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God Uses Suffering for Our Good

Suffering under the supervision of our good God should have good results in our lives.


I remember standing next to the late Joan Rivers. It was May 2006, and I had been in Sydney, Australia, preaching in some Anglican churches and at a Baptist college. Joan Rivers had been in Sydney filming the Logie Awards, the awards for the best Australian TV (like our Emmy Awards). She was standing immediately in front of me in the line waiting to get on the airplane. We were in different classes, but we were in the same line. She had people with her; I didn't. I didn't get a chance to speak to her, but I was struck by how young she looked. I mean, I had seen her on TV for 40 years, and it looked like that was impossible from the way she looked. Had she escaped the sufferings of age? Had she found the fountain of youth? While medical research has not removed death from our horizon, it has made some advances in removing the signs of aging.

Catherine Mayer, a few years ago, coined the term "amortality." It's not the same thing as "immortality," with no death, but amortality is defined as "disguising, limiting, or deferring the normal aging process." You know what she's talking about: it would be Lasik and Viagra and permatans and Botox and cosmetic surgery. But even the most skilled dentists and dieticians can only do so much.

Suffering finds us everywhere. We may live like adolescents, even in our 60s, and Mick Jagger may perform in his 70s, but at some point, amortality shows that it's not immortality. Even those who make us sing and laugh will suffer, and they will eventually die.

Suffering finds us everywhere. It can be through abuse to fiancées and wives and children in the home. Even hearing of some suffering may take our breath away. But suffering goes far beyond domestic tragedies: racism is the social pollution that many of us experience every day, and sometimes it and its consequences can stun and divide an entire society.

Then there is suffering of a different kind than private grief, as we have experienced after such events as 9/11. Thousands of families and millions of people realized that their grief, added together, did not fully make up the national grief we felt that day and the days that followed.

It's that sense of national grief—of the suffering of thousands and thousands of people, not just added together but pointing to a larger suffering of a nation—that the Book of Lamentations is about. Lamentations moves us because of the raw emotions expressed in the five poems of the book. These are funeral poems, and they present emotions that we can relate to. They are maybe not the emotions we normally associate with a church experience, but they are emotions that are there clearly in God's Word, and they are emotions that all of us can relate to: anger and abandonment, abuse and regret, fear and guilt. We don't have to experience it on the level the lamenter did, or to the extent he did, to still know that we have truly tasted suffering.

One of suffering's most dangerous effects is the way it disorients us. Things we had taken as givens—the strength of Jerusalem's walls in their case, or the security of the World Trade Center in ours—are shaken to their core, and at the very center of it all is the most haunting question: Is God against me? Is there a reason for this suffering?

Even God's people face tough times

This book takes place in the days after God fulfilled the curses that he had prophesied and promised would befall Israel if they ever forsook the Lord. They did forsake the Lord, and the Lord did not forsake his Word. He was faithful to do everything he had promised, everything he had threatened. That's what we see in this book. It's written, as it were, in the days after 9/11: it's written in the days immediately following the fall of Jerusalem. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem for more than a year, and then in 586 B.C., they finally broke through. They destroyed the temple, the palace, the walls. They destroyed Jerusalem.

If you want to pick one event to understand your Old Testament and the 1,500 years between the Exodus and the coming of Jesus, it's this event. In 586 B.C., Jerusalem falls, and the temple is destroyed. There is still a festival among our Jewish friends—or rather a service of remembrance—every summer on the 9th of Av that recalls the destruction of the temple: this event from 2,500 years ago.

The survivors of this struggled to deal with the reality, with the enormity of so great a loss, so the Book of Lamentations came to be written down and remembered. Chapters one and two are done as acrostics, with the beginning of each of their 22 verses as one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. You will notice chapter three looks a little different. It has three times the number of verses. That's because it is an acrostic also, but instead of the stanzas beginning "A," "B," "C" and having 22 verses, this is "A," "A," "A," "B," "B," "B," "C," "C," "C" in the original language in Hebrew. This is the most highly embroidered chapter. This is the central chapter in Lamentations. This is the apex, the height, of Lamentations.

(Read Lamentations 3:1-42)

It is the very nature of suffering to surprise us so often, to catch us off guard, and that makes it harder for us to steward our suffering to use it. So to help us read and think carefully about this chapter, I want to express a simple but important truth that I pray will make a difference in your life. It starts by admitting that in this fallen world, people—even the people of God—face tough times.

That's what we've just read in this chapter. We see it in those first 20 verses, where he speaks in the first-person singular. He begins, "I am the man who has seen affliction / by the rod of the Lord's wrath" (Lam. 3:1). That's really a summary of the whole book right there. Then he repeats a list of afflictions, starting in verse 43.

(Read Lamentations 3:43-54.)

This is a realistic book, and it's sad, isn't it? It's sad that a book so bad, reporting such bad things, could be so obviously realistic. But that's the world we live in. Whether it's in the singular in the first part of the chapter, or in the plural in those later verses, the author describes suffering that he had known. He had seen, as he says there in verse one, "the rod of the Lord's wrath." If you look in the verse right before that, back at the end of chapter two, you see what he is talking about. It's referring to "the Lord's anger" in 2:22, which had shown itself in the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem. He, this writer, had experienced it. He was the one who was saying those desperate words there in verse 54: "I thought I was about to perish."

In that year of the siege, and that day after it, and the week after it, Jerusalem was full of pain. Maybe you've come this morning assuming you're the only one who's had an experience that you could describe as being brought into darkness, without any light, feeling like you were drowning. But this writer here in the Bible is describing having gone through this himself. He had that experience. He has felt like God was against him. He has been physically harmed; he has been thrown into a pit. Not as a joke, but for real. He had stones thrown at him. He has known sickness and hunger and aging, along with the physical abuse and the imprisonment. I wonder how many can relate to the depression he describes there in verse 20: "I well remember them ['my affliction and my wandering, / the bitterness and the gall'], / and my soul is downcast within me."

In verses 43-47 he steps back into the sufferings of the people as a whole. He speaks in the plural; he describes the break in the relationship with God that had been caused by the sins of the people. These poems are littered with telling reversals. Remember the beginning of chapter one, the beginning of the whole book: "How deserted lies the city, / once so full of people! / How like a widow is she, / who once was great among the nations! / She who was queen among the provinces / has now become a slave" (Lam. 1:1). Those kinds of reversals, as God's judgment, continue on throughout the book and here in our chapter, in chapter three. We see it there in verse 44: "You have covered yourself with a cloud / so that no prayer can get through."

If you think of the cloud and God and God's people, what do you think of? You may well think of the Exodus, where God led his people out of captivity to the Promised Land, his presence with them symbolized during the day by a cloud. But look now in verse 44. You see what's happened: that which was a symbol of God's presence with his people in the Exodus has now, in the exile, become a sign of God's hiding himself from his people. He can't be seen; he can't be found. There are many things like that in these chapters. He cast them out: the Exodus is being undone, almost, as they're being sent back into the nations in the exile.

In verse 53, "[t]hey tried to end my life in a pit" is another reason many people have concluded that this is Jeremiah writing. If you want to learn more about that later, you can look at Jeremiah 37-38, where he talks about this time when he was literally thrown into a pit. Even in that desperation that Jeremiah the lamenter (if he wrote this) knew, he was a picture to instruct the people. Jeremiah, at the bottom of the pit, could not get out unless someone rescued him and brought him out. He was a picture of the truth to God's people even there. They were about to suffer the judgment of God, and nothing could save them. Nothing could deliver them and rescue them but God coming from outside to rescue and deliver them. The suffering of the whole people being expressed, and the suffering of this one man, the lamenter, is a kind of preview of the suffering of Christ and his suffering for his people.

Of course, these sufferings here in Lamentations 3 merely showed the problem; Jesus' suffering on the Cross was for us. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Do you believe this? Do you believe in Christ? The only way to avoid the eternal punishment we deserve is to believe in Christ. If you don't trust in Christ, then however bad your sufferings may have been so far—those you've brought into your mind with you this morning—the worst is yet to come. There is still worse ahead. Knowing God's wrath in this life is not the same thing as knowing it eternally. It's a picture, a suggestive image.

Everyone who was in Jerusalem and who was exiled to Babylon wasn't lost eternally. That's not a statement of the fact that these people are all damned. The nation as a whole, the city as a whole, was idolatrous, and therefore God judged them. But various individuals may have been trusting in the Lord, and they were simply suffering the temporal punishments of the people of God as a whole at the time. In the same way, the mere fact that you know a blessing now in your life, that things are going well for you, is no sign whatsoever that you will know eternal blessings from God. I've read more than one Puritan treatise that mentions how one of the greatest trials on Earth is when God allows the ungodly man to prosper: allows the ungodly man to go on in this life in health and wealth, without his conscience bothering him. That's one of God's deepest judgments.

You may be a Christian here this morning who is in a hard situation at work. Maybe on the hill, maybe at home. For many people today, I think the family is the realm of neglect and violence. This is a hard world, friends. Experience is a rough master, but if you're a child of God, you can know that he works for good. Part of what a local church does is help you sort through the Bible's truth and your own thoughts and experiences to help you through tough times, to help you make the best use of them and make sense of them. These are tough times, and the Bible is honest about it.

A good God uses tough times

We should bring out the second part of this simple sentence. Number one is just "tough times"; number two is "a good God uses tough times." We see that throughout this chapter, but let's look again at the middle section of the chapter.

(Read Lamentations 3:21-39)

You see, he says that he remembered God's faithfulness, and that's why he could have hope. How could he have hope in the middle of such tough times? Verses 21-24 are really the high point of the whole book. He sets it up there in verse 21: "Yet this I call to mind / and therefore I have hope." Then he writes this most beautiful reflection; he shines this bright light in the midst of a dark night of the book. "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, / for his compassions never fail. / They are new every morning; / great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23). I love the way "compassions" is plural. It's not just his character of mercy, though that's good and wonderful, but I like how specific the writer is when he says "his compassions."

Then he continues, "I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion; / therefore I will wait for him'" (Lam. 3:24). This lets us know that the God of this terrible exile is the God of the Exodus. He's the same God who delivered people out of bondage to their home. He is the God who revealed himself to Moses as the Lord: a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin but who will by no means clear the guilty. It's because the lamenter realizes that this God is his, by covenant, that he knows that wonderful contentment in verse 24 with that phrase, "The Lord is my portion."

In the original, verses 25-27 all begin not just with the same letter, like every other verse here in chapter three, but they begin with the same word: the word "good." What a great emphasis to put in the very middle of this book. Often in Hebrew poetry, the emphasis is found not at the end, like we might have it, but in the middle. Right here in the middle is this "good," "good," "good."

(Read Lamentations 3:25-27)

It is good to wait for the one who is over him, who loves him, to do what is good and right for him, even though it feels bad at the time. "It's all good," he says.

Now, you realize it was based on the character of God that he could appeal to his fellow sufferers then and now to wait quietly in verse 26, in silent humility there in verses 28-30: because, as he says at the end of verse 29, "[T]here may yet be hope." So let him give his cheek to him who strikes as he exercises a Christ-like trust in the goodness of his heavenly Father's will, even through the darkest of days.

He could only do this because he knows what God is like, as God is described there in verses 31-39. God is loving, and God is just, and God is sovereign. I was struck by reflecting on those three stanzas—verses 31-33, 34-36, and 37-39—that this, if you ever go to university and you're a freshman, is exactly what your professor will tell you God can't be. It's exactly what the Bible here clearly says that God is. He is all-loving (verses 31-33), he is all good (verses 34-36), and he is all-powerful (verses 37-39). This is what the Bible says God is: all-loving, all good, all-powerful. You want to know more about this outside the Bible? Get Shai Linne's album Attributes of God, and enjoy it; read J. I. Packer's book, Knowing God. Learn more about what God is like.

Some people have wondered how verse 33 fits in with what we read elsewhere about God in Scripture. Could it mean that his punishment is not from his heart? Is God somehow insincere when he punishes? No, I don't think so. The Dutch pastor Herman Bavinck reflected on how important this revelation of God is here in verse 33, and how this is true of God even in his work in damning unrepentant sinners. He wrote, "The pain God inflicts is not an object of pleasure, either for him or for the blessed in heaven, but a means of glorifying his virtues and hence [the punishment is] determined in severity and measure by this ultimate goal of glorifying God's virtues." In other words, hell is eternal because God is that good. He says elsewhere, "In this punishment God celebrates the triumph of his perfections."

The lamenter further spells out God's goodness there in verses 34-36, as he details three injustices the Lord disapproves of because he is a just God, a good God. Then, in verses 37-39, by means of three rhetorical questions, he asserts God's sovereignty completely.

I don't want to confuse you here. In verse 38, he is not saying that morally bad things come from God. When he says "good things" and "calamities," he simply means "calamities" in a sense of "they affect me in a way that's not immediately pleasurable," like a hurricane is bad, or unemployment is bad. That's what he means there: not that it's morally wrong. God does not do anything morally wrong. In verse 39, he doesn't imply that every affliction is a punishment for specific, personal sin: merely that when they obviously are, like Jerusalem's promised destruction because of their idolatry, the living shouldn't complain about it.

Throughout this chapter of Lamentations, and the others as well, it's clear that God has been the one behind the actions of the Babylonians. That's why the lamenter could begin chapter three there by referring to all he has done. You realize in verses 1-18, when he keeps saying "he"—"[h]e pierced my heart / with arrows from his quiver," "[h]e has filled me with bitter herbs"—that's the Lord. He's describing what the Lord has done in his punishment and in his justice. He understands God's sovereignty. But then, as he thinks of God's sovereignty as he keeps going, he says in verse 21, "Yet this I call to mind / and therefore I have hope." He didn't just look at part of the character of God: he looked at all of the character of God in Scripture, and that gave him hope. "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, / for his compassions never fail. / They are new every morning; / great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).

What other love do you know like that, that never ceases? What would you put up against it? There's no other love like this. Maybe you'd say, "Well, what about the love of a mother for her child?" Well, from back in chapter two to even the stories in the news this week, we know that's not true. Remember what the Lord said through Isaiah: "Can a woman forget the baby at her breast / and have no compassion on the child she has borne? / Though she may forget, / I will not forget you!" (Isa. 49:15). Maybe you've had a dad or a mom whom you felt was very faithful to you, maybe the soul of faithfulness. God is more faithful than that to his people. This man, sitting in the smoldering rubble of Jerusalem, knows that, because he knows what God is like. There is one who was promised and who has come and who was silent as a lamb before its shearer, in the silent acceptance of a punishment he didn't deserve, as the eloquent testimony of his love for you: if you'll turn from your sins and trust in him.

Brothers and sisters, we pray regularly for God to have mercy, and he regularly does. Have you noticed that? Notice you woke up this morning. Notice you looked around: here you are. This is mercy. You're hearing his Word; you're able to understand it. This, too, is mercy. Every morning we go to work, and we have a new opportunity to trust God in the challenges he puts before us that day. Every challenge we face in our family is a reminder that we need to remember God's past faithfulness to keep us trusting today. In the midst of suffering, we should remember God's compassion. Verses 31-32: "For no one is cast off / by the Lord forever. / Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, / so great is his unfailing love."

Do you see how practical theology is? You know, I prepared to be a professor, not a pastor. I have four degrees. I did not think I would end up doing this. But one of the things I had to understand in agreeing with the Lord that I should do this is that theology is very practical. Theology is not a matter mainly for seminary classes; theology is a matter for you struggling with cancer. It's a matter for you being intimidated by the fear of man when you want to witness to your friend. It's a matter for you just despairing in a situation in your life. That's why theology is there. God has revealed the truth about himself because we need that truth to live on. I don't know a more striking example of that in the Bible than this lamenter sitting there in the rubble of Jerusalem, talking about the steadfast mercies, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceasing, his mercies never coming to an end. He's not going to know that from looking around him at the fallen stones. He's going to know that because God took the loving initiative to reveal the truth about himself in words, and he's studied those words. He knows that Scripture, and he's believed it, and he's leaning his life into it. You realize that what you believe about God determines your hope. It determines your endurance.

I've shared the story before about when my family and I went through the most difficult time we've gone through yet in our lives, and after a particularly difficult day, I was driving back to D.C. A friend who was with me at the time said, "How are you keeping going through this? This would just destroy me." As I was driving along, I just said, "Honestly, I think of the throne at the end where it all ends up. Put the camera in tight there, know it's going to end up good, and just start pulling it back slowly until it takes in the circumstances of my life. I may not understand how they're all going to fit in, but I know it ends well. As long as I can be confident in that, I think I'm happy for whatever he wants to throw at me. I trust him."

Silence and waiting

What you believe about God matters for your life. These truths about God and his goodness are reflected even by this time we have together on Sunday mornings. It says "new every morning." Do you notice how we meet every Sunday? We don't skip one. We don't say, "Oh, it's been a pretty good week; we're not going to do this one." Or, "It's been too bad; we're not getting together this weekend." No, pretty much every Sunday we're right here, like clockwork. Why do we do that? Because his mercies are new every morning. Every week, we have things to thank him for; every week, we have desperate need. We know it's going to be that way until Jesus comes back, so we're going to prearrange our schedules and we'll meet right here and keep meeting here every single week. We're confident of that; we're regular in that.

It's even in the way we meet: in that seeking in verse 25, or that waiting quietly in verse 26, or even that silence in verse 28. Do you notice how that's reflected in our services? It's very deliberate. There's a time of silence before the scriptural call to worship. There's a time of silence again at the end, after the benediction. In fact, there is silence at various parts of the service. We don't want it slick; we don't want you entertained and to sit back with dopamine flooding in. We want you to have a chance to reflect on your life. We want to leave lots of space for you to reflect on the truth about God. We want to collect our thoughts. We want to consider what we've heard, read, or sung. Friends, the silence that we have amplifies the words or the music we've just heard. It allows us to take it all in and to pray.

During those moments, we reflect and prepare to speak to others and depart. We do business with God; we rummage around in our head through the sermon and find what was useful for us. We make sure and get it in a little mental bag so we can take it with us when we go. That's what we're doing during those minutes of silence. We prepare ourselves for the week ahead.

Those moments of silence don't come naturally to me. I'm a sound addict. I was working on this sermon with Beethoven blasting in my ears. I love music, and I love it all the time, and I love it loud. But even this morning, in our time together, I've been aware of how a corporate labor such public silence is.

Have you noticed it? How everyone works to be quiet when we have those moments of silence? It's not a lack of action. People are working for that. People stop moving their bulletins and stop looking for something in their purse. They try to hold that cough off; they don't move around. We hear the silence together. If I'm standing at the door after you try to come out of it, I try to block you. I don't want the sound of that door moving. I work to try to make sure that, just for a moment, we can all be quiet together, and we together hear the silence, and it engulfs us and enhances our unity. It's something we all do together. Together, we consider what we've just heard. It rings in our ears. We contribute to each other's space to think.

I don't know why so many churches have forgotten this. Our culture knows it. At the most solemn moments, what do we do? We have a moment of silence. Everyone listens to the silence and thinks about why they're being silent. Why don't we do this in our churches? These days, I think we gather more to watch than to listen. We gather to sing. But in all the noise of our choirs, where is the solemnity? Where is the dignity and majesty that is so often indicated in the Bible by a stupefied silence, soaked in awe and covered with wonder?

I also think, in our silence, we have a practice time for waiting: little symbols and signs of the larger and longer waitings that all of us are involved in in this life, just like this lamenter is. He's experiencing these terrible, trying times of affliction, and yet he knows that's not the end. He knows there are mercies to come, and so what does he do? He waits. You know what the people of God did throughout the Old Testament? They waited. They waited for the Messiah to come. You know what the people of God are doing today, you and me? We are waiting. We are waiting for the Messiah to come. Christian life is a life defined in the largest ways, and in so many smaller ways, by waiting. A lot of times, a silence before something else happens is just a little picture, a symbol of that trust.

I was in Hebrews 11 in my quiet time this morning, and I love that one verse, Hebrews 11:13: "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth." That's the waiting the people of God always do in this fallen world, whatever the afflictions are you may have today.

Don't get me wrong: as Christians, we have a lot to rejoice over, loudly and joyfully and expectantly, but is no part of our regular assemblies to reflect the weightiness of our sinful selves before a holy God, the silence of conviction and even sorrow? Is no part of our regular assemblies to reflect the stunning weightiness of the forgiveness we've received in Christ and the silence of marveling—even the humility of some incomprehension? "How could God love me like this? Words fail me."

We silence ourselves exactly because God has not kept silent. He has spoken to us; he has told us the truth about himself. We silence ourselves in order to hear God speak in his Word. We silence ourselves to show our assent to God's charges against us. We silence ourselves to show respect and obedience and humility and restraint. We silence ourselves in order to search our own hearts. We silence ourselves in our own times of prayer, reading, and meditation on God's Word. Maybe we turn our phone off; maybe we turn away from our computer. We should also silence ourselves in our periods of corporate worship because making silence together builds and unifies the church. It witnesses to the majesty of God and tacitly proclaims all of his greatness to all who hear. I love verse 26 here: "[I]t is good to wait quietly / for the salvation of the Lord." This is not the silence of despair; this is the silence of a waiting filled with hope because God is good. A good God uses tough times.

A good God uses tough times for our good

There is a prayer and a hopeful statement as this chapter finishes, from verses 55-57: "You heard my plea," he says in verse 56. Then, in the rest of the chapter, the lamenter rehearses the way he had been bitterly provoked. Maybe this is Jeremiah's own sufferings, if he is writing about this leading up to the siege and during it. Maybe it's the lamenter personifying the sufferings of Jerusalem, his own experience. Either way, the prayer for justice and the confidence that God will take account of all the wrongs done is a reminder that the tough times are used by our sovereign God for a good purpose. If there has been any confusion about what had gone on through the terrifying siege, chapter three clearly sets the afflictions in the context of a sovereign God not having lost his sovereignty, nor forgetting about all the injustices that the Babylonians and the other enemies of Israel had committed against Israel in their attack and their siege. Rather, God is acting for Israel's good. There wouldn't be any personal revenge against enemies; there would be God acting to vindicate his own name. You see, in all that had happened, Judah was being rebuked for their sin, and where words had failed, they were now being instructed with weapons. Judah was being taught that God alone was worth entrusting themselves to.

As for their enemy, Babylon—well, Babylon would have its own story. It would soon fall itself. It would be told that through one of the exiles. Ironically, these things are thick and deep in God's Word. One of the exiles from Jerusalem—whom they had captured, whom they brought back with them—would tell them that they would fall under God's judgment. You can read that in Daniel 5. It wasn't even that far from this fall. God was sovereign, and he still is.

Of course, ultimately we read Revelation 20:12: "And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books." The depression of the people reflected the divine anger that was temporarily afflicting them. But even through the trials, their hearts were being made freshly sensitive to the Lord and his claims on them. They were the work of his hands. Their forgiveness would only come with repentance. The wormwood and the gall wouldn't be God's final words to them. I love the statement in Lamentations 3:57: "You came near when I called you, / and you said, 'Do not fear.'"

I wonder if your heart is being made sensitive to the Lord's calling by the sufferings you are undergoing. If you're a Christian here today, I pray that's true. I know, in some sense, that is true—that will be true, because God promises to do that. But if you're here and you're not a Christian, will you let these sufferings that you're knowing now turn you to the Lord? What other source of unending mercy and love do you think you have, other than the one who has loved you as he has loved you? The Father sent the Son to suffer and be afflicted, to suffer silently: even to be crucified, being punished not for his sin—he had no sin—but for the sins of these hundreds of sinners you see sitting here and countless more like us who repent of our sins and trust in him alone for our salvation.

How can we know God accepted that? Because he raised Jesus from the dead. He ascended to heaven, he accepted the sacrifice, and he now calls you to trust in him, to believe in Christ, to come to know this good news, and know this God through it.

As Christians, we should realize that one of the most basic goods God works in his people through their trials is their desire to pray. The more distance we travel through suffering, the more we recognize this world is not our home. The more we begin to long for some other world, the more we recognize this. Maybe we begin to even have an increasing sense that we're drawing nearer to our home as our desire for it grows more.

Have you ever noticed that the closer you get to seeing a loved one who's moved away, the more your anticipation for seeing them grows? You're going to see them in three weeks, and you think about it, and you're happy. If you're going to see them tomorrow, you can barely sleep sometimes. It's like that for Christians as we endure the sufferings in this world. As we get closer and closer to being home with God, our anticipation increases. Our desire to be with him in prayer naturally increases. As our hope in him grows, our prayers increase. Suffering can have strange effects, can't it? You wouldn't necessarily think that.

That's like what we read in Romans 5:3-4: "We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Have you found that your suffering is producing hope? That's why we pray as a church. That's why we share hopeful testimonies of God's grace. We want to help each other by using our own stories to make it clear that a good God uses tough times for our good.


Suffering finds us everywhere. What we've observed in our world and in our own lives, we've seen here in the Bible. But we've also seen that suffering under the supervision of our good God should have good results in his people's lives.

Look again at Lamentations 3:40-42: "Let us examine our ways and test them, / and let us return to the Lord. / Let us lift up our hearts and our hands / to God in heaven, and say: / 'We have sinned and rebelled / and you have not forgiven.'" The result of all this punishment of God's people and his anger was this call the lamenter gives to his people. He includes himself in it. He calls the people of God to test and examine their ways. Suffering is always a call for self-examination.

But not only that: you see there, in verse 40, there is this returning to the Lord that accompanies it. We can't really examine ourselves without returning to the Lord. He is the standard by which we examine ourselves. If there is no Lord, we don't really know what it means to examine ourselves. So examining ourselves always involves returning to the Lord. Despairing of our own goodness should turn us to the only truly good one. Despairing of our own justice should turn us to the only truly just one. Despairing of our own mercy should turn us to the only truly merciful one. So we lift our hearts and our hands to God. That means we pray and we confess the truth that has caused all of this. We confess our transgressions, our rebellion.

But then we see this strange note as the lamenter says to God, "[A]nd you have not forgiven" (Lam. 3:42). We might be forgiven if we're expecting him to say, "And you have forgiven." But he hadn't. What this means simply is that the exile was going ahead; it wasn't about to be canceled. There was still work to be done. The people didn't give evidence of having repented of their sins. This is what the lamenter here is trying to lead them to do: to repent so they will find mercies new every morning. That's why he wrote this as he did. We turn to God in hopeful trust that he will forgive us: not because we're without sin, but because of what God has done in Christ. Come to him in prayer, confessing, "Thy compassions, they fail not. As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be."

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

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