Christina Fox received her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Desiring God and The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey Through the Psalms of Lament and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and www.Facebook.com/
In my quiet time lately, I've been reading the book of Jeremiah. He was a prophet to the people of Judah, called to warn them of God's coming wrath for their sin. As I've read it, I've found myself wanting to do what my kids do while watching a game on TV: yell at the players, telling them what they should be doing.
When I read Jeremiah telling the King exactly what to do to keep Jerusalem from being destroyed by the Babylonians, I wanted to yell "Just do it already!"
"Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. But if you do not surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then this city shall be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire, and you shall not escape from their hand” (Jeremiah 38:17-18).
Instead, King Zedekiah defied what God said through Jeremiah and in the end, he lost his family, his eyes, and lived the remainder of his life in prison (Jeremiah 39).
As I read this, I thought to myself, "The king had a prophet of God speaking to him and he still did what he wanted to do. How can that be?" But then I remember, wait, I have God's words too, right there in my Bible, and still I turn and do my own thing.
I've had the same thoughts whenever I read the account of the Israelite's leaving Egypt and wandering in the desert. I think, "How could they not believe God would be with them? They saw his power in the plagues, they saw him part the sea and defeat their enemies, and then they question whether he will give them water to drink or food to eat?"
But then I do the same thing. I read God's word and still wonder what he wants me to do with my life. I've seen God's faithfulness in my life over and over and still I question whether he will provide. I see his grace and mercy poured out for me at the cross and still I question whether he loves me. I'm no different than God's people in the Old Testament.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, recounting some of Israel's history. He wrote of their idolatry, their grumbling and complaining, and their immorality. He wrote, "Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The Corinthians were resting and relying on their progress in faith and thought they had made it. They had spiritual pride. As a result, they had slipped into sin of their own (idolatry and immorality, among other things). Paul pointed to Israel as an example, reminding them that Israel had the same spiritual benefits as the Corinthians did, yet they fell into sin (1 Corinthians 10:1-5). That's why he wrote, "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (v. 12).
This is a strong reminder for me in my own spiritual pride. When I read the stories of my ancestor's in the faith, instead of shaking my head in wonder at their actions, I ought to see myself in them. The stories are examples for me to realize I have the same benefits as those in the past did (God's word, the community of faith, the sacraments, etc), yet I am just as prone to idolatry. I am just as prone to do my own thing. And I need a Savior just as much as they did.
It's easy to study the narratives of the Old Testament and merely read them as history lessons. And there's certainly history there to learn. But ultimately, those stories remind me of my story. They point to the depths of my depravity and my great need for Jesus. They remind me not to trust in my heritage, in what I have learned, in my spiritual disciplines, or in what I have or have not done. Rather, they remind me to trust in Jesus. He is the only one who can rescue me from myself. He is the only one who can help me resist temptation to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). He is the author and perfecter of my faith.
What about you? Have you learned from the example of those before us?
Do you ever find yourself repeating the same things over and over to your children? When my kids were little, I often said "No" more times than I could count. Another favorite was "don't touch." These days, a phrase I often resort to is "because I said so." My kids don't like that phrase because it means the conversation is over. They view it as a cop-out, as a reason that's not actually a reason.
I figure one day, they'll have kids of their own and then they'll understand why I say it.
THE LORD'S DISCIPLINE
But these conversations I have with my children about rules and consequences, discipline and authority, often highlight for me my own heart and my own response to the way God works in my life. In truth, I find myself resistant to God's training and discipline. I find myself saying what my kids often say, "It's not fair." When hardships, trials, disappointments, and challenges come my way, I see them as things to avoid or resist or to find my way around. Other times, I look at hardships and challenges in my life as punishment for something I've done wrong. Or I wasn't good enough at something and God is disappointed with me.
Seldom do I pause to consider, "What might God be doing here? What might he want me to learn? How is he using this situation to make me more like Christ?"
The author to the Hebrews wrote to Jewish believers a letter exhorting them to persevere and run their race of faith with endurance. He taught them that Christ was greater than Moses, angels, and priests. He pointed them to Christ's sufferings for their sake and urged them to look to him in the face of their own trials and sufferings.
In chapter 11, we have the hall of faith, a list of saints who lived by faith, most of whom did not see their reward in this life. Then, in chapter 12, the writer encouraged them not to grow weary in their own race of faith. He wrote about God's discipline, and encouraged them to cast aside their sin and stay in the race, remembering the gospel and what Jesus did for them. Because it's easy to grow weary, he reminded them of who they were as children of God.
Quoting Proverbs 3, the author wrote:
"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" (Hebrews 12:5-6).
As believers, sometimes we take God's discipline lightly. We don't take it seriously. We dismiss it or overlook it. In doing so, we make light of God. We shrug our shoulders at sin as though it's not that big of a deal. But it is a big deal, such a big deal that Jesus came to die for our sins.
Other times, we may grow weary of the Lord's discipline. We may respond with despair. We might fret or worry about it. We may give up the fight in our battle against sin and think it's just too hard. We may come to the point where we despise the Lord's discipline in our lives and in so doing, we miss out on the good things God is doing in and through it.
The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against these responses. Instead, we need to look at the Lord's discipline as a good thing.
THE GOOD DISCIPLINE OF GOD
Why is God's discipline good?
It is good because it comes from our Father: "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" (vv. 7-8). God doesn't punish us for our sins; rather, Jesus took our punishment for us at the cross. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
So when hardship or trials enter our lives, it's not God punishing us for something we've done —though we may experience the natural result or outcome of sinful behavior, but not punishment. Instead, God disciplines or trains us because we are his children. This refers to our sonship, our adoption as children in the family of God. While earthly parents discipline their children as they think is best, our Father in heaven always disciplines us for our good. His discipline is always perfect, right, and true. He knows exactly what we need. He knows the best circumstances, lessons, challenges, and training methods. When God disciplines us, it is a sign of our adoption, a sign that we are legitimate children of God.
As Matthew Henry wrote concerning this passage: "That it is a fatherly correction; it comes not from his vindictive justice as a Judge, but his wise affection as a Father. The father corrects the son whom he loves, nay, and because he loves him and desires he may be wise and good... This is a great comfort to God’s children, under their afflictions...That they not only consist with, but flow from, covenant-love."
It is good because it has an eternal purpose: "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" (vv. 10-11). God's discipline has to do with our holiness, in making us like Christ. It has an eternal purpose; God is preparing us for heaven. Just as preparation for a race involves hard work and sometimes even painful moments as our bodies resist the push to go faster and harder, there is hard work involved in our spiritual training. Sometimes painful work. As God strips away our sinful desires, longings, thoughts, behaviors, and habits, it will hurt at times. But ultimately, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. Like a runner who rejoices when they arrive at the finish line, we too will rejoice when we see the end result of God's discipline: our holiness.
When we find ourselves weary from discipline, when we are tempted to avoid, shrug off, or even despise God's discipline, we need to look to Christ, "the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (v. 2). He will see to it that we endure, that we make it to the finish line. And when we do, we'll marvel and wonder at his grace. We'll rejoice when we see who we've become. So don't give up; keep running.
Life is filled with questions: What should I do? How will I do ____? Why did ___ happen?
For the believer, it’s no different. We wonder why God allowed a particular hardship into our lives. We wonder how we will endure a season of suffering. When we stand at a crossroads, we wonder which way we should go. When we encounter obstacles, we desire wisdom to know how to get around them. When life is confusing and uncertain, we want direction, purpose, and certainty.
The prophet Jeremiah found himself faced with uncertainty, questions, and a desire to know what to do. Jeremiah had been called to speak to God’s people about pending judgement for their sin. He prophesied that Babylon would conquer them and take them into captivity. As Babylon surrounded the city of Jerusalem and besieged it, Jeremiah was locked up in prison by the king, Zedekiah for prophesying about their pending capture. God then told Jeremiah to do a curious thing: purchase a piece of land.
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah…Jeremiah said, “The word of the LORD came to me: Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ Then Hanamel my cousin came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, ‘Buy my field…’” (Jeremiah 32:1-2,6-8).
Buy a field at a time when Jerusalem is under attack and will be taken away into captivity? Doesn’t that conflict with what God said would happen? Zedekiah was so offended by Jeremiah’s prophesy of captivity, he had him arrested. Wouldn’t buying a field say that Jeremiah didn’t believe his own prophecy?
Jeremiah obeyed the Lord and purchased the field. After he purchased the land, he was still confused and concerned about it. So he prayed to the Lord.
“After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah, I prayed to the LORD, saying: ‘Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:16-17).
Many times, we as believers find ourselves in a season of life, a crossroads, a trial, and don’t understand what is happening. We don’t know what God is doing or why. Like Jeremiah, we believe and trust God, but still feel confused and uncertain. Like Jeremiah, we obey and follow God’s word, but still have doubts. Jeremiah’s prayer here is helpful for us as we deal with our own uncertainties. We too ought to cry out to God, asking the tough questions.
Jeremiah began his prayer focusing on who God is and what he has done. He praised God for his power and sovereignty, for his love and faithfulness (see vv. 16-20). Then he rehearsed the history of redemption, of God’s salvific work in rescuing them from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land.
“You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great terror. And you gave them this land, which you swore to their fathers to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey” (vv. 21-22).
Jeremiah then moved to the present where Babylon was building siege ramps to attack Jerusalem. He prayed, “What you spoke has come to pass, and behold, you see it” (v. 24). He ends his prayer, expressing his concern, confusion, and doubt, “Yet you, O Lord GOD, have said to me, “Buy the field for money and get witnesses”—though the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans.’” (v. 25).
When We Have Doubts
In our own prayers, we too need to remember who God is and what he has done. We too can rehearse the story of redemption in our prayers. On this side of the cross, we rehearse the gospel. We remember that the promised Redeemer came and rescued us from slavery to sin. We remember that God wrapped himself in human flesh and incarnated himself among us. We dwell on Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection. We rejoice that we have a Savior who knows our sorrows and wept tears of his own. We look to our future hope in eternity.
As Jeremiah did, we also pray about God’s character, who he is in his sovereignty and power, his love and faithfulness, his wisdom and justice. We see all these traits meet in the person and work of Christ. All that God has promised has come to pass. His word is true and sure.
Like Jeremiah, we can present our questions, our concerns, our fears, and our doubts. We can ask, “why?” “how?” “what?” Because of Jesus, we can come to the throne of grace with confidence and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:16).
Ultimately, we learn that God will bring the people back to the land. He will keep his covenant with them. The purpose in Jeremiah purchasing the land was to show that the land would still be there for their return. It was to point to a future hope (see vv. 36-44).
Life in this fallen world is hard. We have many questions. Sometimes life is so shrouded with the fog of uncertainty, it’s hard to know where to go next. We struggle with doubts. Yet, even when we don’t understand what is happening, we obey God’s word. And we cry out to him in prayer. We remind ourselves that though we don’t know or understand the future, God does. We remember all he has done for us in Christ. It’s not the strength of our faith that sustains us during confusing times. It’s who our faith is in. It’s the object of our faith which carries us through: Jesus Christ. Turn to him and remember your God today.