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Happy News About Being Miserable

A sermon by Pastor Jack Lash

What would you say? How would you respond? If your Christian friend wrote this, what would you think and how would you act?

I’ve had my fill of trouble; I’m camped on the edge of hell. I’m written off as a lost cause, one more statistic, a hopeless case. Abandoned as already dead, one more body in a stack of corpses, And not so much as a gravestone— I’m a black hole in oblivion. You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit, sunk me in a pitch-black abyss. I’m battered senseless by Your rage, relentlessly pounded by Your waves of anger. You turned my friends against me, made me horrible to them. I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out, blinded by tears of pain and frustration. I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help, at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak. Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do You make Yourself scarce? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting; I’ve taken the worst You can hand out, and I’ve had it. Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life; I’m bleeding, black-and-blue. You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side, raining down blows till I’m nearly dead. You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness.

What would you say to your friend? Would you say (in polite terms, of course), "You’re feeling sorry for yourself."? Or "God didn’t do this to you, you did it to yourself."? Or perhaps, "Happiness is a choice."?

The gut-wrenching words above are actually a paraphrase of Psalm 88. And they show that God has a lot more patience with groaning than a lot of Christians do. We think, "If you live right, you’ll be successful and happy." Try telling that to Job. For many, there’s no room in their view of life for Psalm 88. There’s no room for "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Ps.22:1)

But in Psalm 88 and others like it there is happy news about feeling miserable. First of all, these Psalms prove that God isn’t surprised by our misery. He knows our pain. He gets it. He understands.

One of the most amazing and powerful verses in the Bible is the shortest: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). And at Gethsemane, the Son of God groaned in pain! I know that when I am in pain, it soothes me just to know that someone else gets it. That’s why it’s so helpful to speak with someone who has gone through a similar thing to what I’m going through. Well, God gets it. He understands our pain.

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Rom. 8:26)

Groanings too deep for words. Wow!

And He doesn’t scold us for our groaning in pain. Often we scold our kids for crying. How many times do we say, "Don’t cry!" But where in the Bible does God tell us not to cry? The only place I know of is when Jesus told the widow of Nain in Luke 7:13, "Do not weep." But in that story, the widow was crying because her son had died and Jesus was telling her not to cry since He was going to raise her son from the dead. He wasn’t saying she shouldn’t have been crying, but that her reason for crying was now removed.

The Bible has plenty of passages like Psalm 88 which show us that He gives us permission to cry out in our pain. The fact is that life hurts. Pain is not all there is, of course. There is joy and fun and pleasure and relief. But there is also pain. We can push it down; we can deny it. Or we can cry out. And God makes it clear that it’s OK to say ouch! It’s OK to say, "I’m hurting, God." In fact, it is better to get angry with God than to ignore Him. Even the fact that we are having a conversation with God is a sign of hope.

And in the Scriptures God gives us templates to give voice to our suffering. God wrote Psalm 88. And this isn’t the only psalm like this that He wrote.

"I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping." (Psalm 6:6)

"My tears have been my food day and night." (Psalm 42:3)

We have some place to go with our pain! And we have transportation; we have a way to get there (His word).

Not only does the Bible expect pain, but the Bible explains pain. The creation was perfect when God made it. God made a rule for man. Man broke God’s rule. God cursed the earth on account of man, introducing decay, pain, and trouble. But there is also a certain glory in the curse. First of all, all potential idols are cursed. Because of God’s curse they don’t ultimately bring us happiness. They don’t deliver on their promises. And the emptiness of it all ultimately is designed to drive us to God. What would we be like if we had everything we wanted? We’d never seek for God.

The fact is that a lot of us do not experience enough misery. "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven...A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance." (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4) But we don’t want it this way. We want all the times to be for laughing and feeling good. We avoid things that make us feel bad. We seek things which will make us laugh or have fun or enjoy ourselves. We need to be more miserable. We are not desperate enough. We have too much earthly comfort and distraction. Sometimes we ought to be miserable and we’re not. Sometimes we are too happy. Sometimes we’re happy when we shouldn’t be. Sometimes we laugh too much. Sometimes when we’re laughing we ought to be weeping. James 4:9 tells us to "Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom." We don’t like to hear that kind of thing. Jesus said, "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh...Woe to you who are ull now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep." (Luke 6:21, 25) That’s hard for us to believe. We certainly don’t feel blessed when we’re weeping.

We have a derogatory expression we use when someone cries when they shouldn’t. We say he is a "cry baby." However, isn’t it interesting that there is no derogatory term in our vocabulary to use for someone who doesn’t cry but should? There can be a lot of pride in not crying. Strength can be a terrible sin. Satan is the one who wants us to suck it up and handle it ourselves.

What has to happen to make us weep for the glory of God? What hardness needs to be melted away? What sin needs to be faced? What selfishness needs to be admitted? What pride needs to be let go of?

One of the questions people sometimes ask is, "Did Jesus laugh?" There’s no record of it in the Bible, but the answer has to be yes. Did the One who made laughter not Himself laugh? Did the One who created humor for mankind not enjoy it Himself as a man? And yet, isn’t it interesting that we are never told once of Jesus laughing, but are told of his weeping on several occasions?

There is much blessing in feeling and facing the pain of life instead of avoiding it. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matt.5:4) Those who avoid the mourning miss the comfort! The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." (7:2-4) Admittedly, it is not easy to interpret the Hebrew here in v.3 where it says: "Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad." But if that translation is valid, then Wow!

Misery is not necessarily an ungodly emotion. It’s what you do with it that matters. There is a sin of self-pity, of course. And that sin needs to be resisted and sometimes rebuked. It is wrong to be so focused on our own pain that we forget that everyone else is hurting too. We can give into the temptation of feeling bitter and resentful instead of grateful. And even worse, we can not only forget others’ pain, we can forget His pain, who suffered to save us. Indeed, one of the keys in facing suffering is to remember His suffering. First of all, it puts our suffering in context. The suffering He causes for us is far less than the suffering we caused for Him. Secondly, it reminds us of the loving heart of God which is behind our suffering. "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31b-32)

One of the ways God has called us to weep and experience misery is in having compassion on those who are feeling the burden of the curse. We are to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), to feel their pain, to identify with their discomfort and their disarray and their disturbance. Remember Jesus’ reaction: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew 9:36) He didn’t scowl at our condition, He entered into our woe. Jesus wept.

"We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted (i.e. tried) as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need... He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness." (Hebrews 4:15-5:2)

When we are exhausted from carrying heavy burdens, let us remember that He was so exhausted that He fell on His face in the street, without the strength to carry His burden. When we are in intense physical pain, let us remember His pain on the cross. When we feel betrayed by a friend, let us remember His betrayal at the hands of his friend. When we feel abandoned by God, let us remember the One who cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" When we are ridiculed and scorned, let us remember what they did to Jesus. When everyone abandons us and we are left all alone, let us remember Jesus. Let us not avoid the pain of this life, let us run to Jesus in our pain.

"For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too." (2Corinthians 1:5)

The first part of this sermon was inspired by a talk given by Winston Smith at the CCEF conference in November 2008 in Philadelphia.