The Weight and Wound of the Word

The Bible is miraculously cohesive, but it is not uniform. Different portions were given for different purposes; distinct authors at distinct moments to distinct audiences.

While many today look to the Bible for comfort or inspiration, an honest look at the Scriptures reveals that not all of it was given for these purposes. If we randomly dip a ladle into the depths of Ezekiel, the brew that emerges is more likely to be sharp than sweet.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Some—perhaps much—of the Bible was given not for our comfort but for our discomfort. The Scriptures are profitable for reproof and correction, after all; they provoke, unsettle, and rebuke us. Far from harsh, this is a sign of God’s love. It is damaging for our souls—indeed, for our humanity—to turn against God in rebellion. The fact that he steers us away from sin and back to himself is evidence of his care.

In our efforts to soothe our troubled friends and not to cause offense, we often dull the blade of the Word. We wince and brace at the damage the wound may cause, so we soften the blow. In doing so, we strip the Bible of some of its power.

Some time ago I was listening to a preacher speak on a passage that touched on the dangers of riches. Predictably (and understandably), he included a few words about how money is not inherently evil, nor is it automatically sinful to be wealthy. Yet he said this so soon after the Scriptures were read that I fear their full force did not land. This is, unfortunately, not rare.

In that space after the reading of the Word, there is a window where the Holy Spirit often works to convict sinners. We dare not step in to bind up the holy wounds the Spirit has opened. Those wounds often lead to the salve of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He did not come to heal the healthy, but the sick; he did not come to bind up the whole, but the injured.

We blunt the sharp tip of the piercing Word when we quickly say what it cannot mean. There should be a time both for clarification and for consulting other sources (both Biblical and extra-Biblical). But we must not clarify quickly at the expense of a plain rebuke that many people need to hear simply because we fear discomfort.

We must learn to sit with the weight and wound of a Bible passage. If we are shocked, offended, or rebuked by its obvious implications, that may be exactly the point.


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Restore Us to Yourself That We May Be Restored

Most Christians know that sin is bad. But, how bad is it, really?

Sin is a tornado, and the final chapter of Lamentations helps us see the extent of the damage. The consequences of breaking covenant with the Lord are dire. And yet, there is still hope for restoration.

See Our Disgrace

The first verse in this chapter frames much of what follows.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace! (Lamentations 5:1)

The author is asking God to remember, to bring to mind for the purpose of action. Asking God to see and remember is a key part of all lament; those who lament are pleading that God would not forget them in their circumstances.

However, this is an unnatural request, that God would see or notice our disgrace. We usually like to hide those qualities and circumstances that are shameful. But in this situation, those embarrassments are exactly the reason for the lament!

Verses 2–18 provide a list of many disgraces of the people still living in Jerusalem. These disgraces range from the horrifying (deaths of fathers in Lam 5:3, rape of women in Lam 5:11) to the seemingly mundane (the people now have to pay for water and wood, Lam 5:4). To be sure, far more disgraces fall in the first category than the second, but the mingling of the two makes a profound point: Sin has brought judgment which has overturned every aspect of life. Even the loss of music and dancing (Lam 5:14–15) can be considered a tragedy.

One other disgrace is worth mentioning. In Lam 5:16, we read: “The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!” This is both a confession of sin and a lament about Judah’s inability to rule themselves. They are now in the hands of Babylon. This confession about leadership also sets the stage for verse 19 (see below).

On the whole, this first portion of Lamentations 5 (verses 1–18) shows us that the consequences of sin are real and heartbreaking. There is a direct line between the rebellion of the people and the desolation of Zion, and the present grief and loss are a result of earlier decisions to turn away from God.

Renew Our Days

The chapter takes a bit of a turn in verse 19: “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” Judah may no longer have a king ruling in Jerusalem, but that is not true on a larger scale.

In the midst of lament, acknowledging the sovereignty of God is vital. His rule is not negated by suffering. Pain and sorrow are not in charge—God is. Because grief and sadness feel so immediate and enveloping, God’s people must remind each other of this truth. The Lord reigns now and forever.

Verse 20 takes us into the deep questions of an honest lament. Lord, if you reign, “why do forget us forever?” If you’ve heard that asking “why” questions is forbidden in prayer, think again. God’s people should not accuse him of wrongdoing or blame him for evil, but laments are filled with “why” and “how” questions. (See Psalm 10:135:1742:9, and 43:2 among many examples.)

The author of Lamentations then asks the boldest prayer in the entire book.

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old— (Lamentations 5:21)

The people want Jerusalem to be the way it was, they want to be restored. But they confess that restoration with the Lord must happen first. Jerusalem is in ruins because the people turned away from God, so a vibrant renewal of that covenant relationship is needed before any of the physical blessings can be enjoyed.

There is a good reminder here for modern Christians. When we see brokenness and rebellion in ourselves and others, we should think about the need for repentance and restoration to the Lord. A wayward heart is driving the train which is producing those acts of unrighteousness.

This chapter ends in a way that many Christians through the ages have found unsatisfying. (Apparently, some scribes have recopied verse 21 after verse 22, presumably to prevent the book from ending on a down note!) But tension is inherent in lament, and we need to learn how to embrace that tension if we are to be followers of Jesus who both rejoice and weep (Romans 12:15).

Here is the ending of Lamentations.

unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:22)

The people know God has promised to bring them back from exile (Lam 4:22). And yet they do not know exactly when. God’s righteous anger may mean that this generation will not see the restoration they desire.

This tension—restore us, unless you remain angry with us—is a bit unsettling. But it also serves one of the purposes of lament, to keep us turning back to the Lord again and again. Our prayers may not be answered immediately; our sorrows may remain; we may feel seasick in heart through our years on this groaning earth.

Rejected No More

But God is always ready to receive our lament. He reigns forever, he is wise, and he is loving. For this reason, we can trust him with our pain and grief.

The Israelites wondered whether God had rejected them. We may wonder the same. But in Jesus we have an emphatic, definitive answer. No. Because Jesus bore our sin, we are no longer subject to that same awful judgment that he suffered. “Jesus is the answer to the cause of every pain” (Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop, page 150).

Though we groan, we can look to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows. Because of him, our true, final restoration is secure.

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Solid Bible Promises for Times of Suffering

Creation groans, and we echo that same mournful tune.

We feel the Curse deep inside. We are broken people in a broken world, and no one avoids some measure of suffering. In my article on Lamentations 4, we saw the author arrive at the end of his lament with nothing but a promise of God. We too, at times, may feel like everything is stripped away. Our anguish seems like the most tangible element of life.

But we also have the promises of God! These are good gifts meant to sustain us and stoke our hope for the future.

Which Promises?

The Bible is stuffed with promises. However, we can’t claim every promise we find.

For example, some Bible promises are conditional. Consider Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” We cannot claim that God will meet our every desire unless we are delighting in the Lord.

Further, God made some promises to specific people at specific times (see Joshua 6:2). He made other promises to Israel, and we need to think carefully about whether they carry over to the church and/or individual Christians.

Where does this leave us? We still have many Bible promises that are meant for us. This article focuses on those which are helpful in the midst of suffering.

Promises for Sufferers

I’ve divided these promises into five categories. Learning, digesting, and even memorizing these verses will not eliminate pain or make suffering somehow desirable. But they will help us to trust in the Lord in dark times and to fix our eyes on Jesus.

God is with you

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

Suffering is often extremely personal and therefore isolating. In those times, we can treasure God’s presence with us. He is near to those in anguish, and he has promised never to leave or forsake his children. Nothing at all—not even this present suffering—will be able to separate us from God’s love for us in Christ.

God will comfort and rescue you

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)

Because God will not abandon us, and because he loves us, he will comfort us in the midst of turmoil and eventually pull us out. Though pain and suffering seem unending, for the children of God, they are not. God will restore and strengthen us, whether on this side of glory or the other.

God will use your suffering for your good

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)

God is in the business of turning bad things to good. Affliction prepares us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, and our sufferings produce endurance, character, and hope. Our sufferings in themselves are not good, but God brings good out of them.

Everything will be made new

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:51–53)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)

Our groaning bodies will put on immortality. Our new dwelling will be with God himself on a new earth. The mourning and crying and pain we experience now will then only be known as “former things.”

We will be forever with the Lord

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:17–18)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

The promises of a glorified body and a curse-free earth would be nothing without God’s eternal presence. The suffering we experience will be a distant, faint memory because we will live face-to-face forever with our Creator and Redeemer.

(Yes, I have listed Rev 21:3 twice. But it’s jaw-dropping, and we all probably need it twice.)

All By Grace

These promises are ours. But they are ours by grace. Our works deserve God’s wrath, not his blessing. These promises are given to us because we are the children of God, united to Jesus, sealed by the Holy Spirit.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31–32)

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The Absence of Joy is a Tragedy

As I near the end of my study of Lamentations, I have a single, simple observation to share today. This one comes from chapter 5 of the book.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace! (Lam 5:1)

The opening verse of this final chapter frames the entirety of what follows. The author asks the Lord to see and remember the disgrace of his people. Verses 2–18 chronicle some of those disgraces. One of these caught my attention.

The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning. (Lam 5:15)

In the midst of lamenting the death of parents (Lam 5:3) and the rape of young women (Lam 5:11), naming the people’s lack of joy seems trivial. It sounds like wondering why you can’t get fancy ice cream in the middle of a famine. Joy is nice, but isn’t it a luxury?

But this may say more about our misunderstanding of joy than it does some imbalance in the author of Lamentations. Perhaps joy is more central to the human experience—or at least to the heartbeat of God’s people—than we acknowledge. It may be that the presence of joy is a core part of our collective dignity.

I’m not arguing that life should be endless celebration. That would be a tough position to take after studying Lamentations! But when we mourn and grieve for what is lost, it is right for us to mention joy. It is no coincidence that joy is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23) and that the psalmists consistently exhort us to rejoice (see Psalm 32:11; 40:16; 64:10). Where the Holy Spirit is present and vibrant in God’s people, there will be joy, so when joy is absent, that is cause for lament indeed.

The life of the Christian will be a mixture of joy and sorrow, celebration and grief. Just as lament is to be a part of the regular practice of God’s people, so is rejoicing. At minimum, this should be evident in our weekly gatherings for public worship.

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Learning to Embrace Tension

Not every story has a satisfying ending. Some clouds lack a silver lining.

Humans have a strong desire for resolution, not just in our own lives, but also for our friends and neighbors. We’re uncomfortable with the in-between, with sadness, with suffering.

Here is one more lesson that lament can offer. Lament teaches us to live with the tensions of life in a fallen world.

Lamentations 5

The end of the last chapter of Lamentations is a snapshot of the entire book.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:19–22)

I learned recently that, when copying this text, several Hebrew scribes repeated verse 21 after verse 22, presumably because they thought the book should not end on such a down note. I understand that impulse.

But I’ve grown to see that the end of Lamentations is just about the perfect ending for this book. Like lament itself, there is no resolution. There is a question—a gut-wrenching, foreboding question—hanging in the air over that last verse. Yet this very tension keeps us seeking the Lord.

Trusting, trusting

While we know how our ultimate story ends, we don’t know all the details along the way. Not every episode or chapter will be joyous or fulfilling.

Learning to live with the tension of suffering, stubborn sin, difficult relationships, and tragedies helps us to continue trusting the Lord. We need him, we cry out to him, we mourn in his presence when we feel nothing more than a puddle of pain and confusion.

If life was smooth and predictable, it would be much easier to trust in peace, stability, or even the momentum of a string of good days. It would be harder to see our need to trust the Lord.

Similarly, our prayers do not need to be wrapped up with a shiny bow. We don’t need to come to the Lord with a lesson learned or with carefully-chosen, sanctified words. It’s okay to tell God your troubles, to sit with him and ask him why (see Lam 5:20).

Back to God

Tension in our lives and in our prayers is a generous gift of God. Like the end of Lamentations, it keeps us turning back to him, relying on him. Where else could we possibly go?

A tidy plot might be the script we’d write for ourselves, but the tension God gives is closer to what we need.

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Let the Guilty Lament

God has been teaching me much in my study of Lamentations over the past nine months. I’ll share a short one today: one does not need to be innocent to lament.

I’ve never heard anyone claim that innocence is required for lament, but this sort of statement can be absorbed over years of selective Bible reading. Lamentations smashes that statement to bits.

In my mind, there are two obvious examples in the Bible of crying out for deliverance. The first one is King David.

David wrote a good portion of the Psalms, many while on the run from Saul or other enemies. When he asks God for deliverance, he frequently appeals to his own righteousness. Here’s an example.

The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me. (Psalm 7:8)

David is asking for deliverance in this prayer (see Psalm 7:1), and he cites his integrity as the basis on which God should act.

The difference between righteousness and innocence is an important one; perhaps at another time and/or place. For our purposes it’s enough to note that, in this situation, David’s sin is not what got him into trouble.

The other example of crying out to God that sticks in my head is the Israelites in Egypt. God’s people pleaded with him for deliverance from slavery, and God heard them (Exodus 2:23–25). The Israelites were not a perfect people, but they were being oppressed—this is what prompted their cry.

Lamentations is different. This book of prayers arises from rebellious people who have received just judgment from God for their sin. And yet, this cry of lament is included in Scripture! Blamelessness, righteousness, status as an innocent victim—none of these are requirements to come before God in lament.

The author of Lamentations confesses that the people are guilty and have deserved God’s wrath. (See Lam 1:5, 8, 18, 22. Examples abound in chapters 2–5 of the book as well.) And yet, they still come to God. They still describe what they are experiencing and the accompanying pain and sorrow. They know they are to blame for their situation, and they still ask God to see them. They want to be remembered in their suffering, even when the blame for their suffering falls on their own shoulders.

The requests in Lamentations are sparse. In this way, these prayers are much different than psalms. We might expect multiple cries for mercy, for deliverance, for some way out of the present suffering. But there is really only one request like this, at the very end of the book: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). Even this request acknowledges the guilt of the people.

God wants the guilty to come to him. To keep praying. Even when they suffer as a result of sin. I find this to be incredibly good news! Not because our sorrow or pain is easily traced back to sinful actions or desires (though occasionally that is the case), but because God is so open to our lament that we can come in any condition. Even those who are dripping with guilt, standing in the smoky ruins of a conquered Jerusalem—these believers can lament before the Lord.

This opens the gate for everyone, every last person who looks to the Lord. God will see. I am guilty; I can lament before the Lord.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus underline this truth. Jesus was the friend of sinners, welcoming the guilty even as he hung on the cross.

Because Jesus brings us to God (1 Pet 3:18), we can go to him, taking our praise, confession, sorrow, thanks, and lament, trusting that he hears.


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When the Promises of God Are All You Have

Void Hall Abandoned Building Old Lost Places

There are signature moments in our lives, markers between before and after. A big move, the death of a loved one, a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, a terrible fire. Occasionally we realize, in the middle, that our world will be different on the other end. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it is tragic.

What Has Been Lost

In Lamentations 4, are reading the after of one such moment. A large part of lament is noting how much now is different than it was or should be. In this chapter-long prayer, the author calls out many unremarkable facets of life which are upside-down as a result of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.

Gold is tarnished and holy stones are scattered (Lam 4:1). The remaining men, though “precious sons,” are regarded as no more than “earthen pots” (Lam 4:2). Infants and children are starving, with nursing mothers treating their children no better than wild jackals (Lam 4:3-4). Even those who were rich are living in refuse and dying (Lam 4:5).

Signs of Judgment

There is a clear reason everything has been overturned. Behind Babylon’s tactics is the wrath of God; it was his hot anger that kindled a fire in the city and consumed it (Lam 4:11).

Jerusalem is receiving a punishment worse than Sodom—shocking, since the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was the most notable destruction of cities in the Old Testament to that point. (This story is in Genesis 18–19.) The punishment is worse because it is drawn out; Sodom was destroyed in a moment, while the residents of Jerusalem are slowly dying of hunger (Lam 4:69). Jerusalem deserved a harsher punishment, in part, because they were God’s people with his word and his temple; the residents of Sodom had not known the Lord.

These verses reveal specific aspects of divine judgment, horrible as they are. The women of Jerusalem boiled and ate their young children—this was both an act of compassion on the babies and a desperate search for food. This was a curse foretold in Deut 28:53. We also read one reason for this judgment: the prophets and priests have sinned horribly in the city (Lam 4:13). The people cried “Unclean!” at them as they wandered through the streets (Lam 4:14-15). These religious leaders were banished from the city by God himself, scattered among the nations (Lam 4:15-16).

False Hopes

As the Lord brought judgment to Jerusalem, some of their false idols came to light.

Historically, the siege of Jerusalem was paused for a time when it was thought that Egypt would intervene. Judah had been hoping for rescue, but this hope never came; Egypt turned out to be “a nation which could not save” (Lam 4:17).

Judah had also been hoping in Zedekiah, their king when the city was attacked by Babylon. This is mentioned in Lam 4:20, where the king is referred to as “the Lord’s anointed.” The people thought he would protect them, that they could live “under his shadow,” but he, like so many others, was captured.

Waiting on the Judge

At the end of Lam 4:20, the writer is in a miserable state. With the fall of Jerusalem, so very much has been lost. God himself has been judging his people through the Babylonian army. The people are without prophets, without priests, without temple, and without food. And their hopes (in Egypt and in King Zedekiah) have come up empty. What is left?

Much remains! The writer falls back on the promises of God.

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,
you who dwell in the land of Uz;
but to you also the cup shall pass;
you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare.
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished;
he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish;
he will uncover your sins. (Lam 4:21–22)

The author of Lamentations knows who God is and what he has promised. Even though they are part of his plan, those who brutalize God’s people will themselves be punished. The cup of judgment will pass from Israel to Edom (another nation in the area).

More hopefully, God’s wrath against his people is finite, and he will keep them “in exile no longer.” This is not some idle wish—this is a rock-solid promise of God. (See Jeremiah 31, among other places.) This fits squarely with God’s character and his love for his people (Lam 3:31–33).

God’s promises are a life raft, and with this particular promise, the call is to trust in the Lord and wait. This is not new! We have seen previously that waiting for the Lord is a large component of seeking him (Lam 3:25–26).

We May Have Sorrow, but We Always Have the Lord

Though a request is a common component of lament, there is no bold request in Lamentations 4. The author’s distress is severe and obvious; he is calling the Lord’s attention to his troubles and reminding himself (in the presence of the Lord) that God’s promises are true. God is trustworthy and we can—we must!—rely on what he says.

Of course, this is true for us too! In our distress or suffering, we must not rely on our health, our optimism, our bank account, our reputation, our friends, our safety, or any sort of harmony in our life. We can, however, look to the Lord and his promises!

In an upcoming article, I plan to write about a few of God’s promises that we can call to mind in times of anguish, pain, and discouragement. It may be a good exercise, until then, to search the Scriptures yourself and search out the promises of God which are yours in Jesus. These are precious.

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Those Who Are Forgiven Much, Love Much

Of all the devastating interactions in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees, this one has to be near the top of the list:

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:47)

The Pharisee and the Sinful Woman

The context of that quote is Luke 7:36–50, a fairly familiar story. Briefly: Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee, and as they are reclining at the table a “woman of the city” approaches Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and anointing them with expensive ointment. The Pharisee is horrified that Jesus would allow such a sinful woman to touch him.

Jesus knows the Pharisee’s scorn and tells him how the woman’s hospitality has exceeded his own (the Pharisee’s). Jesus tells a story about a moneylender cancelling two debts, one ten times as large as the other. Which debtor will love him more? The one with the larger debt.

Then Jesus speaks verse 47 (quoted above) to the Pharisee and turns to the woman and repeats, “Your sins are forgiven.” The implication for the Pharisee is clear to the reader—his sins are not forgiven.

But there is (to me) a natural question that flows out of the logic of this passage. If those who are forgiven much, love much, and if we want to grow in our love for God, should we also focus on how much we have been forgiven? If so, wouldn’t that involve dwelling on our sin?

Forgiveness and Forgetfulness

There’s an impulse among modern Christians to forget our sin after we know our forgiveness from God is secure. We know the mental and spiritual anguish that can be stoked by focusing on our failures. And we’ve heard the forgive and forget mantra enough that forgetting is an essential part of forgiving and being forgiven.

What is forgiveness between people? There’s a good illustration in Matthew 18:21–35, where Jesus again uses the analogy of a debt. When we forgive others, we absorb the debt caused by their sin against us so that they do not have to pay it. Among other things, this means that we will no longer hold that sin against them. We don’t need to pretend it didn’t happen, as there may be necessary consequences to sins, but we won’t extract any personal retribution. (I use the phrase “personal retribution” here in contrast to legal notions of justice that forgiveness does not erase.)

We can be sure that God acts this way toward us when he forgives us. He does not remind us of our sin nor use the memory of our past to harm us. (You may protest that Hebrews 8:12 says that God “…will remember their sins no more.” I think John Piper is correct when he reads that as God will not call to mind our sins in a punishing, vindictive way.)

We do have examples in Scripture, however, where Paul reminds fellow Christians of their sinful past. Here are two examples.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9–11)

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:11–13)

In both of these situations, Paul notes what these people once were. But he does not stop there. He also reminds them what is now true of them.

Recall Sin and Grace

Putting this together, it seems like we should recall what we were, but that we should also remember what we are. We are sinners, but we are washed and justified. We are loved and forgiven. We were without hope and without God, but now we have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Over time, we will grow in our understanding of how much we have been forgiven. We will see more of our sin, and we will see our current and former sin in greater, darker depth. This is part of developing and changing as a Christian.

How Much We’ve Been Forgiven

Returning to my question following the story of the Pharisee and the sinful woman, here’s the lesson. If we want to grow in our love for the Lord, we should focus on how much we’ve been forgiven.

This means recalling our sin, but never without also recalling God’s gracious forgiveness of that sin and our permanent standing with him as beloved children.

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Praying Without “That”

There is much we can learn from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9–14. I recently noticed a difference between the two prayers that I cannot remember seeing before. Notice the way the Pharisee uses “that.”

Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
Tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It seems there’s a difference between praying “I thank you that…” and praying “Thank you…” The same goes for prayers of praise, confession, or petition.

It’s much easier when praying with “that” to state what we intend to pray rather than to actually pray it. The word “that” can introduce an extra measure of distance or formality—even performance—to our prayers that should not be present.

Think about it—we (usually) don’t speak this way to each other. Aren’t you more likely to say “Jim, would you pass me the salt?” instead of “Jim, I ask that you pass me the salt”?

I’ve noticed “that” showing up in my prayers recently, and I’m now especially tuned in when praying with other people. I’ve heard it in my children’s prayers too, and I suspect they’ve picked it up from me.

Now, I’m not saying this is a terrible way to pray or that it should be avoided at all costs. After all, Jesus prayed this way on at least one occasion (Matt 11:25)!

My point is simply this: We should be aware of the words we’re using in prayer. Those words can shape us and our relationship with God. They can also reflect how we view this relationship. When we “pray that,” it is easier to create or imagine relational space between us and God.

God is our gracious, heavenly father, so he will hear and answer us. There is no perfect way to pray! I’m raising this issue merely as a way to remind myself (and possibly you) of the warmth and closeness we have when speaking with God.


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Banking on God’s Justice

What characteristic of God do you turn to for hope? Many people (with good reason) would mention his steadfast love. Others might point to his faithfulness or his sovereignty.

The author of Lamentations heads in a different direction. He banks on God’s justice.

God’s Justice and Control

We’ve already looked at the first half of Lamentations 3, so this article will focus on the second half of that chapter (Lamentations 3:34–66).

In verses 34–36 we read a list of things of which “the Lord does not approve.” Crushing prisoners, subverting lawsuits, and denying justice to people—God is utterly opposed to all of it.

One reason he can oppose these violations is that he is in control. No one can issue commands unless the Lord is behind it (verse 37). He brings both good and bad to those on earth (verse 38). Because he is just and sovereign, no one can claim ill treatment when they suffer punishment for their sins (verse 39).

Let Us Return to the Lord

We read something shocking in Lam 3:42: “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” We cannot bear to think of God not forgiving!

The order in this passage is crucial. The poet sees the surrounding destruction and devastation as evidence that God has not forgiven. This is the reason the people must return to the Lord! The author is NOT saying, we have returned and God has not forgiven. No—the abundant evidence of God’s anger is the reason the people must turn back to their Sovereign Lord. Because God has not forgiven, we must return!

God uses dramatic tactics to get through to his people. He pursues and kills them (verse 43). They cannot pray (verse 44). Their enemies taunt and destroy them (Lam 3:46–47). The people are panicking (verse 47). The author weeps uncontrollably because of the pitiful state of God’s people in Jerusalem (verses 48, 49, 51). The only relief from this sorrow will come when the Lord sees and takes notice of those who are broken-hearted (verse 50).

I’ve seen this truth in my life and I’ll bet you have too. We long for pleasant, peaceful times, but it is far too easy in those calm waters to forget God altogether. When the skies darken and the waves are high—then we realize we are not in charge, we are not self-sufficient. That shock brings us to our senses so that we soberly seek the Lord. In fact, that image of sobriety and inebriation is a little too accurate: prosperity and comfort often bring about a hedonistic stupor and a cloud of self-deception. This is why there are so many warnings about wealth in the Bible and why God uses suffering and sorrow to bring his people back to himself.

What does such a return to the Lord look like? It must include self-examination (verse 40) and confession of sin (verse 42). Genuine repentance occurs on the level of both affections and actions (“hearts and hands,” verse 41).

God Has Taken Up My Cause

The author of Lamentations writes more personally in verses 52–66. It seems he suffered much in his physical body (verses 52–54).

A wonderful story unfolds in this brief discourse! The author called on the name of the Lord (verse 55) and the Lord heard this cry (verse 56). God not only heard, but he came near and calmed the poet’s fears (verse 57). Let’s not rush past the kindness and mercy of God in this response—meeting this man in “the depths of the pit” and with just the reassurance he needed.

The author now uses God’s past response as fuel for future prayer. He knows God has taken up his cause (verse 58) and has seen all the violence of his enemies against him (verses 59–60). God has heard their taunts and their plots (verse 61). Because God is just, because he is in control, and because he has already come near, the author of Lamentations can ask the Lord to judge his cause (verse 59).

The poet has confidence that God will do exactly this, that he will repay his enemies (verse 64), curse them (verse 65), pursue them and destroy them (verse 66). God had been pursuing the Israelites (verse 43) in an effort to turn them back to himself. Now, according to his promise, God will pursue the enemies of Israel. The author hopes in the Lord because the Lord is, among other things, perfectly just.

Our Hope Also Lies in God’s Justice

Like the Israelites stuck in Jerusalem after the siege, our hope is tied to God’s justice. (It does not depend on his justice alone, but without God’s justice our hope crumbles.)

Christians believe that when Jesus died on the cross, he really took our sins upon himself. And because God is just, even though Jesus was perfect, those sins of ours demanded punishment. Our hope that we will not suffer judgment for our sins lies in the fact that God dealt with them—perfectly, finally—in Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.

Additionally, when we grieve injustices in this world, we can still have hope. We can (and should) work for temporal justice for our neighbors near and far. And we can trust that God will deal with all sins according to his eternal justice.

God is kind. He is holy. He is patient and good and unchanging. He is also just, and his justice means that everything will be set right in the end. You can bank on that!

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