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Occasional Letters - When Things Get Worse

D Newell, Glasgow

One of my favourite moments from the long-running Peanuts strip cartoon is when Charlie Brown gets his kite trapped in the dreaded kite-eating tree. For those who do not know this remarkably inventive series, the little boy Charlie Brown is for ever attempting, and for ever failing, to fly his kite. Frequently it comes to rest hopelessly entangled in one particular tree. On this occasion, not only is the kite inextricably stuck but the string has wrapped itself so tightly around the boy’s body that he is suspended from the branches, hanging upside down like a pendulum. A thought balloon emerges from his head: "At least it can’t get worse." At that point it begins to rain.

Yes, oftentimes things can and do get worse. The Bible, as we should expect, is refreshingly realistic about this fact of life. It came to my attention the other day when I read someone’s comment on the graphic language with which the Lord questions Jeremiah: "If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?" (Jer 12.5). According to the commentator, "entering the swelling of Jordan is a picture of entering death". But is it? Look first of all at the prophet’s metaphor. His speech is couched in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, which means that we may find interpretative clues in the adjacent phrases. The pattern seems clear enough. The Lord is warning Jeremiah that if he has found it difficult in comparatively easy times, how will he manage when things get really tough? The idiom sounds proverbial. To race against other men is one thing, but to match one’s speed against horses is quite another; there is no problem living in a tranquil landscape, but to move into the thickets of the tangled jungle alongside the River Jordan would be much more demanding. For a start, that territory was notoriously the haunt of dangerous wild animals (Jer 49.19; 50.44).

As always, the best way to understand what is going on is to look carefully at the verse in its context. That will help us tease out the meaning. Here, then, is the whole passage:

Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously? Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root: they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins. But thou, O Lord, knowest me: thou hast seen me, and tried mine heart toward thee: pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter. How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? the beasts are consumed, and the birds; because they said, He shall not see our last end. If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan? For even thy brethren, and the house of thy father, even they have dealt treacherously with thee; yea, they have called a multitude after thee: believe them not, though they speak fair words unto thee (Jer 12.1-6).

Commissioned of God to preach imminent catastrophic judgment on the rebellious people of Judah, Jeremiah met with little or no outward success. Evil continued unchecked. He therefore took his complaint directly to the Lord. That, by the way, is always the right thing to do. Why did the hypocritical, wicked people of his nation appear to prosper in this world? Why did the faithless flourish? For all their pious words, they had no real interest in the things of God, yet life for them was so effortless and untroubled. We can recognise the same bewilderment permeating Psalms 37 and 73. The first four verses of the chapter constitute the prophet’s distraught inquiry, but verses five onwards form Jehovah’s response, a response which basically notifies Jeremiah that his circumstances were going to become even more difficult, as he would now have to contend with the concerted opposition of his own family. To paraphrase v.6, "If you think your current situation is bad enough, Jeremiah, you just wait until the next trial arises."

Believers today may face a similar experience. Perhaps we have been seeking to do what we can for the Lord, serving faithfully in the tiny sphere He has entrusted to us, diligently continuing despite weakness, and despite seeing little fruit for our labours. It can seem so hard. But things may yet become far worse. Tomorrow we may have to face unlooked-for opposition from family and friends, hostility in the workplace, redundancy, sudden illness and affliction. Storms can blow up from nowhere. What then is the answer? Does the Lord have a medicine for our troubled hearts? Let’s turn to the New Testament. The first chapter of Colossians includes Paul’s prayer for an assembly of believers whom he had never personally encountered. Listen to his words:

We also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness (Col 1.9-11).

The best thing we can do for our fellow saints is to bring them before the Lord in prayer. Paul’s inspired language charts a significant progression in the believer’s knowledge. He rejoices that his readers already knew "the grace of God in truth" (v.6): that is to say, they had heard about the sovereign grace of God in the gospel and had been marvellously saved. But now he prays that they might be "filled with the knowledge of his will", that they might, in other words, learn to live in a manner that pleased God. Of course, our sole source of information about God’s will for us today is the Scriptures of truth, so prayer must be accompanied by study. More, he longs for them ultimately to increase "in the knowledge of God". The steps upwards are plain: salvation, spiritual education, and the grand culmination – that intimate enjoyment of God Himself which will be our delight for all eternity. But notice how the apostle concludes his prayer, desiring that the Colossians be "Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power". We might initially suppose that such a concentration of divine strength would be for the purpose, say, of working stupendous miracles, perhaps to attract the unsaved to the gospel. However, Paul specifies exactly how this divine power will manifest itself: "unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness". Note that. Even after conversion we are such feeble people that it takes all the energy of heaven to enable us merely to endure what the Lord may lay upon us down here. And Paul is not advocating a simple stiff upper-lip perseverance; rather, he prays that, whatever their trials, the saints will keep on for God "with joyfulness". What a striking testimony for God it is when ordinary believers carry on in the midst of real pressures, maintaining a firm and cheerful confidence in their Saviour!

We may yet discover, as did Jeremiah, that the Lord’s plans for us involve days of personal anxiety, loneliness, discouragement, and distress such as we have never experienced heretofore. But our God is enough for every emergency. What He gives us to bear He will help us to endure. May we seek to continue faithfully with Him, eagerly waiting "for his Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1.10).

To be continued.


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