Giving thanks in difficult circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18

Our text today is from 1 Thessalonians 5:16 and 18. v. 16 says “Rejoice always” and v. 18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Our focus today is on why we can rejoice and give thanks “always” or “in all circumstances.”

Now it’s easy to rejoice and give thanks when God answers prayers and delivers us from our problems, although certainly sometimes we forget to do this. But it’s surely more difficult to give thanks when things are going badly for us. But it is possible.

Let’s look at some –

Examples of rejoicing in difficult circumstances

The twelve apostles did this. They were put in prison for their preaching but were miraculously released. Then whey they preached more, they were taken to stand before the governing authorities where they were beaten and warned to stop preaching. Acts 5:41 says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Paul and Silas rejoiced when things were hard. In Acts 16 Paul cast out a fortune telling demon from a slave girl. This made the owners mad because they made money off of her. They promptly caused a stir and got Paul and Silas in trouble with the authorities.

Vs. 23-25 say, “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison . . . into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them . . ..” They were unjustly beaten, arrested and shackled – but they were singing praises to God.

This happened just before Paul came to Thessalonica, so he knew what he was talking about when he told them “rejoice always . . .  (and) give thanks in all circumstances.”

And the Thessalonians themselves knew about rejoicing in suffering. From the time they first believed they suffered. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” They suffered, but they had joy.

Finally, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. They had undergone persecution and the writer reminds them of this in 10:34, “ . . . you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Can you imagine having all your goods hauled away because of your faith – your big screen TV, your dining set, your couches? Would you be able to keep things in perspective and still be joyful?

They did. And we can too by God’s grace. It’s difficult. But it is possible.

Now let’s look at –

Why we can rejoice in all circumstances

– including when things are difficult. It certainly can’t be based on our feelings, these change all the time. It has to be based on something much stronger and more stable – our faith. So here are four aspects of our faith that show us why we can do this:

1. God is worthy of praise – period. Nothing else needs to be said. Whether we feel like praising God or not – God is worthy. Whether we’re in good times or in bad times, it doesn’t matter. God is still the same – yesterday, today and forever and is still worthy of our praises.

Apart from anything God may or may not do for me; apart from whether God allows me to go through good times or bad, God is worthy of praise for who God is. God is awesome! God is holy! God is good! None of this changes based on our circumstances.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a difficult time. The people were unfaithful to God. And he knew that judgment was coming – things were going to get worse. But he praised God anyway, because God deserves to be praised. Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord . . ..” I believe that this is the purest form of praise to God because it’s not dependent on something that we get from God.

2. God has blessed us in many ways. Even in the worst of times, if we’re able to step back and think about it, we can recognize that this is true.

James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . ..” You have been given the gift of life. Also think about your abilities, your strengths, your family, your friends, your home – whatever good thing you are or have is from God.

And this includes our salvation – God’s grace and mercy to us in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of our sins, new life by the Spirit, a relationship with God, fellow believers who walk with us, strength and peace in difficult times – all these are gifts from God as well.

And so despite whatever else may be going on we can give thanks for God’s blessing to us.

3. God gives us hope for the future. God allows each of us to go through hard times, and a part of this is simply living in this sinful and broken world where evil is normal. But in the midst of this as Christians we have a hope for something better. This life is not all that there is. In fact, we are to live for the life that is to come, not this one.

When Jesus talked about suffering for our faith; being reviled and slandered, he said, “Rejoice and be glad” Why? “For your reward is great in heaven . . .” – Matthew 5:12.

In 1 Peter 1:6 Peter tells his readers that “now for a little while . . . you have been grieved by various trials.” Just before this he said, “in this you rejoice.” Why do they rejoice in their trials? It’s because of what he had just mentioned in vs. 4-5. They have “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven . . . a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This hope puts things in perspective for us as Christians. Yes, we will suffer in this life. But we will be blessed in the world to come. And in fact the blessing will outweigh the sufferings. Paul says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” – Romans 8:18. Similarly he says, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. Our suffering may well be great, but what awaits us is far greater. God gives up hope for the future.

4. God harnesses trials for our good. We go through fiery trials. This is an image that is used in Scripture (Isaiah 48:10; 1 Peter 1:7). And it makes a point. Fire can consume or it can refine. If we go through the fire in faith we will not be consumed. Rather, God uses the flames to refine and purify us.

God is able to bring good out of pain, suffering and tears. This doesn’t mean that God causes the pain, only that God is greater than whatever evil befalls us.

Paul makes this point in Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God is able to work in and through all that happens to us to bring some good to us.

James tells his readers, “Count it all joy” when you suffer various kinds of trials. Why? “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4.

Along the same lines, Paul says, “. . . we rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . .” – Romans 5:3-4.

The world will throw hard times at us left and right. But when we endure them in faith, God brings something good out of them for us. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this. That’s how great God is. And we can give thanks for this.

Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters

Series on baptism

Today’s message is about applying things we’ve learned about baptism to our lives when things get really difficult. The title is “Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters.”

I would like to begin with a Scripture reading from Psalm 69 (vs. 1-3; 13-17).

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.

In this Psalm we encounter “the waters” once again. In this case they refer to times of chaos, turmoil and evil in David’s personal life circumstances.

We all know, of course, that we will face deep waters throughout our lives. Even though we have passed through the waters of baptism, the waters will continue to confront us.

And they become personified in all kinds of ways in various people and circumstances in our lives. Here in Psalm 69 David’s enemies are the embodiment of the waters. We saw this supremely in Jesus where he calls his suffering and death a baptism or water experience in several places.

We will all continue to have times of suffering, grief, persecution and testing. And along with Jesus we can say that these are additional water baptisms, or baptisms of suffering – where we go through the deep waters of life; where we are inundated by the deep.

Now, my point today is that if our times of suffering are in fact water baptisms, then, I believe, we can learn something from our literal water baptism that can help us get through these additional baptisms of suffering. We can learn something that will help us navigate the deep waters we encounter, so that in David’s words, “the deep does not swallow (us) up.” But rather by God’s grace and power we can pass through to the other side.

So here are two things to remember when the floods come.

1. God is able to defeat the waters

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – pictured in our water baptism – so he can continue to do so, no matter how they come at us. And we need to remember this.

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes the deep.

  • Psalm 65:7 speaks of God as the one “who stills the roaring of the seas; the roaring of their waves . . .”
  • Psalm 89:9 says of God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”

In the same way, God is able to still the seas for us– the churning, destructive, chaotic, forces of evil in our lives

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes all the hosts of the waters.

  • Psalm 89:10 says, “You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” – referring to the creation.
  • Psalm 74:13-14 says – “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” – referring to the parting of the Red Sea.

In the same way God is able to defeat Satan, for us – that ancient serpent, who tests us and seeks to destroy us. As Paul says to the Romans in 16:20, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

It is an essential defining quality of who our God is, to say that God can defeat the waters and all their hosts.

So, we need not fear the waters! Not because they are not fearful, they truly are, and without God, we are without hope.

No, we need not fear the waters because our God is the Lord even over the deep. As Psalm 93:4 says, “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!” The waters are mighty, but God is mightier. And so we should look to him in faith and hope as we go through our difficult times.

2. God will bring us through to the other side

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – portrayed in water baptism – so he can continue to deliver us. We need to remember this as we go through trials in our lives.

  • He might do this by lifting us up over the deep, and then setting us on dry ground, as with Noah
  • Or he might do this by parting the sea so that we can walk though it to the other side, as with Israel

 However God does it, he will not allow us to be swallowed up, but will deliver us and bring us to the other side. Isaiah 43:2-3 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He will be with us and he will save us.

David testifies to this in Psalm 18:16-19, again from his personal life experiences. “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me . . .”

We don’t know when he will do it, but we have this promise in 1 Peter 5:10 – “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.” And this gives us hope, even in our difficult times. God will bring us through to the other side.

Finally . . .

The other side of the deep waters will sometimes be the other side, that is, our death and going to be with Jesus and then the life that is to come in the new creation. And with regard to this, we can have strong confidence and hope that even the deep waters of death must submit to our God. Just as they did for Jesus, so they will for us – because Jesus goes before us and we are following in the path he has made.

  • We look forward to the day when Satan will be fully defeated. As Isaiah 27:1 says, “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
  • And on that day there will be no more deep. Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
  • And on that other shore, as Revelation 21:4 says, there will be no more death and no more tears.

Things to remember in difficult times

Our lives can certainly be difficult. I think we can all testify to that. We have our daily stresses and hardships. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (He is talking about securing our food and clothing needs.) So we have it on Jesus’ authority that each day has more than enough problems in it.

On top of this we go through times of intense testing, crises that stretch us to the breaking point. Speaking of this kind of testing, Hebrews 12:11 says, it “always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time.” So we have it on Scriptural authority that testing is indeed painful.

God allows us to go through these things. Now notice, I’m not saying that God causes these things to happen in our lives. We live in a sinful and broken world and bad things happen all the time. But God definitely does allow us to go through them. And these things can weigh us down and wear us out. So I want us to look at four things this morning that will hopefully encourage us and give us strength to carry on.

Know that even in hard times, God loves you

When you’re in a time of testing you can definitely feel forgotten, alone and abandoned. So it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care about you. We ask, “Why would God let me go through this?” But we need to understand that even if God lets us go through tough times, God still deeply loves and cares for us.

We know this first of all because we see that God let his own beloved Son, Jesus, go through difficulties. And we know that God loved Jesus above all. So there is allowance of hardship and love together.

Second, Hebrews 12:5-8 teaches us that God will also let us, his beloved children, go through hardship. Again there is allowance of hardship and love together. Let’s look at these verses. The readers were having hard times for sure, experiencing persecution.

The writer says, “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children? “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every child whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as children. For what child is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate and not children.”

In this we see that God allows and uses hardship for the benefit of those he loves. In fact, God’s allowance of hardship actually shows that God loves you and owns you as his own child. You are not abandoned, but loved. God is concerned about you and your well-being.

This leads us to the second thing we should remember –

God can bring something good out of your suffering

Now, this is not something you can share with someone flippantly. When you are going through hard times this isn’t usually what you want to hear. Or even need to hear. It is nevertheless true.

It was true for Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 says, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” And we also learn through our suffering about following God and being righteous.

Scripture talks about this in a number of places:

  • God allows us to be tested “for our own good, in order that we may share his holiness” – Hebrews 12:10.
  • Going through difficult times “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” – Hebrews 12:11.
  • Romans 5:3-4 says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
  • Testing “is intended to make you worthy of the Kingdom of God” – 2 Thessalonians 1:5.
  • James 1:3-4 says, “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God is doing a great work within us as he allows us to be tested and tried.

Romans 8:28 is a familiar verse and it comes from a context of talking about suffering. It says, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas for so many in the world, their suffering seems to be pointless and for no reason, the promise of God to us, his children, is that whatever God allows us to go through he is able to use for our good; and for the good of others. He can bring something good out of it. And we can hold on to this, even if in our trial we can’t possibly see how it is so at the time.

God won’t let you be tested beyond what you can bear

1 Corinthians 10:13 is a great verse. It says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your ability, but with the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

When we are going through hard times, these become a test of our faith. The question is, “Will we remain faithful to God in the midst of it?” What this verse says is that God will not let us get into a situation that we cannot handle in terms of remaining faithful to him.

Satan will try to discourage us, and cause us to give up. But God always provides a way of escape. God will make sure that we have the grace and strength we need to get through it, or that the situation will change.

This is God’s promise to us and we need to remember it when we think that we can’t handle our testing. The fact that God has allowed it, means you can handle it.

You will be blessed if you endure

Let’s look at some Scriptures:

  • Paul said, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” – Galatians 6:9.
  • Jesus says to us, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” – Revelation 2:10.
  • As Paul said, “if we endure, we will also reign with him” – 2 Timothy 2:12.
  • James tells us, “Blessed is anyone who endures testing. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” – James 1:12.

As difficult as our trials are, we can know that the blessings will far outweigh them. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” It is more than worth it.

How long, O Lord. Psalm 13

The literary structure of  Psalm 13

Psalm 13 is really powerful; full of intense and honest struggle, but also faith. And I want to hold it up for you as a model for when you are being overwhelmed by difficult circumstances.

As we get started, a few words about –

Psalm 13

It is the shortest prayer for help in the book of Psalms. There are shorter Psalms, but these are not requests to God.

In terms of how it is put together, there are three obvious parts to this psalm.

  • In vs.  1-2 the Psalmist pours out his heart to God.
  • In vs. 3-4 he makes his request
  • And in vs. 5-6 he expresses his faith and hope in God

And each of these sections has the name of God or “Yahweh” in it, indicated in English by the capitalized “LORD.”

We don’t know the specifics of his situation, but it involves enemies and the threat of death. This is a Davidic Psalm (written by him or in honor of/about him) perhaps referring to his time in the wilderness hiding from King Saul, who was trying to kill him. Whatever the case may be he is facing a very serious situation and needs God’s help.

Let’s look at the first section, which is a cry of despair.

1How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

There is no indication in these verses that the Psalmist has sinned or has been unfaithful so that his difficulties are the result of this. He is simply in an overwhelming time of testing and trial.

Notice the phrase “How long?” This is used several times in scriptural prayers, but this is the only place where it is repeated four times, and in such a short space. There is an intensity in this prayer in asking this question of God. These questions also show us that it’s OK to ask God questions like this. God can take it. We don’t have to put on a smile, or fake it when we come into God’s presence. After all, he already knows what we are thinking and feeling. We only need be careful that we do this with proper respect for God.

You can feel the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of this prayer as you read these two verses.

  • In relation to God the Psalmist feels abandoned and ignored by God. God has hidden his face, that is it feels like God has turned away and is not looking out for him; he feels that God has forgotten him.
  • In relation to himself he feels greatly distressed within. “Taking counsel in his soul” perhaps has to do with trying to sort out what he should do, since God doesn’t seem to be acting for him; it has to do with anxious worrying. And he has sorrow in his heart.
  • In relation to his problem , his enemy, he feels defeated. His enemy has the upper hand and this means that his life is in danger.

Also notice the time indicators, the “how long?” questions, the word “forever” and the phrase “all the day.” The sense is that he is barely hanging on. He is worn down. He is at the breaking point. The test is so hard that he can’t take it anymore. So if God doesn’t act soon, it will overwhelm him and be too late.

Next we have his request to God.

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”

In general, he wants God to consider him or take note of his situation to answer him. He’s saying, ‘God, don’t forget me or hide your face from me.’ He wants God to act to bring him help him in the midst of his difficulty.

Specifically, he wants God to “light up his eyes.” In Scripture to have dim eyes means that you are overwhelmed, weak and weary (Job 17:7; Deuteronomy 34:7). And to have eyes that are lit up has to do with being strong, full of life and vigor (Deuteronomy 34:7; Ezra 9:8; Proverbs 29:13). Even today we can tell how someone is doing by their eyes, right? We can tell whether they are full of energy and life or whether they are worn down and discouraged. You can see it.

So, being worn down by his trials, he is asking God to give him strength, new life, vigor, encouragement and hope.

And he doesn’t just make his request for help, he gives God three reasons to act:

  1. lest he die, because he is in danger of death.
  2. lest his enemy win
  3. lest they rejoice at his downfall

In this situation the Psalmist understands himself to be in the right; he is doing God’s will but is being persecuted by evildoers. And so, yes, he wants to be saved and vindicated, and have his enemies put down. But it is bigger than this. He is appealing to God in all this to act for your Name’s sake. Since he is representing God and the righteous, it’s not good that evildoers think that God doesn’t care about their evil, or about the well-being of his own. He needs to act for his Name’s sake and for the sake of righteousness.

In section one the writer is hanging by a thread. In section two he is asking God to give him strength. And then we have a tremendous change of tone in vs. 5-6 where the Psalmist speaks of his faith and hope.

5But I trust in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Two things are going on here:

1) He is given strength to trust in God. God has indeed begun to enlighten his eyes, even as he has been pouring out his heart and asking God for help. (It is healing to pour out our hearts to God.)

 Now, instead of seeing just his outward circumstances and choosing to give up, he sees God’s faithfulness; that is his “steadfast love” or “unfailing love.” This is God’s covenant love or commitment to him and his well-being. So he has his circumstances on the one hand and then God’s character and promises on the other and he chooses God. This  is called faith.

2) He now looks forward to God’s salvation; for deliverance from his trial and testing. We know he is not yet delivered because his salvation and rejoicing is spoken of as a future reality. But he can now move forward in faith and hope that God will save him, since his faith has been renewed.

  • Even though he may still have some “sorrow in (his) my heart,” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when “(his) my heart shall rejoice” – v. 5.
  • Even though his enemies are exalted “over (him) me” – v. 2, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when God will have dealt bountifully “with (him) me” – v. 6.
  • Even though his enemies are “exalted” – v. 2 over him and seek to “rejoice” – v. 4 at his demise, now that his faith has been renewed he can look forward to when he “shall rejoice – v. 6 in God’s salvation.

And this will not just be a minor thing. God will “bountifully” deliver and save him.

Finally, I want you to look at –

Psalm 13 as a model prayer

It is a model for when you find yourself in times of testing and are ready to give up. Follow the threefold pattern we find here:

1. Pour out your heart to God. Be honest with God. Express your emotions to God – about how distant he seems; about how you are in inner turmoil; about how your problem has the upper hand. And ask God questions, What’s going on? Why, God? Or as here, how long?God, I’m barely hanging on.

2. Ask God for strength. God, enlighten my eyes. Give me renewed life, vigor, vitality and encouragement. And tell him why; so you don’t give in and fail in time of trial and thus dishonor his Name; so that others will see and know that God is faithful to his own and upholds righteousness.

And then, 3. Receive renewed trust in God to make it through. Let God work a work in you as you pour out your heart and as you make your request known and as you think of his unfailing love for you and commitment to you.

Receive the strength to choose to trust in God and stand on his character and promises despite your difficult circumstances. And having been renewed, look forward to God’s salvation; deliverance from your trial when you will rejoice and sing praises to God.

Hannah’s prayer. 1 Samuel 1:1-20

Follow the link for The literary structure of 1 Samuel 1:1-20

This morning we are starting into the story of Hannah found in 1 Samuel, and today we are in chapter 1. She is a strong and godly woman, as we will see, and we can learn much from  her.

Today we begin with –

Hannah’s prayer for a child

What I want to say is that she is an example to us of what to do when you have a really heavy burden. Do you have a heavy burden this morning? Is something weighing on your heart? Keep this in mind as we go through this story and let’s see what we can learn about how to handle these.

By way of orientation, the story centers around two places Ramathaim (Ramah), where Hannah and her husband are from and Shiloh, where the tabernacle of the Lord is at this time (Joshua 18:1). Remember this is before there was a permanent temple building in Jerusalem. These two cities were about 15 miles apart, or a journey of two days by foot with family.

Hannah’s difficult situation

1There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. 2He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

In v. 1 we get some background on Elkanah. (Based on the larger story of Samuel and other Scriptures [1 Chronicles 6:26-27, 33-34; Numbers 3:33] perhaps he was of Levite descent but lived in the area of the tribe of Ephraim.)

And then v. 2 gets to the heart of the issue – “he had two wives.” Polygamy was not forbidden in Israel, even though the Genesis teaching is one man and one woman. It wasn’t too common because a man had to be well off to support more than one wife.

In Hebrew it’s clearer that Hannah was the first wife. In this case Elkanah most likely married Peninnah to carry on the family lineage, since Hannah couldn’t have children. That’s why he has two wives.

If you look at the stories in the Bible that talk about polygamy, they certainly don’t glorify it. It caused problems and this is what we turn to now in our story.

3Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.

Here we see that Elkanah is a devout man, coming to the tabernacle at Shiloh each year to worship. This appears to be a voluntary pilgrimage beyond what was required by the Law (three visits a year for men on major festivals). So this was a yearly family event, like a “family vacation,” where everyone is together in close proximity. And it caused problems. (That never happens with us, right?) 

4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. 5But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.

Now meat was not too common for meals in the ancient world. But when sacrifices were made some of the meat and other items were given to the family for a feast(Deuteronomy 12:17-18). And how this was divided up highlights Hannah’s predicament.  Peninnah got more for “all her sons and daughters.” But she got less.

Elkanah did give her a double portion, because he loved her, which most likely means more than Peninnah got for just herself. But it reminded Hannah that she couldn’t have children.

The phrase, “though the Lord had closed her womb” (also v. 6) doesn’t mean that if you can’t have children God is specifically causing this. God allows much to happen in this world that is not his direct or preferred will. Although God may specifically be behind this in Hannah’s life, even here it might simply mean that God has allowed this to happen.

6And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.

So you can see the family dysfunction – Hannah is beloved but unable to have children. Peninnah has children but is feeling slighted by Elkanah, and so she torments Hannah. A vicious circle. Peninnah is Hannah’s “rival,” an enemy who is very cruel to her. (See the language of “rival wife” in Leviticus 18:18)

Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

This was supposed to be a festive time of celebration, but it became a yearly time of suffering for Hannah.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a husband tried to console his wife, without really understanding what she was upset about. In that day it was a real social stigma for a wife to produce no children. Others looked down on her. And who would take care of her in her old age? [The mention of ten sons is possibly a reference to the story of Jacob and Rachel, where he loved her more, but Leah, his other wife, had ten sons, with help from her servant (Genesis 29:31-30:22) (Bergen).]

Hannah’s prayer

9After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.

Different translations render it differently, but it appears that the rest of the family feasted, and when the party was over Hannah, too distressed to eat or drink (v. 7, 8, 15), slipped off to the tabernacle to pray.

The condition of her soul is emphasized, “she was deeply distressed” “and wept bitterly” as she prayed.

11And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Vows are voluntary commitments made to God. They are acts of devotion that go beyond what God requires. They often have a deal quality to them. God if you do this, then I will do this, and you can see that here.

Her vow is that if God gives her a son, then she will give that son right back to him to serve the Lord forever. And in fact, she places the son under a Nazarite vow for his whole life – a special state of consecration to the Lord, so that he can’t cut his hair as well as other restrictions (Numbers 6:5).

Notice the awareness of her lowliness. She is “afflicted” and she calls herself a servant three times. She knows that God listens to the lowly (Psalm 138:6). And she calls on the Lord to remember her in her lowliness.

12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.13Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman.14And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

So she is involved in some really intense silent prayer. But Eli, who is overseeing the tabernacle, mistakes what’s going on. Since alcohol was a part of such festive celebrations (e.g. Exodus 29:40, Leviticus 23:13 and in our own story 1:24) he thinks that she is drunk.

Hannah is quick to correct him, for she did not partake in the family feast. Rathershe is praying desperately to God for help. (Notice the contrast – her condition is not from pouring out wine, it is from pouring out her soul.) (Notice the irony – while she is offering up her possible son to be a Nazarite, who cannot touch wine, she is accused of being drunk.)

Hannah’s faith

17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

Eli speaks out pastorally – go in peace. And he prays that God will answer her. And this is enough for her. She comes to a place of faith and trust in God and so she can put away her sadness and finally eat. She has “prayed through” as the old phrases goes. Even though her circumstances have not yet changed, she has put her burden in God’s hands and has peace and hope.

This brings us to the end of our story –

Hannah’s prayer is answered

19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her. 20And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord.”

God did indeed remember Hannah and gave her a son. She names him Samuel, which involves a word play  with the word for “ask” – which is how she got her son from the Lord.

This was a true miracle and it marked the child as special, someone from who great things will be expected. And as we know, Samuel doesn’t disappoint.

Encouragement for us

1. Hannah was in a very difficult situation . . . She wasn’t able to have children which caused others to look down on her and put her in a place of weakness socially. And on top of this her rival tormented her about this year after year. It was so bad that she wept bitterly and was deeply distressed and couldn’t eat. She felt afflicted and forgotten by God. She was troubled, anxious and vexed.

. . . what is your situation? We all go through deep waters that push us to the limit and more; where we feel forgotten and overwhelmed. What is on your heart this morning? What burden are you carrying?

2. Hannah took her problem to the Lord in prayer . . . She poured out her heart to God. She acknowledged her weakness and lowliness and dependence on God. She prayed boldly, even making a vow before God. She prayed so intensely that Eli thought she was drunk. She prayed and prayed until, through the words of Eli, she came to a place of faith and peace – that God would take care of her. She “prayed through.” She connected with God and was able to leave her burden with him and move forward in faith.

. . . we should too! Take your burden to the Lord, cast your care on him for he cares for you. Pour out your heart to God. Pray intensely. Pray boldly. And pray until you connect with God and come to a place of peace and trust, knowing that God has heard you and will take care of you.

3. God took care of Hannah . . . He did remember her, he did help her, he did save her from her situation by giving her a son. She gained a new future, full of hope and life.

. . . and God will take care of us. I can’t say how specifically. It’s not always what we think it will be. For instance, not every godly man or woman who has prayed for a child has received one. But we can say with full confidence that God will hear and act, and be faithful to us as well.

4. God brought something good out of her trial for others . . . God not only answered her prayer, but through her God acted for all of Israel by giving Samuel who will lead the people back to God and new life. It was through her difficulties and her faith that God accomplished this.

. . . God can use our trials to bless others. God can transform our suffering into something that will bless many, many people beyond us. God can bring much good out of our struggles. So don’t give up! Trust God and wait for him to act. He will not only take care of you, he will use your trials to bless others.