More Christians have been martyred this year than at any other time in modern history. The moral decay of our culture has many believers wringing their hands while others who claim to know Christ are compromising on the clear teaching of Scripture. You might say these are dark days for followers of Christ.
The prophet Jeremiah lived during a similar time in Israel’s history. He was charged by God to prophesy judgment on his own people because they disobeyed God by conforming to the sins of those around them; their idol worship, child sacrifices and religious prostitution had polluted the land. Jeremiah spoke God’s truth in power. He condemned sin and foretold judgment. The Babylonians—invaders from what we know as modern-day Iraq—would pulverize Israel’s armies and drag the people away into captivity.
For pronouncing such a message, Jeremiah was rejected by almost everyone— and especially by his own family. They plotted to kill him. He was humiliated, publically beaten and mocked; he was shamed as he was whipped and put in stocks in the public square. Finally he was thrown in prison and flung into a deep pit, a cistern that was like a quagmire of oozing mud and filth where he lay sinking and freezing and near death.
Jeremiah was broken and lonely, yet he wasn’t without hope. In fact, he not only lived with a profound sense of hope, but he actually wrote a letter to the people after they were taken captive in Babylon, daring them to hope in the midst of their exile. (See Jeremiah 29:4–7)
How amazing that Jeremiah wrote this letter at all! Remember, these people had caused his pain and suffering and imprisonment.
I don’t know about you, but if it were me I would have been tempted to write a letter saying, “See. I told you so. You should have listened to me. But now you’ve gotten exactly what you deserve.” But Jeremiah doesn’t do that. Instead he writes to encourage them, to comfort them in their distress, to offer them good advice and hope for coping with their pain and loss. I find that striking.
And that is exactly how God responds to us. When we experience the consequences of our disobedience, He doesn’t gloat or say, “I told you so.” He looks to forgive and bring about our redemption.
I was thinking about this recently as families of the Charleston massacre victims, grief stricken over their loss, offered forgiveness to the murderer and called on him to repent and receive Christ. The whole world was amazed to see such good people. But it’s not merely that they were good people; they were God’s people. And those people, acting in His strength, showed the world what a good and loving God looks like.
When we choose forgiveness and grace toward those who have done us wrong, we, too, can show others what God is like. And we can do this because it is how God has shown Himself to us.
The second thing that strikes me about the prophet Jeremiah is this: he gave the best possible advice to a people who had experienced complete and utter devastation. They had experienced such trauma, such profound loss, that it was only natural for them to despair of life.
Don’t just become a hater of the situation. Learn to live for what good God can make out of it.
But Jeremiah says (if I can paraphrase), “Hey guys. You have to keep on living. Even in exile there is hope, because the God of hope promises to be with you. Now you have to reshape your expectations. Don’t just become a hater of the situation. Learn to live for what good God can make out of it.”
All of us today are living in a kind of exile because ultimately our truest home is with God. Yet God still wants us to live full of hope now and to do good even in our exile because ultimately we represent Him. Our exile may feel like a real sense of loss.
Eventually life delivers the blows of loss and disappointment, even to those who are obedient, as Jeremiah was. Painful disappointments in our relationships may result in loneliness and alienation. Or maybe things haven’t turned out the way we hoped in terms of our job and career. We may be struggling with bitterness over any number of unmet expectations. Some are facing declining health, even the prospect of death before we feel ready for it.
We all, at some point, realize the temporary nature of life. The things we think will make life perfect can’t ultimately satisfy us. Even if we have little or no disappointment in our relationships, career, etc.—even the best of the most wonderful life is tainted with temporality. And the knowledge that whatever we have on this earth is fleeting has caused many people to despair.
That’s because we are made for a permanence that is found only in God’s presence, a love and a joy that never fades—that is what we truly seek, even if we aren’t aware of it. And that is what only He can give.
Meanwhile, this is God’s encouragement to us: We don’t have to let regret over what we don’t have rob us of the joys God is offering. But to experience those joys, we need to dispense with our fear of losing every good thing He gives us. We also need to dispense with the “if only’s.” If only this didn’t happen, if only I got that job or married that person or lived in that house. Similarly, we can stop wishing that this or that didn’t happen because guess what? It did.
We can never hope to avoid the pain and brokenness of life this side of heaven—yet we can live hope-filled lives because God’s mercies are new every morning.
Those mercies give us every reason to open our eyes and see what God has for us right here, right now. We can engage with people, be a light to the world around us and also experience and enjoy the blessings that God is offering us here and now.
Not only are His mercies new every morning, but His eternal promises are secure. So taste and see that the Lord is good. He is the only pleasure that never fades away but keeps getting better and better until that morning dawns when we stand in His presence with no more tears, no more sorrows, but only the pure, rich and ever-satisfying love of God.
We can have a measure of that experience now and tomorrow and the next day and the next. We need to believe that and declare that, and order our lives around that ultimate reality. No matter how dark the horizon, we can dare to hope because we know for a certainty, the best is yet to come.
David Brickner is also an author, public speaker and avid hiker. Find out more about David, his writings, speaking schedule and possible availability to speak at your church.