seem to give up at the first hurdle they encounter. Yet those who remain committed are rare…and more of an inspiration than they can possibly imagine. They know the worst, yet believe the best. They stay the course and live selflessly for God’s purpose.
If you ever feel abandoned and lonely, then resist the temptation to spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself. Throw yourself into the service of God. Turn your pain into purpose. The most fulfilled people are those who live for a cause that is bigger than themselves. Life is too short to be bitter & offended. Make every day count. Remember, what happens today echoes in eternity.
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The question of God and suffering is one which perplexes many hearts and minds. While the predicament is nothing new, it is always current. Why do evil things happen in the world, and yet God seems either unwilling or unable to do something about it?
Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy answers to this apparant conundrum. For the person who is experiencing their own valley of pain, it is an immense challenge to provide any kind of answer that can sooth the rawness of bitter experience. Glib retorts like ‘it was God’s will‘ are not only deeply unhelpful, but totally unrepresentative of the heart of God. Though well intended, it unwittingly portrays him as uncaring, aloof, distant and un-compassionate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The whole point of the biblical narrative is that God has personally intervened in our fallen world. He is more familiar with suffering than we will ever know, and he has the scars to prove it. His intervention cost him everything. It is a stupendous mystery to think that the immortal God was not only born as a man, but died a death so cruel that it is beyond comprehension what he endured. The latter was the price Jesus paid for the falleness of humanity, and to bring about the hope of his Kingdom on earth.
Yet, even after 2000 years since the events of the cross, we still live in a profound tension: the world as it is today (fallen) – and the world as it will be one day (renewed). That’s why Jesus taught us to pray ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven‘ (Matthew 6:10).
One day, everything will make sense. However, as we await the full manifestation of God’s Kingdom on earth, suffering is part of our pilgrimage because of the fallen state of our world. This is not a defeatist reflection, rather an exhortation to lean into the protection of God’s grace. Surely this is one of the reasons why Jesus taught so much about faith? As believers, we are not exempt from suffering – but we journey through life in the confident hope that God will renew all things (Matthew 19:28-30). Our posture is one of trust. This means we can ask the difficult questions during times of suffering and God is not offended by them. He simply longs for us to follow him, even through the darkest valley’s of our lives.
After Jesus had risen from the dead, a disciple called Thomas was racked with doubt, and adamant in his refusal to believe unless he saw Christ’s scars for himself. A whole week passed before Thomas eventually got to meet Jesus. Those seven days must have felt like a life time. However, when Thomas finally saw the wounds, his hardened heart melted in an instant as he cried ‘My Lord and my God‘ (John 20:28). How utterly compelling this moment must have been.
God has wounds. Far from being distant and aloof, he is acquainted with suffering more than any of us could possibly grasp. His scars are the proof of his love for us. Interestingly, Jesus said to Thomas ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed‘ (John 20:29).
In times of challenge, our greatest act of faith is to keep following Jesus. That’s why Hebrews 10:35 says ‘Do not throw away your confidence‘. Suffering is temporary, even though it sometimes feels like an eternity. But one day, we will meet Jesus face to face. When we see his wounds, our hearts will melt, just like Thomas. In that single moment, everything will make sense.
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Faith is far more gritty than grandiose. It is forged on the rough terrain of life’s experience, not by clinical calculation and theorising in comfortable surroundings.
The danger with a formulaic faith is that it lulls us into a false sense of security. As long as the formula seems to work, everything appears fine. But the moment it falters, that’s when trust is shaken and a crisis ensues. People’s lives then get rocked to the core because of their mistaken concept of ‘faith’ which bears no relation to what the bible actually teaches. Problem is, this kind of shallow ‘faith’ will always lead to disillusionment because it is flawed at the root, more of a superstitious pastime than a spiritual pilgrimage.
Don’t put your faith in faith. Anchor your trust in God, especially during the storms of life.
While faith is simple, it is not simplistic. Glib answers to tough questions are not credible. Authentic faith doesn’t yield to challenging circumstances, but it doesn’t deny them either. The latter is something which has too often been missed by an erroneous theology that refuses to acknowledge the very existence of suffering. This is more akin to fear than faith, a way of living which is bereft of the courage to face life’s issues with integrity. It’s no good.
True faith is not formulaic, but has confidence in God’s grace. It doesn’t understand everything, but chooses to believe Him no-matter what. Yes, it will have questions & concerns – and these are important to address. But the healthiest relationships can withstand the rigour of difficult questioning, and still emerge strong. Read the Psalms, and you’ll see how they powerfully illustrate this.
Perhaps the greatest definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11:1. It says, ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. Notice the paradoxical language of this verse, using words which don’t normally appear together (‘sure’, ‘hope’, ‘certain’ ‘do not see’). There’s nothing formulaic about faith here. It’s messy, it’s real, it’s gritty, it’s authentic. As believers, we root our trust in God’s ultimate goodness. Now that’s faith.
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There’s a fascinating story in Luke 24 about two men walking along the road to Emmaus (near Jerusalem). The vibe of their conversation was downbeat and melancholic, reeling from the bitter disappointment of Jesus death a few days earlier. Their hopes had been dashed since the one in whom they’d rooted their trust was no longer with them. Devastating stuff.
Meanwhile, a third man who joined them on the journey seemed strangely oblivious to recent events. As they offered him explanation regarding the tragedy of what had just occurred, they were so lost in the fog of confused perspective that they failed to recognise the identity of the person in their company. It was Jesus himself….right there with them, listening to them, walking with them through their pain.
The two men on the road to Emmaus are like a lot of people today…living on the right side of the resurrection but settling on the wrong side of a revelation. Sometimes, our ponderings and wonderings can be so slanted by the bias of our own subjectivity that we completely miss the reality of what God has actually accomplished. Little did the two men know that while they were wallowing in pitiful dispair, Jesus had just been through hell for them…literally. You see, there’s always more going on than meets the eye.
Disappointment happens to all of us. However, it’s always a mistake to camp in the valley of hurt. God intends for us to pass through it, not live there. Making pain our identity is merely surrendering to earth’s facts without submitting to heaven’s truth. As followers of Jesus, we are to keep trusting through the challenges of our pilgrimage. God doesn’t always owe us explanations for the more challenging paths we tread. Wise people settle this in their hearts…and dare to keep following.
When your heart feels conflicted by hurt, be kind to yourself and avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary guilt and overanalyses. Sure, it’s good to reflect. However, allow your reflection to be shaped by revelation, the reality of a God who has experienced his own wounds, who feels your pain and whose heart toward you is pure and unadulterated. When you know deep down that you are deeply loved, there’s powerful healing in this truth that can overcome any hurt. Surely this explains Isaiah 53:5… ‘by his wounds, we are healed.‘
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Someone once said that Christians are an Easter Sunday people living in a Good Friday world. Our faith has to manage the present tension of earthly facts and the future anticipation of heavenly truth. Lets be honest, this isn’t always easy.
The thing about life is that it can be filled with moments of high exhilaration as well as deep exhaustion. The mountain tops are inspiring and enthralling – but the valley experiences can be gloomy and menacing. With the latter, there are the questions, the doubts, the frustrations and the demoralisation, all of which can be hugely influential in defining our faith. When we feel the harshness of earth’s toil, we have a choice. We can either allow it to make us bitter or better. Truth is, as much as the pain of life can feel uncomfortable and even at times unjust, in a strange way, it signifies life and purpose.
I’ll never forget reading the story of a leprosy doctor who was returning from a medical trip abroad. As he sat in his hotel room waiting for a flight home the following day, he suddenly felt numbness in his leg. A cold shudder went down his spine as he realised how potentially significant this could be. You see, one of the first signs a person has contracted leprosy is the inability to feel pain. In a moment of desperation, the doctor proceeded to grab a pen and gash it into his leg. But still, he felt nothing. He want to bed that dreadful night with an awful sense of worry and shattering despair. However, when he awoke the next morning, a felt a sharp ache in his leg from yesterday’s wound. It was the most wonderful sensation he’d ever experienced in his life. It meant he hadn’t contracted leprosy after all. The pain proved it. He was alive and well!
When you feel pain, it means you’ve got breath in your being. It makes you more human. It helps you relate to a whole world of people who are experiencing their own hurt. Yes, pain can make you bitter…if you let it. But it can also make you better. Instead of permitting it to grind you down, why not have the audacity to build others up? Allow it to define your faith for good, not bad. Avoid the victim mindset too. It’s never helpful. Your pain is part of your story. Dare to use it to become a better you, not a bitter you.
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WHEN YOU SHED A TEAR,JESUS SHEDS A TEAR by Roy Todd
Grief is something which all of us will go through at some point in our lives. This is not meant as a melancholic reflection, just a statement of fact. Yet curiously, it is largely a taboo subject, at least in British culture. It’s as if there’s a fear of the very mention of it, almost a sense of wishing it away. However during bible times, grief was handled very differently to what we usually see in the cut and thrust of 21st century life, something we would do well to observe.
Interestingly, the shortest verse in the entire bible is also one of it’s most insightful statements, revealing much to us about God’s compassion in the midst of his own experience of grief. It tells us that ‘Jesus wept‘ (John 11:35). This occurred at the burial of his dear friend Lazerus. One of the dangers when reading John 11 is that we can rush ahead into a rousing celebration of Lazarus miraculous raising from the dead – but miss the sheer importance of Jesus taking time to grieve his friend’s death. This is highly significant, a moment of truly profound empathy which has massive implications for us.
As if the sadness of his loss wasn’t already painful enough, a gang of self serving religious bullies known as the Pharisees (a group who detested Jesus) sought to exploit the situation in a manipulative and accusatory way which was intended to hurt Jesus. This only added to his sense of sadness and, in itself, illustrates how hate-filled hearts know no bounds when it comes to cold and calculating spitefulness, even using personal pain as a means of undermining good character.
However, what followed was a manifestation of vulnerability by Jesus which would have been deeply humbling to observe, perhaps even troubling. Think about it…this is Jesus, the saviour of the world, the Messiah, God in the flesh…now in a public display of agonising sorrow. It’s as if the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and shines a spotlight into Jesus heart so as to allow us a glimpse of his anguish. It certainly teaches us something about handling grief, a complex emotion that is deeply personal but which is never meant to be confined solely to the private place. Unfortunately, our British ‘stiff upper lip’ culture is often dismissive of grief because it is largely bereft of a sense of genuine community. Yet God created family and it is here where he intends grief to be shared (Psalm 68:6). That’s why, as a pastor, I always say that if you’re going to have the worst day of your life, have it in church. Jesus vulnerability in John 11:35 powerfully illustrates the huge benefit of this.
Interestingly, the Greek word for ‘wept‘ in John 11:35 is dakruo, which conveys a very real sense of the authenticity of this moment. It wasn’t ‘over the top’ emotionalism, but rather a quiet & genuine brokenness. Hence, the compassion and humanity of Jesus was clear for all to see. In the midst of sorrow and even provocation, Jesus was filled with indescribable grace. It might even be said that this expression of empathy was as powerful as the miracle that was about to follow, perhaps even more so. It makes Jesus real to us. Leaders would be wise to observe that it’s not bravado which ministers to people, but vulnerability.
The shortest verse in the bible provides some of the greatest comfort we can ever experience. It shows us that when we shed a tear, Jesus sheds a tear too. It reveals his tenderness toward us in the seasons of sadness. We also catch his heart of pure, unadulterated compassion. Of course, the story of Lazarus ends with Jesus friend being raised back to life. However, this must surely be a prophetic portrait which speaks of God’s purpose that goes far beyond our understanding. That’s why Jesus declared at the start of the whole narrative that the situation about to unfold was ‘for God’s glory’ (John 11:4). Surely this implores us to trust God’s best, even in the worst of times. John 11 teaches us that for God’s people, there is always hope. We must never stop daring to believe that, even when we can’t see what God sees.
If you’re experiencing grief in your life for whatever reason, there aren’t any easy answers to offer. Words will probably seem futile, providing little or no solace. But there is a God who loves you and is for you. There is grace for you, no conditions and no stings attached. Words aren’t necessary. Just dare to lean into His grace. This is what sustains us. Jesus knows all too well what grief is like (Is 53:3).
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by Roy Todd