The following is an excerpt from a letter of John Berridge to a fellow minister who had recently injured himself in a bad fall.
I received your letter, and dare not say that I am sorry for your fall, nor indeed for any afflictions that God lays on His children; they are tokens of His fatherly love, and needful medicine for us. Rather would I pray that while God keeps you in the furnace, you may be still, and feel your dross and tin being purged away.
The Lord Jesus gives me a dose of this medicine most days; and I am never so well as when I am taking it, though I frequently make a crooked face at it. If your heart is as my heart, it will need many a bitter potion to cleanse and strengthen it! Afflictions have been to me some of my greatest mercies.
No lasting gain do I get, but in a furnace. Comforts of every kind make me either light or lofty, and swell me, though unperceivably, with self-sufficiency. Indeed, so much dross, native and acquired, is found in my heart, that I have constant need of a furnace. Jesus has selected a suitable furnace for me, not a hot and hasty one, which seems likely to harden and consume me–but one with a gentle and lingering heat, which melts my heart gradually, and lets out some of its dross. Though I cannot love the furnace, yet the longer I live, the more I see of its need and its use. A believer seldom walks steadily and brightly, unless he is well-furnaced.
“I have refined you, but not as silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of affliction!” Isaiah 48:10
May the Lord water your soul and your vineyard, and teach you to know nothing, and preach nothing but Jesus Christ!
There is something about me that always wants to be in control. If I am sick, I want to outlearn the disease and overcome it. If relationships start to fail, I want to be able to charm them back to life. We all desire control. I think this is why we buy into so many fad diets promising snake-oil results. I do not say this as a judgment on eating right; it is a wise thing to do, but how much of it stems from the desire to bend reality to fit our ideals. If there is something I can do, then it is something I can control. “I am the master of my ship.” This desire to govern this world has even found its way into Christian circles. “If you can muster enough faith, all will go right. Positive thoughts create positive results.” The problem is, it is not true. We could do all of this, and it could still fall apart. We are not the masters our destinies.
The storm around me reminds me of this. I realize, with every peal of thunder, that I am not the center of the universe. When it comes to orchestrating the master plan for creation, I am no more special than the other 7 billion people on the planet. We all tend to live as if we are, but it is a delusion. You and I could come into contact with something in this fallen world that could end our lives within a matter of days, and there is nothing we could do about it.
Once we are gone, our co-workers would remember us and then replace us. Sure, they may even put up a picture for a few years to commemorate our contribution, but they would be able to continue without us. Our demise would most likely hit our family the hardest, but our children would move on with their lives just like we would want them to. Even the one we love, if the Lord wills, would find someone else to love and with whom to share the rest of their life.
I do not like to think about these things, but it is good. It reminds me that the world is not yet the way it should be, so I should not put my trust and hope in it. There is something eternal that deserves my devotion and attention. Something else should be my refuge.
Though the storm swells around me, I have found salvation in the cleft of the rock: Christ Jesus. All the sins that caused me to be fearful of God have been forgiven. The great and righteous judge of the universe has reconciled me to Himself through the cross. Yes, I, a sinner, am a friend of God. In fact, He calls me His child.
One of the problems is that we often interpret being a child of God to mean that we are now co-sovereigns with Him, but that is not the case. When the omnipotent God makes us His child, He does not stop being God. He does not hand us the reigns of the universe. Instead, He continues right on with His plan, and we should be grateful.
What tends to bother us, is that He still keeps much of his plan hidden. The hidden things belong to the Lord (Deuteronomy 29:29). His judgments and ways are past finding out, and none of us have been his counselor (Romans 11:34). He has not told us everything He is doing. He is operating in a fallen world in a multitude of ways that are unseen and unknown to us, but He has given us some revelation. One of the things revealed is that he will return and set all things right. We sometimes complain that He has not done it yet, but it is His patience that causes Him tarry (2 Peter 3:9). If it were not for His patience, none of us would be saved. The day He returns in glory will be a day of great trembling and delight for His child, but it will be a day of terror for those who do not know Him. Though we should desire His return, it is not something we should rush because he is still gathering his people.
Our salvation involves so much more than what we are currently experiencing, and even creation groans waiting for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8:19-23). Though we are to strive to give people a glimpse of glory in this life, it is only a dim reflection. We cannot place all our hope in what we are experiencing now. He has given us the Holy Spirit, and we know this is a guarantee of what is to come, but what we are experiencing now, in this life, is not the consummation of our salvation.
Everything could fall apart. The darkest things imaginable could happen, except one: that He would lose one of us who have been saved by faith and fail to complete the work He has begun in us. We will see Jesus face to face in all of His glory. One day, all believers will inhabit a place without sickness, without tears, and without death. A place where it can no longer come undone, but this is not it.
If we think that everything must fall into place right now for our salvation to be real and our faith to be true, we have a short-sighted view of both salvation and faith, and our understanding of God is too small. True faith will trust God even if He does not do what we want Him to do immediately. What He is doing is bigger and better than what we could ever imagine, even if we don’t fully understand it. One day the hidden things will be revealed, and we will stand in awestruck wonder at the wisdom of His plan. No matter how dark and painful it gets, children of God win in the end because we will stand in the presence of Jesus. It could all fall apart, and that’s OK. Deep and abiding faith in God has the ability to look at the worst possible scenario and still see our Lord’s goodness. From there, nothing we face can cause us to fear. God has not ceased being God, and he will be faithful to His promises. He is conforming us to his image and he will bring us home.
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. – Isaiah 54:10
Our Lord had no need to undertake the bearing of the cross except to attest and prove his obedience to the Father. But as for us, there are many reasons why we must pass our lives under a continual cross… We readily esteem our virtue above its due measure. And we do not doubt, whatever happens, that against all difficulties it will remain unbroken and unconquered. Hence we are lifted up to stupid and empty confidence in the flesh; and relying on it, we are then insolently proud against God himself, as if our own powers were sufficient without his grace.
He can best restrain this arrogance when he proves to us by experience not only that great incapacity but also the frailty under which we labor. Therefore, he afflicts us either with disgrace or poverty, or bereavement, or disease, or other calamities. Utterly unequal to bearing these, in so far as they touch us, we soon succumb to them. Thus humbled, we learn to call upon His power, which alone makes us stand fast under the weight of afflictions.
-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion-
It wasn’t until my world started spinning out of control that my true constant became crystal clear. I had spent most of my life, including much of my life as a believer, aiming at moving targets. “Happiness is found in this direction” it would say, and then I would get there, and it would redirect, “no, over here, fulfillment is attained by chasing this,” and then as I got close, it would lead me on in another direction.
It is who we are by nature. Our souls seek their fulfillment in the things of earth, and these chains are not easily broken. We lean on money, health, power, sexuality, and intelligence, for in them we think we will find our security. Regarding this, one of the greatest blessings the Lord gives His child is to show them just how empty those things truly are. He allows our world to start to spin, and our imaginary supports crumble. What He is doing is revealing to us the miseries that are tied to these things if we trust in them.
It is easy to talk of this theoretically, but when it happens, our hearts will break. Remember, we naturally love the things of this world, and sometimes the pain can be as deep as losing a loved one. A surgeon who finds his identity in his career gets Parkinson’s and everything he is invested in begins to fail. A business woman lauded by her colleagues for her sharp mind begins to struggle with her memory. A parent who finds their meaning in their children finds them rebelling and estranged. None of these things can happen without severe heartache.
As believers, when our world starts spinning out of control, we cannot help but see the instability of many of our false hopes. It is at that moment that our eyes start looking for the one thing that is unchanging. The one thing in which, though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, we can rest our confidence. At that moment, Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever begins to be seen in His glorious splendor, while the instability of the things of the world are exposed. The spinning of our world is the very thing the Lord uses to reveal our true north.
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. – Psalm 119:71
We live in a fallen world, and many people do not know what to do with their anger, hurt, sorrow, and grief. Much of it is churned into bitterness and spewed out on social media. Unfortunately, cultural Christianity has no place for biblical lament which is a proper response to such things. Even our funeral services have become life celebrations where we do not allow the grieving to grieve. This is why we need Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Rediscovering the Grace of Lament. The book is broken into three heads:
Section 1: Learning to Lament
Vroegop shows us how to lament biblically and the pitfalls to avoid. Lament is not being angry with God. Lament is not complaining as if we are not getting what we deserve from God, and lament is not despair. Vroegop gives us a thoroughly biblical understanding of lament and encourages us to turn our pain into passionate cries to God. He reminds us that one third of Psalms contain lament, and it should be part of our worship. If you are hurting, he will show you how to lay out your pain before God.
Section 2: Learning from Lament
Like all prayer, lament is a means of grace that leads us into several spiritual benefits. Vroegop spends time leading us through those blessings. Two examples are that lament takes our trials and turns them into trust, and it uses our injuries to tear down our idols that subtlety hold our hearts captive. This section opens eyes to the individual and corporate blessing we miss when we fail to lament properly.
Section 3: Living with Lament
The book closes with instruction on how to put lament into practice personally, in our churches, small groups, funerals, and life with others. In this section, it becomes even more clear how much we need lament. People are hurting from both actual and perceived injustices. Our political culture stirs up animosity, anger, and resentment, and biblical lament can be one aspect that could help move us toward healing by weeping with those who weep.
If we do not see any reason to lament, then we are not paying attention to the world around us or the sin that that still dwells within us. Vroegop has done the church a great service by pointing us back to a biblical act of worship that is too often neglected and replaced with bitter and angry social media rants. The church needs to understand and make room for lament, and the world needs the church to understand it as well. Lament is one of the first places we should go when confronting this fallen world.
But they will become his slaves so that they may learn the difference between my service and the service of the kingdoms of the countries. 2 Chronicles 12:8
In this verse, we find the nation of Judah in a humbling position. King Rehoboam had only been king of Judah for five years, but in that five years, he had forsaken the law of the Lord. Because of this unfaithfulness, the Lord sends Shishak, King of Egypt to capture the fortified cities of Judah. The Lord then says to King Rehoboam, “You have forsaken me, so I have forsaken you to Shishak”, and what we see next is faith revived, for they humbled themselves and said, “the Lord is righteous.”
Too often we take disobedience lightly, and most people do not like to talk about the times they have been under God’s rod of discipline, and you can understand why. With so much theology pushing for the elusive mountaintop experience, and Christian pop psychology teaching us “How to manage our emotions” or “How to find the champion within,” a Christian could feel like quite the failure in many of today’s churches to acknowledge that God’s discipline is upon them.
We must, however, see this for what it is. To be under the heavy hand of God is a blessing because the Lord only disciplines those He loves. In this text we see His discipline had a specific purpose: to teach. There are many things we must be taught by the hand of the Lord for our hearts are deceitful and prone to wander, but our Shepherd knows how to lead us. When we learn the difference between His service and the service of the prince of this world, we find that His yoke is easy and His burden in light.
There is also the unfortunate fact that many people live their lives based on subjective feelings and do not live according to the Word of God. They feel that they are spiritual because they get goosebumps during their worship service, but they are living in sin and feel no remorse about it. Living in disobedience with warm affections in worship is a much worse place to be than under the rod of God’s discipline.
Today, if you find yourself under God’s Rod of discipline, humble yourself, and know that He is righteous. Don’t try to run, for it is God’s love that is dealing with you, not His condemnation. Praise Him for He is good, and if the world looks down on you because you have been brought low, and if many in the church are too busy chasing affluence under the guise of Christianity to understand, remember victory is yours because He is your shepherd. It is God’s grace that teaches us these crucial lessons, and we know “the broken and contrite He will never turn away.” Praise God, for He disciplines those He loves, we are kept by the power of God, and we will never be lost.
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. -Hebrew 12:4-11
There is a fear that will make you fearless. Many of God’s great saints have gone through times which shook them with such terrible fear that they felt paralyzed, but it is in those times that they learned that Christ is everything. Facing dark nights, when we feel that God has forsaken us, has a way of breaking all that encumbers the heart and turns its focus to the only one who can help. These are the times of spiritual depression when we look and see our sinful hearts in all their depravity. It is here where the fear of God takes on a whole new meaning. When we go through a time like this, there is nothing that we will not surrender to God, because we finally see how hopeless we are without Him. It is in these times that we offer our boldest prayers. We are willing to cry, “Lord, take everything from me if I am not in your will, my reputation, my job, even my family if necessary. There is only one thing that will redeem me from this pit, and that is to know I am right with you.” Spurgeon said, “If a man is in this position you can lay the wealth of India at his feet and he’ll say take it away, what use is that to me.”
When a person goes through a time like this and comes out on the other side, that person has been changed, and many times the Lord left everything intact, the reputation, the job, and the family, but at the same time, He has taken it from him. The fears that once tormented are gone because this person has seen the greatest truth: without Christ we have nothing and with Him we have everything. They also learn that they belong to Him, and even when it seems He is against us, He is for us. This newly found freedom emboldens the man do and say things that he once could not because of his fears. It gives him the ability to take a stand for Christ no matter what the cost. We see this in John Bunyan spending years in prison without denying Christ, or Luther standing before the powers of Rome declaring, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” They had been through times where their sins tormented them, and during those times, they saw the worthlessness of everything in measure to Christ. As a result, they now look at the fears of this world as nothing in comparison.
There is a great picture of this in the movie “The Four Feathers”. The main character is in a group of military friends who are told they will be going to battle. The main character is afraid, so he resigns. From this, four of his closest friends each gives him a feather signifying that he is a coward. Seeing the result of his decision he heads off to Saudi Arabia to find this group and redeem his cowardly act. The things he faces make going to war pale in comparison. In the midst of his ordeal, a man says to him “why did you not go to war?” His reply is “I was afraid”. The man who asked the question began to laugh out loud and says “you, scared? I found you half dead in the middle of the desert by yourself.” To which he responds, “it’s a different kind of fear.”
It’s a different kind of fear to fear the Lord. Not the kind of fear that will cause you to run away, but a fear that will cause you to run to Him and stand strong. In finding this fear, the chains of fear begin to break. Praise God for causing our hearts to fear and for delivering us from it.
When I cling to earthly things
Within my heart, fear pulls the strings
Lord, all these things, take if you must
For in your Love, I’ll place my trust.
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27
The sky has turned dark. It has not always been this way, but now it is frightening. Not long ago it was bright and sunny as was the disposition of my heart, but now the thunder crashes are similar to the war drums of an enemy telling me that I will never survive. When the skies were clear, I always imagined that I had the strength to handle whatever would come my way, but now as I stand here, I realize how weak I am compared to the power of this storm.
Somehow the darkness that has surrounded me has begun to make its way into my soul. The doubts, confusions, and fears continue to whisper to me, and they seem to be penetrating deep into my heart. It even has a way of making the easiest tasks of the day seem burdensome. Deep inside me, it has revealed the truth that I am no match for what I am facing, and to crown its victory, it declares my sinfulness by reminding me of my many failures.
That is not all that is being revealed, something deeper still has begun to stir. Something that is turning my eyes away from the ephemeral and started to focus my attention on what endures. I realize that it was there even before the skies turned, but I am only now beginning to see its power. It has gripped me and will not let go. It is something that was born within by a power not my own, which is what gives it a life of its own. It has been said that those born in this way will overcome the world, and what is this victory that overcomes the world – our faith.
It often takes a storm more powerful than I am before I reach out for the Hand that is more powerful than the storm, and though the tempest remembers my transgressions, the Hands that hold me are scarred from nail piercings that declare my forgiveness. I still tremble, and sometimes it is difficult to tell whether it is out of fear or out of faith, but what I am beginning to see is that there is something, or should I say, Someone, greater within me than what is in the world.
One day it will all be put right, but the sky is still dark, and the storm is still raging, and when I see the things of this world which my heart still loves slipping from my grasp, the tears still sometimes well up in my eyes. Although, I’ve learned that the One who holds me is also directing the storm, so I have nothing to fear. You may not always see me holding it together, but know this, deep inside there is a battle raging to set me free from the things that still hold me captive. That battle is the fight of faith, and that battle will not be lost.
The daily battles never cease. Adversity is a companion I know too well. My strength is gone, and despair brings me low. I ask again for release from this, for I fear it will be the end of me. The enemy gathers to devour me, and their strength seems overwhelming. Lord, if it be your will, end this suffering.
Then your word rings clear. “My Grace is sufficient for you”. Three times you’ve cried for relief, because you believe this is holding you back. What you don’t see my child, is that this thorn you so much dread is one of my precious blessings which is not killing or holding you back, but spurring you on and giving you strength.
The death that you feel is the old nature dying, and though you feel held back you’re actually moving more swiftly because your focus is clear and your resolve is set on Me. Without this you would be easily distracted. Without this you would stumble in your own strength, and though Satan thinks he buffets, and your faith is being tested, I am crowning you with perseverance, character and hope.
Humility is another gift that is given though this and the broken and contrite I will never turn away. So walk on and know that I am sovereign, and embrace the benefits of this adversity. For I alone am God, and I know my children well. You will never be tested more than you can handle, and I will bring you home.
My Grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness. 2 Cor. 12:9