Growing through Distress

"How long wilt Thou forget me, O LORD? For ever? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?" Psalm 13:1
Opening Prayer: Father, sometimes we hurt so bad we can't see straight. Help us to grow in courage and faith, that we might reach Your place of blessing, we pray.

What are the five most dangerous words in the English language?

Gee, I don't know, Teacher.

Hmm -- those five are pretty good. But they're not quite what I had in mind. Let me share my selection of the five most dangerous words: "How could a loving God...?

Whenever you start a sentence with those five words, you're preparing to say something dangerous. Those five words imply that YOU have more wisdom and knowledge than the God who created you. Fortunately, the Bible can teach us a healthier response to the difficulties of life.

Psalm 4, verse 1 gives us an important clue:

Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.

Some newer translations say, "You have relieved me..." instead of "Thou hast enlarged me" as the King James Version says. But the KJV is exactly right. The Hebrew word is "rachab" which means to enlarge or to make wide.

There is an important lesson in this verse. When distress hits, my normal tendency is to pray for God to shrink the problem. However, God's preferred way of problem solving is giving me more capacity to deal with the problem.

But why does God let distressing things happen to us?

You might have trouble receiving this, but He allows us to be in distress because it's good for us.

Huh??

Serious body builders know that they get the most spectacular results by working specific muscle groups to the point of breakdown. Likewise, our spiritual "muscles" are strongest when God allows us to come to the end of our fleshly strength and understanding, and exercise faith in God and His Word.

Over the years, I've discovered that God arranges events in a particular sequence:

This pattern always holds true: When I exercise faith in response to distress, God is able to enlarge me, and His power is released to bring blessings.

Unfortunately, the opposite also holds true: When I complain in response to distress, I'm on my own. God has no obligation to do something nice for me just because I'm assertive about my "rights" as a Christian.

Let's look at several Scriptures that examine this whole issue of responding to stress, starting at Psalm 18, verses 32-36:

It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect. 33 He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places.
34 He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms. 35 Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great.
36 Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, that my feet did not slip.

Notice the flavor of these verses. This doesn't sound much like the peaceful pastures of Psalm 23. This sounds more like a soldier preparing to conduct guerilla warfare in some rocky hills. Tough stuff -- maybe not very politically correct stuff. But this is what real life FEELS like.

Note especially verse 36: "Thou hast enlarged my steps under me..." Friends, this is NOT cute poetry. This is an important clue. Most of the time when hard times hit, we don't KNOW which way to go. None of the choices seem very good. So what should we do? How do we get OUT of this mess?

God's answer is to enlarge the right way, to help us get to where we need to go.

Now let's turn to Psalm 119, verses 25-28:

My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken thou me according to thy word. 26 I have declared my ways, and thou heardest me: teach me thy statutes. 27 Make me to understand the way of thy precepts: so shall I talk of thy wondrous works. 28 My soul melteth for heaviness: strengthen thou me according unto thy word.

The plain truth is that life really does FEEL like this much of the time. But notice verse 28: the writer's response is to ask God to give him more strength -- the enlarging that we've talked about.

Now let's read verses 29-32:

Remove from me the way of lying: and grant me thy law graciously. 30 I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me. 31 I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame. 32 I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

This passage tells us some important truths. When the poopy times hit, we have to make a choice. Do we choose to believe the lie that God is NOT in control? Or will we CHOOSE to believe that God is loving and gracious?

Note what David says here: "I have CHOSEN the way of truth..." and "I have STUCK to Thy testimonies..." and "I will RUN the way of Thy commandments..." -- When? When Thou shalt ENLARGE my heart.

Remember the cycle: Distress, Faith Action, Enlargement, and Blessing.

For further emphasis, let's look at verses 67 and 71 of Psalm 119:

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.
71 It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.

Verse 67 states the obvious -- that our fleshly natures are weak and prone to stray from God's path. Therefore, verse 71 makes it clear that a Loving God DOES allow us to endure suffering, whether we approve or not.

Now let's turn to the New Testament, the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 1-3:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good report. 3 Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

The key here is that FAITH is the response that God wants from us when bad times hit. And it's only faith if we believe in God's promise when His answer isn't in view. Faith gives substance to what we hope for, and it is evidence of things not seen.

Now verses 4-6 of Hebrews chapter 11:

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. 5 By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God. 6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

At first, everything about being a Christian required some type of faith action. Today, I can cruise through these actions WITHOUT EXERCISING ANY FAITH WHATEVER.

And so can you, my friend.

The scary part is that when you and I cruise through a faithless day, we are probably unaware of it. But God knows.

The sad part is that we only get a few years down here to store up the rewards of faith, and a faithless day is a complete waste of time.

Sadder still, many of us in ministry situations will have failed to feed our sheep that day. We will work hard, do our very best, come home exhausted and feel burned out with the ministry work. All for naught, if not in faith.

Now let's jump farther down in Hebrews 11, to verses 32-35:

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: 33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; 38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: 40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

Look at verse 34. Have any of us been chased by people wielding swords or pistols this week? Have we suffered the torture that the Romans used to inflict on Christians? Maybe a few of you, but most of us have had an easier time of it this week.

Now let's read Hebrews 12, verses 1-2:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The "cloud of witnesses" are the saints we read about in the Bible, plus those we know who have walked the road of faith ahead of us. These witnesses tell us, "You can make it, my friend!"

In response to this exhortation, let's heed the advice of verse one, and set aside the weaknesses of the flesh which try to hold us back. Moving forward in faith requires us to say "No!" to the devil and our flesh. Moving forward in faith requires us to say "Yes!" to God and the promises of Scripture.

That's really HARD, teacher.

Yes. I know.

We find even more insight in verses 3-4:

For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.
4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.

It's only human to be weary and faint-hearted when we're going through tough times. So the writer says, "Consider Jesus. Look unto Him, and think what He did for you and for me."

Hebrews 12, verses 5-8:

And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: 6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? 8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.

Pay close attention to verse 7, saying that God wants to deal with you as SONS. Sons were considered a sign of favor from the Lord, and ranked ahead of daughters in terms of power and inheritance. Therefore this verse is saying that Christian women who endure God's chastening in faith will receive eternal favor and inheritance second to none. Think about it.

Now verses 9-11:

Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. 11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

Verse 11 appears to state the obvious, since everybody KNOWS that chastening is grievous. But when we're hurting, it's too easy to forget that the chastening (or affliction or distress or whatever you call it) is the essential first step in God's path to blessing for us. Distress, followed by our faith, inevitably leads to enlargement and blessing.

Let's finish with verses 12-15:

Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; 13 And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. 14 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: 15 Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;

Verse 15 warns us against those Five Dangerous Words we talked about. When bad times hit, we can say those Five Dangerous Words and indulge in that root of bitterness. Or we can act in faith, trusting in the faithfulness and grace of God.

OK, teacher. I'm convinced. So what should we do to demonstrate faith in response to distress?

Praising God is an excellent way to start. Several helpful things happen when you praise God in the midst of crummy circumstances:

Let's close by repeating Psalm 119, verses 30-32:

I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me. 31 I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame. 32 I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.

Friends, a lot of us have experienced distress and pain this past couple of weeks. Let me encourage you to spend extra time waiting on the Lord this week. Delight yourself in Him. Listen for His voice. Spend extra time praising Him out loud tonight and tomorrow morning and tomorrow night. Then wait quietly before Him, like a child in a parent's lap.

Closing Prayer: Lord, I repent of all the religious days when I walked in my own strength and complained about my problems. Thank you for dealing with me as Your son. I praise You for Your love and grace towards me. Enlarge me and let me shine as a testimony to Your faithfulness, I pray. Amen.

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