DESPAIR AND DOUBT

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! [Acts 16:25-26 (NLT)]

By 1658 in England, it had become illegal to conduct a religious service differing from the Church of England’s official liturgy or for “one not in Episcopal orders” to address a congregation. A Puritan, John Bunyan, was arrested for preaching the gospel without a license. After three months in the Bedford jail, he was offered his freedom if he’d agree not to preach publicly. He refused saying, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Bunyan spent twelve years imprisoned. During that time, he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. No country cub prison, the Bedford jail was overcrowded, unsanitary, unheated, and the plague of 1665 claimed forty prisoners as victims. Years later, Bunyan wrote: “Satan can make a jail to look like hell itself.” Although all looked hopeless for the man, he found strength in prayer and in his writing.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful accidentally step out of the Way. Having trespassed on the grounds of Giant Despair, they are captured and taken to Doubting Castle. The Pilgrims are imprisoned in a dark dungeon, without bread or water, for nearly four days. The first day, Despair mercilessly beats the men with a club. The second day, telling them there is no escape, the giant urges the suffering men to kill themselves. Realizing that others have managed to escape, the men retain hope, refuse to end their suffering, and vow to battle Despair. The third day, to further destroy their spirits, the giant takes them into the castle yard, shows them the remains of those he’s destroyed, and pitilessly beats them again.

Around midnight Sunday morning, just as Paul and Silas did in their prison cell, Christian and Hopeful begin to pray. A little before dawn, Christian realizes what a fool he’s been. In his coat, next to his heart, is a Key called Promise and Christian is sure it will unlock the doors of Doubting Castle. Although Doubt and Despair caused them to forget the promises of God, prayer reminded the two men to recall and trust in God’s promises. The Key easily opens both the door to their cell and the one into the castle yard but the last lock, the one out of Doubting Castle opens hard. It’s not easy to escape from the depths of Doubt and Despair and I imagine that, during those twelve years he sat behind bars in abysmal conditions, Bunyan had many moments of doubt and despair.

Let us remember to keep the Key of Promise close to our hearts.  It’s unlikely that doubt and despair will come in the form of a giant or a castle dungeon, but they will come and they are capable of imprisoning us. While not using a club, despair will attack us mercilessly, try to strip us of hope, and imprison us in doubt. May we always hold tight the key to our freedom: the promises of God.

Lord, we pray for those imprisoned By Despair, who lie in grief;
Locked in Doubting Castle’s dungeon, Stripped of hope and its relief.
Father help them to remember In Your promise is the key;
Now unlock the door that bars them, In the Gospel, set them free.
[From “A Prayer for Pilgrims” by Ken Puls]

For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” And through Christ, our “Amen” (which means “Yes”) ascends to God for his glory. It is God who enables us, along with you, to stand firm for Christ. He has commissioned us, and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us. [2 Corinthians 1:20-22 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHY? 

Bryce canyon - sunriseEverything I did was honest. Righteousness covered me like a robe, and I wore justice like a turban. I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame. I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help. I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth. I thought, “Surely I will die surrounded by my family after a long, good life.” [Job 29:14-18 (NLT)]

No one enjoys reading the book of Job; it’s difficult to read about someone who, through no fault of his own, loses family, wealth, reputation, and health in one fell swoop. Complicating matters is that, while six voices are heard, only God’s voice is completely correct and we don’t hear from Him until the end. As for the rest of the speakers, while there are nuggets of truth in every speech, much of what is said both by Job and his friends, is incorrect and based on faulty assumptions. Eliphaz, for example, is correct when he says it is a joy to be disciplined by God when we’ve done wrong, but his belief that Job’s troubles are because he’s done wrong is incorrect. Although they make different points, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu all base their arguments on the assumption that Job’s suffering is because he’s a sinner. Urging him to repent and turn back to God, Job doggedly maintains his innocence.

While Job is correct that his suffering is not because of his sinfulness, like his friends, he is operating on a retribution theology: that we get what we deserve. Because he’s been righteous, Job believes he doesn’t deserve his trials. Sure that his suffering is in error, Job is determined to speak with God to defend himself. Neither Job nor his friends have the right answer; good fortune is not necessarily because of righteousness any more than misfortune is necessarily because of sin. When Job eventually repents, he does not repent of any sin that led to his suffering because sin wasn’t the cause. Instead, Job repents of questioning God’s wisdom and falsely accusing Him of injustice.

Like Job, it is easy to question God when troubles rain down, but do we ever question God when blessings are showered upon us? Do we really think we deserve only the good and never the bad? God doesn’t owe us blessings for righteousness. Good times are undeserved and hard times often come to those who least deserve them. Just as we are unable to fathom God’s omnipotence and generosity in his blessings to us, we are incapable of comprehending why our almighty and loving Father allows evil to shatter lives. We no more deserve God’s grace and blessings than Jesus deserved to suffer on that cross!

Suffering and hardship happen because we live in a fallen world; God offers no more explanation to us or to Job. The only answer is to put our hope and faith in God, secure in the knowledge that He is in control. Evil wins only when we turn away from God in pain and confusion and stop trusting in His infinite power and wisdom.

If I ask, “Why me?” about my troubles, I would have to ask, “Why me?” about my blessings. … I take the good with the bad, and I try to face them both with as much calm and dignity as I can muster. [Arthur Ashe (tennis champion, winner of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, who died of AIDS after being infected by a blood transfusion)]

Then the Lord said to Job, “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” Then Job replied to the Lord, “I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say.” [Job 40:1-5 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

LOVE SHALL NEVER DIE

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. … Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. [Luke 6:32-35a,36 (NLT)]

One of the hymns at our Easter Eve service was Christ is Alive and we sang, “In every insult, rift and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, where even hope has died.”  I thought of how hate must be like another nail in His hands and intolerance another scourging on His skin. The text of the hymn was written by Brian Wren in April of 1968, just two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I could not let Easter go by without speaking of this tragic event which was on all our minds, “ he explained. “The hymn tries to see God’s love winning over tragedy and suffering in the world.”

Little did I know while singing those words that, just a few hours later, there would be tragedy and suffering half-way around the world in Sri Lanka. Coordinated bombings at three churches and four hotels turned Easter Sunday into a blood bath leaving more than 300 people dead and 500 injured. A Sri Lankan Sunday school class at Zion Church met before the service that morning. When their teacher asked, “How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” all of the children raised their hands. As they rededicated themselves to Jesus by lighting candles, little did they know that half of them actually would die for Christ that very morning. As they crossed a courtyard to enter the sanctuary, a stranger exploded the bomb he was carrying in his backpack.

Last week, bullets ripped through a peaceful Passover service at a synagogue outside of San Diego, leaving one dead and three inured. Exactly six months earlier, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In March, at least 50 were killed and 20 injured in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In January, two suicide bombers detonated their bombs in a Catholic church in the Philippines, leaving 20 dead and more than 100 injured. Last October, a gunman attacked a Sabbath service in a Pittsburgh synagogue, leaving 11 dead. The heart of God must be filled with grief at these horrific acts of terror and hate.

We live in a fallen world—a world where war, pain, injustice, violence, anger, and prejudice abound. As we mourn the loss of innocent lives, we must resist the temptation to return hate with even more hostility. Just as we pray for their victims, we must also pray for the extremists who perpetuate these terrible attacks. The war on terror isn’t just a political battle; it’s a spiritual battle against the Prince of Darkness.

Let us remember that Christ’s message is one of love and love is more powerful than hate. As a nation, we must work to resolve the social and political issues that encourage terrorism but, as Christians, peace must begin with us. We are called to love everyone—not just the people with whom we agree. Rather than living in fear, as Christians, we must live in hope. Let us be people of prayer against the ungodly hatred and violence of our world. We must extend the hand of friendship and love to all people, not just the ones who think, look, speak, and worship like us.

“Christ is alive!” we sang at that Easter service. “The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.” Let us answer the hate of the world with His love!

At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it. [Fyodor Dostoyevsky from “The Brothers Karamazov”]

You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-45 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SATURDAYS

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8 (NLT)]

For many of us, last Saturday was probably spent preparing for Easter. We may have picked up people at the airport, done last minute shopping, purchased an Easter lily, decorated eggs, assembled Easter baskets, snacked on jelly beans, or hidden plastic eggs around the yard. Although the previous day, Good Friday, had been a somber one, we knew that the next day, Easter, would be one of joy and celebration. Knowing how the story ended, we didn’t mourn or feel abandoned. But what of the disciples on the Saturday after his crucifixion?

The Bible is strangely silent about that Saturday. We assume that, being good Jews, they observed the Sabbath day quietly, but that’s about it. Did they do any of things associated with Jewish mourning: tearing of clothes, wearing sack cloth and ashes, fasting, or prayer? As Job’s friends had done, did they gather together and sit shiva (as one would for a parent, child, sibling or spouse)? Was their seven day period of mourning interrupted when they learned of the empty tomb?

That one Saturday 2,000 years ago, everyone thought they’d never see Him again and what a dark day it was! Jesus—their leader, closest friend, and hope—was dead and gone. The agony of despair and defeat must have been unbearable. Was there regret or anger that they’d given up their homes and livelihoods for their failed Messiah? Think of their heartache and the many would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves as they wished they’d only known Thursday’s meal was the last time they’d be together! Think of their remorse for having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, the shame of abandoning Him in the garden, and Peter’s self-reproach for denying Him. Were they also afraid of being arrested and suffering the same kind of death?

The disciples never fully understood when He’d spoken of dying. Not believing that He’d be crucified and buried, they didn’t seem to expect Jesus to return and didn’t trust the women when they said the tomb was empty. Jesus had said, “It is finished!” Not understanding what He’d finished and seeing no future, they’d lost hope.

Perhaps the gospel writers chose not to tell us about that gloomy Saturday because the disciples weren’t especially proud of it. Yet, they told about Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubt, and James and John wanting places of honor. Perhaps there’s no mention of that Saturday because we’re not meant to dwell in the Saturdays of our lives.

I’m not talking about the day we get the chores done, take the kids to practice, or watch Saturday Night Live. I’m speaking of the times when disaster, despair, regrets, or anguish assault us and we can’t see tomorrow because of the darkness of today. The disciples’ Saturday lasted only 24-hours; unfortunately, our Saturdays often last much longer.

The disciples didn’t know that hopeless Saturday was simply a day between despair and joy, but we do. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, we know that we have not been abandoned. Because Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit when He ascended into heaven 40 days later, we know that we’ll never be alone. No matter how long our Saturdays are, we have no reason for despair, fear or anxiety. Whether in this world or the next, a glorious Sunday eventually will come.

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

GOOD FRIDAY: ON THIS HOLY DAY

Simeon…took the child [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Jesus’s parents were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” [Luke 2:28,31-35 (NLT)]

Munster - Bern CathedralAs Mary stood in the shadow of the cross, did she recall Simeon’s words when he held the infant Jesus in his arms? His prophecy came true that day at Calvary; as she watched her son endure such torture, it truly must have felt as if a sword had pierced her very soul. Jesus was supposed to be the glory of His nation but there He was—dying the death of a criminal. Mary didn’t understand why her beloved boy had to perish and she certainly didn’t know that He’d be back in three days. Imagine her sorrow and the emptiness in her heart as she witnessed her son’s agony.

Mary knew she loved her son but I wonder if that day she questioned God’s love for Him. She didn’t know that from the moment Jesus was planted in her womb her boy was headed to Calvary or that His death on the cross was all part of God’s perfect plan. How could she understand that her Son’s death was a deliberate choice: that He was dying for the very people who had placed Him on that cross? How could she know that His death proved the enormity of God’s love for all of humanity?

Like Mary, we don’t know the reason why our loved ones suffer or what will result from their suffering. Unlike Mary, however, we do know the rest of the story. Without the crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. But, because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, there is another life waiting for us in God’s heavenly kingdom. Jesus’s resurrection means that hope overpowered desperation, love claimed victory over hate, forgiveness prevailed over condemnation, joy conquered despair, and life triumphed over death.

Jesus, the Son of God, was ignored, denied, betrayed, falsely accused, demeaned, scorned and scourged, and finally crucified on a cross. He suffered and died like a common criminal and was buried in a borrowed tomb like a vagrant. The sinless One paid the sinners’ debts. He didn’t have to, but he did. Thank you, God, for your loving redemption.

…death was not Jesus’ penalty; it was His destiny. It was not His lot in life; it was His mission. It was not His unavoidable fate; it was His purpose statement for coming to earth that first Christmas: “Born to die.” [Bill Crowder, from“The Path of His Passion”]

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. [Isaiah 53:5-6 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.