Immanuel: The Story of Christmas

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:22–23)

I have contended that we can summarize the entire story of the Bible with the name Immanuel. Thus, Immanuel is more than the story of Christmas, but it is certainly not less.

God with us

The inescapable, mind-bending miracle of Christmas is that God became man. The one who breathed humanity into existence took human breaths as a baby.

The reason is not particularly romantic. The Creator set the rules in the garden and we set them aflame. Divine action was the only path to reunion.

We did not need a superhero, a military general, or a crowd-rousing activist; we needed God himself to come. To breathe. To cough and walk and laugh and cry in our midst. We needed Jesus to do all that we could not and would not do.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

God with us

We once had easy access to and comfortable fellowship with God in the garden. Adam and Eve were with God before the curse was found anywhere.

God has come near at times after Eden. He visited patriarchs, delivered stone tablets, and filled temples. But even those who knew God intimately experienced profound, confusing distance from him.

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

On this side of eternity, we have a longing to be home, to once again walk with the God who made us. We want to be with God, without any of the danger and panic such an encounter arouses within sinners.

Even as the Son of God came, he was with us for a mere moment. Jesus died. God was with us temporarily so that God might be with us (by his Spirit) and so that his people might be with him permanently.

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)

God with us

Christmas brings about community almost by definition. Immanuel means God with us, not God with me.

We all relate to God individually, but we don’t relate to him alone. Those who are God’s are brought into a community and family.

We are no longer alone. God is with us, and by virtue of God being with us, others are with us too. This may not be a physical reality for some Christians now, but it is a mystical truth and a coming reality. Christmas means the dawning of the end of loneliness.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14–16)

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The Westminster Confession on Adoption

I’m reading through the Westminster Confession of Faith at the moment, and far from being dry and dusty I have found parts of it quite beautiful and moving. I have a short post today, simply sharing the entirety of chapter 12 of the WCF, “Of Adoption” (modern version). There’s a lot to ponder here, a lot to make us humble and thankful. I suggest reading this slowly.

All those who are justified God graciously guarantees to make partakers of the grace of adoption in and for his only Son, Jesus Christ. By this act they are taken into the number of God’s children and enjoy the liberties and privileges of that relationship; they are given his name; they receive the Spirit of adoption; they have access to the throne of grace with boldness; and they are enabled to cry, “Abba, Father.” Like a father, God has compassion on, protects, provides for, and chastens them; yet, they will never be cast off, but are sealed to the day of redemption, and will inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation. (WCF, 12)

How to Be Less Thankful

Late fall can be difficult. The daylight is fading, the weather (at least here in Pennsylvania) is getting cold, and there’s a gray dinginess in the air.

On top of environmental downers, people pop out of the woodwork to encourage us to be thankful. What a drag! How can we possibly give ourselves the focus we deserve when our friends are pointing out all the ways we should be grateful? It’s oppressive, I tell you.

If you’ve had enough of the thanksgiving police bullying you into a humble posture, this article is for you. Read on for some tried and true methods for growing in thanklessness.

Negative Advice

I’ve collected nine pieces of advice here to turn you into a thankless person.

Don’t think about what God has done

There’s a consistent theme in the Bible: Considering God’s deeds will fuel thankfulness (Psalm 9:126:7). We can’t have that.

We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 75:1)

Don’t think about other Christians

If you’re anything like the apostle Paul, when you think about how God has worked in the lives of other believers you’ll be filled with thanks (Philippians 1:3–5Ephesians 1:15–16). The first three chapters of 1 Thessalonians are just stuffed with this. So, while it might be hard, you’ll need to banish these thoughts.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:4–8)

Don’t think about the body of Christ

Not only should you avoid thinking about God’s grace given to others, you must also dispel any thoughts of God’s people as one united body. Individual Christians are graciously brought into this loving family where peace and forgiveness are possible. The acceptance and compassion that you can experience in the church are sure to make you grateful, so put these thoughts far away.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12–17)

Don’t think about God’s character

The Old Testament Israelites sang frequently about God’s steadfast love. This love is a part of his character and the basis of his mighty works for his people.

This means that if you want to be less thankful, you must not ponder who God is and what he is like.

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise? (Psalm 106:1–2)

Don’t think about God’s provision

A surefire way to be thankless is to develop an outsized notion of what you deserve and how much what you have is a result of your hard work and merit. Stay away from those teachings about humility, sin, and God’s providence.

The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing. (Psalm 145:14–16)

Don’t read the Bible

To be safe, you probably shouldn’t get anywhere near the Bible if you want to be less thankful. And you certainly shouldn’t get anywhere near Psalm 100. The writer of that psalm composed those words specifically to aid in thanksgiving!

Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3)

Don’t think about God’s redemption

The greatest, lasting work of God is his redeeming work. At a high price, he bought his people for himself that he might have them forever. Quite naturally, meditating on this gracious work of God will lead people to praise and thank him.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things. (Psalm 107:8–9)

Don’t think about the gospel

Jesus came proclaiming the gospel of his kingdom. God’s redeeming work reached its climatic, essential summit in the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is how God changes hearts and brings people to himself.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

Don’t eat

This last bit of advice is extreme, I’ll admit. It might be hard to pull off, particularly at this time of the year.

If you’re serious about becoming less thankful, you probably need to stay away from food. Especially for people who have spent a lot of time around the church, the beginning of a meal is the occasion for prayers of thanks. This groove may be so well worn in your brain that you are naturally inclined to thanksgiving before picking up your fork.

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4–5)

A Sustaining Vision

If you’re starting this journey, it may seem like a long road ahead of you. You need a sustaining vision to get you through those difficult moments.

Think about the person you will be. As you become less and less thankful, you’ll become more entitled, more turned in on yourself, more lonely, more bitter, more critical, and more miserable overall.

Sounds like a plan!


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The Grief of Finite Joy

Somehow my oldest child is a freshman in high school. As I’ve experienced those where-did-the-time-go emotions that come with such minor milestones, I’ve started to feel a deep, preemptive loss.

I have loved being a parent. It has been one of the best callings in my life. My sadness at (possibly) having less than four years left with my daughter at home is not mere nostalgia for familiar or picturesque days. In the midst of a happy season, I can see its end on the horizon.

I’m not alone in this, and these feelings are not reserved for parents. I’ve felt this same grief in the middle of a family vacation as the lightness of the first few days becomes weighted with regret as I feel the end approaching.

This grief creeps into small things too, like stretching out the end of a good book to avoid snapping the cover closed for the last time. Or savoring a delicious coffee so long that it turns cold and sour.

This is a narrow, specific kind of grief, but it can be stifling. At times I feel myself pulling away from gatherings or experiences because I dread their endings. An honest person has to see how powerless the world’s pleasures are to give true, lasting satisfaction.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 10, “Hope”)

God has put eternity into our hearts, and we long not just for joy but for joy unending. Every happy experience we have on earth will end. That prick of incompleteness, of a premature finale, is an indication of the capacity of our souls. It points to a new land.

In the midst of a much-debated passage about the second coming of Christ, we read this from the apostle Paul.

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. (1 Thessalonians 4:17)

Perhaps it is too well-known to warrant our attention, but the word “always” jumped out at me recently in this verse. Once we are with the Lord, we will never be away from him. I don’t know if this will be full-time, ecstatic joy, but the absence of the curse, along with unmediated fellowship with God, will give us a settled, fulfilled happiness that won’t ever be cut off. (See Revelation 21:3-4.)

Our joy will stretch out like a long road before us. We will no longer flinch when considering the end of a great happiness, for our happiness will have no end.


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Lamenting Like a Christian

It takes no particular religious conviction to complain about the world. But lament is different. The Bible shows us how God’s people throughout time have lamented as his people.

So what does it look like to lament as a Christian? How do we bring our sorrows and pain to God in a way that is specific to followers of Jesus?

Full of Faith

Biblical lament is full of faith. Those who lament know both the character and promises of God. They know God himself. At the same time, the pain and sorrow they suffer in the world don’t line up with what they know of God.

Here is the spark in the furnace of lament for each believer: My anguish in the world doesn’t match the reality I’d expect if the God I know had fully and finally set everything right.

That gap between our knowledge of God and our experience of the world is the space for faith. We need not have watertight answers or certain solutions, but we can turn to trust the one who holds all things together, knowing he is good and wise.

Broken By the Fall

Adam and Eve were the first king and queen of God’s world, and when they fell, everything came crashing down. All the groans ever groaned can be traced back to that original sin.

To be sure, some of the sickness and tragedy on earth may result directly from sinful deeds, evidence of God’s pointed judgment. But this is incredibly hard to discern; it’s safer to say that our hardships are traceable to the general broken state of the world we inherit and in which we participate.

The reasons for lament point to the brokenness of the world, and that brokenness points to sin. It’s exactly this simple: Without sin, the world—our bodies, our relationships, our surroundings—would not be corrupted in any way.

Jesus and the Kingdom

Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom to earth. He came as the perfect human king to rule on God’s throne. And that mission of rule and reconciliation was of necessity also a mission of suffering and sacrifice.

The imperfect and frequently despicable kings of Israel and Judah pointed to the coming of an incorruptible king. When Jesus began his ministry announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15), those steeped in the Old Testament would not have reacted with confusion but relief. He’s here!

Jesus’s miracles were brief, glorious windows into the emerging kingdom of God. The blind would see, the lame would walk, and the hungry would be fed. Sickness would flee, and the dead would rise. In those flickers of restoration we saw the curse being lifted by the corner and peeled back.

As the cross came closer, many around Jesus assumed he would pursue a political path to kingship. This excited some and angered many others. But Jesus spoke of death and resurrection, not coronation. He made it clear (to those with ears to hear) that a fully realized kingdom of God on earth would happen in the future, not immediately. Yet Jesus’s unmistakable resurrection also underlined the fact that his kingdom was imminent.

Final Fullness

Lament is our longing for this full and future kingdom to come now. It is our cry with the apostle John—“Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

We want God’s kingdom to arrive in its final fullness with the rightful king on his throne. This king will bear the marks of this world in his scarred body. He himself has traveled a path of pain and agony. The bloody sweat at Gethsemane and the mournful cries on the cross bear witness to Jesus’s journey of lament.

When the end finally comes—when all hopes have been realized and the curse is no more—there will be no more need for lament. We will have our full and final comfort in the form of our strong and kind king. We will be at home and there will be no distance between our experience and our longings.

The Man of Sorrows—who bore our sin, who mourned and lamented in our place—makes our present-day lamenting possible. We lament as Christians when we cry out to God in our pain, trust him to keep his promises, and look ahead to the glorious kingdom that Jesus has secured for us.

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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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