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Christians Aren't Always Happy

Following Jesus transforms our lives—but it doesn't mean we'll always have a smile on our face.


You may have come here this morning seeking happiness. In one sense, how could you not? Seeking happiness is as natural for us as our desire for lunch, or even taking the next breath. It's what we do as people. We want to be happy.

For many people, happiness is assumed to be the special purview of religion: maybe not all religions, not so much Marxism or Islam, but the more interior religions like Buddhism or Christianity. I mean, for how many people in the world today is the most powerful religious symbol not the Star of David or the Cross, but the smile? That's what many people today think of religion as being all about.

How would you finish this sentence: "Happiness is … ?" Well, happiness is when you're blessed and you know it; it's when you notice that you're well, and your prospects look good. Happiness is, for so many, the combination of something like a healthy body and warm relationships with others whom you care about. Many people today advocate Christianity as a way to that happiness, and there is something that I think is straightforwardly right about that. Christianity is not, fundamentally, a kind of Buddhist killing of your own desires to the point of enlightening you more and more until you finally achieve the realization that you don't exist. No, we entirely disagree with that. There is no imaginary vanishing game in following Jesus. This world really exists, and we do exist, and what's more—according to the Bible—we always will exist. We will not dissolve into some nirvana. We will exist forever in God's image. God has given us his Word and he has sent his Son so that we could be liberated from our own self-defeating, self-centeredness to rightly relate to him, and having come into right relationship with him, good things will follow, including (many times) happiness. That is true. Some of you who have come to Christ in the last few years are happier now than you were before you were Christians. I understand that. I get that.

But it would be entirely too simple to say that becoming a Christian will make you happy all the time. That would be on the level of the claim that your desire for purpose in life is the same thing as relating to God, or that every day can be filled with sunshine and fulfillment. The fact that our joy can be abiding is remarkable for all the adversity that we face in this world, and part of that means that Christians are not always happy in this world. We may always have the "joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts," but it may be so far down there sometimes that it can't even be seen. The sun of God's love may be constant, but as long as I'm here on this Earth, the clouds of trials may obscure that great fact for me sometimes.

This has always been the way it is with the people of God. It's not just us or just now; it's always been this way. Realizing this and coming to understand this can remove a false guilt for not living up to what we think we should be, and it can help us to cope better with the circumstances that do try us from week to week.

Lamentations and the fall of Jerusalem

To help us do that, we want to look at the Old Testament Book of Lamentations. Lamentations doesn't tell us who wrote it. It's traditionally been associated with Jeremiah; that's why it's right after the book of Jeremiah in our Bibles, and either Jeremiah or somebody who was very much like him must have written it. It's composed of five poems, one per chapter, and they're clearly written by someone grieving the destruction of Jerusalem.

Now, Jeremiah was there for that terrible Babylonian siege in 586 B.C. and the destruction that followed it. Let me read you a couple of passages from elsewhere in the Old Testament that give you some background about this siege. You can find this at the end of 2 Kings, and you can also find it in 2 Chronicles 36.

(Read 2 Chronicles 36:17-19)

Jeremiah's whole life and ministry were centered around this one event: predicting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and then expressing it when it happened and giving prophecy about it.

(Read Jeremiah 52:4-14)

I know sometimes, for Christians, the Old Testament seems like this vast expanse, a sort of Russia- or Canada-sized part of the text that is something you'll never trek all the way across. But I can give you a basic guide. In the Old Testament, there's creation, then Abraham is called after the people fall; there's Noah and the flood, then Abraham is called. There, in Genesis 12, starts the story of God's people especially. The great event, then, is the calling of Abram and his son and grandson—but then Jacob and his sons are brought down into Egypt, and for 400 years, they multiply as slaves in Egypt. Then they are brought out in the Exodus, and that's when they're a large nation; they're given God's law. They go, and after 40 years of wandering, they take the Promised Land. That's where they are for 1,500 years, until the coming of Christ.

The great event from the Exodus to Christ is this: it is the fall of Babylon. This is what all the prophets, from Moses on, were warning about and that would happen to the people if they disobeyed. This is what the ministry of Jeremiah was dedicated to in the years coming up to it; he was warning that this would happen.

Isaiah 36 and 37 talk about the siege that happened around Jerusalem and how that was really the point of the whole book of Isaiah. All that was a prelude for this siege 100 years later. That siege by the Assyrians—the Lord came out and he killed the Assyrian army. He was giving them as a warning. All of that was a prelude to this: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. They're carried into exile, then seven years later, they come and rebuild.

This is the great scarring event in the history of Israel. This is so much the worst day in their history that even now, 2,500 years later, you can go to Jerusalem and go to the Wailing Wall, and these are the poems they will read at the Wailing Wall. This is the book that will be read in synagogues around the world every year in the middle of the summer, when they remember this day that Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed.

Lamentations is not the story of that day. Lamentations is the story, if you will, of the next day and the days that followed. It's the aftermath of what happened in that immediate time after the destruction of Jerusalem. Here's how it was remembered by someone who was there.

(Read Lamentations 1-2)

The Bible is very realistic, isn't it? Some of you here may have come never having read much of the Bible; maybe you didn't know things like that were in it. But unlike some of our world's other religious texts, this book is a strikingly honest book, and when you do read the Bible, it becomes clear that—contrary to what some people today may teach—Christians aren't always happy. If you go to a church that teaches you are always happy and you should always be happy, you should leave that church; those people don't know their Bibles very well.

Let me share with you, from the passage, three reasons that Christians aren't always happy, and I'll make one other observation. As I do, I pray that you may come to understand more of God's provision for people like us in a world like this.

The enemy is real

Number one: Christians aren't always happy because the enemy is real. Here, the enemy was clearly Babylon. God's people, Israel, had real enemies then. Babylon was literally the enemy of God's people. God had specially selected Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and their children, and through Moses he gave them their freedom and his law. He established the line of kings, beginning with David. He established his worship uniquely and publically in the temple in Jerusalem; he sent them his prophets. In all of these ways, he had blessed the people of Israel.

But Babylon treated them differently than God did. The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem, causing the people to starve. They broke through the defenses; they captured the king; they slaughtered his sons and all the government officials; they killed the young men; they confiscated all the treasures in the Lord's temple and in the king's palace. They burned them both down. They pulled down Jerusalem's protective walls, and they enslaved the inhabitants—including the king, whom they first blinded and then bound and led away into exile and captivity. Just to make a point, they burned down every great house in Jerusalem. The city was destroyed. Babylon was Israel's enemy.

So what about today? We have to be very careful on this point, because so many traps of confusion abound when using this kind of language today. For one thing, too many journalists use the word "fundamentalism" in a way that eliminates all distinctions. They use "fundamentalism" as if it has the same meaning for whatever group they apply it to. But if you're here as a not-very-thoughtful journalist, let me just ask you: if I'm a fundamentalist who thinks it is wrong to kill, am I the same thing as a fundamentalist who thinks I'm commanded to kill? Do you see any difference between the two fundamentalisms? Our world does not make it easy for us to think about these matters very well.

There's also the confusion that's brought on by the fact that all religions are not the same. America's schizophrenic commitment to secularism has meant that, in our public thinking, we are often not able to distinguish between religions because we think any distinction is discrimination, and therefore, we think every religion must be thought of exactly the same—lest we do one a disservice.

If we want to be more realistic and more intelligent, we will realize that the religions are actually okay with not being regarded as the same. In fact, each one regards itself as quite distinct from the others and having vital differences. One of those vital differences is the territoriality of Islam. Islam is all about how we behave, how we live with each other. Muslims think that we are—that all people are—those who should live under the revealed will of Allah. That's to be Muslim: to be in submission is to be in submission to that rule. That means there is space, territory that must be under that rule. In that sense, it's much more like Marxism than, say, Christianity. It's much more a political philosophy, a social philosophy, than what we think as individuals: being justified before the Lord and having a living, vital, individual relationship with him even now, by faith through Christ. It's a very different thing.

Furthermore, America is not Israel. We need to realize that clearly. Now, is America a Christian country? There are two easy answers, both of which are wrong. "Yes, America is a Christian country": that's not quite so. "America is not a Christian country": well, that's not quite so. I think that when you ask, "Is America a Christian country?" you need to ask, "In what sense?" I think you'll have a more careful, less heated, more intelligent conversation, and you'll find out that you can call America a Christian country in some senses, and in other senses you cannot call America a Christian country.

The parallel with Old Testament Israel today is not America. It's not Israel. It's not any other nation state. It is the church of Jesus Christ. We as a church make no territorial claims in the same way that Israel did, in the same way that Muslims do. That is not to say we don't care about actions in this world, nor that we have no enemies in this world. We do have enemies in this world. Christians are opposed in many forms today: from the University of California system, which is banning Christian groups on their campus; to families who persecute people who become Christians; to corporations and governments, and all the way over to the recent beheadings by the Islamic State. Oh, we have enemies in this world.

That's what we want to see. We want to see every person on this planet, whether or not they're Christian, flourish. Now, we would like them to become Christians, but we think God can be glorified in the flourishing of every individual. But we can never fundamentally view any other human as our enemy because the Christian church is composed only of ex-enemies of God. That's what we all are. Thus, for Christians, our very real enemies are also the very real objects of our love, because the Bible teaches us that while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. That's why Jesus taught us, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45).

This kind of "enemy" language isn't used much in churches these days. If you're a visitor, you may find it a little jarring. If you're a long-time member, you may find it a little jarring. The really important question you need to ask is, "Are you an enemy of God?" James 4:4 says, "Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God." It was Jesus himself who taught that anyone who isn't for him is against him. Jesus taught there was no neutrality when it comes to us and God. If you don't really understand what that means, I would encourage you to look into it: because being an enemy of the people of God is bad enough, but to have God himself as your enemy seems to be something more than any sane person would ever want to do. Look into what it means to be his enemy, and find out how you can become his ex-enemy.

My Christian brothers and sisters, we cannot expect to go through this world that hated our Lord so much without having his enemies become our own. Any way you think you've figured out that formula is self-deception, and you will be disabused of it at some point. Christians aren't always happy because our enemies are as real as the Babylonians were.

The Lord is more faithful than we may want

Number two: Christians aren't always happy because the Lord is more faithful than you may want. We don't usually sit around and read poems like this. If you're visiting for the first time, you will not find yourself greeted by a long and cheery reading of a passage just like this one every Sunday. It's a very unusual poem. In fact, all of the poems in Lamentations are dirges; they're all like funeral poems. They are acrostics: that is, the first letter of each line, as our Bibles have it laid out, or the first letter in each verse in the original Hebrew forms—in this case—not a word, but the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and that's why you'll notice there are 22 verses in chapter one and chapter two. Each one of those verses begins like "A," "B," "C," "D," etc.

Why would it be structured like that? The poem and its arrangement seem to show that, on the one hand, these aren't just the incoherent ramblings of a man in the depth of his grief and suffering, because—as he begins each new line—he is being deliberate and artful about it. Every letter of the alphabet could be used to express their pain, so great was their suffering. The expression is comprehensive, too: from "A" to "Z," as it were. It covers the whole.

But it's also limited. There are only 22 letters, and therefore only 22 verses. It would not go on forever. We could keep reflecting on why he would adopt a structure like this, but the very careful poetic structure of the dirge shows what's going on: that it's been carefully thought out. They're communicating about their experience, as painful as it must have been to do it, and they are putting it in a perspective that is faithful to what they know of God. They're not being ruled by their suffering; they are actively considering it, working with it like an artisan works with a material, to try to find how they can understand their suffering.

The lamenter's carefulness in expressing himself makes a certain theme all the more surprising to some: a theme we find in phrases at first, and then loudly and clearly in the first half of chapter two. It's the theme that the Lord is the one who is afflicting his people. Did you notice that? Again and again, this notice sounded that above and behind the Babylonian swords, soldiers, commanders, and even their king, was God himself, the true Lord. Did you notice that in 1:15? "The Lord has rejected / all the warriors in my midst; / he has summoned an army against me / to crush my young men. / In his winepress the Lord has trampled / Virgin Daughter Judah." If you got a modern person like you or me in there to Jerusalem in the days after this, and if we told other people about it, what would we do? We would call it an unfortunate tragedy. But this writer had more concepts at his fingertips than the modern reader often has.

You look up there in 1:12, and he refers to something which the Lord inflicted on "the day of his fierce anger." Some of you may wonder, Well, wait—if he is saying that the Lord did this, then was he letting off the hook the soldiers who fought, the captains who directed, or the king who ordered it all? No, not at all. None of them. But he was understanding that above them all was a greater power and a greater purpose than any conceived of in the mind of the king of Babylon. You look there in 1:17—he uses the language that the Lord has commanded this. Then in verse 18, he even confesses that God was right to do it.

At the beginning of chapter two, after having taken so much of the horror of the events, he simply meditates on the fact that the Lord has done all this. In chapter one, he's observing Jerusalem. In chapter two, he is turning and observing the Lord and the Lord's work in this.

(Read Lamentations 2:1-5)

Well, didn't this lamenter know what we know? We read Jeremiah, we read 2 Chronicles. We know it was actually Babylonian troops who went and burned those buildings. He understands that, but he's looking behind them.

(Read Lamentations 2:6-8)

God did all this. It's not that Yahweh has been overcome. In ancient battles between nations, it was very often thought that the winning side's gods beat the losing side's gods. When you're dealing with the real God, there is none of that religious child's play going on. Yahweh is the only God. He rules, and he uses nations as simply as you and I pick up a book and set it back down again—even nations that understand themselves to be as mighty as Babylon. Babylon was just his tool, just like he had foretold through Jeremiah.

Not that the Babylonians saw that, of course: they didn't understand that at all. They understood themselves to be the mighty lords of the universe. Every great power, everyone who wins a victory, understands themselves to be the mighty lords of the universe, until their nation declines. It's what happens. They're not the mighty lords of the universe. Babylon hasn't existed as a country for a millennia now. They didn't see God's action; they only saw their own. They didn't understand that they were simply tools for God's purpose, but God was being faithful to fulfill his promises of old.

Look at Lamentations 2:17: "The Lord has done what he planned; / he has fulfilled his word, / which he decreed long ago." God was fulfilling his word that you can find throughout the Old Testament. You can mark down these passages to read later if you want: Leviticus 26, Numbers 32:23, and most chillingly, Deuteronomy 28. God reinforced this to Solomon when the temple in Jerusalem was first dedicated. In 1 Kings 9:6-9 the Lord warns Solomon.

From the very founding of Israel through the ministry of Moses, the Lord warned of this. Then he warned of it through David and Solomon. Through the prophets, through Isaiah, through Jeremiah: he warned of this. The sovereign God has set his name specially on this people, and he was jealous for his own glory. In his good sovereignty, he fulfilled his promise. He was faithful in his warnings to them to fulfill all that he had said. Christians aren't always happy, because God is more faithful than we may want.

Suffering follows sin

Now, what faithfulness in God would cause him to so treat Jerusalem? Faithfulness to his own goodness, to his own righteousness, to his own justness. That's another aspect of why Christians aren't always happy that we learn in these chapters. It's because suffering follows sin. We read of the suffering they were enduring in these verses. Their leader was defeated, the people were draped in sorrows: their families exiled, their city burned, their walls broken down, the ramparts ruined. Jerusalem's destitution and forsakenness echo in these poems like unanswered cries in deserted streets. Why would God use the Babylonians and others to do all this? Because of his people's sins. That's what we see here.

Look again at 1:5. We read that the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions. Down in verse eight, we read that Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy. Sin always tells you it's free, but the Bible always tells you it's costly. Your personal experience, if you wait long enough, always agrees with the Bible. Sin is costly.

The lamenter knows that God is right in his judgment. Personifying Jerusalem in the second half of chapter one, he writes as Jerusalem: "The Lord is righteous, / yet I rebelled against his command" (1:18). Then look in the middle of verse 20: "I am in torment within, / and in my heart I am disturbed, / for I have been most rebellious."

You may think, You just quickly rehearsed all these blessings the Lord gave to Israel, from calling Abraham to Moses to David to the prophet. How could people who have been given so much treat God like that? Friends, it's not a unique story. Let's just begin with Adam and Eve, our first parents. Given everything, what did they do? For that matter—leaving Adam and Eve out of it—when did sin against a holy, all-powerful, all-good God who has never done anything wrong to us ever make sense? Sin doesn't make sense. But somehow, they had become more attached to God's blessings than to God himself.

Whenever the statement is made that sin causes suffering, we need to make some qualifying statements. I hope they're also clarifying. I want to give you four simple statements about suffering.

Number one: all bad things are less than any of us deserve.

Number two: many bad things should be opposed. Do not misunderstand this teaching. While some bad things are needed in this fallen world—by that, I mean the state's coercive force from its courts to its armies, the parent's role in children's lives—many bad things should also be opposed, whether in righting wrongs or restoring health or preventing future ills. It's what many of us do in our jobs in various ways. Doctors, lawmakers, policemen, parents, counselors, teachers, and so many more roles: we act in part to address past harm and to prevent future harm.

Number three: for the non-Christian, ills in this life are a dim preview of what is to come forever. Jude refers to those for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. In fact, that preview should turn the non-Christian into a repentant believer. If you are here as someone who is not a Christian and you are suffering, take your experience of that suffering as a reason to examine your life while there is still time, to turn to Christ and to trust in him.

Number four: for the Christian, suffering in this world is God's loving discipline. Hebrews 12:11 reads, "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Part of that discipline is that it gives us some understanding of what our sins deserve.

Hope for the future of God's people

Here's my other observation—I said I had three reasons why, and then an observation. Christians aren't always happy, but there's always hope for the future of God's people. That's why, even amidst all the sufferings they were enduring, both of these laments end with a prayer. Lamentations 1:20-22 is a prayer that God will be just to their enemies as he has been to them.

The next chapter then ends with a prayer for mercy: that God would give them food so their suffering would end. Look at 2:19: "Arise, cry out in the night, / as the watches of the night begin; / pour out your heart like water / in the presence of the Lord. / Lift up your hands to him / for the lives of your children, / who faint from hunger / at every street corner."

I think I mentioned at the beginning that there is a tradition among the Jews of reading this book each year in the middle of the summer, when the destruction of the temple is remembered. But the tragedy is not so much that the Babylonians destroyed this temple—or that the Romans destroyed the next temple 600 years later—as that so many who hear this book on those days of remembrance don't understand the One who, in John 2, spoke of his body as the temple which would be destroyed and raised up again. That is the great tragedy.

As I have been meditating on this great suffering all week, it struck me that—as suffering is due ultimately to God's just punishment of sinners—this description is one of the closest descriptions of hell that we find described in the Bible in this life. The Fall in the garden is the origin of it all: the fount, as it were, of our suffering, with expulsion from the presence of God at the very heart of it. Here in the destruction of Jerusalem, we see a much fuller, much more dramatic presentation on a vast scale of the waste that is laid by sin as the nation is bound and carried off with the broken remainders of its suffering. This is a picture of the original holocaust.

Yet this meditating on human suffering under the wrath of God has drawn my mind to the suffering of Christ on the Cross because of our sins in order to deliver us. How penetrating and evocative is that question there in Lamentations 2:13? It just pierces. "Your wound is as deep as the sea. / Who can heal you?" It's as if to set aside so much of their religion as any credible answer to that question. The next verse says, "The visions of your prophets / were false and worthless; / they did not expose your sin / to ward off your captivity. / The prophecies they gave you / were false and misleading" (2:14).


Who can heal us? The only one who can heal us is that one who, like Jerusalem, was given up to so many of the tortures we read of here: deserted, weeping in the night, having been dealt with treacherously, having no resting place, suffering bitterly, his foes gloating over him and mocking him at his downfall, being despised and stripped naked, groaning, calling out to God to look and remember him. Those passing by mocked him: having his hands fastened, strength failing, being given into the hands of his enemies. His neighbors became his foes, and he bore God's wrath poured out like the fury of fire. The true altar was scorned, the true sanctuary disowned, his life poured out. At some point, you almost forget you're reading Lamentations.

Look in 2:15: "All who pass your way / clap their hands at you; / they scoff and shake their heads." A little bit later: "All your enemies open their mouths / wide against you … 'This is the day we have waited for; / we have lived to see it.' / The Lord has done what he planned; he has fulfilled his word, / which he decreed long ago. / He has overthrown you without pity, / he has let the enemy gloat over you, / he has exalted the horn of your foes" (2:16-17). Look there in verse 20: "Look, Lord, and consider: / Whom have you ever treated like this?" The one whom the Lord afflicted for a multitude of transgressions, but those transgressions weren't his: they're ours. They're the transgressions of all those who will believe in him, so that we might be saved. Bearing shame and scoffs, in my place he stood condemned and sealed my pardon with his blood.

Mark Dever is the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Lamentations and the fall of Jerusalem

II. The enemy is real

III. The Lord is more faithful than we may want

IV. Suffering follows sin

V. Hope for the future of God's people