The Secret of Contentment

Philippians 4:10-13 (ESV) - [10] I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Not Painfully, But Constantly

    The American author John Steinbeck, in a book called Sweet Thursday, describes the emotional state of one of his characters, and at the same time he gives us a profoundly insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the human heart: “Now discontent nibbled at him—not painfully, but constantly. Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields.” [1]

    I think all of us know what he’s describing. We’ve experienced it before. You cognitively know there’s no reason for discontent, but it’s there anyway, nibbling and gnawing, not painfully but constantly—so constantly that you sometimes forget it’s there the same way you forget a bad smell when you've been in a room long enough. But in the middle of this examination of discontent, Steinbeck asks the key question: Where does it start?

    Now most of us would reflexively answer that discontentment is a product of some external deficiency. It starts with not having enough of something: money, relationships, time, power, control, acceptance, comfort, anything.

    But that’s a really naive answer. If discontent really started with external deficiency, then the people with the most would be the most content, and we all know that’s not the case. In fact, all you have to do is take a good hard look at your own life: Has getting more ever cured your discontent?

    If you’re anything like me, you spend most of your life like a kid waiting for Christmas. “When I finally get that one thing, everything’s going to change.” And as soon as you open the package—as soon as you get what you set your heart on—the disappointment you thought would disappear actually grows.

    Getting more doesn’t cure discontent because discontent isn’t primarily a material deficiency. Like Steinbeck said, you’re warm enough but you shiver. Discontent isn’t fundamentally a material deficiency; it’s a spiritual one. It’s a spiritual hunger that never gets satisfied, no matter how much you consume, attain, or possess. And it starts with a heart that needs and yearns and longs for satisfaction and fullness, but is looking for it in all the wrong places—in things that don’t actually have the power to make you whole.

    So the discontent keeps on lingering—not painfully, but constantly—until it grows up into something that is really painful.

    But in Philippians 4:10-13, the Apostle Paul says, “I’ve found the secret.” “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret” of contentment. I’ve learned the secret of how to go through life with a contented heart.

    Now we might expect him to give us a technique. In our culture, everybody’s selling a technique for contentment, some simple behavior or thought process that’ll make all the difference.

    Think positive thoughts. Or spend 10 minutes a day concentrating on what’s going right in your life. Or let your discontent drive you to truly fulfill your dreams. That’s how you’ll find contentment.

    But according to Paul, the secret of contentment isn’t a technique. It’s a person. It’s a person who fills your spiritual hunger with himself in a way that nothing else ever could.

    If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know this person. If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know Jesus in all his promise-keeping, soul-satisfying glory.

    And understand, this is for Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re spiritually curious but have never given any real attention to Jesus, you need to be honest with yourself and recognize that the ways you’re searching for contentment only deepen the emptiness, and you can’t break that cycle on your own.

    And if you’re a Christian who can say “I know Jesus already,” don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve figured this all out. You need to be honest about the ways you continue to seek contentment in all sorts of other things, and you need to see that knowing Jesus isn’t a one-time acquaintance. It’s a lifetime of pressing further into his promises and his character so that the deep desires of your heart are transformed and met in him.

The Danger of Discontent

    In modern American life, we by and large consider discontent to be normal. Discontent is just part of what it feels like to live in the modern world. There’s a pervasive dissatisfaction with life—a sense that there’s more to life, but an inability to find it.

    And the forces of consumerism in our culture use that emptiness and feed it with every new product that’ll finally be the key to unlocking real happiness. Our consumerism is a product of this dissatisfaction (we buy to fill the void), but consumerism is also an engine that keeps our dissatisfaction alive (it teaches and forms us to stay discontent and to keep on grabbing for more).

    Far from being abnormal or alarming, discontent is almost viewed as a virtue. It’s a badge of honor, a sign of high expectations, a proud declaration to the world that you deserve more than you’ve gotten. So whoever airs out their discontent most publicly gets held in esteem. He who complains the loudest wins.

    Discontent may be normal, but that doesn’t make it safe. Heart disease is normal for modern people too, but it’ll still kill you. And here’s the thing: discontent is heart disease. It’s a spiritual disorder that begins in the heart and spreads in destructive ways throughout every part of life.

    Of course, discontent will destroy your personal peace. That’s the effect that’s easiest to spot. The spiritual hunger underneath our discontent—the need to always get more that never quite gets met—makes us miserable. It saps away our joy and kills our ability to live in and savor the present because we’re always anxiously living for the future.

    But the destruction runs deeper and spreads farther. How?

Discontent and Stability

    Discontent will destroy your stability. When times are bad and you’re suffering—when the thing you’re depending on for contentment gets ripped away from you—you’ll only know how to respond in damaging ways. You’ll despair over your loss; you’ll get angry at the world; you’ll get self-absorbed in your pain. And you’ll strive in pursuit of some fleeting sense of contentment even more obsessively than you did before. A discontented heart is totally unstable in hardship.

    But listen to what Paul says: “In any and every circumstance, I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Do you see what he’s saying there? He’s saying that hunger and need—suffering and hardship—aren’t the only obstacles that could destroy him. Plenty and abundance are obstacles that he’s had to learn to face as well.

    And that’s because, if your heart is chronically discontent—if it’s searching for life in the wrong places—success and gain will hurt you just as much (if not more) than failure and loss. You won’t be able to handle the bad times, but you won’t be able to handle the good times either.

    Why? Because the moment you get your hands on that treasured prize, you’ll become proud. You’ll think you’re actually self-sufficient. You’ll become intolerably judgmental of others. And when that temporary buzz finally starts to wear off, the need for more will still be there, and it’ll take your anxiety, your emptiness, and your striving to an even more intense level.

    If you’re heart is discontent because it’s set on the wrong things, then both failure and success, both suffering and abundance, will change you in ugly and undesirable ways, and you won’t have the stability to face either situation well.

Discontent and Relationships

    Discontent will destroy your relationships with others, too. If your heart is a black hole of desire, then the people who’re closest to you will inevitably get sucked into the gravitational pull of your neediness.

    You’ll become a taker—a consumer of people—who uses relationships as a means to the end of personal fulfillment. You won’t be able to enjoy people for who they are or love them in self-denial because you’ll always be leveraging your relationships to get the thing you’re chasing—to get closer to the contentment that eludes you.

    And if someone in your life should happen to experience blessing and joy—if they end up experiencing the wealth or beauty or work success or romantic relationship or social approval that you’ve tried to build your life on—you will stew in bitterness toward them. Other people’s blessings will just be ammunition for your hatred. Your discontented heart won’t allow you to celebrate their joys. It’ll lead you to covet them in ways that wish them harm (and potentially even actively work for their harm).

Discontent and the Glory of God

    But most significantly, discontent defames God. Just consider what a lack of contentment says about God. That kind of life says:

  •     “God isn’t good because he hasn’t cared for me properly.”
  •     “God isn’t wise because he hasn’t provided for my needs.”
  •     “God isn’t loving because he’s left me stranded, empty, and alone.”
  •     “God isn’t sufficient because his presence, his promises, and his blessings aren’t enough to satisfy. I need something else truly be happy and whole.”

    And ultimately, it says that God isn’t really God. You see, the thing that controls your contentment, that’s your god. That’s the thing that you’re really putting your hope in and chasing after and worshiping. That’s the thing you’re really loving and bowing down to. At the core of discontent, there’s always a substitute god that we actually believe is more desirable, satisfying, and glorious than the God of the Bible. So if you want to know what you’re worshiping—whether you’re religious or not—all you have to do is ask a simple question: What do I believe would actually make me content?

    And this discontent lies underneath every other kind of sin. Let’s just run through a few of the 10 commandments.

    Why do we break the seventh commandment in sexual unfaithfulness? Because we’re not content with God’s gifts to us in our singleness or our marriage, so we seek fulfillment in sexual consumerism.

    Why do we break the eighth commandment and steal? Because we’re not content with what God’s granted us and are driven to take from others.

    Why do we break the ninth commandment and lie? Because we’re not content with what the truth will bring us, and we can get more money, approval, or power by bending it.

    Why do we break the fourth commandment and refuse to rest? Because we’re not content with God, and we throw ourselves into the never ending work we believe will give us the acclaim, the accomplishments, or the comfort that will fill up that hole.

    Discontent makes us personally miserable, sure. But it goes way farther than that. If left unchecked, discontent will fuel all sorts of dangerous patterns in your life that will destroy your stability, your relationships, and your enjoyment of and obedience to God. So if we’re going to walk with God and experience satisfaction—and those two things are intimately connected to each other—we have to know the secret of contentment.

The Secret of Contentment

    There are a few typical ways we try to solve our contentment problems.

Counterfeit Contentments

    Often, we believe that the secret of contentment is changing our circumstances:

  •     “If only I had more money…”
  •     “If only I lost 10 pounds…”
  •     “If only I had a more fulfilling job…”
  •     “If only I had a spouse…”
  •     “Or a different spouse…”

    “…then I could finally be content. Then I could finally be satisfied.”

    But that totally misses the point. Like Steinbeck showed us, our discontent doesn't start with material deficiency. It starts in a heart that’s searching for peace, fullness, healing, and joy in things that can’t possibly give it.

    So simply changing your circumstances won’t actually deal with the root of your discontent. At best it’ll offer you a counterfeit contentment. It’ll give you the temporary exhilaration of change, but it won’t give you long-lasting satisfaction. Why? Because your hungry heart will just keep starving for more.

    On the other hand, we sometimes believe that the secret of contentment is deadening our desires. This is the stoic option. “If I harden myself and stop desiring things and become emotionally invulnerable, then I’ll never have to deal with the ache of disappointment.”

    But that’s a counterfeit contentment, too. It settles for the mere absence of pain when real contentment is actually a fullness of joy, not just a lack of unmet desires. And if you try to harden yourself to cure your discontent, all you’ll end up doing is becoming a shell of a person who’s protected yourself from pain, but has given up the possibility of loving others and enjoying life in the process.

    Neither of those approaches will bring real contentment. So what’s the real secret?

The Real Secret

    Paul tells us. He’s writing from a prison cell, thanking the Philippians for their love and financial support. But even in his gratitude, he doesn’t want them to get the impression that he was somehow in a state of spiritual desperation. He had needs that they graciously met, yes. But even in the midst of that need, he was content.

    Listen to what he says: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And here’s the secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The secret of Paul’s contentment is a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

    Now a lot of people will quote verse 13 (“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”) as a sort of self-empowerment motto. It’s basically become the Christian version of “You can do anything you set your mind to,” only it’s “You can do anything you set your mind to because Jesus will help you.”

    But all you have to do is read that verse in connection with the rest of these verses to see that Paul’s not saying, “Jesus will help make my dreams come true.” He’s saying, “I can do all things—I can face plenty and hunger, abundance and need, any and every circumstance—with spiritual peace because I know the Jesus who fills me up and satisfies me and gives me the strength to receive all of life’s ups and downs with contentment.”

    You see, the defining message of Christianity is that, in Jesus, God gave you himself so that you could be joyfully contented with him for all eternity. All of us have sought our contentment in other things. We’ve de-Godded God and set up substitutes that we thought would bless us with satisfaction. We’ve fractured the relationship with the only true source of joy, and God would’ve been perfectly just to leave us in our spiritual emptiness and pour out his holy anger on us.

    But instead, he sent his Son into the world to live the perfectly contented life of worship that we should’ve lived.

    And then Jesus went to the cross.

    His relationship with God the Father was fractured so that ours could be healed. He received the anger and death that we deserved so that we could receive God’s gracious, loving pleasure and a life of unbreakable fellowship with him. He gave up all the rights he had as the Son of God so that we could be daughters and sons who have not only a place in God’s family but an infinite, eternal inheritance. He took on our guilt so that we could be counted righteous. He took on our shame so that we could be made beautiful and acceptable. He walked into the hell of spiritual starvation at the cross so that we could be granted the satisfaction of spiritual fullness with God.

    And do you know what that means? It means there’s no place life can take you where you aren’t securely wrapped in the love of God. It means that no matter where you go, you go in fellowship with God. It means that nothing in the whole universe can strip away the blessings of forgiveness, approval, beauty, and life that Jesus lived and died to purchase for you. And in those promises lies the strength to be content as you go through all of life.

    Jesus—in all the glory of his gospel grace—is uniquely able to satisfy the spiritual hunger in your heart because he’s uniquely able to reconcile you to the God you were made for.

    So your contentment doesn’t have to rise and fall with your circumstances. In Christ, you’ve got God, and all the blessings of belonging to God, in every circumstance.

    And you don’t have to deaden your desires to escape the ache of disappointment. In Christ, you can finally let your desires become fully alive as you stop settling for counterfeit contentment and run full throttle after the eternal joy that only God can offer.

    When you know the secret—when you know Jesus—you can for the very first time in your life experience a security, a fullness, a contentment with the power to endure.

Fertile Soil

    Discontent very often grows in the fertile soil between what you think you deserve and what you think you’ve been given. When you’re convinced that you deserve everything and have been given peanuts, discontent thrives and blooms.

    But meeting Jesus shrinks the distance between those two. In fact, meeting Jesus actually reverses it, because meeting Jesus shows me that I’ve deserved far less than I thought and I’ve been given far more than I could’ve ever imagined.

    And that’s the fertile soil for contentment to sprout and blossom into something truly beautiful.

The Fruits of a Contented Heart

    As the soil of your heart is tilled with the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus—as contentment finally takes root and anchors in all the blessings Jesus grants you—a number of fruits will spring up in your life.

The Fruit of Resilience

    Contentment will bring a stable resilience in every kind of situation. A discontent heart can’t handle either failure or success without being changed in ugly ways. Your success will make you proud and even more voracious in your need to gain, and your failure will leave you hopeless but still striving.

    But as you cultivate contentment in Jesus, you can both succeed and fail with a peaceful joy and a resilient stability that isn’t defined by what happens to you.

    That kind of steadiness is one of the main characteristics Paul wants us to see: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

    So you can lose your money and still be content because God promises as your Father to meet your truest needs with his grace and to grant you a heavenly inheritance as his child. And you can gain all the money in the world without becoming a self-sufficient miser because you see your money as a gift, not your god.

    When you have power, you won’t be obsessed with protecting it and accumulating more. You’ll be able to exercise that power with a humility and fairness that stems from contentment with God. And when you don't have power, you’ll still have joy because you belong to the God of all power who promises to use that power for his glory and your good.

    If you’re content in the gospel, you can feel beautiful without obsessively comparing yourself to others. And you can feel ugly without despair because Christ’s beauty is the beauty that truly defines you.

    You can receive approval from others without becoming a people-pleasing addict. And you can experience rejection with deep security because God has already announced his approval over you in Jesus.

    Tim Keller’s fond of saying that, if the gospel is true, then your success won’t go to your head, and your failure won’t go to your heart. When you’re content in Jesus, neither your successes nor your failures will control you. Neither your abundance nor your need will have ultimate power over you because your confidence in God’s blessings toward you in the gospel will give you a stability that can handle both situations with calmness, grace, and joy. You’ll be constant and resilient in the good times and the bad

The Fruit of Relational Peace

    Contentment will bring peace in your relationships, too. Instead of being a taker who uses other people as a means to contentment, you’ll be able to relate to others out of your contentment in Christ. So because you’re content in Christ’s gift of himself, you’ll become a giver who’s generously willing to offer your money, your time, your wisdom, your home, your whole life to serve others.

    Instead of sucking the life out of people with constant complaints and neediness, you’ll become a source of life and blessing that other people long to be around.

    And where discontent inevitably makes you bitter and hateful when other people experience joy, gospel contentment will free you to celebrate their victories and their blessings. You won’t be left stewing over what you don’t have because your heart will be consumed with all that you do have through Christ. And that will make you a better, more peaceful friend to the people in your life.

The Fruit of Worship

    Finally, your contentment will magnify the glory of God. Where discontent leads to resentment and complaining toward God, gospel contentment will empower a life of glad worship and thanksgiving. You’ll be able to receive all of life with gratitude—even the hard things—because the cross guarantees that everything God gives you, he gives in love, and everything he withholds from you, he withholds in love.

    When you know that—when you’re content in God’s faithfulness and goodness and wisdom revealed most perfectly in Jesus—you can actively worship him through anything. And as you find your contentment in Jesus, your life will declare to the world:

    Jesus is better than silver or gold

    Jesus is better than treasures untold

    Jesus is better than all I can find

    Jesus is better, and Jesus is mine

Cultivating Contentment

    Make it your business to cultivate that kind of contentment. Meet with Jesus in his word where God can feed you with his character and promises over and over again. Confess your discontent with the confidence that God’s mercy is yours. Commune with God in prayer—alone and with others—and spend time fixing your gaze on his sufficiency and delighting in his soul-satisfying beauty. Prepare your heart—and one another’s hearts—for both failure and success so that Christ will be your treasure in the midst of both. Build rhythms of worship with the church community that reinforce God’s message of hunger-quenching grace so that you’re formed in ways that run counter to our consuming culture. Participate consistently in corporate worship with a readiness to hear anew and afresh in readings and songs and prayers and sermons how Jesus is enough to fuel your contentment. And venture regularly to the Lord’s Table to be nourished and sustained with physical symbols of the gospel.

    Christ gave himself, body and blood, to give you God. So know the beauty of contentment by knowing Jesus in all his promise-keeping, heart-fulfilling glory.

[1] John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday (Penguin: New York, 1954), 16.

Praying Your Praise With Psalm 146

For the past many weeks, Trinity Church has been walking through the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. And it’s been quite a bit different from our normal way of sitting under God’s word. Usually, we work verse-by-verse straight through a book—from the very beginning all the way to the end.

    And we do that for good reason. With a lot of books in the Bible, in order to understand one piece, you’ve got to understand what leads up to and flows out of that text. So we try to preach in a way that teaches how to read, interpret, and apply God’s word faithfully.

    But with the Psalms, we haven’t walked through them numerically. We’ve been jumping all over the place. And that’s because the Psalms are a very different kind of writing. Most books of the Bible have a distinct order to them, like a perfectly crafted five-course meal, where every dish is connected to all the others. But the Psalms are more like a buffet. There’s an enormous amount of variety—every kind of prayer you could imagine. But in the midst of all that variety, you begin to notice that certain Psalms have a lot of characteristics in common. They’re the same kind of food, but with their own distinct flavor.

    During our time in the Psalms, we’ve been sampling each section of the buffet. We’ve been taking one Psalm from each of the major categories and listening to it very closely. We’ve been trying to figure out how we’re supposed to approach and pray each kind of Psalm as Christians. And the goal is for our church’s worship to grow with all the richness of these different prayers and for each of us personally to be able to go to any one of the 150 Psalms and have a framework for making sense of and praying that Psalm to God.

    But there’s one kind of Psalm we haven’t tasted yet, and that’s the Psalm of praise. The final section of the Psalter (Psalms 146-150) is completely devoted to praise. Every one of the final 5 Psalms both begins and ends with the word “Hallelujah”—“Praise the Lord.”

    Now if you’re reading this and don’t believe in the Christian God, that probably sounds really arrogant and close-minded to your ears because it’s an open command to every person to submit their life in worship to the God of the Bible. Really nothing could be further from the spirit of our age. But even if you’re a Christian, your heart may preoccupied and dry, and words like “praise the Lord” sound almost impossible to you.

    But regardless of who you are, Psalm 146 has something to say to you because it’s going to show us not only how much we need to praise God, but also how God can bring us by grace to a place where we can praise him.

The Call to Praise

    Psalm 146 begins with a straightforward command: “Praise the Lord!” This is the Psalmist’s call to every person in every time and every place to praise the one true God.

    But it’s also a call from God himself. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the very word of God. So when verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord,” God himself is commanding us, “Praise me!”

    Now, for a lot of people, the idea that God would command us to to praise him is offensive. It makes him sound self-absorbed and even insecure. C. S. Lewis felt that way. Here’s what he wrote in 1958:

“I found a stumbling block in the demand…made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence, or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.”[1]

Lewis writes that the Lord’s calls for praise are “hideously like [God] saying, ‘What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.’”[2] So for Lewis, the Psalms of praise made God look like a narcissist; they made the church look like a bunch of yes-men; and that was repulsive.

    And this objection is still a concern for modern people. In a 2007 interview with Parade, Brad Pitt (who’s probably a fair spokesman for American pop culture) said,

I grew up believing in [religion]…but it didn't last for me. I didn't understand this idea of a God who says, 'You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I'm the best, and then I'll give you eternal happiness…’ It seemed to be about ego. I can't see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”[3]

For him, the call to praise was egotistical and oppressive. But the Bible challenges us here. It gives us a new framework for understanding and receiving the call to praise.

The first thing the Bible shows you is that you’re already praising something. You may be the most irreligious or secular person you know, but you’re still praising something or someone as your source of life. You’ve tied your happiness and meaning and identity to something. In your story of the world, something has ultimate value, and it’s worth seeking and pursuing and holding onto. It’s the thing that, if you get it, you’ll finally be complete. And because it’s your source of life, you’ve set your love on that thing, you’ve put your trust in that thing, and you’ve sworn obedience to that thing—you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

    That’s worship, and it’s impossible to avoid. Praise is as inescapable as breathing. So you’re not an objective, neutral party. You’re a worshipper down to your very core. You’ve never met a truly irreligious person.

    But what you’re praising can’t cut it. Listen to verses 3-4: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

    In the ancient world, there was really nothing more obviously powerful than a royal ruler. If you can get connected to the prince, you’ve got access to provision, security, and even significance, and that makes him a pretty attractive object of worship.

    But the Psalmist essentially says to us, “Wake up.” There’s no salvation there. They can’t possibly save you because they can’t even save themselves. They die, their plans die with them, and you’re left completely vulnerable because your source of life wasn’t really a source of life.

    Every society has its princes. Every society has its “lords.” We may not put our trust in a literal ruler, but we still praise things that perish: politics, approval, fame, acceptance, money, power, success, comfort, pleasure, control, education, safety, your children, your spouse, the romantic partner you wish you had. We worship these things (and so many more) like they’re the answer to all our problems. We tell ourselves we’d be truly human if we could only find them. And we believe that if we could grasp them, even if only for a moment, we’d be whole; we’d be justified; we’d finally know that we matter. Psalm 146 says to us in essence, “Those things will perish; they’ll never give you the life and security you’re looking for. There’s no salvation there.”

    And this warning is a gift, because when what you praise can perish, your life will be a mess. All sorts of problems inevitably arise when you praise things that are too weak to deliver. Instead of fullness, assurance, security, and joy, you’ll end up with envy, uncontrollable anger, bitterness, cynicism, lust, greed, hopelessness, and anxiety. All of these are the knee-jerk responses when our praise is fixed on something unstable.

    Take a quick survey of your life. Pretty much every issue that you have is going to be related in some way to one question: What are you worshipping? That’s not to say that there aren’t other factors involved, but worship is a crucial one.[4] A lot of the most basic problems in our lives are pathologies of praise. They’re worship disorders. And you won’t really understand why your life is disintegrating until you see the problem underneath the problem—the worship problem that’s fueling the dysfunctions in your life and relationships. Growing as a Christian involves growing in your ability to diagnose the worship malfunctions that are at the root of our issues.

    So why do we keep going back? If misplaced praise leads to disintegration, why do we refuse to worship God and keep returning to lesser lords? At the most basic level, it’s because a lesser god allows us to maintain the illusion of control. We don’t want to praise God because that’s a recognition that he’s the only rightful authority over my life. And if God can demand my praise, then he can demand anything from me.

    As long as I decide what created thing gets my praise, I’m on top. But it’s only an illusion. It’s a mirage, because you’re not in control. You’re hypnotized by what you’re praising. Your lord is your master, and your whole life will be controlled by the pursuit of that idol.

    Do you see the picture that’s emerging? The only one who can grant you an identity, security, and significance that can’t be stripped away is God. So the call to praise isn’t the raving of an insecure, divine ego-maniac. It’s the exhortation of a loving God who wants you to experience the fullness and salvation that your heart’s longing for. The call to praise isn’t for God’s good, like he’s incomplete without it. It’s for yours, because you are incomplete without it. This isn’t an oppressive call; it’s a liberating call that says, “Be free from the false gods that are destroying you.” 

    Yes, it’s a command. We’re required to praise the God who’s infinitely worthy of worship. But it’s also an invitation into a life of rest and satisfaction from the only person who can actually give it. That’s what C. S. Lewis discovered, so at the end of his reflection on praise, he wrote, “In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.”

    The longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m convinced of the truth of the Christian story of the world. The Bible rings true to life. It points out things about the inner workings of my heart that I didn’t even know were there—things that no one else can adequately explain.

    Just consider, the Christian story tells you why you have to praise—because you were made to worship God. It tells you why you’re disappointed by praise—because you trust things that can’t save. It tells you why you refuse to give God your praise—because you naturally hate the idea of submitting your life to God’s authority. And it tells you why your heart can only rest when it’s praising God—because he’s the only one good enough and glorious enough to give you an identity and make you whole and keep his promises to you no matter what.

The Price of Praise

    After warning us about the dangers of worshipping the wrong things, Psalm 146 points us to the only object of worship who can actually deliver the salvation we need: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.”

    If your hope and help are in perishing things, you’ll find yourself on the steady path of disintegration. But if your hope and help are in the Lord—if he’s the one you’re giving your trust and praise—you can finally experience true blessedness: happiness and rest in fellowship with God.

    But there’s a problem here. How can God be our help? How can people like us possibly get the blessing of God’s presence? We’ve forfeited that. We chase after other gods and pour our praise out on them and act like they’re the givers of life we’ve been waiting for. That’s cosmic treason, cosmic adultery. We’ve given our love to countless lords, and we’ve cast God aside like he’s nothing. And even when we seek after God, our praise is always tainted, and it’s usually pretty short-lived.

    We don’t deserve favor and blessing; we deserve God’s righteous anger. We don’t deserve his helping and healing presence; we deserve to be banished from his sight. We don’t have the right to approach God at all.

    So if we’re going to be invited back into fellowship with God, something’s got to be done about our sin—our worship failures. Someone’s got to pay the price if we’re going to be able to approach God in praise.

    Psalm 146 leads us to the gospel. It points us to the one who paid the price so that we could praise God as our help and hope. The Father sent his only Son to take on flesh and walk in our shoes and restore us back to the Triune God. But how?

    Jesus praised God perfectly where you failed. His life showed us what human existence looks like when it’s saturated with true worship. Even though he could’ve trusted princes to save him from death, he refused to hope in Pilate or Herod or Pharisees, and he trusted God—he worshipped God—all the way to the cross. And if you look to him in faith, all your idolatry gets covered up in his perfect praise, and God treats you as if your worship never wavered.

    But at the cross, Jesus also took the punishment for false praise. Jesus went to the cross like a spotless lamb. As a flawlessly righteous human being, he was able to die as a substitute for sinners. Our idolatry deserves anger, but Jesus took God’s anger so that we could get God’s favor—his grace. So if you trust Jesus, not only are you covered in his perfect praise, but the penalty for your imperfect praise has been paid in full.

    And there’s more: Jesus makes possible your praise. When Jesus breathed his last on the cross, the Bible tells us that the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. That curtain—that veil—separated the presence of God from people who were stained with sin. But when Jesus died as our representative, he ripped the veil to shreds because now sin had been dealt with, and there was nothing that could keep us from having fellowship with God. Jesus was exiled from the Father at the cross so that we could brought in. The only reason, Christian, that you can approach God in praise is because Jesus tore the veil and welcomed you into his presence.

    He makes your praise possible in another way, too. When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to overcome our spiritual deadness, to give us new hearts that trust and love God, to dwell within us, and to keep on sparking us with God’s word so that our hearts burn in praise of his grace. You can enter God’s presence in praise God because Jesus gave himself at the cross, and you have a heart that’s alive in praise because Jesus gave the Spirit to animate your soul in worship.

    But after all this, Jesus purifies your praise. A common question among Christians goes something like this: “I’m really aware of my mixed motives and the ways that idolatry is creeping in to my worship of God, so should I stop worshipping until I can praise him rightly?” To put it plainly, if you wait until your heart is perfect to offer God praise, then you’ll never offer him praise, because until Christ returns and renews all creation (including his people), everything we do is going to be mixed in some way with sin.

    But the Apostle Peter offers a profound comfort here. In 1 Peter 2:5, he tells us that Christians are a “holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). Jesus doesn’t just cleanse you; he cleanses your worship, too. Your sin-stained, sometimes half-hearted, worship is acceptable to God through Jesus. So don’t let the remnants of sin in your life convince you that God rejects your praise—your feeble worship is a delight to God because it goes through the blood of Christ on its way to his ear.

    Every other religion in the world says, “Worship hard enough and well enough, and you’ll get to God,” and that makes worship an incredible burden. Maybe you heard that in Brad Pitt’s interview: “I didn't understand this idea of a God who says, ‘…You have to say that I'm the best, and then I'll give you eternal happiness.’”[5] But that’s not Christianity.

    Religion says, “Praise me and get life.” Idols say, “Praise me and get life.” But in the gospel God says, “I’ve given you life, so praise me.” He says, “I gave up my Son to bring you to myself so that you can find your highest joy in praising me.”

    The gospel is the complete opposite of every other religion because Jesus paid the price of praise so that you could belong to God and worship him. You can call upon God as your hope and help because of Christ’s work on your behalf. And when you see worship in that light, it won’t be a toilsome burden; it’ll turn into an awesome privilege and a profound joy.

The Discipline of Praise

    Psalm 146 begins with a call for everyone to praise the Lord, but right after that call, the Psalmist starts talking to himself. “Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being” (emphasis mine). So this Psalm is both a corporate song of praise to God and a believer’s internal dialogue with his own heart.

    Why? Because the Psalmist—like every single Christian—has to remind himself that God is more satisfying than his idols, that God is more worthy of his worship. If he’s going to praise the Lord as long as he lives, which means in every kind of circumstance throughout life, he has to talk to his heart and call himself to see the weakness of his false lords so that he can run to the one true God in praise.

    Now in one sense, praise is the natural outflow of a heart that’s gripped by the glory and grace of God. So as you grow in your appreciation of the gospel and your understanding of God’s character, you’ll probably find yourself spontaneously praising him more than before. But if you’re always waiting for circumstances when worship of God comes easily, you’ll spend most of your life worshipping something else.

    That’s because every circumstance brings new obstacles to our praise. In the sunshine—when everything is perfect—we slip into self-sufficiency and forget the Lord. In the storm—when life is hard and painful—we slip into anger or despair and believe God can’t possibly be with us. No matter what’s going on, something’s always pushing against our praise.

    So yes, praise is sometimes the natural response of our hearts, and those are beautiful moments, but in another sense, praise is a discipline. It’s something we have to intentionally pursue. Like the Psalmist, if we’re going to praise God in everything, we have to develop the discipline of calling our hearts to see and respond to the greatness of God.

    And this Psalm shows us exactly how to do that: Psalm 146 is an exercise in the discipline of praise. It’s not enough to make a decision. Your willpower by itself isn’t strong enough to drive you to worship God. The discipline of praise requires taking your heart back again and again to the life giving promises of God.

    That’s precisely what this Psalm is doing. It’s bringing God’s character and promises and works to the forefront so that his grace can fuel our worship. The gospel is the power for praise, and we’ve got to consistently be tapping into that power if our praise is going to be sustained. Only when you cultivate the habit of regularly putting God’s goodness in front of your eyes will your heart be able to praise him through anything. Just listen to the way the Psalmist preaches to his heart:

    God is the creator “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” My idols are created things—they die and they fail. But the Lord is the holy, powerful, sovereign, invincible maker of heaven and earth, and he even made me so that I could share in the joy of beholding his glory. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the promise-keeper “who keeps faith forever.” My faith is often fragile and weak, but God’s faithfulness to his promises can’t be broken. And all I have to do is look at the cross to see how far God’s faithfulness will go, because there he gave up his Son so that he could bind himself in covenant love to me forever. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the judge “who executes justice for the oppressed.” His loving justice sent Jesus to the cross to pay the price for my rebellion, and his loving justice will right every wrong, wipe away every tear from our eyes, and sweep us up in his glory forever. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the provider “who gives food to the hungry.” Every good gift I’ve ever received has been straight from the Father’s hand. But he doesn’t just meet my physical needs; he satisfies the deeper hunger in my heart, too. He sent Jesus, the bread of life, to be broken for sin and to offer spiritual nourishment to my starving heart. And I know that no matter what happens to me—even if I die—God will provide for me and bring me safely into his presence. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the liberator “who sets the prisoners free.” My sin makes me a slave. The lords I think I’m controlling actually end up controlling me. But Jesus made himself a slave and was crushed by sin so that I could be freed from my idols to find a better joy in God. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the healer “who opens the eyes of the blind.” His Holy Spirit overcomes my spiritual blindness and gives me eyes to see and savor the glory that radiates from the cross of Christ. And he guarantees me that one day every kind of sickness and brokenness that plagues his world physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually will be healed. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the exalter “who lifts up those who are bowed down.” When I’m crushed in my sin and wallowing in guilt and drowning in shame, God lifts my head to see that Jesus already took those for me. So even though I deserved to be pressed down, God exalts me in Jesus and calls me his child. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the gracious Lord “who loves the righteous.” I’m not righteous, but God’s love sent Jesus to live as my righteousness and die as my sacrifice. And now, with that hope, I can seek to walk in the righteousness that pleases my Father as I follow my Lord—the whole time knowing that God’s unfailing love is upon me. Praise him, O my soul.

    God is the defender “who watches over the sojourners.” I may feel alone and exposed in a cruel world, but the cross promises me that I’m part of God’s kingdom, that his kingdom is coming, that God’s Spirit is with me, and that nothing can separate me from God’s love until I finally see him face-to-face. Praise him, O my soul.

    And God is the sustainer “who upholds the widow and the fatherless.” My strength fails, and in the darkest moments I feel like I can’t possibly keep trusting, obeying, and worshipping God. But because of the cross, I know that God will never let me fall out of his hand. The presence of his Spirit and the promise of his grace uphold me—they give me the strength to keep pressing on in faith—when my heart has no strength left. Praise him, O my soul.

    Do you see what the Psalmist is doing? It’s like he’s hunting, and he doesn’t quite know how to aim, so he takes a shotgun that will spray over a wide area so that perhaps one piece will hit the target. Psalm 146 is a shotgun shell loaded with God’s character and promises, and it’s aimed straight at the Christian’s heart so that one of those promises can hit dead center and propel you into praise. That’s part of the discipline of worship. You’ve got to spray the promises of God’s grace into your soul until something hits the mark.

    Psalm 146 is the self-talk of a man who’s convincing his heart all over again that God is worthy of his praise. So let me ask: Which of these promises does your heart need today? What are you afraid of? What are you anxious about? What’s dominating your thoughts? What’s making you angry? What pathology of praise, what worship malfunction, is showing up in your heart? One of these dimensions of the gospel—one of the pieces of this gospel shotgun shell—will address the idol that your heart’s holding onto. One of these promises will offer you true rest and start prying your heart finger by finger from your idol’s grip and free you to praise God for his grace. We’ve got to develop the discipline of praise, spray our hearts with God’s promises, and refuse to give up until one of his promises hits the mark.

    And we need all the resources of the gospel, we need all the ammunition of Psalm 146, because chances are that tomorrow you’ll be faced with different circumstances and a different idol that’s making different promises, and you’ll need a different dimension of God’s gospel to speak to your heart and prompt your praise.

    We have to cultivate this discipline personally and individually, but we also need to practice the discipline of praise together. We need to call one another to praise God the same way we have to call ourselves out of our idolatry. And as the gospel meets us with grace in every situation, we need to share our praise with each other. In a world where everyone’s worshipping something, the church is the community that worships the one true and Triune God because he’s rescued us in Christ and met our every need. So praise can and must be a staple of the everyday conversations that happen in the give and take of life. “Here’s what I’ve been praising God for lately.” “What are you seeing about God’s character that you haven’t seen before?” “How can we give thanks to God for his grace today?” That’s what the discipline of praise sounds like in community.

    And as this happens among us, our worship will actually grow richer and deeper. Your worship will minister to others, and their worship will minister to you. Some people in this church are dealing with the exact same idol that you are. And when they hear you praising God for the way Jesus is better, your worship will draw their attention to an aspect of God’s grace that they desperately need and weren’t able to see on their own.

    On the other hand, there are people here who are dealing with temptations and idols you don’t identify with at all. And when you hear them praising God for the ways he serves them in the gospel, their worship will help you see God in a new light. It will expand your vision of his goodness so that you can praise him in new ways that you never saw before. A community that’s practicing the discipline of praise individually and together will grow in it’s praise of all that God is for us.

    And though we may not realize it, every time we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, the discipline of praise is forming us for worship. The weekly worship of the church is a discipline that reveals our idols, pushes us to repentance, and walks us through the blessings of the gospel so that we can praise God as we see new implications of Jesus’ work at the cross. Each time we gather corporately, we’re practicing worship for the rest of life. We’re practicing what it looks like to lean on Jesus so that we can worship him no matter what happens. We come together to hear God’s word, to sing his works, to see our need, to taste his grace, to behold his glory, and to praise his name so that this rhythm of worship will spill into all the other ordinary parts of life.

    So while praise can be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart on fire, most of the time praise is a discipline where we have to rehearse God’s promises and stay there until we can delight in the glory of his grace. If we’re going to praise the Lord as long as we live—in every twist and turn of life—that’s a discipline we have to learn together. We’ll be able to confess together, “I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being,” and we’ll know that the worship we’re offering now will extend and keep on growing out into eternity, because by the power of Christ’s resurrection we’ll live and have our being forever in the presence of God.

    Praise the Lord!

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 90.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Dotson Rader, “Interview with Brad Pitt,” Parade, September 18, 2007, accessed February 2, 2015, http://www.parade.com/50120/parade/interview-with-brad-pitt/.

[4] Of course, in a world tarnished by sin and brokenness, life is complex, and there are often a number of components contributing to our dysfunctions. People sin against us; our bodies break down and don’t function properly; tragedies occur unexpectedly; we bear the scars of a painful past. Each (or even all) of these may play a role in the particular issues we’re facing, but the point here is that there’s always a heart element—a worship element—at work as well, and if we’re going to truly address our problems, we can’t ignore this dimension.

[5] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 97. Emphasis mine.

Receiving the Table in a Worthy Manner

What does it mean to receive the Lord’s Table in a worthy manner?

This question crops up all the time. At Trinity Church, we celebrate the gospel through the Lord’s Table every time we gather together, so I suppose the frequency of our practice helps raise this concern for a lot of folks.

The question is an important one because, at one level, it’s simply an attempt to understand what Scripture tells us about how we’re to approach communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

Those words ought to get our attention. Paul intends for us to evaluate with utter seriousness how we and the church are practicing the Lord’s Table. But I think most people hear those words in almost entirely individualistic terms—in a way that borders on legalistic works-righteousness:

  Have I mustered up enough sorrow over my sin?

  Have I sinned intentionally since the last time I took communion?

  Is God pleased with me right now, based on my performance?

  Have I earned my place at the Table? 

We’ve taken very seriously Paul’s call to self-examination, but we’ve lifted his words out of their context so that our self-examination is focused completely on our personal holiness and faithfulness to God. So the Lord’s Table tends to become much less about thanksgiving for the gospel or celebrating God’s steadfast promises or receiving assurance of God’s love toward us, and much more about our own fear and anxiety over our personal moral records.

It doesn’t help that many Christians have grown up taking communion in darkened, silent, somber settings where each person is encouraged to look inward at themselves rather than outward to God and to the family of believers. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 is repeated, and believers are encouraged to “make sure your heart is in the right place today before sharing the meal.” This practice has trained many of us to dread the Lord’s Table because we’re perpetually unsure of whether we’re worthy to receive it.

This is one of those times when paying attention to what’s going on around a passage really helps us understand what Scripture is teaching. Here’s the larger section, and I’ve underlined some of the key statements. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,  

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

Paul bookends his whole discussion of the Lord’s Table with statements that clarify the real issues in the Corinthian church. Both at the beginning and at the end of this passage, he notes that they are participating in the Lord’s Table in a way that’s encouraging division rather than embodying fellowship. Some refused to wait for others to arrive. Some ate up all of the food while their brothers and sisters went hungry. Some even took so much of the wine that they were getting drunk.

So what’s Paul’s primary concern here? His primary concern is that the church is practicing the Lord’s Table in such a manner that it’s no longer really the Lord’s Table. They’re failing to receive this meal of fellowship with God and the church in recognition of and honor toward other believers. That’s what Paul has in mind when he instructs these Christians to examine themselves and discern the body—they have to examine their hearts to make sure that they’re considering the church, the body of Christ, and participating in the family meal of Christians in a way that promotes peace and unity.

The Lord’s Table is a meal for Christians, so one of the questions we always need to ask is Am I believing the gospel and repenting of sin? If we’re refusing to repent of sin, if we’re rejecting the gospel in our hearts, if we’re rebelling against the idea of communing with God through faith in his Son, then it makes no sense for us to receive a meal that’s all about communion with God and his people. But if we’re trusting his gospel and have been baptized into his body, then we can be confident that his communion meal is intended for us.

Whenever we approach the Table, Paul’s words encourage us to also ask Am I living in fellowship with other believers? To nurse divisions within the body and yet approach the Table in enacted unity is a falsehood. In order to rightly receive the family meal together, we need to make sure that we’re at peace with one another, honoring one another as members of Christ’s body. In a more general sense, Jesus taught in Matthew 5:23-24 that believers ought to reconcile with a brother or sister they’ve offended before offering a gift in worship to God. Often at Trinity, we’ll take a moment before celebrating the Lord’s Table to urge the church with a statement like this: “If there is unresolved conflict in your relationships with the body, or if you’ve sinned against a brother or sister and haven’t yet confessed that and repented to them, go do that now so that you can come together in genuine fellowship to receive the fellowship meal.” That’s one of the simple ways that, as a church, we seek to obey 1 Corinthians 11.

But when you’re tempted to think that going to the Table in a worthy manner means that you need to have done enough in the past week to earn your spot there, remember this: no one has earned a spot at the Table. Only Jesus is worthy to dine with God, but in his obedient life and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, he purchased your membership in God’s family. In grace, Jesus reserved a place at the family feast for all who trust him. When we break the bread and drink the wine together, God is proclaiming to us that it’s only through Jesus’ work that we get to approach him, belong to him, and be counted righteous in his sight. To make our coming to the Table about our worthiness, then, is a contradiction if ever there was one.

So take the Lord’s Table in repentance. Receive it in thanksgiving. Participate in this sacrament in fellowship with God’s people. And take the Table in the sweet and comforting knowledge that Jesus left this gospel celebration for sinners and that your seat at the table is grounded in Jesus’ perfection, not your own.

Presenting Our Grief to the God of Hope

Life is sometimes really hard to understand. When tragedy strikes, a lot of times we’re left with more questions than answers. Something devastating happens, and we feel alone and confused. We don’t know where to turn. We don’t know how to pray. We don’t even know what kind of response is right or faithful or helpful. Should we put on a brave face? Show we pretend nothing ever happened? Should we just let go and fall to pieces?

One thing is for certain—we are grieved. The most natural and immediate reaction we have is to feel grief, to mourn over what has happened. But grief is a powerful thing. It can push us to despair and anger and rebellion against God, or it can push us deeper into his loving arms. In the complicated moments where personal sin or unexpected disaster leave us feeling trapped in a whirlwind of pain, we need God to tell us how to grieve in faith, and we need him to give us the hope so that we can grieve in faith.

And you know what? He’s done exactly that. He’s given his church his word so that we could know how we ought to bring our sadness to God, and why our sadness doesn’t have to overtake us. He’s given us the word so that we can rightly grieve as his children, and so that we can walk beside others down the path of grief with hearts that still trust in God. As we look to Scripture, we need to consider two important questions. Is there a place for grief in the Christian life? And if there is, then what does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?

 

1) Should we even grieve in the first place? Is there a place for grief in the Christian life?

A lot of times, we picture the perfect Christian as the one who is unfazed by anything. The people who really know how to be Christians are stoic and brave and unmoved. They’re the ones who could look disaster square in the eye and never flinch. We imagine that that kind of Christian would be solid as a rock, never questioning God, without a single tear, not even a hint that peace and happiness were being threatened. We think to ourselves in the midst of our pain, “If I was really living like a Christian, I would never feel this way.” And what happens is that we end up feeling guilty because we are sad, and the burdens keep piling on.

Why is it that we tend to see grief as if it has no place in the church? What is it about mourning that makes us think we ought to hide it, push it down, and keep it away from other people and from God?

 

Maybe we think grief is a sign of weakness. People who grieve are people who can’t take care of themselves, who require help, who can’t make it on their own, who need someone to step in and comfort them because they don’t have the strength to keep going alone. We want to be strong, not weak, so we convince ourselves that grief is wrong.

But underneath that strong exterior lies nothing but pride. You see, God didn’t make us in his image to live in our own strength, in independence from God. We may not want to be seen as weak, but that’s exactly what we are! We were made to depend on God and to find our rest in him. We were made to go to him with our needs and trust in his provision. We are sinful and broken people who don’t have the wisdom or ability to provide everything we need.

Believe it or not, it takes more strength to admit your weakness and cry out to God than it does to pridefully pretend you’ve got it all together. And when our weakness drives us to take our grief to God and depend on him, he gets the glory as the only one who is strong enough to take care of us. God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

 

Maybe we think that grief is pointless. We learned when we were little that “there’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The whole point of that saying is that what’s done is done, what happened happened, and no amount of grief is going to change it. We hear Javert from Les Miserables in the back of our minds yelling, “Save your breath and save your tears!” So we figure the best thing we can do is move on.

But that’s not really the way the Bible talks about our grief. God doesn’t tell his people to wipe away their tears and keep pressing on. He tells them, “I am the one who will wipe away your tears.” God invites us to bring our pain and our weak hearts to him so that he can comfort us with his grace and his truth. Throughout Scripture, God says the needy cries of his people came to him, and he heard them and graciously worked for their good.

Grief isn’t pointless at all; it actually serves an important purpose for God’s people. If we bottle up our fears and our questions and our anguish, we may think we won’t have to deal with it, but those things will never go away. But when we cry out to God, when we present our grief to him, that enables us to honestly recognize the pain of our situation, and it makes it possible for us to be comforted by God’s word. Only when we’ve approached God with our grief will we be able to receive his words of love and comfort and promise.

“There’s no use crying over spilt milk,” but there is use in crying out to God, because he speaks peace to his grieving people. And when we’re broken before God, he is using that very experience of suffering to demonstrate his faithfulness to us and strengthen our hope in the good news that Jesus has purchased our life.

 

But perhaps our most powerful problem with grief is that it just seems so unspiritual. It feels like our grief is an admission that we lack faith, that we don’t really trust God like we should. If we truly trusted him, wouldn’t we have perfect joy that was never interrupted by tears? But this view of the Christian life is warped and doesn’t line up with Scripture in a number of ways.

First of all, sin has wreaked havoc in the world. So it’s right to recognize and grieve over our sin, the sin of others, and the effects of sin on creation. It’s not super-spiritual to pretend like everything’s just right with the world because everything is not right with the world! We are commanded by God to hate what is evil and to mourn with those who mourn. That means there has to be a place for grieving over all the destructive results of sin.

Second, God shows us in his word that grief is a part of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” In a complicated world, there are times when it’s appropriate to celebrate and to cry out in desperation. And if you look in the Psalms, there God has provided many examples of godly, faithful grief to instruct his people in the way to mourn in hope. Scholars classify a whole group of Psalms as “Psalms of Lament”—the whole point of these Psalms is to lament with God because of personal and communal hardships.

David writes in Psalm 31, "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away."

In Scripture, we have Spirit-inspired crying to God. With Psalms like these, God is essentially saying “Bring your  sorrows to me! Come to me with your grief!” Yes, there may be doubt swirling around in your heart. Yes, you may have questions without answers. But God invites you to bring your fragile faith to him so that he can confirm his promises to you in his word. So while there are definitely sinful ways to grieve, God’s word shows us that grief itself is not always sinful.

But third, and most importantly, Jesus himself grieved. The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and experienced all the sadness that comes with living in a broken and sinful world. Jesus wept at the funeral for his friend Lazarus. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem  because their sin had blinded them to his identity as Son of God and his mission for salvation: “O Jerusalem…How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And when he went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray just before he was arrested and crucified, he told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

Jesus, the perfectly faithful human being, grieved at the tragedies of sin and death. If the Son of God stood with us in our grief, then we can’t make the argument that grief is unspiritual or un-Christian.

The answer to our question, then, is yes—there is a place for grief in the Christian life. But now we have to ask an even more difficult question.

 

2) How should we grieve? What does it look like to faithfully present our grief to God?

We noted that God has given us models of grief in the Psalms of Lament, and two of those Psalms in particular can help us answer this question.

Psalms 42 and 43 are numbered separately and can be read separately, but they’re probably intended to be read as a single literary piece. When you read them one after the other, you’ll hear three main sections with a repeated chorus after each one, and this repetition is a clue that we should examine these two Psalms together.

In this prayer of lament, the Psalmist expresses his desire to return to God’s temple and worship in his presence, and he cries out to God because, for the time being, it doesn’t seem like that will happen. The Psalmist mourns over his situation, and he provides a template for how we must bring our grief to God.

 

First, we must come to God thirsty for God. Psalm 42 begins, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” This is more than an expression of desire—it’s an expression of desperation. The Psalmist isn’t just saying that he really loves God. He’s saying he’s panting for God like a dying animal. He’s saying that he feels like he’s on the verge of death because the one thing he needs most to survive is the thing that seems most far away.

When we grieve before God in prayer, we can’t begin by making demands—we don’t have the right or the authority. And we can’t approach him as if we almost have it together in our own strength and just need a quick helping hand. When we grieve before God in prayer, we must embrace a posture of humility. We’ve got to recognize our brokenness and our neediness and our absolute dependence on God.

And notice what the Psalmist requests from the very beginning. Before anything else, he wants God himself. In our grief, our first prayers are often for different circumstances, better emotions, quick recovery, or a better future. But you can get all of those things, and still be lacking the only thing that will really bring healing.

What we need most is God himself. We need God to work in ways that only he can. We need God to act in wisdom because only he fully understands our circumstances. We need God to comfort our hearts with his word of promise. We need God to work everything that happened for the good of his people and the glory of his name. We need God to dwell with us, transform our desires, shape our reactions, and give us the deep joy of knowing that we are safe with him no matter what may come.

In our prayers of anguish, we’ve got to recognize that we are empty and that the love and presence of the Triune God is our truest need—we’ve got to come thirsty for God.

 

Second, we must come to God in honesty. Sometimes there’s a temptation and a pressure when we cry out to God to have all the right words, to have all the answers beforehand, to sound really pious and spiritual and knowledgeable and wise as we bring our pain to God. But if we’re really panting for God, if we’re coming in humility to a loving Father who’s the only one that can restore us to peace and joy, then we don’t have to hide the raw and ugly truth about what’s going on in our hearts.

Listen to the way the Psalmist lays himself bare in honesty before God. He tells God about the depth of his distress in verse 3: “My tears have been my food day and night.” He confesses his despair in verse 6: “My soul is cast down within me.” In verse 7, he expresses his feelings of powerlessness, like he’s caught in a rushing flood: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” Anyone who’s ever been knocked over by an unexpected wave in the ocean knows exactly the kind of fear and disorientation the Psalmist is describing.

In verse 9 he asks God the only question he can muster: “Why have you forgotten me?” And in Psalm 43:2, the question is even more powerful: “Why have you rejected me?” He even tells God about the hatred and persecution he’s experienced from other people: “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

When we grieve, we can open up the dark places of our hearts and cry honestly with God. When our faith feels like it’s failing, we can confess it to God. When we experience all sorts of conflicting emotions, we can tell God about our anger, fear, despair, loneliness, powerlessness, and abandonment. When we are frustrated by our circumstances and don’t have a clue what’s really going on, we can bring God our confusion and our questions. As a father longs to hear why his little child is crying, God the Father longs to hear the honest cries of his children—the children that he foreknew before time, redeemed at the cross, and adopted by grace.

But there’s a danger here that we’ve got to keep in mind. If you stop at this point, if you stop with telling God openly what’s going on and how your heart is dealing with your pain, and if you don’t let him speak back in his word, you can very easily drive yourself to all kinds of destructive places.

You might end up angry at God. It’s possible to express your grief to God in a way that emphasizes just how unfair this situation is, how you don’t deserve this, how this is just too hard. And you can work yourself into a fury that leads you to lash out at God in rebellion and anger.

Your honest grief can lead to unbelief. If you sit in your own pain and wallow in your experience of sadness, you can rehearse your complaints until you convince yourself that God must not be good and loving after all. You can present your grief to God in a way that calls God’s character into question and shouts, “How could a good God do this to me?!” and pain can push you to reject the kind of God that would allow such a thing to happen. Or you can be so hurt by someone else’s actions that you refuse to trust a God whose followers can still be so sinful.

If you stop with honest expression of grief, you can end up questioning your acceptance with God. You not only tell God that it feels like you’ve been abandoned, but you begin believing that he has indeed abandoned you: “If I were really God’s child, if I really belonged to him, if he truly loved me, he never would have allowed this to happen.” Rather than grieving so that God can bring comfort, you can grieve in a way that pulls you down the spiral of despair and leaves you with your pain and a crippling fear that God has turned his back on you.

These are real dangers when we honestly confess what our hearts are feeling, how much it hurts, and the confusion that seems like it will never end. And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t stop with making our grief known—we’ve got to keep going when we grieve with God.

 

Third, we must come to God remembering God’s promises. Why is this so pivotal? Because without God’s promises our grief will end in despair. But if we come to God clinging to the promises he’s made to us in his word, we can grieve with faith and hope.

This is exactly what the Psalmist is doing in his repeated chorus: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He asks questions to his own heart—Why are you cast down? Why are you in turmoil?—and the reason he does that is because God’s promises give the kind of comfort to pull him out of the pit of sadness in which he’s been drowning.

He calls the Lord “my salvation and my God.” These are words of confidence; these are words of security. God has made a covenant with his people that he will be their salvation. God has guaranteed that because of his work, “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” That’s the hope that undergirds every part of the Psalmist’s grieving prayer.

The difference between hopeless grief and hopeful grief is remembering all that God has said and done even while we bring our prayers to him. In verse 6, the Psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” He’s far from the sanctuary in Jerusalem where the presence of God dwelt with his people, so he must recall to mind who God is and all he’s done to show his faithfulness to his people. Standing on the verge of despair, the only thing keeping him from descending into it is the remembrance of his covenant God.

Look again at verses 8-9: “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” Do you see what’s going on here? The Psalmist begins by remembering the steadfast love of the Lord and his continual presence. He calls God “my rock,” the one on whom his whole life is built—God is the never-failing, never-changing rock that gives him the security he needs. Only then does he even ask the question, “Why have you forgotten me?”

The whole point is that God hasn’t forgotten him. The Lord commands his steadfast love. The Lord is his rock. And while it may feel like God has forgotten him for a time, underneath that question, the Psalmist knows that God hasn’t turned his back. The way the Psalmist expresses his grief is shaped by the confidence that God is present, strong, and loving toward his child.

When we approach God, God’s promises to us have to always be in front of our eyes. We grieve with God not because he’s abandoned us, but because we know that he is our true and certain hope. So even while we mourn, we have to call out to our hearts, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God! He is my salvation and my God! Though the world around me crumbles, though my heart wastes away within me, the Lord will not forsake his people. He will not fail in his promises. I am safe and accepted with him, and there is the hope of restoration.”

So what are the promises we’ve got to remember? What should we hold on to as we grieve with God? The answer is in the gospel.

The good news of Jesus is that God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to fulfill all of God’s promises to the world. The message of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection is the God-given hope for sinners like you and me. The only reason we can cry out to “my salvation and my God” is because Jesus came to reveal God to the world and to purchase salvation for all who believe. And this gospel has the power to sustain you even when tears have been your food day and night.

So here is the hope for those who trust the gospel: 

  • Jesus lived the perfect human life as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that God looks upon you as a righteous, obedient, acceptable child.
  • Jesus died on the cross as your substitute, so you can grieve with the hope that your pain is not a sign of God’s wrath against you, but will be used for your good.
  • Jesus was declared righteous in his resurrection and shares that righteousness with his people, so you can grieve with the hope that even though you are still sinful, you will one day be vindicated when God pronounces his verdict over you.
  • Jesus was forsaken by God at the cross for your sin, so you can grieve with the hope that God will never turn his back on you again.
  • Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, so you can grieve with the hope that God intimately understands the pain you’re going through.
  • Jesus gave us his Holy Spirit, so you can grieve with the hope that God is always present with you, even in the darkest hour.
  • Jesus began his kingdom in his death and resurrection, and he promises to return to make everything new, so you can grieve with the hope that God will one day restore everything that’s broken, right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and dwell with his people in joy forever.

Those are but a few of the glorious promises that Jesus secured for us in the gospel. And if we are remembering those promises when we grieve, then we will be able to grieve in hope.

 

Finally, we must come to God in worship. When we remember all the promises that Jesus has secured for us in the gospel, our hearts are moved to rest and rejoice in God. Read the last few verses of Psalm 43: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

The prayer of grief that started with panting for God ends with praise to the God who hears, loves, and promises to sustain. It’s not that the grief goes away. No, the grief may linger for a long, long time. But even while the tears keep falling, we can worship God because we have a hope that’s bigger than our pain.

 

So cry out for God in brokenness. Tell him about your sadness, confusion, and fear. Remember his promises to you in the gospel. Be filled with hope by God’s word. And worship him for his faithfulness and sovereignty and wisdom and goodness while you grieve over sin and its horrific effects.

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus brought us to God, so we can present our grief to God with the hope that he will never let us go.